Two recent international gatherings emphasized concerns about the death penalty in the U.S. and around the world. On October 14, the Organization of American States hosted an address by the President of the International Institute of Human Rights, Jean-Paul Costa, focusing on the relatively few countries still practicing capital punishment in North and South America. On October 21, the Delegation of the European Union to the U.S. presented a panel discussion featuring DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter (r.), along with other national organizations. The event was cosponsored by the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Panel members described the sharp decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S. and future prospects for further change through legislation and court opinions. Among the issues discussed were the quality of representation in capital cases, changes in public opinion, and the effects of the EU's restrictions on drugs for lethal injections in the U.S.
On October 20, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Chappell v. Ayala (No. 13-1428), a death penalty case from California in which all the black and Hispanic potential jurors were struck from the defendant's trial. Hector Ayala was convicted in 1989 of three murders in San Diego. At his trial, Ayala's attorneys argued that the prosecutor was improperly striking jurors on the basis of race. The judge reviewed the prosecutor's explanation for the strikes without defense attorneys present, saying it was necessary to protect the prosecutor's trial strategy, and concluded the strikes were not racially motivated. The California Supreme Court found that any potential constitutional error related to the racial makeup of the jury or the subsequent closed review was harmless, rejecting Ayala's appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala relief and ordered California to retry him. The 9th Circuit held that the constitutional issues could be reviewed without deference to the state court opinion because no ruling based on federal law had been made against Ayala, and that the errors made at trial had an injurious effect on the jury's verdict. The Supreme Court will consider whether more deference was due the state court's decision and whether the 9th Circuit used the correct standard in determining that the trial errors were harmful.
The same Commission that freed former death row inmates Henry McCollum and Leon Brown in September exonerated another man who had been convicted of murder, Willie Womble (l.). The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission freed Womble on October 17, dismissing his 1976 first-degree murder conviction and life sentence. Womble had been convicted of acting as a lookout while another man, Joseph Perry, robbed a convenience store and killed the cashier. Both Perry and Womble received life sentences. Though Womble had always said he was innocent, he never filed a motion to challenge his conviction, perhaps because of his diminished mental capacity (a disability also present in McCollum and Brown). In 2013, Perry wrote a letter to the Innocence Commission stating that Womble was innocent. When Perry learned that his actual accomplice had died, he decided he could reveal Womble's innocence without putting the other man in prison. The Commission investigated Womble's case and found that his confession had been possibly coerced and written by a detective working on the case. Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, said, “In 2008, the legislature passed a law requiring the recording of interrogations. This is another case showing how important that is.” Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin supported Womble's exoneration, saying, “I apologized to Mr. Womble and to the family of Mr. Roy Bullock, who was the victim. I just felt it was right. The system and the state of North Carolina failed them for 39 years.” Although not sentenced to death, Womble's case shows the risks of capital punishment and the difficulty in discovering innocence.
A recent retrospective in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly on the state's death penalty traced some of the problems that have arisen since Florida resumed executions in 1979. During the execution of Jesse Tafero in 1990, six-inch flames shot from the prisoner’s head, and three separate jolts of electricity were required to kill him. Prison officials attributed it to “inadvertent human error.” In the execution of Pedro Medina in 1997, flames and smoke again spewed out from under the head gear. Ron McAndrew, the warden at the time, recently remarked, “For the next 11 minutes, instead of electrocuting this man, we burned him to death. We literally burned him to death.” Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw called such executions “barbaric spectacles” and said they were “acts more befitting a violent murderer than a civilized state.” Florida also has more exonerations (24) from death row than any other state. It is the only state that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence by a simple majority; most states require unanimity. The state's recent passage of the Timely Justice Act, designed to speed up executions, has raised concerns that it will reduce death row inmates' opportunities to prove their innocence.
DPIC has recently added four podcasts to our new series on important facts about the death penalty in each state. Seven state podcasts are now available: Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Alaska, and Hawaii. We expect to add new episodes each week, with two more coming tomorow (Oct. 17). The series has begun with states that have abolished the death penalty, and focuses on the developments leading to repeal in those states. The issues that brought those states to abolition are often similar to the ones states with the death penalty are facing today, including wrongful convictions, unfairness, and the methods of execution. We hope this new series will be an excellent resource for those interested in the diversity of positions states have taken on this key social question and for students researching their state's history. Our earlier series of podcasts, DPIC on the Issues covers a variety of topics related to the death penalty, including Innocence, Costs, and Lethal Injection. You can listen to all of our podcasts on our Podcasts page or by subscribing on iTunes.
On October 14 a lawsuit was filed by the family of Clayton Lockett (l.) against the state of Oklahoma for damages related to his botched execution in April. The suit alleges “unsound procedures and inadequately trained personnel” and claims that Dr. Johnny Zellmer was the physician present at Lockett's execution. The family asserts that Zellmer, “was willing to, and did in fact, conduct the medical experiment engaged in by Defendants to kill Clayton Lockett regardless of the fact that these chemicals had never been approved or tested by any certifying body.” Oklahoma law makes the names of its execution team, including participating doctors, secret. In Lockett's execution, most of the execution team was out of view of witnesses, but the doctor who pronounced death was visible. Oklahoma has delayed all executions for the remainder of 2014 in order to allow time to obtain lethal injection drugs and prepare personnel. The state revised its execution protocol and remodeled its execution chamber after Lockett's execution, but retained the controversial drug midazolam and secrecy surrounding the sources of drugs and personnel.
In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof highlighted the work of Bryan Stevenson (pictured), referring to him as "America's Nelson Mandela." Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has focused his career on representing indigent defendants, especially those on death row throughout the south. In his new book, Just Mercy, Stevenson tells the story of representing and eventually winning the exoneration of Walter McMillian, a black man unjustly convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of a white woman in Alabama. Kristof asked Stevenson if "such a blatant and racially tinged miscarriage of justice" is less common today. Stevenson said, "If anything, because of the tremendous increase in people incarcerated, I’m confident that we have more innocent people in prison today than 25 years ago."
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections recently gave the media a tour (see video here) of its newly renovated execution chamber. The state spent over $100,000 updating the rooms in response to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. Among the changes are a new gurney (an "electric bed"), a new intercom, and an atomic clock. Previously, communications included colored sticks pushed through a wall, with a red stick indicating something had gone wrong. Correctional officials were secretive about the participation of medical personnel, citing ongoing litigation. The state has said it will reduce the number of media witnesses from twelve to five. The ACLU and two media outlets have asked a judge to stop the state from reducing the number of media witnesses. "They took a process already corrupted by secrecy that had already led to at least one botched execution, and managed somehow to make it even more difficult for the people of Oklahoma and their representatives in the media to know anything about that process," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. (Image: The Guardian, link to video in text above).