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(UPDATE: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted Bernard Tercero a stay of execution to permit him to litigate evidence that a lead prosecution witness testified falsely against him.) The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a unit of the Organization of American States, has called on Texas officials to stay the execution of Nicaraguan citizen Bernardo Tercero (pictured), who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on August 26. Under international treaties on consular relations, foreign citizens (including Americans abroad) must be afforded access to their government's consulate at the time of their arrest. The IACHR has ruled that Texas' failure to respect these treaty obligations denied Tercero "his right to consular notification and assistance [and] deprived him of a criminal process that satisfied the minimum standards of due process and a fair trial" required under Inter-American human rights treaties. The IACHR also concluded that Tercero's court-appointed counsel "committed serious mistakes that affected his right to defense" and that procedural rulings by the courts in his case denied Tercero the "possibility to have his sentence effectively reviewed." The Organization of American States issued a statement saying that, "Should the state of Texas carry out this execution, it would be committing a serious and irreparable violation of the basic right to life" guaranteed in American human rights instruments. As of June 9, 2015, 139 foreign nationals were on death rows across America, with 61 in California and 22 in Texas.
In the first episode of season 2 of "Death Row Stories," CNN examined the case of Ruben Cantu, who was executed in Texas in 1993 despite serious doubts about his guilt. The episode featured an interview with Sam Milsap, the District Attorney at the time of Cantu's trial, who asserted his belief in Cantu's innocence. Cantu's co-defendant and a key eyewitness from the case both supported Cantu's claim of innocence. The hour-long episode of the documentary series recounted how Lise Olsen, an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle, raised questions about the case and eventually convinced Milsap that Cantu was not guilty. "Death Row Stories" is produced by Robert Redford and narrated by Susan Sarandon. It airs Sundays at 10 pm. Other episodes this season include the stories of Randy Steidl and Seth Penalver, who were exonerated and freed from death row.
A Food and Drug Administration letter to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction indicated the state was considering importing sodium thiopental from overseas for use in executions. The letter warned the department that importing the drug would violate federal law: "Please note that there is no FDA approved application for sodium thiopental, and it is illegal to import an unapproved new drug into the United States." A similar letter was sent to Nebraska officials after the state spent over $50,000 in an attempt to obtain lethal injection drugs from a source in India. All executions were put on hold in Ohio after the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in 2014, as the state has pursued a new execution protocol. The potential foreign supplier was not revealed because Ohio, like many other states, keeps the identity of execution-drug suppliers secret.
A recent op-ed by former Texas Governor Mark White (pictured) and former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan criticized a recently passed North Carolina law that imposes secrecy on the source of lethal injection drugs and removes execution procedures from public review and comment. The authors said the new law will only prolong litigation, rather than ending North Carolina's hold on executions, as intended. The op-ed also maintained that the new policy violates democratic principles: "The foundation of our constitutional republic lies in accountability and transparency, enabling American citizens to learn and debate about policy. Yet citizens cannot engage in robust conversations when basic information is hidden." Arguing that both supporters and opponents of the death penalty should oppose secrecy, they said, "Regardless of our views on the death penalty, Americans must maintain a principled approach to its implementation. The standard ought to be the U.S. Constitution, which mandates the government impose no cruel and unusual punishments. As long as states implement the death penalty, we must ensure they follow this constitutional standard."
A new study of trials in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, revealed that potential jurors who were black were much more likely to be struck from juries than non-blacks. The results were consistent with findings from Alabama, North Carolina, and other parts of Louisiana, highlighting an issue that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. In Caddo Parish, an area known for its many death sentences, prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors, but only 15% of other jurors, according to the study by Reprieve Australia. The racial composition of the juries appeared to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the cases. The study found that no defendants were acquitted by juries with 2 or fewer black jurors, but 19% were acquitted when 5 or more jurors were black. In an Alabama study, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove 82% of eligible black potential jurors from trials in which the death penalty was imposed. A study of death penalty cases in North Carolina found that prosecutors struck 53% of black potential jurors but only 26% of others. (Click image to enlarge.)
DPIC's complete set of 50 facts about the death penalty is now available. The 50 facts provide an excellent introduction to a variety of death penalty topics, including costs, deterrence, race, innocence, and more. Each fact is presented in graphical form, with links to further information available on our 50 Facts page. The series is also available on Facebook and Twitter, and we encourage readers to share and retweet items they found particularly interesting or surprising.
On August 6, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a law that removed the requirement that a physician be present at executions and shrouded in secrecy many elements of the lethal injection process, including the specific drugs to be used and the suppliers of those drugs. By eliminating the physician-participation requirement, the law attempted to remove a legal hurdle that has halted executions in North Carolina since 2006. Two major state newspapers sharply criticized the new law, calling it, "macabre" and "an ugly spectacle." The Fayetteville Observer said, "We need thoughtful discussion of the issue and whether we're imposing a fair sentence or simply seeking revenge for a terrible crime. What we don't need is a General Assembly slicing away at reasonable public understanding of the state's execution protocols, instead choosing to wrap it all in secrecy." The News & Observer (Raleigh) called the law "a horribly misguided idea," citing the "gruesome outcomes" of experimental lethal injection protocols in other states. The editorial concluded, "Rather than put executions on a fast track, North Carolina should abandon them altogether."
The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled on August 13 that the death penalty violates the state constitution. In the 4-3 decision, the Court said that, because of the prospective repeal of the death penalty in 2012 and "the state’s near total moratorium on carrying out executions over the past fifty-five years, capital punishment has become incompatible with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut." As a result, the Court said, it "now violates the state constitutional prohibition against excessive and disproportionate punishments." The Court also stated that "the death penalty now fails to satisfy any legitimate penological purpose and is unconstitutionally excessive on that basis as well." The state's prospective repeal had left 11 men on death row, but the ruling replaces their sentences with life without parole. The Court concluded, "In prospectively abolishing the death penalty, the legislature did not simply express the will of the people that it no longer makes sense to maintain the costly and unsatisfying charade of a capital punishment scheme in which no one ever receives the ultimate punishment. Public Act 12-5 also held a mirror up to Connecticut’s long, troubled history with capital punishment: the steady replacement by more progressive forms of punishment; the increasing inability to achieve legitimate penological purposes; the freakishness with which the sentence of death is imposed; the rarity with which it is carried out; and the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic biases that likely are inherent in any discretionary death penalty system. Because such a system fails to comport with our abiding freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, we hold that capital punishment, as currently applied, violates the constitution of Connecticut."
A new film, "Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man," premieres on August 13. The movie, described as a "documentary memoir," tells the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, an innocent man sentenced to death in Maryland who became the first death row prisoner in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Bloodsworth was convicted and sent to death row in 1985 for the sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old girl. He won a new trial as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, but was convicted again and this time sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 1993 by newly available DNA testing. After his exoneration, Bloodsworth became active in efforts to reform the criminal justice system and his case became symbolic of the innocence movement and the risks of wrongfully convicting and executing the innocent. In 2004, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Kirk Noble Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Program, which gives states grants for post-conviction DNA testing. As a result of his experiences, Bloodsworth became a strong opponent of the death penalty and was instrumental in Maryland's 2013 repeal of the death penalty. That legislative battleground provides the backdrop for the film's exploration of the events leading to his exoneration.The film's first preview screening is in Baltimore, Maryland. A second preview screening will take place in Boise, Idaho on September 25, and the film will be released soon after.
Changes in who is District Attorney have caused a dramatic decline in death sentences in 3 counties that historically have produced a disproportionate number of death sentences in the United States, according to a story from The Marshall Project. Harris County (Houston), Texas, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania were all among the 2% of counties that accounted for 56% of inmates on death row as of 2013, but the resignations or retirements of their long-time District Attorneys have been followed by significant drops in the number of new death sentences. In Harris County, DA Johnny Holmes secured an average of 12 death sentences a year from 1992 to 2000. His immediate successor obtained about 6 death sentences a year, and DAs elected since 2008 have averaged about 1 death sentence per year. Similarly, Oklahoma County saw about 2.5 death sentences a year under long-time DA Robert Macy, but has handed down just 3 sentences since 2009. In both Harris and Oklahoma counties, exonerations shook public confidence in the justice system, also contributing to the drop in death sentences. An FBI review of an Oklahoma police chemist who worked closely with Macy uncovered deliberately falsified DNA tests and withheld evidence, which defense attorney Doug Parr said made people, "more skeptical of death penalty prosecutions." In Philadelphia, DA Lynne Abraham obtained an average of 9.5 death sentences per year in the 1990s. According to the article, the picture began to change in response to budget shortfalls and criticisms about racial disparities in death sentences. In 2009, Philadelphia elected a new DA, Seth Williams, who, the article says, promised to improve relations with minorities. In the last 5 years, Philadelphia has had only 3 death sentences. (Click image to enlarge.)