Friday, November 26, 2021

Pervis Payne has death sentences set aside (based on intellectual disability) three decades after SCOTUS affirmed them (with focus on victim impact evidence)

This local article reports on a notable development in a capital case that caught my attention because it involves a defendant who was involved in a major development in Supreme Court capital jurisprudence more than 30 years ago.  The press piece is headlined "Pervis Payne death penalty set aside, judge will decide if life sentences are concurrent or consecutive," and here are excerpts:

Rolanda Holman remembers being 13 years old, listening to the judge sentence her brother, Pervis Payne, to death by the electric chair. The judge said, “May God have mercy on his soul," Holman recalled.

Thirty-four years later, Holman and her family know that Payne won't be dying by the death penalty after Judge Paula Skahan signed an order Tuesday vacating his capital sentence....

Skahan's action came after the Shelby County District Attorney's office announced Thursday that it was dropping its pursuit of the death penalty against Payne after a state expert examined Payne and records "and could not say that Payne's intellectual functioning is outside the range for intellectual disability," according to a news release.

Both the U.S. and Tennessee supreme courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability. In April, Tennessee legislators created a law allowing death row inmates like Payne to appeal their sentences on intellectual disability grounds. Since the court finds that Payne is a person with intellectual disability, his capital sentence must be vacated, Skahan wrote in her order....

Payne will serve two life sentences in prison for the murders of Charisse and Lacie Christopher. However, whether those sentences will be concurrent or consecutive is currently being debated.

Steve Jones, assistant district attorney, argued Tuesday that a transcript of the original sentencing 34 years ago shows the judge saying that Payne's sentences ought to be served consecutively.

That, [attorney Kelley] Henry said, would make Payne ineligible for parole until he is 85. Henry argued, however, that precedent shows the court has the discretion to rule his sentences should be carried out at the same time, which would make him eligible for parole in about six years. “Consecutive sentencing would be an effective life without parole for Mr. Payne and we suggest that would not be justice for him and his family," Henry said. "Elder Carl Payne deserves a chance to hug his son as a free man. And we will continue our fight to exonerate Mr. Payne.”

A hearing will be held Dec. 13 to determine whether the life sentences should be held consecutively or concurrently.

Payne, who is being held in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, is convicted of the 1987 deaths of Millington woman Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie. Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, survived multiple stab wounds in the brutal attack that took place in Christopher’s apartment.

Payne has maintained his innocence. In his 1988 trial, Payne said that he discovered the gruesome crime scene after hearing calls for help through the open door of the apartment. He said he bent down to try to help, getting blood on his clothes and pulling at the knife still lodged in Christopher's throat. When a white police officer arrived, Payne, who is Black, said he panicked and ran, fearing he would be seen as the prime suspect.

It is quite remarkable that it took newly 20 years for Payne to be moved off death row after the US Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), that the Eighth Amendment precluded the execution of the intellectually disabled.  But it is perhaps even more remarkable that this is the same defendant whose case made it all the way to the Supreme Court more than 30 years ago. In Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), the Supreme Court reversed prior precedents limiting victim impact evidence and held "that, if the State chooses to permit the admission of victim impact evidence and prosecutorial argument on that subject, the Eighth Amendment erects no per se bar."  Is this a fitting time for the aphorism "what goes around comes around," especially if it is a capital case?

November 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 22, 2021

California's Committee on Revision of the Penal Code recommends abolishing capital punishment in the state

During a busy week last week, I missed this notable capital news from California: "Panel recommends repealing death penalty in California: The recommendation to end capital punishment comes after California voters rejected two ballot measures to abolish executions over the last decade and voted to speed up executions in 2016."  Here are the basics from the start of the news story:

As nearly 700 condemned California prisoners wait in limbo under a death penalty process halted by the governor, a key criminal justice panel on Wednesday recommended making the state’s temporary freeze on executions permanent.  The Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, a seven-member board formed by the state Legislature last year to propose criminal justice reforms, released a 39-page report recommending that capital punishment be repealed in the Golden State.

“More than forty years of experience have shown that the death penalty is the opposite of a simple and rational scheme,” the report states. “It has become so complicated and costly that it takes decades for cases to be fully resolved and it is imposed so arbitrarily — and in such a discriminatory fashion — that it cannot be called rational, fair, or constitutional.”  

Poring through data on death sentences imposed and carried out since capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1978, the panel concluded the post-conviction litigation process has become “almost unfathomably long and costly.”  The report cites staggering racial disparities in who gets sentenced to death, with people of color making up 68% of those on death row in California.  It further notes that about a third of condemned prisoners suffer from mental illness, according to figures cited in a federal class action over mental health care in California prisons.  

Additionally, the report highlights that innocent people are sometimes executed.  It describes how 185 prisoners sentenced to death across the U.S. were later exonerated, including five formerly condemned prisoners in California.

The full report, which is available at this link, includes these passages in its executive summary:

After a thorough examination, the Committee has determined that the death penalty as created and enforced in California has not and cannot ensure justice and fairness for all Californians.

More than forty years of experience have shown that the death penalty is the opposite of a simple and rational scheme.  It has become so complicated and costly that it takes decades for cases to be fully resolved and it is imposed so arbitrarily — and in such a discriminatory fashion — that it cannot be called rational, fair, or constitutional.  Hundreds of California death sentences adjudicated in state and federal courts have been reversed or otherwise thrown out as unconstitutional while only 33 people are currently eligible for execution. 

Furthermore, recent efforts to improve, simplify and expedite California’s system of capital punishment have failed to accomplish their stated goals and may have made things even worse.

For the reasons in this report, which includes new data presented here for the first time, the Committee unanimously recommends repealing California’s death penalty.  Because we appreciate that this is a difficult goal, in the interim, the Committee unanimously recommends reducing the size of California’s death row by the following means:

  • Award clemency to commute death sentences.
  • Settle pending legal challenges to death sentences.
  • Recall death sentences under Penal Code § 1170(d)(1).
  • Limit the felony-murder special circumstance.
  • Restore judicial discretion to dismiss special circumstances.
  • Amend the Racial Justice Act of 2020 to give it retroactive application.
  • Remove from death row people who are permanently mentally incompetent.

November 22, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Are more conservatives really turning away from the death penalty?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Wall Street Journal article headlined "More Conservatives Turn Away From Death Penalty."  In addition, Demetrius Minor his this new opinion piece from Newsweek, headlined "Republicans Across the Country Are Joining the Fight to End the Death Penalty," provides this accounting:

[I]n deep red Utah are considering ending the state's death penalty. Governor Spencer Cox, who has previously revealed his support for the death penalty, says he is now open to "reevaluating" his stance on the issue. He is joined by Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, another Republican who has said his office would no longer seek death penalty prosecutions....

And this isn't just occurring in Utah. There is a nationwide trend of Republican- controlled state legislatures re-thinking capital punishment driven by the fiscal, moral, and cultural conservative values that should lead us to oppose the death penalty. Virginia repealed the death penalty in March 2021 with bipartisan support. Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wyoming, Kentucky, Georgia, Montana, Washington, and Ohio all have had Republican-sponsored bills this year, with a total of 40 Republican sponsors.

In Ohio, a political bell-weather state that has become very red in recent election cycles, former Congresswoman and now State Representative Jean Schmidt and Sen. Stephen Huffman are Republican prime sponsors of bills to end the death penalty. They are clear that the death penalty is a contradiction to their conservative beliefs.

I do sense that a few more GOP leaders are a bit more comfortable expressing capital opposition, and yet I am unclear if this is a major trend or really anything all that new.  Notably, I have seen (and blogged) about stories claiming or advocating for softer support for capital punishment among those on the right, and yet polling numbers do not show any real shift.  Gallup released its latest polling on the death penalty this past week, and here is its discussion of the political dynamics:

Gallup began asking its historical death penalty trend question in its annual Crime survey beginning in 2000. During this time, there have been two notable shifts in death penalty attitudes. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage expressing support showed a drop to 61% from 66% in the preceding decade. In the past four years, support has fallen further to an average 56%.

Both Democrats and independents show declines in their support for the death penalty, including similar drops (eight and seven percentage points, respectively) since 2016. Between the 2000-2010 and 2011-2016 time periods, Democratic support dropped more (eight points) than independent support did (three points). Now, 39% of Democrats and 54% of independents are in favor of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Republicans' support for the death penalty has held steady, with 79% currently supporting it, unchanged since 2016 and barely lower than the 80% registered between 2000 and 2010.

Here is a sampling of some older posts on this front through the years:

November 21, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 19, 2021

Can Oklahoma's current governor really preclude all future governors from further clemency grants for Julius Jones?

I just had a chance this morning to look at this actual executive order that Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt signed to commute the death sentence of Julius Jones to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  The document is interesting in part because it states that the Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation of a commutation to a "sentence of life with the possibility of parole" was not authorized by the Oklahoma Constitution or Oklahoma law and that the "Oklahoma Constitution and other laws of the State also do not provide the Governor authority to grant any such recommendation."  But speaking of a lack of authorization, I was especially struck by this additional part of the executive order:

The Governor has the power to grant commutations "upon such conditions and with such restrictions and limitations as the Governor may deem proper .... "  I hereby place the following conditions upon this commutation:

Julius Darius Jones shall not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life.

In addition to laws prohibiting the Pardon and Parole Board from recommending and the Governor from granting to Julius Jones life with parole, now or in the future, the Pardon and Parole Board's Rules prevent Jones from re-applying for commutation.  Title 515, Chapter 15, Subchapter 15 of the Oklahoma Administrative Code states, "After receiving a favorable commutation of a sentence from the Governor, an Inmate is ineligible to apply for an additional commutation on the same sentence."

Though I strongly dislike and disfavor any policy of ever precluding a person from ever re-applying for clemency, I suppose I can see some viable legal basis for state laws or rules to preclude repeated clemency applications.  But, critically, this order seems to be trying to preclude all future Oklahoma executive officials from being able to even "consider" Jones "for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life."  And at the start of this order, Gov Stitt states his condition even more broadly: "I ... hereby commute the death sentence of Julius Darius Jones to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, on the conditions that he shall never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole."  (Emphasis added.)

Jones is likely to live in prison for many decades, and further evidence of his innocence or other changed circumstances in the years ahead might want some future governor to consider and possibly grant some other form of clemency.  I do not think there is any legal basis for a current governor to tie the hands of all future governors in the way, but I suspect Jones and his allies will be disinclined to worry or litigate about this future issue while still celebrating his removal from Oklahoma's death row.

A few prior related posts:

November 19, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Oklahoma Gov commutes death sentence of Julius Jones, who claims innocence, to life without the possibility of parole

A high-profile Oklahoma capital case involving claims of innocence took a notable turn just hours before a scheduled execution, as reported in this local press piece:

Julius Jones was scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, however, announced at noon Thursday he has commuted Jones' sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

Jones, now 41, has been on death row for more than half of his life for the murder of Paul Howell. Jones has maintained his innocence, saying he was not responsible for the fatal shooting in Edmond in 1999. Jones' family insists he was at home.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 on Nov. 1 to recommend Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt grant clemency to Jones and reduce his sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole....

Amanda Bass, the attorney for Julius Jones released the following statement after Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted Jones' sentence to life without the possibility of parole: "Governor Stitt took an important step today towards restoring public faith in the criminal justice system by ensuring that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man. While we had hoped the Governor would adopt the Board's recommendation in full by commuting Julius's sentence to life with the possibility of parole in light of the overwhelming evidence of Julius's innocence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake."...

“The governor just announced he’s going to grant clemency,” Tiffany Crutcher announced to the crowd outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. The crowd erupted in shouts of joy. Supporters broke into tears, including Paige Patton who began to praise, “Thank you, Lord.”

The celebration lessened as Crutcher announced that the Governor's decision was to commute Jones' sentence to life without parole. The fight to prove Jones' innocence is not over, and his supporters will not stop, she said. “Julius will get to see sunlight,” Crutcher said. “Julius will not be underground, he will get to hug his family.”

A few prior related posts:

November 18, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Mississippi completes its first execution since 2012, the tenth in the US in 2021

As reported in this AP piece, "A man who pleaded guilty to killing his estranged wife and sexually assaulting her young daughter as her mother lay dying was put to death Wednesday evening, becoming the first inmate executed in Mississippi in nine years." Here is more:

David Neal Cox, 50, abandoned all appeals and filed court papers calling himself “worthy of death” before the state Supreme Court set his execution date.  He received a lethal injection and was pronounced dead at 6:12 p.m. CST at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Cox had pleaded guilty in 2012 to capital murder for the May 2010 shooting death of his estranged wife, Kim Kirk Cox. He also pleaded guilty to multiple other charges, including sexual assault.  A jury handed down the death sentence....

Cox appeared to take several deep breaths after the lethal chemicals started flowing through a clear plastic tube into his body, and his mouth moved some. After several minutes, the local coroner pronounced him dead.

Among those who gathered to witness the execution was Cox’s now 23-year-old stepdaughter.  She was 12 when he sexually assaulted her three times in front of her wounded mother as he held them and one of her younger brothers hostage on the night of May 14 and May 15, 2010, in the small town of Sherman.

Mississippi carried out six executions in 2012.  The state does not have any others scheduled among the more than 30 people currently on its death row.  States have had difficulty finding lethal injection drugs because pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products to carry out death sentences....

A group that opposes executions, Death Penalty Action, said killing an inmate who surrendered all appeals would amount to “state-sponsored suicide.” The group petitioned Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to block the execution of Cox, but Reeves’ spokeswoman said the governor would not intervene because Cox admitted to ”horrific crimes.”

November 17, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, November 15, 2021

Noting the SCOTUS "state of capital punishment" without discussing the state of capital punishment

Adam Liptak has this notable new New York Times "Sidebar" piece headlined "In Death Penalty Cases, an Impatient Supreme Court; Recent rulings, including one turning down a death row inmate’s request supported by the prosecution, offer telling glimpses of the state of capital punishment."  Here are excerpts (with a bit of emphasis added):

Two weeks ago, on the same day it heard arguments about the future of abortion rights in Texas, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from a federal prisoner facing execution.  The move was in one sense routine, as the court has grown increasingly hostile to arguments made by death row inmates.   This became apparent in the final months of the Trump administration, when, after a hiatus of 17 years, the federal government executed 13 inmates.  “Throughout this expedited spree of executions, this court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent at the time.

The court’s impatience was also evident last week at an argument over whether an inmate’s pastor could pray with and touch him in the death chamber.  Several conservative justices expressed dismay at what they said was last-minute litigation gamesmanship in death penalty cases.

Still, the case the court turned down two weeks ago was exceptional, providing a telling glimpse of the state of capital punishment in the United States.  The court rejected the inmate’s petition even though the prosecution agreed that his case deserved a fresh look.  In an 11-page dissent, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan, said the majority had crossed a new bridge. “To my knowledge, the court has never before denied” such relief “in a capital case where both parties have requested it, let alone where a new development has cast the decision below into such doubt,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

The case concerned Wesley P. Coonce Jr., who was serving a life sentence for kidnapping and carjacking when he helped murder another prisoner in the mental health ward of a federal prison.  A murder committed by an inmate already serving a life sentence is a capital crime, and he was sentenced to death.  Lawyers for Mr. Coonce asked the justices to return his case to an appeals court for reconsideration of his argument that he could not be executed because he was intellectually disabled.  There had been, the lawyers wrote, an important new development that could alter the appeals court’s analysis....

While the majority did not explain its thinking, a 2014 dissent from Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas, provided a hint. Justice Alito wrote that the meaning of the Eighth Amendment should not be determined by “positions adopted by private professional organizations.”  The majority may also have thought that the Biden administration had its own tools to address Mr. Coonce’s case, notably by granting him clemency.

As the title of this post is meant to highlight, I am struggling a bit to see how the denial of cert by SCOTUS in Coonce serves as a "glimpse of the state of capital punishment in the United States."  For starters, the state of capital punishment in the United States is largely one of modern desuetude.  As detailed in this DPIC fact sheet, in 1999 there were 279 death sentences imposed and 98 executions; in 2019 there were 24 death sentences imposed and 22 executions.  Moreover, I am pretty sure Coonce still can have his death sentence reviewed via a 2255 motion and perhaps via other means, so maybe the case really is a "glimpse" into the various means capital defendants have to get their claims reviewed.

Moreover, as highlighted by the clemency point, what this case really shows to me is that the Biden Administration would rather push for courts to take people off death row rather than do it on their own.  After all, if lawyers in the Justice Department have genuinely concluded that Coonce is intellectually disabled, their constitutional oath would seemingly call for them to ask for Prez Biden to moved him off death row since the Eighth Amendment precludes an execution of someone intellectually disabled.  That DOJ is merely urging here a "fresh look" strikes me far more as a "glimpse" into the state of the Biden Administration's actions on capital punishment.

November 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Rounding up reviews of SCOTUS oral arguments on religious liberty in death chamber

On Tuesday morning, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in Ramirez v. Collier to consider whether a condemned prisoner can have his pastor physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber while he is being executed.  I have not yet had a chance to listen to the oral argument (which is available here), but a quick scan of a number of press reports suggests the Justices were split on the matter.  Here is a partial round-up of blog and press comment on the argument:

From NPR, "Supreme Court conservatives are skeptical on spiritual advisers in death chamber"

From SCOTUSblog, "Court debates inmate’s request for prayer and touch during execution, but a key justice remains silent"

From Slate, "The Supreme Court’s Conservatives Finally Found a Religious Objection They Don’t Like"

From USA Today, “Texas death row case: Supreme Court wrestles with religious freedom in the execution chamber.”

November 9, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 08, 2021

Gearing up for SCOTUS argument in Ramirez on religious liberty in death chamber

On Tuesday morning, the US Supreme Court will hear Ramirez v. Collier, which presents these issues:

(1) Whether, consistent with the free exercise clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Texas’ decision to allow Ramirez’s pastor to enter the execution chamber, but forbidding the pastor from laying his hands on his parishioner as he dies, substantially burden the exercise of his religion, so as to require Texas to justify the deprivation as the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest; and (2) whether, considering the free exercise clause and RLUIPA, Texas’ decision to allow Ramirez’s pastor to enter the execution chamber, but forbidding the pastor from singing prayers, saying prayers or scripture, or whispering prayers or scripture, substantially burden the exercise of his religion, so as to require Texas to justify the deprivation as the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest.

Here is some of the press I have seen previewing the case:

From Bloomberg Law, "Lawyer Takes Rare Case on Religion, Executions to U.S. Top Court"

From Newsweek, "Conservatives Find Rare Common Ground With ACLU in Death Penalty Religious Freedom Case"

From SCOTUSblog, "Court to clarify the right of death-row inmates to receive spiritual guidance during execution"

From Time, "‘Why Can’t I Hold His Hand?’ The Supreme Court Will Decide What Comforts a Pastor Can Offer During an Execution"

From Vox, "The Supreme Court must decide if it loves religious liberty more than the death penalty"

From the Washington Post, "Supreme Court considers a minister’s role at the time an inmate is put to death"

Prior related posts:

November 8, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Oklahoma board recommends clemency for Julius Jones who claims innocence from death row

This local article reports on a notable development in a high-profile case in Oklahoma involving the next death row inmate scheduled to be executed in the coming weeks. Here are the details:

The Oklahoma State Pardon and Parole Board on Monday recommended clemency for death row inmate Julius Jones.  The board voted 3-1 in favor of granting clemency for Jones, who has been on death row for more than 20 years for the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.  One board member recused themselves from the vote.

Along with clemency, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended commuting Jones' death sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

"The Pardon and Parole Board has now twice voted in favor of commuting Julius Jones’s death sentence, acknowledging the grievous errors that led to his conviction and death sentence," Jones' lawyer, Amanda Bass, said in a news release.  "We hope that Governor Stitt will exercise his authority to accept the Board’s recommendation and ensure that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man."

"My son Julius has been on death row for over twenty years for a murder he did not commit, and every day of that has been a waking nightmare for my family," Jones' mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, said in a news release....

Gov. Kevin Stitt will now decide Jones' fate.  He has not said how he plans to decide in the case, only saying that he wouldn't decide until after the clemency hearing.  His office released the following statement to KOCO 5: "Governor Stitt is aware of the Pardon and Parole Board’s vote today. Our office will not offer further comment until the governor has made a final decision."

Jones spoke during Monday's clemency hearing, giving his account of the night Howell was killed, the days after and his trial.

The recommendation comes more than a month after the same Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Jones' sentence be commuted, which set up Monday's clemency hearing. It also came less than a week after Oklahoma resumed executions for the first time since 2015.  The state put John Grant to death last week.  Although a decision on Jones' fate is up in the air, his execution is scheduled for Nov. 18.

Jones has gained a lot of support over the past few years, especially from several high-profile celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Baker Mayfield.  Howell's family said before the clemency hearing that they hoped the Pardon and Parole Board would vote based on facts instead of Hollywood fiction.  His daughter spoke with KOCO 5 in October, saying a lot of misinformation had spread about Jones and the case.

November 2, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 01, 2021

Some notable dissents and a statement together with SCOTUS criminal justice cert denials

The merits cases scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court this week on topics like abortion and gun rights are rightly getting a lot of attention.  But the week has started with this order list in which Court has 5+ pages listing cases on which certiorari has been denied.  In three cases involving criminal-law related issues, some Justices penned statements concerning these denials.  Via How Appealing, here are the basics with links:

In Simmons v. United States, No. 20-1704, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement, in which Justice Elena Kagan joined, respecting the denial of certiorari.

In Coonce v. United States, No. 19–7862, Justice Sotomayor issued a dissent, in which Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Kagan joined, from the denial of certiorari.

And in American Civil Liberties Union v. United States, No. 20–1499, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch issued a dissent, in which Justice Sotomayor joined, from the denial of certiorari.

The lengthiest and most notable of these separate opinions is in the Coonce case, where Justice Sotomayor starts her 11-page dissent this way:

Petitioner Wesley Paul Coonce, Jr., was convicted in federal court of murder. Facing the death penalty, he argued that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment because he has an intellectual disability.  See Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304 (2002).  The District Court denied Coonce’s Atkins claim without a hearing, the jury sentenced him to death, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

In denying Coonce relief without a hearing, the courts relied on the definition of intellectual disability by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), which then required that an impairment manifest before age 18.  It is undisputed that Coonce’s impairments fully manifested at age 20.  After Coonce petitioned for certiorari, the AAIDD changed its definition to include impairments that, like Coonce’s, manifested before age 22.

The Government urges us to grant certiorari, vacate the judgment below, and remand (GVR), conceding that it is reasonably probable that the Eighth Circuit would reach a different result on reconsideration given the significant shift in the definition that formed the basis of its opinion. Instead, the Court denies certiorari.  Because Coonce is entitled to a hearing on his Atkins claim, and because our precedents counsel in favor of a GVR, I respectfully dissent.

One of many notable aspects of this case is highlighted by this observation in the dissent:

In light of the above, the material change in the AAIDD’s leading definition of intellectual disability plainly warrants a GVR.  To my knowledge, the Court has never before denied a GVR in a capital case where both parties have requested it, let alone where a new development has cast the decision below into such doubt.

I believe the defendant in this case will still be able to bring a 2255 motion, so the Justices voting to deny cert may be content to have these "execution competency" issues addressed in that setting. But Justice Sotomayor closes her dissent explaining why that seems to her insufficient:

I can only hope that the lower courts on collateral review will give Coonce the consideration that the Constitution demands. But this Court, too, has an obligation to protect our Constitution’s mandates. It falls short of fulfilling that obligation today. The Court should have allowed the Eighth Circuit to reconsider Coonce’s compelling claim of intellectual disability, as both he and the Government requested. I respectfully dissent.

November 1, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 29, 2021

Will "outcry" over ugly details of latest Oklahoma execution impact its plans to have six more in coming months?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the first word of the headline, and then the last sentence of the body, of this new Guardian piece: "Outcry after Oklahoma prisoner vomits and convulses during execution."  Here are the basics:

Oklahoma is coming under sharp criticism after witnesses to the state’s first judicial killing for six years described gruesome scenes of the dying prisoner convulsing and vomiting as he was administered the lethal injections.

John Grant, 60, was pronounced dead at 4.21pm on Thursday at McAlester state penitentiary after he was injected with a triple cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Later, the department of corrections said the killing had gone “in accordance with protocols and without complication”.

But eyewitness accounts from reporters at McAlester’s supposedly state-of-the-art death chamber gave a very different account.  Dan Snyder, an anchor at the Oklahoma TV channel Fox 25, said that events went drastically off course the instant the first drug, the sedative midazolam, was injected into the prisoner.  “Almost immediately after the drug was administered, Grant began convulsing, so much so that his entire upper back repeatedly lifted off the gurney,” Snyder reported. “As the convulsions continued, Grant then began to vomit.  Multiple times over the course of the next few minutes medical staff entered the death chamber to wipe away and remove vomit from the still-breathing Grant.”

It took 15 minutes for Grant to be declared unconscious by medical staff, after which the vecuronium bromide, which paralyses the body, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart, were given. On Twitter, Snyder gave his response to the state’s official claim that all had gone according to plan. “As a witness to the execution who was in the room, I’ll say this: repeated convulsions and extensive vomiting for nearly 15 minutes would not seem to be ‘without complication’.”

Accounts of the botched execution of Grant, who was being put to death for the murder in 1998 of a prison cafeteria worker while he was already serving a sentence for armed robberies, will come as a deep embarrassment for Oklahoma. No judicial killings have taken place in the state since 2015 after a spate of botched procedures caused widespread alarm and forced the authorities to review their use of lethal injection drugs.

In 2018, officials in the state went as far as to announce they would abandon lethal injections entirely, due to the protocol’s lack of transparency and to the inhumane executions that had taken place. But in August the state reversed that decision, saying it would resume executions without giving an explanation for the U-turn or revealing critical details about how it intended to carry out the killings.

The state’s six-year hiatus was prompted in part by the execution in 2014 of Clayton Lockett, who writhed and groaned on the gurney for 43 minutes before he was declared dead after the intravenous line through which the lethal drugs were delivered was inserted improperly. The gruesome descriptions of his death by eyewitnesses in the Guardian and elsewhere caused nationwide revulsion. The following year the state used the wrong drug to kill Charles Warner. In the wake of these botched procedures a bipartisan commission reviewed the state’s death penalty system and issued a highly critical report that called for the moratorium on capital punishment to be extended....

Grant’s execution was allowed to proceed on Thursday after the US supreme court voted five to three, with the three liberal justices dissenting, to allow the judicial killing to go ahead. It is unclear whether the descriptions of his death will affect future planned executions in the state.

Oklahoma has an aggressive calendar of executions scheduled, with six set to take place by the end of March.

I put the word "outcry" in quotes because, so far, I have mostly seen opponents of the death penalty comment and assail the latest ugly Oklahoma execution.  If only the "usual subjects" are complaining about the execution, I doubt that will slow the state's current plan to execute another half-dozen people in the coming month. But it also seems possible, especially if more evidence of problems with the execution process emerges, that some death penalty supporters in Oklahoma or elsewhere will express concern and be in a position to slow future trips to the death chamber.

Prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: This local article suggests that Oklahoma officials are not troubled by the execution of John Grant. Here is how it stars:

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow said Friday the agency has no plans to change its execution protocol after a witness said John Marion Grant had about two dozen full body convulsions and vomited during his lethal injection on Thursday.  “Some of the information is either embellished or is not exactly on point,” the DOC director said during a virtual press conference to “clarify” issues.

Crow, who witnessed the execution, said he saw Grant dry heave fewer than 10 times, not convulse. He said Grant did vomit.  “As he started that process, I conferred with the physician we had on site monitoring the process and he advised me that regurgitation is not a completely uncommon instance or occurrence with someone that is undergoing sedation,” Crow said.

October 29, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, October 28, 2021

By 5-3 order, SCOTUS vacates stays of Oklahoma executions entered by Tenth Circuit ... and one execution carried out

As set forth in this short order, the US Supreme Court this afternoon has vacated stays of execution for two death row defendants, one of whom is scheduled to be executed today.  Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan indicated they would deny Oklahoma's application to vacate the stays that had been entered by the Tenth Circuit yesterday. Justice Gorsuch took no part in matter, presumably because the case came from his old circuit.  This Hill article from yesterday provides the basics on the litigation:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit granted a temporary motion for stay of execution for two Oklahoma death row inmates on Wednesday, just a day before one of the inmates was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

The appeals court stayed the executions of Julius Jones and John Grant on the basis that they met two criteria required for an execution to be stayed. Prisoners must show that the execution method chosen by the state — in this case a three-drug lethal injection — presents “a substantial risk of severe pain" and they must also show that the risk of severe pain is substantial when compared to other available alternatives.

Jones and Grant were part of a federal lawsuit seeking to challenge Oklahoma's three-drug lethal injection. However, Judge Stephen Friot denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that they and three other inmates sought, clearing the way for their executions in the next six months....

The appeals court wrote that though Jones and Grant did not choose an alternative method of execution, it does not mean they did not identify alternatives to lethal injection. The court also wrote that there was no law that requires a prisoner to choose their own method of execution.  The court wrote that the if the inmates are executed they "risk being unable to present what may be a viable Eighth Amendment claim." 

UPDATE: As reported in this AP piece, "Oklahoma ended a six-year moratorium on executions Thursday, administering the death penalty on a man who convulsed and vomited before dying, his sentence for the 1998 slaying of a prison cafeteria worker." Here is more:

John Marion Grant, 60, who was strapped to a gurney inside the execution chamber, began convulsing and vomiting after the first drug, the sedative midazolam, was administered. Several minutes later, two members of the execution team wiped the vomit from his face and neck.

Before the curtain was raised to allow witnesses to see into the execution chamber, Grant could be heard yelling, “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” He delivered a stream of profanities before the lethal injection started. He was declared unconscious about 15 minutes after the first of three drugs was administered and declared dead about six minutes after that, at 4:21 p.m.

Grant was the first inmate to be executed since a series of flawed lethal injections in 2014 and 2015. He was serving a 130-year prison sentence for several armed robberies when witnesses say he dragged prison cafeteria worker Gay Carter into a mop closet and stabbed her 16 times with a homemade shank. He was sentenced to die in 1999.

October 28, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

More executions postponed in Texas as SCOTUS considers religious liberty in death chamber

As reported in this post, the Supreme Court last month stayed the execution of John Ramirez and granted certiorari to consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch him and pray aloud in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death by the state of Texas.  In this follow-up post, titled "A short de facto execution moratorium?: could other condemned inmates secure a stay until SCOTUS decides new Ramirez case on religious liberty?", I wondered if the SCOTUS cert grant in Ramirez could produce a short de facto execution moratorium based on other death row inmates making a religious liberty claim like Ramirez’s request. 

Since those posts, as noted here, Texas has been able to complete one execution, but a number of others have been postponed.  And this new AP report, headlined "Texas executions delayed over religious rights claims," details that the last two executions scheduled in Texas have now been postponed.  Here are the details:

The unresolved legal debate over whether spiritual advisers can touch inmates and pray aloud as condemned individuals are being put to death has delayed the final two executions scheduled this year in Texas. The delays come as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments next month in the case of another Texas death row inmate on the role of spiritual advisers in the death chamber.

Judges last week rescheduled the executions of Kosoul Chanthakoummane, who was set to die Nov. 10, and Ramiro Gonzales, who was set for Nov. 17. Gonzales’ new execution date is July 13 while Chanthakoummane’s new date is Aug. 17. Both inmates claimed that Texas was violating their religious freedom by not allowing their spiritual advisers to pray aloud and place a hand on their bodies at the time of their deaths.

“Litigation pending in the United States Supreme Court regarding the defendant’s right to the free exercise of religion warrants the withdrawal of the present date of execution and the setting of a new date of execution,” Medina County prosecutor Edward Shaughnessy wrote in a motion asking a judge to reschedule Gonzales’ execution.

In all, six executions that were scheduled this year in Texas were delayed or rescheduled due to religious freedom claims related to spiritual advisers.

Executions in Texas have been sporadic in the last two years, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with just three lethal injections carried out last year, and three executions so far this year. In comparison, Texas carried out 13 executions in 2018 and nine in 2019.

Prior related posts:

October 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Two states restarting their death machinery with Fall 2021 lethal injections scheduled for long-dormant execution chambers

In this post last month, I noted that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had set execution dates for seven persons.  Long-time readers may recall that Oklahoma last decade had two problematic executions, of Clayton Lockett in 2014 and Charles Warner in 2015, and the state has not had an execution for nearly seven years.  A new Oklahoman piece provides details and background regarding the Sooner machinery of death getting restarted under the headline "What we know about Oklahoma resuming executions for the first time since 2015":

Starting Thursday, the state of Oklahoma has scheduled seven execution dates for inmates on death row.  It would be the state's first execution in more than six years.  In 1977, Oklahoma was the first state to adopt lethal injection, through which an inmate is injected with a fatal mixture of drugs as its primary method for carrying out executions....

The case of Julius Jones has attracted nationwide interest in recent years.  No legal defense has disputed the guilt of the other six inmates, but Jones has long maintained his innocence....

The last time Oklahoma executed a death row inmate was Charles Warner in January 2015.  Warner and Clayton Lockett, executed in 2014, both died by what were widely criticized as "botched" lethal injections, in which the inmates were not administered the correct mixture of drugs to bring about a quick and humane death.

After Warner's execution, investigators discovered Warner had not been administered the proper drugs.  The state's supplier of lethal injection drugs had replaced the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride with potassium acetate, the wrong chemical.  Upon this discovery, the state halted all scheduled lethal injections, including that of death row inmate Richard Glossip, who received a stay of his execution from then-Gov. Mary Fallin hours before he was scheduled to die.

The controversy worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court after Glossip and 20 other death row inmates sued in federal court, arguing against the constitutionality of the sedative midazolam.  A divided Supreme Court ruled that the state's drug mixture for lethal injections did not violate the "cruel and unusual punishment" amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Glossip, who also has long maintained his innocence for the murder that placed him on death row, has exhausted his appeals but has gained support from bipartisan lawmakers for an independent reinvestigation into his case....

Since the hiatus in 2015, Oklahoma has explored alternative methods of administering the death penalty.  Fallin signed legislation allowing nitrogen gas to be used, if lethal injection is rendered unfeasible.  After struggling for years to design a proper device and protocol for the use of nitrogen gas, Oklahoma abandoned the idea in 2020 and reverted back to lethal injection, once another supplier for the drugs had been reportedly secured.  Oklahoma is one of only three states (the others being Mississippi and Utah) that allow for firing squads to be used as an alternative method, although this has not been done in the state for any of its executions since 1915.

Notably, recent news stories report now on another state gearing up to restarted its execution chamber after nearly a decade.  From the AP, "Mississippi prepares for first execution since 2012, corrections commissioner says":

Mississippi prison employees will conduct once-a-week rehearsals as the state prepares for its first execution since 2012, Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain says.  Cain told The Associated Press on Friday that the rehearsals for a lethal injection are usually done once a month at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, following a protocol that's about 20 pages long.

The Mississippi Supreme on Thursday set a Nov. 17 execution date for David Neal Cox, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to killing his wife, Kim, in 2010 in the northern Mississippi town of Shannon.  Cox withdrew his appeals and once filed court papers calling himself "worthy of death.”  Mississippi has not had an execution since 2012, and it had six that year.

Cain confirmed Mississippi has obtained lethal injection drugs, but he declined to say how.  “I’m not supposed to talk about the drugs too much,” Cain said.  Mississippi is still facing a lawsuit filed in 2015 by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of two inmates.  The suit argues Mississippi’s lethal injection protocol is inhumane.

October 26, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 22, 2021

Alabama completes execution of intellectually disabled man 30 years after his robbery/murder

As detailed in this lengthy local article, an execution was completed in the Yellowhammer State on Thursday night bringing to a conclusion a capital case raising a host of modern legal issues.  Here are some of the details:

Alabama Death Row inmate Willie B. Smith III was executed by lethal injection Thursday night at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, even as the state did not dispute that Smith had significantly below-average intellectual functioning, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The execution date was set by the Alabama Supreme Court last month and came after several months of delay, due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from February saying Smith could not be executed without his personal spiritual advisor present in the room with him.  That ruling came on the evening Smith was first set to be put to death, on Feb. 11.

Smith was sent to death row after being convicted of killing 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson, the sister of a police detective, on Oct. 27, 1991 in Birmingham.  Prosecutors said Smith abducted Johnson at gunpoint from an ATM, stole $80 from her and later took her to a cemetery, where he shot her in the back of the head.

The execution was set to happen at 6 p.m. but did not start until shortly after 9:30 p.m. because the state was waiting on a ruling from the nation’s highest court.  Smith’s official time of death was 9:47 p.m....  The state allowed a personal pastor in the chamber, Pastor Robert Wiley, who appeared to pray with Smith and put hand on his leg at the beginning of the execution....

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Smith’s request for a stay of execution and petition for a writ of certiorari, or a request to review the case, at approximately 8:30 p.m.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor released a statement respecting the denial of the petition.  She said she shared the same concerns as a lower court judge, who “identified serious concerns with the way the ADOC has administered the Alabama Legislature’s directive to allow those on death row to choose nitrogen hypoxia as their means of execution.”...

Issues of Smith’s mental capacity have been brought up several times throughout the years-long appeals process.  Smith’s lawyers, Allyson R. du Lac, Spencer Hahn and John Palombi of the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama, said in a recent court filing that Smith has an IQ in or below the 70s and should have received help under the ADA to understand a form related to the selection of an execution method.  Previous appeals in Smith’s state case showed that a state expert put his IQ at 72; a defense expert placed it at 64.

In the 11th Circuit’s ruling, the court stated: “In making its determination, the district court found that: (1) Mr. Smith is a qualified individual with a disability, (2) Mr. Smith failed to demonstrate that he lacked meaningful access to the ADOC’s Election Form service, and (3) Mr. Smith did not request an accommodation from the ADOC or show that his need for an accommodation was so obvious and apparent that the ADOC should have known he required one.”...

Lawyers for the state have argued that Smith never gave any indication that he wanted to request nitrogen; but according to the defense attorneys, “(the state) clearly violated Mr. Smith’s rights when they failed to provide him with an accommodation when handing out the form in June 2018.”  The filing continues, “Mr. Smith has submitted an affidavit making clear that ‘[i]f he had understood the Election Form, [he] would have signed it and handed it in in June 2018.’”

In a different matter last month, the ADOC agreed to allow Smith’s pastor to hold his hand during the lethal injection -- a settlement made to end litigation over the issue.  The issue of allowing inmates’ personal spiritual advisors in the execution chamber has been a point of contention.  Before April 2019 the ADOC required its Christian chaplain to be in the execution chamber.  That policy was changed after a Muslim inmate, Domineque Ray, requested and was denied the presence of his imam (an Islamic spiritual advisor) when he died.  He was executed anyway.

October 22, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Will guilty pleas and apology reduce odds that Nikolas Cruz is sentenced to death for Parkland school mass murder?

The question in this post is prompted by today's events in a Florida courtroom covered in this CNN article headlined "Nikolas Cruz pleads guilty to murder charges and apologizes for Parkland high school massacre."  Here are excerpts:

Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who carried out the massacre of students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, pleaded guilty in a Florida courtroom Wednesday to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.  Cruz, 23, faces a minimum of life in prison and maximum of the death penalty, which will be decided by a jury in the upcoming sentencing phase of the trial.  The prosecution has said they plan to seek the death penalty.

In court, Cruz wore a collared shirt, black vest, face mask and large, thick-framed glasses. He stood at the court lectern and answered Judge Elizabeth Scherer's series of questions with a "yes ma'am" or "no ma'am," and assured her, "I know what's going on." He said he had depression and anxiety, and that he was experiencing anxiety in court, but he said he was able to proceed.

Cruz then responded "guilty" when each of the 34 charges were read to him. Afterward, he apologized to the victims in a short speech.  "I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day.  If I were to get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others," he said. "I am doing this for you, and I do not care if you do not believe me.  And I love you, and I know you don't believe me, but I have to live with this every day, and it brings me nightmares and I can't live with myself sometimes, but I try to push through because I know that's what you guys would want me to do.

"I hate drugs, and I believe this country would do better if everyone would stop smoking marijuana and doing all these drugs and causing racism and violence out in the streets," he continued.  "I'm sorry, and I can't even watch TV anymore.  And I'm trying my best to maintain my composure, and I just want you to know I'm really sorry, and I hope you give me a chance to try to help others.  I believe it's your decision to decide where I go, and whether I live or die.  Not the jury's.  I believe it's your decision. I'm sorry."

The judge then asked Cruz if he understood that a jury, and not the victims' families, would have the legal power to decide his sentence, and he confirmed that he understood. "What I meant was I believe they should have the right to choose, the victims themselves, on whether I should take life or death," Cruz said.

He was then placed in handcuffs, fingerprinted and escorted from the courtroom.  Jury selection in the penalty phase is scheduled for January 4.

The plea comes more than three and a half years after the Valentine's Day shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which he killed 17 students and faculty members and injured 17 others in what is the deadliest high school shooting in US history.  A dozen law enforcement officers filled the courtroom Wednesday while media, victims, and the family of victims watched the proceedings, some of whom were seen wiping their eyes as the judge detailed the counts and penalties to Cruz.

Tony Montalto, the father one of the slain students, Gina Montalto, called Cruz's apology "ridiculous." "If he wanted to apologize, he shouldn't have murdered Gina and 16 other people that day," Tony Montalto told CNN. Asked about the prospect of the death penalty for Cruz, Montalto said, "We need to deprive these mass murderers of the notoriety they seek. . . . We need to remember the victims for the wonderful and vibrant people that they were.  I think he deserves as much of a chance as he gave my daughter and everyone else on February 14 of 2018."

In court the prosecution laid out the harrowing timeline of the shooting, which began when Cruz, then 19, grabbed his AR-15-style rifle and magazines and rode in an Uber to his former high school. There, he took out his rifle and loaded it, and when a student walked near, Cruz offered a warning. "You better get out of here," he told the student. "Something bad is about to happen." Cruz then wandered through the halls of the school and fired indiscriminately at various students and staff in hallways and classrooms, prosecutors said. He eventually left the school and was taken into custody several miles away....

Cruz's defense team had long ago offered a guilty plea in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of parole -- but only if prosecutors took the death penalty off the table. Prosecutors had rejected that, saying they were seeking the death penalty....

Cruz's guilty plea comes just after a $25 million settlement was reached between the Broward County School Board and 52 victims of the massacre, according to an attorney for some of the victims.  Attorney David Brill said the settlement of the lawsuit includes all of the families of the 17 who died, 16 of 17 victims who were shot but survived, and 19 victims who suffer from PTSD or other ailments.

Some prior related posts:

October 20, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Continuing capital commentary as SCOTUS considers Marathon bomber's capital process

In prior posts here and here, I rounded up press coverage just before and just after the Supreme Court heard oral argument in US v. Tsanaev to consider whether the First Circuit erred when reversing the death sentence given to the bomber who killed three and injured hundreds during the 2013 version of the Boston Marathon.  Not surprisingly, the SCOTUS argument has prompted a number of thoughtful folks to have thoughtful comments on the case and much that surrounds it.  Here is a partial round-up of some of this recent commentary:

From Erwin Chemerinsky, "Biden’s death penalty hypocrisy"

From Chris Geidner, "Supreme Court couldn't consider death penalty case if not for Biden's broken promise"

From Thaddeus Hoffmeister, "Tsarnaev Supreme Court appeal: Do unbiased jurors exist in an age of social media?"

From Karen J. Pita Loor, "The perplexing case of Biden, Tsarnaev and the death penalty"

From Amelia Wirts, "Death penalty can express society’s outrage – but biases often taint the verdict"

October 17, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

SCOTUS argument suggests Justices likely to reinstate reversed death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

When the US Supreme Court back in March decided to grant cert on the federal government's appeal of the First Circuit's reversal of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death sentence, a smart bet would have been that a majority of Justices were inclined to reinstate that death sentence.  Such a bet looks even smarter after today's Supreme Court argument where the Justices questions and comments revealed the predictable ideological split and strongly suggested that a majority of Justices will be voting to reinstate Tsarnaev's death sentence.

The headlines from various press and blog coverage reports on most of the essentials:

From CNN, "Supreme Court conservatives appear ready to endorse death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev"

From Crime & Consequences, "SCOTUS Appears Poised to Re-Instate Death Penalty for Boston Marathon Bomber"

From Fox News, "Boston Bomber case: Kavanaugh, Kagan clash in rare testy exchange over mitigating evidence"

From NBC News, "Supreme Court appears likely to allow death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber"

From SCOTUSblog, "Justices appear to favor reinstating death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber"

Interestingly, the second of the two questions presented in the case captured most of the Justices' attention as they explored "Whether the district court committed reversible error at the penalty phase of respondent’s trial by excluding evidence that respondent’s older brother was allegedly involved in different crimes two years before the offenses for which respondent was convicted."  Some of the questioning on this issue suggested that the Court might have to, or might want to, say something significant about the evidentiary rules that attend the penalty phase of a capital trial.  If they do speak to this issue broadly, the significance of the Tsarnaev case could extend beyond this defendant's awful crimes and ultimate punishment.

October 13, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

SCOTUS to hear argument over First Circuit's reversal of death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Yesterday, the 2021 version of the Boston Marathon took place.  Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in US v. Tsanaev to consider whether the First Circuit erred when reversing the death sentence given to the bomber who killed  three and injured hundreds during the 2013 version of the Boston Marathon.  (I have done dozens of posts on crimes and punishments of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and below are a few of the most recent ones.)

There is a lot of media coverage of the case as it gets to the Justices for oral argument, and here is a sampling:

From the AP, "Marathon bomber faces revived death sentence in high court"

From Courthouse News Service, "Fate of Boston Marathon bomber faces Supreme Court reckoning"

From Reuters, "Boston Marathon bombing victims split on death penalty in Supreme Court case"

From SCOTUSblog, "Justices to consider government’s appeal to reinstate death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber"

From Time, "Boston Marathon Bomber Supreme Court Case Exposes Split Between Biden and Justice Department on Death Penalty"

From WGBH, "Will The Supreme Court Reinstate A Death Sentence For Boston Marathon Bomber?"

A few many prior recent related posts:

October 12, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, October 08, 2021

Third Texas inmate gets execution stay based on religion claim SCOTUS considering in Ramirez

As reported in this post, the Supreme Court last month stayed the execution of John Ramirez and granted certiorari to consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch him and pray aloud in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death by the state of Texas.  In this follow-up post, titled "A short de facto execution moratorium?: could other condemned inmates secure a stay until SCOTUS decides new Ramirez case on religious liberty?", I wondered if the SCOTUS cert grant in Ramirez could produce a short de facto execution moratorium based on other death row inmates making a religious liberty claim like Ramirez’s request.

Since those posts, as noted here, Texas has been able to complete one execution; but, as noted here, another Texas inmate was able to secure an execution stay based on religion claim SCOTUS is considering in Ramirez.  And, as detailed in this new local article, headlined "Man on death row for killing pregnant Wichita Falls woman gets stay of execution," it appears another scheduled Texas execution was been delayed:

A death row prisoner convicted of murdering a pregnant Wichita Falls woman and her 7-year-old son more than 16 years ago will not be executed next week.

54-year-old Stephen Barbee was set to die next Tuesday, October 12. However, a federal court Thursday, October 7, stayed the execution after Barbee’s request that his pastor be able to touch and pray aloud with him in the death chamber had been rejected by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Barbee is on death row for the suffocation deaths of 34-year-old Lisa Underwood and her son Jayden in their Fort Worth home in February, 2005.... Prosecutors said Barbee killed Underwood because he thought he was the father of Underwood’s unborn son, and he was afraid she would tell his wife.

Prior related posts:

October 8, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Oregon Supreme Court rules legislative change renders prior death sentence now violates state constitution's proportionality requirements

The Oregon Supreme Court had a notable unanimous ruling today which finds a state death sentence unconstitutional in a way that, according to this press piece, could mean that many or even all those now on the state's death row will be able to get their death sentences overturned.  The ruling in Oregon v. Bartol, 368 Or 598 (Oct. 7, 2021) (available here), substantively concludes this way:

Legislative enactments are strong indicators of those standards, and the enactment of SB 1013 shows that the legislature has determined that, regardless of when it was committed, conduct that was previously classified as “aggravated murder” but is now classified as “murder in the first degree” does not fall within the narrow category of crimes for which the death penalty can be imposed.  Importantly, that moral judgment stands apart from the question of retroactivity.   Although the legislature did not make SB 1013 retroactive as to sentences imposed before its effective date, the enactment of the bill itself reflects a judgment that conduct that was previously classified as “aggravated murder” does not fall within the narrow category of conduct that can be punished by death, as opposed to lesser sentences, including life imprisonment.  Consequently, maintaining defendant’s death sentence in this case would violate two special proportionality requirements that, under Article I, section 16, apply to the death penalty: the requirement that the death penalty “be limited to those offenders who commit ‘a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution,’ ” Roper, 543 US at 568 (quoting Atkins, 536 US at 319), and the requirement that there be “a fundamental, moral distinction” between crimes that are punishable by death and those that are not, Kennedy, 554 US at 438.  Maintaining his death sentence would allow the execution of a person for conduct that the legislature has determined no longer justifies that unique and ultimate punishment, and it would allow the execution of a person for conduct that the legislature has determined is no more culpable than conduct that should not result in death.  Therefore, in light of the legislature’s enactment of SB 1013, we conclude that defendant’s sentence violates Article I, section 16.

October 7, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

"Ring and Hurst Retroactivity: Deconstructing Divergent Doctrines"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article from Melanie Kalmanson and Nathan Molina available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinions in Ring v. Arizona (2002) and Hurst v. Florida (2016) are two critical parts of the jurisprudence related to capital defendants’ right to trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Each opinion clarified capital defendants’ rights under the Sixth Amendment.  While the new rules announced in the opinions seemed clear at the time, courts have grappled with how to apply Ring and Hurst — specifically to defendants whose sentences were final when the opinions were issued. Courts have diverged on whether the new rules announced in Ring and Hurst apply retroactively.  This Article attempts to unravel the confusion surrounding why courts across the country have reached differing conclusions about whether these landmark decisions should apply retroactively.

Ultimately, this Article explains that the case law regarding retroactive application of Ring was mostly consistent. It was after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Hurst that four points of confusion arose surrounding retroactivity: (1) Was Hurst a direct result of Ring?  If so, should it apply retroactively?  (2) What role did the Eighth Amendment play in both Ring and Hurst?  (3) Why did some courts reach divergent conclusions on Hurst retroactivity even in applying the same federal standard?  (4) Does the Florida Supreme Court’s invention of partial retroactivity for Hurst make sense?  By exploring and explaining these sources of confusion, this Article aims to help clarify the broader landscape of modern capital sentencing jurisprudence.

October 6, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Missouri completes execution of inmate who claimed to be intellectually disabled

As reported in this NBC News piece, "Missouri on Tuesday executed Ernest Johnson, despite claims by his attorney and death penalty opponents that he had an intellectual disability and killing him violated the Constitution." Here is more:

Johnson, 61, who was convicted in the murders of three convenience store employees almost three decades ago, was executed by lethal injection at a state prison in Bonne Terre. He was pronounced dead at 6:11 p.m. local time, a spokeswoman for the state department of corrections said.

Pope Francis, two members of Congress and former Democratic governor Bob Holden were among those who spoke out against the execution.

On Monday Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, denied Johnson clemency and said the state would carry out the execution. The U.S. Supreme Court denied an application for a stay of execution Tuesday.

In a filing to the high court Tuesday, Johnson's legal team reiterated IQ tests have indicated he had the intellectual capacity of a child and wrote that there would be "no tangible harm" if his execution was delayed while questions over whether lower courts had "constitutionally considered" his disability were further explored.

As revealed in this SCOTUS order, no Justices dissented from the denial of a stay and denial of cert before the execution.

October 5, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, October 04, 2021

Pope Francis among those urging Missou Gov to grant clemency to offender scheduled to be executed tomorrow ... UPDATE: Gov denies clemency

As detailed in this new AP article, "Pope Francis has joined the chorus of people calling on Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to grant clemency to a death row inmate who is set to be executed for killing three people during a 1994 convenience store robbery."  Here is more:

In a letter last week, a representative for Pope Francis wrote that the pope “wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life,” referring to Ernest Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre, about 50 miles south of St. Louis.

Parson, a Republican, has been considering whether to reduce the 61-year-old Johnson’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Johnson’s attorney, Jeremy Weis, said executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits executing intellectually disabled people.  He said multiple IQ tests and other exams have shown that Johnson has the intellectual capacity of a child. He also was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and in 2008, he lost about 20% of his brain tissue to the removal of a benign tumor.

Racial justice activists and two Missouri members of congress — Democratic U.S. Reps. Cori Bush of St. Louis and Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City — have also called on Parson to show mercy to Johnson, who is Black.

The Missouri Supreme Court in August refused to halt the execution, and on Friday, it declined to take the case up again. Weis and other attorneys for Johnson on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution.  “This is not a close case — Mr. Johnson is intellectually disabled,” they wrote in their court filing.

Johnson admitted to killing three workers at a Casey’s General Store in Columbia on Feb. 12, 1994 — manager Mary Bratcher, 46, and employees Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58.  The victims were shot and attacked with a claw hammer. Bratcher also was stabbed in the hand with a screwdriver....

Johnson was sentenced to death in his first trial and two other times.  The second death sentence, in 2003, came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally ill was unconstitutionally cruel.  The Missouri Supreme Court tossed that second death sentence and Johnson was sentenced for a third time in 2006.

If the execution takes place as scheduled, it would be the seventh in the U.S. this year but the first not involving either a federal inmate or a prisoner in Texas.  The peak year for modern executions was 1999, when there were 98 across the U.S.  That number had gradually declined and just 17 people were executed last year — 10 involving federal prisoners, three in Texas and one each in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri, according to a database compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

UPDATE: This AP piece reports that the Missouri Gov was unmoved:

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Monday declined to grant clemency to death row inmate Ernest Johnson, despite requests for mercy from the pope, two federal lawmakers and thousands of petition signers.

October 4, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Texas completes state's third execution of 2021

As reported in this local article, "Texas carried out its third execution of the year Tuesday night, lethally injecting Rick Rhoades for killing two men in their Houston-area home 30 years ago."  Here is more:

I speculated in this post, wrongly, that death row inmates might all be able to secure a stay of execution after SCOTUS granted cert in Ramirez to determine religious liberty rights in the Texas execution chamber.  A couple of weeks ago, as noted here, another Texas inmate did get an execution stay based on religion claim SCOTUS is considering in Ramirez.  But it seems Rhoades was either uninterested or unable to make a Ramirez claim, and his execution went forward as scheduled.

September 28, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

"In The Extreme: Women Serving Life Without Parole and Death Sentences in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project.  Here is how the report gets started:

Extreme punishments, including the death penalty and life imprisonment, are a hallmark of the United States’ harsh criminal legal system.  Nationwide one of every 15 women in prison — over 6,600 women — are serving a sentence of life with parole, life without parole, or a virtual life sentence of 50 years or more.  The nearly 2,000 women serving life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences can expect to die in prison.  Death sentences are permitted by 27 states and the federal government, and currently 52 women sit on death row.

This report presents new data on the prevalence of both of these extreme sentences imposed on women.  Across the U.S. there are nearly 2,000 women serving life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences and another 52 women who have been sentenced to death.  The majority have been convicted of homicide.  Regarding capital punishment, women are sitting on death row in 15 states.  As shown in Figure 1, women are serving LWOP sentences in all but six states.  Three quarters of life sentences are concentrated in 12 states and the federal system.  It is notable that in all states with a high count of women serving LWOP, there is at least one woman on death row as well.  Two exceptions to the overlap are Colorado and Michigan which do not have anyone serving a death sentence because it is not statutorily allowed.

September 22, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Oklahoma top court sets executions dates for seven condemned men over the next six months

In this post last month I asked, "Might Oklahoma really try to move forward with seven executions over the next six months?"  That post was prompted by the Oklahoma Attorney General's request to the state's Court of Criminal Appeals to set execution dates for seven death row inmates, including in the high-profile case of Julius Jones.  Now, as reported in this local article, all these execution date have been set:

High-profile death row inmate Julius Jones has been scheduled for execution Nov. 18.  The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday set execution dates for Jones and six other inmates convicted of murder. The court set the date for Jones even though the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended Gov. Kevin Stitt commute his death sentence.

The board voted 3-1 Sept. 13 to recommend his sentence be commuted to life in prison.  If the governor agrees, Jones immediately would be eligible for parole.  Stitt could choose to commute the sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He also could deny commutation.

Oklahoma's new attorney general, John O'Connor, asked the court to schedule the execution dates. O'Connor made the request in August after a federal judge ruled six of the inmates could no longer participate in a legal challenge to the state's execution procedures....  Still in the legal challenge are 26 other death row imates. Their lawsuit in Oklahoma City federal court focuses mainly on the use of a sedative, midazolam, in lethal injections.  Trial is set for Feb. 28.

Jones, 41, is facing execution for the 1999 fatal shooting of an Edmond insurance executive during a carjacking.  Jurors chose the death penalty as punishment at a 2002 trial. The victim, Paul Howell, was gunned down in his parents' driveway in Edmond after a back-to-school shopping trip with his daughters. Stolen was his 1997 Suburban. Jones claims that he is innocent, that the real killer framed him and that his trial was unfair....

Oklahoma has not carried out an execution since January 2015.  Scheduled for execution first is John Marion Grant, 60, an armed robber who was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a prison kitchen worker in 1998. His execution was set for Oct. 28.

Next is Jones.  Third is Bigler Jobe Stouffer, 78, who was sentenced to death for the 1985 fatal shooting of a Putnam City elementary school teacher. His execution was set for Dec. 9....

Fourth is Wade Greely Lay, 60, who was sentenced to death for killing a security guard during a botched bank robbery in 2004.  His execution was set for Jan. 6.

Fifth is Donald A. Grant, 45, who was sentenced to death for killing two workers at the LaQuinta Inn in Del City during a 2001 robbery.  His execution was set for Jan. 27.

Sixth is Gilbert Ray Postelle, 35, who was convicted of murdering four people on Memorial Day 2005 outside a trailer in Del City. He was sentenced to death for two of the murders and to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the other two.  His execution was set for Feb. 17.

Seventh is James Allen Coddington, 49, who was sentenced to death for killing a Choctaw man in 1997 during a cocaine binge.  His execution was set for March 10.

O'Connor initally had asked for earlier dates. He revised his request when the appeals court did not act.  He told the court he was doing so so that inmates will get a required notice and to allow the parole board time to conduct clemency hearings.  In the order, the four judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals found that the setting of execution dates is now appropriate and required by law.  They acknowledged in a footnote that they are aware of Jones' commutation request. They wrote "this Court's duty to set a date certain is dictated" by law because there is currently no stay in effect.

Given that there have only been four state executions nationwide since the start of the pandemic more than 18 months ago, I would be quite surprised if Oklahoma actually completes so many executions in the next few months. But, as we recently saw with the federal system in 2020, sometimes an attorney general very motivated to restart the machinery of death can get death chambers humming pretty quickly.

Prior related post:

September 21, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (20)

Friday, September 17, 2021

Second Texas inmate gets execution stay based on religion claim SCOTUS considering in Ramirez

As reported in this post, the Supreme Court last week stayed the execution of John Ramirez and granted certiorari to consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death by the state of Texas.  In this follow-up post, titled "A short de facto execution moratorium?: could other condemned inmates secure a stay until SCOTUS decides new Ramirez case on religious liberty?", I wondered aloud if the SCOTUS cert grant in Ramirez could produce a short de facto execution moratorium based on other death row inmates making a religious liberty claim like Ramirez’s request.

This new AP piece, headlined "Judge delays another Texas execution over religious freedom claims," reports that at least one other Texas inmate has secured an execution stay on the basis of Ramirez.  Here are the details:

Another Texas inmate has had his execution delayed over claims the state is violating his religious freedom by not letting his spiritual adviser lay hands on him at the time of his lethal injection.

Ruben Gutierrez was set to be executed on Oct. 27 for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old Brownsville woman in 1998.  But a judge on Wednesday granted a request by the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office to vacate the execution date. Prosecutors said the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming review of similar religious freedom issues made by another inmate, John Henry Ramirez, whose execution the high court delayed last week, will impact Gutierrez’s case.

“As the Ramirez matter may be dispositive of any issue related to Gutierrez’s religious liberty claim, it is in the best interest of the state, the family of the victim of Gutierrez’s crimes, that his execution be delayed,” prosecutors said in a motion filed Tuesday.

Gutierrez was previously an hour away from execution in June 2020 when the Supreme Court granted him a stay because his spiritual adviser was not allowed to accompany him in the death chamber.

Last month, Gutierrez’s attorneys filed a complaint in federal court alleging the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was violating his right to practice his religion by denying his request to have his priest touch his shoulder, pray out loud and perform last rites when he was executed.

Gutierrez, 44, said that these three things need to be done “to ensure my path to the afterlife,” according to his complaint.  His attorneys cited the Constitution’s First Amendment and a federal statute that protects an inmate’s religious rights. Ramirez made similar claims when he was granted a stay.

The Supreme Court has dealt with the presence of spiritual advisers in the death chamber in recent years but has not made a definitive ruling on the issue.  That could change after it hears oral arguments in Ramirez’s case on Nov. 1.

Prior related posts:

September 17, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Utah prosecutors urge repeal of death penalty as "grave defect that creates a liability for victims of violent crime, defendants' due process rights, and for the public good"

As reported in this local article from Utah, a "coalition of district attorneys and county prosecutors from around the state made noise on Tuesday, presenting a joint letter to be sent to Governor Spencer Cox and the State Legislature, asking for a repeal of the death penalty."  Here is more:

Citing six specific reasons, the four attorneys; Christina Sloan of Grand County, Margaret Olson of Summit County, David Leavitt of Utah County, and Sim Gill of Salt Lake County combined their influence to pen a recommendation to replace the death penalty sentence for aggravated murder to a term of 45 years to life....

The last person to be executed by the state in Utah was Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18, 2010. His execution by firing squad (yes, that is still an option if lethal injection is held unconstitutional, unavailable, or if the convicted selected that method before May 3, 2004) was highly publicized at the time.  However, it came 26 years after his murder of an attorney during an escape attempt while being transported to a hearing for a separate robbery and murder.

Following his death sentence, which was given in October 1985, Gardner’s case was trapped in a series of appeals and defense motions that delayed his execution. Likely, the court and legal fees that were involved in finally carrying out his sentence were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more....  The coalition of attorneys in Utah referred to another study concluding that death penalty convictions cost taxpayers $1.12 million more than holding them for life. “A death sentence also carries the inevitable expenses of appeal.  The taxpayers must pay for both the prosecution and the defense in these hearings,” the letter reads....

Attempts have been made before to repeal the death penalty in Utah. In 2018, a death penalty amendment was introduced in the state legislature as House Bill 379.  The provisions were filed in the house but didn’t pass, even after a favorable recommendation from the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

This four-page prosecutor letter, styled as "An Open Letter to Governor Spencer Cox and the Utah State Legislature," is worth a full read. It starts and ends this way:

As attorneys and duly elected public prosecutors, we have sworn to support, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Utah.  We also have a statutory duty to call to the State Legislature's attention any defect in the operation of the law.  In fulfillment of that oath and responsibility, we alert legislators and the people of a grave defect that creates a liability for victims of violent crime, defendants' due process rights, and for the public good. The defect which we urge the Legislature to repeal is the death penalty....

Doctors take the Hippocratic oath to do no harm to people when they become licensed.  The promise of an attorney is one to uphold and defend the Constitution.  Yet as prosecutors, our client is the public.  We file our cases in the name of the state of Utah.  We work to protect public safety, preserve the privacy and dignity of crime victims and to hold the guilty accountable.  Then, once a defendant is convicted, we seek to make victims whole and ensure that a defendant does not harm others again.  When someone commits a violent murder, nothing can repair the damage that person has caused.  No earthly court can order restored life to a murdered son or daughter or a healed heart to a crushed husband or wife.  However, we can ensure that the offender goes to prison.  If the Legislature repeals the death penalty, the available sentences for aggravated murder will be life without parole or 25 years to life.  Twenty-five years is far too short of a time for our most violent offenders.  Most people convicted of aggravated murder are young men.  We believe that justice requires the third optionof45 years to life to be made available. As prosecutors, we are not seeking mercy for the murderer but justice for the people.  A 45 to life sentence will mean that if an offender ever gets out, it will not be until the twilight of their lives.  That will protect the public and, to the extent possible, provide a small measure of justice for what that person has taken away.  Accordingly, we call on the Legislature to remedy this defect in the law by repealing the death penalty and creating a new possible alternative to life without parole of 45 years to life.

September 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 09, 2021

A short de facto execution moratorium?: could other condemned inmates secure a stay until SCOTUS decides new Ramirez case on religious liberty?

As highlighted in this post, the Supreme Court late last night stayed the execution of John Ramirez, who was scheduled to be killed by Texas via lethal injection on Wednesday night.  Importantly, the Justices not only postponed this execution, it also granted certiorari to allow the Court to fully consider on the merits Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death. 

Notably, the brief SCOTUS order called for an expedited briefing schedule "that will allow the case to be argued in October or November 2021."  But, even if the argument were to take place in (late) October, it seems pretty unlikely that the Court's ultimate ruling in Ramirez v. Collier will be handed down before late November.  And, as detailed here, Texas has six additional executions scheduled for between now and November 17, 2021.  I cannot help but wonder if some or all of these condemned inmates on Texas death row will now request that a religious official be allowed to physically touch them and/or audibly pray in the execution chamber while they are put to death.  If any or all other Texas inmates on death row now make such a religious request and it is denied by prison officials (and/or if Alabama and Missouri inmates scheduled to be executed in October make similar requests), wouldn't the balance of equities support a short stay of these other scheduled executions until the Supreme Court rules in Ramirez?

Perhaps Texas and other state officials will seek to go forward with executions despite any new Ramirez-type requests by other condemned inmates for religious accommodations in the execution chamber by asserting that any new request is not made in good faith and is only a last-minute (and too-late) effort to delay an execution.  But couldn't  an inmate respond, perhaps in good faith, that he did not even think such a religious accommodation was possible until John Ramirez litigated this issue and the Supreme Court decided to take it seriously.  I sense lower courts might be particularly wary of trying to judge whether a dying inmate's religious request is sincere.  Moreover, the fact that SCOTUS has fast-tracked this case might also enable death row inmates and their counsel to argue that any execution postponement to resolve a requested Ramirez-type religious accommodations would likely last only a few months.

Am I missing something and/or am I crazy to think that the SCOTUS cert grant in Ramirez could produce a short de facto execution moratorium until the Justices issue an opinion in Ramirez

September 9, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

SCOTUS stays Texas execution and grants cert on death row inmate's request for pastor's touch during execution

Texas was scheduled to execute John Ramirez this evening, but the Supreme Court blocked the effort as reported here at SCOTUSblog:

The Supreme Court agreed to postpone the execution of John Ramirez, who was scheduled to die on Wednesday night in Texas.  The last-minute respite will allow the justices to fully consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch Ramirez and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death.

Ramirez’s emergency application was the latest in a series of shadow-docket requests in the past two years involving spiritual advisers at executions. But the justices are now poised to weigh in more definitively on the rights of inmates to have spiritual advisers at their side in their final moments: In the brief order putting Ramirez’s execution on hold, the court agreed to hear Ramirez’s appeal on its regular docket this fall.

Ramirez, who was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of convenience-store clerk Pablo Castro, asked to have his Baptist pastor, Dana Moore, put his hands on Ramirez’s body and pray out loud as Ramirez is executed.  After Texas refused to grant that request, Ramirez went to federal court in August.  The district court rejected Ramirez’s bid to postpone his execution last week, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit turned down his plea to intervene.

The four cases that have previously reached the court centered on whether spiritual advisers could be present in the execution chamber at all....  Ramirez’s case involved a slightly different issue: what kind of aid a spiritual adviser can (and cannot) provide during an execution.  Ramirez came to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, asking the justices to put his execution on hold and to review his case on the merits.  He stressed that his filing was not a last-minute effort to delay his execution, because he had first raised the spiritual-adviser question over a year ago.  The state’s refusal to allow Moore to touch him and pray out loud, Ramirez argued, violates both his constitutional rights and the federal law guaranteeing religious rights for inmates.  Under the Texas policy, Ramirez emphasized in his reply brief on Wednesday, the execution chamber would be “a godless vacuum,” with Moore “no different from a potted plant.”...

In an order issued shortly before 10 p.m. EDT, the justices agreed to stay Ramirez’s execution and to hear his appeal on the merits. The court indicated that the case should be fast-tracked, with oral argument set for either October or November. There were no public dissents from Wednesday’s order.

September 8, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Noting that, with fewer executions, those on death row are growing even older

This new piece at The Crime Report authored by Maria DiLorenzo, which is titled "Growing Old on Death Row," highlights that many of those on death row these days are really serving a sentence of "a long confined aged" life behind bars.  Here are excerpts:

In the 36 years that David Carpenter has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California, his routine has rarely changed. He awakens early in the morning and exercises, despite suffering from arthritis, in the cramped space of his single-bunk cell before eating breakfast.  Three days a week, he has access to a yard outside.

Once a month he attends a church service, one of the few activities that allows him time out of his cell, aside from medical appointments and visiting with friends and family, which he used to do regularly prior to COVID restrictions that have made the prison more isolated.  But most of the time, he stays inside his cell, which he’s grateful he does not have to share with anyone else. “I control my lights,” he tells The Crime Report in an interview via snail mail.  “I have my 15-inch color television.  I can go to sleep when I want to at night, take a nap during the day, and write letters and read when I want to.  I have the freedom in a single cell that I would not have in a two-man cell.”

At the age of 91, there’s one other thing he can be grateful for.  In 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended capital punishment. As long as Newsom remains governor, executions will not occur, which has effectively given Carpenter a lease on life.  He is keenly aware of the irony.  “Because no one has been executed in California, death row inmates (in this state) have grown older with each passing year,” he acknowledged in his note to The Crime Report. “If California was like Texas, [which] executes people shortly after being found guilty and [sentenced to death] I would have been executed years ago.”

In 1984, Carpenter, also known as The Trailside Killer, was sentenced to death for shooting and killing two women.  Then, in 1988, he was found guilty of murdering five women, raping two others, and attempting to rape a third.  He was later tried and convicted of two additional murders and an attempted murder....

Carpenter, now one of the oldest individuals awaiting execution in the U.S., belongs to a growing segment of the prison demographic. In 2019, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, some 574 prisoners on death row in the U.S. were aged 60 or over. In 1996 that figure was just 39....

Some 1,200 of the 2,800 inmates awaiting execution are aged 50 and over.  Demographic trends suggest that over-50 population will increase, as America’s death rows are increasingly transformed into high-cost homes for senior citizens....  [A]s courts scrutinize details of appeals, men and women condemned to death are not only growing old, but becoming afflicted with dementia or other disabling diseases of age.  Since 2000, 11 death row inmates ranging in age from 65 to 77 have been executed.  Some, according to scholars.org, ‘were disabled, demented, or both.”

And as more states reject or sidestep capital punishment, the issue of what do with aging prisoners on death row presents a dilemma with moral, constitutional and economic dimensions.  Some critics argue that keeping ailing and enfeebled individuals behind bars―some with no memory of the crime they are in for ― is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

But it also raises questions about whether a system in which capital punishment is invariably accompanied by a long appeals process that leaves people to grow old on Death Row makes sense. “One way is just to substitute life without parole for death,” Fox told The Crime Report. “You keep them off the street, which is the desire that people have, and keep them in prison longer… I understand that people are worried about the cost, (but) death row trials are very expensive. They’re longer, they have more witnesses, more experts.”

It is not quite right to say that Texas executes people shortly after they are found guilty.  This website listing the next eight Texas execution dates (one of which is tomorrow) reveals that all eight of these condemned men have been on death row for more than a decade and a few have been there for a quarter century or longer.  Still, with California having over 700 persons on its death row, while not having completed a single execution in over 15 years, it is fitting that someone like The Trailside Killer from the Golden State is the featured focal point for a discussion of aging on death row.

September 7, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Might any Justices be intrigued by notion that Eighth Amendment originalism makes the Boston Marathon bomber's death sentence suspect?

I have always been intrigued by writings by Michael J.Z. Mannheimer making originalist claims about the Eighth Amendment as a unique and distinctive limit on federal punishments.  As he explains in "Cruel and Unusual Federal Punishments," the framers and ratifiers of the Eighth Amendment were particularly concerned about an oppressive federal government imposing  excessive punishments, and so they expected that "state law should be the benchmark for determining whether a federal punishment is 'cruel and unusual'."  Particularly because many federal  criminal laws and sentencing provisions are now particularly harsh when compared to state benchmarks — think many federal drug and gun mandatory minimums — Mannheimer's approach to the Eighth Amendment could have considerable modern purchase.  And, since this idea seems firmly grounded in originalism, one might hope that serious originalists might at least consider this idea when considering a notable federal punishment.

These matters are on my mind today because Professor Mannheimer just filed this interesting amicus brief in  US v. Tsarnaev, which just happens to involve a notable federal punishment for a notable criminal defendant.  Here is part of the brief's summary of argument:

In 1783, faced with a request by the Articles of Confederation Congress for unanimous consent by the States to implement a new impost on goods, Massachusetts assented.  But it did so only with conditions.  One condition was that, in enforcing the proposed impost within Massachusetts, the central government must not impose upon a violator of the impost law any “punishments which are either cruel or unusual in this Commonwealth.”  Georgia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina set the same condition, substituting “State” for “Commonwealth.”  Thus, a scant six years before the Bill of Rights was proposed by Congress and submitted to the States, we see a precursor to the Eighth Amendment in these state impost ratifications, which used language nearly identical to that which would appear in the Eighth Amendment.  And that language was State-specific; the measure of what punishments qualified as “cruel or unusual” was to be determined on a State-by-State basis, according to what qualified as “cruel or unusual” punishment in each State.

When the Eighth Amendment was drafted only a few years later, the State-specific understanding of this phrase remained. Coupled with the word “cruel,” unusual meant “harsher than is permitted by the law of long usage and custom,” i.e., the common law. And, of course, the common law differed in each State. More importantly, the framers and ratifiers of the Eighth Amendment understood that the common law differed by State.

This State-specific understanding of the term “cruel and unusual punishments” follows directly from the goals of the Anti-Federalists in demanding a bill of rights. The Anti-Federalists initially opposed ratification of the Constitution because they feared that the outsized power of the proposed new federal government would lead to both the annihilation of the States as sovereign entities and the destruction of individual rights. These two fears were intertwined: If the new central government were to create a parallel and plenary system of laws, it would render the States irrelevant and permit the central government to sidestep the common-law rights Americans had fought and died for only a few years before. These common-law rights had been enshrined in state constitutions and laws, but because the proposed federal government would be acting on the citizens directly, it would not be bound to observe those rights.

The Anti-Federalists’ solution was to constrain the new federal government in the same ways that the States constrained themselves. This meant, in some instances, calibrating federal rights to state norms, thereby preserving state power and individual rights simultaneously by retaining the primacy of the States in protecting common-law rights.  This is how the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause was to operate, protecting the common-law right against punishments unknown to the law by positing state law as the reference point, the benchmark of “unusualness.” “Cruel and unusual” meant “harsher than is permitted in the particular jurisdiction.”  With this understanding in place, moderate Anti-Federalists gave their assent to ratification and a Nation was born...

The people of Massachusetts have effectively turned their face against the death penalty, believing it to be an inappropriate method of punishment within their Commonwealth.  Just like the Commonwealth’s conditional assent to the 1783 confederal impost, the Anti-Federalists’ assent to ratification on condition that a bill of rights be adopted preserves the Commonwealth’s authority to set the outer bounds of punishment for crimes committed entirely within its borders.  The core, irreducible meaning of the Eighth Amendment is that this judgment is the Commonwealth’s to make.

The federal government may not impose capital punishment in this case because the death penalty, in the most fundamental, literal meaning of the words, is “cruel and unusual punishment” in Massachusetts.

Of course, substantive Eighth Amendment issues are not directly in front of the Supreme Court in Tsarnaev because the First Circuit reversed the Boston Marathon bomber's death sentence on procedural grounds. But the good professor urges SCOTUS to instruct the lower courts to address this matter if it were to at some point remand the case to the First Circuit.

August 31, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, August 26, 2021

California Supreme Court turns back broad challenge to state capital procedures

As detailed in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "California’s top court declines to overhaul death penalty," a broad challenge to death penalty procedures was rejected by the California Supreme Court today.  Here are the basics:

The California Supreme Court on Thursday decided to leave the state’s death penalty law intact, refusing an entreaty from Gov. Gavin Newsom that would have overturned scores of death sentences.

In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court said there was little legal support under state law for overhauling the law, as opponents of capital punishment urged. In fact, the court said, some of the precedents cited by defense lawyers actually undercut their position.

Defense lawyers had argued the state’s capital punishment law was unconstitutional because it failed to require jurors to unanimously agree beyond a reasonable doubt on the reasons why a defendant should be sentenced to death instead of life without possibility of parole. A decision to impose the death penalty also should be made beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard now used in deciding guilt, the lawyers said.

If the court had agreed, hundreds — if not all — death sentences would have had to be overturned because such decisions generally apply retroactively.

Justice Goodwin Liu, who wrote the ruling, said some of the cases cited by defense attorneys did not support their position. “If anything,” he said, they suggested “the ultimate penalty determination is entirely within the discretion of the jury.” The court did not reject the constitutional arguments raised by Newsom but said they did “not bear directly on the specific state law questions before us.”

In a concurring opinion, Liu said there was enough U.S. Supreme Court precedent to warrant reconsidering California’s death penalty rules in future cases. He noted that some other states have changed their capital punishment requirements as a result of more recent Supreme Court rulings on the 6th Amendment, which protects the trial rights of the criminally accused....

John Mills, who represented two scholars of the state Constitution as friends of the court, said the ruling and Liu’s concurrence have provided a road map for future challenges that may be more likely to succeed. He predicted death row inmates will soon bring the kinds of claims that Liu said might be persuasive but were not at issue in McDaniel’s appeal. “He was laying out some concerns that were not presented by Mr. McDaniel about the operations of the California death penalty statute that he is concerned may violate the federal Constitution,” Mills said. “Those issues remain an open question in California because they were not litigated in this case.”...

California has more than 700 inmates on death row, but legal challenges have stymied executions. Only 13 inmates have been executed since 1992, and Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions during his time in office.

The full 111-page opinion from the California Supreme Court is available at this link.

August 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Might Oklahoma really try to move forward with seven executions over the next six months?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new local article headlined "Oklahoma AG requests execution dates for seven state death row inmates." Here are the basics:

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor late Wednesday asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to set execution dates for seven death row inmates, including Julius Jones. The action comes after the state put the death penalty on hold following the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett, the 2015 execution of Charles Warner using the wrong drug, a review of the protocol and litigation.

O’Connor asked that Jones’ execution date be set for Oct. 28. Jones, who has waged a public relations campaign claiming innocence, is set for a Sept. 13 commutation hearing before the Pardon and Parole Board. However, with the O’Connor filing seeking an execution date, that could change to a clemency hearing a later date, said Tom Bates, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board director.

The board has scheduled a meeting for next week to discuss the potential resumption of executions and the scheduling of clemency hearings. Jones was convicted of the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.

O’Connor asked the court to set a Feb. 10 execution date for James Allen Coddington, who was sentenced to death for the 1997 killing of Albert Hale in Oklahoma County. He also requested that a Dec. 30 execution date be set for Donald Anthony Grant. He was sentenced to death for the 2001 murders of Del City motel workers Brenda McElyea and Suzette Smith.

An Oct. 7 date was requested by John Marion Grant Grant, who was sentenced for the 1998 killing of Gray Carter, a prison kitchen worker at the Dick Connor Correctional Center in Hominy. Wade Greely Lay, sentenced to death for the 2004 killing of a Tulsa security guard Kenny Anderson, was petitioned to be sentenced on Dec. 9.

The court was also asked to set a Jan. 20 execution date for Gilbert Ray Postelle. Postelle was convicted at trial of killing four people in 2005 outside a trailer in Del City. He received the death penalty for two of the murders.

A execution date of Nov.18 was requested for Bigler Jobe Stouffer.  Stouffer was sentenced to death for the 1985 killing of Putnam City teacher Linda Reaves.

I believe there have only been four state executions nationwide since the start of the pandemic nearly 18 months ago, so I am inclined to assume that this request for multiple execution dates over the next six months from the Oklahoma AG is mostly a symbolic effort primarily intended to signal the AG's eagerness to move forward with executions and to keep capital proceedings moving along.  But when former US AG William Barr announced his intent in 2019 to restart federal executions after a long delay, I underestimated just how effectual a motivated AG could be in getting the machinery of death back in action.  So stay tuned.

August 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Unusual Fourth Circuit panel affirms federal convictions and death sentence for Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof

I noted in this post from May 2021 that an unusual Fourth Circuit panel had to be assembled to hear the capital appeal of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof because all the member of the Fourth Circuit were recused.  The mass recusal resulted from the fact that now Circuit Judge Jay Richardson was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina in 2017 and the lead prosecutor on the Roof case.  And it meant that  Judge Duane Benton of the Eighth Circuit, Judge Kent Jordan of the Third Circuit and Senior Judge Ronald Gilman of the Sixth Circuit considered Roof's many issues on appeal.

That trio of judges today handed down a 149-page opinion in United States v. Roof, No. 17-3 (Aug. 25, 2021) (available here).  The per curiam opinion starts and concludes this way:

In 2015, Dylann Storm Roof, then 21 years old, shot and killed nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (“Mother Emanuel”) in Charleston, South Carolina during a meeting of a Wednesday night Bible-study group.  A jury convicted him on nine counts of racially motivated hate crimes resulting in death, three counts of racially motivated hate crimes involving an attempt to kill, nine counts of obstructing religion resulting in death, three counts of obstructing religion involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and nine counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence.  The jury unanimously recommended a death sentence on the religious-obstruction and firearm counts, and he was sentenced accordingly. He now appeals the convictions and sentence.  Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3595(a), we will affirm....

Dylann Roof murdered African Americans at their church, during their Bible-study and worship. They had welcomed him. He slaughtered them. He did so with the express intent of terrorizing not just his immediate victims at the historically important Mother Emanuel Church, but as many similar people as would hear of the mass murder. He used the internet to plan his attack and, using his crimes as a catalyst, intended to foment racial division and strife across America.  He wanted the widest possible publicity for his atrocities, and, to that end, he purposefully left one person alive in the church “to tell the story.” (J.A. at 5017.)  When apprehended, he frankly confessed, with barely a hint of remorse.

No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what Roof did. His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose.  We have reached that conclusion not as a product of emotion but through a thorough analytical process, which we have endeavored to detail here. In this, we have followed the example of the trial judge, who managed this difficult case with skill and compassion for all concerned, including Roof himself.  For the reasons given, we will affirm

In capital cases, it is pretty common for the losing party to seek en banc review. But, as was discussed in my May post, it is unclear whether and how an additional 12 judges would get appointed by designation in order to properly consider any en banc petition that might come next. Roof can, of course, proceed now to seek certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court (which will surely happen eventually even if he does seek en banc review).

A few of many prior related posts:

August 25, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, August 23, 2021

En banc Sixth Circuit preserves death sentences in Kentucky in two big en banc rulings

This past Friday and also today, the Sixth Circuit handed down divided en banc rulings to upholds death sentences in cases from Ohio and Kentucky.  The Ohio case, Hill v. Shoop, No. 99-4317 (6th Cir. Aug, 20, 2021) (available here), has a majority opinion that gets started this way:

In this death penalty habeas case, appellant Danny Hill seeks collateral review of his conviction for the murder of Raymond Fife, a twelveyear-old boy. The case has been to the Supreme Court once and before panels of this court twice.  The core issue in the underlying state case was whether Hill was ineligible for the death penalty because he is intellectually disabled, a question that became pertinent after the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). Before us, the issues are whether, under governing AEDPA review principles, the state court decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).  We conclude that the state court’s resolution of the issue does not meet either of the criteria that would permit a federal court to disturb a state conviction. Thus, we affirm the district court’s denial of Hill’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

The Kentucky case, Taylor v. Jordan, No. 14-6508 (6th Cir. Aug, 23, 2021) (available here), has a majority opinion that gets started this way:

Victor Taylor murdered two high-school students in 1984, for which a jury convicted him of capital murder and recommended a sentence of death.  The trial judge imposed that sentence and the Kentucky Supreme Court repeatedly denied Taylor’s claims for relief.  Taylor eventually filed a federal habeas petition, arguing (among many other things) that the prosecutor at his trial had discriminated against African-American members of his venire.  The district court denied Taylor’s petition. We affirm.

August 23, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Notable accounting of "widespread support" for the death penalty in public polling

Joseph Bessette and J. Andrew Sinclair have this lengthy new post at Real Clear Policy discussing public polling in the US about capital punishment. The lengthy piece, which I recommend in full, is titled "New Evidence Confirms Widespread Support for the Death Penalty." Here are a few excerpts (with few links from the original):

On July 1, the Biden administration halted the use of the federal death penalty, reversing the Trump administration’s 2020 resumption of executions.  The announcement of a moratorium pending a review of “policies and procedures” is less permanent than legislative abolition, but it is unlikely the president could get Congress to end the death penalty. Many Americans support capital punishment; in fact, our research shows that public support for the death penalty is even greater than commonly reported....

The Pew Research Center recently reported that 60% of Americans support the death penalty for murder.  Gallup, which has been asking Americans about capital punishment since the late 1930s, gauges current support at 55%.  These are clear majorities but well below the modern peak of around 80% in the mid-1990s.  Political choices have begun to reflect this systematic decline in support. Despite championing the death penalty in the 1990s, President Biden joined nearly every other Democratic presidential candidate in calling for its abolition in his 2020 campaign.  Virginia (in 2021) and Colorado (in 2020), both states trending towards the Democratic Party, recently abolished the death penalty.

Although the two of us disagree about whether capital punishment should be public policy in the United States, we agree that a nuanced approach is required for understanding public opinion on this issue.  The standard type of death penalty question, asked over and over again for more than half a century, leaves policymakers, scholars, and citizens with an incomplete picture of support, or potential support, for the death penalty.  We are far from the first to observe that the answer you get depends on the question you ask.  We have begun a project, though, of systematically trying to understand what these different responses can tell us about how many American voters support capital punishment. 

Both Gallup and Pew ask a generic question. Gallup asks, “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?” Although Pew gives more options to measure level of support, its question is otherwise nearly identical: “Do you strongly favor, favor, oppose or strongly oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” Other polling organizations tend to ask versions of this question as well. Yet, these questions do not distinguish between most murders and the specific kinds of aggravated murders that make someone eligible for the death penalty in the 27 American states that retain capital punishment.  If you oppose the death penalty for most murders, but not all murders, how would you answer the generic question?...

While we continue to conduct survey research on the death penalty, we wanted to share our main findings from surveys conducted in June 2019 and October 2020 because of the renewed debate of recent months and years. (We present our key findings in a report released by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, Claremont McKenna College.)  In each survey, we used a three-part approach to gauging support for the death penalty.  First, we asked a version of a general question about the death penalty.  Second, we asked all respondents about the appropriateness of the death penalty for particular aggravated murders.  Third, we asked respondents for their opinion about a death penalty policy decision in their own states....

To provide a rough summary of our findings: We can divide the electorate into three groups of different sizes.  About a fifth of American voters oppose the death penalty in nearly every circumstance: These appear to be the truly committed opponents.  About three fifths reliably support the death penalty: they favor it in theory and also want to have a death penalty law in their state.  A final fifth of the American electorate approves of the death penalty in some way, in theory, but does not necessarily want the death penalty in their state. 

Framed this way, there is more support for the death penalty than the 55% (Gallup) or 60% (Pew) numbers might suggest. This is not to say those numbers are “wrong” (with similar questions, we find similar results), but just that they understate death penalty support for the kinds of aggravated murders that make an offender eligible for capital punishment in American states.  If a substantial proportion of death penalty “opponents” — as measured by Gallup and Pew — actually approve, at least theoretically, of the death penalty in some cases, their opposition is much softer than might be assumed.  As prior research on this subject has demonstrated, changing crime rates or different media coverage might drive up support again, and these types of voters could potentially be satisfied with laws that focused on a few highly aggravated murders, provided special safeguards against mistaken convictions, or had other features to mitigate their concerns about implementation.  Truly committed opponents are a small minority of voters. 

I am always glad to see more thorough efforts to gauge public opinion in a more granular way. But I wonder if polling on the death penalty could be even more accurate if persons were informed about the considerable costs and inevitable delays that always attend the application of the death penalty in the US.

In some sense, many of these issues will be on display this fall when the Supreme Court considers the reversal of the death sentence given to the Boston Marathon bomber in United States v. Tsarnaev.  Tsarnaev committed his horrific crime now more than eight years ago, and I suspect the many millions spent on lawyers and court actions to fight over a death sentence might seem like a waste of resources even to those who would say they generally support capital punishment in a poll.  Or maybe the awfulness of Tsarnaev's crime might lead even more persons to be death penalty supporters no matter the costs and delays.

August 18, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Democratic Senators praise AG Garland's capital moratorium and urge additional steps

As reported in this Hill article, a group of 17 Democratic Senators sent a notable letter to AG Garland this week in which they "voiced their approval of Garland's decision to issue a moratorium on federal executions while the Department of Justice reviews policies and procedures."  This letter is available at this link, and it begins this way:

We commend you for your recent decisions to impose a moratorium on federal executions pending a review of death penalty policies and procedures and to withdraw several notices of intent to seek the death penalty that the Justice Department filed during the Trump Administration.  These are important steps toward ending the injustice of the death penalty.  We urge you to take the additional steps of withdrawing all pending death notices, and authorizing no new death notices, while your review proceeds.

As your memorandum announcing the moratorium recognizes, there are serious concerns about arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty, its disparate impact on people of color, and the alarming number of exonerations in capital cases.  These concerns justify not only a review of the procedures for carrying out the death penalty, but also support halting its use — including prohibiting federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty — during the review process.

August 10, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Might Alabama become the first state to use nitrogen gas for an execution?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "Alabama says it has built method for nitrogen gas execution."  Here are excerpts:

Alabama told a federal judge this week that it has finished construction of a “system” to use nitrogen gas to carry out death sentences, an execution method authorized by state law but never put into use.

The Alabama Department of Corrections indicated in an Aug. 2 court filing that it is waiting to make sure the nitrogen hypoxia system is ready, before writing procedures for how it will be used. The prison system did not describe how the system would work or give an estimate on when the state may try to use the new execution method.

“The ADOC has completed the initial physical build on the nitrogen hypoxia system. A safety expert has made a site visit to evaluate the system. As a result of the visit, the ADOC is considering additional health and safety measures,” a lawyer for the state attorney general’s office wrote in the court filing.

Alabama in 2018 became the third state — along with Oklahoma and Mississippi — to authorize the untested use of nitrogen gas to execute prisoners. Death would be caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, thereby depriving him or her of oxygen. Lawmakers theorized that death by nitrogen hypoxia could be a simpler and more humane execution method. But critics have likened the untested method to human experimentation.

No state has used nitrogen hypoxia to carry out an execution, and no state has developed a protocol for its use, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.... Alabama currently carries out executions by lethal injections unless an inmate requests the electric chair. As lethal injection drugs become difficult to obtain, states have begun looking at alternative ideas for carrying out death sentences including firing squads and gas.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

August 8, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, July 31, 2021

"The Trump Executions"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Lee Kovarsky now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In the final six months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the federal government executed thirteen people.  For perspective, there were three federal executions in the prior fifty-seven years — and none since 2003.  Among other things, this Article is a historical record of the “Trump Executions,” constructed largely from primary-source material. The Article also offers a framework for organizing the unique legal issues that the Trump Executions presented, and discusses their crucial implications.

I proceed in three parts.  Part I places the Trump Executions in historical context.  For politicians and bureaucrats who embrace the death penalty, the Trump Executions were a once-in-a-generation opportunity.  Part I explains the Bureau of Prisons’ lengthy struggle to identify and implement a lawful execution protocol — which was largely responsible for the growth of federal death row, and the pent-up desire to clear it.  Part I also presents a four-year timeline of the Trump Executions, which grounds the balance of the Article.

Part II organizes, into four useful categories, the legal disputes that were largely unique to the Trump Executions.  These were over: (1) the pentobarbital-only lethal injection sequence, (2) a federal “parity” provision requiring alignment between federal and state death penalty implementation; (3) a statutory savings clause allowing prisoners to bypass otherwise-applicable restrictions on post-conviction relief; and (4) the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Issues belonging to a residual category receive abbreviated treatment.) Surprisingly, when the litigation was complete, the judiciary had clarified little about federal death penalty law.

Part III considers the implications of the Trump Executions.  The Supreme Court, which undertook unprecedented intervention by way of its “shadow docket,” plainly worked to ensure that the Joe Biden administration had no say in sentence implementation.  The significance of the presidential transition was quite real, as the Trump Executions went forward on the backs of political and bureaucratic outliers that coincide only infrequently.  Ironically, the Trump Executions will most durably affect other institutional practices that depend on emergency adjudication — including pandemic responses, elections, and capital punishment in the states.

July 31, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

"Disrupting Death: How Dedicated Capital Defenders Broke Virginia's Machinery of Death"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Corinna Lain and Doug Ramseur now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Virginia’s repeal of capital punishment in 2021 is arguably the most momentous abolitionist event since 1972, when the Supreme Court invalidated capital punishment statutes nationwide.  In part, this is because Virginia’s repeal marks the first time a Southern state abolished the death penalty.  And in part, it is because even among Southern states, Virginia was exceptional in its fealty to capital punishment.  Virginia had the broadest death penalty statute in the country, coupled with a post-conviction review process that was lightning fast and turned death sentences into executions at a rate five times the national average.  Virginia holds the record for the most executions in the history of the United States, so how did it go from all-in on the death penalty to abolition?

A critical piece of the puzzle was the fact that Virginia had not seen a new death sentence in ten years, and had only two people left on death row.  The death penalty was dying on the vine, and how that came to be owes largely to Virginia’s dedicated capital defenders, who literally worked themselves out of a job by disrupting the machinery of death at every turn.  In this Article, we (a law professor and a former regional capital defender) tell the story behind the story of Virginia’s plunging death sentences — what was happening in the trenches that the transcripts and plea deals don’t show. This is the backstory as we know it, and we share it here both to better understand Virginia’s journey, and to serve as a resource for others still navigating theirs.

July 28, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 26, 2021

"Death Penalty Exceptionalism and Administrative Law"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Corinna Lain now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Prosecutors ask for death sentences, and judges and juries impose them, but the people who actually carry out those sentences are corrections department officials — administrative agency personnel. In this symposium contribution, I explore a little known nook of administrative law, examining how administrative law norms work in the execution setting of lethal injection.  What I find is death penalty exceptionalism — the notion that “death is different” so every procedural protection should be provided — turned on its head. 

Lethal injection statutes just say “lethal injection,” providing no guidance whatsoever to those who must implement them. Prison personnel have no expertise in deciding what drugs to use or how to perform the procedure.  And the usual administrative law devices that we rely on to bring transparency and accountability to the agency decision-making process are noticeably absent.  The culmination of these irregularities is a world where lethal injection drug protocols are decided by Google searches and other decision-making processes that would never pass muster in any other area of administrative law.

In the execution context, death penalty exceptionalism means that the minimal standards that ordinarily attend administrative decision-making do not apply.  It means that when the state is carrying out its most solemn of duties, those subject to its reach receive not more protection, but less.  In the end, when the death penalty meets administrative law, administrative law norms get sullied and the death penalty loses the one comfort one might otherwise have: that when the state takes human life, it takes extra care to do it right.  What happens at the intersection of these two great bodies of law is a result not good for either.

July 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Interesting review of African (and global) trends in capital punishment abolition

The New York Times has this interesting new article on capital punishment around the world under the headline "One by One, African Countries Dismantle Colonial-Era Death Penalty Laws."  Here are excerpts:

Lawmakers in Sierra Leone voted unanimously on Friday to abolish the death penalty, a momentous step that made the West African country the 23rd on the continent to prohibit capital punishment.

The decision was one more step in a long-sought goal of civil society organizations and legal practitioners who see the death penalty as a vestige of Africa’s oppressive colonial history.  “This is a horrible punishment and we need to get rid of it,” said Oluwatosin Popoola, a legal adviser at the rights group Amnesty International, a leading critic of capital punishment.

A vast majority of the 193 member states of the United Nations have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it.... The vote in Sierra Leone came against the backdrop of a steady march in Africa to discard brutal laws imposed by past colonial masters.  In April, Malawi ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.  In May of 2020, Chad did the same. Nearly half of Africa’s 54 independent countries have abolished the punishment, more than double the number from less than two decades ago.

While death sentences and executions have declined globally in recent years, they do not necessarily reflect the growing number of countries that have banned capital punishment.  At least some of the declines are attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed or delayed judicial proceedings in many countries.  And in some, like the United States, federal executions were ramped up in 2020.

As in previous years, China led the 2020 list of countries that execute the most people, killing thousands, according to Amnesty International, which compiles capital punishment statistics.  The exact figures for China are not known, as its data remains a state secret.  Next in 2020 came Iran, which executed at least 246 people, and then Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and in sixth place the United States, with 17 executions.  Most of the American executions were of federal prisoners in the last six months of President Donald J. Trump’s term, a turnaround after years of an informal moratorium.

The legislators in Sierra Leone on Friday replaced the death sentence with a maximum life sentence for certain crimes, including murder and treason.  This means that judges will have the power to consider mitigating factors, such as whether the defendant has a mental illness.  They would have had no such flexibility if the lawmakers had voted instead to replace the death penalty with a mandatory life sentence....

Sierra Leone is the first of the English-speaking West African countries to abolish the punishment.  A decade ago, a commission in Ghana recommended abolition, but in recent years efforts have stalled.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, at least 2,700 people are on death row — the highest number by far on the African continent. Gambia had been on track to abolish the death penalty last year, when a new Constitution was drafted. But it was rejected by Parliament. Still, Gambia’s president has made some significant moves away from capital punishment, Mr. Popoola said.  These are all countries that, like Sierra Leone, obtained independence from the Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s — around the same time as that colonial power was carrying out its own last executions.

July 25, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Noticing Biden Administration's withdrawal of pursuit of the death penalty in many cases

This new New York Times article, headlined "U.S. Won’t Seek Death Penalty in 7 Cases, Signaling a Shift Under Biden," reports on a notable set of pending case developments suggesting one way that the Biden Administration is making good on its stated antipathy toward capital punishment.  Here are excerpts:

One man was charged in Orlando, Fla., with kidnapping and fatally shooting his estranged wife. Another man was indicted in Syracuse, N.Y., in the armed robbery of a restaurant and the murders of two employees. And a third man was charged in Anchorage with fatally shooting two people during a home invasion.

Those cases and four others prosecuted in federal courts around the country all had a common theme — they were among cases in which the Justice Department under President Donald J. Trump directed federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty if they won convictions.

But now, under a new presidential administration, the Justice Department has moved to withdraw the capital punishment requests in each of the seven cases. The decisions were revealed in court filings without fanfare in recent months. The decision not to seek the death penalty in the cases comes amid the Biden administration’s broad rethinking of capital punishment — and could signal a move toward ending the practice at the federal level....

Some legal experts said it was too early to tell what the seven scattered cases signified, and one lawyer suggested Mr. Garland could have been even more assertive. “I think it’s a good and important step by the attorney general, but there’s no question that it’s not far enough,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “President Biden should issue a much broader moratorium,” Ms. Stubbs added. “He should ask for a moratorium on all death penalty prosecutions.”

But Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group in Sacramento, Calif., that supports crime victims and the death penalty, was critical of Mr. Garland’s decisions in the seven cases. “The families of murder victims are clearly not included in the calculus when ordering U.S. attorneys not to pursue capital punishment in the worst cases,” he said.

Under Mr. Garland, the Justice Department has continued to fight the appeal of the death sentence imposed on Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015. And in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of helping to carry out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured more than 260, the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty, which had been overturned on appeal.

July 22, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Helpful review of some modern US capital punishment realities

FT_21.07.15_DeathPenaltyFacts_2Over at the Pew Research Center, John Gramlich has this effective new piece headlined "10 facts about the death penalty in the U.S." In fact, many of the "facts" discussed in this article are facts about polling regarding the death penalty in the U.S. (which makes sense given Pew's recent poll work on this topic). Nevertheless, the piece is well worth a read in full, and here are a few of the highlights I though most bloggy-notable:

1. Six-in-ten U.S. adults strongly or somewhat favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, according to the April 2021 survey. A similar share (64%) say the death penalty is morally justified when someone commits a crime like murder....

5. Support for the death penalty is consistently higher in online polls than in phone polls. Survey respondents sometimes give different answers depending on how a poll is conducted. In a series of contemporaneous Pew Research Center surveys fielded online and on the phone between September 2019 and August 2020, Americans consistently expressed more support for the death penalty in a self-administered online format than in a survey administered on the phone by a live interviewer. This pattern was more pronounced among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents than among Republicans and GOP leaners, according to an analysis of the survey results....

7. A majority of states have the death penalty, but far fewer use it regularly. As of July 2021, the death penalty is authorized by 27 states and the federal government – including the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. military – and prohibited in 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But even in many of the jurisdictions that authorize the death penalty, executions are rare: 13 of these states, along with the U.S. military, haven’t carried out an execution in a decade or more.

A growing number of states have done away with the death penalty in recent years, either through legislation or a court ruling. Virginia, which has carried out more executions than any state except Texas since 1976, abolished capital punishment in 2021. It followed Colorado (2020), New Hampshire (2019), Washington (2018), Delaware (2016), Maryland (2013), Connecticut (2012), Illinois (2011), New Mexico (2009), New Jersey (2007) and New York (2004)....

8. Death sentences have steadily decreased in recent decades. There were 2,570 people on death row in the U.S. at the end of 2019, down 29% from a peak of 3,601 at the end of 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). New death sentences have also declined sharply: 31 people were sentenced to death in 2019, far below the more than 320 who received death sentences each year between 1994 and 1996....

9. Annual executions are far below their peak level. Nationally, 17 people were put to death in 2020, the fewest since 1991 and far below the modern peak of 98 in 1999, according to BJS and the Death Penalty Information Center. The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted legal proceedings in much of the country in 2020, causing some executions to be postponed.

July 20, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Continued decline of capital punishment in US detailed in DPIC mid-year review for 2021

The Death Penalty Information Center has provided a detail online "2021 Mid-Year Review" of death penalty administration in the United States.  Here is how the review gets started:

The first half of 2021 spotlighted two continuing death-penalty trends in the United States: the continuing erosion of capital punishment in law and practice across the country; and the extreme and often lawless conduct of the few jurisdictions that have attempted to carry out executions this year.  The year began with three executions that concluded the Trump administration’s unparalleled spree of 13 federal civilian executions in six months and two days, and saw state attempts to revive gruesome, disused execution methods and to introduce never-before-tried ways of putting prisoners to death.  At the same time, the first half of 2021 featured the historic abolition of capital punishment in the former home of the Confederacy and historically low numbers of both executions and new death sentences.

Virginia’s abolition of the death penalty was significant both historically and symbolically.  Its repeal of capital punishment was the first time a Deep South state whose death penalty was closely tied to a history of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation had abandoned the punishment.  Virginia was the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty and, with formal moratoria on executions in place in three states, meant that a majority of states either did not authorize the death penalty or had a formal policy against carrying it out.

Five people were executed in the first half of the year — three by the federal government and two by the state of Texas. Only four new death sentences were imposed, a rate of sentencing unmatched since the death penalty resumed in the U.S. in the 1970s.  The low numbers were once again unquestionably affected by the pandemic, but signaled that 2021 will be the seventh consecutive year of fewer that 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences in the U.S.

July 4, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 02, 2021

In final order list of of SCOTUS OT20, Justices grant cert on 924(c) matter and spar over summary reversal in capital case

Though we are now two days into July 2021, the US Supreme Court has delivered this morning a last jolt of October 2020 Term action with this lengthy order list that has a little something for all SCOTUS fans.  For starters, there are nine grants of certiorari.  The only criminal law grant is yet another debate over what qualifies as a "crime of violence" under federal statutory law.  This time the issue concerns application of 924(c)'s added mandatory punishments for gun use in the case of United States v. Taylor20-1459, which formally presents this question:

Whether 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(3)(A)’s definition of “crime of violence” excludes attempted Hobbs Act robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1951(a).

In addition, there are lots of GVRs and statements concerning cert dispositions on free speech, religion, takings and qualified immunity issues.  But nearly half of the 54-page order list is consumed with a per curiam summary reversal and dissent in the capital case of Dunn v. Reeves20-1084 (S. Ct.  July 2, 2021).  Here is how the 12-page majority opinion starts (with cites mostly removed):

Willie Johnson towed Matthew Reeves’ broken-down car back to the city after finding Reeves stranded on an Alabama dirt road.  In payment for this act of kindness, Reeves murdered Johnson, stole his money, and mocked his dying spasms.  Years after being convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Reeves sought state postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel should have hired an expert to develop sentencing-phase mitigation evidence of intellectual disability.  But despite having the burden to rebut the strong presumption that his attorneys made a legitimate strategic choice, Reeves did not call any of them to testify.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals denied relief, stressing that lack of evidence about counsel’s decisions impeded Reeves’ efforts to prove that they acted unreasonably.  On federal habeas review, the Eleventh Circuit held that this analysis was not only wrong, but indefensible.  In an unpublished, per curiam opinion that drew heavily on a dissent from denial of certiorari, the Eleventh Circuit reinterpreted the Alabama court’s lengthy opinion as imposing a simple per se prohibition on relief in all cases where a prisoner fails to question his counsel.  It was the Eleventh Circuit, however, that went astray in its “readiness to attribute error.” Federal habeas courts must defer to reasonable state-court decisions, 28 U.S.C. §2254(d), and the Alabama court’s treatment of the spotty record in this case was consistent with this Court’s recognition that the absence of evidence cannot overcome the strong presumption that counsel’s conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.

Justice Sotomayor authored a 14-page dissent joined by Justice Kagan. (Justice Breyer also dissented, but without opinion.) Justice Sotomayor dissent ends this way:

Today’s decision continues a troubling trend in which this Court strains to reverse summarily any grants of relief to those facing execution. See, e.g., United States v. Higgs, 592 U.S. ___ (2021) (emergency vacatur of stay and reversal); Shinn v. Kayer, 592 U.S. ___ (2020) (per curiam) (summary vacatur); Dunn v. Ray, 586 U.S. ___ (2019) (emergency vacatur of stay).  This Court has shown no such interest in cases in which defendants seek relief based on compelling showings that their constitutional rights were violated.  See, e.g., Johnson v. Precythe, 593 U.S. ___ (2021) (denying certiorari); Whatley v. Warden, 593 U.S. ___ (2021) (same); Bernard v. United States, 592 U.S. ___ (2020) (same). In Reeves’ case, this Court stops the lower court from granting Reeves’ petition by adopting an utterly implausible reading of the state court’s decision.  In essence, the Court turns “deference,” ante, at 7, into a rule that federal habeas relief is never available to those facing execution.  I respectfully dissent.

July 2, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 01, 2021

"Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Imposes a Moratorium on Federal Executions; Orders Review of Policies and Procedures"

The title of this post is the heading of this notable new US Justice Department press release.  Here is the main text of the press release:

Today, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland issued a memorandum imposing a moratorium on federal executions while a review of the Justice Department’s policies and procedures is pending.

“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” said Attorney General Garland. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”

In the last two years, the department made a series of changes to capital case policies and procedures and carried out the first federal executions in nearly two decades between July 2020 and January 2021.  That included adopting a new protocol for administering lethal injections at the federal Bureau of Prisons, using the drug pentobarbital.  Attorney General Garland’s memorandum directs the Deputy Attorney General to lead a multi-pronged review of these recent policy changes, including:

  • A review coordinated by the Office of Legal Policy of the Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol, adopted in 2019, which will assess, among other things, the risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of pentobarbital.
  • A review coordinated by the Office of Legal Policy to consider changes to Justice Department regulations made in November 2020 that expanded the permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection, and authorized the use of state facilities and personnel in federal executions.
  • A review of the Justice Manual’s capital case provisions, including the December 2020 and January 2021 changes to expedite execution of capital sentences.

The Attorney General’s memorandum requires the reviews to include consultations with a wide range of stakeholders including the relevant department components, other federal and state agencies, medical experts and experienced capital counsel, among others.

No federal executions will be scheduled while the reviews are pending.

The Attorney General’s memorandum can be found at this link, and it provides a slightly expanded account for why this moratorium has been imposed and the inquiry to take place during this period.  Here is the notable "preamble" of this two-page memo:

The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely.  That obligation has special force in capital cases.  Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases.  Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers.  In the meantime, the Department must take care to scrupulously maintain our commitment to fairness and humane treatment in the administration of existing federal laws governing capital sentences.

I am tempted to call these actions a "kick the can down the road" effort, but maybe some readers see more to this latest round of hand-wringing by yet another administration not really prepared to go "all in" on capital punishment abolition.

July 1, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)