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The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Williams v. Pennsylvania, a case challenging former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille's participation in an appeal of a case that had been tried in Philadelphia while Castille was the city's district attorney. Terrance Williams (pictured) was convicted and sentenced to death in Philadelphia in 1984 for the murder of a man prosecutors had described to the jury as "a kind man [who had] offered [Williams] a ride home." Williams was 18 at the time of the murder. His death sentence was reversed days before his scheduled execution in 2012 because prosecutors under Castille's tenure had withheld information that the victim, a church deacon, had sexually abused teenagers he had met through his church and that the trial prosecutor knew that the victim had sexually abused Williams. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated Williams' death sentence. Williams' lawyers asked Castille to recuse himself from the case, saying he had "personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment" against Williams, continued to head the office when it defended the death verdict on appeal, and, in his electoral campaign for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, had touted "the number of defendants he had 'sent' to death row, including [Williams]." Castille denied the motion for recusal and authored a concurring opinion that criticized Williams' lawyers and the judge who had ruled in Williams' favor.
On October 2, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon commuted the death sentence of Kimber Edwards to life without parole. Edwards had faced execution on October 6 for the alleged murder-for-hire killing of his ex-wife. Prosecutors said Edwards had hired Orthell Wilson to kill his ex-wife to prevent her from testifying in a child-support hearing. Wilson pled guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. He subsequently recanted his story, saying that he had acted alone and had lied about being hired by Edwards. Edwards has professed his innocence, despite confessing to police. His lawyers argue that he has a form of autism that makes him vulnerable to falsely confessing in the face of coercive interrogation tactics. Edwards' case also sparked charges of racial bias. He is one of 7 black men on death row from St. Louis County - the home of Ferguson - and was sentenced to death by an all-white jury after prosecutors used their discretionary strikes to remove three black prospective jurors. Missouri courts have found that St. Louis County prosecutors have unlawfully excluded black jurors because of race at least five times since 2002, and several other black death row prisoners in Missouri - including Andre Cole, Herbert Smulls, and Leon Taylor - were executed after having been sentenced to death by all-white juries. In addition, a recent study reported stark racial and geographic disparities in Missouri's application of the death penalty, and St. Louis County has executed more defendants than any other county in the state.
On October 1, Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto (pictured) before the U.S. Supreme Court had decided whether to grant a stay on his challenge to Virginia's use of an execution drug obtained from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Robert Lee, Prieto's attorney, said, "The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were considering Mr. Prieto’s request for a stay of execution but the Virginia Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution without waiting for a decision from the Justices." Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson held a hearing on a challenge to Virginia's lethal injection procedure. Virginia used compounded pentobarbital obtained from Texas, without any inquiry into the manufacture, purity, or storage of the drug. Prieto's lawyers raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the drug. Hudson denied the appeal and lifted a preliminary injunction that had put the execution on hold. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied Prieto's appeal of this issue. Prieto's lawyers then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, but Virginia carried out the execution before the Court could issue a decision. The last time a state executed an inmate with appeals still pending was January 29, 2014, when Missouri executed Herbert Smulls.
Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich said he is "more open" to the abolition of the death penalty after hearing Pope Francis' address to Congress. Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism several years ago, said he was "very impressed" with Pope Francis' comments. In an appearance on HuffPost Live, Gingrich highlighted the work he has done on criminal justice reform, saying, "I very deeply believe we need to profoundly rethink what we've done over the past 25 years in criminal justice." With regards to the death penalty, he raised particular concerns about innocence: "You do want to be careful not to execute somebody who you find later on, as we've found, to be innocent." Openness to the idea of abolition represents a significant change in Gingrich's stance on the issue, as he was House Speaker when Congress passed the law (known as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)) limiting the availability of federal judicial review of death sentences imposed in the state courts and once advocated a mandatory death penalty for drug smugglers.
An unusually high number of executions are scheduled for late September and early October - five states intend to carry out six executions in nine days. Pieces in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post describe the larger issues raised by the cases in this "burst of lethal activity." In the Los Angeles Times, Scott Martelle examined the three executions scheduled for consecutive days in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Virginia, concluding, "So here we have three pending executions: One of a woman who received a harsher penalty than the co-conspirator who committed the murder; one of a man who very possibly is innocent; and one of a man whose intellectual disability should make him ineligible for the death penalty." Mark Berman, of the Washington Post, noted the overall rarity of executions and the small number of states that carry them out. He says "most states have ... not been active participants in the country's capital punishment system" and "executions remain clustered in a small number of states, a dwindling number of locations accounting for an overwhelming majority of lethal injections." Berman notes that the number of executions, the states executing inmates and the number of death sentences have all fallen significantly since the 1990s and the upcoming executions share one common characteristic: "The states planning the executions this week and next — Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Missouri — are among the country’s most active death-penalty states since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976."
Virginia may execute Alfredo Prieto on October 1 despite concerns by disability advocates that he may be intellectually disabled. Governor Terry McAuliffe (pictured) announced on September 28 that he would not grant Prieto a reprieve. Gov. McAuliffe issued a statement saying "It is the Governor’s responsibility to ensure that the laws of the Commonwealth are properly carried out unless circumstances merit a stay or commutation of the sentence. After extensive review and deliberation, I have found no such circumstances, and have thus decided that this execution will move forward." Prieto's attorneys say he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution and that an adverse Virginia state court determination of that issue employed a scientifically invalid strict IQ cutoff score. Later, in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of strict IQ cutoff for ruling out intellectual disability without considering other factors violated the Eighth Amendment. The Arc of Virginia, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said, "We believe that allowing Mr. Prieto’s execution to go forward on the evidence as it stands is unjustified scientifically and would endorse a misunderstanding of intellectual disabilities that was refuted long ago."
Defense lawyers have filed a motion in the case of Richard Glossip (pictured) alleging that two witnesses who have come forward with evidence of Glossip's innocence have been intimidated by prosecutors. Glossip was sentenced to death for the murder of Barry Van Treese, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, Justin Sneed, who was spared the death penalty in exhange for testifying that Glossip had offered him thousands of dollars to kill Van Treese. On September 23, Glossip's attorneys filed allegations that Michael Scott and Joseph Tapley had been arrested and interrogated by prosecutors in retaliation for providing statements that Sneed had acted alone. Prior to Glossip's scheduled September 16 execution, Scott had provided an affidavit stating that, "Among all the inmates, it was common knowledge that Justin Sneed lied and sold Richard Glossip up the river." On September 16, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a two-week stay of execution to allow consideration of new evidence in the case, including Scott's allegations. Later, a second former inmate, Joseph Tapley, came forward to say he was "sure that Justin Sneed acted alone." Tapley, who had been Sneed's cellmate, said Sneed offered "very detailed accounts" of the murder, but "never gave me any indication that someone else was involved. He never mentioned the name of Richard Glossip to me." Tapley also said Sneed, "was very concerned about getting the death penalty. He was very scared of it. The only thing that mattered to him was signing for a life sentence." The defense filing alleges that, after the stay was granted, Scott was arrested for a parole violation and questioned by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office prosecuted Glossip. It says that "Mr. Prater specifically told Mr. Scott that he ordered this action so that Scott would be forced to talk with Prater and his investigator." An arrest warrant was also issued for Tapley after he told Prater he did not wish to speak with him. Prater sharply denied the allegations of intimidation, calling them "lies."
Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher and former State Corrections Deputy Director Vanessa O’Donnell have joined the effort to spare Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on September 29 for recruiting Gregory Owen, with whom she was romantically involved, to murder her husband. Owen made a deal with prosecutors for a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 8 years. Justice Fletcher wrote a letter to the
A group of former Georgia prisoners is calling for clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed on September 29. The women say Gissendaner gave them hope and helped them turn their lives around. Nikki Roberts said she spoke to Gissendaner through a heating vent after Roberts had been placed in "lockdown" for trying to slit her wrists. Gissendaner told her, "Don't wish death on yourself. You sound like you've got some sense." Gissendaner encouraged Roberts to take taching courses and study theology. Roberts joined a choir and became a prayer leader. She was paroled last year and now teaches adult literacy. "Killing Kelly is essentially killing hope. Kelly is the poster child for redemption," Roberts said. Another woman, Nicole Legere, said Gissendaner helped her and many others. "I saw the change in (other inmates) who talked to her. There needs to be people like her, someone to be a mentor. She’s a lot of hope. And there’s not much hope in there." Gissendaner was convicted for her role in facilitating the murder of her husband, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, who received a deal in which he will become eligible for parole. If Gissendaner is executed, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945 and the only person who did not directly commit the killing to be executed in Georgia since the state reestablished the death penalty in the 1970s.
In an historic address before a joint session of the United States Congress, Pope Francis called for the abolition of capital punishment. Linking to the broader theme of protecting human life and dignity, he said, "This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes." He commended the United States bishops for their commitment to abolition. He went on to say, "Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation." This was the first time a pope had addressed the U.S. Congress. Pope Francis has made several previous statements against the death penalty, including an address to the International Association on Penal Law and a letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty.