Georgia Prepares to Execute John Conner Despite Evidence of Intellectual Impairment, Traumatic Upbringing

Georgia is continuing with preparations to execute John Conner (pictured) on July 14 after the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles denied his clemency petition and the Georgia Supreme Court denied him a stay of execution. In the clemency proceedings, Conner's attorneys presented evidence that he is intellectually disabled and that he was raised in poverty and extreme violence in a home filled with chronic drug and alcohol abuse and in which sexual and emotional abuse were the norm. Conner's lawyers wrote that, at a young age, he was "indoctrinated into a life that normalized drugs, alcohol, and violence, so much so that he drunkenly beat a friend to death in reaction to a lewd comment." They also said Conner's teachers had identified him as intellectually disabled. Conner's inexperienced trial attorney failed to present any evidence at trial or in the sentencing hearing and his appellate lawyer was not provided any resources to investigate his case. As a result, his lawyers said, neither the jury nor the state appellate courts heard any mitigating evidence of his intellectual impairments and horrifying upbringing, which they say might have changed the jury's sentencing decision. Though a federal court later ruled that his evidence of intellectual impairment did not reach the level of disability that would render him ineligible for execution, his lawyers argued that the court did not consider the mitigating aspects of his intellectual impairments or whether "Mr. Conner's poverty-, violence-, and trauma-filled family background ... should have justified a sentence less than death." On July 12, the Georgia Supreme Court declined to review Conner's claim that his execution more than 34 years after being sentenced to death constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and voted 5-2 to deny him a stay of execution. [UPDATE: Georgia executed Conner shortly after midnight on July 15. It was the sixth execution conducted by the state in 2016, more than in any previous calendar year since executions were allowed to resume in 1976.]

Georgia Approaches Record Number of Executions But Hasn't Imposed Death Sentences in Two Years

The pace of executions in Georgia is outstripping the pace of death sentences. While the number of executions this year (5) is equal to the single-year record set in 1987 and 2015, no one has been sentenced to death in more than two years, and prosecutors are rarely seeking death sentences. The last death sentence in Georgia came down in March 2014. The number of notices of intent to seek the death penalty has fallen by more than 60% in the last decade, from 34 in 2006 to 13 in 2015. This year, the death penalty is being sought in only one case - the murder of a priest who had protested against capital punishment and signed a document stating his opposition to the death penalty, even in the event he was violently killed. Brian Kammer, head of the Georgia Resource Center, which represents death row inmates in their appeals, said improving the quality of representation has been crucial in bringing about change: “Had such legal teams with adequate resources been available to these recently executed prisoners at the time they were tried originally, I am confident they would be alive today.” Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said the option of life without parole has had a significant impact. Chuck Spahos, head of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said, “It has made an enormous difference. When you start talking about the expense, the years of appeals and the length of the process that goes on and on and having to put victims’ families through that with no closure, the availability of life without parole with a guilty plea has become an attractive option.” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Akil Secret raised questions of fairness, asking, "If a life-without-parole sentence is sufficient for today’s worst crimes, why isn’t it sufficient for those crimes from the past where death was imposed?" 

As Legitimate Market for Execution Drugs Dries Up, States' Secret Execution Practices Become Increasingly Questionable

Pfizer's recent announcement that it was tightening controls against what it calls the misuse of its medicines in executions highlights an on-going struggle between states desperate for execution drugs and a medical community that believes its involvement in the lethal injection process violates its medical and corporate missions and the ethical standards of the pharmaceutical and health professions. As Pfizer and nearly two dozen other pharmaceutical companies have ended open market access to drugs potentially used in executions, states have responded by increasingly shrouding the execution process in secrecy. The states "are mainly concerned about losing their providers of lethal-injection drugs should the companies’ names become public," says Linc Caplan in a recent article in The New Yorker. Otherwise, "companies that do not want their products associated with executions will know that their drugs are being used." He reports that since the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's execution protocol in 2008, 20 states have responded to drug shortages by abandoning protocols that had been substantially similar to Kentucky’s, making "unfettered substitutions" to their protocols in "desperate attempts to adhere to their execution schedules.” Caplan reports that States "have also been increasingly misleading in their efforts to obtain drugs for executions." He cites documents showing that one Ohio official urged state drug purchasers to identify themselves as from the Department of Mental Health and warned they should "not mention anything about corrections in the phone call or what we use the drug for." Louisiana similarly obtained execution drugs from a local hospital, which mistakenly assumed they were needed for medical use. Last week, an Oklahoma grand jury report described that state's secrecy practices as producing a "paranoia" that "clouded [prison officials'] judgment and caused administrators to blatantly violate their own policies." An article by Chris McDaniel in BuzzFeed after the release of that report documented that the same secrecy and lack of oversight criticized by the Oklahoma grand jury is common in other states, and has contributed to execution problems in Missouri, Georgia, and Ohio. Arizona and Missouri paid executioners in cash, and Missouri's mismanagement of that fund likely violated federal income tax law. Missouri's secrecy, McDaniels writes, also "allowed it to purchase execution drugs from a pharmacy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was not licensed in Missouri and had questionable pharmaceutical practices." Other states, like Texas and Arizona "have used the secrecy to purchase drugs illegally," he reports. 

Board Denies Clemency for Death Row Inmate Whose Co-Defendant Received Life Sentence

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles announced on March 31 that it had denied clemency to Joshua Bishop. Bishop had asked that his death sentence be reduced to life without parole because his co-defendant, who was nearly twice Bishop's age at the time of the crime, and had a history of violent crime while Bishop did not, was given a plea deal resulting in a life sentence. Bishop is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on March 31. Seven of the twelve jurors who voted to sentence Bishop to death now support a sentence reduction for a variety of reasons. Juror Jeremy Foston said he initially, "was leaning toward a life sentence because Mr. Bishop had a terrible childhood and was just a young man." Others said they were confused by instructions that the jury had to be unanimous. Juror Jim Ray wrote, "[w]e really struggled with our decision. We eventually changed our vote to a death sentence partly because we were told we had to be unanimous and those [two jurors] who wanted the death penalty were very firm in their conviction and let us know they would not change their minds." The belief that Bishop's co-defendant, Mark Braxley, would also face the possibility of a death sentence influenced some jurors' decisions. They say they would have sentenced Bishop to life without parole if they knew Braxley had received a plea deal for a life sentence. Juror Jeremy Foston wrote, "We wanted to make sure Mr. Braxley would get the same punishment as Mr. Bishop. We even sent a note out asking if we could know what would happen to him. The prosecutor told us not to worry about Mr. Braxley, and that he would have his day in court. We assumed that meant he would have the same treatment as Mr. Bishop."

Georgia Naval Veteran Files for Clemency as More Culpable Superior Officer Will Become Eligible for Parole

Naval veteran Travis Hittson (pictured), scheduled to be executed by Georgia on February 17, has filed an application for clemency with the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Hittson assisted his superior officer, Edward Vollmer, to kill and dismember a fellow sailor, Conway Utterbeck in 1992. Despite evidence that Vollmer was the more culpable of the two, prosecutors permitted him to plead guilty and receive a life sentence from which he could be paroled, while Hittson was sentenced to death. The clemency application, filed by lawyers from the Veterans Defense Program and the Georgia Resource Center, alleges that Hittson's death sentence is disproportionate to the punishment Vollmer received, given the significant difference in their culpability. The application says: "Mr. Hittson committed an appalling act; an act which took the life of Conway Utterbeck and harmed his family in profound and irreparable ways. Those who know Mr. Hittson, however – even law enforcement personnel who knew him only long enough to hear him confess and assist in the investigation of this crime – are united in their conviction that he is remorseful and would never have committed this terrible crime absent the deliberate manipulation of his codefendant and naval superior, Edward Vollmer." Vollmer convinced Hittson to help him kill Utterbeck by telling him that Utterbeck was plotting to kill them. "Mr. Hittson’s lower rank, gullibility, alcoholism and desperation for approval made him peculiarly vulnerable to Edward Vollmer who, by all accounts, exercised an unnatural dominance and control over Mr. Hittson," the clemency filing explains. Hittson's application for clemency is supported by other sailors who served with both Hittson and Vollmer, several jurors in the case, and an unnamed state prosecutor. The execution would be the second in Georgia in 2016. Andrew Brannan, the first person executed in Georgia last year, was also a veteran. Brannan suffered from chronic Postraumatic Stress Disorder and other severe mental illness related to his military service in Vietnam and was considered 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration. 

Despite Executions, Death Penalty is in Decline in the "New Georgia"

Although Georgia carried out 5 of the 28 executions in the U.S. in 2015, it imposed no new death sentences and a significantly changed legal landscape points to a "new Georgia" with the death penalty in decline. The Georgia legal publication, Daily Report, dubbed the decline in death sentences its "newsmaker of the year," and explored the reasons for the change. Jerry Word, the division director of the Georgia Capital Defender, said that with the Defender's early intervention initiative reaching out to prosecutors to present reasons to decapitalize a case, prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty in all 29 of the cases his office handled this year. The only capital case that went to trial with the death penalty as an option was a case in which the defendant represented himself, and the jury handed down life without parole. In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and only one of the last 71 capital cases the capital defender has handled has resulted in a death verdict. Several factors have created the new landscape and contributed to the reduction in death sentences. Word said these include the cost of death penalty trials and the efforts by defense counsel to present prosecutors with mitigating evidence early in the process. But, he said, "I think the LWOP [life without parole] is the really big one. We've had that for six years now, but we've really just started seeing the impact in the last few years." Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, agreed that life without parole had played a significant role: "I certainly think things changed dramatically when the Legislature gave us the life without parole option," he said. Similar factors have contributed to death penalty declines in historically active death penalty states like Texas and Virginia. Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said "Georgia is in step with the national trend of declining use of the death penalty. The continued marginalization of the death penalty is not surprising given growing concerns about its implementation, particularly with regard to the potential of an innocent person being executed and the prevalence of botched executions as states experiment with lethal injection drugs."

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Use of Death Penalty in 2015

On December 16, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report." The death penalty declined by virtually every measure in 2015. 28 people were executed, the fewest since 1991. Death sentences dropped 33% from last year's historic low, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. There have now been fewer death sentences imposed in the last decade than in the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1988; and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) accounted for 86% of all executions. For the first time since 1995, the number of people on death row fell below 3,000. Public support for the death penalty also dropped, and the 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for people convicted of murder. Six people were exonerated from death row this year, bringing the total number of exonerations since 1973 to 156. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director. See DPIC's Press ReleaseView a video summarizing the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

Court Decisions Reflect Continuing Ambivalence Towards State Lethal Injection Secrecy Laws

Recent court decisions in cases from Georgia and Arkansas reflect continuing judicial uncertainty regarding lethal injection secrecy. On October 12, an Arkansas trial court overturned the state's execution secrecy law and ordered the state Department of Corrections to disclose the drugs that it intends to use in executions and the source of those drugs. In a December 3 opinion requiring disclosure by the following day, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen wrote, "It is common knowledge that capital punishment is not universally popular. That reality is not a legitimate reason to shield the entities that manufacture, supply, distribute, and sell lethal injection drugs from public knowledge." The next day, the state Supreme Court temporarily stayed Griffen's ruling, asking both sides to submit additional written arguments. On December 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a divided ruling in the case of Brian Terrell, denying him a stay of execution but expressing deep concern about execution secrecy. Judges Beverly Martin and Adalberto Jordan said they believed that Georgia's secrecy law created constitutional problems and that the appeals court's earlier rejection of a challenge to secrecy provisions had been wrongly decided. However, they said they were bound by precedent and therefore could not stay Terrell's execution. Judge Martin said, “Of course, I recognize the state’s need to obtain a reliable source for its lethal injection drugs. But there must be a way for Georgia to do this job without depriving Mr. Terrell and other condemned prisoners of any ability to subject the state’s method of execution to meaningful adversarial testing before they are put to death...Indeed, we have no reliable evidence by which to independently evaluate the safety and efficacy of the state of Georgia’s secret drugs. For me, this raises serious due process concerns.” Judge Jordan wrote, "Georgia can certainly choose, as a matter of state law, to keep much of its execution protocol secret, but it cannot hide behind that veil of  secrecy once something has gone demonstrably wrong with the compounded pentobarbital it has procured."