Arbitrariness

Fair Punishment Project Issues Report on Deadliest Prosecutors

A new report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that a small number of overzealous prosecutors with high rates of misconduct have a hugely disproportionate impact on the death penalty in the United States. The report, "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty," shows that, by themselves, these prosecutors are responsible for more than 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 15% of the entire U.S. death row population today. Exploring what it calls "the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing," the report details the effects of Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas. Britt, Macy, and Myers personally prosecuted a combined 131 cases that resulted in death sentences, while Abraham and Holmes oversaw offices that the report says imposed 108 and 201 death sentences, respectively. They also disproportionately sent innocent people to death row, prosecuting 20% of the nation's death-row exonerees. The report found similar patterns involving these prosecutors, including high rates of prosecutorial misconduct, statements and actions that revealed a win-at-all-costs mentality, and a sharp decrease in death sentences once they and their proteges left office. Britt, Macy, and Myers were found to have committed misconduct in one-third to 46% of the death penalty cases they prosecuted. Prosecutors in Abraham's and Holmes' offices were found to have engaged in misconduct, including racially-biased jury selection and failures to disclose favorable evidence. Of the five prosecutors profiled in the report, only Myers—who is not seeking re-election—is still in office. After the other four prosecutors left office, the number of death sentences has declined significantly. Robeson County has imposed two death sentences in the last 10 years, Oklahoma County and Philadelphia County have each imposed three in six years, and Harris County dropped from an average of 12 death sentences a year during Holmes' last decade as prosecutor to one a year since 2008.

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?" 

Cost of Pennsylvania Death Penalty Estimated At $816 Million, Could Reach $1 Billion

Pennsylvania's taxpayers have paid an estimated $272 million per execution since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in 1978, according to an investigation by The Reading Eagle. Using data from a 2008 study by the Urban Institute, the Eagle calculated that cost of sentencing 408 people to death was an estimated $816 million higher than the cost of life without parole. The estimate is conservative, the paper says, because it assumes only one capital trial for each defendant and it does not include the cost of cases in which the death penalty was sought but not imposed. The total cost may exceed $1 billion. An earlier investigation had estimated a cost of at least $350 million, based on the 185 inmates who were on death row as of 2014, but additional research into the cases that had already been overturned, or in which inmates died or were executed prior to 2014, revealed a total of 408 people who had been sentenced to death. Pennsylvania has carried out only three executions under its current death penalty statute. State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "We're scratching for every dollar that we can right now. To continue to spend that kind of money is hard to justify." The Eagle's investigation also uncovered geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty. 60% of all death sentences came from just four counties: Philadelphia, Allegheny, York, and Berks. Death sentencing rates also varied dramatically, with about a third of counties handing down zero death sentences, while three (Columbia, Cumberland, and Northumberland) had 5 or more death sentences per 100 murders. Somerset District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, who has filed one death penalty case in five years as District Attorney, said, "I think our system is broken. It doesn't do justice to any one of the stakeholders, in my opinion, not the taxpayers, the victims or the defendants. It doesn't work."

Texas Court Stays Execution of Man Convicted by Now Debunked "Shaken Baby" Testimony

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of execution to Robert Roberson (pictured), who had been scheduled to be executed on June 21 for the 2003 death of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Nikki Curtis. The court's June 16 stay order halts Roberson's execution under a recent Texas law permitting court challenges based on new scientific evidence of innocence. Prosecution experts had testified at Roberson's trial that his daughter died of Shaken Baby Syndrome, asserting that the child exhibited symptoms that she must have been shaken or beaten. Roberson said she had fallen out of bed during the night, but that she seemed fine and went back to sleep. Hours later, when he checked on her again, she was blue and could barely breathe. Prosecutors charged him with murder and with sexually assaulting his daughter - although there was no evidence that she had been sexually assaulted. The sexual assault charges were later dropped, but only after the prosecution had discussed them in open court in front of the jury. The court granted Roberson review of four issues: that (1) new scientific evidence establishes that he would not have been convicted; (2) the State's use of "false, misleading, and scientifically invalid testimony” about Shaken Baby Syndrome violated due process; (3) Roberson is "actually innocent of capital murder"; and (4) "the State’s introduction of false forensic science testimony that current science has exposed as false" made his trial fundamentally unfair. "Instead of taking Robert’s explanation about a fall seriously or exploring all possible causes of the injury sustained by a chronically ill child who had been at the doctor’s office with 104.5-degree temperature only two days before," Roberson's lawyer, Gretchen Sween wrote, "a tragedy was hastily deemed a crime and a father, doing the best he could to care for his daughter despite severe cognitive impairments, was branded a murderer." Roberson presented affidavits from four medical experts challenging the accuracy and scientific validity of the State's shaken baby testimony. Forensic pathologist Dr. Harry Bonnell, in an opinion shared by all four defense experts, wrote: "it is impossible to shake a toddler to death without causing serious neck injuries—and Nikki had none." They suggest several alternate theories for Curtis' death, including meningitis caused by an ear infection, a fall like the one Roberson described to investigators, or a congenital condition. Roberson's appeal argues that, "[w]hen the trial record is viewed through the lens of current science and evidence-based medicine, it is clear that he is innocent of capital murder." The court returned the case to the trial court in Anderson County to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Roberson's claims. 

POLL: By 2:1 margin, Black South Carolinians Support Sentencing Church Shooter to Life Without Parole

A recent poll conducted by the University of South Carolina reveals deep racial divisions in the state over the death penalty and over the appropriateness of applying it in the case of Dylann Roof, the white defendant who faces state and federal capital charges in the race-based killings of nine black members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. According to the poll, 64.9% of African Americans in South Carolina oppose the death penalty, while 69.4% of white South Carolinians say they support it. Blacks were also more than twice as likely to support a sentence of life without parole for the church killings than to support the death penalty. Nearly two-thirds of black South Carolinians (64.7%) said that Roof should be sentenced to life without parole if convicted of the nine killings, while less than a third (30.9%) favored the death penalty. 4.4% said they did not know what sentence should be imposed. The views of white South Carolinians were diametrically opposite, with 64.6% saying they think Roof should be sentenced to death if convicted and 29.9% prefering life without parole. 5.6% of whites said they did not know which sentence should be imposed. Monique Lyle, who conducted the poll, said the results reflect consistent opposition to the death penalty among most black South Carolinians. Kylon Middleton, senior pastor of Mount Zion AME Church in Charleston, said the black community's opposition to capital punishment is tied to racial bias in the criminal justice system, adding, "We have been brutalized in this country, therefore, we can empathize with anyone … who would receive ultimate judgment." A recent study of South Carolina's death penalty found significant racial disparities in death sentences. For example, the study found that although 48% of South Carolina murder victims are black males, those cases account for only 8% of the state's death sentences. Earlier studies also found striking evidence of geographic and racial arbitrariness in South Carolina's application of capital punishment. The new poll also found profound differences in the views of South Carolinians as to how they believed African Americans were treated in the U.S. criminal justice system. 82.3% of blacks say that the justice system is biased against blacks. 59.5% of whites say it treats blacks fairly and 3.9% say it is biased in favor of blacks.

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Pennsylvania Death Penalty Ruling Infected by Judicial Bias

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Williams v. Pennsylvania that Terry Williams' (pictured) due process rights were violated when Pennsylvania's Chief Justice refused to recuse himself from the case. Ronald Castille served as Philadelphia District Attorney before being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As District Attorney, he personally approved the decision to pursue the death penalty against the 18-year-old Williams, and then, while running for state Supreme Court, touted his record of having "sent 45 people," including Williams, to death row. Nearly 30 years after Williams was sentenced to death, and within a week of his scheduled execution, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas heard evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from a witness and withheld evidence that it had given favorable treatment to that witness; suppressed evidence that the victim had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that the victim had been simply a "kind man" who had offered Williams a ride home. After the court overturned Williams' death sentence, Philadelphia prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Castille was serving as Chief Justice. Williams' attorneys filed a motion seeking Castille's recusal, but he denied the motion, refused to refer the question to the full court, and voted with the majority of the court to reverse the lower court ruling and reinstate Williams' death sentence. Castille also authored a concurring opinion saying the lower court had stayed Williams' death sentence "for no valid reason," attacking the judge for having “lost sight of [her] role as a neutral judicial officer,” and denouncing Williams' counsel for having an “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” and turning postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed, saying "[a] constitutionally intolerable probability of bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case." Here, the Court ruled, "Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias." It further determined that Castille's participation in the case "affected the ... whole adjudicatory framework" of the appeal, and ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal. “Today, Terry Williams comes one step closer to the new, fair sentencing hearing he deserves,” said Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Williams, “We’re optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will give this case careful consideration and recognize the injustice of Terry’s death sentence.”

Texas Court Stays Execution of Man Convicted with Hypnotically Refreshed Testimony

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of execution to Charles Flores (pictured) to permit him to litigate a claim that prosecutors unconstitutionally convicted and sentenced him to death by using unreliable hypnotically refreshed testimony. Texas had scheduled Flores' execution for June 2. Flores, who is Latino, was convicted in 1999 of murdering a 64-year-old white woman in suburban Dallas, and was sentenced to death. Prosecutors presented no physical evidence linking Flores to the murder, and the sole witness who claimed to have seen him at the scene was hypnotized by police before identifying him. She initially told police she had seen two men in a car outside of the victim's home, identifying the driver, Richard Childs, in a police lineup and describing the passenger as a white man with shoulder-length dark hair. However, when she appeared in court 13 months later after having seen photographs of Flores in news reports about the murder, she told prosecutors that she now recognized Flores as the second man. According to an affidavit Flores submitted from psychology professor Steven Lynn, research has linked "hypnotic refreshment" with the creation of false memories. “Clearly, the techniques that were used to refresh [the witness's] memory would be eschewed today by anyone at all familiar with the extant research on hypnosis and memory,” Lynn wrote. The Flores conviction and death sentence are also tainted with issues of race. Police charged both Childs and Flores with the murder. Childs, who is white, confessed to shooting the victim, pled guilty, and was sentenced to a term of 35 years with parole eligibility after 17 years. He was released on parole in April 2016. Flores, though admitting his involvement in the drug trade, professed his innocence of the murder and was tried and convicted. After his court-appointed lawyers failed to present any witnesses on his behalf in the penalty trial, the jury sentenced him to death. "So the white guy who was the trigger guy is out on parole, and the Hispanic guy, who was not the trigger man, is about to be put to death,” Greg Gardner, Flores' current lawyer, told The Texas Tribune in an interview before the stay was issued. “It really is just a mystery.” 178 of the 246 people on Texas's death row as of May 2016 are black or Latino. 

NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."

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