Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Mississippi Gov supporting state legislative effort to use firing squads as back-up execution method
A helpful reader alerted me to this local article from Mississippi headlined "Governor Bryant supports firing squad bill." Here are the details:
The Mississippi House wants to allow the state prisons to execute prisoners using a firing squad if officials decide lethal injection is too expensive or unavailable.
Governor Phil Bryant voiced his support of the bill. “If the senate passes a firing squad bill, I’ll certainly sign it. My belief is we need to carry out a capital punishment that when the courts say that it’s necessary; and if it takes a firing squad we’ll do exactly that,” said Governor Bryant.
The house amended the bill Friday before passing it. It will now go back to the senate for more work. Attorney General Jim Hood has asked lawmakers to approve alternate execution methods such as electrocution, the use of nitrogen gas as well as the firing squad.
As long time readers surely know, I have been urging states to seriously explore alternatives to lethal injection for the better part of a decade: in this December 2006 post, for example, I flagged an discussion of various new and old execution procedures that might be explored suggested that "states interested in continuing to employ the death penalty should start exploring alternatives to lethal injection." I suppose I am pleased to hear leaders in Mississippi have come around, but there sure seems to have been a whole lot of capital justice delayed in that state and many others because of a failure of states to seriously explore alternative execution methods.
Just a few prior related posts on firing squads and other alternatives over the last decade:
- Is it time to seriously consider alternatives to lethal injection? (from 2006)
- Could states eager to execute quickly adopt a new execution method? (from 2007)
- A bit of historical perspective on execution methods (from 2009)
- A worldly perspective on different execution methods (from 2009)
- Shouldn't we celebrate condemn's request that he "would like the firing squad, please"? (from 2010)
- "Experts argue firing squad is a humane execution" (from 2010)
- Should problems with lethal injection prompt return of other execution methods? (from 2011)
- Making a potent argument for executions by firing squad rather than lethal injection (from 2013)
- Poll after ugly execution highlights enduring death penalty support and openness to various execution methods (from 2014)
- Shouldn't Congress be holding hearings to explore federal and state execution methods? (from 2014)
- "In praise of the firing squad" (from 2015)
- Utah legislature brings back firing squad as alternative execution method (from 2015)
- "Heroin as an execution drug?" (from 2015)
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Oklahoma creates Death Penalty Review Commission full of prominent folks .... which will likely achieve ....?
Though I generally think of myself as an optimist, this notable news item out of Oklahoma, headlined "Oklahoma Bipartisan Death Penalty Review Commission formed, supported," triggers the cynical little voice in my head that comes out when I hear about the creation of a blue-ribbon commission in the sentencing arena. (For those curious about aesthetic backstories, this Wikipedia entry highlights why we color expert panels blue instead of, say, having pink-ribbon commissions.) Before I go cynical, here are the details of the latest governmental gathering of note:
A group of prominent Oklahomans joined together Monday (March 28) to form a blue-ribbon, bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission. The Commission will conduct what a press statement called “the first-ever independent, objective and thorough review of the state’s entire capital punishment system.”...
“Oklahoma has an opportunity to lead the nation by being the first state to conduct extensive research on its entire death penalty process, beginning with an arrest that could lead to an execution,” said former Gov. Brad Henry, of Henry-Adams Companies, LLC, one of the group’s co-chairs.“The Commission includes distinguished Oklahomans with differing views and perspectives on capital punishment who are donating their time to work together on a research-driven review,” he said.
Joining Gov. Henry as co-chairs are Reta Strubhar, a judge on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (1993-2004) and an Assistant District Attorney of Canadian County (1982-1984); and Andy Lester, of the Spencer Fane law firm and a former U.S. Magistrate Judge for Western District of Oklahoma who served on President Ronald Reagan’s Transition team for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1980-1981).
Members of the Commission have experience in a variety of aspects of the capital punishment system, including victim advocacy, policymaking, prosecution, defense, and judging. They also include leading lawyers, business leaders, and scholars. In addition to the co-chairs, the members are Robert H. Alexander, Jr., of The Law Office of Robert H. Alexander, Jr.; Howard Barnett, President of OSU-Tulsa; Dean Andrew Coats, Dean Emeritus of OU College of Law; Dean Valerie Couch, Oklahoma City University School of Law; Maria Kolar, Assistant Professor of OU College of Law; Rob Nigh, Chief Public Defender, Tulsa County; Christy Sheppard, a victims’ advocate; Kris Steele, Director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) and former Speaker of the House; and Gena Timberman, founder of The Luksi Group.
“Our goal is to provide a resource for Oklahomans to allow them to make informed judgments about our state’s capital punishment system that, we hope, will benefit both Oklahoma and the country as a whole,” said Henry.
Though I have long been a fan of any "research-driven review" of any sentencing system, I am not optimistic based on my own experiences in Ohio that this kind of death penalty review commission will be able to achieve all that much other than producing a lengthy report that will be embraced or rejected by political leaders based entirely on their already established views on the death penalty. This cynical prediction is based on how an array of ABA reports on state death penalty systems and how a recent Ohio Death Penalty Task Force report was received.
Critically, I do not mean to be asserting that this Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission is unimportant or sure to inconsequential. But I do mean to assert that basic political dynamics rather than refined policy analysis defines and often limits the possibilities for reforming the administration of the death penalty.
Monday, March 28, 2016
"Time, Death, and Retribution"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Chad Flanders now available via SSRN. To call this article timely and just dead on is both accurate and punny. Here is the abstract:
The heart of a Lackey claim is that when a death row inmate is kept waiting too long for his execution, this delay can amount to cruel and unusual punishment — either because they delay is itself cruel and unusual, or because the execution on top of the delay is. All Lackey claims brought by death row inmates have failed, but not for want of trying. The usual complaint against Lackey claims is that those who, by their own appeals, delay their execution date cannot turn around and use that delay as an argument against their death sentences. I agree with other scholars that this argument is incorrect. However, even if it is true that prisoner choice cannot make an otherwise unconstitutional sentence constitutional, Lackey claims can — and should — fail if the courts adopt a certain theory of retribution, what I call “intrinsic desert retribution”. Examining that type of retribution, distinguishing it from other retributive theories, and showing how intrinsic desert retribution can refute most Lackey claims, is one of this article’s major contributions. In doing so, it breaks with most of the scholarly literature, which tends to be sympathetic to Lackey claims.
But the fact that Lackey claims may survive given a certain theory of retribution does not make that theory something the state may permissibly pursue. And this is the second major contribution of the article: to make the case that retribution may in fact not be a permissible state purpose. In short, Lackey claims do not fail because they are too strong — they fail because they are not strong enough. The Supreme Court has traditionally held that the state may permissibly put someone to death because of retribution. But the Court has also said, in other contexts, that the state may not pursue certain aims. The state cannot promote religion, for one; nor can it adopt policies based solely on “animus” against a certain class of persons. My article suggests that when the state adopts retribution as a goal in capital punishment, and pursues that goal even after years of delay, then retribution starts to look more and more like something that, while it may be morally right, cannot be a goal the state can legitimately pursue.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
Japan conducts two old-school executions despite international criticisms
As reported in this Guardian article, headlined "Japan executes two prisoners amid protests," the land of the rising sun continues to raise its modern execution totals. Here are the details:
Human rights campaigners have condemned Japan’s use of the death penalty after two inmates were hanged, bringing the number of executions to 16 since the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, took office in late 2012. The executions were carried out on Friday, just weeks before Japan is to host the G7 leaders summit: Japan and the US are the only two G7 nations that retain the death penalty, while European countries are among the most vocal critics of Japan’s secretive executions.
Yasutoshi Kamata, 75, was hanged in Osaka for the murders of five people — including a nine-year-old girl — between 1985 and 1994, according to Japanese media. Junko Yoshida was convicted of killing two men in the late 1990s to obtain life insurance payments. The 56-year-old, who was executed in Fukuoka, is the first woman to be hanged in Japan since 2012.
Campaigners accused Japan of resisting the global trend towards the abolition of the death penalty in the mistaken belief that the punishment acts as a deterrent. “Despite the fact that about 140 countries in the world have already abandoned or have stopped executions for more than a decade, the Japanese government is turning its back on the trend,” said Hideki Wakabayashi, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan.
Opinion polls in Japan show high levels of public support for the death penalty, although campaigners say the surveys are worded in such a way as to play on the public’s fear of crime. In a 2010 poll, 86% of respondents said the use of the death penalty was “unavoidable” — a sentiment that strengthened after a doomsday cult carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 people and injuring thousands more.
Friday’s executions mean the number of inmates facing the death sentence in Japan now stands at 124. The hangings also highlighted the long periods — on average more than five years between 2005 and 2014 — that inmates are forced to wait to be executed. Kamata’s sentence was finalised 11 years ago, and Yoshida’s almost six years ago, according to Japanese media.
Death row inmates are typically given only a few hours’ notice of their execution, with relatives and lawyers informed only after it has been carried out. In a damning 2009 report, Amnesty claimed Japan’s death row inmates were being driven insane and exposed to “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment.
Friday, March 25, 2016
Florida has first capital case head to jury sentencing after Hurst-required reforms
Roughly 10 weeks after the Supreme Court declared unconstitutionally Florida's death sentencing procedures in Hurst v. Florida, No. 14–7505 (S. Ct. Jan. 12, 2015) (available here), a group of jurors have the chance to create a new capital test case as to whether the Florida's now-revised death sentencing procedures can survive another constitutional attack. This local article, headlined "Hawkins test of new sentencing rules," explains:
For the first time since the Florida Legislature revised capital punishment sentencing guidelines — requiring a favorable vote by 10 of 12 jurors — a defendant could get the death penalty.
Antowan Hawkins was convicted Thursday of felony first-degree murder, robbery, arson, tampering with physical evidence and grand theft of a motor vehicle in the death of 24-year-old Aaron Goodwin. Today, jurors will return to determine Hawkins' sentence.
But prior to his week-long trial, his attorneys filed motions calling the new jury guidelines unconstitutional. “This scheme leaves Florida as one of only two states that authorize the imposition of the death penalty on less than a unanimous jury verdict,” Hawkins attorney David Collins wrote in a March 21 filing. “This scheme is contrary to evolving standards of decency regarding the humane imposition of capital punishment.”
Jurors Thursday found Hawkins guilty of felony murder instead of premeditated murder, a decision that could play into the sentencing guidelines introduced in court today. "That can be perceived that you’re not quite sure who is actually the one who killed Mr. Goodwin," said Chuck Collins, Hawkins' attorney, during his opening statement. "Are you prepared to sanction the execution of someone not knowing beyond a reasonable doubt that he is the actual person who killed him?"
Prosecutors said in court Friday Hawkins took measures to conceal the killing of Goodwin by setting his South Adams Street sneaker shop on fire and driving his car to Jefferson County to set it ablaze. Testimony in the trial also suggested Hawkins may have gone to the store prior to the crime. "We see a pattern of destroying evidence to avoid being caught," said Assistant State Attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit Eddie Evans. "There was evidence the victim had seen the defendant before."
UPDATE: If you click through to the local article linked above, it now reports that jurors sentenced this capital defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole after only an hour of deliberation. Consequently, some other case is going to become the test case for Florida's new capital sentencing procedures.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
State judge in Missouri decides state DOC purposely violated state law to avoid execution drug disclosure
As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri Corrections Department Violated Sunshine Law In Execution Case, Judge Rules," a state judge reached some sharp conclusions about what the state DOC failed to show concerning execution drugs in the Show Me state. Here are the details:
The Missouri Department of Corrections purposely violated the state’s Sunshine Law when it refused to turn over records revealing the suppliers of lethal injection drugs for executions, a state court judge ruled late Monday. Cole County Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem’s decision came in three parallel cases, including one brought by five news organizations: The Kansas City Star, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Springfield News-Leader, The Guardian and the Associated Press.
Beetem last July ordered the DOC to disclose the names of the pharmacies from which it buys lethal injection drugs. But the issue remained moot while he reviewed the records in question to see if they needed to be redacted in order to protect the identities of members of the execution team.
On Monday, Beetem ruled that while an exemption in the Sunshine Law protects the identities of the doctor and nurse who are present during the execution as well as non-medical personnel who assist with the execution and are also present, it does not protect the identity of the pharmacists who supply the execution drugs. He ordered the DOC to produce those records without redactions. He also ordered the DOC to pay the plaintiffs’ costs and attorneys’ fees. In the news organizations' case, that amounted to $73,335.
The state has already indicated it plans to appeal. The Department of Corrections did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Beetem's decision. "At this point, it has cost the state of Missouri more than $100,000 to assert a frivolous position," said Kansas City attorney Bernard Rhodes, who represented the news organizations. "At what point will the state realize that they're wrong and at what cost to the taxpayers will it take before the state realizes they are wrong?"
The other lawsuits challenging officials' refusal to provide information about the state's execution protocols were filed by former Missouri legislator Joan Bray, a death penalty opponent, and by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Civil Liberties Union and Christopher S. McDaniel, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio.
Missouri, like other states, has had difficulty finding lethal injection drugs after European and American drug makers began refusing to provide them. The state has resorted to using largely unregulated compounding pharmacies, often keeping the sources of the drugs secret. In their lawsuit, the five news organizations said that public disclosure of the source, quality and composition of the drugs “reduces the risk that improper, ineffective, or defectively prepared drugs are used; it allows public oversight of the types of drugs selected to cause death and qualifications of those manufacturing the chosen drugs; and it promotes the proper functioning of everyone involved in the execution process.”
Monday, March 21, 2016
Some interesting recent discussions of religion and the death penalty
Long-time readers know I have long been intrigued by (and uncertain about) the intersection of strong religious beliefs and strong opinions on the death penalty. For that reason, these recent pieces caught my eye:
From the New Yorker here, "The Catholic Movement Against Capital Punishment"
From Patheos here, "Why Authentic Christians Must Oppose the Death Penalty"
From RawStoy here, "Bible: 6 Ways Jewish Bernie Sanders Is More Like Christ, Christian Donald Trump More Like Anti-Christ"
The last of these pieces talks about a lot more than the death penalty, but I figured it might help generate some extra fun comments.
Sunday, March 20, 2016
High-profile NYC cop-killer getting off death row spotlights continued challenges SCOTUS jurisprudence
This new AP article, headline "NY Killer Off Death Row as Definition of Disabled Gets Tweak," reports on a notable capital ruling in a high-profile federal capital case and details how the case taps into broader issues surrounding the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment limits on the application of the death penalty. Here are the details:
Prosecutors say Ronell Wilson is a calculating murderer. Since his imprisonment for killing two New York City police detectives, he has been able to dash off emails, memorize passages from books and seduce a female guard. But Wilson's lawyers were able to convince a judge that he is a person of such a low intelligence that he can't function in society, and therefore can't legally be put to death.
Wilson, 32, and others like him are at the center of a debate over how to enforce a nearly two-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that adds more specificity to the concept that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute killers who are intellectually disabled. It says courts should go beyond mere IQ scores to consider the person's mental or developmental disabilities. A federal judge in New York who revisited Wilson's case based on the ruling tossed out his death sentence, just three years after finding that Wilson's IQ score was high enough to make him eligible to be executed.
A similar review led a judge in California last November to reduce a death sentence given three decades ago to Donald Griffin, a man who raped and murdered his 12-year-old stepdaughter. A third appeal based on the ruling, that of a Virginia serial killer with a borderline IQ score, failed. Alfredo Prieto was executed in October.
Legal scholars say similar death row decisions are likely to follow, depending on how the high court's ruling is applied around the country. "We should see courts more carefully considering whether defendants have an intellectual disability ... that doesn't mean we will," said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
Wilson is a case study in the difficulty of determining who fits the court's definition of someone too intellectually limited to qualify for capital punishment.... U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said in his ruling Tuesday that he had no sympathy for Wilson and also doubted most clinicians would consider him disabled. But he said he had "significant deficits in adaptive functioning" - enough to make him ineligible for the death penalty. Garaufis imposed a new punishment of life in prison.
Friday, March 18, 2016
"How many times should a state be able to try to execute someone without running afoul of the Constitution?"
The question in the title of this post is the first line of this notable new commentary authored by Austin Sarat concerning the work of the Ohio Supreme Court in Ohio v. Broom (previously discussed here). Here is more of the commentary:
[T]he Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that neither the federal nor the state constitution forbids Ohio from trying to execute someone more than once. While this ruling may set up another opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of capital punishment, it nonetheless allows the nightmarish possibility that the state can proceed in a negligent manner in carrying out an execution and, if it fails in the first attempt, to try, try again. This should shock and trouble those who support capital punishment as well as those who oppose it....
On Sept. 15, 2009, Broom, who had been convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder, was brought to Ohio's death chamber where he was to be executed by lethal injection. His executioners repeatedly attempted to insert an intravenous line into Broom's arms and legs. As they did so, Broom winced and grimaced with pain. At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving.
After an hour had passed, Broom tried to help his executioners, turning onto his side, sliding the rubber tubing that served as a tourniquet up his left arm, and alternatively squeezing his fingers together and apart. Even when executioners found what they believed to be a suitable vein, it quickly collapsed as they tried to inject the saline fluid. Broom was once again brought to tears. After more than two hours of executioners sticking Broom's arms and legs with the needle, the prison director decided that the execution team should rest. The governor of Ohio issued a reprieve stopping the execution....
It is almost certain that the Bromell case now will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that it will offer that court the chance to revisit the unfortunate precedent it set more than 60 years ago [allowing Louisiana to try again after a failed electrocution in the Francis case].
One can only hope that the Court will now insist that if the government is going to carry out executions that there be no room for error. Neither simple human decency nor the 8th Amendment can tolerate a government carrying out a death penalty sentence in a shoddy manner. If we are going to have a death penalty, we cannot allow death, as the dissenting justice in the Francis case put it, to be carried out on the installment plan.
Prior related post:
- Split Ohio Supreme Court decides state allowed to try again to execute Rommell Broom after prior botched attempt
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Split Ohio Supreme Court decides state allowed to try again to execute Rommell Broom after prior botched attempt
This official summary from the Ohio Supreme Court office of public information provides a detailed summary of a notable capital punishment ruling today, and it starts this way:
An execution had not begun when an IV line could not be established to deliver lethal drugs into an inmate’s body even though a needle was inserted multiple times, and neither the U.S. nor Ohio constitution bars the state from carrying out the execution, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a second attempt to execute Romell Broom by lethal injection would not violate the cruel and unusual punishment or the double jeopardy clauses of the federal and state constitutions. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger stated in the majority opinion that by law the death penalty begins with the application of lethal drugs, and since the execution team stopped after it could not keep an IV catheter functioning, Broom’s punishment had not started.
In separate opinions, dissenting justices countered that Broom is entitled to a hearing to prove a second attempt would also fail under the state’s procedures, and that the first attempt constituted cruel punishment.
The full opinion in Ohio v. Broom, 2016-Ohio-1028 (Ohio S. Ct. March 16, 2016), is available at this link. I may comment more about this novel Eighth Amendment case in coming days. But even without having a chance to review the opinions, I can predict with relative certainty that there will be an appeal to the US Supreme Court that may well interest some of the Justices. Given that likelihood, as well as the difficulties Ohio has had with obtaining execution drugs, I think we can and should still expect Romell Broom to remain alive for many, many more future election days in bellwether Ohio.
Monday, March 14, 2016
Interesting moment concerning Hillary Clinton and the death penalty at CNN town hall
I largely stopped watching much TV coverage of the Prez campaign except on election nights, in part because crime and justice issues continue to get precious little attention in debates or in coverage of what the various candidates might do if elected. But, as reported here, last night's CNN town hall included a notable exchange concerning the death penalty:
An exonerated former death row inmate challenged Hillary Clinton on Sunday night to defend her continued support for capital punishment in some instances despite cases in which innocent people have been wrongly convicted.
"I came perilously close to my own execution," Ricky Jackson said during the CNN-TV One town hall event Sunday at Ohio State University, where he described the circumstances of his case and exoneration. He asked the Democratic front-runner, "In light of what I just shared with you and in light of the fact that there are documented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country, I would like to know how you can still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what you know right now?"
In 2014, Jackson was freed after spending nearly four decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. Convicted at the age of 18 for the 1975 killing of a money-order salesman in Cleveland, the Ohio man was exonerated after the prosecution's key witness, only 12 years old when he gave his damning account to police, recanted in court.
Calling his a profoundly difficult question, Clinton first criticized the states, saying they "have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give defendants the rights that defendants should have."
"I've said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states themselves began to eliminate the death penalty."
But the former secretary of state did not retreat from her broader position. "Where I end up is this, and maybe it's a distinction that is hard to support, but at this point, given the choices we face from terrorist activities primarily in our country that end up under federal jurisdiction, for very limited purposes, I think it can still be held in reserve for those."
Clinton referenced the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, an act of domestic terrorism that killed 168 people, as one example of the kind of crime she considered punishable by death. "That is the exception that I still am struggling with, and it would only be in the federal system," she said.
Interestingly, this afternoon CNN just published this commentary authored by Ricky Jackson under the headline "Exonerated death row inmate: Clinton wrong on death penalty." Here is an excerpt from the later part of the commentary:
I know that the death penalty does not deter. That can no longer be seriously debated. I also know that it is very expensive at a time when states are struggling financially and many are on the brink of bankruptcy. As an expensive government program with no proven track record of effectiveness, it is, indeed, the proverbial "bridge to nowhere." But I also know that it sends innocent people to death row, and sometimes kills them.
Some of those likely innocents, such as Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna, have been executed at the hands of the government. Other innocent inmates -- in fact more than 150 of them -- have been lucky enough to have been exonerated and freed before their execution.
Furthermore, I learned from my time on death row that even the guilty are worthy of salvation. As an innocent and scared 18-year-old boy sent to death row, it was only the kindness and humanity of death row's guilty, who took me under their collective wing, that kept my sanity and maintained my faith in humanity. These inmates made horrible mistakes, and deserved to be punished, but they are not the animals our criminal justice makes them out to be.
A society should not be judged on how it treats its best, but rather on how it treats is lowest. And even the lowest are capable of incredible acts of humanity and are worthy of decency. They are worthy of God's grace, just as they bestowed grace upon me.
When I asked Clinton why she still supports the death penalty, she said she supported it only for the worst of the worst: those who committed acts of mass killing or terrorism. I cannot accept that. In cases such as those, the societal pressure to convict is at its highest. And when an intense pressure to convict is present, that is when the risk of convicting an innocent is greatest. The death penalty is also not a deterrent in terrorism cases. In fact, death can serve the purpose of many terrorists who wish to become "martyrs" for their cause.
During all the decades I sat in prison as an innocent man, I saw societal views gradually change. Not too many years ago, a Democratic candidate could not publicly support same-sex marriage and stand a chance of getting elected in a general election. Now, a Democratic candidate could not be taken seriously if he or she didn't support same-sex marriage.
Likewise, no serious Democratic candidate should be able to support the death penalty. We have evolved. We have seen the evidence that the death penalty doesn't work and that it kills the innocent. Given this evidence, it is time that no candidate -- Democrat or Republican -- should be taken seriously if he or she supports capital punishment.
The fact that Clinton continues to hang on to this antiquated relic confuses me. She touts "criminal justice reform" -- and much reform is needed -- but she misses one of the lowest hanging pieces of fruit. I said last night that I am an "undecided" voter. I hope that Clinton reconsiders her position on capital punishment before I do what I have been waiting my entire life to do: cast my first presidential vote as a free and vindicated man.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
"Why We Would Spare Walter White: Breaking Bad and the True Power of Mitigation"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking article authored by Bidish Sarma and recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
What if Walter White had been captured by the federal authorities? Considering that he committed the murders of many individuals and orchestrated many more in the course of building and running his global meth trade, the prosecution would be able to seek the ultimate punishment against him. But, would a jury give him the death penalty? Walt’s gripping journey stirred within viewers a range of complex emotions, but even those revolted by his actions must concede that it is extraordinarily difficult to envision a random collection of twelve people unanimously agreeing that he deserves a state-sanctioned execution. Indeed, it seems that many of us actually rooted for Walt throughout the series, even when we struggled to understand why.
This Essay explores the answer to the question of why we would spare Walter White from the death penalty. Its exploration underscores the critical importance of “mitigation” — a capacious term that refers to evidence introduced by capital defense lawyers to persuade jurors to hand down something less harsh than a death sentence.
Breaking Bad, through its masterful construction of its core narrative, situated us to empathize with Walt, to view him as someone we could understand, to feel about him the way we might feel about a friend or colleague or neighbor. Whether we argued vociferously in online forums that his actions were nearly always justified or simply watched with a suppressed but distinct hope that he might emerge as a partially redeemed man, many of us never condemned Walt. We did not want him to die an undignified death at someone else’s hands. In fact, we were relieved that death came to him on his own terms. And, if he had been captured, we would not have sent him to the death chamber. Knowing Walt — understanding his “mitigation” — bent us towards mercy.
To start, this Essay explains how a capital trial unfolds and sets out the factors that jurors must take into account when they decide whether to choose death for a convicted capital defendant. After establishing the basic framework for the death-determination in Part I, this Essay focuses on Walter White’s hypothetical penalty phase in Part II. It describes both the “aggravating” evidence the prosecution would use to persuade jurors that death is the appropriate punishment and the “mitigating” evidence the defense would use to persuade jurors that a sentence less than death is appropriate. Part II concludes with an explanation of why a jury likely would not sentence Walter White to die.
Part III steps back to identify distinct conclusions that we could draw from viewers’ prevailing willingness to ride with Walt until the end. It concludes that it would be unwise to dismiss Walt as a fictitious outlier. Rather than ask ourselves what makes Walt’s particular case for mercy special, we should ask ourselves how the show managed to make him so real. Breaking Bad’s storytelling proved so powerful that the show’s writers were themselves amazed that viewers continued to stand by Walt’s side through it all. If we would spare Walter White, surely we would spare many others facing capital punishment. But to get there, we need to do more than hear that they have struggles and triumphs of their own; we need to walk with them on their journeys. We must feel like we did when the last episode of Breaking BadI began — wondering exactly how things will end, but unwilling to bring that end by our hands.
March 13, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Thursday, March 10, 2016
Notable headlines concerning diverse death penalty developments nationwide
My Google News feed this morning has an array of notable headlines concerning an array of notable death penalty reform and litigation developments around the country in recent days. Here are some links, moving from states in the east to the west:
Among this bunch, I find the final story here about developments in Washington state especially intriguing. And, of course, I welcome input from readers as to which of these stories they think are most notable.
Sunday, March 06, 2016
"Assessing and Ameliorating Arbitrariness in Capital Charging: A Doctrinally and Empirically Anchored Inquiry"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Sherod Thaxton. Here is the abstract:
Justice Stephen Breyer recently made international headlines when he emphasized that reforms to the capital punishment process have apparently failed to ameliorate the rampant arbitrariness, capriciousness, and bias that led the U.S. Supreme Court to temporarily invalidate the death penalty over forty years ago. According to the Justice, the primary cause of this failure has been the Court’s backpedaling on the very substantive and procedural protections it initially articulated as necessary for the constitutional administration of the death penalty. The Court’s capital punishment jurisprudence initially underscored the importance of social scientific evidence in assessing the fairness of capital punishment systems, but now the Court routinely minimizes, or outright ignores, social science evidence on the operation of the death penalty. This has led to the growing disjunction between the Court’s rhetoric and the reality of capital punishment. Justice Breyer underscored the Court’s responsibility in holding death penalty systems accountable and called for full briefing on the basic question of the social realities of the administration of capital punishment.
Meaningful death penalty reform, if possible, requires a more prominent role for social science in death penalty decision-making. In this Article, I develop a doctrinally anchored statistical model that carefully disentangles and evaluates questions of arbitrariness, bias, and disproportionality in capital charging. I begin by discussing the Court’s inconsistent efforts to rationalize and regulate capital punishment systems. I then adopt a framework of statistical inference in an effort to provide greater definitional and analytical clarity. Finally, I describe a set of analytical tools uniquely suited for diagnosing capital charging errors that closely aligns with the Court’s conceptualization of unacceptable arbitrariness. I illustrate the usefulness of the model on data involving actual death penalty-eligible defendants from Georgia.
My analysis reveals that death penalty charging practices are highly inconsistent, irrational, and disproportionate, both within and across jurisdictions in Georgia. The Article concludes by explaining how the empirical model might be used to improve accuracy and consistency in capital charging systems through empirically informed front-end charging screening.
Iran measuring up white-collar nooses after sentencing three businessmen to death
As reported in this CBS piece, headlined "Iran sentences billionaire businessman to death," it seems that Iran's justice system does not view even prominent corporate executives as too big to kill. Here are the deadly details:
An Iranian court has sentenced a well-known tycoon to death for corruption linked to oil sales during the rule of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the judiciary spokesman said Sunday.
Babak Zanjani and two of his associates were sentenced to death for "money laundering," among other charges, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi said in brief remarks broadcast on state TV. He did not identify the two associates.
Previous state media reports have said the three were charged with forgery and fraud. "The court has recognized the three defendants as 'corruptors on earth' and sentenced them to death," said Ejehi. "Corruptors on earth" is an Islamic term referring to crimes that are punishable by death because they have a major impact on society. The verdict, which came after a nearly five-month trial, can be appealed....
Iran's prosecutors contend Zanjani withheld billions in oil revenues channeled through his companies. A news website run by the judiciary identified the two associates as British-Iranian businessman Mahdi Shams, who was detained in 2015, and the other as Hamid Fallah Heravi, a retired businessman.
Zanjani was arrested in 2013 during a crackdown on alleged corruption during Ahmadinejad's rule. Iran's Oil Ministry says Zanjani owes more than 2 billion euros ($2.25 billion) for oil sales he made on behalf of Ahmadinejad's government. Zanjani is one of Iran's wealthiest businessmen, with a fortune worth an estimated $14 billion. He was arrested shortly after the election of President Hassan Rouhani, who ordered a crackdown on alleged corruption during the eight-year rule of his hard-line predecessor. In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Zanjani claimed he was not a political person, saying: "I don't do anything political, I just do business."
Iran has in the past executed other wealthy individuals found guilty of similar charges. In 2014, Iran executed billionaire businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi over corruption charges.
Friday, March 04, 2016
Post-Hurst hydra takes big bite into some capital cases in Alabama
Regularly readers are perhaps now tired of hearing me use the term "post-Hurst hydra" (and what I still think is a cool image) to describe the litigation in various courts in various states as judges sort ought what Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida must mean for past, present and future capital cases. But that hydra keep rearing its head, and yesterday it took a big bite in Alabama as reported in this local article:
A Jefferson County judge Thursday morning ruled that Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme, which allows judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole and instead impose the death penalty, is unconstitutional. In making her ruling after a hearing, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd barred the death penalty in the cases of four men charged in three murders.
"The Alabama capital sentencing scheme fails to provide special procedural safeguards to minimize the obvious influence of partisan politics or the potential for unlawful bias in the judiciary," Todd said in reading her written ruling from the bench. "As a result, the death penalty in Alabama is being imposed in a "wholly arbitrary and capricious" manner."
The result of Todd's order is that the judge won't allow the death penalty to be imposed in the cases before her. But attorneys present at the hearing said it would be up to other judges whether to follow her example. But Todd said her ruling likely will be appealed by prosecutors. If an appellate court were to uphold her ruling, then it would become a precedent and apply to cases around the state, attorneys said.
"Judge Todd's ruling today is not a general pronouncement for the State of Alabama, but is strictly limited to the four cases upon which she ruled in the Jefferson County Circuit Court," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said Thursday afternoon. "Alabama's capital sentencing statutes are constitutional. Just yesterday the Alabama Supreme Court denied the appeal of a capital murder defendant who had filed a similar pre-trial motion, and the Court refused to declare Alabama's capital statute's unconstitutional. We are currently reviewing the Judge's written order, and expect to file an appeal. We fully expect today's ruling by Judge Todd to be reversed."
As this press account of the trial court ruling highlights, the decision by Judge Todd covers a lot more ground than just the application of the SCOTUS Hurst opinion in Alabama. The opinion is available at this link, and all persons concerned about the death penalty ought to read it in full. Toward the end of the extended opinion, the judge discusses Hurst and seems to rest her decision in large part on its Sixth Amendment holding. But she also discusses a number of other issues surrounding Alabama's capital sentencing scheme, and it is actually hard for me to assess whether the interplay of concerns discussed in this opinion may make it more or less likely to be reversed on appeal.
Thursday, March 03, 2016
Florida legislature completes Hurst "fix" for its capital punishment procedures
As reported in this AP piece, the "Florida Legislature on Thursday sent to Gov. Rick Scott a bill that would require that at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution in order for it be carried out." Here is more:
Florida previously only required that a majority of jurors recommend a death sentence. Scott has not said if he will sign the measure but he has supported Florida's use of the death penalty since he became governor.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that the current law is unconstitutional because it allows judges to reach a different decision than juries, which have only an advisory role in recommending death. The state Supreme Court halted two pending executions following the ruling, and court cases across the state had been put on hold.
Legislators were initially divided over whether they should require a unanimous jury recommendation in death penalty cases. Florida is one of only a handful of states that does not require a unanimous decision by the jury . State senators agreed to switch to 10 jurors as part of a compromise with the House, but some legislators have warned that the decision could result in the law being challenged once again.
The bill sent to Scott does not apply to the 389 inmates now sitting on Florida's death row. The state Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should apply to those already sentenced to death.
It is an absolute certainty, not just a possibility, that Florida's new capital sentencing procedure will be "challenged once again," which is why I put the term "fix" in quotes in the title of this post. Indeed, given the need now to sort through the impact of Hurst (1) on the "389 inmates now sitting on Florida's death row" and (2) on Florida's (many) pending capital cases based on crimes committed before this new law was passed, and (3) on any future capital cases that apply this new law, I kind of feel bad for all the Floridian capital case prosecutors and defense attorneys who will likely not have much of an opportunity to work on their Florida tans for quite some time.
Wednesday, March 02, 2016
Are death penalty advocates troubled by plea deal, presumably urged by families of two slain Viriginia college students, that allows a double murderer to escape any real punishment?
The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this news story about an expected plea deal which seem to allow a high-profile double-murderer in Virginia to, in essence, avoid suffering any real punishment for murdering two college students. The article is headlined "Report: Matthew to be spared death penalty in Va. student murders," and here are the details (with my emphasis added):
Two remarkably similar murder cases that amplified concerns about campus safety are expected to end when a Virginia man enters a plea deal that will spare him a possible death sentence. Jesse LeRoy Matthew Jr., 34, is expected to enter pleas resolving the Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington cases Wednesday, according to Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert N. Tracci. The prosecutor did not disclose the terms of the plea agreement ahead of the hearing.
Sources told CBS affiliate WTVR Matthew is expected to plead guilty to first-degree murder and intent to defile in both cases. WTVR reporter Laura French reports via Twitter that Matthew is expected to serve four life sentences with no eligibility for parole. The deal will spare him the death penalty, sources told the station.
The former hospital orderly and cab driver is charged with capital murder in the September 2014 death of 18-year-old University of Virginia student Graham. He also faces a first-degree murder charge in the 2009 death of Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student. He already is serving three life prison terms for a sexual assault in northern Virginia.
According to authorities, Graham and Harrington were young women in vulnerable straits when they vanished in Charlottesville five years apart...
Graham's disappearance, which came at a time of rising national concern about sexual assaults and other crimes on college campuses, prompted a massive search. Her body was found five weeks later on abandoned property in Albemarle County, about 12 miles from the Charlottesville campus and 6 miles from a hayfield where Harrington's remains had been found in January 2010.
After police named Matthew a person of interest in Graham's disappearance, he fled and was later apprehended on a beach in southeast Texas. He was charged with abduction with intent to defile, a felony that empowered police to swab his cheek for a DNA sample. That sample connected Matthew to the 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax, a Virginia suburb of Washington, according to authorities. The DNA evidence in the Fairfax sexual assault, in turn, linked Matthew to the Harrington case, authorities have said.
The charge against Matthew in the Graham case was later upgraded to capital murder, giving prosecutors the option to seek the death penalty.
Both the Harrington and the Graham families are supportive of the deal, WTVR reports. Both families requested to give victim impact statements at the Wednesday afternoon hearing.
When I first saw the headline of this local story, I was puzzled by the willingness of Virginia prosecutors to let a defendant who is already serving multiple life sentences for other crimes now avoid any capital prosecution for two horrific murders. But, after reading that "the Harrington and the Graham families are supportive of the deal," I presume that these families strongly urged the prosecutors to take this kind of deal in order to conclude legal proceedings quickly and to allow them to get a measure of closure.
Assuming I am right that this plea deal is at the behest of the families of the victims, I am genuinely interested to hear from death penalty advocates about whether they think this outcome is ultimately a serious injustice. I surmise that some (many? most?) death penalty advocates think it is an injustice anytime a first-degree murderer escapes a capital prosecution and possible execution. In this case, given that the double-murderer is already serving life sentences for other crimes, this plea deal to additional life sentences means, functionally, Matthew is going to receive no real punishment at all for murdering Graham and Harrington.
Because I am a something of a death penalty agnostic, and especially because I am a strong supporter of taking very seriously the sentencing interests of crime victims in all cases, I really am not sure how I feel about this outcome. But I am sure I would like to hear the opinions of others, especially those who genuinely believe, as did Immanuel Kant, that the "satisfaction of justice" demands the execution of certain killers.
Updating Delaware's struggles with the post-Hurst hydra
As regular readers know, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to be multi-headed, snake-like litigation developing in various courts as judges sort ought what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases. And in this post about a month ago, I reported on the notable decision in Delaware to put all pending capital murder trials and executions on hold until the state Supreme Court resolved the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law in the wake of Hurst.
Now, thanks to this local article headlined "Public defenders: Death penalty unconstitutional," we can all read about the arguments from Delaware capital defense attorneys that the post-Hurst hydra must devour the state's existing capital sentencing scheme. Here are the basics from this press account:
Three assistant public defenders have argued to the Delaware Supreme Court that the death penalty law is unconstitutional -- and therefore needs to be fixed by lawmakers. The attorneys from the Office of Defense Services filed a written argument Monday explaining why they believe Delaware's capital punishment policy violates the U.S. Constitution, especially in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed Florida's similar scheme unconstitutional.
"The Delaware statute contains a number of unconstitutional provisions that cannot be exercised by this court in an effort to salvage the statute," the 58-page argument said. "Because these multiple constitutional problems require Delaware’s death penalty scheme to be substantially restructured, that task is for the legislature, not the courts."...
Attorneys from the Office of Defense Services said in their argument that it is "crystal-clear that the judge is the independent and paramount capital sentencer" in Delaware. They went on to argue that Delaware is violating the Sixth Amendment by requiring a judge to make findings regarding aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and their relative weight, before a death sentence can be imposed.
"As the opinion in Hurst makes clear, any fact-finding that is a necessary precursor to a death sentence, rather than one of imprisonment, must be performed by a jury," the argument said. "The highest courts and legislatures of several states have likewise acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence requires the jury to determine the presence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, as well as the weight of each."
The attorneys went on to say that the practice of allowing juries to be non-unanimous is also unconstitutional. "There is a nationwide consensus against non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases," the attorneys wrote. "No existing state statute currently permits a non-unanimous determination of aggravating factors, and only two, in Alabama and Delaware, permit a jury’s sentencing determination to be less than unanimous. That only two states permit non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases weighs heavily against its constitutionality."
The full brief referenced above can be accessed at this link.
Prior related post:
Monday, February 29, 2016
SCOTUS appears troubled by state judge's failure to recuse in capital case after past history as prosecutor in case
This AP report, headlined "Justices hear judicial-bias claim in death-row case," reports on today's SCOTUS oral argument in the Williams case involving Eighth Amendment and Due Process claims arising from a jurist's failure to recuse himself in a Pennsylvania capital case. Here are the basics:
The Supreme Court on Monday appeared likely to rule that a Philadelphia district attorney-turned-state high court judge should not have taken part in the case of a prison inmate whose death-penalty prosecution he had personally approved nearly 30 years earlier.
The justices indicated that inmate Terrance "Terry" Williams should get a new hearing in Pennsylvania's Supreme Court because then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille voted to reinstate Williams' death sentence in 2014. A lower court judge had thrown out the sentence because prosecutors working for Castille had hidden evidence that might have helped the defense in Williams' 1986 murder trial.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was among several justices who focused on Castille's actions in 1986, when he was the Philadelphia district attorney. "The judge here actually signed his name to the review of the facts and the decision to seek the death penalty," Sotomayor said.
When Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg told the justices that the passage of time had lessened concerns about bias, Justice Anthony Kennedy was almost incredulous. "So the fact that he spent 30 years in solitary confinement actually helps the state?" Kennedy said.
The conditions of Williams' confinement could be an issue in the outcome of his case. Pennsylvania has not executed anyone since 1999, and Gov. Tom Wolf has declared a moratorium on executions. But even if the chance of Williams' being put to death is small, he continues to be held in isolation along with other death row inmates in Pennsylvania. The court also confronted whether Castille's participation in the case made a difference on a court that ruled unanimously against Williams.
The full SCOUS oral transcript in Williams v. Pennsylvania is now available at this link. As always, I would be grateful for help from readers to identify any especially noteworthy (i.e., blog-worthy) interchanges from the argument.
Iran reportedly wages the "war on drugs" by executing the "entire adult male population" of a village!?!?!
There is much talk in the United States about causalities of all sorts from the tough ways in which US governments use criminal justice powers of all sorts to wage a "war on drugs." But this FoxNews article reports on Iran waging the war with a whole new type of extreme powers. The piece is headlined "Iran reportedly executes every adult man in one village for drug crimes," and here are the stunning details:
The entire adult male population of a village in southern Iran was executed for drug offenses last week as part of a country-wide crackdown on trafficking, state media report. Iran’s vice-president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, revealed the news in an interview with the Mehr News agency last week, but did not say when or where the executions took place, or how many people were killed.
“We have a village in Sistan and Baluchestan province where every single man has been executed,” she said, according to The Guardian. “Their children are potential drug traffickers as they would want to seek revenge and provide money for their families. There is no support for these people.”
Molaverdi said President Hassan Rouhani’s government has brought back previously-axed family support programs. “We believe that if we do not support these people, they will be prone to crime, that’s why the society is responsible for the families of those executed,” she said.
Human rights groups denounced the executions. “The apparent hanging of every man in one Iranian village demonstrates the astonishing scale of Iran’s execution spree,” Maya Foa, from the anti-death penalty group Reprieve, told The Guardian. “These executions — often based on juvenile arrests, torture, and unfair or nonexistent trials — show total contempt for the rule of law, and it is shameful that the UN and its funders are supporting the police forces responsible.”...
The Islamic Republic hanged 753 people in 2014, more than half of whom were convicted of drug-related offenses, the group said. In 2015, nearly 700 people were executed in Iran in the first half of the year alone, it added. The mass executions have led activists to call on the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime to stop funding the Iranian government’s anti-narcotics campaign until Tehran ends the use of capital punishment for such offenses, The Guardian reports.
Candidly, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the notion that the Iranian government, in order to try to stop drug trafficking in the name of helping "women and family affairs," would execute the entire adult male population of a village in southern Iran (and then, apparently, will provide government support for the families of those executed). But, absent further reports that this story is inaccurate, I have to conclude that Iran believes no punishment is off-the-table and unjustified when trying to combat the scourge that is drug use and abuse.
SCOTUS taking on array of criminal justice cases this week in which Justice Scalia's absence will again be consequential
The Supreme Court this week hears oral argument in a trio of criminal justice cases this week. Because all three cases strike me as involving relatively quirky/narrow issues, I am not expecting to get any blockbuster rulings from any of them (especially with a now short-staffed Court). Via SCOTUSblog, here are links to the cases being heard today and tomorrow with the question presented:
Voisine v. United States: (1) Whether a misdemeanor crime with the mens rea of recklessness qualifies as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" as defined by 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9); and (2) whether 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9) are unconstitutional under the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution.
Williams v. Pennsylvania: (1) Whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated where a state supreme court justice declines to recuse himself in a capital case in which he had personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment against the defendant in his prior capacity as an elected prosecutor and continued to head the prosecutors’ office that defended the death verdict on appeal, and where he had publicly expressed strong support for capital punishment during his judicial election campaign by referencing the number of defendants he had “sent” to death row, including the defendant in the case now before the court; and (2) whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated by the participation of a potentially biased jurist on a multimember tribunal deciding a capital case, regardless of whether his vote is ultimately decisive.
Nichols v. United States: (1) Whether 42 U.S.C. § 16913(a) requires a sex offender who resides in a foreign country to update his registration in the jurisdiction where he formerly resided, a question that divides the courts of appeals.
Because Williams involves an Eighth Amendment case and involves the death penalty, I suspect it will get the most press attention and probably even most of my attention after today's oral argument. But, in part because Williams involves an Eighth Amendment case and involves the death penalty, I am already pretty confident which Justices are likely to be more or less sympathetic to the capital defendant's claims on appeal.
In contrast, both Voisine and Nichols involve questions of statutory interpretation of federal crime statutes in politically fraught settings: Voisine involves the mix of domestic violence and guns, Nichols involves the tracking of sex offenders abroad. Both the specific legal issue before the Court and the context in which it arises makes me uncertain how various justices are likely to approach the cases at oral argument and in an eventual ruling. In both cases, though, the defense side likely is quite sorry to see Justice Scalia's chair empty because he was among the most consistent and forceful voices for the rule of lenity and other principles to limit the reach of government powers in the interpretation of federal criminal justice statutes.
Friday, February 26, 2016
Could a new group called Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty really impact discussions of death penalty reform?
The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this recent piece by Ted Gest at The Crime Report headlined "Justice System Voices Question Capital Punishment." Here are excerpts:
As support for capital punishment in the United States erodes, one viewpoint not often heard in debates on the issue is that of the people who do the work that leads to executions: officials of the criminal justice system.
A Washington, D.C., organization called The Constitution Project is moving to fill that gap, with a group called Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty (PSODP), which it describes as "an independent group of current and former law enforcement, prosecutors and corrections officials strongly concerned about the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty in America."...
[T]he new panel of public safety officials is offering its expertise to policymakers in states that are considering whether to continue executions. The group has three co-chairs: former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, former Massachusetts corrections commissioner Kathleen Dennehy, and former Southern Pines, N.C., Police Chief Gerald Galloway, who formerly led the North Carolina Chiefs of Police Association. The group says it stands ready to provide information. It does not take a formal stand on whether capital punishment should be abolished, but it is clear that the co-chairs believe that the current system is not operating fairly and efficiently.
Former Police Chief Galloway declares that the capital punishment system is "dysfunctional," noting that it often takes many years to put an accused murder to death, and that more than 150 people have been removed from death rows in various states after being exonerated or having their convictions overturned for legal reasons. Noting that some convicted murders spend decades on death row amid seemingly endless legal appeals, Galloway told The Crime Report, "The system is unfair. It is too expensive. Some innocent people end up on death row, and victims' families wait for justice that never occurs."
Dennehy said her biggest concern was "the possibility of executing an innocent person -- that is too high a price to pay." S he also cited allegations of "botched executions" in Oklahoma and elsewhere, saying that corrections employees who must carry out the sometimes tricky lethal injection process can suffer psychological harm. (Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett died in 2014 more than an hour after he was placed on an execution gurney after an employee had difficulty inserting a needle.)
Earley, who served as Virginia’s attorney general from 1998 until mid-2001, said last year he had changed his views and now opposes capital punishment. "If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty," he wrote in the University of Richmond Law Review. “I no longer have such faith in the government and, therefore, cannot and do not support the death penalty."
Some members of the new group favor capital punishment, but the entire panel agreed that, "each of us is ready to explore alternative ways to achieve a more just and effective public safety system.” Unless the system can be fixed to insure that innocent people are not sent to death row and that the appeals of those who are convicted in capital cases are handled promptly, those found guilty of murder should serve a maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Galloway and Dennehy said.
Members of the new group will offer their expertise to officials in states considering whether to retain the death penalty, Galloway said. "We represent a powerful perspective" he said, referring to their years of experience working in the justice system.
One major state that faces a close public vote on the issue is California, where there may be competing propositions on the November ballot: one to speed executions and another to abolish capital punishment.... As of last year, California had by far the nation's largest death row, housing 743, inmates, and last conducted an execution in 2006. Jeanne Woodford, former California corrections director, is a member of The Constitution Project's new panel.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Former judges and Justice in Washington urge state's current Justices to strike down state's death penalty
This AP article from Washington reports on a notable brief filed in a capital case in the state Supreme Court. The article is headlined "Dozens of judges ask Washington high court to ban death penalty," and here are excerpts:
Washington state's relationship with the death penalty over the past few decades has been so tenuous that even mass killers, serial killers and a cop killer have escaped it. Only five people have been executed in the past 35 years. Gov. Jay Inslee, a one-time supporter of capital punishment, has said no executions will take place while he's in office. And the state prosecutors association has called for a referendum on whether to bother keeping it on the books.
Now, the state's high court, which came within one vote of striking down the death penalty a decade ago, is re-examining it. Dozens of former Washington judges have taken the unusual step of urging the court to find it unconstitutional this time — including former Justice Faith Ireland, who sided with the narrow majority in upholding capital punishment back in 2006.
Arguments are scheduled for Thursday in the case of Allen Eugene Gregory, who was convicted of raping, robbing and killing Geneine Harshfield, a 43-year-old cocktail waitress who lived near his grandmother, in 1996.
His lawyers are challenging his conviction and sentence, including procedural issues and statements made by a prosecutor during the trial. But they also insist that the death penalty is arbitrarily applied and that it is not applied proportionally, as the state Constitution requires. Certain counties — especially Pierce, where Gregory was convicted — have been aggressive about seeking execution, while others have said a death-penalty case would quickly bankrupt them, making the location of the crime a key factor in whether someone might be sentenced to death....
One of the newer justices, Charles Wiggins, has expressed concerns over indications blacks are statistically more likely to be sentenced to death in Washington than whites, while another, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, represented defendants who had been sentenced to death — and criticized the way the death penalty is applied — during her previous career as an appellate lawyer....
In its brief, the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office urged the court to uphold the punishment, which is allowed by the federal government and 32 states. It argued the court has repeatedly upheld capital punishment, that those rulings should stand, and that Gregory shouldn't be allowed to make his constitutional arguments because he did not properly preserve those issues for appeal. "Since death penalty abolitionists are unable to convince large numbers of Washingtonians to abolish the death penalty, defendant turns to this court in hopes that he can convince five of the court's members that abolishing the death penalty is reflective of current public opinion," deputy prosecutor Kathleen Proctor wrote. "Essentially, defendant asks this court to become a legislative entity and to override the desire of the people of this state to have the death penalty as an available sanction for certain homicides."
In joining 55 other ex-judges who signed a brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington urging an end to capital punishment, Ireland, who served a single term on the Supreme Court, was particularly concerned about geographical disparities in death sentences — an issue that the majority held was not squarely before the court in 2006. "We can't call the death penalty anything but arbitrary when it depends on whether you kill someone in a rich county or one that can't afford such a trial," she wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "That could be fixed in my opinion by having death penalty prosecutions and defenses funded at the state level."
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
"Why and How the Supreme Court Should End the Death Penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this new article by Kenneth Williams recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In a recent opinion dissenting from the Supreme Court’s holding that a certain drug used in carrying out lethal injections is constitutional, Justice Breyer urged the Court to reconsider whether the death penalty is constitutional. Although the Court has so far declined Justice Breyer’s invitation, his dissent has provoked a discussion as to whether the United States should continue to use the death penalty. The purpose of this article is to contribute to that discussion.
The article begins with a discussion of the reasons that public support for the death penalty has declined during the last 20 years. Problems in the administration of the death penalty, such as the increasing numbers of exonerations, the continued racial disparities in death sentencing, the continued arbitrary application of the death penalty, and the substandard representation that many defendants receive are identified as the main reasons for this decline. The author concludes that going forward, the Supreme Court has two options available in addressing these problems: it can continue to try to reform the death penalty to make it fairer or it can abolish the death penalty. The article discusses some possible reforms that can be attempted but concludes that these reforms are unlikely to have a significant impact in making the death penalty fairer. Therefore, the author concludes that the only option available to the Court is to completely abolish the death penalty.
The author argues that the doctrinal framework for the Court to abolish the death penalty is already firmly in place. The Court could choose to abolish the death penalty for one of several reasons. First, it could find the death penalty violates Equal Protection because of the continued racial disparities in its application. Second, there are several Eighth Amendment grounds upon with the Court could rely. For instance, in the past the Court has found that the application of the death penalty to juveniles and mentally retarded offenders violated the Eighth Amendment because of “evolving standards of decency.” The Court could similarly find that, given the direction of the states in either abolishing the death penalty by statute or in practice and the significant decline in death sentences by juries, that the continued use of the death penalty also violates “evolving standards of decency.” Finally, the author responds to several likely objections that will be made in the event the Court seriously considers abolishing the death penalty, such as the text of the Constitution and the fear of another Furman type public backlash.
Monday, February 22, 2016
Because Michigan lacks the death penalty, can and should feds consider capital charges against admitted Uber mass murderer?
This new AP article, headlined "Uber driver admits to fatal Michigan rampage," prompts the question in the title of this post now that it seems there were be no questions about guilt in the latest horrific mass shooting. Here are the disturbing particulars:
The Uber driver suspected in a series of three random shootings in Michigan admitted carrying out the seemingly random attacks that killed six people, a prosecutor said Monday. Jason Dalton waived his right against self-incrimination before making the statement to authorities, Kalamazoo County prosecutor Jeff Getting said.
Dalton's statements to police were used to file charges of murder and attempted murder Monday, two days after the shootings in the Kalamazoo area. Dalton appeared briefly in court to hear the charges. He was ordered held without bond and will get a court-appointed attorney.
The shootings occurred in a restaurant parking lot, outside an apartment building and at a car lot. Two victims remain hospitalized.
Meanwhile, an Uber passenger said he called police to report that Dalton was driving erratically more than an hour before the shooting rampage began.
Matt Mellen told Kalamazoo television station WWMT that he hailed a ride around 4:30 p.m. Saturday. He said driver Jason Dalton introduced himself as "Me-Me" and had a dog in the backseat.... "I'm upset because I tried contacting Uber after I had talked to the police, saying that we needed to get this guy off the road," Mellen said....
Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller said Uber is cooperating with law enforcement officials, and he believes the company will "help us fill in some timeline gaps." Investigators are particularly interested in communication between Dalton and Uber, as well as customers he might have driven, the sheriff said.
Questions about motive and Dalton's frame of mind are "going to be the hardest to answer for anybody," Fuller said. He expects some answers to emerge in court, but he doubts they will be satisfying. "In the end, I ask people, because I keep hearing this question of why, 'What would be the answer that would be an acceptable answer for you?' They have to think about it for a moment, and they say, 'Probably nothing.' I have to say, 'You are probably correct.' I can't imagine what the answer would be that would let us go, 'OK, we understand now.' Because we are not going to understand."
If Dalton is convicted, the murder charges carry a mandatory life sentence. Michigan does not have the death penalty.
Authorities allege that he shot the first victim outside of an apartment complex and that he shot seven others over the next several hours. Police have not provided a motive. The victims had no apparent connection to the gunman or to each other.
The attacks began early Saturday evening outside the Meadows apartment complex on the eastern edge of Kalamazoo County, where a woman was shot multiple times. A little more than four hours later and 15 miles away, a father and his 17-year-old son were fatally shot while looking at cars at a car dealership. Fifteen minutes after that, five people were gunned down in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Four of them died....
A man who knows Dalton said he was a married father of two who never showed any signs of violence. Gary Pardo Jr., whose parents live across the street from Dalton in Kalamazoo Township, described him as a family man who seemed fixated on cars and often worked on them.
I do not know enough about federal jurisdiction in capital cases to feel entirely confident that the feds would have a sure-fire jurisdictional basis to take over the prosecution of Jason Dalton. But if one looks at the crimes that have landed some others on federal death row (listed here thanks to DPIC), most involve many fewer murders than Dalton committed. And the fact that Dalton was apparently "on the job" for a notable national (internet?) company when he randomly slaughtered six innocent people and critically wounded two others.
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Will Pope's call for world-wide moratorium on death penalty halt any executions anywhere?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this news from CNN headlined "Pope Francis calls for one-year moratorium on death penalty." Here are the basic details:
Pope Francis, who has repeatedly called for an end to the death penalty, on Sunday proposed that Catholic leaders suspend the practice for a year to mark the Holy Year of Mercy.
"I make an appeal to the conscience of all rulers, so that we can achieve an international consensus for the abolition of the death penalty," the Pope said in his Sunday address in St. Peter's Square. "And I propose to those among them who are Catholic to make a courageous and exemplary gesture: that no sentence is executed in this Holy Year of Mercy."
The Pope launched the Jubilee Year of Mercy on December 8. The church's formal yearlong push for mercy and forgiveness is set to continue through November 20, when the feast of Christ the King will be celebrated.
Francis voiced his support Sunday for an international conference taking place on Monday in Rome called A World Without the Death Penalty, saying he hoped the conference would bring renewed energy to the mission to end capital punishment. The Pope underlined the possibility of redemption for offenders and a "criminal justice open to the hope of reintegration into society."
"The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty," he said on Sunday.
Friday, February 19, 2016
Excited to be at Duke Law School for "The American Death Penalty after Glossip"
I am excited and grateful to have the chance to spend today at Duke Law School for this symposium, "The American Death Penalty After Glossip." Here is the basic description: "The symposium, featuring several of the country's leading experts in the field, will assess the implications of the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, as well geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty and use of statistics in death penalty litigation." And one can, I am told, watch the event live-streaming via links here, here and here.
Monday, February 15, 2016
Might Virginia go back to the electric chair to try to complete an execution scheduled for next month?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Washington Post article headlined "Lacking lethal injection drugs, Va. might turn to the electric chair." Here is how the article begins:
Virginia lawmakers are mulling a bill that would allow state officials to use the electric chair to execute those on death row when lethal-injection drugs are not available — a measure that might be needed to put an inmate to death next month.
The legislation passed the Virginia House of Delegates last week, though it still must clear the Senate, which it has failed to do in the past. But this year might be different because an inmate is scheduled for execution in March, and prison officials say they do not have the sedatives they need to do it. “It’s our job to help carry out what they have decided in a court of law,” said Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), who introduced the bill.
The proposal again thrusts Virginia to the center of a national debate on how the justice system should deal with those it has determined deserve to die. Historically, states turned away from the electric chair, believing lethal injection to be quicker, less painful and less likely to be declared cruel and unusual punishment, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Now — with the needed drugs in short supply — they are being forced to look at alternatives, sometimes turning to practices that have fallen out of favor, Dunham said.
“The irony is they’re looking for alternatives to lethal injection because lethal injection may be found to be cruel and unusual, or because lethal injection drugs are becoming harder for states to lay their hands on,” Dunham said. “It’s pretty clear that states that adopt electrocution as the method of execution are going to face very serious constitutional challenges.”
Virginia is one of eight states that already allow electrocution as a method of execution, letting inmates choose between it and lethal injection. The next inmate slated to die, Ricky Gray, has not yet picked a method. What will happen at his March 16 execution — or if it will go on as planned — remains unclear.
Gray, 38, was convicted in 2006 of brutally killing a Richmond musician, his wife, and their 9- and 4-year-old daughters. He picked the family because he spotted their door open and decided to rob them, court documents say. The documents say Gray also confessed to killing his wife, Treva Terrell Gray, and three members of another Richmond family. In urging his colleagues to pass the bill, Miller gave a lengthy and graphic description of Gray’s crimes and asked legislators to help the victims’ families “get the justice that they deserve and that our justice system has determined they deserve.”
“This isn’t expanding the death penalty, but the case I just told you about is exactly why we have this punishment on our books,” he said.
Marna Squires, the mother of Gray’s wife, said she does not care what method is used. “I’d love to be there and lay him down on the gurney and put the needle in him if they’d let me,” Squires said.
Executions by electrocution are far less common than those by lethal injection, though they are not unheard of. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 158 people have been executed by electrocution since 1976, compared with 1,252 by lethal injection. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia permit the practice in theory, according to data from the center, though each state has different rules. The last inmate to pick electrocution in Virginia was Robert Gleason Jr., who was given a life sentence for killing someone to cover up his involvement in a drug gang, then death for killing two fellow inmates behind bars. He was executed in 2013.
Courts in Georgia and Nebraska have ruled that electrocution violates their state constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, according to the center.
Saturday, February 13, 2016
Just why is DOJ still uncertain about seeking death penalty against Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this press report headlined "With death penalty decision uncertain, judge delays Dylann Roof’s federal trial." Here are the details:
A federal judge on Thursday delayed Dylann Roof’s trial in the deadly attack on Emanuel AME Church because prosecutors still have not decided whether to seek execution. Roof could face the death penalty on nine of his 33 charges in federal court, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said the decision by Washington-based Justice Department officials could take another two months.
Such delays in high-profile federal cases are typical. After the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, it took then-Attorney General Eric Holder more than nine months to announce he would seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Nearly eight months have passed since Roof’s arrest. Attorneys for the 21-year-old Eastover resident already have said he would plead guilty if the government opts against capital punishment.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel urged prosecutors during a hearing Thursday in downtown Charleston to inform him promptly of any development so a trial date can be set. “There are obviously important and alternate paths to go here based on that decision,” the judge said.
Roof’s federal charges in the June 17 shooting of nine black parishioners at the Calhoun Street church include civil rights violations. Officials have called the shooting a hate crime. Because of the delays in the federal case, Roof is likely to be tried first in state court in July. State prosecutors already have said they would pursue the death penalty. Thursday’s hearing in federal court served as a chance for Roof’s defense team and prosecutors to update Gergel on the status of the case. Roof, who remains at Charleston County’s jail, was not there....
Evidence in the cases continues to flow at a steady clip. Roof’s defense team, led by attorney David Bruck, last month got a hard drive full of data, and the FBI has since authored more reports, Richardson said.
While Richardson said the government would be ready for a trial soon, Bruck said his ability to defend his client depends on the death penalty decision. A trial could be avoided, he said, if Roof pleads guilty and gets life in prison.
Roof already had waived his right to a speedy trial because his lawyers need time to review “vast amounts” of evidence to defend him in a death penalty trial, Bruck said. “He has offered to plead guilty,” said Bruck, who also represented Tsarnaev in the Boston trial. “Everybody knows that. That has been the position since the first day of this case. The only issue is the government’s decision to accept that plea.”
Federal prosecutors have said that they planned to send their case to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s office in December. The Justice Department’s Review Committee on Capital Cases typically makes a recommendation to Lynch within 90 days. Though two representatives of the department’s Civil Rights Division, which typically leads such prosecutions, attended Thursday’s hearing, Richardson answered the judge’s questions. The prosecutor said that many people must give input and express opinions before a decision is made. “We feel like we are much closer,” he said.
I am generally disinclined to urge a prosecutorial charging decision should be rushed. But I am mystified why and ultimately troubled by the feds needing a year to decide whether to seek a capital charge in a case where there seems to be little doubt about essential offense facts. Especially with guilt not in question, with a large number of sympathetic victims, and with the offender's ugly motive making the indisputably a hate crime conparable to a form of domestic terrorism, I do not really understand why more than eight weeks, let alone eight months, are needed to decide whether to pursue a capital charge here.
Of particular significance, if a capital charge was justified against against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose crime slaughtered many fewer individuals and whose was arguably less culpabale than co-conspirator older brother, I have a had time figuring out why a capital charge against Dylann Roof would not be justified. Indeed, at a time when so many are understandably concerned with whether modern criminal justice systems understand that "black lives matter ," I fear that any decision not to seek a capital charge in this case would create the impression that the nine black lives extinguished in Charleston do not matter as much as just three non-black lives extinguished in Boston.
Tuesday, February 09, 2016
Post-Hurst hydra heads emerging in Alabama
As regularly readers may recall, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases. Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "Capital murder suspects across Alabama seek to bar death penalty," some post-Hurst hydra heads are emerging in the Yellowhammer State. Here are the basic details:
Attorneys for 25-year-old Antonio McCary Jones, a Birmingham man charged with killing a fellow drug dealer by shooting him 14 times, last week told a judge that if Jones is found guilty the death penalty should not be an option. Alabama's sentencing scheme in death penalty cases is the same as Florida's, which was ruled unconstitutional last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, Jones' lawyers argued Friday.
In both Alabama and Florida, judges are allowed to override jury recommendations for either life without parole or death. "The dilemma we're trying to resolve is do we want 12 people deciding death or life, or one person," Joe Basgier, one of Jones' lawyers, said after the hearing. Basgier and Jones' other attorney, Hube Dodd, are not alone in making the argument.
The ink was hardly dry on the U.S. Supreme Court's Jan. 12 ruling in Hurst v. Florida before lawyers around Alabama began filing motions seeking to bar the death penalty for their clients facing capital murder charges because of the similarities between the two states' capital punishment sentencing laws.
That has had local district attorneys scrambling to defend Alabama's capital sentencing law and putting circuit judges in the position of having to hold hearings and rule on the issue. Several judges have already denied the motions, at least one has taken it under advisement, and a few are awaiting further guidance.
District attorneys and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange say Alabama's law is not the same as Florida's and has already been declared constitutional. "The U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding the Florida death penalty does not affect Alabama's law. The U.S. Supreme Court specifically upheld Alabama's current system as constitutional in the case of Harris v. Alabama in 1995," according to a statement from the Attorney General's Office.
"In the Florida case (Hurst), the holding is that a jury must find the aggravating factor in order to make someone eligible for the death penalty. Alabama's system already requires the jury to do just that," according to the Attorney General's statement. "The jury must unanimously find an aggravating factor at either the guilt or sentencing phase — such as when the murder was committed during a robbery, a rape, or a kidnapping."...
Defense attorneys argue that that ultimate decision to sentence a defendant to death is made by a judge and not a Jury, just as in Florida. "The jury does make its own sentencing recommendation after a comparable weighing process, but that recommendation 'is not binding upon the court,'" according to Basgier and Dodd's motion.
Rarely, if at all, has a judge in Alabama overridden a jury recommendation for death and sentenced a suspect to life without parole. But there are a number of cases in which a judge has overridden a life without parole recommendation and imposed a death sentence.
According to several motions filed by defense attorneys around Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court in its ruling in the Hurst case also overruled two previous case — Hildwin v. Florida in 1989 and Spaziano v. Florida in 1984. Both those cases had been used by the court in upholding Alabama's death sentencing scheme in 1995, according to the motions. "As a result, the cases that upheld Alabama's death penalty scheme are no longer valid," according to Basgier and Dodd's motion, which mirrors other defense lawyer's "Hurst" motions. The Alabama Attorney General's Office had filed a brief in the Hurst case asking that the U.S. Supreme Court not overrule Spaziano because that case "had provided the legal foundation for Alabama's death penalty scheme," according to Basgier and Dodd's motion.
Friday, February 05, 2016
Lots of end-of-the-week notable capital punishment stories
A busy day of teaching and other work activies has prevented me from posting about a number of interesting death penalty stories and commentaries I noticed in the media recently. Here are headlines and links to serve as a kind of end-of-week round-up:
Tuesday, February 02, 2016
Post-Hurst hydra develops new heads in Delaware as all capital cases get halted
In this post last month not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what will likely be multi-headed, snake-like litigation that will develop in various ways in various courts as judges try to make sense of just what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases. Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "All Delaware executions, capital murder trials halted," a new head for this litigation hydra emerged yesterday. Here are the basic details:
All pending capital murder trials and executions have been halted until the Delaware Supreme Court determines the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law. The temporary stay, issued by President Judge Jan R. Jurden on Monday, is expected to impact at least four death penalty cases that were scheduled to go to trial in the next 120 days. Likewise, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction said Monday that all executions are also on hold, even though none were scheduled for the coming months.
"I think it is a smart decision," said Delaware's Chief Defender Brendan O'Neill. "It makes sense to stay the cases until we get the Supreme Court's ruling on whether our death penalty statute is constitutional." The stay will give the Delaware Supreme Court time to consider five questions that have arisen in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling for Florida.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty system, saying it gives too much power to judges, instead of juries. In that case, a man was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola and was sentenced to death by a judge. Delaware, Alabama and Florida are the only states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life and, instead, impose a sentence of death. Judges in Delaware have not been using that power.
The top U.S. court's recent ruling left prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges in Delaware with many questions about how to proceed in the state's approximately two dozen death penalty cases and with the 14 men on death row. In light of this, Superior Court Judge Paul Wallace solicited questions from Attorney General Matt Denn's office and O'Neill's office that they would like the Delaware Supreme Court to consider. The highest state court agreed last week to address the questions and set a timeline of mid-April for all briefs to be submitted.
The court is using as a test case that of Benjamin Rauf, the Temple University law graduate charged with gunning down classmate Shazi Uppal, 27, in the parking lot of a Hockessin nursing home last summer. Police have said the shooting occurred during a drug deal gone awry....
Jurden wrote in the administrative directive Monday that the certified questions are directly relevant to the pending capital murder trials. "Specifically, the determination will control the procedure to be applied in all such cases," she wrote. "A temporary stay of the pending trials, penalty hearings, and any applications asking this court to declare Delaware's capital sentencing scheme unconstitutional is warranted to ensure the application of the law consistent with the Supreme Court's determination of the certified questions." Jurden went on to say that temporary stays have previously been entered, such as in 2003 and 1992, when questions about the validity of the procedures were being considered by the Delaware Supreme Court.
The ensuing court battle is not the only challenge to the state's death penalty law. A bill to abolish the death penalty failed 23-16 in the House of Representatives on Thursday, but some lawmakers are vowing to give it a second chance this spring.
The administrative directive referenced in this article is available at this link.
Prior related posts:
- SCOTUS strikes down Florida's capital sentencing scheme based on Sixth Amendment
- A few (too) quick thoughts on the post-Hurst hydra
- Florida Supreme Court wasting no time trying to figure out impact of Hurst
- Early accounts of the developing post-Hurst hydra for past and present capital cases in Florida
Monday, February 01, 2016
Notable new parallel studies on comparable execution patterns in two notable states
Frank Baumgartner has recently released these two (short and reader-friendly) reports providing a "review of simple statistics" concerning who has been executed in two states in the modern death penalty era:
There were no data that especially surprised me during my (too quick) review of these reports, though I always find analysis of county-level death penalty patterns especially intriguing. For example, these documents report that "six out of Florida’s 67 counties are responsible for more than half of the state’s 89 executions" and that "four out of Ohio’s 88 counties (Lucas, Summit, Cuyahoga, and Hamilton) — or just 5% — are responsible for more than half of the state’s 53 executions." These kinds of data serve to highlight, yet again, just how significant county-level actors — particularly district attorneys and trial judges — truly are in the actual administration of the death penalty in the United States.
Sunday, January 31, 2016
Notable analysis of many capital defendants in Florida condemned to death by split juries
The Tampa Bay Times has this new detailed analysis of the history and impact of the Sunshine State's willingness to send persons to death row based on split jury recommendations. The article is headlined "Only in Florida: How the nation’s lowest bar for the death penalty has shaped death row," and here is how it gets started:
Florida has more than 170 people on death row today who may not have been condemned to die in any other state — the result of its one-of-a-kind law that allows a jury to recommend capital punishment by a simple majority vote, a Tampa Bay Times analysis has found.
Unburdened by the need to reach a unanimous decision, Florida juries typically don’t. Two-thirds of the people Florida has executed since 1995 were condemned to die on the recommendation of fewer than 12 jurors, the Times analysis found.
No other state allows juries to recommend death by a 7-5 vote. Of the 32 states that have the death penalty, 29 require a unanimous vote of 12. Alabama requires 10. Delaware calls for jurors to unanimously agree on whether the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, but their sentencing recommendation can be split.
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty statute, forcing the Legislature to rewrite it. Although the court did not explicitly address the issue of non-unanimous jury votes, legal experts say this part of Florida’s law is in constitutional jeopardy.
The Times reviewed more than 450 death penalty cases dating back decades to determine how juries voted in the penalty phase of capital trials. The juries’ sentencing recommendations are merely advisory, another unusual feature, but no Florida judge has ignored a jury’s guidance in nearly two decades.
The Times found that prisoners who were sentenced to death based on non-unanimous jury recommendations were far more likely to have their cases overturned on direct appeal, or to be ultimately acquitted.
Florida leads the nation in death row exonerations. Of the 20 people who have been exonerated and for whom sentencing information is available, 15 were sent to death row by a divided jury. Three others were cases in which judges imposed the death penalty over a jury’s recommendation of life in prison.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
New poll shows that, even among younger voters, support for the death penalty remains solid
YouGov has conducted some recent polling concerning death penalty perspectives that included a number of interesting questions and interesting demographic data. This brief summary of the poll results with a focus on age divisions includes this accounting of some of the poll results:
Most Americans still favor the death penalty, but a quarter of young Americans would refuse to even consider the death penalty if they were on a jury.....
YouGov's latest research shows that most Americans still favor the death penalty for people who have been convicted of murder. Support is highest among Republicans (71%) and over-65s (67%). Under-30s are the only group where there is not majority support for the death penalty, with 45% people aged 18 to 29 saying that they favor the death penalty and 35% saying that they are opposed.
Despite the fact that only 58% of Americans actively support the death penalty 73% say that, if they were on the jury for a murder trial, they would consider all sentencing options, including the death penalty. 18% of Americans say that, regardless of their jury duty, they would never consider the death penalty. Younger Americans are the most likely to say that they could never consider condemning someone to death, with a quarter of under-30s (24%) stating that they'd never consider the death penalty.
I am not at all surprised that younger people, who tend to be more liberal than older people on a wide range of issues, are generally less supportive of capital punishment than their elders. Indeed, as the title of this post suggests, I am somewhat surprised that only 1 of 3 millennials voice general opposition to the death penalty and tht only 1 of 4 would be unable to return a capital verdict if on a jury.
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Florida trial judge refuses to allow capital case to proceed in wake of SCOTUS Hurst ruling
A helpful reader altered me to this notable local article reporting on a notable local ruling concerning the administration of the death penalty in Florida in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst earlier this month. Here are the basic details:
Days after the Supreme Court struck down the way Florida sentences people to die, a Pinellas County circuit judge has ruled that the death penalty cannot be pursued in a first-degree murder case scheduled for trial next month.
In an order filed Friday, judge Michael Andrews rejected prosecutors' notice that they intend to seek the death penalty in the case of a Pinellas Park father, Steven Dykes, accused of fatally shaking and striking his 3-month-old daughter in February of last year. "This court concludes that there currently exists no death penalty in the State of Florida in that there is no procedure in place," Andrews wrote.
The order is the first of its kind in the state following the Hurst vs. Florida decision on Jan. 12, said Pinellas-Pasco public defender Bob Dillinger. In an 8-1 opinion, the Supreme Court found Florida's death penalty procedures unconstitutional because juries play only an advisory role in recommending life or death. Judges make the ultimate decision after giving "great weight" to jurors' recommendations....
Dillinger, whose office is representing Dykes, said he agreed with Andrews' ruling. "What the judge has done is absolutely correct," Dillinger said, adding Andrews is "right on point."
Prosecutors could file an appeal in the case. Another hearing is scheduled on Feb. 16, court records show, with the trial slated to begin Feb. 29. Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said his office "respectfully" disagrees with judge Andrews, adding that the Hurst decision is not final yet. That will happen after the state asks for a rehearing. Bartlett also said the Legislature still has to create new sentencing guidelines in response to the court's decision.
"They issue an opinion and they don't issue any guidelines on how to fix it, and what to do next," Bartlett said of the Hurst opinion. "It's just a dilemma that faces us because the question is how exactly do you fix it? And they didn't really lay out how they thought it should be fixed, so it kind of lends you to, you know, potentially all kinds of challenges."
Lawmakers have previously said that they are making fixes to the death penalty sentencing system a priority this session. "It's not the Supreme Court's job to lay out the procedural guidelines," said Charles Rose, a Stetson University law professor and the director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy. "That's an issue for every legislature in every state to deal with independently."
The fate of other murder cases remains in flux until new sentencing guidelines are signed into law, said St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer Marc Pelletier. "Until the Legislature does its part," he said, "we're still going to be in a situation where everything's unclear."...
[L]aw experts across the state agreed with Andrews' order. "The judge has it absolutely right," said Teresa Reid, a University of Florida Levin College of Law professor and assistant director of the Criminal Justice Center. "You need to have a statute in place regarding sentencing, and we don't have that right now."
She said that the judge's responsibility is to make sure the trial is fair and is conducted under law. "It seems to me the appropriate thing to do is wait," she said. "We can't proceed when we don't have the procedure in place."
Rose, the Stetson law professor, said the decision "makes perfect sense." "Judge Andrews should be commended for doing what the law requires," he said. "It's not only sound, it's courageous because he's the first to step out on the ledge on this issue."
Rose predicted that judges across the state would and should follow suit. "My expectation is that there won't be any new death penalty cases tried," he said.
Prior related posts on Hurst and its aftermath:
- SCOTUS strikes down Florida's capital sentencing scheme based on Sixth Amendment
- A few (too) quick thoughts on the post-Hurst hydra
- Florida Supreme Court wasting no time trying to figure out impact of Hurst
- Early accounts of the developing post-Hurst hydra for past and present capital cases in Florida
Maine Gov calls for return of death penalty to state for drug dealers and others
This notable recent local article, headlined "Maine should have death penalty for drug dealers, LePage says," reports on some notable recent comments by the chief executive in the Pine Tree state. Here is how the piece starts:
Gov. Paul LePage came out Tuesday in support of reinstating capital punishment in Maine. After starting his day with an apparent joking reference to using the guillotine to stage public executions of drug traffickers, he ended it by saying he believes in the death penalty for drug traffickers, criminals who invade homes and sexually assault the residents, and people convicted of murder.
“What we ought to do is bring the guillotine back,” LePage said during a morning interview on WVOM radio in Bangor. “We could have public executions.” The Governor’s Office said the remark was just a joke to illustrate his support for tougher penalties for drug crimes.
On Tuesday night, LePage was asked whether he supported the death penalty, specifically using the guillotine, during a town hall meeting at Husson University in Bangor broadcast by WVII-TV. “I talk about people dying (from drug overdoses) every day, but no one wants to hear that,” LePage told the audience. “When I talk about the death penalty everyone wants to protect the drug traffickers. I want to protect the people of Maine.”
The death penalty was abolished in Maine by the Legislature in 1887. His comments about the guillotine, made just a few weeks after he made national headlines with a remark about drug traffickers coming to Maine and impregnating a young white girl before they leave the state, were picked up by several national media outlets, including CNN and The Washington Post.
“The only time Maine makes the national news is when the governor says something crazy like this,” said Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan. McCabe said such remarks produce a “spectacle,” but do little to solve the issue of ending the drug epidemic.
Monday, January 25, 2016
Do SCOTUS watchers really expect the Justices to take up the basic constitutionality of the death penalty soon?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article from The Hill reporting on the Supreme Court's denial of cert in a Pennsylvania case involving a blanket Eighth Amendment attack on the death penalty. Here is the article's discussion of the matter:
The Supreme Court announced [today] that it would not hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty. The appeal was filed on behalf of Shonda Walters, who was sentenced to death in May 2006 for murdering her next door neighbor with a hatchet and stealing his car.
The U.S. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for the Eastern District upheld the lower court’s death sentence, saying the court found the evidence sufficient to support her conviction for first-degree murder. In appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, Walters asked the justices to weigh in on whether the imposition of the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court did not give any statement supporting or dissenting from its decision to reject the case.
Court watchers have been expecting the justices to take up the constitutionality of the death penalty in light of a dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer last year. Experts said Breyer’s dissent provided a blueprint for a broad challenge to capital punishment.... The court appears to be waiting for the right case to weigh in. The case that was declined on Monday is Walter v. Pennsylvania.
I know that a lot of folks eager to have the death penalty completely abolished in the United States are ever hopeful, especially in the wake of Justice Breyer's Glossip dissent, that the Supreme Court will consider anew a wholesale Eighth Amendment challenge to any and every death sentence. But I have always considered quite significant the fact that Justice Breyer's dissent in Glossip was joined by only one other Justice; moreover, just last week every member of the Court except Justice Sotomayor voted to reinstate a number of Kansas death sentences as consistent with the Eighth Amendment (as blogged here).
I fully understand why Justice Breyer's dissent in Glossip is now prompting many capital defense attorneys to raise and seek to preserve an Eighth Amendment broadside attack on the death sentence given to his or her client. But, especially after the Supreme Court's most recent capital case work from Kansas and elsewhere, I am one "court watcher" who does not expect this kind of claim to be taken up by the Justices anytime soon.
Friday, January 22, 2016
Over dissent of Justice Breyer, Alabama goes forward with its first execution in years
As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Alabama executes Christopher Eugene Brooks for 1992 murder of Jo Deann Campbell," Alabama got its capital punishment tide rolling again last night. Here are some of the details:
Alabama death row inmate Christopher Eugene Brooks was executed Thursday night for the 1992 slaying of a Homewood woman after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his request for a stay of execution.
Brooks was pronounced dead at 6:38 p.m. in the execution chamber at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. He was the 57th death row inmate executed in Alabama since executions resumed in 1983 after an unofficial more than decade-long nationwide moratorium ended. He was the first person executed in Alabama since 2013....
After the execution Alabama Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the execution with the controversial sedative drug midazolam "went exactly as planned." Brooks did not appear to struggle during the administration of the drugs. His attorneys and other inmates had claimed the first drug in the cocktail does not put the condemned inmate in deep enough sleep to prevent pain when the other two drugs are administered. Dunn said that there are no other executions currently planned, but the prison system does have the drugs available to conduct more. He said the same drug combination has been used in other states.
Dunn also read letters from victim Jo Deann Campbell's two sisters and mother, all of whom witnessed the execution. Mona Campbell, her mother, said the execution does not give her closure and will not bring back her youngest daughter. She said she hoped Brooks had "made peace with God." Jo Deann's sister, Fran Romano and Corinne Campbell also issued statements. "Just as God forgives me for my sins I pray for mercy for this man's soul," Corinne wrote....
Minutes before he was to die, word spread that the U.S. Supreme Court had denied Brook's request to stay the execution. Justice Stephen Breyer dissented from the ruling. Dunn said prison officials were notified of the justices' decision at 5:55 p.m., five minutes before the execution was scheduled to begin.... The request for the stay was made to Justice Clarence Thomas. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred with Thomas' decision to deny the stay.
Brooks, 43, was convicted in the December 1992 rape and murder of 23-year-old Jo Deann Campbell. Investigators linked Brooks to the crime through DNA, fingerprints, and Campbell's car and other items taken from her Homewood apartment, including a credit card he had used. Her partially clothed body had been found under her bed and she had been beaten with a barbell.
Brooks was one of 187 inmates on Alabama Death Row. Twenty-two have served longer than Brooks on death row. Alabama changed its drug combination for executions in 2014 after it and other states reported they could no longer find supplies of the drugs it had used in the past, mainly because manufacturers did not want their drugs used in executions.
The SCOTUS order denying a stay in this case is available at this link, and here is the text of the concurrence and dissent:
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR, with whom JUSTICE GINSBURG joins, concurring in the denial of certiorari.
This Court’s opinion upholding Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme was based on Hildwin v. Florida, 490 U. S. 638 (1989) (per curiam), and Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U. S. 447 (1984), two decisions we recently overruled in Hurst v. Florida, 577 U. S. ___ (2016). See Harris v. Alabama, 513 U. S. 504 (1995). I nonetheless vote to deny certiorari in this particular case because I believe procedural obstacles would have prevented us from granting relief.
JUSTICE BREYER, dissenting from denial of application for stay of execution and petition for certiorari.
Christopher Eugene Brooks was sentenced to death in accordance with Alabama’s procedures, which allow a jury to render an “advisory verdict” that “is not binding on the court.” Ala. Code §13A–5–47(e) (2006). For the reasons explained in my opinions concurring in the judgment in Hurst v. Florida, ante, at 1, and Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584, 613–619 (2002), and my dissenting opinion in Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U. S. 348, 358–366 (2004), I dissent from the order of the Court to deny the application for stay of execution and the petition for a writ of certiorari. Moreover, we have recognized that Alabama’s sentencing scheme is “much like” and “based on Florida’s sentencing scheme.” Harris v. Alabama, 513 U. S. 504, 508 (1995). Florida’s scheme is unconstitutional. See Hurst, ante, at 1 (BREYER, J., concurring in judgment). The unfairness inherent in treating this case differently from others which used similarly unconstitutional procedures only underscores the need to reconsider the validity of capital punishment under the Eighth Amendment. See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 1–2). I respectfully dissent.
Thursday, January 21, 2016
"Pulling Leviathan's Teeth – The Political Economy of Death Penalty Abolition"
The title of this post is the title of this provocative new article available via SSRN authored by Jerg Gutmann. Here is the abstract:
It is not immediately apparent why a state would willingly abolish the death penalty and thereby lose a powerful political instrument. The fact that some states abolish capital punishment while others retain it has thus far been explained by systematic differences in the values of politicians or citizens. An explanation of different behavior based on different preferences for such behavior is, however, largely tautological and not of much use to social science.
This article proposes and empirically tests a political economy model in which rational politicians are more likely to abolish the death penalty when it is of no political use to them and if the process of abolition serves as a self-commitment in periods of transition. The results of estimating stratified Cox regression models show that the death penalty tends to be abolished particularly during periods of democratization and transitions to peace, but also that independence of the judiciary can encourage abolition. In contrast, military dictatorships are significantly more likely to retain capital punishment, as are countries with a common law legal system and those that are strongly politically influenced by Islam. These findings support the view that the abolition of capital punishment is at least partly motivated by rational political considerations.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Supreme Court, reversing Kansas Supreme Court, finds no Eighth Amendment problems with Kansas capital procedures
Continuing to do significant capital sentencing procedure work at the start of 2016, the Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion rejecting Eighth Amendment concerns with the way Kansas has imposed some capital sentences. The opinion of the Court in Kansas v. Carr, No. 14-449 (S. Ct. Jan. 20, 2016) (available here), authored by Justice Scalia and joined by every Justice except Justice Sotomayor, is at times quite nuanced in its analysis and at times quite crisp. Here are excerpts from the start and body of the opinion highlighting these realities:
The Supreme Court of Kansas vacated the death sentences of Sidney Gleason and brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr. Gleason killed one of his co-conspirators and her boyfriend to cover up the robbery of an elderly man. The Carrs’ notorious Wichita crime spree culminated in the brutal rape, robbery, kidnaping, and execution-style shooting of five young men and women. We first consider whether the Constitution required the sentencing courts to instruct the juries that mitigating circumstances “need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” And second, whether the Constitution required severance of the Carrs’ joint sentencing proceedings....
As an initial matter, the defendants’ argument rests on the assumption that it would be unconstitutional to require the defense to prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. Assuming without deciding that that is the case, the record belies the defendants’ contention that the instructions caused jurors to apply that standard of proof....
Not once do the instructions say that defense counsel bears the burden of proving the facts constituting a mitigating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt — nor would that make much sense, since one of the mitigating circumstances is (curiously) “mercy,” which simply is not a factual determination.....
The instructions repeatedly told the jurors to consider any mitigating factor, meaning any aspect of the defendants’ background or the circumstances of their offense. Jurors would not have misunderstood these instructions to prevent their consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence....
Whatever the merits of defendants’ procedural objections [about a joint sentencing], we will not shoehorn them into the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.” As the United States as amicus curiae intimates, the Eighth Amendment is inapposite when each defendant’s claim is, at bottom, that the jury considered evidence that would not have been admitted in a severed proceeding, and that the joint trial clouded the jury’s consideration of mitigating evidence like “mercy.” Brief for United States 24, n. 8. As we held in Romano v. Oklahoma, 512 U. S. 1 (1994), it is not the role of the Eighth Amendment to establish a special “federal code of evidence” governing “the admissibility of evidence at capital sentencing proceedings.” Id., at 11–12. Rather, it is the Due Process Clause that wards off the introduction of “unduly prejudicial” evidence that would “rende[r] the trial fundamentally unfair.” Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U. S. 808, 825 (1991); see also Brown v. Sanders, 546 U. S. 212, 220–221 (2006).
The test prescribed by Romano for a constitutional violation attributable to evidence improperly admitted at a capital-sentencing proceeding is whether the evidence “so infected the sentencing proceeding with unfairness as to render the jury’s imposition of the death penalty a denial of due process.” 512 U. S., at 12. The mere admission of evidence that might not otherwise have been admitted in a severed proceeding does not demand the automatic vacatur of a death sentence.
In light of all the evidence presented at the guilt and penalty phases relevant to the jury’s sentencing determination, the contention that the admission of mitigating evidence by one brother could have “so infected” the jury’s consideration of the other’s sentence as to amount to a denial of due process is beyond the pale.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Early accounts of the developing post-Hurst hydra for past and present capital cases in Florida
In this post last week not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what will likely be multi-headed, snake-like litigation that will develop in various ways in various Florida courts as both state and federal judges try to make sense of just what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases.
Not surprisingly, as reported in these two new local articles, courts, lawyers and experts are already puzzled by the situation that SCOTUS has now handed them:
From the Orando Sentinel here, "Florida death penalty experts disagree on who will be spared execution"
From the Florida Times-Union here, "Courts face dilemma with Donald Smith and other death-penalty cases coming up after Supreme Court ruling"
As these capital cases are sure to unfold in hard-to-predict ways in the weeks and months ahead, I cannot help but be especially sympathetic to the difficult position in which Florida's prosecutors and the families of victims of capital murderers now find themselves in. Until the Florida legislature enacts a Hurst fix, and likely long thereafter, so many of the worst-of-the-worst murder cases are going to be in a legal limbo that will make hard cases for prosecutors and hard times for families only that much harder.
Prior related posts:
- SCOTUS strikes down Florida's capital sentencing scheme based on Sixth Amendment
- A few (too) quick thoughts on the post-Hurst hydra
- Florida Supreme Court wasting no time trying to figure out impact of Hurst
Saturday, January 16, 2016
"The End of the Death Penalty Isn't Near"
The title of this post is the title of this recent column by Noah Feldman for Bloomberg View, which is actually mostly focused on various votes by various Justices in this past week's ruling in Hurst v. Florida. Here are excerpts:
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty Tuesday, but if you think this is a harbinger of the end of capital punishment, think again. The 8-1 decision was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who have no intention of ever ruling death sentences unconstitutional as a general matter. The reason these archconservatives held Florida’s death-penalty system unconstitutional was highly specific. The state gave a judge, not a jury, final authority to decide facts that would determine a capital sentence.
This arrangement violated a principle that Scalia and Thomas adopted in 2000 as part of their goal to strike down federal sentencing guidelines. According to that principle, any fact that’s necessary to increase a defendant’s punishment must be submitted to the jury for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The Florida structure didn’t satisfy that requirement, the court held. So Scalia and Thomas had no choice but to join the opinion....
In case you’re wondering if Scalia and Thomas are somehow softening, proof to the contrary may be gleaned from the fact that last week, the court refused to stay the execution of a Florida death row inmate. Ordinarily, if the court knew that a forthcoming opinion would save a defendant’s life, it would issue a stay — a decision that requires five justices.
The court didn’t give a reason for refusing the stay. But the defendant, Oscar Ray Bolin Jr., had waived the jury’s part of the process at his 2001 trial and chosen to go straight to the judge for sentencing. Thus, the court could’ve concluded that he wouldn’t have benefited from the constitutional rule requiring submission of facts to the jury. You’re entitled to waive your constitutional rights, and five of the justices must’ve thought that Bolin would’ve done so even if he’d known he had the right to demand a jury finding.
And what about Breyer? He still hasn’t given up on the constitutionality of the sentencing guidelines. He concurred separately in the Florida case to explain that he still doesn’t think that facts enhancing punishment must be submitted to a jury. He gave a different reason for striking down the sentence, namely that the death penalty in particular must be decided by a jury, not a judge.
The upshot is that the Florida case wasn’t about the death penalty for Scalia and Thomas — it was about the old fight over the sentencing guidelines, which Breyer hasn’t forgotten either.
Prior related postson Hurst:
- SCOTUS strikes down Florida's capital sentencing scheme based on Sixth Amendment
- A few (too) quick thoughts on the post-Hurst hydra
- Florida Supreme Court wasting no time trying to figure impact of Hurst
Friday, January 15, 2016
Intriguing new poll on 2016 Californian perspectives on the death penalty
This local article, headlined "Poll: California death penalty is toss-up for voters," reports on a notable new poll of a notable group of state voters on an issue that often garners national attention. Here are the basics:
Opposition to capital punishment continues to rise in California, a new Field Poll released Friday shows, with state voters now equally divided between scrapping the death penalty altogether and speeding up the path to executing inmates on the nation's largest death row.
The poll found that 47 percent of voters favor replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole in California, up from 40 percent in 2014. But at the same time, the poll shows that 48 percent of registered voters would support proposals to accelerate the state's notoriously slow system of resolving death penalty appeals to pick up the pace of executions.
California voters are likely to be confronted with those two issues on the November ballot. Death penalty opponents are preparing a measure that would abolish California executions, while advocates of capital punishment are proposing a conflicting measure to reform and speed up the death penalty system....
Voters in 2012 rejected the last effort to abolish California's death penalty by a 52 to 48 percent margin. If voters were to approve both measures in November, the one with the most votes would settle the death penalty question in California for now, according to both campaigns.
"I think the public really wants some action," said San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos, among the leaders of the measure to speed up the process. "We are either going to fix the death penalty or it's going away in California."
Support for such a measure, which includes shortening the timetable for the California Supreme Court to resolve death penalty appeals, has dropped since 2014, according to the Field Poll. At that time, 52 percent of state voters backed efforts to accelerate death penalty cases, four percent above the most recent poll.
California has not executed an inmate in nearly ten years as a result of legal challenges to the state's lethal injection method, leaving 750 inmates on death row whose state and federal appeals now take decades to resolve. National polls have also shown dropping support for the death penalty, which remains on the books in 30 other states.
Thursday, January 14, 2016
Is there any chance any domestic criminal justice issue gets any attention during tonight's GOP debate?
The first big Prez debate of this big Prez election year takes place in South Carolina, and I am already assuming that any number of notable and important domestic criminal justice issues will be largely forgotten as GOP candidates spar again over the now-standard debate topics of immigration, ISIS and terrorism, and economic development. Still, as this new Marshall Project piece highlights, the location of the GOP debate tonight was the site of a high-profile mass shooting, and that reality might perhaps enhance the (slim) odds we get a question or two about the death penalty or gun violence or the racial dynamics of crime, policing and punishment. The MP piece is titled "Republican Candidates on Criminal Justice: A Primer," and here is how it sets up a review of what the GOP candidates in the prime-time debate have said so far on the campaign trail about these issues:
Race. Guns. The Death Penalty.
If these issues resounded anywhere in the past year, it was in Charleston, S.C., where Dylann Roof shot and killed nine parishioners in a Bible study class in one of the oldest black churches in the South. The June massacre, apparently propelled by the gunman’s white supremacist views and coming amid a spate of killings of blacks by the police around the country, underscored a plaintive question being asked more and more: Do black lives matter?
Thursday night, Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for president gather in Charleston for their sixth televised debate, less than three weeks before their first big contest, the Iowa caucuses. In the weeks after the killings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the South Carolina Legislature finally confronted the racially divisive symbol of secession, the Confederate battle flag, and ordered it removed from the state house grounds. But questions of race, guns and the death penalty have only intensified nationally since then. Here’s how the candidates (listed in alphabetical order) stand on some of those issues, as reviewed by The Marshall Project.
Florida Supreme Court wasting no time trying to figure impact of Hurst
This new article by Chris Geidner for BuzzFeed News reports that the top court in the Sunshine State is asking lawyers to sort out ASAP the dark death penalty clouds that the Supreme Court created with its ruling earlier this week in Hurst finding unconstitutional the process Florida uses for imposing death sentences. The article is headlined "Florida Supreme Court Orders State To Address Death Sentencing Ruling’s Effect By Friday," and here are excerpts:
The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered state officials there to address questions by Friday about the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down the state’s death sentencing law on a man due to be executed in less than a month. The brief order from the Florida high court came in the case of Cary Michael Lambrix, who currently is scheduled to be executed on Feb. 11. On Jan. 11, his lawyers had filed a petition for relief based on a similar argument to that made by Timothy Hurst at the U.S. Supreme Court.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 12 in Hurst’s case that Florida’s death sentencing law was unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment because it violated the right to a jury by making the imposition of a death sentence the responsibility of a judge and not a jury, the Florida Supreme Court amended its order in Lambrix’s case. Lambrix was convicted and sentenced to death in 1984 for the murders of Clarence Moore and Aleisha Bryant....
Specifically, the state is ordered to address whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision should apply retroactively to past death sentences in Florida, how Hurst applies given the specific facts of Lambrix’s sentencing, and whether any error in Lambrix’s case should be viewed as harmless.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
A few (too) quick thoughts on the post-Hurst hydra
As reported in this post, the Supreme Court via Hurst finally clarified today what most sensible folks long argued, namely that Florida's death penalty procedures have Sixth Amendment problems in light of the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling striking down Arizona's similar judge-dependent system in Ring v. Arizona. Kent Schneidegger in this post at Crime & Consequences highlights why this was not really a surprise and why what's next is the interesting issue now to follow:
Most of the states with similar systems went with jury verdicts on both the aggravating circumstance and the final sentencing decision, although Nebraska kept a hybrid system where the jury finds the circumstance and three judges find the sentence.
The Florida Legislature foolishly stuck with its system, hoping that the courts would find it distinguishable from the Arizona system struck down in Ring. I tried to tell them that was insane. They didn't listen. Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided 7-1-1 in Hurst v. Florida that the Florida system does indeed violate Ring.
How many of the existing judgments can be salvaged? The Supreme Court said it left harmless error analysis to the state courts. In many cases, a jury verdict on a concurrent or prior crime can establish an aggravating circumstance. Today's decision will be fully retroactive for cases on direct appeal, but its application to cases on collateral review is uncertain.
The first thing the Florida Legislature needs to do is fix its system. And do it right this time.
Before turning to what Hurst may mean for the roughly 400 persons now on death row in Florida, I must first note that the two Floridians currently running to be US Prez should both be held responsible for the capital mess Florida now finds itself in. Jeb Bush was Gov of Florida when Ring was decided, and Marco Rubio was in the state legislature (and was not long thereafter to become Speaker of the Florida House). I hope that anyone troubled by the mess that Hurst creates for Florida's criminal justice system will direct some of their frustration to (and ask some hard questions of) this Sunshine State pair.
As for the mess that Hurst will create, I am coining the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what will likely be multi-headed, snake-like litigation that will grow and grow again in Florida's courts (both state and federal). Whether the Sixth Amendment can be deemed harmless in some cases on direct appeal and whether/how Hurst will be applied retroactively in collateral cases — e.g., is Hurst a new rule or just an application of Ring? — is sure to engender some interesting mythology-like discussions in state and federal courts in the months ahead.
Also, not to be overlooked as we take stock of the post-Hurst world, is whether any other states' capital systems might be subject to another round of procedural attack now. Alabama comes to mind because some of its nearly 200 death sentences were imposed via jury override by sentencing judges, though I am not sure if any of these are formally based on the judicial fact-finding found unconstitutional in Ring and Hurst. Similarly, it seems likely that creative capital defense lawyers will find creative ways to attack other death sentences in other jurisdictions based on something in Hurst.
Prior related post:
SCOTUS strikes down Florida's capital sentencing scheme based on Sixth Amendment
The big news from SCOTUS this morning was a big (and notably short) ruling declaring unconstitutionally Florida's death penalty procedure via Hurst v. Florida, No. 14–7505 (S. Ct. Jan. 12, 2015) (available here). Here is how the opinion of Justice Sotomayor for the Court gets started and ends:
A Florida jury convicted Timothy Lee Hurst of murdering his co-worker, Cynthia Harrison. A penalty-phase jury recommended that Hurst’s judge impose a death sentence. Notwithstanding this recommendation, Florida law required the judge to hold a separate hearing and determinewhether sufficient aggravating circumstances existed tojustify imposing the death penalty. The judge so found and sentenced Hurst to death.
We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional. The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough....
The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury. This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s fact-finding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.
Six Justices joined in Justice Sotomayor's opinion, and SCOTUS-watchers ought to have little trouble figuring out which justice concurred only in the result and which Justice dissented.
"Could One of These Cases Spell the End of the Death Penalty?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Marshall Project piece. Here is how it starts, with links from the original:
Last June, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the death penalty might be close to its ultimate demise. “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time,” he wrote in a dissent toGlossip v. Gross, to which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added her name, “I would ask for a full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”
Attorneys for death-row inmates, generally a tight-knit group, immediately started talking about what to do next. While some urged caution — arguing that if the court upholds capital punishment it could set their cause back indefinitely — others sensed a rare opportunity. The most outspoken advocates for a more aggressive strategy have been the 8th Amendment Project, a group of lawyers who oppose the death penalty and are tracking cases that might allow the court to strike it down for good.
On Friday, the high court will discuss whether to hear a challenge to the death sentence of a Pennsylvania woman named Shonda Walter. Her case is one of several posed as direct responses to Breyer’s invitation to attack the death penalty head-on.
There is no way to know whether the justices will take any of these cases; for the court to take a case, four justices must agree, and aside from Breyer and Ginsburg, no other justices have indicated their views on whether to take such a challenge. If they do take a case, there is also no way of knowing which one they will position as the next potential landmark, the next Brownor Miranda or Roe. But each of those historic cases was preceded by numerous appeals of the sort that are now reaching the court. Death penalty abolitionists are braiding the details of these cases to the legal arguments they believe have the best shot at swaying the court.