Clemency

President Obama Commutes Two Death Sentences

On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama (pictured) commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th. Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty. In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment." Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die. Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Mental Health Professionals, Religious Leaders Join Ricky Gray's Plea for Clemency

Ricky Gray (pictured), who is scheduled to be executed on January 18, is seeking clemency from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and his clemency petition has been joined by a diverse group of mental health professionals and the Virginia Catholic Conference. A letter signed by more than 50 mental health professionals, including two former commissioners of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, urges McAuliffe to commute Gray's sentence because of Gray's history of "horrific" childhood abuse and his addiction at the time of the crime. Gray's jury never heard evidence that he was raped and sodomized almost daily from the ages of four to eleven, and that he turned to drugs as early as age 12 to numb the resulting trauma. At the time of his crime, he was under the influence of PCP. “In Mr. Gray’s case, his abuse and trauma were left unaddressed and predictably led to profound despair and other serious trauma symptoms, drug addiction, and the drug use that resulted in the tragic crimes he committed with Ray Dandridge,” the letter states. Gray's lawyers seek to have Gray's sentence commuted to life—the same sentence that Dandridge received. Gray's clemency petition includes reports from mental health experts who say that the extreme childhood trauma Gray endured altered his brain development, making him particularly susceptible to the effects of drugs. Gray has apologized for his involvement in the crimes, saying, "Remorse is not a deep enough word for how I feel. I know my words can’t bring anything back, but I continuously feel horrible for the circumstances that I put them through. ...There’s nothing I can do to make up for that. It’s never left my mind, because I understand exactly what I took from the world by looking at my two sisters. I’m reminded each time I talk and see them that this is what I took from the world." Governors in other states have granted clemency in some cases with similar circumstances. In September 2011, Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted the death sentence imposed on Joseph Murphy, citing Murphy's "brutally abusive upbringing." In January 2012, Delaware Governor Jack Markell commuted Robert Gattis' death sentence based on evidence of severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by family members. Both are now serving life sentences. Gray is also seeking a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit as he challenges the constitutionality of Virginia's proposed lethal injection protocol. UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied Gray's request for a stay on January 13.

Diverse Range of Voices Call for Sparing Jeff Wood, Who Never Killed Anyone, from Execution in Texas

As his August 24 execution date approaches, Jeffrey Wood's case has garnered mounting attention from groups and individuals calling on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott to commute Wood's sentence. These diverse voices include a conservative Texas state representative, a group of evangelical leaders, and the editorial boards of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and several Texas newspapers, among others. Wood (pictured) was convicted under Texas' "law of parties," but he neither killed nor intended for anyone to be killed and, his supporters say, was not even aware the robbery in which a codefendant killed a store clerk was going to occur. His trial also featured misleading testimony from Dr. James Grigson, who had been expelled from psychiatric associations because of his unethical testimony regarding the potential future dangerousness of capital defendants. Republican state representative Jeff Leach, a long-time death penalty supporter, said "Jeffery Lee Wood’s case has caught my attention unlike any death row inmate in my time in office has. ...I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence. I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything." Leach has spoken with Gov. Abbott's office and the parole board about the case and is urging other legislators to contact the board in support of commutation before the board votes on Wood's clemency petition on Monday. Gov. Abbott also received a petition from a group of evangelical Christian leaders, who said "Our faith compels us to speak out in this case, where a looming execution date threatens the life of an individual with significant mental impairments who never should have been sentenced to death." The 49 religious leaders also noted the disproportionality of Wood's sentence: "As the getaway driver, Wood committed a crime, but not one deserving the death penalty." A New York Times editorial also urged clemency for Wood and sharply critiqued the law of parties. "The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is," it said. "The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared." Wood's supporters say they will deliver a petition to Gov. Abbott and the parole board Friday with thousands of signatures seeking commutation of Wood's sentence. Texas last commuted a death sentence in 2007 in the case of Kenneth Foster, a getaway driver who, like Wood, had been convicted under the law of parties. [UPDATE: On August 19, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution to permit Wood to litigate his claims that the prosecution had presented false scientific evidence and that the use of false testimony from Dr. Grigson violated due process.]

Board Denies Clemency for Death Row Inmate Whose Co-Defendant Received Life Sentence

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles announced on March 31 that it had denied clemency to Joshua Bishop. Bishop had asked that his death sentence be reduced to life without parole because his co-defendant, who was nearly twice Bishop's age at the time of the crime, and had a history of violent crime while Bishop did not, was given a plea deal resulting in a life sentence. Bishop is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on March 31. Seven of the twelve jurors who voted to sentence Bishop to death now support a sentence reduction for a variety of reasons. Juror Jeremy Foston said he initially, "was leaning toward a life sentence because Mr. Bishop had a terrible childhood and was just a young man." Others said they were confused by instructions that the jury had to be unanimous. Juror Jim Ray wrote, "[w]e really struggled with our decision. We eventually changed our vote to a death sentence partly because we were told we had to be unanimous and those [two jurors] who wanted the death penalty were very firm in their conviction and let us know they would not change their minds." The belief that Bishop's co-defendant, Mark Braxley, would also face the possibility of a death sentence influenced some jurors' decisions. They say they would have sentenced Bishop to life without parole if they knew Braxley had received a plea deal for a life sentence. Juror Jeremy Foston wrote, "We wanted to make sure Mr. Braxley would get the same punishment as Mr. Bishop. We even sent a note out asking if we could know what would happen to him. The prosecutor told us not to worry about Mr. Braxley, and that he would have his day in court. We assumed that meant he would have the same treatment as Mr. Bishop."

Georgia Naval Veteran Files for Clemency as More Culpable Superior Officer Will Become Eligible for Parole

Naval veteran Travis Hittson (pictured), scheduled to be executed by Georgia on February 17, has filed an application for clemency with the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Hittson assisted his superior officer, Edward Vollmer, to kill and dismember a fellow sailor, Conway Utterbeck in 1992. Despite evidence that Vollmer was the more culpable of the two, prosecutors permitted him to plead guilty and receive a life sentence from which he could be paroled, while Hittson was sentenced to death. The clemency application, filed by lawyers from the Veterans Defense Program and the Georgia Resource Center, alleges that Hittson's death sentence is disproportionate to the punishment Vollmer received, given the significant difference in their culpability. The application says: "Mr. Hittson committed an appalling act; an act which took the life of Conway Utterbeck and harmed his family in profound and irreparable ways. Those who know Mr. Hittson, however – even law enforcement personnel who knew him only long enough to hear him confess and assist in the investigation of this crime – are united in their conviction that he is remorseful and would never have committed this terrible crime absent the deliberate manipulation of his codefendant and naval superior, Edward Vollmer." Vollmer convinced Hittson to help him kill Utterbeck by telling him that Utterbeck was plotting to kill them. "Mr. Hittson’s lower rank, gullibility, alcoholism and desperation for approval made him peculiarly vulnerable to Edward Vollmer who, by all accounts, exercised an unnatural dominance and control over Mr. Hittson," the clemency filing explains. Hittson's application for clemency is supported by other sailors who served with both Hittson and Vollmer, several jurors in the case, and an unnamed state prosecutor. The execution would be the second in Georgia in 2016. Andrew Brannan, the first person executed in Georgia last year, was also a veteran. Brannan suffered from chronic Postraumatic Stress Disorder and other severe mental illness related to his military service in Vietnam and was considered 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration. 

Dying Texas Death-Row Inmate - Possibly Innocent - Seeks Relief from His Conviction

Attorneys for Texas death row inmate Max Soffar, who is dying of liver cancer, continue to seek a reversal of his case, even though judicial action - if it comes - may be too late. Soffar maintains his innocence in the 1980 murders of three people during a bowling alley robbery. The sole evidence against Soffar is a confession he signed after three days of unrecorded interrogation that is inconsistent with the facts of the case and, he maintains, is false. The confession also does not match the account of the murders provided by a man who survived the shooting. No physical evidence links Soffar to the crime and Soffar has presented evidence that another man, a serial killer, was much more likely to have committed the murders. Governor Rick Perry rejected a clemency petition last year that sought to allow Soffar to spend his last days at home. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles said that Soffar isn't eligible for clemency because there is no warrant for his execution. Andrew Horne, one of Soffar's attorneys, said, "Justice is where there's a fair system that was followed and offered an outcome that was rational. To me, Max is an injustice because there was never a fair system, and the outcome was completely irrational."  

Georgia Board Denies Clemency for Sole Woman on Death Row

UPDATE: Gissendaner's execution has been rescheduled to Monday, March 2, due to a winter storm forecast to hit Georgia. Previously: On February 25 the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on the state's death row. Gissendaner was convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband, but did not carry out the killing herself. At Gissendaner's clemency hearing, 21 people testified in favor of a reduction in sentence, including two of Gissendaner's children, several prison volunteers, and members of the clergy. Gissendaner's daughter, Kayla, said, "My father’s death was extremely painful for many people, but I’ve recently concluded that in many ways I was the person who was most impacted by his murder. The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can’t fathom losing another parent.” The man who committed the murder pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Gissendaner's attorney advised her not to take the same deal, saying that he thought a jury would not sentence her to death, "because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug." Unless an appeals court halts the execution, Gissendaner will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years.

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Vietnam Veteran with PTSD Seeks Clemency

UPDATE: Brannan was denied clemency by Georgia on Jan.12. Andrew Brannan, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on January 13. His execution would be the first of 2015. Brannan's attorneys are asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency because Brannan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. A police video from the crime scene illustrated Brannan's erratic behavior. Joe Loveland, one of Brannan's attorneys, said, "There was a direct connection between his service in Vietnam and the violence that he was exposed to there and the ultimate events that occurred here. The basic question really is, should a 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran with no prior criminal record and who was 100 percent disabled under the VA standards, both with PTSD and bipolar disorder, at the time of the murder of the deputy sheriff--should that person be executed?"

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