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Pardon Sought for Black Teen Executed by Pennsylvania 84 Years Ago

Posted: June 19, 2015

84 years after Pennsylvania executed a black 16-year-old for the 1931 murder of his white school matron, the descendants of the boy's trial lawyers are trying to exonerate him. Samuel Lemon, the great-grandson of Alexander McClay Williams' defense attorney, William Ridley (pictured), has researched the case and concluded that Williams was innocent of murdering Vida Robare. He is trying to obtain a posthumous pardon for Williams. Robare had been granted a divorce from her ex-husband -- whom Lemon believes committed the murder -- on grounds of "extreme cruelty." She was stabbed 47 times with an ice pick during the murder and suffered two broken ribs and a skull fracture. The day after the murder, Chief County Detective Oliver N. Smith declared that "[t]his crime was committed by a full grown and strong man. The woman was unmistakably athletic and could have fought off a boy." Two days later, Williams gave a confession after police interrogation in undocumented circumstances. The confession, which Lemon believes was coerced, did not match the details from the crime scene. "He didn't have the motive. He didn't have the time. He didn't have the ability," Lemon said. When he was sentenced to death, Williams shouted that he had been promised he wouldn't be executed if he confessed. The case bears striking similarities to the case of George Stinney, a 14-year-old black boy who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in South Carolina in 1944 for the murder of two young white girls. 

 

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Intellectually Disabled Louisiana Defendant

Posted: June 18, 2015

CORRECTION:  On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Brumfield v. Cain, a Louisiana death penalty case dealing with intellectual disability. The Court held that the federal district court was entitled to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Kevan Brumfield has intellectual disability and is therefore ineligible for execution. It reversed a ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that would have deferred to a Lousiana state court decision permitting Brumfield to be executed without a hearing on his claim of intellectual disability. After an extensive evidentiary hearing, the district court held that Brumfield was intellectually disabled.  By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana had unreasonably determined the facts when it decided that Brumfield had not presented sufficient evidence of intellectual and adaptive impairments to warrant an evidentiary hearing in state court. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor said, "After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was 'based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.' Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court." The case returns to the Fifth Circuit for consideration of whether the district court's findings are supported by the record.

 

"Death Row, USA Spring 2015" Illustrates Continuing Decline of Death Penalty

Posted: June 17, 2015

The Spring 2015 update to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's publication, Death Row, USA, reports that 3,002 men and women were on death rows across the United States as of April 1, 2015. This reflects a continuing decline in the size of death row, down 13% since Spring 2005, when 3,452 people were on America's death rows. Several states saw significant drops in their death row populations over that period while carrying out few or no executions: Pennsylvania dropped from 230 to 184 (no executions), North Carolina fell from 197 to 157 (9 executions), and Idaho declined by half, from 22 to 11 (2 executions). The nation's largest death row states are: California (746), Florida (401), Texas (271), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania. The racial demographics of death row nationwide are 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino/a, and 2% other races. Only 54 death row inmates (1.8%) are female. The most racially concentrated death rows are Delaware (76% racial minorities); Texas (72%), Louisiana (71%), California (66%), and Pennsylvania (65%).

 

Third Circuit Rebuffs "Concerted Effort" to Exclude Capital Habeas Lawyers from Pennsylvania State Cases

Posted: June 16, 2015

On June 12, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rebuffed what it described as "a concerted effort" by Pennsylvania prosecutors to bar lawyers from the Philadelphia federal community defender's capital habeas unit from representing death row inmates in Pennsylvania state-level appeals. The former Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania state courts had sharply critized the unit -- which has overturned more than 100 Pennsylvania death sentences -- for what he termed its "abusive" litigation tactics and its "commitment of . . . manpower" at the level "one would expect in major litigation involving large firms." Pennsylvania state and county prosecutors subsequently attempted to remove the habeas unit lawyers from representing death-row inmates in seven separate cases, alleging that its participation in state post-conviction proceedings constituted misuse of federal funds. The Third Circuit ruled that the habeas unit's appearance in state court was governed by the terms of its federal sustaining grant as determined by federal court administrators, and that Pennsylvania could not exclude the habeas unit from representing its capital clients in state court. "It is difficult not to wonder why the commonwealth is attempting to bar concededly qualified defense attorneys from representing condemned indigent petitioners in state court," Chief Judge Theodore McKee said in a concurring opinion. "A victory by the commonwealth in this suit would not resolve the legal claims of these capital habeas petitioners. Rather, it would merely mean that various cash-strapped communities would have to shoulder the cost of paying private defense counsel to represent these same petitioners, or that local pro bono attorneys would have to take on an additional burden." 

 

Texas Disbars Prosecutor for Misconduct in Sending Innocent Man to Death Row

Posted: June 15, 2015

On June 12, the State Bar of Texas disbarred Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta, the prosecutor whose misconduct led to the wrongful conviction of death row exoneree Anthony Graves (pictured, r.). The bar found that Sebesta violated no fewer than five of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, including making a false statement to a court, using evidence known to be false, and failing to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Graves' conviction, finding that prosecutors elicited false statements and failed to provide key evidence to Graves' attorneys. Graves was exonerated in 2010, when a special prosecutor re-examined the case, found no credible evidence against Graves, and dropped the charges against him. Assisted by pro bono attorneys Neal Manne, Charles Eskridge, and Kathryn Kase, Graves filed a grievance against Sebesta in 2014 because, according to his attorneys, "even after Mr. Graves' exoneration, Mr. Sebesta continued to claim he had done nothing wrong in prosecuting Mr. Graves. Grotesquely, Mr. Sebesta continued to torment Mr. Graves and his family by insisting both in public statements and on a web site he maintained that Mr. Graves really was a murderer and was guilty of the crimes." Graves said, "No one who makes it a goal to send a man to death row without evidence—and worse, while hiding evidence of my innocence—deserves to be a lawyer in Texas."

 

As Lethal Injection Decision Nears, Oklahoma Court Permits Open Records Lawsuit on Botched Execution to Move Forward

Posted: June 12, 2015

As the anticipated late-June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Oklahoma lethal injection case, Glossip v. Gross, approaches, the Oklahoma state courts have ruled that a media lawsuit seeking discovery and depositions relating to the state's botched execution of Clayton Lockett may proceed. On June 8, the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously denied a motion filed by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to block action in Branstetter v. Fallin, a lawsuit filed by the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press on behalf Tulsa Frontier editor Ziva Branstetter and the Tulsa World. As described by Branstetter, the lawsuit seeks disclosure of "why attorneys [for Oklahoma] blacked out hundreds of sentences and dozens of pages in interview transcripts related to the execution." Oklahoma has for more than a year failed to act on an open records law request for these records. Branstetter says "[t]he secrecy surrounding the execution almost certainly contributed to the 'procedural disaster' and international criticism that followed. But the secrecy continues."

 

NEW VOICES: American Society of Health-System Pharmacists Opposes Participation in Executions

Posted: June 11, 2015

In a press release on June 9, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) announced its policy affirming "that pharmacists, as healthcare providers who are dedicated to achieving optimal health outcomes and preserving life, should not participate in capital punishment." ASHP represents 40,000 members, including pharmacists who serve as patient-care providers in acute and ambulatory settings. The organization also includes student pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. The policy was approved by the organization’s chief policy-making body, the House of Delegates, during ASHP’s Summer Meetings this week in Denver. “This policy makes it clear that ASHP opposes pharmacists’ participation in capital punishment,” said ASHP Chief Executive Officer Paul W. Abramowitz, Pharm.D., Sc.D. (Hon.), FASHP. “We are proud that our members as patient care providers who are dedicated to achieving optimal health outcomes have taken this strong, ethical stance.”

 

Missouri Execution Clouded by Concerns About Mental Illness and Lethal Injection

Posted: June 10, 2015

On June 9, Richard Strong was executed in Missouri, despite the fact that four Justices of the Supreme Court would have granted him a stay and despite evidence that he suffered from severe mental illness. A broad challenge to Missouri's secretive lethal injection process (Zink v. Lombardi) has yet to be resolved, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan voted to stay Strong's execution because of that challenge. However, five votes are needed to stay an execution. In addition, Strong's original trial counsel failed to adequately explore his mental illness and the mental problems in his family. After a fuller investigation, Strong was diagnosed with major Axis I illnesses, including: Major Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Schizotypal Personality Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Strong's counsel asked the Supreme Court to spare his life because society's standards of decency have turned away from executing people with such severe mental problems. Strong was convicted of murdering his wife and two-year-old daughter in a brutal manner. He acknowledged the crime but could not understand why he did it. Another child was left untouched. Now 14 years old, she pleaded for mercy for her father. Gov. Jay Nixon denied clemency.

 

INNOCENCE: Alfred Dewayne Brown is Released from Texas Death Row; Nation's 154th Death-Row Exoneration

Posted: June 9, 2015

Harris County, Texas prosecutors announced on June 8 that they have dismissed charges against Alfred Dewayne Brown, who had been sentenced to death in 2005 for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk during a robbery. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had overturned Brown's conviction last year because prosecutors withheld a phone record that supported Brown's alibi. Prosecutors in 2013 said that the phone record had been inadvertently misplaced. Brown had long maintained that he had been alone at his girlfriend's apartment at the time of the murder, and that he had called her after seeing reports of the shooting on television. Defense lawyers argued that the time of the phone call established that Brown could not have been at the store when the murder occurred. There was no physical evidence against Brown, and a series of Pulitzer prize-winning columns by Houston Chronicle writer Lisa Falkenberg disclosed irregularities in the grand jury process, that Brown's girlfriend had faced intimidating questioning and threats of perjury by a police officer who was the grand jury foreman, and that she had been jailed for seven weeks until she changed her testimony to implicate Brown. She has since recanted that testimony. District Attorney Devon Anderson said, "After very careful consideration, I have decided that at this time, there is insufficient evidence to corroborate the testimony of Brown's co-defendant. Accordingly, we dismissed Alfred Brown's capital murder case earlier today. It is the right thing to do." Since 2007, Brown's attorneys have compiled strong evidence that the murder was committed by another man with a history of robbery and connections to the co-defendants in the crime. Despite a 2008 motion to test the alternate suspect's DNA, such a test has not been carried out. Alfred Brown is the 154th person exonerated from death row since 1973, the 13th in Texas, and the fourth in 2015.

 

An Historical Look at Nitrogen Gas, the Electric Chair, and the Firing Squad as Execution Alternatives

Posted: June 8, 2015

With lethal injection in administrative crisis and facing constitutional challenges, some states are looking towards abolition and others towards alternative methods of execution. In an article for The Marshall Project, reporters Maurice Chammah, Andrew Cohen, and Eli Hager explore the histories of nitrogen gas, electrocution, and the firing squad -- different methods of execution three states have recently adopted as alternatives to lethal injection in the event lethal injection is declared unconstitutional or execution drugs become unavailable. The article notes the similarities between promises made by proponents of each method that their method would be the most efficient, painless, and humane execution procedure, and discusses the ambivalence engendered by each execution method.  The article reports that experts have criticized the manner in which Oklahoma researched and adopted its nitrogen gas alternative as “cavalier.” "What Oklahoma is doing is not a scientific endeavor,” Emory University anesthesiologist Joel Zivot is quoted as saying. “It’s nonsense, empirically.” Highlighting the historical context of the electric chair in light of Tennessee's decision to reintroduce electrocution, the article chronicles the origins of the method and contrasts Thomas Edison's promise that the electric chair would be painless and efficient with stories of botched electrocutions. Finally, the article turns to the firing squad, which it quotes Utah Gov. Gary Herbert as calling “a little bit gruesome," even as he approved the law that brought it back as an option in his state. It recounts the unique historical relationship between Utah's use of the firing squad and some forms of Mormon theology. Finally, it contrasts the efficiency of the firing squad with the visceral responses it produces: in the words of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, “We mask the most violent act that society can inflict on one of its members with such an antiseptic veneer. Isn’t death by firing squad, with mutilation and bloodshed, more honest?”

 

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