Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A year after tragedy, taking stock of the agony (and wondering about the costs) already surrounding the capital prosecution of Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz

CNN has this notable new article headlined "This is where Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz's death penalty case stands a year later," and here are excerpts:

A year after Nikolas Cruz massacred 17 people and injured 17 others at his former high school in Florida, the question is not whether he's guilty -- he's confessed on video.  It's does he live or die?  His defense team has offered a guilty plea in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of parole -- but only if prosecutors take the death penalty off the table. Prosecutors have rejected the plea, meaning a lengthy trial is all but inevitable.

If the case goes to trial, Cruz will join a short list of mass shooters who've faced their victims in court.  Of the 10 deadliest shootings in recent US history, Cruz is the only one who was captured alive.

The case is on what's described as the "pretrial discovery" stage, says Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz.  He says the case is a long way from trial. In this stage, Cruz's attorneys have been deposing dozens of witnesses to give oral statements under oath.

Such sessions happen behind closed doors and are only attended by attorneys, the court reporter and the victims' advocate, says Richard Hornsby, a criminal defense lawyer in Florida who is not involved in the case.  Depositions are conducted in person by prosecutors and defense attorneys, and the defendant is not allowed to be present, he adds.

"It is common for victims/accusers to be deposed. However, from a strategic standpoint, I could not imagine the defense attorneys deposing the survivors in this case without a good reason," Hornsby says.  The Broward County Clerk of Court's website lists deposition notices for mostly law enforcement witnesses.

It's the beginning of a long, arduous process.  A death penalty case can take years to go to trial.... The process involves painstakingly combing through graphic details of the shooting in court. No detail is too small, including the gunshots, autopsies and the killer's words.  "However, with the judge pushing the case hard and the passage of Marsy's Law last fall, I would not be surprised if this case makes it to trial early next fall," Hornsby says.  Marsy's Law expanded the rights of victims of crimes, including giving them the right to have a voice in prosecution issues.

Broward state prosecutors have not revealed much in recent months.  But in the past, they've rejected the defense's offer of a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, paving the way for a lengthy trial. While the prosecution did not respond to CNN's request for comments for this article, Michael Satz, Broward County's prosecutor, has previously said this is "certainly the type of case the death penalty was designed for."  Assistant State Attorney Shari Tate has said Florida will not allow Cruz to "choose his own punishment for the murder of 17 people."

Cruz's defense team has made it clear it's not looking forward to a death penalty trial. That's why Finkelstein is offering his client's guilty plea in exchange for 34 life sentences without parole.  That would take the death penalty trial off the table and spare the victims from reliving the nightmare during testimony, he says.

That would end the extensive legal process he says could last decades if there's an appeal. In some cases, death penalty trials are followed by lengthy appeals in which survivors return to court to face the killer all over again.  "A plea to 34 consecutive life sentences ends not only the above immediately but means no appeals," Finkelstein says. "We still stand ready to plead guilty to 34 consecutive life sentences."

Some Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are conflicted on the possibility of a death penalty trial.  Student leader Emma Gonzalez describes Cruz's potential death penalty trial as a "good" thing.  Another student, Cameron Kasky, has said he wants him to "rot forever" in prison instead.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was one of the people killed, has said he does not plan to attend any death trial hearings. "I don't want to go through some lengthy trial that's going to be brutal. I want him to sit in a cell and rot for the rest of his life," Pollack says.

In high-profile cases such as the Parkland shooting, there are no shortages of challenges for everyone involved.  Even finding a jury will be an ordeal, Hornsby says.... "You will have to find people who say they could be fair and impartial to the defendant given what they know about the Parkland murders," he says. "Good luck."

Florida's death penalty law requires the jury's decision to be unanimous. If one of the 12 jurors dissents, the defendant must be sentenced to life without parole.

There are so many interesting and sad elements to this story. For starters, the possibility of the death penalty has, in one sense, already done a lot of work in this case, as it is surely driving the defense to offer to plead guilty to 34 consecutive life sentences.  But because prosecutors, likely influenced in part by the wishes of some victims, are eager to secure a death sentence, there will be lots and lots of process (and expense) in the months and years ahead.  I hope that the victims of the shooting and victims' families can find some comfort in the long capital trial process, but even if they do they also have to be prepared for years (likely decades) of an appeals process.  (Recall, as noted in this recent post, that we are approaching the six-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing and the capital case still is not close to being fully briefed in the First Circuit.)  

With a focus on the victims, I find it especially interesting that activist Emma Gonzalez is apparently supportive of the decision to pursue capital charges against Cruz.  My general perception is that many progressives and many young people tend to be strong opponents of the death penalty, and so I would be inclined to guess that most of the Parkland students will be disinclined to support efforts to send Cruz to death row.  But, as is often the case, victims are a diverse and sometimes unpredictable bunch.  And with Marsy's Law newly on the books in Florida, their roles will be one to watch closely in the months and years ahead as well.

Finally, at the risk of seeming crass, I hope someone is keeping track of what this prosecution is costing the taxpayers of the state of Florida.  As regular readers know, I think the extraordinary expense of many capital cases can often serves as one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty as it rarely seems the penalty's (debatable) benefits measure up to its (reasonably clear) economic costs.   

Prior related posts:

February 12, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Highlighting, though Ohio's remarkable recent experience, a possible tipping point on midazolam as a lethal injection drug

Because there have been so many fewer executions nationwide in recent years, it seems there have been fewer struggles over access and use of execution drugs in recent years.  But Ohio, which always struggles in so many ways with carrying out death sentences, has already had significant 2019 developments in this arena.  This lengthy new article at The Intercept, headlined "Ohio’s Governor Stopped An Execution Over Fears It Would Feel Like Waterboarding," provides a great review of these developments.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts:

At the coroner's office in Dayton, Ohio, Dr. Mark Edgar stood over the body of Robert Van Hook. The deceased 58-year-old weighed 228 pounds; he wore blue pants, a white shirt, and identification tags around his ankles.  Edgar, a professor of pathology at Emory University School of Medicine, had done countless autopsies over the years. But this would be the first time he examined the body of someone executed by the state.

Van Hook had died one day earlier, on July 18, 2018, inside the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. After a tearful apology to his victim’s family, he was injected with 500 milligrams of midazolam — the first of a three-drug formula adopted in 2017. Media witnesses described labored breathing from Van Hook shortly afterward, including “gasping and wheezing” loud enough to be heard from the witness room. Nevertheless, compared to recent executions in Ohio, things seemed to go smoothly.

Still, Edgar had cause for concern. For the past few years he had been examining the autopsy reports of men executed using midazolam across the country. He found a disturbing pattern. A majority showed signs of pulmonary edema, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. Several showed bloody froth that oozed from the lungs during the autopsy — evidence that the buildup had been sudden, severe, and harrowing. In a medical context, where a life is to be saved, pulmonary edema is considered an emergency — it feels like drowning. Even if someone is to be deliberately killed by the state, the Constitution is supposed to prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. To Edgar, the autopsies showed the executed men felt the panic and terror of asphyxiation before they died....

Ohio does not conduct autopsies following executions. But Ohio Federal Public Defender Allen Bohnert secured permission on Edgar’s behalf.  “The autopsy was conducted in the usual manner,” Edgar wrote in a subsequent report.  He made a Y-shaped incision into the chest and abdomen.  A technician removed and weighed Van Hook’s organs and Edgar examined them, looking for anything unusual.  When he got to the lungs, he found “significant abnormalities.”  They were unusually heavy — one telltale sign of congestion.  When he cut into them, he found a mix of blood and frothy fluid.

Of the 27 previously available autopsy reports for people executed using midazolam, Edgar had found evidence of pulmonary edema in 23.  Van Hook was the 24th. A few weeks later, Tennessee used midazolam to execute Irick, who moved and made choking sounds — another grim sign. In a motion seeking a stay of execution and preliminary injunction for Warren Keith Henness, who was scheduled to die in Ohio in February 2019, Bohnert urged a federal magistrate judge to consider these recent developments. “At some point the courts cannot explain away the ever-growing mountain of evidence” against midazolam, he wrote.

Magistrate Judge Michael Merz granted an evidentiary hearing.  After four days of testimony, he issued a damning 148-page order on January 14. The evidence surrounding midazolam had become far more persuasive since Merz last presided over such a proceeding. Not only was he now convinced that midazolam had no analgesic properties, but the drug was “sure or very likely” to cause pulmonary edema, which was akin to “waterboarding.” Yet Merz said he could not stop Henness’s execution. Under Glossip, people challenging lethal injection protocols had to prove that there was an alternative method readily available for the state to use to kill them. Henness had not met this burden.

“This is not a result with which the court is comfortable,” Merz wrote. “If Ohio executes Warren Henness under its present protocol, it will almost certainly subject him to severe pain and needless suffering. Reading the plain language of the Eighth Amendment, that should be enough to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

Ohio seemed poised to carry out Henness’s execution. But then, on January 22, the governor’s office issued an order of its own. Newly inaugurated Gov. Mike DeWine granted a warrant of reprieve, delaying Henness’s execution until September. In the meantime, he ordered a review of the state’s options and an examination of “possible alternative drugs.”...

Bohnert points to an irony about Glossip and its legacy. “The fact that the states have been allowed to continue to execute using midazolam is in large part what allowed the evidence to accumulate,” he says. Although it is not clear what will happen next in Ohio, “I think we had a tipping point here.”

A few (of many) prior recent related posts:

February 9, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 07, 2019

US Supreme Court, voting 5-4, vacates Eleventh Circuit stay of execution in Alabama for Muslim death row prisoner

The Supreme Court this evening, voting 5-4 along usual ideological lines, vacated the stay of execution entered yesterday by the Eleventh Circuit to allow the court to hear an Alabama death row defendant's religious liberty claims concerning who could be present at his execution.  The opinion of the majority of the court runs these two paragraphs:

The application to vacate the stay of execution of sentence of death entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on February 6, 2019, presented to JUSTICE THOMAS and by him referred to the Court, is granted.

On November 6, 2018, the State scheduled Domineque Ray’s execution date for February 7, 2019.  Because Ray waited until January 28, 2019 to seek relief, we grant the State’s application to vacate the stay entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  See Gomez v. United States Dist. Court for Northern Dist. of Cal., 503 U.S. 653, 654 (1992) (per curiam) (“A court may consider the last-minute nature of an application to stay execution in deciding whether to grant equitable relief.”).

A two-page dissent, authored by Justice Kagan, and Joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor, gets started and ends this way:

Holman Correctional Facility, the Alabama prison where Domineque Ray will be executed tonight, regularly allows a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber. But Ray is Muslim. And the prison refused his request to have an imam attend him in the last moments of his life.  Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that there was a substantial likelihood that the prison’s policy violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, and stayed Ray’s execution so it could consider his claim on its merits.  Today, this Court reverses that decision as an abuse of discretion and permits Mr. Ray’s execution to go forward. Given the gravity of the issue presented here, I think that decision profoundly wrong....

This Court is ordinarily reluctant to interfere with the substantial discretion Courts of Appeals have to issue stays when needed.  See, e.g., Dugger v. Johnson, 485 U.S. 945, 947 (1988) (O’Connor, J., joined by Rehnquist, C. J., dissenting). Here, Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the State puts him to death.  The Eleventh Circuit wanted to hear that claim in full.  Instead, this Court short-circuits that ordinary process — and itself rejects the claim with little briefing and no argument — just so the State can meet its preferred execution date. I respectfully dissent.

Prior related posts:

February 7, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Eleventh Circuit panel grants stay of execution in Alabama for Muslim death row prisoner

I highlighted in recent posts here and here the notable religious claims being made by Domineque Ray, who is scheduled to be executed by Alabama on Thursday.  A helpful reader alerted me to this new unanimous 28-page panel ruling from the Eleventh Circuit which grants a stay.  Here is how the opinion starts and a few key paragraph within:

Petitioner Domineque Ray has moved this Court for an emergency stay of his execution, scheduled to take place at 6:00 p.m. (CST) on February 7, 2019 at the Holman Correctional Facility (“Holman”) in Atmore, Alabama, for the 1995 rape, robbery, and murder of fifteen-year-old Tiffany Harville. He also appeals from the determination of the district court denying his emergency motion for a stay and dismissing two of his claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., and under § 1983 and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment....

During the January 23 meeting with the Warden, Ray made three requests for the accommodation of his religious beliefs: first, that his Imam be present in order to provide spiritual guidance for him at the time of his death; second, that the institutional Christian Chaplain be excluded from the chamber; and, finally, that he not be required to undergo an autopsy because it conflicted with his religious beliefs.  The Warden denied the first two requests and explained that she had no decisional authority over the autopsy....

After review of this exceedingly limited record, we reject the district court’s analysis, and its refusal to grant an emergency stay in the face of what we see as a powerful Establishment Clause claim.  Because Ray has demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the Establishment Clause and because the other equitable factors tip in his favor, Ray’s emergency motion for stay is granted.  We direct the Clerk of Court to expedite the appeal of Ray’s case so that we may promptly address and resolve these claims.

It will be interesting to see if and how Alabama pursues further appeal of this ruling either to the full Eleventh Circuit or to the US Supreme Court. Stay tuned.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: As reported in this AP article, Alabama completed this execution following the vacating of the stay: "Dominique Ray, 42, was pronounced dead at 10:12 p.m. of a lethal injection at the state prison in Atmore."

February 6, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 04, 2019

Litigation update on Alabama death row prisoner denied Muslim spiritual adviser for upcoming execution

I highlighted in this post last week the notable religious claims being made by Domineque Ray, who is scheduled to be executed by Alabama this coming Thursday.  I just saw this local article from a few days ago, headlined "Judge denies stay of execution for Alabama inmate," which provides this update on the state of the litigation:

A federal judge on Friday denied a stay of execution request from a Muslim death row inmate who claimed the absence of his spiritual adviser in Alabama's death chamber would violate his religious rights.

Domineque Ray this week filed a stay of execution, which is slated for Feb. 7, to challenge Alabama's practice of placing a Christian prison chaplain with inmates in the state execution chamber. Ray argued in court documents that he should have access to his Muslim spiritual adviser in the moments before his death. Failing that, Ray requested the Christian prison chaplain not be present.

On Thursday, the Alabama Department of Corrections acquiesced to Ray's first request, agreeing to keep the prison chaplain out of the chamber. But lawyers argued security concerns required Holman prison limit the execution chamber to trained corrections employees.

In a written order on Friday, U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins agreed that allowing a "free world" spiritual adviser into the death chamber would overburden ADOC's execution process. "Though a state chaplain is usually in the death chamber, he is also a trained member of the execution team. He has witnessed dozens of executions and trained on how to respond if something goes wrong," Watkins wrote. "If the chaplain disobeys orders, he will face disciplinary action. In contrast, Ray’s private spiritual adviser is untrained, inexperienced, and outside the State’s control."

Spencer Hahn, Ray's co-counsel, argued Thursday training nonemployee spiritual advisers to be present in the execution chamber should not be a barrier to providing inmates their religious rights. "We are disappointed that the District Court's order did not uphold the substantial claim that Mr. Ray's free exercise of religion is being interfered with, or the claim that the State is violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," said John Palombi, an attorney for Ray. "We will be appealing this ruling and asking the Court of Appeals to stay Mr. Ray's execution to allow these important issues to be resolved in a more deliberate manner."

ADOC policies allow a death row inmate's chosen spiritual adviser visitation up to 5:15 p.m. on the day of an execution, when they are then allowed to view the execution from a witness room adjacent to the execution chamber. "Why does Mr. Ray not get the same benefit that a Christian would?" Hahn asked the court.

Ray was sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and fatal stabbing of 15-year-old Tiffany Harville of Selma. Months before his death penalty trial, he was sentenced to life for a 1994 slaying of two teen brothers, The Associated Press reports.

As indicated above, this litigation is headed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and likely will get the Supreme Court this week in some form regardless of how the Eleventh Circuit might rule.  In this context, it bears recalling that the Supreme Court four years ago in Holt v. Hobbs ruled unanimously in favor of a Muslim prisoner based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  Justice Alito was the author of the opinion in Holt, and I am interested to see how he and other Justices might approach this case.

Prior related post:

February 4, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Could there soon be a western wave of death penalty repeals?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this group of headlines that I saw in my news feed recently:

From Colorado, "Friednash: I helped expand the Colorado death penalty; now I support its repeal"

From Nevada, "Nevada's Future: 'Broken' death penalty could be banned in 2019 legislative session"

From Wyoming, "Wyoming is the closest it's ever been to repealing the death penalty"

Because the Wyoming House of Representatives actually voted for repeal last week, that state seems to present the greatest prospect for capital abolition. Given that Wyoming have not executed anyone for more than a quarter-century and has nobody currently on its death row, repeal by the state would be more symbolic than consequential in the state. But symbolism matters a lot to a lot of folks in this setting, so a repeal in the Equality State would not be without meaning or import.

February 3, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, February 01, 2019

"Unusual: The Death Penalty for Inadvertent Killing"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Guyora Binder, Brenner Fissell and Robert Weisberg that was just posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Can a burglar who frightens the occupant of a house, causing a fatal heart attack, be executed?  More generally, does the Eighth Amendment permit capital punishment of one who causes death inadvertently?  This scenario is possible in the significant minority of American jurisdictions that permit capital punishment for felony murder without requiring a mental state of intent to kill or reckless indifference to human life.  Thus far, Eighth Amendment death penalty jurisprudence has required a culpable mental state of recklessness for execution of accomplices in a fatal felony but has not yet addressed the culpability required for execution of the actual killer.

In this Article, we urge the recognition of a new Eighth Amendment norm against executing even actual killers who lack a culpable mental state of at least recklessness, with respect to the victim’s death.  Using the methods employed by the Supreme Court for determining “evolving standards of decency,” we survey the pertinent homicide and sentencing laws of the fifty-three criminal law jurisdictions in the United States.  Second, we evaluate the facts of the cases that resulted in the nearly five hundred executions that have taken place since 1973, when the post-Furman statutes became operative, and 2016, in those jurisdictions permitting execution for inadvertent killing. We did the same for the facts of the 1755 cases of all death row inmates convicted in those jurisdictions and alive at the time of the study (2016).  This analysis shows that capital punishment for inadvertent killing has become “truly unusual,” and therefore, unconstitutional.

February 1, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Texas completes first execution of 2019

As reported in this local article, "Robert Jennings was on Texas’ death row for nearly 30 years.  On Wednesday, the 61-year-old was put to death in the nation’s first execution of 2019."  Here is more:

Jennings was sentenced to death in the 1988 murder of Houston police officer Elston Howard.  According to court records, Jennings walked into an adult bookstore to rob it, and Howard was there arresting the store clerk for a municipal violation.  The clerk testified that Howard had no time to even reach for his gun before Jennings shot him multiple times, killing him.

Less than an hour after his final appeals were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, Jennings was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 6:15 p.m. in the state's execution chamber in Huntsville.  He was pronounced dead 18 minutes later.  In his final words uttered strapped to a gurney, he told his friends and family it was "a nice journey."

"To the family of the police officer, I hope this finds you peace," he said. "... Enjoy life's moments because we never get them back."

The lengthy stretch of time between Jennings' 1989 sentencing and his execution shines a light on the complications that can arise during the appeals process in the face of constantly evolving death penalty law.  In their last attempt to halt Jennings' execution, his lawyers zeroed in on changes in how death penalty juries weigh "mitigating evidence"— factors that can lessen the severity of the punishment that are largely based on the defendant's background, like an abusive childhood or intellectual disability.

January 30, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Condemned Alabama inmate seeks stay of execution based on notable religious claims

As reported in this local story, "Alabama Death Row inmate set to die by lethal injection next week claims his execution should be stayed because the prison won’t let him have a Muslim spiritual adviser present in the execution chamber."  Here is more about a notable effort to put off an execution:

Domineque Ray, 42, is set to be executed at Holman Prison on Feb. 7 at 6 p.m. by lethal injection for the 1995 killing, rape, and robbery of 15-year-old Tiffany Harville. On Monday, Ray’s lawyers filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming Ray’s right to freedom of religion was being violated. They also asked for a stay of execution.

The lawsuit claims Ray, a Muslim, asked Holman’s Warden Cynthia Stewart last week that he be permitted to have a Muslim spiritual adviser — or imam — in the execution chamber instead of the prison’s longtime Christian chaplain. The warden denied his request and denied Ray’s second request to not have the chaplain present in the execution chamber at all, according to the lawsuit.

Ray made a third request to have no autopsy performed on his body because it conflicted with his religious beliefs, and Stewart said she “had no control” over that accommodation, the complaint says. The same day Ray met with the warden, Ray also met with the prison chaplain. The Christian chaplain told Ray his requests "could not be honored due to ADOC policy,” the lawsuit says....

The lawsuit claims Ray’s First Amendment rights have been violated, along with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Tuesday, Ray’s lawyers also filed in federal court an emergency motion for a stay of execution, claiming Ray’s constitutional violations should halt the scheduled execution. “Alabama has made a policy decision… the chaplain is there solely for a religious purpose,” the motion says. “In other words, Mr. Ray’s freedom of religion lasts until he enters the execution chamber.”...

Ray’s imam will be allowed to witness the execution from a room adjacent to the chamber through two-way glass. “There is no compelling governmental interest in preventing a condemned inmate from having his or her spiritual adviser- who has been approved to have a contact visit… moments before the execution begins—from taking the place of the prison chaplain in the execution chamber,” the suit states. “When that spiritual adviser is otherwise available, in the moments before death, imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of Mr. Ray’s religious beliefs.”

The Christian chaplain’s “mandatory presence” in the execution chamber serves an unconstitutional interest in “safeguarding the soul or spiritual health of the condemned inmate in the Christian (non-Catholic) belief system… [it] has the principle of primary effect of advancing Christian (non-Catholic) religion and inhibiting all other religions,” the lawsuit claims. The suit also says the chaplain policy creates an “excessive entanglement of government with religion.”...

John Palombi and Spencer Hahn, assistant Federal Defenders, are representing Ray in the federal cases. Palombi said, “Mr. Ray’s suit goes to the heart of one of the most cherished of all rights, the right to freedom of religion. Neither Mr. Ray’s right to practice his religion nor his right to be free from having a different religion forced on him ends at the door to the execution chamber. We hope that the Commissioner will not force someone of a different religion on him and deny him the right to have his spiritual adviser with him at the moment of his death should that occur.”

January 29, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, January 25, 2019

Ohio's new governor delays first scheduled execution under his watch based on concerns about lethal-injection drugs

As reported in this local article, headlined "Gov. Mike DeWine delays killer’s execution, orders review of lethal-injection drugs," this afternoon brought some interesting news on the capital administration front from Ohio's capital. Here are the details:

Gov. Mike DeWine on Friday postponed the execution of murderer Warren Henness from Feb. 13 to Sept. 12 following a recent judicial ruling that Ohio’s lethal-injection cocktail will “very likely cause him severe pain and needless suffering.”  In a release, DeWine said that he has also directed Ohio’s prisons agency to assess the state’s current options for execution drugs and examine possible alternative drugs.

On Jan. 15, federal magistrate judge Michael Merz ruled that the three drugs Ohio has used since last year for executions — midazolam (as a sedative), a paralytic drug, and potassium chloride (to stop the heart) — are likely unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual punishment.” Merz cited testimony from medical witnesses that high doses of midazolam and other drugs cause pulmonary edema, causing a painful drowning sensation comparable to the torture tactic of waterboarding.

However, Merz allowed Henness’ execution to proceed because, under a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, death row inmates challenging how they will be put to death must show that an alternative means of execution is “available,” “feasible,” and can be “readily implemented.”

Henness’ proposed alternatives -- drinking secobarbital in a sweet liquid such as apple juice, or an oral injection of four drugs – were rejected by Merz on the grounds that neither method has ever been used to carry out an execution, they would take more than an hour to kill Henness, and that there isn’t a proven way to obtain the drugs.

DeWine, in his statement, noted that Henness has appealed Merz’s ruling, but the governor said he delayed the execution because of the magistrate judge’s opinion.

David Stebbins, Henness’ attorney, said in a statement Friday: “We commend Governor DeWine for his leadership and for ensuring the justice system operates humanely in Ohio.”

Henness was convicted of murdering his drug-abuse counselor, Richard Myers, in 1992.  Prosecutors said Henness kidnapped Myers, shot him five times at an abandoned water-treatment plant, severed Myers’ finger to get his wedding ring, then drove around in Myers’ car for several days forging his checks and using his credit cards to get cash and buy crack cocaine....

Ohio, like many other states with the death penalty, has struggled to obtain lethal-injection drugs since European pharmaceutical companies cut off further sales on moral and legal grounds.  After the controversial execution of killer Dennis McGuire in January 2014, Ohio imposed a three-year moratorium on executions as it worked to find a new lethal-injection protocol — and suppliers willing to sell the state the drugs.

Since the moratorium was lifted in 2017, Ohio has executed three people using the current three-drug cocktail — all without complications or unexpected problems with the drugs.  However, the execution of a fourth condemned inmate, Alva Campbell, was postponed after several unsuccessful attempts to insert an IV.  Campbell died in his cell a few months later.

January 25, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Anyone eager to speculate about Oklahoma capital cases with cert finally denied after so many relists?

I often like to make much of legal dogs that fail to bark (hat tip, Sherlock), and the Supreme Court's order list this morning had a couple of notably silent capital case canines in the form of Wood v. Oklahoma, No. 17-6891, and Jones v. Oklahoma, No. 17-6943 at the very top of the SCOTUS order list entries of cert denied.  Of course, silent and unexplained denials of even capital cert petitions without any comment are not usually noteworthy, but Kent Scheidegger over at Crime & Consequences has this new post sking "Why Did SCOTUS Sit on 2 Capital Cases for a Year?."  Here is part of Kent's lament, with emphasis in the original:

Wood v. Oklahoma, No. 17-6891, and Jones v. Oklahoma, No. 17-6943, involve the same issue the Supreme Court appropriately put to rest over 30 years ago in McCleskey v. Kemp....  Now they want to dredge it back up with yet another study conducted by notorious anti-death-penalty advocates. Note that this is a claim that has nothing whatever to do with whether they committed the crimes and only a very remote relation to whether death is a just and proportionate penalty for their conduct.  The Oklahoma courts said, correctly, that such a claim could not be raised for the first time in a successive post-conviction petition -- Wood's third and Jones's second.  Such petitions should be reserved for true miscarriages of justice.

The State filed its brief in opposition in Wood on January 29, 2018.  The case was distributed for conference twenty-six times.  This extraordinary number of relists has been the subject of considerable speculation.  What on earth could possibly be taking so long?  It does not take a year to say "Yes, we will hear it" or "No, we will not."  It couldn't be that the Court was going to summarily reverse and was writing a per curiam opinion.  The Court does not summarily reverse a decision when it rests on a valid state procedural ground and especially when deciding the merits in the petitioner's favor would require overruling a landmark precedent.

So the only possibility that seemed to be left was that one or more Justices were writing opinions concurring or dissenting from denial of certiorari.  But for nearly a year?

Today, the Court denied certiorari without comment and with no separate opinions. What?!  They held up long-overdue justice for a year for nothing?

Notably, Kent finishes his post with this expression of his frustration with these non-barking capital case canines: "This is conduct unbecoming the high court, or any court for that matter. Victims deserve more respect, even if the statute does not specifically apply to this proceeding."   I welcome reader reaction to what SCOTUS has done here or what Kent has to say about it, and I am especially interested in just thoughts about what might have been going on behind closed SCOTUS doors through 2018 here.

January 22, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Big symposium on Lockett v. Ohio now published via University of Akron School of Law Constitutional Law Center

In this post last year I noted a call for papers by the Center for Constitutional Law at the University of Akron School of Law to commemorate the Supreme Court decision in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978).  I am pleased to see that the papers have now been published and are available at this link.  Here they are:

Introduction to the "Lockett v. Ohio at 40 Symposium": Rethinking the Death Penalty 40 Years After the U.S. Supreme Court Decision by Margery B. Koosed

The Other Lockett by Dennis Balske

Reflections on the Sandra Lockett Case by Peggy Cooper Davis

Justice White's Lockett Concurrence and the Evolving Standards for a Capital Defendant's Mens Rea by Jordan Berman

Lockett v. Ohio and The Rise of Mitigation Specialists by Russell Stetler

Is the Supreme Court's Command on Mitigating Circumstances a Spoonful of Sugar with a Poison Pill for the Death Penalty? by Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier

Lockett As It Was, Is Now, and Ever Shall Should Be by Karen A. Steele

Recollections on the Lockett Case in the U.S. Supreme Court by Joel Berger

Lockett v. Ohio and Its Subsequent Jurisprudence: Between Law and Politics by Cynthia Boyer

January 17, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

First scheduled execution of 2019 stayed by Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

As reported in this local article, the "Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has stopped the state’s first execution of the year, calling for a lower court to take another look at the case following changes in bite-mark science and laws regarding intellectual disability and the death penalty."  Here is more:

Blaine Milam received a stay from the court on Monday, a day before his death was scheduled. Milam, 29, was convicted in the brutal death of his girlfriend’s 13-month-old baby girl in 2008 in East Texas.

In a late appeal, Milam's lawyers argued against the state’s reliance on bite-mark testimony, which was a key part of his trial. His lawyers also claimed he was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.

In December 2008, Milam called 911 and police in Rusk County arrived to find the body of Amora Carson, according to court opinions. The medical examiner counted 24 human bite marks on the baby’s body and found evidence of blunt force trauma and sexual assault. At trial, the prosecution linked Milam to several of the bite marks. But his attorneys now say that science has largely been discredited, pointing to the Court of Criminal Appeals’ recent decision to overturn the murder conviction of Steven Chaney....

Rusk County prosecutors, meanwhile, argued to the court that the questions over bite-mark science were settled at Milam’s trial in 2010. And they said the state had enough other evidence that it wouldn’t have affected the jury's decision at the time. They pointed to testimony that Milam told his sister from jail to find a hidden pipe wrench believed to be used in Carson’s assault — and his apparent confession to a jail nurse.

The trial court must also take another look at Milam’s claims of intellectual disability, according to the court order. The issue was raised at Milam’s trial, which prosecutors said put the issue to bed, but there has been considerable change in how the state determines such disability since 2010.

In 2017, the U.S Supreme Court tossed out the method the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had previously used to determine who is intellectually disabled and, therefore, constitutionally ineligible to be executed. The Court of Criminal Appeals later said it would change its test, which used outdated medical standards and nonclinical factors created by its judges, including how well the person could lie. “Because of recent changes in the science pertaining to bite mark comparisons and recent changes in the law pertaining to the issue of intellectual disability ... we therefore stay his execution and remand these claims to the trial court for a review of the merits of these claims,” the court said in its order Monday....

The stay was not only the court's first of 2019 but also its first without death penalty critic Elsa Alcala, who left the bench at the end of 2018 and was replaced by Judge Michelle Slaughter. Slaughter, along with Presiding Judge Sharon Keller and Judge Kevin Yeary, dissented against the stay.

Despite the court's decision, Texas is still set to host the nation's first execution of the year. Robert Jennings is scheduled to die on Jan. 30, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Five other executions are scheduled in the state through May.

January 15, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 14, 2019

Justice Kavanaugh joins Chief and more liberal Justices in GVR of Kentucky capital case

This morning's Supreme Court order list is fairly short and is mostly denials of certiorari. But the last page of the order list should intrigue capital sentencing fans, and it contains an order in White v. Kentucky, No. 17-9467, in which the Court vacated the decision below "and the case is remanded to the Supreme Court of Kentucky for further consideration in light of Moore v. Texas, 581 U. S. ___ (2017)."

This GVR is made extra interesting because Justice Alito issued this short dissent, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch:

The Court grants, vacates, and remands this case in light of Moore v. Texas, 581 U. S. ___ (2017). But Moore was handed down on March 28, 2017—almost five months before the Supreme Court of Kentucky reached a decision in this case. I would accordingly deny the petition for the reasons previously stated in my dissent in Kaushal v. Indiana, 585 U. S. ___, ___ (2018), and in Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion in Webster v. Cooper, 558 U. S. 1039, 1040 (2009).

As the title of this post suggests, I find the fact that Justice Kavanaugh did not join this dissent particularly noteworthy, though the fact that the Chief Justice usually provides the key fifth vote in these types of cases prevents me from too boldly predicting at this early stage that Justice Kavanaugh could prove to be a swing vote in capital cases akin to the role his predecessor Justice Kennedy played.

January 14, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

New commentary at The American Conservative makes the case for "Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty"

In prior posts here and here and here, I highlighted a series of lengthy articles in The American Conservative that were part of "a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform."   These folks are at it again with this new lengthy essay titled simply "Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty."  The extendded essay, authored by Arthur Rizer and Marc Hyden of R Street Institute, merits a full read, and here are some excerpts:

If conservatives want to convince others that a smaller, more nimble government is best, then those values should be reflected in all policy areas, including the death penalty....

Our suspicion of government should not end with the criminal justice system. With respect to capital punishment, the United States has a track record of acting in an arbitrary and biased fashion. Some examples are obvious. For instance, a 19th century North Carolina law mandated the death penalty when a black man raped a white woman, but gave a maximum punishment of one year in prison to a white man for the same crime.

While such blatantly racist laws no longer exist, the disproportionality in death penalty cases has long been an issue. For instance, a Justice Department study established that, between 1930 and 1972, when an individual was sentenced to death for the crime of rape (a crime that no longer carries the death penalty), 89 percent of the defendants put to death were black men. More disturbing was the fact that in every rape execution case, the victim was white. Not one person received a death sentence for raping a black woman, despite black women being up to 12 times more likely to be rape victims.

Furthermore, a murder victim’s race also seems to influence whether or not the accused will be put to death. Indeed, there is a much higher likelihood of this occurring if the victim is white: over 75 percent of victims in cases that resulted in executions were Caucasian. Additionally, only 15 percent were African American even though they represent a far higher percentage of murder victims. This seems to suggest that, at least through the criminal justice lens, some lives are more valuable than others....

Conservatives claim to hold the government and its bureaucrats to high standards. We expect the state to be the flag bearer of moral precepts and criticize it when it fails. Indeed, the Republican platform uses the word “moral” nine times to describe topics ranging from healthcare to the environment. And regardless of a citizen’s source of morality, be it secular or ecclesiastical, the government should reflect those standards.

Despite this expectation, a core belief among conservatives is that the government is too often inefficient and prone to mistakes. Why should the death penalty’s administration by government bureaucrats be any different? We know individuals are wrongfully convicted—and to be sure, some wrongful convictions are unavoidable. However, when dealing with capital punishment, that inevitability could have irreversible consequences and can never be tolerated in a free and law-abiding society.

This is why government should not be in the business of killing its citizens. This view hews to a core conservative tenet, that the government should be inferior to the people from which it derives its power. True, we invest in the state the authority to protect its citizens, which might require lethal protection by police officers in the line of duty. But when it comes to the death penalty, executions aren’t a matter of self-defense or a response to imminent danger. Rather the defendant has already been neutralized as a threat and housed in a correctional facility. In contrast to just wars and police responses, our penal system can and should take all necessary time and devote all appropriate resources to achieve its ultimate end—justice.

Death penalty proponents often claim that executions are beneficial because they serve as a general deterrent to murder. According to this argument, people will hesitate to commit the most heinous crimes for fear of capital punishment, which could mean the firing squad, gas chamber, electric chair, lethal injection, or hanging—which are all legal in some states today. The problem with this theory is that there is very little valid data to support it....

Murder victims’ families deserve better than the system that they must endure, but policymakers are faced with a catch-22. The death penalty process cannot be shorter, less complex, or have its appeals limited without virtually guaranteeing that innocent people will be executed by the state. It seems that if murder victims’ well-being was a primary focus, then prosecutors would more frequently seek a briefer, simpler, surer proceeding like LWOP.

The creation of the Grand Old Party, and in many ways the modern conservative movement, traces its lineage to anti-slavery abolitionists. Their beliefs about human dignity have influenced current conservatives’ views on the sanctity of life. Conservatives should return to the root principles of liberty and dignity to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair, just, and respects life.

Prior related posts:

January 12, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Are there constitutional (and ethical) issues raised by allowing the family of murder victims to hire lawyers to assist prosecutors as "associate attorneys" in capital prosecution?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this very interesting local article from Kansas headlined "Despite doubts, judge allows private prosecutors in case of two slain deputies."  Here is the story, with one particular line emphasized:

Over the objections of defense lawyers, and despite his own misgivings, a Wyandotte County judge said Wednesday he must allow private attorneys to assist in the prosecution of a man charged with killing two sheriff’s deputies.

Antoine Fielder, 30, is charged with capital murder in the fatal shooting last June of Wyandotte County deputies Theresa King and Patrick Rohrer as they were escorting him back to jail after a court hearing in a robbery case.

Under Kansas law, crime victims can pay for lawyers to assist prosecutors as “associate attorneys,” and the families of Rohrer and King have hired married law partners Tom Bath and Tricia Bath.

Because Fielder faces a possible death sentence, he is being represented by attorneys from the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, who objected to what they termed “interference” in the case.

They argued that the Kansas law that allows the hiring of private attorneys to assist in criminal prosecutions has never been used in a death penalty case. They said it raises “novel constitutional, statutory and ethical issues.”

“Counsel for Mr. Fielder is not aware of any direct authority addressing the constitutionality of private prosecutions in obtaining sentences of death,” the defense said in court documents.

In their written response to the defense objections, the Baths noted that the Kansas Supreme Court has upheld the idea of crime victims hiring private attorneys in numerous cases. And while it has never been used in a capital case, there is nothing in the law that excludes it.

At a court hearing Wednesday, defense attorney Jeff Dazey noted that the law has been on the books in Kansas since the early 20th century, “long before the modern era of the death penalty.”

A spokesman for Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree said he had met with the Baths before they entered the case and had no objection to their participation.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Tricia Bath said they would be operating under the direction of Dupree’s office. She noted that both she and Tom Bath have represented defendants in death penalty cases and are familiar with the rules and ethical requirements for attorneys in death penalty cases.  “The law is clear,” she argued. “We get to be here and the victims get to have an official representative here.”

District Judge Bill Klapper said that, while he finds the inclusion of private associate prosecutors in the case “inherently problematic,” he is bound by Kansas law that mandates they “shall” be allowed. The judge did order that the Baths will not have any role in the case until after the Feb. 1 preliminary hearing.

The constitutionality of victims have a say and a role in various criminal justice proceedings is well established, and I am generally supportive of victim's being allowed to retain a lawyer to help them preserve and exercise their rights in various ways. But one reason I support victim involvement in criminal prosecution is because, if they have independent rights in the process, they can and should often serve as another kind of check on the power of the state (by, for example, advocating for a sentence lower or just different than what prosecutors seek). But here it seems that the victims' lawyers are not going to be an independent voice and advocate for the victims, but rather will be "operating under the direction" of the District Attorney. That does not seem quite right, and arguably raises some unique constitutional and ethical concerns.

January 11, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, January 07, 2019

Supreme Court order list full of (state-friendly) criminal justice per curiams and notable cert denial with statements

The Supreme Court is full back in action for the New Year, beginning with this new long order list with the always-expected long list of denials of certiorari and denials of rehearing. But the list also includes these two notable per curiam rulings:

City of Escondido v. Emmons, No. 17-1660, which summarily reverses/vacates a Ninth Circuit ruling that two officers were not entitled to qualified immunity in a excessive force case.

Shoop v. Hill, No. 18-56, which summarily vacates a Sixth Circuit ruling that an Ohio capital defendant was entitled to habeas relief because the state courts misapplied precedents concerning an Eighth Amendment intellectual disability claim.

In addition, the SCOTUS order list includes these two cert denials that prompted notable statements from the Justices:

Hester v. US, No. 17-9082, concerned whether the Sixth Amendment requires jury findings in support of restitution orders and Justice Alito issued a concurrence in the cert denial, largely in response to Justice Gorsuch's extended dissent which was joined by Justice Sotomayor.

Lance v. Sellers, No. 17-1382, concerned a Georgia capital defendant's claim that his lawyer was constitutionally ineffective and Justice Sotomayor issued a lengthy dissent from the cert denial which was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan.

In a separate post, I may have more to say about some of these rulings, particularly Justice Gorsuch's dissenting opinion in Hester.

UPDATE:  I now do have a new post on the Hester case here under the title "Purported SCOTUS originalists and liberals, showing yet again that they are faint-hearted, refuse to consider extending jury trial rights to restitution punishments."  And Amy Howe here at SCOTUSblog has a review of all the action today in the first big SCOTUS order list for 2019.

January 7, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

More than 40 months after death sentencing, lawyers for Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev file their 1000+-page appellate brief with First Circuit

As reported in this local article, headlined "Lawyers: Tsarnaev ‘should not have been tried in Boston’," a very long appellate brief has been filed in a very high-profile federal capital case.  A federal jury handed down Dzhokhar Tsarnaev death sentence way back in May 2015, a full month before Donald Trump had even announced he was running for President.  But now, as Prez Trump heads into the second half of his term, Tsarnaev's team of lawyers has fully briefed his complaints about his trial and sentencing.  Here are the basic details:

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s appellate team presented their oft-delayed opening argument Thursday, urging sparing him a federal execution and allowing him to be retried for the 2013 Patriots Day terror attack that killed an 8-year-old boy and two women.  Their premise is summed up in the opening line: “This case should not have been tried in Boston.

“Forcing this case to trial in a venue still suffering from the bombings was the District Court’s first fundamental error, and it deprived Tsarnaev of an impartial jury and a reliable verdict, in violation of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments,” the brief states.

The partially redacted document filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit spans 1,124 pages, nearly half of which is the 500-page opening brief alone.

Absent a new trial, Tsarnaev’s team is asking the Appeals Court to reverse his death sentence and order a punishment of life imprisonment.

Tsarnaev, 25, has been in solitary confinement at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., since his 2015 conviction.  Tsarnaev’s trial attorneys made repeated bids for a change of venue.  His appeal focuses on and echoes several familiar protests raised during his trial, chief among them the argument that he was a pawn of his domineering big brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Among other things, the public defenders accuse Tsarnaev’s jury forewoman, a restaurant manager his attorneys tried to get removed, of retweeting a social media post calling the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth sophomore a “piece of garbage”  before she received a juror summons, but that she claimed during questioning for her suitability to serve she had not “commented on this case.”  A second juror, a male municipal worker, outright “disobeyed the Court’s instructions,” the brief asserts, by joining a Facebook discussion about the case before he was seated....

Tsarnaev’s appeal blames his 26-year-old brother for his involvement, calling Tamerlan “a killer, an angry and violent man” who “conceived and led this conspiracy.” And but for his influence, “Jahar would never have been on Boylston Street on Marathon Monday.

“Tsarnaev admitted heinous crimes,” the lawyers acknowledge, “but even so — perhaps especially so — this trial demanded scrupulous adherence to the requirements of the Constitution and federal law. Again and again this trial fell short.”

The Tsarnaevs detonated two homemade pressure-cooker bombs packed with shrapnel near the marathon finish line in Copley Square 12 seconds apart on April 15, 2013.  Three spectators were killed — 8-year-old Martin Richard of Dorchester, Krystle Campbell, 29, a restaurant manager from Medford, and Boston University graduate student Lingzi Lu, 23.  More than 260 other people were injured. Sixteen of them lost limbs in the blasts.  Three days later, the brothers shot and killed MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, 27, in his cruiser during an ambush on campus and failed attempt to steal his service weapon.

UPDATE: Thanks to a helpful tweet, I now see that the 500-page brief is available at this link. And there I noticed the final notable section starts this way:

XV. Under The Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence, This Court Should Vacate Tsarnaev’s Death Sentences Because He Was Only 19 Years Old At The Time Of The Crimes.

Tsarnaev was just 19 years old when he committed the crimes for which he was sentenced to death. According to now well-established brain science, and increasingly reflected by changing law around the country, the physical development of the brain and related behavioral maturation continues well through the late teens and early 20s. Consistent with the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and a recent resolution adopted by the American Bar Association, this Court should hold that those who commit their crimes as “emerging adults,” when they were under 21 years old, are categorically exempt from the death penalty.

December 27, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Second Circuit panel reverses federal death sentence based on "prosecutorial error" during sentencing phase

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this 146-page(!) Second Circuit opinion in US v. Aquart, No. 12‐5086 (2d Cir. Dec. 20, 2018) (available here). Here is an overview from the start of the opinion for the panel:

Aquart here appeals both his conviction and his death sentence. As to conviction, he argues that (1) the trial evidence was insufficient to support guilty verdicts on any of the charged VICAR counts, (2) the prosecution suborned perjury by witnesses John Taylor and Lashika Johnson, and (3) he was prejudiced by prosecutorial misconduct in summation. As to sentence, Aquart’s challenges fall into three categories: (1) prosecutorial misconduct at the penalty phase, (2) insufficiency of the evidence as to certain identified aggravating factors, and (3) unconstitutionality of the death penalty both generally and as applied to his case.

The panel affirms Aquart’s conviction but, based on prosecutorial error, vacates his death sentence and remands the case for a new penalty hearing.

There is too much in the 139-page Aquart opinion for the court for me to summarize it here.  But I noticed that a former boss of mine, Judge Calabresi, has this amusing paragraph on an important issue in his short concurrence:

§2.b. Whether Aquart’s Death Sentence is Constitutionally Disproportionate. Because, as the Majority correctly explains, existing Supreme Court Law does not mandate proportionality review, the question of whether, if it did, Aquart would pass that test is entirely hypothetical. (I’m too much an academic to call it academic.) It need not be reached, and I decline to do so

December 20, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 14, 2018

DPIC releases year-end report noting that 2018 was "fourth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and 50 death sentences"

SentencesByYearThis press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "2018 Marked the Fourth Consecutive Year with Fewer than 30 Executions and Less than 50 Death Sentences," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2018 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States.  Here are excerpts from the press release:

With 25 executions and 42 death sentences expected this year, the use of the death penalty remained near historic lows in 2018, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).  2018 marked the fourth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and 50 death sentences, reflecting a long-term decline of capital punishment across the United States. Court decisions and election results signaled continuing low death-penalty use as Washington State declared its capital punishment statute unconstitutional and voters ousted prosecutors in seven counties known for aggressive death-penalty usage.

In 2018, 14 states and the federal government imposed death sentences, with 57% of the projected 42 sentences coming from just four states: Texas and Florida (both with seven) and California and Ohio (both with five). No county imposed more than two death sentences for the first time in the modern era of the death penalty (after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all death penalty statutes in 1972).

The death penalty remained geographically isolated as only eight states carried out the 25 executions: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. Texas accounted for more than half of all executions (13); there were fewer executions in the rest of the country than in any year since 1991. 2018 was the fourth year in a row with fewer than 30 executions. Before 2015, 1991 was the last year with fewer than 30 executions.

The cases in which the death penalty was imposed or carried out continued to raise questions about the fairness of its application. More than 70% of the people executed showed evidence of serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual impairment, or chronic abuse and trauma, and four were executed despite substantial innocence claims....

On October 11, Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty when its Supreme Court unanimously ruled that capital punishment violates the state constitution because it “is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” Governors in Oregon and Pennsylvania who had imposed or extended moratoria on the death penalty were reelected and Colorado, the third state with a moratorium, elected a governor who campaigned on repealing the death penalty.

Prosecutorial candidates who ran on reform platforms won elections in several counties with a history of aggressive use of the death penalty. Reform candidates were elected district attorney in two Texas counties – Bexar and Dallas – that are among the two percent of counties responsible for the majority of executions. Voters in Orange and San Bernardino counties in California, two of the nation’s most prolific producers of death sentences, ousted their long-time incumbent district attorneys.

December 14, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Six former governors urge outgoing California Gov Jerry Brown to commute 740 death sentences

This new opinion piece in the New York Times is authored by six former governors and is headlined "Jerry Brown Has the Power to Save 740 Lives. He Should Use It."  Th2 headline is itself a bit factually misleading because none of the persons on California's death row seem at risk of being executed anytime soon.  There has not been a single execution in California in more than a dozen years, and the next Governor seems unlikely to be eager to start up the state's machinery of death anytime soon.   Still, the six former governors — Richard Celeste of Ohio, John Kitzhaber of Oregon, Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Pat Quinn of Illinois, and Toney Anaya of New Mexico — make a notable pitch and here are excerpts:

Among a governor’s many powers, none is more significant than signing a death warrant. It’s a terrible responsibility, hard even to imagine until you’re asked to carry it out, as we were. But we became convinced that it wasn’t something a civilized society should ask of its leaders. That’s why we halted executions in our states, and we call on Gov. Jerry Brown of California to do the same.... [W]e know it must weigh on Mr. Brown that, unless he acts soon, he will leave behind 740 men and women on California’s death row. It’s a staggering number and our hearts go out to him. From a humanitarian perspective, it is horrifying to imagine executing that many humans. As a practical matter, it’s beyond comprehension.

Even the most ardent proponents of capital punishment would shudder at composing a plan to execute 740 people. Would California’s citizens allow mass executions? If the state were to execute a single person every day, people would still be waiting on death row after two years....

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, 11 governors have granted clemency to death row prisoners in their states. They did not free them; they either reduced their sentences to life, declared a moratorium on executions or repealed their death penalty. We have all done one of these; so have Gov. George Ryan of Illinois in 2003; Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey in 2007; Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut in 2012; Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington in 2014; and Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania in 2015.

The achievement of high office demands that one be courageous in leadership. Mr. Brown now has the chance to do what others in our ranks have done after they became aware of the price paid for taking a human life. We were compelled to act because we have come to believe the death penalty is an expensive, error-prone and racist system, and also because our morality and our sense of decency demanded it.

Mr. Brown has the power to commute the sentences of 740 men and women, to save 740 lives. Or, he can declare a moratorium on the death penalty and give Governor-elect Gavin Newsom the time he will need to figure out how to end a system broken beyond repair. Such an act will take political will and moral clarity, both of which Mr. Brown has demonstrated in the past. In the interest of his legacy, the people of California need his leadership one more time before he leaves office.

December 13, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"The Electric Chair Is Back and the Death Penalty Is on Life Support"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Austin Sarat in Slate.  Here are excerpts:

On Thursday, David Earl Miller became the second person in the last five weeks to choose death in Tennessee’s electric chair over lethal injection. Miller was executed for the 1981 murder of 23-year-old Lee Standifier.

After losing a lawsuit claiming he had a right to be executed by a firing squad, Miller took advantage of a state law allowing death row inmates convicted prior to 1999 to opt for the electric chair rather than lethal injection.  He did so because he feared that the state’s lethal injection protocol, which includes midazolam, a drug that has been involved in several botched executions, would result in a more prolonged and painful death than would electrocution.

The real significance of the return of the electric chair, though, would be missed if we saw it only as a loss of faith in lethal injection by death row inmates.  It signals a larger crisis for the death penalty system in the United States....

Today, nine states retain the electric chair as a legally allowable method of execution. Since 1980, only 11 percent of American executions have involved the electric chair. Most of the other countries that have capital punishment choose one method of execution and stick with it.  In contrast, since the late 19th century, the United States has used five different methods of execution: hanging, electrocution, lethal gas, the firing squad, and lethal injection.  The death penalty has been sustained by the hope of making progress in the grim business of putting people to death.  Indeed, its legitimacy is closely linked to the search for a technological magic bullet to insure the safety, reliability, and humanity of execution.

Even though Miller became just the 16th person put to death by electrocution in the United States since the turn of the 21st century, a period in which there have been 873 lethal injections, the return of the electric chair and other previously abandoned methods of executions signifies more than just the severity of lethal injection’s current problems.  This back-to-the future moment suggests that the United States has reached the end of the road in the search for ever-better execution methods.  It highlights the shaky ground now occupied by America’s death penalty.

Though I share the view that the death penalty remains on shaky ground in the US, it is also the case that the ground is getting just a bit more steady in the Trump era. The prospect of a wholesale striking down of the death penalty by the Supreme Court seems no longer likely in light of Prez Trump's two appointment to SCOTUS. And the last two years, the number of executions completed each year by the states have ticked up slightly since 2016.  As detailed here, there is an execution scheduled in Texas tonight; if it goes through, 2018 will have had more executions nationwide than did 2017.

December 11, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Tennessee completes execution by electric chair

As reported in this local piece, "David Earl Miller was pronounced dead at 7:25 p.m. CST on Thursday after Tennessee prison officials electrocuted him with the electric chair. He was 61." Here is more:

He is the third person executed this year and was the longest-serving inmate on Tennessee's death row. Miller was sentenced to death for the May 1981 murder of 23-year-old Lee Standifer of Knoxville, who was mentally disabled.

Miller brought her to a pastor's home where he was staying and struck her across the face with a fire poker. He hit her with enough force to fracture her skull, burst one of her eye sockets and leave imprints on the bone. He stabbed her over and over — in the neck, in the chest, in the stomach and in the mouth.

Both the U.S. Supreme Court and Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday declined to intervene and stop the scheduled execution....

With no emotion in his voice, Miller said his last words but at first could not be understood. The warden asked to him to repeat himself. With "Beats being on death row," the execution began.

An expressionless Miller stared ahead as he was held down by buckles and straps. His cream colored pants were rolled up and electrodes were fastened to his feet. His fingernails and toenails were untrimmed. Cuts were seen on his legs.

Prison staff placed a large wet sponge soaked in saline solution and a metal helmet on his shaved head. Solution dripped down his face and chest. One of the prison staff wiped Miller's face with a towel.

A black shroud was placed over his head. The warden gave the signal to proceed. At 7:16, the first jolt of 1,750 volts of electricity was sent through Miller's body. Witnesses could see him stiffen and his upper body raise up on the chair.

It was quiet. He made no sound but his hands were in fists and his pinkies stuck out over the arm rest of the seat. After he lowered on the chair, he wasn't seen moving again. A second jolt was administered for 15 seconds.

The doctor overseeing the death checked on Miller's vitals. He was dead. The curtain came down. "Miller cleared" came over the speakers.

The execution occurred similarly to Edmund Zagorski's electrocution a month prior. Down to the clenched fists, strained pinkies and no signs of breathing after the first jolt of electricity.

December 6, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Texas completes execution for escapee involved in killing during crime spree

As reported in this local article, headlined "'Texas 7' escapee Joseph Garcia executed in Huntsville," the Lone Star State completed yet another execution last night.  Here are the basics:

Nearly two decades after the brazen prison break-out and cross-state crime spree that landed him on America's Most Wanted and eventually on death row, Texas 7 prisoner Joseph Garcia was executed Tuesday night in Huntsville....  He was pronounced dead at 6:43 p.m., 13 minutes after the lethal dose began.

In recent weeks, the 47-year-old convicted in the Christmas Eve killing of a North Texas police officer launched a slew of appeals, lawsuits, pleas for reprieve and requests for clemency. His last-minute legal moves raised questions about his initial conviction, the controversial "law of parties" and the source of the state's lethal injection supplies.

But on Friday, the parole board rebuffed the condemned man's request for clemency, and lower courts turned down appeal after appeal. By Tuesday morning, he still had a number of claims in front of appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, and a long-shot bid for reprieve sitting on the governor's desk.  "I am on death row because of the actions and intent of others and because I am one of the Texas Seven, case closed," he wrote the Chronicle weeks before his scheduled execution.  "Is it right that I should be murdered for something that I did not do?"

To some friends and family of the slain policeman — Officer Aubrey Hawkins – the answer is clear.  "Whatever participation he had, he went along with it," said Seagoville police Sgt. Karl Bailey, a long-time friend of the Hawkins family. "The whole thing was sparked by the escape from prison, the burglaries - it was a crime spree."

Though Garcia offered no apology in his final statement, he sent out a message of remorse through his attorneys. "I want to offer my heartfelt apology to the family of Officer Hawkins, and the workers at Oshman's in Dallas," he said. "None of this was supposed to happen. I wish it didn't."

At the time of the breakout in December 2000, the Bexar County native was locked up in a prison south of San Antonio, serving a 50-year sentence stemming from a boozy fight that ended with one man dead. Garcia was convicted of murder, but he has long maintained that it was the other man — Miguel Luna — who attacked him, and that the fatal stabbing was only in self-defense.

Behind bars, he made friends with a charismatic thief named George Rivas.  First, they bonded over a "poor man's spread" of prisoner-made food. Then, they plotted an escape. Inspired by a book, their plan took months to prepare.  They picked a crew, spread rumors among the guards, surveyed the grounds and gathered supplies.  On Dec. 13, they made good on their plot....  

After pulling off a pair of robberies to load up with cash and supplies in the Bayou City, the fleeing prisoners left and headed north.  In the Dallas suburb of Irving, the seven escapees staked out an Oshman's sporting goods store....  They took hostages and stole guns, money and supplies.  But before they left, a lone police officer showed up.

Garcia says he was still inside the building when he heard the shots, but some of the other men offered different accounts.  In all, five men fired shots. Rivas admitted he was one of them – but the state never proved that Garcia was. He still maintains that he was inside the building when the shooting started. 

Afterward, they fled to Colorado, driving straight into a blizzard. They stopped at motels along the way, then holed up in a trailer park near Colorado Springs.  For a month, they posed as Christian missionaries before they were finally captured.  One of the men — Larry Harper — killed himself rather than be taken back to prison.

The other six were sent to death row, and three have since been executed.  To the former prosecutor who handled all six of the trials, a fourth execution date comes as a welcome relief.  "It's been almost 18 years," attorney Toby Shook told the Chronicle earlier this year. "It's satisfying that the actual sentence will actually be carried out."

In his final weeks, Garcia has launched an array of appeals. In one claim, he argued that his original Bexar County killing was actually self-defense and not murder. If so, he said, it shouldn't have been used as evidence of future dangerousness — something the state is required to show to secure a death sentence.  Among Garcia's other pending legal actions is a challenge to the state's lethal injection procedures in light of recent reporting about the alleged source of the drugs. In recent days, he'd also tried lobbing a lawsuit at the parole board, arguing the seven-member panel had too many former law enforcement members to be representative of the general public....

He was the 12th Texas prisoner executed this year. Another death date is scheduled for next week.

December 5, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 03, 2018

Renewed talk in Ohio of exempting those with "serious mental illness" from the death penalty

As reported in this local article, headlined "Should those with serious mental illnesses be exempt from the death penalty in Ohio?," there is renewed discussion in the Buckeye State of a task force proposal to carve out an exception to the death penalty for those with "serious mental illness." Here are the details:

If Ohio is going to execute convicted murderers, it shouldn't execute individuals with serious mental illnesses, a bipartisan group of lawmakers says.

That is the aim of House Bill 81 [available here], which would prohibit capital punishment for anyone with a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or delusional disorder.  The proposal has stalled for years in the Ohio House but could advance this week for the first time after gaining support from a handful of Republicans....

If a judge or jury finds the person was impaired at the time of the murder, the defendant could not be sentenced to death.  They could still face life in prison.  The idea came from a 2014 task force of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and academics who recommended several changes to Ohio's death penalty.  It builds on U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Seitz of Green Township and Democratic Rep. Nickie J. Antonio of Lakewood, has bipartisan support. Groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio and Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association agree that certain people shouldn't face the death penalty. “If we are going to have a death penalty, it should be reserved only for those who are the worst of the worst, not for those who are suffering from impaired judgment due to a severe mental illness," said Richard Cline, chief counsel with Ohio Public Defender's death penalty department, during a Nov. 27 hearing.

Convicted killers could be exempt from the death penalty even if they are found competent to stand trial and don't meet the standards for being found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Prosecutors and some GOP lawmakers aren't convinced that the changes are needed. Under the bill, those already on death row could ask a judge to take another look at their mental state at the time of the offense and possibly have their death sentence vacated.

Some worry that every inmate on death row would claim some mental illness to escape execution. “It would be a substantial miscarriage of justice for someone convicted and sentenced to death years ago to be able to now claim that they had a serious mental illness at the time and should, therefore, be excluded from the death penalty,” said Lou Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Opposition from prosecutors has stalled the proposal once before. Still, the bill could get a vote in committee Tuesday. From there, the proposed law would need approval from the Ohio House and Ohio Senate before heading to Gov. John Kasich. The Legislature has only a handful of sessions remaining.

December 3, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 30, 2018

Outgoing California Gov Jerry Brown urged by notable group to commute 742 death sentences

As reported in this Reuters article, a "Catholic group close to Pope Francis and representatives of 25 countries on Wednesday appealed to outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown to commute all the state’s 742 death sentences before laving office." Here is more:

The Sant’ Egidio peace group made the appeal together with the justice ministers of South Africa, Benin, Zimbabwe and Malaysia, and 21 lower-ranking officials from other countries at a conference on the death penalty held in Italy’s parliament. Mario Marazziti, a Sant’ Egidio leader, asked Brown to “declare a moratorium on all executions and begin the process of commuting the sentences into jail terms before leaving office”.

Brown, who once trained to be a priest of the Jesuit order, will leave office after completing his current two terms on Jan. 7, when Governor-elect Gavin Newsom is sworn in.

There are currently 742 people condemned to die in California, where the last execution took place in 2006. Executions since then have been blocked by legal issues.

Sant’ Egidio, which has branches in many countries and hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, is in the forefront of efforts to abolish the death penalty and help migrants. It has found great favor with the pope. Last August, the Roman Catholic Church formally changed its teaching to declare the death penalty inadmissible, whatever the circumstance....

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times last week urged Brown to commute at least the death sentences of those who committed crimes when they were young. The newspaper also urged Newsom to place a new anti-death penalty initiative on a future ballot.

Propositions to end capital punishment were defeated in 2012 [and] 2016 in California.

November 30, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

"The Death Penalty & The Fundamental Right to Life"

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

For over forty years, the Supreme Court has held that the death penalty is not invariably cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  But the Court has never addressed—let alone decided—whether the death penalty per se deprives the fundamental right to life in violation of substantive due process.  The legal literature has followed suit, scarcely addressing the issue.

This Article makes the case for why the death penalty violates the fundamental right to life.  It first argues that the condemned have a fundamental right to life based on a history and tradition of diminished support for the death penalty nationally and worldwide, the dignity of the condemned, and the negative right not to be killed by one’s government.  It next argues that the death penalty deprives this right in violation of substantive due process because the State cannot prove that the death penalty is narrowly tailored to achieve deterrence or retribution: arbitrariness, delay, and unreliability deprive the death penalty of a compelling purpose, and execution belies narrow tailoring.  Lastly, this Article argues that the right-to-life challenge is not inconsistent with the Fifth Amendment’s text or the elephant in the room: abortion rights.

Although the Eighth Amendment has paved the road toward judicial abolition of the death penalty, there remains no end in sight, no welcome sign on the horizon.  The road less traveled is substantive due process: the right to life of the condemned.  On the long road toward abolition, this Article argues that two lanes are better than one.

November 29, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by The Death Penalty Information Center.  Here is part of its executive summary:  

During the past seven years, states have begun conducting executions with drugs and drug combinations that have never been tried before.  They have done so behind an expanding veil of secrecy laws that shield the execution process from public scrutiny.

As pharmaceutical companies have taken action to prevent states from using their medicines to execute prisoners, states have responded by procuring whatever drugs seem available and obtaining them secretly through questionable means.

Since January 2011, legislatures in thirteen states have enacted new secrecy statutes that conceal vital information about the execution process.  Of the seventeen states that have carried out 246 lethal-injection executions between January 1, 2011 and August 31, 2018, all withheld at least some information about the about the execution process.  All but one withheld information about the source of their execution drugs. Fourteen states prevented witnesses from seeing at least some part of the execution.  Fifteen prevented witnesses from hearing what was happening inside the execution chamber. None of the seventeen allowed witnesses to know when each of the drugs was administered.

This retreat into secrecy has occurred at the same time that states have conducted some of the most problematic executions in American history.  Lethal injection was supposed to be a more humane method of execution than hanging, the firing squad, or the electric chair, but there have been frequent reports of prisoners who were still awake and apparently experiencing suffocation and excruciating pain after they were supposed to be insensate.  These problems have intensified with the use of new drug formulas, often including midazolam.  In 2017, more than 60% of the executions carried out with midazolam produced eyewitness reports of an execution gone amiss, with problems ranging from labored breathing to gasping, heaving, writhing, and clenched fists. In several of these cases, state officials denied that the execution was problematic, asserting that all had proceeded according to protocol. But without access to information about drugs and the execution process, there is no way the public can judge for itself....

This report documents the laws and policies that states have adopted to make information about executions inaccessible to the public, to pharmaceutical companies, and to condemned prisoners.  It describes the dubious methods states have used to obtain drugs, the inadequate qualifications of members of the execution team, and the significant restrictions on witnesses’ ability to observe how executions are carried out.  It summarizes the various drug combinations that have been used, with particular focus on the problems with the drug midazolam, and provides a state-by-state record of problems in recent executions. It explains how government policies that lack transparency and accountability permit states to violate the law and disregard fundamental principles of a democratic government while carrying out the harshest punishment the law allows.

November 20, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, November 17, 2018

"Evaluating Intellectual Disability: Clinical Assessments in Atkins Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by James Ellis, Caroline Everington and Ann Delpha. Here is its abstract

The intersection of intellectual disability and the death penalty is now clearly established.  Both under the U.S. Supreme Court’s constitutional decisions and under the terms of many state statutes, individual defendants who have that disability cannot be sentenced to death or executed.  It now falls to trial, appellate, and post-conviction courts to determine which individual criminal defendants are entitled to the law’s protection.

This Article attempts to assist judges in performing that task.  After a brief discussion of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Atkins v. Virginia, Hall v. Florida, and Moore v. Texas, it analyzes the component parts and terminology of the clinical definition of intellectual disability.  It then offers more detailed discussion of a number of the clinical issues that arise frequently in adjudicating these cases.  For each of these issues, the Article’s text and the accompanying notes attempt to provide judges with a thorough survey of the relevant clinical literature, and an explanation of the terminology used by clinical professionals.  Our purpose is to help those judges to become more knowledgeable consumers of the clinical reports and expert testimony presented to them in individual cases, and to help them reach decisions that are consistent with what the clinical literature reveals about the nature of intellectual disability and best professional practices in the diagnostic process. 

November 17, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Texas completes its eleventh execution of 2018, bringing the US total to 21 for the year

In 2016, the United States had only 20 total executions, the lowest number in a quarter century.  And that will remain the recent record low number of yearly executions because last night, as reported in this AP article, Texas completed an execution that took the national total for 2018 up to 21 executions.  Here are the details:

A Mexican citizen on death row in Texas was executed Wednesday night for the sledgehammer killings of his wife and two children more than 26 years ago.

Roberto Moreno Ramos was condemned for the 1992 deaths of his 42-year-old wife Leticia, 7-year-old daughter Abigail, and 3-year-old son Jonathan at their home in Progreso, located along the Mexico border.

When asked by the warden if he had a final statement, Ramos thanked the Mexican consulate for assisting with appeals in his case and said he was grateful for “the humane treatment I got in prison in Texas.”...

As the lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital began taking effect, the 64-year-old Ramos took a couple of deep breaths, sputtered once and began snoring. Within seconds, all movement stopped. Eleven minutes later, at 9:36 p.m. CST, Ramos was pronounced dead.

He became the 21st inmate put to death this year in the U.S. and the 11th given a lethal injection in Texas, the nation’s busiest capital punishment state. No friends or relatives of Ramos or his victims witnessed the execution.

Mexican officials had called for his execution to be stopped, arguing he was part of a group of Mexican citizens condemned in the U.S. who were never told when first arrested that they could get legal help from the Mexican government.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday night cleared the way for the punishment when it denied two appeals seeking to halt the lethal injection. Ramos’ attorney on Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to stop his execution, arguing that Ramos’ constitutional rights were violated as lower courts refused to fully review his claims that his trial lawyers failed to present any evidence about his mental illness and abusive childhood that could have persuaded jurors to spare his life.

Three retired justices who had served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals filed court documents with the Supreme Court on Wednesday in support of stopping the execution. The ex-judges alleged the appeals court appointed an incompetent appellate attorney who early in the post-conviction process failed to investigate Ramos’ case....

In court documents, Ramos’ appellate attorney, Danalynn Recer, had argued Ramos suffered from bipolar disorder most of his life, including during the time of his family’s killings, as well as brain damage that affected his ability to control his impulses and regulate his emotions. Recer said Ramos was also brutally beaten as a child by his father. Ramos was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and grew up in Guadalajara and Tijuana before his family moved to the United States in 1970. “No fact-finder or decision-maker entrusted with Mr. Moreno Ramos’ life has ever been provided with evidence of (his) ‘diverse human frailties’ to assist them in dispensing the most severe punishment under law,” Recer said.

The Death Penalty Information Center reports here that there are three more executions scheduled for 2018, two in Texas and one in Tennessee.  Even if these executions all go forward, the total number of executions nationwide in the first two years of the Trump Administration will be less than 50 (47 to be exact), while there were 52 executions nationwide in the very first year of the Obama Administration and 66 executions in the first year of the Bush Administration.  Of course, presidents have almost no direct impact on state capital cases and the pace of executions. But given Prez Trump's affinity for talking up the death penalty, this factoid about executions still seems noteworthy.

November 15, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Usual Justices make their usual death penalty points in statements accompanying Florida capital case cert denials

In this post last week, I noted that the Supreme Court had relisted a slew of older Florida death penalty cases in which a death sentence had been imposed using procedures that the Supreme Court in the 2016 Hurst decision said violated the Sixth Amendment's requirement that a jury rather than a judge must find all facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death.  This morning, via this new order list, the Supreme Court appears to have denied cert in all of these Florida cases, and three Justices with well-earned reputations for having a lot to say in capital cases all had something to say about this decision through statements in the case of Reynolds v. Florida.

Justice Breyer authored a four-page statement regarding the denial of cert that sets the tone starting this way:

This case, along with 83 others in which the Court has denied certiorari in recent weeks, asks us to decide whether the Florida Supreme Court erred in its application of this Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).  In Hurst, this Court concluded that Florida’s death penalty scheme violated the Constitution because it required a judge rather than a jury to find the aggravating circumstances necessary to impose a death sentence.  The Florida Supreme Court now applies Hurst retroactively to capital defendants whose sentences became final after this Court’s earlier decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584 (2002), which similarly held that the death penalty scheme of a different State, Arizona, violated the Constitution because it required a judge rather than a jury to find the aggravating circumstances necessary to impose a death sentence.  The Florida Supreme Court has declined, however, to apply Hurst retroactively to capital defendants whose sentences became final before Ring.  Hitchcock v. State, 226 So. 3d 216, 217 (2017).  As a result, capital defendants whose sentences became final before 2002 cannot prevail on a “Hurst-is-retroactive” claim.

Many of the Florida death penalty cases in which we have denied certiorari in recent weeks involve — directly or indirectly — three important issues regarding the death penalty as it is currently administered.

Folks who follow the Supreme Court's modern capital punishment discussions can probably guess what Justice Breyer considers the "three important issues" raised by these Florida cases. Similarly, SCOTUS followers likely can also imagine what Justice Thomas had to say when concurring in the denial of cert in Reynolds.  His opinion runs five pages and here are two key paragraphs:

JUSTICE BREYER worries that the jurors here “might not have made a ‘community-based judgment’ that a death sentence was ‘proper retribution’ had they known” of his concerns with the death penalty. Ante, at 4 (statement respecting denial of certiorari). In light of petitioner’s actions, I have no such worry, and I write separately to alleviate JUSTICE BREYER’s concerns....

JUSTICE BREYER’s final (and actual) concern is with the “‘death penalty itself.’” Ante, at 4. As I have elsewhere explained, “it is clear that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty.” Baze v. Rees, 553 U. S 35, 94 (2008) (opinion concurring in judgment); see Glossip, supra, at ___–___, and n. 1 (THOMAS, J., concurring) (slip op., at 1–2, and n. 1). The only thing “cruel and unusual” in this case was petitioner’s brutal murder of three innocent victims.

Last but certainly not least, Justice Sotomayor needs seven pages to explain why she dissents from the denial of certiorari, and here opinion starts this way:

Today, this Court denies the petitions of seven capital defendants, each of whom was sentenced to death under a capital sentencing scheme that this Court has since declared unconstitutional.  The Florida Supreme Court has left the petitioners’ death sentences undisturbed, reasoning that any sentencing error in their cases was harmless.  Petitioners challenge the Florida Supreme Court’s analysis because it treats the fact of unanimous jury recommendations in their cases as highly significant, or legally dispositive, even though those juries were told repeatedly that their verdicts were merely advisory.  I have dissented before from this Court’s failure to intervene on this issue.  Petitioners’ constitutional claim is substantial and affects numerous capital defendants.  The consequence of error in these cases is too severe to leave petitioners’ challenges unanswered, and I therefore would grant the petitions.

November 13, 2018 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 08, 2018

"The Death Penalty as Incapacitation"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Marah Stith McLeod.  Here is its abstract:

Courts and commentators give scant attention to the incapacitation rationale for capital punishment, focusing instead on retribution and deterrence.  The idea that execution may be justified to prevent further violence by dangerous prisoners is often ignored in death penalty commentary.  The view on the ground could not be more different.  Hundreds of executions have been premised on the need to protect society from dangerous offenders.  Two states require a finding of future dangerousness for any death sentence, and over a dozen others treat it as an aggravating factor that turns murder into a capital crime.

How can courts and commentators pay so little heed to this driving force behind executions? The answer lies in two assumptions: first, that solitary confinement and life without parole also incapacitate, and second, that prediction error makes executions based on future risk inherently arbitrary.  Yet solitary confinement and life without parole entail new harms — either torturous isolation or inadequate restraint. Meanwhile, the problem of prediction error, while significant, can be greatly reduced by reevaluating future dangerousness over time.

This Article illuminates the remarkable history, influence, and normative import of the incapacitation rationale, and shows how serious engagement with the incapacitation rationale can lead to practical reforms that would make the death penalty more fair.  It concludes by highlighting several of the most promising reforms.

November 8, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS relisting packet of cases dealing with application of Hurst v. Florida to past cases

It has been (too?) many months since I have had occasion to talk about what I have long called the "post-Hurst hydra."  As regular readers may be pained to recall, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the multi-headed, snake-like litigation that developed in various ways in various courts as state and federal judges tried to make sense of just what the Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, must mean for past, present and future capital cases.  But the "post-Hurst hydra" is on my mind this morning because of the latest "Rewatch List" from John Elwood at SCOTUSblog, which includes these two paragraphs (with links from the original):

Once again, we have a group of seven relisted cases all presenting the same issue and all involving the same respondent.  Each of the seven involves a Florida man convicted of capital murder and sentenced to the death penalty.  The issue should be familiar to Relist Watch readers. In Hurst v. Florida, the Supreme Court held 8-1 in an opinion by Sotomayor that Florida’s capital-sentencing scheme — under which a jury rendered an “advisory sentence” but a judge had to independently weigh the aggravating and mitigating factors before entering a sentence of life or death — violated the Sixth Amendment’s requirement that a jury rather than a judge must find all facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death.  The Florida Supreme Court later held that Hurst error was harmless because juries had to unanimously find beyond a reasonable doubt all the elements necessary to support imposition of the death penalty.  But since that time, challenger after challenger has argued that the Florida Supreme Court’s harmless-error conclusion cannot be squared with Caldwell v. Mississippi, which held that it is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a jury that has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the death sentence rests with someone else. This issue has yielded multiple dissents from denial of cert, in Truehill v. Florida (Sotomayor dissenting, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer; Breyer also dissented separately), Middleton v. Florida (identical lineup), Guardado v. Florida (Sotomayor dissenting alone), and Kaczmar v. Florida (Sotomayor dissenting alone).

Now we have seven more such cases — including one that was the subject of a previous dissent: Guardado v. Florida17-9284Philmore v. Florida17-9556Tanzi v. Florida18-5160Reynolds v. Florida18-5181Franklin v. Florida18-5228Grim v. Florida18-5518, and Johnston v. Florida18-5793.  The arrival of seven cases at once presents Sotomayor with her best opportunity yet to make the case that the issue is a recurring and important one. The big question now is whether Justice Elena Kagan (or some other justice) is now ready to provide a fourth vote to grant — or whether Sotomayor will be filing yet another dissent from denial on this issue.  And to get into the weeds a bit, these cases provide yet another example of what a good job the Supreme Court and its staff do of tracking related cases on the court’s crowded docket.

November 8, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Based on oral argument in lethal injection case, is there reason to think Justice Kavanaugh could end up a swing voter in some capital cases?

The question in the title of this post is a product of my inclination to make too much of this New York Times report and this SCOTUSblog review of Justice Brett Kavanaugh's oral argument performance in Bucklew v. Precythe, a capital case from Missouri involving an "as applied" Eighth Amendment challenge to lethal injection.  The Times piece is headlined "Kavanaugh May Hold Key Vote in His First Death Penalty Case," and here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in an appeal from a death row inmate in Missouri with a rare medical condition that he says will cause excruciating pain if he is put to death by lethal injection. Lawyers for the inmate, Russell Bucklew, said his condition, cavernous hemangioma, would make him choke on his own blood during his execution.

It was Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s first death penalty case, and there is good reason to think that he holds the crucial vote. In March, five justices voted to stay Mr. Bucklew’s execution. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whom Justice Kavanaugh replaced, joined the court’s four more liberal members to form a majority; the court’s four more conservative justices were in dissent.

Much of Tuesday’s argument concerned earlier Supreme Court decisions that required inmates challenging lethal injection protocols to identify available and preferable methods of execution. Mr. Bucklew said lethal gas was preferable to the state’s current method of an injection of a lethal dose of pentobarbital. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled that Mr. Bucklew had not shown that his alternative would be less painful.

Justice Kavanaugh seemed to express doubts about the requirement of identifying an alternative, at least where the usual method of execution coupled with an inmate’s unusual medical condition could produce excruciating pain. “Are you saying,” he asked a lawyer for the state, “even if the method creates gruesome and brutal pain you can still do it because there’s no alternative?”

The lawyer, D. John Sauer, did not immediately give a direct response, and Justice Kavanaugh pressed him. “Is that a yes?” Justice Kavanaugh asked. “Yes, it is, Your Honor,” Mr. Sauer said....

“What the Eighth Amendment prohibits is the unnecessary infliction of pain,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “If the death penalty is constitutional, as it now is, there must be a way to administer it. But if you can show that there’s another way that is less painful, then the theory is, again, that it’s an Eighth Amendment claim because it’s unnecessary pain.”

The chief justice questioned Mr. Bucklew’s proposed alternative of nitrogen gas. “How can it be a reasonable alternative if it’s never been used before?” he asked. Robert Hochman, a lawyer for Mr. Bucklew, said that “there are details to be worked out.”

The SCOTUSblg argument review includes these observations:

The justices were relatively subdued but seemed to be mostly divided along ideological lines, and it seemed very possible that the outcome could hinge on the vote of the court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who at times appeared sympathetic to Bucklew....

Kavanaugh appeared concerned about the prospect that inmates like Bucklew could suffer excruciating pain as a result of the method of execution selected by the state.  He asked Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer, who argued for the state, whether an execution could go forward even if would create “gruesome brutal pain.”  When Sauer responded that it could, Kavanaugh pressed him to explain whether there were any limits on how much pain the execution could inflict. Sauer’s answer: Yes, an execution could not go forward if the pain were so gruesome and brutal that the state would be deliberately inflicting pain for the sake of pain.

I am still inclined to predict that the defendant is going to lose here, but these reports still lead me to wonder whether Justice Kavanaugh could prove to be more open generally to claims of capital defendants than other conservative justices.

Prior related post:

November 7, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 05, 2018

Reviewing some previews of Bucklew v. Precythe

The Supreme Court on Tuesday, Nov 6 will hear oral argument in Bucklew v. Precythe, a capital case from Missouri involving an "as applied" Eighth Amendment challenge to lethal injection.  Amy Howe at SCOTUSBlog has this argument preview titled "Justices to consider another lethal-injection challenge, this time by inmate with complicated medical history."  It starts and ends this way:

[T]he Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Russell Bucklew, a Missouri death-row inmate who argues that the state’s plan to execute him by lethal injection violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he suffers from a rare medical condition that could lead to his gagging on his own blood....

Normally, a death-row inmate whose execution has been put on hold can be cautiously optimistic about his chances for success, because a stay of execution requires at least five votes — enough for the inmate to win on the merits.  But Bucklew also knows that four justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — would have allowed his execution to go forward.  This means that one of the five votes to put Bucklew’s execution on hold presumably came from Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired from the court on July 31.  Although not much is known about the views of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy earlier this month, on capital punishment, Kavanaugh is generally regarded as significantly more conservative than Kennedy, which could bode poorly for Bucklew.

Paul Cassell at The Volokh Conspiracy has this discussion of Bucklew under the heading "Dilatory Tactics in a Death Penalty Case?".  It starts this way:

In 1996, Russell Bucklew murdered Michael Sanders as his two young sons — only four and six years old — watched their father bleed to death in front of them.  Then, as the young daughters of Bucklew's other victim, Stephanie Ray, cried and wailed for their mother, Bucklew handcuffed and dragged her away to endure hours of rape and torture.  Bucklew's reign of terror continued when he broke out of jail, forced victims to go into hiding, and ambushed one victim's mother in her own home. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death over 20 years ago.

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Bucklew v. Precythe, in which Bucklew is raising an "as applied" challenge to Missouri's method of executing him (lethal injection).  Counsel of record Allyson Ho, several of her colleagues at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and I have filed an amicus brief in support of Missouri.  We filed the brief on behalf of the sister of Michael Sanders and Arizona Voice for Crime Victims.  Our amicus brief urges the Court to reject Bucklew's challenge and end more than two decades of litigation.

November 5, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Tennessee completes execution using electric chair

As reported in this lengthy local article,"inmate Edmund Zagorski died at 7:26 p.m. CDT Thursday after Tennessee prison officials electrocuted him with the electric chair." Here is more:

He is the 134th person put to death by Tennessee since 1916 and the second person this year after Billy Ray Irick’s execution by lethal injection on Aug. 9.  He is the first person to die by electric chair since Daryl Horton's execution in 2007.

Zagorski was convicted in the April 1983 murders of John Dale Dotson, of Hickman County, and Jimmy Porter, of Dickson.  Prosecutors argued Zagorski lured them into the woods in Robertson County with the promise to sell them marijuana, and then he shot them, slit their throats and stole their money.

Two minutes before it was set to begin at 7 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court denied Zagorski's appeal on the grounds of the unconstitutionality of choosing between the electric chair and lethal injection....

Eight people believed to be family members of the victims entered the prison to witness the execution.  They waited in front of a covered large window that looked into the execution chamber where on the other side of the glass Zagorski sat pinned in the electric chair, held down by buckles and straps with electrodes fastened to his feet.

The blinds opened for the rest of the witnesses to see Zagorski dressed in his cotton clothes, smiling and grimacing to the group. Zagorski pronounced his last words: "Let’s rock." He sat smiling in the wired chair as prison staff placed a wet sponge, which had been soaked in salt, and a metal helmet on his freshly shaven head.

Zagorski raised his eyebrows, appearing to be communicating with his attorney Kelley Henry. She sat while nodding and tapping her heart, looking at Zagorski. “I told him, when I put my hand over my heart, that was me holding him in my heart,” Henry told The Tennessean.   She said Zagorski smiled, to encourage her to smile back.  Then his face was covered with a black shroud.

The warden gave the signal to proceed.  Zagorski lifted his right hand several times in what looked like attempts to wave, before he clenched his hands into a fist as the first current ran 1,750 volts of electricity through his body for 20 seconds.

There was a short pause before the second jolt was administered for 15 seconds.  The doctor overseeing the death appeared in view to check on Zagorski’s vitals. Zagorski was dead. The blinds into the chamber closed....

Zagorski was set to die three weeks ago.  His request to die by electric chair saved his life — at least for a few weeks, when Gov. Bill Haslam granted reprieve three hours before his scheduled execution on Oct. 11.  The move bought the state time to prep the chair during last-minute legal wrangling.

Zagorski requested death by electric chair with hope that death would come instantaneously — the “lesser of two evils” compared to lethal injection, argued federal public defender Kelley Henry.

November 1, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"The defendant faces a maximum possible penalty of death, or life without parole, followed by a consecutive sentence of 535 years’ imprisonment."

The title of this post is a sentence near the end of this Department of Justice press release fully titled "Pennsylvania Man Charged with Federal Hate Crimes for Tree Of Life Synagogue Shooting: Robert Bowers Indicted on 44 Counts Including Hate Crimes Resulting in Deaths." Here is how the release gets started:

A federal grand jury sitting in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania charged a Pennsylvania man with federal hate crimes, including the murder of 11 people, for his actions during the Oct. 27, 2018 shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore for the Civil Rights Division, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Scott W. Brady, and FBI-Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Robert Jones made the announcement.

Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin, Pa., was charged in a 44-count indictment returned today.

According to the indictment, on Oct. 27, 2018, Bowers drove to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where members of the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light Jewish congregations gathered to engage in religious worship. Bowers entered the building armed with multiple firearms, including Glock .357 handguns a Colt AR-15 rifle. The indictment alleges that while inside the Tree of Life Synagogue, Bowers opened fire, killing and injuring members of the three congregations, as well as injuring multiple responding public safety officers. While inside the Tree of Life Synagogue, Bowers made statements indicating his desire to “kill Jews.”

Specifically, the indictment charges:

  • Eleven counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death;
  • Eleven counts of use and discharge of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence;
  • Two counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon and resulting in bodily injury;
  • Eleven counts of use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence;
  • Eight counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer; and
  • One count of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving use of a dangerous weapon and resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer.

Prior related post:

October 31, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

South Dakota completes execution of prison guard murderer who relinquished appeals

This NBC News piece, headlined "Inmate makes joke in last words before execution for killing South Dakota prison guard," reports on the 19th execution in the US in 2018.  Here are some of the details:

A South Dakota inmate who killed a correctional officer seven years ago during a failed prison escape on the guard's 63rd birthday was put to death Monday evening, marking the state's first execution since 2012.

Rodney Berget, 56, received a lethal injection of an undisclosed drug for the 2011 slaying of Ronald "R.J." Johnson, who was beaten with a pipe and had his head covered in plastic wrap at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.  Berget's execution was the state's fourth since it reinstituted the death penalty in 1979.

It originally was to be carried out at 1:30 p.m. CDT (2:30 p.m. ET), but was delayed for hours while the U.S. Supreme Court weighed a last-minute legal bid to block it.  Berget joked in his last words about the wait, saying, "Sorry for the delay, I got caught in traffic."...

Johnson's widow, Lynette Johnson, who witnessed the execution, said her husband experienced "cruel and unusual punishment" but Berget's lethal injection was "peaceful" and "sterile."

"What's embedded in my mind is the crime scene.  Ron laid in a pool of blood. His blood was all over that crime scene," she said.  "That's cruel and unusual punishment."...

Berget was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and kidnapping when he and another inmate, Eric Robert, attacked Johnson on April 12, 2011, in a part of the penitentiary known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, furniture and other projects.  After Johnson was beaten, Robert put on Johnson's pants, hat and jacket and pushed a cart loaded with two boxes, one with Berget inside, toward the exits.  They made it outside one gate but were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through a second gate. Berget admitted to his role in the slaying.

Robert was executed on Oct. 15, 2012. The state also put an inmate to death on Oct. 30, 2012, but that was the last one before Berget's....

Berget's mental status and death penalty eligibility played a role in court delays. Berget in 2016 appealed his death sentence, but later asked to withdraw the appeal against his lawyers' advice.  Berget wrote to a judge saying he thought the death penalty would be overturned and that he couldn't imagine spending "another 30 years in a cage doing a life sentence."

The Department of Corrections planned to use a single drug to execute Berget. Policy calls for either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Pentobarbital was used in the state's last two executions.  South Dakota has not had issues with obtaining the drugs it needs, as some other states have, perhaps because the state shrouds some details in secrecy. Lawmakers in 2013 approved hiding the identities of its suppliers.

Berget was the second member of his family to be executed. His older brother, Roger, was executed in Oklahoma in 2000 for killing a man to steal his car.

October 30, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Justice Sotomayor issues another lengthy statement in another capital case in which cert is denied

Justice Sotomayor is starting to make a regular habit of adding some interest to otherwise ho-hum order lists with lots and lots of certiorari denials. Today's SCOTUS order list, for example, gets some intrigue from her statement "respecting the denial of certiorari" in Townes v. Alabama, No. 17–7894. Her five-page statement starts and ends this way:

Today the Court denies review of Tawuan Townes’ capital murder conviction, the constitutionality of which hinges on whether the trial court instructed jurors that they “may” infer his intent to kill a victim or that they “must” do so. The former instruction is constitutional; the latter is not.  There is no way to know for sure which instruction the trial court gave. Two court reporters certified two conflicting transcripts, and the trial court no longer has the original recording.  Because Townes has not shown that the procedures below amount to constitutional error, I must vote to deny his petition for certiorari.  I write separately because the trial court’s failure to preserve the original recording gives cause for deep concern....

The Constitution guarantees certain procedural protections when the government seeks to prove that a person should pay irreparably for a crime.  A reliable, credible record is essential to ensure that a reviewing court — not to mention the defendant and the public at large — can say with confidence whether those fundamental rights have been respected. Parker v. Dugger, 498 U. S. 308, 321 (1991) (“It cannot be gainsaid that meaningful appellate review requires that the appellate court consider the defendant’s actual record”).  By fostering uncertainty about the result here, the trial court’s actions in this case erode that confidence.  That gives me — and should give us all — great pause. 

October 29, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Following the Charleston script, will federal authorities take the lead in capital prosecution of anti-Semitic mass murderer Robert Bowers?

Shortly after Dylann Roof expressed horrid hatred by slaughtering nine people at house of worship in Charleston in June 2015, I wondered in this post whether the state or feds should be in charge of capitally prosecuting a crime that reflected what Nikki Haley then called the "worst hate that [she has] seen — and that the country has seen — in a long time."  Though it took federal authorities nearly a year to decide to move forward with a capital prosecution in May 2016, not too long thereafter a federal jury returned a death sentence in January 2017.

Sadly, if measured in terms of numbers killed, Dylann Roof's crime has now been passed repeatedly. Around this time just one year ago, Devin Kelley murdered 26 worshipers at church in Texas before being killed. And now, as this Fox News report details, another gunman filled with hate "opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday morning, killing 11 people and injuring six others, including four police officers, before being taken into custody."  Here is more:

Multiple law enforcement officials identified the suspect in the shooting as Robert Bowers, 48.

Police Chief Scott Schubert said that two police officers were hit during initial contact with the shooter and that two SWAT team members were also struck “during an engagement inside the building.” He confirmed that all four law enforcement officials are in stable condition....

As officials searched for a motive for the brazen attack, which took place on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, distubing details emerged.  Earlier, Hissrich said the episode fell under the category of a hate crime, and would receive a federal investigation.

Indeed, the gunman is said to have shouted that "all Jews must die" as he sprayed bullets indiscriminantly, according to KDKA-TV.  Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, said the "shooter claimed innocent lives" at a baby naming ceremony on Shabbat, what is trqaditionally the busiest of days for synagogues.

With other media reporting that Robert Bowers had a social media presence filled with anti-Semitic comments, this horrible case strike me as remarkably parallel to the Charleston church shooting in terms of the offense and the offenders (though the ages of the offenders are distinct). Especially with the current Trump Administration claiming to be even more supportive of the death penalty than the past Obama Administration, I would expect to see the federal capital prosecution script to be followed here as it was in the Roof case. And having the feds take the lead may make even more sense because the death penalty in Pennsylvania, though on the books, has been moribund for decades.

UPDATE: Not long after I published this post, I saw this new statement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which included these points:

These alleged crimes are reprehensible and utterly repugnant to the values of this nation. Accordingly, the Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty....

The Department of Justice will continue to support our state and local partners and we will continue to bring the full force of the law against anyone who would violate the civil rights of the American people.

October 27, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Latest Gallup poll on death penalty shows little change in divided views among Americans

Xgi1djqtmkausnrpkwb5fwGallup has released here the results of its latest polling on the death penalty under the headline "New Low of 49% in U.S. Say Death Penalty Applied Fairly."  Here are excerpts from its reporting of the numbers:

The percentage of Americans who believe the death penalty is applied fairly continues to decrease, falling below 50% this year for the first time.  Forty-nine percent now say the death penalty is applied fairly and 45% say it is applied unfairly.

The 49% who say the death penalty is applied fairly is, by one percentage point, the lowest Gallup has measured since it first asked the question in 2000 and reflects a gradual decline of this view over the past decade.  Meanwhile, the percentage who say capital punishment is applied unfairly has edged higher, with this year's four-point gap marking the smallest difference between the two views in Gallup's polling.

These latest data, from Gallup's annual Crime poll, were collected Oct. 1-10 -- just before the Washington state Supreme Court on Oct. 11 struck down that state's death penalty, saying it had been unequally applied across racial groups. In its decision, the court cited evidence that "black defendants were 4 ½ times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants."  The decision makes Washington the 20th state to outlaw the death penalty.

The decline in Americans' belief that capital punishment is applied fairly is largely the result of a sharp drop in this view among Democrats.  Thirty-one percent of Democrats this year say the death penalty is applied fairly, similar to the low of 30% in 2017 but down significantly from 2005 and 2006, when slim majorities held this view.  Meanwhile, 73% of Republicans say the death penalty is applied fairly, and the percentage holding this view has been fairly stable over time -- typically in the low 70s...

Americans remain most likely to say the death penalty is not imposed enough (37%), while smaller percentages say it is imposed "too often" (29%) or "about the right amount" (28%). While belief that the death penalty is not imposed often enough is still the most common view, the latest 37% is down from a high of 53% in 2005 and is by one point the lowest reading since 2001....

Historically, Americans have been generally supportive of the death penalty as the punishment for murder. In all but two polls (in 1965 and 1966), Americans have been more likely to say they are in favor of than opposed to use of the death penalty. However, support for capital punishment too has been trending downward since peaking at 80% in the mid-1990s during a high point in the violent crime rate.  Currently, 56% of U.S. adults favor capital punishment -- similar to last year's 55%, which marked the lowest level of support for the practice since 1972, when the constitutionality of the death penalty was being challenged.

October 22, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 15, 2018

"How Statistics Doomed Washington State’s Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary at The Atlantic by Garrett Epps.  Here is an excerpt (with links from the original):

Last week, the Washington Supreme Court, in a fairly pointed opinion, declared that, at least in its jurisdiction, numbers have real meaning.  And to those who have eyes to see, numbers make clear the truth about death-sentencing: It is arbitrary and racist in its application.

The court’s decision was based on two studies commissioned by lawyers defending Allen Gregory, who was convicted of rape and murder in Tacoma, Washington, in 2001 and sentenced to death by a jury there. The court appointed a special commissioner to evaluate the reports, hear the state’s response, and file a detailed evaluation.  The evidence, the court said, showed that Washington counties with larger black populations had higher rates of death sentences—and that in Washington, “black defendants were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants.” Thus, the state court concluded, “Washington’s death penalty is administered in an arbitrary and racially biased manner” — and violated the Washington State Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel punishment.”

The court’s opinion is painstaking — almost sarcastic — on one point: “Let there be no doubt — we adhere to our duty to resolve constitutional questions under our own [state] constitution, and accordingly, we resolve this case on adequate and independent state constitutional principles.”  “Adequate and independent” are magic words in U.S. constitutional law; they mean that the state court’s opinion is not based on the U.S. Constitution, and its rule will not change if the nine justices in Washington change their view of the federal Eighth Amendment.  Whatever the federal constitutionality of the death penalty, Washington state is now out of its misery.  

 Last spring, a conservative federal judge, Jeffrey Sutton of the Sixth Circuit, published 51 Imperfect Solutions: States and the Making of American Constitutional Law,  a book urging lawyers and judges to focus less on federal constitutional doctrine and look instead to state constitutions for help with legal puzzles.  That’s an idea that originated in the Northwest half-a-century ago, with the jurisprudence of former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Hans Linde.  It was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now.  State courts can never overrule federal decisions protecting federal constitutional rights; they can, however, interpret their own state constitutions to give more protection than does the federal Constitution.  There’s something bracing about this kind of judicial declaration of independence, when it is done properly.

Prior related posts:

October 15, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

"The Pope and the Capital Juror"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Aliza Cover now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Counterintuitively, the Pope’s recent announcement that the death penalty is impermissible in all circumstances may make death sentences easier to come by, at least in the short term.  The reason for this peculiarity is the “death qualification” of capital jurors — the process of questioning prospective jurors about their views on the death penalty and removing for cause those who are “substantially impaired” in their willingness to consider imposing a death verdict.

This Essay anticipates three problematic consequences of the Pope’s declaration, given a capital punishment system that relies on death-qualified juries.  First, prosecutors will likely be able to strike a greater number of death-averse jurors, thereby seating juries tilted in favor of death and obtaining death verdicts with greater ease.  Second, with more believing Catholics excluded from jury service, the representativeness — and hence the legitimacy — of capital juries will suffer.  Third, if the number of death verdicts rises with the ease of disqualification, one of the key “objective indicators” of “evolving standards of decency” will be skewed, registering more support for the death penalty despite — indeed, because of — societal movement against it.  The potential for these unexpected consequences to flow from a major pronouncement against the death penalty highlights how death qualification shapes and distorts the practice of capital punishment in our country.

October 13, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 12, 2018

Highlighting how constitutional problems with death penalty also apply to drug prohibitions

Over at Marijuana Moment, Kyle Jaeger in this post is quick to note interesting implications of key statements by the Washington Supreme Court in its big opinion yesterday striking down the state's death penalty as "unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner."  The post is titled "Successful Constitutional Case Against Death Penalty Works For War on Drugs, Too," and here are excerpts:

The movement to restore civil liberties and resolve systemic racial injustices in the criminal justice system scored a major victory on Thursday. And no, this time we’re not talking about ending the war on drugs.  Or at least not yet. Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty, with the state Supreme Court ruling that capital punishment is unconstitutional because “it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”

If you’re already seeing parallels to arguments for ending drug prohibition, you’re not alone.  Many of the same points the court made in their ruling against the death penalty ring true for the war on drugs, too.  For example, the court argued that death sentences have been disproportionately carried out against black defendants, at a rate more than four times higher than it is for white defendants....

Similarly, drug reform advocates have long maintained that prohibition is racially discriminatory given disproportionate rates of enforcement and arrests for drug-related offenses.  Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested for a drug-related crime, compared to white Americans.  That’s in spite of the fact that rates of consumption are roughly equal among both groups...

The Washington court said another factor that contributed to their decision concerned “contemporary standards and experience in other states.” “We recognize local, national, and international trends that disfavor capital punishment more broadly.  When the death penalty is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner, society’s standards of decency are even more offended.”

The parallel here couldn’t be more clear.  If such trends demonstrate a need to review and reform an existing law, the same rationale could theoretically apply to drug prohibition.  A majority of states have legalized cannabis for medical or adult-use, and national interest in changing federal marijuana laws has steadily grown in recent years.  Beyond marijuana, a broader drug reform push has included calls to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

Of course, marijuana is already legal in Washington, and no other states have yet legalized drugs, so this part of the ruling’s applicability to a potential case seeking to strike down broad drug prohibition in the state might not be quite ripe yet.  While it’s unclear whether the constitutionality of prohibition could be reasonably challenged on similar legal grounds, the similarities are striking. 

The justification for capital punishment was another point of interest for the justices, who noted that the system failed to achieve its “penological goals” of “retribution and deterrence.”  For all intents and purposes, drug prohibition too has failed to achieve similar goals.  Decades of drug war have not appreciably deterred consumption.  From 2001 to 2013, the rate of marijuana use among American adults almost doubled, for instance.  The Cato Institute analyzed the impact of the drug war in a 2017 report. It concluded that prohibitionist policies “fail on practically every margin.”...

A last note from the Washington Supreme Court justices: “Under article I, section 14, we hold that Washington’s death penalty is unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” the justices wrote.  “Given the manner in which it is imposed, the death penalty also fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.”  Now swap “death penalty” with “drug prohibition” in that last quote.  Fits like a glove.

Prior related post:

October 12, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Tennessee Gov grants last-minute reprieve so state can fulfill condemned's request to be executed by electric chair

As reported in this Tennessean article, "three hours before Edmund Zagorski was scheduled to die, Gov. Bill Haslam delayed the inmate's execution so the state could prepare to use the electric chair to kill him."  Here is more:

Haslam said a short delay would give the state time to accommodate Zagorski's preference for the electric chair over a controversial lethal injection cocktail.  Late Thursday night, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated two other legal hurdles that might have derailed the execution, making it more likely to move forward soon.

Haslam's temporary reprieve and the high court's decisions came after several days of rapid-fire developments put the state on the defensive and put the timing of Zagorski's execution in question. Haslam's reprieve was for 10 days, but it could take longer for a new execution date to be set by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down two stays Thursday night, essentially ending his remaining legal options to avoid execution:

The high court vacated a stay from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court had planned to weigh whether Zagorski may pursue claims his trial attorneys made errors in representing him.

A majority of justices rejected a request from Zagorski’s attorneys for another stay so the high court could review a constitutional challenge to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented, saying they would have reviewed the lethal injection protocol. In her dissent, Sotomayor said Tennessee's lethal injection method, which experts say leads to torture, should be scrutinized....

Zagorski sued this week to force the state to use the electric chair for his execution, saying the pain of electrocution would be preferable to the controversial lethal injection. A federal judge issued an order temporarily barring the state from executing him by lethal injection while that suit is pending. The suit could be moot if the state agrees to move forward with the electric chair.

Haslam specifically cited the electric chair suit in his reprieve, suggesting that a delay would give the state time to prepare to execute Zagorski using the electric chair. “I take seriously the responsibility imposed upon the Tennessee Department of Correction and me by law, and given the federal court’s decision to honor Zagorski’s last-minute decision to choose electrocution as the method of execution, this brief reprieve will give all involved the time necessary to carry out the sentence in an orderly and careful manner,” Haslam said in a statement....

The state initially refused Zagorski's request to be executed by the electric chair, saying he was too late and hadn't given two weeks' notice. But District Judge Aleta Trauger at noon Thursday said the state could not use lethal injection until she had considered Zagorski's claim.

Zagorski, 63, faces death for the April 1983 murders of John Dale Dotson and Jimmy Porter. He shot them, slit their throats and stole their money and a truck, prosecutors say. The two men had expected to buy 100 pounds of marijuana from Zagorski.

Verna Wyatt, an advocate with Tennessee Voices for Victims, has been in contact with Dotson’s family as the challenges and uncertainty piled up. “What this process does to the victims’ families is barbaric,” Wyatt said. “Thirty-four years, they don’t get justice and it’s an ongoing reliving of their grief and what happened to their loved one. If they won’t fix this system, it should be abolished. This is not justice on any level. It’s outrageous.”

Justice Sotomayor's dissent on the lethal injection claim is available at this link and it ends this way:

I accordingly would grant Zagorski’s request for a stay and grant certiorari to address what renders a method of execution “available” under Glossip. Capital prisoners are not entitled to pleasant deaths under the Eighth Amendment, but they are entitled to humane deaths. The longer we stand silent amid growing evidence of inhumanity in execution methods like Tennessee’s, the longer we extend our own complicity in state-sponsored brutality. I dissent.

October 11, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Washington Supreme Court strikes down state's death penalty based on its arbitrary administration

I am on road and so unable to read or comment on this big unanimous opinion. I hope to be able to do so before too long.

UPDATE:  Here is how the opinion for the court in Washington v. Gregory starts and ends:

Washington's death penalty laws have been declared unconstitutional not once, not twice, but three times.  State v. Baker, 81 Wn.2d 281, 501 P.2d 284 (1972); State v. Green, 91 Wn.2d 431, 588 P.2d 1370 (1979); State v. Frampton, 95 Wn.2d 469, 627 P.2d 922 (1981).  And today, we do so again.  None of these prior decisions held that the death penalty is per se unconstitutional, nor do we.  The death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner. While this particular case provides an opportunity to specifically address racial disproportionality, the underlying issues that underpin our holding are rooted in the arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is generally administered.  As noted by appellant, the use of the death penalty is unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant.  The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section 14 of our state constitution....

Under article I, section 14, we hold that Washington's death penalty is unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.  Given the manner in which it is imposed, the death penalty also fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.  Pursuant to RCW 10.95.090, "if the death penalty established by this chapter is held to be invalid by a final judgment of a court which is binding on all courts in the state, the sentence for aggravated first degree murder ... shall be life imprisonment."  All death sentences are hereby converted to life imprisonment.

October 11, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row"

The title of this post is the title of a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. Here is a summary of the report from this page at the CDPL website:

The death penalty is all but extinct in North Carolina.  Juries have recommended only a single new death sentence in the past four years.  The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006.  Yet, North Carolina has the sixth largest death row in the nation, with more than 140 men and women.  It is a relic of another era.

More than 100 of N.C.’s death row prisoners — about three-quarters — were sentenced in the 1990s, under wildly different laws.  During those years, North Carolina juries sent dozens of people a year to death row, more than Texas. The state’s courtrooms were dominated by prosecutors like Ken Honeycutt in Stanly County, who celebrated new death sentences by handing out noose lapel pins to his assistant prosecutors.

Beginning in 2001, after investigations and DNA testing began to reveal innocent people on death row, a wave of reforms transformed the landscape.  New laws guaranteed capital defendants such basic rights as trained defense attorneys and the right to see all the evidence in their cases.  A court mandate requiring prosecutors to seek death for virtually every first-degree murder — the only such requirement in the nation — was ended.

Today, the death penalty is seen as a tool to be used sparingly, instead of a bludgeon to be wielded in virtually every first-degree murder case.  Yet, new laws and shifting public opinion have had little impact on prisoners sentenced in another era.  The bulk of North Carolina’s death row is now made up of people who were tried 15, 20, even 25 years ago. They are prisoners of a state that has moved on, but has refused to reckon with its past.

CDPL’s report, Unequal Justice, finds that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:

92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country.  The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.

84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.

73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities.  Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.

73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder.  Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.

October 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

On eve of execution, Tennessee Supreme Court rejects challenge to state's execution protocol

As reported in this legal news story, "Tennessee’s execution method is not cruel and unusual, the state supreme court ruled Monday, three days before the state’s next execution, because inmates challenging its three-drug lethal injection protocol did not present a viable alternative." Here is more on the ruling and a link to the full opinion:

Twenty-seven death-row inmates claimed the execution protocol violates the Eight Amendment because midazolam, a sedative, does not counteract the burning and suffocating effects of the next two drugs: vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

But in the 4-to-1 ruling Monday, Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivins wrote: “(T)he Plaintiffs failed to carry their burden to establish that Tennessee’s current three-drug lethal injection protocol constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution or article 1, section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution. As a result, we need not address the Plaintiffs’ claim that the three-drug protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain.”

That burden, Bivins said, included offering a viable alternative, as laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross (2015), which unsuccessfully challenged Oklahoma’s virtually identical execution protocol.

The Tennessee inmates said at trial that the state could execute them through Tennessee’s other execution protocol: one lethal dose of pentobarbital. Texas and Georgia executed people that way this year.

But the Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed and sided with the state, which said it could not obtain pentobarbital. Many pharmaceutical companies refuse to provide the drug for executions. Bivins also ruled that the court could not “establish new law” by accepting the inmates’ argument that Tennessee secrecy laws involving death penalty protocols affected their ability to argue their case.

Tennessee is scheduled to execute Edmund Zagorski on Thursday, October 11.

October 9, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 06, 2018

"Execution by Nitrogen Hypoxia: The Search for Scientific Consensus"

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

With the declining ability to use lethal injection in executions, states are beginning to take serious consideration of using nitrogen gas in capital punishment.  The article first examines the recent shift away from lethal injection and whether nitrogen hypoxia will survive under current legal jurisprudence.  Next, the article identifies human studies on accidental deaths from nitrogen.  Third, the article examines the recent rise in nitrogen use in suicides and by right to die advocates.  Finally, the article compares the use of nitrogen as an execution method with its use as a euthanizing agent in veterinary medicine.

October 6, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Challenging issues for SCOTUS in criminal cases that may impact only a few persons ever and the entire structure of government always

On the second oral argument day of the new Supreme Court Term, criminal law issues are front and center.  Here is SCOTUSblog's overview via this round-up post:

Today the eight-justice court will tackle two more cases.  The first is Gundy v. United States, in which the justices will consider whether a provision of the federal sex-offender act violates the nondelegation doctrine.  Mila Sohoni previewed the case for this blog. Kathryn Adamson and Sarah Evans provide a preview at Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, while Matthew Cavedon and Jonathan Skrmetti look at the case for the Federalist Society Review.  Today’s second case is Madison v. Alabama, an Eighth Amendment challenge to the execution of a death-row inmate who has dementia and cannot remember his crime.  This blog’s preview, which first appeared at Howe on the Court, came from Amy Howe. Lauren Devendorf and Luis Lozada preview the case for Cornell. Subscript Law’s graphic explainer is here.  Tucker Higgins reports on the case for CNBC.

As the title of this post suggests, I think the Madison capital case is likely to impact only a few persons ever: only a few dozen of murderers are these days subject to real execution dates each year and only a very few of those persons are likely to able to make a credible claim of incompetence to seek to prevent the carrying out of a death sentence.  The jurisprudential and philosophical issues in Madison still are, of course, very important and lots of SCOTUS cases may end up impacting only a few persons.  But I cannot help but note what seems to me to be relatively small stakes in Madison. 

I stress the limits of Madison in part because, as my post title suggests, I think the Gundy case could be the sleeper case of the Term because a major ruling on the nondelegation doctrine could radically reshape the entire modern administrative state.  In this post last month, the original commentary of Wayne Logan concerning Gundy highlighted that SCOTUS has "not invalidated a congressional delegation in over eighty years ..., [and] the issue [taken up in Gundy could be] clearing the way for a potential major assault on the modern administrative state, which is shaped by countless congressional delegations of authority to agencies."

Prior related preview posts:

UPDATE via SCOTUSblog:  The transcript of oral argument in Gundy v. United States is available on the Supreme Court website; the transcript in Madison v. Alabama is also available; and authored by Amy Howe here, "Argument analysis: A narrow victory possible for death-row inmate with dementia?" 

October 2, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)