Arbitrariness

Man on Texas Death Row for over 30 Years May Be Tried for a Fourth Time

Ronald Curtis Chambers, who was originally sentenced to death for the 1975 murder of Mike McMahan, may be given a fourth trial following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. Chambers was 20 at the time of his crime, and has been on death row longer than any other inmate in Texas. His second trial came 10 years after his first, following a Texas court ruling that Chambers should have been told that information from a psychiatric consultation could be used against him.

NEW RESOURCES: Connecticut Study Reveals Arbitrariness in Death Cases

Professor John Donohue of Yale University's School of Law recently conducted a study of death sentences in Connecticut and found that seeking the death penalty often correlated with the race of the victim and the defendant, and not necessarily with the severity of the crimes, as the law requires. "There was basically no rational system to explain who got the death penalty," Donohue said. "It really is about as random a process as you can possibly construct."

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.

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