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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."


Ex-Ohio Prison Director Calls the Death Penalty a 'Failed Public Policy'

Posted: February 25, 2016

Former Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Terry J. Collins (pictured) says the death penalty is "a failed public policy" that "isn't worth fixing." With 30 years of experience as a warden, regional corrections director, assistant director, and then corrections director, Collins participated in 33 executions. He says, "With each execution I asked myself: Did the extensive process of appeals ensure we got it right? I often wondered if we made a mistake. My curiosity arose because I had walked people out of prison after years of incarceration who turned out to be innocent," including Ohio's first death row exoneree, Gary Beeman. Collins said he is "troubled by Ohio's track record" of executing 53 death-row prisoners while exonerating 9. But his concerns about the death penalty "are not limited to the possibility of killing an innocent person." He says, "The offenders in our prisons I encountered who committed unimaginable crimes were usually not on Death Row." As a result, he "do[es] not accept the argument that we only execute the worst of the worst." In fact, he says, a recent study of Ohio executions "found that the race of the victim and the county where the crime took place matter more than the severity of the crime." In addition, Collins says, "The death penalty is expensive, inefficient and takes far too long. I believe it only prolongs the pain and healing process for victims' families." He concludes that "It is time for state officials to have serious and thoughtful conversations about whether Ohio's death penalty remains necessary. ... My experience tells me the death penalty isn't worth fixing. Our justice system will be more fair and effective without the death penalty."


Mother of Murder Victim: "The Death Penalty Would Inflict Additional Pain on Us"

Posted: February 24, 2016

Duval County, Florida prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the 2013 murder of Shelby Farah (pictured), over the objections of Ms. Farah's family. After unsuccessful attempts to persuade prosecutors to non-capitally resolve the case, Darlene Farah, Ms. Farah's mother, publicly expressed her views in a recent column in TIME. Farah said, "I do not want my family to go through the years of trials and appeals that come with death-penalty cases." Instead, she wants her family to be able to, "celebrate [Shelby's] life, honor her memory and begin the lengthy healing process." Darlene Farah says her daughter would not have wanted the death penalty to be sought on her behalf, and "more killing in no way honors my daughter’s memory or provides solace to my family." Duval County is among the 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for a majority of U.S. death sentences and is represented by a prosecutor's office that has sent more people to death row since 2009 than any other prosecutor's office in the state. Farah has asked prosecutors to accept the defense offer to plead guilty to all charges, but she says "[prosecutors'] desire for the death penalty in my daughter’s case seems so strong that they are ignoring the wishes of my family in their pursuit of it." Farah said the use of the death penalty is impeding the healing process: "Death-penalty cases are incredibly complex and drawn-out. It’s been two and a half years since my daughter’s murder, and the trial hasn’t even started...[W]e can’t start to heal and move beyond the legal process, which never seems to end." "I have seen my family torn apart since my daughter’s murder, and the idea of having to face the lengthy legal process associated with a death-penalty case is unbearable. We have endured enough pain and tragedy already."


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."