Arbitrariness

INNOCENCE: New Evidence Supports Case That Texas Executed an Innocent Man

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004. His conviction was based largely on forensic evidence of arson that both prosecutors and defense attorneys now agree was seriously flawed. Prosecutors have maintained that other evidence pointed towards Willingham's guilt, especially the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Willingham confessed to the crime of murdering his children. Now according to an investigative article by Maurice Possley for the Marshall Project and published in the Washington Post, newly uncovered letters and court records suggest that the informant, Johnny Webb, received special treatment and a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony. The jury was told that Webb had not received any deal in return for his testimony. However, the prosecutor in Willingham's case wrote to Webb in prison and contradicted those claims. He wrote, "We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”  According to Webb, the prosecutor told him, "If you help me, that robbery will disappear . . . even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later." Webb now says Willingham "never told me nothing." The prosecutor also arranged for Webb to receive financial assistance from a wealthy rancher who was interested in helping at-risk young men.

Alabama Stands Alone in Judges Imposing Death When Juries Say Life

Alabama is the only state that in which judges regularly impose death sentences even after a jury recommends a life sentence. Death row inmate Courtney Lockhart has asked the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider his sentence imposed as a result of this unique process. Lockhart was convicted of capital murder in 2010. The jury unanimously found that his post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from his military service in Iraq, was sufficiently mitigating to recommend a sentence of life without parole. However, the presiding judge overrode this recommendation and sentenced Lockhart to death. In Alabama, one-fifth of death row inmates were sentenced to death over a jury's recommendation for life. A study by the Equal Justice Initiative found that "the proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years." Some elected judges touted their death penalty records in campaign ads. The practice of judicial override has contributed to Alabama having one of the highest per-capita death sentencing rates in the country. Bryan Stevenson (pictured), executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said he hoped that Lockhart's case will allow the Alabama Supreme Court to "reevaluate the propriety of judicial override." Delaware and Florida technically also allow judicial override, but neither state has had a judge use it in over 15 years.

NEW VOICES: "Life in Prison, With the Remote Possibility of Death"

Justin Wolfers, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently underscored the problems identified in a sweeping ruling holding California's death penalty unconstitutional. "Capital punishment," Wolfers said, "is not only rare, but it’s also an extraordinarily long and drawn-out process." For many offenders, "death row may actually be safer than life on the street." He compared the relatively few executions to the large number of people on death row: "A simple thought experiment makes the point: If a death sentence puts you at the back of the queue of 3,000 prisoners to be executed, and only 50 people are executed each year, then it would take you, on average, 60 years to reach the front of the line. Not surprisingly, many die of natural causes while waiting their turn." He concluded by quoting the federal judge in the California ruling that a death sentence is effectively a sentence of "life in prison, with the remote possibility of death."

NEW STATEMENTS: The Death Penalty Is Incompatible with Human Dignity

On July 19 Prof. Charles Ogletree of Harvard University Law School wrote in the Washington Post about the future of the death penalty in the U.S. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed (Hall v. Florida) that executing defendants with intellectual disabilities serves “no legitimate penological purpose,” Prof. Ogletree said this reasoning could be applied to the whole death penalty: "The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows." He cited a study published in the Hastings Law Journal that found that "the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits," such as mental illness, youthful brain development, or abuse during childhood. He concluded that when you examine capital punishment more closely, "what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible." Read the op-ed below.

Inspector General's Report Faults FBI Review of Death Penalty Cases

According to a report released on July 16 by the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to provide timely notice to many capital defendants that their cases were under review for possibly inaccurate testimony by FBI experts. Some of these defendants were executed without being informed of the misleading testimony provided by the government. The report stated: "[T]he FBI did not take sufficient steps to ensure that the capital cases were the Task Force’s top priority. We found that it took the FBI almost 5 years to identify the 64 defendants on death row whose cases involved analyses or testimony by 1 or more of the 13 examiners. The Department did not notify state authorities that convictions of capital defendants could be affected by involvement of any of the 13 criticized examiners. Therefore, state authorities had no basis to consider delaying scheduled executions." At least three defendants were executed before the FBI made it known that their cases were under review. The report recommended retesting of physical evidence for 24 defendants who were executed or died on death row.

Federal Judge in California Rules State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

In a sweeping ruling on July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney held that California's death penalty is so dysfunctional as to amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Vacating the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has been on death row for almost 20 years, Judge Carney said the punishment cannot serve the purposes of deterrence or retribution when it is administered to a tiny select few, decades after their sentencing: "Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional." Read the Court's Opinion.

LAW REVIEWS: The American Experiment with Capital Punishment

A recent law review article by Professors Carol and Jordan Steiker describes how the Supreme Court's attempt to closely regulate the death penalty has led instead to more unpredictability in its practice, especially with executions. Writing in the Southern California Law Review, the Steikers, of Harvard Law School and the University of Texas Law School respectively, note that, "[T]he shape of contemporary death penalty practice is in many respects less regular than the practice it replaced. ... Some death penalty jurisdictions execute a substantial percentage of those sentenced to death, whereas others carry out virtually no executions. Overall, we have largely replaced a lottery for death sentences with a lottery for executions, and the engine behind that change is regulation itself." As an example, the authors point to Texas and Virginia, which have been responsible for almost half (620) of the executions in the modern era. On the other hand, California and Pennsylvania, which have had more death sentences than Texas and Virginia, have carried out only 16 executions in the same time span. The Steikers conclude that the death penalty's arbitrariness may lead to its abolition: "regulation now appears to pose extraordinary problems for the continued retention of the death penalty."

Georgia Grants Clemency Just Before Execution

On July 9, just one day before he was scheduled to be executed, Tommy Lee Waldrip was granted clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Waldrip will now serve a sentence of life without parole. Although the Board did not give a reason for its decision, one of the issues raised in the case was the disproportionality of Waldrip's sentence compared to that of his co-defendants. Three men were involved in the murder that sent Waldrip to death row, but the other two were given life sentences. One of those was Waldrip's son, who was directly involved in killing the victim. He has been eligible for parole since 1998. Waldrip is the ninth death row inmate to receive clemency in Georgia since 1976, and the 275th in the nation. This is the second clemency granted in the U.S. in 2014.

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