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POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Originally Sentenced to Death, Brothers May Now Be Cleared in North Carolina

UPDATE: Both defendants freed after judge overturns convictions. EARLIER: Henry McCollum (l.) and Leon Brown (r.), two brothers who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1984, may soon be freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when they confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Both men are intellectually disabled - McCollum has an IQ in the 60s and Brown has scored as low as 49 on IQ tests. McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence since their trial, saying they were unaware they were signing a confession. “I’d never been under such pressure, people yelling and screaming at me,” McCollum said of his interrogation. “I was scared, and was just trying to get out of that police station and go home.” In 2010, Brown, who is now serving a life sentence for rape after his murder conviction was thrown out, contacted the Innocence Commission about his case. The Commission found DNA evidence near the crime scene belonging to another man, Roscoe Artis, who is on death row for a crime similar to the one for which McCollum and Brown were sentenced to death. On September 2, defense attorneys for Brown and McCollum will present the evidence and ask a Robeson County judge to free both men. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who is not opposing the request, said, “The whole case rests on the confessions, and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.”

NEW RESOURCES: Podcasts on Individual States

DPIC is beginning a new series of podcasts based on the history of the death penalty in each state. The series will first present the states that have ended the death penalty. Three podcasts, featuring Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine, are now available. These short audio clips summarize the history surrounding the repeal of the death penalty in those states, including famous cases, issues that spurred legislators to take action, and subsequent attempts at reinstatement of the death penalty. We hope this new series will be an excellent resource for students researching their state's history, and for anyone curious about how historical events shaped our present-day capital punishment system. Our earlier series of podcasts dealt with the many issues surrounding the death penalty. You can listen to these and all of our podcasts on our Podcasts page or by subscribing on iTunes.

Texas to Censor Its Autopsy Report in Botched Oklahoma Execution

After the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, Oklahoma officials sent his body to Texas for an independent autopsy. Now it appears that Texas will withhold important information revealed in the course of the autopsy from the public at Oklahoma's request. The autopsy was performed by the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office. Earlier, Michael Thompson, Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said the Lockett autopsy report would be made public. However, when a news organization requested the results of the autopsy, Oklahoma objected. Dallas County asked Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbot to rule on releasing the information. The attorney general sided with Oklahoma's request to keep certain items secret, including the identities of the drug preparer, doctors who were present at the execution, and other members of the execution team. Oklahoma wanted even more information to be kept secret, citing provisions of the Oklahoma Open Records Act, but Texas said other information generated during the autoposy, should be released.

VICTIMS: Troubling Aspects of the Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, a victim's family member in Missouri described her mixed feelings about the death penalty and the executions that have occurred there. Laura Friedman wrote, "Death penalty supporters talk of closure. That may work as a matter of process — execution rids the state and the justice system of any further involvement — but it is much more complicated for families of victims. Each envelope from the Department of Corrections, each anniversary when the crime is recounted in the paper, every discussion about the death penalty on TV — those are reopenings, not closings." Friedman said many aspects of the death penalty were disturbing: "I am troubled by the number of minorities on death row (more than half), by the preponderance of whites among their victims (about 80 percent, even though blacks and whites are victims in roughly equal numbers). I am troubled by the evidence that juries and judges make unconscionable mistakes (144 death-row inmates exonerated since 1973). And I am troubled by the pretense of execution as a medical procedure: As drug makers and medical personnel back away from participating in lethal injections, states are experimenting on condemned men with untested drug combinations and inadequately trained personnel while concealing the source, skills and methods used." She concluded with the uncertain hope that the process "will finally bring an end to killing in our lives."

Constitutionality of California's Death Penalty to be Reviewed in Higher Court

On July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney (pictured) held that the delays and arbitrariness of California's death penalty system rendered it  unconstitutional. Judge Carney vacated the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has spent nearly 20 years on death row. On August 21, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced the state will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Below are excerpts from Judge Carney's ruling:

  • The Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment by the state. Although reasonable people may debate whether the death penalty offends that proscription, no rational person can question that the execution of an individual carries with it the solemn obligation of the government to ensure that the punishment is not arbitrarily imposed and that it furthers the interests of society. 
  • Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.

News Organizations Sue Oklahoma to View Entire Execution Process

A lawsuit filed in federal court in Oklahoma on August 25 by various news organizations, including the Oklahoma Observer and the Guardian US, seeks to give media witnesses a more complete view of executions than is currently allowed. The petition alleges that the right to witness the entire execution is protected by the First Amendment, stating, "The ability of the press to witness the particular facts and circumstances of each execution, and to report on the same, promotes the proper functioning of the State’s death penalty system and increases public confidence in the integrity of the justice system." Current practice in Oklahoma only permits witnesses to begin watching once officials start administering the lethal injection drugs. The view of witnesses is blocked while the inmate is strapped to the gurney and intravenous lines are inserted. During Clayton Lockett's botched execution in April, the blinds were closed again when Lockett began to writhe and groan after the drugs should have taken effect. Katie Fretland, a reporter who attended Lockett's execution and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said,  “At an execution, the press serves as the public’s eyes and ears. The government shouldn’t be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong. The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials.”

Ohio Had Warnings About Lethal Drugs; State's Expert Witness Withdraws

After Ohio's two-hour attempted execution of Rommel Broom (pictured) in 2009, it explored alternative methods, including an intramuscular injection of midazolam and hydromorphone. Gregory Trout, an attorney with the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction expressed concerns to Dr. Mark Dershwitz, the state's expert witness on lethal injections, about whether these drugs would result in “gasping for air in a hyperventilating fashion, with eyes still open,” and whether it “would create the appearance, at least, of suffering, which would upset witnesses and inspire litigation.” Dr. Dershwitz said such reactions were unlikely. However, Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist at Columbia University, warned the drugs could create “a terrible, arduous, tormenting execution that is also an ugly visual and shameful spectacle.” Ultimately, the drugs were not used intramuscularly but rather injected into the veins of Dennis McGuire in January 2014, resulting in a prolonged execution in which the prisoner struggled and clenched his fists for an extended period. The same drugs were used in the recent two-hour execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona. Dr. Dershwitz, who had served as an expert on lethal injection for 22 states and the federal government, recently withdrew from further involvement as an expert because Ohio had mischaracterized him as a "consultant."

NEW VOICES: Bi-Partisan Support for Death Penalty Repeal Growing in Kansas

The Republican Liberty Caucus of Kansas has officially announced its opposition to the death penalty. The Caucus chair, Dave Thomas, said, “Any time you give the government a power that can be abused, it will or may be abused in the future. And taking a citizen's life is kind of the ultimate power the government can have.” The Caucus joined several Republcan legislators, such as Sen. Carolyn McGinn and Rep. Steve Becker, in supporting repeal of capital punishment. The Kansas Republican Party chose to omit a death-penalty stance from of its platform this year, leaving it as "a matter of individual conscience." The Kansas Libertarian Party opposes the death penalty. In 2013, a repeal bill sponsored by two Republicans and one Democrat received hearings, but was not passed. Kansas has 10 people on death row but has not had an execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1994.

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