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Representation Improves, Death Sentences Dramatically Drop in Virginia

The number of people sentenced to death in Virginia has plummeted from 40 in the years 1998-2005 to only 6 from 2006 through April 2015. A recent study suggests that improvements in capital representation in the state may have played a significant role in that dramatic change. In 2004, Virginia established four regional capital defender offices, which are completely devoted to handling death penalty cases. The year before the defender offices opened, Virginia juries imposed 6 death sentences, but have not imposed more than 2 in any year since.  This mirrors the experience in other jurisdictions in which defendants have been represented by institutional capital defenders. In addition to better outcomes at trial, "[a] capable and vigorous defense no doubt accounts — at least in part — for the increased willingness of prosecutors to resolve capital cases short of death," University of Virginia law professor John G. Douglass said in his study.

Charges Dropped Against Willie Manning; Becomes 153rd Death Row Exoneree

On April 21, Oktibbeha County (Mississippi) District Attorney Forrest Allgood announced that he would drop charges against death row inmate Willie Manning. In February, the Mississippi Supreme court granted Manning a new trial, saying that key evidence was withheld. Justice Michael K. Randolph wrote, "The State violated Manning's due-process rights by failing to provide favorable, material evidence." A witness testified that he saw Manning enter the victims' apartment, but police records that were withheld from the defense show the apartment from which he claimed to have seen Manning was vacant at the time, and records from the apartment complex did not list the witness as a tenant. The witness later recanted his testimony, saying he feared he would be charged with the crime if he didn't testify. Manning remains on death row for a separate crime, but the evidence against Manning in that case is hair and ballistics analysis from the FBI that was recently identified as seriously flawed. Manning came within hours of being executed in that case, receiving a stay of execution only after the FBI sent separate letters disclosing flaws in its ballistics and hair comparison testimony.

NEW VOICES: Citing Innocence, Misconduct, Creator of Lethal Injection Protocol Calls Death Penalty "Problematic"

Dr. Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma medical examiner who created the three-drug lethal injection protocol that was used from 1982 to 2010, recently told The Guardian that he has doubts about the death penalty.“I am ambivalent about the death penalty – there have been so many incidents of prosecutorial misconduct, or DNA testing that has proved a prisoner’s innocence. It’s problematic," Chapman said. He said he believed lethal injection would be a more humane method of execution, "At that time we put animals to death more humanely than we did human beings – so the idea of using medical drugs seemed a much better alternative.” He found it odd that his name has become so closely associated with lethal injection, saying, “This wasn’t my field, and it wasn’t my purpose in life – I’m a forensic pathologist and my main purpose was to set up a medical examiner’s system for Oklahoma, which is what I did.” Ultimately, concerns about wrongful convictions have given him qualms about capital punishment: “I’ve done autopsies for 50 years and I know what people are capable of doing to others. There are some criminals who have no redeeming features and who will never be rehabilitated – in those cases I would support the death penalty. But I’ve also seen the misconduct that can occur, and the problem is: how do you sort out one from the other?”

LAW REVIEW: Stephen Bright on Race, Poverty, Arbitrariness and the Death Penalty

In an article for the University of Richmond Law Review, Stephen Bright (pictured), President and Senior Counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, describes the arbitrary factors that continue to influence the death penalty. Bright first describes the historical context that led the Supreme Court to strike down the death penalty in 1976. He draws comparisons between lynchings, which he says were "used to maintain racial control after the Civil War," and capital punishment, which in 1976 "was very much tied to race - the oppression of African Americans, carried out by this country's criminal courts." He then explains how this legacy of racial bias continues today, saying, "The race of the defendant and the race of the victim continue to influence the imposition of the death penalty. The courts remain the part of American society least affected by the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century." Bright also addresses bias against the poor, and those with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. He concludes, "What purpose is the primitive penalty of death serving in a modern society? When we look closely at the issues - race, poverty, arbitrariness, conviction of the innocent, mental illness, and intellectual disability - from both a moral and practical standpoint, it will not be long before we join South Africa and the rest of the civilized world in making permanent, absolute, and unequivocal the injunction: 'Thou shall not kill.'"

Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Oklahoma's Lethal Injection Protocol

On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Glossip v. Gross, a case challenging the use of midazolam in lethal injections. Midazolam was used as the first drug in three botched executions in 2014, including the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma exactly one year ago. Prisoners on Oklahoma's death row argued that midazolam should not be used in executions because it could not reliably anesthesize the prisoner to prevent him or her from experiencing extreme pain when the second and third drugs in Oklahoma's execution protocol were injected. The Justices questioned both sides intensely, with the more conservative justices generally favoring the state's arguments and the more liberal justices favoring the prisoners' arguments. Justice Elena Kagan compared the effects of potassium chloride, the third execution drug, to being burned alive, saying, "Suppose that we said we’re going to burn you at the stake, but before we do, we’re going to use an anesthetic of completely unknown properties and unknown effects." Conservatives on the Court criticized the case as a veiled attacked on the death penalty itself. The Court is expected to decide the case before the current term ends in June. 

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." 

Nebraska Repeal Vote Reflects Growing Republican Opposition to Death Penalty

Nebraska's unicameral legislature recently voted 30-13 in favor of repealing the State's death penalty, advancing the bill to a second round of legislative review. (In Nebraska, a bill must pass three times before it is sent to the Governor.)  A majority (17 out of 30) of Republican legislators voted in favor of the bill, which was also supported by 12 Democrats and one Independent legislator. Sen. Colby Coash (R-Lincoln), said, "If any other system in our government was as ineffective and inefficient as is our death penalty, we conservatives would have gotten rid of it a long, long time ago." Sen. Tommy Garrett (R-Papillion) said he was once a "staunch proponent" of capital punishment, but, "I’ve come to believe that the death penalty is simply not good government.” A Washington Times op-ed by conservative commentator Drew Johnson noted that Nebraska's repeal bill has support from victims' families, the Catholic Bishops of Nebraska, and Nebraska Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Johnson also pointed to the DNA exonerations of the "Beatrice Six," who gave coerced confessions and pleas after being threatened with the death penalty, as evidence that "government has no business exercising the power to kill its residents, whether in Nebraska or elsewhere." A recent Pew poll showed that support for the death penalty among conservative Republicans had dropped by 7 percentage points since 2011.

NEW VOICES: Effects of the Death Penalty on Those Who Carry It Out

Four retired death-row prison officials - two wardens, a chaplain, and an execution supervisor - recently described the effect that carrying out executions has had on them. Frank Thompson (pictured), who served as a warden in Oregon and Arkansas, said he believed in capital punishment until he thought "about those flaws in the back of my mind that I knew existed with capital punishment. It’s being administered against the poor; it lacks proof that it deters anything." He trained his staff to carry out executions, but, "I realized that I was training decent men and women how to take the life of a human being. In the name of a public policy that after all these years couldn’t be shown to increase the net of public safety." Terry Collins spent over 32 years working in corrections, including time as the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He said seeing exonerations gave him concerns about the death penalty: "[T]the system does make mistakes. I don’t think you can make a mistake when you’re talking about somebody’s life." Jerry Givens, who oversaw 62 executions in Virginia, raised similar concerns, "I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row...You have two types of people on death row. The guilty and the innocent. And when when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row." Rev. Carroll Pickett was a chaplain on Texas's death row for 15 years and during 95 executions. He commented, "Standing by the gurney almost 100 times, and watching innocent men killed, watching repentant men killed, and seeing the pain among families and men and my employee friends, cannot leave my memories."

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