Sentencing

Georgia Approaches Record Number of Executions But Hasn't Imposed Death Sentences in Two Years

The pace of executions in Georgia is outstripping the pace of death sentences. While the number of executions this year (5) is equal to the single-year record set in 1987 and 2015, no one has been sentenced to death in more than two years, and prosecutors are rarely seeking death sentences. The last death sentence in Georgia came down in March 2014. The number of notices of intent to seek the death penalty has fallen by more than 60% in the last decade, from 34 in 2006 to 13 in 2015. This year, the death penalty is being sought in only one case - the murder of a priest who had protested against capital punishment and signed a document stating his opposition to the death penalty, even in the event he was violently killed. Brian Kammer, head of the Georgia Resource Center, which represents death row inmates in their appeals, said improving the quality of representation has been crucial in bringing about change: “Had such legal teams with adequate resources been available to these recently executed prisoners at the time they were tried originally, I am confident they would be alive today.” Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said the option of life without parole has had a significant impact. Chuck Spahos, head of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said, “It has made an enormous difference. When you start talking about the expense, the years of appeals and the length of the process that goes on and on and having to put victims’ families through that with no closure, the availability of life without parole with a guilty plea has become an attractive option.” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Akil Secret raised questions of fairness, asking, "If a life-without-parole sentence is sufficient for today’s worst crimes, why isn’t it sufficient for those crimes from the past where death was imposed?" 

Delaware Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Statute

The Delaware Supreme Court heard oral argument on June 15 in Rauf v. State, a case challenging the constitutionality of the state's death sentencing statute on the grounds that it violates the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. The challenge arose in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2016 in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida's sentencing scheme, saying that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough." Delaware, Florida, and Alabama are the only states that permit a judge to make the final sentencing decision in capital cases after receiving a non-unanimous sentencing recommendation from a jury. At the time of Hurst, Florida death penalty jurors were asked to consider and weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances without reporting which factors they found, and then make a recommendation of sentence. However, the trial judge ultimately determined whether aggravating factors existed that made the defendant eligible for the death penalty and decidede whether to impose a life sentence or the death penalty. After Hurst, the state amended its statute to require the jury to unanimously find aggravating circumstances and vote at least 10-2 for death before the judge could impose a death sentence. The Delaware Supreme Court must decide whether Delaware's system, which requires a jury to unanimously determine whether an aggravating factor exists, but allows a judge to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors, meets constitutional requirements. Santino Ceccotti, a public defender who argued on behalf of Benjamin Rauf, a defendant whose capital case is pending, said the weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors is a fact finding, and therefore should be done by a jury. "The Sixth Amendment requires not a judge, but a jury, to find each fact," he said. Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg, who argued for the state, conceded that Delaware's weighing process was a fact finding necessary before a death sentence could be imposed, but said the jury fact finding required by Hurst was limited to determining whether the defendant was eligible for the death penalty, not what the ultimate sentence should be. A Florida trial court ruled last week that Florida's new statute violated Hurst because the determination that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigation is a fact finding that must be made by the jury. An Alabama trial court has also ruled that its judicial sentencing statute violates Hurst. All capital trials in Delaware are on hold while the court considers the case.

Second Florida Trial Court Strikes Down State's Death Penalty Statute

A second Florida trial court has ruled that the state's new death penalty statute is unconstitutional. On June 9, Hillsborough County Judge Samantha Ward barred prosecutors from seeking death against Michael Edward Keetley, saying that the state's death penalty statute violated the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Judge Ward said that the Florida legislature's changes to the sentencing law after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the old statute unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, created an additional set of constitutional problems. Hurst held that the Florida sentencing statute impermissibly permitted the judge, rather than the jury, to determine whether the prosecution had proven each fact necessary to impose the death penalty. In response to Hurst, the legislature passed a new law that permitted the court to impose a death sentence only if the jury unanimously found at least one aggravating circumstance that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty and then recommended a death sentence by a vote of at least 10-2 after determining that the aggravating circumstance were sufficiently serious to justify a death sentence and outweighed any mitigating circumstances. Judge Ward said that, under the new sentencing scheme, the jury's weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances constituted a fact-finding necessary before a death sentence could be imposed. She wrote, "it defies logic, and the dictates of [the Sixth Amendment], to have the jury find one of the prerequisites unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt (that at least one aggravating factor exists), but not the other two prerequisites (that sufficient aggravators exist and that they outweigh the mitigating circumstances). Hurst specifically stated '[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.'" Judge Ward is the second Florida judge to find the new statute unconstitutional: one month earlier, on May 9, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch also struck down the law, ruling that the portion of the statute permitting the court to impose the death penalty without a unanimous jury vote for death violates the state constitution. 

Death Penalty Support Continues Its Steady Decline in Nation's Leading Execution County

Just 27% of Houston-area residents prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder, according to a new report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Harris County, the largest county in the Houston metropolitan area, "earned its reputation as the 'death penalty capital of America,'” the report says, "having executed more people since 1976 ... than any other county in the nation." At its peak, Harris County sentenced 44 people to death during a three-year period (1994-1996). However, declining public support for capital punishment has contributed to a drop in the number of death sentences the county imposes. Over the last three years, five people were sentenced to death in Harris County, with no new death sentences imposed in 2015. Texas is experiencing a similar statewide trend: while the state imposed a high of 48 death sentences in 1999, it imposed only two new death sentences in 2015. The percentage of Houston residents who consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder has "dropped steadily," the report says, including a decline of 12 percentage points since 2008. It attributes the erosion of support for the death penalty to "recent revelations of discriminatory sentencing, innocent persons being freed from Death Row just before their scheduled executions, and botched lethal injections," along with the comparatively greater costs of seeking the death penalty, rather than life imprisonment, which the report says "have risen dramatically." (Click image to enlarge.)

Florida Court to Hear Argument on Impact of U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Declaring Death Penalty Process Unconstitutional

On May 5, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Timothy Hurst, whose death sentence was overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Hurst v. FloridaThe state court must determine whether the high court's ruling, which struck down Florida's sentencing scheme, entitles Hurst to a new sentencing hearing, reduces his sentence to life without parole, or requires some other outcome. The case may also decide how the Hurst ruling will affect the nearly 400 people on Florida's death row. Hurst's attorneys say he should have his death sentence reduced because, "persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony are entitled to have their now-unconstitutional death sentences replaced by sentences of life without parole." That position received support in an amicus brief filed by three former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court, a former state representative, a former prosecutor, and past presidents of the American Bar Association. The justice and legal experts argue that  Hurst "held Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional," and that in such circumstances Florida law requires all death sentences imposed under the statute to be reduced to life without parole. The state attorney general's office has argued that state law requires blanket imposition of new sentences only if the death penalty itself is declared unconstitutional, and that Hurst only declared Florida's method of imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. Florida has the nation's second-largest death row, with 396 people as of January 1, 2016, before the state legislature rewrote the sentencing procedure to require a unanimous jury finding of at least one aggravating circumstance, and at least a 10-2 vote to impose a death sentence.

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Alabama to Reconsider Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and has directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Johnson, represented by lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence, which was imposed by a trial judge after a nonunanimous jury vote of 10-2 recommending a death sentence, as violating the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. According to Johnson's Supreme Court pleadings, the trial court had instructed the jury that it did not need to unanimously agree to any particular fact that would have made Johnson eligible for the death penalty, nor did it have to identify for the court any specific aggravating factors that it found to be present in the case. Hurst ruled that Florida's capital sentencing procedures, which permitted critical factual findings necessary to impose a death sentence to be made by the trial judge, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing scheme suffers from the same constitutional defect and that, "[i]n Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury." Bryan Stevenson, EJI's executive director, said that the Court's ruling could have systemic implications: "This ruling implicates all [capital] cases in Alabama. We have argued that Alabama's statute no longer conforms to current constitutional requirements. The Court's ruling today supports that view." In March, an Alabama Circuit Judge barred the death penalty in four cases on the grounds that Alabama's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision to order reconsideration of Johnson's case could also affect a court challenge currently pending in the Delaware Supreme Court over the constitutionality of its death penalty statute, which employs similar sentencing procedures. Likewise, defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that the death penalty statute in that state — which has been repealed by the legislature pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November — impermissibly vests key fact-finding authority in the trial judge, rather than the jury. 

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.

Florida Legislature Passes Bill Requiring Agreement of 10 Jurors Before Judge May Impose Death Sentence

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law on March 7. Previously: The Florida legislature passed a bill on March 3 to restructure its death penalty statute in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida, which declared the state's death penalty procedures unconstitutional. The bill modifies Florida's practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences without the unanimous agreement of jurors by requiring that at least ten jurors recommend death before the judge may impose a death penalty. It also directly addresses Hurst by requiring that jurors unanimously find any aggravating circumstances that the prosecution seeks to prove to make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Previously, Florida judges made the determination whether the prosecution had proven aggravating circumstances that made the defendant eligible for the death penalty, and the statute permitted the judge to impose death based upon a simple majority recommendation or, in certain circumstances, when the jury had recommended life imprisonment. The new 10-2 requirement matches the standard applied in Alabama. Along with Delaware - which permits the court to impose death after a simple majority recommendation by the jury - these states stand alone in the country in allowing a death sentence after a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. Delaware and Alabama still permit judicial override. Delaware's system is currently under review by that state's highest court, and on March 3, an Alabama circuit court judge declared that state's sentencing procedure unconstitutional.

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