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A recent article in the Western New England Law Review examines ways in which the rules of evidence and procedures at capital sentencing trials are less rigorous than those applied at the guilt-phase of the trial. In capital sentencing hearings, evidence is permitted that would not be admissible to prove guilt. The defendant does not receive traditional trial protections at the sentencing trial. For example, hearsay may be received by the jury during sentencing, but is generally inadmissible at the guilt phase of the trial because it is considered unreliable.
An Oklahoma County District Judge has determined that Osbaldo Torres, a Mexican foreign national who was once on Oklahoma's death row, should have been told before his trial that he had a right to contact his home country's consulate. Judge Twyla Mason Gray also found that Torres had ineffective counsel at his trial. Her findings stem from a December hearing held at the request of the State Court of Criminal Appeals. The appeals court wanted Judge Gray to hear evidence about Torres' representation and to determine if American officials had violated protections guaranteed by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The findings have been sent to a higher appeals court for review. Though it is uncertain when they will rule in the case, those judges could decide to order a new trial for Torres or affirm his conviction. After Torres had spent more than a decade on death row, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry commuted Torres' death sentence to life in prison without parole in May 2004.
U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, an outspoken conservative Catholic from Pennsylvania, is re-examining his views on capital punishment. In response to the announcement by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops concerning their new Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, Santorum said, "I felt very troubled about cases where someone may have been convicted wrongly. DNA evidence definitely should be used when possible. I agree with the pope that in the civilized world ... the application of the death penalty should be limited. I would definitely agree with that. I would certainly suggest there probably should be some further limits on what we use it for." This is a significant shift in opinion on the death penalty for Santorum, who voted against replacing capital punishment with life without parole in 1994 and helped to block a 1996 effort to make it easier for those on death row to appeal their convictions. He said, "I never thought about it that much when I was really a supporter of the death penalty. I still see it as potentially valuable, but I would be one to urge more caution than I would have in the past." Santorum's remarks came as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a Zogby International poll showing a dramatic decline in Catholic support for capital punishment.
A national poll of Roman Catholic adults conducted by Zogby International found that Catholic support for capital punishment has declined dramatically in recent years. The Zogby Poll was released on March 21, 2005 at a press conference of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as it announced a new Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. The poll revealed that only 48% of Catholics now support the death penalty. Comparable polls by other organizations had resgistered a 68% support among Catholics in 2001. In addition, the percentage of Catholics who a
America Without the Death Penalty: States Leading the Way provides a comprehensive review of the conditions that resulted in twelve U.S. states not having capital punishment. The book looks at factors such as economic conditions, public sentiment, mass media, population diversity, murder rates, and the regional history of executions, that led to abolition in those states. The book's authors, Professors John F. Galliher, Larry W. Koch, David Patrick Keys, and Teresa J.
The capital convictions of dozens of people from Alameda County, California are coming under legal scrutiny because of an accusation that Jews and black women were excluded from juries in capital trials in the county as "standard practice." The practice was revealed in a sworn declaration by former Alameda prosecutor John R. Quatman in the habeas corpus proceedings of Fred Freeman, a man on California's death row who is seeking to have his conviction overturned.
A recent Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey of Maryland voters found that 63% believe that life without the possibility of parole is an acceptable substitute for the death penalty. Only 21% stated that they believe it is not an acceptable alternative to the death penalty, and 16% were not sure. The poll, sponsored by the Maryland Catholic Conference, revealed that among women, 66% believe the alternative sentence of life without parole is an acceptable substitute for capital punishment. Among black respondents, the number agreeing with the statement registered at 69%.
In an historic move to ensure that Texas fairly applies the death penalty and that defendants are afforded proper legal protections to prove their innocence, Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed a nine-member special council with sweeping powers to review an array of legal issues ranging from police investigations to court appeals. The appointment of the panel is the first acton of its kind by a Texas governor in decades.
"I have great confidence in our justice system, but no system is perfect, and we must not be afraid of asking the questions that will lead to creating a more perfect system of justice for all the people of Texas," Gov. Perry said after issuing the Executive Order to create the panel. He noted that among the factors leading to the panel's creation were evidence testing mistakes at the Houston crime lab that affected thousands of criminal cases, court rulings barring the execution of juvenile offenders and those with mental retardation, and questions about whether Texas is properly affording full legal rights to foreign citizens imprisoned in the state.
By a vote of 25-15, members of the Connecticut Judiciary Committee voted for legislation to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, an action that clears the way for the House to debate the measure. Supporters of the bill say that the state's death penalty is an unenforceable statute, a source of agony for families of murder victims, and a fiscal burden the state can no longer afford to bear. "We should not be debating spending $3 million or $4 million to kill one man when we should be spending that money on school books.
The Bush administration has pulled out of the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, an international agreement that has been in place for more than 30 years and that the United States initially supported to protect its citizens abroad. In recent years, the provision has been successfully invoked by foreign nations whose citizens were sentenced to death by U.S. states without receiving access to diplomats from their home countries, events which served as the basis for President Bush's decision to withdraw from the agreement.
The Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations requires signatories to let the United Nation's highest tribunal, the International Court of Justice at the Hague, make the final decision when their citizens say they have been illegally denied the right to seek consulate assistance when jailed abroad. The administration's withdrawal from the Optional Protocol comes just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider what effect U.S. courts should give to an International Court of Justice ruling in favor of 51 Mexican foreign nationals. The World Court found that the U.S. government had failed to comply with the requirements of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, and it directed that U.S. courts give the death row inmates "meaningful review" of their convictions and sentences, without applying procedural default rules to prevent consideration of the defendants' claims. It is unclear what affect the administration's decision to abandon the Optional Protocol will have on this case.
Some analysts say President Bush's decision will weaken both protections for U.S. citizens abroad and the idea of reciprocal obligation that the protocol embodied. The United States was the first to invoke the Optional Protocol before the World Court to successfully sue Iran for the taking of 52 U.S. hostages in 1979.