North Carolina's Attorney General has announced that the state will retry Alan Gell, whose death sentence was vacated last year when a North Carolina judge ruled that prosecutors withheld important evidence that might have exonerated Gell at his 1998 trial. After acknowledging that prosecutors from his office violated court orders and the U.S. Constitution by not handing over the evidence, Attorney General Ray Copper announced that the state will not seek the death penalty at Gell's second trial. The accusations that prosecutors withheld evidence and created false testimony could lead to an investigation by the North Carolina Bar, which can suspend or revoke law licenses for misconduct. Among the evidence not revealed was a secretly taped 1995 telephone conversation in which the prosecution's star witness said she "had to make up a story" about the murder. The state also withheld numerous statements of eyewitnesses who said they saw the victim alive after the only time Gell could have committed the murder.
Despite the fact that the Constitution defining Puerto Rico's status as a self-governing commonwealth associated with the United States unconditionally bans capital punishment, the U.S. is seeking the federal death penalty in the trial of two Puerto Rican men. The trial has spurred grass-root protests against the death penalty. Gov. Sila M. Calderon, the Commonwealth's top elected official, said the case demonstrates the need to further reform the U.S. - Puerto Rican relationship, especially in regard to federal laws "that infringe on our culture, our own laws and our customs." Arturo Luis Davila Toro, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, reiterated her concerns, stating, "We don't believe in capital punishment, and they are trying to impose it on us." Jury selection for the trial took place last week at the U.S. District Court in San Juan.
States have been spending tens to hundreds of millions of dollars extra per year in order to pursue the death penalty, while crime fighting strategies that have been proven effective are starting to suffer as states face severe budget deficits. The New York Times recently collected some of the cutbacks to essential services:
- In Multnomah County, Oregon, where Portland is located, the district attorney's office is so short of money that they have stopped prosecuting drug and property crimes until at least July 1, 2003. In addition, Sheriff Bernie Giusto said he has had to lay off prison guards as a result of the state's budget deficits, and the layoffs have reduced the number of prison beds available by more than 25%.
- Seattle's police force has been reduced by 24 officers and 50 civilians this year to make up for budget cuts from the Washington's legislature. Burglaries, car thefts, and shoplifting are up 18% this year.
- John Welter, San Diego's Police Chief, says that he's facing "the worst situation I've faced in 24 years on the job" because the city is no longer able to fill the positions of six or seven officers who retire each month, leaving the city 100 officers short by Spring 2004.
- New York City, which is facing a $3.8 billion budget deficit, has slashed $250 million from the Police Department in recent months. The force has eliminated more than 4,000 officers in the past 3 years.
Despite concerns that errors made by poorly paid private attorneys who are unfamiliar with death penalty litigation could risk innocent lives in Florida, Governor Jeb Bush will soon close one of the state's three Capital Collateral Regional Counsel (CCRC) offices. The offices are designed to defend death row inmates in their post-conviction appeals. Bush is closing the Tallahassee office, where attorneys have successfully freed wrongfully convicted death row inmates. Bush claims that the appeals process will move faster and death row inmates will be better served by Florida's state-run registry program for private attorneys who volunteer to defend death row inmates, but attorneys working with the CCRC fear that these volunteers lack the time and experience necessary to ensure adequate representation. Attorneys associated with CCRC believe that the closing of remaining offices in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa could be next.
Illinois lawmakers recently approved sweeping death penalty reforms and have sent the legislative package to Governor Rod Blagojevich for signature into law. The reforms are expected to transform the investigation and prosecution of every death-eligible crime in Illinois. Based on recommendations made by the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment, the bill would change police procedures regarding disclosure of evidence, set up a system to get rid of police officers who lie, limit the number of crimes that could result in a death sentence, improve police line-up procedures, and create pretrial hearings to help determine the credibility of jailhouse informants. In addition, the bill creates a presumption that anyone with an IQ less than 75 is mentally retarded and is not eligible for the death penalty, and it establishes a "fundamental justice" provision that empowers the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn a death sentence if justices thought it was not called for in a particular case. Although Blagojevich is expected to sign the legislation, he noted that he feels it does not go far enough to protect against the possibility of executing an innocent person. Blagojevich continues to support the moratorium on executions in Illinois.
The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's quarterly publication, Death Row USA," is now available on DPIC's Web site. As of April 1, 2003, the number of inmates on death rows across the nation is 3,525, a 5% decrease from the 3,701 reported April 1, 2002 (See Homepage). Also reported in "Death Row USA:"
Jurisdictions with the highest percent of minorities on death row:
Nevada lawmakers have given final approval to a measure that bans the use of three-judge panels in deciding whether the state should hand down death sentences to those convicted of capital murder. Sentences have been handed down by a panel of three judges when a jury can't decide on a penalty, but that procedure was called into question by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Ring v. Arizona. The new procedure requires judges in cases involving hung juries to decide whether to impanel a new jury or impose a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole. The bill now goes before the Governor for signature into law.
More than 150 prominent residents of North Carolina have asked the House of Representatives and Governor Michael Easley to support a two-year suspension of executions in the state and to conduct a death penalty study. North Carolina's Senate passed the measure in May, and a vote in the House is expected this month. In a letter calling for the bill's enactment into law, noteworthy North Carolinians, including former judges and corporate leaders, noted that "legitimate concerns about the fairness and accuracy of our system of capital punishment exist and must be addressed." Specifically, the letter mentions several recent cases in which death sentences have been overturned by state courts. Read the letter and see a complete listing of signatories.
Two recent law journals feature collections of articles on capital punishment. The University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review focuses on wrongful convictions. The Summer 2002 issue includes articles on DNA evidence, Innocence Projects around the country, and the role of journalism in helping to rectify wrongful convictions. (70 University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review 797 (2002)). The second new resource is the Summer 2002 edition of the Northwestern University School of Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology containing an historical look at capital punishment in Chicago. Through an examination of a new data set on homicides, this symposium looks at issues such as judicial elections and capital punishment, women and the death penalty, and life without parole.
A recent Atlantic Monthly article by Alan Berlow features a review of never-before-seen summaries and related documents used by then-Governor George Bush during his consideration of clemency appeals filed by death row inmates in Texas. The article notes that Bush's legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, often provided the Governor with case summaries and documents reflecting a "clear prosecutorial bias" and that Gonzales's briefings failed to raise crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffectiveness of counsel, conflicts of interest, mitigating evidence, and evidence of innocence. The article also notes that Gonzales now serves as President Bush's White House counsel, and many consider him a possible future Supreme Court nominee. Read the entire article.