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NEW VOICES: Former Utah Prosecutor Urges Death Penalty Repeal

Posted: March 10, 2016

Creighton Horton spent 30 years as a prosecutor with the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office and Utah Attorney General's Office before retiring in 2009. In a recent op-ed, he said his experience handling capital cases led him to believe Utah should abolish the death penalty. Horton noted the negative impact the death penalty can have on victims' families. "If a capital case goes to trial and the jury returns a verdict of death, that pronouncement is probably the last satisfaction the victim's family will get for years, if not decades," he said. "From that point on, the delays and uncertainties of the death penalty appeals process are likely to take a terrible toll, keeping the wound open and denying the victim's family any closure." He said a life without parole sentence for the perpetrator was often the best outcome for the families of victims: "When that happens, the murderers go to prison and, for the most part, no one hears about them again — and the victims' families are able to move on with their lives." He also raised concerns about wrongful convictions, stating, "No system of justice is perfect, and so it's possible that an innocent person could be convicted of capital murder, and wrongly executed." The Utah legislature is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty for future offenses. The bill passed the Utah Senate, and is likely to face a vote in the House on March 10.

 

Texas About to Execute Inmate Despite Evidence of Intellectual Disability

Posted: March 9, 2016

UPDATE: Wesbrook was executed on Mar. 9. EARLIER: Coy Wesbrook is scheduled to be executed in Texas on March 9. If the execution proceeds, it will be the eighth in the U.S. this year, half of which have been in Texas. Wesbrook killed five people after a confrontation with his ex-wife. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that defendants with intellectual disability (formerly referred to as "mental retardation") are exempt from the death penalty. Wesbrook was tested for intellectual disability at the request of the prosecution, following a challenge by Wesbrook's attorneys that he should be spared. Psychologist George Denkowski examined Wesbrook and initially submitted a report finding he had an IQ of 66, placing him below the standard level for intellectual disabilty. Several months later, he filed a new report based on "non-intellectual factors" that said Wesbrook's "actual adult general intelligence functioning is estimated to be of about 84 quality." Ohio State University professor Marc Tasse, an expert on developmental disabilities, said Denkowski's methods had "absolutely no scientific basis." Because of his unscientific procedures in Wesbrook's and 15 other cases, Denkowski was fined by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists and agreed never to testify in another criminal case. Nevertheless, the execution has been allowed to proceed.

 

EDITORIALS: Kentucky Newspaper Reverses Position on the Death Penalty

Posted: March 8, 2016

The Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky's second-largest newspaper, announced it was ending its long-held support for the death penalty, and now believes the state legislature should abolish capital punishment. Describing its previous position as "keep it but fix it," the editors stated, "we must now concede that the death penalty is not going to be fixed and, in fact, probably cannot be fixed at any defensible cost to taxpayers." Citing the 2011 American Bar Association assessment of Kentucky's death penalty, the Herald-Leader said the system was "rife with injustices and the potential for error." Among the reasons cited in the paper's editorial for the changing its position was the negative effects of the death penalty on victims' families and correctional officers. It quoted Dr. Allen Ault, who oversaw executions in Georgia, and who said, "I do not know one [correctional officer] who has not experienced a negative impact," noting an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

 

U.S. Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Louisiana Death Row Inmate

Posted: March 7, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam decision on March 7 granting a new trial to Louisiana death row inmate Michael Wearry as a result of multiple acts of misconduct by prosecutors in his case. No physical evidence linked Wearry to the murder. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of an informant, Sam Scott, who came forward two years after the crime with an account that did not match the details of the crime. Scott altered his story over the course of four different statements, and the testimony he gave in court barely resembled his original statement. Undisclosed police records later revealed that another inmate had heard Scott say he wanted to "make sure [Wearry] gets the needle cause he jacked over me." A second witness against Wearry was offered a reduced sentence for an unrelated conviction, but prosecutors falsely told the jury that he had "no deal on the table” and was testifying because the victim’s "family deserves to know” what happened. Wearry presented three alibi witnesses - his girlfriend, his sister, and his aunt - who corroborated his story that he had been at a wedding 40 miles away when the crime occurred, but his attorney failed to further investigate the alibi or call as witnesses any of the wedding guests who did not have close relationships with Wearry. The Court wrote, "Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry’s conviction. The State’s trial evidence resembles a house of cards, built on the jury crediting Scott’s account rather than Wearry’s alibi." Justices Alito and Thomas dissented, saying the case should not have been decided without a full hearing. Louisiana police and prosecutors have been found to have engaged in misconduct in numerous death penalty cases, including those of all ten of its death-row exonerees: Johnny Ross, Curtis KylesShareef CousinMichael GrahamAlbert Burrell, John Thompson, Dan BrightRyan Matthews, Damon Thibodeaux, and Glenn Ford.

 

Florida Legislature Passes Bill Requiring Agreement of 10 Jurors Before Judge May Impose Death Sentence

Posted: March 4, 2016

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law on March 7. Previously: The Florida legislature passed a bill on March 3 to restructure its death penalty statute in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida, which declared the state's death penalty procedures unconstitutional. The bill modifies Florida's practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences without the unanimous agreement of jurors by requiring that at least ten jurors recommend death before the judge may impose a death penalty. It also directly addresses Hurst by requiring that jurors unanimously find any aggravating circumstances that the prosecution seeks to prove to make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Previously, Florida judges made the determination whether the prosecution had proven aggravating circumstances that made the defendant eligible for the death penalty, and the statute permitted the judge to impose death based upon a simple majority recommendation or, in certain circumstances, when the jury had recommended life imprisonment. The new 10-2 requirement matches the standard applied in Alabama. Along with Delaware - which permits the court to impose death after a simple majority recommendation by the jury - these states stand alone in the country in allowing a death sentence after a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. Delaware and Alabama still permit judicial override. Delaware's system is currently under review by that state's highest court, and on March 3, an Alabama circuit court judge declared that state's sentencing procedure unconstitutional.

 

Alabama Judge Rules Capital Sentencing Scheme Unconstitutional

Posted: March 3, 2016

Jefferson County, Alabama Circuit Judge Tracie Todd (pictured) ruled on March 3 that Alabama's capital sentencing procedure violates the U.S. Constitution. Judge Todd barred the death penalty for four capital murder defendants, saying that Alabama's use of judicial override violates the Sixth Amendment. Under Alabama's system, at least 10 jurors must agree in order to recommend a death sentence, but a judge can override the jury's recommendation and impose death even if the jury recommended a life sentence. Because of this practice, Judge Todd said, "Alabama has become a clear outlier." She said the death penalty, "is being imposed in a wholly unconstitutional manner." In reading her ruling from the bench, the judge noted that Alabama has executed more defendants than states five times its size and questioned whether the partisan election of judges created a danger of judges imposing the death penalty due to political pressure. A 2011 report by the Equal Justice Initiative documented the effects of Alabama judicial overrides of jury life recommendations. More recently, a study by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Law and Justice at Harvard found that more than three-quarters of the death sentences imposed in Alabama in the past 5 years involved non-unanimous juries. Alabama, Delaware, and Florida are the only states that permit a judge to impose the death penalty after the jury has not unanimously recommended death. 

 

Delaware Supreme Court to Consider Constitutionality of State's Death Penalty Law

Posted: March 2, 2016

Delaware public defenders have filed a brief in the Delaware Supreme Court arguing that the state's death sentencing procedures are unconstitutional. In their brief, the defenders describe "multiple constitutional problems" that they say "require Delaware’s death penalty scheme to be substantially restructured." These include several procedures that they say are unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court's recent 8-1 decision in Hurst v. Florida. Delaware allows juries to render non-unanimous advisory sentences on the question of life or death, but also requires judges to make findings about the relative weight of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The Hurst decision "requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." The filing argues that in a several states, the highest courts and legislatures have acknowledged that the Sixth Amendment also "requires the jury to determine the presence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, as well as the weight of each." The defenders' pleading squarely challenges the constitutionality of allowing a death sentence based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation. Delaware, Alabama, and Florida are the only states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation and impose a death sentence when the jury has recommended life, and the only states that permit a judge to impose the death penalty after a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. But following the Hurst decision, Florida has no valid procedures in place to pursue capital sentencing. The defenders argue that this demonstrates "a nationwide consensus against non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases. No existing state statute currently permits a non-unanimous determination of aggravating factors, and only two, in Alabama and Delaware, permit a jury’s sentencing determination to be less than unanimous. That only two states permit non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases weighs heavily against its constitutionality." Delaware prosecutors have 30 days to respond to the defense arguments. All death penalty proceedings in Delaware remain on hold pending the state court's resolution of this issue.

 

NEW VOICES: Republican Former Death Penalty Supporter Leads Repeal Effort in Utah

Posted: March 1, 2016

Stephen Urquhart (pictured), a Republican state senator in Utah, supported the death penalty until about a year ago, when a friend convinced him that capital punishment didn't fit his conservative beliefs. Now Urquhart sees the death penalty as inefficient, costly, and wrong and is the lead sponsor of a bill to repeal the state's death penalty. He said concerns about the cost of the death penalty and the risk of executing an innocent person changed his stance on the issue. In discussions with his colleagues in the legislature, he draws a distinction between, "the death penalty in reality and the death penalty in theory." He points out the lengthy time between the time a death sentence is imposed and when it is carried out, which he says victimizes families and leaves them with "scars that can never heal." He also points to the high cost of the death penalty, which he placed at "$1.6 million for every prisoner we execute." Then, he says, "for the clincher, I ask my conservative friends what they think government does extremely well. And then I ask them what they think government does perfectly. And they usually say, ‘It doesn't do anything perfectly.’ And then I ask, ‘Yet we’re going to give ourselves the godlike power over life and death?’" He also said that, increasingly, he has moral qualms about capital punishment: "I’m thinking that it’s wrong for government to be in business in killing its own citizens. That cheapens life." Described as a longshot to succeed this year, Urquhart's bill to prospectively repeal the death penalty passed Utah's Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support in February on a vote of 5-2. The bill will face debate by the full Senate later in this legislative session.

 

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Argument in Pennsylvania Judicial Bias Case

Posted: February 29, 2016

On February 29, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Williams v. Pennsylvania, a case challenging former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille's participation in the state's appeal of a death penalty case involving Terry Williams (pictured), whose capital prosecution Castille personally authorized in his earlier role as Philadelphia District Attorney. A lower court judge overturned Williams' death sentence in 2012 finding that Philadelphia prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence, including that Williams' victim had a history of molesting boys. That evidence would would have supported Williams' claim that he, too, had been sexually abused by the victim. That misconduct, which occured while Castille was District Attorney, was the central issue before the state Supreme Court in the state's appeal in Williams' case. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision and reinstated Williams' death sentence. In an amicus brief filed by the Ethics Bureau at Yale Law School, Lawrence J. Fox wrote, "Judges who wear 'two hats' in the same case violate the requirement of judicial impartiality. Chief Justice Castille's conduct deeply undermined the integrity of the judicial proceedings and trampled any notion of due process for Mr. Williams." During today's argument, several Justices expressed concerns about Castille's participation. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Castille should have recused himself from Williams' case because "he signed his name" on the authorization to seek the death penalty. Justice Anthony Kennedy said he did not think the passage of nearly 30 years between Williams' trial and his appeal lessened Castille's potential bias.

 

Wake County, North Carolina Jury Hands Down Life Sentence in 6th Consecutive Capital Trial

Posted: February 26, 2016

Wake County North Carolina jury voted on February 22 to sentence capital defendant Travion Devonte Smith to life without parole, making Smith's case the sixth consecutive Wake County death penalty trial to end with a life sentence. Though Wake County was among the 2% of counties responsible for a majority of inmates on U.S. death rows as of 2013, the county has not produced any new death sentences since 2007. District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said that her office pursued the death penalty in Smith's case because of "the brutality of this murder." Yet the jury needed just one hour to conclude that the 38 mitigating factors offered by the defense - including Smith's troubled upbringing, abandonment by his mother, and lack of access to mental health treatment he had been diagnosed as needing - outweighed the two aggravating factors the prosecution presented. Defense attorney Jonathon Broun also argued to the jury that Smith's actions had been influenced by a charismatic, older and more culpable co-defendant, Ronald Anthony, and that Smith was "not even the worst of the worst when it comes to this tragic and heartbreaking crime." Prosecutors had permitted Anthony to plead guilty to first-degree murder in 2015 to avoid the death penalty. Freeman indicated that the jury verdicts in recent Wake County capital cases may be a signal for her office to reconsider pursuing the death penalty. The jury verdicts reflect larger national trends; in 2015, just 49 people were sentenced to death across the United States, a 40-year low that represents an 84% drop from the peak of 315 death sentences in 1996. Broun said, "We can punish people harshly and seriously for first-degree murder without using the death penalty."

 

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