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Former Oregon Prison Superintendent: "Capital Punishment is a Failed Policy"

Posted: September 21, 2016

Semon Frank Thompson (pictured), a former superintendent at the Oregon State Penitentiary, oversaw both of the executions carried out under Oregon's death penalty statute. He now believes that "capital punishment is a failed policy." In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Thompson—who used to support the death penalty—explains how conducting executions changed his mind. Prior to serving as prison superintendent, Thompson had felt that "justice had been served" when a defendant who had been convicted of killing one of Thompson's law enforcement colleagues was executed. Shortly afterwards, when he was responsible for carrying out the executions of Douglas Franklin Wright and Harry Charles Moore, "the fact that I was now to be personally involved in their executions forced me into a deeper reckoning with my feelings about capital punishment." By the time the executions took place, Thompson says he had come to "believe[] that capital punishment was a dismal failure as a policy," but he participated because he was expected to do his job. He saw the toll the executions took on staff members who participated: "After each execution, I had staff members who decided they did not want to be asked to serve in that capacity again. Others quietly sought employment elsewhere. A few told me they were having trouble sleeping, and I worried they would develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they had to go through it another time.... The effects can lead to all the places you’d expect: drug use, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide." Thompson now supports Oregon's moratorium on executions and urges the nation to reconsider capital punishment altogether. He has concluded that "America should no longer accept the myth that capital punishment plays any constructive role in our criminal justice system. It will be hard to bring an end to the death penalty, but we will be a healthier society as a result."

 

REPORT: "Lethally Deficient" Texas Death Penalty Appeal System in "Dire Need of Reform"

Posted: September 20, 2016

A September 20 report by the Texas Defender Service says that Texas "has failed to ensure effective counsel" for appellants in capital cases and that the state's system of reviewing death penalty cases on direct appeal is "in dire need of reform." The report, titled Lethally Deficient, reviewed all 84 capital direct appeals decided by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) from 2009 to 2015 and identified numerous "persistent deficits in the provision of counsel on direct appeal in death penalty cases." Among those problems, the report found that the Texas capital defense system "fails to meaningfully evaluate attorney qualifications" before assigning a lawyer to handle a capital appeal; "understaffs the defense" by appointing only one lawyer—frequently a solo practitioner—to the case; improperly "subjects defense counsel to political pressures"; provides inconsistent and often inadequate resources and compensation; and fails to control attorney workload to ensure that appointed lawyers have time to provide appropriate representation. The report said that, these "fundamental flaws ... led to multiple instances" in which appeal lawyers recycled boilerplate arguments relying on outdated legal authority that had already been rejected in other cases, failed to meet or consult with their clients before filing briefs, failed to file replies to prosecutors' briefs, and failed to seek review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the period examined, the CCA upheld every capital conviction and more than 94% of all death sentences, and overturned just three death verdicts. Looking at 1,060 capital direct appeal decisions between 2005 and 2015 by courts in the other 30 death penalty states, the study found that Texas's reversal rate was 2.8 times lower than the national average. “The tragedy of direct appeals in Texas capital cases is not simply that lawyers underperform, often pasting together briefs, skipping oral argument, or declining to do other basic tasks such as filing reply briefs. It is that everyone knows that this is happening, from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on down. It is an embarrassment to the legal profession and a testament to the low expectations in Texas surrounding defense representation in capital cases,” said Jordan Steiker, Co-Director of the Capital Punishment Center at The University of Texas School of Law. The Texas Defender Service offers three major reform recommendations, suggesting that Texas should 1) "establish a statewide capital appellate defender office," 2) "create a statewide appointment system with effective caseload controls and uniform attorney compensation," and 3) "appoint two lawyers to represent death-sentenced defendants on direct appeal." Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said "Texas has made enormous strides in its effort to reform indigent legal services in general, and in capital indigent representation, since 2001." These new measures, she said "are the necessary next steps in delivering a promise that the first Texas Code of Criminal Procedure laid out in 1857, promising adequate legal assistance to indigents facing the mighty powers of the state."

 

EDITORIALS: California Newspapers Overwhelmingly Support Ballot Initiative to Abolish Death Penalty

Posted: September 19, 2016

Newspaper editorial boards in California are overwhelmingly supporting a November ballot initiative to abolish the state's death penalty and replace it with life without parole plus restitution, and are uniformly rejecting an opposing initiative that purports to speed up the appeals process. At least eight California newspapers have published editorials supporting Proposition 62 and opposing Proposition 66, and Ballotpedia reports that it is aware of no editorial boards that have supported Proposition 66. A Los Angeles Times editorial characterizes the death penalty as "both immoral and inhumane," adding, "[e]ven those who do not object to capital punishment on principle ought to support abolition because of the system’s inefficiency, exorbitant costs and long delays. Proponents of Proposition 66 say they can speed up the process and make the death penalty work, but there are serious doubts that their proposal would achieve the kind of fast-tracking they promise, and critics argue persuasively that the system might become even more expensive." The San Francisco Chronicle writes that "all sides agree [California's death penalty] has produced enormous legal bills, no semblance of deterrence to would-be murderers and too little justice to victims’ loved ones over the past four decades." It says Prop. 62 "offers a straightforward and certain solution," while criticizing Prop. 66 as "a highly complex, probably very expensive and constitutionally questionable scheme for streamlining the appeals process." Many of the editorials are particularly critical of Prop. 66's proposal to conscript appellate lawyers to represent death row inmates. The (Santa Rosa) Press Democrat's critique is representative: "Rather than funding an expansion of the state public defender’s office, which handles almost all death penalty appeals, Proposition 66 would require all attorneys who practice in California appellate courts, regardless of specialty and training, to accept judicial appointments to capital cases. Claims of inattentive and incompetent counsel already are common in death penalty appeals, and conscripting lawyers would only invite more such challenges." The Bakersfield Californian, which offered no opinion on Prop. 34, California's prior ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty, has also weighed in on the death penalty this year, calling for an end to the state's "costly, toothless death penalty." Other newspapers urging voters to vote yes on Prop. 62 and no on Prop. 66 included Monterey Herald, the Bay Area News Group (Mercury News and East Bay Times), and the Santa Clarita Valley Signal. [UPDATE: Additional editorial boards have come out in favor of Proposition 62 and against Proposition 66 (see below). To date, we are unaware of any editorial support for Proposition 66.]

 

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Judicial Override, Race Bias, Official Misconduct Rampant in Mobile, Alabama's Use of Death Penalty

Posted: September 16, 2016

Judicial override of jury recommendations of life, the imposition of death sentences after non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations, and prosecutorial misconduct, race bias, and ineffective defense counsel have made Mobile County, Alabama one of the most prolific death sentencing counties in the United States. Mobile judges imposed 8 death sentences between 2010 and 2015, 88% in cases with white victims. A recent report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project attributes this high rate of death sentencing to Alabama's outlier practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences after non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations. The Project found that only 2 of the 10 Mobile death penalty cases decided on direct appeal since 2006 involved unanimous juries. Judicial override of jury recommendations for life—a practice that today is permitted only in Alabama—also has contributed to unfairness and arbitrariness in Mobile capital cases. Two Mobile County judges, Braxton Kittrell and Ferrill McRae, have used this practice to impose a total of 11 death sentences. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, McRae has overriden more jury life verdicts (6) than any other Alabama judge, including death sentences imposed on George Martin (pictured) and 4 other African-American defendants. During a re-election campaign, McRae ran television ads touting his support for capital punishment and naming defendants whom he had sentenced to death. He also reportedly refused to sign a bail-reduction application in one non-capital case because he “first wanted to know the client’s ‘color’” and allegedly told an attorney in another case not to provide zealous representation “because we need more n***ers in jail.” McCrae has never overturned a jury's death recommendation to impose a life sentence, even when an all-white jury had recommended death for an intellectually disabled black man who could not read the confession that he signed. Mobile prosecutors have also been described as "overzealous" in seeking death. Just two prosecutors, Ashley Rich and Jo Beth Murphee, account for 90% of the Mobile death penalty cases decided on appeal since 2006, and both have had death sentences overturned for improper prosecutorial practices. The Fair Punishment Project found that "the average defense presentation of mitigation evidence in Mobile County capital trials lasts less than one full day" and that one lawyer, Greg Hughes, had been defense counsel for 40% percent of all the Mobile capital cases reviewed on direct appeal since 2006. As a result of a combination of prosecutorial and juror misconduct and ineffective defense representation, Mobile death row prisoner William Zeigler—who maintains his innocence—was granted a new trial in November 2012. In 2015, Ziegler accepted a plea deal for time served and was immediately released. In March 2016, another Mobile trial judge barred prosecutors from retrying Martin, finding that prosecutors had engaged in "willful misconduct" by suppressing a range of exculpatory evidence. This included evidence that the prosecution's lead witness had told investigators he had seen a "large black man" in a trooper's uniform in the vicinity of the murder (Martin is 5'6"), that investigators had shown the witness photos of every black trooper from Mobile County, and that the witness not only had not identified Martin, but had selected the picture of a different trooper. Martin's jury voted 8-4 to spare his life, but Judge McRae overrode their recommendation. The prosecution's appeal of the Martin ruling is pending in the Alabama appellate courts.

 

Inaction on Execution Protocol Ensures Two-Year Hold on Executions in Oklahoma

Posted: September 15, 2016

For the first time in two decades, Oklahoma will go at least two years without an execution. As part of an agreement in a federal lawsuit brought by the state's death row prisoners, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (pictured) has said the state will not request execution dates for at least five months after the state adopts a new execution protocol. Because of this, when the Oklahoma Board of Corrections met on September 13, 2016, the state already could not have sought to conduct any execution until at least February 2017. When the corrections board adjourned without considering any new execution plan, it ensured that even more time would pass between executions in the state. The last time Oklahoma went at least two years without an execution was from March 13, 1992 to March 20, 1995, between the executions of Olan Robison and Thomas Grasso. The current execution hiatus comes in the wake of three consecutive botched execution attempts in Oklahoma. On April 29, 2014, prison personnel could not locate a usable vein in the arm of Clayton Lockett and used a wrong-sized needle in attempting to insert an IV in a vein in Lockett's groin. After 43 minutes, as the botched procedure was being halted, Lockett died of a heart attack. On January 15, 2015, Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in violation of state procedures when the state's anonymous drug provider supplied the wrong execution drug and no one in the execution process noticed the error. In September 2015, the execution of Richard Glossip was halted at the last moment after state officials discovered that they had again obtained the wrong execution drug. A grand jury investigating the state's botched executions issued a scathing report in May 2016 saying administrative "paranoia" over keeping execution information secret "clouded the judgment" of corrections officials, causing them "to blatantly violate their own policies." Following the Corrections Board meeting, Pruitt issued a statement seeking to assure victims' families that process of reviewing a new execution protocol "will continue to be both deliberate and empirical." Pruitt expressed confidence that the new leadership of the state's corrections department—appointed after the retirement of key corrections officials involved in the execution process—"is taking the appropriate time needed to ensure the execution protocols are fully in place and without error in the most efficient way possible." A DOC spokesman described the protocol as "a work in progress," and said "[t]here currently is no timeline on when anything will be released." Glossip—whose case raises significant questions of innocence that have drawn worldwide attention—and four other Oklahoma death row inmates have exhausted their appeals and face execution dates once the state adopts an execution protocol. 

 

New Podcast: Jeffery Wood and the Texas Law of Parties, With Expert Guest Kate Black

Posted: September 14, 2016

Today, DPIC launches a new podcast series, "Discussions With DPIC," which will feature monthly, unscripted conversations with death penalty experts on a wide variety of topics. The inaugural episode features a conversation between Texas Defender Services staff attorney Kate Black (pictured) and DPIC host Anne Holsinger, who discuss the case of Jeffery Wood and Texas' unusual legal doctrine known as the "law of parties." Wood's case garnered national media attention because he was sentenced to death despite having neither killed anyone nor even intended that a killing take place. His execution, which had been scheduled for August 24, was stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to permit him to litigate a challenge to the prosecution's use of scientifically invalid predictions of future dangerousness by a psychiatrist who had been expelled from state and national psychiatric associations for similarly improper testimony in the past. In the podcast, Black explains the law of parties and its application in Wood's case, and discusses how the national dialogue that developed around Wood's case may affect the death penalty in the future. 

 

Roger King, Former Philadelphia Prosecutor Who Once Held Record For Most Death Penalty Convictions, Dies

Posted: September 13, 2016

Roger King, a former prosecutor in Philadelphia who at one point was responsible for 20% of all the death sentences imposed in Pennsylvania, died of kidney cancer on August 24. When King retired in 2008, he held the record for most death sentences obtained by a single Pennsylvania prosecutor. None of the men he sent to death row has ever been executed. While King's aggressive pursuit of death sentences contributed to his "larger than life" reputation, it also involved charges of misconduct that included the pursuit of the death penalty against at least seven men who may have been innocent. William Nieves was prosecuted by King in 1994 and convicted based upon questionable eyewitness testimony. He was exonerated from death row in 2000 after his new attorney presented evidence that his first jury never heard that an eyewitness had originally identified the perpetrator as a short black man, not the tall, light-skinned Nieves. King also withheld exculpatory evidence in the trial of James Dennis (pictured) who was granted a new trial on August 23. The Pennsylvania federal appeals court found that King had suppressed "a receipt corroborating Dennis' alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder," which, the court said, "effectively gutted" the prosecution's case. A Philadelphia judge overturned the 1993 conviction of a third death row prisoner prosecuted by King, Frederick Thomas, who—as with Nieves and Dennis—were convicted on shaky eyewitness testimony and without any physical evidence against them. Before Thomas was granted a new trial in 2002, the state's two eyewitnesses recanted their testimony and police officer James Ryan—whom the defense said had framed Thomas—was convicted on corruption charges arising out of his conduct in other cases, including falsifying police reports and making false arrests. King also prosecuted four innocent men in Philadelphia's "Lex Street Massacre," the worst mass murder in Philadelphia history. No physical evidence linked any of the men to the killings, but King proceeded with one questionable witness and the coerced confession of one of the defendants. After 18 months in prison without being tried, the court dismissed all charges against the men. The four sued for their wrongful incarceration and obtained a $1.9 million settlement from the city. 

 

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro Says Death Penalty Unfixable, "Not Worth It Any More"

Posted: September 12, 2016

In a recent commentary in the Columbus Dispatch, former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro (pictured) criticized the state's death penalty as "a broken system that currently serves only the interest of Ohio prosecutors" and said that keeping "the death penalty is just not worth it any more." As a state legislator, Petro helped write Ohio’s current death-penalty law and he oversaw eighteen executions as Attorney General from 2003-2007. He says, at the time "[w]e thought maybe it would be a deterrent. Maybe the death penalty would provide cost savings to Ohio. What I know now is that we were wrong." Petro expressed his agreement with the conclusions in a report, “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty," released last week by Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE), which he says "details a continuing decline in executions and new death sentences in Ohio while highlighting the disparities between counties that prosecute death cases." The decline is exemplified by the fact that only one new death sentence was imposed in Ohio in 2015 -- the fourth consecutive year of decline -- and Cuyahoga and Summit counties, which are responsible for more than 25% of Ohio's death sentences, did not initiate any new death penalty cases last year. The change in death penalty practices in Cuyahoga, which through 2012 had sought death in dozens of cases a year, had nothing to do with crime rates: "there was a new prosecutor," Petro said. By contrast, Trumbull County had one of the lowest homicide rates in the state but the highest death-sentence-per-homicide rate. "It has become clear to me that what matters most is the personal predilections of a county prosecutor," Petro said. Petro also was critical of apparent legislative indifference to the flaws in Ohio's capital punishment system. Despite 13 wrongful convictions and exonerations in Ohio death penalty cases and 56 recommendations for reform made in 2014 by the Ohio Supreme Court's Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, the legislature has seen fit to consider "[o]nly a handful of the recommendations ... , and not those which would make the biggest difference." Petro concludes: "I am convinced that the death penalty is just not worth it any more, and I don’t think it can be fixed. ... If we’re going to have the death penalty, then it must not be carried out until the legislature implements the task force’s reforms intended to ensure fairness and accuracy."

 

Wrongful Capital Convictions May Be More Likely in Cases of Judicial Override, Non-Unanimous Death Verdicts

Posted: September 9, 2016

New data suggests that states that capital sentencing statutes that permit judges to impose death sentences by overriding jury recommendations for life or after juries have returned non-unanimous recommendations for death may increase the risk of wrongful executions. In an article in the Yale Law Journal Forum, lawyers Patrick Mulvaney and Katherine Chamblee of the Southern Center for Human Rights report that in Alabama, the only state that still permits judges to override a jury's recommendation for life, override cases account for less than a quarter of death sentences but half of death row exonerations. They say that this may be a result of "residual doubt" among jurors, which they describe as “a state of mind that exists somewhere between ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ and ‘absolute certainty,’” often resulting from weaker or more suspect evidence of guilt. Research has shown that when juror have such doubts, they are substantially more likely to vote for a life, as did jurors in the cases of Alabama death row exonerees Larry Randal Padgett (9-3 jury vote for life) and Daniel Wade Moore (pictured, left, 8-4 vote for life) and current death row prisoner Shonelle Jackson (unanimous jury life recommendation). Non-unanimous jury recommendations for death also appear to pose similar problems. Of Alabama's six death row exonerations, 83% involved either judicial override (3 cases) or non-unanimous jury votes for death (2 cases, including Anthony Ray Hinton, pictured, right). Data from Florida reveals a similar pattern: of the 20 death row exonerations for which information on the jury vote is available, 90% involved a non-unanimous recommendation for death, including three judicial overrides of jury recommendations for life. In 1984, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens raised concerns about judicial override and wrongful convictions that are now supported by data: “It may well be that the jury was sufficiently convinced of petitioner’s guilt to convict him, but nevertheless also sufficiently troubled by the possibility that an irrevocable mistake might be made . . . that [it] concluded that a sentence of death could not be morally justified in this case.” Statutes permitting judicial override or non-unanimous jury recommendations for death have been under increased scrutiny since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida in January 2016. Hurst struck down Florida's sentencing statute saying, "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Florida's legislature responded by ending judicial override and requiring juries to unanimously find aggravating circumstances in capital cases, though they may still make non-unanimous sentencing recommendations. The Delaware Supreme Court struck down its sentencing statute in light of Hurst in August 2016, leaving Florida and Alabama as the only states that still permit non-unanimous jury receommendations of death.  

 

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Official Misconduct, Race Bias Permeate Death Penalty in Clark County, Nevada

Posted: September 8, 2016

The geographic arbitrariness, high rates of official misconduct, racial discrimination, and poor defense representation characteristic of outlier jurisdictions that disproportionately seek and impose the death penalty in the United States are all present in Clark County, Nevada's administration of the death penalty. From 2010 through 2015, nine death sentences were imposed in Clark County, while no one was sentenced to death in any other county in Nevada during that same period. In an analysis by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project of the 16 counties that imposed the most death sentences in the United States over that period, Clark exhibited the highest levels of prosecutorial misconduct, with the Nevada Supreme Court finding misconduct in 47% of the Clark County death penalty cases it reviewed on direct appeal since 2006. Part of this, according to the Fair Punishment Project, is attributable to the "sloppiness that comes along with overextended lawyers," but that overextension was itself a by-product of prosecutorial decisionmaking. In 2011, Clark County had more pending capital cases per capita than any other county in the nation. David Roger, who was District Attorney until 2012 when he resigned to become counsel for the Las Vegas police union, refused to offer or accept plea deals in death penalty cases. At that time, Clark County exhibited another charactistic present in many counties that overaggressively pursue capital punishment: police violence against civilians. The county was the subject of numerous citizen complaints describing police brutality, deadly force, and excessive use of force disproportionately directed at racial minorities, and the ACLU and NAACP had petitioned the Justice Department to investigate what it called a pattern of civil rights abuses by law enforcement. In 2015, Clark ranked fourth in the nation in the per capita rate of police killings of civilians. Racial bias also plagues Clark County death penalty cases: the Nevada Supreme Court overturned two convictions in less than two years because of race discrimination in jury selection by Clark County prosecutors. In the period covered by the Fair Punishment Project report, 71% of victims in cases that resulted in a death sentence were white, though only 33% of murder victims in Las Vegas, which composes most of Clark County, were white. The exoneration of Roberto Miranda highlights another systemic problem in Clark County death penalty cases: inadequate representation. Roberto Miranda spent 14 years on death row before being exonerated, and later sued the county for poor public defense practices, including assigning inexperienced attorneys to capital defendants. In a court filing, the county responded, "As a matter of law, attorneys who have graduated from law school and passed the bar should be considered adequately trained to handle capital murder cases." Over the period of the Fair Punishment Project study, the case for life presented by defense lawyers in the cases that resulted in death verdicts lasted an average of only 1.1 days. Clark County's death penalty practices have also been extremely costly. A University of Nevada-Las Vegas study estimated in 2012 that the 80 capital cases prosecuted in the county would cost $15 million more than if they were to be prosecuted without the death penalty.

 

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