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Florida Supreme Court: More Than 200 Prisoners Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death May Get New Sentencing Hearing

More than 200 Florida death row prisoners may have their death sentences overturned, while more than 150 others who may have been unconstitutionally sentenced to death will not, as a result of two lengthy opinions issued by the Florida Supreme Court on December 22. The rulings in the cases of Asay v. State and Mosley v. State would entitle death row prisoners whose unconstitutional death sentences became "final" in or after 2002 to have their death sentences vacated in light of the decisions of the U.S. and Florida Supreme Courts in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State earlier in 2016, but would deny that relief to death row prisoners whose sentences had the same constitutional infirmity but had become final prior to 2002. In the case of Mark James Asay, the court recognized that Asay had been condemned under sentencing procedures that both it and the U.S. Supreme Court had found to be unconstitutional. It nevertheless held that he was not entitled to resentencing because he had completed the direct appeal process before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Ring v. Arizona requiring that "a jury, not a judge, [must] find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Even after the Ring decision, Florida courts continued to allow judges to find the facts necessary to sentence defendants to death; a jury would only recommend a sentence. In Asay's case, a jury recommended death by a 9-3 vote. Because his sentence was imposed in 1991 and became final before Ring, Asay was denied relief and the court lifted his stay of execution. In a second case, the Florida Supreme Court granted a new sentencing hearing to John Franklin Mosley—who was sentenced to death when the trial judge overrode the jury's 8-4 recommendation of a life sentence—because he was sentenced to death after Ring. In so holding, the court explained that "defendants who were sentenced to death based on a statute that was actually rendered unconstitutional by Ring should not be penalized for the United States Supreme Court’s delay in explicitly making this determination." The court limited its holding, however, only to those cases in which the constitutional violation was harmless. In order to be harmless, the court said "it must be clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have unanimously found all facts necessary to impose death and that death was the appropriate sentence." 

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

Death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty continued their historic declines in 2016, according to DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report," released on December 21. The 30 death sentences imposed this year are the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment in the U.S.—since the Supreme Court declared all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972—and declined 39% from 2015's already 40-year low. Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the fewest executions since 1991. Both death sentences and executions were increasingly geographically isolated. Two states—Georgia and Texas—accounted for 80% of executions, and more than half of all death sentences were imposed in just three states—California, Ohio, and Texas. Election results reflected America's deep divisions about the death penalty, as voters in three states decided to retain the death penalty or add it to the state constitution, while voters in five of the highest-use death penalty counties replaced prosecutors who strongly supported the death penalty with candidates who promised reform and reductions in capital prosecutions. Courts struck down practices in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oklahoma that had contributed to disproportionately high numbers of death sentences. “America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.” See DPIC's Press Release. Watch a short video summary of the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

Federal Jury Awards Illinois Death Row Exoneree $22 Million in Damages

A federal jury awarded $22 million in damages to Nathson Fields (pictured), who was wrongfully convicted of a gang-related murder and sentenced to death in 1986. Fields was exonerated in 2009. The jury found that two Chicago police detectives violated Fields' civil rights by hiding critical evidence that suggested he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted. For many years, the Chicago police department maintained a practice of keeping secret "street files" on potential suspects. That policy was officially terminated in 1983, after exposure by a whistleblower. The secret files were hidden in a storage basement where they would not be subject to subpoena. Despite the department's claims that it was no longer keeping such files, the jury found that at the time Fields was arrested and charged, the city had a pattern and practice of keeping the secret street files in homicide investigations even though it had officially disavowed the practice. Hundreds of street files were discovered in 2011, including one relating to Fields. Fields' file contained handwritten notes on alternate suspects and lineup cards that had been withheld from his attorneys at his trial. In addition to the $22 million award for which the city of Chicago is liable, the jury also assessed a total of $40,000 in punitive damages against Sgt. David O'Callaghan and Lt. Joseph Murphy personally, which the men may be required to pay themselves. At a press conference after the ruling, Fields described the despair he had felt during his time on death row, especially as he saw other prisoners taken to their executions. "I had times that I was under so much stress I didn't think I could take any more, so this day is very humbling, and I'm so happy," he said.

Directed to Reconsider its Death Penalty Statute, Alabama Appeals Court Upholds Constitutionality of 3 Death Sentences

Directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its rulings upholding the death sentences imposed upon four Alabama defendants, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed three of the death sentences on December 16.  The state court ruled that the death sentences imposed upon Ronnie Kirksey, Corey Wimbley, and Ryan Gerald Russell do not violate the Supreme Court's January 16, 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. It has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of the death sentence imposed on Bart Johnson in the fourth case. In Hurst, the Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” In that case, the Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing law, ruling that it unconstitutionally reserved for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. In late January, three Justices noted in connection with a decision denying a stay of execution to Alabama death-row prisoner Christopher Brooks that Hurst had overruled the decisions upon which the Court had relied in previously upholding Alabama's judge-sentencing statute. The Court later vacated the Alabama court's decisions upholding the four death sentences, sending them back to the Alabama courts for reconsideration in light of the Hurst decision. In August and October, the Delaware and Florida Supreme Courts ruled that other portions of their statutes that permitted judges to override jury recommendations of a life sentence or impose death sentences after a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation violated Hurst, leaving Alabama as the only state that continues to allow either practice. In issuing its opinions, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals distinguished its law from the Florida statute the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst, saying that as part of the decision finding a defendant guilty of capital murder, Alabama juries already unanimously find facts that prove a penalty-phase aggravating circumstance and make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Without addressing the rulings of the Delaware and Florida state courts, the court of appeals upheld Alabama's provisions allowing non-unanimous juries to recommend a death sentence and permitting judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence. The state court said that the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances is not a finding of fact, so Hurst does not apply to the jury's sentencing recommendation or the sentence ultimately imposed by the judge. It also noted that in Kirksey's and Russell's cases, the sentencing juries had unanimously recommended death.

Delaware Supreme Court Decision Paves Way to Clear State's Death Row

On December 15, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. State that death-row prisoner Derrick Powell will get the benefit of its August 2016 decision in Rauf v. State declaring Delaware's death sentencing statute unconstitutional. The court directed that Powell be resentenced to life without parole, in a ruling that also paves the way for resentencing Delaware's twelve other death row prisoners to life. The court's holding is based upon a legal principle called retroactivity. When the court decided Rauf, it determined that Delaware's capital sentencing statute violated due process and the Sixth Amendment in part because it did not require that the jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt all facts legally necessary to impose a death sentence. Applying Delaware law, the court held that Rauf was a type of legal ruling that should apply to all capital cases in which juries did not make such a finding because Rauf had announced a "new watershed procedural rule for capital proceedings that contributed to the reliability of the fact-finding process." The court explained that, prior to Rauf, Delaware capital defendants had been sentenced to death using a "preponderance of the evidence standard" in which the death penalty could be imposed if the prosecution proved that aggravating circumstances justifying the death penalty even slightly outweighed mitigating factors that could justify sparing the defendant's life. That burden of proof, the court said, was materially lower than if juries were required rule out the death penalty if any juror had reasonable doubt as to whether the aggravating evidence outweighed mitigation. In Powell's case, his jury, applying the lesser preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, voted 7-to-5 that aggravating factors outweighed mitigating factors and recommended a death sentence. Under the court's ruling, Powell's death sentence was automatically converted to a sentence of life without the possiblity of "probation or parole or any other reduction."  The Delaware Attorney General's office did not appeal the court's ruling in Rauf, which was based solely on the federal constitution, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because the Powell retroactivity decision is based on Delaware state law, it does not raise federal constitutional questions and would not be subject to review by the federal courts.

NEW VOICES: Latinos Increasingly Vocal in Opposition to Death Penalty

Juan Cartagena (pictured), President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF (formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund), says there is "a growing understanding" among Latinos in Florida and across the country "that the death penalty is broken and it can't be fixed." In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, Cartagena explains the reasons for Latino opposition to the death penalty, especially in Florida, which has a large Latino population and is home to Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Duval counties. Those four counties are among the 16 counties that have imposed the most death sentences in the U.S. over the past five years and, Cartagena writes, "[t]hey all suffer from prosecutor misconduct, bad defense lawyers, wrongful convictions and racial bias. In Miami-Dade County from 2010 to 2015, every single person sentenced to death was black or Latino." Cartagena particularly emphasizes the historical opposition to the death penalty among Puerto Ricans, of whom increasing numbers have moved to Florida in recent years. "Puerto Rico abolished the death penalty in 1929. Its constitution, drafted in 1952, states that 'the death penalty shall not exist.' Opposition to capital punishment is a part of our legacy." As a result, he writes, "Puerto Ricans in Florida are paying close attention" to the serious flaws in Florida's death penalty, including allowing non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences–a practice that was struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year. All these concerns, he says, are reflected in a nationwide "shift away from the death penalty" among Latinos. In the last two years, three major Latino organizations have made strong public statements against the death penalty. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition adopted a position against the death penalty in March 2015, contributing to a change in the National Association of Evangelicals' stance later that year. In June 2016, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda called for repeal of the death penalty, and in August, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution urging repeal.

Judge Finds Federal Death Penalty Arbitrary and Unreliable, But Leaves Constitutionality for Supreme Court to Decide

After a two-week long "extensive hearing regarding the unreliability and arbitrariness of the death penalty system, the excessive delay involved in executions, and the growing decline in the use of the death penalty," U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford (pictured) ruled in the case of U.S. v. Donald Fell that the Federal Death Penalty Act ("FDPA") "falls short of the [constitutional] standard . . . for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty," but nonetheless allowed Fell's capital trial to move forward. Fell, who is awaiting retrial by federal prosecutors in Vermont, had filed a motion asking the judge to find the death penalty unconstitutional under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. Judge Crawford wrote that, like the state statutes enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia, "the FDPA operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles." But while the court's order contained detailed findings suggesting the death penalty is arbitrarily and unreliably imposed, it stopped short of declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. "A federal trial judge is without authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority position at the Supreme Court," Judge Crawford wrote. "Changing forty years of decisional law raises questions that can only be settled by the Supreme Court itself." Judge Crawford found significant problems in numerous aspects of capital proceedings. He found that instead of redressing questions of bias, death penalty jury selection procedures are "a substantial part of the problem" and create as "inherent jury bias" by selecting "jury populations which stack the deck against defendants" in both the guilt/innocence and penalty phases of the trial. He found that "the death penalty continues to be imposed in an arbitrary manner," noting that where the "crime occurs is the strongest predictor of whether a death sentence will result" and "whether the murder victim is white" is also a signficant predictor. Judge Crawford explained that "the arbitrary qualities of the death penalty are most clearly visible through the narrative comparison of crimes which do and those which do not receive death sentences." There is, he said, no principled way to distinguish between which is which.

As Supreme Court Rejects Death Penalty Petitions, Justice Breyer Renews Call For Constitutional Review

In the span of one week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review petitions from six death row prisoners, denying them relief in their cases. The petitioners raised issues related to DNA procedures, conflict of counsel, a disputed guilty plea, juror bias, judicial override, and a previously botched execution attempt. In two of the cases, the Court allowed executions to proceed in Georgia and Alabama. The case of Ronald Smith left the Court deadlocked 4-4, with enough votes to grant review in his case, but not enough to halt his execution. On December 12, as the Court denied review in four other death penalty cases, Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured) authored a written dissent in the case of Florida death row prisoner Henry Perry Sireci indicating that he would have granted review to Sireci, Smith, and Ohio death row prisoner Rommell Broom to consider the constitutionality of the death penalty in the United States. Breyer wrote: "Individuals who are executed are not the 'worst of the worst' but, rather, are individuals chosen at random on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of individual prosecutors, or still worse on the basis of race. The time has come for this court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty." Breyer previously called for a consideration of capital punishment's constitutionality in his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, which was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Kagan also noted her dissent from the denial of certiorari in Broom's case. In 2009, Ohio attempted to execute Broom, but the execution was halted after two hours of repeated painful attempts to establish IV access failed, including striking Broom's bone with the execution needle. In his dissent, Justice Breyer noted that Sireci has been on death row "under threat of execution for 40 years. When he was first sentenced to death, the Berlin Wall stood firmly in place. Saigon had just fallen." Referencing Broom's petition, Breyer wrote that Sireci's was not "the only case during the last few months in which the Court has received, but then rejected, a petition to review an execution taking place in what [he] would consider especially cruel and unusual circumstances."  

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