Historical North Carolina Exoneration Almost Never Happened

Gregory Taylor recently became the first person exonerated by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state-run agency in the country with the power to overturn convictions based on claims of innocence. Taylor had been convicted of the brutal murder of a prostitute, a crime for which he might have been executed in many states.  In 1993, prosecutors relied partly on a lab report indicating that blood was found in Taylor's SUV, which was found parked near the victim's body. The lab report, however, did not mention that a second test came back negative for the presence of blood. The results of the second test were filed away in informal notes that did not surface until Taylor's case came before the Innocence Commission. Even these notes would not have been discovered if it were not for Assistant District Attorney Tom Ford, who prosecuted Taylor's case in 1993.  Ford said state investigators did not tell him until July 2009 about the negative second blood test. He subsequently told the Commission investigators where to find the bench notes, saying that he felt it was his duty to do so. Taylor was cleared of all charges after other parts of the state's case also were discredited, and he was freed after spending nearly 17 years in prison.

STUDIES: High Percentage of Death Sentences in North Carolina Later Deemed Excessive

Most of those originally condemned to death in North Carolina eventually received lesser sentences when their cases were concluded, according to Professor Frank Baumgartner, a researcher at the University of North Carolina.  Many of those sentenced to death received a new trial because their first trial was seriously flawed.  At their subsequent trials, the vast majority were sentenced to a punishment less than death, typically a life sentence. Only about 20% of the cases that were finally resolved resulted in an execution. Baumgartner used information from the state's Department of Corrections to examine what happened to those sentenced to death between 1977 through 2009.  He found that of the 388 people sentenced to death, 43 were executed. Of the remaining cases, 158 were still on death row, 5 had been cleared of their charges, 6 committed suicide, 19 died of natural causes, and 12 are in jail pending a new trial, but no longer on death row.  Of the defendants who received new trials, 130 were sentenced to life, 10 to a sentence less than life, and 5 were found not guilty. Another 5 received commutations to life without parole from the governor.

After 20 Years, Ohio Death Row Inmate May Be Exonerated

On March 3, a federal District Court barred the re-prosecution of former Ohio death row inmate Joe D'Ambrosio (pictured) for the murder of Tony Klann over 22 years ago. The court had ruled in 2006 that state prosecutors improperly withheld evidence about their star witness that could have exonerated D'Ambrosio at his 1989 trial.  That ruling led to D'Ambrosio's conviction and death sentence being vacated, and he was eventually released on bond pending a possible retrial.  But the state delayed reprosecuting him and did not tell the court that its primary witness, their only eyewitness to the murder, had died.  The court concluded that these developments biased D'Ambrosio's chances for a fair trial, and hence the state was barred from retrying him.  The state may appeal this decision.

Battered Woman on Tennessee Death Row at Critical Juncture

Gaile Owens is currently on death row in Tennessee and awaiting a decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court on a request to reduce her sentence to life. Owens's attorneys have asked the state's high court to remove the death penalty because her case presents unique circumstances that warrant the rare move.  Owens may face execution soon for soliciting the 1985 murder of her husband, Ronald Owens, a man she said repeatedly abused her. Sidney Porterfield, whom she hired to kill her husband, is also currently on death row. Owens accepted an offer from the prosecutor to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but the prosecutor backed out of the agreement when Porterfield would not accept the same plea. Owens and Porterfield were tried and sentenced to death together, after a judge refused to try their cases separately. Owens is the only inmate on death row who agreed to a plea bargain for a life sentence.

Texas Death Sentence Overturned, But Conflicts of Interest Remain

On February 24, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the death sentence of Charles Dean Hood because the jury was improperly instructed about potentially mitigating evidence at his trial. Hood's case more recently made national news when a prior extramarital affair between the trial judge and the prosecutor was revealed. In 2008, even after the judge and the prosecutor admitted to their intimate relationship, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that Hood should be executed anyway.  Hood's attorneys have recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the conflict of interest in this case. Twenty-one former judges and prosecutors and 30 legal ethics experts have filed amicus briefs stating that the relationship between the judge and the prosecutor severely undermined the integrity of the proceedings. The Court has yet to act on the request, which could result in a new trial on guilt, as well as on sentencing, as now required by the Court of Criminal Appeals for other reasons.

NEW VOICES: Past President of Prestigious American Law Institute Says Death Penalty "Unworkable"

Michael Traynor, President Emeritus of the prestigious American Law Institute (ALI), called the ALI’s recent withdrawal of its model death penalty law “a striking repudiation from the very organization that provided the blueprint for death penalty laws in this country.” He noted that the ALI had carefully reviewed the death penalty process, and that "Now, after searching analysis by our country's top legal minds, the institute has concluded that the system it created does not work and cannot be fixed."  The ALI, with membership of more than 4,000 lawyers, judges and law professors, is the leading independent organization in the United States producing scholarly work to clarify and improve the law. Its model penal code became the prototype for death penalty laws across the United States after the old state laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1972. Last fall, Traynor noted, the ALI withdrew its support for the model death penalty law, effectively concluding that “we cannot devise a death penalty system that will ensure fairness in process or outcome, or even that innocent people will not be executed.”

No Further Punishment Recommended for Presiding Judge Who Closed Door on Death Penalty Appeal

On January 20, a special master appointed to review the conduct of an appeals court judge who would not order her court to stay open late to receive a death penalty appeal, concluded that her conduct did not merit removal from office.  Special Master David Berchelmann of San Antonio found that the action of Judge Sharon Keller, Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, "does not warrant removal from office or further reprimand beyond the public humiliation she has surely suffered." Partly as a result of Judge Keller's refusal to keep the court open beyond 5 pm, Michael Richard's appeal was not filed and he was executed the same day.  Richard's attorneys had asked that the court stay open late to receive their appeal that had been delayed by computer problems.  The appeal challenged Texas' lethal injection process in light of an announcement by the U.S. Supreme Court that same day.  All other inmates around the country were routinely granted stays of execution after that day while the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of lethal injection.  Judge Berchelmann's findings will be sent to the judicial conduct commission to decide whether any further action is warranted.

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.