January's Executions Underscore Core Death Penalty Problems

Even as executions have declined in the U.S., those being carried out often illustrate serious problems that have plagued the death penalty for many years. Of the six executions January, two (in Florida and Oklahoma) involved a lethal injection protocol that is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia executed Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Warren Hill, an inmate who was found intellectually disabled by state doctors, but who failed to meet the state's highly unusual standard of proving his disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Texas executed Robert Ladd, an inmate with an IQ of 67. Texas courts have devised their own largely unscientific criteria for determining intellectual disabilty. That leaves Arnold Prieto, also executed in Texas. He was offered a plea bargain and probably would have been spared if he had testified against his co-defendants. Of those involved in the brutal crime, only Prieto received the death penalty.

LAW REVIEWS: Disparities in Determinations of Intellectual Disability

A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.

Justice Stevens Says Texas Executed an Innocent Man

In a discussion at the University of Florida Law School, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that recent research reveals that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man in 1989. Stevens said, "Within the last year, Jim Liebman, who's a professor at the Columbia Law School and was a former law clerk of mine, has written a book...called The Wrong Carlos...He has demonstrated, I think, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a Texas case in which they executed the wrong defendant, and that the person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished. And I think it's a sufficient argument against the death penalty...that society should not take the risk that that might happen again, because it's intolerable to think that our government, for really not very powerful reasons, runs the risk of executing innocent people." Prof. Liebman's research showed that Carlos DeLuna's case involved faulty eyewitness testimony and police failure to investigate an alternative suspect.

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Texas Defendant with Low IQ Would Be Spared in Other States

UPDATE: (1/27). Ladd was denied a stay by the TX Ct. of Crim. Appeals. Robert Ladd is scheduled to be executed in Texas on January 29, despite having an IQ of 67, an indication of intellectial disability rendering him ineligible for execution. Howver, Texas courts rejected Ladd's previous appeal because the state has a unique way of evaluating intellectual disability. Courts in Texas often consider what is called the "Briseño factors," a set of criteria created by a judge that differs from the usual psychological determination of intellectual disabilty. In particular, Texas may allow an execution if the defendant exhibited forethought or advance planning in commiting the crime. Generally, intellecutal disability is determined independent of the facts surrounding the crime. Texas is the only state that considers such factors, despite the lack of scientific basis, in determining whether a defendant should be spared. Ladd's attorneys are challenging the use of these factors, saying they violate the Supreme Court's recent decision in Hall v. Florida, which held that Florida's unusual standards for establishing intellectual disability were outside the country's standards of decency.

Supreme Court Allows Defendant to Present All Grounds Showing Ineffective Counsel

On January 14, the U.S. Supreme Court (6-3) handed down a ruling in Jennings v. Stephens, a capital case from Texas dealing with ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court held that when a defendant wins relief in a lower federal court and the state appeals, the defendant may offer theories rejected by the lower court as part of his defense of the relief granted. He does not have to file a new appeal on that rejected theory. In his initial federal appeal (habeas corpus), Robert Jennings had presented three instances of ineffective assistance of counsel. The District Court granted him relief based on two of them, but rejected the third. The state appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and Jennings presented all three instances in his defense. The Fifth Circuit said it did not have jurisdiction to consider the third claim because Jennings' lawyers had not obtained a "certificate of appealability." Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion. Jennings' case will be returned to the Fifth Circuit to consider his third claim of ineffectiveness.

ARBITRARINESS: Getting a Death Sentence May Depend on the Budget of the County

Whether the death penalty will be sought in a murder may depend more on the budget of the county in which it is committed than on the severity of the crime, according to several prosecutors. A report by the Marshall Project found that the high costs of capital cases prevent some district attorneys from seeking the death penalty. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.” One capital case can bankrupt a county: “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County, Texas. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?” Prosecutors cited past cases in which counties had to drastically alter their budgets in order to pay for death penalty trials. In Jasper County, Texas, a county auditor said the budget shock of a death penalty case was as bad as a flood that destroyed roads and bridges. Seeking the death penalty in one case in Gray County, Texas, forced the county to raise taxes and suspend raises for employees. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole. When Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor Greg McPhillips decided not to seek the death penalty in a case he thought was particularly heinous, he pointed to costs as the reason: “The County Attorney’s Office wants to do their part in helping the County meet its fiscal responsibilities in this time of economic crisis not only in our County but across the nation,” he said.

Texas Judge Orders State to Reveal Execution Drug Supplier

On December 11 District Judge Darlene Byrne ruled that the source of Texas' lethal injection drugs is a matter of public record, and the state should release the information. Texas has been obtaining pentobarbital from an unnamed compounding pharmacy. The decision resulted from a suit filed earlier this year on behalf of death row inmates, two of whom have since been executed. Texas had been open about the source of its execution drugs until May, when Attorney General Greg Abbott decided that releasing the identity of the drug supplier could be a safety risk. Maurie Levin, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said, "This is about the drugs, but it's also about open government." Similar suits have been filed in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Ohio, where drug suppliers are also shielded by secrecy policies. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to appeal the decision.

POLL: Americans Oppose Death Penalty for Mentally Ill by 2-1

A new poll found that Americans oppose the death penalty for people with mental illness by more than a 2-1 margin. According to Public Policy Polling, 58% of respondents opposed capital punishment for people with mental illness, while only 28% supported it. Professor Robert Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Carolina who commissioned the poll, said, "Today's important polling is part of significant new research which clearly shows an emerging consensus against using capital punishment in cases where the defendant is mentally ill. ... Combining this public polling, sentencing practices, and the recommendations of the mental health medical community, it's clear that a consensus is emerging against the execution of a person like Scott Panetti, who suffers from a debilitating (mental) illness ...." Opposition to the execution of people with mental illness was strong across lines of race, gender, geographic region, political affiliation, and education. Democrats (62%), Republicans (59%) and Independents (51%) all opposed the practice. The results echo the growing number of prominent leaders speaking out against the execution of Panetti in Texas, scheduled for December 3.