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60 Minutes to Air Segment on Arizona's Botched Execution of Joseph Wood

Posted: November 27, 2015

On Sunday, November 29, CBS's 60 Minutes will air a segment on Arizona's 2-hour botched execution of Joseph Wood (pictured). As described by 60 Minutes, Wood's "execution with a new cocktail of drugs was supposed to take 10 minutes. It took almost two hours, the longest execution in U.S. history." On July 23, 2014, Arizona gave Wood 15 consecutive doses of midazolam and hydromorphone, the same drug combination that had been used in the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio six months earlier. Witnesses to Wood's execution reported that he gasped and snorted more than 600 times during the 2-hour procedure. Prison officials had estimated that the drugs would take about 10 minutes to kill Wood. Prior to the execution, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had ordered the state to release information about the source of the drugs and the training of those who would carry it out, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision and allowed the execution to proceed under a veil of secrecy. Dale Baich, one of Wood's attorneys, said, "I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this. Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long." 60 Minutes airs at 7:30 pm Eastern, 7:00 pm Pacific on CBS.


Death Row Exoneree Anthony Graves Seeks to Right the "Injustice of the Justice System"

Posted: November 25, 2015

Death row exoneree Anthony Graves (pictured, right, with Sen. Richard Durbin after testifying before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights in 2012) has experienced what he calls the "injustice of the justice system" and is working to make the system better. Graves was exonerated from death row in Texas in 2010, 16 years after being wrongfully convicted in a multiple murder case. Using some of the $1.5 in compensation that he was awarded for his wrongful imprisonment, Graves created the Anthony Graves Foundation with a mission "to promote fairness and effect reform in the criminal justice system." Now, he is advocating for broad criminal justice reforms to redress not only problems with the death penalty, but with questionable forensic evidence, racially disparate sentencing, the imprisonment of people with mental illness or drug addictions, and laws that unnecessarily require jail time or carry harsh mandatory minimum sentences. In an interview with Voice of America, Graves said, referring to the Texas criminal justice system: "You tried to murder me and I want to stay in your face every day to remind you that we need to do better." He described his advocacy, saying, "I use my story to educate people, but more importantly, keep it on people’s minds about the injustice that is going on in our criminal justice system." 


AMERICAN VALUES SURVEY: Majority of Americans Prefer Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

Posted: November 24, 2015

A majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty, according to the 2015 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. The poll of 2,695 Americans found that 52% preferred life without parole, while 47% preferred the death penalty. The poll found that respondents' views on capital punishment tracked their views about racial justice and differed greatly by race. 53% of all Americans agreed with the statement, "A black person is more likely than a white person to receive the death penalty for the same crime," while 45% disagreed. But 82% of blacks and 59% of Hispanics agreed with the statement, while fewer than half (45%) of whites agreed. Only 37% of those who saw racial disparities in the application of the death penalty supported capital punishment, while the death penalty drew support from 59% of those who disagreed that blacks were more likely than whites to receive death sentences. White Americans' views on this question differed greatly by social class, with 54% of college-educated whites saying blacks were more likely than whites to receive the death penalty and 58% of white working-class Americans saying this was not the case. Views about the perceived fairness of the death penalty also split sharply along partisan lines. 64% of Republicans disagreed with the statement on racial disparities, as compared to 28% of Democrats. Independents were evenly divided. Overall, about two-thirds (65%) of Democrats said they preferred life without parole, while 67% of Republicans said they preferred the death penalty.  


Caddo Parish Elects First Black District Attorney As Spotlight Shines on Death Penalty and Jury Selection Controversies

Posted: November 23, 2015

Caddo Parish, Louisiana, known nationally for its aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, has elected its first black District Attorney. In a November 21 runoff election conducted against the backdrop of controversial remarks about the death penalty by the current DA and a threatened civil rights lawsuit over systemic racial discrimination by Caddo Parish prosecutors in jury selection, former judge James E. Stewart, Sr. defeated current Caddo Parish prosecutor Dhu Thompson, 55% to 45%. Ten days before the election, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center announced that it intends to sue Caddo Parish over the District Attorney's office's practice of striking black citizens from juries at three times the rate of other jurors. James Craig, co-director of the New Orleans-based non-profit law center, called the racially-biased jury strikes "a blight on our criminal justice system." A recent study by the human rights group Reprieve Australia had revealed that Caddo prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors but only 15% of other jurors. (Click image to enlarge.) The study showed that Thompson's exercise of juror challenges was even more racially disproportionate, striking more than half of all prospective black jurors but fewer than 1 in 6 of all other jurors. Craig said that the announcement of the suit was not intended to influence the election: "This is not a problem of one person. This is a culture that needs to be acknowledged and changed...In the absence of concrete, specific changes in the office’s culture and approach to jury selection, this practice will continue under the administration of either of the two final candidates for district attorney. For this reason, no matter who prevails in the special election this month, the MacArthur Justice Center will proceed with the federal civil rights lawsuit that we are preparing to file." The suit is seeking an injunction to block practices that result in under-representation of blacks on juries. In his election-night victory remarks, Stewart pledged "to bring professionalism and ethics back to the district attorney’s office." 


POLL: Majority of Oklahomans Favor Replacing Death Penalty With Life Without Parole Plus Restitution

Posted: November 20, 2015

A majority of Oklahoma voters favor abolition of the death penalty if it is replaced with a sentence of life without parole plus restitution, according to a new poll commissioned by News 9/News on 6. The survey by the non-partisan SoonerPoll.com found that 52.4% of Oklahomans would support abolition of the death penalty if the state replaced its system of capital punishment with the alternative sanction of life without parole, plus a requirement that the inmates pay restitution to victims' families. Nearly a third of respondents (30.5%) said they would "strongly support" abolition if this alternative punishment option were offered. The gap between support for replacing the death penalty versus retaining it as is was more than 18 percentage points, with 34.0% of respondents saying they would oppose abolition. A poll commissioned by The Oklahoman in October that asked the general question whether Oklahomans supported or opposed the death penalty reported that 67% of Oklahomans expressed support for the death penalty, down from 74% support reported in a 2014 poll by the Tulsa World. The Oklahoman poll showed that, at the same time, half of Oklahomans favored a moratorium on the state's death penalty. “A lot of people are in support of the death penalty right now, because they were never given an alternative,” said Bill Shapard, founder of SoonerPoll.com. “Right now the death penalty is really the only alternative to those who have committed some of the worst crimes in our society. But yet, now we are given an alternative, people are open to that.” The results of the Oklahoma polls are consistent with national polls, which find that respondents say they support the death penalty in the abstract, but prefer life without parole over the death penalty when offered a choice between the two.


5 Georgia Executions Emblematic of Systemic Problems With State's Death Penalty

Posted: November 19, 2015

Georgia is scheduled to execute Marcus Johnson (pictured) on November 19 despite ongoing concerns about his innocence. The execution would be Georgia's fifth since December 2014 - each raising serious questions about systemic problems in Georgia's application of the death penalty. In a commentary for The Marshall Project, Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, says these cases "are emblematic" of death sentences imposed before Georgia's statewide capital defense office opened in 2005 and "encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia." In December 2014, Georgia executed Robert Wayne Holsey, whose drunk lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence that Holsey had an IQ of 70 and had been seriously abused as a child. The lawyer was later imprisoned and disbarred for misconduct in another case. Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran with bi-polar disorder who was declared 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration as a result of combat-related PTSD, was executed in January, the first U.S. execution in 2015. The jury was never heard details of Brannan's military service or disability. Two weeks later, Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man with intellectual disabilities. A judge found that Hill had proven his disability by a "preponderance of the evidence," the standard of proof required by every other death penalty state, but Georgia requires defendants to prove intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Even after the state's doctors admitted that Hill met this higher standard, the state and federal courts refused to consider this evidence on technical procedural grounds and Hill was executed. Kelly Gissendaner's execution in September hghlighted a different type of arbitrariness: she was executed for planning to murder her husband, while her boyfriend, who actually committed the killing, made a deal with prosecutors to serve a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in seven years. Finally, Marcus Johnson's case raises concerns that Georgia may be executing an innocent man. The DNA evidence from the murder scene that was tested was inconclusive, other blood evidence was not tested, and none of Johnson's DNA was found on or in the car where the victim's body was found. The trial judge wrote to the Georgia Supreme Court that the evidence in Johnson's case "does not foreclose all doubt respecting the defendant’s guilt."


Texas Inmate Faces Execution After Appeals Lawyers Abandon His Case

Posted: November 18, 2015

Raphael Holiday (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Texas on November 18 after appeals lawyers who were appointed to his case unilaterally decided not to seek clemency or pursue additional appeals and then opposed Holiday's efforts to replace them with lawyers who would. James "Wes" Volberding and Seth Kretzer say that they were unable to find new evidence on which to base any appeal and that seeking clemency from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would give Holiday "false hope" and is pointless. When another attorney, Gretchen Sween, stepped in to help Holiday find new counsel, his current attorneys opposed her efforts to replace them. They then filed a clemency petition prepared so hastily that it twice gives the wrong execution date. The lawyers say they were exercising professional discretion in abandoning efforts to spare Holiday's life, but death penalty experts assert that counsel are required to pursue all available avenues to stop a client's execution. Stephen Bright, a Yale law professor and president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said that in decades of practice in capital cases he has never seen appointed lawyers fight so vigorously to prevent their client from retaining new counsel. "This seems unconscionable," he said. "Lawyers are often in a position of representing people for whom the legal issues are not particularly strong, but nevertheless they have a duty to make every legal argument they can." Jim Marcus, a University of Texas law professor and veteran death penalty lawyer, agreed that Holiday's attorneys are legally required to continue pursuing appeals: "There’s a difference between saying that’s not a viable strategy or viable claim and abandoning an entire proceeding altogether. The latter is not really permissible ...."


Forensic Pseudoscience and the Death Penalty

Posted: November 17, 2015

In light of the FBI's acknowledgement in April that flawed forensic testimony by its expert hair-comparison analysts had tainted at least 268 cases, including 32 death penalty cases, forensic science is coming under increased scrutiny. A commentary in the Boston Review argues that "mounting horror stories," including instances of crime-lab "corruption and dysfunction, have created a moment of crisis in forensic science." Referencing "scores of individual cases in which forensic science failures have led to wrongful convictions" and highlighting the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas based upon scientifically invalid arson testimony, the commentary questions the continued high degree of confidence accorded forensic science testimony in the courts. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) sharply critiqued many of the techniques used by forensic examiners, saying, "Many forensic tests—such as those used to infer the source of tool marks or bite marks—have never been exposed to stringent scientific scrutiny." Even widely-accepted practices like fingerprint matching had no mechanism for independent confirmation, relying entirely on the examiner's opinion. Ultimately, the NAS report concluded, "With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis . . . no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source." Yet even DNA evidence can be tainted by faulty practices or intentional malfeasance. Close affiliations between forensic laboratories and police or prosecutors raise concerns of bias. As former FBI investigator Frederic Whitehurst put it, forensic scientists can "run into a sledgehammer" when their findings contradict the theory that prosecutors are trying to advance.


U.S. on Track for Fewest Executions, New Death Sentences in a Generation

Posted: November 16, 2015

Both executions and new death sentences in the United States are on pace for significant declines to their lowest levels in a generation, Reuters reports. With 25 executions conducted so far this year, and only two more scheduled, the United States could have its lowest number of executions since 1991, significantly below the peak of 98 executions in 1999. Only 8 states have carried out executions in the last two years, down from a high of 20, also in 1999. New death sentences, which peaked at 315 in 1996, declined to 73 last year, and that number is expected to drop even further this year. The slowdowns in executions and new death sentences are just two of several indicators that the U.S. is moving away from capital punishment. Reuters reports that these changes come from a combination of factors, including the high cost of death penalty cases, the recent problems surrounding lethal injection, and improved capital representation in high-use states. Texas and Virginia, two of the death penalty states that historically have been the most aggressive in carrying out executions, stand out as examples of the punishment's declining use. Both states have implemented major reforms in indigent defense in recent years, producing dramatic changes in the death penalty landscape. In Texas, which had 48 death sentences in 1999, juries have handed down only three death sentences so far this year. Virginia, which has executed the highest percentage of death row inmates of any state, is on track to have no death sentences for the fourth consecutive year.


Appeals Court Overturns Challenge to California Death Penalty on Procedural Grounds

Posted: November 13, 2015

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has overturned a California federal district court decision that had declared California's death penalty unconstitutional, saying that the issue presented "a novel constitutional rule" that was beyond the power of the federal courts to address in a habeas corpus proceeding. The appeals court did not address the constitutionality of California's death penalty, saying that because of technical procedural rules "we may not assess the substantive validity of [this] claim." U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney had ruled in 2014 in the case of Ernest D. Jones that the lengthy delays and arbitrariness in California's death penalty system rendered it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Judge Susan P. Graber (pictured), who wrote the 9th Circuit's decision, said, "Many agree with petitioner that California’s capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary." However, she said "the purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing re-examination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine." California has the largest death row in the nation, but has carried out only 13 executions since 1978, and none since 2006. Jones has been on California's death row since 1995. The appeals court decision sends the case back to the district court to address other challenges to the constitutionality of Jones' conviction and death sentence that Judge Carney did not decide when he declared California's death penalty unconstitutional.