Arbitrariness

New Podcast: Jeffery Wood and the Texas Law of Parties, With Expert Guest Kate Black

Today, DPIC launches a new podcast series, "Discussions With DPIC," which will feature monthly, unscripted conversations with death penalty experts on a wide variety of topics. The inaugural episode features a conversation between Texas Defender Services staff attorney Kate Black (pictured) and DPIC host Anne Holsinger, who discuss the case of Jeffery Wood and Texas' unusual legal doctrine known as the "law of parties." Wood's case garnered national media attention because he was sentenced to death despite having neither killed anyone nor even intended that a killing take place. His execution, which had been scheduled for August 24, was stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to permit him to litigate a challenge to the prosecution's use of scientifically invalid predictions of future dangerousness by a psychiatrist who had been expelled from state and national psychiatric associations for similarly improper testimony in the past. In the podcast, Black explains the law of parties and its application in Wood's case, and discusses how the national dialogue that developed around Wood's case may affect the death penalty in the future. 

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro Says Death Penalty Unfixable, "Not Worth It Any More"

In a recent commentary in the Columbus Dispatch, former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro (pictured) criticized the state's death penalty as "a broken system that currently serves only the interest of Ohio prosecutors" and said that keeping "the death penalty is just not worth it any more." As a state legislator, Petro helped write Ohio’s current death-penalty law and he oversaw eighteen executions as Attorney General from 2003-2007. He says, at the time "[w]e thought maybe it would be a deterrent. Maybe the death penalty would provide cost savings to Ohio. What I know now is that we were wrong." Petro expressed his agreement with the conclusions in a report, “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty," released last week by Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE), which he says "details a continuing decline in executions and new death sentences in Ohio while highlighting the disparities between counties that prosecute death cases." The decline is exemplified by the fact that only one new death sentence was imposed in Ohio in 2015 -- the fourth consecutive year of decline -- and Cuyahoga and Summit counties, which are responsible for more than 25% of Ohio's death sentences, did not initiate any new death penalty cases last year. The change in death penalty practices in Cuyahoga, which through 2012 had sought death in dozens of cases a year, had nothing to do with crime rates: "there was a new prosecutor," Petro said. By contrast, Trumbull County had one of the lowest homicide rates in the state but the highest death-sentence-per-homicide rate. "It has become clear to me that what matters most is the personal predilections of a county prosecutor," Petro said. Petro also was critical of apparent legislative indifference to the flaws in Ohio's capital punishment system. Despite 13 wrongful convictions and exonerations in Ohio death penalty cases and 56 recommendations for reform made in 2014 by the Ohio Supreme Court's Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, the legislature has seen fit to consider "[o]nly a handful of the recommendations ... , and not those which would make the biggest difference." Petro concludes: "I am convinced that the death penalty is just not worth it any more, and I don’t think it can be fixed. ... If we’re going to have the death penalty, then it must not be carried out until the legislature implements the task force’s reforms intended to ensure fairness and accuracy."

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Duval, Florida--Controversial Prosecutor, Inadequate Defense, Systemic Death Penalty Problems

Between 2010 and 2015, only 16 counties in the United States imposed five or more death sentences. Duval County, Florida, which consistently ranks among the most punitive death sentencing counties in the country, sentenced 25 capital defendants to death. According to a new report released by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard University, Duval produced roughly one-quarter of the death sentences imposed in Florida during that period, although the entire Jacksonville Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area -- which includes Duval County and four other counties -- accounts for only about 9% of the state's murders. The Fair Punishment Project says the county's death-sentencing rate per homicide "is more than 40 percent higher than in the rest of the state." The county's prolific death-sentencing practices are attributable to a constellation of outlier practices. Only two states, Florida and Alabama, allow death sentences to be imposed without a unanimous recommendation for death by the sentencing jury. Since 2006, 88% of the 25 Duval death sentences reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court on direct appeal had non-unanimous jury recommendations. A second key factor is the county's prosecutor, state attorney Angela Corey (pictured), of whom The Nation asked, is she "the Cruelest Prosecutor in America?" In a piece for The New York Times, Emily Bazelon focused on Corey to explain the county's heavy use of the death penalty, saying that she "has made her reputation, in part, by winning verdicts that carry the death pen­alty." Bazelon writes that Corey "has one of the highest rates of death sentences in the country, with 24 (19 in Duval) in the eight years since she was elected." Corey has said "[i]t’s my statutory and constitutional duty to seek justice for this community and to give the victim’s family justice," but she is currently pursuing a death sentence against James Rhodes for the murder of Shelby Farah, despite strong opposition from Farah's family. The county's death sentences are also clouded by racial bias. The Fair Punishment notes that, since 2010, 87% of death sentences in Duval were imposed against Black defendants, up from 62% over the preceding two decades. Duval County Judge Mark Hulsey, who presided over the 2012 capital murder trial of a black teenager, Terrance Tyrone Phillips, is the subject of ethics charges after he allegedly told a staff member he "wished all blacks could be sent back to Africa on a boat." Analysts also fault substandard defense representation for affirmatively contributing to Duval's overproduction of death sentences. In 2008, Matt Shirk, the county's newly-elected public defender, a former intern of Corey's who had pledged fiscal responsibility and to "never call a cop a liar," slashed the office's budget and fired 10 lawyers, including senior capital litigators. The Nation reports, "Shirk has boasted that he consistently returns money to the state earmarked for the investigation of mitigation evidence for death-penalty clients." He then installed as his deputy and chief of homicide, Refik Eler, who the Fair Punishment Project reports had been defense counsel "on at least 16 cases that resulted in a death sentence." Courts have found that Eler has provided substandard representation in three capital cases, with a fourth ineffectiveness claim recently argued in the Florida Supreme Court. Both Corey and Shirk face challenges in the August 30 Republican primary election, but neither office has a general election challenger.

New Study Explores "Systemic Deficiencies" in High-Use Death Penalty Counties

As states and counties across the United States are using the death penalty with decreasing frequency, a new report issued by the Fair Punishment Project on August 23 explores the outlier practices of 16 U.S. counties that are bucking the national trend and disproportionally pursuing capital punishment. These jurisdictions, representing one-half of one percent of all U.S. counties or county equivalents, are the only locales in the United States to have imposed five or more death sentences since 2010. Six of the counties are in Alabama and Florida, the only two states that still permit non-unanimous death verdicts. Five are located in highly-populated Southern California counties that have been the focus of repeated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The others include Caddo (LA), Clark (NV), Dallas (TX), Harris (TX) and Maricopa (AZ), all of which have been criticized for systemic inequities in their administration of the death penalty. Part one of the report examines the "systemic deficiencies" that contribute to the high number of death sentences in these counties and provides detailed analysis of the circumstances in 8 of the counties (a second part of the study, examining the remaining 8 counties, will be released in September). The report finds that these counties frequently share at least three types of structural failings: "a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion." The study found that these in turn "regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities." 

Diverse Range of Voices Call for Sparing Jeff Wood, Who Never Killed Anyone, from Execution in Texas

As his August 24 execution date approaches, Jeffrey Wood's case has garnered mounting attention from groups and individuals calling on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott to commute Wood's sentence. These diverse voices include a conservative Texas state representative, a group of evangelical leaders, and the editorial boards of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and several Texas newspapers, among others. Wood (pictured) was convicted under Texas' "law of parties," but he neither killed nor intended for anyone to be killed and, his supporters say, was not even aware the robbery in which a codefendant killed a store clerk was going to occur. His trial also featured misleading testimony from Dr. James Grigson, who had been expelled from psychiatric associations because of his unethical testimony regarding the potential future dangerousness of capital defendants. Republican state representative Jeff Leach, a long-time death penalty supporter, said "Jeffery Lee Wood’s case has caught my attention unlike any death row inmate in my time in office has. ...I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence. I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything." Leach has spoken with Gov. Abbott's office and the parole board about the case and is urging other legislators to contact the board in support of commutation before the board votes on Wood's clemency petition on Monday. Gov. Abbott also received a petition from a group of evangelical Christian leaders, who said "Our faith compels us to speak out in this case, where a looming execution date threatens the life of an individual with significant mental impairments who never should have been sentenced to death." The 49 religious leaders also noted the disproportionality of Wood's sentence: "As the getaway driver, Wood committed a crime, but not one deserving the death penalty." A New York Times editorial also urged clemency for Wood and sharply critiqued the law of parties. "The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is," it said. "The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared." Wood's supporters say they will deliver a petition to Gov. Abbott and the parole board Friday with thousands of signatures seeking commutation of Wood's sentence. Texas last commuted a death sentence in 2007 in the case of Kenneth Foster, a getaway driver who, like Wood, had been convicted under the law of parties. [UPDATE: On August 19, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution to permit Wood to litigate his claims that the prosecution had presented false scientific evidence and that the use of false testimony from Dr. Grigson violated due process.]

As Council Reviews Kentucky's Criminal Justice Policies, Former Prosecutors, Judge Urge Repeal of Death Penalty

Kentucky's recently-formed Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council will be examining the state's criminal code, and is expected to examine a wide range of criminal justice issues—including the death penalty—in the first major overhaul of Kentucky's criminal code since the 1970s. The council, which was formed by Gov. Matt Bevin, includes legislators, judges, criminal justice experts, and religious leaders, charged with producing a list of recommendations for Kentucky lawmakers. One council member, Bishop William Medley, of the Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, has expressed moral opposition to the death penalty, and received backing for repealing the punishment from some in the courts and the prosecution bar. Circuit Judge Jay Wethington, a former prosecutor who prosecuted death penalty cases told the Messenger-Inquirer that he was "going to side with ... Bishop Medley" on that issue, but for different reasons. "We need to get rid of the death penalty," he said. "We spend too much money for the results." Meanwhile, three former Kentucky prosecutors wrote an op-ed for Louisville's Courier-Journal urging abolition of the death penalty. Joseph Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider discussed the results of a recent University of Kentucky poll, which found that a large majority (72.4%) of Kentuckians support a moratorium on executions. They noted that support for the death penalty has risen since 2011, when the American Bar Association released a study that found serious problems with Kentucky's application of the death penalty. At that point, 62% of Kentuckians favored a suspension of executions. They conclude, "These poll results make it clear that Kentuckians’ concern about the fairness of the state’s criminal justice system is growing. As we have written before, replacing the death penalty with life without parole is the best approach for our state – protecting public safety, providing justice to the families of victims, removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed and saving limited tax dollars."

Defense Lawyers, Former Prosecutors, and Constitutional Rights Groups File Amicus Briefs in Buck v. Davis

Five groups, representing defense lawyers, former prosecutors, and organizations devoted to protecting constitutional liberties have filed amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Texas death row prisoner Duane Buck. Buck was sentenced to death when a psychiatrist presented by his own lawyer said he posed a greater potential danger to society because he is Black, and the case attained widespread notoriety after the new Texas attorney general failed to honor a commitment by his predecessor not to oppose a new sentencing hearing. On August 4, the National and Texas Associations of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a group of former prosecutors, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Constitutional Accountability Center joined the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA) in submitting briefs arguing that Buck's rights were violated by the racial arguments made at his trial. The NBLSA said, "Whether by a judge, a prosecutor, or defense counsel, an appeal to a jury based on racial prejudice poisons our system of justice." The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law stated, "Mr. Buck was entitled to have his dangerousness assessed on an individualized basis based on his personal attributes. Instead he received a death sentence tainted by four hundred years of racial stereotyping invoked by a witness who was supposed to testify on his behalf." The former state and federal prosecutors, who include former Texas Governor and Attorney General Mark White, former Attorneys General from Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Ohio, and the second-chair prosecutor from Buck's trial, highlighted Texas' refusal to provide Buck a new sentencing hearing, even though it had included him on a list of defendants whose trials were tainted by similar testimony by the same psychologist, and every other one of those defendants had received new sentencing hearings. "To backtrack on an ethical obligation and decision to grant relief to a defendant in any context is extraordinary; it is particularly so here, where the purpose of backtracking was to defend the propriety of a capital sentencing hearing tainted by racist testimony," they said. The Court is scheduled to hear argument in Buck v. Davis on October 5. 

Texas Prisoner Who Did Not Kill Anyone Challenges Execution, Use of False Psychiatrist Testimony to Condemn Him to Die

Lawyers for Jeffery Wood (pictured), a Texas death row prisoner who is scheduled to be executed August 24 despite undisputed evidence that he has never killed anyone, have filed a new petition in state court challenging his death sentence on multiple grounds. They argue that Wood cannot be subject to the death penalty because he neither killed nor intended for anyone to be killed and was not even aware the robbery in which a codefendant killed a store clerk was going to occur. They also challenge his death sentence on the gounds that it was obtained based upon false and scientifically baseless testimony from a discredited psychiatrist that Wood would pose a future danger to society. Wood was convicted of capital murder under the Texas doctrine called the "law of parties," which employs an usually broad interpretation of accomplice liability to make a defendant liable for the acts of others. He was sentenced to death for his alleged role in the murder of a store clerk in 1996 committed by another man, Daniel Reneau, while Wood was outside sitting in a truck. Reneau was executed in 2002. Wood says he and Reneau had planned to rob the store the previous day, but that he had backed out. According to Wood, he did not know Reneau still planned to rob the store, or that Reneau had a gun with him. Jared Tyler, one of Wood's attorneys, said, "I believe that no person in the history of the modern death penalty has been executed with as little culpability and participation in the taking of a life as Mr. Wood." Wood's appeal also alleges that his right to due process was violated when the state presented false and misleading testimony from psychiatrist James Grigson, who earned the nickname "Dr. Death" for testifying in numerous Texas capital cases that the defendant would "certainly" or "absolutely" or "with 100% certainty" commit future acts of violence, including several cases in which defendants later turned out to be innocent. Three years before Wood's hearing, Grigson was expelled from the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association for ethical violations involving making psychiatric diagnoses without having examined capital defendants, predicting with certainty that they would engage in future violent acts, and basing those predictions on hypothetical questions posed by the prosecution that contained "grossly inadequate" information. Nonetheless, based on a prosecution hypothetical question and without having evaluated Wood, Grigson testified that Wood would "certainly" pose a continuing threat to society. Wood's jury was never told that Grigson had been expelled for similar conduct or that the professional associations had determined that his practices were unethical and unscientific.[UPDATE: On August 19, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution to permit Wood to litigate his claims that the prosecution had presented false scientific evidence and that the use of false testimony from Dr. Grigson violated due process.]

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