5 Georgia Executions Emblematic of Systemic Problems With State's Death Penalty

Georgia is scheduled to execute Marcus Johnson (pictured) on November 19 despite ongoing concerns about his innocence. The execution would be Georgia's fifth since December 2014 - each raising serious questions about systemic problems in Georgia's application of the death penalty. In a commentary for The Marshall Project, Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, says these cases "are emblematic" of death sentences imposed before Georgia's statewide capital defense office opened in 2005 and "encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia." In December 2014, Georgia executed Robert Wayne Holsey, whose drunk lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence that Holsey had an IQ of 70 and had been seriously abused as a child. The lawyer was later imprisoned and disbarred for misconduct in another case. Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran with bi-polar disorder who was declared 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration as a result of combat-related PTSD, was executed in January, the first U.S. execution in 2015. The jury was never heard details of Brannan's military service or disability. Two weeks later, Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man with intellectual disabilities. A judge found that Hill had proven his disability by a "preponderance of the evidence," the standard of proof required by every other death penalty state, but Georgia requires defendants to prove intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Even after the state's doctors admitted that Hill met this higher standard, the state and federal courts refused to consider this evidence on technical procedural grounds and Hill was executed. Kelly Gissendaner's execution in September hghlighted a different type of arbitrariness: she was executed for planning to murder her husband, while her boyfriend, who actually committed the killing, made a deal with prosecutors to serve a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in seven years. Finally, Marcus Johnson's case raises concerns that Georgia may be executing an innocent man. The DNA evidence from the murder scene that was tested was inconclusive, other blood evidence was not tested, and none of Johnson's DNA was found on or in the car where the victim's body was found. The trial judge wrote to the Georgia Supreme Court that the evidence in Johnson's case "does not foreclose all doubt respecting the defendant’s guilt."

Forensic Pseudoscience and the Death Penalty

In light of the FBI's acknowledgement in April that flawed forensic testimony by its expert hair-comparison analysts had tainted at least 268 cases, including 32 death penalty cases, forensic science is coming under increased scrutiny. A commentary in the Boston Review argues that "mounting horror stories," including instances of crime-lab "corruption and dysfunction, have created a moment of crisis in forensic science." Referencing "scores of individual cases in which forensic science failures have led to wrongful convictions" and highlighting the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas based upon scientifically invalid arson testimony, the commentary questions the continued high degree of confidence accorded forensic science testimony in the courts. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) sharply critiqued many of the techniques used by forensic examiners, saying, "Many forensic tests—such as those used to infer the source of tool marks or bite marks—have never been exposed to stringent scientific scrutiny." Even widely-accepted practices like fingerprint matching had no mechanism for independent confirmation, relying entirely on the examiner's opinion. Ultimately, the NAS report concluded, "With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis . . . no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source." Yet even DNA evidence can be tainted by faulty practices or intentional malfeasance. Close affiliations between forensic laboratories and police or prosecutors raise concerns of bias. As former FBI investigator Frederic Whitehurst put it, forensic scientists can "run into a sledgehammer" when their findings contradict the theory that prosecutors are trying to advance.

UN Secretary-General: "I Will Never Stop Calling for an End to the Death Penalty"

Calling the punishment "simply wrong," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has vowed to "never stop calling for an end to the death penalty." Speaking at the launch of a new book by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, "Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives," the Secretary-General highlighted the worldwide decline of capital punishment, noting that "more and more countries and States are abolishing the death penalty." Data from the book confirms these trends: in 1975, about 97% of countries were carrying out executions, as compared to only 27% today. Ban Ki-Moon appeared alongside Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death-sentenced person in the U.S. to have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The Secretary-General said of Bloodsworth, "[Mr. Bloodsworth] represents the reason we are here today. He is totally innocent of any crime. But like too many other people, he suffered the unforgiveable injustice of a death sentence…I am conscious that he says he was not exonerated because the system worked but because of a series of miracles." Bloodsworth explained his reasons for supporting abolition by saying, "It’s very simple: if it can happen to me it can happen to anyone; in America or anywhere. What I’m saying is that an innocent person can be executed and that should never happen. If it can happen to me it can happen to anybody anywhere in the world."  

History of Misconduct Chronicled in Oklahoma County With 41 Executions

Oklahoma County has executed 41 prisoners since 1976, the third highest in the country, and is among the 2% of American counties responsible for 56% of the men and women currently on the nation's death rows. A ThinkProgress report chronicles the decades-long pattern of misconduct committed under its long-time District Attorney "Cowboy Bob" Macy (pictured). Macy sent 54 people to death row during his 21 years as District Attorney, more than any other prosecutor in the U.S. in that period. “Macy would pretty much do whatever it took to win,” including making inflammatory arguments and routinely withholding exculpatory evidence, says David Autry, an Oklahoma County public defender from the Macy era. 23 of the Macy capital convictions relied heavily on the testimony of disgraced police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, whom an FBI investigation in 2001 concluded had offered testimony "that went beyond the acceptable limits of science.” An internal police investigation discovered that evidence in many of Gilchrist's major cases was missing, along with three years of her blood analysis files. In the case of Curtis McCarty, one of three death-row exonerees prosecuted under Macy, Gilchrist falsely testified that hairs found at the crime scene matched McCarty's and that his blood type matched the semen found on the victim's body. A later investigation revealed that Gilchrist had altered her notes to implicate McCarty and that the hairs she had tested were missing. McCarty was exonerated in 2007 after independent DNA testing excluded him as a suspect. Almost half of the 23 people who were sentenced to death in trials where Gilchrist testified were executed before their cases could be reviewed and ThinkProgress reports that as many as 38 of those Macy sent to death row have been executed.

Amid Threatening Comments by Current DA, Death Penalty Dominates Caddo Parish Prosecutor Election

Capital punishment is dominating the discussion in the runoff election between James E. Stewart, Sr. and Dhu Thompson to succeed acting Caddo Parish, Louisiana District Attorney Dale Cox. Cox's controversial statements about the death penalty - including that the state needs to "kill more people" - have focused national attention on the parish, which ranks among the two percent of U.S. counties responsible for 56 percent of the inmates on death row nationwide. On October 27, defense attorneys in the death penalty retrial of Eric Mickelson requested Cox's removal from the case after they overheard him saying he wanted to "cut their (expletive) throats." The attention surrounding Cox, as well as the 2014 exoneration of Glenn Ford and charges that Cox may have put an innocent man, Rodricus Crawford, on death row has forced Stewart and Thompson to focus on their proposed capital punishment policies. Stewart said he would place an emphasis on ethics and professionalism in the DA's office: "The evaluation and screening of cases with an ethical and professional standard alleviates the Glenn Ford type of cases. You don’t get so caught up in the case that you miss certain things along the way, and that can happen if people are not looking at the case correctly." He said he'd like to get rid of peremptory challenges, in which prosecutors can strike jurors without cause. A recent study found that Caddo prosecutors had systematically employed peremptory challenges in a racially biased manner. Thompson said he believes the office has approached the use of the death penalty in a thoughtful way, adding, "What we do is seek justice based on the facts and merits of the case." He also said he does not believe that Glenn Ford was innocent and that the 30 years Ford spent in prison was appropriate.

30 Years After His Death Sentence, Exoneree Derrick Jamison Fights for Those Still on Death Row

Derrick Jamison was exonerated from death row in Ohio on October 25, 2005, 20 years to the day after he was sentenced to death in Hamilton County (Cincinnati). On the 30th anniversary of his sentencing and the 10th anniversary of his release, a Salon profile describes the work Jamison now does to educate people about the risks of wrongful conviction. Jamison (pictured in front of Chillicothe Correctional Institution, the home of Ohio's death row) was sentenced to death during the period in which Ohio capital prosecutions were at their peak. Between 1981 and 1992, Hamilton County handed down 26 death sentences, more than 18 death penalty states did during the same period. Jamison did not fit the eyewitness descriptions of the men who committed the murder, and police withheld evidence that a key witness had identified two other men as the perpetrators. In exchange for a reduced sentence, a man who had been charged as an accomplice in the killing falsely testified that Jamison had committed the murder. Jamison faced six execution dates, and on one occasion came within 90 minutes of execution before being granted a stay. He has received no restitution or financial support for his 20 years of wrongful imprisonment, 17 of which he spent on death row. In the decade since his exoneration, Jamison has traveled the world telling his story, from his wrongful conviction to the six stays of execution. He says, "I'll fight 'til my knuckles bleed for others on death row."

Death Row Exonerees Meet in Ohio, Call for Abolition of the Death Penalty

A group of death row exonerees, including Kwame Ajamu (pictured), held a press conference in Cleveland on October 9 in which they called for the end of the death penalty. Ajamu - the nation's 150th death-row exoneree - was freed from Ohio's death row in 2014 along with his brother, Wiley Bridgeman, and another man, Ricky Jackson. The three had been convicted 39 years earlier on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted, saying he had been pressured by police. "We hope that we can end this atrocity today. We hope that tomorrow's newspapers would say that there's no more death penalty.... If there's anything that I would beg for this country, for this world to listen to is the heartfelt cries and pleas of myself and fellow comrades who have been exonerated from death," Ajamu said. He was one of about 20 exonerees who appeared at the event, which was organized by Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row exonerees. State Representative Nickie Antonio, who has introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty, said, "The best reform is to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. It is time to execute justice, not to execute people."

Spate of Scheduled Executions Highlight Broad Issues in Capital Punishment

An unusually high number of executions are scheduled for late September and early October - five states intend to carry out six executions in nine days. Pieces in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post describe the larger issues raised by the cases in this "burst of lethal activity." In the Los Angeles Times, Scott Martelle examined the three executions scheduled for consecutive days in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Virginia, concluding, "So here we have three pending executions: One of a woman who received a harsher penalty than the co-conspirator who committed the murder; one of a man who very possibly is innocent; and one of a man whose intellectual disability should make him ineligible for the death penalty." Mark Berman, of the Washington Post, noted the overall rarity of executions and the small number of states that carry them out. He says "most states have ... not been active participants in the country's capital punishment system" and "executions remain clustered in a small number of states, a dwindling number of locations accounting for an overwhelming majority of lethal injections." Berman notes that the number of executions, the states executing inmates and the number of death sentences have all fallen significantly since the 1990s and the upcoming executions share one common characteristic: "The states planning the executions this week and next — Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Missouri — are among the country’s most active death-penalty states since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976."