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Study Shows Trends in Executions, Death Sentences Closely Track Drop in Public Support for the Death Penalty

Posted: December 9, 2015

Historical trends in executions and new death sentences closely track changes in public attitudes about the death penalty and crime in general, according to a comprehensive University of North Carolina analysis of national public opinion surveys on the death penalty. UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Frank Baumgartner has created a statistical index of public support for capital punishment based upon the results of 488 national surveys on the death penalty over the last 40 years. This index documents the close relationship between steep nationwide declines in executions and new death sentences and the historical declines in public support for the death penalty. Baumgartner says the public opinion polls show that support for the death penalty and for punitive criminal justice policies in general have declined substantially since 1976. He observes that "The number of death sentences tracks closely with public opinion toward that form of punishment.... As the public has increasingly spurned the death penalty, death sentences have also declined." Baumgartner's study also shows that the number of counties and states carrying out executions, as well as the number of executions and new death sentences, have all declined in a pattern closely tracking the drop in public support. He concludes, "No matter how we look at it, for the past 20 years, the death penalty has been dying." (Click image to enlarge.)

 

Missouri Supreme Court Overturns Conviction of Reginald Clemons

Posted: December 8, 2015

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on November 24 to vacate the conviction and death sentence of Reginald (Reggie) Clemons (pictured), who has been on death row for 22 years for the interracial rape and murder of two sisters. The court said that Clemons, did not receive a fair trial because of prosecutorial misconduct. In particular, the court was troubled by what it concluded was a deliberate failure by prosecutiors to provide Clemons' defense with evidence that he had been beaten to elicit a confession. “The record includes substantial, credible evidence that Mr Clemons’ confession was coerced by physical abuse inflicted by the police that would require that his confession be suppressed," Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge wrote. The court said that the prosecution's misconduct was even more prejudicial in this case because, after withholding evidence of the beating by police, it then filed a motion to bar the defense from arguing that Clemons confession had been coerced, successfully asserting that the evidence at trial did not support an inference that police had beaten Clemons. The court's decision relied heavily on the findings of a Special Master who reviewed the case in 2013. Clemons also raised the issue of his sentence being disproportionate to those of the other men involved in the crime. Of the four defendants in the case, Clemons and two other black men received death sentences, while the one white defendant is now out on parole. The court declined to address the issue of proportionality because the other evidence was sufficient to overturn Clemons' conviction. A 2012 report by The Guardian identified 21 discrepancies in the prosecution's case against Clemons, including, among others, that the prosecution never disclosed the existence of a rape kit that could have identified the perpetrator and presented no evidence from the rape kit at trial; presented testimony in a co-defendant's trial that another person actually pushed the sisters off a bridge into the Mississippi River; and that prosecutors discriminatorily exercised their discretionary strikes to prevent seven black jurors from sitting on the case. The state of Missouri has 60 days from the ruling to decide whether to retry Clemons.

 

After 3 Trials and Recanted Testimony, Georgia Set to Execute Man Who May Be Innocent

Posted: December 7, 2015

UPDATE: Terrell was denied clemency on Dec. 7 and executed just before 1:00 a.m. on December 9. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that it took a nurse an hour to find a vein for the lethal injection IV and that, as the execution drug was being administered, Terrell mouthed the words: "Didn't do it." EARLIER: After three trials, Georgia is set to execute Brian Keith Terrell (pictured) on December 8, unless the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles grants him clemency in a hearing at which he will present claims that he is innocent. Terrell's lawyers say that no physical evidence links him to the murder and that this conviction and death sentence are a product of prosecutorial misconduct and false and misleading testimony. The key testimony against Terrell came from a witness whom defense investigators say now admits to having lied to save himself. Terrell's first trial ended in a mistrial when jurors could not agree on whether he was guilty. The second resulted in a conviction that was later overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court. The third trial concluded with a conviction and death sentence. Physical evidence from the crime scene leaves substantial questions as to Terrell's guilt: footprints found near the victim's body were smaller than Terrell's feet, and none of the 13 fingerprints found by investigators matched his fingerprints. Terrell was convicted primarily on the testimony of his cousin, Jermaine Johnson, who spent a year in jail facing the threat of the death penalty before he made a deal with prosecutors to testify against Terrell in exchange for a five-year sentence. Johnson has told defense investigators that police and prosecutors pressured him to give false testimony against his cousin. Terrell's lawyers say that prosecutors also presented misleading testimony that a neighbor had said she had seen Terrell at the murder scene, when in fact she had told authorities that he was not the man she had seen. At Terrell's trial, the prosecutor emphasized the importance of Johnson's testimony, saying during his closing statement, "If you never heard anything about Jermaine Johnson in this case, if he had never testified, would you have enough information to make a decision in this case? You wouldn't." 

 

Counties With Highest Rates of Killings by Police Also Among Highest in Death Sentences

Posted: December 4, 2015

The counties in the United States that have the highest per capita rate of killings by police officers also rank among the highest in the country in the number of people sentenced to death. In his criminal justice blog, "The Watch," for the Washington Post, Radley Balko details the "remarkable correlation" between killings by police and death sentences imposed. "There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States," Balko writes. "But the 13 with the highest rates of police killings are not only all in death penalty states; they also all rank among the top 30 in death sentences meted out over the past 40 years." These jurisdictions, which Balko describes as "America's killingest counties," all rank among the 2 percent of U.S. counties that account for more than half of America’s death row population. Balko focuses on Kern County, California, where police have killed more civilians per capita than anywhere else in the country - 0.9 police killings per 100,000 residents - even though the city’s overall murder rate is, Balko says, "right at about the national average." Kern "has also sent 26 people to death row since 1976, putting it among the top 25 in the country." In explaining the correlation between police killings and death sentences, Balko notes that "the counties that send the most people to death row also tend to be counties with histories of prosecutorial abuse and misconduct." He suggests that, as "the chief law enforcement officers within their judicial districts[, district attorneys] set the tone for the entire area. They’re also typically in charge of investigating officer-involved shootings and other allegations of excessive force. It isn’t difficult to see how when a DA takes a 'win at all costs' approach to fighting crime, that philosophy would permeate an entire county’s law enforcement apparatus, from the beat cop to the DA herself or himself."

 

Sexually Abused Teen Who Killed His Abuser Faces Execution Despite Inadequate Defense, Judge's Conflict of Interest

Posted: December 3, 2015

Terry Williams was barely 18 when he killed Amos Norwood, a man who had been sexually abusing him since Williams was 13. A recent article in Mother Jones discusses how the Philadelphia District Attorney's office - which championed the cause of sexual abuse victims during landmark prosecutions of several clergy abuse cases - is aggressively seeking to execute Williams, employing the very stereotypes about abuse victims it publicly rejected in the clergy trials. At the time of those trials, D.A. Seth Williams said "[a]s we have learned, it is extremely difficult for sexual abuse victims to admit that the assault happened, and then to actually report the abuse to authorities can be even harder for them." But in Terry Williams' case, the office has argued both that his silence discredits his claim of having been repeatedly sexually abused and that the killing was a product of  "gay-prostitute rage." Williams never met his court-appointed lawyer until the day before his trial and, not trusting the lawyer, did not reveal his history of sexual abuse. Philadelphia prosecutors knew that WIlliams had been sexually abused before and had evidence that Norwood had made sexual advances toward other young boys. Nevertheless, prosecutors removed references to Norwood's abusive proclivities from several witness statements before providing sanitized versions of those statements to Williams' defense. In a separate case, the same prosecutor, Andrea Foulkes, had tried Williams for the murder of Herbert Hamilton, who had paid Williams for sex when Williams was a teenager. In that trial, the jury acquitted Williams, who was 17 at the time of that killing, of first-degree murder, after hearing evidence of Hamilton's relationship with Williams and convicted him of the lesser charge of third-degree murder. Judge Teresa Sarmina wrote, "The third degree verdict in the Hamilton case, colored Ms. Foulkes' decisions when she prosecuted [Williams] for the murder of Amos Norwood." Despite her awareness of Norwood's sexual proclivities, Foulkes told the jury Williams had killed him "for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home." Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille - the former Philadelphia D.A. - refused to recuse himself from WIlliams' appeal, even though Castille had personally authorized Williams' prosecution and, during his judicial election campaign, had trumpeted his record of sending 45 people to death row. Norwood's widow joined more than 350,000 people in supporting Williams' bid for clemency, but the pardons board's 3-2 recommendation for clemency fell short of the state's unanimity requirement. Terry Williams faced an execution date of March 4, 2015, but was granted a reprieve when Gov. Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the death penalty in February. In October 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Williams' challenge to Castille's participation in his appeal.

 

Alabama Inmate Dies on Death Row Before Federal Court Can Decide His Innocence Claim

Posted: December 2, 2015

Donnis Musgrove (pictured), an Alabama death row prisoner with a substantial claim of innocence, died of lung cancer on Alabama's death row on November 25, while his case was pending before a federal judge. Musgrove's attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge David Proctor to rule quickly because of Musgrove's medical condition. Musgrove and his co-defendant, David Rogers, who previously died on Alabama's death row, were sentenced to death in 1988. Rogers' lawyer, Tommy Nail - now a state court judge - said he believed Musgrove and Rogers "got a raw deal and I've always felt they were not guilty of this offense." He said the case shared "eerie" similarities with that of recent death row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton: both cases were tried by the same prosecutor before the same judge, and the prosecution presented questionable weapons testimony from the same ballistics expert. The ballistics testimony in Hinton's case was contradicted by three other ballistics experts, and prosecutors decided not to retry him after saying they could not link the bullets from the crime to a gun that belonged to Hinton. Nail said the defendants in both cases also presented solid alibi evidence. Musgrove's attorneys argued that, in addition to similarly unreliable ballistics testimony, Musgrove's conviction was tainted by falsified eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, and false testimony by a jailhouse informant who later recanted. Musgrove's attorney, Cissy Jackson, said "It was a privilege to know and represent Donnis. My husband and I have been working for his release since 1997, and we are so sorry that he did not live to be exonerated."

 

Ohio Capital Murder Indictments Plummet 77% in Five Years

Posted: December 1, 2015

Capital murder indictments have plummeted and life sentences risen sharply in Ohio over the past five years, according to a report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The newspaper's examination of Ohio prison and other public records revealed that capital indictments in the state have dropped by 77% since 2010, mirroring national trends. Prosecutors are far more likely to seek a sentence of life without parole in cases in which they once would have pursued the death penalty. The paper also reports that the number of inmates sentenced to life without parole has skyrocketed by 92% since 2010. Among other factors, changes in District Attorneys, reduced public support for the death penalty, and consideration of costs and the impact of capital proceedings on the families of murder victims have led to fewer death penalty cases. The difference in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) is particularly striking: since prosecutor Timothy McGinty became district attorney in 2012, the office has sought death in fewer than 7% of eligible cases. Under McGinty's predecessor, Bill Mason, the office sought death in 78% of eligible cases. McGinty instituted an internal review committee to examine each death-eligible case and determine whether to seek a death sentence. He said, "In every case, I have to ask, 'Are we going to survive this?' We have to take a case to a judge and jury and then face 25 years of appeals. Is it fair to families of victims? Is it fair putting them through a quarter century of appeals?'' (Click image to enlarge.)

 

Defendants Begin Systemic Challenges to Constitutionality of Death Penalty

Posted: November 30, 2015

Lawyers for capital defendants and death row inmates across the country have begun to respond to what lawyers in one federal case described as the "clarion call for reconsideration of the constitutionality of the death penalty" issued by Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in their dissenting opinion in June in Glossip v. Gross. Systemic challenges to the death penalty have been filed in a Vermont federal court and a Utah state trial court seeking hearings to present evidence that the death penalty is administered in a systemically cruel and unusual manner. A Pennsylvania defendant has likewise filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme Court seeking review of her claim that the death penalty is unconstitutionally arbitrary. Attorneys for Brandon Perry Smith allege that while their client and a very small number of other defendants face the death penalty for potentially capital crimes, approximately 150 Utah inmates received life sentences for similar offenses. They seek to depose all 29 of Utah's county attorneys to learn why prosecutors choose to seek the death penalty in certain cases but not others. Gary Pendleton and Mary Corporan, Smith's attorneys, wrote, "The infirmity of Utah's present scheme is apparent. The exercise of prosecutorial discretion becomes arbitrary and capricious by definition when the law establishes no basis for determining when a death-eligible murder, as defined by statute, is charged as a capital offense and when it is charged as a noncapital homicide." Citing the Glossip dissent, lawyers in the federal trial of Donald Fell in Vermont argue that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional because it is unreliable, arbitrary, and discriminatorily applied. They write that "Most places within the United States have abandoned its use under evolving standards of decency," and highlight evidence of significant racial and geographic inequities in the use of the federal death penalty, including that it is overwhelmingly imposed in a small number of states that are also disproportionately responsible for state death sentences. In Walter v. Pennsylvania, death-row prisoner Shonda Walter argues that the assumptions underlying the Supreme Court's reinstitution of the death penalty in the 1970s "have proved wrong, flawed, or illusory." She has asked the Supreme Court to review her claim that American "standards of decency have evolved to the point where the [death penalty] is no longer constitutionally sustainable." 

 

Supreme Court Petition Alleges Second Conflict of Interest by Same Lawyers Accused of Abandoning Executed Texas Prisoner

Posted: November 29, 2015

 Lawyers for Texas death row prisoner Robert L. Roberson III have filed a petition asking the United States Supreme Court to review whether Seth Kretzer and James W. Volberding - the same appointed lawyers who were accused of abandoning Raphael Holiday, whom Texas executed in November - had a conflict of interest that interfered with Mr. Roberson's right to an independent legal advocate in his federal habeas corpus proceedings challenging his conviction and death sentence. In his petition, Roberson argues that his trial lawyer failed to investigate and present important mitigating evidence in the penalty phase of his case and that Kretzer and Volberding have a conflict of interest that prevented them from properly litigating that claim. Volberding represented Roberson in his state post-conviction appeals and failed to present any claim or evidence relating to counsel's penalty-phase investigative failures. He was then appointed to represent Roberson in federal court, but his prior failure to have challenged trial counsel's penalty-phase performance forfeited that claim unless Roberson could show that Volberding had unreasonably failed to raise the claim in state court. Kretzer was appointed as "supplemental counsel" to review Volberding's performance and failed to challenge Volberding's conduct. However, unkown to Roberson, Kretzer and Volbering had a close professional association, having been jointly appointed as paid co-counsel in a number of capital habeas cases. When Roberson learned of their association, he asked for new "supplemental counsel," which Kretzer and Volberding opposed. Charles Herring, Jr., an ethics expert and author of a treatise on Texas legal ethics and malpractice, and Lawrence J. Fox, former chairman of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, say in affidavits supporting Roberson's petition that Volberding and Kretzer have conflicts of interest that should prevent them from representing Roberson. The Court is expected to decide in early December whether to hear Roberson's case. Kretzer and Volberding have written to the Court requesting that it dismiss the petition and permit them to file their own petition raising other issues.

 

60 Minutes Airs Segment on Arizona's Botched Execution of Joseph Wood

Posted: November 27, 2015

On Sunday, November 29, CBS's 60 Minutes aired a segment on Arizona's 2-hour botched execution of Joseph Wood (pictured). As described by 60 Minutes, Wood's "execution with a new cocktail of drugs was supposed to take 10 minutes. It took almost two hours, the longest execution in U.S. history." On July 23, 2014, Arizona gave Wood 15 consecutive doses of midazolam and hydromorphone, the same drug combination that had been used in the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio six months earlier. Witnesses to Wood's execution reported that he gasped and snorted more than 600 times during the 2-hour procedure. Prison officials had estimated that the drugs would take about 10 minutes to kill Wood. Prior to the execution, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had ordered the state to release information about the source of the drugs and the training of those who would carry it out, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision and allowed the execution to proceed under a veil of secrecy. Dale Baich, one of Wood's attorneys, said, "I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this. Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long." 

 

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