Supported by New DNA Evidence, Man Sentenced to Death in Virginia in 1970 Files Innocence Claim

Sherman Brown (pictured), a man who was sentenced to death in Virginia in 1970 for the murder of a 4-year-old boy, has filed a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Supreme Court saying that DNA testing on recently discovered evidence clears him of the crime. Brown's petition states: “Recent DNA testing demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence what I have maintained for over 45 years: that I am innocent of this crime. The evidence against me at trial was deeply flawed." Brown was convicted of a 1969 crime in which a woman was knocked unconscious, stabbed, and possibly raped and her 4-year-old son was killed. The woman—who is White—identified Brown—who is Black—as her attacker, and investigators presented expert testimony claiming that a fiber and hair analysis they had conducted implicated Brown. An all-White jury convicted Brown and sentenced him to death. His death sentence was reduced to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia. Several recent developments have called Brown's conviction into question. The fiber and hair evidence used in Brown's trial was among the flawed forensic testimony recently identified by the FBI as lacking scientific validity. In 2015, the University of Virginia Innocence Project discovered a slide that contains a vaginal swab that was taken from the victim at the time of the crime. DNA testing excluded Brown as the source of a male DNA profile found in the specimen and, with 98% certainty, ruled out the woman's husband. This, Brown says, shows the DNA “came from an unidentified third man and constitutes powerful evidence of [his] innocence.” The Virginia Supreme Court has stayed Brown's petition to permit additional testing to conclusively determine whether the male DNA could have come from the victim's husband. If Brown is exonerated, he would be the second Virginia prisoner exonerated after having been sentenced to death.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Former Death Penalty Capital Shows Signs of Change

Harris County, Texas, the county that leads the nation in executions, has served as a bellwether in recent years of the nationwide decline of the death penalty. Although the 10 new death sentences imposed in Harris County since 2010 are more than were imposed in 99.5% of U.S. counties, they are significantly fewer than the 53 new death sentences that were handed down in Harris in 1998-2003 and the 16 from 2004-2009. The 2016 Kinder Institute survey of Houston residents showed that just 27% prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder. Though the number of death sentences has dropped, systemic problems of prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate representation, and racial bias persist. Kelly Siegler, a prosecutor who obtained 19 death sentences, was found by a Texas court to have committed 36 instances of misconduct in a single murder case. In another case, she brought the victim's bloodstained bed into the courtroom and reenacted the murder using one of the knives from the crime scene. Harris County became nationally known in the 1990s for bad defense lawyering when a capital defense attorney slept through his client's trial. A judge told the defendant, "the Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake." Today, Harris County defendants still receive ineffective counsel because of a pay system that discourages defense lawyers from seeking plea bargains or hiring expert witnesses. Every new death sentence imposed in Harris County since November 2004 (not including resentences) has been imposed upon a Black or Latino defendant. Former Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who oversaw 40 death sentences between 2001 and 2008, resigned after a civil suit uncovered racist emails he sent using his official email account. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently deciding Buck v. Davis, a Harris County case in which a Black defendant was sentenced to death after his defense attorney introduced racially-biased testimony during sentencing. Three Harris County defendants have been exonerated from death row, most recently Alfred Brown (pictured) in 2015. Prosecutors withheld evidence that corroborated Brown's alibi, Brown's girlfriend was threatened and eventually imprisoned until she agreed to testify against him, and officials refused requests to test DNA that may implicate another suspect.

NEW VOICES: Former Reagan Attorney General and Former Manhattan Prosecutor Speak Out In Possible Innocence Case

Edwin Meese III (pictured), who served as U.S. Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, and Robert Morgenthau, the long-time district attorney of Manhattan who served as a U.S. attorney under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, believe that Alabama death row prisoner William Kuenzel is innocent and are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case. Meese and Morgenthau belong to different political parties and take opposing views on capital punishment, but both believe that Kuenzel was wrongfully convicted and condemned for the 1987 murder of a convenience store clerk and deserves a chance to present new evidence. Kuenzel was implicated in the murder after a car belonging to Harvey Venn, a boarder in Kuenzel's home, was seen near the crime scene. He was convicted after Venn admitted to having driven the car, but claimed that Kuenzel had actually shot the clerk, and a 16-year-old passenger in a car that was passing by the store testified that she had seen Venn and Kuenzel inside the store. Alabama prosecutors offered both men a deal for leniency if they agreed to plead guilty and testify against one another. Venn agreed and spent only ten years in prison, but Kuenzel maintained his innocence and rejected the deal. Since the trial, previously-withheld evidence has emerged that supports Kuenzel's innocence claim, including police notes of an initial interview with Venn in which he said another man was in the car with him, and the grand jury testimony of the passerby in which the girl said that she "couldn't really see" the faces of the men in the store. In an amicus brief, Meese calls the withholding of that evidence "the very worst kind of Brady violation, which resulted in condemning to death a defendant whose conviction was obtained in violation of the Constitution and who is very likely actually innocent." Morgenthau said of Kuenzel, "[t]here's no possible way he could have committed the murder." Meese and Morgenthau also share a concern about the quality of representation in capital cases, and are calling for automatic appellate review of the competence of defense counsel.

EDITORIALS: Lincoln Journal Star Urges Nebraska Voters to End State's Death Penalty

Saying the death penalty is "too fallible to endure," the Lincoln Journal Star has called on Nebraska voters to end capital punishment in the state. In two editorials published in connection with the upcoming statewide death penalty ballot referendum on November 8, the paper urged Nebraskans to retain the legislature's death penalty repeal bill. The predominantly Republican legislature voted to repeal the state's death penalty in May 2015 and then, a few days later, overrode a veto by Governor Pete Ricketts. The Governor, in turn, launched a successful petition drive to place the repeal issue on the ballot. The Journal Star's first editorial focused on the "bottom line" question that, "[t]o support the death penalty, you must be willing to take the chance that the state will execute an innocent person." In addressing that question, the paper highlighted notable exonerations from Beatrice, Nebraska and elsewhere. The editorial explained that, in the largest false confession case in American history, "[t]he 'Beatrice 6' were railroaded into prison for a murder they did not commit. Finally DNA showed someone else committed the crime. Now Gage County is on the hook for $28.1 million in damages." The paper also discussed the exoneration of former Air Force sergeant Ray Krone, who—with no criminal record—was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Arizona. "If it happened to Krone," the paper said, “it can happen to anybody.” In a second editorial, the Journal Star presented what it called the "powerful" conservative argument against capital punishment. The death penalty, conservatives say, "is an extraordinary example of government overreach that costs inordinate amounts of money," violates "the sanctity of life," "[s]ometimes ... delivers erroneous results, and for years on end it delivers no results at all." A recent study found that the death penalty costs Nebraska taxpayers $14.6 million per year, even though the state has not had an execution in nearly 20 years. The paper said: "All this spending siphons away money that could and should be put to use more effectively in protecting public safety. Five hundred police chiefs were asked in 1995 and 2008 to rank the tools they found most effective in fighting violent crime, [former Lincoln Police Chief Allen] Curtis wrote. 'The death penalty came in absolutely last.'" The editorial concluded, "[t]houghtful conservatives who take the time to research the issue will vote on Nov. 8 to retain the law that eliminates the death penalty and replaces it with life in prison."

Death Row Exonerees Speak Out on State Death Penalty Ballot Questions

As voters get set to cast ballots on death penalty questions in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, U.S. death row exonerees from across the country have been scouring those states in an effort to inform the public of the risks of wrongful executions. On September 19, 17 of the nation's 156 death-row exonerees appeared at a California press conference advocating approval of Proposition 62, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole plus restitution, and defeat of Proposition 66, which seeks to place limits on the capital appeals process. Many, including California exoneree Shujaa Graham (pictured), Florida exoneree Juan Melendez, Arizona exonerees Ray Krone and Debra Milke, and Louisiana exoneree Damon Thibodeaux urged a no vote on Prop. 66, arguing that they would have been executed without the chance to prove their innocence if a measure like it had been effect when they were sentenced to death. A few days earlier, Illinois exoneree Randy Steidl and Ohio exoneree Kwame Ajamu spoke to the Oklahoma Republican Liberty Caucus, a group described by its chairman, Logan County Commissioner Marven Goodman, as "disenfranchised conservatives" who, as a result of their distrust of government regulation are questioning the death penalty. Steidl and Ajamu told the caucus about their wrongful capital convictions and raised concerns about the effects of limitations on judicial review under Oklahoma ballot question 776, which would bar Oklahoma courts from ruling that the imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel or unusual punishment or "contravene[d] any provision of the Oklahoma Constitution." Steidl, who was wrongfully convicted in Illinois in 1987 and exonerated in 2004, stressed the importance of appellate review in securing his exoneration: "Without the judicial review I finally got, I’d be dead today or at least be languishing in prison," he said. "I really believe that Oklahoma’s track record so far is not very pretty when you’ve got 10 people that’s been exonerated." And in Nebraska, Maryland's Kirk Bloodsworth, the first former death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA, taped an ad on behalf of Retain A Just Nebraska, the advocacy committee opposing a voter referendum that could overturn the state legislature's repeal of Nebraska's death penalty. In the ad, Bloodsworth says: "You could free a man from prison, but you cannot free him from the grave. You can not un-execute someone. ... If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal record or criminal history, it could happen to anybody in America.”

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Legacy of Racism Persists in Caddo Parish, Which Had Nation's Second-Highest Number of Lynchings

The death-sentencing rate per homicide in Caddo Parish, Louisiana was nearly 8 times greater between 2006 and 2015 than the rest of the state, making a parish with only 5% of Louisiana's population responsible for 38% of the death sentences imposed statewide. Caddo currently has more people on death row than any other parish in the state. Known as "Bloody Caddo," the parish had the second highest number of lynchings of any county in the nation. The Confederate flag flew in front of the steps to the courthouse until 2011 (pictured), where a monument to the Confederacy still stands. Inside that courthouse, 80% of defendants sentenced to death between 2010 and 2015 were Black, and no White person has ever been executed for killing a Black person in Caddo Parish. Caddo received national attention in 2015 when Acting District Attorney Dale Cox said he believed the state needed to "kill more people." Cox was personally responsible for one-third of the death sentences in Louisiana from 2010 to 2015. His controversial statements were in response to questions about the exoneration of Glenn Ford, a Black man convicted by an all-White jury, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Ford's case illustrated many of the factors that have contributed to the overproduction of death sentences in Caddo Parish: racial bias in jury selection and the application of death sentences, inadequate representation, and official misconduct. A 2015 study by Reprieve Australia found that prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of Black jurors, but only 15% of other jurors. One Black prospective juror was removed from a jury pool in 2009 for objecting to the presence of the Confederate flag in front of the courthouse. Like Ford, who was represented by two appointed attorneys who had never represented a criminal defendant at trial, most Caddo Parish defendants have not received adequate representation. In the last decade, 75% of people sentenced to death in Caddo Parish were represented by at least one lawyer who does not meet recently-imposed standards for capital attorneys. Official misconduct, like the false police testimony in Ford's trial, has also contributed to the high number of death sentences in Caddo. In 2014, Dale Cox wrote a memo regarding the capital trial of Rodricus Crawford in which he stated that Crawford, "deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies." Crawford was convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly killing his infant son, despite medical evidence that the child actually died of pneumonia. Caddo prosecutors have a history of seeking death against the most vulnerable Black defendants: Lamondre Tucker and Laderrick Campbell were 18 years old at the time of their offenses and both had IQs in the intellectually disabled range; Corey Williams, who was 16 and removed from death row after being found to be intellectually disabled, is still serving a life sentence despite powerful evidence that his confession was coerced and that others committed the offense for which he was condemned. In November 2015, Caddo Parish elected its first Black District Attorney, James E. Stewart, Sr., who pledged, "to bring professionalism and ethics back to the district attorney’s office." 

Wrongful Capital Convictions May Be More Likely in Cases of Judicial Override, Non-Unanimous Death Verdicts

New data suggests that states that capital sentencing statutes that permit judges to impose death sentences by overriding jury recommendations for life or after juries have returned non-unanimous recommendations for death may increase the risk of wrongful executions. In an article in the Yale Law Journal Forum, lawyers Patrick Mulvaney and Katherine Chamblee of the Southern Center for Human Rights report that in Alabama, the only state that still permits judges to override a jury's recommendation for life, override cases account for less than a quarter of death sentences but half of death row exonerations. They say that this may be a result of "residual doubt" among jurors, which they describe as “a state of mind that exists somewhere between ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ and ‘absolute certainty,’” often resulting from weaker or more suspect evidence of guilt. Research has shown that when juror have such doubts, they are substantially more likely to vote for a life, as did jurors in the cases of Alabama death row exonerees Larry Randal Padgett (9-3 jury vote for life) and Daniel Wade Moore (pictured, left, 8-4 vote for life) and current death row prisoner Shonelle Jackson (unanimous jury life recommendation). Non-unanimous jury recommendations for death also appear to pose similar problems. Of Alabama's six death row exonerations, 83% involved either judicial override (3 cases) or non-unanimous jury votes for death (2 cases, including Anthony Ray Hinton, pictured, right). Data from Florida reveals a similar pattern: of the 20 death row exonerations for which information on the jury vote is available, 90% involved a non-unanimous recommendation for death, including three judicial overrides of jury recommendations for life. In 1984, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens raised concerns about judicial override and wrongful convictions that are now supported by data: “It may well be that the jury was sufficiently convinced of petitioner’s guilt to convict him, but nevertheless also sufficiently troubled by the possibility that an irrevocable mistake might be made . . . that [it] concluded that a sentence of death could not be morally justified in this case.” Statutes permitting judicial override or non-unanimous jury recommendations for death have been under increased scrutiny since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida in January 2016. Hurst struck down Florida's sentencing statute saying, "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Florida's legislature responded by ending judicial override and requiring juries to unanimously find aggravating circumstances in capital cases, though they may still make non-unanimous sentencing recommendations. The Delaware Supreme Court struck down its sentencing statute in light of Hurst in August 2016, leaving Florida and Alabama as the only states that still permit non-unanimous jury receommendations of death.  

Mississippi Attorney General Tries to Remove Defense Lawyers Who Challenged Suspect Bitemark Evidence

Attorneys for Mississippi death row prisoner Eddie Lee Howard (pictured) are seeking to prove his innocence and challenging the questionable expert bite mark testimony that persuaded jurors to convict him and sentence him to death in 1992. As part of the attack on that evidence, Howard's lawyers recently deposed Michael West, the discredited forensic odontologist who testified against Howard and many other defendants in the 1990s, primarily in Mississippi and Louisiana. A two-part story by Washington Post columnist Radley Balko recounts the combative deposition in which defense lawyers systematically picked apart the credibility of West's testimony in Howard's case, and the apparent retaliatory efforts by the office of Mississippi's attorney general to remove the lawyers from the case after they asked that charges against Howard be dropped. West, who was belligerent, openly contemptuous, and profane during the deposition, was popular as a prosecution expert witness because he purported to be able to match marks to a single individual, excluding all other possible suspects through an idiosyncratic technique that, he said, he alone was capable of using and could reveal bite marks that other experts couldn't find. In the mid-1990s, Newsweek and 60 Minutes profiled West and raised questions about the veracity of his techniques. He was later expelled from three professional organizations, and several people he testified against have later been proven innocent, including Kennedy Brewer, who was exonerated in 2008 after DNA evidence implicated another suspect, who then confessed to the crime. Bitemark claims such as those made by West were the subject of stinging criticism in a 2009 report of the National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The report criticized the field of forensic odontology as lacking any "evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others" and "lack[ing] valid evidence to support many of the assumptions made by forensic dentists during bite mark comparisons.”