Arbitrariness

Texas Bar Taking Action Against Prosecutor in Innocence Case

The State Bar of Texas has found "just cause" to pursue disciplinary action against prosecutor Charles J. Sebesta, whose conduct in the trial of Anthony Graves (pictured) resulted in a wrongful conviction and death sentence. Sebesta, the District Attorney of Burleson County, did not inform Graves' attorneys that the main witness against Graves had confessed to the crime. Graves spent over 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, before being exonerated in 2010. Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service and counsel to Graves, said, "A prosecutor’s duty is not simply to secure convictions, but to see that justice is done. Conviction of an innocent man like Mr. Graves through prosecutorial misconduct is abhorrent and undermines public trust and confidence in the Texas justice system. The way to restore that trust and confidence is to hold prosecutors like Charles Sebesta accountable when they violate their legal and ethical obligations."

After Almost 30 Years, DNA Shows State's Case "Has Collapsed"

On June 26, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the capital murder conviction of Paul Hildwin and ordered a new trial because new DNA evidence completely contradicted the state's evidence presented at trial. Hildwin was convicted of a 1985 murder and sexual assault. At trial, an FBI forensics expert wrongly claimed that bodily fluids found at the crime scene matched Hildwin and could not have come from the victim's boyfriend. However, more recent DNA testing excluded Hildwin and found that the fluids matched the boyfriend, who is incarcerated for the sexual assaults of two minors. In the decision overturning Hildwin's conviction, the Court said, "We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a significant pillar of the state’s case, as presented to the jury, has collapsed and that this same evidence actually supports the defense." Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which was involved in Hildwin's appeal, said, “As Mr. Hildwin’s thirty year quest to free his name so dramatically illustrates, there is a real danger that the recently enacted ‘timely justice act’ could result in the execution of innocent people.” 

Texas Inmate Held for Over 30 Years With No Conviction May Be Retried

A retrial date of Sept. 22 has been set for Jerry Hartfield, who has been held without a valid conviction in Texas for over 30 years. Hartfield was convicted of murder in 1977 and sentenced to death. His conviction was overturned in 1980 due to an improperly selected jury, and the appeals court ordered a new trial, but that was never held. Gov. Mark White attempted to commute his sentence in 1983, but without a conviction, the commutation was invalid. In 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that "The status of the judgment of conviction is that Petitioner is under no conviction or sentence." A federal court called Texas's defense of Hartfield's unlawful incarceration "disturbingly unprofessional." The new trial judge scheduled a July 2 hearing to consider a request from prosecutors to conduct psychological testing on Hartfield, who is described in court documents as "an illiterate fifth-grade dropout with an IQ of 51." The Matagorda County District Attorney has offered Hartfield a deal to plead guilty, accept a life prison term and avoid a potential death sentence if he waives all rights to future appeals. Hartfield's lawyers assert that his right to a speedy trial has been violated.

A Turn-Around in Texas's Use of Death Penalty

A recent op-ed by Jordan Steiker, endowed professor of law and Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas, highlighted the declining use of the death penalty in that state. AlthoughTexas leads the nation in executions, death sentences and executions per year have dropped sharply since the 1990s. Prof. Steiker wrote, "In 1999, Texas juries returned an astounding 48 death sentences. Since 2008, however, Texas has annually sent fewer than 10 defendants to death row.  Executions in Texas have declined as well, from a high of 40 in 2000 to fewer than 20 since 2010." While describing the "perfect storm" of conditions that led to Texas's high use of capital punishment in the past, the op-ed also noted changes that have led to less death-penalty use, such as the creation of a statewide defender's office to represent death-sentenced inmates in state post-conviction and the broader disclosure of evidence to the accused. Prosecutors have increasingly accepted plea agreements to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, saving taxpayer dollars that would have been spent on expensive capital trials and appeals.

Number of States Carrying Out Executions Declining

State Executions Graph
Click to enlarge

Despite the 3 executions carried out on June 17 and 18, executions and death sentences in the U.S. have steadily declined since the 1990s. Moreover, the number of states carrying out executions has also dropped to a small minority (see chart). Since executions peaked in 1999, the number of states carrying out at least one execution in a year has fallen by over 50%. In 1999, 20 states carried out executions. In 2012 and 2013, just 9 states did so. As of June 20, 2014, only 6 of the 32 states that have the death penalty have had an execution. More than half of the states in the country (30) have not carried out an execution in the past 5 years. Twenty-one (21) states have either abolished the death penalty or declared an official moratorium on executions, with six states ending the death penalty in the last six years. The growing geographical isolation of the death penalty is also evident on a county level. A majority of executions since 1976 and a majority of all those on death row each came from just 2% of U.S. counties; 85% of counties have not had a single case result in an execution since 1976.

ARBITRARINESS: Almost All Recently Executed Inmates Possessed Qualities Similar to Those Spared

Some defendants who commit murder are automatically excluded from the death penalty in the U.S., such as juveniles and the intellectually disabled. Others with similar deficits are regularly executed. A new study by Robert Smith (l.), Sophie Cull, and Zoe Robinson examined the mitigating evidence present in 100 recent cases resulting in execution, testing whether the offenders possessed qualities similar to those spared from execution. The authors found that "Nearly nine of every ten executed offenders possessed an intellectual impairment, had not yet reached their twenty-first birthday, suffered from a severe mental illness, or endured marked childhood trauma." In particular, "One-third of the last hundred executed offenders were burdened by intellectual disability, borderline intellectual functioning, or traumatic brain injury;" "More than one-third of executed offenders committed a capital crime before turning twenty-five—the age at which the brain fully matures;" and "Over half of the last one hundred executed offenders had been diagnosed with or displayed symptoms of a severe mental illness."

Missouri Juror Describes Pressure to Vote for Death

UPDATE: Winfield's execution was stayed on June 12 because of state interference with the clemency process. EARLIER: John Winfield is scheduled to be executed in Missouri on June 18 despite an affidavit submitted by one of the jurors at his trial stating she was pressured to switch her sentencing vote from life in prison to death. Kimberly Turner, who served on Winfield's jury in 1998, recently described the jury's initial deliberations: "Another juror and I had voted for life without the possibility of parole. That was my vote. In my heart, that has always been my vote." In Missouri, a jury recommendation for death must be unanimous; if just one juror votes for a life sentence, the defendant is sentenced to life. When the jury told the court they were unable to reach a unanimous sentencing verdict, they were told to continue deliberating. "Even though I had voted for life without parole," Turner said, "when an officer of the Court told me to keep deliberating, I thought that I had to. It was Friday afternoon and the other jurors were tired of being sequestered and wanted to go home. They were pressuring me and the other life vote to change our votes to death...As the afternoon went on, the other jurors wore me down. I had not wanted to keep deliberating, but after the order to continue, I did not know how long I was supposed to keep defending my vote for life...So I changed my vote to death. It is a decision that has haunted me."

EDITORIALS: Connecticut's The Day Calls for Retroactive Death Penalty Repeal

When Connecticut abolished the death penalty in 2012, it did so prospectively, leaving its death row population in place. Now, Connecticut newpaper The Day is calling on the state to "have the courage and consistency to outlaw government sanctioned killing in all instances." The editorial first highlights the paper's longstanding opposition to capital punishment, saying "It remains our position that a state-sponsored execution disproportionately targets minorities, has no deterrent value, cannot be undone if there is a mistake and is a barbaric act that lowers the state to the level of the killer." It then draws on recent events to point out the practical problems with Connecticut's execution method, lethal injection. "The Department of Correction has confirmed it has none of these drugs and no way to obtain them because many domestic and foreign drugmakers, including those in the 28-nation European Union, have objected to using their products in executions." The editorial closes by mentioning the ongoing court case challenging the consitutionality of Connecticut's current death penalty law, saying "The likelihood is that none of the 12 [men on death row] will ever be executed and some court, state or federal, will find, as Michael Courtney, the state's head of the Office of Public Defender, has said, "there is nothing more arbitrary and capricious" than the present situation in which a person committing a capital felony on April 24, 2012, the day before Connecticut abolished capital punishment, can be executed while the person committing the exact same crime the next day cannot." Read the full editorial below.

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