Monday, February 09, 2015

"In praise of the firing squad"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Post commentary by Radley Balko. Here are excerpts:

[F]rankly, if we insist on executing people, the firing squad may be the best option. Before I explain why, I’ll first disclose that I’m opposed to the death penalty, and I have no doubt that my opposition to state-sanctioned killing influences my opinions on which method of execution we ought to use.  So read the rest of this post with that in mind.

If you support the death penalty, the most obvious benefit of the firing squad is that unlike lethal injection drugs, correctional institutions are never going to run out of bullets. And if they do, more bullets won’t be very difficult to find. Ammunition companies aren’t susceptible to pressure from anti-death penalty activists, at least not to the degree a pharmaceutical company might be.  This would actually remove a barrier to more efficient executions. As someone who would like to see executions eliminated entirely, I don’t personally see this as a benefit.  But death penalty supporters might. And there are other benefits to the firing squad, benefits that I think people on both sides of the issue can appreciate.

Traditional lethal injection is more humane if you consider the humanity of the procedure from the perspective of everyone except the person being executed. There is now a storm of controversy about the procedure because those botched executions last year produced some really gruesome images, which were then relayed to the public by witnesses. Had the condemned men in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona suffered the same pain and agony, but under the cloak of a more thorough paralytic, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. We consider a method of execution humane if it doesn’t make us uncomfortable to hear or read about it. What the condemned actually experience during the procedure is largely irrelevant. The lethal injection likely became the most common form of execution in the United States because it makes a state killing resemble a medical procedure. Not only doesn’t it weird us out, it’s almost comforting.

By contrast, the firing squad is violent and archaic, and judging by the reaction to the bills in Utah and Wyoming, it most certainly does weird a lot of people out. And yet in only the way that should matter, the firing squad is likely more humane than the lethal injection....

This sets up a final argument in favor of the firing squad: There is no mistaking what it is. There are no IVs, needles, cotton swabs or other accoutrements more commonly associated with healing. When we hear about an execution on the news, we won’t hear about an inmate slowly drifting off to sleep. We’ll hear about guns and bullets. Killing is an act of violence. That’s what witnesses will see, and that’s what the reports will tell us has happened. If we’re going to permit the government to kill on our behalf, we should own what we’re doing.

This is where a critic might argue that as a death penalty opponent, I’m merely arguing for the method of execution that I think is most likely to turn people off to the death penalty.  I’ll be honest: I hope that’s what will happen. I hope that when confronted with a method of execution that’s less opaque about what’s actually transpiring, more of us will come to realize that we no longer need capital punishment.  But I’m not particularly optimistic that will happen. I suspect that there’s a strong segment of the public (and probably a majority) that will support the death penalty no matter how we carry out executions.

Regardless of its impact on the death penalty debate, if we must continue to execute people, the firing squad has a lot to offer.  It isn’t just the most humane form of execution now realistically under consideration, it is the most humane from the correct perspective — the experience of the condemned.  It brings no concerns about the supply of execution materials.  It raises no issues about medical ethics — it doesn’t blur the lines between healing and hurting.  It’s honest.  It’s transparent.  And it is appropriately violent.

February 9, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 05, 2015

More than three decades after crime, SCOTUS decides it still needs to stay Texas mass murderer execution

As reported in this AP piece (with my emphasis added), a "Texas inmate set to be executed next week for fatally shooting four men at an airplane hangar more than 30 years ago won a reprieve Thursday from the U.S. Supreme Court."  Here are the details:

Lester Bower Jr., 67, among the longest-serving Texas death row inmates, had been scheduled for lethal injection Tuesday. The justices gave no reason for the reprieve, saying only that it would be lifted automatically if they deny an appeal or act on it.

Bower was convicted in the October 1983 deaths at a Grayson County ranch about 60 miles north of Dallas. Authorities found parts from a small ultralight airplane at the hangar at his home in Arlington, a Dallas suburb. Prosecutors also tied unusual Italian-made .22-caliber bullets used in the slayings to similar ammunition purchased by Bower, a federally licensed gun dealer.

In their appeal to the high court, Bower's lawyers said jurors who decided on his death sentence had faulty instructions that didn't allow them to consider mitigating circumstances that he had no criminal record, was a married father of two, college educated and employed as a chemical salesman.

Since his 1984 trial, court rulings have refined instructions to Texas capital murder trial juries to account for mitigating circumstances. Several condemned inmates from that era - but not Bower - have received new court-ordered punishment trials. Bower's attorneys also contended that prosecutors misstated the rarity of the fatal bullets, and that his long time on death row and numerous rescheduled execution dates amount to unconstitutional suffering.

State attorneys argued that courts have rejected appeals about the jury instructions, that information about the bullets was available at the time of his trial and that Bower's lawyers' persistent appeals account for the lengthy case. "Any delay is purely of his own making," Stephen Hoffman, an assistant Texas attorney general, told the justices in a filing this week....

Those killed were building contractor Bob Tate, 51; Grayson County Sheriff's Deputy Philip Good, 29; Jerry Brown, 52, an interior designer; and Ronald Mayes, 39, a former Sherman police officer. Good's wife, Marlene Bushard, said the delay was "very frustrating since we were so close."

"I am hoping once this is done he will be out of options, we can get another death warrant and end this," she said in an email.

As this timeline of products reveals, over the last 30 years Apple has been able to go from its Apple IIe personal computer to a modern (multi-generation) iPhone and iPad and iMac, and the latest Apple machines now put more computing power into our hands than NASA had at its disposal in the early 1980s.  Meanwhile during this same period, our legal system has been unable to conclusively determine whether a Texas mass murderer was lawfully sentenced to death. Hmmm.

February 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Highlighting (already extraordinary) costs of seeking to put Aurora killer on death row

This lengthy new Yahoo News article, headlined "Cost of Colorado theater shooting case exceeds $5 million months before opening arguments," details how much Colorado taxpayers are paying for prosecutors' efforts to get James Holmes on death row. Here are some of the details:

The criminal court case against Colorado theater gunman James Holmes has already absorbed at least $5.5 million in public monies, according to records obtained by Yahoo News. That’s $2 million more than the estimated average cost of a completed Colorado death penalty trial — and the contentious Holmes proceeding is still months away from opening arguments....

Holmes first appeared in court on July 23, 2012, three days after police say he assailed a packed suburban Denver movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring 70, as they were watching a midnight showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.” In the two and a half years since that initial court appearance, primary personnel involved with the case — prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judge, court reporter, trial investigators and victims’ advocates for the district attorney — have been paid approximately $4.5 million.

A spokeswoman for the Arapahoe County district attorney said only one prosecutor has been dedicated to the Holmes case full time. But legal observers say a proceeding already involving nearly 1,700 motions, orders and hearings — with possibly hundreds of witnesses expected to testify at trial — would require the undivided attention of a team of lawyers.

Other top expenses so far include $463,000 on additional security from July 2012 through the end of 2014. Experts hired by the prosecution have received more than $220,000 to date. More than $90,000 was used to install a closed-circuit television system in the courtroom. It cost $20,000 to print 9,000 juror notices and questionnaires....

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity — his lawyers say he was in the throes of a psychotic episode at the time. Twice the judge has ordered him to be transferred to a state hospital for testing to determine if he was mentally capable of understanding the crime he committed. A court spokesman said invoices for the exams have not been received....

Holmes offered to forfeit the costly trial in March 2013 for life in prison without parole if he could avoid the death penalty. Prosecutors, however, strongly rejected any notion of a pending deal, saying the defense had refused to give them the information they wanted to evaluate the plea agreement.

“It is my determination and my intention that in this case, for James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said in court.

Holmes is charged with 166 counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. Opening arguments through sentencing could last four to six months — which itself will cost the court $137,000 to $205,000 in juror pay (the 24, including alternates, earn $50 a day)....

As for Holmes, his heavily redacted application for a public defender was approved the same day as the massacre. It was signed by Daniel King, one of his lead attorneys, who currently earns $165,756 and may be eligible for a raise just as the trial gets going. Under state law, Holmes could be ordered to pay a $25 processing fee after the verdict.

February 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 01, 2015

"Should Veterans With PTSD Be Exempt From the Death Penalty?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece from The Atlantic. Here are excerpts:

PTSD is a severe mental disorder that can affect intellectual and adaptive functioning, trigger flashbacks to traumatic events, and impair one's judgment. As its name implies, it can develop after exposure to a life-threatening event.... About 20 percent of military personnel who served in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and up to 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans have experienced it in their lifetimes, according to National Center for PTSD statistics....

Despite the stigma attached to PTSD, the Department of Veterans Affairs emphasizes that most veterans suffering from the condition are not violent.... “Rambo is not the face of PTSD,” Paula Schnurr, executive director of the VA's National Center for PTSD, said in an interview with The Desert Sun. “It's extremely important that we recognize that the majority of people with PTSD don't engage in criminal and violent actions.”

The risk of criminal behavior isn’t necessarily higher among combat veterans than with civilians, according to mental health experts. "I am unaware of data showing that people with PTSD are more violent than other people," Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in Harvard University's psychology department, told Reuters.

But some legal scholars and mental health experts suggest the criminal justice system should treat convicted veterans suffering from war trauma differently than other criminals. In a 2009 Fordham Law Review article, Anthony Giardino, an attorney and former Marine, argued that veterans suffering from service-related PTSD and traumatic brain injuries should receive a categorical exemption from the death penalty. "If the death penalty is truly only for the worst offenders, justice requires that combat veterans suffering at the time of their offenses from service-related PTSD or TBI [traumatic brain injuries] not be executed or sentenced to death," he wrote....

Giardino isn’t alone in making this argument. Mental-health experts Hal S. Wortzel and David B. Arciniegas made a similar case for exempting veterans affected by war trauma from the death penalty. Military training and combat, combined with traumatic experiences, may have an impact on aggression and behavioral control, the authors said in a 2010 article....

It's difficult for the legal system to truly grasp what veterans with PTSD have experienced. This lack of empathy is a key obstacle to change.... Until society realizes how combat can change service members, the fate of capital defendants with combat PTSD will remain an open question.

February 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 31, 2015

After adopting new execution drug laws, Ohio delays all executions for additional year

As explained in this AP article, a full year after Ohio had difficulties executing Dennis McGuire and a month after the state enacted new execution laws, Ohio officials decided to kick the execution can another year down the road by rescheduling all 2015 scheduled executions.  Here are the details:

The state on Friday rescheduled executions for seven death row inmates as it tries to find new lethal drugs, meaning no inmate will be put to death in Ohio in 2015.  The announcement affects six executions this year, including one set for Feb. 11 for condemned child killer Ronald Phillips, and one previously scheduled for 2016 that was pushed farther back.

The move, which was expected, follows a federal judge's previous order delaying executions while the state puts a new execution policy in place, the state said.  The delays also allow the state time to find supplies of new drugs, according to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.  The new execution policy calls for Ohio to use drugs it doesn't have and has had difficulty obtaining in the past.

The delays mean that for the first time Ohio won't execute anyone in a calendar year since the state resumed putting inmates to death in 1999.  The state put one inmate to death last year and three in 2013.  A total of 11 executions are scheduled for 2016.  Under the revised schedule, the next execution is Jan. 21, 2016, when Phillips is scheduled to die for the 1993 rape and killing of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron.

 Tim Young, the state public defender, applauded the move, saying there was no need for executions "until we have answers to the numerous legal and medical questions posed by lethal injection."

Earlier this month, the state ditched its two-drug method after problematic executions in Ohio a year ago and Arizona in July.  Ohio's supplies of those drugs, midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, were already set to expire this year. Underscoring concerns about midazolam, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week ordered Oklahoma to postpone lethal injections executions using the drug until the court rules in a challenge involving midazolam.

Ohio's execution policy now calls for it to use versions of thiopental sodium or compounded pentobarbital, neither of which it has.  Death penalty experts question where Ohio would find supplies of thiopental sodium, saying it's no longer available in the U.S. and overseas imports would run afoul of importing bans.

Notably, before Ohio started having major problems with lethal injection protocols, the state had become one of the most active and effective states carrying out death sentences. The state completed nearly 50 executions from 2002 through 2012, and a few years in that period it was second only Texas in the number of executions completed. But lethal injection difficulties and litigation entailed that the state could carry out only three executions in 2013, only one in 2014 and now there will be none in 2015.

I expect that Ohio officials will be try pretty hard to get its machinery of death up and running again in 2016, and it is possible a Supreme Court decision about lethal injection protocols in Oklahoma might actually end up helping the state get its execution chamber back on line. But the 140 men and one woman now on Ohio's death row (and their lawyers) should be breathing a little easier today. And it now seems that much more likely that the majority of these murders will end up just dying in prison rather than be subject to an affirmative state killing.

January 31, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 29, 2015

With overwhelming public support, Japanese Justice Minister continues with capital punishment

As reported in this news article, "Japan is to continue applying the death penalty after over 80 percent of the country's population expressed their support for the measure, media Thursday cited Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa as saying."  Here is more:

A recent government survey revealed that 80.3 percent of respondents backed the death penalty, while 9.7 percent felt that it should be abolished.  Kamikawa termed the results as positive and said strict and careful measures would continue in this regard.

She said there was no intention of revising the current policy in the short term, despite having hinted at times the possibility of introducing life sentences for capital crimes. "Most people believe it is unavoidable for those who committed extremely malicious crimes to face (execution)," Kamikawa said, according to the Asahi daily newspaper.

Kamikawa also made a reference to the global trend against the death penalty and the petition by activists for Japan to end capital punishment.  "It is a problem associated with what country Japan should be, and it is (the Japanese people's) business," she said.

Eleven convicts have been executed since the current government took office in December 2012.  Japan, along with the US, is the only developed and democratic country that still imposes the death penalty.

I tend also to include India on a list of "developed and democratic country that still imposes the death penalty," but maybe some would dispute characterizing India as developed.

January 29, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"The Humane Death Penalty Charade"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

When the United States at last abandons the abhorrent practice of capital punishment, the early years of the 21st century will stand out as a peculiar period during which otherwise reasonable people hotly debated how to kill other people while inflicting the least amount of constitutionally acceptable pain.

The Supreme Court stepped back into this maelstrom on Friday, when it agreed to hear Warner v. Gross, a lawsuit brought by four Oklahoma deathrow inmates alleging that the state’s lethal­injection drug protocol puts them at risk of significant pain and suffering.

In accepting the case, the justices had to change its name.  The lead plaintiff, Charles Warner, was executed on Jan. 15 after the court, by a vote of 5-­to-­4, denied him a last­minute stay.  That may sound strange until you consider that while it takes only four justices to accept a case for argument, it takes five to stay an execution.  The case is now named for another inmate, Richard Glossip. (On Monday, the Oklahoma attorney general requested temporary stays of the impending executions of Mr. Glossip and the other two plaintiffs.)...

The justices have been here before.  They upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection in 2008.  But, since then, the battles over the practice have grown more warped.  Many drug makers now refuse to supply their products for killing, leaving states to experiment on their inmates with other drugs, often acquired under cover of official secrecy and administered by authorities with no medical training.  During a hearing last month on Oklahoma’s protocol, a state witness who testified that midazolam is effective appeared to rely on the website drugs.com, not scientific studies.  It would all be a laughable farce if it didn’t involve killing people.

There is disingenuousness on both sides.  Many who oppose the death penalty, this page included, are obviously not interested in identifying more “humane” methods of execution; the idea itself is a contradiction in terms.  Nor are many capital punishment supporters concerned with how much suffering a condemned person might endure in his final moments.  In the middle sit the armchair executioners who engage in macabre debates about the relative efficiency of, say, nitrogen gas.

It is time to dispense with the pretense of a pain­free death.  The act of killing itself is irredeemably brutal and violent. If the men on death row had painlessly killed their victims, that would not make their crimes any more tolerable.  When the killing is carried out by a state against its own citizens, it is beneath a people that aspire to call themselves civilized.

I love the phrase "armchair executioners," even though I could not help reacting with a classic "Taxi Driver" response.

Recent related posts:

January 27, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, January 26, 2015

The SCOTUS culture of death: "Execution Case Highlights the Power of One Vote"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this New York Times piece by Adam Liptak that highlights why the Supreme Court's decision on Friday to grant cert to review Oklahoma's execution protocol is so interesting and creates much death penalty drama for this coming week and the months ahead.  Here is how the piece starts:

There are nine justices on the Supreme Court.  It takes four votes to hear a case, but it takes five to stay an execution.

That can leave a lethal gap.  A death penalty case can be important enough to claim a spot on the court’s docket of perhaps 75 cases a year.  But the prisoner who brought it may not live to see the decision.

In agreeing on Friday to hear a challenge to the chemicals Oklahoma uses to execute condemned prisoners, the court brought fresh attention to the life-or-­death importance of a single vote.  The lead petitioner in Friday’s case, Charles F. Warner, was already dead. He was executed eight days earlier, after the Supreme Court refused to stay his execution. The vote was 5 to 4.

“What happened to Charles Warner was not an isolated glitch,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and the author of a new article on the court’s voting procedures in capital cases. “It was a typical, if high­-visibility, example of a systemic flaw in the machinery of justice that has gone unrepaired for far too long.”

The case the court agreed to hear used to be called Warner v. Gross, No. 14­7955.  On Friday, taking account of Mr. Warner’s death, the court changed it to Glossip v. Gross, No. 14­7955. It may change again.  The new lead petitioner, Richard Glossip, is scheduled to be executed on Thursday.  The other two petitioners in the case also have execution dates in coming weeks, all of them well before the court is expected to hear arguments in the case, in April.  

The Supreme Court did not say on Friday whether it would stay the other three executions. In a statement, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, made a pointed reference to the fact that it took only four votes to grant review.  He seemed to indicate that the state was prepared to proceed with the executions.

The petitioners’ lawyers will doubtless seek stays.  In Mr. Glossip’s case, they will have to act quickly.  How the court responds will illuminate the current vitality of its fitful commitment to a procedure it sometimes uses to bridge the voting gap: the “courtesy fifth” vote to stay executions.  Such votes are said to be available once the court makes a formal decision to grant review of a condemned prisoner’s case.

Recent related posts:

January 26, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

High-profile capital trials put spotlight on dynamics of death-qualification of jurors

This new AP story, headlined "Death-qualified' juror search slows marathon, theater cases," effectively reviews the distinct notable realities that attend jury selection in a capital case. Here are some excerpts:

One prospective juror was brutally frank when asked whether he could consider a sentence of life in prison for the man accused of bombing the Boston Marathon. "I would sentence him to death," he said, then added: "I can't imagine any evidence that would change how I feel about what happened."  Another prospective juror said he couldn't even consider the death penalty, telling the court, "I just can't kill another person."

The two men are on opposite sides of the capital punishment debate, but both unlikely to make it on the jury for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: to be seated for a death penalty case a juror must be willing — but not eager — to hand down a sentence of either life or death.

The process of finding "death qualified" jurors has slowed down jury selection in federal case against Tsarnaev, who is charged with setting off two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 during the 2013 marathon.  It is expected to do the same in the state trial of James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring 70 others in a suburban Denver movie theater in 2012.

The process is designed to weed out jurors who have strong feelings for or against the death penalty.  A 1985 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court said a juror can lawfully be excused if his views on the death penalty are so strong that they would prevent or substantially impair his ability to follow the law.

But death penalty opponents have long said the process is fundamentally unfair.  They argue that death-qualified juries do not represent a true cross-section of the community and are less likely to be sympathetic to the defense.  "You end up with a jury with less women, less blacks, less Democrats ... you end up with a jury that is skewed in ways that make it probably more conservative, more accepting of prosecution arguments, of state authority," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes executions.

The Capital Jury Project, a consortium of university researchers, interviewed about 1,200 jurors in 353 capital trials in 14 states beginning in the early 1990s.  The group's research has shown that death penalty juries are more likely to convict and that jurors often make up their minds about what punishment to hand down long before they're supposed to, said William Bowers, director of the project....

Death penalty opponents have argued that to get around this kind of pre-judgment, separate juries should be chosen to hear evidence in the guilt phase and the punishment phase. But that idea has not gained traction....

In the Holmes case, an unprecedented 9,000 jury summonses were mailed. As of Friday, 210 prospective jurors had been excused over four days. Individual questioning is set to begin next month.  In the marathon bombing case, 1,373 people filled out juror questionnaires. Individual questioning of prospective jurors has been slowed as the judge has probed people at length about their feelings on the death penalty. The judge had originally said he hoped to question 40 jurors each day, but during the first five days only averaged about 15.

Capital punishment supporters say the current system of screening out strong pro- and anti-death penalty jurors is the only fair way to choose juries in death penalty cases.  "The process simply says that jurors must be willing to abide by the law," said John McAdams, a Marquette University professor who supports the death penalty.

January 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, January 23, 2015

Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge

As reported in this new USA Today piece, taking up a "case that could have broad implications for hundreds of death row inmates, the Supreme Court will consider whether a drug protocol used in recent lethal injections violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment."  Here is more:

The justices agreed Friday to consider a case originally brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma -- one of whom was put to death last week, after the court refused to block his execution with a combination of three drugs that has caused some prisoners to writhe in pain.

Because the court's four liberal justices dissented from the decision to let that execution go forward, it presumably was their votes in private conference Friday that will give the issue a full hearing in open court. Only four votes are needed from the nine-member court to accept a case. It will likely be heard in April, though it could be held over until the next term begins in October.

Lawyers for Charles Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next six weeks sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas. While the court's conservatives refused to stop Warner's execution, the request for a full court hearing had been held for further consideration.

The lawyers claim that the sedative midazolam, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a general anesthetic and is being used in state executions virtually on an experimental basis. They say inmates may not be rendered unconscious and could suffer painfully as the other drugs in the protocol are administered.... "States now experiment with various drug formulations that have resulted in multiple malfunctioning executions — indeed, spectacles — over the past year," the challengers' brief says....

The court's four liberal justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- voiced deep concern about the three-drug protocol in their eight-page dissent last week. They also dissented last September when the court rejected a stay application from a Missouri inmate executed with the same drug.

I presume this cert grant will halt all scheduled executions in Oklahoma until the Supreme Court rules.  Left unclear, however, is whether other states will be able to move forward with executions while this case is pending.  This DPIC page with scheduled executions suggest that at least a half-dozen states have more than a dozen serious execution dates scheduled before the Supreme Court is likely to resolve this new case from Oklahoma.

I am sure that these states will try to move forward with executions, especially if their protocols are dissimilar to what Oklahoma does in executions. But I am also sure that death row defendants and their lawyers will urge states to postpone all execution until the Supreme Court rules in this new case (as happened when the Supreme Court first took up this issue eight years ago in Baze v. Kentucky). In short, here we go again!

Recent related posts:

January 23, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Speculating about how new California Supreme Court will now handle capital cases

This new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Brown appointees to Supreme Court renew hopes in death penalty cases," reviews reasons why some think that new California Justices might mean a new type of California capital justice. Here are excerpts from the piece:

In the long run, the new composition [of the California Supreme Court] could affect an array of cases, including medical malpractice and medical marijuana, but probably will be most felt in the criminal arena. The court, long dominated by former prosecutors, has affirmed about 90% of the death sentences it has reviewed. Criminal defendants rarely win.

"Brown certainly seems to have reshaped this court in a fairly dramatic way," said Jan Stiglitz, a co-founder of the California Innocence Project, which is representing a client in a case before the newly constituted court. Instead of appointing former prosecutors, Stiglitz said, "Brown has brought in not just people from the outside but people who don't have this background that sort of predisposes them to be cynical in criminal cases."

But little experience in criminal law also can be a handicap, critics said. Former prosecutors have "stared evil in the face and know what it looks like," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty. None of the Brown appointees have had prior judicial experience. "The academic view of criminal law is what produces bad decisions," Scheidegger said.

[Mariano-Florentino] Cuellar, the court's only Latino, is a former Stanford law professor. [Leondra] Kruger, the only African American justice, has worked primarily in Washington, where she represented the federal government in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Goodwin Liu, Brown's first appointee last term, was a law professor at UC Berkeley....

Legal analysts expect the Brown justices may form a new majority with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a moderate to liberal Republican appointee.  Unlike the other Republican appointees, she was never a prosecutor.  She worked for the federal government on civil rights matters and as staff attorney on appellate courts.

January 21, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Should we be concerned about the economic or human costs of Colorado's efforts to get Aurora killer James Holmes on death row?

The question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this lengthy Denver Post piece discussing what to expect now that jury selection is about to begin in the Colorado's high-profile capital trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.  The piece is headlined "Aurora theater shooting trial could strain limits of jury service," and here are some excerpts:

After 50 days of testimony and deliberations, the jurors who decided the fate of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh emerged haunted. "Have you ever seen 12 people cry?" one juror told reporters about deliberations for the 1997 verdict, handed down in a federal courtroom in Denver.  "I'm 24," another said, "But I don't feel 24 anymore."

Pummeled with horrific accounts of the attack, freighted with finding justice amid tragedy, the jurors had been pushed to near shattering. "I personally felt subject to the same sort of trauma that some of the victims and survivors went through," another said.

Now, imagine if that trial had lasted twice — even three times — as long.  The trial of Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes, which starts Tuesday with jury selection, is expected to be so lengthy and arduous that it could strain the very process of justice it seeks to uphold.

Nine thousand potential jurors — one of the largest pools in American history — have been summoned for the case.  If picked, jurors will be ordered to serve for as long as five straight months, longer than any state criminal trial in memory in Colorado. They will weigh whether Holmes was sane in July 2012, when he killed 12 people inside the Century Aurora 16 movie theater and tried to kill 70 others, and, if they find he was, they will decide whether he should be executed.

For their service, they will be guaranteed a wage of only $50 a day, a rate that could plunge their income to near the federal poverty level.  Even harder, during what will likely be the most stressful time of their lives, they will be forbidden from talking to anyone about the experience — not their family or fellow jurors or counselors.  Until deliberations begin sometime late this year, the jurors will bear that stress in silence, despite a growing body of research that shows jury service on traumatic cases can lead to mental and physical illness and impact jurors' decision-making....

Since the 1930s, perpetrators of public mass shootings nationwide are more likely to die at the scene than to be captured, according to research by Minnesota Department of Corrections official Grant Duwe.  Of the 45 percent who were arrested, only a fraction ever faced a jury.  And even fewer of those were charged with killing in an attack as devastating to the community as Holmes is for the Aurora theater shooting.

William Bowers, a researcher for the Capital Jury Project at the State University of New York in Albany, likens the theater shooting trial to that currently taking place for one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers.  "There's nothing really comparable to these cases in modern experience, in terms of duration of the trial and effect on the jury," Bowers said....

But, at its most extreme limits, jury service can become less of a duty and more of an ordeal, legal experts say.  Studies have shown that jurors in traumatic trials can suffer from insomnia, anxiety, anger and depression.  One study documented cases of jurors who broke out in hives, developed ulcers or increased their alcohol consumption while serving at trials. And after the trial is over, some jurors have said they experienced flashbacks....

In recognition of the strains of jury service, courts across the country increasingly offer counseling to jurors. Jon Sarche, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch, said counseling will be made available to jurors in the theater shooting case once the trial is over.  But — because judges routinely order jurors not to talk about the case with anyone, to protect the trial's integrity — counseling is almost never available to help jurors manage stress during the case.

While this piece effectively highlights some economic and human costs to be borne the jurors in this case, the question in the title of this post also suggests thinking about the economic and human costs sure to burden the lawyers and the court system throughout this case.  And, as the question in the title of this post is meant to highlight, these costs are all endured in service now only to having Holmes sentenced to death; inevitable appeals and other factors will likely mean Holmes is unlikely ever actually to be executed by Colorado for his crimes.

I suspect these kinds of costs and uncertainties explain (and clearly justify?) why the feds were willing to cut LWOP plea deals for other mentally-challenged mass killers like Ted Kaczynski (the Unibomber) and Jared Lee Loughner (the Tucson shooter).  But Colorado prosecutors in this case appear quite committed to enduring all these costs in service to trying to get James Holmes sentenced to death. 

Recent and older related posts (with lots of comments):

January 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, January 16, 2015

LawProf and federal judge propose special evidence rules for penalty phase of capital cases

This new article available via SSRN, titled "The Proposed Capital Penalty Phase Rules of Evidence," reflects a notable capital punishment reform proposal put together by Professor David McCord and District Judge Mark W. Bennett. Here is the abstract:

No person or organization has ever proposed model rules of evidence for the unique penalty phase of a death penalty trial.  Now a law professor skilled in the scholarship of both death penalty jurisprudence and evidence, and a federal judge with extensive federal death penalty experience, do just that.

This work transcends the hodge-podge of evidentiary approaches taken by the various state jurisdictions and federal law.  The result is the Proposed CAPITAL PENALTY PHASE RULES OF EVIDENCE — clear and uniform rules to govern the wide-ranging evidentiary issues that arise in the penalty phase of capital trials.  Death penalty trials, long criticized for the arbitrariness of their results, will greatly benefit from these Rules.

January 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)

As reported in this USA Today article, a "sharply divided Supreme Court refused Thursday to block the execution of an Oklahoma inmate over concerns about a drug protocol that has caused problems in the past."  Here is more:

The court's five conservative justices denied the request for a stay of execution without comment.  But the four liberal justices issued an eight-page dissent in which they questioned whether the drug protocol.

"The questions before us are especially important now, given states' increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. "Petitioners have committed horrific crimes and should be punished.  But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death.  I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions."

Warner's execution was to come within hours of another in Florida, where Johnny Shane Kormondy, 42, was awaiting death for killing a man during a 1993 home invasion. Both executions were to use the same combination of three drugs.

Lawyers for Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next seven weeks had sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas.

Justice Sotomayor's eight-page dissent, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan, is available at this link and it ends with these two paragraphs:

I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol.  It is true that we give deference to the district courts.  But at some point we must question their findings of fact, unless we are to abdicate our role of ensuring that no clear error has been committed.  We should review such findings with added care when what is at issue is the risk of the needless infliction of severe pain.  Here, given the evidence before the District Court, I struggle to see how its decision to credit the testimony of a single purported expert can be supported given the substantial body of conflicting empirical and anecdotal evidence.

I believe that we should have granted petitioners’ application for stay. The questions before us are especially important now, given States’ increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution.  Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished.  But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death.  I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions.

Not long after this decision was handed down, Oklahoma finally was able to carry out the death sentence imposed on Charles Warner for him murder of his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter way back in 1997.  This AP report suggests that this Oklahoma execution, as well as another one taking place at roughly the same time in Florida with the same combination of drugs, were completed "without incident."  Consequently, I hope Justice Sotomayor feels at least some relief that these two murderers, roughly two decades after they killed, apparently were seemingly not "subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death."

UPDATE:  This CBS News story suggests that I may have been too quick to assume that the Oklahoma execution was without incident.  Here is what the CBS News story reports about what unfolding in Oklahoma:

The execution lasted 18 minutes.

"Before I give my final statement, I'll tell you they poked me five times. It hurt. It feels like acid," Warner said before the execution began. He added, "I'm not a monster. I didn't do everything they said I did."

After the first drug was administered, Warner said, "My body is on fire." But he showed no obvious signs of distress. Witnesses said they saw slight twitching in Warner's neck about three minutes after the lethal injection began. The twitching lasted about seven minutes until he stopped breathing.

January 15, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution

As reported in this Politico article, headlined "Oklahoma prepares to use controversial execution drug," a notable state is about to get back into the execution business. Here is how the article starts:

The state of Oklahoma plans to perform its first execution this week since a botched procedure last April, using a variation of the same three-drug cocktail that left an inmate writhing in pain for nearly 30 minutes before he died.

Thursday’s scheduled execution of Charles Warner, who is on death row for the rape and murder of an 11-month-old, is the first of four that was stayed following last year’s incident but that are now set to take place over the next two months.

Lawyers for all four inmates filed a last-ditch appeal with the Supreme Court on Wednesday but, if it is denied, Warner and the three others will be given different quantities of the same three-drug regimen, including the sedative that failed to induce unconsciousness and contributed to the visible agony of the man executed last April, Clayton Lockett.

That sedative, midazolam, is at the center of the appeal effort, as attorneys for Warner and the other three inmates argue that the drug does not sufficiently knock out the person receiving it.

January 15, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Georgia executes Vietnam veteran who killed a sheriff's deputy"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended CNN report on the first execution in the United States in 2015.  Here are the details:

Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran convicted of murdering a 22-year-old sheriff's deputy in 1998, was executed Tuesday, said Gwendolyn Hogan, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections.  Earlier in the day, the Georgia Supreme Court joined the state's parole board in declining to stop the execution....

Hogan said the court ordered execution was carried out at 8:33 pm ET.  She said a final statement was given, expressing remorse to the family of the slain deputy.

The state's high court had also denied Brannan's request for an appeal on the basis that it is unconstitutional to execute a person with his medical conditions and combat history.... Attorneys for the 66-year-old Brannan had hoped his sentence would be found unconstitutional.

His defense attorneys claim Brannan, who served in Vietnam in the early 1970s, was suffering from post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder at the time of the shooting and was off his medication. In a petition filed Monday with Butts County Superior Court, Brannan's attorneys requested his life be spared because "executing American combat veterans whose service-related mental impairments played a role in subsequent violent conduct violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and analogous provisions of the Georgia Constitution."...

The killing of Laurens County Deputy Kyle Dinkheller was captured on the deputy's dash camera just outside Dublin, Georgia.... Brannan is seen in the video confronting Dinkheller after being pulled over for driving almost 100 mph in his pickup.

Brannan appears to be confrontational from the start, acting irrational as the deputy tells him to keep his hands out of his pocket.  He then mocks the deputy and at one point seems to dance around yelling, "Shoot me," at Dinkheller.  Brannan then yells that he is a Vietnam veteran.  He lunges at the deputy before he runs back to his truck, grabs a rifle and begins to shoot.

The video goes on to show a heated gunbattle as both men hide behind their vehicles for cover.  Bullets appear to pierce the windshield of the deputy's car.  Brannan's car door window shatters above his head.  In the video, Dinkheller and Brannan are shot and wounded in the battle.  Brannan advances on the deputy, and off camera, you hear the deputy scream before Brannan repeatedly shoots him and then flees the scene.  Dinkheller died, leaving behind a wife and child....

During the trial, attorney Kammer says the defense presented evidence that Brannan suffered from PTSD but claims that crucial testimony from a Veterans Affairs doctor treating him was never heard. His sentence was appealed, and a judge ordered a new sentencing trial, but that was later overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court.

Dinkheller's father, Kirk Dinkheller, posted on his Facebook page this month that "January 12, 2015 it will be 17 years since my son Kyle was murdered in the line of duty and on January 13, 2015 his killer will finally be held accountable.  Nothing will ever bring my son back, but finally some justice for the one who took him from his children and his family."

Some related posts:

January 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"An Analysis Of The Economic Costs Of Seeking The Death Penalty In Washington State"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new research study produced by a group of folks at Seattle University. Helpfully, this Seattle Times article, headlined "Seeking death penalty adds $1M to prosecution cost, study says," provides a summary of some of its findings:

Seattle University has released the results of a seven-month study into the costs of the death penalty in Washington state and has found a more than $1 million price break in cases where capital punishment is not sought....

Criminal-justice professor Peter Collins called the study one of the nation’s most “rigorous” examinations of the costs associated with the death penalty. Collins said he wasn’t surprised by the price difference. “I don’t know who coined this term, but this is social science supporting common sense,” he said on Tuesday. “I wasn’t surprised because there was so much anecdotal and other evidence that we’re spending money on these cases.”

In the study, Collins and three other professors reviewed 147 aggravated first-degree murder cases filed in Washington state since 1997, according to the study. They found the average cost of a death-penalty prosecution and conviction is just over $3 million. Not seeking a death-penalty prosecution and sending a person to prison for life costs the state roughly $2 million.

“What this provides is evidence of the costs of death-penalty cases, empirical evidence,” Collins said. “We went into it [the study] wanting to remain objective. This is purely about the economics; whether or not it’s worth the investment is up to the public, the voters of Washington and the people we elected.”

The study was funded by a grant from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington Foundation. Seattle University School of Law professor Bob Boruchowitz, the former head of one of King County’s top public-defense agencies, said that “as far as I know this is the only study of its kind in the country that combines the perspective of social scientists with capital [death penalty] qualified lawyers.”...

The study’s authors point to a rise in costs in death-penalty cases. Starting this month, two of three defendants charged in King County with aggravated murder will have their death-penalty trials begin. The prosecution and defense costs in the three cases have cost King County more than $15 million, according to figures supplied by county officials....

The future of the death penalty in Washington remains unclear. Last February, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on the death penalty while he is in office.

January 11, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Should honoring vets and PTSD call for commuting a death sentence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters story headlined "Vietnam veteran in Georgia pleads to be spared the death penalty." Here are excerpts:

Lawyers for a decorated Vietnam War veteran due to be executed in Georgia next week say his life should be spared because he was suffering from a combat-related mental disorder when he killed a sheriff’s deputy in 1998.

Andrew Brannan's guilt is not disputed. He shot Laurens County Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller, 22, nine times during a traffic stop, a scene caught on tape by the deputy's patrol car camera.

Defense attorneys argue Brannan, 66, should not be put to death for behavior they say is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by his combat service. On Monday, they will ask the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Brannan's sentence to life in prison without parole. “Commuting his sentence would honor his very meritorious service to this country,” said Brian Kammer, one of Brannan’s lawyers. “We should not be executing those we sent into harm’s way and who were deeply wounded, physically and mentally.”...

Brannan received Army commendations and a Bronze Star for his service as an officer, Kammer said. He was on full Army disability for PTSD and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before killing Dinkheller, the lawyer said.

Brannan, who had no prior criminal record, was driving 98 miles per hour on a Georgia highway when Dinkheller pulled him over in January 1998, according to court records. The video recording showed Brannan stepping out of his truck, cursing and telling the deputy to shoot him....

Brannan pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial. Some experts testified that during the shooting he suffered a flashback from combat, but a court-appointed psychiatrist said Brannan was sane and may have killed the deputy because he believed the officer was being disrespectful.

Brannan's execution is scheduled for Tuesday. He would be the first person put the death in the United States this year.

I am inclined to assert that this offender's decorated service on behalf of our nation as well as his undisputed mental problems indisputably means that Brannan is not one of the "worst of the worst" killers. For that reason, I would be inclined to support this defendant's commutation request.

Do others agree?

Some older related posts:

January 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Ohio to delay scheduled executions early in 2015 after adopting another new execution protocol

This Columbus Dispatch article, headlined "State revises death penalty protocol, will delay executions," provides the latest news in the ever-dynamic Ohio execution story. Here are the details:

Ohio will switch its lethal injection protocol, adding thiopental sodium, a drug used previously, and dropping the two-drug regimen of midazolam and hydromorphone that caused problems in the last execution a year ago.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said today until it secures supplies of pentobarbital, a drug already permitted, or thiopental sodium, the Feb. 11 execution of Ronald Phillips, and possibly others, will be postponed. The state used thiopental sodium from 1999 until 2011.

Gov. John Kasich will likely have to postpone the executions of Phillips, 41, of Summit County, and Raymond Tibbetts, 57, of Hamilton County, scheduled for March 12. The execution of Gregory Lott, 53, of Cuyahoga County, is scheduled May 14.

The first two executions would take place before House Bill 663, a new lethal injection law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, takes effect in late March. The law allows the state to buy drugs from small compounding pharmacies, which mix batches of drugs to customer specifications. It also permits the state to keep secret the identities of drug suppliers because of security concerns....

The state had to file legal paperwork detailing the new drug protocol with U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost 30 days in advance of the next scheduled execution on Feb. 11. Frost has presided over most of the recent contested lethal injection cases filed on behalf of Ohio Death Row prisoners.

The change means that Dennis McGuire 53, will be the one and only person in Ohio to be put to death using the combination of midazolam and hyrdomorphone. During his Jan. 16, 2014, execution, McGuire choked, coughed, gasped and clenched his fists for about 20 minutes prior to succumbing to the drug mixture. His son and daughter, who watched their father’s troubled execution, subsequently sued the state, alleging his death was cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution....

The controversy over McGuire’s executions resulted in the postponement of all remaining executions in Ohio last year. It will be the fifth time in 2 1/2 years that Phillips has had a new execution date. Dates in September and July last year, and November 2013 were delayed either by Kasich’s clemency actions or reprieves from Frost. Phillips was given a reprieve by Kasich to explore his desire to have transplant surgery to provide a kidney to his ailing mother, but the surgery never took place....

In addition, a lawsuit was filed late last year on behalf of Phillips, Tibbetts and two other inmates challenging the secrecy shrouding the revised execution process. Frost will also hear that lawsuit which claims that state officials, through the new law, are trying to stifle public debate about capital punishment by “seeking to punish, disarm, suppress and silence” opposition.

January 8, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

Gearing up (finally) for start of capital trial of Boston Marathon bomber

TsarnaevsketchNearly two years after the vile (alleged?) crimes and challenging capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a very high-profile federal capital trial gets started today.  This lengthy Boston Globe story, headlined "Marathon bombing trial to start today with jury selection: Long 1st phase for Marathon bombing trial; testimony may begin next month," provides a helpful preview. Here are excerpts:

Starting Monday, the judge, prosecutors, and defense lawyers will start whittling down a list of more than 1,200 names, aiming to find 12 jurors and six alternates capable of deciding whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21, is guilty, and if so, whether he should be put to death.

The trial, which is attracting international attention, is expected to move especially slowly and with more than the usual care because a life is at stake; testimony probably will not begin until February, and a verdict may take until late spring or early summer....

For the jury to determine Tsarnaev’s sentence, the panel must be unanimous in its decision. If it is not, the judge would be required to step in and sentence him to life in prison. No declaration of mistrial would be allowed, lawyers who specialize in the death penalty said.

The potential jurors summoned by US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. over the next three days will start by filling out surveys to help determine whether they are qualified to serve on a death penalty jury. They will be intensely screened for impartiality, and the ability — and willingness — to sentence Tsarnaev to death, if the verdict warrants it.... The judge will also have to find jurors who, while willing to hand out the death penalty, also feel capable of opposing it if they find the crimes do not warrant death.

The Massachusetts courts last struck down the state’s death penalty in the early 1980s, and the last execution to take place in the state was in 1947. But Tsarnaev has been charged in the federal court system, which allows for capital punishment for about 50 crimes, including the detonation of weapons of mass destruction resulting in death, one of the crimes Tsarnaev faces.

Tsarnaev faces 30 charges — 17 of which carry the possibility of the death penalty — in the bombings at the Marathon finish line the afternoon of April 15, 2013, that killed three people and injured more than 260 others. Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan also allegedly shot and killed an MIT police officer in Cambridge days after the bombings, a crime for which Tsarnaev is also charged.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Tsarnaev in part based on the vulnerability of his targets, and his “heinous, cruel, and depraved manner of committing the offense,” according to court filings.

Tsarnaev’s defense team has argued that it has not had enough time to prepare for the trial, and that finding impartial jurors in the same city where the bombs went off will remain impossible — an argument that has been echoed by legal analysts.

But O’Toole has ruled that the defense team has failed to show that he cannot impanel a fair jury in Boston, and he has said the defense team has had enough time to prepare. A federal appeals court in Boston on Saturday refused a last-minute defense request to intervene.

Since his arrest, Tsarnaev has been held at the federal prison at Fort Devens in Ayer, under special conditions that restrict his communications. Five lawyers are assigned to his case. The prosecution team also includes five lawyers, with assistance from the federal Department of Justice.

The jury selection process could take at least a month. O’Toole and the lawyers from both sides will begin by reviewing the jurors’ initial surveys to determine which of them should immediately be excluded: for example, if they have a personal connection to the case, or a hardship that would prevent them from serving, such as a young child or ill relative who needs care.

The trial will be split into two phases. If jurors find Tsarnaev guilty of the bombings, they would have to determine his fate in a second, full-fledged trial, with evidence and witness statements. In that trial, however, the rules of evidence are far more relaxed, giving prosecutors and defense more leeway in painting a picture of Tsarnaev.

Prosecutors will want to show that he was a determined, indiscriminate killer. Defense lawyers will seek to portray Tsarnaev as an impressionable teenager who was influenced by a dominant older brother who had grown extreme in his Muslim views, according to court records.

Some prior related posts:

January 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Outgoing Maryland Gov commutes final four state death sentences to life

As reported in this CNN article, "Outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley took the state's last four inmates off death row Wednesday, commuting their sentences to life in prison without parole in one of his final acts in office."  Here is more:

The move comes as the Democrat considers a run for president — a long-shot bid that many Democrats only expect to gain steam if Hillary Clinton opts not to run.

O'Malley's office announced the move in a release Wednesday morning, noting that the state's legislature had abolished the death penalty with a law that took effect in May 2013 and that the state's courts and attorney general have questioned whether the state has legal authority to carry out death sentences that were already imposed.

"In the final analysis, there is one truth that stands between and before all of us," O'Malley said in a statement.  "That truth is this — few of us would ever wish for our children or grandchildren to kill another human being or to take part in the killing of another human being. The legislature has expressed this truth by abolishing the death penalty in Maryland."

The four inmates whose sentences were commuted are Vernon Lee Evans Jr. and Anthony Grandison Sr., who were convicted of the 1983 contract killing of two witnesses scheduled to testify in a federal drug trial; Heath William Burch, convicted of killing an elderly neighbor couple in 1995; and Jody Lee Miles, convicted of robbing and shooting a theater manager in 1997.

O'Malley said in the statement that he'd met with the families of the victims of the four convicted killers whose sentences he commuted, and said they would suffer through "the additional torment of an un-ending legal process."

"In my judgment, leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good of the people of Maryland — present or future," O'Malley said.

Prior relates posts:

December 31, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Emotion, Authority, and Death: (Raced) Negotiations in Mock Capital Jury Deliberations"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article discussing notable new capital jury deliberation research authored by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article explores the role of emotion in the capital penalty-phase jury deliberations process. It is based on the qualitative analysis of data from ninety video-recorded four to seven person simulated jury deliberations that examined the influence of race on death sentencing outcomes.  The analysis explores when and how emotions are expressed, integrated into the jury’s sentencing process, and deployed in penalty-phase decision making.

The findings offer critical new insights into the role that emotion plays in influencing these legal judgments by revealing how jurors strategically and explicitly employ emotion in the course of deliberation, both to support their own positions and neutralize or rebut the opposing positions of others.  The findings also shed light on the various ways that white male capital jurors utilize a panoply of powerful emotion-based tactics to sway others to their position in a manner that often contributes to racially biased outcomes.

December 31, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 29, 2014

Split Ninth Circuit panel reverses Arizona death sentence over sharp dissent

The Ninth Circuit today issued a notable reversal of an Arizona death sentence by finding that the defendant's attorney was ineffective at sentencing even though the Arizona courts found to the contrary. The ruling in Mann v. Ryan, 09-99017 (9th Cir. Dec. 29, 2014) (available here), produced a notable dissent by Judge Kozinski starting this way:

Once more unto the breach.  Time and again, we have been admonished for disregarding Congress’s clear instruction that federal judges in habeas proceedings must adopt a “highly deferential standard” under which “state-court decisions [are] given the benefit of the doubt.”  Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).  In clear violation of this principle, the majority today seizes upon imprecise language in a single sentence of a state court’s otherwise well-reasoned and comprehensive opinion, and uses it to sweep aside AEDPA’s restrictions on the scope of our review.  The majority not only fails to faithfully apply Supreme Court precedent, it also creates a split with two other circuits.

If we are not summarily reversed, Mann’s death sentence will surely be reimposed by the state court.  One way or the other, Mann will be executed, if he doesn’t die of old age first.  But only after he — and the families of the two people he killed 25 years ago — endure what may be decades of further uncertainty.  Where’s the justice in that?  I respectfully dissent from Part III of the majority’s opinion.

December 29, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Have messy executions in 2014 moved the death penalty debate in any way?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "Death penalty backers stand firm despite botched executions." Here are excerpts:

Oklahoma’s last execution went so badly that the state tried to cancel it before the end came. With the inmate writhing while the lethal drugs seeped into his body, his executioners drew the viewing gallery curtains, concealing what the warden later described as "a bloody mess."

The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April and other troubling ones this year in Ohio and Arizona gave capital punishment opponents a flicker of hope that areas of the country most enthusiastically supportive of the death penalty might have a change of heart. They did not.

Although Governor Mary Fallin suspended executions so that Lockett’s death and Oklahoma’s methods could be reviewed, the state held a ceremony for its overhauled death chamber only months later and is scheduled to resume executions in mid-January.

And rather than causing states to question whether capital punishment is just or worth the risk of subjecting someone to a potentially agonizing death, the prolonged executions and problems states have had securing lethal injection drugs have led them to explore new, old, and more efficient ways of killing, including gas.

"I think we had a little flash of hope that it would help our cause, but all it did was generate a lot of conversation about it," said Lydia Polley, a member of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "It just led to people thinking of better ways to kill them."...

Lockett’s execution did little to dampen support for the death penalty in Oklahoma, which has executed more inmates than any other state except Texas since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. In October, officials gave media tours of the renovated execution unit at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, which got a $104,000 overhaul after Lockett’s death and now stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the shabby, 106-year-old facility.

Not content with just the upgrades to the prison and lethal injection equipment, Oklahoma’s Republican-led House conducted a study on the use of nitrogen gas for executions and is expected to consider legislation early next year that would make Oklahoma the first state to adopt hypoxia by gas — the forced deprivation of oxygen — as a legal execution method.

Other conservative states are exploring alternatives to lethal injection because of the problems securing the drugs.... Tennessee passed a law to reinstate the electric chair if it cannot get lethal injection drugs and Utah is considering bringing back the firing squad....

Ralph Shortey, a Republican state senator from Oklahoma City who is pushing for Oklahoma to adopt alternative execution methods to lethal injection, estimates that 90 percent of his constituents strongly support the death penalty, despite what happened to Lockett. "The average Oklahoman is saying he got exactly what he deserves," Shortey said. "A lot of people think they should suffer even more than they do. They think the lethal injection is too easy for them."

December 28, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Friday, December 26, 2014

Pennsylvania chief justice blames federal public defenders for death penalty problems

I highlighted a few weeks ago in this post the first article in a local series about the high costs and low productivity of the Pennsylvania death penalty system. Thanks to a helpful reader, I just now noticed this interesting final piece in the series headlined "State's chief justice cites 'meddling, intrusion' in death penalty cases." Here are excerpts:

The state's top judge, speaking after a Reading Eagle series examined the dysfunctional Pennsylvania death penalty system, blamed its failings largely on what he described as unethical intrusions and meddling by a group of federally funded attorneys.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made the comments in a telephone interview Thursday, the day after the newspaper's four-day series "When Death Means Life" ended. Also that day, state Sen. Daylin Leach, in a separate interview, said he believed the state was not getting its money's worth out of the death penalty and that there was momentum to abolish it.

The series delved into a system in which 429 death warrants have been signed since 1985 but only three people have been executed. Others who have extensive dealings with the system and read the newspaper stories spoke of the death penalty's expense and necessity, and of the need for caution in modifying its appeals process. The newspaper's research produced an estimate that the death penalty in Pennsylvania has cost more than $350 million, gave a glimpse of life on death row and detailed two death penalty cases....

[T]he Federal Community Defender Office [is] the group Castille singled out for criticism. The chief justice said the ... the organization prolongs death penalty proceedings, using unethical delaying tactics and summoning many experts.  

Beyond that, he said, the FCDO's mission is supposed to be federal in nature. Funded by $17 million a year in federal taxpayer funds, the federal office has injected itself into many Pennsylvania-jurisdiction death row cases, creating more costs for state taxpayers, Castille said. "Tremendous extra costs," Castille said....

Paid for by state taxes, the death penalty is essentially a government program, said Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat who plans to reintroduce a bill next legislative session to abolish capital punishment.  "Is this program getting us our money's worth? There's no way you can look at the death penalty and say that it is," Leach said.  "The death penalty is far more expensive than life in prison."...

Richard Long, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said he didn't think anyone disputed the fact that the system was expensive. "We have to be careful that we don't compromise public safety and doing the right thing strictly because of dollars and cents."...

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf said that when he takes office in January, he'll place a moratorium on executions until concerns about the state's death penalty system, voiced by the state Supreme Court and the American Bar Association, are properly addressed.

Three years ago Pennsylvania lawmakers ordered a government-run study of the state's death penalty system, and though that study was created with a two-year deadline, it's still not done.  Wolf said that once it's complete, he'll use the findings to help guide his actions regarding the death penalty....

Castille said it was up to the Legislature, not the courts, to change the system. But, he said,  "The only way you will be able to change the system is to get the Federal Community Defender Office out of the system."  Castille is nearing the end of his tenure as chief justice.  Having reached the high court's mandatory retirement age of 70, Castille will retire at the end of the month.

I am inclined to assert that Chief Justice Castille's criticisms of the public defenders amounts to "shooting the messenger." But given that Pennsylvania cannot find its way to carrying out any death sentences, I suppose I should just say that Chief Justice Castille is blaming the messenger.

December 26, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Ohio officials (and taxpayers) get a lethal injection lawsuit for the holidays

On the last day of Hanukkah which happened also to be Christmas Eve, a group of lawyers for a quartet of Ohio condemned prisoners gave the state a very predictable present: a lawsuit challenging Ohio's new lethal injection law.  This local story, headlined "Death-row inmates challenge new execution-secrecy rules," provides the details (and this link to the suit):

Four death-row inmates are challenging the constitutionality of Ohio's new execution secrecy rules, their attorney announced Wednesday morning.  In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus, the inmates claim the new law, which shields the identities of most participants in Ohio's execution process, violates their rights to free speech and due process.

Proponents of the rules, signed into law by Gov. John Kasich last week, say they are needed to protect individuals involved with Ohio executions from harassment and potential harm.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday afternoon on behalf of death-row inmates Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, Robert Van Hook and Grady Brinkley.  The first three are scheduled to be executed next year; Brinkley's execution date has not yet been set.

Under the new law, House Bill 663, Ohio must keep secret the names of people involved with executions, other than top officials.  The law also protects the identity of small-scale drug manufacturers called compounding pharmacies if they make lethal-injection drugs for the state.  The inmates' lawsuit claims these measures violate the First Amendment because they were passed to silence death-penalty critics and "foreclose all effective advocacy" against executions in Ohio.

The lawsuit also challenges other parts of the law that require courts to seal such information from the public and prevents the state's medical board from disciplining physicians who testify about Ohio's execution method.  "These laws violate some of the most basic principles upon which our democracy was founded," said Timothy Sweeney, the inmates' attorney, in a statement.  "Everyone should be deeply troubled by this bold piece of legislation which has been passed to artificially reduce public criticism of government actions in one of the most important areas in which it acts: the taking of a human life."

The defendants in the lawsuit are Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine, state prisons director Gary Mohr and Donald Morgan, warden of Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, where Ohio's executions are carried out.  DeWine spokeswoman Lisa Hackley said Wednesday that the attorney general's office is reviewing the lawsuit.  Spokesmen for the governor's office and the state's prisons agency declined comment.

HB 663 is an attempt to overcome problems that Ohio — like many other states — has had obtaining lethal-injection drugs in recent years. Ohio ran out of its preferred lethal-injection drug, pentobarbital, last year because European pharmaceutical companies refused to continue selling it for use in executions....

Supporters of HB 663 say that the state could turn to compounding pharmacies to make pentobarbital, but the companies are reluctant to make lethal-injection drugs unless they can remain anonymous, for fear of public reprisal.  DeWine and other proponents of the legislation have said the changes are needed if Ohio is to resume executions next February, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.

As long-time readers know, Ohio's execution problems, plans and procedures have been subject to extensive litigation over the last half-decade. Time will tell if this latest litigation will extend another half-decade. As the title of this post indicates, Ohio (and federal) taxpayers get the bill for all this litigation, and I cannot help but wonder how much Ohio costs its taxpayers by trying took keep its death penalty system alive and killing.

December 25, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Are Arizona and Oklahoma likely to have their machineries of death operational early in 2015?

I blogged here a few days ago about steps taken by the Ohio legislations to get its lethal injection drugs and protocols shored up so the state can get back in the business of executing condemned murderers in 2015.  Now I see from this New York Times report that Arizona and Oklahoma, two others states that had messy execution in 2014, now also appear poised to get their death chambers revved up again in the coming new year.  Here are the basic details why:

A federal judge in Oklahoma City on Monday said that the state can resume executing prisoners this winter, rejecting the argument by some medical experts that using the same sedative involved in the bungled execution of Clayton D. Lockett in April amounted to an illegal experiment on human subjects.

Judge Stephen P. Friot of Federal District Court, ruling against condemned prisoners who sought to delay new executions, said that lethal injection was more humane than historical methods like hanging, and that since the sedative in question, midazolam, had been successfully used in a dozen executions elsewhere, it should not be considered new or experimental.

“Federal courts should not sit as a board of inquiry as to best practices,” Judge Friot said, adding, “The plaintiffs have failed to present a known and available alternative.” An occasional isolated episode does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, he said.

Also Monday, in a separate ruling on another prolonged execution by lethal injection, a report commissioned by corrections officials in Arizona said the killing of Joseph Wood in July had been conducted properly. Mr. Wood appeared to gasp for nearly two hours before dying, but the report concluded that he was unconscious during that time and did not feel pain.

The unusually protracted and, in the view of many witnesses, agonizing executions in the two states led to new questions about the reliability of lethal injection and whether it can be performed humanely. These states and others have also been forced to try new drugs and combinations as manufacturers have refused to supply the barbiturates traditionally used in lethal injections.

Dale A. Baich, a lawyer for the Oklahoma prisoners, said they would appeal Judge Friot’s decision. “We are still concerned about Oklahoma’s ability to carry out executions humanely using midazolam,” Mr. Baich said....

The Arizona report, by consultants hired by the State Department of Corrections, cited the Pima County medical examiner’s statement that Mr. Wood’s “gasps, snorting and body reflexes are the normal bodily responses to dying, even in someone highly sedated.” Arizona used midazolam in a different combination from Oklahoma, pairing it with the opiate hydromorphone. Medical experts cited in the report said they could not determine why it took so long for Mr. Wood to die.

Still, Arizona’s director of corrections, Charles L. Ryan, said Monday that the state would abandon that two-drug protocol. The state will continue to search for supplies of the barbiturates of choice, pentobarbital or sodium thiopental, Mr. Ryan said. But if they remain unavailable, Arizona will use midazolam in the same three-drug regimen planned in Oklahoma, with the sedative followed by a paralyzing agent and a caustic heart-stopping drug.

Oklahoma has had a moratorium on executions since April 29, when the lethal injection of Mr. Lockett went awry. Now, saying that improved procedures are in place and that they will boost the dosage of midazolam, they plan to execute four men in three months, starting with Charles F. Warner on Jan. 15.

December 23, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 21, 2014

With new drug secrecy law, just when is Ohio really likely to get its machinery of death operational?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Columbus Dispatch account of the new Ohio law enacted last week to foster procurement of needed execution drugs by state authorities.  The article is headlined "New law will keep lethal-injection drug supplier secret," and here are the details prompting my question:

A new Ohio law signed yesterday by Gov. John Kasich will shield from public disclosure the supplier of drugs used in future lethal injections effective on March 20. However, two executions are scheduled before that date: Ronald Phillips of Summit County on Feb. 11, and Raymond Tibbetts of Hamilton County on March 12.

There was no immediate word from Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine or the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction about how the Phillips and Tibbetts executions will be handled, or if they will be postponed. There are four additional executions scheduled for later next year.

A spokeswoman for Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said new drugs can’t be purchased until House Bill 663 takes effect. “Our assumption is if they go forward with those executions, they will have to do it under existing law,” Amy Borror said.

Existing law does not permit buying drugs from undisclosed sources. The two drugs used in the last Ohio execution on Jan. 16, appeared to cause Dennis McGuire to gasp, choke and struggle against his restraints for about 20 minutes before he died.

The lethal-injection measure ... will allow prison officials to buy drugs from some of the 61 compounding pharmacies in the state. Typically smaller, independent businesses, compounders mix drugs for specific customer needs. They can ask the state not to identify them as the provider of lethal drugs for 20 years. The law also will keep confidential forever the identities of execution-team members and physicians involved in the process, even in an advisory capacity.

Another provision of the law requires an overall review to be done of the state’s lethal-injection process.

As reported in this prior post, a federal district judge back in August extended his injunction precluding executions in Ohio through January 15, 2015. I expect that state officials will seek to formulate a new execution plan in light of this new law, and that defense attorneys will seek to preclude executions from starting again until such a new plan is fully formulated and fully examined through litigation.

In light of all these realities, I am inclined now to tentatively predict that we likely will not have another execution in Ohio until well into 2015. At the same time, if and when Ohio gets its machinery of death operational in 2015, it seems quite possible that the state will try to move forward with a new execution every six weeks.

December 21, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, December 19, 2014

"Six Reasons the Death Penalty is Becoming More Expensive"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective piece from The Marshall Project whihc served as something of a companion piece to its effective coverage (noted here) of how localities struggle with the economic realities of pursuing capital cases.  Here are excerpts:

We know the basic reasons why death penalty cases are expensive: more lawyers, more experts, more time. Prosecutors and defense attorneys often spend more than a year preparing for death penalty trials. Every successful conviction is appealed to several state and federal courts, meaning the government pays for both prosecutors and defenders to pick over the trial transcript and for judges and clerks to spend hours reading appeals. While this is going on, it costs more to house prisoners on death row than in the general population....

But the death penalty is also growing more expensive with each passing year. A 2010 report prepared for the Judicial Conference of the United States found that between 1989 and 1997 the median cost of a federal death penalty case that went to trial was $269,139; between 1998 and 2004 it had grown to $620,932.

Nobody has methodically studied how costs have been growing in state death penalty cases, but in interviews with more than 30 prosecutors, defense attorneys and other experts the consensus was that costs are going up fast. Here are the main reasons they cited:

1. Attorney Pay...

2. Experts...

3. Unpredictability...

4. Mitigation...

5. Juries...

6. Housing...

A few recent and older related posts:

December 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 18, 2014

DPIC year-end report highlights "death penalty decline continues in 2014"

As detailed in this press release, the Death Penalty Information Center today released its high-profile annual report.  The full report is available at this link, and here are highlights drawn from the press release: 

With 35 executions this year, 2014 marks the fewest people put to death since 1994, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The 72 new death sentences in 2014 is the lowest number in the modern era of the death penalty, dating back to 1974. Executions and sentences have steadily decreased, as Americans have grown more skeptical of capital punishment. The states’ problems with lethal injections also contributed to the drop in executions this year.

Executions decreased 10% compared to 2013 — from 39 last year to 35 this year — continuing an overall decline since 1999, when there were 98 executions. The number of states carrying out executions — seven — was the lowest in 25 years. Just three states – Texas, Missouri, and Florida — accounted for 80% of the executions. For the first time in 17 years, Texas did not lead the country in executions, being tied with Missouri at 10.

Death sentences — a more current barometer than executions — have declined by 77% since 1996, when there were 315. There were 79 death sentences last year. This is the fourth year in a row that there have been fewer than 100 death sentences....

Seven people who had been on death row were exonerated in 2014, the most since 2009. Three men in Ohio were cleared of all charges 39 years after their convictions, the longest time of any death row exonerees. Two others in North Carolina were freed after 30 years in confinement. Since 1973, 150 people have been exonerated and freed from death row.

Individual state developments illustrate the growing isolation of death penalty use:

  • The number of executions has declined in 11 of the past 15 years. In 1999, 20 states carried out executions; in 2014, only 7 states did so.

  • For the seventh year in a row, Texas had fewer than a dozen death sentences, a sharp decline from 1999, when it had 48.

  • California (14) and Florida (11) provided 35% of the death sentences in the country.

  • Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that no executions would take place while he is governor, joining the governors of Oregon and Colorado in halting executions.

  • In California, a federal judge declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.

December 18, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Detailed examination of how local costs may slowly kill the death penalty

The Marshall Project has this effective new piece on the modern realities of administering capital punishment. The piece is headlined "The Slow Death of the Death Penalty: The public supports it, but the costs are lethal." Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:

While many prosecutors are still reluctant to admit that finances play a role in their decisions about the death penalty, some of them – especially in small, rural counties – have been increasingly frank in wondering whether capital punishment is worth the price to their communities. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.”

Some prosecutors are far more blunt, and even hyperbolic, as they lament the state of affairs. “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County in the Texas panhandle. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?”

Since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, the cost of carrying out a death penalty trial has risen steadily. Increasing legal protections for defendants have translated into more and more hours of preparatory work by both sides. Fees for court-appointed attorneys and expert witnesses have climbed. Where once psychiatrists considered an IQ test and a quick interview sufficient to establish the mental state of a defendant, now it is routine to obtain an entire mental health history. Lab tests have become more numerous and elaborate. Defense teams now routinely employ mitigation experts, who comb through a defendant’s life history for evidence that might sway a jury towards leniency at the sentencing phase. Capital defendants are automatically entitled to appeals, which often last for years. Throughout those years, the defendant lives on death row, which tends to cost more due to heightened security.

In states such as Texas, Arizona, and Washington, where county governments pay for both the prosecution and defense of capital defendants (nearly all of whom are indigent) when they go to trial, the pressure on local budgets is especially strong. To ease the fiscal burden, some states have formed agencies to handle the defense or prosecution of capital cases. Other states reimburse counties for the expenses of a trial.

But even with that help, county officials around the country have sometimes had to raise taxes and cut spending to pay for death penalty trials. District attorneys have taken note. Many remain reluctant to acknowledge how fiscal concerns affect their decisions — they don’t want to appear to be cheapening the lives of murder victims. But a few are surprisingly candid. Their statements suggest that money is more than ever part of the explanation for the steep decline in death-penalty cases over the past decade. That is particularly the case in Texas, where there are few political obstacles to carrying out executions.

In the six states that have abolished capital punishment over the past decade, Republican and Democratic officials have also emphasized the cost of the death penalty as a major rationale. Even in states that retain the punishment, cost has played a central role in the conversion narratives of conservative lawmakers, public officials, and others who question the death penalty as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The rising cost of capital trials disproportionately affects counties with small populations. While the number of death sentences in the United States has been dropping steadily since a peak in the mid-1990s, an overwhelming number of the cases still being filed come from urban counties. There, the tax bases are larger, and the impact of an expensive trial may be more easily absorbed. (Harris County, where Houston is located, has been responsible for more executions than Georgia and Alabama combined.) Texas counties with fewer than 300,000 residents sought the death penalty on average 15 times per year from 1992 to 1996. Between 2002 and 2005, the average was four.

Prosecutors don’t cite statistics when discussing the costs of the death penalty; they tell stories. In Texas, they point to Jasper County, near the Louisiana border, where in June 1998 three white supremacists killed a black man, James Byrd Jr., by chaining his ankles to the back of their pickup truck and dragging his body for more than three miles. The murder made international headlines and led to new state and federal hate crime legislation.

December 17, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Detailing the dysfunction of Pennsylvania's death penalty system

Download (2)This lengthy local article, headlined "Capital punishment in Pennsylvania: When death means life: Commonwealth's death penalty system called expensive and dysfunctional," provide a review of how the Keystone State has a capital punishment system that seems to function as if it were operated by the Keystone Cops. Here are excerpts from the article, which is the first is an extended series:

Pennsylvania's death penalty has cost taxpayers more than $350 million for a dysfunctional system that has sentenced hundreds but hasn't executed anyone in 15 years, a Reading Eagle analysis has found.  The newspaper analysis comes three years after state lawmakers called for an intensive report on Pennsylvania's death penalty, and as a Montgomery County lawmaker maps out a proposal to abolish the system.

The long-overdue report is at least several months away from being issued. There still has been no reckoning of the system's massive financial or psychological cost — including the immeasurable agony of justice-seeking family members and the pain of families waiting for condemned relatives to be executed. "My sister didn't have a choice about when her life ended. Why should he?" said Diane Moyer of Robesonia, referring to convicted killer Glenn Lyons of Reading.

Lyons is one of 185 condemned inmates, making Pennsylvania's death row the fifth largest in the nation.  He's also one of 12 death row inmates prosecuted for murders committed in Berks County, which along with York County has the second-highest number of death row inmates in the state behind Philadelphia's 69.  It was 1937 when Pennsylvania last executed someone for a murder that took place in Berks.

Observers of the state's system both locally and nationally agreed it is deeply flawed. It is likely to get even more scrutiny as prosecutors move ahead with a death penalty case against Eric Frein, accused of ambushing and murdering a state trooper this year....

The newspaper's cost estimate is likely a conservative number.  That's because the estimate, which relies on a 2008 Maryland study by the Urban Institute, was calculated using the Pennsylvania inmates now on death row.  The estimate does not account for unsuccessful death penalty cases tried by prosecutors, nor does it include death row inmates whose sentences were overturned on appeal.

The 2008 study — which produced findings similar to other state studies — found that Maryland spent an average of $1.9 million more on cases that led to death sentences than on cases where the death penalty could have been sought but was not.  At least two experts, including the researcher of the Maryland report, said the study was a fair comparison for estimating the cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers.  Applying the Maryland per-case figure to Pennsylvania's current 185 death row inmates yields a Pennsylvania cost of $351.5 million....

The state has executed three men, all of whom gave up their appeals, since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.  But with so few executions among the 429 death warrants Pennsylvania governors have signed since 1985, experts say it's critical lawmakers know the cost to justify budget expenses with a projected $1.85 billion state shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year.  So far, the death penalty hasn't been part of the budget debate.

For the loved ones of the victims, like Moyer, the financial cost of the death penalty is outweighed by the emotional toll of likely never having the killer's execution carried out. Lyons used two kitchen knives to stab Leibig, 45, of Millcreek Township, Lebanon County, again and again, investigators said.  The brutal attack lasted up to 15 minutes.  Lyons, now 49, was convicted and sentenced to death by a Berks jury, but claims he didn't kill Leibig.

The state Supreme Court denied his appeal in 2013, and his execution was set for August, but a federal judge granted him a stay in July, and his appeal process continues.  Leibig's family is frustrated and disappointed, knowing the state may never follow through with his execution.  "He'll keep fighting and playing the system," Moyer said.  "He had a fair trial, and he was guilty.  Put him to death. Give him the injection."...

A death penalty that doesn't actually execute people frustrates those on both sides of the debate.  Death penalty proponents blame an endless and costly appeals process.  Opponents criticize a system with too little funding for poor defendants....

At least one Berks judge who once supported the death penalty has had a change of heart. The judge, who asked not to be identified, had thought execution was a just punishment for the state's worst offenders and a deterrent to others.  But after seeing how cases continuously circle the courts, the judge now thinks the death penalty is a waste of time and money and is unnecessarily difficult on the victim's loved ones holding out hope for an execution.

"It's horrible for the families," the judge said.  Death penalty rulings aren't foolproof and should be scrutinized, but there should also be a limit on appeals, the judge said. "Now there is hearing after hearing.  It never ends," the judge said....

"There is a problem with a law that is never carried out," he said. State Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, a Reading Democrat, said he's heard from victims' families how hard it is to sit and wait for the death penalty to be carried out.  "They say: 'We lost a loved one. Why is he still living? Where is the justice?'" Caltagirone said.  "And victim's rights groups are livid about the endless appeals."  But Caltagirone also said he wonders whether it's appropriate for the state to execute someone.  "I'm kind of torn on it," he said.

More than a dozen states have analyzed death penalty costs.  Some states found the costs nearly 50 percent to 70 percent higher than non-death penalty cases.  While the costs vary across the U.S., all found capital trials more expensive.  The reason?  Mostly because the process is more complicated at every point in the case.  A death penalty case involves more attorneys, witnesses and experts.  Jury selection is long, as are the trials.  Also the cases usually have more pre-trial motions and require a separate trial for sentencing.

Incarcerating death row inmates in solitary confinement is also expensive — about $10,000 more a year than inmates serving a life sentence, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.  And, the majority of death penalty trials on appeal are found to be flawed, some significantly, and must be redone, adding to the price tag.

The state has been studying a laundry list of issues since 2011 when lawmakers directed the Joint State Government Commission to research capital punishment.  Berks officials did not know what the costs of trying capital cases are to taxpayers. "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," Adams said.  "There's no way that we can put a financial number to that."...

"You can't choose to do it and not pay for," said Marc Bookman, a former public defender and director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia, a nonprofit resource center.  "It's really expensive to do it properly and it's even more expensive to do it incorrectly," he said.

Last year, Maryland became the 18th state to abolish capital punishment.  Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley cited the cost — roughly three times as much as life without parole — as one of the factors for repealing the death penalty.  John Ramon, author of "The Cost of the Death Penalty in Maryland," said the costs to Pennsylvania taxpayers are likely comparable, assuming trial and incarceration expenses are similar. "It's not as big as an assumption as it sounds," Ramon said....

Knowing the cost, Ramon and others said, changes the conversation on a very polarizing issue. "I think it changes the nature of the debate because what it's saying is let's not just ask if the death penalty is better than not having the death penalty," Ramon said. "It's saying, given the death penalty is far more expensive, is it still worth having?"

December 14, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Various appeals do not interfere with Georgia and Missouri completing final executions of 2014

As detailed in this lengthy AP/CBS article, headlined "Missouri, Georgia execute murderers, one a cop killer," two executions were carried out over the last 24 hours.  Here are some of the details:

A Missouri inmate was put to death early Wednesday for fatally beating a 63-year-old woman with a hammer in 1998, the state's record 10th lethal injection of 2014, matching Texas for the most executions in the country this year.  In Georgia, a man convicted of killing a sheriff's deputy moments after robbing a convenience store in central Georgia was executed Tuesday night.

The Missouri case involved Paul Goodwin, 48, who sexually assaulted Joan Crotts in St. Louis County, pushed her down a flight of stairs and beat her in the head with a hammer. Goodwin was a former neighbor who felt Crotts played a role in getting him kicked out of a boarding house.

Goodwin's execution began at 1:17 a.m., more than an hour after it was scheduled, and he was pronounced dead at 1:25 a.m.  Efforts to spare Goodwin's life centered on his low IQ and claims that executing him would violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the death penalty for the mentally disabled.  Attorney Jennifer Herndon said Goodwin had an IQ of 73, and some tests suggested it was even lower....

Missouri's 10th execution of 2014 matches the state's previous high of nine in 1999. Neither Missouri nor Texas has another execution scheduled this year.  Texas, Missouri and Florida have combined for 28 of the 34 executions in the U.S. this year.  Missouri has scheduled one execution each month since November 2013.  Two were halted by court action, but 12 were carried out over the past 14 months.

In Georgia, Robert Wayne Holsey, 49, was declared dead at 10:51 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson, authorities said.  Holsey was sentenced to die for the Dec. 17, 1995, killing of Baldwin County sheriff's deputy Will Robinson.  A jury convicted Holsey in February 1997.

Holsey robbed a convenience store in the town of Milledgeville early on Dec. 17, and the store clerk immediately called police, describing the suspect and his car, prosecutors said. According to court documents, Robinson stopped a car at a nearby hotel minutes later and radioed in the license plate number.  As Robinson approached the vehicle, Holsey fired at him, prosecutors said.  The deputy suffered a fatal head wound....

Holsey's lawyers filed a number of last-minute appeals to stop the execution but they were all rejected.  Holsey was executed nearly an hour after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request for a stay....

Holsey's lawyers had argued in a clemency petition that their client should be spared lethal injection because his 1997 trial was mishandled by an alcoholic lawyer who was distracted by his own problems.  The trial lawyer died in 2011.  The original lawyer told the court that intellectual disability would not be a factor in the case, despite records showing Holsey was intellectually disabled, Holsey's lawyers argued.  And the jury also didn't hear details about Holsey's childhood, which was characterized by horrifying abuse at the hands of his mother, according to the petition.

In their efforts to halt the execution, Holsey's lawyers argued that he was intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred execution of the intellectually disabled, but left the states to determine who is intellectually disabled.  Georgia requires death-row inmates to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be spared execution on those grounds.  Courts have consistently upheld Georgia's toughest-in-the-nation standard of proof on this issue....

The state of Georgia argued in court filings that Holsey is not intellectually disabled.  An expert found that Holsey had a learning disability but was not disabled, and his siblings relied on him as a leader, the state's lawyers argued.  The state also disputed the idea that Holsey's trial lawyer was ineffective, saying the prosecutor in the case and the judge both testified that the original lawyer performed very well.

December 10, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Scheduled Georgia execution raising again issues of poor lawyers and intellectual disability

This New York Times article reports on the legal issues surrounding the fate of a condmned murderer scheduled to be executed tonight in Georgia.  Here are the basics:

A parole panel in Georgia refused on Monday to grant clemency to a man who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday evening, apparently unpersuaded by evidence that he was ineptly represented at trial by a drunken lawyer, had an exceptionally harsh childhood and has a severe intellectual deficit.

But in what could be a legal decision with wider effects, lawyers for the man, Robert Wayne Holsey, were still waiting for the Georgia Supreme Court to respond to a last-­minute appeal. They argued that the state’s standard for determining intellectual disability in capital cases — the country’s most stringent — runs afoul of a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court.

Mr. Holsey was convicted of armed robbery and murder in 1997 and sentenced to death. He had robbed a convenience store and shot and killed a pursuing officer.  His trial lawyer later admitted that at the time he was drinking up to a quart of vodka daily and facing theft charges that would land him in prison. He said he should not have been representing a client.

On appeal, a Superior Court judge ruled that during the penalty phase of Mr. Holsey’s trial, his lawyer had failed to effectively present evidence that might have forestalled a death penalty, including facts about Mr. Holsey’s history and his intellectual deficit. That judge called for a new sentencing trial.  But the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that the jury had heard enough evidence about mitigating factors during the initial trial....

That Mr. Holsey had received ineffective counsel seemed clear, said John H. Blume, a professor and director of the death penalty project at the Cornell Law School. “But the quality of representation in capital cases is often so low,” he said, “that it’s difficult to shock the courts.”

He and other legal experts said a more promising tack — if not for Mr. Holsey, then for defendants in the future — is the challenge to Georgia’s standard of proof for intellectual disability.  The state requires defendants to prove that they are intellectually disabled “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  For those near the borderline, often described as an I.Q. around 70, that standard is nearly impossible to meet.  Many legal experts think it violates a Supreme Court ruling last May that said states cannot create “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”

In other states, either a “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence” is necessary to establish disability, said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor and death penalty expert at Hofstra University. Both are less stringent standards than the one used in Georgia.

In a landmark decision in 2002, the United States Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally disabled people, but largely left it to the states to set the criteria. In its decision in May, the court added new conditions, ruling in Hall v. Florida that the state could not rely on a simple I.Q. cutoff but rather must take a broad look at a person’s ability to function.

Mr. Holsey’s I.Q. has been measured at around 70.... The state, he said, had argued that because he could drive a car and had a girlfriend, Mr. Holsey could not be disabled....

Constitutional scholars say it is most likely that at some point either the Georgia Supreme Court or the federal Supreme Court will strike down the standard as an unreasonable outlier. “You’ve got a national constitutional rule that people with intellectual disability shouldn’t be executed, but it’s being applied differently in different states,” Mr. Blume of Cornell said

December 9, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, December 05, 2014

SCOTUS takes up new capital procedures case from Louisiana

As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, the Supreme Court this afternoon granted cert on three new cases, one of which involves death penalty procedure.  Here is Lyle Denniston's description of Brumfield v. Cain, the new capital case on the Supreme Court's agenda:

In accepting a Louisiana murder case for review on Friday, the Court agreed to sort out whether an individual accused of a capital crime has a right to an independent court hearing on whether he suffers from mental incapacity, and thus could not be sentenced to death.  In the case of Brumfield v. Cain, the issue of Kevan Brumfield’s mental state was decided as an issue at the penalty phase of his murder trial, rather than at a separate inquiry.

Brumfield was sentenced to death for the shooting death of an off-duty Baton Rouge, La., police officer during an attempted robbery at a night deposit box at a bank in 1993. The officer had used a police car to transport a store manager on a trip to the bank to deposit the store’s proceeds.  Brumfield was charged with killing the officer and wounding the store manager.

In taking the case to the Supreme Court, Brumfield’s lawyers argued that he has a serious defect in his intellectual capacity, but that state courts dealt with that only as an issue during his death sentencing hearing to determine whether it should mitigate the penalty.  The petition contended that he was entitled to a separate hearing on that question.  His petition raised a separate question on whether Brumfield was entitled to have the state pay for gathering evidence of his mental incapacity.

UPDATE: A lot more information about this crime and the defendant in this new SCOTUS case can be found in this local article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court to hear mental retardation claim of Baton Rouge convicted killer: Mental retardation, execution eligibility at heart of the matter."

December 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 04, 2014

"The True Legacy of Atkins and Roper: The Unreliability Principle, Mentally Ill Defendants, and the Death Penalty's Unraveling"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper by Scott Sundby now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In striking down the death penalty for intellectually disabled and juvenile defendants, Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons have been understandably heralded as important holdings under the Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence that has found the death penalty "disproportional" for certain types of defendants and crimes.  This Article argues, however, that the cases have a far more revolutionary reach than their conventional understanding.  In both cases the Court went one step beyond its usual two-step analysis of assessing whether imposing the death penalty violated "evolving standards of decency."  This extra step looked at why even though intellectual disability and youth were powerful mitigators, juries were not able to reliably use them in their decision making.

The Court thus articulated expressly for the first time what this Article calls the "unreliability principle:" if too great a risk exists that constitutionally protected mitigation cannot be reliably assessed, the unreliability means that the death penalty cannot be constitutionally imposed.  In recognizing the unreliability principle, the Court has called into serious question the death penalty for other offenders to whom the principle applies, such as mentally ill defendants.  And, unlike with the "evolving standards" analysis, the unreliability principle does not depend on whether a national consensus exists against the practice.

This Article identifies the six Atkins-Roper factors that bring the unreliability principle into play and shows why they make application of the death penalty to mentally ill defendants unconstitutional.  The principle, which finds its constitutional home in the cases of Woodson v. North Carolina and Lockett v. Ohio, has profound implications for the death penalty, and if taken to its logical endpoint calls into question the Court's core premise since Furman v. Georgia, that by providing individualized consideration of a defendant and his crime, the death penalty decision will be free of arbitrariness.

December 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Nevada completes detailed accounting of costs of death penalty cases

As reported in this local article, headlined "High cost of death penalty could affect its future in Nevada," the Silver State's audits have recently completed a detailed report on how much taxpayer gold is typically spent in capital cases. Here are the details:

Nevada’s criminal justice system spends nearly twice as much handling death penalty cases compared with murder cases where capital punishment isn’t sought, according to a report released Tuesday by state auditors.

The state-mandated study, which surveyed data from 27 state and local agencies, gives ammunition to death penalty opponents who have failed to defeat public support for capital punishment using moral objections. It is, by far, Nevada’s most comprehensive study on the controversial practice and will serve as a law makers' guide for years to come....

Auditors assembled the 105-page report by sampling data from 28 cases, calculating costs associated with legal counsel — both defense and prosecution — as well as for money spent on court proceedings and incarceration.

Here are three highlights from the document's release:

From a suspect’s arrest through his or her final days behind bars, officials spend at least $1.3 million on murder cases where convicts are sentenced to death but not executed — that’s $532,000 more compared with murder cases where capital punishment wasn't sought. Litigation costs, including the trial and appeal phase, averaged about three times more for death penalty versus non-death penalty cases. And expenses are similar for all death penalty cases, regardless of whether a sentence is given or not.

Among all prison inmates convicted of murder, costs are highest for people on death row. There were 83 people sentenced to death in Nevada as of late last year. Prosecutors could have potentially saved an estimated $44 million by never pursuing corporal punishment in those cases....

Nevada's per capita death penalty rate ranks fourth in the country and tops Texas and California, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. But the state's death chamber is seldom used, and only a dozen people have been executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the capital punishment in 1976. Of those, only one died against his will. The last execution in Nevada happened more than eight years ago.

It’s likely the study underestimated the cost of death penalty cases because of underreporting from government agencies....

The study’s findings fall in line with previous research examining the financial burden of capital murder cases — a study released this year by the Kansas Judicial Council found that defending a death penalty case costs as much as four times more than other murder cases.

Critics of the practice hope Nevada’s study will bolster efforts to erode support for capital punishment. “A lot of people who favor the death penalty think it’s cheaper,” said Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Lisa Rasmussen, who also watched Tuesday's meeting from Las Vegas. “Once people understand and they’re informed, maybe things will change.”

The full 100+ page Nevada legislative audit document released this week, which carries the exciting title "Fiscal Costs of the Death Penalty," can be accessed at this link.

December 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Fifth Circuit issues stay keepingTexas from executing mentally ill condemned murderer

As reported in this CNN piece, the Fifth Circuit today "stayed the execution of Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti, who was scheduled to be put to death at 6 p.m. Wednesday." Here is more:

Panetti's case has sparked debate for years over whether the state can execute someone who is severely mentally ill.  During his trial for the 1992 slayings of his mother- and father-in-law, Panetti represented himself — dressed in a purple cowboy outfit — and called Jesus, John F. Kennedy and the Pope to the stand.  The now-56-year-old was convicted of shooting them to death at close range, in front of his wife and daughter.

Panetti has suffered from schizophrenia for 30 years, his lawyers say, and he was hospitalized for mental illness numerous times before the murders.  Though Panetti received initial evaluations of his mental health, his state of mind has deteriorated, his lawyer Kathryn Kase said.  She noted in a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry that Panetti hasn't received a mental evaluation in seven years.  Kase asked that Perry grant a 30-day stay to the scheduled execution so that that an evaluation can be done to determine if he understands his punishment....

"If he's executed there should be a sense of outrage," said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  "There's no question he's mentally ill.  If this happens, the message would be — 'we just don't care.'

"To execute him flies in the face of even supporters of the death penalty who say that it should be carried out with inmates who are the worst of the worst," Honberg continued.  "It would be much more compassionate and practical to spend money treating inmates with mental illness rather than execute this man."

The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 7-0 to deny clemency in Panetti's case.  There is still an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, in addition to the appeal the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Wednesday.

December 3, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, December 01, 2014

"What Death Penalty Opponents Don’t Get"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella now appearing at both The Marshall Project and The Huffington Post. Here are excerpts:

Opponents of the death penalty have had many occasions to celebrate in the new millennium.  Four states have abolished the practice in the past five years, while others have legally or effectively set moratoriums on executions.  Support for capital punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in four decades, and seems likely to fall further as the number of exonerations and gruesomely botched executions continues to grow.

But at what cost have these concessions been won?  The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's latest “Death Row U.S.A.” report found 3,049 individuals awaiting execution in the United States.  According to the Sentencing Project, at last count nearly 50,000 people were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole — a number that has more than tripled since the early 1990s.  Over 159,000 were serving life sentences — many of them ... with minimums so long that they might as well be doing life without parole, too.

In many states, the expansion — and the very existence — of life without parole sentences can be directly linked to the struggle to end capital punishment.  Death penalty opponents often accept — and even zealously promote — life without parole as a preferable option, in the process becoming champions of a punishment that is nearly unknown in the rest of the developing world...

Complicating matters is the fact that life without parole rarely takes its place as simply a one-for-one alternative to the death penalty.  In New York State, for example, life without parole did not exist before the state’s brief reinstitution of capital punishment from 1995 to 2004.  During this period, there were never more than half a dozen men on New York’s death row, and no executions took place.  Yet today, nearly 250 people are doing life without parole in New York, and more than 1 in 6 of the state’s prisoners is serving a life sentence.

Connecticut, in abolishing its death penalty in 2012, legislated a punishment even more harsh than simple life without parole.  Thereafter, a new law decreed, those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” would be condemned to live out their life without parole sentences in solitary confinement. The measure was reportedly backed as a way to win enough support for the repeal bill.

Though the requirement that life/LWOP sentences be served in solitary confinement is codified into law only in Connecticut, it exists in practice throughout the nation. An unknown number of lifers have, like [New York lifer] William Blake, been placed in permanent or indefinite solitary confinement by prison officials, without benefit of any kind of due process.  So have most of the individuals on the nation’s death rows, including the supposedly fortunate ones who live in states that have instituted moratoriums, and are therefore unlikely to ever face execution.

Research has confirmed that even brief periods in solitary alter brain chemistry and produce psychiatric symptoms ranging from extreme depression to active psychosis. Some prisoners who have spent longer amounts of time in isolation describe it as a condition that slowly degrades both their humanity and sanity, turning them into blind animals given to interminable pacing, smearing their cells with feces, or engaging in self-mutilation....

William Blake has said that while he cannot bring himself to take his own life, he would have welcomed the death penalty 27 years ago had he known what a lifetime in solitary confinement would be like. Perhaps the time will come when people like Blake — and the American public — are not forced to choose among such monstrous alternatives.  In the meantime, it will be a shame if people who oppose state-sponsored death continue to advocate for state-sanctioned torture.

Long-time readers know that I largely share the perspective of these commentators. I find compelling the assertion that some (many?) LWOP sentences can often involve a fate worse than death, and I find moving the concern that too much of modern opposition to "state-sponsored death" in the United States tends to advocate, both formally and functionally, for a kind of "state-sanctioned torture."

December 1, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Noting some reasons the number of US executions in 2014 are so low

This new Christian Science Monitor article details some reasons why the US is on pace to have fewer than three dozen executions this year for the first time in decades. The piece carries this lengthy headline and subheading: "Death penalty in 2014: why US has seen fewest executions in 20 years: The downward trend in executions has several explanations, but experts say it’s probably not because of death penalty debates about innocence and guilt.  Rather, they say, it’s the details of how the state goes about ending a condemned life." Here are excerpts:

In late November, a federal judge emptied Wyoming’s death row of its last remaining occupant, Dale Wayne Eaton.  His lawyers don’t dispute that Mr. Eaton in 1988 raped and killed 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell after kidnapping her and holding her hostage in his compound.  The problem, the court found, was that his defense team failed to present him as a three-dimensional human being at his sentencing, including pointing out the severe beatings he received as a child and how he was evaluated to have low intelligence.

The ruling seemed of the moment in a country that has seen sentiments about the death penalty continue to shift in 2014.  So far this year, America has seen the fewest executions  — 32 — in 20 years....

A series of botched and disturbing executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona has also contributed to the shifting debate, argues Rick Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  Death penalty states are being forced to come up with new lethal injection drug formulas as traditional suppliers of the drugs stop distributing them to states.

The downward trend in executions has several explanations, but experts say it’s probably not because of debates about innocence and guilt.  Rather, they say, it’s the details of how the state goes about ending a condemned life, including the issues surrounding the lethal injection drugs.

November 30, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, November 28, 2014

Texas Justice calls for state's death penalty to be abolished

Tom-Price-Judge-Texas-Court-of-Criminal-AppealsAs reported in this local article, "Texas Court of Appeals Justice Tom Price on Wednesday denounced the death penalty, saying that Texas' 2005 life without parole law makes it unnecessary and that the possibility of executing a wrongfully convicted person is an 'irrational risk' that should not be tolerated by the criminal justice system."  Here is more about this notable development which emerged in a legal challenge to a notable planned execution:

The Dallas Republican's comments, thought to be the first time such views have been voiced by a judge on the state's highest criminal appeals court, came in a strongly worded dissent to the court's Wednesday rejection of an appeal on behalf of Scott Panetti, a Fredericksburg double-killer said to suffer from schizophrenia.  Panetti, 56, is scheduled to be executed next Wednesday.

"Based on my specialized knowledge of this process," Price wrote, "I now conclude that the death penalty as a form of punishment should be abolished because the execution of individuals does not appear to measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purpose served by the death penalty; the life without parole option adequately protects society at large in the same way as the death penalty option; and the risk of executing an innocent person for a capital murder is unreasonably high, particularly in light of procedural-default laws and the prevalence of ineffective trial and initial habeas counsel."

Price, 61, a former Dallas County state district judge, has served on the high appeals court since 1996.  His term ends this year and he has said he will not seek re-election.  In his statement, Price asserted that "society is now less convinced of the absolute accuracy of the criminal justice system."...

"In my time on this court I have voted to grant numerous applications for writs of habeas corpus that have resulted in the release of dozens of people who were wrongfully convicted," Price wrote.  "I conclude that it is wishful thinking to believe that this state will never execute an innocent person for capital murder. ... I am convinced that, because the criminal justice system is run by humans, it is naturally subject to human error. There is no rational basis to believe that this same type of human error will not infect capital murder trials."

Price's comments were greeted with surprise by law professors and appellate attorneys active in death penalty cases.  "I'm still absorbing it. It wasn't expected," said Maurie Levin, a former clinical law professor at the University of Texas who now is based in Philadelphia. "It's long overdue."  While the concerns raised by Price have been "discussed and decried around the country for a number of years now ... for a high court judge, a CCA judge, to articulate them so forthrightly is extraordinary."...

Jani Maselli Wood, an assistant Harris County public defender, an adjunct professor at the University of Houston law school and a former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals staff attorney, said she doubts Price's statement will influence legislators or incoming juries. But, "it will impact his legacy for what he wants us to remember," Wood said.  "He says we have life without parole, why do we need death convictions.  He is remarkably brave.  I think it is heroic."

Price's statement came in a dissent to the court's 6-3 vote not to consider a new appeal on behalf of Panetti that argues his mental condition "renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and 14th Amendments, because imposition of the death penalty on offenders with severe mental illness offends contemporary standards of decency."  The court found the petition failed to meet requirements for applications of post-conviction writs of habeas corpus.

Judges Elsa Alcala and Cheryl Johnson issued a separate dissenting opinion, saying they would stay Panetti's execution to allow for an examination of his claim that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of seriously mentally ill individuals.

The full six-page "Dissenting Statement" by Justice Price can be accessed at this link, and here is one of a number of notable paragraphs from the opinion:

Some might argue that a victim’s family deserves the finality that comes with the execution of an offender.  This is a misguided sentiment as the instant case demonstrates. Applicant has been on death row for about twenty years.  The victims’ family has not gotten finality after twenty years due to the numerous appeals and writs filed by applicant in which he has contended that his mental status makes him ineligible for execution.  And, perhaps, one would say that the answer is speeding up executions.  But creating a more restrictive temporal limitation would only increase the risk of executing a wrongfully convicted person.  In my experience, a victim’s family is more likely to quickly experience finality through the criminal justice system when an offender is sentenced to life without parole than when he is sentenced to death.

November 28, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Some unusual suspects working to stop Texas from executing mentally ill condemned murderer

Panetti003This new Mother Jones article reports on some of the interesting persons who are eager to prevent Texas from carrying out a notable death sentence next week.  The article is headlined "Can Ron Paul and Conservative Evangelicals Save a Texas Death-Row Inmate? A rightwing crusade aims to stop the execution of Scott Panetti, a mentally ill convicted murder." Here are excerpts:

When Scott Panetti represented himself in a Texas capital murder case in 1995, wearing a purple cowboy suit and calling himself "Sarge," he called as a witness a veterinarian who once lived across the street from him. Panetti questioned the vet about the time he euthanized Little Blue, Panetti's old dog. The episode had nothing to do with the case. Other witnesses Panetti tried to call to the stand: John F. Kennedy and Jesus.

Trial transcripts, medical records, and expert witness testimony have documented that Panetti suffers from severe schizophrenia. He believes Texas is going to execute him to stop him from preaching the gospel — not because he shaved his head, donned camo fatigues, and shot and killed his in-laws in 1992. The Supreme Court has declared that executing the mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, but several Texas and federal courts — including the US Supreme Court — have reviewed Panetti's case, and each one has ruled that the state can proceed with his lethal injection. Now, with Panetti’s execution scheduled for December 3, the only thing that might save him is a national campaign being mounted by conservatives, including former Texas Republican congressman and libertarian icon Ron Paul.

Panetti's lawyers have filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, which can recommend that Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison without parole. That petition has received an outpouring of support from conservatives and evangelicals. In addition to Paul, this group includes Jay Sekulow, an evangelical lawyer famous for pressing religious liberties cases on behalf of social conservatives.

Paul's involvement in the case is unusual. Last year, he publicly endorsed a new advocacy group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, saying, "I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism." This was the result of a years-long evolution....

It’s also unusual for conservative Christians to support a clemency petition like Panetti's. The last time evangelicals really rallied en masse to prevent a pending execution was in 1998, in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who converted to Christianity in prison and became a conservative cause celebre. Despite the pleadings of evangelicals such as Pat Robertson, the Texas governor at the time, George W. Bush, went ahead with the execution, and Tucker became the first woman executed in the state since 1863.

The Panetti case is different. His religious fervor is the product of a brain disorder, and the evangelicals' opposition to his execution is not related to his religious proclamations. It is more of a reflection of the shift in public attitudes regarding capital punishment that has been driven by the growing number of exonerations of death-row inmates, the high number of mentally ill and disabled people sentenced to die, and the inefficient and expensive administration of capital punishment. "A lot of conservatives are late to realize that the whole criminal justice system is part of the government," says Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative leader and an ardent opponent of the death penalty.

Religious conservatives are increasingly joining those who would like to see the end of the death penalty, citing their movement’s commitment to a "culture of life," which has traditionally focused primarily on restricting abortion. Conservative evangelicals, says Beaudoin, have been animated by the Panetti case over the past few weeks. Her outfit has opposed other executions, but, she says, the Panetti case has hit a nerve. She has been surprised by the number of influential Christians who have signed on to the clemency petition, especially Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Coalition, who's on Time magazine's 2013 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who now runs a pro-life ministry for former abortion clinic employees, wrote an editorial in the Dallas News calling on Texas to spare Panetti.

"This is the largest outpouring of support on a death penalty case we've seen from evangelicals, and you can see why, given the ridiculous nature of this case," Beaudoin says. "A lot of folks who signed this [clemency] letter might have given pause about signing on to a letter opposing the death penalty generally, but they think we have no business executing Scott Panetti." She adds, "As Christians, we're called protect the most vulnerable. And there's just no question that Scott Panetti is in that number as someone who's suffered from severe mental illness. We all want to keep society safe, but I'm thankful there are other ways to do that than executing people."

November 26, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Can and should out-going Maryland Gov commute death sentences to ensure LWOP after state's capital repeal?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Baltimore Sun article discussing the interesting procedural and practical issues now surrounding the fate of Maryland's death row prisoners and the decisions facing the out-going Maryland Governor who signed the law repealing the state's death penalty.  Here are excerpts from the article:

A western Maryland woman whose parents were killed by a man on death row urged Gov. Martin O'Malley in a phone conversation Monday not to commute the man's sentence. The conversation came days after The Baltimore Sun reported that O'Malley had reached out to two relatives of people killed by men on death row — moves that fueled speculation that, with two months left in office, the governor may be poised to take action on the death penalty cases.

"I said, 'Don't touch this [case], let it go back to court, let the judges decide,'" said Mary Francis Moore, 71, whose father and his wife were killed in 1995 by Heath William Burch. Moore said that in their roughly 15-minute phone conversation, O'Malley did not say what his plans were. But they discussed what might happen to Burch in light of another inmate's appeal. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has joined the appeal, arguing that the state no longer has the authority to execute anyone.

O'Malley "talked about the possibility that if it did go back to court, that these guys would get out, that they would only get life," not life without possibility of parole, Moore said. Moore said she concluded the conversation by asking O'Malley "to pray about it." The governor told her, she said, "I hope we meet some day."...

O'Malley has largely refused to discuss the fate of the men who were already sentenced to death when he and the General Assembly repealed the death penalty last year. The repeal did not apply to them.

Maryland's governor has broad power to pardon or reduce an inmate's sentence, but the authors of the death penalty repeal law included language spelling out that he could change a death sentence to life without parole — even if that sentence did not exist when the inmate committed his crime. Two men on death row commited their crimes before 1987, when Maryland lawmakers established the sentence of life without parole.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a proponent of repeal and the attorney general-elect, said Monday that a court would not be able to resentence an inmate to a penalty that did not exist at the time he was convicted, but the governor can.

Advocates on both sides of the issue have been watching to see whether O'Malley might commute the sentences of the four men remaining on death row....

Moore said she "begged" O'Malley not to grant Burch clemency, though he never clearly said he was considering that. She thinks Burch should be put to death. "I asked him, 'What are you going to do, governor?' I asked him two or three times, 'What are your plans?'"...

"The last thing I said to him was, 'I want you to really think about this, and I want you to pray about it, because I want you to do the right thing,'" she said. "The right thing to me is leave it alone."

Even before the death penalty repeal, the status of Maryland's death row inmates had been up in the air since 2006 when the state's regulations for executions were thrown out by a court. They were never replaced. Lawyers from the attorney general's office are scheduled to argue Dec. 8 before a state appellate court that Maryland can't issue new regulations now that capital punishment has been abolished.

An appeal by another death row inmate, Jody Lee Miles, faces an uncertain outcome in the courts. But Gansler has noted O'Malley's authority to commute death sentences to life without parole. Governors in Illinois and New Jersey commuted the existing death sentences in their states after the repeal of capital punishment....

Dorothy Atkinson, whose son was killed by Miles in 1997, said she, too, was contacted by the governor's office about a meeting.... Though Atkinson believes Miles deserves to be executed, she submitted a letter to O'Malley two weeks ago, asking him to commute Miles' sentence to spare her family from the ordeal of further legal wrangling.

I believe that, at least in some jurisdictions, convicted defendants are able to formally refuse to except a grant of clemency. Consequently, I am not entirely sure Gov O'Malley can ensure through a commutation decision that some of the death row prisoners get an LWOP sentence nor that a commutation decision will ensure there is no further legal wrangling over these cases. That said, the procedural and practical issues arising in this setting perhaps provide a strong reason for the out-going Gov to do exactly what the victims' families now request in each case whether that involves a request for commutation or a request to leave this matter to the state courts.

November 25, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Will Texas Kill an Insane Man?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:

On Dec. 3, Texas plans to execute an inmate named Scott Panetti, who was convicted in 1995 for murdering his in-laws with a hunting rifle. There is no question that Mr. Panetti committed the murders. There is also no question that he is severely mentally ill, and has been for decades.

During his capital murder trial, at which he was inexplicably allowed to represent himself, Mr. Panetti dressed in a cowboy suit and attempted to subpoena, among others, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.  A standby lawyer said his behavior was “scary” and “trance-like,” and called the trial “a judicial farce.”

It was not an act.  Mr. Panetti, now 56, was first diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 20, and in the years before the murders he was hospitalized several times for delusions and psychotic episodes.  

In this respect, he is no different from the estimated 350,000 inmates around the country with mental illness — 10 times the number of people in state psychiatric hospitals.  But Mr. Panetti is not just another insane prisoner; his name is synonymous with the Supreme Court’s modern jurisprudence about mental illness on death row. In Panetti v. Quarterman, decided in 2007, the justices held that it is not enough for a defendant simply to be aware that he is going to be executed and why — the previous standard the court had used in permitting the execution of the mentally ill....

But the justices refused to set precise guidelines for determining whether someone is competent enough to be executed, and they did not overturn Mr. Panetti’s sentence. Instead, they sent the case back to the lower courts for a fuller reconsideration of his current mental state.

By any reasonable standard — not to mention the findings of multiple mental-health experts over the years — Mr. Panetti is mentally incompetent. But Texas, along with several other stubborn states, has a long history of finding the loopholes in Supreme Court rulings restricting the death penalty.  The state has continued to argue that Mr. Panetti is exaggerating the extent of his illness, and that he understands enough to be put to death — a position a federal appeals court accepted last year, even though it agreed that he was “seriously mentally ill.”

Mr. Panetti has not had a mental-health evaluation since 2007.  In a motion hastily filed this month, his volunteer lawyers requested that his execution be stayed, that a lawyer be appointed for him, and that he receive funding for a new mental-health assessment, saying his functioning has only gotten worse.  For instance, he now claims that a prison dentist implanted a transmitter in his tooth.

The lawyers would have made this motion weeks earlier, immediately after a Texas judge set Mr. Panetti’s execution date. But since no one — not the judge, not the district attorney, not the attorney general — notified them (or even Mr. Panetti himself), they had no idea their client was scheduled to be killed until they read about it in a newspaper. State officials explained that the law did not require them to provide notification.

On Nov. 19, a Texas court denied the lawyers’ motion. A civilized society should not be in the business of executing anybody. But it certainly cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability if it kills someone like Scott Panetti.

November 24, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, November 21, 2014

"'Power and Greed and the Corruptible Seed': Mental Disability, Prosecutorial Misconduct, and the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Michael Perlin available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that jurors can be counted on to apply the law in this area conscientiously and fairly. All our criminal procedure jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that prosecutors and judges will act fairly.  I believe that these assumptions are based on nothing more than wishful thinking, and that the record of death penalty litigation in the thirty-eight years since the “modern” penalty was approved in Gregg v. Georgia gives the lie to them.

This article focuses solely on the role of prosecutors in this process, and the extent to which prosecutorial misconduct has contaminated the entire death penalty process, especially in cases involving defendants with mental disabilities. This is an issue known well to all those who represent such defendants in death penalty cases but, again, there is startlingly little literature on the topic. It is misconduct that is largely hidden and ignored. The article begins with some brief background on issues that relate to the treatment of persons with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system in general. It then discusses prosecutorial misconduct and the outcomes of that misconduct, with special attention to a cohort of appellate decisions in unheralded and rarely (if ever) discussed published cases that, in almost every instance, sanction such misconduct. Next, it demonstrates how some prosecutors purposely flaunt the canons of ethics in the prosecution of defendants with mental disabilities in death penalty cases, and then will discuss some solutions raised by scholars to (at least, partially) cure this problems, and concludes with some modest suggestions of my own.

November 21, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Ohio and Utah moving forward with distinct fixes for lethal injection drug problems

As reported in this two article, legislatures in Ohio and Utah are taking quite different approaches to the problems poised by the unavailability of some drugs historically used for lethal injection executions.  The headlined of these stories highlight the basics:

From the Wall Street Journal here, "Ohio House Passes Bill Shielding Execution Drugmakers: Measure Would Add Layers of Secrecy to Death-Penalty Procedures." 

From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Firing squad executions back on the table in Utah Legislature"

November 21, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hoping to help Kickstart a notable new death penalty documentary

I am eager to promote widely an important film project from some folks in London focused on modern US death penalty stories. (I am partial to the project in part because one of my former students, Allen Bohnert, OSU Moritz College of Law grad ('06), is one key subject being documented in his role as current lead counsel in the long-running Section 1983 litigation over Ohio's lethal injection protocols.)

This notable project is still in production, and the filmmakers are currently fundraising for financial support to help allow them to finish filming.  The Kickstarter campaign is available here; lots of interesting items are available (such as signed copies of Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy, one-off pieces of art and the film itself) for any donation over $25.  I have been told that they will not be able to effectively finish this film without additional help for further funding.

The film itself is titled The Penalty, and it is to be a 90-minute feature documentary examining the current state of America's capital punishment system.  While some other documentaries have focused on death row stories through the lens of condemned prisoners, this film is focused more on people involved not on the row: lawyers, family members, politicians, campaigners, law enforcement, and others. A snippet from some filming so far is available at www.thepenaltyfilm.com.

I understand that the filmmakers have been particularly focused on following (1) my former student, Assistant Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Ohio Allen Bohnert, through Ohio's problematic execution of Dennis McGuire and its fallout, and (2) Louisiana death row exoneree Damon Thibodeaux as he tries to put his life back together after his wrongful conviction and later exoneration. I believe the filmakers are also incorporating lots of other characters from the capital punishment universe, including many experts in the field such as Debby Denno, Jeanne Woodford, David Dow, Kathryn Kase, Peter Neufeld, Richard Dieter and Clive Stafford-Smith.

Finally, I have been told that anyone has any ideas on stories that the filmmakers should look at, or have ideas for people they should be sure to talk to (e.g., grant-giving foundations, media outlets, campaign groups), they filmakers are eager to spread their network far and wide, and you can pass on ideas by emailing laura@reelnice.co.uk or will@reelnice.co.uk.

Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg.

November 20, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Film, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Death, Desuetude, and Original Meaning"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Stinneford now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

One of the most common objections to originalism is that it cannot cope with cultural change. One of the most commonly invoked examples of this claimed weakness is the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, whose original meaning would (it is argued) authorize barbaric punishment practices like flogging and branding, and disproportionate punishments like the death penalty for relatively minor offenses. This Article shows that this objection to originalism is inapt, at least with respect to the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. As I have shown in prior articles, the original meaning of “cruel and unusual” is “cruel and contrary to long usage,” or “cruel and new.” The primary purpose of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is to prevent legislatures and courts from imposing new punishments that are unduly harsh in light of the long usage of the common law.

This Article demonstrates that the Clause also incorporates the common law doctrine of desuetude, which holds that a once traditional punishment can become “unusual” if it falls out of usage long enough to show a stable multigenerational consensus against it. State courts and the Supreme Court of the United States employed this doctrine in decisions prior to 1958 to determine whether punishments such as ducking of a common scold, execution accompanied by torture, and imprisonment at hard labor for a minor offense were cruel and unusual. Under the original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the death penalty could become unconstitutional if it fell out of usage long enough to show a stable, multigenerational consensus against it. This process already occurred with respect to flogging, branding, and execution for relatively minor crimes like theft, and under the constitutions of states that abolished the death penalty several generations ago.

November 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Missouri completes ninth execution of 2014

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Missouri Executes Leon Taylor for 1994 Killing," the Show Me state showed another murderer that death sentences still get carried out in Mizzou. Here are the basic details:

A man who killed a suburban Kansas City gas station attendant in front of the worker's young stepdaughter in 1994 was put to death early Wednesday -- the ninth execution in Missouri this year.

Leon Vincent Taylor, 56, was pronounced dead at 12:22 a.m. at the state prison in Bonne Terre, minutes after receiving a lethal injection. With Taylor's death, 2014 ties 1999 for having the most executions in a year in Missouri.

Taylor shot worker Robert Newton to death in front of Newton's 8-year-old stepdaughter during a gas station robbery in Independence, Missouri. Taylor tried to kill the girl, too, but the gun jammed.

Taylor's fate was sealed Tuesday when Gov. Jay Nixon declined to grant clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his appeal. His body covered by a white sheet, Taylor could be seen in the execution chamber talking to family members through the glass in an adjacent room. Once the state started injecting 5 grams of pentobarbital, Taylor's chest heaved for several seconds then stopped. His jaw went slack and he displayed no other movement for the rest of the process.

Four of Taylor's family members sat in a room to his left and looked on without reaction as the drug killed Taylor in about eight minutes. At a time when lethal injections have gone awry in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona and taken an extended period to kill an inmate, Taylor's execution went off without any visible hitches or complications with the drug or equipment.

In a final statement, Taylor apologized to Newton's family because "our lives had to entwine so tragically" and thanked his family for their support and love. "I am also sorry to have brought all of you to this point in my life to witness this and/or participate," Taylor said. "Stay strong and keep your heads to the sky."

Speaking to reporters after the execution, Newton's brother, Dennis Smith, noted that it had been about 7,500 days since the killing and said the family has missed Newton every one of them. Smith described Newton as a hard worker, generous and with a memorable laugh. At times, Smith paused to compose himself as tears rolled down his cheeks. "It would just take a coward to want to hurt someone like him," Smith said.

November 19, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Does Prison Privatization Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this very interesting article with empirical research on private prisons and time served. The piece, authored by Anita Mukherjee and now available via SSRN, has this abstract:

I contribute new evidence on the impact of private prisons on prisoner time served and recidivism by exploiting the staggered entry and exit of private prisons in Mississippi between 1996 and 2004. Little is known about this topic, even though burgeoning prison populations and an effort to cut costs have caused a substantial level of private contracting since the 1980s. The empirical challenge is that prison assignment may be based on traits unobservable to the researcher, such as body tattoos indicating a proclivity for violent behavior.

My first result is that private prisons increase a prisoner's fraction of sentence served by an average of 4 to 7 percent, which equals 60 to 90 days; this distortion directly erodes the cost savings offered by privatization. My second result is that prisoners in private facilities are 15 percent more likely to receive an infraction (conduct violation) over the course of their sentences, revealing a key mechanism by which private prisons delay release. Conditional on receiving an infraction, prisoners in private prison receive twice as many. My final result is that there is no reduction in recidivism for prisoners in private prison despite the additional time they serve, suggesting that either the marginal returns to incarceration are low, or private prisons increase recidivism risk.

These results are consistent with a model in which the private prison operator chooses whether to distort release policies, i.e., extend prisoner time served beyond the public norm, based on the typical government contract that pays a diem for each occupied bed and is imperfectly enforced.

November 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack