Deadliest Prosecutors, Worst Defense Lawyers Linked to High Rates of Death Sentences in Heavy-Use Counties

Prisoners sentenced to death in the small number of U.S. counties that most aggressively pursue the death penalty often suffer the "double whammy" of getting "both the deadliest prosecutors in America and some of the country’s worst capital defense lawyers," according to an article in Slate by Robert L. Smith. In reviewing the the unusally high numbers of death verdicts from 3 counties that are near the top of the nation in disproportionately producing death sentences over the last 5 years, Smith found not only high rates of seeking death but a pattern of inadequate capital defense representation. In Maricopa County, Arizona, the nation's second highest producer of death sentences since 2010, two capital trial lawyers had, between them, represented 10 clients who were sentenced to death. Serious concerns about the quality of representation were also present in the two counties with the nation's highest level of death sentences per capita since 2010, Duval County, Florida, and Caddo Parish, Louisiana. 75% of defendants sentenced to death in Caddo Parish since 2005 were represented at trial by lawyers who would be found unqualified to try capital cases under capital defense standards recently put in place in the state. One Caddo Parish lawyer, Daryl Gold, was trial counsel for nearly 20% of the people sent to death row in Louisiana from 2005 to 2014. He has been suspended from practicing law three times and received 14 private reprimands, and was permitted to continue representing poor defendants in capital cases even though he was barred from taking on private clients. In Duval County, a newly elected public defender fired respected senior capital litigators and installed as deputy chief and head of homicide defense a lawyer, Refik Eler, who has at least 8 former clients on death row - the most of any lawyer in Florida. Eler has already been found ineffective by the Florida Supreme Court in three capital cases for failing to investigate both guilt and penalty issues. 

STUDIES: Requiring Jury Unanimity Would Decrease U.S. Death Sentences by 21%

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 13 in Hurst v. Florida, a case challenging provisions in Florida's death penalty statute that do not require jurors to unanimously agree to the facts that could subject a defendant to a death sentence or to reach unanimity before recommending that the judge sentence a defendant to death. Florida is one of just three states that does not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. A study by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School found that requiring jury unanimity in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware would have caused a dramatic drop in death sentences over the last 5 years. Overall, the three states would have returned 26 death sentences since 2010, instead of 117 - a 77% drop - and Florida would have imposed 70% fewer death verdicts. The three states that do not require unanimity in death sentencing have produced a disproportionate share of the nation's death sentences, accounting for 28% of all U.S. death sentences since 2010. Had these states followed the sentencing system used by every other death penalty state, the total number of death sentences imposed in the United States  would have decreased by 21%. (Click image for full infographic.)

One Year After Botched Execution, Many States Still Haven't Resumed Executions

On July 23, 2014, Arizona's execution of Joseph Wood was botched, taking nearly two hours from the time the state began injecting him with lethal drugs until he was finally pronounced dead. Witnesses reported that Wood gasped more than 640 times during the course of the execution, and an official report later revealed that he was injected with 15 doses of the execution drugs. Michael Kiefer, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, who witnessed Wood's execution, described it, saying, "He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed." Arizona used a combination of midazolam, the drug recently reviewed by the Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross, and hyrdromorphone, a narcotic. Wood's lawyer, Dale Baich, describing the execution, said "The experiement failed." The same drug protocol had been used in Ohio's botched execution of Dennis McGuire earlier in 2014 and witnesses to an October 2014 execution by Florida using midazolam reported that the death took longer than usual. In the year since Wood's execution, Arizona has not carried out any executions as a stay issued by a federal judge remains in place. In that time, Oklahoma and Florida have used midazolam in a total of three executions, with Charles Warner in Oklahoma saying "My body is on fire." Both states temporarily put executions on hold while the Supreme Court review was underway, but indicate they intend to resume executions now that the use of midazolam has been upheld. An Oklahoma federal court has scheduled a trial for 2016 on Oklahoma's use of midazolam. All other executions since Wood's have used a one-drug protocol of pentobarbital, likely obtained from compounding pharmacies, since the primary manufacturer of the drug opposes its use in executions. Ohio delayed all executions until at least 2016 to review executions procedures, and executions in Tennessee are on hold because of legal challenges to its lethal injection protocols. Georgia is conducting an investigation into problems with execution drugs and has not set new execution dates as a result.

David Keaton, First Death Row Exoneree in Modern Era, Dies at Age 63

David Keaton, the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty (1973-present), died on July 3 at the age of 63. Keaton was convicted and sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based on a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. In 1973, the actual perpetrator was discovered because of new evidence, and Keaton was exonerated. In 2003, Keaton became a founding member of Witness To Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees who share their stories to educate the public about the death penalty. Kathy Spillman, director of programs and outreach at Witness To Innocence, said of Keaton, "His life was very difficult. He was sentenced to Death Row as a teenager. And like all exonorees, he struggled with issues related to being on Death Row and integrating back into a society that does not provide support for these men and women. [Yet], he was stoic and very gentle. He was a poet and a singer and whenever he got the chance, he participated in activities against the death penalty so that nobody else had to go through what he did." Since Keaton's exoneration in 1973, an additional 153 people have been exonerated from death row.

Tennessee Supreme Court Contemplates Electric Chair Appeal on 25th Anniversary of Botched Florida Electrocution

The week of the 25th anniversary of Florida's gruesome botched electric chair execution of Jesse Tafero (pictured), the Tennessee Supreme Court began hearing a challenge to the administration of a state law that would resurrect the use of that State's electric chair if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. On May 6, 2015, the Tennessee justices heard argument on death-row inmates' right to know which method of execution will be used in their cases.  The Justices voiced concerns about the secrecy that the law allows to shield the execution process and the decision about which method to use. "How are the defendants supposed to know?" Justice Cornelia A. Clark asked, offering a hypothetical situation in which an inmate expects to be executed by lethal injection until he sees the electric chair set up in the execution chamber. Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith argued that execution by electric chair is "just not going to happen," but Chief Justice Sharon Lee said that the inmates' evidence regarding the unavailability of execution drugs suggests, "execution (by the electric chair) is very probable."  On May 4, 1990, witnesses to Tafero's execution reported that a problem with Florida's electric chair caused foot-high flames to shoot from Tafero's head. Current had to be applied three times because the first two shocks failed to kill him.

Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Mentally Ill Defendant's Death Sentence as Disproportionate

In a case spotlighting issues of mental illness and the death penalty, the Florida Supreme Court on April 23 unanimously overturned the death sentence imposed on a severely mentally ill death-row inmate, Humberto Delgado (pictured). Delgado, who was convicted of killing a Tampa police officer, will be resentenced to life without parole. The court said, "We do not downplay the fact that Corporal Roberts lost his life as a result of Delgado's actions. However … we are compelled to reduce Delgado's sentence to life imprisonment because death is not a proportionate penalty when compared to other cases." Delgado had a history of delusions and psychotic behavior before the crime, including believing that police were out to kill him and that people were following him and sitting in trees outside his home. Delgado's attorneys pointed out that, because Delgado shot the police officer only after the officer had used a Taser, there was a lack of premeditation. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor released a statement in response to the decision, saying, "We respect the justice system and those who have to make tough decisions. Regardless of the conclusion, it doesn't bring Mike back and it doesn't relieve the pain that his wife, son and his TPD family feel. His life sentence will still ensure he is held accountable for his actions." 

Supreme Court to Review Florida's Death Penalty Scheme

On March 9, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurst v. Florida, a challenge to the state's unusual sentencing procedure. In a prior ruling, Ring v. Arizona (2002), the Court held that the question of whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty is entitled to a jury deteremination. Unlike almost every other state where unanimous juries are required for death eligibility and a death sentence, Florida only requires the jury to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge, who then makes the final decision on the existence of aggravating factors and the actual sentence. Timothy Hurst was sentenced to death by a judge, following a 7-5 recommendation for death by the jury. The jury's recommendation did not make clear which aggravating factors made him eligible for the death penalty or whether they found any aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida could affect pending cases and other inmates on the state's death row.

American Bar Association Calls for Unanimous Juries and Greater Transparency in Execution Process

On February 9, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association unanimously passed two resolutions calling for unanimous juries in capital sentencing and greater transparency in lethal injection procedures. Resolution 108A stated: "Before a court can impose a sentence of death, a jury must unanimously recommend or vote to impose that sentence," and, "The jury in such cases must also unanimously agree on the existence of any fact that is a prerequisite for eligibility for the death penalty and on the specific aggravating factors that have each been proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Currently, some states, including Florida, Alabama, and Delaware, allow a jury to recommend a death sentence without unanimity. Resolution 108B called for all death penalty jurisdictions "to promulgate execution protocols in an open and transparent manner and require public review and comment prior to final adoption of any execution protocol, and require disclosure to the public by all relevant agencies of all relevant information regarding execution procedures." As lethal injection drug restrictions have caused states to seek out new sources of drugs, many states have adopted secrecy policies surrounding their lethal injection process.