Arbitrariness

CLEMENCY: Ohio Governor Commutes Death Sentence, Citing 'Troubling Irregularities'

On April 30 Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted the death sentence of Arthur Tyler to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The decision followed a recommendation for clemency from Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty. Following a hearing on the case, the Ohio Parole Board recommended commutation of Tyler's sentence to life with parole: six of the eleven members recommended immediate parole eligibility for Tyler, and the remaining five favored a sentence of 33 years to life, which would have made Tyler parole eligible in two years. In his commutation announcement, Kasich said, “The questions that continue around this case are fundamental and the irregularities in the court proceedings are troubling." Tyler's co-defendant, Leroy Head, confessed to the crime but testified that Tyler was the triggerman, securing himself a lesser sentence. Head was released from prison in 2008. McGinty cited Head's "evolving statements" as a "cause for concern" in asking for clemency for Tyler, and the Parole Board agreed, adding that a sentence with parole eligibility, "would also make Tyler’s sentence more proportionate to the sentence imposed upon Head."

Supreme Court: Kentucky Death Sentence May Be Flawed, But Not 'Unreasonable'

On April 23 the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence of Kentucky inmate Robert Woodall, reversing an earlier ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. At Woodall's trial, his attorney asked the judge to instruct the jury not to draw any negative inference from the fact that Woodall had not testified in the sentencing phase. The judge refused to give the instruction. The 6th Circuit held that the failure to instruct the jury was a violation of Woodall's right to remain silent. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court in White v. Woodall, did not say the Kentucky judge acted properly, but only that federal courts must give exceptional deference to state courts, only overturning them when they act "unreasonably." In a dissent joined by two other Justices, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that "The 'normal rule' is that Fifth Amendment protections (about the right to remain silent) apply during trial and sentencing."

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.

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