Advocates Say California Ballot Initiative to Limit Death Penalty Appeals Risks Executing the Innocent
As California prosecutors and law enforcement officials submitted signatures backing a ballot initiative intended to speed up the state's dysfunctional death penalty appeals process, a coalition of innocence advocates and wrongfully convicted exonerees warned that the proposal will substantially increase the risk that California will execute an innocent person. The initiative, sponsored by district attorneys with major funding by the state's prison guards’ union, would respond to appellate delays caused by the state's failure to timely meet its obligation of providing legal representation to hundreds of death row prisoners by mandating that lawyers who are deemed qualified to handle capital appeals must accept court appointments in these cases. The initiative also would impose time limits on appellate briefing and review of death penalty cases. The proposal would continue a legislative cap on the number of lawyers the Habeas Corpus Resource Center -- the state's institutional capital defender with the most experience in capital representation -- may hire and limit the types of assistance the center may provide to other lawyers appointed to handle these cases. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, whose office has been been disqualified from prosecuting one capital case and is under fire for withholding information from defense lawyers and lying to courts about its use of prison informants, said the crimes for which defendants have been sentenced to death "are so horrendous there is no real punishment other than the death penalty that will bring justice in those cases.” He described the submission of the signatures as a “really good day for the victims of crimes across California.” But innocence advocates and exonerees disagree. Alex Simpson, Associate Director of the California Innocence Project, said “California’s legal process in death penalty cases exists for a reason: to make sure that innocent people aren’t executed. This measure guts these important protections by applying unrealistic and arbitrary timelines, greatly increasing the chance that we send an innocent person to the death chamber and allow a guilty person a free pass to victimize again.” Barry Scheck, Director of the national Innocence Project in New York, warned that "California would be making a grave and irreversible mistake by approving this initiative." And Randy Steidl, one of the nation's 156 death row exonerees and current Board President of Witness to Innocence, summed up the problems he sees with the initiative, saying "This initiative will lead to the execution of innocent people just like me.”
California's systemic failure to provide representation to the state's death row prisoners led a federal judge to declare its death penalty unconstitutional. That decision was later reversed on appeal on procedural grounds.
(S. Emery, "Signatures turned in for ballot measure to overhaul death penalty system," Orange County Register, May 19, 2016; Innocence Projects and wrongfully convicted individuals, "Press Release: Innocence Projects and Wrongfully Convicted Individuals Express Concern that Proposed Ballot," May 19, 2016.) See California, Arbitrariness and Innocence.Tweet
NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty
I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."
(I. Beverly Lake, "Why Protecting the Innocent From a Death Sentence Isn’t Enough," The Huffington Post, May 18, 2016.) See New Voices and Innocence.Tweet
Federal Court Ruling Permits Arizona Lethal Injection Challenge to Move Forward, Keeps Executions on Hold
U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake ruled on May 18 that a lethal injection challenge brought by Arizona death row prisoners may move forward, preventing Arizona from carrying out any executions before the reported expiration date of its supply of a key execution drug. Arizona has said that it is unable to replenish its supply of midazolam, an anti-anxiety medication that a number of states have used as a sedative in multi-drug lethal injection procedures. The death row prisoners are challenging the state's use of midazolam in conjunction with a paralytic drug, saying that "midazolam is not reliable as a sedative, which means the paralytic will mask the inmate’s pain." Judge Wake called the argument "plausible on its face," and said that it was not blocked by earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Baze v. Rees had reviewed the constitutionality of a drug protocol that had employed an anesthetic that, unlike midazolam, "would render the inmate insensate to pain caused by the paralytic and the potassium chloride." Wake also said that the Supreme Court's decision in Glossip v. Gross—which involved midazolam but was decided at a preliminary stage of a challenge brought by Oklahoma death row prisoners, without a full evidentiary record—did not control the outcome of this case because the Arizona inmates "will present substantial new evidence challenging midazolam’s efficacy as a sedative." The judge also criticized the state's conduct in carrying out six separate executions, saying, "In recent history, the Department has deviated from its published execution procedures in ways ranging from minor to fundamental. It has deviated in the course of an execution without explanation." Judge Wake said that Arizona's "unlimited major deviations" from its execution protocol, and its claim that the state had unfettered discretion to deviate from its protocol at any time, "threaten serious pain." The ruling paves the way for further litigation on the prisoners' claims that Arizona's protocol violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, the court dismissed other claims brought by a coalition of media groups that the state's denial of information about the drugs violated the First Amendment. Previously, Arizona had used drugs believed to have been illegally brought into the country to execute Richard Landrigan. The FDA impounded a later shipment of drugs that it said Arizona had attempted to import from India in violation of federal law.
(C. McDaniel, "Arizona Won’t Be Carrying Out Executions Before Its Drugs Expire," BuzzFeed News, May 18, 2016; M. Kiefer, The Arizona Republic, "Ruling keeps Arizona executions on hold," May 18, 2016.) Read Judge Wake's ruling here. See Lethal Injection.Tweet
One year after the Nebraska legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and overrode a gubernatorial veto of that measure, actions in legislatures across the country suggest that the state's efforts signalled a growing movement against the death penalty by conservative legislators and that support for the death penalty among Republican legislators is no longer a given. Reporting in The Washington Post, Amber Phillips writes that Republican legislators in ten states sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to repeal capital punishment during the current legislative sessions. She reports that although these repeal bills have not become law, they have made unprecedented progress in several states. In Utah, a repeal bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart (pictured)—a former death penalty proponent who supported the state's firing squad law—came closest, winning approval in the state Senate and in a House committee. Missouri's bill saw floor debate in the Senate, and Kentucky's received a committee hearing for the first time in 40 years. An effort to return death penalty support to the platform of the Kansas Republican Party failed by a vote of 90-75, and the Kansas College Republicans passed a resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty, highlighting a generational divide on the issue. Dalton Glasscock, former president of Kansas College Republicans, said, "My generation is looking for consistency on issues. I believe if we say we're pro-life, we need to be truly pro-life, from conception to death." The National Association of Evangelicals also changed their stance on the issue, acknowledging "a growing number of evangelicals," who now call for abolition. Though a majority of Republicans still support the death penalty, Phillips writes that "it's notable that a year after we wondered whether Nebraska was an anomaly or the start of a trend, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that conservative opposition to the death penalty may indeed be a trend -- a small but growing one."(A. Phillips, "Death penalty support is no longer a given in red states," The Washington Post, May 18, 2016.) See New Voices. Tweet
On 100th Anniversary of Notorious Waco Lynching, Research Shows Link Between Lynching and Capital Punishment
100 years ago, Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black farmhand accused of murdering his white female employer was lynched on the steps of the Waco, Texas courthouse (pictured), moments after Washington's trial ended and only seven days after the murder had occurred. The gruesome lynching took place in front of law enforcement personnel and 15,000 spectators, none of whom intervened to end the violence. Washington, whom reports indicate may have been intellectually disabled, initially denied involvement in the murder, but then purportedly confessed to police. A mob of 500 vigilantes searched the county prison in an unsuccessful attempt to find Washington, whom the sheriff had moved to other counties for his safety. An estimated 2,500 people—many carrying guns and threatening to lynch Washington—packed the courtroom during the short trial. As the jury read the guilty verdict and before the judge could record its death sentence, a man reportedly yelled, “Get the n****r,” and the crowd descended on Washington, carrying him out of the courthouse with a chain around his neck, while others attacked him with bricks and knives. The incident became a turning point in anti-lynching efforts and contributed to the prominence of the NAACP. Ignored for decades, Washington's lynching recently gained local attention and prompted a condemnation by the Waco City Council and McLennan County commissioners in 2006. Studies have shown that counties that historically have had high numbers of lynchings continue to have higher levels of homicide, police violence against racial minorities, disproportionate sentencing of black defendants, and more frequent use of capital punishment. A 2005 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of death sentences, and especially the number of death sentences for black defendants, was higher in states with histories of lynching. “What the lynching proved about our community was that African-American men and women were not viewed as humans or equal citizens,” Peaches Henry, president of the Waco NAACP said. “While they no longer hang people upon trees, we do see situations where African-American lives are not valued.” McLennan County, where Washington was lynched, ranks among the 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for more than half of all death sentences in the United States.
(J.B. Smith, "‘Waco Horror’ at 100: Why Jesse Washington’s lynching still matters," Waco Tribune, May 15, 2016. Caution: Source article contains graphic images and descriptions. Photo by Jerry Larson.) See Race.Tweet
On May 13, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced that it would impose strict distribution controls to block states from obtaining and using its medicines in executions. In a statement, the company said, "Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment." With Pfizer's announcement, every major pharmaceutical company that produces drugs that have been used in lethal injections has voiced opposition to involvement in executions. The pharmaceutical companies are joined by medical organizations including the American Pharmacists Association, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacies, and the American Medical Association, which all oppose their members' participation in executions. “It’s very significant that the pharmaceutical industry is speaking with a unified, singular voice,” said Megan McCracken, a lawyer at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. “Saying we don’t want our products used this way and actually taking steps to ensure that they aren’t." Pfizer's announcement will make it more difficult for states to obtain lethal injection drugs on the open market and through drug redistributors. The unavailability of execution drugs from these sources has driven states to seek alternative, and in some cases illegal, sources for these drugs, and has caused legal challenges in numerous states.
(E. Eckholm, "Pfizer Blocks the Use of Its Drugs in Executions," The New York Times, May 13, 2016; M. Berman, "Pfizer tightens restrictions to keep drugs from being used in executions," The Washington Post, May 13, 2016; R. Wolf and J. O'Donnell, "Pfizer rules on lethal injection drugs may limit death penalty executions," USA Today, May 13, 2016.) See Lethal Injection. Read Pfizer's statement.Tweet
Newly Disclosed California Corrections Documents Reveal Questionable Practices, Huge Price Tag for Execution Drugs
More than 12,000 pages of California prison documents disclosed by court order on May 7 reveal problematic conduct by state officials and the extraordinarily high price tag the state would have paid for lethal injection drugs if it were carrying out executions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which obtained the documents after a six-month legal battle, say they show that the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) significantly understated drug costs, advocated violating federal law in attempting to acquire execution drugs, considered obtaining execution drugs from questionable sources, and downplayed the seriousness of botched executions in other states and the prospects that botches could occur in California. The ACLU requested the documents under the California Public Records Act, saying they were crucial to informed public comment on California's recently-proposed one-drug execution protocol. Among the information revealed in the records were wildly inconsistent estimates of the cost of obtaining pentobarbital—one of four proposed lethal injection drugs. CDCR initially estimated drug costs at $4,193 per execution. Emails indicate that a compounding pharmacy agreed in May 2014 to provide 200 grams of the drug to the state for an initial cost of $500,000, but only if the company's name was kept secret. A second source quoted a price of $1,109 for 500 milligrams of pentobarbital. The emails state that 324 grams would be required to execute the 18 inmates who have exhausted their appeals, for a total cost of $718,632, plus unspecified fees to cover "service costs." The proposed protocol, however, calls for 60 grams: "Estimated chemical costs are based on a total of 60 grams. This includes the 37.5 grams required by the regulations for carrying out the execution plus 22.5 grams used during training." Based on the price quotes from the emails, 60 grams of pentobarbital would cost between $133,080 and $150,000, bringing the cost of 18 executions to $1.06-$1.20 million.
The documents also show that CDCR considered obtaining the drugs from foreign sources, despite FDA action blocking other states from importing execution drugs because such imports violate federal law.
(M. Dolan, "ACLU wins access to 12,000 pages of internal prison documents on California's plans for lethal injection," Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2016; M. Dolan, "The drugs to execute criminals could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, California prison agency records show," Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2016; L. Lye and A. Zamora, "Our Fears Confirmed: Proposed Lethal Injection Regulations Fraught with Deep and Troubling Flaws," ACLU of Northern California blog, May 10, 2016.) See Lethal Injection and Costs. The released documents can be accessed here. Read California's proposed lethal injection protocol here.Tweet
Texas' Third Court of Appeals heard oral argument on May 11 on the state's appeal of a trial court ruling requiring it to reveal the identity of its lethal injection drug supplier in a pair of April 2014 executions. The suit, initially brought on behalf of the two executed prisoners, now implicates Texas' Public Information Act. The prisoners' attorneys argued that identifying the supplier of pentobarbital, the drug used by Texas in executions, was necessary to verify that the chemicals had been prepared correctly and would not cause an unconstitutionally painful execution. Then-Attorney General (now Texas Governor) Greg Abbott said that releasing the drug supplier's identity would present a threat of physical harm, because a previous drug supplier had received hate mail and threats after being identified. In December 2014, District Judge Darlene Byrne rejected Abbott's argument and ordered Texas to disclose the identity of the compounding pharmacy that had prepared the drug. The state appealed that decision. In Wednesday's hearing, defense lawyers characterized the alleged threats as "vague" and nonspecific and said they were no basis to bar public disclosure of the information. Prosecutors, without identifying the source of any threat, argued that the safety of the pharmacy was at risk because, "There's an identifiable group of people who think lethal injection is wrong—morally, politically and socially—and they are determined to oppose it." Chief Justice Jeff Rose raised concerns about the implications of allowing a broad exemption to the Public Information Act, asking, "Where do we draw the line … without blowing a hole in the (Public Information Act) big enough to drive a truck through anytime the government says, 'Well, gee, this can cause harm?'" Justice Bob Pemberton said, "It seems a potentially boundless exemption." The scope of the decision is likely to be limited, because the Texas legislature passed a law shielding execution drug suppliers, which took effect in September 2015.
(M. Graczyk, "Texas Fighting Order to Disclose Execution Drug Supplier," Associated Press, May 10, 2016; M. Ward, "Court weighs secrecy exemption for execution-drugs," Houston Chronicle, May 11, 2016.) See Lethal Injection.Tweet
UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stayed Madison's execution, ordering oral argument on his competency claim. Previously: Alabama is preparing to execute Vernon Madison (pictured) on May 12, as his lawyers continue to press their claim that the 65-year-old prisoner is incompetent to be executed. Defense lawyers say Madison, whom a trial judge sentenced to death despite the jury's recommendation of a life sentence, suffers from mental illness and has additional cognitive impairments, retrograde amnesia, and dementia as a result of strokes in May 2015 and January 2016. The strokes also have caused a significant drop in Madison's IQ, which now tests at 72, within the range the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as supporting a diagnosis of intellectual disability. In addition, the strokes have left Madison legally blind. In its 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to execute mentally incompetent prisoners, whom it defined as people who do not understand their punishment or why they are to be executed. Madison's lawyers have unsuccessfully argued in Alabama's state and federal courts that, because of his mental impairments, he is unable to understand why the state will execute him. An Alabama trial judge ruled earlier this month that Madison is competent, and the court denied his motion for a stay of execution. On May 6, he presented his competency claim to the federal district court, which denied relief on May 10. Madison's lawyers have appealed that ruling. Madison has been on death row for more than 30 years. His conviction for the murder of a white police officer has been overturned twice, once because prosecutors intentionally excluded black jurors from serving on the case and once because the prosecution presented improper testimony from an expert witness. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Madison's lawyers have sought review of his case in light of Johnson and are also seeking a stay of execution to permit him to litigate the constitutionality of the state's judicial override provisions.
(K. Chandler, "FEDERAL JUDGE DENIES STAY OF EXECUTION FOR ALABAMA MAN," Associated Press, May 10, 2016; K. Stein, "Judge rules that Alabama death row inmate is competent to be executed May 12," Birmingham News (AL.com), May 3, 2016.) Read Madison's motion to stay his execution to permit him to challenge judicial override here. See Mental Illness and Race.Tweet
Just 27% of Houston-area residents prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder, according to a new report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Harris County, the largest county in the Houston metropolitan area, "earned its reputation as the 'death penalty capital of America,'” the report says, "having executed more people since 1976 ... than any other county in the nation." At its peak, Harris County sentenced 44 people to death during a three-year period (1994-1996). However, declining public support for capital punishment has contributed to a drop in the number of death sentences the county imposes. Over the last three years, five people were sentenced to death in Harris County, with no new death sentences imposed in 2015. Texas is experiencing a similar statewide trend: while the state imposed a high of 48 death sentences in 1999, it imposed only two new death sentences in 2015. The percentage of Houston residents who consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder has "dropped steadily," the report says, including a decline of 12 percentage points since 2008. It attributes the erosion of support for the death penalty to "recent revelations of discriminatory sentencing, innocent persons being freed from Death Row just before their scheduled executions, and botched lethal injections," along with the comparatively greater costs of seeking the death penalty, rather than life imprisonment, which the report says "have risen dramatically." (Click image to enlarge.)
(R. Holeywell, "Greater Houston is Becoming Increasingly Democratic, and Other Highlights From Our 2016 Survey," The Urban Edge, April 25, 2016; "Thirty-five years of the Kinder Houston Area Survey: Tracking Responses to a Changing America," Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University, April 25, 2016.) See Public Opinion and Sentencing.Tweet
Florida Court to Hear Argument on Impact of U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Declaring Death Penalty Process Unconstitutional
On May 5, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Timothy Hurst, whose death sentence was overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Hurst v. Florida. The state court must determine whether the high court's ruling, which struck down Florida's sentencing scheme, entitles Hurst to a new sentencing hearing, reduces his sentence to life without parole, or requires some other outcome. The case may also decide how the Hurst ruling will affect the nearly 400 people on Florida's death row. Hurst's attorneys say he should have his death sentence reduced because, "persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony are entitled to have their now-unconstitutional death sentences replaced by sentences of life without parole." That position received support in an amicus brief filed by three former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court, a former state representative, a former prosecutor, and past presidents of the American Bar Association. The justice and legal experts argue that Hurst "held Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional," and that in such circumstances Florida law requires all death sentences imposed under the statute to be reduced to life without parole. The state attorney general's office has argued that state law requires blanket imposition of new sentences only if the death penalty itself is declared unconstitutional, and that Hurst only declared Florida's method of imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. Florida has the nation's second-largest death row, with 396 people as of January 1, 2016, before the state legislature rewrote the sentencing procedure to require a unanimous jury finding of at least one aggravating circumstance, and at least a 10-2 vote to impose a death sentence.
(S. Bousquet, "Three former Florida Supreme Court chief justices urge court to overturn hundreds of death sentences," Tampa Bay Times, May 3, 2016; M. Berman, "Florida has nearly 400 death-row inmates. Will the state overturn all of their death sentences?" The Washington Post, May 4, 2016; "FLORIDA'S HIGH COURT URGED TO THROW OUT DEATH SENTENCES," Associated Press, May 3, 2016.) See Sentencing.Tweet
This week, two decades-old cases involving men with innocence claims reached final resolution: Louisiana inmate Gary Tyler (pictured) was released after 42 years in prison and Paul Gatling was exonerated in New York more than 50 years after his wrongful conviction. Both men had once faced the death penalty. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old white boy in 1974 during a riot over school integration. A white mob had attacked a bus filled with black students, including Tyler. After the shooting, Tyler was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace for talking back to a sheriff's deputy. The bus and students were searched, but no weapon was found. Police later claimed to have found a gun on the bus during a later search. That gun turned out to have been stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff's department. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury when he was 17 years old. His death sentence was overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Louisiana's mandatory death penalty statute unconstitutional in 1976, and his life sentence was recently overturned after the Supreme Court barred mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders. Tyler was released on April 29, after the district attorney's office agreed to vacate his murder conviction, allow him to plead guilty to manslaughter, and receive the maximum sentence of 21 years, less than half the time he had already served. Mary Howell, one of Tyler's attorneys, said, "This has been a long and difficult journey for all concerned. I feel confident that Gary will continue the important work he began years ago while in prison, to make a real difference in helping to mentor young people faced with difficult challenges in their lives." On May 2, 81-year-old Paul Gatling was exonerated. Brooklyn prosecutors charged Gatling with capital murder in 1963 despite the fact that he did not fit the description of the killer and no physical evidence linked him to the killing. He pled guilty to second-degree murder after his lawyer told him he would get the death penalty if the case went to trial. Governor Nelson Rockefeller commuted Gatling's sentence in 1974 and he was released from prison, but he continued to seek exoneration, in part, because his conviction prevented him from voting. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, whose Conviction Review Unit reinvestigated the case, said, "Paul Gatling repeatedly proclaimed his innocence even as he faced the death penalty back in the 60s. He was pressured to plead guilty and, sadly, did not receive a fair trial.... We're here because Mr. Gatling would not let go of his demand to be deemed innocent."
("Gary Tyler a free man after more than 4 decades in Angola," Associated Press, April 29, 2016; B. Herbert, "Gary Tyler’s Lost Decades," The New York Times, February 5, 2007; M. Lennihan, "More than 50 years later, Virginia man exonerated for NYC killing," CBS News, May 2, 2016.) See Race and Innocence.Tweet
U.S. Supreme Court Orders Alabama to Reconsider Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure
The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and has directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Johnson, represented by lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence, which was imposed by a trial judge after a nonunanimous jury vote of 10-2 recommending a death sentence, as violating the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. According to Johnson's Supreme Court pleadings, the trial court had instructed the jury that it did not need to unanimously agree to any particular fact that would have made Johnson eligible for the death penalty, nor did it have to identify for the court any specific aggravating factors that it found to be present in the case. Hurst ruled that Florida's capital sentencing procedures, which permitted critical factual findings necessary to impose a death sentence to be made by the trial judge, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing scheme suffers from the same constitutional defect and that, "[i]n Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury." Bryan Stevenson, EJI's executive director, said that the Court's ruling could have systemic implications: "This ruling implicates all [capital] cases in Alabama. We have argued that Alabama's statute no longer conforms to current constitutional requirements. The Court's ruling today supports that view." In March, an Alabama Circuit Judge barred the death penalty in four cases on the grounds that Alabama's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision to order reconsideration of Johnson's case could also affect a court challenge currently pending in the Delaware Supreme Court over the constitutionality of its death penalty statute, which employs similar sentencing procedures. Likewise, defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that the death penalty statute in that state — which has been repealed by the legislature pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November — impermissibly vests key fact-finding authority in the trial judge, rather than the jury.
(K. Faulk, "U.S. Supreme Court vacates judgment in case of man who killed Pelham police officer," AL.com, May 2, 2016; C. Geidner, "Supreme Court Calls For Alabama Courts To Review State’s Death Sentencing Process," BuzzFeed, May 2, 2016; Equal Justice Initiative, "U.S. Supreme Court Rules Alabama Death Penalty Must Be Re-Examined Based on New Law," May 2, 2016; P. Hammel and J. Duggan, "Supreme Court says Florida’s system of deciding death sentences, a process similar to Nebraska’s, is unconstitutional," Omaha World-Herald, January 20, 2016.) Read Bart Johnson's Supreme Court Petition for Rehearing here. See Sentencing and U.S. Supreme Court.Tweet
A Florida trial judge in St. Lucie County sentenced Eriese Tisdale to death on April 29 for the killing of a sheriff's sergeant, relying on sentencing procedures from the version of Florida's death penalty law that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida. The jury in Tisdale's case considered the evidence in the penalty phase of Tisdale's trial under the old Florida law, voting 9-3 to recommend a death sentence without specifying the aggravating factors that would make Tisdale eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing procedure in Hurst because a judge, rather than a jury, made the factual determination of aggravating circumstances that were necessary to impose a death sentence. In response to Hurst, Florida enacted a new law, which went into effect March 7, requiring juries to make unanimous determinations of aggravating factors, and preconditioning any death sentence upon a jury vote of at least 10-2 vote in favor of death. The statute declares "If fewer than 10 jurors determine that the defendant should be sentenced to death, the jury's recommendation to the court shall be a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole." In those circumstances, the law states, "the court shall impose the recommended sentence." Tisdale's penalty phase was tried in October 2015, before the Supreme Court declared the sentencing procedures unconstitutional, and the jury's 9-3 recommendation for death came before the new law adopted the 10-2 requirement. His lawyers argued that he could not be sentenced to death because the old procedures were unconstitutional and the jury vote did not qualify as a death recommendation under the new law. But a St. Lucie County judge ruled that the jury's unanimous vote to convict Tisdale for the murder of a law enforcement official amounted to a unanimous finding of an aggravating circumstance, accepted the jury's 9-3 death recommendation, and sentenced Tisdale to death. Tisdale is the first person sentenced to death in Florida since the new law went into effect.
(M. McRoberts, "Eriese Tisdale sentenced to death by judge for killing Sgt. Gary Morales," WPTV, April 29, 2016; M. Holsman, "Judge sentences convicted cop killer Tisdale to death," TC Palm, April 29, 2016.) See Sentencing and Recent Legislative Activity.Tweet
Ruling Expected on Arizona Execution Hold, Amid Systemic Problems With Arbitrariness, Lethal Injection
Arizona's last execution, the botched lethal injection of Joseph Wood in July 2014, sparked controversy and legal challenges to the state's lethal injection procedure, and came at a time when Arizona was struggling not only with the logistics of carrying out executions, but also broader issues of fairness and costs. In a sweeping piece for The Arizona Republic, Michael Kiefer, who witnessed Wood's execution, describes the historical and legal background that led up to Arizona's current hold on executions. He describes how Arizona's list of statutory aggravators — factors that make a case eligible for the death penalty — became so expansive that then-Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a proposed aggravator in 2014 because she worried it would make the death penalty law unconstitutionally broad and vague. Kiefer notes Arizona's 42% reversal rate in capital cases, meaning that 129 of the 306 death sentences in the state were reversed or remanded by higher courts. Nine people have been exonerated in Arizona, and one, Jeffrey Landrigan, was executed despite test results weeks before his execution that found DNA from two different men, but not Landrigan, on the victim's clothing. Landrigan was executed in 2010 using lethal injection drugs imported illegally from London. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration later seized the remaining drugs, causing Arizona to switch first to pentobarbital and later to midazolam, the first drug in Wood's botched execution. U.S. District Judge Neil Wake halted all executions in Arizona, asking the state to clearly specify what drugs it has and how it intends to carry out executions. His ruling is expected soon.
Kiefer's article also explores the arbitrariness and disproportionality of Arizona capital sentences, contrasting the crimes for which defendants were sentenced to death with those of defendants who received lesser sentences. Tom West, for example, bludgeoned a man who interrupted him during a burglary and tied the man up so West could escape. The man, who was alive when West tied him up, later died and West was capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and executed. On the other hand, Crisantos Moroyoqui-Yocupicio killed a drug-cartel associate and decapitated him, was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and received a 14-year sentence. Seeking the death penalty in Arizona is significantly more expensive than seeking a lesser sentence: defense costs in non-capital first-degree murder trials average $27,191, while a case resulting in a death sentence costs an average of $1,066,187 in defense costs alone. The case of Jeffrey Martinson, whose conviction was thrown out as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, has cost $3.67 million so far. The 306 death sentences imposed in Arizona since 1976 have resulted in 37 executions and 21 deaths in prison of other causes, while 119 prisoners remain on death row. The rest were re-sentenced or released.Tweet
Missouri Execution Drug Supplier Being Sold After Committing Nearly 2,000 Violations of Pharmacy Regulations
The assets of The Apothecary Shoppe, a Tulsa, Oklahoma compounding pharmacy that provided lethal injection drugs to Missouri, have been auctioned off after the company defaulted on its loans, and is being sold after admitting to nearly two thousand violations of pharmacy regulations, according to a report by BuzzFeed News. Inspectors from the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Oklahoma Board of Pharmacy found that the drug compounder had committed "significant" violations of pharmacy regulations, including engaging in questionable potency, disinfecting, and sterilization practices. State investigators witnessed improper refrigeration, storage, and sterilization practices at the pharmacy and caught the company producing drugs without legitimate medical need, improperly expanding drug expiration dates, and operating during periods in which its lab was not certified. In 2013 and 2014, the pharmacy prepared execution drugs for at least three Missouri executions, receiving cash payments from the Department of Corrections. In challenges to Missouri's lethal injection practices, death-row prisoners – hampered by state execution secrecy provisions – argued in court that “Compounding-pharmacy products do not meet the requirements for identity, purity, potency, efficacy, and safety that pharmaceuticals produced under FDA regulation must meet.” Among the possibilities they listed, were that the drug may not be sterile, may be less potent than it needs to be, or may be contaminated. Missouri responded in its court filings that the condemned prisoners' concerns were speculative and that the inmates did "not make a plausible claim that Missouri’s execution procedure is sure or very likely to cause serious illness or needless suffering and give rise to sufficiently imminent dangers.” The problems found at The Apothecary Shoppe confirmed the prisoners' concerns.
The company admitted to committing 1,892 violations of pharmacy regulations. State regulators had demanded that the pharmacy recall its products and cease compounding new drugs until it complied with regulations. The pharmacy was fined $50,000, and the licenses of The Apothecary Shoppe and its head pharmacist were placed on five years' probation.
(C. McDaniel, "Pharmacy That Mixed Executions Drugs Is Being Sold After Admitting Numerous Violations," BuzzFeed News, April 21, 2016.) See Lethal Injection.Tweet
Supreme Court Asked to Review Texas' Use of Factors Based on a Fictional Character to Reject Death Row Prisoner's Intellectual Disability Claim
Bobby James Moore (pictured) faces execution in Texas after the state's Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his claim of intellectual disability in September 2015, saying he failed to meet Texas' “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them), an unscientific seven-pronged test which a judge based on the character Lennie Smalls from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." In doing so, the appeals court reversed a lower court's ruling that tracked the scientific diagnostic criteria set forth by medical professionals, which found that Moore had intellectual disability. On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will conference to decide whether to hear Moore's case. Moore's lawyers argue, supported by briefing from national and international mental health advocates, that he has intellectual disability and that the non-scientific standard employed by Texas in denying his intellectual disability claim violated the Court's 2014 ruling in Hall v. Florida. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the 8th Amendment prohibits the use of the death penalty against persons with mental retardation, now known as intellectual disability. But Atkins left it to the states to adopt procedures for determining whether defendants were intellectually disabled. Hall struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability because it "disregards established medical practice." Texas is the only state that uses the Briseño factors, which include whether the crime required forethought or planning, whether the person is capable of lying effectively, and whether the defendant is more of a leader or a follower. The state court disregarded Moore's clear history of intellectual disability, documented since childhood, and IQ scores ranging from the low 50s to the low 70s, in favor of Texas' idiosyncratic method.
(A. Arceneaux, "Texas is using “Of Mice and Men” to justify executing this man. Seriously." Salon, April 21, 2016; J. Barton, "Judging Steinbeck’s Lennie," The Life of the Law, September 2013.) Read the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in Ex parte Bobby Moore here and the briefs of the parties filed in the U.S. Supreme Court here. See Intellectual Disability.Tweet
Tennessee Legislature Unanimously Passes Bill to Require Preservation of Biological Evidence in Capital Cases
On April 13, the Tennessee House of Representatives joined the Tennessee Senate in unanimously approving a bill that would mandate the preservation of biological evidence in cases involving a death sentence. The House voted 94-0 in favor of the bill after the Senate had passed the bill on April 4 by a 31-0 vote. If the governor signs the bill, such evidence must be held until the defendant is executed, dies, or is released from prison. Destruction of evidence will be handled as criminal contempt. At the House hearing for the bill, Ray Krone (pictured), who was exonerated from Arizona's death row and now lives in Tennessee, testified to the importance of DNA evidence. Krone was exonerated after DNA from the victim's shirt was tested and was found to match neither the victim nor Krone. "That DNA not only saved my life.” Krone said. “It also, because it was preserved by the Phoenix Police Department, it identified the true murderer.” DNA testing also played a key role in the Tennessee death row exonerations of Paul House and Michael McCormick. A March 2007 Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project (now the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project) had found that Tennessee death penalty law failed to comply with ABA recommendations on the collection, preservation, and testing of DNA and other evidence. The ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project has found that only 2 of the 14 states whose death penalty procedures it assessed complied with the ABA recommendations on preservation of biological evidence in death penalty cases.
(J. Knutson, "Bill Aims To Maintain Evidence Until Sentencing Or Execution," NewsChannel 5, March 30, 2016; S. Hale, "Senate Committee Advances Bill Mandating Evidence Preservation in Death Penalty Cases," Nashville Scene, March 22, 2016.) View the legislative history for SB 2342/HB 2377 here. See Innocence, Recent Legislative Activity, and Studies and Additional Resources.Tweet
Supreme Court to Consider Hearing Texas Capital Case Where Expert Said Defendant Posed Greater Danger Because He Was Black
UPDATE: The Supreme Court docket indicates that its conferencing of Mr. Buck's case, originally set for April 22, has been rescheduled. The Court is now scheduled to considering the case on April 29. PREVIOUSLY: On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to confer on whether to review the case of Duane Buck (pictured), who was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas after a psychologist testified that he posed an increased risk of future dangerousness because he is black. In the case, the defense presented psychologist, Walter Quijano, as its own witness, even though he had previously testified in other cases to a supposed link between race and future dangerousness. During cross-examination, the prosecution asked Quijano - without objection by the defense - whether "the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons." Quijano replied, "yes." The prosecution then returned to this race-based testimony during its closing argument in calling for the jury to sentence Buck to death. Buck is one of six defendants who a Texas Attorney General's report identified as having unfair capital-sentencing hearings that were tainted by Quijano's race-based testimony, and the only one to be denied a new sentencing hearing. Courts initially rejected Buck's claim of prosecutorial misconduct for presenting race-based evidence and argument on the grounds that Buck's own lawyer had presented the witness. However, the lower courts then denied relief when he subsequently presented the argument that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation on this issue. The case has attracted widespread attention, and several stakeholders in Buck's case, including the second-chair prosecutor from Buck's trial, former Texas Governor Mark White, and a surviving victim have urged that Buck be granted a new sentencing hearing. Linda Geffin, the second-chair prosecutor, said "The state of Texas can't put Mr. Buck to the ultimate punishment without having a fair, just, color-blind sentencing hearing." A bipartisan group of amici have urged the Supreme Court to grant review of what they called the "noxious and deeply prejudicial use of race" in this case. American Bar Association President Paulette Brown recently wrote in the Houston Chronicle, "Obviously, an odious race-based argument is never acceptable, let alone in a criminal case where the defendant's life is at stake. And a defendant whose lawyer invites such racist testimony not only has a strong chance of being sentenced to death but a strong claim of ineffective counsel."
The overt use of race to sentence Buck to death reflected historical trends in Harris County at the time of Buck's trial. A report by University of Maryland Professor Ray Paternoster revealed that, at that time, Harris County prosecutors were 3.5 times more likely to seek death against black defendants than white defendants in comparable cases and the county's juries were more than twice as likely to return death verdicts in those cases.
(J. Smith, "HOW DANGEROUS IS YOUR BLACKNESS?," MTV, April 13, 2016; P. Brown, "Quality of counsel is crucial when life or liberty are at stake," Houston Chronicle, April 14, 2016; "A Broken Promise in Texas Race, the Death Penalty and the Duane Buck Case (video)," NAACP Legal Defense Fund, April 7, 2016.) See Race and Arbitrariness. Read Duane Buck's Petition for Writ of Certiorari here and the amicus brief here.Tweet
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections knew it had used an unauthorized drug in the execution of Charles Warner nearly six months before it almost repeated the mistake in the aborted execution of Richard Glossip. Oklahoma executed Warner on January 15, 2015. Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that three months later, in April, the state medical examiner submitted a report to the Department on Warner's autopsy, showing that he had been executed using potassium acetate, in violation of the state's lethal injection protocol which required the use of potassium chloride. The Department apparently received the report in advance of the April 29, 2015 Supreme Court argument in Glossip v. Gross, in which Oklahoma death row prisoners challenged the constitutionality of the use of the drug, midazolam, the first component of the state's three-drug execution process. Oklahoma had represented to the federal courts throughout those proceedings that it was complying with its protocol, and the Supreme Court narrowly upheld Oklahoma's protocol on June 29. Glossip's execution was scheduled for September 30, but was halted at the last minute after the doctor overseeing the execution noticed that the state had again obtained potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride. Emails suggest that the Oklahoma Attorney General's office may already have known about the execution problems before their recurrence in Glossip's case, because they sought details about Warner's execution from the medical examiner in early September. Shortly after Glossip's execution was stayed, The Oklahoman reported that the state had used the wrong drug in Warner's execution. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt launched a grand jury investigation into the protocol violations in October. Since the grand jury investigation began, two correctional officials and the governor's general counsel have resigned. The grand jury could release their report as early as this week.
(C. McDaniel, "Oklahoma Officials Told Of Execution Drug Mix-Up Months Earlier Than Previously Known," BuzzFeed News, April 13, 2016.) See Lethal Injection.