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Texas Executions Drop to Lowest Level in 20 Years

Posted: October 13, 2016

Texas is poised to have the fewest number of executions in 20 years. As of October, the state has executed seven prisoners in 2016, with just one more execution scheduled this calendar year. The total would mark the fewest executions in the state in any year since 1996. In that year, three people were executed, as legal challenges to a new state law billed as speeding up appeals put most executions on hold. Fifteen execution dates for 11 people have been stayed or halted in Texas this year. Several of those, most notably the case of Jeffrey Wood, hinged on questions about "junk science" testimony. Wood's execution was stayed to permit review of claims that his death sentence was a product of false psychiatric testimony from James Grigson, who earned the nickname "Dr. Death" for his testimony in numerous capital cases claiming that defendants were certain to commit future acts of violence. Another Texas prisoner, Robert Roberson, was granted a stay to allow him to challenge now-debunked testimony that his daughter died of shaken baby syndrome, when several alternative, non-homicide explanations for her death better fit the evidence. At the same time as Texas courts have halted executions over questionable scientific testimony, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two Texas cases this term (Buck v. Davis and Moore v. Texas) that also involve scientifically-unsound mental health testimony that was used to obtain or defend death sentences. "Texas courts are now aware of the dangers associated with forensic sciences and are closely scrutinizing this evidence,” said Greg Gardner, an attorney for John Battaglia, who had an execution date set for December 7. Along with the drop in executions, Texas has also seen a dramatic decline in death sentences. Death sentences have declined steadily since 2005, as life without parole became available as a sentencing alternative in death penalty trials, but the past two years have seen even lower numbers. Just two people were sentenced to death in 2015, and Texas juries have handed down three death sentences so far this year. Experts say that changing public attitudes, falling murder rates, and better lawyering have also contributed to the decline. (Click to enlarge.)


U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Oklahoma Case Over Improper Victim-Impact Testimony

Posted: October 12, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals that affirmed the death sentence imposed on Shaun Michael Bosse. In a unanimous per curiam decision issued October 11, the Court held that Oklahoma prosecutors had improperly presented testimony from three members of the victims' families asking the jury to sentence Bosse to death. The Court had ruled in 1987 in Booth v. Maryland that the use of victim-impact testimony in determining whether a capital defendant would be sentenced to death violated the 8th Amendment. Four years later, after a personnel change on the Court, it retreated from part of that decision, holding in Payne v. Tennessee that the presentation of testimony relating to the effect of the victim's death on his or her loved ones was constitutionally permissible. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals then ruled that Payne had implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety, permitting Oklahoma prosecutors to present highly emotional pleas from victims' family members asking juries to impose the death penalty. Oklahoma was the only jurisdiction in the country to interpret Payne in that manner, and Bosse's petition for review argued that "Oklahoma stands alone" and that its "outlier" practice was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Oklahoma court, writing that it has never overruled the portion of Booth that prohibits victims' family testimony offering "opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appro­priate punishment." The Court further declared that its decision in Booth "remain[s] binding prec­edent until we see fit to reconsider [it]." While the Bosse decision prevents Oklahoma prosecutors from presenting this type of testimony in the future, its impact on the numerous other cases in which Oklahoma prosecutors presented this testimony is less clear. The Court remanded Bosse's case to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which may consider whether the improper testimony constituted harmless error. Similar harmless error review may be required in other Oklahoma cases.


OUTLIER COUNTIES: Kern County, California Leads Nation in Police Killings, Ranks Among Highest in Death Sentences

Posted: October 11, 2016

Kern County, California—one of five Southern California counties that have been described as the "new Death Belt"—sent six people to death row between 2006 and 2015, more than 99.4% of U.S. counties. Its death sentence-to-homicide rate during the 10-year-period from 2006 to 2015 also was 2.3 times higher than in the rest of the state. In this same time frame, Kern had the highest rate of civilians killed by police of any county in the country:  between 2005 and 2015, police killed 79 people in Kern County, a rate of 0.9 killings per year per 100,000 residents. In The Washington Post, Radley Balko explained the policy link between high rates of police killings and high use of the death penalty, noting that District Attorneys set the tone for law enforcement in their counties and are usually in charge of investigating excessive use of force by police. "It isn’t difficult to see how when a DA takes a 'win at all costs' approach to fighting crime, that philosophy would permeate an entire county’s law enforcement apparatus, from the beat cop to the DA herself or himself," Balko said. In Kern County, police killings and high numbers of death sentences are part of a larger narrative of official misconduct. Ed Jagels, the longtime District Attorney in Kern County, led the campaign to oust Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other Justices from the California Supreme Court over their votes in death penalty cases. He boasted about Kern leading the state of California in incarceration rate. A largely-fabricated sex abuse scandal led to 26 exonerations. Prosecutors have been found to have altered interrogation transcripts and hidden unfavorable blood test results. According to Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project, current District Attorney Lisa Green "promised to continue to be an example of aggressive prosecution" when she took over in 2010. Saying that for some capital defendants "Justice ... is nothing less than death," she advocated for a state referendum limiting death penalty appeals. Ineffective defense lawyering has also contributed to Kern's high death sentencing rate. In one particularly egregious case, a defense attorney emailed his co-counsel before the sentencing phase of a capital trial, saying, “I don’t know what a penalty trial really looks like—it’s starting to concern me.” Though half of Kern's defendants sentenced to death from 2010-2015 had intellectual disability, brain damage, or mental illness, defense lawyers presented an average of less than 3 days' worth of evidence to spare the defendant's life. In numerous cases, lawyers presented a day or less of mitigating evidence.


United Nations Addresses Terrorism and Capital Punishment on World Day Against the Death Penalty

Posted: October 10, 2016

In an October 10 statement commemorating World Day Against the Death Penalty, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (pictured) urged the global abolition of capital punishment and called the death penalty ineffective and counterproductive as an anti-terrorism tool. Saying that capital punishment not only "has no place in the 21st century," Secretary-General Ban also noted that executions of terror suspects have been counterproductive: "Experience has shown that putting terrorists to death serves as propaganda for their movements by creating perceived martyrs and making their macabre recruiting campaigns more effective." Ban said that, "[t]o be legitimate and effective, counter-terror measures, like all security operations, must be anchored in respect for human rights and the rule of law." In particular, he critiqued vague anti-terrorism laws that states have used as a pretext to target political dissidents: "Let us be clear: participation in peaceful protests and criticism of a government–whether in private, on the Internet, or in the media–are neither crimes nor terrorist acts. The threat or use of the death penalty in such cases is an egregious violation of human rights." At a conference in Geneva held in conjunction with the World Day Against the Death Penalty, UN human rights experts decried the swift and unfair trials and death verdicts often handed down in terrorism cases and emphasized the heightened need for rigorous legal safeguards in terrorism cases. "Executions carried out without adherence to the strictest guarantees of fair trial and due processes are unlawful and tantamount to an arbitrary execution,” three UN Special Rapporteurs said. “We have called on those governments once and again to halt such executions and to retrial the defendants in compliance with international standards."


Tennessee Death Row Prisoners Challenge Lethal Injection, Argue Protocol Would Break the Law to Carry Out Executions

Posted: October 7, 2016

Lawyers for 30 Tennessee death row prisoners argued before the state's supreme court on October 6 that Tennessee's lethal injection protocol violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Tennessee, which has not carried out an execution since 2009, intends to use a one-drug protocol of pentobarbital that it says would be obtained from a compounding pharmacy. The prisoners argue that the Tennessee Department of Correction's lethal-injection protocol creates an unconstitutional risk of lingering death and requires physicians to illegally prescribe controlled substances. Their lawyers argue that states may not break their own laws or federal statutes to carry out executions and that physicians who prescribe pentobarbital for executions would be violating federal drug laws. Assistant Federal Public Defender Michael Passino said, "You cannot perform a lawful act in an unlawful manner. To the extent that TDOC is doing that, the protocol is unconstitutional." Justice Sharon G. Lee raised concerns about the possibility of botched executions like those that have occurred in other states, in which prisoners writhed and gasped during prolonged executions. Associate Solicitor General Jennifer Smith, arguing on behalf of the state of Tennessee, conceded that "there is no guarantee that an execution is not going to have a problem." Justice Lee asked Smith further, "So how do we know our execution would not be botched?" Smith responded, "We don't."


U.S. Supreme Court Hears Argument in Buck v. Davis, Texas Case Dealing With Racist Testimony

Posted: October 6, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 5 in Buck v. Davis, a Texas case in which Duane Buck was sentenced to death after his own lawyer presented expert testimony from a psychologist who called Buck more likely to commit acts of violence in the future because he is Black. While Cecilia Marshall, widow of Thurgood Marshall, and Buck's stepsister, Phyllis Taylor—a survivor of the shooting—observed from the audience, Buck's counsel told the Court that the jury had sentenced Buck to death penalty based upon "a false and pernicious group-based stereotype" that equated being Black with being dangerous. Each of the seven justices who spoke during the hearing sharply criticized trial counsel's conduct, with Justice Samuel Alito saying "what occurred at the penalty phase of this trial is indefensible." Six other defendants whose cases had been tainted by similarly biased testimony by the same psychologist have already received new sentencing hearings, but Buck has not. Texas argued that Buck's case is unique because his defense attorney, not prosecutors, invited the biased testimony. Buck's attorneys previously sought review of his case on the grounds that his lawyer was ineffective, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Buck a "Certificate of Appealability" (COA), which allows a defendant's claims to be heard on the merits by an appeals court. During argument, the Justices raised concerns about the disparate rates at which Circuit Courts grant COAs. The Fifth Circuit denies them in about 60% of cases, while the Eleventh and Fourth Circuits deny them in only 6% and 0% of cases, respectively, meaning that defendants in the Fifth Circuit receive less review of their claims than those in the Eleventh or Fourth. Justice Elena Kagan said, "[I would assume] you think this is such an extraordinary case, and that the 5th Circuit got this so wrong, that it’s the best proof that there is that the court is approaching the COA inquiry in the wrong way." Justice Stephen Breyer agreed, saying, "It seems to me it proves the arbitrariness of what’s going on." (Pictured: Buck's lead counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund Litigation Director Christina Swarns, being interviewed on the steps of the Court.) 


Summer 2016 "Death Row USA" Shows Ongoing Decline in Death Row Populations

Posted: October 4, 2016

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund reports that America's death rows have continued to decline in size, with 2,905 men and women on death row across the United States as of July 1, 2016. The new figures, reported in the organization's Summer 2016 edition of its quarterly publication, Death Row USA, represent a 14% decline from the 3,366 prisoners who were on death row one decade earlier. The shrinking of death row populations across the country has exceeded the number of executions during that period, meaning that more prisoners have been removed from death row as a result of having their convictions or death sentences overturned than have been added to the row with newly death-sentenced prisoners. The nation's largest death row states remain: California (741), Florida (396), Texas (254), Alabama (194), and Pennsylvania (175). Nationwide, 42.34% of death row inmates are White, 41.79% are Black, 13.08% are Latino/a, and 2.78% are other races, but racial makeup varies by state. Among the most racially-disproportionate death row populations are Delaware (78% minorities), Texas (73% minorities), Louisiana (70% minorities), Nebraska (70% minorities), and California (66% minorities). Only 55 death row prisoners (1.89%) are women. 


U.S. Supreme Court Denies Review of Arizona Case That Could Overturn 25 Death Sentences

Posted: October 4, 2016

In a decision that could affect an estimated 25 Arizona death penalty cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has denied Arizona's request to review a federal appeals court decision declaring unconstitutional an evidentiary rule that limited the types of mitigating evidence capital defendants could present in their cases. The ruling in Ryan v. McKinney let stand a 6-5 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in December 2015 that had reversed James McKinney's 1993 death sentence because the state's so-called "causal nexus" rule unconstitutionally excluded evidence about McKinney's abusive childhood and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Court's ruling could have implications for many of the prisoners on Arizona's death row. The causal nexus rule, which required that mitigating evidence be directly linked to the crime before it could be considered as grounds to spare a defendant's life, had been place in Arizona from the late 1980s until 2005. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Lockett v. Ohio that states could not bar defendants from presenting mitigating evidence relating to their character, background, or record or the circumstances of the case as reasons to impose a life sentence. Four years later, in Eddings v. Oklahoma, it held that states could not require that evidence excuse the murder before it could be considered mitigating. Then, in 2004, in Tennard v. Dretke, it reiterated that any requirement that mitigating evidence have a direct causal link to the offense violated the Eighth Amendment. By denying review, the Supreme Court paved the way for other prisoners whose sentencing was affected by the causal nexus rule to challenge their death sentences. In a dissent to the Ninth Circuit decision, Judge Carlos Bea wrote that the majority decision, "calls into question every single death sentence imposed in Arizona between 1989 and 2005." McKinney's case will return to state court within 120 days for further proceedings, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. His re-sentencing must now be done by a jury because the U.S. Supreme Court 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona ended the state's practice of judges imposing death sentences.


OUTLIER COUNTIES: Riverside County, "The Buckle of a New Death Belt"

Posted: October 3, 2016

Riverside County, California imposed more death sentences than any other county in the United States in 2015, accounting for more than half of the state's new death sentences and 16% of new death sentences imposed nationwide. Among other states, only the 9 death sentences imposed in Florida outstripped Riverside's total of 8. The 29 death sentences from 2010-2015 made it the nation's second most profilic death sentencing county during that period, behind only the country's most populous death penalty county, Los Angeles, which has five times as many homicides. While California imposed more death sentences than any other state during that period, Riverside stood out even among California counties, imposing death sentences at a rate that was 9 times greater per homicide than the rest of the state. A 2015 piece by Professor Robert J. Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill called Riverside County, "the buckle of a new Death Belt," because it, along with four other southern California counties, had replaced the Deep South in overproducing death sentences. Those five counties, which also include Kern, Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernadino, have received national attention for misconduct by prosecutors and other public officials. In 2011, a federal magistrate judge characterized the conduct of the Riverside County District Attorney's office as, “turn[ing] a blind eye to fundamental principles of justice,” in a murder case. As with many of the counties that produce disproportionately large numbers of death sentences, the county faces other serious criminal justice problems. The office has been the subject of an investigation into allegedly illegal wiretapping practices, after former DA Paul Zellerbach oversaw what The Desert Sun newspaper described as "an astronomical rise in wiretaps" that was "so vast it once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps," including triple the number of wiretaps issued by any other state or federal jurisdiction in 2014. Riverside police ranked 9th in the nation in killings of civilians. The death sentences imposed in the county also exhibit significant racial disparities. 76% of those sentenced to death in Riverside between 2010 and 2015 were defendants of color. Defendants in Riverside County often receive inadequate defense because of a pay structure for court-appointed attorneys that financially penalizes plea bargains and robust investigation of mitigating evidence. In two-thirds of Riverside County cases that were reviewed on direct appeal between 2006 and 2015, defense counsel presented less than two days of mitigation. Among that same group of cases, 55% involved a defendant who was under 21 years old at the time of the offense or had an intellectual impairment, brain damage, or severe mental illness. 7 of the 8 defendants sent to death row in 2015 were represented by appointed private counsel. Only one was represented by the public defender's office. (Click image to enlarge.)


PEW POLL: Public Support for the Death Penalty Drops Below 50% for First Time in 45 Years

Posted: September 30, 2016

Public support for the death penalty fell by 7 percentage points in the last year, with fewer than half of Americans (49%) now saying they support the death penalty, according to a national Pew Research Center poll released on September 29. The poll marks the first time in 45 years that support for capital punishment polled below 50%, when a Gallup poll in released in November 1971 also reported that 49% of Americans supported the death penalty. Opposition to capital punishment reached a record high since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia striking down existing death penalty statutes. 42% of respondents told Pew that they oppose capital punishment, the most since a May 1966 Gallup poll reported 47% of Americans against the death penalty. The poll results reflect the continuation—and perhaps acceleration—of a 20-year trend of decreasing support for, and increasing opposition to, capital punishment. Support for the death penalty declined across every demographic group in the past year, with the largest decline coming among Independents (13 percentage points). Majorities of Blacks (63%), Hispanics (50%), 18-29 year-olds (51%), college graduates (51%), Democrats (58%), and people with no religious affiliation (50%) now oppose the death penalty and—while comprising less than a majority—more women, Independents, and Catholics say they oppose the death penalty than support it. While 72% of Republicans say they favor capital punishment, support for the death penalty among Republicans dropped 5 points in the past year. Since 2011, support for the death penalty has declined among every demographic group, with overall support falling by 13 points. The polls appear to be reflecting generational changes as well. 59% of those aged 18-29 said they supported the death penalty in 2011. In 2015, support among the young had fallen to 51%, and support plummeted another 9 percentage points to 42% this year. (Click image to enlarge.)