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Ruling Expected on Arizona Execution Hold, Amid Systemic Problems With Arbitrariness, Lethal Injection

Wed, 04/27/2016 - 12:26pm

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.

(M. Kiefer, "Is the death penalty in Arizona on life support?" The Arizona Republic, April 23, 2016.) See Arbitrariness, Lethal Injection, Innocence, and Costs.

Missouri Execution Drug Supplier Being Sold After Committing Nearly 2,000 Violations of Pharmacy Regulations

Mon, 04/25/2016 - 12:01pm

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.

Supreme Court Asked to Review Texas' Use of Factors Based on a Fictional Character to Reject Death Row Prisoner's Intellectual Disability Claim

Fri, 04/22/2016 - 11:00am

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.

Tennessee Legislature Unanimously Passes Bill to Require Preservation of Biological Evidence in Capital Cases

Tue, 04/19/2016 - 11:45am

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 InnocenceRecent Legislative Activity, and Studies and Additional Resources.

Supreme Court to Consider Hearing Texas Capital Case Where Expert Said Defendant Posed Greater Danger Because He Was Black

Fri, 04/15/2016 - 4:14pm

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.

Oklahoma Knew It Had Used Unauthorized Drug Months Before It Aborted Richard Glossip's Execution

Thu, 04/14/2016 - 11:49am

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.

 

Texas Comptroller Denies Compensation to Death-Row Exoneree Alfred Brown

Wed, 04/13/2016 - 11:09am

Texas State Comptroller Glenn Hegar has rejected an application for compensation filed by death-row exoneree Alfred DeWayne Brown, asserting that the court proceedings leading to his release did not constitute a determination that he was "actually innocent." Brown had applied for approximately $1.9 million in cash and annuity payments under Texas' exoneration compensation law. Harris County prosecutors dismissed charges against Brown in June 2015, after he had spent a decade on death row for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk during a robbery. The Texas courts overturned Brown's conviction because prosecutors improperly withheld a phone record that showed Brown was at his girlfriend's apartment near the time of the robbery and murders. There was no physical evidence against Brown and a Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that a police officer who was appointed grand jury foreman in the case had threatened the girlfriend with perjury for initially supporting Brown's alibi and that prosecutors had jailed her for seven weeks until she changed her testimony to implicate Brown. The compensation decision highlights the recurring question of revictimization of wrongfully convicted death-row inmates resulting from denials of compensation. Louisiana similarly denied compensation to death-row exoneree, Glenn Ford, who was suffering from terminal cancer. The author of that state's compensation law recently called that denial "a grave injustice and misinterpretation of the law," and with the support of Ford's former prosecutor, Marty Stroud, has introduced a new bill to provide compensation to Ford's family.

Brown's lawyer said that the comptroller's decision "ignores what the Texas Supreme Court has clearly said regarding the right to compensation" and that Brown will appeal the ruling.

(B. Rogers, Comptroller: Former death row inmate not eligible for exoneration funds, The Houston Chronicle, April 7, 2016; G. Hilburn, "Glover files bill to compensate Glenn Ford's family," The News-Star, April 6, 2016.) See Innocence.

Virginia Governor Rejects Mandatory Use of Electric Chair, Proposes Lethal Injection Secrecy

Mon, 04/11/2016 - 11:37am

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe rejected a bill that would have employed the electric chair as the state's method of execution if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. Instead, he offered amendments that would permit the Commonwealth's Department of Corrections to enter into confidential contracts to obtain execution drugs from compounding pharmacies, whose identities would be concealed from the public. His proposal is similar to legislation he backed last year that failed because of concerns about its secrecy provisions. McAuliffe's amendments will go before the Virginia legislature during their veto session, which begins April 20. Under Virginia law, the legislature may accept the amendments by a simple majority vote or override the governor's action again passing the unamended original bill by a two-thirds vote in both Houses of the legislature. If there is insufficient support for either option, the original bill returns to the Governor where he can veto it, sign it, or allow it to become law without his signature. Many states have adopted secrecy policies as they seek alternative sources of lethal injection drugs, but a Missouri judge recently ordered that state to reveal the sources of its execution drugs. The amendment proposed by Gov. McAuliffe states that pharmacies' identifying information, "shall be confidential, shall be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act . . . and shall not be subject to discovery or introduction as evidence in any civil proceeding unless good cause is shown." Virginia law currently directs condemned prisoners to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair, but the bill as initially approved by the legislature would have given the state authority to use the electric chair if lethal injection drugs were deemed to be unavailable, even if the prisoner had selected lethal injection.

(L. Vozzella, "McAuliffe guts Virginia’s electric-chair bill," The Washington Post, April 11, 2016.) Read Governor McAuliffe's amendments here. See Lethal Injection.

Texas Court Finds Marcus Druery Mentally Incompetent, Spares Him From Execution

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 11:15am

A Texas court has found that a severely mentally ill death-row inmate, Marcus Druery (pictured), is incompetent to be executed. Druery's attorneys presented more than 150 pages of reports from mental health professionals arguing that, as a result of major mental illness, Druery does not understand why he is being punished, making it unconstitutional to execute him. His "paranoid and grandiose delusions...deprive him of a rational understanding of the connection between his crime and punishment," one expert wrote. On April 4, the court agreed. Prosecutors did not contest Druery's claims of incompetency, but retain the right to petition for reconsideration in the future if Druery's mental state changes. Kate Black, one of Druery's attorneys, said, "The state has the duty to make certain it does not violate the Constitution by executing an individual, like Mr. Druery, who suffers from a psychotic disorder that renders him incompetent for execution. We are pleased that they have taken that duty seriously." Druery has long suffered from delusions and a psychotic disorder that doctors have consistently characterized as a form of schizophrenia. In 2009, his mental illness became so severe that he was transferred to a prison psychiatric unit. State doctors who have examined him since have consistently diagnosed him as delusional. An execution date was set for Druery in 2012, but he was granted a stay and, later, a competency hearing, which led to Monday's decision.

(J. Walker, "Inmate spared execution: Lawyers agree on Druery’s mental incompetence," The Bryan-College Station Eagle, April 6, 2016; A. Cohen, "Will Texas Execute a Psychotic Man?," The Atlantic, July 30, 2012.) See Mental Illness.

Amnesty International Reports Concentrated Spikes in Executions Amidst Continuing Trend Towards Global Death Penalty Abolition

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 10:49am

Amnesty International reported that worldwide executions spiked by 54% to at least 1,634—a 25-year high—in 2015, even as the number of countries abolishing the death penalty reached record levels. In its annual report on global developments in capital punishment, released on April 6, Amnesty said that the bulk of recorded executions were concentrated in just three outlier countries—Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. These countries accounted for 89% of all recorded executions. (Amnesty did not set a figure for executions in China, where data on capital punishment is considered a state secret. The report estimates that China executes "in the thousands" of prisoners each year and conducted more executions than any other country in 2015.) Pakistan conducted the highest number of executions (326) ever recorded in that country, as it resumed executions after a six-year moratorium, and Egypt and Somalia had significant increases in executions, although both executed fewer prisoners than did the United States. At the same time, 2015 saw the largest number of countries abolishing the death penalty in more than a decade, as four more countries (Republic of Congo, Fiji, Madagascar, and Suriname) officially ended the practice. The total number of abolitionist countries rose to 102, with 140 countries having either abolished the death penalty altogether or not carried out any executions in more than a decade. The United States ranked fifth in the number of executions carried out last year, with executions also concentrated in a few high-use jurisdictions—just three states carried out 86% of executions, reflecting the same patterns seen globally in the use of the death penalty. The report emphasized the outlier status of the few nations that continue to perform executions, saying, "Today the majority of the world’s countries are fully abolitionist, and dozens more have not implemented death sentences for more than a decade, or have given clear indications that they are moving towards full abolition. The starkly opposing developments that mark 2015 underscore the extent to which the countries that use the death penalty are becoming the isolated minority." (Click image to enlarge.) 

("Death Sentences and Executions 2015," Amnesty International, April 6, 2016; K. Bellware, "Worldwide Executions Surge To Highest Levels In 25 Years: Report," Huffington Post, April 5, 2016.) See International.

Victim's Cousin in Oklahoma Death Penalty Case Speaks of "Awful" Guilt Upon Learning Defendants Were Actually Innocent

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 11:15am

After Debbie Carter was raped and murdered in Ada, Oklahoma in 1982, police and prosecutors told her cousin, Christy Sheppard (pictured) that Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were guilty of the crime. In 1988, Williamson was convicted and sentenced to death; Fritz received a life sentence. Eleven years later, the pair were exonerated when DNA testing excluded them as perpetrators and pointed to another man who had once been a suspect. Sheppard, now a criminal justice counselor and victim advocate in Ada, recently shared the story of her experience learning that Williamson and Fritz were actually innocent. “The guilt has been awful,” she said. “It is horrible to think that you prayed, wished, helped and condoned to bring harm to someone else and then to find out that it wasn’t deserved and later learn what they went through.” Sheppard said her family was shocked, "It was like being in a Twilight Zone. It fit nothing we knew to be true." The experience changed her views on the death penalty, which she had previously supported. "In theory, it seems like that’s the way it ought to be: The punishment fits the crime. But when you pick it apart, it’s just a mess," she said. Sheppard is serving on the recently-announced Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, and is also campaigning on behalf of Retain a Just Nebraska, a group working to defeat a ballot initiative that would reverse that state's legislative repeal of the death penalty.

(D. Hendee, "Death penalty opponent says her 'guilt was awful' after men convicted of cousin's murder were proven innocent," Omaha World-Herald, April 1, 2016.) See Victims and Innocence.

Arbitrariness Remains Pervasive 40 Years After Court Decision Upholding Capital Punishment

Mon, 04/04/2016 - 2:03pm

Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld newly enacted death penalty statutes in Gregg v. Georgia and two other cases, Professor Evan J. Mandery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice says arbitrariness continues to plague the administration of capital punishment across the United States. In a piece for The Marshall Project, Professor Mandery revisits the death penalty in light of the constitutional defects that led the Supreme Court to overturn existing capital punishment statutes in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. He finds that "[w]hether one interprets the Furman decision to have been about — individually or collectively — excessive racism, a failure to identify the 'worst of the worst' among murderers, the death penalty’s sporadic use, or simple geographical randomness, the 'guided discretion' statutes endorsed in Gregg haven’t remotely fulfilled their promise. Randomness has not been reduced and in many respects has grown substantially worse." On the issue of "sporadic use," Professor Mandery cites studies that show state-level death sentencing rates for eligible crimes of 0.56% (Colorado) to 5.5% (California), both of which are dramatically lower than the 15-20% threshold that had raised concerns in Furman. States' failures to identify the "worth of the worst" murderers is evident, he says, in both the expansion of death-eligible crimes (91.1% of murders in Colorado are eligible under the state's death penalty statute) and studies that found no consistent differences in egregiousness of crimes that received death sentences and those that didn't. "Whatever they may have written, [Justice] Stewart, Stevens and Powell’s true project in Gregg was to rationalize the American death penalty and make sentencing decisions turn on the severity of a defendant’s offense instead of random factors, such as where the crime occurred, or insidious factors, such as race." Mandery says. He concludes: "On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, we can deem that project a complete and dismal failure." 

(E. Mandery, "It’s Been 40 Years Since the Supreme Court Tried to Fix the Death Penalty — Here’s How It Failed," The Marshall Project, March 30, 2016.) See Arbitrariness and U.S. Supreme Court.

Board Denies Clemency for Death Row Inmate Whose Co-Defendant Received Life Sentence

Thu, 03/31/2016 - 11:13am

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles announced on March 31 that it had denied clemency to Joshua Bishop. Bishop had asked that his death sentence be reduced to life without parole because his co-defendant, who was nearly twice Bishop's age at the time of the crime, and had a history of violent crime while Bishop did not, was given a plea deal resulting in a life sentence. Bishop is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on March 31. Seven of the twelve jurors who voted to sentence Bishop to death now support a sentence reduction for a variety of reasons. Juror Jeremy Foston said he initially, "was leaning toward a life sentence because Mr. Bishop had a terrible childhood and was just a young man." Others said they were confused by instructions that the jury had to be unanimous. Juror Jim Ray wrote, "[w]e really struggled with our decision. We eventually changed our vote to a death sentence partly because we were told we had to be unanimous and those [two jurors] who wanted the death penalty were very firm in their conviction and let us know they would not change their minds." The belief that Bishop's co-defendant, Mark Braxley, would also face the possibility of a death sentence influenced some jurors' decisions. They say they would have sentenced Bishop to life without parole if they knew Braxley had received a plea deal for a life sentence. Juror Jeremy Foston wrote, "We wanted to make sure Mr. Braxley would get the same punishment as Mr. Bishop. We even sent a note out asking if we could know what would happen to him. The prosecutor told us not to worry about Mr. Braxley, and that he would have his day in court. We assumed that meant he would have the same treatment as Mr. Bishop."

("Application for clemency to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles on behalf of Joshua Bishop," Counsel for Joshua Bishop, March 23, 2016; R. Cook, "Attorneys for Joshua Bishop file appeal as execution day approaches," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 29, 2016; "Clemency for Bishop denied," Union-Recorder, March 31, 2016.) See Arbitrariness.

Volunteer Death Penalty Review Commission to Examine Oklahoma's Death Penalty

Wed, 03/30/2016 - 3:49pm

A group of prominent Oklahomans have announced the creation of a 12-member Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the state's death penalty. The all-volunteer commission will be led by three co-chairs, former Governor Brad Henry (pictured), retired Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Reta Strubhar, and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Andy Lester. The commission intends "to conduct extensive research on [Oklahoma's] entire death penalty process, beginning with an arrest that could lead to an execution,” Henry said in a statement. Its other nine members include Oklahoma attorneys, law professors, and victims' advocates, and a former Oklahoma Speaker of the House who, Henry says, hold "differing views and perspectives on capital punishment." Henry granted clemency three of the times it was sought during his eight years as Governor. In an interview with Fox25, he called his role in executions "a very, very sobering thing to have to do." He said the commission has "no agenda.... What we've agreed to is the system should be fair and it should be just." Executions in Oklahoma are currently on hold pending an investigation into the 2015 execution of Charles Warner and near-execution of Richard Glossip, in which the state violated its own lethal injection protocol by obtaining an unauthorized execution drug. In 2014, Clayton Lockett died 40 minutes into a botched execution by the state. Henry said, "We hope that Oklahoma can set a positive example in this area for the rest of the country and that's important because obviously Oklahoma's been in the news quite a bit lately for some of the problems that have occurred in the execution process." The commission expects to issue a report early in 2017. 

("Oklahoma Bipartisan Death Penalty Review Commission formed, supported," CapitolBeatOK, March 29, 2016; P. Cross, "Former Governor Brad Henry talks about death penalty review commission," KOKH Fox25, March 29, 2016.) See Oklahoma and Studies.

Finding Prosecutorial Misconduct, Alabama Courts Grant Relief from Two Capital Convictions

Tue, 03/29/2016 - 12:01pm

In one week, courts in unrelated cases have granted relief to two Alabama death row inmates because of prosecutorial misconduct. On March 11, Alabama Circuit Judge Robert Smith dismissed capital charges against ex-state trooper George Martin and barred his retrial because of the prosecution's "willful misconduct." Martin had been convicted for allegedly murdering his wife in a car fire. In 2000, jurors recommended that Martin be sentenced to life, but the trial judge overrode their recommendation and imposed a death sentence. In that trial, the prosecution asserted that Martin had burned his wife alive, but suppressed a witness's statement that she kept a can of gas in her car. It also willfully withheld evidence that it had shown photos of every black trooper from Mobile County to a white witness who had seen a "large black man" in a trooper's uniform in the vicinity of the car, and that the witness not only had not identified Martin (who is 5'6"), but had selected the picture of a different trooper. Judge Smith wrote, "If the Martin case is not one which is appropriate for dismissal, there may never be one....The affirmative use by the prosecutors of partial truths and untruths with knowledge," he wrote, constituted "willful misconduct." One week later, on March 18, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial for Derek Horton because the prosecution had improperly attempted "[t]o buttress its weak case" against Horton for the murder of a woman in a burglarized mobile home by presenting evidence of his past drug use and of an investigation against him for domestic violence. The court said this evidence of bad character was "superfluous to the State's case" and "served no purpose other than to paint Horton as a drug-using, drug-dealing criminal who had a propensity to commit violent crimes against women." The court found the use of this evidence especially prejudicial because the state had "produced no witnesses or direct evidence placing Horton at [the victim]'s mobile home at the time of the crime" and his fingerprints were not found on any of the murder weapon or any of the items taken from the mobile home or strewn about the highway in the vicinity of the location in which the victim's stolen car had been abandoned.

(Press Release, "ALABAMA APPEALS COURT ORDERS NEW TRIAL FOR EJI CLIENT DEREK HORTON," Equal Justice Initiative, March 21, 2016; J. Boyd, "Judge dismisses capital murder indictment for former Alabama trooper accused of killing wife," The Birmingham News (AL.com), March 25, 2016; B. Kirby, "Appeals court upholds Mobile judge's decision to overturn trooper's capital murder conviction," The Birmingham News (AL.com), Dec. 12, 2014.) Read the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals decision in Horton v. State hereSee Prosecutorial Misconduct.

American Bar Association Urges Reprieve to Allow Full Investigation of Kevin Cooper's Innocence Claims

Wed, 03/23/2016 - 11:22am

American Bar Association President Paulette Brown has sent a letter to California Govenor Jerry Brown urging him to grant a reprieve to death row inmate Kevin Cooper to permit a full investigation of Cooper's possible innocence. The ABA President wrote: "Mr. Cooper’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction are marred by evidence of racial bias, police misconduct, evidence tampering, suppression of exculpatory information, lack of quality defense counsel, and a hamstrung court system. We therefore believe that justice requires that Mr. Cooper be granted an executive reprieve until the investigation necessary to fully evaluate his guilt or innocence is completed." The ABA letter described Cooper's case as "a particularly unique example of a criminal justice system falling short at every stage" and referenced a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Cooper’s conviction and sentence violated his human rights. Cooper has exhausted all appeals in his case, but evidence that was previously suppressed as a result of official misconduct raises questions about his guilt. New evidence includes a statement by the surviving victim that the perpetrators were white or Hispanic (Cooper is black); police destruction of a pair of blood-spattered overalls before testing could take place; and unreliable forensic testing that may indicate evidence contamination. In 2009, five judges of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissented from the court's decision to uphold Cooper's conviction, writing, "The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man." The ABA letter agrees, asking Gov. Brown to use his clemency power to review the case: "We request that you grant this reprieve and order a meaningful investigation into Mr. Cooper’s case to prevent the possibility of a miscarriage of justice—one that can never be undone."

The ABA does not take a position on the death penalty, but Ms. Brown said, "we have a strong interest in ensuring a fair and accurate justice system."

(M. Neil, "ABA urges California governor to grant ‘executive reprieve’ to convicted murderer," ABA Journal, March 16, 2016.) Read Paulette Brown's letter to Gov. Jerry Brown. See Innocence, Race, and Prosecutorial Misconduct.

Texas Scheduled to Execute Severely Mentally Ill Death-Row Prisoner

Tue, 03/22/2016 - 11:17am

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit says that “Adam Kelly Ward (pictured) has been afflicted with mental illness his entire life.” Yet Texas will execute him on March 22 unless the U.S. Supreme Court grants him a stay to review his case. Ward's lawyers argue that the execution of a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and that, for that reason, Ward should not be executed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied review of that issue on March 14, saying that Ward should have raised it in previous state-court appeals. The Texas federal courts rejected a similar argument in 2015. While the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of inmates who are so mentally incompetent that that they do not rationally comprehend that they are going to be executed or why, it has never ruled that executing inmates with severe mental illness is unconstitutional. Ward has consistently exhibited signs of severe mental illness since infancy, and was twice hospitalized for multi-week periods because of his illness. He suffered from uncontrollable rage episodes and two of his elementary schools built special padded isolation rooms in which he would be placed when he was out of control. The federal district court described him as delusional and having "difficulty with impulse control, bad judgment, poor insight, trouble sleeping and eating, mood swings, and bizarre behaviors." At trial, a psychiatrist testified that Ward's psychotic disorder caused him to "suffer paranoid delusions such that he believes there might be a conspiracy against him and that people might be after him or trying to harm him" and the federal district court agreed that as a result of his mental illness, Ward "interpreted neutral things as a threat or personal attack." In her statement concurring with the state court's denial of a stay of execution, Judge Elsa Alcala noted that no Supreme Court decision banned the execution of people with mental illness and that the power to do so rests with legislatures: "As is the case with intellectual disability, the preferred course would be for legislatures rather than courts to set standards defining the level at which a mental illness is so severe that it should result in a defendant being categorically exempt from the death penalty." 

If Ward is executed, he will be the fifth person executed in Texas and ninth in the U.S. in 2016.

(J. McCullough, "Execution Set For Man Courts Recognize as Mentally Ill," Texas Tribune, March 22, 2016; M. Graczyk, "HIGH COURT WEIGHS WHETHER TO SPARE TEXAS MAN FROM EXECUTION," Associated Press, March 22, 2016.) Read the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals March 14, 2016 decision denying a stay of execution here, along with the concurring statements of Judges Alcala and Newell. See Mental Illness.

Baptist Theologian Says Death Penalty Does Not Fit With Christian Theology

Mon, 03/21/2016 - 10:56am

Baptist ethicist and theologian Dr. Roger E. Olson (pictured) recently issued a call "for Christian churches to publicly stand against the death penalty for Christian reasons." A professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Dr. Olson writes in an essay for the theology website Patheos.com that "authentic Christians must oppose the death penalty." He says that, while "[t]here are many secular reasons to abolish the death penalty," there are also theological reasons why church opposition to capital punishment should be non-negotiable. "Christians believe that every individual human being might be someone chosen by God for his salvation and for his service," he writes. "When we take another human life unnecessarily, we usurp God’s prerogative for that person’s eventual salvation or, if they are already saved, for that person’s future service for the Kingdom of God." Dr. Olson's essay urges all Christian churches to take public stands against the death penalty. "I believe the Christian reasons for opposing the death penalty are so strong that capital punishment ought to be, as slavery was in the mid-19th century, an issue for a 'church struggle' that divides if sadly necessary. At the very least, Christian pastors and other leaders ought to preach against capital punishment from their pulpits and in their newsletters."

(B. Allen, "Is opposition to death penalty a non-negotiable for Christians? Yes, says one theologian," Baptist News Global, March 8, 2016; R. Olson, "Why Authentic Christians Must Oppose the Death Penalty," Patheos.com, March 7, 2016.) See Religion.

Darryl Hunt, North Carolina Exoneree Who Narrowly Escaped Death Sentence, Dies 12 Years After Release

Mon, 03/14/2016 - 12:15pm

Darryl Hunt (pictured), an exoneree and anti-death penalty advocate, was found dead in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on March 13, 2016. Hunt was wrongfully convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a newspaper copy editor. Prosecutors sought the death penalty against him, but he received a life sentence because a single juror refused to vote for death. His conviction was overturned in 1989 and prosecutors offered Hunt a deal for time served, in exchange for pleading guilty. Continuing to assert his innocence, Hunt refused the offer, and he was retried, convicted, and again sentenced to life. In 1994, a DNA test excluded him as the perpetrator of the crime, but it took another 10 years of appeals before he was released in 2004. After his exoneration, Hunt became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Steve Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said, "I think everyone who saw Darryl speak was deeply moved by the resilience and kindness and gentleness with which he spoke." But Hunt was firm about the dangers of the death penalty, saying: "A system that can perpetrate an injustice like this has no business deciding life and death. If I had gotten a death sentence, there’s no doubt in my mind, I would have been executed.” Hunt's case was covered in an eight-part series in the Winston-Salem Journal and was the subject of a documentary film, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, both of which were critical of the racial bias and official misconduct that contributed to his wrongful conviction.

(L. Bonner, "Darryl Hunt, wrongly convicted of murder, found dead," The Charlotte Observer, March 13, 2016; "Darryl Hunt," North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.) See Innocence.

BOOKS: "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty"

Fri, 03/11/2016 - 1:11pm

The recent book, 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty, by Mario Marazziti, explores the United States' continuing use of the death penalty in a world community that is increasingly rejecting the practice. The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the book "an interesting, compelling look at the cultural and religious underpinnings of the death penalty and how we got here. More important, [Marazziti's] interviews with U.S. death-row inmates - living and now-deceased - their survivors, and their victims' families highlight the gray of a subject too many paint in black and white." Marazziti, who was deeply involved in the efforts that led the United Nations to call for a global moratorium on capital punishment, draws on his experiences as a co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and as spokesperson for the Community of Sant'Egidio, a progressive Catholic organization based in Rome. Pope Francis' appeal last month for Catholic government officials to work to halt all executions during the Church's Holy Year of Mercy came on the eve of an international conference against the death penalty organized by the Sant'Egidio Community. Marazziti's book includes research, personal narratives of those directly affected by the death penalty, and Marazziti's own reflections on the issue. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty by Mario Marazziti is a deeply moving and cogently argued account of why an abominable practice should be abolished. The death penalty dehumanizes those who use it. Its mistakes cannot be corrected." 

(M. Marazziti, "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty," Seven Stories Press, 2015; J. Slobodzian, "New ways of looking at the death penalty," Philadelphia Inquirer, July 13, 2015.) See Books and International.