First North Carolina Death Row Inmates File Appeal Under Racial Justice Act

Five men on North Carolina’s death row filed motions to have their death sentences reduced to life without parole based on data that indicate racial disparities in the state’s justice system. These cases are the first to request application of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which allows the use of statewide or regional statistical studies to challenge a death sentence because of racial bias. In all five cases, the victims in the underlying murder were white and the defendants were black.  Moreover, prosecutors struck eligible blacks from the juries in these cases at greater rates than whites. In some cases, prosecutors struck eligible black jurors while accepting similar white jurors. Ken Rose, staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL), said, “We would like to live and practice in a system where race does not matter. But the results show that white victims are valued more highly than black ones, and that black jurors are being denied their right to serve. This evidence of racial bias cannot be ignored.”

Woman with Mental Disabilities Facing Execution in Virginia

An execution date of September 23 was recently set for Teresa Lewis, the only woman on Virginia’s death row. Although a number of other people were involved in the same crime, including the actual shooters of the two victims, Lewis was the only person sentenced to death.  She pled guilty at trial.  Since being sent to death row in 2002, Lewis has taken responsibility and apologized for her actions.  She has had an exemplary record while in prison and does not appear to be a future danger if she remained there.  Her current attorneys have pointed to her low IQ (measured as low as 72) and her vulnerability to being led by others as mitigating factors for the crime.  She has a Dependent Personality Disorder and suffered from other mental disabilities at the time of the crime.  If her execution goes through, Lewis would be the first woman to be executed in Virginia since 1912 and the first in the United States since 2005.

Texas Commission Says Case of Executed Man Based on Flawed Science

In a preliminary report, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recently found that fire investigators used flawed science in the case that led to the death sentence and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was executed in 2004, having been convicted of setting the fire that killed his three children. Willingham had always maintained his innocence and said the fire could have been an accident. The Commission acknowledged that new fire investigation standards were developed in 1992, the year Willingham was convicted, but said the standards were not adopted nationally until several years later. Hence, the Commission did not find professional negligence on the part of the investigators because they were relying on standards available at the time.  Nevertheless, the jury convicted Willingham on the basis of the flawed evidence and Texas may have executed an innocent man.  Patricia Cox, Willingham’s cousin, told the Commission, "Even though there may not have been any malice or intent by fire investigators about not being informed on current standards, that doesn't excuse the fact that, based on this misinformation, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, and that can't be corrected."

Chief Texas Judge Reprimanded for Discrediting the Judiciary in Death Penalty Case

Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, received a public warning from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct on July 16 for her conduct in barring access to the courts to a death row inmate who was about to be executed in 2007.  The Commission said her actions constituted "willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of her duties."  When requested at home to allow a late-appeal filing by death row inmate Michael Richard, Judge Keller responded, "We close at 5."  Richard was executed the same day, the last person to be executed in the country while the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of lethal injections. Every other inmate scheduled for execution received a stay until the Supreme Court upheld the execution process in April 2008.  The Commission described Keller's response as "willful or persistent conduct that casts public discredit on the judiciary."

Tennessee Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Gaile Owens

On July 14, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen commuted the death sentence of Gaile Owens to life in prison. Owens, who was sentenced to death in 1986 for hiring a man to kill her husband, had accepted a deal to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for a sentence of life in prison. However, the man who did the killing refused to plead guilty, and prosecutors then rescinded the deal for Owens.  Both co-defendants were sentenced to death.  In deciding to commute her sentence to life in prison, Governor Bredesen said the decision was based in part on the plea bargain that was later withdrawn and the possibility that Owens was abused by her husband. Governor Bredesen said, “Nearly all the similar cases we looked at resulted in life-in-prison sentences.” John Seigenthaler, formerly on staff at the Tennessean, said of her case, “As heinous as the crime was, the record of how Tennessee has dealt with similar cases over the last century makes it clear that her death would have been a terrible miscarriage of justice."

After Two Faulty Trials With Inadequate Representation, Oklahoma Death Row Inmate Released 27 Years Later

An inmate who spent 27 years on Oklahoma’s death row was released earlier in July after he accepted a plea agreement with prosecutors. James Fisher  was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1983. A federal appeals court overturned his death sentence because of inadequate attorney representation, thus sending the case back to trial. In 2005, Fisher was again convicted and sentenced to death. The second death sentence was also overturned, this time by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, again for inadequate representation. Under the new plea agreement, Fisher pleaded guilty to murder and was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole. District Judge Kenneth Watson suspended the sentence and released Fisher to a re-entry program run by the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, the same group that was representing Fisher on appeal.  Fisher will be on probation for life, and he is not allowed to return to Oklahoma. First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said, “I believe if he had been convicted and sentenced to life in 1983, he would probably have been out in 15 years.”

COSTS: Death Penalty Cases Cost Indiana Counties Ten Times More than Life Without Parole

A recent state analysis of the costs of the death penalty in Indiana found the average cost to a county for a trial and direct appeal in a capital case was over ten times more than a life-without-parole case. The average death case cost $449,887, while the average cost of a life-without-parole case was only $42,658.  The study, prepared by the Legislative Services Agency for the General Assembly, found that even while factoring the longer incarceration period for those sentenced to life without parole, the cost of the death penalty still outweighed the cost of life without parole. The study also noted that Indiana was following the national trend of declining use of the death penalty.  Indiana prosecutors did not file a single new death penalty case for more than a year from August 2006 through December 2007, according to the public defender council.  Between 1990 and 2000, prosecutors requested the death penalty in 153 cases from the 4,617 murders and homicides reported in the state.  From those 153 cases where the death penalty was sought, 48 went to trial, 25 resulted in death sentences, and 4 actually resulted in an execution.  Clark County Prosecutor Steven Stewart stated that, while he agrees with the death penalty, it does cost more than life in prison without parole. 

MULTIMEDIA: "Slow Death of the Death Penalty" on CBS News Sunday Morning


On June 13, CBS News' program Sunday Morning featured a report entitled, The Slow Death of the Death Penalty, which addressed various issues regarding the use of the death penalty today. The report highlighted the cases of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was scheduled to be executed in Utah this week, and Gaile Owens, whose scheduled execution in September would make her the first woman to be executed in Tennessee since 1820. The video featured interviews from many death penalty experts, including Kelly Henry, a federal public defender representing Gaile Owens. Henry said mitigating circumstances of sexual and emotional abuse were not presented during Owens's trial and could have changed the outcome of the case.  She said that Owens's trial counsel provided woefully inadequate representation. The report illustrated the arbitrariness of the death penalty by pointing to another woman in Tennessee who was also responsible for her husband's death and who received only a light sentence.  Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who was also featured in the report, said, "If we had a death penalty that only picked the worst of the worst that it would make some sense, but what we have is often the death penalty for those who had the worst lawyer."