Thursday, June 24, 2021

First person taken of Ohio death row based on new statute precluding capital punishment for those with "serious mentally illness"

In this post back in January, I reported on the new Ohio statute precluding the death penalty for those with "serious mentally illness."  Today I can report, with the help of this local article, that this law has now moved one person off Ohio's death row: "A Columbus man sentenced to death in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her father has become the first inmate in Ohio removed from death row under a new state law that bans the execution of the seriously mentally ill."  Here are more interesting details:

The death sentence of David L. Braden, 61, was vacated last week by a Franklin County judge, who resentenced him to life without parole.

The county prosecutor's office and the state public defender's office agreed that Braden, at the time of his crime, met the criteria for serious mental illness under the new Ohio law, which went into effect April 12.  Both sides prepared an order that was signed by Common Pleas Judge Colleen O'Donnell.

Ohio was the first state to create such a law, thus Braden is also the first death-row inmate in the nation "to be removed from death row because of a statutory prohibition against executing people with a serious mental illness," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Virginia legislature was close to approving a similar law late last year, Dunham said, but instead banned the death penalty in March, becoming the 23rd state to do so.

The Ohio law, House Bill 136, was overwhelmingly approved by the state House in June of last year and by the state Senate in December.  Gov. Mike DeWine signed the measure in January and it became law 90 days later.

The law designates certain mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as qualifying disorders if the condition "significantly impaired the person's capacity to exercise rational judgment in relation to his or her conduct" or "to appreciate the nature, consequences or wrongfulness" of the conduct.  The law applies not only to current and future capital cases, but provides the possibility of postconviction relief for those already on death row who can establish that they qualified as seriously mentally ill at the time of their offense.

While prosecutors have the option to oppose such petitions and request a hearing before a judge, Janet Grubb, Franklin County first assistant prosecuting attorney, said a careful review of information from Braden's appellate attorneys made such a challenge unnecessary.  "We saw enough during the exchange of information to conclude that a reasonable fact-finder in our court would determine that this individual qualified under the statute," said Grubb, who signed the order on behalf of Prosecutor Gary Tyack's office.

Tyack, who was elected in November, had no involvement in the decision, Grubb said.  Because Tyack served on the 10th District Court of Appeals for one of Braden's appeals, he had a conflict of interest that required Grubb to serve as prosecutor on the matter.  "Gary was completely walled off" from discussions about Braden's petition, Grubb said.

Braden was 39 when he was convicted by a Franklin County jury in May 1999 of fatally shooting Denise Roberts, 44, and Ralph "Bud" Heimlich, 83, at the home they shared on Barthel Avenue on the East Side on Aug. 3, 1998.  Testimony established that Braden and Roberts were seen arguing in a parking lot outside her workplace earlier in the day.  A man matching his description was seen fleeing the victims' home after neighbors heard gunshots.

All of Braden's appeals over the years, including one heard by the Ohio Supreme Court, have been rejected, although a case in federal court was still pending. Kathryn Sandford, an assistant state public defender who has handled Braden's appeals since his conviction, said the federal case will be dismissed as a result of the agreed order signed by O'Donnell.

Sandford and Steve Brown, a fellow assistant state public defender, filed the petition outlining Braden's qualifications for the serious-mental-illness designation. They included the findings of a psychologist who determined that Braden suffered from "paranoid schizophrenia with delusions" before committing the murders.

Since the early to mid-1990s, they wrote, a brother and sister-in-law testified that Braden had made statements about being a prophet of God, while friends attested to his paranoia and alarming personality changes. Since the beginning of his incarceration, Braden has been treated with anti-psychotic medication to control his psychotic symptoms, according to his attorneys.

A psychologist testified during the sentencing phase of Braden's trial that he was mentally ill, but the jury recommended a death sentence, which was imposed by then-Common Pleas Judge Michael H. Watson....

As part of the prosecutor's office review of Braden's petition, it was required by a separate state law to contact the family of the victims to inform them of the request, Grubb said. "The survivor we met with understood the position we were in," she said. "I think she reluctantly accepted that this was something that made sense on multiple levels."

June 24, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Justice Department files SCOTUS brief seeking to restore death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

As repoted in this Hill piece, the "Biden administration on Monday urged the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty against the Boston Marathon bomber in an apparent break with the president's stated opposition to capital punishment."  Here are the details (with a link to the filing):

In a 48-page brief, the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked the justices to reverse a Boston-based federal appeals court that vacated the death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the lone surviving perpetrator of the 2013 attack.

“The jury carefully considered each of respondent’s crimes and determined that capital punishment was warranted for the horrors that he personally inflicted — setting down a shrapnel bomb in a crowd and detonating it, killing a child and a promising young student, and consigning several others to a lifetime of unimaginable suffering,” the DOJ’s brief reads.

Tsarnaev and his since-deceased brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed three people and injured 260 others in the 2013 bombing attack near the finish line of the annual event in downtown Boston....

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit last year vacated Tsarnaev’s death sentence. The court ruled that the trial court had failed to adequately gauge potential jury bias and the extent to which Tsarnaev may have been influenced by his brother.

Former President Trump in October appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. The justices agreed in March to take up the dispute and are expected to hear arguments in the case next term.  The case was seen as an early challenge for Biden, the first U.S. president to publicly oppose the death penalty, and his administration’s response had been highly anticipated.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden called for an end to capital punishmentBut on Monday, the DOJ made clear that Biden would maintain his predecessor’s support for reinstating capital punishment against Tsarnaev. “The court of appeals improperly vacated the capital sentences recommended by the jury in one of the most important terrorism prosecutions in our Nation’s history,” the DOJ’s brief reads. “This Court should reverse the decision below and put this case back on track toward a just conclusion.”

The White House and DOJ did not immediately respond when asked by The Hill if Biden had changed his stance on the death penalty.

Tsarnaev, 27, will serve out multiple life sentences in federal prison if his death sentence is not reinstated.  

A few prior recent related posts:

June 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Youth, gender, mental illness, abuse, co-defendant disparity all part of Tennessee capital case perhaps nearing an execution date

This new lengthy article in the Knoxville News Sentinel, headlined "How young is too young for a death sentence? Christa Pike fights move to set execution date," discusses a remarkable case from the Volunteer State. I could imagine spending an entire semester discussing this case with students because it engages so many sentencing issues, and here are just some of the particulars:

What's the difference between being 17 years old and being 18? In Christa Gail Pike's case, her lawyers say, the difference is a death sentence.

The state wants to set an execution date for Pike, now 45 and the only woman on Tennessee's death row.  She was 18 years old when she and two other participants in a Knoxville job program for troubled teens killed Colleen Slemmer in a remote spot on the University of Tennessee's agriculture campus.

Pike, her boyfriend Tadaryl Shipp and fellow Job Corps student Shadolla Peterson lured Slemmer, 19, to campus the night of Jan. 12, 1995.  Once there, Slemmer was beaten, cut and bludgeoned to death with a rock.  Pike kept a piece of her skull as a souvenir. Investigators identified a love triangle between Pike, Shipp and Slemmer as the motive for the crime.

Only Pike received a death sentence for her role in the killing.  Peterson cooperated with investigators and walked away with probation.  Shipp was 17 — too young to be put to death.  He's serving a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2028.

Pike's legal team cites that difference in a new court filing asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to delay her execution — or recommend it be stopped altogether.  "Mr. Shipp was 17 years old at the time of Ms. Slemmer’s death. Christa Pike was 18.  That is the difference between a death sentence and parole eligibility in 2028," reads the filing signed by defense attorneys Stephen Ferrell and Kelly Gleason.  "That difference cannot be equated with increased maturity or brain development. Christa was not more mature or more responsible than Mr. Shipp."

The Tennessee Attorney General's Office is asking the high court to set an execution date for Pike, contending she has exhausted her appeals. But Pike's defense team says it's still too soon.  They've lodged several arguments, including one centered on her mental illness and youth at the time of the crime.

A jury condemned Pike in March 1996.  Nine years later, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the juvenile death penalty in the landmark case Roper v. Simmons....  The court drew the line at 18, but Pike's attorneys argue its logic should extend beyond that. They point to scientific research that the brain isn't fully developed until after age 20 and that there's no way to differentiate between the brains of young people.

"There is thus no justification for a drastic differentiation in punishment between a 17-year-old offender and an 18-year-old offender," the filing reads. "And the question is an important one, for Christa Pike was eligible for the death penalty in this case and her co-defendant, Tadaryl Shipp, was not."

The lawyers paint Shipp — not Pike — as the ringleader of the group. Shipp was violent and controlling, they write, while Pike was suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder and brain damage after a childhood filled with sexual and physical abuse. Her mother drank while she was in the womb, and she was twice raped as a child.

"It is also significant that, in addition to her youth, Christa Pike was also brain damaged and severely mentally ill at the time of her offense," the filing reads.  "Thus, practical effects of the immaturity that would be inherent in the brain of any eighteen-year-old were magnified by other problems that adversely affected Christa’s developing brain."

Courts have shot down similar arguments in Pike's case before....  The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case last year.  Pike's attorneys now are asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to recommend that Gov. Bill Lee commute Pike's sentence to life with or without the possibility of parole.  At the very least, they're asking for more time so a psychologist can examine Pike in prison and so the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights can finish investigating whether Pike's human rights have been violated.

Lee could grant Pike clemency but has not done so for any other death-row inmate since he was inaugurated in January 2019.  The state has executed four men since then, including Nicholas Sutton, a Morristown man who killed four people and turned his life around on death row.

Pike has had additional legal troubles while in prison.  In 2004, she was convicted of attempted murder for nearly strangling a fellow inmate with a shoestring.

Pike would be the first woman Tennessee has executed in over 200 years, her attorneys say, and the first person it's put to death "in the modern era" who was a teenager at the time of the crime.

June 13, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Functional life sentence finally becomes actual life (with eligibility for parole) sentence for person serving longest on death row

Because I love sports statistics and trivia (especially baseball, of course), I cannot avoid being intrigued by records and data even in the much-less-fun world of sentencing.  Consequently, this AP story caught my eye this morning under the headline, "Longest serving death row inmate in US resentenced to life."  Unsurprisingly, the story behind the statistic is fascinating: 

The longest serving death row inmate in the U.S. was resentenced to life in prison on Wednesday after prosecutors in Texas concluded the 71-year-old man is ineligible for execution and incompetent for retrial due to his long history of mental illness.

Raymond Riles has spent more than 45 years on death row for fatally shooting John Thomas Henry in 1974 at a Houston car lot following a disagreement over a vehicle. He is the country's longest serving death row prisoner, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Riles was resentenced after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in April that his “death sentence can no longer stand” because jurors did not properly consider his history of mental illness. Riles attended his resentencing by Zoom from the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, which houses the state’s death row inmates.  He said very little during the court hearing....

In a statement, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Riles is incompetent and “therefore can’t be executed.” “We will never forget John Henry, who was murdered so many years ago by Riles, and we believe justice would best be served by Riles spending the remainder of his life in custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,” Ogg said.

During his time on death row, Riles has been treated with heavy antipsychotic medications but was never deemed mentally competent to be executed, according to prosecutors and his attorneys.  He had been scheduled for execution in 1986 but got a stay due to competency issues.  While Riles spent more than 45 years on death row in Texas, prisoners in the U.S. typically spend more than a decade awaiting execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

[District Judge Ana] Martinez was not able to resentence Riles to life in prison without parole because it was not an option under state law at the time of his conviction. Riles’ new sentence means he is immediately eligible for parole.  The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles will automatically conduct a parole review in his case, [Riles’ attorney Jim] Marcus said.

The district attorney’s office as well as Henry’s family have indicated they will fight any efforts to have Riles released on parole. “Mr. Riles is in very poor health but, if the Board of Pardons and Paroles sees fit to grant parole, he has family with the capacity to care for him,” Marcus said.

A co-defendant in the case, Herbert Washington, was also sentenced to death, but his sentence was overturned, and he later pleaded guilty to two related charges. He was paroled in 1983.

When Riles was tried, state law did not expect jurors to consider mitigating evidence such as mental illness when deciding whether to choose the death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that Texas jury instructions were unconstitutional because they didn’t allow appropriate consideration of intellectual disability, mental illness or other issues as mitigating evidence in the punishment phase of a capital murder trial.

But Riles’ case remained in limbo because lower courts failed to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision until at least 2007, according to his attorneys. That then gave Riles a realistic chance to prevail on this legal issue, but it wasn’t until recently that he had contact with attorneys who were willing to assist him, his lawyers said.

While prosecutors argued at Riles’ trial that he was not mentally ill, several psychiatrists and psychologists testified for the defense that he was psychotic and suffered from schizophrenia. Riles’ brother testified that his “mind is not normal like other people. He is not thinking like other people.”

While the Supreme Court has prohibited the death penalty for individuals who are intellectually disabled, it has not barred such punishment for those with serious mental illness, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2019, the Texas Legislature considered a bill that would have prohibited the death penalty for someone with severe mental illness. The legislation did not pass.

June 10, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

A different assessment of "America’s Dangerous Obsession" with innocence on death row

Thirteen years ago, in an article titled Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities, 3 Harv. L.& Pol'y Rev. Online (2008), I explained the basis for my concern that "progressive criminal justice reform efforts concerning innocence issues, abolition of the death penalty, and sentencing disparities may contribute to, and even exacerbate, the forces that have helped propel modern mass incarceration."  That old article feels fresh again upon seeing this new lengthy Atlantic piece by Elizabeth Bruenig titled "America’s Dangerous Obsession With Innocence."  Here are a few excerpts from the piece:

It goes without saying that the state should not kill innocent people, and that it is a good thing to save the innocent from a fate no one thinks they deserve.  I believe it is a good thing, too, to save the guilty from a fate some would argue they have earned.  That the one stance may occlude the other reflects the death penalty’s bizarre moral universe....

According to the national Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,000 people have been exonerated for murder in the United States since 1989.  Many of these cases were initially decided when forensic techniques and technologies were less advanced and less accurate than they are now.  People with plausible innocence claims have, in some instances, been able to bring new technology to bear on preserved evidence to great effect.  That phenomenon spurred the innocence movement in capital-punishment advocacy as we know it.

“Around the year 2000, there’s this ferment all over the place to create innocence programs,” David R. Dow, the founder and director of one such program, the Texas Innocence Network, told me. “They’re kind of sexy. Funders want to fund them. People are beginning to pay attention to the fact that there are innocent people in prison.”

Marissa Bluestine, the assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, told me that more than 50 innocence organizations now operate in the United States.  They differ in size, scope, region, and budget, but they “all have the same goals: They work to identify people who did not commit the underlying crime they were convicted of and they try to exonerate them.”

That’s well and good, except that the number of innocence claims that can be confidently settled in labs is not infinite, and may in fact be dwindling. Dow, who teaches law at the University of Houston, has represented more than 100 clients on death row in his 30 years of practice; out of that number, he counts only eight as credibly innocent. He doesn’t suspect that his future will hold many more....

More generally, a 2014 published by the National Academy of Sciences found that if all of American death-row inmates were to remain condemned indefinitely, approximately 4.1 percent would eventually be exonerated — a proxy for the share of innocent inmates. That’s an admittedly conservative estimate. But even if the number of innocent inmates were doubled, the number of guilty ones would still make up more than 90 percent of death row....

To put it succinctly: Innocence cases indicate that some capital sentences are unfair, but decades of studies on death-qualified juries; race, gender, and immigration-status bias among jurors; law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct; weak forensic science and poor representation at trial all suggest that a fair capital sentence is virtually impossible.  Ultimately the fight should be waged not against particular injustices, but against the unjust system itself.

Especially for those inclined toward capital abolition, I fully understand the logic of speculating that there many not be that many innocent persons left on death row and so even more fight needs to be directed toward the guilty on death row.  However, the fight against against all of death row has been pretty robust and pretty effective over the last 20 years (surely aided by the innocence movement).  Nationwide, since 2000, death row has shrunk about 30%, the number of executions has shrunk about 75%, and the number of death sentences imposed has shrunk 85%.

But, shifting our focus from formal death sentences to what are sometimes called "death in prison" sentences, the modern story changes dramatically.  As detailed in a recent Sentencing Project report (discussed here), the "number of people serving life without parole — the most extreme type of life sentence — is higher than ever before, a 66% increase since ... 2003."   Moreover, while there are currently around 2500 people on death row who have all been convicted of capital murder, there are now roughly 4000 people "serving life sentences [who] have been convicted for a drug-related offense."  And well over 200,000 persons are now "serving a life sentence, either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP) or virtual life (50 years or more)."  

If we keep the focus on innocence, and use the 4% number discussed in this Atlantic article and extrapolate, these data mean we could have 100 innocent persons on death row, but also 160 innocent persons serving life for a drug-related offense and over 8000 innocent persons serving LWOP or LWP or virtual life.  If there are lots of innocent groups and not a lot of "good" capital client, there would seem to be no shortage of innocent lifers needing help.  (And, on the data, I am always inclined to speculate that there are now an even larger number of innocent persons serving life than death because capital cases historically get more scrutiny.)

That all said, I obviously share this article's sentiment that guilty persons ought not endure unfair sentences and its advocacy for assailing "the unjust system itself."  However, the capital punishment system, for all its persistent flaws, still strikes me as somewhat less unjust than so many other parts of our sentencing system.  There are no mandatory death sentences, jurors play a central role in every death sentence, and state and federal appellate judges often actively review every death sentence.  There are nearly 100 people serving some type of life sentence for every person serving a death sentence in large part because life sentences are imposed so much more easily as subject to so much less scrutiny. 

Put simply, and I have said before, I worry it is a continued obsession with the death penalty, and not with innocence, that may be problematic in various ways.  But since that very obsession is largely what accounts for capital punishment's modern decline, I am disinclined to be too critical of capital obsessives.

June 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Capital Punishment, 2019 – Statistical Tables"

This morning the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics released this new report with data on the administration of capital punishment in the United States through the end of 2019. As I have noted before, though BJS sometimes provides the best available data on criminal justice administration, in the capital punishment arena the Death Penalty Information Center tends to have more up-to-date and more detailed data on capital punishment.  In any event, this new BJS report still provides notable and clear statistical snapshots about the death penalty, and the document sets out these initial "highlights":

June 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Might the California Supreme Court find a procedural flaw in the state's many death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the notable oral argument that took place last week in the California Supreme Court.  This Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "California’s top court weighs overturning hundreds of death penalty sentences," provides this account and context. Here are excerpts:

For decades, California’s highest court has left it up to individual jurors to decide whether certain circumstances increase the severity of a crime and thereby warrant the death penalty in murder cases that qualify for the ultimate punishment.  On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court heard arguments on a change to that long-standing practice, which could potentially overturn hundreds of death penalty sentences in California.

At issue is how juries review “aggravating” factors — such as whether a crime was gang-related or involved multiple victims. Defense lawyers in the case argued that to ensure equal application of the death penalty, state law and the state Constitution require juries to be unanimous in their reasoning on each factor.

That the court is even considering new requirements is unusual.  It has refused to impose them in the past and has even summarily dismissed the kind of arguments presented Wednesday.  But the court’s composition has changed over the years.  Last June, the court issued a brief order asking for written arguments on the jury issue in what was otherwise a routine death penalty case.  That raised hopes among some that the court might be ready to wield an ax to capital punishment in California, a state that has produced the nation’s largest death row but hardly any executions.

Wednesday’s hearing probably tempered those hopes.  During a 90-minute hearing, only three justices — the more liberal members of the seven-judge court — spoke.  Though the silence of the majority can be interpreted in different ways, the hearing did not clearly signal that monumental changes were afoot.

The June order asked litigants to submit written arguments on this issue: Must a jury decide beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant should get the death penalty or life without parole, and must that jury also be unanimous in deciding the reasons for a capital verdict?  If the court agreed, a ruling would probably throw out hundreds, if not all, previous death sentences in California.

The court’s sudden interest in the issue alarmed death penalty supporters.  They considered the questions long answered. Kent Scheidegger, a lawyer for a prominent pro-death penalty group, said he was both “surprised” and “very disturbed,” even with the changed composition of the court....

Justice Goodwin Liu, a Brown appointee, spoke the most during the hearing. He repeatedly pressed defense lawyers to cite precedent for their positions.  “I think there’s a lot of appeal to your argument from a fairness perspective,” Liu told a defense lawyer.  Liu’s “difficulty,” he said, was in finding cases that supported the argument legally. Is it possible, he asked, “that this issue has simply been missed this entire time? For 150 years, we have missed this issue?”...

Scheidegger said even that partial victory for the defense would have a “cataclysmic” impact on the death penalty and potentially overturn scores of sentences.  Such decisions in California are usually applied retroactively.  But Scheidegger said he felt “cautiously optimistic” after the hearing.  Liu, he said, did not seem “to be buying” the defendant’s main arguments.

UC Berkeley law professor Elisabeth A. Semel, who co-wrote Newsom’s written argument, declined to predict how the court would vote. “Justices Liu, Cuellar, and Groban had some tough questions” for the deputy attorney general defending the death penalty, she said.  “I do not believe she answered to their satisfaction.”

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 term in office.

June 5, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Notable new polling data on death penalty from Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center has just reported its latest polling on the death penalty in this extended online report titled, "Most Americans Favor the Death Penalty Despite Concerns About Its Administration." Here are some excerpts:

[T]he death penalty for people convicted of murder continues to draw support from a majority of Americans despite widespread doubts about its administration, fairness and whether it deters serious crimes.

More Americans favor than oppose the death penalty: 60% of U.S. adults favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, including 27% who strongly favor it.  About four-in-ten (39%) oppose the death penalty, with 15% strongly opposed, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The survey, conducted April 5-11 among 5,109 U.S. adults on the Center’s American Trends Panel, finds that support for the death penalty is 5 percentage points lower than it was in August 2020, when 65% said they favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

While public support for the death penalty has changed only modestly in recent years, support for the death penalty declined substantially between the late 1990s and the 2010s. (See “Death penalty draws more Americans’ support online than in telephone surveys” for more on long-term measures and the challenge of comparing views across different survey modes.)

Large shares of Americans express concerns over how the death penalty is administered and are skeptical about whether it deters people from committing serious crimes. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death, while only 21% think there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. Only 30% of death penalty supporters — and just 6% of opponents — say adequate safeguards exist to prevent innocent people from being executed.

A majority of Americans (56%) say Black people are more likely than White people to be sentenced to the death penalty for being convicted of serious crimes.  This view is particularly widespread among Black adults: 85% of Black adults say Black people are more likely than Whites to receive the death penalty for being convicted of similar crimes (61% of Hispanic adults and 49% of White adults say this).  Moreover, more than six-in-ten Americans (63%), including about half of death penalty supporters (48%), say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes.

Yet support for the death penalty is strongly associated with a belief that when someone commits murder, the death penalty is morally justified.  Among the public overall, 64% say the death penalty is morally justified in cases of murder, while 33% say it is not justified.  An overwhelming share of death penalty supporters (90%) say it is morally justified under such circumstances, compared with 25% of death penalty opponents.

Partisanship continues to be a major factor in support for the death penalty and opinions about its administration.  Just over three-quarters of Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party (77%) say they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, including 40% who strongly favor it.  Democrats and Democratic leaners are more divided on this issue: 46% favor the death penalty, while 53% are opposed. About a quarter of Democrats (23%) strongly oppose the death penalty, compared with 17% who strongly favor it.

As in the past, support for the death penalty differs across racial and ethnic groups.  Majorities of White (63%), Asian (63%) and Hispanic adults (56%) favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.  Black adults are evenly divided: 49% favor the death penalty, while an identical share oppose it.

Support for the death penalty also varies across age groups.  About half of those ages 18 to 29 (51%) favor the death penalty, compared with about six-in-ten adults ages 30 to 49 (58%) and those 65 and older (60%).  Adults ages 50 to 64 are most supportive of the death penalty, with 69% in favor.

There are differences in attitudes by education, as well.  Nearly seven-in-ten adults (68%) who have not attended college favor the death penalty, as do 63% of those who have some college experience but no degree.  About half of those with four-year undergraduate degrees but no postgraduate experience (49%) support the death penalty.  Among those with postgraduate degrees, a larger share say they oppose (55%) than favor (44%) the death penalty.

June 3, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 24, 2021

Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof to have appeal of his death sentence heard by (unusual) Fourth Circuit panel

As detailed in this website, candidate Joe Biden pledged to "Eliminate the death penalty" if elected.  But many months into his presidency, it appears that Prez Biden's Department of Justice is continuing to actively defend the application of the death penalty in at least on high-profile case.  Specifically, as detailed in this local article, tomorrow a Fourth Circuit panel will hear arguments on Dylann Roof's appeal of his conviction and death sentence with DOJ apparently seeking to defend that punishment.  Here are the basics:

Defense lawyers will advance arguments Tuesday on up to 20 issues in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond as to why Dylann Roof was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to the death penalty in 2017 after a weeks-long trial. They will ask the court to vacate both the conviction and the death penalty.

Those arguments will be countered by a team of prosecution appellate lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice. They seek to uphold the conviction and sentence.

Roof, 27, who grew up in Columbia, was sentenced to death in January 2017 by U.S. Judge Richard Gergel after a jury found him guilty of 18 death eligible federal hate-crimes and firearms charges. In a subsequent proceeding to determine sentence, the same jury ruled Roof deserved the death penalty. Judge Gergel then pronounced the sentence.

Evidence at Roof’s trial, which included his own writings and selfie photos and videos, portrayed him as a self-described white supremacist who wanted to start a race war by killing African-Americans. To implement his plan, Roof traveled to Charleston in June 2015, entered a prayer meeting at an African American church and executed nine Black churchgoers, including beloved Democratic state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

“Multiple issues arising from convictions for hate crime, religious obstruction, and firearms offenses resulting in death and from imposition of death penalty” will be considered, according to a description about the case on the Fourth Circuit’s web site.

Roof’s purported mental illness and inability to be his own lawyer — casting aside an active defense role by David Bruck, one of the nation’s most experienced death penalty lawyers — is a major feature of Roof’s defense....

“Though Roof’s mental state was the subject of two competency hearings, and five experts found him delusional—findings swiftly dismissed by the court, in its rush to move the case along—jurors never heard any of that evidence. Instead, prosecutors told them Roof was a calculated killer with no signs of mental illness. Given no reason to do otherwise, jurors sentenced Roof to death. Roof’s crime was tragic, but this Court (the 4th Circuit) can have no confidence in the jury’s verdict,” the defense brief on the case says....

Prosecutors will argue that Judge Gergel’s rulings in both the guilt or innocence, as well as the penalty, phases of the trial were correct. “(Judge Gergel) did not clearly err in finding Roof competent to stand trial. The finding was supported by expert testimony and was not arbitrary or unwarranted,” the prosecutors’ brief said. “Roof’s right to self-representation was correctly defined and properly protected.”

“No error occurred at the penalty phase,” the prosecutors wrote. “The death penalty was not plainly erroneous based on Roof’s age or mental condition. Finally, Roof’s convictions rest on sound legal and constitutional grounds.”

Interestingly, though this appeal is technically being considered by the Fourth Circuit, no Fourth Circuit judge will actually be hearing the appeal. The press article explains:

The judges on the panel are Judge Duane Burton of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals; Kent Jordan of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals; and Senior Judge Ronald Gilman of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Usually, judges on a panel are chosen from the full 4th Circuit, which has 15 judges. However, 4th Circuit Judge Jay Richardson of Columbia was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina in 2017 and the lead prosecutor on the Roof case.

I welcome reader comment on the (interesting?) metaphysical question of whether an appeal in the Fourth Circuit heard by no Fourth Circuit judges is really a Fourth Circuit appeal.  (I also wonder if there will have to be an additional 12 judges appointed by designation in order to properly consider any en banc petition that might follow a ruling from this panel.)

A few of many prior related posts:

May 24, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Lengthy lament in SCOTUS cert dissent about execution method litigation

The Supreme Court’s order list this morning has no cert grants and lots and lots of cert denials.  And, at the end, Justice Sotomator penned a lengthy dissent to one such denial concerning a Missouri inmate’s effort to contest the state’s execution methods.  This dissent, in Johnson v. Precythe, No. 20-287, is joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan.

Because I am caught up with some pomp and circumstance today, I will not have a chance to review this opinion closely anytime soon.  (But I do have time to note that there are precious few persons being intentionally executed by states these days while there are still lots and lots of persons dying in prisons and jails due to neglect and other less intentional causes.  I hope these other more frequent kinds of deaths in custody might get more attention from the Supreme Court before too long.)

May 24, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Texas completes first state execution of 2021

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Absent media, Texas executes inmate who killed great aunt," Texas completed an execution this evening.  Here are some of the details:

A Texas man convicted of fatally beating his 83-year-old great aunt more than two decades ago was executed Wednesday evening without media witnesses present because prison agency officials neglected to notify reporters it was time to carry out the punishment.

Quintin Jones received the lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville for the September 1999 killing of Berthena Bryant, agency spokesman Jeremy Desel said about 30 minutes after Jones was pronounced dead.

Desel never received the usual phone call from the Huntsville Unit prison to bring reporters from The Associated Press and The Huntsville Item to the prison.  He and the media witnesses were waiting in an office across the street. 

“The Texas Department of Criminal Justice can only apologize for this error and nothing like this will ever happen again,” he said. He said the execution, the first in Texas in nearly a year, included a number of new personnel who have never participated in the process....

The previous 570 executions carried out by Texas since capital punishment resumed in 1982 all had at least one media witness. “My assumption is there will be a thorough investigation into how this all transpired and what was missed that allowed it to happen, and I expect that investigation is already underway,” Desel said.

There were no unusual circumstances with the execution itself, he said, relying on accounts from agency officials who were inside the death chamber.  Jones made a brief statement thanking his supporters and expressing love for them...

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital was administered, he took four or five deep breaths followed by “a long deep snore,” Desel said. Jones was pronounced dead at 6:40 p.m., 12 minutes after the drugs began.

Less than an hour before the scheduled punishment, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to halt the 41-year-old man’s execution....

Some of Bryant’s family members, including her sister Mattie Long, had said they didn’t want Jones to be executed. Jones is Long’s grandnephew.  “Because I was so close to Bert, her death hurt me a lot. Even so, God is merciful. Quintin can’t bring her back. I can’t bring her back. I am writing this to ask you to please spare Quintin’s life,” Long wrote in a letter that was part of Jones’ clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The board denied Jones’ clemency petition on Tuesday and Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t go against that decision and also declined to delay the execution.  Abbott has granted clemency to only one death row inmate, Thomas Whitaker, since taking office in 2015.

On Wednesday, Jones’ attorney filed a civil rights complaint against the board, alleging race played “an impermissible role” in its denial of Jones’ petition.  Jones’ attorney argued the case was similar to that of Whitaker’s and the only difference was that Whitaker is white and Jones was Black.  U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks Jr. dismissed the complaint, writing that Jones didn’t present direct evidence of his allegation....

Jones was the first inmate in Texas to receive a lethal injection since the July 8 execution of Billy Joe Wardlow. Four other executions had been set for earlier this year but were either delayed or rescheduled. While Texas is usually the nation’s busiest death penalty state, in 2020 it executed only three inmates — the fewest executions in nearly 25 years, mainly because of the pandemic.

May 19, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 17, 2021

After embracing new firing squad option, will South Carolina seek to move quickly forward with "old school" executions?

As reported in this new AP piece, "South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has signed into law a bill that forces death row inmates for now to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad in hopes the state can restart executions after an involuntary 10-year pause." Here are more details that prompt the question in the title of this post:

South Carolina had been one of the most prolific states of its size in putting inmates to death. But a lack of lethal injection drugs brought executions to a halt.

McMaster signed the bill Friday with no ceremony or fanfare, according to the state Legislature’s website. It’s the first bill the governor decided to deal with after nearly 50 hit his desk Thursday. “The families and loved ones of victims are owed closure and justice by law. Now, we can provide it,” McMaster said on Twitter on Monday.

Last week state lawmakers gave their final sign offs to the bill, which retains lethal injection as the primary method of execution if the state has the drugs, but requires prison officials to use the electric chair or firing squad if it doesn’t.

Prosecutors said three inmates have exhausted all their normal appeals, but can’t be killed because under the previous law, inmates who don’t choose the state’s 109-year-old electric chair automatically are scheduled to die by lethal injection.  They have all chosen the method that can’t be carried out.

How soon executions can begin is up in the air.  The electric chair is ready to use.  Prison officials have been doing preliminary research into how firing squads carry out executions in other states, but are not sure how long it will take to have one in place in South Carolina.  The other three states that allow a firing squad are Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Three inmates, all in Utah, have been killed by firing squad since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1977.  Nineteen inmates have died in the electric chair this century, and South Carolina is one of eight states that can still electrocute inmates, according to the center.

Lawyers for the men with potentially imminent death dates are considering suing over the new law, saying the state is going backward.  “These are execution methods that previously were replaced by lethal injection, which is considered more humane, and it makes South Carolina the only state going back to the less humane execution methods,” said Lindsey Vann of Justice 360, a nonprofit that represents many of the men on South Carolina’s death row.

From 1996 to 2009, South Carolina executed close to average of three inmates a year.  But a lull in death row inmates reaching the end of their appeals coincided a few years later with pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell states the drugs needed to sedate inmates, relax their muscles and stop their hearts.  South Carolina’s last execution took place in May 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013.

I am struck by the report here that South Carolina has a "109-year-old electric chair." It makes me wonder, only half-jokingly, if they might try to find some really old guns for use in a firing squad.  Gallows humor aside, I sincerely wonder how quickly South Carolina will seek to set execution dates for condemned prisoners who has exhausted all their appeals and how quickly the inevitable litigation over this new law will make its way through the court system.

May 17, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

SCOTUS grants cert on a capital habeas procedure case, while Justice Sotomayor makes district statement about capital sentencing process

The Supreme Court is back in action this morning, and the big news from this new order list is its decision to grant cert on an abortion case from Mississippi.  But the Court granted cert in a couple of other cases, including a capital case from Arizona, Shin v. Ramirez, No. 20-1009, which raises this issue:

Whether application of the equitable rule the Supreme Court announced in Martinez v. Ryan renders the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which precludes a federal court from considering evidence outside the state-court record when reviewing the merits of a claim for habeas relief if a prisoner or his attorney has failed to diligently develop the claim’s factual basis in state court, inapplicable to a federal court’s merits review of a claim for habeas relief.

In addition, at the end of the order list, Justice Sotomayor has a statement respecting the denial of certiorari in a capital case out of Texas, Calvert v. Texas, No. 20–701.  The statement laments various procedural developments in this case and ends this way:

Although this case does not meet this Court’s traditional criteria for certiorari, it still stands as a grim reminder that courts should rigorously scrutinize how States prove that a person should face the ultimate penalty.  Juries must have a clear view of the “uniquely individual human beings” they are sentencing to death, Woodson, 428 U.S., at 304 (plurality opinion), not one tainted by irrelevant facts about other people’s crimes.  The Constitution and basic principles of justice require nothing less.

May 17, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, May 15, 2021

After historic hiatus, state execution plans and practices back in the news

A lengthy break in state executions has been one of many notable impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on criminal justice systems.  Indeed, as this Death Penalty Information Center analysis explains, the United States is in the midst of "the longest period in 40 years without any state carrying out an execution." (Of course, as DPIC also notes, at the federal level, the Trump administration during this period launched "the longest and most sustained execution spree in the modern history of the U.S. death penalty [as it] carried out 13 consecutive executions between July 14, 2020 and January 16, 2021, the most consecutive executions by any jurisdiction since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in the 1970.")

After an historic hiatus, there are now serious execution dates scheduled over the next few weeks in Texas (May 19 for Quintin Jones) and Idaho (June 2 for Gerald Ross Pizzuto Jr.).  And it seems that a few other states are also growing eager to get their death machinery back into operation.  Consequentially, as detailed by the links and headlines below, state capital punishment practices are again generating news:

From the AP, "Idaho death row inmate asks Supreme Court to stop execution"

From the AP, "Nebraska death sentences continue despite not having execution drugs"

From CBS News, "Quintin Jones is on death row for killing his great-aunt. The victim's sister is pleading for clemency."

From Fox News, "South Carolina to bring back firing squads for executions"

From The Marshall Project, "They Are Terminally Ill. States Want To Execute Them Anyway."

From NBC News, "Rush of Arkansas executions that included Ledell Lee's comes under renewed scrutiny"

May 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

"The Fate of Lethal Injection: Decomposition of the Paradigm and Its Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by multiple authors now available on SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

This article examines the use of lethal injection from 2010-2020.  That period marks the "decomposition" of the standard three drug protocol and the proliferating use of new drugs or drug combinations in American executions.  That development is associated with an increase in the number and type of mishaps encountered during lethal injections.  This article describes and analyzes those mishaps and the ways death penalty jurisdictions responded, and adapted, to them.  It suggests that the recent history of lethal injection echoes the longer history of the death penalty.  When states encountered problems with their previous methods of execution, they first attempted to address these problems by tinkering with their existing methods.  When tinkering failed, they adopted allegedly more humane execution methods.  When they ran into difficulty with the new methods, state actors scrambled to hide the death penalty from public view.  New drugs and drug combinations may have allowed the machinery of death to keep running.  New procedures may have given the lethal injection process a veneer of legitimacy.  But none of these recent changes has resolved its fate or repaired its vexing problems.

April 27, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 26, 2021

Some death penalty news and notes from around the USA

I have noticed a number of notable recent new press pieces about death penalty issues, and I figured a round up was in order: 

From the AP, "MO Supreme Court continues death penalty trial despite positive COVID-19 cases"

From the Canton Repository, "Canton man's new mission: Eliminating Ohio's death penalty"

From CNN, "Biden vowed to end the death penalty. Activists are demanding action as he nears the 100-day mark"

From Nevada Public Radio, "Will Nevada Abolish The Death Penalty?"

From the Tennessean, "Tennessee legislature: Courts allowed to reconsider death sentences over intellectual disability appeal"

April 26, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Can capital punishment be another part of a bipartisan criminal justice reform story?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Marshall Project piece fully titled "Can The Death Penalty Be Fixed? These Republicans Think So: A growing number of conservative lawmakers want to overhaul capital punishment, or end it."  Here are excerpts:

As Oklahoma officials seek to resume putting prisoners to death later this year, [state Rep. Kevin] McDugle has pursued bills in the state legislature to help those on death row prove their innocence ... in a deep-red state at a time when Republicans across the country are increasingly split on the future of capital punishment.  Support for the death penalty used to be popular in both parties, but over the last three decades, Democrats have turned away from the punishment, leaving Republican legislators, governors, prosecutors and judges to fight for its continued use.  At the same time, a small conservative movement — including groups like Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty — has been openly questioning capital punishment. It’s now clear their efforts are paying off.

Earlier this year, Virginia became the first Southern state to repeal the death penalty after three Republicans voted with the state legislature’s Democratic majority.  A Marshall Project review found that in roughly half the states with an active death penalty system, Republican lawmakers have recently sponsored or written bills to ban or constrain the punishment, or to help potentially innocent prisoners avoid it.

Although many of these bills are unlikely to pass, their sheer volume suggests a significant shift in conservative views.  Some of these Republican legislators see their bills as incremental steps toward ending the punishment. But others, like McDugle, don’t want to end the death penalty — they just want to fix it. “I want to make darn sure that if we as Oklahoma are putting someone to death, they deserve to be there,” McDugle said. “I know there is human error all the way through.”

Conservatives have been slowly turning away from the death penalty for years, as high-profile innocence cases have helped frame capital punishment as a problem of out-of-control big government.  In 2000, after a series of exonerations of people who had been sentenced to death, the Republican governor of Illinois, George Ryan, declared a moratorium on executions.  At the time, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was running for president, and the national press questioned whether an innocent person had faced execution under his watch; soon after, his fellow Republicans in the state legislature voted to make DNA testing more available for prisoners.  From 2014 to 2019, Republican support for the death penalty, as opposed to life sentences, dropped from 68% to 58%, according to Gallup Polls. Republican legislators in Nebraska voted to repeal the punishment in 2015, although the state’s residents then voted to bring the punishment back.

Some lawmakers have been motivated by anti-abortion arguments about the sanctity of human life and stories of Christian redemption on death row.  Others talk about the cost to taxpayers. South Dakota state Sen. Arthur Rusch previously served as a judge in a capital case.  “My case cost at least $1 million if not more,” he said, noting that the court paid for counseling for some jurors who suffered from post-traumatic stress after the lengthy trial. He was elected to the senate in 2015, and has filed numerous bills to abolish or restrict the punishment; none have succeeded, he said, but each time he brings along a few more peers.

“Changing your mind on an emotional subject like this can be difficult,” said Hannah Cox, who writes columns for Newsmax, a conservative web outlet, and serves as national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. She’s found that efforts to fix the system can serve as “baby steps,” as she tries to show her fellow conservatives that the system can’t be saved. “If you fix one of 13 problems with the death penalty, there are still another 12.”...

Many conservatives focus on the moral calculation of who deserves the ultimate punishment.  Ohio recently passed a bill, sponsored by a Republican legislator, to ban the execution of anyone with a serious mental illness. Republicans are pushing similar bills in Florida, Kentucky and Missouri.  In Texas, state Rep. Jeff Leach has filed a bill that would ban the death penalty for people who were technically “accomplices” to murders but played a minor role, including getaway drivers.  Much like the Oklahomans, he was motivated by a single case — that of Jeff Wood, who was sentenced to die after his friend killed a store clerk while Wood waited outside in the car, after what they thought would be an easy robbery.

April 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 28, 2021

"Getting to Know You: An Expanded Approach to Capital Jury Selection"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Samuel Newton now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The Colorado Method of capital jury selection is a widely-embraced strategy defense attorneys use in voir dire, in which attorneys rank each juror exclusively on the likelihood that the juror will vote for life or death.  The method has some problems.  It is not fully public.  Discussing punishment prior to guilt also predisposes juries to vote for death.  It inadequately addresses innocence cases.  Nor should we reduce jurors to their views or positions on the death penalty. 

While capital juries are already predisposed to give death sentences, scholars have determined that numerous case-specific and juror-specific factors — such as a defendant's willingness to express remorse or the juror’s views or racial experiences — significantly affect jurors’ votes.  I review research findings from the Capital Jury Project and other studies, concluding that capital defense attorneys are better served by questioning and ranking jurors on a much broader set of factors.  I propose that with more information in hand, defense attorneys can improve their ability to rank jurors and select a jury more inclined to impose a life sentence.

March 28, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Virginia officially repeals its death penalty

I reported here last month that Virginia was on the verge of repealing the death penalty in the state.  Today, as reported in this new NPR piece, the repeal became official.  Here are some details:

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill into law abolishing the death penalty in the state after the Democratically-controlled legislature passed the measure late last month. "It is the moral thing to do to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia," said the governor....

Virginia is the first state in what was the Confederacy to stop using the punishment. The commonwealth has executed more people than any other state since the first execution took place at Jamestown in 1608.

Opponents of the death penalty cite the high cost, the possibility of executing the innocent and the disproportionate racial impact. Black defendants are more likely to face death sentences, especially when victims are white. "The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching. It is state-sponsored racism and we have an opportunity to end this today," said Democratic Del. Jay Jones, speaking on the floor of the House last month.

Virginia has gone through several racial reckonings in the last few years. Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says the 2019 controversy involving Gov. Northam and an old racist yearbook photo may have brought the state closer to this point. "I think the governor's blackface scandal certainly predisposed him to being far more sensitive about racial justice issues."

And then came the police killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last year. "The Black Lives Matter protests turbocharged the move toward criminal justice reform in general, and death penalty abolition in particular," says Stone.

Two Republicans voted with Democrats in favor of abolition, but the party has been largely unified in opposition, along with law enforcement groups who want to keep the penalty for people who murder police officers.

Many victim's families have spoken out against the death penalty, saying it makes healing more difficult. Rachel Sutphin is a vocal opponent of the death penalty and objected to the 2017 execution of her father's killer. William Morva, who was the last person to be executed in Virginia, fatally shot her father, Eric Sutphin, a police officer, in 2006. She objected to Morva's execution in part because he was diagnosed with a serious mental illness....

Gov. Northam thanked lawmakers for getting the bill to his desk, "Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all."

Prior recent related post:

March 24, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 22, 2021

SCOTUS grants cert to review First Circuit's reversal of death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

As noted in this post, the First CIrcuit last summer overturned the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the Trump administration sought review in October on these two questions in the government's cert petition:

  1. Whether the court of appeals erred in concluding that respondent’s capital sentences must be vacated on the ground that the district court, during its 21-day voir dire, did not ask each prospective juror for a specific accounting of the pretrial media coverage that he or she had read, heard, or seen about respondent’s case.
  2. 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.

This morning, as detailed in this new order list, the US Supreme Court granted cert in US v. Tsarnaev.  Because the cert grant does not specify a particular question presented, I assume both of the questions presented flgged by the government will be before the Justices.

Of course, the new Biden Administration is purportedly opposed to the death penalty based on statements by then-candidate Joe Biden before his election.  (I do not believe Prez Biden has spoken to this matter directly and he had a history of supporting the death penalty in the past.)  Notably, the Biden Administration did not seek to withdraw the cert petition in Tsarnaev, and it will now be very interesting to see how it plans to move forward with this case now that cert has been granted.  

A few prior recent related posts:

March 22, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Can global capitalists bring an end to capital punishment around the globe?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the interestng news of the creation of a notable new death penalty abolition group going by the name "Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty."  This ABC News piece, headlined "Branson leads business group demanding end to death penalty," provides the backstory:

Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson feels the time has come to galvanize business leaders in a movement to eradicate the death penalty, a cause he has ardently supported for years.

A group of 18 business leaders led by the British billionaire launched a campaign Thursday they hope will quickly build, signing a declaration that called on all governments to end executions. Branson said he hoped to get “hundreds, if not thousands" more business leaders on board over the next six months.

“I’m contacting a lot of business leaders that I’ve met over the years. I think a lot of us believe it to be inhumane, to be barbaric, to be flawed,” Branson said in a video interview with The Associated Press before announcing the campaign at the virtual South by Southwest festival....

Telecom billionaire Mo Ibrahim, the co-founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Thrive CEO Arianna Huffington and Jared Smith, co-founder of software vendor Qualtrics, were among the 18 initial signatories....

The business leaders, who said they were speaking in a personal capacity, called the death penalty emblematic of the systemic racial injustice companies claim to be trying to fight. “Business leaders need to do more than just say Black Lives Matter. They need to walk the talk and be instrumental in tearing down all the symbols of structural racism in our society," Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s, said in a prepared statement.

According to a report by the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, Black people remain overrepresented on U.S. death row, and Black people who kill white people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people who kill Black people.

Although support for the death penalty has waned in recent years, the Trump administration carried out an unprecedented run of 13 executions in six months last year, ending a 17-year hiatus on federal executions. President Joe Biden has not said whether he will halt federal executions, though he is against the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use.

Celia Ouellette, CEO of The Responsible Business Initiative for Justice that is coordinating the campaign, said the hurried executions last year added “real urgency” to the issue that helped draw in business leaders. She said the signatories would be participating in various events with anti-death penalty activists groups in the next months. “This is the first time that we've seen business leaders joining forces to call for an end to the death penalty globally," Ouellette said.

Branson said business leaders see the tide turning, symbolized most recently by the Virginia state legislature's vote to abolish capital punishment. That vote last month held particular significance for death penalty opponents because Virginia has executed more people than any other state in its long history.

Despite his own longtime advocacy, Branson said the death penalty has not been an issue business leaders have taken up historically. “So part of our job is, is to find the time to educate them, give them the facts and win and win them over,” Branson said. “It needs patience. It needs education for some. But for, I say the vast majority, it’s a reasonably easy. The doors are open and I think we can get the vast majority of people on board.”

March 18, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 12, 2021

"Are Life Sentences a Merciful Alternative to the Death Penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new extended Mother Jones article.  Here are excerpts:

In the midst of [recent] victories in the fight against capital punishment, many advocates are attempting to address a different form of punishment, questioning how much more merciful life imprisonment is compared to the death penalty.

Life without parole has many of the same qualities that make the death penalty so abhorrent.  Capital punishment is riddled with racial disparities, junk science, and a legal system that routinely fails the marginalized. “Those same exact flaws exist across the whole system,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the advocacy organization The Sentencing Project.  Looked at logically, staying alive, albeit in prison, just has to be a better outcome than being executed.  But looked at more closely, is the lesser sentence really “better” than the harshest one?  “I would not call it a humane alternative to the death penalty,” Shari Silberstein, the executive director of the Equal Justice USA, a criminal justice nonprofit, tells me.  In fact, it’s a punishment both extreme and one that disproportionately affects the most marginalized people....

For Silberstein, anti-death penalty activists shouldn’t focus solely on life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, but they should consider an entire reconfiguration of what justice means, and what it should look like.  After someone has been harmed, “there’s a need for healing, safety, accountability, and a sense of justice,” she explains. But it is unrealistic to expect “that a prison sentence can meet all of those needs.”  Clearly, they haven’t, she notes.  Harsh sentences persevere, even in places where the death penalty has already been abolished because of the underlying belief that, as Silverstein explains succinctly, “The only sense that justice has been done is if someone else suffers.”

Perhaps now — when execution as a punishment has never seemed so obscene and unacceptable — it’s the right time to reconsider all punishments.  What is the real difference between spending years behind bars only to die strapped to a gurney while correctional staff administer enough drugs to kill you, and languishing behind bars until so-called natural causes finally, mercifully, takes your life?  Are these differences sufficient to end one punishment and while still justifying another?  If the United States is on the cusp of abolishing the death penalty, perhaps it should take the next logical step and abolish another form of cruel and unusual punishment as well: life imprisonment.

March 12, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, March 08, 2021

Stories highlight that the west is no longer so wild about the death penalty

These three newspaper pieces from three different western states strike a similar theme relating to the decline in political support for capital punishment:

"California has undergone a sea change on the death penalty" from the Los Angeles Times

"Poll: Nevadans divided over abolishing the death penalty, a shift from previous poll" from The Nevada Independent

"Bill to repeal death penalty in Wyoming advanced by legislative committee" from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Notably, as well detailed by the Death Penalty Information Center in this map of US executions, there have never actually been all that many executions west of Texas in the modern capital era. Indeed, Missouri alone has has more executions (90) than all states combined; leave out Arizona, and Ohio at 56 executions has had more than all those other weterns states combined. But, as also well detailed by this DPIC map of US death rows, a number of western states have sizeable death rows (with California's death row twice as big as any other states').

March 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 26, 2021

Federal prosecutors still pursuing capital charges over a month into Biden Administration

There has been considerable advocacy from progressives urging Prez Biden to commute federal death row and to halt all capital prosecutions (examples here and here).  Against that backdrop, I thought this new Justice Department press release was notable under this full headline: "Death Penalty Sought For Murder Of Fort Campbell Soldier; Victim's murder occurred on the Fort Campbell, Kentucky military installation."   Interestingly, the start of the release specifies that former Prez Trump's last Attorney General was the one who authorized this prosecution in the Western District of Kentucky:

The United States filed Notice of Intent to Seek the Death Penalty for Victor Everette Silvers, in connection with the death of Brittney Niecol Silvers, announced Acting United States Attorney Michael A. Bennett.  Former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen authorized and directed the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Kentucky to seek the death penalty.

According to the superseding indictment, returned on Tuesday, February 23, 2021, Victor Everette Silvers murdered Brittney Niecol Silvers on October 14, 2018, by shooting her with a firearm at the Fort Campbell, Kentucky military installation.  Brittney Niecol Silvers was, at the time of her death, assigned to the 96th Aviation Support Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  The penalty for First-Degree Murder (Premediated) is Death or Life Imprisonment.

Victor Everette Silvers is also charged with Attempted First-Degree Murder, Domestic Violence, Violation of a Protection Order, Possession of a Firearm by a Prohibited Person, and two counts of the Use/Carry/Discharge of a Firearm During and in Relation to a Crime of Violence.

This press release is a useful reminder that, while it may not be essential for Prez Biden to make an immediate decision about whether to commute the sentences of persons already on federal death row, there is more immediate urgency for the Biden Administration about whether to continue seeking to add to the number of persons on federal death row.

February 26, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Notable new press report on accounts of recent federal execution particulars

The AP has this notable new story, headlined "Executioners sanitized accounts of deaths in federal cases."  Here is how it gets started:

Executioners who put 13 inmates to death in the last months of the Trump administration likened the process of dying by lethal injection to falling asleep and called gurneys “beds” and final breaths “snores.”  But those tranquil accounts are at odds with reports by The Associated Press and other media witnesses of how prisoners’ stomachs rolled, shook and shuddered as the pentobarbital took effect inside the U.S. penitentiary death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. The AP witnessed every execution.

The sworn accounts by executioners, which government filings cited as evidence the lethal injections were going smoothly, raise questions about whether officials misled courts to ensure the executions scheduled from July to mid-January were done before death penalty opponent Joe Biden became president.  Secrecy surrounded all aspects of the executions. Courts relied on those carrying them out to volunteer information about glitches. None of the executioners mentioned any.

Questions about whether inmates’ midsections trembled as media witnesses described were a focus of litigation throughout the run of executions. Inmates’ lawyers argued it proved pentobarbital caused flash pulmonary edema, in which fluid rushes through quickly disintegrating membranes into lungs and airways, causing pain akin to being suffocated or drowned.  The Constitution prohibits execution methods that are “cruel and unusual.”

The discrepancies could increase pressure on Biden to declare his administration won’t execute any of the roughly 50 federal inmates still on death row.  Activists want him to go further by backing a bill abolishing the federal death penalty.  Biden hasn’t spoken about any specific action.

During the Sept. 22 execution of William LeCroy, convicted of killing Georgia nurse Joann Lee Tiesler in 2001, the 50-year-old’s stomach area heaved uncontrollably immediately after the pentobarbital injection.  It lasted about a minute, according to the AP and other reports.

Executioner Eric Williams stood next to LeCroy as he died.  But Williams made only cursory reference to “the rise and fall” of LeCroy’s abdomen in his account.  Shortly after serving in five of the recent executions, Williams was named the interim warden of the high-profile New York City lockup where Jeffrey Epstein died in 2019.  “During the entirety of the execution, LeCroy did not appear to be in any sort of distress, discomfort, or pain,” Williams wrote.  “A short time after he took a deep breath and snored, it appeared to me that LeCroy was in a deep, comfortable sleep.”

The distinctive jerking and jolting was visible in at least half the executions, according to the AP and other media accounts.  Among multiple executioner accounts, none described any such movements.  All employed the same sleep metaphors.

When Donald Trump’s Justice Department announced in 2019 it’d resume executions after a 17-year hiatus, it said it would use pentobarbital alone.  Manufacturers were no longer willing to supply the combination of drugs used in three federal executions from 2001 to 2003, explaining they didn’t want drugs meant to save lives to be used for killing.

One point of contention during the litigation was whether, even if pulmonary edema did occur, inmates could feel it after they appeared to be knocked out.  Experts for the prisoners said the drug paralyzes the body, masking the pain prisoners could feel as they died.  None of those executed appeared to writhe in pain.  But audio from the death chamber to the media viewing room was switched off just prior to the injections, so journalists couldn’t hear if inmates groaned or complained of pain.

February 17, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 12, 2021

Litigation over clergy halts Alabama execution (and divides Justices in notable ways)

Though the federal government carried out the first three execution of 2021 last month, the first state execution in the US was scheduled to take place last night in Alabama.  But, as this local article explains, today "Willie B. Smith III remains alive on death row in Alabama, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that required Smith’s spiritual advisor to be in the execution chamber with Smith when he was given the lethal injection."  Here is more:

The ruling came down around 11:08 p.m. Thursday night, with the Alabama Department of Corrections calling off the execution one minute later.

In the concurring ruling, Justice Elena Kagan said that the law “guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference”. “The Eleventh Circuit was right to bar Alabama from executing Smith without his pastor by his side,” Kagan said. “Nowhere, as far as I can tell, has the presence of a clergy member (whether state-appointed or independent) disturbed an execution.”

Kagan along with Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Amy Coney Barrett all denied the Alabama Attorney General’s Office’s motion to overturn a lower court ruling requiring Smith’s spiritual advisor to be in the execution chamber. Justice Brett Kavanaugh along with Justice John Roberts, wrote the dissenting opinion.

Smith’s other claim as to why the execution should be called off centered on what his lawyers called an intellectual disability.  While the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay based on that claim Wednesday night, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted that stay around 11 p.m. Thursday.

Smith, 51, was originally set to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. inside of William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore....  Smith was sentenced to death in 1992 for the Oct. 1991 abduction, robbery and murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson. Johnson’s body was found in the trunk of her burned car with a shotgun wound to her head, after being shot execution style at a east Birmingham cemetery. 

The full SCOTUS discussion of these issues is available at this link, but the opinions released by the justices are just concurrences and dissents from the denial of Alabama's application to lift the stay put in place by the Eleventh Circuit.  As Amy Howe explains in this SCOTUSblog post, the exact votes here are unclear even though it is clear that this issue has divided the more conservative block of Justices:

Four justices — Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett — all signed an opinion, written by Kagan, that said the state failed to adequately justify its policy of barring spiritual advisers from the execution chamber.  Three justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh — indicated that they would have allowed the execution to go forward under Alabama’s policy.  The remaining two justices — Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — did not publicly disclose how they voted, but at least one of them must have voted with the three liberal justices and Barrett to prevent the execution from occurring without a spiritual adviser.

This NPR piece about the ruling provides some context for how SCOTUS has struggled with execution clergy issues in recent years:

The Supreme Court justices have grappled with the same legal question at the core of the Smith case in the last two years, but have ruled very differently in each situation.  In 2019, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled that Alabama could execute Domineque Hakim Ray, a Muslim man convicted of murder.

The appellate court had temporarily blocked the execution because the state barred the man from having a Muslim imam at his side in the death chamber. Alabama said only the prison's Christian minister would be allowed in.

A month later, in a 7-2 vote, the justices granted an eleventh-hour stay of execution to Patrick Henry Murphy, a Buddhist prisoner in Texas who had been denied a Buddhist religious adviser at his side in the death chamber.  The difference between the two cases, according to the conservative court majority, was that the Muslim prisoner waited too long to ask for an imam.

It's unclear what the state of Alabama's next move will be in the Smith case.

That both Justices Alito and Gorsuch remained silent and yet may have voted for the stay here is fascinating; these two have long seemed, by virtue of their votes and opinions, to be the two Justices most eager to ensure condemned inmates fail in any and all efforts to block or delay scheduled executions.  In addition, I believe this case may represent the very first time in which, in a closely divided vote, Justice Barrett joined an opinion of her more liberal colleagues.  Justice Barrett could have, of course, opted for the "silence is golden" approach adopted by Justices Alito and Gorsuch; that she notably decided instead to sign on to Justice Kagan's concurrence is quite noteworthy.

February 12, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Coalition of civil rights groups calls on Prez Biden to commute all federal death sentences and halt capital activity

As reported in this AP piece, "civil rights and advocacy organizations are calling on the Biden administration to immediately halt federal executions after an unprecedented run of capital punishment under President Donald Trump and to commute the sentences of inmates on federal death row."  Here is more (with links from the original):

The organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 80 others, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning, urging that he act immediately “on your promise of ensuring equality, equity, and justice in our criminal legal system.”

Biden has been systematically undoing many Trump administration policies on climate, immigration and ethics rules. Although he is against the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use, Biden has not commented on what he will do with Trump’s unprecedented push for the federal death penalty.  The Bureau of Prisons carried out more executions under Trump, 13, than any previous president....  The groups say Biden should step in immediately and take action, as his administration works to establish priorities, address systemic racism and overhaul parts of the criminal justice system.

In the letter, the civil rights groups said the use of the death penalty “continues to perpetuate patterns of racial and economic oppression endemic to the American criminal legal system.”...  “Any criminal legal system truly dedicated to the pursuit of justice should recognize the humanity of all those who come into contact with it, not sanction the use of a discriminatory practice that denies individuals their rights, fails to respect their dignity, and stands in stark contrast to the fundamental values of our democratic system of governance,” the letter said....

The groups told Biden he has the power to dismantle the death chamber building at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana — the small building where the 13 executions were carried out in six months — in addition to rescinding the Justice Department’s execution protocols and a regulation that no longer required federal death sentences to be carried out by lethal injection and cleared the way to use other methods like firing squads and poison gas.

They also said Biden could prohibit prosecutors from seeking death sentences and commute the sentences of the several dozen inmates on federal death row.  Far-reaching steps by Biden, the letter said, would also preclude any future president from restarting federal executions.  Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, halted federal executions but never cleared death row or sought to strike the death penalty from U.S. statutes.  That left the door open for Trump to resume them.  “We … recognize that if there is one thing that the waning months of the Trump presidency also made clear, it is the horrendous implications of simply having an informal federal death penalty moratorium in place,” it said.

Cynthia Roseberry, the ACLU’s deputy director of policy for the justice division, said she knows that Biden has a lot on his plate and that he should be given some time to act on the death penalty.  But she said the groups wanted to assure Biden “that there is broad based support to be bold” on the issue and that some don’t require complicated policy initiatives or new legislation.  “These things,” Roseberry said, “can be accomplished with the stroke of the pen.”

The full ACLU press release about this letter is available at this link, and the full letter from the coaltion is available at this link.   

I noted here in response to last month's similar letter by 37 Democratic members of Congress that the call for commuting all of federal death row came with a request to "ensur[e] that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process."  This new call here to "immediately commuting the sentences of all individuals under federal sentence of death" does not alternative sentencing with any specificity, but it obviously avoids advocating that Prez Biden converting death sentences into life without parole sentences.  This is yet another reminder that modern adocacy against LWOP sentences, which often calls LWOP just a death sentence by another name, serves to complicate a bit advocacy against capital punishment.

February 9, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, February 06, 2021

New AP report concludes "Federal executions likely a COVID superspreader"

This new Associated Press article details the conclusions of its investigation concerning the spread of COVID-19 in and around the federal facilities responsible for executions at the tail end of the Trump Administration.  Here is how the lengthy piece gets started:

As the Trump administration was nearing the end of an unprecedented string of executions, 70% of death row inmates were sick with COVID-19.  Guards were ill.  Traveling prisons staff on the execution team had the virus.  So did media witnesses, who may have unknowingly infected others when they returned home because they were never told about the spreading cases.

Records obtained by The Associated Press show employees at the Indiana prison complex where the 13 executions were carried out over six months had contact with inmates and other people infected with the coronavirus, but were able to refuse testing and declined to participate in contact tracing efforts and were still permitted to return to their work assignments.  Other staff members, including those brought in to help with executions, also spread tips to their colleagues about how they could avoid quarantines and skirt public health guidance from the federal government and Indiana health officials.

The executions at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, completed in a short window over a few weeks, likely acted as a superspreader event, according to the records reviewed by AP.  It was something health experts warned could happen when the Justice Department insisted on resuming executions during a pandemic.

It’s impossible to know precisely who introduced the infections and how they started to spread, in part because prisons officials didn’t consistently do contact tracing and haven’t been fully transparent about the number of cases.  But medical experts say it’s likely the executioners and support staff, many of whom traveled from prisons in other states with their own virus outbreaks, triggered or contributed both in the Terre Haute penitentiary and beyond the prison walls.

Of the 47 people on death row, 33 tested positive between Dec. 16 and Dec. 20, becoming infected soon after the executions of Alfred Bourgeois on Dec. 11 and Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10, according to Colorado-based attorney Madeline Cohen, who compiled the names of those who tested positive by reaching out to other federal death row lawyers. Other lawyers, as well as activists in contact with death row inmates, also told AP they were told a large numbers of death row inmates tested positive in mid-December.

In addition, at least a dozen other people, including execution team members, media witnesses and a spiritual adviser, tested positive within the incubation period of the virus, meeting the criteria of a superspreader event, in which one or more individuals trigger an outbreak that spreads to many others outside their circle of acquaintances.  The tally could be far higher, but without contact tracing it’s impossible to be sure.

February 6, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 05, 2021

Virginia, the state "that since Colonial times has executed more people than any other," is on verge of abolishing the death penalty

As reported in this local article, headlined "House of Delegates backs abolishing death penalty, signaling end of capital punishment," the Commonwealth of Virginia is on the cusp of historic criminal justice reform.  Here are the details: 

In a landmark vote Friday, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill to abolish the death penalty in the state that since Colonial times has executed more people than any other.  With the Senate approving similar legislation Wednesday and Gov. Ralph Northam backing both measures, the action all but ends the death penalty in Virginia, which will now join 22 other states without a capital punishment law on the books.

"In the 20th century, few would have thought this was likely to happen at all, much less that Virginia would be the first in the South to eliminate capital punishment," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "This is a watershed moment. It shows dramatically how different the new Virginia is from the old," he said.

The House passage, 57-41, was largely along party lines, with three Republicans — Dels. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield and Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth — voting with the Democrats who hold the majority in the House.  The votes followed passionate debate in each chamber this week over the government's ultimate sanction.

Since 1608, Virginia has executed almost 1,400 people — 113 of them since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976, the second-highest toll in the U.S. in modern times.

Speaking Thursday on behalf of the bill he sponsored, Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, a prosecutor in Hampton, said, "There are many arguments for why we should abolish the death penalty. These arguments touch on everything from the moral implications of the death penalty, to the racial bias in how it is applied, to its ineffectiveness, to the extraordinary cost."

"But perhaps the strongest argument for abolishing the death penalty is that a justice system without the death penalty allows us the possibility of being wrong," he said. He cited the case of Earl Washington Jr., Virginia's only death row exoneree among 174 across the U.S.  Washington came within days of execution in 1985 for a rape and murder that DNA later proved was committed by another man. "How many people are we willing to sacrifice to vengeance," Mullin asked.

Shortly before the House vote Friday, Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, who is vying for the Democratic nod to run for attorney general, urged passage, saying the United States is the only Western country that still has the death penalty. "The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching.  It is state-sponsored racism and we have an opportunity here to end this today," he said....

Supporters of the death penalty did not have the backing of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys this year as the organization decided to let each member argue their own cases.  A dozen top prosecutors in the state favored abolition.

Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said, Friday's vote in the House, "is a repudiation of the long and violent policy of 1,390 executions carried out by the Commonwealth since 1608.  We look forward to Governor Northam signing this bill into law." Northam, following the Senate passage Wednesday, said, "The practice is fundamentally inequitable.  It is inhumane.  It is ineffective. And we know that in some cases, people on death row have been found innocent."...

There have been no now new death sentences imposed in the state since 2011 and no executions since 2017.  Under the legislation approved this week, the two men remaining on Virginia's death row — both convicted in Norfolk — will have their death sentences changed to life without parole....

If made law, the legislation would mean that all the current 15 types of capital murder — such as murder in the commission of a rape or robbery or the slaying of a law enforcement officer — would become aggravated murder punishable by life in prison without parole. However, as many critics point out, when sentencing, a judge — except in the case of the murder of a police officer — could suspend part or all of such a sentence.  That was a sticking point for some Republicans, particularly Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, who opposes the death penalty but said he could not vote for the legislation if it meant such a killer might someday be free.

WOW!

February 5, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Why not a clemency push focused on the (more lethal) new death penalty that is COVID in federal prisons?

I noted in this recent post that group of Democratic members of Congress signed a letter calling upon Prez Biden to "commute the sentences of all those" on federal death row.  I wondered in my post if there might be a less politically controversial group of federal prisonsers who might be a better focal point for the very first clemencies from Prez Biden.  And this new BuzzFeed News piece, which carries the subheadline "In crowded cells, where COVID is running rampant, appeals for clemency for thousands of prisoners have gone unanswered or flat-out rejected," reminded me that Prez Biden might actually save many more lives right away if he were to focus on communiting federal prison sentences for the most vulnerable persons at risk of suffering "the new death penalty" that takes the form of COVID-19.  Here is some contexnt from the BuzzFeed piece: 

For many federal inmates who aren’t politically connected to the president, or state inmates with no sway with their governor, a pardon isn’t just about getting out of prison or having their sentence overturned, it’s literally a case of life and death.  In crowded prisons, with little access to healthcare or the ability to socially distance, COVID-19 cases have exploded, with at least 1 in 5 inmates infected.

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that crowded jails and prisons led to more than half a million additional COVID-19 cases nationwide — or about 1 in 8 of all new cases — over the summer, including cases both inside and outside correctional facilities because the virus spreads via prison workers to the world beyond bars. At least 2,144 inmates and 146 corrections staff have died from the disease, according to data collected by the Marshall Project....

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the nonpartisan Prison Policy Institute, pointed out that people in prison are infected with COVID-19 at a rate four times higher than that of the general population and twice as likely to die from the disease. “What that means is that people who were never sentenced to death are being killed by COVID-19,” Bertram said. “More people have been killed by COVID-19 in prisons than have been killed by the death penalty in like the last few decades, all over the country.”

Bertram pointed to a report published last month showing places with prisons record higher levels of community infection. “This is a tragedy,” she said. “It’s something that governors and the federal government should have been dealing with a long time ago by doing whatever it is that they had to do to get huge numbers of people out.”

The federal Bureau of Prison's COVID-19 page currently reports that there "have been 204 federal inmate deaths ... attributed to COVID-19 disease."  That amounts to more than four times the number of persons on federal death row; in a few older posts here and here, I noted that nearly half of the early reported deaths of federal prisoners involved individuals serving time for drug crimes, and thus crimes much less serious than the aggarvated murders that lead to formal death sentences.   

The Buzzfeed piece rightly notes that "Public officials have been slow to use clemency powers, despite calls from the American Medical Association and other groups to reduce the prison population."  I sure wish a bunch of members of Congress and lots and lots of other folks would focus a push for clemency on the persistent and pressing need to try to depopulate federal prisons in order to reduce the spread and carnage of COVID in federal prisons.

A few of many prior related posts:

January 24, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 22, 2021

37 Democratic member of Congress call on Prez Biden to "commute the sentences of all those" on federal death row

Via this letter, more than three dozen congressional Democrats has urge to communte the federal death sentences of all 49 condemned men on federal death row.  Here are excerpts from the letter:

We write to you today with grave concerns regarding the federal death penalty.  As members of Congress, we stand ready to work with you on your commitment to rebuilding the dignity of America.  We believe that rebuilding the dignity of America requires that we recommit ourselves to the tradition of due process, mercy, and judicial clemency when it comes to matters related to the criminal legal system.  For this reason, we urge you to immediately commute the sentences of all those on death row....

We appreciate your vocal opposition to the death penalty and urge you to take swift, decisive action. After referring to the death penalty as “deeply troubling,” President Obama halted federal executions and commuted the sentences of two federal prisoners on death row.  However, the Obama administration’s reticence to commute more death sentences has allowed the Trump administration to reverse course and pursue a horrifying killing spree over the final seven months of his presidency. Commuting the death sentences of those on death row and ensuring that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process is a crucial first step in remedying this grave injustice....

As President, you can exercise your executive clemency power by commuting the sentences of all those on death row and ensuring a fair re-sentencing process.  This moment demands a series of meaningful actions to ensure that no President can authorize the killing of Americans through the death penalty.  This includes dismantling death row at FCC Terre Haute, and establishing clear executive guidelines prohibiting federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  In addition to those steps, you can call on the U.S. Congress to pass H.R. 262, the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act, sponsored by Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Dick Durbin, which would end the death penalty once and for all. Until that legislation is law, it is incumbent upon the executive branch to end the barbaric practice of federal executions as quickly as possible.

Beyond the substantive basics of seeking capital commutations for all on federal death row, I find it quite interesting that this letter calls upon Prez Biden to "ensur[e] that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process."  Typically, death row commutations by governors change death sentences to life without parole, and the two federal death sentences commuted by Prez Obama were both turned into LWOP sentences.  But many progressives now view an LWOP sentence as just a functional death sentence by another name, and so it seems these membrs of Congress are eager to have these now condemned men to have a chance to receive sentences less than life.  Relatedly, I am not aware of any commutation that has come with an instruction for a judge to conduct a full resentencing.  But because the clemency power is broad, I presume it would be permissible for a Prez to commute a sentence with these terms. 

As regular readers know, I am eager for any and every president to make regular and robust use of the historic clemency power.  But it might be wiser for the very first clemencies from Prez Biden to involve cases less likely to garner widespread controversy and involving persons who have not committed the most aggravated of crimes.

January 22, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 18, 2021

Lots of notable death penalty stories at the state, federal and international level

While the execution spree conducted in the last six months of the Trump Administration has justifiably garnered a lot of attention from the press and others, I have noticed in recent days a number of notable new capital headlines that go beyond just federal death penalty stories.  In an effort to cover a lot of ground, here is a round-up with links:

From Bloomberg, "Boston Marathon Bomber Appeal Is Early Biden Test on Death Penalty"

From Equal Justice Initiative, "Dr. Martin Luther King’s Moral Opposition to the Death Penalty"

From the Gazette, "Bill that would reinstate limited death penalty advances in Iowa Senate"

From NBC News, "'This is not justice': Justice Sonia Sotomayor offers fierce dissent in death penalty case"

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Virginia Senate committee backs bill to abolish the death penalty"

From Salon, "Amid Trump killing spree, MLK's family joins chorus demanding: 'Abolish the death penalty'"

From the San Francisco Chronicle, "Biden campaigned on eliminating death penalty — we could soon see how that turns out"

From the Washington Post, "Saudi Arabia says it executed 27 people in 2020, the lowest number in years, rights groups say"

January 18, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, January 16, 2021

SCOTUS clear way for 13th federal execution in six months, prompting extended dissents from Justices Breyer and Sotomayor

The now familiar federal execution drama has now played out one more time, this time around with Dustin Higgs securing a stay in lower courts only to see the Supreme Court allowing the execution to go forward.  Notably, with this last scheduled federal execution, Justice Beyer and Justice Sotomayor each sought to say their piece in extended dissents.  Justice Breyer's fourt-page dissent starts this way:

Last July the Federal Government executed Daniel Lee. Lee’s execution was the first federal execution in seventeen years.  The Government’s execution of Dustin Higgs tonight will be its thirteenth in six months.  I wrote in July that “the resumption of federal executions promises to provide examples that illustrate the difficulties of administering the death penalty consistent with the Constitution.”  Barr v. Lee, 591 U.S. ___, ___ (2020) (dissenting opinion) (slip op., at 2).  The cases that have come before us provide several of those examples.

And Justice Sotomayor's ten-page dissent starts and ends this way:

After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July.  They are Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy Jr., Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, and, just last night, Corey Johnson.  Today, Dustin Higgs will become the thirteenth.  To put that in historical context, the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.

This unprecedented rush of federal executions has predictably given rise to many difficult legal disputes....

There is no matter as “grave as the determination of whether a human life should be taken or spared.”  Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 189 (1976) (opinion of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.).  That decision is not something to be rushed or taken lightly; there can be no “justice on the fly” in matters of life and death.  See Nken v. Holder, 556 U.S. 418, 427 (2009).  Yet the Court has allowed the United States to execute thirteen people in six months under a statutory scheme and regulatory protocol that have received inadequate scrutiny, without resolving the serious claims the condemned individuals raised.  Those whom the Government executed during this endeavor deserved more from this Court.  I respectfully dissent.

This AP article reports on the execution, and includes these passages:

Higgs, 48, was pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m. Asked if he had any last words, Higgs was calm but defiant, naming each of the women prosecutors said he ordered killed. “I’d like to say I am an innocent man. ... I am not responsible for the deaths,” he said softly. “I did not order the murders.”

He did not apologize for anything he did on the night 25 years ago when the women were shot by another man, who received a life sentence.

January 16, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 15, 2021

Feds complete yet another late-night execution of convicted killer of seven from Virginia

As reported in this CNN piece, headlined "Federal government executes Corey Johnson following prolonged legal fight," the latest federal execution followed, yet again, what has become the standard litigation script with the Supreme Court ultimately rejecting all final arguments for a delay.  Here are some of the details: 

Corey Johnson was executed by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, and was pronounced dead at 11:34 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Johnson was sentenced to die after he was convicted of killing seven people in 1992 as a part of the drug trade in Virginia.  The weeks preceding his execution were defined by a tense legal battle after he contracted Covid-19 while on death row.

In his final statement, Johnson apologized for his crimes and told the families of the victims that he hoped they would find peace. He also thanked the staff at the prison, the prison's chaplain, his minister and his legal team....

The Supreme Court denied a last-ditch effort late Thursday by Johnson's legal team that leaned on claims of an intellectual disability and his Covid-19 diagnosis, arguing that his infection paired with a lethal injection would amount to a cruel and unusual punishment.  That appeal came after an appellate court on Wednesday tossed out a lower court's decision to stay the executions of Johnson and another death row inmate who contracted the virus, Dustin Higgs, whose execution is scheduled to take place Friday....

Johnson was found guilty of seven counts of capital murder in 1993, with the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia jury unanimously recommending seven death sentences.

Thursday's execution, six days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, coincides with a new push from more than three dozen members of Congress for Biden's incoming administration to prioritize abolishing the death penalty in all jurisdictions.  While Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to give incentives to states to stop seeking death sentences as a part of his criminal justice plan, 40 members of Congress want to make sure the practice ends on his first day in office.

January 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

After SCOTUS reverses stays by 6-3 votes, US complete early morning execution of only woman on federal death row

As reported here via SCOTUSblog, the "Supreme Court on Tuesday night cleared the way for the execution of Lisa Montgomery, the first woman to be executed by the federal government in 68 years.  Montgomery was convicted in 2008 of strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant, and extracting the premature baby to pass off as her own child." Here is more:

In a series of brief, unsigned orders, the Supreme Court reversed a pair of rulings from federal appeals courts that had put Montgomery’s execution on hold, and it denied two other last-minute requests in which Montgomery argued she was entitled to a postponement. In two of the orders, the court’s three liberal justices indicated that they dissented and would not have allowed the execution to proceed.

Soon after the court issued its final late-night order, Montgomery was put to death by lethal injection at the federal execution facility in Terre Haute, Indiana.  She was pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m.

Four separate cases relating to Montgomery’s execution reached the justices in emergency litigation over the past several days....

Montgomery was the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953.  No other women are currently on federal death row.  Montgomery also became the 11th person to be put to death by the federal government since last July, when the Trump administration ended a 17-year moratorium on federal executions.

The Justice Department has scheduled two more executions in the waning days of the Trump administration.  It wants to execute Corey Johnson on Thursday and Dustin Higgs on Friday, but both men recently tested positive for COVID-19, and a federal judge on Tuesday halted their executions based on a risk that lung damage associated with the virus could cause them to suffer severe pain during a lethal injection. 

I had been following all the litigation in the run up to the scheduled execution, but I did not blog about any of the stays because it seemed to me quite likely that the Supreme Court would ultimately clear the path for the feds to move forward.  In most of the previous 10 federal executions over the last six months, the condemned defendant secured or argued forcefully for a stay; in every single case, SCOTUS has allowed the execution to go forward.  I will be surprised if this pattern does not repeat itself again twice more this week with the scheduled executions of Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs.

As the SCOTUSblog post notes, Montgomery was the first woman executed by the federal government in the modern death penalty era.  She is also the first woman executed anywhere in the US in more than five years; Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner for orchestrating the murder of her husband back in September 2015.  Montgomery is also the first person executed in 2021.  This DPIC page details that she is the 17th woman executed in the modern death penalty era (out of a total of 1530 total executions).

January 13, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

"Back to the Future with Execution Methods"

The title of this post is the title of this book chapter authored by Deborah Denno now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Despite three United States Supreme Court decisions upholding lethal injection protocols, inmates continue to challenge the method's constitutionality, and states cling to scientifically ununiformed procedures to generally ensure the death penalty's survival.  Lethal injection, however, is simply the last in a long line of disastrous execution methods.  This chapter explores the future of execution methods in light of states' efforts to repeat or borrow from the past, beginning with current changes to lethal injection and the inclusion of prior methods.  Those previous methods include electrocution, the firing squad, and the recent adoption of nitrogen hypoxia by several states — all as constitutional substitutes for lethal injection.  Older lethal injection drugs are also coming back into play, such as sodium thiopental, despite their current unavailability.

This chapter concludes that states cannot go "back to the future" to re-invent or rebrand the past's problematic execution methods.  While the future of execution methods is impossible to predict, twenty-one states have now abolished the death penalty, and the death penalty's use has remained near record lows.  Quite possibly, current execution methods may follow the same path as hanging, which has been abolished in all fifty states.  Likewise, the abolishment of the death penalty as a whole may come faster than states' abilities to change the ways they execute inmates.

January 5, 2021 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, January 02, 2021

DC Circuit panel upholds January 12 execution date for only woman on federal death row

Just before Christmas, as noted in this post, a federal district judge vacated an order from the director of the Bureau of Prisons that had set Lisa Montgomery’s execution date for January 12.  But, on New Year's Day, a DC Circuit panel issued this order putting the execution back on track.  This CNN article about the ruling provides some context:

Montgomery's execution had been scheduled for December 8, but a judge postponed it after her attorneys said they were diagnosed with Covid-19 after flying from Texas to visit with Montgomery at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

On November 23, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Michael Carvajal, rescheduled Montgomery's execution for January 12.  Friday's order said he was acting under the "governing regulation," which allowed him to reschedule the execution because the original execution date had not passed.  The order said he was acting under the law, clearing the way for Montgomery's execution later this month.

Montgomery's attorney, Meaghan VerGow, said in a statement that she disagrees with the judges and is going to file a petition for them to reconsider their decision.  The judges gave VerGow until Saturday to file. "The federal government must be required to follow the law in setting any execution date, as the district court correctly held ... Given everything we know about Lisa Montgomery's mental illness, her lifetime of horrific torture and trauma, and the many people in positions of authority who could have intervened to save her but never did, there can be no principled reason to carry out her execution," VerGow said.  "The government should stop its relentless efforts to end her life."...

The Trump administration has overseen 10 federal executions in the final months of his presidency, the most in a single year in the United States in decades, and a revival after years of having none.  Montgomery would be the first woman executed by the US government since 1953.

In 2004, Montgomery was convicted of strangling a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant, then cutting out and kidnapping the baby.  The baby survived.

The last woman executed by the US government was Bonnie Brown Heady in 1953, according to US Bureau of Prisons records, for kidnapping and murder.  The US also famously executed Ethel Rosenberg that same year for espionage.

I suspect Montgomery's lawyers will pursue further appeals. But, in lots of prior federal capital cases in recent months, appeals courts (including the Supreme COurt) have consistently refected efforts to slow down the federal machinery of death.

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Rounding up some notable recent criminal justice commentary

There are lots and lots of interesting criminal justice issues floating around these days, and these recent commentary catching my eye capture just a slice of what some folks are talking about:

From the Boston Globe, "What Trump’s pardons say about criminal justice"

From CNN, "How Joe Biden can root out racism in criminal justice"

From CNN Business, "Criminal justice reform can start with employers who give felons a second chance"

From The Hill, "Joe Biden should eliminate federal death row on his first day in office"

From The Hill, "Five ways Biden can jumpstart criminal justice reform immediately"

From Lawfare, "Are Trump’s Pardons a Blessing in Disguise?"

From USA Today, "COVID-19 compels America to rethink who we lock up in prison"

From Vice, "2020 Was the Year That Momentous Drug Reform Became Normal"

December 29, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Federal judge blocks January 12 execution date for only woman on federal death row

As repoted in this AP piece, a "federal judge said the Justice Department unlawfully rescheduled the execution of the only woman on federal death row, potentially setting up the Trump administration to schedule the execution after president-elect Joe Biden takes office." Here is more about a ruling that was handed down before Christmas:

U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss also vacated an order from the director of the Bureau of Prisons that had set Lisa Montgomery’s execution date for Jan. 12.  Montgomery had previously been scheduled to be put to death at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, this month, but Moss delayed the execution after her attorneys contracted coronavirus visiting their client and asked him to extend the amount of time to file a clemency petition.

Moss prohibited the Bureau of Prisons from carrying out Lisa Montgomery’s execution before the end of the year and officials rescheduled her execution date for Jan. 12.  But Moss ruled on Wednesday that the agency was also prohibited from rescheduling the date while a stay was in place.  “The Court, accordingly, concludes that the Director’s order setting a new execution date while the Court’s stay was in effect was ‘not in accordance with law,’” Moss wrote....

Under the order, the Bureau of Prisons cannot reschedule Montgomery’s execution until at least Jan. 1.  Generally, under Justice Department guidelines, a death-row inmate must be notified at least 20 days before the execution.  Because of the judge’s order, if the Justice Department chooses to reschedule the date in January, it could mean that the execution would be scheduled after Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

A spokesperson for Biden has told The Associated Press the president-elect “opposes the death penalty now and in the future” and would work as president to end its use in office.  But Biden’s representatives have not said whether executions would be paused immediately once Biden takes office.

Montgomery was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in December 2004. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from the womb, authorities said.

Prosecutors said Montgomery removed the baby from Stinnett’s body, took the child with her, and attempted to pass the girl off as her own.  Montgomery’s legal team has argued that their client suffers from serious mental illnesses....

Two other federal inmates are scheduled to be executed in January but have tested positive for coronavirus and their attorneys are also seeking delays to their executions.

December 26, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Lots of federal death penalty news and notes after record-setting executions

The historic recent killing spree that the federal government has been conducting — with 10 executions in the last six months and three more slated for early January — has prompted a lot of headlines and commentary.  Here is a sampling of some of the pieces that have caught my eye recently:

From America, "William Barr, a Catholic, went out of his way to use the death penalty (and defy church teaching)"

From Bloomberg Opinion, "The Wrong Way to Fight the Death Penalty"

From NBC News, "Senators ask Justice Department watchdog to investigate federal executions under Trump"

From New York Magazine, "Will Biden Use His Powers to Crush the Death Penalty?"

From Pro Publica, "Inside Trump and Barr’s Last-Minute Killing Spree"

From Refinery29, "Lisa Montgomery Endured Years Of Abuse Before Committing Murder. Can Her Death Sentence Be Overturned?"

From Slate, "The Life Story of Lisa Montgomery"

From Tennessean, "Mary, Jesus, Christmas and the death penalty

From USA Today, "Trump's execution spree reflects death penalty system 'shaped by racial bias,' critics say"

From Vice, "Trump Is Executing 3 More People Before He Leaves Office. Here Are Their Stories."

December 24, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Is there any chance COVID might halt the three pending federal executions slated for next month?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP piece headlined "Lawyers: 2nd US inmate scheduled to be executed has COVID-19."  Here are the details:

A second federal inmate scheduled to be put to death next month in a series of executions by the Trump administration has tested positive for COVID-19, his lawyers said Friday. The diagnosis of Cory Johnson, who was convicted of killing seven people related to his drug trafficking in Virginia, comes a day after attorneys for Dustin John Higgs confirmed he tested positive at a U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where both men are on death row.

Johnson, Higgs and a a third inmate, Lisa Montgomery, are scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at a death chamber at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Johnson’s lawyers, Donald Salzman and Ronald Tabak, called on federal authorities to strike their client’s current execution date of Jan. 14.  Higgs is scheduled to die a day later. Montgomery’s execution date is Jan. 12, but because she is the only woman on federal death row she is currently held at a separate prison for female inmates in Texas but would need to be brought to Indiana to be executed.

Johnson’s attorneys said his infection would make it difficult to interact with him in the critical days leading up to his scheduled execution, adding that “the widespread outbreak on the federal death row only confirms the reckless disregard for the lives and safety of staff, prisoners, and attorneys alike.” “If the government will not withdraw the execution date, we will ask the courts to intervene,” they said.

The Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Prosecutors alleged that Johnson was one of three crack cocaine dealers who carried out a string of murders and that he killed seven people in 1992 in an attempt to expand the territory of a Richmond, Virginia, gang and silence informants. His legal team has argued that he is intellectually disabled, with a far-below average IQ, and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

Higgs was convicted of ordering the 1996 murders of three women in Maryland. Montgomery was convicted of using a rope to strangle a pregnant woman in 2004 and then using a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from the womb, authorities said. She would be the first woman executed federally in more than half a century....

The Bureau of Prisons confirmed in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday that inmates held on federal death row — known as the Special Confinement Unit — have tested positive for COVID-19.  As of Thursday, there were more than 300 inmates with confirmed cases of COVID-19 at FCC Terre Haute.  The Bureau of Prisons said “many of these inmates are asymptomatic or exhibiting mild symptoms.”

Assuming that Higgs and Johnson are asymptomatic or exhibit only mild symptoms in the coming weeks, I greatly doubt that their diagnosis will lead the Trump Administration or courts to decide to postpone their scheduled executions. (In this post a few weeks ago, I wondered if the coming departure of AG Barr might impact somehow federal execution plans.  But, after two more federal executions went forward earlier this month, I somewhat doubt that the incoming Acting AG will be eager to change course absent clear direction from Pez Trump.)

Ironically, if Higgs and/or Johnson were to get seriously ill from COVID and need to be hospitalize for an extended period, such a turn of events might extend their lives.  Despite pending execution dates, it would be unconstitutional for federal prison officials to knowingly refuse to provide needed medical care for Higgs or Johnson.  And if needed medical care kept Higgs and/or Johnson in a hospital facility at the time of their execution dates, I do not think prison officials would be logistically able to carry out the planned executions.  And yet, adding another layer of irony, even if Higgs and/or Johnson were to get very ill and need hospitalization, federal authorities could and likely would work extra hard to nurse them back to health just in time for other federal authorities to move forward their scheduled executions.

December 20, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

DPIC releases year-end report stating "Death Penalty Hits Historic Lows Despite Federal Execution Spree"

Death-sentences-by-yearThis new press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Executions and Death Sentences Drop to Historic Lows in 2020, even as Federal Government Ramps Up Executions," provides a three-page summary of the DPIC's 36-page year-end 2020 report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States.  The full reports carries this intricate full title "The Death Penalty in 2020: Year End Report; Death Penalty Hits Historic Lows Despite Federal Execution Spree; Pandemic, Racial Justice Movement Fuel Continuing Death Penalty Decline." Here is how the report's introduction starts:

2020 was abnormal in almost every way, and that was clearly the case when it came to capital punishment in the United States. The interplay of four forces shaped the U.S. death penalty landscape in 2020: the nation’s long-term trend away from capital punishment; the worst global pandemic in more than a century; nationwide protests for racial justice; and the historically aberrant conduct of the federal administration.  At the end of the year, more states had abolished the death penalty or gone ten years without an execution, more counties had elected reform prosecutors who pledged never to seek the death penalty or to use it more sparingly; fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since the Supreme Court struck down U.S. death penalty laws in 1972; and despite a six-month spree of federal executions without parallel in the 20th or 21st centuries, fewer executions were carried out than in any year in nearly three decades.

The historically low numbers of death sentences and executions were unquestionably affected by court closures and public health concerns related to the coronavirus.  But even before the pandemic struck, the death sentences and executions in the first quarter of the year had put the United States on pace for a sixth consecutive year of 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions.  The execution numbers also were skewed by a rash of executions that marked the federal government’s death-penalty practices as an outlier, as for the first time in the history of the country, the federal government conducted more civilian executions than all of the states of the union combined.

The erosion of capital punishment at the state and county level continued in 2020, led by Colorado’s abolition of the death penalty.  Two more states — Louisiana and Utah — reached ten years with no executions. With those actions, more than two-thirds of the United States (34 states) have now either abolished capital punishment (22 states) or not carried out an execution in at least ten years (another 12 states). The year’s executions were geographically isolated, with just five states, four of them in the South, performing any executions this year.  The Gallup poll found public support for the death penalty near a half-century low, with opposition at its highest level since the 1960s.  Local voters, particularly in urban centers and college towns, rejected mass incarceration and harsh punishments, electing new anti-death-penalty district attorneys in counties constituting 12% of the current U.S. death-row population.

A majority (59%) of all executions this year were conducted by the federal government, which in less than six months carried out more federal civilian executions than any prior president in the 20th or 21st centuries, Republican or Democratic, had authorized in any prior calendar year.  The Trump administration performed the first lame-duck federal execution in more than a century, while scheduling more transition-period executions than in any prior presidential transition in the history of the United States.  The executions reflected systemic problems in the application of capital punishment and drew widespread opposition from prosecutors, victims’ families, Native American leaders, religious leaders, regulatory law experts, and European Union officials.  In addition to the legal issues, the executions also presented public health problems, likely sparking an outbreak in a federal prison, infecting members of the execution teams, and causing two federal defense attorneys to contract COVID-19.

Death sentences, which were on pace for sustained low levels prior to the pandemic, plunged to a record low of 18.  While the resumption of trials delayed by the pandemic may artificially increase the number of death verdicts over the next year or two, the budget strain caused by the pandemic and the need for courtroom space to conduct backlogged non-capital trials and maintaining a functioning court system may force states to reconsider the value and viability of pursuing expensive capital trials.

As I have done in past posts, I have reprinted here one of DPIC's graphics on number of death sentences imposed because I think that data may prove the most critical and consequential for the fate and future of the death penalty. Helpfully, the DPIC report has lots of other important data about a remarkable year. Ninth months ago in a post, I wondered aloud "Might COVID-19 ultimately bring an end to the death penalty in the United States?."  This DPIC report details that the death penalty is still alive, but it seems COVID has certainly contributed to capital punishment's extended decline.

December 16, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Reviewing CJUTF Recommendations: how might the Biden Administration seek to abolish the death penalty?

Right after the election, I blogged a bit (here and here) about some criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (available here pp. 56-62, called the CJUTF hereinafter).  A few weeks ago, as explained here, I decided to start a series of posts to spotlight and amplify some recommendations from the CJUTF that ought to be of particular interest to sentencing fans.  In the wake of two more notable federal executions last week (noted here and here), this post will focus on a recommendation that speaks of abolition, and here it is:

Death Penalty: Abolish the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.

This new CNN article, headlined "Dozens of members of Congress call on Biden to end the federal death penalty," reports that a number of members of Congress (but surely not a majority) are eager to see Prez-elect Biden operationalize this recommendations:

More than three dozen members of Congress are calling on Joe Biden's incoming administration to prioritize abolishing the death penalty in all jurisdictions, according to a letter sent Tuesday to the transition team for the President-elect and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.  While Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to give incentives to states to stop seeking death sentences as a part of his criminal justice reform plan, 40 members of Congress and three congresspersons-elect want to make sure the practice ends on his first day in office.

"The current administration has weaponized capital punishment with callous disregard for human life. In the middle of our current public health crisis, the Department of Justice resumed federal executions and executed more people in six months than the total number executed over the previous six decades," Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley wrote in a letter first obtained by CNN.

The letter was authored by Pressley less than a week after calling for President Donald Trump to stop pending federal executions that are scheduled to take place during his lame duck period.  She specifically joined celebrities, bipartisan politicians and anti-death penalty advocates' call to stop Brandon Bernard's execution as his trial had allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that only surfaced two years ago.

Pressley, a Democrat, introduced legislation on July 25, 2019 -- the same day Attorney General William Barr announced federal executions, which had been stalled since 2003, would resume -- to rid the federal level of the practice and require resentencing for those currently on death row.  The bill has not had any action in the House since August 2019....

"With a stroke of your pen, you can stop all federal executions, prohibit United States Attorneys from seeking the death penalty, dismantle death row at FCC Terre Haute, and call for the resentencing of people who are currently sentenced to death," wrote Pressley.  "Each of these elements are critical to help prevent greater harm and further loss of life."

Executive Director of the Fair and Just Prosecution Miriam Krinsky told CNN after a meeting with the Justice Department's transition team earlier this month that stopping federal executions "doesn't really require congressional action."...

To date, there are 52 people on federal death row and 18 pending state executions, according to the Death Row Information Center.

This CNN piece rightly suggests that Prez-elect Joe Biden could clear out the federal death row on January 20, 2021, by commuting the death sentences (presumably to life without parole) of all persons still on federal death row on his first afternoon in office.  Because there are three pending federal execution scheduled for January that seem likely to go forward, there may only be 49 persons left on federal death row by January 20.  But that number will include, inter alia, mass killers like the Boston Marathon bomber and the Charleston Church shooter.

Of course, commuting all of federal death row, and even instructing his Justice Department not to seek any new death sentences, does not fulfill a commitment to "abolish the death penalty at the federal level."  Doing that will take legislation passed by Congress, and that would seem to be a long-shot in the near-term.  Prez-elect Biden likely could try to include death penalty abolition in a bigger bill about many criminal justice reforms, but doing so would likely generate extra opposition because most Republicans (and still many modern Democrats) strongly  support the death penalty in extreme cases.  I doubt Prez-elect Biden will be eager to use his political capital on this issue in the early days of his presidency, and I wonder if he will want to focus on this issue at all.

Perhaps even more interesting is to imagine how a Biden Administration might seek to "incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example."  Will a Prez Biden really try to encourage states to abolish the death penalty if he does not himself work actively to do so at the federal level?  More generally, would a Prez Biden really seek to condition or restrict funding to states — which is the most obvious way to "incentivize" them — based on whether they abolish the death penalty?  He might need help from Congress to tie federal funding to state capital punishment practices, and I am disinclined to expect Congress to be keen on such a project.

That all said, I sense that death penalty abolition is a high-profile and high-priority concern for many progressive activists and policy-makers.  As such, this issue is one worth watching closely as an indication of how much energy and political capital a Biden Administration may be willing to spend on controversial matters to appease the left flank of his party.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger highlights in this post that a high-profile federal case presents a high-profile opportunity for the incoming Biden Administration to show a commitment to capital abolition.  Kent's post is titled "The Marathon Bomber, the Death Penalty, and the Biden Administration," and it ends this way:

Are you really opposed to the death penalty in all cases, Mr. President-elect?  If so, this is the case to take the action. This is the case that poses the question in its starkest terms.  Don’t chicken out and announce it in some borderline case on the ragged edge of deserving the death penalty.  Man up and announce it in the case that screams for it.  Direct the Solicitor General to stipulate to the dismissal of the certiorari petition, and announce to the nation that you will not seek a new death sentence for Tsarnaev on remand.

Let’s see what kind of reaction you get.

December 15, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2020

Highlighting the election of local prosecutors who have pledged never to seek death sentences

Pasted image 0Daniel Nichanian has this great entry at The Appeal: Political Report titled "Newly Elected Prosecutors Are Challenging The Death Penalty," which effectively reviews the political success of a significant number of prosecutors who have pledged not to pursue capital sentences. Here is parts of the poast:

Death penalty opponents have made great strides over the last decade, getting states to outlaw the sentence or at least reduce its use. Now they’re gaining allies from local officials with direct power to shut down capital punishment: prosecutors.

Last week, Deborah Gonzalez and Jason Williams became the latest candidates to win elections for district attorney after pledging to never seek the death penalty once in office.  Their runoff wins in Athens, Georgia, and New Orleans add to a string of similar results this year in Los Angeles County, Arizona’s Pima County (Tucson), Georgia’s Fulton County (Atlanta), Oregon’s Multnomah County (Portland), and Texas’s Travis County (Austin).  Incoming prosecutors largely echoed advocates’ longtime claims, emphasizing that the death penalty is applied very unequally and that its use is inhumane and costly.

Their wins are poised to upend the culture of capital punishment in places that have been prolific in handing out death sentences, and advocates are preparing to press them to overturn these past sentences.

There are more than 200 people on death row from Los Angeles, where the DA election in November saw George Gascón defeat an incumbent who over the course of her tenure secured the death penalty nearly exclusively against people of color.  Gascón took office this week and promptly repeated his campaign pledge to not just drop the death penalty in future cases but also review past death sentences, a step few prosecutors have taken.  “The death penalty does not make us safer,” Gascón tweeted on Monday. “It’s racist, morally untenable, irreversible, and expensive.  And today, it’s off the table.”

Pima County has also been a death penalty hotspot.  It leads Arizona counties in number of executions since the penalty was reinstated in 1976. But this fall voters elected as their chief prosecutor a former public defender, Laura Conover, who highlighted her past advocacy with the Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty. Conover is not the first candidate with such experience to be elected.  Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who was the legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, won a prosecutor’s race in northern Virginia last year on a similar platform.

“It’s absolutely tremendous and exciting that this is taking place in Louisiana, and in Georgia, and in Virginia, states that have a long history with the death penalty, and of course Los Angeles County, one of the biggest contributors to the enormous Californian death row,” said Laura Porter, executive director of the 8th Amendment Project.  “It’s supportive of the trend of the country overall moving away from the death penalty.”

These seven newly elected prosecutors who said they would never seek a death sentence are Democrats, even though Republicans haven’t been absent from the anti-death penalty movement. Support from some Republican lawmakers proved decisive in 2019 and 2020 when Colorado and New Hampshire’s legislatures repealed the death penalty.  (The Political Report only analyzed candidate positions in the 28 states where the death penalty is still legal.)

Elsewhere, longtime prosecutors who have repeatedly used the death penalty lost re-election bids. Most notably, Ron O’Brien is on his way out in Franklin County, Ohio, after decades of zealously championing capital punishment.  The incoming prosecutor, Democrat Gary Tyack, told the Political Report via a spokesperson during his campaign that he would support legislation to ban the death penalty but also that he would consider seeking it as long as it is permitted by the state.  Patsy Austin-Gatson, the incoming Democratic DA in Gwinnett County, Georgia, told the Political Report the same thing this week.

Advocates hope that more DAs will draw strong lines in the sand and rule out adding people to death row. But they also stress that, even with those who make such forward-looking commitments, more is needed.  Prosecutors who oppose the death penalty should also use all legal and political means at their disposal to resentence people who are already on death row and to fight their executions.  “It’s really important … to push prosecutors not just to say, ‘I’ll refrain from using this harsh practice in the future,’ but to refuse to preside over it in the present,” said Ben Cohen, an attorney who works against the death penalty in Louisiana.  “It’s barbaric to allow death sentences from the 1980’s and 1990’s to be executed on your watch.”...

In Los Angeles, though, Gascón released a plan early in his campaign outlining how he would aim to get people off of death row “utilizing every legal avenue available to me.” “It’s completely transformative,” said Natasha Minsker, an attorney who is part of Gascón’s transition team on the death penalty.  “The fact that Los Angeles County is now, as of today, going to stop pursuing death sentences and going to shift in a different direction … is a complete game changer.”  No county in the nation has more people on death row than Los Angeles; Angelenos approved abolishing capital punishment in a 2016 referendum but the initiative failed statewide.

Minsker outlined the range of tools that Gascón can use. Where there is active litigation over a specific legal or factual issue, he could concede arguments made by defense attorneys “and no longer fight for [death sentences] to be in place,” she said.  Many appeals are handled by the attorney general rather than the DA, but Gascón could still file amicus briefs to assist people contesting their sentences.  Gascón could also request a resentencing hearing for someone on death row, Minsker said.  DAs don’t necessarily have this power nationally; here it stems from California’s relatively new Section 1170(d), a statute that adopted in 2018 that expanded DAs’ powers to revisit old cases. Minsker warned that courts retain ultimate say in whether to remove people from death row.  “The real unknown here is the judges,” she said.  “I’m concerned that we may end up in a situation where we have disparities based on who the judge is.”

It is usually prosecutors who are the greatest hurdle to ending or curtailing the death penalty.  They routinely work to derail legislative proposals, including in Ohio, Oregon, and Wyoming over the last few years.  Even DAs who campaigned on their discomfort with capital punishment have gone on to fight efforts to stop executions, such as Kim Ogg in Harris County (Houston).  But Ogg had not outright ruled out seeking the death penalty during her 2016 campaign, a far cry from the stronger positions staked by the latest wave of winners.

December 14, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Via 6-3 per curiam ruling, SCOTUS reinstates Arizona death sentence after finding Ninth Circuit "clearly violated [its] AEDPA jurisprudence"

The US Supreme Court issued this lengthy order list this morning, though much of its length comes from the Court's 13-page per curiam decision in Shinn v. Kayer, No. 19-1302 (S. Ct. Dec. 14, 2020) (available here). The Kayer case results from a murder committed more than a quarter century ago which resulted in an Arizona death sentence. The SCOTUS decision, from which Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented but without any opinion, vacates a Ninth Circuit reversal of the death sentence. Here is how the opinion begins and ends:

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) restricts the power of federal courts to grant writs of habeas corpus based on claims that were “adjudicated on the merits” by a state court.  28 U.S.C. §2254(d).  When a state court has applied clearly established federal law to reasonably determined facts in the process of adjudicating a claim on the merits, a federal habeas court may not disturb the state court’s decision unless its error lies “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”  Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).  In this case, the Court of Appeals erred in ordering issuance of a writ of habeas corpus despite ample room for reasonable disagreement about the prisoner’s ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.  In so doing, the Court of Appeals clearly violated this Court’s AEDPA jurisprudence.  We therefore grant the petition for certiorari and vacate the judgment below....

Under AEDPA, state courts play the leading role in assessing challenges to state sentences based on federal law.  A state court heard Kayer’s evidence and concluded that he failed to show prejudice.  The court below exceeded its authority in rejecting that determination, which was not so obviously wrong as to be “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Id., at 103.  Under §2254(d), that is “‘the only question that matters.’” Id., at 102.

We grant the petition for a writ of certiorari, vacate the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and remand the case to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

December 14, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 11, 2020

US completes is second execution in as many days with lethal injection of Alfred Bourgeois

As reported in this AP piece, the "Trump administration continued its unprecedented series of post-election federal executions Friday by putting to death a Louisiana truck driver who severely abused his 2-year-old daughter for weeks in 2002, then killed her by slamming her head against a truck’s windows and dashboard."  Here is more:

Alfred Bourgeois, 56, was pronounced dead at 8:21 p.m. Eastern time after receiving a lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

His lawyers argued Bourgeois had an IQ that put him in the intellectually disabled category, saying that should have made him ineligible for the death penalty under federal law.  Victor J. Abreu said it was “shameful” to execute his client “without fair consideration of his intellectual disability.”

In his last words, Bourgeois offered no apology and instead struck a deeply defiant tone, insisting that he neither killed nor sexually abused his baby girl.  “I ask God to forgive all those who plotted and schemed against me, and planted false evidence.”  And he added: “I did not commit this crime.”

Bourgeois was the 10th federal death-row inmate put to death since federal executions resumed under President Donald Trump in July after a 17-year hiatus.  He was the second federal prisoner executed this week, with three more executions planned in January....  The last time the number of civilians executed federally was in the double digits in a year was under President Grover Cleveland, with 14 in 1896.

The series of executions under Trump since Election Day, the first in late November, is also the first time in more than 130 years that federal executions have occurred during a lame-duck period.  Cleveland also was the last president to do that.  Bourgeois’ lawyers contended that the apparent hurry by Trump, a Republican, to get executions in before the Jan. 20 inauguration of death-penalty foe Joe Biden, a Democrat, deprived their client his rights to exhaust his legal options....

Several appeals courts have concluded that neither evidence nor criminal law on intellectual disability supported the claims by Bourgeois’ legal team....

In Bourgeois' case, the crimes stand out as particularly brutal because they involved his young daughter....  Bourgeois whipped the girl with an electrical cord, burned her feet with a cigarette lighter and hit her in the head with a plastic baseball bat so hard that her head swelled — then refused to seek medical treatment for her, court documents say. Prosecutors also said he sexually abused her....

It was during a trucking run to Corpus Christi, Texas, that he ended up killing the toddler.  Again angered by her toilet training, he grabbed her inside the truck by her shoulders and slammed her head on the windows and dashboard four times, court filings say.  When the girl lost consciousness, Bourgeois’ wife pleaded for him to get help and he told her to tell first responders that she was hurt falling from the truck. She died the next day in a hospital of brain injuries.

In a statement after the execution, other members of the young girl’s family said she “lost her life brutally to a monster who lived for 18 years after the crime.” “Now we can start the process of healing,” the statement, distributed by the Bureau of Prisons, said.  “It should not have taken 18 years for us to receive justice for our angel.  She will forever be loved and missed.”

After his 2004 conviction, a judge rejected claims stemming from his alleged intellectual disability, noting he did not receive a diagnosis until after he was sentenced to death. “Up to that point, Bourgeois had lived a life which, in broad outlines, did not manifest gross intellectual deficiencies,” the court said.  Attorneys argued that finding was based on misunderstandings about such disabilities.  They said Bourgeois had tests that demonstrated his IQ was around 70, well below average, and that his childhood history buttressed their claims.

The Supreme Court denied of Bourgeois's application for a stay of execution and cert petition by a 7-2 vote and it is available at this link.  Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Kagan, that starts this way:

The Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) provides that “a sentence of death shall not be carried out upon a person who is mentally retarded.” 18 U.S.C. §3596(c).  The Court today allows the execution of Alfred Bourgeois to proceed even though Bourgeois, who has an IQ between 70 and 75, argues that he is intellectually disabled under current clinical standards.  I would grant his petition to address whether the FDPA prohibits his execution.

December 11, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 10, 2020

US completes execution of Brendan Bernard despite high-profile appeals for relief

As reported in this AP piece, the "Trump administration on Thursday carried out its ninth federal execution of the year and the first during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years, putting to death a Texas street-gang member for his role in the slayings of a religious couple from Iowa more than two decades ago."  Here is more:

Four more federal executions, including one Friday, are planned in the weeks before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

The case of Brendan Bernard, who received a lethal injection of phenobarbital inside a death chamber at a U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when his crime was committed.

Several high-profile figures, including reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, had appealed to President Donald Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison.

With witnesses looking on from behind a glass barrier, the 40-year-old Bernard was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. Eastern time.

Bernard was 18 when he and four other teenagers abducted and robbed Todd and Stacie Bagley on their way from a Sunday service in Killeen, Texas. Federal executions were resumed by Trump in July after a 17-year hiatus despite coronavirus outbreak in U.S. prisons....

[J]ust before the execution was scheduled, Bernard’s lawyers filed papers with the Supreme Court seeking to halt the execution. The legal team expanded to include two very high-profile attorneys: Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor who was part of Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team and whose clients have included O.J. Simpson, Claus von Bulow and Mike Tyson; and Ken Starr, who also defended Trump during the impeachment and is most famous as an independent counsel who led the investigation into Bill Clinton.

But about two and a half hours after the execution was scheduled, the Supreme Court denied the request, clearing the way for the execution to proceed.

The Supreme Court's denial of Benard's application for a stay of execution and cert petition is available at this link. The vote was 6-3, with Justice Sotomayor writing the only full dissent. That dissent starts this way:

Today, the Court allows the Federal Government to execute Brandon Bernard, despite Bernard’s troubling allegations that the Government secured his death sentence by withholding exculpatory evidence and knowingly eliciting false testimony against him.  Bernard has never had the opportunity to test the merits of those claims in court.  Now he never will. I would grant Bernard’s petition for a writ of certiorari and application for a stay to ensure his claims are given proper consideration before he is put to death.

December 10, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Gov DeWine essentially declares a de facto moratorium on executions in the state for 2021 and likely beyond

Ohio has long been an interesting death penalty state, in part because it has been among the most active capital punishment states not in the south as measured in terms of executions and death sentences.  It also has reflected the usual politics of death in recent times with 17 executions carried out from 2007 to 2010 under Ohio's last Democratic Governor (Ted Strickland), but only 15 executions from 2011 to 2020 under the Republican Governors of John Kasich and Mike DeWine.  And, according to this new AP article, headlined "Ohio governor: Lethal injection no longer execution option," it now appears that current Ohio Gov DeWine has declared a functional moratorium on executions in the state for the foreseeable future:

Lethal injection is no longer an option for Ohio executions, and lawmakers must choose a different method of capital punishment before any inmates can be put to death in the future, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday.

It’s “pretty clear” there won’t be any executions next year, DeWine told The Associated Press during a year-end interview, adding he doesn’t see support in the Legislature for making a switch in execution method a priority. Ohio has an “unofficial moratorium” on capital punishment, he said. “Lethal injection appears to us to be impossible from a practical point of view today,” the governor said.

DeWine said he still supports capital punishment as Ohio law. But he has come to question its value since the days he helped write the state’s current law — enacted in 1981 — because of the long delays between crime and punishment. DeWine called himself “much more skeptical about whether it meets the criteria that was certainly in my mind when I voted for the death penalty and that was that it in fact did deter crime, which to me is the moral justification.”

Messages were left for leaders in the GOP-controlled House and Senate seeking comment. Former Republican House Speaker Larry Householder, now under federal indictment for his alleged role in a $60 million bribery scheme, questioned last year whether the state should reconsider capital punishment because of the cost and Ohio’s inability to find lethal drugs.

The state’s last execution was July 18, 2018, when Ohio put to death Robert Van Hook for killing David Self in Cincinnati in 1985. Shortly after taking office in 2019, DeWine ordered the Ohio prison system to look at alternative lethal injection drugs. That announcement followed a federal judge’s ruling that said Ohio’s current execution protocol could cause the inmate “severe pain and needless suffering.”

Opponents of Ohio’s death penalty called on lawmakers last month to enact a capital punishment ban during the current lame duck legislative session. They repeated that demand Tuesday. “It’s time for the General Assembly to just end the death penalty in Ohio and repurpose the funds wasted trying to execute people into programs to better serve the needs of murder victim families,” said Abraham Bonowitz, Death Penalty Action director.

I have a few former student who I know work tirelessly on behalf of condemned Ohio defendants, and I sincerely hope this news serves as a kind of holiday present from Gov DeWine for them and their clients.

Some prior related posts during the DeWine era:

December 8, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 07, 2020

Might federal execution plans be impacted if Attorney General William Barr were to step down in coming days?

Bill-barr-doj-4The question in the title of this post is prompted by these two new press pieces:

From the AP, "Trump ratchets up pace of executions before Biden inaugural"

From the New York Times, "Barr Is Said to Be Weighing Whether to Leave Before Trump’s Term Ends"

Here are extended excerpts from the lengthy and effective AP piece (with a few items emphasized):

As Donald Trump’s presidency winds down, his administration is ratcheting up the pace of federal executions despite a surge of coronavirus cases in prisons, announcing plans for five starting Thursday and concluding just days before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

If the five go off as planned, it will make 13 executions since July when the Republican administration resumed putting inmates to death after a 17-year hiatus and will cement Trump’s legacy as the most prolific execution president in over 130 years.  He’ll leave office having executed about a quarter of all federal death-row prisoners, despite waning support for capital punishment among both Democrats and Republicans.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Attorney General William Barr defended the extension of executions into the post-election period, saying he’ll likely schedule more before he departs the Justice Department.  A Biden administration, he said, should keep it up. “I think the way to stop the death penalty is to repeal the death penalty,” Barr said. “But if you ask juries to impose and juries impose it, then it should be carried out.”

The plan breaks a tradition of lame-duck presidents deferring to incoming presidents on policy about which they differ so starkly, said Robert Durham, director of the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center.  Biden, a Democrat, is a death penalty foe, and his spokesman told the AP that he’d work to end the death penalty when he is in office.  “It’s hard to understand why anybody at this stage of a presidency feels compelled to kill this many people … especially when the American public voted for someone else to replace you and that person has said he opposes the death penalty,” Durham said. “This is a complete historical aberration.”...

Anti-death penalty groups want Biden to lobby harder for a halt to the flurry of pre-inaugural executions, though Biden can’t do much to stop them, especially considering Trump won’t even concede he lost the election and is spreading baseless claims of voting fraud.  The issue is an uncomfortable one for Biden given his past support for capital punishment and his central role crafting a 1994 crime bill that added 60 federal crimes for which someone could be put to death....  Several inmates already executed on death row were convicted under provisions of that bill, including ones that made kidnappings and carjackings resulting in death federal capital offenses.

The race of those set to die buttresses criticism that the bill disproportionately impacted Black people.  Four of the five set to die over the next few weeks are Black.  The fifth, Lisa Montgomery, is white.  Convicted of killing a pregnant woman and cutting out the baby alive, she is the only female of the 61 inmates who were on death row when executions resumed, and she would be the first woman to be executed federally in nearly six decades.

The executions so far this year have been by lethal injection at a U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where all federal executions take place.  The drug used to carry out the sentences is sparse.  The Justice Department recently updated protocols to allow for executions by firing squad and poison gas, though it’s unclear if those methods might be used in coming weeks.

The concern about moving forward with executions in the middle of a pandemic — as the Bureau of Prisons struggles with an exploding number of virus cases at prisons across the country — heightened further on Monday when the Justice Department disclosed that some members of the execution team had tested positive for the virus.... 

Barr suddenly announced in July 2019 that executions would resume, though there had been no public clamor for it.  Several lawsuits kept the initial batch from being carried out, and by the time the Bureau of Prisons got clearance the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing....  Critics have said the restart of executions in an election year was politically motivated, helping Trump burnish his claim that he is a law-and-order president.  The choice to first execute a series of white males convicted of killing children also appeared calculated to make executions more palatable amid protests nationwide over racial bias in the justice system....

The expectation is that Biden will end the Trump administration’s policy of carrying out executions as quickly as the law allows, though his longer-term approach is unclear. Durham said that while Obama placed a moratorium on federal executions, he left the door open for future presidents to resume them.  Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president, never employed the option of commuting all federal death sentences to life terms.  As president, Biden could seek to persuade Congress to abolish the federal death penalty or simply invoke his commutation powers to single-handedly convert all death sentences to life-in-prison terms. “Biden has said he intends to end the federal death penalty,” Durham said. “We’ll have to wait and see if that happens.”

Though Prez Trump has a long history of supporting the death penalty, that there was no clear effort to move forward with executions when Jeff Sessions was Attorney General during Prez Trump's first few years in office has led me to assume that the resumption of federal executions has been Attorney General William Barr's "passion project."  And the fact that AG Barr is apparently telling the AP that "he’ll likely schedule more before he departs the Justice Department" leads me to wonder if one reason AG Barr has not stepped down from his post already is because he is now eager to preside over as many executions as possible given that Prez-elect Joe Biden has pledged to shut down the federal machinery of death.

Of course, even if William Barr were to step down as Attorney General in the coming days, the work of the Trump Department of Justice would continue and likely would include continued efforts to carry out at least the five currently scheduled executions.  Still, as COVID-based and other litigation surrounds the pending executions, a Justice Department without AG Barr might be just a little less eager to get every possible condemned person to the execution chamber before noon on January 20, 2021.

December 7, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 06, 2020

"Death Penalty Abolitionism From the Enlightenment to Modernity"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Mugambi Jouet available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The modern movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States stresses that this punishment cannot be applied fairly and effectively.  The movement does not emphasize that killing prisoners is inhumane per se.  Its focus is almost exclusively on administrative, procedural, and utilitarian issues, such as recurrent exonerations of innocents, incorrigible racial discrimination, endemic arbitrariness, lack of deterrent value, and spiraling financial costs.  By comparison, modern European law recognizes any execution as an inherent violation of human rights rooted in dignity.  This humanistic approach is often assumed to be “European” in nature and foreign to America, where distinct sensibilities lead people to concentrate on practical problems surrounding executions.

In reality, this Article demonstrates that the significant transatlantic divergence in abolitionism is a relatively recent development.  By the late eighteenth century, abolitionists in Europe and America recurrently denounced the inhumanity of executions in language foreshadowing modern human rights norms.  Drawing on sources overlooked by scholars, including the views of past American and French abolitionists, the Article shows that reformers previously converged in employing a polyvalent rhetoric blending humanistic and practical objections to executions.  It was not before the 1970s and 1980s that a major divergence materialized.  As America faced an increasingly punitive social climate leading to the death penalty’s resurgence and the rise of mass incarceration, its abolitionists largely abandoned humanistic claims in favor of practical ones.  Meanwhile, the opposite generally occurred as abolitionism triumphed in Europe.

These findings call into question the notion that framing the death penalty as a human rights abuse marks recent shifts in Western Europe or international law.  While human rights have indeed become the official basis for abolition in modern Europe, past generations of European and U.S. abolitionists defended similar moral and political convictions. These humanistic norms reflect a long-term evolution traceable to the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  But for diverse social transformations, America may have kept converging with Europe in gradually adopting humanistic norms of punishment.

December 6, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)