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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."

 

As Council Reviews Kentucky's Criminal Justice Policies, Former Prosecutors, Judge Urge Repeal of Death Penalty

Posted: August 10, 2016

Kentucky's recently-formed Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council will be examining the state's criminal code, and is expected to examine a wide range of criminal justice issues—including the death penalty—in the first major overhaul of Kentucky's criminal code since the 1970s. The council, which was formed by Gov. Matt Bevin, includes legislators, judges, criminal justice experts, and religious leaders, charged with producing a list of recommendations for Kentucky lawmakers. One council member, Bishop William Medley, of the Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, has expressed moral opposition to the death penalty, and received backing for repealing the punishment from some in the courts and the prosecution bar. Circuit Judge Jay Wethington, a former prosecutor who prosecuted death penalty cases told the Messenger-Inquirer that he was "going to side with ... Bishop Medley" on that issue, but for different reasons. "We need to get rid of the death penalty," he said. "We spend too much money for the results." Meanwhile, three former Kentucky prosecutors wrote an op-ed for Louisville's Courier-Journal urging abolition of the death penalty. Joseph Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider discussed the results of a recent University of Kentucky poll, which found that a large majority (72.4%) of Kentuckians support a moratorium on executions. They noted that support for the death penalty has risen since 2011, when the American Bar Association released a study that found serious problems with Kentucky's application of the death penalty. At that point, 62% of Kentuckians favored a suspension of executions. They conclude, "These poll results make it clear that Kentuckians’ concern about the fairness of the state’s criminal justice system is growing. As we have written before, replacing the death penalty with life without parole is the best approach for our state – protecting public safety, providing justice to the families of victims, removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed and saving limited tax dollars."

 

Defense Lawyers, Former Prosecutors, and Constitutional Rights Groups File Amicus Briefs in Buck v. Davis

Posted: August 9, 2016

Five groups, representing defense lawyers, former prosecutors, and organizations devoted to protecting constitutional liberties have filed amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Texas death row prisoner Duane Buck. Buck was sentenced to death when a psychiatrist presented by his own lawyer said he posed a greater potential danger to society because he is Black, and the case attained widespread notoriety after the new Texas attorney general failed to honor a commitment by his predecessor not to oppose a new sentencing hearing. On August 4, the National and Texas Associations of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a group of former prosecutors, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Constitutional Accountability Center joined the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA) in submitting briefs arguing that Buck's rights were violated by the racial arguments made at his trial. The NBLSA said, "Whether by a judge, a prosecutor, or defense counsel, an appeal to a jury based on racial prejudice poisons our system of justice." The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law stated, "Mr. Buck was entitled to have his dangerousness assessed on an individualized basis based on his personal attributes. Instead he received a death sentence tainted by four hundred years of racial stereotyping invoked by a witness who was supposed to testify on his behalf." The former state and federal prosecutors, who include former Texas Governor and Attorney General Mark White, former Attorneys General from Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Ohio, and the second-chair prosecutor from Buck's trial, highlighted Texas' refusal to provide Buck a new sentencing hearing, even though it had included him on a list of defendants whose trials were tainted by similar testimony by the same psychologist, and every other one of those defendants had received new sentencing hearings. "To backtrack on an ethical obligation and decision to grant relief to a defendant in any context is extraordinary; it is particularly so here, where the purpose of backtracking was to defend the propriety of a capital sentencing hearing tainted by racist testimony," they said. The Court is scheduled to hear argument in Buck v. Davis on October 5. 

 

Poll: Majority of Oklahomans Support Replacing Death Penalty With Life Without Parole Plus Restitution

Posted: August 8, 2016

A new survey conducted by SoonerPoll has found that while three-quarters of likely Oklahoma voters say they support the death penalty in theory, a majority (53%) support abolishing capital punishment and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole, plus restitution to victims' families. Among every political affiliation, more supported the plan to replace the death penalty than favored keeping it, with a majority of Democrats (58%) and independents (57%) supporting abolition and a 48%-41% plurality of Republicans favoring replacing the death penalty. A similar poll from November 2015, shortly after the failed execution of Richard Glossip, found 52% support for replacing the death penalty with life without parole. The poll results reflect a pattern of softening support for capital punishment among voters in death penalty states. Recent polls in a number of such states show respondents expressing support for the death penalty generally, but favoring alternatives to capital punishment when offered a choice of punishments. A Florida poll earlier this year reported that 62% of respondents preferred some form of life in prison for those convicted of murder. In 2015, 54% of Pennsylvanians preferred life in prison. A recently-released Kentucky poll reported that 58% of respondents preferred lengthy prison terms over death sentences, with 72% supporting a moratorium on executions.

 

Pharmaceutical Companies Reiterate Opposition to Participating in Executions as States Scramble for Execution Drugs

Posted: August 4, 2016

Distribution restrictions put in place by major pharmaceutical companies in the United States against misuse of their medicines and export regulations instituted by the European Union have made it increasingly difficult for states to obtain supplies of drugs for use in executions. However, despite these restrictions, some states have obtained pharmaceutical products manufactured by these companies for use in lethal injections. The Influence reports that the Commonwealth of Virginia obtained lethal injection drugs produced by the pharmaceutical company Mylan--rocuronium bromide, which induces paralysis, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart--from a large North Carolina based drug wholesaler, Cardinal Health. Mylan wrote to the Virginia prisons seeking assurances that use of its medicines in the future would not be diverted to any "purpose inconsistent with their approved labeling and applicable standards of care." Recently, the Associated Press discovered that the supply of vecuronium bromide obtained by the Arkansas Department of Correction was produced by a subsidiary of Pfizer. Pfizer announced in May 2016 that it opposed the use of its products in executions, stating, "Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment." While state secrecy practices leave it unclear from whom Arkansas obtained the restricted drug, Rachel Hooper, a spokesperson for Pfizer, said, "We have implemented a comprehensive strategy and enhanced restricted distribution protocols for a select group of products to help combat their unauthorized use for capital punishment. Pfizer is currently communicating with states to remind them of our policy." As pharmaceutical companies have made their drugs more difficult for states to use, prisons have turned to alternate sources. The Alabama Department of Corrections contacted about 30 compounding pharmacies in an effort to obtain lethal injection drugs, but all refused. Compounding pharmacist Donnie Calhoun said, "For me, as a healthcare professional, I want to help people live longer. The last thing I want to do is help someone die." A Virginia pharmacist who was contacted by the attorney general's office also refused, saying, "No one will do it." Virginia recently adopted a lethal injection secrecy statute that would conceal the identity of its drug supplier, joining many other death penalty states in shielding key information about executions from public scrutiny.

 

Texas Prisoner Who Did Not Kill Anyone Challenges Execution, Use of False Psychiatrist Testimony to Condemn Him to Die

Posted: August 4, 2016

Lawyers for Jeffery Wood (pictured), a Texas death row prisoner who is scheduled to be executed August 24 despite undisputed evidence that he has never killed anyone, have filed a new petition in state court challenging his death sentence on multiple grounds. They argue that Wood cannot be subject to the death penalty because he neither killed nor intended for anyone to be killed and was not even aware the robbery in which a codefendant killed a store clerk was going to occur. They also challenge his death sentence on the gounds that it was obtained based upon false and scientifically baseless testimony from a discredited psychiatrist that Wood would pose a future danger to society. Wood was convicted of capital murder under the Texas doctrine called the "law of parties," which employs an usually broad interpretation of accomplice liability to make a defendant liable for the acts of others. He was sentenced to death for his alleged role in the murder of a store clerk in 1996 committed by another man, Daniel Reneau, while Wood was outside sitting in a truck. Reneau was executed in 2002. Wood says he and Reneau had planned to rob the store the previous day, but that he had backed out. According to Wood, he did not know Reneau still planned to rob the store, or that Reneau had a gun with him. Jared Tyler, one of Wood's attorneys, said, "I believe that no person in the history of the modern death penalty has been executed with as little culpability and participation in the taking of a life as Mr. Wood." Wood's appeal also alleges that his right to due process was violated when the state presented false and misleading testimony from psychiatrist James Grigson, who earned the nickname "Dr. Death" for testifying in numerous Texas capital cases that the defendant would "certainly" or "absolutely" or "with 100% certainty" commit future acts of violence, including several cases in which defendants later turned out to be innocent. Three years before Wood's hearing, Grigson was expelled from the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association for ethical violations involving making psychiatric diagnoses without having examined capital defendants, predicting with certainty that they would engage in future violent acts, and basing those predictions on hypothetical questions posed by the prosecution that contained "grossly inadequate" information. Nonetheless, based on a prosecution hypothetical question and without having evaluated Wood, Grigson testified that Wood would "certainly" pose a continuing threat to society. Wood's jury was never told that Grigson had been expelled for similar conduct or that the professional associations had determined that his practices were unethical and unscientific.[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.]

 

Delaware Supreme Court Declares State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Posted: August 3, 2016

The Delaware Supreme Court on August 2 declared the state's capital sentencing procedures unconstitutional, leaving Delaware without a valid death penalty statute. In the case of Benjamin Rauf v. State of Delaware, the court held that Delaware's death sentencing procedures violate the constitutional principles recently set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. Hurst stated that a capital defendant's Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury requires "a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Four members of the Delaware high court ruled that the state's capital sentencing statute unconstitutionally empowers judges, rather than jurors, to decide whether the prosecution has proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that are considered in determining whether to impose for the death penalty. They wrote that the jury must unanimously find those facts to have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt before a death sentence may be considered. In an opinion by Chief Justice Leo Strine, Jr., a narrower 3-justice majority of the court also ruled that the facts necessary to impose a death penalty in Delaware included a finding that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances (reasons to spare the defendant's life). Delaware's statute violates the Sixth Amendment, they wrote, because it does not require as a prerequisite to the death penalty that jurors unanimously agree that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigation beyond a reasonable doubt. The court said the unconstitutional sentencing provisions were inseverable from the rest of the death penalty statute, and that any changes to the statute would have to be made by the legislature. However, recent legislative activity suggests that a bill restoring the state's ability to impose death sentences may have difficulty passing. Calling the death penalty "an instrument of imperfect justice," Governor Jack Markell has indicated that he would sign a bill to abolish capital punishment if it passed the legislature. Such a bill passed the state Senate in 2013 and 2015 and was released by the House Judiciary Committee for consideration by the full House, where it narrowly failed earlier this year. Professor Eric Freedman, a death penalty expert at the Hofstra University School of Law, said "[t]his probably means, as a practical matter, the end of the death penalty in Delaware."

 

Policy Platform of The Movement for Black Lives Calls for "An End to Capital Punishment"

Posted: August 2, 2016

On August 1, The Movement for Black Lives issued a 40-point policy platform that includes a call for the abolition of capital punishment. The platform, which was written or endorsed by more than 60 activist groups including the Black Lives Matter Network, describes its purpose as "articulat[ing] our vision of a fundamentally different world." The portion of the platform seeking "an end to capital punishment" calls the death penalty "morally repugnant," and links it to the legacy of race-based lynchings against Blacks in the U.S. "The death penalty devalues Black lives," it states, going on to describe capital punishment as "geographically discriminatory," "expensive," and "randomly and arbitrarily sought by prosecutors." The document also raises concerns about the issue of innocence, noting that 156 people have been exonerated from death row, and capital punishment's connections to mental health and trauma, stating, "many people on death row have mental illnesses, cognitive limitations, severe trauma histories, and prior criminal records, often directly related to racial bias and poverty." Other recommendations related to criminal justice include demilitarization of police, an end to privatization of prisons, and an end to solitary confinement. The platform also contains sections addressing issues related to reparations, economic justice, political access, and investment in Black communities. “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision, a world where freedom and justice is the reality,” said M Adams, the co-executive director of Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom, Inc. and one of the authors of the platform.

 

Nearly 3/4 of Kentuckians Support Moratorium on Executions, Majority Prefer Lengthy Prison Terms to Death Penalty

Posted: August 1, 2016

Nearly three-quarters of Kentuckians (72.4%) would support a moratorium on executions while problems in the administration of Kentucky's death penalty are addressed, according to a new poll released on August 1 by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center. Nearly two-thirds (62.6%) of those who said they support the death penalty were nevertheless in favor of a moratorium. The poll also found that 57.8% of respondents preferred a lengthy prison term (options ranged from 20-50 years to life without parole) over the death penalty for people convicted of first-degree murder. Respondents also were asked their views about specific concerns related to the death penalty. 68% said they would support replacing the death penalty with life without parole if administration of the death penalty and its constitutionally-mandated appeals were found to cost substantially more than life in prison. 71.6% of all respondents—including 61.4% of death penalty supporters—agreed that capital punishment risks executing an innocent person. Finally, when asked to consider the impact of lengthy appeals on victims' families, 64% of Kentuckians supported replacing the death penalty with life without parole. Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan said, "Clearly, Kentuckians remain uncomfortable with death as a sentence. Their discomfort is well founded. Our system of administering capital punishment is broken, costly and produces little value. Full reform must take place now." Gennaro Vito, a criminal justice professor at the University of Louisville, told the Kentucky News Service: "You may have to question, given the problems we've had with the administration of the death penalty in this state, why we would continue to use it, when so many Kentuckians are in favor of the sentence of life without parole in place of the death penalty." The last execution in Kentucky was carried out in 2008. (Click image to enlarge.)

 

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