Arbitrariness

INNOCENCE: North Carolina Death Row Inmate is Second in U.S. to be Exonerated this Month

Prosecutors in North Carolina on December 11 dropped all charges against Jonathon Hoffman, who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of a jewelry store owner. Hoffman won a new trial in 2004 because information favorable to Hoffman was withheld from the defense. During Hoffman’s first trial, the state's key witness, Johnell Porter, had received immunity from federal charges for testifying against his cousin. The defense attorneys, jury, and the judge did not know of the deal.

U.S. Supreme Court to Address Discriminatory Jury Selection in Death Penalty Case

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Snyder v. Louisiana, a case involving a black defendant sentenced to death by an all-white jury after the prosecution used its peremptory strikes to exclude all of the qualified black jurors.  During Allen Snyder’s 1996 trial for the murder of a man his estranged wife was dating, prosecutor James Williams of Jefferson Parish urged the all-white jury to sentence the defendant to death so that Snyder would not "get away with it" like O.J. Simpson.

INNOCENCE: Criminal Convictions in Question after FBI Bullet Evidence Discredited

An investigation by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes has cast doubt on at least 250 criminal cases in which the defendant was convicted based on FBI bullet-lead test evidence. Since the early 1960s, the FBI has used a technique called comparative bullet-lead analysis on an estimated 2,500 cases, many of which were homicide cases prosecuted at state and local levels.

ARBITRARINESS: In the Leading Execution State, Many Receive Probation for Murder

In a recent investigation published in The Dallas Morning News, researchers found that 120 defendants convicted of murder in Texas between 2000 and 2006 received only a sentence of probation. In Dallas County, twice as many convicted murderers were sentenced to probation as were sent to death row. Typically in these cases, a defendant pleads guilty to murder, receives probation, and, with good behavior, can have the murder charged wiped from his or her record.

North Carolina Court Cites False Testimony and Official Misconduct in Granting New Trial to Death Row Inmate

Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin ruled that North Carolina death row inmate Glen Edward Chapman is entitled to a new trial based on ample evidence that he was wrongly convicted. Judge Ervin said that law enforcement officials withheld evidence, used false testimony, and misplaced or destroyed important documents that could have supported Chapman's innocence claim.

Attorneys' Organization Files Judicial Conduct Complaint Against Texas Appeals Judge

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) has filed a judicial complaint against the Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Sharon Keller (pictured), the first time the group says it has ever filed a complaint against a judge. NACDL has asked the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct to review Judge Keller's decision to turn away the last appeal of a death row inmate because the rushed filing was submitted past the court's 5 p.m. closing time. Attorneys for Michael Richard, who was executed on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the constitutionality of lethal injection practices, said they were experiencing computer problems as they prepared their client's lethal injection-based appeal just hours before Richard's execution. The appeal was being filed right after attorneys had learend that the Supreme Court would take up the issue. They asked Judge Keller for 20 more minutes to deliver their appeal to Austin because the court does not accept computer filings. They were told, "We close at 5." Without a ruling from the state court, the lawyers could not properly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to block the execution. At least 150 attorneys have filed similar complaints against Judge Keller with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which can impose sanctions ranging from additional education to suspension or a trial.

American Bar Association Report Urges Death Penalty Reforms in Pennsylvania

According to a new report from a team of investigators sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA), flaws in Pennsylvania's death penalty system are so pervasive that the state risks executing an innocent person. "The problems found in this assessment strike at the very heart of Pennsylvania's justice system," stated ABA president-elect H. Thomas Wells, Jr. The five-member Pennsylvania assessment team that conducted the review urged a series of important death penalty reforms designed to improve capital defense representation and reduce the likelihood of false confessions, crime-lab errors, witness misidentification and racial disparities. In addition to the reform recommendations, the ABA called on Governor Ed Rendell to order a more comprehensive study of Pennsylvania's death penalty.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Series

MORE STAYS GRANTED On October 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit granted a stay of execution to Daniel Siebert, who was to be executed in Alabama on Oct. 25. On Oct. 22, the Georgia Supreme Court granted another stay, this time to Curtis Osborne. These stays are related to the issue of lethal injection as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the matter.

“A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH:” NEWS SERIES REVEALS ARBITRARY DEATH PENALTY IN GEORGIA
According to “A Matter of Life or Death,” a recent four-part news series published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia’s death penalty is “as predictable as a lightning strike.” Based on an investigation of 2,328 murder convictions in Georgia between January 1, 1995, and December 31, 2004, the paper determined that the state’s capital punishment system is unfairly shaped by racial and geographic bias, and fails to reserve the death penalty for “the worst of the worst.”

The AJC reporters worked with University of Maryland criminologist Ray Paternoster to examine the cases. Though their investigation determined that 1,315 of these cases involved crimes that made defendants eligible for the death penalty, prosecutors sought it in only 25% of those cases. Of those that faced a capital trial, only 1 in 23 was sentenced to death. “It’s like a roulette wheel. Arbitrariness is a weakness of the death penalty,” observed former Georgia Chief Justice Norman Fletcher.

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