Sunday, March 08, 2015

"Questions raised about the death penalty in Ohio"

Death-penalty-art1-gpu10obcu-10308-gfxdeathpenaltychart-epsThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy front-page article appearing today in my own home-town Columbus Dispatch.  The subheading of the piece summarizes its themes: "Dozens of inmates sentenced to die have been removed from Death Row in the past 12 years. Add that to botched executions and lingering questions about lethal-injection drugs, and it raises questions about the death penalty in Ohio." Here is how the extended article gets started:

The Cincinnati man had ordered his last meal and was going to be executed the next day when the governor spared his life largely because the DNA on his shoes did not match the blood of the victim.

A Cleveland man, originally sentenced to Death Row, was freed from prison after serving nearly 40 years when a witness confessed that he lied at the original trial about seeing the killing.

An Akron man was sentenced to die but spared from execution after officials confirmed that he was mentally disabled and had the intellect of a second-grader.

In the wake of such cases and other questions about the death penalty, key Ohio lawmakers say that while there’s no movement to eliminate capital punishment from Ohio’s criminal-justice books, some have proposed changes in the law.

Ohio has removed 20 inmates from Death Row since 2003 because investigations or evidence raised questions about their guilt, they were found to be mentally disabled or governors granted them clemency.

Another five men, who were removed from Death Row in the 1970s when Ohio abolished the death penalty for a short period, have been exonerated and released during the past 12 years. There were another 28 men spared from execution during the same period whose cases involved constitutional violations and procedural issues.

All of this has contributed to a slowdown in executions. Last year, for example, 35 people were executed across the U.S., the lowest number in 20 years. And while Ohio has executed 53 inmates since 1999 — an average of slightly more than three a year — it put to death only four in the past two years. The next execution is set for January 2016.

This all raises issues that should be addressed by the legislature, said Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, but are not reasons to kill the death penalty. “I won’t say never, but right now there is no way (abolishing it) is going to happen,” Seitz said. “But if we’re going to retain the death penalty, and I’m firmly committed to its retention, we ought to take away most of the serious objections.”

Lawmakers are poised to introduce new laws in the next few weeks. Seitz and Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, are working on four bills incorporating 14 of the 56 recommendations made by the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force in April 2014. The bills focus on significant recommendations: preventing execution of seriously mentally disabled inmates; establishing a statewide indigent death-penalty litigation fund in the Ohio Public Defender’s office; requiring certification for coroner’s offices and crime labs, and prohibiting convictions based solely on uncorroborated information from a jailhouse informant.

Seitz said he expects “tough sledding” in the legislative debate, adding that it’s too soon to predict whether any of the bills will become law. But he was clear that the debate likely won’t include ending executions because a majority of state lawmakers support the death penalty.

March 8, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, March 06, 2015

Examining some statistical realities behind federal death penalty administration

This intriguing Voactiv piece, headlined "Here Are The Odds The Boston Bomber Will Get The Death Penalty," draws on the Boston bomber federal capital trial as an opportunity to looks at some basic federal capital sentencing data. The piece is subheaded "Turns out, it's pretty hard to get a jury to vote for execution," and here are excerpts:

As the [Tsarnaev] trial wraps up its first week, we looked at how often the U.S. Attorney General has asked for the death penalty over the past two decades, and how often it has been able to get the jury to agree.  Between 1989 and 2009, some 2,795 cases were eligible for the death penalty.  Of those, the federal government brought 262 death- cases to trial and only 70, or about 25 percent, ended in a death sentence, according to the most recent statistics from the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel.  In the vast majority of the 262 cases, the juries recommended a life sentence instead.

Many death-penalty cases, another 201, never saw the inside a courtroom because they were settled before the trial....  [And] the federal government rarely pursues it even in cases that are eligible.  The U.S. Attorney General has approved death penalty prosecution for only 15 percent of all eligible cases over the past 20 years....

Even if Tsarnaev does get the death penalty, the execution isn’t likely to happen any time soon: Of the 70 people who have been sentenced to death in federal trials around the country in the last two decades, most are still waiting on death row.  Only three people have been executed since 1977, the latest in 2001.  Some defendants have been waiting on death row for over 20 years.

March 6, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Despite spending many millions, Arizona prosecutors again fail to convince a sentencing jury to send Jodi Arias to death row

I have been interested in the Jodi Arias case from Arizona since she was found guilty of murder two years ago, not principally because of all the media attention her case generated, but because of the extraordinary efforts Arizona prosecutors were prepared to make AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE to try to get Arias on to the state's death row.  Last year in this post, I guessed that Arizona prosecutors were spending more than $5,000,000 in taxpayer funds in their effort to have Jodi Arias sent and kept on death row rather than in another part of Arizona's prison system.  

As this new AP report from Arizona highlights, all those taxpayer costs created by the prosecutors in this one state capital case have now officially achieved nothing:

Convicted murderer Jodi Arias was spared the death penalty Thursday after jurors deadlocked on whether she should be executed or sent to prison for life for killing her lover in 2008.

It marked the second time a jury was unable to reach a decision on her punishment — a disappointment for prosecutors who argued for the death penalty during a nearly seven-year legal battle.  It means the judge will sentence Arias on April 13 to either life in prison or a life term with the possibility of release after 25 years.

Family members of victim Travis Alexander wept when the judge announced that jurors couldn't reach a decision after deliberating for about 26 hours over five days.  The family sobbed as they left the courtroom, with one covering her eyes as she walked out. Arias' mother, Sandra, received a hug from a friend moments after the verdict was read....

Arias' 2013 trial became a sensation with its tawdry revelations about her relationship with Alexander and that she shot him in the head and slit his throat so deeply that he was nearly decapitated.  It was broadcast live and TV audiences heard how Arias had stabbed and slashed Alexander nearly 30 times then left his body in his shower at his suburban Phoenix home, where friends found him about five days later.

The jury convicted her of first-degree murder but deadlocked on punishment, prompting the sentencing retrial that began in October.  Prosecutors say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row.  Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who decided to seek the death penalty a second time, told reporters that "regret is a place in the past I can't afford to live in."

Arias initially courted the spotlight after her arrest, granting interviews to "48 Hours" and "Inside Edition."  She testified for 18 days at her first trial, describing her abusive childhood, cheating boyfriends, relationship with Alexander and her contention that he was physically abusive.  She did more media interviews after the jury convicted her of murder.

Spectators lined up in the middle of the night to get a coveted seat in the courtroom for the first trial. However, attention was dampened during the penalty retrial after the judge ruled cameras could record the proceedings but nothing could be broadcast until after the verdict.

The proceedings revealed few new details about the crime and dragged on months longer than expected amid a series of expert witnesses and a surprising late October decision by Judge Sherry Stephens to remove reporters and spectators from the courtroom so Arias could testify in private. A higher court halted the testimony on its second day after complaints from news organizations. At the end of the retrial, Arias passed up a chance to address the jury. She said she wanted to make such comments but refused to do so unless the courtroom was cleared. She cited potential personal safety threats in declining to speak in the open courtroom.

I am not at all surprised to hear the Arizona prosecutors now "say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row."  After all, these prosecutors got the opportunity to work for two more years on a high-profile and exciting case and they likely will not suffer any professional consequences for wasting an extraordinary amount of taxpayer resources now twice failing to convince a jury that Jodi Arias ought to die for her crimes.

Especially because, as I said before in prior posts, it was extremely unlikely Arias would ever be executed even if she had been sentenced to death, this case is now for me exhibit #1 in the extraordinary misallocation of resources that the death penalty can often engender because prosecutors generally get all the political benefits and suffer none of the true economic costs of capital punishment systems.  The folks who should really regret how this case has been handed are crime victims and others in need of social services and programming in Arizona.  As I noted in a prior post, the Arizona Crime Victims Programs — which is under the authority of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and "provides support to all agencies that assist and compensate the victims of crime" — has an annual budget of around $5,000,000.  I feel pretty confident a lot more good throughout Arizona could have been done if state tax resources were allocated to doubling the funds for crime victim programming rather than enabling prosecutors to keep seeking a death verdict for Jodi Arias (which itself was never likely to get carried out).

Some prior posts on the Arias case:

March 5, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

"Evolving Standards of Domination: Abandoning a Flawed Legal Standard and Approaching a New Era in Penal Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper by SpearIt now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article critiques the evolving standards of decency doctrine as a form of Social Darwinism. It argues that evolving standards of decency provided a system of review that was tailor-made for Civil Rights opponents to scale back racial progress.  Although as a doctrinal matter, evolving standards sought to tie punishment practices to social mores, prison sentencing became subject to political agendas that determined the course of punishment more than the benevolence of a maturing society.  Indeed, rather than the fierce competition that is supposed to guide social development, the criminal justice system was consciously deployed as a means of social control.  This evolutionary model was thus betrayed by Court opinions that allowed states nearly unfettered authority over prison sentencing and use of solitary confinement, a self-fulfilling prophecy — a deep irony in the expanded incarceration of poor, uneducated, minorities — the very population that might be expected under an evolutionary frame.

The Article urges the Supreme Court to abandon evolving standards as a flawed and pernicious concept, and simultaneously, accept the duty to reinterpret the Eighth Amendment for prison sentencing and solitary confinement.  Looking forward, the Article advances a blueprint for employing research and science as a means of reimagining the scale of imprisonment.  It challenges the Court to do something never done before in American penal history — justify the length of prison sentences with more than just random and arbitrary figures.  The Court has been trying to implement objective standards to guide punishment practices for decades, but has constantly fallen prey to its own subjective inclinations.  This Article suggests that the objectivity the Court has been seeking all along is there for the taking, provided it abandons the sociological myth of “survival of the fittest” along with the idea that American society is ever-progressing in humane decency.  The Court must move beyond its obsessive tinkering with the death penalty and focus on the realities of “doing time” in America.

March 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Victims and law enforcement assail Gov Wolf's execution moratorium in Pennsylvania

As reported in this local article, folks in Pennsylvania unhappy with "Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to criticize that decision that they say was reached without input from crime victims or law enforcement officers." Here is more:

They came together on the day that death row inmate Terrence Williams was scheduled to be executed; his being the first death sentence to be reprieved as a result of the moratorium.

"Pennsylvania crime victims deserve justice. What they are receiving from the governor is politics," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, at the news conference. "He could approach the Legislature to try to get the law changed or he could have filed a lawsuit in court and seek an injunction in death penalty cases. The governor chose to pursue neither of those options."

Instead, with the stroke of his pen on Feb. 13, he signed an executive order to put capital punishment in Pennsylvania on hold until he reviews a Senate-ordered study of the issue that is due later this year....

Many are awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit filed by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenging Wolf's authority to impose the moratorium. The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear the case.

In the meantime, Vereb has introduced a resolution calling on the governor to reverse his decision and obey the law that now exists in Pennsylvania allowing for capital punishment. While he admits that won't carry the force of law, Vereb said it at least sends a message to the governor.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp., said he plans to have at least two committee hearings on the issue of capital punishment, starting with one in Philadelphia on March 26 and the other scheduled for June. This month's hearing will focus on testimony from family members of murder victims.

Throughout the news conference, legislators along with the crime victims and district attorneys standing in front of a line of photos of murder victims criticized Wolf for failing to seek their input....

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said victims are best suited to explain the impact of Wolf's actions. He then proceeded to read a letter from Pauline Smith, whose mother June Rose Ohlinger, was murdered in 1995 in Schuylkill County by serial killer Mark Spotz who is among the 186 inmates now on death row. In her letter, Smith described the governor's decision as "a slap in the face to all of the victims of heinous crimes."

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Cloudy with (less of) a chance of executions in Georgia

ImagesAs reported in this Time piece, headlined "Georgia Postpones 2 Executions Over ‘Cloudy’ Drugs," the forecast in the Peach State just got peachier for those on the state's death row as the state deals with uncertainty concerning its execution drugs.  Here are the details:

Georgia's supply of lethal injection drug pentobarbital may have gone bad.  Georgia indefinitely postponed two executions Tuesday to allow officials to analyze its current batch of lethal injection drugs, which “appeared cloudy” prior to an execution that had been scheduled Monday night.

The execution of Kelly Gissendaner, who would’ve been the first woman put to death in the state in 70 years, was called off by the Georgia Department of Corrections Monday night after the state discovered its supply of pentobarbital, a short-acting barbiturate, looked murky.  Georgia officials made the decision after consulting with a pharmacist, according to The New York Times, even though state officials said that its pentobarbital supply had been tested and was cleared for use.

The state then announced Tuesday that the executions of both Gissendaner and Brian Keith Terrell, who was set to die by lethal injection on March 10 for the 1992 murder of John Henry Watson, were indefinitely postponed.  Gissendaner was convicted of arranging the 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner.

A number of states have had trouble carrying out executions due to problems obtaining drugs.... Like many states, Georgia has turned to compounding pharmacies, which are not under federal oversight, for their drug supplies while also passing a secrecy law that keeps participating pharmacies anonymous.  Georgia has not released the name of its drug supplier, and it’s unclear when its current batch of pentobarbital was due to expire.

March 4, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review, slowly, Gov Wolf's execution moratorium

As reported in this local article, headlined "Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take death penalty moratorium case: Philadelphia DA calls governor’s actions lawless and unconstitutional," a fascinating case concerning state executive powers in the Keystone State is officially to be considered by the state Supreme Court. Here are the details:

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take a case filed by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium implemented last month on capital punishment in the state. District Attorney R. Seth Williams asked the court to take up the matter involving a defendant named Terrance Williams, who was scheduled for lethal injection today.

Although Seth Williams asked that the court take the case on an expedited basis, the court refused, and it will be heard on a standard calendar, which means that both sides will file briefs and replies over the next several months, and oral argument will be scheduled at a date in the future.

It will probably be more than a year before any decision is reached, and University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said it could be even longer if the court decides it wants two new justices, who will be elected later this year, to consider the case as well.

Mr. Wolf announced on Feb. 13 that he was instituting a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, saying that it was not an “expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes.” Instead, he continued, it was “based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.” He cited nationwide statistics that show 150 people have been exonerated from death row, including six in Pennsylvania....

But in his filing, Seth Williams argues that Mr. Wolf’s action was lawless and unconstitutional. “Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so,” the prosecutor’s filing said.

Instead, it continued, “At all times in Pennsylvania history a reprieve has meant one thing and only one thing: a temporary stay of a criminal judgment for a defined period of time, for the purpose of allowing the defendant to pursue an available legal remedy. The current act of the governor is not a reprieve. Nor, indeed, could it be. There is no remaining legal remedy available to defendant. He received exhaustive state and federal review. He sought pardon or commutation and it was denied. There is nothing legitimate left to pursue and no remedy to wait for.”

To halt the imposition of the death penalty on a defendant, the district attorney’s office continued, the sentence must be commuted, which can be done only with unanimous agreement by the state Board of Pardons. Seth Williams accused the governor of usurping judicial function.

But in the governor’s response, his attorneys said what he was doing is temporary — a reprieve — and requires no input from the Board of Pardons. “The governor has ‘exclusive authority’ and ‘unfettered discretion to grant a reprieve after imposition of sentence and on a case by case basis,’ ” they wrote, quoting an earlier court case.

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Jury seated and ready for opening arguments in Boston bombing trial

As reported in this AP article, to culminate "two months of jury selection, a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates was seated Tuesday for the federal death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev." Here is more about a high-profile federal capital proceeding:

The all-white panel consists of eight men and 10 women. Jurors include a self-employed house painter, an air traffic controller, an executive assistant at a law firm and a former emergency room nurse. Opening statements in the case are scheduled for Wednesday.

Tsarnaev, 21, faces 30 charges in connection with twin bombings at the finish line of the marathon April 15, 2013. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured. He is also charged in the killing of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer days after the bombings.

If the jury convicts Tsarnaev, the trial will move on to a second phase to determine his punishment. The only two options available for the jury are life in prison or the death penalty....

During the jury selection process, Tsarnaev's lawyers tried repeatedly to get the trial moved out of Massachusetts, saying he could not find a fair and impartial jury because of the emotional impact the bombings had in the state. O'Toole rejected three change-of-venue motions, saying the process of carefully questioning jurors to detect bias was successful in finding impartial jurors. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice refused to order the trial moved.

Some prior related posts:

March 3, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Concerns about lethal drug creates reprieve for condemned Georgia woman

As reported in this CNN piece, for "the second time, a Georgia woman's execution has been postponed -- this time because of concerns about the drugs to be used." Here is why:

Kelly Renee Gissendaner was scheduled to die at 7 p.m. ET Monday.  "Prior to the execution, the drugs were sent to an independent lab for testing of potency.  The drugs fell within the acceptable testing limits," the Georgia Department of Corrections said in a statement.

"Within the hours leading up to the scheduled execution, the Execution Team performed the necessary checks.  At that time, the drugs appeared cloudy.  The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed."

The 47-year-old was originally scheduled to die on Wednesday, but that execution was called off because of winter weather.

If I were a deeply religious person, I might be inclined to contend that some higher power is doing all it can to keep Georgia from being able to execute Gissendaner.

March 3, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

Georgia scheduled to execute only female murderer on its death row

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "After weather delay, Georgia ready to perform rare execution of a woman," the Peach State appears poised this evening to end the life of a bad apple notable for her gender. Here are the details:

After getting a temporary reprieve when her execution was postponed because of winter weather conditions forecast to hit the state, the only woman on Georgia's death row is again set for execution Monday. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson, but the Department of Corrections postponed it to Monday at 7 p.m., citing the weather and associated scheduling issues.

Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 stabbing death of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she plotted his death with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen.... Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors said. Acting on Kelly Gissendaner's instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at the Gissendaners' home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said

Owen pleaded guilty and received a life prison sentence with eligibility for parole after 25 years. He testified at Gissendaner's trial, and a jury convicted her and sentenced her to death in 1998.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence, on Wednesday denied Gissendaner clemency. A federal judge in Atlanta rejected a request to halt her execution, and her lawyers have appealed that decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If Gissendaner's execution happens, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Lena Baker, a black maid, was executed in 1945 after being convicted in a one-day trial for killing her white employer. Georgia officials issued her a pardon in 2005 after six decades of lobbying and arguments by her family that she likely killed the man because he was holding her against her will. Baker was the only woman to die in the state's electric chair. P>Execution of female inmates is rare with only 15 women put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, about 1,400 men have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Prosecutors offered Gissendaner the same plea deal that was offered to Owen, but she turned it down. Post-conviction testimony from her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, gives some insight into why, Gissendaner's lawyers argued in a clemency petition. They quote Wilson as saying he didn't think a jury would sentence Gissendaner to death. "I guess I thought this because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug," Wilson is quoted as saying, adding that he should have urged her to take the plea.

Victor Streib, a retired Ohio Northern University law professor and an expert on the death penalty for women, said it's clear that women are condemned to die far less frequently than men, but that there are so few cases that it's tough to draw any general conclusions. "Statistically, yes, if you've got two cases and everything about them is exactly the same and one case is a woman and the other case is a man, the man is more likely to be sentenced to death," Streib said, but added that he wouldn't count on that as a legal strategy.

One reason women aren't sentenced to death as often is that they don't commit as many murders and when they do they generally aren't the "worst of the worst" murders that lead to the death penalty, Streib said. Juries may also be more likely to believe a woman was emotionally distressed or not in her right mind at the time of a killing, which can spare them a death sentence, he said.

March 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Must one study lynchings past to understand US punishments present?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this article discussing a recent speech by a prominent civil rights activist.  The piece is headlined "Angela Davis equates lynchings with prisons, death penalty," and here are excerpts:

Iconic civil rights leader Angela Davis opened her lecture Wednesday evening at Purdue University by evoking Black History Month — setting the stage for a moving presentation that connected past stories of oppression to today's movements for freedom....

During her talk at Purdue, Davis tied the historical tradition of the black struggle against oppression to multiple contemporary movements against racist violence, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and able-ism.  "The black radical tradition can be claimed by anyone who believes that freedom is a worthy cause and that the struggle for freedom links our contemporary aspirations with many struggles of the past," she said.

She connected the history of black lynchings to today's issues of mass incarceration and capital punishment. "The death penalty's roots are sunk deep into the legacy of lynching," she said. "… If we fail to take into account the central role of lynching, then we will never truly understand the way racism worked its way into the criminal justice system."

March 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"The Politics of Botched Executions"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article by Corinna Lain now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

For decades now, America’s death penalty has been beset by serious problems in its administration, but what has finally gotten the public’s attention is a spate of botched executions in the first half of 2014.  Botched executions are, like the death penalty’s other woes, nothing new. But having to manage the public relations nightmare that has followed these high-profile events is new, and tells a story of its own.  What are the politics of botched executions?  Officials have lowered the blinds so witnesses could not see what was happening inside the execution chamber, called for an “independent review” by other arms of the state, minimized concerns by comparing the execution to the condemned’s crimes, even denied that a botched execution was botched in the first place.

In this symposium contribution, I recount the four botched executions of 2014 and state responses that accompanied them.  I then make three observations — one about states’ fealty to the death penalty, one about backlash politics, and one about the changing cultural construct of lethal injection in the United States.  Finally, I surmise how state responses to botched executions (or the lack thereof) might impact the constitutionality of lethal injection and prove true the old adage about politics making strange bedfellows: the inept executioner may prove to be the abolitionist’s best friend.

March 1, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Can life in prison be worse than death" ... for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

The question in the title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable Washington Post article discussing the current (and likely future) prison realities for the Boston marathon bomber.  Here are excerpts: 

What’s worse – being sentenced to be executed or to spend the rest of one’s life in prison?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense team includes two attorneys famous for ensuring that the former is replaced with the latter: Judy Clarke from San Diego, who has brokered many high-profile plea deals, and her frequent litigation partner David Bruck of Virginia.  During the jury selection process, which is wrapping up in Boston this week, they have focused on drawing out jurors’ views on the death penalty, and with some regularity have elicited the response that life imprisonment is the harsher of the two options while the death penalty is “the easy way out.”

These potential jurors may have a point.  Tsarnaev, 21, has been in solitary confinement for a year and a half.  Like a handful of other inmates in the U.S., he has also been subjected to “special administrative measures,” or SAMs, while in pretrial detention; if he is sentenced to life imprisonment, SAMs will almost certainly remain in force....

According to a Human Rights Watch report, inmates under SAMs are usually fully isolated from other prisoners. Solitary confinement usually means spending 23 hours a day alone in a cell; SAMs often mean that this cell is in a special block from which the inmate can never see or hear other prisoners, even by knocking on a wall or peering through a window.

Under SAMs, Tsarnaev can make phone calls only when allowed to do so by the prison authority, and only to immediate family members – in his case, this would include his parents, living in Dagestan, and his two sisters, living in New Jersey. He has been calling his mother once a week.... All phone calls are monitored by an FBI agent...

The same rules apply to visits and correspondence: immediate family only. Tsarnaev’s sisters have visited him – his parents have not entered the United States since he was arrested, though one or both of them may travel here for the sentencing phase of the trial. A prison employee or FBI agent is always present during the visits, which include no physical contact – meaning they talk using telephone receivers, through glass.

Tsarnaev’s communication with his lawyers is also limited by the SAMs, but not nearly to the extent that his other communication is: His lawyers can visit without restriction, they can have physical contact with him, and their communication is privileged, which means that no one else is present. If Tsarnaev is convicted and sentenced to death, these visits will continue for the many years the appeals process is likely to last....

On Wednesday, as the court continued to interview potential jurors, the Boston Bar Association issued a statement calling on the Justice Department to take the death penalty off the table and arguing that a plea agreement in exchange for a life sentence would be in the interests of justice. If a plea agreement were to happen, Tsarnaev would stay alone in his cell, under SAMs: He could never have physical contact or a private conversation with anyone except a prison guard for the rest of his life.

Some prior related posts:

February 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tie vote ends effort to end the death penalty in Montana

As reported in this local article, headlined "House deadlocks on bill to abolish death penalty in Montana," a very red state came had a death penalty repeal bill come (surprisingly?) close to passage.  Here are the details:

The state House deadlocked Monday 50-50 on a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana, likely killing the measure for the 2015 Legislature. Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, the sponsor of House Bill 370, told members to “just vote your conscience” moments before the vote.

He said later that he’s undecided whether to ask the House on Tuesday to reconsider its action on HB370, saying it could be difficult to pick up a single, additional vote to force another emotional debate and vote on the floor.

Monday’s vote fell largely along party lines, with most Republicans against it — but it took three of the House’s 41 Democrats voting “no” to reject the bill, which would abolish the death penalty in Montana and substitute it with life in prison without parole. Montana has two murderers on death row.

The vote also marked the closest that death penalty opponents have come to getting a bill through the Montana House, which has blocked similar efforts for years. Bills to abolish the death penalty have been approved by the state Senate in recent legislatures, only to see them die in the House.

Supporters of the bill argued the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and costs the state millions of dollars on appeals and other prosecutorial costs. Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, also said state prison workers shouldn’t be put in the position of having to operate “the machineries of death.”...

One longtime supporter of abolishing the death penalty, Rep. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, spoke as though he thought supporters had the votes to pass HB370 on Monday. “This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives,” he said. “It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history."...

Opponents, however, offered their own emotion-charged testimony against the measure, saying the death penalty can help prosecutors extract plea bargains out of terrible criminals and spare both the state and the victims’ families the financial and emotional cost of a trial. “How can you put a price on my emotions and what I was going through, with my family?” asked Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, whose son was brutally murdered a dozen years ago. “All this bill does is reward the murderer, handicap the prosecutor … and penalize victims like me.”

Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, who opposed the bill, said those who want to abolish the death penalty should take it to the Montana public as a referendum — but they won’t, because they know they would lose. The public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty, he said.

February 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor

Images (2)As reported in this new Reuters piece, headlined "New Oregon Governor Kate Brown to extend death penalty moratorium," a change in leadership at the top of the executive branch in the Beaver State is apparently not going to bring any change to the state's current peculiar death penalty practices. Here are the details:

Oregon's new Democratic Governor Kate Brown said on Friday she planned to extend a moratorium on executions that her predecessor enacted in 2011, well before an influence-peddling scandal forced him from office earlier this week.

But like fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, Brown stopped short of formally commuting death sentences for the 34 inmates currently awaiting execution in the state, which has executed only two people in the past half century, both in the 1990s.  “There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said in her first press briefing since she took Oregon's helm on Wednesday.  "Until that discussion, I'm upholding the moratorium imposed by Kitzhaber.” 

In a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, Kitzhaber imposed a blanket reprieve on all Oregon death row inmates in 2011, saying he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.  He had faced growing calls in the waning days of his administration to commute all Oregon death sentences to life in prison before leaving office following an ethics scandal over accusations his fiancée used her role in his office for personal gain.

But Kitzhaber, who has not been seen publicly since announcing his resignation last week, remained silent on that issue, although he did commute the prison sentence of a young man serving time for attempted murder in a non-capital case.

Brown, who had been Oregon's secretary of state before this week, said she met with Kitzhaber on Monday and he advised her of his legislative priorities and recommendations. In addition to her death penalty plans, Brown told reporters she supports raising the minimum wage, increasing transparency and improving access to public records. 

Four years seems to me like plenty of time for the policy-makers and the public in Oregon to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state. Notably, since Kitzhaber put the moratorium in place, I believe the Oregon legislature has enacted other forms of sentencing reform dealing with prison sentences as well as significant state health-care reforms.  In addition, Oregon public policy groups placed on the ballot in both 2012 and 2014 significant legal reform intended to "fix" perceived problems with marijuana laws and policies in the state.  If the last four years (and a number of election cycles) have not provided sufficient time for Oregonians to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system," I have a hard time imagining that the next few years are likely to engender such a discussion.

In the end, I seriously doubt that the new Oregon governor (or many others in the state) are really looking forward to having a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state.  Rather, I think this phrase was the one that the new gov thought would best allow her to duck a controversial, high-profile issue for the time being (and maybe even for the full duration of her term).  For a handful of advocates, death penalty policy and practices in any state are very important, but for most citizens and voters the death penalty is a high-salience but low-significance concern.  Keeping Kitzhaber's execution moratorium in place allows the new gov to focus on other issues without the distorting distractions that death penalty politics can often create.

Some recent related posts:

February 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

Philadelphia DA sues Pennsylvania Gov asserting execution moratorium is "lawless" and "flagrantly unconstitutional"

Images (1)As reported in this local article, "Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has sued Gov. Tom Wolf over the death penalty moratorium he imposed last week." Here the basics:

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Williams asks the state Supreme Court to rule Wolf's move a "lawless act," claiming the governor had no legal right to grant a reprieve to convicted murderer Terrance Williams....

The lawsuit filed by the city's Democratic district attorney is the second one the Democratic governor has faced since he was sworn in to office Jan. 20. The Republican-controlled Senate sued Wolf in Commonwealth Court over his decision to fire the executive director of the Open Records Office, which the Legislature created when it updated the state's Right-to-Know Law in 2008.

Wolf's death penalty moratorium, announced Friday, fulfilled a campaign promise. It was criticized by district attorneys, law enforcement and some lawmakers. Some religious leaders and other lawmakers praised it....

Wolf said he will grant a reprieve each time a death row inmate is scheduled for execution but keep the inmates' death sentences intact, which was what he did in the case of Terrance Williams. Williams was scheduled to be executed March 4 for the 1984 robbing and fatal tire-iron beating of another man in Philadelphia.

"The governor took the action to place a moratorium on the death penalty because Pennsylvania's capital punishment system is flawed — it's ineffective, expensive, and many times unjust," Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said Wednesday. "As he stated Friday, the governor will wait for the report being produced by the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established by the state Senate, and the recommendations within the report are addressed satisfactorily."

Wolf was within his legal right to grant a reprieve under Article 4, Section 9 of the state constitution, Sheridan added. That section also gives the governor the power to commute sentences and issue pardons.

In his lawsuit, Williams says the governor can grant reprieves only as a temporary measure to allow a defendant to pursue "an available legal remedy." The governor cannot grant open-ended reprieves in cases where there are no legal questions surrounding guilt, the suit states. "Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so," Williams wrote, citing a successful 1994 lawsuit Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli filed against Gov. Robert P. Casey to enforce the death penalty against Martin D. Appel and Josoph Henry....

"The scope of the reprieve power is not mysterious or vague, and it is limited," Williams' lawsuit states. "Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not grant the governor an unlimited at-will power of clemency, without which it is not even possible to posit an arguable ability to impose a moratorium."

The filing by Philadelphia DA Williams, which is styled an&"Emergency Commonwealth Petition For Extraordinary Relief Under King's Bench Jurisdiction," was filed in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and is available at this link.  I find the filing quite effective and compelling, and I thought these passages were especially notable:

On February 13, 2015, the Governor issued a purported reprieve in connection with his publicly-announced assumption of a constitutionally-nonexistent power to declare a “moratorium” on death sentences in Pennsylvania.

This lawless act by the Governor, improperly and inaccurately characterized as a reprieve — for the act issued in this case is not, in fact, a reprieve — is not within the constitutional powers of the Governor, usurps judicial review of criminal judgments, and is in direct violation of his duty to faithfully execute Pennsylvania law under Article IV, § 2. It is unconstitutional, illegal, and should be declared null and void by this Court....

The alleged reprieve, which is not a reprieve at all, violates the constitutional separation of powers.  The constitution requires due process, not the Governor’s personal standard of absolute perfection; and the task of assuring that criminal judgments meet that correct standard is assigned to the judiciary, not the executive.Exercise, by another branch, of an extra-constitutional attempt to disturb settled judgments in criminal cases is an impermissible usurpation of the exclusive function of the judiciary....

In law and in reality, therefore, the Governor seeks to nullify valid, final judgments of sentence in usurpation of the judicial function, and seeks to subject the law governing capital sentencing to the test of his personal standard of satisfaction,which in this instance happens to be a test of infallibility that is impossible for mere mortals to satisfy. This is not permissible in a government that is founded on the principle that the people are to be ruled by laws enacted by their representatives in the legislative process, and not the personal whims of a king or dictator. The constitutional role of the Governor is to execute the law, not sabotage it.

February 20, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

AP report details that, functionally, California kills many more sex offenders than murderers

Formally, California sends many more murderers to its death row than any other state and it has more condemned capital prisoners than two dozen other US death penalty states combined.  But California has only managed to actually execute fourteen of those sentenced to die and nobody has been executed by the state in nearly a decade.  Meanwhile, as this new AP report details, over the last eight years, while California has not moved forward with an execution of a single condemned murderer, a total of 78 sex offenders have been slaughtered inside California's prisons.  Here are the basics:

California state prisoners are killed at a rate that is double the national average — and sex offenders ... account for a disproportionate number of victims, according to an Associated Press analysis of corrections records.

Male sex offenders made up about 15 percent of the prison population but accounted for nearly 30 percent of homicide victims, the AP found in cataloging all 78 killings that corrections officials reported since 2007, when they started releasing slain inmates' identities and crimes.

The deaths — 23 out of 78 — come despite the state's creation more than a decade ago of special housing units designed to protect the most vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, often marked men behind bars because of the nature of their crimes.

In some cases, they have been killed among the general prison population and, in others, within the special units by violence-prone cellmates. Officials acknowledge that those units, which also house inmates trying to quit gangs, have spawned their own gangs.

Corrections officials blamed a rise in the prison homicide rate on an overhaul meant to reduce crowding. As part of the effort, the state in 2011 began keeping lower-level offenders in county lockups, leaving prisons with a higher percentage of sex offenders and violent gang members....

The problem is most acute with sex offenders. Last fall, the corrections department's inspector general reported that so many homicides occurred in the "increasingly violent" special housing units reserved for vulnerable inmates that the department could no longer assume that inmates there could peacefully co-exist. The report looked at 11 homicide cases that were closed in the first half of 2014 and found that 10 victims were sensitive-needs inmates. Using corrections records, the AP found that eight of them were sex offenders.

For a variety of reasons, most states have special facilities incorporated into their "death row," and condemned prisoners on death row are often eager to be well behaved in the hope of increasing their odds of getting out from under a death sentences eventually. Consequently, it can often be much safer for certain prisoners to be condemned and confined to death than to be in the general population. And this new AP report reinforces my sense that a serious California criminal likely would lead a more peaceful and safe life in prison if and when he murders and gets condemned to death than if he just commits a sex offense. (In addition to being a disturbing practical reality, these dynamics might perhaps prompt and incentivize a "rational rapist" in California to murder one or more his victims in order to ensure he can potentially avoid the dangers of the general prison population and live out his life peacefully pursuing appeal after appeal while safe and secure on death row.)

February 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Florida Supreme Court stays lethal injection pending SCOTUS case, and AG Holder urges national execution halt

As reported in this Reuters piece, "Florida’s highest court put executions on hold Tuesday while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether use of a controversial general anesthetic constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment of condemned killers." Here is more:

The state Supreme Court stopped the execution of Jerry William Correll next week because the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a challenge some Oklahoma inmates brought against use of midazolam hydrochloride as the first of three drugs used in lethal injections. Florida uses essentially the same formula, the court said in a 5-2 ruling.

The state switched to midazolam as an anesthetic in 2013 when some foreign drug manufacturers quit supplying other drugs previously used in executions. The Department of Corrections said 11 lethal injections have been carried out with midazolam in Florida since then. Florida courts have approved midazolam, but the nation’s highest court agreed Jan. 23 to hear an appeal by 21 Oklahoma inmates in a case citing prolonged executions and signs of pain reported in that state, Arizona and Ohio.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote that if the nation’s highest court rules in favor of the prisoners, “then Florida’s precedent approving the use of midazolam and the current Florida three-drug protocol will be subject to serious doubt as to its continued viability.”

Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented, saying Florida should proceed with Correll’s execution unless the U.S. Supreme Court stays it. Canady wrote that a stay in another state does not automatically require one in Florida, and that agreeing to review Oklahoma’s use of the drug means the justices will forbid it.

Meanwhile, as reported in this piece in The Hill, US Attorney General Eric Holder suggested today that all states ought to follow Florida's lead while the Supreme Court lethal injection case is pending:

Attorney General Eric Holder called Tuesday for a national moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court weighs in on the issue later this year...

Late last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal the from death row inmates in Oklahoma who are challenging the state’s procedures for lethal injections. "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate," Holder said.

February 17, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Would you urge out-going (and apparently corrupt) Oregon Gov Kitzhaber to commute all death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary authored by Frank Thompson, a retired assistant director of institutions and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary.  Here are excerpts:

I know what it is like to execute someone. I am a retired prison superintendent who conducted the only two executions that have taken place in Oregon in the past 53 years.

The death penalty in Oregon comes at a high cost to our state in both human and fiscal resources.  I call on Gov. Kitzhaber to convert 35 death sentences to life without the possibility of release before he leaves office at mid-morning on Wednesday.

Based on my experiences as a correctional professional, capital punishment is a failed public policy — especially in Oregon where we have funded a death penalty system for over 30 years, yet only put to death two inmates who volunteered themselves for execution by abandoning their appeals. No other corrections program exemplifies such a complete failure rate.

During my more than two decades of running correctional facilities, I saw the population of those who are capable of extreme violence up close. I have no doubts at all that these offenders did not think about the death penalty for one second before committing their violent acts. Instead, research has been shown that public safety is greatly improved when our limited tax dollars are redirected to law enforcement agencies to solve cases and prevent crimes.

I understand exactly what is being asked of public employees whose jobs include carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary to end another person's life.  The burden weighs especially heavily on my conscience because I know firsthand that the death penalty is not applied fairly or equally in Oregon.  I have known hundreds of inmates who are guilty of similar crimes yet did not get the death penalty because they reached a plea bargain of life without parole simply because they had the means for professional legal assistance.

I also understand, from my experiences in corrections, the potential awful and lifelong repercussions that can come from participating in the execution of prisoners.  Living with the nightmares is something that some of us experience.  This is particularly the case with those of us who have had more hands-on experience with the flawed capital punishment process, and/or where an execution under our supervision did not go smoothly.

I am never troubled when people make a forceful argument that "capital punishment is a failed public policy."  But I find it troubling that this argument is being made now to a disgraced (apparently corrupt) out-going governor rather than to the new incoming governor and other public-policy officials who are going to be staying in their jobs and would need to deal with the administrative and political implications and consequences of their actions.

Notably, it is not just Oregonians urging out-going Gov Kitzhaber to clear the state's death row.  Professors Charles Ogletree and Rob Smith have this new Huffington Post commentary headlined "Gov. Kitzhaber: Your Job Is Not Yet Done." here is how it concludes:

Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty back in 2011. He labeled the State's practice of imposing death sentences "neither fair nor just" and concluded that a "compromised and inequitable" capital punishment system is not befitting of Oregon. Nothing has changed and nothing will: the death penalty in Oregon is too broken to fix.

In his resignation letter, Governor Kitzhaber told us that he was proud to not have presided over any executions. Yet, as Governor, he presided over a state that has sentenced people to death under the same unjust system that led him to impose the moratorium. The Governor has the power to leave the troubled history of this disreputable death penalty system in Oregon's rearview mirror; and doing so would enhance the integrity of the criminal justice system without compromising public safety.

Governor Kitzhaber: You lit the torch in 2011; and now, in these few remaining hours, please carry that torch across the finish line.

February 17, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, February 16, 2015

"The United States Execution Drug Shortage: A Consequence of Our Values"

The title of this post is the title of this commentary authored by Ty Alper available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The recent inability of states to obtain drugs for use in executions has led to de facto moratoria in a number of states, as well as gruesomely botched executions in states that have resorted to dangerous and unreliable means to obtain these drugs. The refusal of some pharmaceutical companies to provide drugs to U.S. prisons has significantly impeded the imposition of the death penalty in a number of states. Despite this, it is the anti-death penalty activists who tend to draw the attention of the media, state officials, and politicians charged with carrying out executions. The media focuses particular attention on advocates in Europe who have campaigned to pressure European drug companies to stop distribution of their products to U.S. prisons for use in executions.

This paper challenges that narrative and posits instead that it is the drug companies that have long sought to avoid the use of their products in executions, for moral and financial reasons, as well as to comply with European law. When we look back on the fourth decade of the modern era of capital punishment in the United States, we may consider it the decade that marked the beginning of the end. If so, it will not be the result of a handful of activists successfully thwarting the administration of capital punishment. Rather, it will be the consequence of U.S. states imposing the death penalty in the context of a modern world that generally abhors the practice, using a method of execution that is very much dependent on major players in that world.

February 16, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack