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.

Court Pressure in Arizona Leads to Settlements in Death Cases

A growing backlog of death penalty cases and delays in starting trials in Arizona’s Maricopa County has forced Superior Court judges to apply pressure on both sides by refusing to postpone trial dates and demanding that attorneys discuss settlements. The backlog came as a result of County Attorney Andrew Thomas’s aggressive pursuit of death sentences in more than 120 cases since taking office in 2005. The number of death penalty defendants grew faster than the courts could handle them. Over 100 death penalty defendants are still awaiting trial in Maricopa County, most of whom are beyond the 18-month time period in which they are supposed to be tried.  “I think firm trial dates settle cases,” said Presiding Criminal Judge Gary Donahoe.  The pressure is apparently working. This year, Thomas has allowed 27 defendants who faced the death penalty to plead to life sentences or less – nearly twice as many as last year, and eight times as many as in the year Thomas first took office. There is a schedule to try to settle more than 20 cases before the end of 2009. Thomas has also filed fewer notices of intent to seek the death penalty.

NEW VOICES: Judge Says Death Penalty "too fraught with variables to survive"

Retired Federal Appeals Court Judge H. Lee Sarokin recently offered a harsh critique of the death penalty, especially challenging the botched execution attempt of Romell Broom in Ohio in September. Citing morality, arbitrariness, and the dim prospects of closure for the murder victims’ families, Judge Sarokin called the imposition of the death penalty an erratic and flawed process that should not be permitted to continue. “The system is too fraught with variables to survive. Whether or not one receives the death penalty depends upon the discretion of the prosecutor who initiates the proceeding, the competence of counsel who represents the defendant, the race of the victim, the race of the defendant, the make-up of the jury, the attitude of the judge, and the attitude and make-up of the appellate courts that review the verdict.“

Regarding Ohio's lethal injection process, Judge Sarokin said it would be unconstitutional to subject the defendant to a second execution attempt: “It is impossible to imagine what it must be like to know that you are going to be put to death, have numerous efforts fail, and then have to face the prospect again at a later date! If that isn't cruel and unusual punishment, I do not know what is!“ He continued, “Double jeopardy prohibits a person from being tried twice for the same crime. Should it not protect a person from being subjected to execution twice for the same crime?“ Read the entire article below.

OPINION: Florida’s Death Penalty System Still ‘Fraught with Problems’

A recent op-ed in the Florida Times-Union pointed to continuing problems in Florida’s death penalty system despite prior recommendations for change in an American Bar Association report three years ago. The article was written by Raoul Cantero III, a former Florida Supreme Court justice appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, and Mark Schlakman, a senior program director for Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.  The authors state that little has been done by either the state government or the Florida Bar Association in response to the ABA's findings. The ABA report addressed the often abysmal legal representation of defendants in post-conviction proceedings, socioeconomic and geographic bias in seeking the death penalty versus a life sentence, and lack of fairness and accuracy in the system. The authors note that these problems remain, but there is a chance that new political leaders could still bring about change: "The challenge for those who hold and aspire to elected office is to ensure that personal perspectives pertaining to capital punishment, and the public outrage arising out of heinous crimes, do not overshadow the fact that Florida's death penalty process is fraught with problems.  Floridians expect a system of justice that engenders confidence based upon fairness and accuracy. With regard to the state's death penalty process, in many respects that standard has proven to be elusive."

STUDIES: Errors by Texas Medical Examiners Led to Wrongful Convictions

A recent investigaton by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram uncovered a series of mistakes by medical examiners in Texas. “Medical examiners have goofed up eye color and gender. They’ve made mistakes on the locations of scars or tattoos, described gallbladders and appendixes that had long since been removed – even confused one body for another,” noted the story.  Webb County Chief Medical Examiner Corinne Stern was criticized for an autopsy she performed on an infant while she was working in Alabama. Her report indicated that the infant was suffocated, but other experts concluded “her finding was based on junk science and that the [baby] was stillborn.”  Following the experts' report, the capital murder charge against the baby’s mother was dropped.

In 2007, former Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo recanted his original testimony that helped convict Austin baby-sitter Cathy Lynn Henderson of capital murder and placed her on death row for the death of a baby. Twelve years earlier, Dr. Bayardo had testified that the baby’s cause of death was from receiving intentional blows. His new testimony said it was unclear what had happened and Henderson may have accidentally dropped the child.  "The work of the medical examiner's office is just so slipshod," said Tommy Turner, the former special prosecutor who put a Lubbock medical examiner behind bars for falsifying autopsies.


Texas Governor Replaces Members of Commission Examining Possible Wrongful Execution

On September 30, Texas Governor Rick Perry replaced the chairman and two members of a state commission that is investigating whether inaccurate evidence of arson was presented at the trial of Cameron Todd Willingham,  who was executed in 2004. The state’s Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to conduct a public hearing in two days and receive testimony from Craig Beyler, a nationally known expert who called the Willingham investigation “slipshod,” and concluded that “almost all of the evidence presented [w]as based on junk science.” Beyler's report for the Commission concluded that “no credible evidence existed to believe that the fire, that killed three children, was caused by arson.”



No New Trial despite Judge-Prosecutor Affair

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on September 16 that death row inmate Charles Hood is not entitled to a new trial despite the fact that the judge and the prosecutor from his trial had been having an affair.  In a 6-to-3 decision, the court held that Hood should have raised the argument that the affair tainted his trial in earlier appeals of his 1990 murder conviction.  The court's decision reverses the findings of a district court that held Hood should be given a hearing on a new trial. The case has created concerns among several former judges, prosecutors, and legal experts who have said that it is impossible to know if Hood received a fair trail. "For the state of Texas to ignore undisputed evidence of an improper relationship that violated Mr. Hood's constitutional rights to a fair trial is inexplicable and a betrayal of justice," said Sam D. Millsap, former district attorney in San Antonio, Texas. "It is an irrevocable wrong to put a man to death when a cloud of uncertainty and misconduct looms overhead."  

Arson Cases in Texas Under Broader Review

In 2004 Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for murdering his children by arson.  Since then, numerous forensic fire experts have concluded that the evidence of arson presented at Willingham's trial could not support the conclusion that he caused the fire.  That same year, Ernest Willis was freed from death row in Texas after the prosecution concluded that his conviction and death sentence for arson were mistaken.  Texas has 742 offenders in state prisons for arson, and about 275 more defendants are convicted of the crime each year.  Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who has pushed to create a commission in Texas to explore questionable convictions, noted,  "As scientific methods improve," he said, "it's a distinct possibility that we're going to find more problems in the criminal justice system."  One of the experts who examined the evidence in the Willingham case and disputes the claims of arson is Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist, who said, "Accidental fires being turned into arsons is going on all the time."  He believes the core of the problem is that investigators – most of whom began as police officers and firefighters – have no science background.