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.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Riverside County, "The Buckle of a New Death Belt"

Riverside County, California imposed more death sentences than any other county in the United States in 2015, accounting for more than half of the state's new death sentences and 16% of new death sentences imposed nationwide. Among other states, only the 9 death sentences imposed in Florida outstripped Riverside's total of 8. The 29 death sentences from 2010-2015 made it the nation's second most profilic death sentencing county during that period, behind only the country's most populous death penalty county, Los Angeles, which has five times as many homicides. While California imposed more death sentences than any other state during that period, Riverside stood out even among California counties, imposing death sentences at a rate that was 9 times greater per homicide than the rest of the state. A 2015 piece by Professor Robert J. Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill called Riverside County, "the buckle of a new Death Belt," because it, along with four other southern California counties, had replaced the Deep South in overproducing death sentences. Those five counties, which also include Kern, Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernadino, have received national attention for misconduct by prosecutors and other public officials. In 2011, a federal magistrate judge characterized the conduct of the Riverside County District Attorney's office as, “turn[ing] a blind eye to fundamental principles of justice,” in a murder case. As with many of the counties that produce disproportionately large numbers of death sentences, the county faces other serious criminal justice problems. The office has been the subject of an investigation into allegedly illegal wiretapping practices, after former DA Paul Zellerbach oversaw what The Desert Sun newspaper described as "an astronomical rise in wiretaps" that was "so vast it once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps," including triple the number of wiretaps issued by any other state or federal jurisdiction in 2014. Riverside police ranked 9th in the nation in killings of civilians. The death sentences imposed in the county also exhibit significant racial disparities. 76% of those sentenced to death in Riverside between 2010 and 2015 were defendants of color. Defendants in Riverside County often receive inadequate defense because of a pay structure for court-appointed attorneys that financially penalizes plea bargains and robust investigation of mitigating evidence. In two-thirds of Riverside County cases that were reviewed on direct appeal between 2006 and 2015, defense counsel presented less than two days of mitigation. Among that same group of cases, 55% involved a defendant who was under 21 years old at the time of the offense or had an intellectual impairment, brain damage, or severe mental illness. 7 of the 8 defendants sent to death row in 2015 were represented by appointed private counsel. Only one was represented by the public defender's office. (Click image to enlarge.)

REPORT: "Lethally Deficient" Texas Death Penalty Appeal System in "Dire Need of Reform"

A September 20 report by the Texas Defender Service says that Texas "has failed to ensure effective counsel" for appellants in capital cases and that the state's system of reviewing death penalty cases on direct appeal is "in dire need of reform." The report, titled Lethally Deficient, reviewed all 84 capital direct appeals decided by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) from 2009 to 2015 and identified numerous "persistent deficits in the provision of counsel on direct appeal in death penalty cases." Among those problems, the report found that the Texas capital defense system "fails to meaningfully evaluate attorney qualifications" before assigning a lawyer to handle a capital appeal; "understaffs the defense" by appointing only one lawyer—frequently a solo practitioner—to the case; improperly "subjects defense counsel to political pressures"; provides inconsistent and often inadequate resources and compensation; and fails to control attorney workload to ensure that appointed lawyers have time to provide appropriate representation. The report said that, these "fundamental flaws ... led to multiple instances" in which appeal lawyers recycled boilerplate arguments relying on outdated legal authority that had already been rejected in other cases, failed to meet or consult with their clients before filing briefs, failed to file replies to prosecutors' briefs, and failed to seek review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the period examined, the CCA upheld every capital conviction and more than 94% of all death sentences, and overturned just three death verdicts. Looking at 1,060 capital direct appeal decisions between 2005 and 2015 by courts in the other 30 death penalty states, the study found that Texas's reversal rate was 2.8 times lower than the national average. “The tragedy of direct appeals in Texas capital cases is not simply that lawyers underperform, often pasting together briefs, skipping oral argument, or declining to do other basic tasks such as filing reply briefs. It is that everyone knows that this is happening, from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on down. It is an embarrassment to the legal profession and a testament to the low expectations in Texas surrounding defense representation in capital cases,” said Jordan Steiker, Co-Director of the Capital Punishment Center at The University of Texas School of Law. The Texas Defender Service offers three major reform recommendations, suggesting that Texas should 1) "establish a statewide capital appellate defender office," 2) "create a statewide appointment system with effective caseload controls and uniform attorney compensation," and 3) "appoint two lawyers to represent death-sentenced defendants on direct appeal." Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said "Texas has made enormous strides in its effort to reform indigent legal services in general, and in capital indigent representation, since 2001." These new measures, she said "are the necessary next steps in delivering a promise that the first Texas Code of Criminal Procedure laid out in 1857, promising adequate legal assistance to indigents facing the mighty powers of the state."

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.”

Former Judges, Criminal Defense Associations File Briefs Supporting Missouri Inmate Who Was Denied Funding for Counsel

A group of 16 former state and federal judges and three of the nation's preeminent criminal defense organizations have filed briefs in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in support of Missouri death row inmate Mark Christeson's efforts to be afforded a meaningful opportunity to investigate and present his claims to the federal courts. Christeson was nearly executed in 2014 without ever having any federal court hear his case, after the lawyers appointed to represent him in his federal proceedings failed to meet with him until six weeks after his filing deadline had passed. After the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the district court to appoint new lawyers, a Kansas City-based court directed them to submit a proposed budget for the case. Then, without explanation, it refused to fund 94% of their requested budget, limiting the defense to $10,000 for the entire capital case. The amicus briefs urge the Eighth Circuit to overturn the funding decision, arguing that it effectively deprives Christeson of his right to counsel. The former judges brief, organized by Constitution Project, calls the district court’s ruling “nakedly partisan,” reading “less like a judicial opinion and more like a prosecutor’s brief.” They say "“When attorneys lack adequate funds to investigate and prepare submissions in a capital habeas case, the adversarial process cannot perform its essential function of revealing the truth.” In particular, they say the funding ruling prevented counsel from developing and presenting mental health evidence that Christeson's severe cognitive impairment left him unable to assert his own rights after his previous counsel had abandoned him. The second brief, filed by the National Association for Public Defense, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, joined by the MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, argued that, "It is not possible to maintain the integrity and fairness of capital punishment, and habeas proceedings generally, if district court judges continue to interfere with representation in this manner with no check on their abuse of discretion." Mae Quinn, the Director of the MacArthur center, said the denial of resources "is sadly consistent with the culture and ongoing challenges faced by the Missouri criminal and juvenile defense bar." Missouri ranks 49th in the nation in funding indigent defense.

New Study Explores "Systemic Deficiencies" in High-Use Death Penalty Counties

As states and counties across the United States are using the death penalty with decreasing frequency, a new report issued by the Fair Punishment Project on August 23 explores the outlier practices of 16 U.S. counties that are bucking the national trend and disproportionally pursuing capital punishment. These jurisdictions, representing one-half of one percent of all U.S. counties or county equivalents, are the only locales in the United States to have imposed five or more death sentences since 2010. Six of the counties are in Alabama and Florida, the only two states that still permit non-unanimous death verdicts. Five are located in highly-populated Southern California counties that have been the focus of repeated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The others include Caddo (LA), Clark (NV), Dallas (TX), Harris (TX) and Maricopa (AZ), all of which have been criticized for systemic inequities in their administration of the death penalty. Part one of the report examines the "systemic deficiencies" that contribute to the high number of death sentences in these counties and provides detailed analysis of the circumstances in 8 of the counties (a second part of the study, examining the remaining 8 counties, will be released in September). The report finds that these counties frequently share at least three types of structural failings: "a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion." The study found that these in turn "regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities." 

Defense Attorney Retires from Capital Practice After No Acquittals in 40 Years and 21 Clients Sent to Death Row

Harris County, Texas has sent more people to death row than any other county in the United States and Jerry Guerinot (pictured) was defense counsel for twenty-one of them. His death-sentenced clients included two who were juveniles at the time of the crime and another who was later freed after prosecutors dropped charges against him. Labeled by some as "the worst lawyer in the United States," in forty years of practice, none of Guerinot's capital murder clients was acquitted. Now, after decades of criticism, Guerinot says he will no longer take capital cases. Guerinot asserts that his record is a by-product of the cases he was assigned: "My theory is if they are the sorriest of the worst or the very worst, I got 'em. Somebody's got to defend - 'defend' is the wrong word - represent these people." Other attorneys, however, say he did not adequately represent his clients. "I wouldn't be here if I had better counse," Linda Carty, a British national who was one of Guerinot clients, said. "I met this guy for less than 15 minutes. Once." Although investigative assistance was available from the British consulate, Guerinot never sought it, she says. Guerinot also served as top assistant to the lead attorney for Duane Buck, whose appeal will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall based upon defense counsel's use of a psychologist who told Buck's sentencing jury that he was more likely to pose a future danger to society because he is Black. Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said defense counsel sat silent as their witness provided racially-biased testimony against their client and "never objected to the prosecution's questions or arguments ... that skin color, race, makes someone more likely to be dangerous in the future." Jim Marcus, co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas, noted that Guerinot had four separate clients sentenced to death in a seven-month period in 1996. "It is unthinkable that a defense attorney would try four separate death penalty cases to verdict in the space of seven months," he said. Veteran capital defense lawyer and University of Houston law professor David Dow told the New York Times in 2010 that the large number of death sentences imposed on Guerinot's clients reflected a failure to conduct simple investigations. "He doesn't even pick the low-hanging fruit which is hitting him in the head as he's walking under the tree," Dow said. Guerinot said, "I'm there to ensure they get a fair shake. And, by God, there ain't one of them that didn't."

Texas Court Stays Execution of Man Convicted by Now Debunked "Shaken Baby" Testimony

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of execution to Robert Roberson (pictured), who had been scheduled to be executed on June 21 for the 2003 death of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Nikki Curtis. The court's June 16 stay order halts Roberson's execution under a recent Texas law permitting court challenges based on new scientific evidence of innocence. Prosecution experts had testified at Roberson's trial that his daughter died of Shaken Baby Syndrome, asserting that the child exhibited symptoms that she must have been shaken or beaten. Roberson said she had fallen out of bed during the night, but that she seemed fine and went back to sleep. Hours later, when he checked on her again, she was blue and could barely breathe. Prosecutors charged him with murder and with sexually assaulting his daughter - although there was no evidence that she had been sexually assaulted. The sexual assault charges were later dropped, but only after the prosecution had discussed them in open court in front of the jury. The court granted Roberson review of four issues: that (1) new scientific evidence establishes that he would not have been convicted; (2) the State's use of "false, misleading, and scientifically invalid testimony” about Shaken Baby Syndrome violated due process; (3) Roberson is "actually innocent of capital murder"; and (4) "the State’s introduction of false forensic science testimony that current science has exposed as false" made his trial fundamentally unfair. "Instead of taking Robert’s explanation about a fall seriously or exploring all possible causes of the injury sustained by a chronically ill child who had been at the doctor’s office with 104.5-degree temperature only two days before," Roberson's lawyer, Gretchen Sween wrote, "a tragedy was hastily deemed a crime and a father, doing the best he could to care for his daughter despite severe cognitive impairments, was branded a murderer." Roberson presented affidavits from four medical experts challenging the accuracy and scientific validity of the State's shaken baby testimony. Forensic pathologist Dr. Harry Bonnell, in an opinion shared by all four defense experts, wrote: "it is impossible to shake a toddler to death without causing serious neck injuries—and Nikki had none." They suggest several alternate theories for Curtis' death, including meningitis caused by an ear infection, a fall like the one Roberson described to investigators, or a congenital condition. Roberson's appeal argues that, "[w]hen the trial record is viewed through the lens of current science and evidence-based medicine, it is clear that he is innocent of capital murder." The court returned the case to the trial court in Anderson County to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Roberson's claims.