Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Death Row Inmate Granted New Trial on Innocence-Related Claims; Capitally-Charged Inmate Exonerated

Two Philadelphia, Pennsylvania capital cases involving men who have long asserted their innocence reached major milestones on August 23, with one winning an appeal granting him a new trial and a jury acquitting a second in his retrial. Both cases involved allegations of serious police and prosecutorial misconduct. James Dennis (pictured), who has been on the Commonwealth's death row for nearly 25 years, was granted a new trial by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit after prosecutors withheld evidence that supported his claims of innocence. Anthony Wright, who was capitally tried but received a sentence of life without parole when the jury split 7 for death, 5 for life on the penalty verdict, was exonerated after 25 years. Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a 17-year-old in Philadelphia. The full federal appeals court voted 9-4 on Tuesday to uphold a district court ruling granting Dennis a new trial, reversing an earlier decision by a three-judge appellate panel. Writing for the majority, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell said, "Evidence suppressed by the prosecution—a receipt corroborating Dennis' alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder—effectively gutted the Commonwealth's case against Dennis. The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court." On the same day, a jury acquitted Anthony Wright in a retrial for another 1991 Philadelphia murder. Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty when Wright was convicted in1993, but did not pursue the death penalty after agreeing that DNA evidence entitled Wright to a new trial. DNA testing of semen found at the crime scene excluded Wright and identified another perpetrator who recently died in prison in South Carolina. Wright's attorneys say police pressured him into signing a confession and falsely claimed that a set of bloody clothes they reportedly "found" in Wright's bedroom in his mother's house belonged to Wright, when in fact they belonged to the victim and contained DNA from the actual killer. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said "DNA testing proved not only that Mr. Wright is absolutely innocent but also that law enforcement fabricated evidence against him." Grace Greco, the jury forewoman for Wright's retrial, said, "I'm angry. The evidence was there that he did not commit this crime. The city should never have brought this case. I'm just happy that today's verdict will let Tony move on with the rest of his life."

Newly Constituted Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Grant of New Trial in Death Penalty Case

On July 19, the newly constituted Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously voted to uphold a trial court's order granting a new trial to Philadelphia death row prisoner, Christopher Williams. The court determined that Williams' trial and appellate counsel had been ineffective by failing to investigate and present expert forensic testimony on blood flow and gunshot wounds that would have demonstrated that the version of the murders presented by the prosecution's lead witness was incompatible with the physical evidence. The court also ruled that the trial judge had improperly prevented defense lawyers from cross-examining the state's expert witnesses on key matters. The case was the first time the new court was faced with a lower court judgment granting a capital defendant a new trial. A survey of Pennsylvania capital post-conviction appeals by the Death Penalty Information Center, updated through July 25, 2016, found that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued orders affirming or denying post-conviction requests for new trials by capital defendants 257 times since the Commonwealth enacted its current death penalty statute in 1978. This decision was only the third time in this period that the court had ordered or affirmed the grant of a new trial. By contrast, the court had previously voted more than 99% of the time to uphold capital convictions. It had overturned 12 of the last 13 lower court rulings it had considered since April 2006 that had granted death-row prisoners new trials. The sole exception had been the case of Ronald Champney, in which the court split 3-3, with one vacancy on the court caused by the conviction of a justice for public corruption. The tie vote upheld the decision of the trial court in that case.

Fair Punishment Project Issues Report on Deadliest Prosecutors

A new report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that a small number of overzealous prosecutors with high rates of misconduct have a hugely disproportionate impact on the death penalty in the United States. The report, "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty," shows that, by themselves, these prosecutors are responsible for more than 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 15% of the entire U.S. death row population today. Exploring what it calls "the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing," the report details the effects of Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas. Britt, Macy, and Myers personally prosecuted a combined 131 cases that resulted in death sentences, while Abraham and Holmes oversaw offices that the report says imposed 108 and 201 death sentences, respectively. They also disproportionately sent innocent people to death row, prosecuting 1 out of 20 of the nation's death-row exonerees. The report found similar patterns involving these prosecutors, including high rates of prosecutorial misconduct, statements and actions that revealed a win-at-all-costs mentality, and a sharp decrease in death sentences once they and their proteges left office. Britt, Macy, and Myers were found to have committed misconduct in one-third to 46% of the death penalty cases they prosecuted. Prosecutors in Abraham's and Holmes' offices were found to have engaged in misconduct, including racially-biased jury selection and failures to disclose favorable evidence. Of the five prosecutors profiled in the report, only Myers—who is not seeking re-election—is still in office. After the other four prosecutors left office, the number of death sentences has declined significantly. Robeson County has imposed two death sentences in the last 10 years, Oklahoma County and Philadelphia County have each imposed three in six years, and Harris County dropped from an average of 12 death sentences a year during Holmes' last decade as prosecutor to one a year since 2008.

Cost of Pennsylvania Death Penalty Estimated At $816 Million, Could Reach $1 Billion

Pennsylvania's taxpayers have paid an estimated $272 million per execution since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in 1978, according to an investigation by The Reading Eagle. Using data from a 2008 study by the Urban Institute, the Eagle calculated that cost of sentencing 408 people to death was an estimated $816 million higher than the cost of life without parole. The estimate is conservative, the paper says, because it assumes only one capital trial for each defendant and it does not include the cost of cases in which the death penalty was sought but not imposed. The total cost may exceed $1 billion. An earlier investigation had estimated a cost of at least $350 million, based on the 185 inmates who were on death row as of 2014, but additional research into the cases that had already been overturned, or in which inmates died or were executed prior to 2014, revealed a total of 408 people who had been sentenced to death. Pennsylvania has carried out only three executions under its current death penalty statute. State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "We're scratching for every dollar that we can right now. To continue to spend that kind of money is hard to justify." The Eagle's investigation also uncovered geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty. 60% of all death sentences came from just four counties: Philadelphia, Allegheny, York, and Berks. Death sentencing rates also varied dramatically, with about a third of counties handing down zero death sentences, while three (Columbia, Cumberland, and Northumberland) had 5 or more death sentences per 100 murders. Somerset District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, who has filed one death penalty case in five years as District Attorney, said, "I think our system is broken. It doesn't do justice to any one of the stakeholders, in my opinion, not the taxpayers, the victims or the defendants. It doesn't work."

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Pennsylvania Death Penalty Ruling Infected by Judicial Bias

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Williams v. Pennsylvania that Terry Williams' (pictured) due process rights were violated when Pennsylvania's Chief Justice refused to recuse himself from the case. Ronald Castille served as Philadelphia District Attorney before being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As District Attorney, he personally approved the decision to pursue the death penalty against the 18-year-old Williams, and then, while running for state Supreme Court, touted his record of having "sent 45 people," including Williams, to death row. Nearly 30 years after Williams was sentenced to death, and within a week of his scheduled execution, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas heard evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from a witness and withheld evidence that it had given favorable treatment to that witness; suppressed evidence that the victim had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that the victim had been simply a "kind man" who had offered Williams a ride home. After the court overturned Williams' death sentence, Philadelphia prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Castille was serving as Chief Justice. Williams' attorneys filed a motion seeking Castille's recusal, but he denied the motion, refused to refer the question to the full court, and voted with the majority of the court to reverse the lower court ruling and reinstate Williams' death sentence. Castille also authored a concurring opinion saying the lower court had stayed Williams' death sentence "for no valid reason," attacking the judge for having “lost sight of [her] role as a neutral judicial officer,” and denouncing Williams' counsel for having an “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” and turning postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed, saying "[a] constitutionally intolerable probability of bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case." Here, the Court ruled, "Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias." It further determined that Castille's participation in the case "affected the ... whole adjudicatory framework" of the appeal, and ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal. “Today, Terry Williams comes one step closer to the new, fair sentencing hearing he deserves,” said Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Williams, “We’re optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will give this case careful consideration and recognize the injustice of Terry’s death sentence.”

Former State Chief Justices: Pennsylvania Justice Should Not Have Approved Death as D.A., Then Reviewed Case on Appeal

In a recent Washington Times op-ed, two former state supreme court chief justices argue that a state supreme court justice who, as district attorney, had authorized the capital prosecution of a defendant, should not have later participated as a judge in deciding an appeal in that case. Gerald Kogan (pictured, l.), former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and Michael Wolff (pictured, r.), former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, joined a number of other former judges who had been prosecutors and former appellate court jurists in filing briefs supporting the position of Philadelphia death-row prisoner Terry Williams in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case, Williams v. Pennsylvania. The case, which the Court will hear on February 29, concerns the participation of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille in the prosecution's appeal of a trial court ruling that had overturned Williams' death sentence because of prosecutorial misconduct. The appeals court reversed the trial court and reinstated Williams' death sentence. Kogan and Wolff say that Castille should have recused himself from hearing the appeal. "We, along with many other former judges, have urged the Supreme Court to find that Chief Justice Castille’s prior relationship to the case created an impermissible risk of bias," they say. "As the former district attorney, Chief Justice Castille personally, in a handwritten note, authorized seeking the death penalty for Mr. Williams. Moreover, he used the Williams death verdict to support his campaign for the Supreme Court seat. And finally, considering the case required Chief Justice Castille to evaluate a court’s finding of misconduct against the office over which he formerly presided."

EDITORIALS: Newspapers Stress Findings from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report

Several newspapers across the country featured themes from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report in editorials and opinion pieces at the end of December:

"Once broadly accepted, capital punishment is increasingly a fringe practice. A handful of states conduct nearly all executions. Four — Texas, Missouri, Georgia and Florida — carried out 93 percent of them in 2015. Sixty-three percent of new death sentences came from a mere 2 percent of U.S. counties, a group with a history of disproportionately using the death penalty.Bad policy encourages this sort of excess: Three states — Alabama, Delaware and Florida — do not require juries to be unanimous when recommending a death sentence. A quarter of new sentences came from split juries in these states."

"Not only did executions drop in 2015, but the number of people sentenced to death also hit an historic low, the center said. That could be due to a growing skepticism by jurors of a system susceptible to manipulation through coerced testimony or other misconduct...— or there could be some other reason for a decline in convictions on capital punishment charges...What is clear is that there's no correcting an execution if later evidence shows the prosecution was wrong...Abolition is the direction of the future, and the U.S. should join."

"[T]he fact that new death sentences were at an all-time low in Texas this year is reason to applaud...Texas’ declines mirror numbers across the nation. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report, death sentences dropped 33 percent from 2014, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1998...Confidence in the system’s integrity is waning. It should only follow that support for the death penalty follows suit."
 
 
"In 2015, in fact, otherwise proudly liberal California led the nation in death sentences with 14, even as the national number dropped to 49, the fewest since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of California’s death sentences, eight were in Riverside County (including five of the eight Latinos sentenced to death nationwide), plus three in Los Angeles and one in Orange...If we’re going to have the death penalty, shouldn’t it be at least somewhat consistent across the state?"

"As Florida becomes more isolated in its administration of the death penalty, the state is getting deserved scrutiny for problems with the practice. A year-end report from the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center found just three states — Alabama, California and Florida — accounted for more than half of the nation’s new death sentences in 2015. More than a quarter of this year’s death sentences were imposed by Florida and Alabama after non-unanimous jury recommendations of death — a practice allowed in just those two states and Delaware. ...As Florida officials have pushed to speed up the pace of executions, the Death Penalty Information Center found the rest of the country is heading in the opposite direction. A dozen states haven’t executed anyone in at least nine years, while 18 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty altogether. ... As most other states move away from the death penalty, it is long past time for Florida to follow their lead."

"A Reading Eagle investigation in October found nearly one in five Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to death the past decade were represented by attorneys disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. And the majority of these disciplined attorneys had been found by Pennsylvania courts to be ineffective in at least one capital case. More than 150 inmates sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated since 1973, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Sooner or later an innocent person will be executed, if it hasn't happened already...It is time to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania." (This editorial announced the end of the Eagle's prior position supporting the death penalty under limited circumstances.)

NEW VOICES: Why Prosecutors in Texas, Pennsylvania Are Seeking Death Penalty Less Often

Prosecutors across the country are seeking the death penalty less frequently and in recent interviews two district attorneys, one from Texas and one from Pennsylvania, have given some of their reasons why. Randall County, Texas District Attorney James Farren (pictured) told KFDA-TV in Amarillo that his experience handling one particularly lengthy and costly capital case has changed how he will make decisions in future cases that are eligible for the death penalty. He said that his office has spent, "conservatively...at least $400,000" on the prosecution of Brittany Holberg, who has been on death row since 1998. Farren said the costs are too high for taxpayers and "I do not want to subject them to this kind of thing any longer." While he said he still supports the death penalty, Farren predicted that, in the near future, the U.S. Supreme Court "likely will decide society has evolved to the point that it’s no longer appropriate." In an interview with the Reading EagleJohn T. Adams, District Attorney of Berks County, Pennsylvania, says that he rarely seeks the death penalty and is "just as happy with a life sentence as I am a death sentence." If defendantants are sentenced to life without parole, Adams says, "[t]hey will not be a threat to our community ever again. And frankly, community safety is the utmost of my concerns." Adams adds, "I think you will find throughout Pennsylvania that we are seeking [the death penalty] less and less, and I think that's good."

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