What's New

Harvard Law Professor Chronicles 'The Death Penalty's Last Stand'

Posted: January 8, 2016

In a recent article in Slate, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, the executive director of the university's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, says "the death penalty is collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and cruelty." He emphasizes the increasing isolation of capital punishment to a few outlier jurisdictions, particularly highlighting Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Caddo Parish received national attention when, shortly after the exoneration of Glenn Ford, who was wrongfully convicted and spent 30 years on death row, District Attorney Dale Cox said the state should "kill more people." Ogletree described the legacy of racial violence and intimidation in the parish, including that Caddo Parish, which has been responsible for 8 of Louisiana's 12 death sentences since 2010, was "the site of more lynchings of black men than all but one other county In America." Until 2011, a Confederate flag flew atop a monument to the Confederacy outside the entrance to the parish courthouse in Shreveport where jurors reported for duty. In 2015, a study (click image to enlarge) found that Caddo prosecutors struck prospective black jurors at triple the rate of other jurors. Ogletree spotlighted a number of questionable death sentences imposed on Caddo defendants who may have been innocent and framed, were intellectually disabled or mentally ill teenagers, or who suffered from serious brain damage and mental illness, and who were provided systemically deficient representation. "Caddo offers us a microcosm of what remains of the death penalty in America today," Ogletree says. 33 jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than 9 years. Just six states performed executions in 2015, and three-quarters of the people who were executed last year raised serious questions about mental health or innocence. Death sentences were at a record low (49), and 14, he said, came from two states - Alabama and Florida - that allow non-unanimous jury recommendations of death. Ogletree concludes, "The death penalty in America today is the death penalty of Caddo Parish—a cruel relic of a bygone and more barbarous era. We don’t need it, and I welcome its demise."

 

More Nations Reject Death Penalty, Even as Use Spikes in Shrinking Minority of Countries

Posted: January 7, 2016

The New York Times reports that the number of countries using capital punishment continued to shrink and its use became more isolated from 2013 to 2014, even as the number of death sentences worldwide rose. 105 countries have abolished the death penalty, most recently Suriname and Mongolia, and the United Nations lists 60 additional countries as "de facto abolitionist" because they have not had any executions in at least 10 years. That leaves just 28 countries that still practice capital punishment. However, the Times reports, the number of death sentences imposed around the world increased by 28%. Ivan Simonovic, the United Nations assistant secretary general for human rights, called it "a troubling paradox that while the majority of countries have abandoned the use of the death penalty, the overall number of those sentenced to death has been increasing recently." He said, "Terrorism offenses and drug-related offenses seem to be the driving arguments behind this increase, although there is no evidence of its deterring effects." China carries out more executions than any other country, estimated in the thousands, though the exact number is unknown. Saudi Arabia's January 2 execution of a Shiite cleric sparked conflict between that nation and Iran; both countries have been criticized by human rights groups for using the death penalty for drug offenses and religious charges. The 5 countries that conducted the most executions were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iraq. (Click image to enlarge.)

 

Report Finds 'Failure of Leadership' by Orange County District Attorney's Office in Jailhouse Informant Scandal

Posted: January 6, 2016

A new report by a special committee created by Orange County, California District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (pictured) cites a "failure of leadership" as the root cause of a multi-decade history of prosecutorial misconduct involving jailhouse informants. Documents obtained by defense lawyers and The Orange County Register had revealed what the paper called "a secret and well-organized network of snitches" that had been hidden from defense counsel and the courts. In May 2015, California Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney's office from participating in the capital trial of Scott Dekraai after Dekraai's attorneys alleged that prosecutors had deliberately violated his constitutional rights by arranging to place him in a cell near an informant who had been instructed to elicit incriminating statements. The court found that the county's prosecutors had repeatedly violated court orders to disclose information about informants, hiding the existence of an intricate computerized data base tracking how they were used. The prosecutor's office also faces criticism for allegedly failing to disclose benefits it provided to an informant - who now says she provided false testimony - in the 1997 capital trial of John Abel. After the informant scandal became public, Rackauckas established a special committee of legal experts to investigate the office's practices and suggest reforms. The committee's report, released on December 30, criticized the office for a "win-at-all-costs mentality," and concludes, "There is an immediate need for stronger leadership, training, supervision, mentoring, and oversight to change the culture." In 2012, Orange County had the 6th largest county death row in the US and was part of the 2% of US counties responsible for more than half of the country's death row. Since then, it has produced 5 more death sentences, more than all California counties except Riverside and Los Angeles.

 

Prosecutor Says Change Needed if Wyoming Wants to Keep the Death Penalty

Posted: January 5, 2016

Natrona County, Wyoming District Attorney Mike Blonigen (pictured) recently called for a reconsideration of the state's death penalty after a federal judge overturned the death sentence of Dale Wayne Eaton, a decade after Blonigen obtained it in 2004. At the time U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson reversed Eaton's sentence in 2014, Eaton was the only person on Wyoming's death row. Judge Johnson ruled that Eaton had received ineffective representation, in part because of inadequate funding of the Wyoming Public Defender's Office. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead requested that the state legislature appropriate $1 million over the next two years to pay for Eaton's defense and another $25,000 to study whether the state is adequately funding prosecutors and public defenders. However, Johnson subsequently barred Wyoming from conducting a new death penalty hearing when the state failed to timely appoint new lawyers for Eaton who were not affiliated with the public defender's office. Blonigen said the state legislature needs to take a serious look at the issue of capital punishment: "You've got to have the resources and have the commitment to it to carry through with it," he said. "I think the Legislature has to decide do we really want this or not. If we really want it, then we have to change some things." Wyoming has not carried out an execution since 1992, and has not sentenced anyone to death since Eaton was sentenced in 2004.

 

EDITORIALS: Newspapers Stress Findings from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report

Posted: January 4, 2016

Several newspapers across the country featured themes from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report in editorials and opinion pieces at the end of December:

"Once broadly accepted, capital punishment is increasingly a fringe practice. A handful of states conduct nearly all executions. Four — Texas, Missouri, Georgia and Florida — carried out 93 percent of them in 2015. Sixty-three percent of new death sentences came from a mere 2 percent of U.S. counties, a group with a history of disproportionately using the death penalty.Bad policy encourages this sort of excess: Three states — Alabama, Delaware and Florida — do not require juries to be unanimous when recommending a death sentence. A quarter of new sentences came from split juries in these states."

"Not only did executions drop in 2015, but the number of people sentenced to death also hit an historic low, the center said. That could be due to a growing skepticism by jurors of a system susceptible to manipulation through coerced testimony or other misconduct...— or there could be some other reason for a decline in convictions on capital punishment charges...What is clear is that there's no correcting an execution if later evidence shows the prosecution was wrong...Abolition is the direction of the future, and the U.S. should join."

"[T]he fact that new death sentences were at an all-time low in Texas this year is reason to applaud...Texas’ declines mirror numbers across the nation. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report, death sentences dropped 33 percent from 2014, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1998...Confidence in the system’s integrity is waning. It should only follow that support for the death penalty follows suit."
 
 
"In 2015, in fact, otherwise proudly liberal California led the nation in death sentences with 14, even as the national number dropped to 49, the fewest since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of California’s death sentences, eight were in Riverside County (including five of the eight Latinos sentenced to death nationwide), plus three in Los Angeles and one in Orange...If we’re going to have the death penalty, shouldn’t it be at least somewhat consistent across the state?"

"As Florida becomes more isolated in its administration of the death penalty, the state is getting deserved scrutiny for problems with the practice. A year-end report from the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center found just three states — Alabama, California and Florida — accounted for more than half of the nation’s new death sentences in 2015. More than a quarter of this year’s death sentences were imposed by Florida and Alabama after non-unanimous jury recommendations of death — a practice allowed in just those two states and Delaware. ...As Florida officials have pushed to speed up the pace of executions, the Death Penalty Information Center found the rest of the country is heading in the opposite direction. A dozen states haven’t executed anyone in at least nine years, while 18 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty altogether. ... As most other states move away from the death penalty, it is long past time for Florida to follow their lead."

"A Reading Eagle investigation in October found nearly one in five Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to death the past decade were represented by attorneys disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. And the majority of these disciplined attorneys had been found by Pennsylvania courts to be ineffective in at least one capital case. More than 150 inmates sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated since 1973, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Sooner or later an innocent person will be executed, if it hasn't happened already...It is time to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania." (This editorial announced the end of the Eagle's prior position supporting the death penalty under limited circumstances.)

 

Innocents Lost: Remembering The Wrongfully Condemned Who Died in 2015

Posted: December 31, 2015

Three death-row exonerees, including two who became symbols of the risks of wrongful capital convictions, died in 2015. David Keaton (pictured, far left), the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty, died on July 3 at the age of 63. A teenaged Keaton was sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based upon a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. Keaton was exonerated in 1973 when new evidence revealed the actual perpetrator. Glenn Ford (pictured, left), who was exonerated in 2014 after spending nearly 30 years on Louisiana's death row, died of lung cancer on June 29 at age 65. Ford was tried before an all-white jury, represented by appointed counsel who had never handled a criminal case. He was convicted despite the absence of any evidence linking him to the murder weapon, when prosecutors failed to disclose that confidential informants had identified two other men as the murderers. They ultimately admitted that "credible evidence" showed that "Ford was neither present at, nor a participant in," the murder. Death-row exoneree Andrew Golden, who spent 26 months on Florida's death row from 1991 to 1994, died in May. Golden had been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife although police investigators and the medical examiner had testified that the evidence did not suggest foul play. At least four other death-row prisoners who may have been wrongfully condemned - Lester BowerBrian Keith TerrellDonnis Musgrove, and Ronald Puksar - were executed or died on death row before judicial review of their cases were complete.

 

Missouri Juror Who Voted for Death Says New Evidence Would Have Changed Sentencing Decision

Posted: December 30, 2015

In 1997, a St. Louis County, Missouri jury unanimously voted to sentence David Barnett to death. Eighteen years later, after learning horrific details of the physical and sexual abuse to which Barnett had been subjected as a small child, Andrew Dazey - the jury foreman in Barnett's trial - says "[t]here’s no way” he would have voted for death. At trial, Barnett's lawyer presented some evidence of his client's abuse, mental illness, and suicide attempts. However, he failed to present at least 11 available mitigation witnesses who could have provided critical additional mitigating evidence, including evidence that Barnett's mother had abused alcohol and diet pills while she was pregnant with him, wanted to abandon the newborn at the hospital, and repeatedly gave Barnett away - once to a suicidal, drug addicted prostitute and other times to a violent alcoholic man who permitted the child to be sexually abused, physically assaulted, and forced to drink dishwashing liquid, among other horrors. When U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber overturned Barnett's death sentence in August, he wrote that, with the new evidence presented on appeal, "at least one juror would have determined the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death in Mr. Barnett’s case." Juror interviews by the St. Louis Post-Disatch suggest that he was right. Dazey told the paper, "David should not be on death row." Dazey believes that “had a fraction of this information been available” at trial, a majority of jurors would have voted differently. "I have never read where there was so much rejection in one life...If this wasn’t a case I was involved in, I would have thought it was a fiction novel. Everybody failed to recognize what was going on here."  

 

NEW VOICES: Why Prosecutors in Texas, Pennsylvania Are Seeking Death Penalty Less Often

Posted: December 29, 2015

Prosecutors across the country are seeking the death penalty less frequently and in recent interviews two district attorneys, one from Texas and one from Pennsylvania, have given some of their reasons why. Randall County, Texas District Attorney James Farren (pictured) told KFDA-TV in Amarillo that his experience handling one particularly lengthy and costly capital case has changed how he will make decisions in future cases that are eligible for the death penalty. He said that his office has spent, "conservatively...at least $400,000" on the prosecution of Brittany Holberg, who has been on death row since 1998. Farren said the costs are too high for taxpayers and "I do not want to subject them to this kind of thing any longer." While he said he still supports the death penalty, Farren predicted that, in the near future, the U.S. Supreme Court "likely will decide society has evolved to the point that it’s no longer appropriate." In an interview with the Reading EagleJohn T. Adams, District Attorney of Berks County, Pennsylvania, says that he rarely seeks the death penalty and is "just as happy with a life sentence as I am a death sentence." If defendantants are sentenced to life without parole, Adams says, "[t]hey will not be a threat to our community ever again. And frankly, community safety is the utmost of my concerns." Adams adds, "I think you will find throughout Pennsylvania that we are seeking [the death penalty] less and less, and I think that's good."

 

Delaware Supreme Court Overturns Third Death Sentence in Two Years Due to Prosecutorial Misconduct

Posted: December 28, 2015

For the third time in two years, the Delaware Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of a death row inmate because his trial was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. On December 14, the court ordered a retrial for Chauncey Starling, who was convicted in 2003 of killing two people in a Wilmington barber shop, in part because prosecutors had failed to disclose that they had dropped charges against a key witness for violating his parole. Instead, prosecutors informed defense counsel that those charges were still pending. Earlier this year, the court overturned the conviction of Isaiah McCoy because of misconduct by a deputy attorney general, who was later suspended from practicing law as a result of seven ethical violations in the case. In 2014, Jermaine Wright was granted a new trial because prosecutors and police withheld exculpatory evidence about possible alternate suspects in a case in which no forensic or eyewitness evidence linked Wright to the crime. No physical evidence linked Starling to the barbershop murders, as well. The court ruled that the misconduct, in combination with two prejudicial failures by defense counse, had denied Starling a fair trial. The court wrote, "Like all citizens, [Starling] is entitled to a fair trial that adheres to the procedural requirements with effective representation. Because those procedural requirements were not met, and counsel defending him was ineffective, we are compelled to reverse and remand for a new trial and proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion." 

 

Despite Executions, Death Penalty is in Decline in the "New Georgia"

Posted: December 23, 2015

Although Georgia carried out 5 of the 28 executions in the U.S. in 2015, it imposed no new death sentences and a significantly changed legal landscape points to a "new Georgia" with the death penalty in decline. The Georgia legal publication, Daily Report, dubbed the decline in death sentences its "newsmaker of the year," and explored the reasons for the change. Jerry Word, the division director of the Georgia Capital Defender, said that with the Defender's early intervention initiative reaching out to prosecutors to present reasons to decapitalize a case, prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty in all 29 of the cases his office handled this year. The only capital case that went to trial with the death penalty as an option was a case in which the defendant represented himself, and the jury handed down life without parole. In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and only one of the last 71 capital cases the capital defender has handled has resulted in a death verdict. Several factors have created the new landscape and contributed to the reduction in death sentences. Word said these include the cost of death penalty trials and the efforts by defense counsel to present prosecutors with mitigating evidence early in the process. But, he said, "I think the LWOP [life without parole] is the really big one. We've had that for six years now, but we've really just started seeing the impact in the last few years." Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, agreed that life without parole had played a significant role: "I certainly think things changed dramatically when the Legislature gave us the life without parole option," he said. Similar factors have contributed to death penalty declines in historically active death penalty states like Texas and Virginia. Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said "Georgia is in step with the national trend of declining use of the death penalty. The continued marginalization of the death penalty is not surprising given growing concerns about its implementation, particularly with regard to the potential of an innocent person being executed and the prevalence of botched executions as states experiment with lethal injection drugs."

 

Pages