The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that death-row prisoners who had unsuccessfully argued that they are ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability must be provided a second chance to prove their claims. On October 20, the Court decided in Walls v. State that Florida must retroactively apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Hall v. Florida, which declared Florida’s procedures for determining intellectual disability to be unconstitutional. Prisoners whose intellectual disability claims had been denied under the standard rejected in Hall will now be given new opportunities to present their claims. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s outlier practice categorically barring a prisoner from presenting evidence supporting his intellectual disability claim if his IQ score was above 70 violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Writing for the Court in Hall, Justice Kennedy explained this strict IQ cut-off requirement “disregards established medical practice” and “contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.” The Hall Court held that “[i]ntellectual disability is a condition, not a number”; and therefore the determination of intellectual disability must not only consider a standard error of measure regarding IQ scores, but also consider adaptive functioning, which requires a “conjunctive and interrelated assessment.” The Florida Supreme Court recognized that “[t]he rejection of the strict IQ score cutoff increases the number of potential cases in which the State cannot impose the death penalty, while requiring a more holistic review means more defendants may be eligible for relief.” The decision could affect thirty prisoners on Florida’s death row. Like Florida, the Kentucky Supreme Court has also found Hall to apply retroactively. That court reaffirmed its retroactivy decision in White v. Kentucky, also decided on October 20.
Harris County, Texas, the county that leads the nation in executions, has served as a bellwether in recent years of the nationwide decline of the death penalty. Although the 10 new death sentences imposed in Harris County since 2010 are more than were imposed in 99.5% of U.S. counties, they are significantly fewer than the 53 new death sentences that were handed down in Harris in 1998-2003 and the 16 from 2004-2009. The 2016 Kinder Institute survey of Houston residents showed that just 27% prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder. Though the number of death sentences has dropped, systemic problems of prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate representation, and racial bias persist. Kelly Siegler, a prosecutor who obtained 19 death sentences, was found by a Texas court to have committed 36 instances of misconduct in a single murder case. In another case, she brought the victim's bloodstained bed into the courtroom and reenacted the murder using one of the knives from the crime scene. Harris County became nationally known in the 1990s for bad defense lawyering when a capital defense attorney slept through his client's trial. A judge told the defendant, "the Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake." Today, Harris County defendants still receive ineffective counsel because of a pay system that discourages defense lawyers from seeking plea bargains or hiring expert witnesses. Every new death sentence imposed in Harris County since November 2004 (not including resentences) has been imposed upon a Black or Latino defendant. Former Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who oversaw 40 death sentences between 2001 and 2008, resigned after a civil suit uncovered racist emails he sent using his official email account. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently deciding Buck v. Davis, a Harris County case in which a Black defendant was sentenced to death after his defense attorney introduced racially-biased testimony during sentencing. Three Harris County defendants have been exonerated from death row, most recently Alfred Brown (pictured) in 2015. Prosecutors withheld evidence that corroborated Brown's alibi, Brown's girlfriend was threatened and eventually imprisoned until she agreed to testify against him, and officials refused requests to test DNA that may implicate another suspect.Tweet
NEW VOICES: Former Reagan Attorney General and Former Manhattan Prosecutor Speak Out In Possible Innocence Case
Edwin Meese III (pictured), who served as U.S. Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, and Robert Morgenthau, the long-time district attorney of Manhattan who served as a U.S. attorney under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, believe that Alabama death row prisoner William Kuenzel is innocent and are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case. Meese and Morgenthau belong to different political parties and take opposing views on capital punishment, but both believe that Kuenzel was wrongfully convicted and condemned for the 1987 murder of a convenience store clerk and deserves a chance to present new evidence. Kuenzel was implicated in the murder after a car belonging to Harvey Venn, a boarder in Kuenzel's home, was seen near the crime scene. He was convicted after Venn admitted to having driven the car, but claimed that Kuenzel had actually shot the clerk, and a 16-year-old passenger in a car that was passing by the store testified that she had seen Venn and Kuenzel inside the store. Alabama prosecutors offered both men a deal for leniency if they agreed to plead guilty and testify against one another. Venn agreed and spent only ten years in prison, but Kuenzel maintained his innocence and rejected the deal. Since the trial, previously-withheld evidence has emerged that supports Kuenzel's innocence claim, including police notes of an initial interview with Venn in which he said another man was in the car with him, and the grand jury testimony of the passerby in which the girl said that she "couldn't really see" the faces of the men in the store. In an amicus brief, Meese calls the withholding of that evidence "the very worst kind of Brady violation, which resulted in condemning to death a defendant whose conviction was obtained in violation of the Constitution and who is very likely actually innocent." Morgenthau said of Kuenzel, "[t]here's no possible way he could have committed the murder." Meese and Morgenthau also share a concern about the quality of representation in capital cases, and are calling for automatic appellate review of the competence of defense counsel.
(J. Bravin, "Law-Enforcement Legends Team Up in Death-Penalty Fight," Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2016.) See New Voices and Innocence. Read Edwin Meese III's amicus brief in William Ernest Kuenzel v. Alabama.Tweet
Saying the death penalty is "too fallible to endure," the Lincoln Journal Star has called on Nebraska voters to end capital punishment in the state. In two editorials published in connection with the upcoming statewide death penalty ballot referendum on November 8, the paper urged Nebraskans to retain the legislature's death penalty repeal bill. The predominantly Republican legislature voted to repeal the state's death penalty in May 2015 and then, a few days later, overrode a veto by Governor Pete Ricketts. The Governor, in turn, launched a successful petition drive to place the repeal issue on the ballot. The Journal Star's first editorial focused on the "bottom line" question that, "[t]o support the death penalty, you must be willing to take the chance that the state will execute an innocent person." In addressing that question, the paper highlighted notable exonerations from Beatrice, Nebraska and elsewhere. The editorial explained that, in the largest false confession case in American history, "[t]he 'Beatrice 6' were railroaded into prison for a murder they did not commit. Finally DNA showed someone else committed the crime. Now Gage County is on the hook for $28.1 million in damages." The paper also discussed the exoneration of former Air Force sergeant Ray Krone, who—with no criminal record—was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Arizona. "If it happened to Krone," the paper said, “it can happen to anybody.” In a second editorial, the Journal Star presented what it called the "powerful" conservative argument against capital punishment. The death penalty, conservatives say, "is an extraordinary example of government overreach that costs inordinate amounts of money," violates "the sanctity of life," "[s]ometimes ... delivers erroneous results, and for years on end it delivers no results at all." A recent study found that the death penalty costs Nebraska taxpayers $14.6 million per year, even though the state has not had an execution in nearly 20 years. The paper said: "All this spending siphons away money that could and should be put to use more effectively in protecting public safety. Five hundred police chiefs were asked in 1995 and 2008 to rank the tools they found most effective in fighting violent crime, [former Lincoln Police Chief Allen] Curtis wrote. 'The death penalty came in absolutely last.'" The editorial concluded, "[t]houghtful conservatives who take the time to research the issue will vote on Nov. 8 to retain the law that eliminates the death penalty and replaces it with life in prison."
(Editorial, "Death penalty too fallible to endure," Lincoln Journal Star, October 16, 2016; Editorial, "Death penalty is no longer conservative," Lincoln Journal Star, October 17, 2016.) See Editorials and Recent Legislation.Tweet
After having "solicited thoroughly for vendors," the Nevada Department of Corrections announced that no pharmaceutical company has offered to sell the state drugs for use in executions. James Dzurenda, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections issued a statement on October 7 saying that the Department had sent 247 requests for proposals to pharmaceutical suppliers on September 2 and, in response, had received no bids to supply the state with lethal injection drugs. In August, Dzurenda informed the state Board of Prison Commissioners that one of the two drugs the state used in executions—midazolam and hydromorphone—had expired and that Pfizer, Inc., which produces both of the drugs, refused to provide the state with new supplies. Pfizer announced restrictions on the distribution of its medicines in May in an effort to prevent states from using them in executions. At the time, 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." Having failed to identify a drug supplier, Dzurenda said the Department "will work closely with the attorney general, the governor and the Legislature to examine our options and decide the best course of action moving forward." The state legislature would have to approve any change to an alternative method of execution. The state's $858,000 new execution chamber is expected to be completed by November 1, but no executions are imminent, and none could be carried out without a supply of drugs. Nevada's last execution was in April 2006. Officials said the space will be used for storage and attorney-client meetings if no executions are scheduled.
(S. Chereb, "Nevada receives no bids from companies to supply lethal-injection drugs," Las Vegas Review-Journal, October 7, 2016.) See Lethal Injection.Tweet
Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down State's Capital Sentencing Statute, Requires Jury Unanimity Before Imposing Death
The Florida Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional the state’s practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. In two rulings issued October 14 the court held that juries must unanimously find all facts necessary to impose a death sentence, including the existence of any aggravating factor relied upon as a reason to impose the death penalty, whether the aggravating factors in and of themselves provide sufficient grounds for imposing the death penalty, and whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances (reasons for life) presented by the defense. In the first case, Timothy Lee Hurst v. State of Florida, the court vacated Hurst's death sentence imposed and remanded his case for a new sentencing hearing. The second decision, Larry Darnell Perry v. State of Florida, struck down the Florida legislature's March 2016 revision of the state’s capital sentencing statute because it does not require a unanimous jury recommendation of death before the trial judge can consider imposing a death sentence. Hurst is the same defendant whose appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, resulting in an 8-1 decision declaring that the state's prior capital sentencing statute violated the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial by reserving for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to find the facts that could lead to a death sentence. The Court specifically held that the statute impermissibly denied Hurst a jury finding of aggravating circumstances that could make him eligible for the death penalty. In response to the Court's decision, the Florida legislature amended the statute to require juries to unanimously find at least one aggravating circumstance, but allowed the jury to recommend a death sentence if at least 10 of 12 jurors agreed. The court’s decision in Hurst made clear that the statute violated Florida state constitutional provisions requiring unanimous jury verdicts, as well as federal constitutional law. In Perry, the court struck down the amended death penalty law, saying the statute "cannot be applied constitutionally to pending prosecutions because the Act does not require unanimity in the jury’s final recommendation as to whether the defendant should be sentenced to death." While the decision in Hurst says that defendants sentenced to death under the unconstitutional sentencing procedures are not entitled to have their sentences automatically reduced to life in prison, it leaves unclear exactly what will happen in the cases of the approximately 400 people on the state's death row.
The Delaware Supreme Court recently struck down that state's death penalty statute on similar grounds, leaving Florida and Alabama as the only two states that allowed judges to impose death sentences after non-unanimous jury recommendations. Professor Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami School of Law said, "The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous is a long overdue recognition of the state’s fatally flawed capital punishment regime."
(M. Berman, "Florida Supreme Court says state’s new death penalty law is unconstitutional," The Washington Post, October 14, 2016; R. Stutzman, "Florida Supreme Court: Florida's current death penalty is unconstitutional," Orlando Sentinel, October 14, 2016.) See Sentencing. Read the Florida Supreme Court decision in Timothy Lee Hurst v. State of Florida and Larry Darnell Perry v. State of Florida.Tweet
Texas is poised to have the fewest number of executions in 20 years. As of October, the state has executed seven prisoners in 2016, with just one more execution scheduled this calendar year. The total would mark the fewest executions in the state in any year since 1996. In that year, three people were executed, as legal challenges to a new state law billed as speeding up appeals put most executions on hold. Fifteen execution dates for 11 people have been stayed or halted in Texas this year. Several of those, most notably the case of Jeffrey Wood, hinged on questions about "junk science" testimony. Wood's execution was stayed to permit review of claims that his death sentence was a product of false psychiatric testimony from James Grigson, who earned the nickname "Dr. Death" for his testimony in numerous capital cases claiming that defendants were certain to commit future acts of violence. Another Texas prisoner, Robert Roberson, was granted a stay to allow him to challenge now-debunked testimony that his daughter died of shaken baby syndrome, when several alternative, non-homicide explanations for her death better fit the evidence. At the same time as Texas courts have halted executions over questionable scientific testimony, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two Texas cases this term (Buck v. Davis and Moore v. Texas) that also involve scientifically-unsound mental health testimony that was used to obtain or defend death sentences. "Texas courts are now aware of the dangers associated with forensic sciences and are closely scrutinizing this evidence,” said Greg Gardner, an attorney for John Battaglia, who had an execution date set for December 7. Along with the drop in executions, Texas has also seen a dramatic decline in death sentences. Death sentences have declined steadily since 2005, as life without parole became available as a sentencing alternative in death penalty trials, but the past two years have seen even lower numbers. Just two people were sentenced to death in 2015, and Texas juries have handed down three death sentences so far this year. Experts say that changing public attitudes, falling murder rates, and better lawyering have also contributed to the decline. (Click to enlarge.)
(J. McCullough, "Texas Will See Lowest Number of Executions in 20 Years," The Texas Tribune, October 11, 2016.) See Executions and Texas.Tweet
The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals that affirmed the death sentence imposed on Shaun Michael Bosse. In a unanimous per curiam decision issued October 11, the Court held that Oklahoma prosecutors had improperly presented testimony from three members of the victims' families asking the jury to sentence Bosse to death. The Court had ruled in 1987 in Booth v. Maryland that the use of victim-impact testimony in determining whether a capital defendant would be sentenced to death violated the 8th Amendment. Four years later, after a personnel change on the Court, it retreated from part of that decision, holding in Payne v. Tennessee that the presentation of testimony relating to the effect of the victim's death on his or her loved ones was constitutionally permissible. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals then ruled that Payne had implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety, permitting Oklahoma prosecutors to present highly emotional pleas from victims' family members asking juries to impose the death penalty. Oklahoma was the only jurisdiction in the country to interpret Payne in that manner, and Bosse's petition for review argued that "Oklahoma stands alone" and that its "outlier" practice was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Oklahoma court, writing that it has never overruled the portion of Booth that prohibits victims' family testimony offering "opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate punishment." The Court further declared that its decision in Booth "remain[s] binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider [it]." While the Bosse decision prevents Oklahoma prosecutors from presenting this type of testimony in the future, its impact on the numerous other cases in which Oklahoma prosecutors presented this testimony is less clear. The Court remanded Bosse's case to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which may consider whether the improper testimony constituted harmless error. Similar harmless error review may be required in other Oklahoma cases.
(A. Howe, "No grants from morning orders," SCOTUSblog, October 11, 2016.) You can read Shaun Michael Bosse's petition for writ of certiorari here and Oklahoma's brief in opposition to the petition here, as well as the Court's opinion in Bosse v. Oklahoma, No. 15-9173. See U.S. Supreme Court.Tweet
OUTLIER COUNTIES: Kern County, California Leads Nation in Police Killings, Ranks Among Highest in Death Sentences
Kern County, California—one of five Southern California counties that have been described as the "new Death Belt"—sent six people to death row between 2006 and 2015, more than 99.4% of U.S. counties. Its death sentence-to-homicide rate during the 10-year-period from 2006 to 2015 also was 2.3 times higher than in the rest of the state. In this same time frame, Kern had the highest rate of civilians killed by police of any county in the country: between 2005 and 2015, police killed 79 people in Kern County, a rate of 0.9 killings per year per 100,000 residents. In The Washington Post, Radley Balko explained the policy link between high rates of police killings and high use of the death penalty, noting that District Attorneys set the tone for law enforcement in their counties and are usually in charge of investigating excessive use of force by police. "It isn’t difficult to see how when a DA takes a 'win at all costs' approach to fighting crime, that philosophy would permeate an entire county’s law enforcement apparatus, from the beat cop to the DA herself or himself," Balko said. In Kern County, police killings and high numbers of death sentences are part of a larger narrative of official misconduct. Ed Jagels, the longtime District Attorney in Kern County, led the campaign to oust Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other Justices from the California Supreme Court over their votes in death penalty cases. He boasted about Kern leading the state of California in incarceration rate. A largely-fabricated sex abuse scandal led to 26 exonerations. Prosecutors have been found to have altered interrogation transcripts and hidden unfavorable blood test results. According to Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project, current District Attorney Lisa Green "promised to continue to be an example of aggressive prosecution" when she took over in 2010. Saying that for some capital defendants "Justice ... is nothing less than death," she advocated for a state referendum limiting death penalty appeals. Ineffective defense lawyering has also contributed to Kern's high death sentencing rate. In one particularly egregious case, a defense attorney emailed his co-counsel before the sentencing phase of a capital trial, saying, “I don’t know what a penalty trial really looks like—it’s starting to concern me.” Though half of Kern's defendants sentenced to death from 2010-2015 had intellectual disability, brain damage, or mental illness, defense lawyers presented an average of less than 3 days' worth of evidence to spare the defendant's life. In numerous cases, lawyers presented a day or less of mitigating evidence.
("Too Broken to Fix: Part I," The Fair Punishment Project, August 23, 2016; L. Green, "Opinion: Prop. 66 preserves justice and public safety," Bakersfield Californian, October 7, 2016; R. Balko, "The Watch: America's Killingest Counties," Washington Post, December 3, 2015.) See Arbitrariness and Prosecutorial Misconduct.Tweet
In an October 10 statement commemorating World Day Against the Death Penalty, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (pictured) urged the global abolition of capital punishment and called the death penalty ineffective and counterproductive as an anti-terrorism tool. Saying that capital punishment not only "has no place in the 21st century," Secretary-General Ban also noted that executions of terror suspects have been counterproductive: "Experience has shown that putting terrorists to death serves as propaganda for their movements by creating perceived martyrs and making their macabre recruiting campaigns more effective." Ban said that, "[t]o be legitimate and effective, counter-terror measures, like all security operations, must be anchored in respect for human rights and the rule of law." In particular, he critiqued vague anti-terrorism laws that states have used as a pretext to target political dissidents: "Let us be clear: participation in peaceful protests and criticism of a government–whether in private, on the Internet, or in the media–are neither crimes nor terrorist acts. The threat or use of the death penalty in such cases is an egregious violation of human rights." At a conference in Geneva held in conjunction with the World Day Against the Death Penalty, UN human rights experts decried the swift and unfair trials and death verdicts often handed down in terrorism cases and emphasized the heightened need for rigorous legal safeguards in terrorism cases. "Executions carried out without adherence to the strictest guarantees of fair trial and due processes are unlawful and tantamount to an arbitrary execution,” three UN Special Rapporteurs said. “We have called on those governments once and again to halt such executions and to retrial the defendants in compliance with international standards."
("On World Day against Death Penalty, Ban says practice 'has no place in the 21st century'," UN News Centre, October 10, 2016.) Learn more about World Day Against the Death Penalty here. See International.Tweet
Tennessee Death Row Prisoners Challenge Lethal Injection, Argue Protocol Would Break the Law to Carry Out Executions
Lawyers for 30 Tennessee death row prisoners argued before the state's supreme court on October 6 that Tennessee's lethal injection protocol violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Tennessee, which has not carried out an execution since 2009, intends to use a one-drug protocol of pentobarbital that it says would be obtained from a compounding pharmacy. The prisoners argue that the Tennessee Department of Correction's lethal-injection protocol creates an unconstitutional risk of lingering death and requires physicians to illegally prescribe controlled substances. Their lawyers argue that states may not break their own laws or federal statutes to carry out executions and that physicians who prescribe pentobarbital for executions would be violating federal drug laws. Assistant Federal Public Defender Michael Passino said, "You cannot perform a lawful act in an unlawful manner. To the extent that TDOC is doing that, the protocol is unconstitutional." Justice Sharon G. Lee raised concerns about the possibility of botched executions like those that have occurred in other states, in which prisoners writhed and gasped during prolonged executions. Associate Solicitor General Jennifer Smith, arguing on behalf of the state of Tennessee, conceded that "there is no guarantee that an execution is not going to have a problem." Justice Lee asked Smith further, "So how do we know our execution would not be botched?" Smith responded, "We don't."
(S. Barchenger, "Tennessee Supreme Court justices hesitant on death penalty issue," The Tennesseean, October 6, 2016; C. Sisk, "Is Lethal Injection 'Cruel And Unusual'? Tennessee's Supreme Court Is About To Decide," Nashville Public Radio, October 5, 2016.) See Lethal Injection.Tweet
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 5 in Buck v. Davis, a Texas case in which Duane Buck was sentenced to death after his own lawyer presented expert testimony from a psychologist who called Buck more likely to commit acts of violence in the future because he is Black. While Cecilia Marshall, widow of Thurgood Marshall, and Buck's stepsister, Phyllis Taylor—a survivor of the shooting—observed from the audience, Buck's counsel told the Court that the jury had sentenced Buck to death penalty based upon "a false and pernicious group-based stereotype" that equated being Black with being dangerous. Each of the seven justices who spoke during the hearing sharply criticized trial counsel's conduct, with Justice Samuel Alito saying "what occurred at the penalty phase of this trial is indefensible." Six other defendants whose cases had been tainted by similarly biased testimony by the same psychologist have already received new sentencing hearings, but Buck has not. Texas argued that Buck's case is unique because his defense attorney, not prosecutors, invited the biased testimony. Buck's attorneys previously sought review of his case on the grounds that his lawyer was ineffective, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Buck a "Certificate of Appealability" (COA), which allows a defendant's claims to be heard on the merits by an appeals court. During argument, the Justices raised concerns about the disparate rates at which Circuit Courts grant COAs. The Fifth Circuit denies them in about 60% of cases, while the Eleventh and Fourth Circuits deny them in only 6% and 0% of cases, respectively, meaning that defendants in the Fifth Circuit receive less review of their claims than those in the Eleventh or Fourth. Justice Elena Kagan said, "[I would assume] you think this is such an extraordinary case, and that the 5th Circuit got this so wrong, that it’s the best proof that there is that the court is approaching the COA inquiry in the wrong way." Justice Stephen Breyer agreed, saying, "It seems to me it proves the arbitrariness of what’s going on." (Pictured: Buck's lead counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund Litigation Director Christina Swarns, being interviewed on the steps of the Court.)
(N. Totenberg, "Supreme Court Hears 'Indefensible' Death Penalty Case Where Race Linked To Violence," NPR, October 5, 2016; A. Liptak, "Justices Seem Ready to Find Bias in Trial of Black Man on Texas Death Row," New York TImes, October 5, 2016; C. McDaniel and C. Geidner, "Supreme Court Poised To Side With Death Row Inmate In Case With Racist Testimony," BuzzFeed News, October 5, 2016; L. Hurley, "U.S. Supreme Court poised to back Texas death row inmate," Reuters, October 5, 2016.) See Race, Arbitrariness, and U.S. Supreme Court. Read the transcript of the oral argument here.Tweet
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund reports that America's death rows have continued to decline in size, with 2,905 men and women on death row across the United States as of July 1, 2016. The new figures, reported in the organization's Summer 2016 edition of its quarterly publication, Death Row USA, represent a 14% decline from the 3,366 prisoners who were on death row one decade earlier. The shrinking of death row populations across the country has exceeded the number of executions during that period, meaning that more prisoners have been removed from death row as a result of having their convictions or death sentences overturned than have been added to the row with newly death-sentenced prisoners. The nation's largest death row states remain: California (741), Florida (396), Texas (254), Alabama (194), and Pennsylvania (175). Nationwide, 42.34% of death row inmates are White, 41.79% are Black, 13.08% are Latino/a, and 2.78% are other races, but racial makeup varies by state. Among the most racially-disproportionate death row populations are Delaware (78% minorities), Texas (73% minorities), Louisiana (70% minorities), Nebraska (70% minorities), and California (66% minorities). Only 55 death row prisoners (1.89%) are women.Tweet
In a decision that could affect an estimated 25 Arizona death penalty cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has denied Arizona's request to review a federal appeals court decision declaring unconstitutional an evidentiary rule that limited the types of mitigating evidence capital defendants could present in their cases. The ruling in Ryan v. McKinney let stand a 6-5 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in December 2015 that had reversed James McKinney's 1993 death sentence because the state's so-called "causal nexus" rule unconstitutionally excluded evidence about McKinney's abusive childhood and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Court's ruling could have implications for many of the prisoners on Arizona's death row. The causal nexus rule, which required that mitigating evidence be directly linked to the crime before it could be considered as grounds to spare a defendant's life, had been place in Arizona from the late 1980s until 2005. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Lockett v. Ohio that states could not bar defendants from presenting mitigating evidence relating to their character, background, or record or the circumstances of the case as reasons to impose a life sentence. Four years later, in Eddings v. Oklahoma, it held that states could not require that evidence excuse the murder before it could be considered mitigating. Then, in 2004, in Tennard v. Dretke, it reiterated that any requirement that mitigating evidence have a direct causal link to the offense violated the Eighth Amendment. By denying review, the Supreme Court paved the way for other prisoners whose sentencing was affected by the causal nexus rule to challenge their death sentences. In a dissent to the Ninth Circuit decision, Judge Carlos Bea wrote that the majority decision, "calls into question every single death sentence imposed in Arizona between 1989 and 2005." McKinney's case will return to state court within 120 days for further proceedings, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. His re-sentencing must now be done by a jury because the U.S. Supreme Court 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona ended the state's practice of judges imposing death sentences.
(A. Galvan, "US Supreme Court Won't Hear Arizona Death Sentence Case," Associated Press, October 3, 2016; "Appeals court reverses death sentence for Arizona killer," Associated Press, December 30, 2015.) See Sentencing and U.S. Supreme Court.Tweet
Riverside County, California imposed more death sentences than any other county in the United States in 2015, accounting for more than half of the state's new death sentences and 16% of new death sentences imposed nationwide. Among other states, only the 9 death sentences imposed in Florida outstripped Riverside's total of 8. The 29 death sentences from 2010-2015 made it the nation's second most profilic death sentencing county during that period, behind only the country's most populous death penalty county, Los Angeles, which has five times as many homicides. While California imposed more death sentences than any other state during that period, Riverside stood out even among California counties, imposing death sentences at a rate that was 9 times greater per homicide than the rest of the state. A 2015 piece by Professor Robert J. Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill called Riverside County, "the buckle of a new Death Belt," because it, along with four other southern California counties, had replaced the Deep South in overproducing death sentences. Those five counties, which also include Kern, Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernadino, have received national attention for misconduct by prosecutors and other public officials. In 2011, a federal magistrate judge characterized the conduct of the Riverside County District Attorney's office as, “turn[ing] a blind eye to fundamental principles of justice,” in a murder case. As with many of the counties that produce disproportionately large numbers of death sentences, the county faces other serious criminal justice problems. The office has been the subject of an investigation into allegedly illegal wiretapping practices, after former DA Paul Zellerbach oversaw what The Desert Sun newspaper described as "an astronomical rise in wiretaps" that was "so vast it once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps," including triple the number of wiretaps issued by any other state or federal jurisdiction in 2014. Riverside police ranked 9th in the nation in killings of civilians. The death sentences imposed in the county also exhibit significant racial disparities. 76% of those sentenced to death in Riverside between 2010 and 2015 were defendants of color. Defendants in Riverside County often receive inadequate defense because of a pay structure for court-appointed attorneys that financially penalizes plea bargains and robust investigation of mitigating evidence. In two-thirds of Riverside County cases that were reviewed on direct appeal between 2006 and 2015, defense counsel presented less than two days of mitigation. Among that same group of cases, 55% involved a defendant who was under 21 years old at the time of the offense or had an intellectual impairment, brain damage, or severe mental illness. 7 of the 8 defendants sent to death row in 2015 were represented by appointed private counsel. Only one was represented by the public defender's office. (Click image to enlarge.)
("Too Broken to Fix: Part I," The Fair Punishment Project, August 23, 2016; B. Kelman and B. Heath, "Warrant for former DA Paul Zellerbach in wiretap case," The Desert Sun & USA Today, Aug. 24, 2016; P. Esquivel, "Riverside County leading U.S. in death sentences, report says," Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2015; R. Balko, "The Watch: America's Killingest Counties," Washington Post, December 3, 2015.) See Prosecutorial Misconduct and Representation.Tweet
Public support for the death penalty fell by 7 percentage points in the last year, with fewer than half of Americans (49%) now saying they support the death penalty, according to a national Pew Research Center poll released on September 29. The poll marks the first time in 45 years that support for capital punishment polled below 50%, when a Gallup poll in released in November 1971 also reported that 49% of Americans supported the death penalty. Opposition to capital punishment reached a record high since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia striking down existing death penalty statutes. 42% of respondents told Pew that they oppose capital punishment, the most since a May 1966 Gallup poll reported 47% of Americans against the death penalty. The poll results reflect the continuation—and perhaps acceleration—of a 20-year trend of decreasing support for, and increasing opposition to, capital punishment. Support for the death penalty declined across every demographic group in the past year, with the largest decline coming among Independents (13 percentage points). Majorities of Blacks (63%), Hispanics (50%), 18-29 year-olds (51%), college graduates (51%), Democrats (58%), and people with no religious affiliation (50%) now oppose the death penalty and—while comprising less than a majority—more women, Independents, and Catholics say they oppose the death penalty than support it. While 72% of Republicans say they favor capital punishment, support for the death penalty among Republicans dropped 5 points in the past year. Since 2011, support for the death penalty has declined among every demographic group, with overall support falling by 13 points. The polls appear to be reflecting generational changes as well. 59% of those aged 18-29 said they supported the death penalty in 2011. In 2015, support among the young had fallen to 51%, and support plummeted another 9 percentage points to 42% this year. (Click image to enlarge.)
(B. Oliphant, "Support for death penalty lowest in more than four decades," Pew Research Center, September 29, 2016) See Public Opinion.Tweet
The Orange County, California Crime Lab has been accused of doctoring its testimony about DNA evidence to favor the prosecution, after a senior forensic analyst offered conflicting conclusions that bolstered the prosecution in two separate murder cases. A motion filed on September 23 by the Organge County Public Defender's office says prosecutor Kevin Haskins (now a judge) presented testimony from Senior Forensic Scientist Mary Hong in the 2008 capital murder prosecution of Lynn Dean Johnson claiming that the recovery of low quantities of semen from the victim's body meant that the DNA had been deposited "zero to 24 hours" before it was collected by police. The motion says Hong subsequently testified in the murder trial of Wendell Patrick Lemond in 2009, in response to questioning by deputy district attorney Howard Gundy, that low quantities of semen meant that intercourse had occurred at least 24 hours before collection. The testimony in Johnson's case was critical in persuading the jury that the victim—who had multiple partners in the weeks before her death—had sexual contact with Johnson near the time of the murder. In Lemond's case, however, the changed testimony persuaded jurors that an alternate suspect who had been identified as the source of the semen could not have had sex with the victim around the time of the murder. The murders occurred in 1985, but the trials took place two decades later after Hong reopened forensic probes into the cases. Hong's testimony in Johnson contradicted the conclusions reached by criminalist Daniel Gammie when he prepared the original reports in ther cases in 1985. At that time, Gammie indicated in both cases that the sperm had been deposited at least 24 hours before collection. At Johnson's trial, Gammie changed his stance to fit the prosecution's theory and testified that now he would "be very cautious making a statement" like the one in his 1985 report. Having recanted his 1985 conclusions in Johnson's case, prosecutors could not risk presenting him as a witness in Lemond's case. Instead, Gundy presented Hong, but did not tell the jury about her contradictory testimony in the Johnson trial. Sanders' court filing argued that Gammie and Hong's testimony had been tailored to “fit perfectly for the prosecution" in Johnson’s case and that Hong's testimony in Lemond's case was "wholly irreconcilable with the testimony in Johnson. ...She clearly had studied Gammie’s report and analysis and knew that Gammie’s testimony in Johnson and her own—in the hands of defense counsel—would have eviscerated her credibility in Lemond and all of the other cases she has touched throughout the course of her career." The revelation comes amid a widespread prosecutorial misconduct scandal in Orange County, in which a special committee recently cited a "failure of leadership" and "win-at-all-costs mentality" as factors that led to the misuse of jailhouse informants, withholding of evidence, and other misconduct.
The crime lab is a division of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, which is also implicated in the informant scandal. According to the Orange County Register, its deputies "have been caught conducting unconstitutional scams against pretrial inmates, hiding evidence, disobeying lawful court orders and committing perjury to cover up misdeeds."
(R. S. Moxley, "Orange County's Crime Lab Accused of Doctoring DNA Analysis In Murder Cases," OC Weekly, September 27, 2016.) See Prosecutorial Misconduct.Tweet
Some proponents of the death penalty—including the late Justice Antonin Scalia and the 2016 Republican Party platform—have asserted that the Supreme Court cannot declare the death penalty unconstitutional because the Framers included reference to the punishment in the text of the Fifth Amendment. An article by Duke Law School Professor Joseph Blocher, published in the Northwestern University Law Review, critically analyzes that argument and concludes that the Fifth Amendment's acknowledgment of the death penalty as an acceptable practice in the 1700s does not foreclose judicial review of the constitutionality of the practice under the Eighth Amendment or any other constitutional amendment. This, Blocher says, is because the Fifth Amendment contains restrictions on the exercise of government power, rather than affirmatively granting the government any constitutional power. The Fifth Amendment, Blocher writes, "contains three prohibitions on the use of capital punishment." The Grand Jury Clause prohibits the government from bringing charges against a person "for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury." The Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits twice placing any person "in jeopardy of life or limb" for the same offense. The Due Process Clause prohibits depriving any person "of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." No one would argue that the mention of deprivation of limb in the Double Jeopardy Clause constitutionally legitimizes amputation as a criminal punishment. And by imposing constitutional limits on government conduct in attempting to take a defendant's life, Blocher says "there is no reason to suppose that [the Fifth Amendment] somehow nullifies other constitutional prohibitions—most importantly, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment." He notes that the Ninth Amendment reinforces this reading, "The Ninth Amendment indicates that the entire Bill of Rights—let alone any particular provision of it—cannot be read as an exclusive list. ...Compliance with the Fifth Amendment does not provide the death penalty a safe harbor against constitutional challenges, including those derived from the Eighth Amendment." Blocher concludes that to the extent reasons may exist not to abolish the death penalty, "the Fifth Amendment is not one of them."Tweet
Missouri Execution Pharmacy Calls Sale of Drugs to State 'Political Speech,' Claims First Amendment Right to Secrecy
A pharmacy that has received more than $125,000 in cash payments from Missouri for providing lethal injection drugs that the state has used in 16 executions has argued in a court filing that its identity should remain secret, claiming that selling execution drugs to the state's Department of Corrections is political speech protected by the First Amendment. The supplier's information was requested in a subpoena by Mississippi death row inmates who are challenging that state's execution protocol, and seeking information about other state practices as part of their lawsuit. The pharmacy, which is identified in court documents as "M7," filed a motion stating that its "decision to provide lethal chemicals to the Department was based on M7’s political views on the death penalty, and not based on economic reasons. ...The fact that M7’s expression of political views involves a commercial transaction does not diminish M7’s First Amendment rights." BuzzFeed News reports that Missouri paid the pharmacy $7,178.88 for two vials of pentobarbital per execution, which it describes as well above market value, amid concerns that the cash payments may have violated federal tax laws. Analyzing M7's claim, Bloomberg News columnist Noah Feldman described the pharmacy's constitutional argument as "deeply flawed." Feldman writes that "there’s an enormous difference between speaking and acting—particularly when that action is a for-profit commercial transaction with the government. ... [I]n a democracy, it’s crucially important for the government to disclose its vendors, both to avoid corruption and to promote transparency." M7 asserted in its filing that releasing its identity could subject the pharmacy to harassment and boycotts, relying on statements from a security consultant, Lawrence Cunningham, whose previous statements about the potential threats to execution drug suppliers have been exposed as unsupported or exaggerated. "The M7 situation helps demonstrate why it’s so dangerous to treat corporations as though they have fundamental constitutional rights while doing business," Feldman writes. "Those basic rights are designed to protect individuals against government power. They aren’t supposed to be used to exempt businesses from regulation or publicity whenever it’s convenient for them."
(C. McDaniel and C. Geidner, "Pharmacy Argues There’s A First Amendment Right To Secretly Sell Execution Drugs," BuzzFeed News, September 25, 2016; N. Feldman, "Death-Penalty Drugmaker Shouldn't Be Anonymous," Bloomberg, September 26, 2016.) See Lethal Injection.Tweet
As voters get set to cast ballots on death penalty questions in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, U.S. death row exonerees from across the country have been scouring those states in an effort to inform the public of the risks of wrongful executions. On September 19, 17 of the nation's 156 death-row exonerees appeared at a California press conference advocating approval of Proposition 62, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole plus restitution, and defeat of Proposition 66, which seeks to place limits on the capital appeals process. Many, including California exoneree Shujaa Graham (pictured), Florida exoneree Juan Melendez, Arizona exonerees Ray Krone and Debra Milke, and Louisiana exoneree Damon Thibodeaux urged a no vote on Prop. 66, arguing that they would have been executed without the chance to prove their innocence if a measure like it had been effect when they were sentenced to death. A few days earlier, Illinois exoneree Randy Steidl and Ohio exoneree Kwame Ajamu spoke to the Oklahoma Republican Liberty Caucus, a group described by its chairman, Logan County Commissioner Marven Goodman, as "disenfranchised conservatives" who, as a result of their distrust of government regulation are questioning the death penalty. Steidl and Ajamu told the caucus about their wrongful capital convictions and raised concerns about the effects of limitations on judicial review under Oklahoma ballot question 776, which would bar Oklahoma courts from ruling that the imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel or unusual punishment or "contravene[d] any provision of the Oklahoma Constitution." Steidl, who was wrongfully convicted in Illinois in 1987 and exonerated in 2004, stressed the importance of appellate review in securing his exoneration: "Without the judicial review I finally got, I’d be dead today or at least be languishing in prison," he said. "I really believe that Oklahoma’s track record so far is not very pretty when you’ve got 10 people that’s been exonerated." And in Nebraska, Maryland's Kirk Bloodsworth, the first former death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA, taped an ad on behalf of Retain A Just Nebraska, the advocacy committee opposing a voter referendum that could overturn the state legislature's repeal of Nebraska's death penalty. In the ad, Bloodsworth says: "You could free a man from prison, but you cannot free him from the grave. You can not un-execute someone. ... If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal record or criminal history, it could happen to anybody in America.”
(J. White, "Capitol Alert: Exoneration Nation," Sacramento Bee, September 19, 2016; J. Coburn, "Oklahoma conservative group examines death penalty," Edmond Sun, September 16, 2016; C. Tolan, "This former death row inmate has a powerful message for Nebraskans voting on the death penalty," Fusion, July 12, 2016) See New Voices and Oklahoma. You can see the Facebook livestream of the California press conference featuring 17 death-row exonerees here.Tweet