REPRESENTATION: On 50th Anniversary of Gideon, Some on Death Row Poorly Represented

Christopher Price is on death row in Alabama for the murder of a church minister in 1991. His current attorneys have asked the courts to enforce the ruling of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 decision guaranteeing the right to counsel for all defendants. According to Price's appeal, his trial attorney failed to provide even a rudimentary defense during a penalty trial that lasted only 30 minutes. The attorney neglected to "investigate his background for potential mitigation evidence," to "speak prior to trial with his family members, friends and schoolteachers," and to "retain a mental health expert despite [the attorney's] previous acknowledgment that a mental health report was essential to presenting a mitigation case." The brief continued, "The only mitigation witness that trial counsel called was Petitioner's mother, Judy Files. Trial counsel had not previously interviewed Mrs. Files, nor had she prepared Mrs. Files to testify. Even more critically, trial counsel was unaware that Mrs. Files had physically and mentally abused Petitioner throughout his life and had allowed several men with whom she had romantic relationships to routinely physically, sexually, and emotionally abuse Petitioner as well." The lower courts have held that even if the attorney's performance was deficient, it was not enough to warrant relief. On March 4, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Price's case.

Drug-Addicted, Suicidal Lawyer Files Improper Appeal, But Death Row Inmate Suffers Consequences

In his recent Sidebar column, Adam Liptak, Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, discussed the plight that Alabama death row inmate Ronald Smith suffered at the hands of a drug-addicted lawyer and an unsympathetic court. In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Smith could not challenge his conviction and sentence because his lawyer failed to properly file his post-conviction appeal. However, as Liptak explained, the court did not "place much weight on the fact that the lawyer himself was on probation for public intoxication and addicted to crystal methamphetamine while he was being less than punctilious. In the months that followed, the lawyer would be charged with drug possession, declare bankruptcy and commit suicide." Smith did have a second lawyer, but he was in Tennessee and not authorized to practice in Alabama. Judge Rosemary Barkett (pictured) of the 11th Circuit dissented, saying clients should not be blamed for their lawyers’ mistakes, especially since clients on death row have no role in the selection of their lawyers and have no control over them. “It is unjust and inequitable,” she wrote, “to require death row inmates to suffer the consequences of their attorneys’ negligence.” Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court commented on the quality of Alabama’s death penalty system: “Nearly alone among the states, Alabama does not guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in post-conviction proceedings. On occasion, some prisoners sentenced to death receive no post-conviction representation at all.” (Maples v. Thomas).

Many States to Consider Death Penalty Abolition and Reform in 2013

As legislative sessions begin across the country, legislators in several states have proposed bills to abolish or reform the death penalty in 2013. In Alabama, Sen. Hank Sanders will introduce bills to abolish the death penalty, or alternatively to institute a series of reforms. “I believe the death penalty is not only unproductive but counter-productive,” he said. Texas will also consider a number of death penalty reform bills, including restrictions on certain types of evidence, and the creation of an innocence commission. Colorado Sen. Claire Levy is drafting a bill to abolish the death penalty. "We have increasing concerns about the possibility of executing an innocent person," said Levy. Kentucky Rep. Carl Rollins plans to propose a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley has voiced support for a bill to end the death penalty and direct some of the money saved to murder victims' families. New Hampshire's Gov. Margaret Hassan also supports abolition, and a bill is likely to be introduced in that state. In Oregon, where Gov. John Kitzhaber instituted a moratorium on executions for the remainder of his term, Rep. Mitch Greenlick plans to introduce a bill beginning the process of abolishing the death penalty.

Sentence of One of Alabama's Longest Serving Death Row Inmates Reduced After 30 Years

On December 6, Bobby Tarver, who had spent 30 years on Alabama's death row, finally had his death sentence reduced to life without parole by a state judge because of his intellectual disability. Tarver was Mobile County's longest-serving death row inmate, having been convicted in 1982 of murdering a taxi cab driver. Last September, a federal judge overruled state court opinions and held that Tarver could not be executed because of his mental retardation, thus concluding a years-long legal battle about Tarver’s mental capacity. The final ruling came ten years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that it was unconstitutional to execute defendants with mental retardation.

NEW VOICES: Victims and Relatives Support Life Sentence in Alabama Mass Shooting

On September 24, a jury in Alabama found that Amy Bishop was indeed guilty of capital murder, a crime for which she had already pled guilty on September 11. Because of this finding and plea, she will be spared the death penalty for killing three members and wounding three others of the University of Alabama's biology faculty in 2010 after some of them voted against granting her tenure. Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard agreed to the life without parole sentence after learning that some of the victims’ families strongly opposed capital punishment. Broussard said, “[I]f you look at the folks who had the most at stake, who have lost the most, and victims' families, for me to disregard those feelings and forge ahead, I would be ashamed.” Dr. Jacqueline Johnson, the wife of one of Bishop’s victims, said, “It's very difficult when something so heinous and senseless strips you away of your support system. I’ve come to terms with what has happened. But in my heart, I feel that the loss will not be diminished by this sentence. Today merely begins a new chapter. In the coming months, in the coming days, we will continue to move forward to ensure that measures and justice is rendered for all parties that are responsible for the events that occurred on Feb. 12, 2010.”  Dr. Joseph Leahy, who was seriously wounded during Bishop's attack, said he was not actively seeking the death penalty for Bishop. "There's no closure overall because I will always remember my friends and colleagues," he said. Dr. Debra Moriarity (pictured), whom Bishop also tried to kill and now head of the department, had decided to leave the death penalty question "in God's hands."

The Toll of Representing Those on Death Row

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, recently delivered the keynote address at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Open Door Community in Atlanta.  Mr. Stevenson discussed how defending those on death row often takes a personal toll on those engaged in this work, even to the point of feeling "broken."  But, he added, "I’ve learned some very basic things, being a broken person. I’ve learned that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. I believe that if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar; if somebody takes something, they’re not just a thief; even if somebody kills someone, they’re not just a killer. And because of this, I believe that we have this need, this mission, this calling, to embrace them and to recognize this 'something else.'”  Read full text of Stevenson’s remarks here.

EDITORIALS: Intellectual Disabilities and Death Sentences

The editors of the Birmingham News in Alabama recenlty called upon a trial court to overrule a jury's 10-2 recommendation for death in the case of Esaw Jackson because of his mental disabilities.  While noting that in many states Jackson would not even be eligible for the death penalty following a non-unanimous vote, the News added that an IQ test, conducted by a state expert on Jackson, showed an IQ of 56, well below the level that generally indicates an intellectual disability.  In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held that those with intellectual disabilities (mental retardation), cannot be sentenced to death.  The editors pointed out, “There are a number of reasons why intellectual disabilities are a reason for leniency: It stands to reason that someone without adequate intellectual capacity should not bear full legal responsibility for their actions. A strong case also can be made that people with diminished mental capabilities are at a disadvantage when it comes to defending themselves. Some intellectually disabled defendants, for instance, have confessed to crimes they didn't commit.” The editorial concluded, “If Jackson is intellectually incapable of bearing full responsibility for his actions, he not only should not be put to death - he cannot be under the law. Staging not just one but two capital trials was a colossal waste of time and money. [The judge] can avoid throwing more money down the drain by simply sentencing Jackson to life in prison with no chance for parole.”

NEW RESOURCES-PODCAST: Former Death Row Inmate Freed in Alabama

In the latest edition of the Death Penalty Information Center's podcasts, we interview attorney Jennifer Whitfield (pictured) of Covington & Burling, who worked to secure the release of former death row inmate Larry Smith in Alabama. Mr. Smith was sentenced to death in 1995 for a murder related to a robbery. His conviction hinged on a statement he made after 4 hours of interrogation. In violation of police guidelines, his interrogation was not recorded, and Mr. Smith later said his admission of involvement in the crime was coerced and influenced by threats made to prosecute his wife. No physical evidence or eyewitness account linked Mr. Smith to the murder, and a witness, who said Smith hatched a plan to rob the victim, was later implicated in planning the crime himself. In 2007, an Alabama Circuit Court ordered a retrial, and a plea deal was reached this year (April 6, 2012) that allowed Mr. Smith to be released after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery. The murder charges against him were dropped.  In the podcast interview, Ms. Whitfield discusses the failures that led to Mr. Smith's conviction and how some of those problems, including inadequate representation and coerced confessions, affect the death penalty system at large.  Listen to the podcast.