Clemency News and Developments: 2007
Kentucky Governor Commutes Death Sentence Before Leaving Office
Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky commuted the death sentence of Jeffrey D. Leonard for the 1983 murder of a Louisville store clerk before leaving office. Governor Fletcher reduced Leonard's death sentence to life without parole. He had been convicted under the name of James Earl Slaughter. The Governor noted in his commutation that Leonard was not provided with adequate representation and that Leonard’s attorney did not even know his client's real name during the trial. The governor’s general counsel, David Fleenor, stated, “We're not going to execute somebody who clearly was denied a basic right."
Governor Fletcher said he spent considerable time reviewing the almost 1,000 cases of individuals who requested pardons and commutations. "None of those decisions that we have to make are easy but I feel like I can lay my head down and say we've done our very best to carry out the duties of the governor till our last day," he said.
(“100 Get Pardons, Commutations GOP Governor’s Final Acts,” by John Stamper, Lexington Herald-Leader, December 11, 2007). See also Clemency and Representation. There have been 3 commutations of death sentences in 2007. There were none in 2006.
BACKGROUND ON RECENT COMMUTATION: "Grossly Inadequate" Representation in a System that "Broke Down"
Just two days after Tennessee's first electrocution in nearly 50 years, Governor Phil Bredesen (pictured) commuted the death sentence of Michael Joe Boyd to life in prison without parole. The Governor called the representation Boyd received during his appeals "grossly inadequate," adding that Boyd's claims were never comprehensively reviewed because his appellate attorney - Dan Seward - failed to provide evidence to support Boyd's initial claim that he was poorly represented during his trial. Bredesen observed, "I've always taken the position that I'm not trying to be the 13th juror; I'm trying to be a backstop. The judicial system just kind of broke down." Boyd's current attorney, Robert Hutton, said that Boyd's clemency request to Bredesen was one of the last legal avenues available before his scheduled execution on October 24.
Boyd, now known as Mika'eel Abdullah Abdus-Samad in prison, has been on death row since 1988. He was convicted of shooting William Price in 1986. Boyd claims the shooting was accidental, but he was convicted of felony murder in perpetration of a robbery. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld Boyd's death sentence in 1998, when the justices dismissed his claim that prosecutors improperly cited the murder itself as an aggravating factor to support their call for the death penalty.
"He is deeply grateful, thankful and deeply remorseful about his actions in his past. He's trying to spend the rest of his life making a positive contribution to society," Hutton said of Boyd.
(Associated Press, September 14, 2007). See Clemency.
Texas Governor Grants Rare Death Penalty Commutation
Just hours before tonight's (August 30) scheduled execution of Kenneth Foster, Governor Rick Perry (pictured) has accepted a Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommendation to stop Foster's execution and commute his sentence to life. Perry was not obligated to accept the highly unusual 6-1 recommendation from the board whose members he appoints. The commutation is the first of its kind in his eight years in office. The board decision was announced about seven hours before Foster was scheduled to die. Perry's announcement came about an hour later. "After carefully considering the facts of this case, along with the recommendations from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I believe the right and just decision is to commute Foster's sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment. I am concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously, and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine," Perry said.
Foster was sentenced to death under the Texas Law of Parties that permits a person involved in a crime to be held accountable for the actions committed by someone else. Foster was tried along with a co-defendant who actually shot the victim in this case. Two other co-defendants pled guilty and received lesser sentences after testifying in Foster's trial. In Foster's case, Texas maintained that he deserved the death penalty because he should have anticipated that a passenger in his vehicle, Mauriceo Brown, would exit the car with a weapon and fatally shoot the victim, Michael LaHood.
(Associated Press, August 30, 2007). Read Governor Perry's press announcement and statement about the commutation. See Arbitrariness and Clemency. Questions of Innocence Remain as Georgia Board Considers Davis' Clemency Request
UPDATE: After less than one hour of deliberation, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Troy Anthony Davis a 90-day stay of execution. The stay means Davis' execution will be on hold while the board weighs the evidence presented as part of his request for clemency. (Associated Press, July 16, 2007).
Today (July 16), on the eve of Georgia's scheduled execution of Troy Anthony Davis (pictured), the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles will consider whether Davis should be granted clemency because of new evidence about his possible innocence. More than two decades ago, Davis was convicted of killing an off-duty police officer in Savannah. With no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, prosecutors relied on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses to build their case against Davis. Since then, seven of the state's key eyewitnesses have recanted or changed their testimony, with some saying that their original statements were given only after police harassed them and pressured them to lie under oath. Some of the eyewitness say another man who testified against Davis during his trial, Sylvester Coles, is actually guilty of the crime.
Antonie Williams, one of the seven eyewitnesses calling for clemency in Davis' case, had identified Davis as the shooter during his original trial, but now states, "Even when I said that, I was totally unsure whether he was the person who shot the officer. I felt pressured to point at him because he was the one who was sitting in the courtroom." Despite Williams' admission and similar statements filed by other eyewitnesses in the case, courts have not held evidentiary hearings to consider Davis' innocence claim.
Concerns about the impact of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act governing federal review and growing uncertainties about Davis' guilt led retired FBI Director William Sessions to write an op-ed about the case for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the piece, Sessions noted, "It would be intolerable to execute an innocent man. It would be equally intolerable to execute a man without his claims of innocence ever being considered by the courts or by the executive." U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia shares Sessions' concerns about AEDPA and plans to testify on Davis' behalf during today's clemency hearing.
(New York Times, July 15, 2007). See Clemency, Innocence, and Upcoming Executions.
Possibly Mentally Retarded Man to be Executed in Texas, Where Almost All 2007 Executions Have Occurred
If James Lee Clark is executed in Texas on April 11, he will be the 12th Texas inmate executed out of 13 executions nationwide in 2007. According to some psychological tests, Clark has an IQ of 68 or lower, which is one of the common criteria for mental retardation. Clark's defense team has asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Texas Governor Rick Perry to halt the execution because of the likelihood that Clark suffers from mental retardation.
Clark is on death row for the 1993 murder of 17-year-old Shari Crews. A co-defendant in a related murder was given a 20-year sentence. During psychological testing administered by Dr. Denis Keyes in 2003, Clark's mental capacities were found to be at or below roughly 92% of the U.S. population. His adaptive skills level placed him well below 1% of the general population. Dr. Keyes said Clark's ability to conform his behavior to that expected of his same age group is "virtually nonexistent." Keyes observed that, "Individuals with mental retardation typically have severe deficits in judgment potential, and are simply unable to understand the consequences of their behaviors. People with mental retardation have several characteristics; among these are defective intellectual capacity, shorter attention spans, poor memory, poor planning ability, lack of ability to appreciate the consequences of their actions, severe learning problems, marked deficits in adaptive skill areas, and limited ability to learn from previous experience. James's background confirms problems with virtually every one of the above characteristics." Keyes concluded that Clark should be excluded from execution under both the Texas Mentally Retarded Persons Act and the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. (An earlier test had put Clark's IQ at 74, also close to the standard for mental retardation.)
(See Psychological Report filed by Dr. Denis W. Keyes, July 18, 2003, and Clark's Clemency Petition, March 21, 2007).
Clark's execution would be the 13th in the U.S. this year, with all but one occurring in Texas. A number of Texas death penalty cases have come under scrutiny this year by the courts. In the week following Clark's scheduled execution, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Panetti v. Quarterman, a Texas case that will determine whether mere awareness of one's crime can be equated with mental competence, or whether the person also needs to rationally understand what is taking place. The case will determine whether Scott Panetti, who was allowed to defend himself in his Texas trial despite his schizophrenia and 14 stints in mental hospitals, can be executed. See Mental Retardation and Upcoming Executions.