Arbitrariness

REPRESENTATION: Georgia Inmate With Drunk Lawyer Facing Execution

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.

On Eve of Execution, Oklahoma Courts Can't Agree on Who Has Power to Stay

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."

New Hampshire Retains Death Penalty on Tie Vote

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.

Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:

► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.

See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.

STUDIES: Murder of Female Victims More Likely to Result in Death Sentence

A recent study by researchers at Cornell Law School found that the gender of the murder victim may influence whether a defendant receives the death penalty. Using data from 1976 to 2007 in Delaware, the study found that in cases with female victims, 47.1% resulted in death sentences, while in those involving male victims, only 32.3% were sentenced to death. The researchers looked at a number of factors other than the victim's gender that might have affected sentencing decisions, including the heinousness of the crime, whether there was a sexual element to the murder, and the relationship between defendant and victim. The study found that some of the gender effect in sentencing could be explained by factors other than just the gender of the victim. Crimes involving sexual violence were more likely to result in a death sentence, as were crimes in which the victim and defendant knew one another, and victims of both of those types of crimes are more likely to be women.

Perspectives on Representing Death Row Inmates

Ken Rose has represented people condemned to death in the south for 30 years and recently described his experience with this "flawed system:" "The system reflects our biases and blind spots," he said. "Just like us, it is susceptible to error and prejudice and, sometimes, an indiscriminate desire for revenge. Like our country, it favors the privileged and takes the heaviest toll on the poor and mentally ill." As an example, Rose told the story of one of his clients, Leo Edwards, whose gas-chamber execution he witnessed in Mississippi in 1989. Edwards, who was black, was prosecuted by a district attorney who said he tried to "get rid of as many" black jurors as possible, and testified that he used that tactic in Edwards' trial, resulting in an all-white jury. The timing of Edwards' case prevented him from receiving a new trial: "This clear racial bias was never addressed because Leo’s case was too far along by 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards for reviewing claims of race discrimination in jury selection," he said. Rose noted that some improvements have been made, but "Racial bias still taints trials. Defendants are still chosen for death arbitrarily. Those sentenced to die are still overwhelmingly poor and mentally ill. Judges and lawyers, including myself, still make mistakes. Innocent people are still imprisoned."  Read the op-ed below.

STUDIES: Use of Death Penalty Declining in Ohio

Two recent reports released in Ohio show a decline in the use of the death penalty, with one of the reports raising concerns about the fairness of the system. The number of death-penalty cases filed in Ohio in 2013 was the lowest number in over 30 years. The number of capital indictments was down 28% from 2012 and 63% from 2011, according to a report from Ohioans to Stop Executions, "The Death Lottery: How Race and Geography Determine Who Goes to Ohio's Death Row." Ohio had 4 death sentences in 2013, compared to 24 in 1985. The report noted concerns about arbitrary application of the death penalty, even as the number of cases decreased: "While Ohio’s overall use of the death penalty is slowing, it has become clearer ... that the race of the victim and location of the crime are the most accurate predictors of death sentences," the report stated. Almost 40% of all capital indictments in Ohio come from just one county (Cuyahoga), which represents just 11% of the state's population. Nearly 77% of the executions in the state involved cases where the murder victim was white, despite the fact that generally 66% of murder victims in Ohio are people of color. A report from Ohio's Attorney General Office, "Capital Crimes Annual Report," indicated that 52 inmates have been executed since 1981, while 126 death-row inmates had their sentences reduced or died of natural causes.

Instead of an Execution, Mississippi Supreme Court Throws Out the Conviction

In a case in which the state's Attorney General had asked for an execution date of March 27, the Mississippi Supreme Court instead threw out Michelle Byrom's murder conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial just four days later. The case was plagued with numerous problems, including inadequate representation, critical evidence not presented to the jury, confessions by another defendant, and the prosecution's lack of confidence in its own story of what actually happened. In its order reversing the conviction, the court described Byrom's case as "extraordinary and extremely rare." Prosecutors said that Byrom hired a friend of her son's to murder her husband, despite several confessions from her son, who said he killed his father because he snapped from years of abuse. The jury that convicted Michelle Byrom never heard evidence from a forensic psychologist who had told the judge that Byrom's son had confessed to the murder, nor were they presented with two letters from Byrom's son describing why he murdered his father. Byrom's son and his friend pled guilty to conspiracy in the crime and are now free after serving time in prison. David Voisin, an attorney advising Byrom's legal team, said, "We are grateful to the Mississippi Supreme Court in recognizing the extreme injustice in this case and taking the swift and extraordinary step of vacating Michelle Byrom's conviction so that she can have a fair opportunity to have her case heard in court."

Pages