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Supreme Court Agrees to Consider Standards for Claims of Innocence

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a capital case challenging the standard of proof needed for claims of innocence based on new evidence.  The Justices will consider an appeal filed by Paul House, a Tennessee death row inmate who says new DNA evidence proves he was wrongfully convicted.  In 1993 in Herrera v. Collins, a 5-member majority of the Court said a claim of innocence based on new evidence alone is generally not enough to merit a new hearing in federal court.  However, in 1995 in Schlup v. Delo, the Court ruled that a convicted murderer who had other constitutional claims in addition to an innocence claim could get a new hearing if he could show that his new evidence makes it probable that "no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Last year in House’s case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit voted 8 to 7 that House's evidence did not meet this standard. Six of the dissenters believed his new evidence was strong enough to show his innocence.  The issue before the Supreme Court is what standard should be used by federal courts to evaluate claims of innocence on the basis of newly discovered evidence.  The case is House v. Bell, No. 04-8990.


NEW VOICES: "Hanging Judge" Calls for End to the Death Penalty

Retired Orange County, California Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin, who was once known as "the hanging judge," recently called for an end to the death penalty. In a column he published in the Orange County Register, McCartin revealed that a number of recent death penalty cases and rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have led him to now oppose capital punishment because it is expensive and can never be applied in a fair and balanced way. He wrote:


Virginia to Review DNA Evidence Testing After Critical Lab Audit

After an audit of Virginia's Division of Forensic Science resulted in criticism of the crime laboratory's procedures in testing DNA evidence, the state announced that it will now review the lab's findings in 160 cases, including approximately 24 death penalty cases that hung on DNA evidence. Robert J. Humphreys, a Virginia Court of Appeals judge, is leading the review effort to examine cases that date from 1994. This marks the first time Virginia has volunteered to revisit findings in the cases of executed felons on a large scale.

In an earlier lab audit that prompted this most recent review, the American Society of Laboratory Directors criticized the crime lab's role in the case of death row exoneree Earl Washington, Jr. The audit concluded that a chief lab scientist failed to follow proper procedure when testing a piece of evidence in Washington's case. The report stated that the analysis of this evidence was wrong and that internal review of the testing failed to properly identify the errors made by the scientist. Washington spent 17 years on Virginia's death row before DNA evidence confirmed his innocence and led to his pardon in 2000. Experts say that the review led by Humphrey's team of six national forensics experts will determine whether Washington's case was an isolated incident or an example of long-standing problems within the lab. The review team will not test or retest DNA evidence, but will determine whether scientists who handled the evidence followed proper procedures. Their work will take approximately eight weeks to complete.

David B. Albo, a member of the Virginia House Courts of Justice Committee and co-chairman of the Virginia State Crime Commission noted, "You need to have impeccable credentials to go into court. If they can't show that tests were done properly, that hurts prosecuting crimes."


Indiana Editorial Calls For End to "Costly" Death Penalty

An editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette stated that the death penalty is more expensive than life without parole and offers Indiana residents no measurable benefit for their tax dollars. The paper said that ending the death penalty and reallocating funds currently put toward capital punishment would improve programs such as victim's assistance, grassroots police programs, and social service agencies that work with at-risk youth. The Journal Gazette editorial noted:


Texas Governor Commutes 28 Juvenile Offender Death Sentences

Texas Governor Rick Perry (pictured) has commuted the death sentences of 28 juvenile offenders to life in prison, an act that brings the state into compliance with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed the practice of executing those who were under 18 at the time of their crime unconstitutional. While some of these inmates will remain in more restrictive segregation, many will have their first exposure to prison work programs, schooling, and jobs within a prison unit.

USA Today Editorial Says Life Without Parole is "Fitting Replacement" for Death Penalty

In an editorial highlighting public support for the sentencing option of life without parole in death penalty cases and the need to take steps to protect against executing innocent people, USA Today recently stated that life without the possibility of parole is a "fitting replacement" for the death penalty. The editorial praised the historic enactment of a life without the possibility of parole statute in Texas and other recent activities around the nation that seek to address problems with capital punishment. It noted:


U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Death Sentence in Pennsylvania Based on Poor Representation

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a new sentencing trial for Pennsylvania death row inmate Ronald Rompilla after finding that he was inadequately represented by counsel during his 1988 capital trial. The 5-4 ruling marks the second time in one week that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a death sentence citing improper actions at trial. The Court noted that Rompilla's trial attorney failed to investigate records showing possible mitigating evidence of mental retardation and a traumatic upbringing, even after prosecutors gave warning they planned to use the same documents against him. "We hold that even when a capital defendant's family members and the defendant himself have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, his lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on," wrote Justice David H. Souter, who authored the majority opinion.


Indiana Execution Stayed Because of Jury Sentencing Issue

As Indiana death row inmate Michael Allen Lambert's clemency hearing was underway, a federal court stayed his scheduled June 22 execution in order to consider if his death sentence was constitutional in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Ring v. Arizona regarding the jury's role in death sentencing.

During Lambert's trial in 1992, a judge allowed the victim's wife to give an impact statement to the jury, which then recommended that Lambert receive the death penalty. Four years later, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that this "highly emotional" testimony unfairly influenced the jury, but instead of ordering a new sentencing hearing for Lambert, the judges reweighed the evidence on their own and upheld the sentence. "Michael Lambert is the only person on death row whose death sentence was affirmed after an appellate court found that his jury recommendation was tainted. Without a valid jury recommendation, he should not be executed," said Paula Sites of the Indiana Public Defender Council.