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As Miranda Decision Turns 50, False Confessions Still Affect Death Penalty

Posted: June 15, 2016

On June 13, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miranda v. Arizona, granting suspects critical constitutional protections designed to combat abusive police interrogation practices. In commentary for The Marshall Project, Samuel Gross (pictured) and Maurice Possley of the National Registry of Exonerations discuss the interplay between false confessions, the death penalty, and wrongful convictions and describe how Miranda's famous rights to remain silent and to be represented by a lawyer during an interrogation have failed to prevent numerous false confessions and false charges against others. Nearly a quarter of the 1,810 exonerations recorded in the National Registry of Exonerations involve false or fabricated confessions, including 227 (13%) cases in which suspects falsely confessed and 195 (11%) cases in which they falsely implicated someone else. Despite being given their "Miranda warning," many suspects agree to speak with interrogators without a lawyer present and confess to crimes they did not commit, as a result of the mental stress of interrogation, threats of severe punishment if they do not cooperate, deceptive interrogation practices, or because they do not understand what they are doing. 72% of all exonerees with reported mental illness or intellectual disability had falsely confessed. Among them was Earl Washington, a man with an IQ of about 69, who was convicted of a rape and murder after falsely confessing during two days of interrogations, despite the fact that his confession was full of errors about the facts of the crime. He spent 16 years on death row in Virginia before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Gross and Possley explain that "some innocent suspects ... blame others to deflect responsibility and reduce their punishment." They point to the case of Richard Ochoa, who, to avoid the death penalty, falsely implicated his roommate Richard Danziger as the actual killer in a 1988 murder in Austin, Texas, pled guilty to a murder he did not commit, and testified against Danziger at trial. In 2002, both were exonerated by DNA. The authors praise the Miranda decision as an important step in regulating coercive interrogation practices, but say additional reforms are needed. In particular, they recommend that all interrogations, especially in homicide cases, be recorded, as already required in 23 states. They write, "Recording greatly helps us evaluate any claim that a confession was false, and it has taught us how to improve the conduct of interrogations." 

 

POLL: By 2:1 margin, Black South Carolinians Support Sentencing Church Shooter to Life Without Parole

Posted: June 14, 2016

A recent poll conducted by the University of South Carolina reveals deep racial divisions in the state over the death penalty and over the appropriateness of applying it in the case of Dylann Roof, the white defendant who faces state and federal capital charges in the race-based killings of nine black members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. According to the poll, 64.9% of African Americans in South Carolina oppose the death penalty, while 69.4% of white South Carolinians say they support it. Blacks were also more than twice as likely to support a sentence of life without parole for the church killings than to support the death penalty. Nearly two-thirds of black South Carolinians (64.7%) said that Roof should be sentenced to life without parole if convicted of the nine killings, while less than a third (30.9%) favored the death penalty. 4.4% said they did not know what sentence should be imposed. The views of white South Carolinians were diametrically opposite, with 64.6% saying they think Roof should be sentenced to death if convicted and 29.9% prefering life without parole. 5.6% of whites said they did not know which sentence should be imposed. Monique Lyle, who conducted the poll, said the results reflect consistent opposition to the death penalty among most black South Carolinians. Kylon Middleton, senior pastor of Mount Zion AME Church in Charleston, said the black community's opposition to capital punishment is tied to racial bias in the criminal justice system, adding, "We have been brutalized in this country, therefore, we can empathize with anyone … who would receive ultimate judgment." A recent study of South Carolina's death penalty found significant racial disparities in death sentences. For example, the study found that although 48% of South Carolina murder victims are black males, those cases account for only 8% of the state's death sentences. Earlier studies also found striking evidence of geographic and racial arbitrariness in South Carolina's application of capital punishment. The new poll also found profound differences in the views of South Carolinians as to how they believed African Americans were treated in the U.S. criminal justice system. 82.3% of blacks say that the justice system is biased against blacks. 59.5% of whites say it treats blacks fairly and 3.9% say it is biased in favor of blacks.

 

Highlighting Growing Problem, California Attorney General Says Death Row Prisoner Too Mentally Ill to Execute

Posted: June 13, 2016

Saying that he has a permanent condition that makes him too mentally ill to execute, the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris (pictured) recently asked the California Supreme Court to remove Ronnie McPeters from California's death row and resentence him to life without parole. The action is rare because McPeters is not facing an imminent execution date, but Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Barankin said his office now considers some death row prisoners so "grievously incompetent" that they will never be able to be executed. The office says that such prisoners should be declared incompetent to be executed and removed from death row. McPeters has been on death row for 30 years, and is one of nine California death row prisoners whom federal judges have found incompetent to assist their attorneys in habeas corpus appeals. His mental condition has further deteriorated while on death row, where he has received inconsistent mental health care: some prison doctors have involuntarily medicated him for schizophrenia, while another had him involuntarily retrained for five days before asserting that McPeters was faking his illness. According to prison records, McPeters has at various times spread his feces on himself and the walls, hoarded it for safekeeping, soaked himself in urine, and carried on conversations with a wife and children who do not exist, and is "tormented by the inner voices of the relatives" of the woman he murdered. He was first declared incompetent in 2007 by U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill, who at a status conference six years later said, "We don’t have one scintilla of evidence ... that he is anything but incompetent." McPeters' case highlights a growing problem in California and across the nation. A Los Angeles Times investigation found 20 inmates, including McPeters, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, psychosis, or paranoia, and California recently became the first state to open a death row psychiatric ward, which was full to capacity within a year. 

 

Second Florida Trial Court Strikes Down State's Death Penalty Statute

Posted: June 10, 2016

A second Florida trial court has ruled that the state's new death penalty statute is unconstitutional. On June 9, Hillsborough County Judge Samantha Ward barred prosecutors from seeking death against Michael Edward Keetley, saying that the state's death penalty statute violated the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Judge Ward said that the Florida legislature's changes to the sentencing law after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the old statute unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, created an additional set of constitutional problems. Hurst held that the Florida sentencing statute impermissibly permitted the judge, rather than the jury, to determine whether the prosecution had proven each fact necessary to impose the death penalty. In response to Hurst, the legislature passed a new law that permitted the court to impose a death sentence only if the jury unanimously found at least one aggravating circumstance that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty and then recommended a death sentence by a vote of at least 10-2 after determining that the aggravating circumstance were sufficiently serious to justify a death sentence and outweighed any mitigating circumstances. Judge Ward said that, under the new sentencing scheme, the jury's weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances constituted a fact-finding necessary before a death sentence could be imposed. She wrote, "it defies logic, and the dictates of [the Sixth Amendment], to have the jury find one of the prerequisites unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt (that at least one aggravating factor exists), but not the other two prerequisites (that sufficient aggravators exist and that they outweigh the mitigating circumstances). Hurst specifically stated '[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.'" Judge Ward is the second Florida judge to find the new statute unconstitutional: one month earlier, on May 9, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch also struck down the law, ruling that the portion of the statute permitting the court to impose the death penalty without a unanimous jury vote for death violates the state constitution. 

 

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Pennsylvania Death Penalty Ruling Infected by Judicial Bias

Posted: June 9, 2016

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Williams v. Pennsylvania that Terry Williams' (pictured) due process rights were violated when Pennsylvania's Chief Justice refused to recuse himself from the case. Ronald Castille served as Philadelphia District Attorney before being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As District Attorney, he personally approved the decision to pursue the death penalty against the 18-year-old Williams, and then, while running for state Supreme Court, touted his record of having "sent 45 people," including Williams, to death row. Nearly 30 years after Williams was sentenced to death, and within a week of his scheduled execution, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas heard evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from a witness and withheld evidence that it had given favorable treatment to that witness; suppressed evidence that the victim had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that the victim had been simply a "kind man" who had offered Williams a ride home. After the court overturned Williams' death sentence, Philadelphia prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Castille was serving as Chief Justice. Williams' attorneys filed a motion seeking Castille's recusal, but he denied the motion, refused to refer the question to the full court, and voted with the majority of the court to reverse the lower court ruling and reinstate Williams' death sentence. Castille also authored a concurring opinion saying the lower court had stayed Williams' death sentence "for no valid reason," attacking the judge for having “lost sight of [her] role as a neutral judicial officer,” and denouncing Williams' counsel for having an “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” and turning postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed, saying "[a] constitutionally intolerable probability of bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case." Here, the Court ruled, "Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias." It further determined that Castille's participation in the case "affected the ... whole adjudicatory framework" of the appeal, and ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal. “Today, Terry Williams comes one step closer to the new, fair sentencing hearing he deserves,” said Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Williams, “We’re optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will give this case careful consideration and recognize the injustice of Terry’s death sentence.”

 

Former Louisiana Chief Justice Asks Supreme Court to Review Case Presenting "Endemic" Prosecutorial Misconduct

Posted: June 8, 2016

Pascal Calogero (pictured), former associate and chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, has called upon the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case of David Brown, a Louisiana death row prisoner who is challenging his sentence on the grounds that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. Brown says prosecutors violated the Supreme Court's ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which requires disclosure of evidence that would be favorable to a defendant, whether relating to his guilt or in reaching a sentencing decision. In Brown's case, prosecutors had known for months that one of his co-defendants had confessed to having committed the killing with the help of a third co-defendant. They nonetheless withheld the confession from the defense, undermining Brown's claim that he was not the killer and that the victim was still alive the last time Brown had seen him. The evidence withheld in Brown's case is strikingly similar to the evidence presented to the Supreme Court in Brady itself—a co-defendant's admission that he, and not the defendant, was the actual killer. Nevertheless, the Louisiana Supreme Court said the withheld evidence would not have been favorable to Brown and ruled that no constitutional violation had occurred. "Brady issues are and have been, for decades, an endemic and persistent problem in Louisiana courts in both capital and noncapital cases," Calogero wrote in an op-ed in The National Law Journal. "The Louisiana Supreme Court had a chance to address this in Brown, but instead, once again, neglected to do so." The Open File, a website devoted to prosecutorial accountability, said that "Louisiana has a uniquely sordid history when it comes to prosecutorial misconduct." The Supreme Court has overturned three Louisiana death penalty cases for withholding exculpatory evidence, including the case of Michael Wearry earlier this year, and police or prosecutorial misconduct has been a factor in all ten Louisiana death-row exonerations to date. In addition, The Open File reported that the state court's rejection of Brown's Brady claim has "perversely ... undercut" the state's process for attorney discipline. Although it is undisputed that the prosecutors knew about and withheld evidence of the co-defendant's confession, the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel was unable to disclipline the prosecutors involved because the state court had ruled that the confession was not "favorable" evidence and the so the failure to disclose it could not be considered a violation of state ethical rules. The Court is scheduled to conference on June 16 on whether to accept Brown's case for review.

 

Texas Judge Dismisses Charges Against Former Death Row Inmate

Posted: June 7, 2016

A judge dismissed murder charges against former Texas death row prisoner Kerry Max Cook on June 6, after prosecutors conceded that his due process rights had been violated by the presentation of false testimony from an alternative suspect. The decision moves Cook one step closer to exoneration, nearly 40 years after he was originally convicted and sentenced to death for the 1977 murder of Linda Jo Edwards. Smith County prosecutors tried Cook three times, twice winning convictions and death sentences. After Smith's second trial ended in a hung jury, prosecutors withheld evidence and misrepresented a deal they had made with a jailhouse informant who falsely testified in the third trial that Cook had confessed to him. An appeals court overturned that conviction and death sentence for what it called “pervasive” and “egregious” prosecutorial misconduct. To avoid a fourth capital trial in 1999, Cook pled no contest to reduced charges and was released from prison. He continued to maintain his innocence. Prosecutors finally agreed to drop the charges against Cook after an alternate suspect in the case, James Mayfield—who had been granted complete immunity from prosecution—admitted that he had lied during Cook's trials. Mayfield, who had an extramarital affair with Edwards, had testified at the trials that he had not had sex with Edwards for weeks before her murder. However, several DNA tests identified semen in Edwards' underwear as Mayfield's, not Cook's. In a deposition in April, Mayfield testified that, in fact, he had sex with Edwards the day before she was killed. That admission also shed new light on the trial testimony of Edwards' roommate, who initially identified Mayfield as the man she saw in the apartment the night of the murder, but later changed her story to implicate Cook. Mark McPeak, who represented Cook during an earlier stage of his case, described his prior trials as "the quintessential railroading." Texas Defender Services executive director Kathryn Kase said: "It is long past time for the state of Texas to admit that it got the wrong man and that it prosecuted the wrong man repeatedly and sought the death penalty against the wrong man repeatedly." Cook continues to pursue a declaration of "actual innocence" that would make him eligible for more than $3 million in compensation from the state of Texas for the two decades he was wrongfully incarcerated on death row. The trial court is expected to rule on that claim later this month and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will then review the dismissal of charges.

 

Supreme Court To Hear Texas Death Penalty Cases Dealing with Racial Bias, Intellectual Disability

Posted: June 6, 2016

On June 6, the U.S. Supreme Court granted writs of certiorari in two Texas death penalty cases, and will review the constitutionality of those death sentences during its next term. The two cases are Buck v. Stephens, in which Duane Buck was sentenced to death after a psychologist testified at his penalty trial that the fact that Buck is African-American increases the likelihood that he presents a future danger to society; and Moore v. Texas, a challenge to Texas' unscientific test for determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. Texas, through its then-Attorney General John Cornyn, had conceded that seven death row prisoners, including Buck, had been unfairly sentenced to death after juries in their cases had been exposed to expert mental health testimony improperly linking race and future dangerousness. The other defendants whose trials were tainted by such testimony were granted new sentencing hearings, but Buck's case did not reach the courts until Cornyn had become a U.S. Senator, and the new Attorney General (now Governor), Greg Abbott, opposed granting Buck a new sentencing hearing. The Court granted review on one of two issues presented in Bobby James Moore's petition for certiorari, whether a state may reject current medical standards in determining intellectual disability. It initially appeared to have granted review of a second issue as well, whether Moore's "extraordinarily long" confinement on death row violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, in an updated order, the Court clarified that it was limiting its review to only the intellectual dsability question. Moore was sentenced to death more than 35 years ago, and has been diagnosed as intellectually disabled by medical professionals. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his intellectual disability claim in 2015 because he failed to meet Texas' “Briseño factors,” a set of unscientific criteria based on the fictional character of Lennie Smalls from the novel "Of Mice and Men." 

 

Louisiana Executions on Hold Until At Least 2018

Posted: June 3, 2016

Louisiana will not conduct any executions in 2016 or 2107 as a result of a new court order issued with the consent of the parties in federal proceedings challenging the constitutionality of Louisiana's lethal injection process. At the request of the Louisiana Attorney General, a federal judge has delayed proceedings on the state's lethal injection protocol for an additional 18 months, making January 2018 the earliest date the state could resume executions. Attorney General Jeff Landry asked for the extension because the facts of the case are in a "fluid state" and it would be "a waste of resources and time to litigate this matter at present time." The request marked the third time in two years that the state has asked to delay the trial. In June 2015, after the state's execution drugs had expired, its lawyers told the court that Louisiana lacked the drugs necessary to carry out executions. In February, the Louisiana Department of Corrections indicated that the state still did not have the drugs needed to conduct an execution. Previously, in 2013, the state had considered purchasing execution drugs from a Tulsa, Oklahoma, compounding pharmacy that was not licensed to provide drugs to any pharmacy in Louisiana, making any purchase of drugs from that company by the Louisiana State Penitentiary Pharmacy illegal under state law. That compounding pharmacy, which secretly sold execution drugs to Missouri during the same period, was implicated in nearly 2,000 violations of Oklahoma pharmacy regulations. The state later obtained one of the execution drugs it needed from a hospital in Lake Charles, misrepresenting to the hospital that it needed the drugs for medical purposes. Christopher Sepulvado, one of the two inmates named in the challenge to the constitutionality of Louisiana's execution procedure, was originally scheduled to be executed in 2014. Louisiana's protocol allows for either a one-drug execution using pentobarbital, or a two-drug execution using midazolam and hydromorphone. The state does not have the drugs necessary for either option, according to a spokesperson for the Depatment of Corrections. Louisiana's last execution was in 2010.

 

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Arizona Death Sentence After Jury Not Told of Defendant's Ineligibility for Parole

Posted: June 2, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a death sentence imposed on Shawn Patrick Lynch by an Arizona jury that had not been told he would have been ineligible for parole if jurors sentenced to him to life imprisonment. In a 6-2 decision on May 31, the Court agreed to review Lynch's case, vacated the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court, and summarily reversed Lynch's death sentence. Under Arizona law, the only sentences the jury could impose in Lynch's case were life without possibility of parole or the death penalty. The prosecution in the case presented evidence and argument to the jury suggesting that Lynch would pose a future danger to society unless he were sentenced to death. At the same time, it filed a motion, which the trial judge granted, to prevent Lynch's lawyer from informing the jury that its life sentencing option carried no possibility of parole. The trial court also did not instruct the jury that Lynch would be ineligible for parole if sentenced to life. The Supreme Court held that this violated Lynch's right to due process, as set forth in its 1994 decision in Simmons v. South Carolina. Simmons ruled that a capital defendant is entitled to inform the jury of his parole ineligibility whenever his future dangerousness is at issue and the only sentencing alternatives available to the jury are death or life imprisonment without possibility of parole. This was Lynch's third penalty phase. In his first penalty trial, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict and the court declared a penalty mistrial. Lynch was again sentenced to death at his second penalty trial, but that sentence was overturned because of misconduct by prosecutor Juan Martinez, who had misrepresented to the jury that the aggravating factor “excessively cruel, heinous or depraved” constituted three separate aggravating circumstances. In his latest resentencing trial in 2012, the Arizona Supreme Court found that Martinez had “disturbingly made a number of inappropriate comments” and had engaged in "some instances" of misconduct. However, it ruled that the “prosecutorial misconduct ... was not so pronounced or sustained as to require a new sentencing trial.” Lynch's case now returns to state court for a fourth sentencing trial.

 

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