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Retired Justice John Paul Stevens Criticizes Capital Punishment as a "Wasteful Enterprise"

Posted: February 23, 2016

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (pictured), in remarks to a capital case seminar hosted by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, criticized the death penalty as a "wasteful enterprise" and urged voters, legislators, and the courts to address the issue. Speaking by video, the former Justice said, "Few other civilized societies engage in such a wasteful use of resources with no demonstrated benefit to society. Taxpayers should terminate this waste as expeditiously as possible." He called the cost of continuing to prosecute capital cases "unacceptable," saying the expense of capital trials is "particularly outrageous in light of the lack of evidence supporting the death penalty’s purported justifications." Justice Stevens said that "the deterrence value of the penalty has diminished almost to zero" with the availability of life without parole as a sentencing option, and is further diminished by the length of time between conviction and execution, if one even occurs. "If the benefits are trivial compared to the potential harm of such an important issue," Stevens said, "as a matter of sound policy you should get rid of it." Citing the wrongful execution of Carlos Deluna, "a man who was unquestionably innocent of murder," as an example of the "ever-present potential for mistake," Stevens said, "it is time to put an end to irrevocable and mistaken state action of that kind." He concluded, "I've thought about this issue repeatedly, and the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that it really doesn't make much sense for society to engage in such a wasteful enterprise when there are so many good arguments against going forward." 

 

Pope Francis Seeks Ban on Executions During 'Year of Mercy,' Renews Call for Abolition of Death Penalty

Posted: February 22, 2016

In an address at the Vatican on February 21, Pope Francis (pictured) broadened his call for a global end to capital punishment and urged Catholic leaders around the world to take action to halt all executions during the Church's ongoing "Holy Year of Mercy." The pontiff's address was a prelude to a two-day international conference, "A World Without the Death Penalty," hosted in Rome by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic organization that opposes capital punishment. Francis said, "The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value, and covers both the innocent and the guilty. ... [E]ven the criminal keeps the inviolable right to life, a gift from God." The Pope linked his call to action to the Holy Year of Mercy, which began on December 8, 2015, and encourages Catholics to show mercy in every aspect of their lives. “I appeal to the conscience of the rulers, so that we achieve an international consensus for the abolition of the death penalty,” Francis said. "And I propose to those among them who are Catholics to make a courageous and exemplary gesture that no sentence is executed in this Holy Year of Mercy.” Pope Francis has previously urged world leaders to end the death penalty, including a strong statement in his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2015. Prior pontiffs have also expressed the Catholic Church's opposition to capital punishment. In 2000, Pope John Paul II advocated worldwide abolition of the death penalty, which he called "an unworthy punishment."

 

Orthodox Jewish Organization Calls for an End to Capital Punishment in the U.S.

Posted: February 19, 2016

"As Jews, as citizens of a nation dedicated to liberty and justice, we believe that governments must protect the dignity and rights of every human being. The use of the death penalty, in America, fails to live up to this basic requirement," wrote Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz (pictured), founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Orthodox Jewish social justice movement. In a column for Jewish Journal, Rabbi Yanklowitz outlines the reasons for Jewish opposition to the death penalty, focusing particularly on the issue of innocence. "[O]ur American system today lacks the highest safeguards to protect the lives of the innocent and uses capital punishment all too readily," he says. "It is time to see the death penalty for what it is: not as justice gone awry, but a symptom of injustice as status quo" with "consequences [that] ... produce racially disparate outcomes." Rabbi Yanklowitz cites numerous studies that have estimated 2-7% of U.S. prisoners are likely innocent, then ties the issue to Jewish teachings. "Jewish law strongly upholds the principle that the innocent should be spared undue punishment," he explains, recounting the biblical story of God agreeing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten righteous people in those cities. He lauds the work of organizations like the Innocence Project, which work to free people who have been wrongfully convicted. "This is nothing short of the championing of justice over inequity, and as a community, we must support their work. Jewish community leaders should call for an end to this cruel practice, but also for the beginning of a new paradigm of fair, equitable, and restorative justice," he concludes.

 

NEW VOICES: A Leader of Florida Federation of Young Republicans Calls for Re-examination of Death Penalty

Posted: February 18, 2016

Saying that if one is looking to identify "failed government programs ..., Florida's death penalty certainly fills the bill," Brian Empric (pictured), vice-chairman of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans, presents a conservative case against the death penalty. In a recent guest column for the Orlando Sentinel, Empric says that - as the Florida legislature weighs its response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida - the state should halt all executions "[u]ntil the constitutionality of our sentencing process is satisfactorily addressed.... [M]ore important," he adds, "Floridians are being presented with a great opportunity to re-examine capital punishment." Empric argues that the death penalty conflicts with conservative pro-life values and that "it is impossible to square capital punishment with these views." He goes on to describe systemic problems in the administration of capital punishment that he believes violate conservative principles. He highlights the "prosecutorial misconduct, mistaken eyewitness testimony, and reliance on erroneous forensic testimonies" that has led to Florida's 26 death row exonerations - the most in the nation. "The human element in the process," he says, "assures us that the death penalty will never be entirely accurate, but when potentially innocent lives hang in the balance, we cannot accept anything less than perfection." He cites a study that found Florida could save at least $50 million by replacing the death penalty with life without parole, and notes that Jefferson County, "was forced to freeze employee raises and slash its library budget just to fund two capital cases." He calls the death penalty, "a government program that fails to achieve its intended objectives," and concludes, "It's an issue that should be of concern to conservatives and anyone committed to limited government and eliminating wasteful and ineffective government programs."

 

Former State Chief Justices: Pennsylvania Justice Should Not Have Approved Death as D.A., Then Reviewed Case on Appeal

Posted: February 17, 2016

In a recent Washington Times op-ed, two former state supreme court chief justices argue that a state supreme court justice who, as district attorney, had authorized the capital prosecution of a defendant, should not have later participated as a judge in deciding an appeal in that case. Gerald Kogan (pictured, l.), former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and Michael Wolff (pictured, r.), former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, joined a number of other former judges who had been prosecutors and former appellate court jurists in filing briefs supporting the position of Philadelphia death-row prisoner Terry Williams in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case, Williams v. Pennsylvania. The case, which the Court will hear on February 29, concerns the participation of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille in the prosecution's appeal of a trial court ruling that had overturned Williams' death sentence because of prosecutorial misconduct. The appeals court reversed the trial court and reinstated Williams' death sentence. Kogan and Wolff say that Castille should have recused himself from hearing the appeal. "We, along with many other former judges, have urged the Supreme Court to find that Chief Justice Castille’s prior relationship to the case created an impermissible risk of bias," they say. "As the former district attorney, Chief Justice Castille personally, in a handwritten note, authorized seeking the death penalty for Mr. Williams. Moreover, he used the Williams death verdict to support his campaign for the Supreme Court seat. And finally, considering the case required Chief Justice Castille to evaluate a court’s finding of misconduct against the office over which he formerly presided."

 

Georgia Naval Veteran Files for Clemency as More Culpable Superior Officer Will Become Eligible for Parole

Posted: February 16, 2016

Naval veteran Travis Hittson (pictured), scheduled to be executed by Georgia on February 17, has filed an application for clemency with the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Hittson assisted his superior officer, Edward Vollmer, to kill and dismember a fellow sailor, Conway Utterbeck in 1992. Despite evidence that Vollmer was the more culpable of the two, prosecutors permitted him to plead guilty and receive a life sentence from which he could be paroled, while Hittson was sentenced to death. The clemency application, filed by lawyers from the Veterans Defense Program and the Georgia Resource Center, alleges that Hittson's death sentence is disproportionate to the punishment Vollmer received, given the significant difference in their culpability. The application says: "Mr. Hittson committed an appalling act; an act which took the life of Conway Utterbeck and harmed his family in profound and irreparable ways. Those who know Mr. Hittson, however – even law enforcement personnel who knew him only long enough to hear him confess and assist in the investigation of this crime – are united in their conviction that he is remorseful and would never have committed this terrible crime absent the deliberate manipulation of his codefendant and naval superior, Edward Vollmer." Vollmer convinced Hittson to help him kill Utterbeck by telling him that Utterbeck was plotting to kill them. "Mr. Hittson’s lower rank, gullibility, alcoholism and desperation for approval made him peculiarly vulnerable to Edward Vollmer who, by all accounts, exercised an unnatural dominance and control over Mr. Hittson," the clemency filing explains. Hittson's application for clemency is supported by other sailors who served with both Hittson and Vollmer, several jurors in the case, and an unnamed state prosecutor. The execution would be the second in Georgia in 2016. Andrew Brannan, the first person executed in Georgia last year, was also a veteran. Brannan suffered from chronic Postraumatic Stress Disorder and other severe mental illness related to his military service in Vietnam and was considered 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration. 

 

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Outspoken Defender of Capital Punishment, Has Died

Posted: February 15, 2016

 United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the Court's most ardent defenders of the constitutionality of capital punishment, has died at age 79. Appointed to the Court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Justice Scalia voted to uphold the application of the death penalty in a wide variety of circumstances. He was part of 5-4 conservative majorities in a number of significant death penalty cases, including the 1987 decisions in McCleskey v. Kemp severely limiting the ability of capital defendants to obtain relief for race discrimination in the application of the death penalty and in Tison v. Arizona permitting the execution of offenders who neither killed nor intended that a killing take place, but exhibited reckless indifference to human life. An avid adherent of what he called "textualism," Justice Scalia chafed at the Court's use of "evolving standards of decency" to exempt individuals and offenses from capital sanctions. He voted in support of state laws permitting the imposition of the death penalty against juvenile offenders and those with intellectual disabilities and was undaunted by the prospects of executing the innocent. Writing that "[t]his court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent," Justice Scalia opposed reviewing the innocence claim presented by Troy Davis (In re Davis) after 7 eyewitnesses had recanted their testimony. His 2006 concurring opinion in Kansas v. Marsh expressed doubts that any innocent person has been executed in the U.S. In 1994, in Callins v. Collins, Justice Scalia singled out the brutal murder of an 11-year-old girl as epitomizing the need for capital punishment. Twenty years later, DNA evidence exonerated Henry McCollum, the intellectually disabled North Carolina man who had been sentenced to death for that murder. Justice Scalia succinctly expressed his views on the constitutionally of the death penalty at a book signing at the American Enterprise Institute in 2012, saying, "The death penalty? Give me a break. It's easy." Often acerbic in his treatment of opposing views, Scalia described criticisms of the constitutionality of the death penalty in Callins as "sanctimonious." In 2015 in Glossip v. Gross, he called the arguments suggesting that the death penalty may be unconstitutional "gobbledy gook." But last fall, he conceded in public appearances that he "wouldn't be surprised" if the Court ultimately declared the death penalty unconstitutional.

 

Judge Orders Evidentiary Hearing On Constitutionality of Federal Death Penalty

Posted: February 12, 2016

U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford has ordered an evidentiary hearing on Donald Fell's (pictured) challenge to the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. In court filings seeking to bar federal prosecutors from seeking death against him in a pending retrial, Fell has argued that the federal death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Among other grounds, he has asserted that the death penalty no longer comports with contemporaneous U.S. values and that there are significant racial and geographic disparities in the manner in which the federal death penalty has been applied. Fell was sentenced to death in Vermont on federal murder charges, a sentence he could not have received in state court because Vermont does not have the death penalty. His conviction was overturned because of juror misconduct, and he is facing a retrial in 2017. In the order calling for a hearing, Judge Crawford wrote, "Preliminarily, and with an open mind about the arguments recently made by both sides, the court is looking at the constitutional challenge to the death penalty." He said that, despite efforts in the 1970s to remedy constitutional problems, "40 years later the question of a systemic violation of the Eighth Amendment remains."

 

Texas Prisoner Seeks Supreme Court Review of Death Sentence Tainted By Racial Bias

Posted: February 11, 2016

Duane Buck, who was sentenced to death after a defense expert witness testified that Buck could pose a future danger to society because he is black, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant him a new sentencing hearing because of his lawyer's ineffectiveness. Buck is one of six defendants whose Texas capital trials were identified by a Texas Attorney General's report as having been tainted by race-based testimony by psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano. The other five were granted new sentencing hearings after the Texas Attorney General agreed that the “infusion of race as a factor for the jury to weigh in making its determination violated [the defendant's] constitutional right to be sentenced without regard to the color of his skin.” However, after a change in the elected Attorney General, Texas opposed a new sentencing for Mr. Buck. During Buck's sentencing trial, the prosecution asked Quijano - whom it had used as a witness in other cases - if, "the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons." Buck's lawyer did not object, and Quijano replied, "yes." As Buck stated in a documentary about his case, "He was basically saying because you’re black, you need to die. My lawyer didn’t say anything and nobody else, you know, the prosecutor or the judge, nobody did. It was like an everyday thing in the courts." The state and federal courts rejected Buck's prior challenge based on the prosecutor's conduct, suggesting the fault lay with the defense. Buck's attorneys now argue that his trial lawyer's failure to object to Quijano's testimony constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. The lower courts turned down that appeal as well, and Buck filed this petition for writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case.

 

Texas Board Confirms Disbarment of Prosecutor for Misconduct in Anthony Graves Case

Posted: February 10, 2016

The disciplinary board of the Texas State Bar rejected an appeal on February 9 from Charles Sebesta, the prosecutor whose misconduct led to the wrongful conviction of Anthony Graves (pictured, r.). The board's decision disbarring Sebesta for what it called "egregious" misconduct is now final. Anthony Graves was convicted in 1994 on the false testimony of Robert Carter, who claimed Graves was his accomplice. Graves was exonerated in 2010 and filed a complaint against Sebesta in 2014. Sebesta was disbarred for eliciting Carter's false statements and withholding exculpatory evidence from Graves' defense. The disciplinary board made an initial ruling to revoke Sebesta's law license in 2015, but he appealed the ruling on technical grounds. Graves lauded the board's decision, saying, “The bar stepped in to say that’s not the way our criminal justice system should work. This is a good day for justice.”

 

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