A previously undisclosed letter written by jailhouse informant Johnny E. Webb, a crucial witness in the trial of Cameron Willingham (pictured) in Texas, indicates that Webb's sentence may have been reduced in exchange for his testimony that Willingham had confessed to intentionally starting a house fire that killed his three daughters. The defense had never been informed of the existence of any deal between Webb and prosecutors in the case. Willingham was executed in 2004, but he consistently maintained his innocence, and forensic evidence of arson in the case was later discredited. Webb testified that Willingham had confessed to him while they were held in the same jail, but later recanted that testimony. Prosecutor John Jackson is now under investigation by the Texas State Bar for his handling of the Willingham case and the alleged deal with Webb. Webb's 1996 letter to Jackson said, “Recently, as I was going over my case notes, I noticed that you had told me that the charge of aggravated robbery would be dropped, or lowered, to robbery. . . . You told me this would be done before my transfer to TDC [Texas Department of Corrections].” He added that if Jackson did not take care of the change, Webb might file a court motion, possibly making their deal public. In a recent interview, Webb told The Marshall Project, “I did not want to see Willingham go to death row and die for something I damn well knew was a lie and something I didn’t initiate. I lied on the man because I was being forced by John Jackson to do so. I succumbed to pressure when I shouldn’t have. In the end, I was told, ‘You’re either going to get a life sentence or you’re going to testify.’ He coerced me to do it.”
On March 4, Akorn Pharmaceuticals, a manufacturer of two drugs (midazolam and pentobarbital) that have been used in executions, released a statement announcing measures to block the sale of its products to prisons. Akorn joins at least two other U.S.-based drug companies and several European companies in expressing opposition to the use of their products in lethal injections. In 2014, Par Pharmaceuticals responded to Indiana's proposed use of one of their anesthetics by prohibiting the sale of the drug to prisons. Stephen Mock, a spokesman for Par, said, “It’s not because we take public policy positions on issues like capital punishment. We’re a pharmaceutical company, and we have a mission statement. Par’s mission is to help improve the quality of life. Indiana’s proposed use of our product is contrary to our mission.” Akorn's statement announcing their new restrictions said, “The employees of Akorn are committed to furthering human health and wellness. In the interest of promoting these values, Akorn strongly objects to the use of its products to conduct or support capital punishment through lethal injection or other means.”
On March 9, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurst v. Florida, a challenge to the state's unusual sentencing procedure. In a prior ruling, Ring v. Arizona (2002), the Court held that the question of whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty is entitled to a jury deteremination. Unlike almost every other state where unanimous juries are required for death eligibility and a death sentence, Florida only requires the jury to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge, who then makes the final decision on the existence of aggravating factors and the actual sentence. Timothy Hurst was sentenced to death by a judge, following a 7-5 recommendation for death by the jury. The jury's recommendation did not make clear which aggravating factors made him eligible for the death penalty or whether they found any aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida could affect pending cases and other inmates on the state's death row.
UPDATE: An image of Cecil Clayton's brain obtained via MRI can be viewed here. The image shows the front left part of his brain is physically missing. Cecil Clayton is 74, suffers from dementia, has an IQ of 71, is missing a significant part of his brain due to an accident, and is scheduled for execution on March 17 in Missouri. His attorneys insist he should be spared because he does not understand the punishment to be carried out. Clayton sustained a brain injury in a sawmill accident in 1972, requiring removal of about 20% of his frontal lobe, which is involved in impulse control, problem solving, and social behavior. After the accident, Clayton began experiencing violent impulses, schizophrenia, and extreme paranoia, which became so severe that he checked himself into a mental hospital out of fear he could not control his temper. In 1983, Dr. Douglas Stevens, a psychiatrist, examined Clayton and concluded, “There is presently no way that this man could be expected to function in the world of work. Were he pushed to do so he would become a danger both to himself and to others. He has had both suicidal and homicidal impulses, so far controlled, though under pressure they would be expected to exacerbate.” In the past decade, six psychiatric evaluations have found that Clayton should be exempt from execution because he does not understand that he will be executed, or the reasons for his execution. However, since his execution date has been set, he has not had a competency hearing before a judge that could spare him from execution.
On March 6, several stakeholders in California's death penalty system filed supportive briefs urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to uphold a District Court ruling that the state's death penalty is unconstitutional. The 9th Circuit is considering the state's appeal in the case of Ernest Jones, whose death sentence was overturned by Judge Cormac Carney (pictured). In an amicus brief on behalf of Jones, Bethany Webb, whose sister was murdered in 2011, said, "California's death penalty is a charade. My sister’s killer is going to die of old age before an execution will ever be carried out. The death penalty retraumatizes families like mine and forces them to endure a decades-long cycle of waiting, court hearings, and uncertainty. It is cruel to continue propping up a system that encourages victims’ families to wait decades for an execution that may never come." State legislators and legal scholars also filed briefs in the case. Senator Mark Leno, joined by other state legislators, wrote, "The facts are overwhelmingly clear: California’s death penalty system is broken and clearly there’s no political will to try to address the many flaws that plague the system. The death penalty is exorbitantly costly, arbitrarily applied, and serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever in its current condition. The only reasonable solution is to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole."
UPDATE: The repeal bill unanimously passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Mar. 9. Earlier: At a Nebraska legislative hearing on March 4, dozens of people testified in favor of abolishing the death penalty, including representatives from families of murder victims, from law enforcement, the judiciary, and Nebraska Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Among the co-sponsors of the bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole are seven Republican legislators. Jim Davidsaver, a retired Lincoln police captain, submitted testimony saying, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty does not make us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." Elle Hanson, who lost three loved ones to murder, said the death penalty was applied arbitrarily, "I want to share the pain and outrage I feel when I hear politicians say that we need the death penalty for the worst of the worst. This is an absurd notion. I guarantee you, each of our losses is the worst of the worst." Sen. Ernie Chambers (pictured) of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said he expects it to be debated by the full legislature this session. Only one person, a County Attorney, testified against the bill.
In an unusual joint editorial on March 5, four national Catholic publications called for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. The editors of America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor urged "the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, 'Capital punishment must end.'" Citing opposition to the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and statements by Popes John Paul II and Francis, the editorial said, "The practice is abhorrent and unnecessary. It is also insanely expensive, as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes." The publications concluded: "We join our bishops in hoping the [Supreme] court will reach the conclusion that it is time for our nation to embody its commitment to the right to life by abolishing the death penalty once and for all."
Terence Inch, a former police commissioner in Hellam Township, Pennsylvania, recently wrote in support of Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on executions and pointed to the mistakes that can happen in high-profile crimes: "In the aftermath of a brutal homicide, particularly one involving multiple victims or children, there is enormous pressure on law enforcement to solve the case and to solve it quickly...In the rush to solve these high profile cases it is easy to make mistakes, or to ignore evidence that points away from the 'person of interest.'" He pointed to the numerous exonerations of death row inmates, including six in Pennsylvania, as evidence of the risks in capital prosecutions: "Mistakes happen too often, as evidenced by the fact that 150 men and women in the United States have been convicted and sent to death row - only to be released when conclusive evidence of their wrongful conviction emerged." He also noted the high cost of capital punishment in the state: "Pennsylvania has spent upwards of $350 million dollars on a death penalty system that has produced just three executions since 1999. All three of those executions involved men who voluntarily gave up their appeals. The system is obviously broken."
Midland County, Texas, District Attorney Teresa Clingman (pictured) recently accepted a sentence of life without parole rather than seeking the death penalty for Dan Higgins, a man who pled guilty to killing a Midland County Sheriff's Deputy. Clingman's decision was part of a larger trend of prosecutors choosing life without parole even for the most serious crimes. West Texas A&M criminology professor and former prison warden Keith Price said, "Capital death has so many requirements -- it's so expensive. Capital death: the convicted dies in prison by lethal injection. Capital life: the convicted dies in prison whenever his natural life is over. From an incapacitation standpoint, the DA has accomplished the same thing. That particular person will never see the Texas public again." As a result of similar decisions by other prosecutors, and juries preferring life without parole more often, death sentences in the U.S. have declined by about 75% since their peak in the mid-1990s. Clingman cited a request from the deputy's widow not to seek the death penalty, saying, "The reasoning is because we can't punish him any more than we're already punishing him. It saves the victim in that case from having to go through a trial. [The victim's widow] also took into consideration that Mr. Higgins will now spend his time in general population rather than on death row in a single cell by himself for the rest of his life." Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter supported the prosecutor's decision, saying, "I think saving the county money, saving the heartache for the families involved is the best solution for this particular case. The Midland County's Sheriff's Office not only lost a brother and a friend, this county lost a great employee. Only time right now can help settle the feelings right now."
The execution of Kelly Gissendaner was postponed just hours before it was scheduled to take place on March 2, after correctional officials in Georgia became concerned that the lethal injection chemicals appeared cloudy. "The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed," the Department of Corrections said in a statement. Georgia is one of several states that have turned to compounding pharmacies for lethal injection drugs after large pharmaceutical companies blocked the use of their products in executions. A state secrecy law shields the identity of the drug preparer. Gissendaner's lawyers had filed appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the lack of transparency could allow the use of drugs that were unreliable. Georgia has not yet announced a new execution date. Gissendaner's execution was previously moved from February 25 to March 2 due to a winter storm.