Recent Legislative Activity

EDITORIALS: California Newspapers Overwhelmingly Support Ballot Initiative to Abolish Death Penalty

Newspaper editorial boards in California are overwhelmingly supporting a November ballot initiative to abolish the state's death penalty and replace it with life without parole plus restitution, and are uniformly rejecting an opposing initiative that purports to speed up the appeals process. At least eight California newspapers have published editorials supporting Proposition 62 and opposing Proposition 66, and Ballotpedia reports that it is aware of no editorial boards that have supported Proposition 66. A Los Angeles Times editorial characterizes the death penalty as "both immoral and inhumane," adding, "[e]ven those who do not object to capital punishment on principle ought to support abolition because of the system’s inefficiency, exorbitant costs and long delays. Proponents of Proposition 66 say they can speed up the process and make the death penalty work, but there are serious doubts that their proposal would achieve the kind of fast-tracking they promise, and critics argue persuasively that the system might become even more expensive." The San Francisco Chronicle writes that "all sides agree [California's death penalty] has produced enormous legal bills, no semblance of deterrence to would-be murderers and too little justice to victims’ loved ones over the past four decades." It says Prop. 62 "offers a straightforward and certain solution," while criticizing Prop. 66 as "a highly complex, probably very expensive and constitutionally questionable scheme for streamlining the appeals process." Many of the editorials are particularly critical of Prop. 66's proposal to conscript appellate lawyers to represent death row inmates. The (Santa Rosa) Press Democrat's critique is representative: "Rather than funding an expansion of the state public defender’s office, which handles almost all death penalty appeals, Proposition 66 would require all attorneys who practice in California appellate courts, regardless of specialty and training, to accept judicial appointments to capital cases. Claims of inattentive and incompetent counsel already are common in death penalty appeals, and conscripting lawyers would only invite more such challenges." The Bakersfield Californian, which offered no opinion on Prop. 34, California's prior ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty, has also weighed in on the death penalty this year, calling for an end to the state's "costly, toothless death penalty." Other newspapers urging voters to vote yes on Prop. 62 and no on Prop. 66 included Monterey Herald, the Bay Area News Group (Mercury News and East Bay Times), and the Santa Clarita Valley Signal.

Delaware Attorney General Will Not Appeal Decision Striking Down Death Penalty Statute

Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn (pictured) announced on August 15 that his office will not appeal the Delaware Supreme Court's August 2 decision in Benjamin Rauf v. State of Delaware, which struck down the state's death penalty statute. In Rauf, the court found that Delaware's capital sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, by granting judges, rather than juries, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven all facts necessary to impose the death penalty. Delaware's statute had not required a unanimous jury determination of all aggravating circumstances that were considered in sentencing a defendant to death or a unanimous jury finding that those reasons for death outweighed mitigating circumstances. The Rauf decision intensifies the national spotlight on Alabama and Florida as the only states that still permit judges to impose death sentences after non-unanimous jury recommendations for death and on Alabama as the only remaining state to permit a judge to override a jury's life verdict. The statement of the attorney general's office said Denn "has concluded that even if the United States Supreme Court reversed the opinion on Federal Constitutional grounds, ... the Delaware Supreme Court would ultimately invalidate Delaware’s current death penalty statute based on the Constitution of the State of Delaware." Litigating those issues, he said, "would likely take years" and "would likely not only bring about the same result, but would also deny the families of victims sentencing finality." The statement indicated that state prosecutors would challenge the application of Rauf to the thirteen prisoners currently on Delaware's death row, leaving their status uncertain. For future cases, legislative action is now the only route to reinstating the death penalty in Delaware. Such action seems unlikely, given that it must be approved by both houses of the legislature and by the Governor. However, death penalty abolition bills passed the state Senate in 2013 and 2015, and narrowly failed in the House earlier this year, and Governor Jack Markell has expressed support for abolishing the death penalty and "applaud[ed] the Supreme Court's finding that the state's death penalty law is unconstitutional."

Delaware Supreme Court Declares State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

The Delaware Supreme Court on August 2 declared the state's capital sentencing procedures unconstitutional, leaving Delaware without a valid death penalty statute. In the case of Benjamin Rauf v. State of Delaware, the court held that Delaware's death sentencing procedures violate the constitutional principles recently set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. Hurst stated that a capital defendant's Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury requires "a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Four members of the Delaware high court ruled that the state's capital sentencing statute unconstitutionally empowers judges, rather than jurors, to decide whether the prosecution has proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that are considered in determining whether to impose for the death penalty. They wrote that the jury must unanimously find those facts to have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt before a death sentence may be considered. In an opinion by Chief Justice Leo Strine, Jr., a narrower 3-justice majority of the court also ruled that the facts necessary to impose a death penalty in Delaware included a finding that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances (reasons to spare the defendant's life). Delaware's statute violates the Sixth Amendment, they wrote, because it does not require as a prerequisite to the death penalty that jurors unanimously agree that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigation beyond a reasonable doubt. The court said the unconstitutional sentencing provisions were inseverable from the rest of the death penalty statute, and that any changes to the statute would have to be made by the legislature. However, recent legislative activity suggests that a bill restoring the state's ability to impose death sentences may have difficulty passing. Calling the death penalty "an instrument of imperfect justice," Governor Jack Markell has indicated that he would sign a bill to abolish capital punishment if it passed the legislature. Such a bill passed the state Senate in 2013 and 2015 and was released by the House Judiciary Committee for consideration by the full House, where it narrowly failed earlier this year. Professor Eric Freedman, a death penalty expert at the Hofstra University School of Law, said "[t]his probably means, as a practical matter, the end of the death penalty in Delaware."

Report: Proposal Billed as Speeding Up California Executions Would Actually Be Costly, Time-Consuming

An initiative on the California ballot this November billed by its supporters as a reform alternative to abolishing the state's death penalty will cost the state tens of millions of dollars to implement, according to an analysis by the Alarcón Advocacy Center at Loyola Law School, and "will not speed up executions." The report, California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives, predicts that Proposition 66 (The Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016), would "cost millions more than the [state's] already expensive death penalty system" and "will only make matters worse by creating more delays and further clogging the state’s over-burdened court system," adding "layers of appeals to a system already facing an insurmountable backlog of decades of death penalty appeals waiting to be decided." The report states that provisions in Prop 66 to exempt lethal injection protocols from public oversight "will certainly be subject to litigation ... on constitutional and other grounds, should Prop 66 pass, adding yet more delays to death penalty cases." The report criticizes Prop 66 as "fail[ing] to make the constitutional changes required to deliver the results it promises" and concludes that "its proposals are so convoluted that they are likely to create many new problems that will not only complicate the administration of the death penalty system, but will also impact and harm the rest of California’s legal system." The report contrasts Prop 66 with an opposing ballot initiative, Proposition 62 (The Justice That Works Act of 2016), which would abolish the death penalty in favor of life without parole. According to the state Legislative Analyst, Prop 66 will cost "tens of millions of dollars per year," while Prop 62 would save California taxpayers $150 million per year. The authors of the Loyola report, Paula Mitchell, executive director of the Alarcón Advocacy Center, and Nancy Haydt, a board member of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, summarize the issues before the voters as follows: "The proponents of both Prop 62 and Prop 66 agree that California’s death penalty system is dysfunctional, exorbitantly expensive, and failing to achieve its purpose. Prop 62 responds to this failed system by replacing it entirely, adapting the existing regime of life imprisonment without parole to cover all persons who are convicted of murder with special circumstances. Prop 66 responds to this failure with a sweeping array of convoluted proposed 'fixes.' Our detailed analysis reveals that most of these changes will actually make the death penalty system worse, and will result in its problems negatively impacting the rest of the legal system in California."

Colorado Law to Speed Up Death Penalty Appeals Has Faltered and Failed

Twenty years ago, frustrated by what they perceived to be the slow pace of capital punishment, Colorado legislators adopted a law to "fix" their death penalty by speeding up appeals. Proponents and opponents of the state's death penalty agree on one thing: the law hasn't worked. As The Denver Post reports, the state law intended to streamline the death penalty appeals process by imposing a two-year deadline for decision and consolidating direct appeals and post-conviction appeals into a "unitary" system of review has failed. Colorado's two death row prisoners affected by the law have spent more than seven years at the first step in the appeals process, with no ruling on their cases in sight. The 1997 law changed the order of death penalty appeals, putting the lengthier post-conviction appeal (involving new evidence and claims of ineffective representation or prosecutorial misconduct) first, before the direct appeal (which involves only issues that were raised by defense counsel at the time of trial). Once the trial court rules on the post-conviction appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court would review and resolve both appeals together, in a single "unitary" appeal proceeding. But while the law originally allowed "no extensions of time of any kind" in post-conviction appeals, a 2010 Colorado Supreme Court ruling allowed extensions to be granted under "extraordinary circumstances" necessary to protect a defendant's procedural rights. Death row inmates Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens both received extensions. Seven years later, Owens' case has had an extensive evidentiary hearing, but the appeal may have to be redone because the state supreme court fired the judge presiding over the case just before he was expected to issue his ruling. Ray's post-conviction hearings have not yet begun. Christopher Decker, a Denver defense attorney, voiced concerns about whether a fast appeals system would adequately protect defendants' constitutional rights: “If they just speed up the process and strip everyone of due process, we’ll have a very fast outcome that will be worth nothing. It won’t stand up to constitutional review.” Jeanne Adkins, the former state representative who sponsored the 1997 bill to speed up appeals, said, "I’m almost to the point where I would say, ‘Let’s do away with it and save the taxpayers the money.'" Expressing frustration with the death penalty system, she says “[t]he death penalty has become so politicized, truthfully, in the last decade or so in Colorado that I really think that a lot of what the legislature tried to do may actually be pretty pointless now.” 

Nebraska Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Death Penalty Referendum

The Nebraska Supreme Court heard oral argument on May 25 in a challenge to the proposed November referendum that could reverse the state legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty (vote results pictured left). Christy and Richard Hargesheimer, who oppose the death penalty, are challenging the documents submitted by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, the organization supporting the referendum, on the grounds that the group violated state law when they failed to list Governor Pete Ricketts as a sponsor of the referendum. Nebraska state law requires proponents of a ballot initiative to disclose all of the sponsors of the proposed referendum. Ricketts vetoed the legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty, but the legislature voted 30-19 to override his veto. Ricketts then personally contributed $200,000 and, in combination, he and his father donated approximately one-third of all the money raised by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty to gather the signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot. Much of the argument Wednesday focused on the definition of who is a "sponsor" for the purposes of a referendum campaign. Alan Peterson, an attorney for the Hargesheimers, said the sponsor is the primary initiating force, "the initiator, the instigator." Attorneys for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty argued that the sponsor is someone willing to take legal responsibility for the petition paperwork and said Peterson's definition was "unworkable and would chill involvement in the democratic process." Peterson also argued that a key document required to place the referendum on the November ballot had been filed improperly because it was not an affidavit or sworn statement, as required by Nebraska law. A trial court ruled in February in favor of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, leading to the Hargesheimer's appeal. [UPDATE: On July 8, 2016, the Nebraska Supreme Court that Governor Ricketts’ financial and other support for the petition drive did not make him a “sponsor” of the referendum, and therefore proponents' of the referendum did not have to disclose his involvement in the petition drive. The court rejected the Hargesheimers' efforts to remove the referendum from the ballot.] 

Florida Judge Sentences Man to Death Under Sentencing Law That Supreme Court Ruled Unconstitutional

A Florida trial judge in St. Lucie County sentenced Eriese Tisdale to death on April 29 for the killing of a sheriff's sergeant, relying on sentencing procedures from the version of Florida's death penalty law that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida. The jury in Tisdale's case considered the evidence in the penalty phase of Tisdale's trial under the old Florida law, voting 9-3 to recommend a death sentence without specifying the aggravating factors that would make Tisdale eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing procedure in Hurst because a judge, rather than a jury, made the factual determination of aggravating circumstances that were necessary to impose a death sentence. In response to Hurst, Florida enacted a new law, which went into effect March 7, requiring juries to make unanimous determinations of aggravating factors, and preconditioning any death sentence upon a jury vote of at least 10-2 vote in favor of death. The statute declares "If fewer than 10 jurors determine that the defendant should be sentenced to death, the jury's recommendation to the court shall be a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole." In those circumstances, the law states, "the court shall impose the recommended sentence." Tisdale's penalty phase was tried in October 2015, before the Supreme Court declared the sentencing procedures unconstitutional, and the jury's 9-3 recommendation for death came before the new law adopted the 10-2 requirement. His lawyers argued that he could not be sentenced to death because the old procedures were unconstitutional and the jury vote did not qualify as a death recommendation under the new law. But a St. Lucie County judge ruled that the jury's unanimous vote to convict Tisdale for the murder of a law enforcement official amounted to a unanimous finding of an aggravating circumstance, accepted the jury's 9-3 death recommendation, and sentenced Tisdale to death. Tisdale is the first person sentenced to death in Florida since the new law went into effect.

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

On April 13, the Tennessee House of Representatives joined the Tennessee Senate in unanimously approving a bill that would mandate the preservation of biological evidence in cases involving a death sentence. The House voted 94-0 in favor of the bill after the Senate had passed the bill on April 4 by a 31-0 vote. If the governor signs the bill, such evidence must be held until the defendant is executed, dies, or is released from prison. Destruction of evidence will be handled as criminal contempt. At the House hearing for the bill, Ray Krone (pictured), who was exonerated from Arizona's death row and now lives in Tennessee, testified to the importance of DNA evidence. Krone was exonerated after DNA from the victim's shirt was tested and was found to match neither the victim nor Krone. "That DNA not only saved my life.” Krone said. “It also, because it was preserved by the Phoenix Police Department, it identified the true murderer.” DNA testing also played a key role in the Tennessee death row exonerations of Paul House and Michael McCormick. A March 2007 Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project (now the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project) had found that Tennessee death penalty law failed to comply with ABA recommendations on the collection, preservation, and testing of DNA and other evidence. The ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project has found that only 2 of the 14 states whose death penalty procedures it assessed complied with the ABA recommendations on preservation of biological evidence in death penalty cases.

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