Mississippi Inmates Challenge State for Appointing Ineffective Counsel

Sixteen death row inmates have filed a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi, claiming that their executions should be halted because their state-appointed attorneys were "untrained, inexperienced, and overwhelmed." Under Mississippi law, the state must provide "competent and conscientious" counsel for death row inmates before execution dates can be set. The law suit, filed in Hinds County Chancery Court, claims that the attorneys appointed through the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel did not meet that criteria and were overwhelmed with other cases.  In one example cited in the lawsuit, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered the office to file a motion for DNA testing on behalf of Blayde Grayson, who was sentenced to death in 1997, but the office never filed the motion.  Two death row inmates who are part of the lawsuit are scheduled to be executed consecutively later this month. Gerald Holland, age 72 and the oldest inmate on death row, is scheduled to be executed on May 20. Paul Everette, age 62, will be executed on May 19. The last back-to-back executions in the state took place in 1961.

After 20 Years, Texas Court Throws Out Two Death Sentences

After spending 20 years on death row, inmates Roy Gene Smith and David Lewis had their death sentences thrown out by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on April 28. The state's highest criminal court ruled that jurors who convicted Smith were erroneously kept from hearing testimony about his upbringing in a crime-ridden Houston neighborhood. The court also determined that Lewis should have been able to present evidence of his damaged eyesight and that he began using drugs and alcohol with his abusive mother at the age of 13.  The decisions were in keeping with rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court since the defendants' trials regarding Texas's mishandling of death penalty cases.  Smith and Lewis may face re-trials in Harris County and Angelina County, respectively.

District Attorney and Murder Victim's Father Call Death Penalty an "Empty Promise"

In California, families of murder victims Amber Dubois and Chelsea King agreed to a life sentence without parole for the girls' killer, John Albert Gardner. Brent King, Chelsea's father, said that agreeing with County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis' decision not to seek the death penalty for his daugther's killer was "torturous," but so would have been a death penalty trial and the years of appeals that follow. Dumanis said there was enough evidence to convict Gardner for Chelsea's murder, but she agreed to a life sentence without parole in exchange for Gardner's confession because it was the only way to convict him of Amber's death and to find her body. In explaining this difficult decision, the district attorney called California's death penalty "a hollow promise."

STUDIES: Victims' Social Status Plays Influential Role in Death Cases

Scott Phillips, a sociology and criminology professor at the University of Denver, published a study last month in the Law & Society Review focusing on the imposition of death sentences in relation to the victim's social status. Phillips studied capital cases in Harris County (Houston), Texas, between 1992 and 1999 and found that the social status of the victim in the underlying murder had a significant influence on whether the death penalty would be sought and imposed on the defendant. In examining 504 cases, Phillips found that defendants are six times more likely to receive a death sentence if they kill the highest status victims (whites or Hispanics who have college degrees, are married, and have no criminal record), compared to those defendants who kill the lowest status victims (black or Asian victims who were single, with a prior criminal record, and no college degree).

CSI Director Convicted of Planting Evidence in Murder Investigation

David Kofoed, CSI Director of Douglas County, Nebraska was convicted last month of planting evidence during a murder investigation, casting doubts on the legitimacy of other cases on which he worked. Kofoed's work came into question after a 2006 investigation into the murder of Wayne and Sharmon Stock.  The victims' nephew was one of the leading suspects in the murder, despite the lack of physical evidence tying him and an accomplice to the killing. The victims' nephew confessed to the police, but he retracted his confession the next day.

STUDIES: Death Sentences in California Show Arbitrariness of the System

A new report released by the ACLU of Northern California reveals that only three counties–Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside–accounted for 83% of the state's death sentences in 2009. Los Angeles County, with 13 death sentences, was the leading death penalty county in the entire country last year. According to the report, California, with the largest death row in the country, spends $137 million annually on the death penalty, while the state is cutting back on many vital services. The report also indicated an increase in the Latino population of California's death row in recent years; 50% of the death sentences in 2007 were for Latinos even though they comprised only 36% of the state's population.

The executive summary of the report concluded, "A shift to permanent imprisonment would mean significant savings in a time of fiscal crisis, would eliminate the risk of executing the innocent, and would lead to more consistent policies across all California counties. California is on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years, though even more funds are required to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction and to ensure timely review of lengthy death penalty cases. For all the money dedicated to the death penalty in California, only 1 out of 100 people sentenced to death has actually been executed during the last thirty years."  Click here for the full report.

NEW VOICES: Former Texas Governor Says Death Penalty Trial "Breached Every Standard of Fairness"

Mark White, former governor of Texas and a death penalty supporter, recently wrote an op-ed in the National Law Journal calling for a new trial for Charles Hood, a Texas death row inmate whose trial was compromised by the fact that the prosecutor and the trial judge had been in an intimate relationship prior to the trial.  As former Gov. White explained, "The judge and the prosecutor at Hood's trial had a long-term secret affair prior to the trial and concealed the relationship for 20 years. This was a secret that the pair kept even when they knew Hood was on the brink of execution and was trying to verify the rumors of the relationship." The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a new sentencing hearing for Hood on grounds of improper jury instructions, but refused to address the conflict of interest caused by the long-term, extra-marital affair. White writes, "The trial judge and the prosecuting attorney's affair breaches every standard of fairness that you would expect a defendant to receive during a capital case or, for that matter, a noncapital case. Hood could not have gotten a fair trial under these circumstances."  The former governor also voiced his concern about the fallibility of this system: "Hood's case shows, at the most basic level, that there are huge flaws in our procedures and human frailties in the people who administer them."  Read full op-ed below.

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.