STUDIES: Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection Continues in Death Penalty Cases

  A recent study published by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit human rights and legal services organization in Alabama, shows that the practice of excluding blacks and other racial minorities from juries remains widespread and largely unchecked, especially in the South. The study, "Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy," found that in Alabama, courts have found racially discriminatory jury selection in 25 death penalty cases since 1987, and in some counties, 75% of black jury pool members have been struck in capital cases. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, an analysis by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center found that blacks were struck from juries more than three times as often as whites between 1999 and 2007.  In North Carolina, at least 26 current death row inmates were sentenced by all-white juries.  According to Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, "There's just this tolerance, there's indifference to excluding people on the basis of race, and prosecutors are doing it with impunity. Unless you're in the courtroom, unless you're a lawyer working on these issues, you're not going to know whether your local prosecutor consistently bars people of color."

Texas County Fires Chief Medical Examiner Who Testified in Death Cases

El Paso County (Texas) recently fired its Chief Medical Examiner, Paul Shrode, who had testified in capital cases in Texas and Ohio.  He was dismissed after evidence he provided in an Ohio death penalty case turned out to be unsupported by science. It was also discovered that he had made numerous misrepresentations on his resume.  Earlier in May, the Ohio Parole Board voted to recommend clemency for death row inmate Richard Nields, citing problems with Shrode's 1997 testimony that helped secure Nields's death sentence. Shrode had previously been questioned by the County Commissioners Court in Texas after discrepancies were discovered in three resumes he submitted. Shrode had stated he had a "graduate law degree" from Southwest Texas State University, although there was no law school at the university. It also stated that he was a member of the State Bar of Texas. The County Human Resources Director told the court Shrode had taken courses in political science at the school, but received no graduate degrees. The State Bar of Texas had no record of Shrode being a member, either as an attorney or a paralegal.

Ohio Board Recommends Clemency Based on Questionable Expert Testimony

The Ohio Parole Board recently recommended clemency for death row inmate Richard Nields, who was sentenced to death for killing his live-in girlfriend during an argument in 1997. The board questioned the validity of medical evidence used at trial that helped support the death sentence. Testimony provided by a doctor-in-training indicated the victim had been beaten and strangled. However, the deputy coroner and supervisor of the trainee told the parole board there was no scientific evidence to indicate when the victim had received those bruises.  The board also cited concerns by the U.S. Court of Appeals that the death sentence barely fit the definition of capital punishment under Ohio's law, and similar concerns from a dissenting judge on the state Supreme Court. Justice Paul Pfeifer, who helped draft Ohio's death penalty as a state legislator in 1981, wrote that Nields's crime was not what lawmakers considered a death eligible case when the law was created.  Gov. Ted Strickland will make the final decision on clemency.

Racial and Geographic Disparities in Ohio Executions

Over the past two years, Ohio has executed more inmates than any other state except Texas.  Since resuming executions in 1999, Ohio has executed 38 people, more than any other state outside of the South in that time period.  As in the South, race appears to play a significant role in who receives the death penalty.  In the Ohio cases resulting in an execution, 75% of the victims in the underlying murder were white.  Generally, in Ohio about 65% of murder victims are black (Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services-2005), but those cases are not resulting in a similar percentage of executions.  Of the 57 victims in cases resulting in an execution, only 11 (19%) were black.  Moreover, none of the 38 executions in Ohio involved a white defendant who killed a black victim.  On the other hand, at least 7 black defendants have been executed for murdering a white victim.

Mississippi Inmates Challenge State for Appointing Ineffective Counsel

Sixteen death row inmates have filed a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi, claiming that their executions should be halted because their state-appointed attorneys were "untrained, inexperienced, and overwhelmed." Under Mississippi law, the state must provide "competent and conscientious" counsel for death row inmates before execution dates can be set. The law suit, filed in Hinds County Chancery Court, claims that the attorneys appointed through the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel did not meet that criteria and were overwhelmed with other cases.  In one example cited in the lawsuit, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered the office to file a motion for DNA testing on behalf of Blayde Grayson, who was sentenced to death in 1997, but the office never filed the motion.  Two death row inmates who are part of the lawsuit are scheduled to be executed consecutively later this month. Gerald Holland, age 72 and the oldest inmate on death row, is scheduled to be executed on May 20. Paul Everette, age 62, will be executed on May 19. The last back-to-back executions in the state took place in 1961.

After 20 Years, Texas Court Throws Out Two Death Sentences

After spending 20 years on death row, inmates Roy Gene Smith and David Lewis had their death sentences thrown out by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on April 28. The state's highest criminal court ruled that jurors who convicted Smith were erroneously kept from hearing testimony about his upbringing in a crime-ridden Houston neighborhood. The court also determined that Lewis should have been able to present evidence of his damaged eyesight and that he began using drugs and alcohol with his abusive mother at the age of 13.  The decisions were in keeping with rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court since the defendants' trials regarding Texas's mishandling of death penalty cases.  Smith and Lewis may face re-trials in Harris County and Angelina County, respectively.

District Attorney and Murder Victim's Father Call Death Penalty an "Empty Promise"

In California, families of murder victims Amber Dubois and Chelsea King agreed to a life sentence without parole for the girls' killer, John Albert Gardner. Brent King, Chelsea's father, said that agreeing with County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis' decision not to seek the death penalty for his daugther's killer was "torturous," but so would have been a death penalty trial and the years of appeals that follow. Dumanis said there was enough evidence to convict Gardner for Chelsea's murder, but she agreed to a life sentence without parole in exchange for Gardner's confession because it was the only way to convict him of Amber's death and to find her body. In explaining this difficult decision, the district attorney called California's death penalty "a hollow promise."

STUDIES: Victims' Social Status Plays Influential Role in Death Cases

Scott Phillips, a sociology and criminology professor at the University of Denver, published a study last month in the Law & Society Review focusing on the imposition of death sentences in relation to the victim's social status. Phillips studied capital cases in Harris County (Houston), Texas, between 1992 and 1999 and found that the social status of the victim in the underlying murder had a significant influence on whether the death penalty would be sought and imposed on the defendant. In examining 504 cases, Phillips found that defendants are six times more likely to receive a death sentence if they kill the highest status victims (whites or Hispanics who have college degrees, are married, and have no criminal record), compared to those defendants who kill the lowest status victims (black or Asian victims who were single, with a prior criminal record, and no college degree).