On January 14, the U.S. Supreme Court (6-3) handed down a ruling in Jennings v. Stephens, a capital case from Texas dealing with ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court held that when a defendant wins relief in a lower federal court and the state appeals, the defendant may offer theories rejected by the lower court as part of his defense of the relief granted. He does not have to file a new appeal on that rejected theory. In his initial federal appeal (habeas corpus), Robert Jennings had presented three instances of ineffective assistance of counsel. The District Court granted him relief based on two of them, but rejected the third. The state appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and Jennings presented all three instances in his defense. The Fifth Circuit said it did not have jurisdiction to consider the third claim because Jennings' lawyers had not obtained a "certificate of appealability." Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion. Jennings' case will be returned to the Fifth Circuit to consider his third claim of ineffectiveness.
As Oklahoma prepared to carry out its first execution on January 15 since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Heath of Columbia University Medical School expressed serious concerns about the drugs it will use, particularly one that paralyzes the inmate: "Oklahoma and other states ... should abandon the barbaric use of paralyzing drugs entirely." He explained that when the prisoner is given paralytic drugs, he "will die of suffocation whether they are unconscious or they are wide awake." Dr. Heath also criticized the use of midazolam, which Oklahoma plans to use again, despite the problems in multiple states with that drug in 2014. He said it is particularly ill-suited as the first lethal injection drug because it is a weaker anesthetic than barbiturates, such as pentobarbital. In an op-ed, he concluded, "Oklahoma and other states should not be executing prisoners with midazolam; they should not proceed in the absence of qualified medical practitioners; they should only use FDA-approved drugs, and they should abandon the barbaric, outmoded and unnecessary use of chemical paralysis – ....The public and the courts could then return their attention to the more important questions and debate surrounding the death penalty enterprise."
Speaking from the bench at a hearing in a Kentucky capital case, Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine said, "Something needs to be done legislatively in Kentucky and in every state in the U.S. I think the death penalty probably should not be a penalty, ever." Despite her personal views, Goodwine ruled that the death penalty could be sought against a man accused of participating in a murder, even though he did not shoot the victim. "As the law in Kentucky stands right now ... he's death-eligible as a conspirator in this case," Goodwine said. "That's the law as it stands right now. I, as a trial judge, have to follow that law whether I agree with it or not. If I had my druthers, there would be no death penalty in Kentucky." She added that she was frustrated with the time and expense of capital cases and the emotional toll they take on everyone involved.
A growing body of research into adolescent brain development indicates that the brains of even those over the age of 18 continue to physically change in ways related to culpability for criminal offenses. The Supreme Court referred to such scientific evidence regarding those under the age of 18 when it struck down the death penalty for juveniles in 2005 (Roper v. Simmons) and when it recently limited life without parole sentences for juveniles. According to Laurence Steinberg (pictured), a professor of psychology at Temple University, the brain continues a process called myelination into a person's twenties. That process affects planning ahead, weighing risks and rewards, and making complex decisions. This research may yield mitigating evidence for younger defendants, including accused Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Steinberg's research shows that someone like Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time of the bombing, may not have the same understanding of his actions as an older adult would. Young adults are particularly susceptible to the influence of peers. “What we know is that this is an age when people are hypersensitive to what other people think of them. It’s also an age when people are trying to figure out who they are, and one way is by identifying with a group. There probably are similarities between the dynamics here and dynamics of antisocial or delinquent gangs. Older, more powerful young adults persuading younger adolescents to do their bidding for them,” Steinberg said.
A Seattle University study examining the costs of the death penalty in Washington found that each death penalty case cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million, versus $2.01 million). Defense costs were about three times as high in death penalty cases and prosecution costs were as much as four times higher than for non-death penalty cases. Criminal Justice Professor Peter Collins, the lead author of the study, said, “What this provides is evidence of the costs of death-penalty cases, empirical evidence. We went into it [the study] wanting to remain objective. This is purely about the economics; whether or not it’s worth the investment is up to the public, the voters of Washington and the people we elected.” (Although Washington's death penalty was reinstated in 1981, the study examined cases from 1997 onwards. Using only cases in the study, the gross bill to taxpayers for the death penalty will be about $120 million. Washington has carried out five executions since reinstatement, implying a cost of $24 million per execution. In three of those five cases, the inmate waived parts of his appeals, thus reducing costs.)
Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, & Disadvantage is a free on-line course offered by Yale Law School. The course is taught by Stephen B. Bright, President of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Georgia. According to Yale's description, "This course explores the imposition of the death penalty in the United States with particular attention to the influence of race and poverty, and the disadvantages of mental illness or intellectual disability of those facing death." Each of the 13 course sessions introduces a topic within capital punishment and features video of Bright's lectures, as well as background readings and resources. The course is available through Yale's website, YouTube, and iTunesU.
The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania is running a series of articles examining the state's death penalty in anticipation of a comprehensive report on the death penalty commissioned by the state legislature. Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999, and all three of its executions in the modern era were inmates who waived their appeals. Incoming Governor Tom Wolf has said he may hold off on allowing executions until the state addresses questions of fairness in the application of the death penalty. Incoming state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor recently raised concerns about defense funding, saying, "If we want the death penalty, the state must provide resources to provide competent defense counsel for indigent defendants. That's the disconnect we have right now." State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who sponsored the resolution calling for a study of the death penalty, called the study "historic," saying, "We shouldn't run away from facts regardless of what our opinions are." Sen. Daylin Leach intends to re-introduce a bill to repeal the death penalty this year.
UPDATE: Brannan was denied clemency by Georgia on Jan.12. Andrew Brannan, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on January 13. His execution would be the first of 2015. Brannan's attorneys are asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency because Brannan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. A police video from the crime scene illustrated Brannan's erratic behavior. Joe Loveland, one of Brannan's attorneys, said, "There was a direct connection between his service in Vietnam and the violence that he was exposed to there and the ultimate events that occurred here. The basic question really is, should a 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran with no prior criminal record and who was 100 percent disabled under the DA standards, both with PTSD and bipolar disorder, at the time of the murder of the deputy sheriff--should that person be executed?"
DPIC's 2014 Year End Report was featured in numerous editorials since its release on December 18, including:
"Thirty-five people were put to death in 2014, the fewest in 20 years, according to a report last month by the Death Penalty Information Center....[W]hile the death penalty may be increasingly infrequent, it is all too often a brutal end to a brutal life....The people executed in recent years were not the 'worst of the worst' — as many death-penalty advocates like to imagine — but those who were too poor, mentally ill or disabled to avoid it."
"According to a year-end count from the Death Penalty Information Center, the country sentenced 72 people to death this year, the fewest number in 40 years, down from a high of 315 in 1996....All states should end the death penalty within their borders. The risk of executing the innocent, evidenced by the seven men who were exonerated this year, is unacceptable. The financial cost of administering death penalty systems is also too high. Either consideration overwhelms arguments about the punishment’s usefulness as a crime deterrent."
"[Last year, only 35 inmates were put to death, according to an annual study by the Death Penalty Information Center....voters are coming to realize capital punishment isn’t applied only to those truly guilty of the most heinous crimes. In fact, all too many of those sentenced to die turned out to be innocent."
"[T]he annual report about all of this from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that Missouri, Texas and Florida accounted for 80 percent of the executions in 2014....Reasonable alternatives to the death penalty exist, including, in some cases, life in prison without parole. These alternatives, which are much less expensive to operate, would prevent the execution of some people who aren’t guilty of the crimes they’re convicted of committing."
"[T]he Death Penalty Information Center says in its annual report, 35 people have been executed in the United States — down from 98 just 15 years ago....Capital punishment is not going to disappear from this country anytime soon. But the more experience Americans have with it, the less they like it."
"In 2014, U.S. executions fell to a 20-year low — and botched executions in Ohio and other states were partly responsible. ...the Death Penalty Information Center reports. ...As states continue to experiment with lethal drug cocktails, Ohioans need to know whether executions here can proceed properly. Sadly, the administration is making that practically impossible."
In a recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, three former Kentucky prosecutors advocated for repeal of the death penalty. Citing the findings of a study by the American Bar Association on Kentucky's law, Joseph P. Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider said, "[T]he death penalty is broken beyond repair in Kentucky." Among the report's findings were a reversal rate of 60% in death penalty cases, a lack of standards for eyewitness identification and interrogations, and public defender caseloads that far exceed the national average, despite pay that is 31% lower than surrounding states. A poll taken around the time of the report found 62% of Kentucky voters in support of a moratorium on executions. The former prosecutors recommended repeal: "Without question, this is a difficult issue, and efforts to 'fix' the death penalty in Kentucky will be costly and time-consuming. But there is one approach that is simpler and less expensive: Abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole for convicted offenders....Replacing [the death penalty] with life without parole is the best approach for our state — removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed, saving limited tax dollars, protecting public safety and providing certainty and justice to the families of victims." Read the op-ed below.