What's New

Pennsylvania Death Row Inmate Granted New Trial on Innocence-Related Claims; Capitally-Charged Inmate Exonerated

Posted: August 24, 2016

Two Philadelphia, Pennsylvania capital cases involving men who have long asserted their innocence reached major milestones on August 23, with one winning an appeal granting him a new trial and a jury acquitting a second in his retrial. Both cases involved allegations of serious police and prosecutorial misconduct. James Dennis (pictured), who has been on the Commonwealth's death row for nearly 25 years, was granted a new trial by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit after prosecutors withheld evidence that supported his claims of innocence. Anthony Wright, who was capitally tried but received a sentence of life without parole when the jury split 7 for death, 5 for life on the penalty verdict, was exonerated after 25 years. Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a 17-year-old in Philadelphia. The full federal appeals court voted 9-4 on Tuesday to uphold a district court ruling granting Dennis a new trial, reversing an earlier decision by a three-judge appellate panel. Writing for the majority, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell said, "Evidence suppressed by the prosecution—a receipt corroborating Dennis' alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder—effectively gutted the Commonwealth's case against Dennis. The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court." On the same day, a jury acquitted Anthony Wright in a retrial for another 1991 Philadelphia murder. Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty when Wright was convicted in1993, but did not pursue the death penalty after agreeing that DNA evidence entitled Wright to a new trial. DNA testing of semen found at the crime scene excluded Wright and identified another perpetrator who recently died in prison in South Carolina. Wright's attorneys say police pressured him into signing a confession and falsely claimed that a set of bloody clothes they reportedly "found" in Wright's bedroom in his mother's house belonged to Wright, when in fact they belonged to the victim and contained DNA from the actual killer. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said "DNA testing proved not only that Mr. Wright is absolutely innocent but also that law enforcement fabricated evidence against him." Grace Greco, the jury forewoman for Wright's retrial, said, "I'm angry. The evidence was there that he did not commit this crime. The city should never have brought this case. I'm just happy that today's verdict will let Tony move on with the rest of his life."

 

New Study Explores "Systemic Deficiencies" in High-Use Death Penalty Counties

Posted: August 23, 2016

As states and counties across the United States are using the death penalty with decreasing frequency, a new report issued by the Fair Punishment Project on August 23 explores the outlier practices of 16 U.S. counties that are bucking the national trend and disproportionally pursuing capital punishment. These jurisdictions, representing one-half of one percent of all U.S. counties or county equivalents, are the only locales in the United States to have imposed five or more death sentences since 2010. Six of the counties are in Alabama and Florida, the only two states that still permit non-unanimous death verdicts. Five are located in highly-populated Southern California counties that have been the focus of repeated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The others include Caddo (LA), Clark (NV), Dallas (TX), Harris (TX) and Maricopa (AZ), all of which have been criticized for systemic inequities in their administration of the death penalty. Part one of the report examines the "systemic deficiencies" that contribute to the high number of death sentences in these counties and provides detailed analysis of the circumstances in 8 of the counties (a second part of the study, examining the remaining 8 counties, will be released in September). The report finds that these counties frequently share at least three types of structural failings: "a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion." The study found that these in turn "regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities." 

 

New Poll Finds "Strong Majority" of Floridians Prefer Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

Posted: August 22, 2016

A recent poll by researcher Craig Haney, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California - Santa Cruz, has found that a "strong majority" of Florida respondents prefer life without parole to the death penalty for people convicted of murder, even as many harbor continuing misconceptions about capital punishment that would predispose them to support the death penalty. In Haney's survey of more than 500 jury-eligible respondents who were asked to choose between Florida's statutorily available sentencing options, 57% chose life without parole, while 43% chose the death penalty, as the appropriate punishment for a person convicted of murder. The preference for life held true, Haney said, across racial groups, genders, educational levels, and religious affiliation. The Florida results are consistent with recent polls in other death penalty states, such as Kentucky and Oklahoma. Dr. Haney found that Floridians held two common misconceptions about the death penalty that affected their views on the issue: 68.9% mistakenly believed that the death penalty was cheaper than life without parole, and 40.2% mistakenly believed that people sentenced to life without parole would be released from prison. Haney said "support for the death penalty plummeted" to 29% if the life sentencing option was combined with a requirement that these prisoners be required to pay restitution to victims' families. In addition, when Floridians were given the option of diverting the $1 million per case currently spent on the death penalty to investigate unsolved rapes and murders, only one quarter still supported capital punishment. Dr. Haney's research also found that a majority of Floridians oppose the death penalty for defendants with serious mental illness, do not believe the death penalty is a deterrent, and agree that most religious opinion opposes capital punishment. Haney said asking people simply if they support the death penalty is inadequate because "[t]hat question offers a limited and often flawed snapshot of voter attitudes, capturing only abstract support or opposition, but failing to expose strong preferences and deeper pragmatic thinking."

 

Diverse Range of Voices Call for Sparing Jeff Wood, Who Never Killed Anyone, from Execution in Texas

Posted: August 19, 2016

As his August 24 execution date approaches, Jeffrey Wood's case has garnered mounting attention from groups and individuals calling on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott to commute Wood's sentence. These diverse voices include a conservative Texas state representative, a group of evangelical leaders, and the editorial boards of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and several Texas newspapers, among others. Wood (pictured) was convicted under Texas' "law of parties," but he neither killed nor intended for anyone to be killed and, his supporters say, was not even aware the robbery in which a codefendant killed a store clerk was going to occur. His trial also featured misleading testimony from Dr. James Grigson, who had been expelled from psychiatric associations because of his unethical testimony regarding the potential future dangerousness of capital defendants. Republican state representative Jeff Leach, a long-time death penalty supporter, said "Jeffery Lee Wood’s case has caught my attention unlike any death row inmate in my time in office has. ...I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence. I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything." Leach has spoken with Gov. Abbott's office and the parole board about the case and is urging other legislators to contact the board in support of commutation before the board votes on Wood's clemency petition on Monday. Gov. Abbott also received a petition from a group of evangelical Christian leaders, who said "Our faith compels us to speak out in this case, where a looming execution date threatens the life of an individual with significant mental impairments who never should have been sentenced to death." The 49 religious leaders also noted the disproportionality of Wood's sentence: "As the getaway driver, Wood committed a crime, but not one deserving the death penalty." A New York Times editorial also urged clemency for Wood and sharply critiqued the law of parties. "The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is," it said. "The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared." Wood's supporters say they will deliver a petition to Gov. Abbott and the parole board Friday with thousands of signatures seeking commutation of Wood's sentence. Texas last commuted a death sentence in 2007 in the case of Kenneth Foster, a getaway driver who, like Wood, had been convicted under the law of parties. [UPDATE: On August 19, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution to permit Wood to litigate his claims that the prosecution had presented false scientific evidence and that the use of false testimony from Dr. Grigson violated due process.]

 

Defense Attorney Retires from Capital Practice After No Acquittals in 40 Years and 21 Clients Sent to Death Row

Posted: August 18, 2016

Harris County, Texas has sent more people to death row than any other county in the United States and Jerry Guerinot (pictured) was defense counsel for twenty-one of them. His death-sentenced clients included two who were juveniles at the time of the crime and another who was later freed after prosecutors dropped charges against him. Labeled by some as "the worst lawyer in the United States," in forty years of practice, none of Guerinot's capital murder clients was acquitted. Now, after decades of criticism, Guerinot says he will no longer take capital cases. Guerinot asserts that his record is a by-product of the cases he was assigned: "My theory is if they are the sorriest of the worst or the very worst, I got 'em. Somebody's got to defend - 'defend' is the wrong word - represent these people." Other attorneys, however, say he did not adequately represent his clients. "I wouldn't be here if I had better counse," Linda Carty, a British national who was one of Guerinot clients, said. "I met this guy for less than 15 minutes. Once." Although investigative assistance was available from the British consulate, Guerinot never sought it, she says. Guerinot also served as top assistant to the lead attorney for Duane Buck, whose appeal will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall based upon defense counsel's use of a psychologist who told Buck's sentencing jury that he was more likely to pose a future danger to society because he is Black. Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said defense counsel sat silent as their witness provided racially-biased testimony against their client and "never objected to the prosecution's questions or arguments ... that skin color, race, makes someone more likely to be dangerous in the future." Jim Marcus, co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas, noted that Guerinot had four separate clients sentenced to death in a seven-month period in 1996. "It is unthinkable that a defense attorney would try four separate death penalty cases to verdict in the space of seven months," he said. Veteran capital defense lawyer and University of Houston law professor David Dow told the New York Times in 2010 that the large number of death sentences imposed on Guerinot's clients reflected a failure to conduct simple investigations. "He doesn't even pick the low-hanging fruit which is hitting him in the head as he's walking under the tree," Dow said. Guerinot said, "I'm there to ensure they get a fair shake. And, by God, there ain't one of them that didn't."

 

Equal Justice Initiative Memorial Highlights Links Between Lynching and Death Penalty

Posted: August 17, 2016

The Equal Justice Initiative has announced plans to construct a Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama to commemorate the victims of terror lynchings in the American South. In a New Yorker profile of EJI executive director Bryan Stevenson, Jeffrey Toobin describes EJI's criminal defense work and the genesis of the lynching memorial. "There’s no question that we have a long history of seeing people through [a] lens of racial difference. It’s a direct line from slavery to the treatment of black suspects today, and we need to acknowledge the shamefulness of that history,” Stevenson says. “Our society applies a presumption of dangerousness and guilt to young black men, and that’s what leads to wrongful arrests and wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences." EJI's groundbreaking book, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, has documented hundreds of previously unacknowledged lynchings across the South. Stevenson and other scholars link the history of lynchings to the use of the death penalty today. Professor Jordan Steiker of the University of Texas at Austin said, “In one sense, the death penalty is clearly a substitute for lynching. One of the main justifications for the use of the death penalty, especially in the South, was that it served to avoid lynching. The number of people executed rises tremendously at the end of the lynching era. And there’s still incredible overlap between places that had lynching and places that continue to use the death penalty.” The peace memorial, which EJI hopes to open in in 2017, will contain a suspended column representing each U.S. county in which a lynching has been documented. Volunteers have traveled across the American South collecting soil from each known lynching site for inclusion in the memorial. In addition to the permanent columns, there will be a removeable column for each county, which EJI will encourage local jurisdictions to return to their home counties to display as an acknowledgment of their history. “We’re going to create a space where you can walk and spend time and go through that represents these lynchings," Stevenson said, "But, more than that, we’re going to challenge every county in this country where a lynching took place to come and claim a memorial piece—and to erect it in their county.”

 

Delaware Attorney General Will Not Appeal Decision Striking Down Death Penalty Statute

Posted: August 16, 2016

Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn (pictured) announced on August 15 that his office will not appeal the Delaware Supreme Court's August 2 decision in Benjamin Rauf v. State of Delaware, which struck down the state's death penalty statute. In Rauf, the court found that Delaware's capital sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, by granting judges, rather than juries, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven all facts necessary to impose the death penalty. Delaware's statute had not required a unanimous jury determination of all aggravating circumstances that were considered in sentencing a defendant to death or a unanimous jury finding that those reasons for death outweighed mitigating circumstances. The Rauf decision intensifies the national spotlight on Alabama and Florida as the only states that still permit judges to impose death sentences after non-unanimous jury recommendations for death and on Alabama as the only remaining state to permit a judge to override a jury's life verdict. The statement of the attorney general's office said Denn "has concluded that even if the United States Supreme Court reversed the opinion on Federal Constitutional grounds, ... the Delaware Supreme Court would ultimately invalidate Delaware’s current death penalty statute based on the Constitution of the State of Delaware." Litigating those issues, he said, "would likely take years" and "would likely not only bring about the same result, but would also deny the families of victims sentencing finality." The statement indicated that state prosecutors would challenge the application of Rauf to the thirteen prisoners currently on Delaware's death row, leaving their status uncertain. For future cases, legislative action is now the only route to reinstating the death penalty in Delaware. Such action seems unlikely, given that it must be approved by both houses of the legislature and by the Governor. However, death penalty abolition bills passed the state Senate in 2013 and 2015, and narrowly failed in the House earlier this year, and Governor Jack Markell has expressed support for abolishing the death penalty and "applaud[ed] the Supreme Court's finding that the state's death penalty law is unconstitutional."

 

STUDIES: Nebraska's Death Penalty Costs $14.6 Million Per Year

Posted: August 15, 2016

A new study of Nebraska's death penalty found that the state spends $14.6 million per year to maintain its capital punishment system. The study, The Economic Impact of the Death Penalty on the State of Nebraska: A Taxpayer Burden?, also estimates that each death penalty prosecution cost Nebraska's taxpayers about $1.5 million more than a life without parole prosecution. At a press conference announcing the study, principal investigator Dr. Ernest Goss—an economics professor at Creighton University and founder of the conservative think tank, Goss & Associates—presented the findings as a strong economic argument in favor of retaining Nebraska's recent repeal of the death penalty. Nebraska voters will decide in November whether to keep the repeal bill, which was passed by the legislature in May 2015 over the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts, or overturn the legislature's decision and reinstate the death penalty. "If economics is your major factor, you should vote to retain," Dr. Goss said. He explained that conducting the study had altered his own views on capital punishment, which he supported before he learned about the economic costs. 1,842 homicides were committed in Nebraska between 1973 and 2014, with prosecutors seeking death 119 times and obtaining 33 death sentences. Of those sentenced to death, the study found that 13 had their sentences reduced, six died in prison, three were executed, one sentence was vacated, and ten are still appealing their sentences. Examining costs on a national level, the study said that death penalty states spend about 3.54% of overall state budgets on criminal justice, while states without the death penalty spend about 2.93%. On average, the death penalty costs a state $23.2 million more per year than alternative sentences. The study was commissioned by the organization Retain a Just Nebraska, which supports retaining the Nebraska legislature's repeal of the state's death penalty. (Click image to enlarge.)

 

Death Row Exoneree Requests DOJ Investigation of Systemic Prosecutorial Misconduct in Louisiana

Posted: August 12, 2016

Louisiana death row exoneree John Thompson (pictured, center), who was wrongly convicted of two different New Orleans murders as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, has filed a petition with the United States Department of Justice seeking an investigation of more than 100 cases prosecuted by former Orleans Parish assistant district attorney James Williams. Thompson filed his petition on August 2 under provisions of the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute, which makes it a violation of federal law for police or prosecutors to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives individuals of their constitutional rights. Thompson's petition alleges that Williams "grossly violated his duty, the power entrusted to him and the constitutional rights of countless defendants he prosecuted," including five cases in which death sentences Williams obtained were later overturned for official misconduct. Thompson was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in 1985. He was exonerated in 2003 after his attorney uncovered crucial blood analysis evidence that had been improperly withheld by the Orelans Parish District Attorney's office. In 2007, a jury awarded him $14 million in damages in a suit he filed against the prosecutor's office, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that award by a 5-4 vote in 2011, expanding the scope of individual prosecutorial immunity and finding that Thompson had not proven that the district attorney’s office itself was responsible for the individual prosecutors' negligence. In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "What happened here . . . was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish." Thompson said his new petition was prompted in part by concern for defendants who were prosecuted by Williams but did not receive a death sentence. "I was blessed to be on Death Row because it gave me access to attorneys, who eventually proved my innocence," he said. "If I weren't given a death sentence, I'd still be in Angola. My question is: What happened to the 95 or more men who Williams prosecuted but didn't get a death sentence? Where are they now?" Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said that New Orleans has the highest exoneration rate per capita in the country. Despite that fact, she said, "no state entity has taken it upon themselves to identify that this is a problem."

 

NEW VOICES: Latino Evangelical Leaders Call For End to Capital Punishment

Posted: August 11, 2016

Leaders of national Latino evangelical groups are calling for an end to the death penalty, citing both religious convictions and practical concerns about the fairness of capital punishment. Reverend Gabriel Salguero (pictured), founder of the Latino Evangelical Coalition, said, “Given studies on how the death penalty is meted out, particularly for people of color, if it’s not a level playing field, we need to speak out. ... The needle has moved for Latinos and evangelicals." According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Latinos comprise a growing portion of the nation's death rows, increasing from 11% in 2000 to 13.5% in 2010, with half of the new Latino death row inmates coming from California. A 2014 study of California jurors found that white jurors were more likely to impose death sentences if defendants were Latino and poor. Another California study found that the odds that a capital defendant would be sentenced to death were were more than triple for those convicted of killing whites than for those convicted of killing blacks and more than 4 times greater than for defendants convicted of killing Latinos. "There’s been a shift, not just attributed to religion, but a heightened understanding of the death penalty and its implicit bias in the criminal justice system," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Salguero summarized the religious backing for opposition to the death penalty, saying, "The gospel teaches us that crime has a place, but God has the last word....Christ was an innocent man who was executed. If there’s a possibility that we execute one innocent person we should have pause."

 

Pages