NEW VOICES: Indiana Prosecutors Seeking Death Penalty Less

Higher costs, the exoneration of innocent death row inmates and jurors’ expectation of DNA proof are all being cited as reasons for prosecutors deciding not to seek the death penalty in Indiana.  Recently, a high profile death penalty case cost the state $800,000 before it dropped the death penalty in exchange for a guilty plea and life-without-parole sentence. "It's the taxpayer dollars, stupid, when it comes to the death penalty," said Indiana defense attorney Bob Hammerle.  "We've got a governor who says we don't have enough money to pay for higher education. What sense does it make to spend millions of dollars trying to execute someone when it's cheaper to keep someone in jail for the rest of their life?"  Adding to the decline in the use of the death penalty, Steve Johnson, Executive Director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorney’s Council, pointed to jurors’ reluctance to hand down death sentences. "I think there's a greater hesitancy to pursue it and file it by prosecutors," said Johnson. "I think among our group we talk about the CSI effect and if we don't have the DNA--if we don't have the physical evidence--I think juries tend to think that given the higher standard of proof that may apply anyway, that maybe this isn't the strongest case of the death penalty."  See video below.

After Almost 30 Years, Florida Supreme Court Overturns Death Sentence in Case "Rife with Misconduct"

On January 14, and almost 30 years after the crime, the Florida Supreme Court criticized the state for "lawless conduct" and vacated the death sentence of Paul Beasley Johnson because "the record here is so rife with evidence of previously undisclosed prosecutorial misconduct that we have no choice but to grant relief."  Because of popular sentiment and the notoriety of the crime, Governor Charlie Crist signed a death warrant for Johnson in 2009 even though Johnson's legal issues were still pending on appeal.  The Florida Court said that the governor's action put them in a difficult position. Johnson was found guilty of the murder of a Polk County sheriff's deputy and two others in January of 1981. The state induced Johnson to make incriminating statements to a jailhouse informant, then used the testimony at his trial, even though they knew it was inadmissible. Former assistant state attorney Hardy Pickard, who was the original prosecutor in Johnson's case, was aware that the informant was acting on behalf of the sheriff's investigator despite the claim that the informant acted on his own. Even though the informant's testimony was initially suppressed, Pickard used false testimony and misleading argument to allow the informant to testify.  Commenting on the state's behavior, the Florida Court wrote, "It must be emphasized that in our American legal system there is no room for such misconduct, no matter how disturbing a crime may be or how unsympathetic a defendant is. Lawlessness by a defendant never justifies lawless conduct at trial."

ARBITRARINESS: Different Outcomes in Similar Murder Cases in Tennessee

Gaile Owens (pictured) and Mary Winkler are two women who committed similar crimes under similar circumstances in Tennessee. Both women suffered from abuse from the spouses they killed, and both were examined by the same psychologist, twenty years apart.  The psychologist said both women suffered from battered woman's syndrome. Mary Winkler confronted her husband with a shotgun and shot him in the back in 2006. Gaile Owens hired a stranger to kill her husband.  Winkler was indicted for first-degree murder, convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served about two months in a mental health facility. She is now free and has custody of her children. Owens is on death row, awaiting execution by lethal injection.

According to an article by John Seigenthaler in the Tennessean, "The dramatic difference in the sentences received by Winkler and Owens relates directly to the manner in which the two cases were tried, how their separate teams of lawyers handled their cases and how two different judges dealt with their 'battered woman' defenses."  Winkler testified on her own behalf regarding the abuse she suffered, while Owens did not take the stand in order to protect her children from hearing the details of her abuse. Winkler was represented by experienced criminal lawyers, whose expenses were paid by her friends. Owens, on the other hand, had trouble finding legal representation. Her first lawyer withdrew from the case because she could not pay him. Perhaps the starkest difference between the two cases were the women's pleas. Winkler pled not guilty on the basis that she was a battered wife. Owens accepted the prosecutor's plea deal in return for a life sentence, but the prosecutor subsequently refused to accept the agreement when Owens's co-defendant would not accept the same plea. They were tried and sentenced to death together.

Legal Scholar Calls Withdrawal of Model Penal Code a "Quiet Blockbuster"

Franklin E. Zimring is a distinguished professor of law and scholar at the Berkeley School of Law who has followed the development of the modern death penalty over many decades.  Writing recently in the National Law Journal, Prof. Zimring said the recent action by the American Law Institute to withdraw the death penalty provisions  from its Model Penal Code deprives the punishment of any legal legitimacy.  "[T]he institute has pulled the intellectual rug out from under the current system of deciding between life and death," he wrote. Recalling that when the Supreme Court stopped the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, he noted many states turned to the Model Penal Code to fashion new death penalty laws that the Court would accept.  But that model has now been discredited.  "Now that the creators of the modern system of death penalty sentencing have disowned that system, there is no support for distinguishing the current death penalty lottery from the lawless system that Furman condemned. The apparatus that the Supreme Court rushed to embrace in 1976 has been exposed as a conspicuous failure."

ARTICLES: "Selective Empathy" at Issue in Recent Supreme Court Opinion

Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court writer for the New York Times, recently wrote about the reversal of a death sentence by the U. S. Supreme Court. The Court overturned George Porter Jr.'s death sentence because of the inadequate representation he received and the powerful mitigating evidence in Mr. Porter's life that his attorney failed to investigate and present to the jury considering his client's life.  The Court's opinion noted, "Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did." Ms. Greenhouse's article contrasted this ruling with one handed down last month in the case of Robert J. Van Hook, who also claimed inadequate counsel. In his case, the Court overtuned a federal appeals court's grant of relief, concluding that Van Hook's lawyer made "professionally reasonable" decisions regarding his case. Van Hook was also a military veteran, and like Porter, was also a product of a violent and abusive childhood.

Greenwood writes, "Setting the Porter and the Van Hook cases side by side, what strikes me is how similarly horrific the two men’s childhoods were - indeed, how common such childhoods were among the hundreds of death-row inmates… It is fanciful to suppose that each of these defendants had lawyers who made the effort to dig up the details and offer these sorry life stories to the jurors who would weigh their fate. I don’t make that observation to excuse the crimes of those on death row, but only to underscore the anomaly of the mercy the court bestowed…on one of that number."  Read the full article below.

Subject of Famous Supreme Court Decision Has Made a New Life

James Tyrone Woodson's death sentence was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 because the jury had not been allowed to consider any mitigating factors in his life or about his peripheral role in the crime.  The Court not only rejected Woodson's death sentence, but held that a mandatory death penalty system was unconstitutional.  Woodson had been convicted in 1974 of first-degree murder, which was automatically punishable by the death penalty under North Carolina law. Woodson had been in a car during the robbery and murder, and he maintained that he was threatened to assist with the robbery.  Woodson and 120  other death row inmates' lives were spared because of the Supreme Court ruling.  He eventually became eligible for parole and was released in 1993.  Since his release, Woodson has led a crime-free life. He used to be the kitchen manager at the Raleigh Rescue Mission. He now has a job in Raleigh and preaches at Wake Correctional Center.  "You have to want to change. Nobody can make you change," he said recently about his work helping others. He continued, "There's a choice in the matter in life itself.  Do you want to live? Do you want to be helpful to another individual because you've been helped?"

Supreme Court Decides One Capital Case and Agrees to Hear Another

On November 16, the United States Supreme Court accepted for review and handed down a per curiam decision in Wong v. Belmontes (No. 08-1263). The Court reinstated Fernando Belmontes' death sentence and overturned the decision of the Ninth Circuit granting relief because of ineffectiveness of counsel. Belmontes was sentenced to death for murdering a woman during a robbery in 1981 in California. The appeals court ruled in 2008 that Belmontes' lawyer had represented him incompetently by neglecting to introduce evidence of family strife and depression that would have likely led to a different sentence. The Supreme Court assumed that the attorney should have presented more evidence but concluded it would not have made any difference in sentencing.  Justice Stevens issued a concurring opinion stating that he believed the Supreme Court had erred in a previous consideration of this same case.

On the same day, the Court agreed to hear Magwood v. Culliver (No. 09-158).  Billy Joe Magwood received a death sentence for killing a sheriff in 1979 in Alabama.  At the time, Alabama law required two conditions before the state could sentence a defendant to death, only one of which was satisfied by Magwood's crime.  Magwood's death sentence was overturned on other grounds in 1985, and he was resentenced to death the next year.  However, it was not until 1997 that Magwood's lawyers challenged whether his crime was death-eligible under Alabama law.  Alabama claims Magwood took too long to raise this argument and his appeal is barred by the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which imposes strict limits on successive federal habeas corpus petitions. The Eleventh Circuit agreed.  Magwood claims that he is bringing his claim under his new death sentence and therefore is not barred by AEDPA.

Leading Law Group Withdraws Model Death Penalty Laws Because System is Unfixable

The Council of the American Law Institute (ALI) recently voted to withdraw a section of its Model Penal Code concerned with capital punishment because of the "current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment."  The Council based its decision on a study it commissioned to look into the practice of the death penalty since the recommendations were made in the Model Penal Code.  The recommendations for how to make the death penalty less arbitrary had been adopted in 1962 and were cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1976 opinion allowing a reformed death penalty to be reinstated.  Section §210.6  of the Code defines cases appropriate for capital punishment, aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and special sentencing procedures, and was intended to meet significant concerns regarding the practice.  This move essentially withdraws ALI from any attempt to fashion an acceptable death penalty because the system has proven to be unworkable.