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." 

Glossip Defense Alleges Intimidation of Innocence Witnesses by Oklahoma Prosecutors

Defense lawyers have filed a motion in the case of Richard Glossip (pictured) alleging that two witnesses who have come forward with evidence of Glossip's innocence have been intimidated by prosecutors. Glossip was sentenced to death for the murder of Barry Van Treese, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, Justin Sneed, who was spared the death penalty in exhange for testifying that Glossip had offered him thousands of dollars to kill Van Treese. On September 23, Glossip's attorneys filed allegations that Michael Scott and Joseph Tapley had been arrested and interrogated by prosecutors in retaliation for providing statements that Sneed had acted alone. Prior to Glossip's scheduled September 16 execution, Scott had provided an affidavit stating that, "Among all the inmates, it was common knowledge that Justin Sneed lied and sold Richard Glossip up the river." On September 16, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a two-week stay of execution to allow consideration of new evidence in the case, including Scott's allegations. Later, a second former inmate, Joseph Tapley, came forward to say he was "sure that Justin Sneed acted alone." Tapley, who had been Sneed's cellmate, said Sneed offered "very detailed accounts" of the murder, but "never gave me any indication that someone else was involved. He never mentioned the name of Richard Glossip to me." Tapley also said Sneed, "was very concerned about getting the death penalty. He was very scared of it. The only thing that mattered to him was signing for a life sentence." The defense filing alleges that, after the stay was granted, Scott was arrested for a parole violation and questioned by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office prosecuted Glossip. It says that "Mr. Prater specifically told Mr. Scott that he ordered this action so that Scott would be forced to talk with Prater and his investigator." An arrest warrant was also issued for Tapley after he told Prater he did not wish to speak with him. Prater sharply denied the allegations of intimidation, calling them "lies." 

USA Today Chronicles Declining Death Penalty: It "May Be Living on Borrowed Time"

In a sweeping look at the current state of the U.S. death penalty, USA Today reporters Richard Wolf and Kevin Johnson highlight several recent story lines that collectively illustrate a dramatic decline in the country's use of capital punishment. Their conclusion: "The death penalty in America may be living on borrowed time." Wolf and Johnson recount recent cases in which high-profile crimes resulted in a life without parole sentence, in many instances because victims' families raised concerns about the painful emotional impact of a lengthy appeals process. Skeet Glover, whose father and stepmother were killed in Texas, explained his family's support for a plea deal resulting in a life without parole sentence: "As a family, we were going to do this together. I couldn't help my dad anymore. I couldn't help (stepmother) Peggy ... and I didn't want to punish anyone else in the family...There are no regrets." The article also tells the stories of death row exonerees, including the seven men exonerated in the last two years after spending 30 years or more on death row, and persistent questions of innocence for inmates still facing execution. The story then turns to ongoing battles in courts and legislatures. It chronicles the difficulties surrounding lethal injection, from trade regulations and opposition from the medical community that has made it more difficult for states to obtain execution drugs to legal challenges against execution protocols. Legislative action has shown "a clear trend in favor of retreat or repeal," the article states, noting the seven states that have recently repealed capital punishment, and the four states where moratoriums are in place. (Click image to enlarge.)

Former Alabama Death Row Inmate Freed on Evidence of Innocence "Glad to Be Alive"

Montez Spradley, sentenced to death by an Alabama judge in 2008 over a jury's 10-2 recommendation for life without parole, was freed from prison on September 4. Spradley spent 9.5 years incarcerated, including 3.5 years on death row. He was granted a new trial in 2011 as a result of multiple evidentiary errors in his trial. The state's key witness against Spradley, his ex-girlfriend, Alisha Booker, later testified that she had lied at trial because Spradley was cheating on her. "I just felt he was doing me wrong," she said. Booker also testified that when she told law enforcement officials that she had lied, they told her that she faced jail time and having her children taken away from her if she did not stick to her original story. The defense has also alleged that Booker received $10,000 in reward money for her testimony. Spradley agreed to an Alford plea or "best interest" plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt, but finds it in his best interest to plead guilty. Alabama is one of only three states that allows a judge to override a jury's recommendation for life, and the only state where such a judicial override has been used in 16 years. In more than 90% of the overrides, judges overruled life verdicts to impose a death sentence, mostly against African-American defendants and disproportionately during judicial election years. Upon his release, Spradley said, "It was horrible, horrible to be on death row for a crime I didn't do. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I can't make up for the years I've missed, but I'm so glad to be alive so I can be there for my children."

CNN's "Death Row Stories" Examines Possible Innocence of Man Executed in Texas

In the first episode of season 2 of "Death Row Stories," CNN examined the case of Ruben Cantu, who was executed in Texas in 1993 despite serious doubts about his guilt. The episode featured an interview with Sam Milsap, the District Attorney at the time of Cantu's trial, who asserted his belief in Cantu's innocence. Cantu's co-defendant and a key eyewitness from the case both supported Cantu's claim of innocence. The hour-long episode of the documentary series recounted how Lise Olsen, an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle, raised questions about the case and eventually convinced Milsap that Cantu was not guilty. "Death Row Stories" is produced by Robert Redford and narrated by Susan Sarandon. It airs Sundays at 10 pm. Other episodes this season include the stories of Randy Steidl and Seth Penalver, who were exonerated and freed from death row.

"Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man" Premieres

A new film, "Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man," premieres on August 13. The movie, described as a "documentary memoir," tells the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, an innocent man sentenced to death in Maryland who became the first death row prisoner in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Bloodsworth was convicted and sent to death row in 1985 for the sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old girl. He won a new trial as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, but was convicted again and this time sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 1993 by newly available DNA testing. After his exoneration, Bloodsworth became active in efforts to reform the criminal justice system and his case became symbolic of the innocence movement and the risks of wrongfully convicting and executing the innocent. In 2004, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Kirk Noble Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Program, which gives states grants for post-conviction DNA testing. As a result of his experiences, Bloodsworth became a strong opponent of the death penalty and was instrumental in Maryland's 2013 repeal of the death penalty. That legislative battleground provides the backdrop for the film's exploration of the events leading to his exoneration.The film's first preview screening is in Baltimore, Maryland. A second preview screening will take place in Boise, Idaho on September 25, and the film will be released soon after.

False and Contaminated Confessions Prevalent in Death Row Exonerations

A report by University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett describes the effects of false confessions in cases in which DNA evidence later led to an exoneration. Garrett reports that half of the 20 death row inmates who were exonerated by DNA testing had falsely confessed to the crime. He uses the recent exonerations of intellectually disabled defendants Leon Brown and Henry McCollum in North Carolina to illustrate the problem: "The police claimed that Brown and McCollum had each separately told them in gruesome detail how the victim had been raped and murdered, including how she was asphyxiated by her own panties: we now know that they were innocent and their confession statements were contaminated – meaning that police must have actually told the brothers each of those facts during the interrogation." Examining a data set of both capital and non-capital DNA exonerations, Garrett found that 65 of 69 false confessions were contaminated. In 19 of those cases, the defendants were convicted despite DNA testing that cleared them at the time of trial. In the case of Damon Thibodeaux, police did not conduct DNA tests that would have proved his innocence after securing a false confession after 9 hours of interrogation. In addition, 10 of the capital DNA exonerations featured false testimony from prison informants or snitches that that the defendant had confessed to them. Garrett concludes, "Interrogations themselves can be improved through safeguards such as videotaping. But the death penalty itself cannot be made foolproof – and indeed, high-profile murder investigations may be even more prone to tragic errors." 


CNN Legal Analyst Calls "Sanity of the Death Penalty” Into Question

Philip Holloway, a CNN legal analyst who has been both a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, says in a recent op-ed that "it is hard not to question the rationality -- indeed the sanity" of the death penalty. Holloway says "there are several practical reasons why the death penalty just doesn't make sense any longer, if it ever really did in the first place," and outlines five reasons why he believes the United States should reconsider capital punishment. First, he says that life without parole is actually a harsher punishment than the death penalty, citing the harsh conditions of maximum-security prisons on the state and federal level. Second, Holloway points to the ongoing trial of James Holmes in Colorado as one instance of the excessive cost of the death penalty. The Holmes trial is expected to cost about $3.5 million, compared to an average of $150,000 in cases without the death penalty. Third, he notes the toll of capital cases on victims' families: "family members and loved ones of murder victims often find themselves entangled in the justice system for a very long time" because of lengthy appeals after a death sentence is handed down. His fourth point is the uneven application of the death penalty, which he says is the result of prosecutorial discretion in whether to seek a death sentence. Finally, Holloway says, "Despite safeguards, innocent people do wind up on death row." He mentions the 154 people exonerated from death row, highlighting last year's exoneration of Henry McCollum, who spent 30 years on death row before being cleared by DNA evidence. "Our criminal justice system -- and those caught up in it, including the families of victims -- would be the biggest beneficiaries should we choose to end capital punishment in the United States," he concludes.