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STUDIES: Death Row Inmates Pay the Price for Lawyers' Mistakes

Posted: November 18, 2014

In Part Two of its investigation into the federal review of state death penalty cases, Death by Deadline, The Marshall Project found that in almost every case where lawyers missed crtiical filing deadlines for federal appeals, the only person sanctioned was the death row prisoner. Often the inmate's entire federal review was forfeited. The report highlighted the disparity between the 17 federal judicial districts where government-funded attorneys carefully monitor capital cases to ensure deadlines are met, and the other 77 districts, where appeals lawyers are appointed by judges and receive little oversight. In Florida, which produced 37 of the 80 missed deadline cases, appeals lawyers are selected from a state registry that includes lawyers who have previously missed deadlines in several capital cases. U.S. District Court judge Timothy Corrigan chastised one attorney who filed after the cutoff in three separate cases, saying, "I would be remiss if I did not share my deep concern that in these cases our federal system of justice fell short in the very situation where the stakes could not be higher.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently commented on the strict deadlines in capital cases, saying, “When you’re talking about the state taking someone’s life, there has to be a great deal of flexibility within the system to deal with things like deadlines. If you rely on process to deny what could be a substantive claim, I worry about where that will lead us.”

 

STUDIES: Lawyers for Death Row Inmates Missed Critical Filing Deadlines in 80 Cases

Posted: November 17, 2014

An investigation by The Marshall Project showed that since Congress put strict time restrictions on federal appeals in 1996, lawyers for death row inmates missed the deadline at least 80 times, including 16 in which the prisoners have since been executed. The most recent of such cases occurred on Nov. 13, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida with no review in federal court. This final part of a death penalty appeal, also called habeas corpus, has been a lifesaver for inmates whose cases were marked with mistakes ignored by state courts. The Project's report, Death by Deadline, noted, "Some of the lawyers' mistakes can be traced to their misunderstandings of federal habeas law and the notoriously complex procedures that have grown up around it. Just as often, though, the errors have exposed the lack of care and resources that have long plagued the patchwork system by which indigent death-row prisoners are provided with legal help." One Alabama lawyer who missed the deadline was addicted to methamphetamine and was on probation for public intoxication. An attorney in Texas who filed too late had been reprimanded for misconduct, while another Texas lawyer had been put on probation twice by the state bar. Two weeks after being appointed in the death penalty case, he was put on probation again.

 

COSTS: Washington State Is Spending Tens of Millions on Death Penalty

Posted: November 14, 2014

Three capital cases in one county have already cost Washington almost $10 million, and have barely begun. For the trial of Christopher Monfort, King County has already spent over $4 million, and it is still in the jury selection phase. Two other capital cases in the county have cost a combined $4.9 million, and the trials have not started. The capital case of serial killer Gary Ridgway, which is believed to be the most expensive case in Washington's history, cost about $12 million and resulted in a sentence of life without parole. In February, Governor Jay Inslee instituted a moratorium on executions in Washington, highlighting both the costs and the arbitrariness of the death penalty, noting, "Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred." Defense attorney Mark Larrañaga said, "It is a complete waste of resources and time. We've had five executions in 40 years. Seventy-five to 80 percent of these cases are reversed."

 

NEW VOICES: Federal Judge Underscores the "Heavy Price" of the Death Penalty

Posted: November 13, 2014

In a recent interview, Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who presided over the first federal death penalty trial in Massachusetts in over 50 years, warned that the death penalty comes with a "heavy price" - the risk of executing innocent people: "A legal regime permitting capital punishment comes with a fairly heavy price....where there’s a death penalty innocent people will die. Sooner or later—we hope not too often—someone who didn’t commit the crime will be executed." In 2001, Judge Ponsor oversaw the capital trial of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who was charged with killing some of her patients. Gilbert was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. The judge said the trial made him question the whole process of death sentencing: "The most profound realization I took from Gilbert was that human beings getting together to decide whether someone should be executed, even when they are supervised by a judge, will make mistakes."

 

NEW VOICES: Mental Health and Law Enforcement Leaders Urge Clemency for Texas Inmate

Posted: November 12, 2014

Panetti
(Click to enlarge). On November 12, the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America, 30 former judges, prosecutors, and Attorneys General, 50 evangelical faith leaders, and the American Bar Association joined many others in calling on Texas Governor Rick Perry to commute the sentence of death row inmate Scott Panetti because of his severe mental illness. Despite his long history of hospitalization in mental institutions, Panetti is scheduled to be executed on December 3. Panetti is a paranoid schizophrenic who represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy costume, and attempted to subpoena over 200 people, including Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and the Pope. A letter of support signed by 30 law enforcement officials said, "We come together from across the partisan and ideological divide and are united in our belief that, irrespective of whether we support or oppose the death penalty, this is not an appropriate case for execution." Fifty evangelical Christian leaders signed a letter saying, “The execution of Scott Panetti would be a cruel injustice that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever. When we inflict the harshest punishment on the severely mentally ill, whose culpability is greatly diminished by their debilitating conditions, we fail to respect their innate dignity as human beings.”

 

STUDIES: Murder Rate Highest in South; Northeast Has Sharpest Decline

Posted: November 11, 2014
REGION 2013 Murder Rate 2012 Murder Rate Mur
Northeast 3.5 3.8
West 4.0 4.2
Midwest 4.5 4.7
South 5.3 5.5
NATIONAL 4.5 4.7

 On November 10 the Justice Department released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2013. The report revealed an overall decline of 5.2% in the national murder rate. The Northeast had the lowest murder rate--3.5 murders per 100,000 people--and the sharpest decline from last year. The South again had the highest murder rate (5.3). The West had the second-lowest murder rate (4.0), followed by the Midwest (4.5). The states with the highest murder rates in the country were Louisiana (10.8) and Alabama (7.2). The states with the lowest rates were Iowa (1.4) and Hawaii (1.5). The Northeast has also had the fewest executions in the modern era, with 4, and none since 2005. The South has had the highest number of executions (1,132) since 1976. The average murder rate for states with the death penalty (4.4) was higher than the average rate for states without the death penalty (3.4).

 

The Death Penalty in the U.S. Military

Posted: November 10, 2014

The U.S. military has its own laws and court system separate from those of the states and the federal government. Although the military justice system allows the death penalty, no executions have been carried out in over 50 years. The last execution was the hanging on April 13, 1961 of U.S. Army Private John Bennett for rape and attempted murder. The military death penalty law was struck down in 1983 but was reinstated in 1984 with new rules detailing the aggravating circumstances that make a case death-eligible. Only about one-third of the capital cases tried under this law resulted in a death sentence. As of 1997, military law allows for an alternative sentence of life without parole. Six men are currently on the military death row, which is housed in the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The President has the power to commute any military death sentence. A 2012 study indicated that defendants of color in the military were twice as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants.

 

Maryland Attorney General Asks Court to Vacate Death Sentences

Posted: November 7, 2014

On November 6, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (pictured) filed a brief with an appellate court, formally requesting that the death sentence of Jody Lee Miles be vacated. Gansler argued that Miles's death sentence is no longer valid. Miles was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. In 2006, Maryland's Court of Appeals suspended executions because the state's lethal injection procedures had not been lawfully implemented. In 2013, the state repealed the death penalty for future offenses. Upon repeal, Miles filed a motion to have his sentence changed to life in prison without parole, arguing that the repeal should apply to him, too. However, the appellate court rejected the argument, stating that the repeal only applied to future convictions. Gansler's motion contended that the absence of an execution protocol rendered an execution in Maryland a "legal and factual impossibility." He requested that Miles's death sentence be changed to life in prison without parole, and he noted that a decision on this motion would leave the door "wide open" for challenges from the other three defendants on Maryland's death row.

 

Texas Court Orders New Trial Because of Withheld Evidence

Posted: November 6, 2014

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, vacated the conviction and death sentence of Alfred Brown, who has been on death row for murder since 2005. Brown has maintained his innocence and has said that a landline phone call he made from his girlfriend's apartment the morning of the murder would prove it. At his trial, Brown's attorneys presented no evidence of his alibi, and his girlfriend changed her testimony after she was threatened with prosecution. In 2013, a homicide detective found a box of records in his garage containing phone records that indicated Brown made a call exactly when he claimed. The file was never shared with Brown's defense team at his original trial. District Attorney Devon Anderson said, "As a result of this review, our office agreed that Mr. Brown should receive relief in his case so that justice could be served. Following our office's agreement that relief should be granted, today the Court of Criminal Appeals sent Mr. Brown's case back to the trial court for a new trial." Anderson said she will now review the case to determine whether to retry Brown or drop the charges.

 

STUDIES: The Effects of Judge vs. Jury Sentencing

Posted: November 5, 2014

Judge
(Click left image to enlarge). A new study by researchers at Cornell University examined the effects of Delaware's decision to transfer capital sentencing authority from the jury to the judge at trial. The study used data from capital cases between 1977 and 2007, during which time Delaware made the shift to judge sentencing--one of very few states to employ that procedure. According to the study, "Judges were significantly more likely to give a defendant the death sentence than were juries." During the era when Delaware relied on juries for sentencing, about 20% of capital cases resulted in death sentences. In the era when it relied solely on judges, 53% of the cases were given death sentences. Today, the state has a hybrid model in which a jury must unanimously find the existence of at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt to make a case death eligible. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation to the judge, which is given appropriate consideration.

 

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