The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles will soon consider the clemency petition of Robert Holsey describing a near complete failure in the judicial process that sent him to death row in 1997. As Marc Bookman described in the latest edition of Mother Jones, Holsey was assigned a lawyer, Andy Prince, who consumed a quart of vodka every night of the trial. While preparing Holsey's case, he was arrested in an incident after pointing a gun at a black neighbor and using a racial slur. Despite charges of assault, disorderly conduct, and public drunkenness stemming from the racially-charged crime, he was allowed to stay on as defense attorney for a black defendant facing charges of murdering a white police officer. Prince failed to communicate with his co-counsel, Brenda Trammell, who had never tried a capital case, leaving her to perform a complex cross-examination with little time to prepare. She also gave the case's closing argument after almost no notice. Prince failed to present mitigating evidence regarding Holsey's intellectual disabilities and the severe abuse he suffered as a child. A juror from Holsey's trial later said in an affidavit that he would have spared Holsey's life had he heard such evidence. However, state and federal appeals courts have held that, even without the failings of the defense team, the outcome would probably have been the same.
UPDATE: (4/21). The Oklahoma Supreme Court (5-4) has stayed the executions of Lockett and Warner. Earlier:In a 3-2 decision on April 18, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) said it could not grant a stay of execution to two death row inmates facing imminent execution because they had not filed a proper motion. Earlier, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said the OCCA should be the court to grant a stay, especially since there were unsettled questions about the constitutionality of the state's execution law. The two inmates, Clayton Lockett (l.) and Charles Warner (r.), have argued that the "veil of secrecy" surrounding Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional. A lower court ruled in their favor in March. Vice-Presiding Judge Clancey Smith of the OCCA dissented from the 3-2 ruling, saying, "I would grant a stay to avoid irreparable harm as the appellants face imminent execution. I would do so in consideration of the appellants' rights, to avoid the miscarriage of justice, and in comity with the Supreme Court's request for time to resolve the issues pending before it." Attorneys for Lockett and Warner have filed an additonal appeal to the state Supreme Court, stating, "The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) has repeatedly disavowed any authority to stay Appellants’ executions, even in the face of this Court’s direct ruling to the contrary. It simply cannot be that no court in this State has the power to enter a stay of execution in this case. Such a result would close the courts of justice to Appellants, in violation of the Oklahoma Constitution."
On April 17, the New Hampshire Senate voted 12-12 on a bill to repeal the death penalty. The Senate then voted to table the bill, meaning it could be brought up for reconsideration later in the legislative session. New Hampshire has not had an execution since 1939 and has only 1 person on death row, whose status would not have been affected by the bill. The bill had overwhelmingly passed the House earlier, and Gov. Maggie Hassan indicated she would have signed the bill if it passed the Senate. Senator Bob Odell, one of two Republicans who voted in favor of repeal, had previously supported the death penalty, but said he could not explain an execution to his grandchildren. Some of those who voted to retain the death penalty were concerned that passage might reduce the sentence of the one man on death row, even though the bill stated it would apply only to future cases. In other states where inmates were left on death row after repeal, none have been removed because of the repeal legislation.
A new study published by Professors Jon Gould (l.) of American University and Richard Leo of the University of San Francisco, along with other researchers, examined factors that have contributed to wrongful convictions in criminal cases. The study compared cases in which "guilty" defendants were eventually exonerated to those in which defendants were not convicted in the first place. The researchers found a number of variables that separated wrongful convictions from so-called "near misses," including the criminal history of the defendant, withheld exculpatory evidence, errors with forensic evidence, and inadequate representation. With respect to the death penalty, the researchers found that states with higher use of the death penalty were more likely to produce wrongful convictions, even in cases that did not involve capital punishment. The authors offered a possible explanation for this effect, saying, "In a punitive legal culture, police and prosecutors may be more interested in obtaining a conviction at all costs (leading to greater Brady violations, etc.), and community pressure may encourage overly swift resolutions to cases involving serious crimes like rape and murder." The researchers recommended changes to the justice system to limit wrongful convictions, including better funding for indigent defense, earlier testing of forensic evidence, and subjecting forensic labs to peer review.
In advance of a New Hampshire Senate vote expected on April 17, the Boston Globe published an editorial calling on their neighboring state's legislators to support repeal of capital punishment. The editorial highlighted the bipartisan support for abolition in the New Hampshire House, and Gov. Maggie Hassan's pledge to sign the repeal bill if it passes the Senate. Among their reasons for endorsing the measure, the Globe said, "Death-penalty prosecutions are expensive, verdicts often reflect racial bias, and there’s little evidence that executions actually deter violent crime." Moreover, the editorial continued, "[A] state with a libertarian heritage like New Hampshire’s should regard with deep suspicion a punishment that can only make sense if the government has the right suspect 100 percent of the time." In response to the argument that prosecutors need the death penalty as a bargaining tool, the editors said, "[T]hat’s among the weakest of reasons to keep the death penalty, because it could serve to coerce an innocent or less culpable defendant into taking a plea bargain just to avoid the possibility of death." Read the editorial below.
DPIC recently published a new page that presents execution data for each state and each year since 1976. This allows users to more easily see execution trends in states over time. We have also recently posted updated state data from "Death Row, USA." As of October 1, 2013, there were 3,088 inmates on death row, continuing the decline in death row population since 2000. As developments surrounding lethal injection continue to emerge, users can find current information on our State-by-State Lethal Injection page. Finally, information on legislative action on capital punishment, such as the upcoming vote on repealing the death penalty in New Hampshire, can be found on our Recent Legislation page.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, attorneys Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno argued that the veil of secrecy that many states have placed over their execution process violates defendants' constitutional rights and "deprives the public of informed debate." The authors provided numerous examples where inmates executed with drugs from compounding pharmacies or with novel mixes of new drugs exhibited signs of consciousness and suffering. However, inmates whose executions are rapidly approaching are unable to mount a credible challenge to the drugs that will be used because legislatures or wardens have labeled the sources as state secrets. The attorneys concluded, "The Eighth Amendment requires that the ultimate punishment our society can impose and the means by which it is carried out are subject to the highest level of scrutiny. If prison officials conceal crucial information from judges, lawyers and the public, we have only their word that the drugs will cause death in a manner that complies with the Constitution. Clearly, we can’t leave that to trust."
On April 14, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear appeals in the cases of the four inmates whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act. North Carolina passed the Act in 2009, allowing death row inmates to use statistical studies to show that racial bias affected their trials. The first four cases were heard in 2012. The evidence presented at hearings for defendants Marcus Robinson (l.), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters included testimony that prosecutors made racially charged notes during jury selection and participated in a training seminar where they were taught how to get around laws that banned striking jurors on the basis of race. Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks reduced the sentences of all four inmates to life. In one ruling, Weeks said he found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” The Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013, but claims made prior to repeal are still pending. The state brought the current appeal before the state Supreme Court in an attempt to have the death sentences of all four inmates reinstated.