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."

Ohio Governor Spares the Life of Death Row Inmate

On June 4, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland granted clemency to Richard Nields, reducing his death sentence to life without parole.  Nields was scheduled to be executed later in June for the 1997 murder of his girlfriend in suburban Cincinnati. In May, the Ohio Parole Board recommended Nields for clemency because of problems with medical testimony at Nields's trial.  Dr. Paul Shrode, who was still in training at the time of the trial, testified that bruising on the victim proved that Nields strangled her. Another doctor testified later that there was no scientific evidence to support Shrode's testimony. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit also said his death sentence barely fit the definition of capital punishment under Ohio law. Federal public defender Carol Wright said of the case, ''A death sentence should be reserved for the worst of the worst cases. The facts of Richard's case were never the worst of the worst.''  Dr. Schrode was recently dismissed as the chief medical exmainer in El Paso County, Texas, after discrepancies were found in his resume and revelations were made about his unsupported evidence in the Ohio case.

STUDIES: Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection Continues in Death Penalty Cases

  A recent study published by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit human rights and legal services organization in Alabama, shows that the practice of excluding blacks and other racial minorities from juries remains widespread and largely unchecked, especially in the South. The study, "Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy," found that in Alabama, courts have found racially discriminatory jury selection in 25 death penalty cases since 1987, and in some counties, 75% of black jury pool members have been struck in capital cases. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, an analysis by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center found that blacks were struck from juries more than three times as often as whites between 1999 and 2007.  In North Carolina, at least 26 current death row inmates were sentenced by all-white juries.  According to Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, "There's just this tolerance, there's indifference to excluding people on the basis of race, and prosecutors are doing it with impunity. Unless you're in the courtroom, unless you're a lawyer working on these issues, you're not going to know whether your local prosecutor consistently bars people of color."

Texas County Fires Chief Medical Examiner Who Testified in Death Cases

El Paso County (Texas) recently fired its Chief Medical Examiner, Paul Shrode, who had testified in capital cases in Texas and Ohio.  He was dismissed after evidence he provided in an Ohio death penalty case turned out to be unsupported by science. It was also discovered that he had made numerous misrepresentations on his resume.  Earlier in May, the Ohio Parole Board voted to recommend clemency for death row inmate Richard Nields, citing problems with Shrode's 1997 testimony that helped secure Nields's death sentence. Shrode had previously been questioned by the County Commissioners Court in Texas after discrepancies were discovered in three resumes he submitted. Shrode had stated he had a "graduate law degree" from Southwest Texas State University, although there was no law school at the university. It also stated that he was a member of the State Bar of Texas. The County Human Resources Director told the court Shrode had taken courses in political science at the school, but received no graduate degrees. The State Bar of Texas had no record of Shrode being a member, either as an attorney or a paralegal.

Ohio Board Recommends Clemency Based on Questionable Expert Testimony

The Ohio Parole Board recently recommended clemency for death row inmate Richard Nields, who was sentenced to death for killing his live-in girlfriend during an argument in 1997. The board questioned the validity of medical evidence used at trial that helped support the death sentence. Testimony provided by a doctor-in-training indicated the victim had been beaten and strangled. However, the deputy coroner and supervisor of the trainee told the parole board there was no scientific evidence to indicate when the victim had received those bruises.  The board also cited concerns by the U.S. Court of Appeals that the death sentence barely fit the definition of capital punishment under Ohio's law, and similar concerns from a dissenting judge on the state Supreme Court. Justice Paul Pfeifer, who helped draft Ohio's death penalty as a state legislator in 1981, wrote that Nields's crime was not what lawmakers considered a death eligible case when the law was created.  Gov. Ted Strickland will make the final decision on clemency.

Racial and Geographic Disparities in Ohio Executions

Over the past two years, Ohio has executed more inmates than any other state except Texas.  Since resuming executions in 1999, Ohio has executed 38 people, more than any other state outside of the South in that time period.  As in the South, race appears to play a significant role in who receives the death penalty.  In the Ohio cases resulting in an execution, 75% of the victims in the underlying murder were white.  Generally, in Ohio about 65% of murder victims are black (Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services-2005), but those cases are not resulting in a similar percentage of executions.  Of the 57 victims in cases resulting in an execution, only 11 (19%) were black.  Moreover, none of the 38 executions in Ohio involved a white defendant who killed a black victim.  On the other hand, at least 7 black defendants have been executed for murdering a white victim.