What's New

American Bar Association Urges Reprieve to Allow Full Investigation of Kevin Cooper's Innocence Claims

Posted: March 23, 2016

American Bar Association President Paulette Brown has sent a letter to California Govenor Jerry Brown urging him to grant a reprieve to death row inmate Kevin Cooper to permit a full investigation of Cooper's possible innocence. The ABA President wrote: "Mr. Cooper’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction are marred by evidence of racial bias, police misconduct, evidence tampering, suppression of exculpatory information, lack of quality defense counsel, and a hamstrung court system. We therefore believe that justice requires that Mr. Cooper be granted an executive reprieve until the investigation necessary to fully evaluate his guilt or innocence is completed." The ABA letter described Cooper's case as "a particularly unique example of a criminal justice system falling short at every stage" and referenced a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Cooper’s conviction and sentence violated his human rights. Cooper has exhausted all appeals in his case, but evidence that was previously suppressed as a result of official misconduct raises questions about his guilt. New evidence includes a statement by the surviving victim that the perpetrators were white or Hispanic (Cooper is black); police destruction of a pair of blood-spattered overalls before testing could take place; and unreliable forensic testing that may indicate evidence contamination. In 2009, five judges of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissented from the court's decision to uphold Cooper's conviction, writing, "The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man." The ABA letter agrees, asking Gov. Brown to use his clemency power to review the case: "We request that you grant this reprieve and order a meaningful investigation into Mr. Cooper’s case to prevent the possibility of a miscarriage of justice—one that can never be undone."


Texas Scheduled to Execute Severely Mentally Ill Death-Row Prisoner

Posted: March 22, 2016

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit says that “Adam Kelly Ward (pictured) has been afflicted with mental illness his entire life.” Yet Texas will execute him on March 22 unless the U.S. Supreme Court grants him a stay to review his case. Ward's lawyers argue that the execution of a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and that, for that reason, Ward should not be executed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied review of that issue on March 14, saying that Ward should have raised it in previous state-court appeals. The Texas federal courts rejected a similar argument in 2015. While the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of inmates who are so mentally incompetent that that they do not rationally comprehend that they are going to be executed or why, it has never ruled that executing inmates with severe mental illness is unconstitutional. Ward has consistently exhibited signs of severe mental illness since infancy, and was twice hospitalized for multi-week periods because of his illness. He suffered from uncontrollable rage episodes and two of his elementary schools built special padded isolation rooms in which he would be placed when he was out of control. The federal district court described him as delusional and having "difficulty with impulse control, bad judgment, poor insight, trouble sleeping and eating, mood swings, and bizarre behaviors." At trial, a psychiatrist testified that Ward's psychotic disorder caused him to "suffer paranoid delusions such that he believes there might be a conspiracy against him and that people might be after him or trying to harm him" and the federal district court agreed that as a result of his mental illness, Ward "interpreted neutral things as a threat or personal attack." In her statement concurring with the state court's denial of a stay of execution, Judge Elsa Alcala noted that no Supreme Court decision banned the execution of people with mental illness and that the power to do so rests with legislatures: "As is the case with intellectual disability, the preferred course would be for legislatures rather than courts to set standards defining the level at which a mental illness is so severe that it should result in a defendant being categorically exempt from the death penalty." 


Baptist Theologian Says Death Penalty Does Not Fit With Christian Theology

Posted: March 21, 2016

Baptist ethicist and theologian Dr. Roger E. Olson (pictured) recently issued a call "for Christian churches to publicly stand against the death penalty for Christian reasons." A professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Dr. Olson writes in an essay for the theology website Patheos.com that "authentic Christians must oppose the death penalty." He says that, while "[t]here are many secular reasons to abolish the death penalty," there are also theological reasons why church opposition to capital punishment should be non-negotiable. "Christians believe that every individual human being might be someone chosen by God for his salvation and for his service," he writes. "When we take another human life unnecessarily, we usurp God’s prerogative for that person’s eventual salvation or, if they are already saved, for that person’s future service for the Kingdom of God." Dr. Olson's essay urges all Christian churches to take public stands against the death penalty. "I believe the Christian reasons for opposing the death penalty are so strong that capital punishment ought to be, as slavery was in the mid-19th century, an issue for a 'church struggle' that divides if sadly necessary. At the very least, Christian pastors and other leaders ought to preach against capital punishment from their pulpits and in their newsletters."


STUDIES: South Carolina's Death Penalty Still Arbitrary 40 Years After Gregg

Posted: March 18, 2016

A new article by Cornell Law School Professor John Blume (pictured) and Lindsey Vann of Justice 360 analyzes South Carolina's experience with the death penalty over the last 40 years and argues that capital punishment in the Palmetto State continues to exhibit the same arbitrary and discriminatory features that led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the death penalty in 1972. Using Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent in Glossip v. Gross as a guide, Blume and Vann point to unreliability, arbitrariness, and the declining imposition of capital punishment as evidence that the death penalty is cruel and unusual as applied in South Carolina. Fewer than a quarter (24%) of the state's death sentences imposed since 1976 have resulted in execution, while more than half (52%) have been overturned. Following reversal, more than 90% of the former death cases (47% of all South Carolina death sentences) were subsequently resolved with a non-capital sentence or acquittal. Three death row inmates have been fully exonerated, and three more have been released based upon evidence suggesting innocence. Blume and Vann argue that race and gender of victim effects demonstrate the arbitrariness of the state's death penalty. While African Americans are victims of 59% of the state's homicides, 81% of South Carolina death sentences have been imposed for the murder of a white victim. Although white females constitute only 11% of murder victims, their cases account for 42% of South Carolina death sentences. By contrast, 48% of South Carolina murder victims are black males, but these cases account for only 8% of the state's death sentences. The authors also note that South Carolina has experienced a dramatic decline in death sentences that cannot be explained by a change in murder rates. In 1986, the state's peak death sentencing year, 4.5 death sentences were imposed for every 100 murders in the state. Since 2008, the rate has been one-tenth that, with 0.45 death sentences per 100 murders. They conclude, "In Gregg, the Court allowed capital punishment to resume based on its confidence that post-Furman improvements to state death penalty systems had eliminated that arbitrariness. That confidence, however, was misplaced. The death penalty in South Carolina is still arbitrary after all these years."


After Initial Botched Execution of Romell Broom, Ohio Supreme Court Gives Approval for State to Try Again

Posted: March 17, 2016

In a divided 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court on March 16 authorized the state to try for a second time to execute death row inmate Romell Broom (pictured, after the state's failed first attempt to execute him). The court majority held that a second execution attempt would not violate constitutional protections against twice placing a defendant in jeopardy of life, nor constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Ohio first tried to execute Broom on September 15, 2009, but the attempt was called off after two hours of unsuccessful efforts by executioners to establish a viable IV line. Despite attempting to insert the IV in 18 different sites on Broom's arms and legs, prison personnel failed to find a suitable vein, and in one case instead struck bone. Justice Judith Lanzinger, writing for the majority, said the event was not a failed execution because setting the IV line was only a "preliminary step" to an execution and the execution itself "commences when the lethal drug enters the IV line." The majority reasoned that "because the attempt did not proceed to the point of injection of a lethal drug into the IV line, jeopardy never attached." The court denied Broom an evidentiary hearing on his claim that a second execution attempt would constitute cruel and unsual punishment, assuming that prison personnel would this time adhere to the state's execution protocol. It wrote: "Strict compliance with the protocol will ensure that executions are carried out in a constitutional manner and can also prevent or reveal an inmate’s attempt to interfere with the execution process. We simply are unable to conclude that Broom has established that the state in carrying out a second attempt is likely to violate its protocol and cause severe pain." Justice Judith French dissented, saying, "The majority’s decision to deny Romell Broom an evidentiary hearing on his Eighth Amendment claim is wrong on the law, wrong on the facts, and inconsistent in its reasoning. If the state cannot explain why the Broom execution went wrong, then the state cannot guarantee that the outcome will be different next time." In a separate dissent, Justice William O'Neill wrote, "Any fair reading of the record of the first execution attempt shows that Broom was actually tortured the first time. Now we embark on the task of doing it again." Dr. Jon Groner, who examined Broom shortly after the 2009 botched execution, described the attempts at accessing Broom's veins as, "somewhere between malpractice and assault." Broom's attorneys said they intend to seek further review in other courts.


Judge Finds Ronell Wilson Has Intellectual Disability, Removes His Federal Death Sentence

Posted: March 16, 2016

United States District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis (pictured) ruled on March 15 that federal death row inmate Ronell Wilson is ineligible for the death penalty because he has intellectual disability. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment when applied to people diagnosed with intellectual disability, then known as mental retardation. Wilson was first sentenced to death in New York federal district court in 2007, but his death sentence was overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. Before his second sentencing proceeding in 2013, Wilson's lawyers argued that he had an intellectual disability that made him ineligible for the death penalty. The district court rejected that claim on the grounds that Wilson's IQ scores "indicated sufficient intellectual functioning," and Wilson received a second death sentence. In light of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 decision in Hall v. Florida, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordered the district court to reconsider Wilson's intellectual disability claim. Hall held that applying a bright-line IQ score to reject a claim of intellectual disability was inconsistent with accepted standards for diagnosing intellectual disability and violated the 8th Amendment. The Court said, "When a defendant's IQ test score falls within the test's acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits." Applying the appropriate diagnostic criteria, Judge Garaufis found that "Wilson has demonstrated significant deficits in adaptive functioning, and he therefore meets the legal standard for proving intellectual disability. Accordingly, Wilson is ineligible to receive the death sentence that has been imposed on him."


Ohio Justice, Death Row Exoneree Say Innocence Is Reason Enough to Abolish Capital Punishment

Posted: March 15, 2016

In two separate op-eds, an Ohio Supreme Court Justice and a death row exoneree from Ohio expressed concerns about wrongful convictions that have led them to believe the death penalty should be abolished. In The Highland County Press, Justice Paul Pfeifer (pictured, r.) wrote about the "long and complex" case of Thomas Keenan, who was granted a new trial because prosecutors illegally withheld evidence. Pfeifer points to the misconduct in Keenan's case as a reason why the death penalty should be abolished: "If he had been executed, there would have been no way for the state to cleanse itself from the awful reality of having executed a person who had not received his full measure of legal protection. To ensure that never happens, the Ohio Legislature should – in my opinion – abolish the death penalty." Writing for CNN, death row exoneree Ricky Jackson (pictured, l.) argued that the risk of wrongful convictions is too great to continue using the death penalty. Jackson, who was sentenced to death and spent 39 years wrongfully incarcerated before his 2014 exoneration, said "The fact that we too often send innocent people to death row in this country can no longer be debated. I ought to know. I was one of them." Citing cases such as Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna, Jackson cautioned that not all innocent people sent to death row are exonerated. "Some of those likely innocents," he said, "have been executed at the hands of the government." Jackson recently appeared at a Democratic town hall debate at which he asked Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton how one could support capital punishment knowing about stories like his. Clinton called Jackson's case "a travesty," but said she continues to believe the federal death penalty should be available for cases of mass killings or terrorism. Jackson responded to Clinton's stance, writing, "In cases such as those, the societal pressure to convict is at its highest. And when an intense pressure to convict is present, that is when the risk of convicting an innocent is greatest." 


Darryl Hunt, North Carolina Exoneree Who Narrowly Escaped Death Sentence, Dies 12 Years After Release

Posted: March 14, 2016

Darryl Hunt (pictured), an exoneree and anti-death penalty advocate, was found dead in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on March 13, 2016. Hunt was wrongfully convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a newspaper copy editor. Prosecutors sought the death penalty against him, but he received a life sentence because a single juror refused to vote for death. His conviction was overturned in 1989 and prosecutors offered Hunt a deal for time served, in exchange for pleading guilty. Continuing to assert his innocence, Hunt refused the offer, and he was retried, convicted, and again sentenced to life. In 1994, a DNA test excluded him as the perpetrator of the crime, but it took another 10 years of appeals before he was released in 2004. After his exoneration, Hunt became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Steve Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said, "I think everyone who saw Darryl speak was deeply moved by the resilience and kindness and gentleness with which he spoke." But Hunt was firm about the dangers of the death penalty, saying: "A system that can perpetrate an injustice like this has no business deciding life and death. If I had gotten a death sentence, there’s no doubt in my mind, I would have been executed.” Hunt's case was covered in an eight-part series in the Winston-Salem Journal and was the subject of a documentary film, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, both of which were critical of the racial bias and official misconduct that contributed to his wrongful conviction.


BOOKS: "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty"

Posted: March 11, 2016

The recent book, 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty, by Mario Marazziti, explores the United States' continuing use of the death penalty in a world community that is increasingly rejecting the practice. The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the book "an interesting, compelling look at the cultural and religious underpinnings of the death penalty and how we got here. More important, [Marazziti's] interviews with U.S. death-row inmates - living and now-deceased - their survivors, and their victims' families highlight the gray of a subject too many paint in black and white." Marazziti, who was deeply involved in the efforts that led the United Nations to call for a global moratorium on capital punishment, draws on his experiences as a co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and as spokesperson for the Community of Sant'Egidio, a progressive Catholic organization based in Rome. Pope Francis' appeal last month for Catholic government officials to work to halt all executions during the Church's Holy Year of Mercy came on the eve of an international conference against the death penalty organized by the Sant'Egidio Community. Marazziti's book includes research, personal narratives of those directly affected by the death penalty, and Marazziti's own reflections on the issue. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty by Mario Marazziti is a deeply moving and cogently argued account of why an abominable practice should be abolished. The death penalty dehumanizes those who use it. Its mistakes cannot be corrected." 


NEW VOICES: Former Utah Prosecutor Urges Death Penalty Repeal

Posted: March 10, 2016

Creighton Horton spent 30 years as a prosecutor with the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office and Utah Attorney General's Office before retiring in 2009. In a recent op-ed, he said his experience handling capital cases led him to believe Utah should abolish the death penalty. Horton noted the negative impact the death penalty can have on victims' families. "If a capital case goes to trial and the jury returns a verdict of death, that pronouncement is probably the last satisfaction the victim's family will get for years, if not decades," he said. "From that point on, the delays and uncertainties of the death penalty appeals process are likely to take a terrible toll, keeping the wound open and denying the victim's family any closure." He said a life without parole sentence for the perpetrator was often the best outcome for the families of victims: "When that happens, the murderers go to prison and, for the most part, no one hears about them again — and the victims' families are able to move on with their lives." He also raised concerns about wrongful convictions, stating, "No system of justice is perfect, and so it's possible that an innocent person could be convicted of capital murder, and wrongly executed." The Utah legislature is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty for future offenses. The bill passed the Utah Senate, and is likely to face a vote in the House on March 10.