DPIC News

States Struggle with Determinations of Competency to Be Executed

A recent article in Mother Jones examines lingering questions in the determination of which inmates are exempt from execution because of mental incompetency. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright that a person could not be executed if he or she was "unaware of the punishment they're about to suffer and why they are to suffer it." The 2007 ruling in Panetti v. Quarterman updated that decision, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing, "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it." Scott Panetti (pictured), the inmate involved in the 2007 case, knew that the state of Texas planned to execute him for the murder of his in-laws, but also sincerely believed that he was at the center of a struggle between God and Satan and was being executed to stop him from preaching the Gospel. Even after the case with his name was decided, Panetti remained on death row, and the Texas courts found him competent to be executed based upon the testimony of a single psychiatrist who claimed Panetti was faking his mental illness. Panetti came within hours of execution on December 3, 2014, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued a stay. In Missouri, Cecil Clayton -- a brain-damaged man with an IQ of 71 -- was executed on March 17, 2015 without a hearing to determine his competency. By contrast, a recent mental competency hearing for Indiana inmate Michael Overstreet included four days of testimony from 13 witnesses and nearly 1,300 pages of medical records. In a 137-page opinion, the state judge concluded, "Delusions or other psychotic symptoms cannot simply be discounted because a petitioner has a cognitive awareness of his circumstances." Indiana's Attorney General said that the decision adhered so well to the Panetti ruling that there was nothing for the state to appeal.

PUBLIC OPINION: Majority of Pennsylvanians Prefer Life Sentences, Support Moratorium on Death Penalty

According to a new poll by Public Policy Polling, a majority of Pennsylvanians find some form of a life sentence to be preferable to the death penalty, and more support the death penalty moratorium imposed by Governor Tom Wolf than oppose it. When asked what sentence they preferred for people convicted of murder, 54% of respondents selected some form of life sentence, while 42% preferred the death penalty. 50% were in favor of the Commonwealth's death penalty moratorium, including 29% who say they "strongly support" it. 44% said they opposed the moratorium. The poll, which was commissioned by Dr. Eric Ling, a criminal justice professor at York College, also asked respondents whether they thought the death penalty or life without parole was more expensive. 70% erroneously believed that life without parole was the more expensive punishment. Dr. Ling said, “This poll suggests that there is a really significant opportunity to explain to voters why the death penalty costs so much more than a sentence of life in prison without parole. Pennsylvania has spent $350 million on the death penalty over the past few decades while carrying out just three executions. Clearly, more information about how much the state is really spending on the death penalty and what taxpayers are getting in return would be helpful. This is the type of information the Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment should be able to shed some light on when they issue their report.” (Click image to enlarge.)

NEW VOICES: Lead Prosecutor Apologizes to Death Row Exoneree, Urges State to Offer Compensation

In a letter to the Shreveport (Louisiana) Times, attorney A.M. "Marty" Stroud III (pictured), the lead prosecutor in the 1984 trial that sent Glenn Ford to death row until he was exonerated in 2014, offered his apologies to Ford, "for all the misery I have caused him and his family." Stroud voiced his full belief in Ford's innocence, saying "There was no technicality here. Crafty lawyering did not secure the release of a criminal...Pursuant to the review and investigation of cold homicide cases, investigators uncovered evidence that exonerated Mr. Ford. Indeed, this evidence was so strong that had it been disclosed during of the investigation there would not have been sufficient evidence to even arrest Mr. Ford!" Stroud takes responsibility for being "too passive" in prosecuting the case. "I did not hide evidence, I simply did not seriously consider that sufficient information may have been out there that could have led to a different conclusion," he said. "I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning." Now he is calling for compensation for Ford -- who is dying of stage 4 cancer that was untreated while he was in prison -- and a reconsideration of the death penalty. "Glenn Ford deserves every penny owed to him under the compensation statute. This case is another example of the arbitrariness of the death penalty.... No one should be given the ability to impose a sentence of death in any criminal proceeding. We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death because we are all fallible human beings."

Pope Francis Calls Death Penalty Inappropriate "No Matter How Serious the Crime"

In a letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Pope Francis expressed the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty, calling it "inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed." He continued, "It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance." He acknowledged society's need to protect itself from aggressors, but said, "When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized -- they are already deprived of their liberty." He also addressed questions of methods of execution, saying, “There is discussion in some quarters about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of 'getting it right'. … But there is no humane way of killing another person.” The pope had previously offered remarks in opposition to the death penalty when he spoke to the International Association on Penal Law in October 2014.

NEW VOICES: Murder Victim's Widow Supports Clemency for Husband's Killer

Mamie Norwood, whose husband, Amos, was killed by Pennsylvania death row inmate Terry Williams (pictured), recently wrote a letter to two state officials asking them to, "stop trying to execute Terry Williams." Norwood's letter was addressed to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and State Representative Mike Vereb, who oppose the death penalty moratorium imposed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Vereb recently introduced a legislative resolution stating that the moratorium "exhibits astounding disregard for the additional and unnecessary heartache he has now caused to the family and loved ones of Terrance Williams' victims." Norwood said, "I have forgiven Terry Williams and I don't want him executed and I have said this many times...[Y]ou have never spoken to me and you do not speak for me." In 2012, Norwood joined dozens of child advocates, former prosecutors and judges, mental health professionals, and five of Williams' jurors in calling for clemency. She concluded her recent letter by saying, "I am asking that you please stop trying to execute Terry Williams. And please don't use me for your own political gain or to get your name in the news. You should be truly ashamed of yourselves." Read the full text of Mamie Norwood's letter here. UPDATE: Family members of other victims have also publicly responded to statements by other Pennsylvania prosecutors in opposition to Governor Wolf’s moratorium that falsely suggested that they supported seeking the death penalty for their family member’s murder.

INNOCENCE: Debra Milke Exonerated from Arizona Death Row

UPDATE: On March 23, Judge Rosa Mroz officially dismissed the charges against Milke. Milke has been added to DPIC's exoneration list. See Milke's statement on her exoneration. PREVIOUSLY: On March 17, the Arizona Supreme Court denied a request by prosecutors that it review a lower court's order that dismissed the charges against Debra Milke as a result of "egregious" police and prosecutorial misconduct and barring her retrial. The court's decision effectively ends prosecutorial efforts to reinstate murder charges against Milke. Milke spent 23 years on death row for allegedly arranging for two men to kill her 4-year-old son so she could collect an insurance payout. The two men who were convicted of committing the killing remain on death row. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned Milke's conviction because the prosecutor had withheld evidence that undermined key testimony in the case. Arizona's prosecutors have been accused of misconduct in more than half of all cases in which the state has imposed death sentences. In this case, Detective Armando Saldate testified that Milke had confessed to him, but there was no recording, nor any witnesses to the confession, and Milke steadfastly denied having confessed. Saldate's personnel record, which prosecutors withheld from the defense, revealed that the detective had committed serious misconduct in prior cases, including lying under oath. In December 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals barred prosecutors from retrying Milke. The state sought to appeal that decision to the Arizona Supreme Court, which the court rejected on Tuesday. The trial court is expected to formally dismiss the charges next week, which would make Milke the 151st person exonerated from death row since 1973 and the first in 2015. She will be the ninth person exonerated from death row in Arizona and the second female death row exoneree in the U.S.

STUDIES: Most Likely Outcome of Death Sentence Is That It Will Be Reversed

A new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that the most likely outcome for a capital case once a death sentence has been imposed is that the defendant's conviction or sentence will be reversed on appeal. Execution is only the third most likely outcome. Of the 8,466 people sentenced to death from 1976-2013, 3,194 (38%) had their sentence or conviction overturned. 2,979 (35%) remained on death row at the time of the study. Fewer than 1 in 6 defendants - 1,359 (16%) - were executed. The rest died on death row of suicide or natural causes, had their sentence commuted, or were removed from death row for miscellaneous reasons. The study also notes that these rates vary dramatically from state to state, with states averaging about a 13% likelihood of executing a death sentence, and only one state - Virginia - executing more than half of those sentenced to death. "Regardless of one’s view of the death penalty in principle, these numbers raise questions about how the death penalty is applied in practice," the authors note. "The wide differences across states in the odds of carrying out a death sentence are potentially troubling from an equal protection standpoint." They conclude, "A system that ensures prolonged court time, automatic appeals for the convicted inmate – most of whom are eventually successful – and only a small chance of actual execution is a system built on false promises for everyone, and indeed one that seems to verge on torture." (Click image to enlarge)

Ohio Officials Say Death Penalty System Has Serious Flaws

Legislators in Ohio are seeking to enact death penalty reforms as the state grapples with problems in the application of capital punishment. Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican, and Sen. Sandra Williams, a Democrat, are working on four bills to address some of the reforms recommended by the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force last year. The bills would prevent the execution of defendants with serious mental impairments, establish a fund for indigent defense, require certification of crime labs and coroners, and prohibit convictions where the only evidence is testimony from a jailhouse informant. Since 2003, Ohio has removed 20 inmates from death row through exonerations, clemency, or sentence reductions because of intellectual disabilities. An additional 5 men who had once been on death row, but had their sentences reduced when capital punishment was struck down in the 1970s, were also exonerated and released. Ohio's executions are currently on hold until at least 2016 because of problems with lethal injection. In recent years, several Ohio officials who once supported capital punishment have spoken out against it. Among them is Paul Pfeifer (pictured), a senior justice on the Ohio Supreme Court and the legislative sponsor of the bill to reinstate Ohio's death penalty in 1981, who now says, "I really think it’s time to shake it up and have life in prison without the possibility of parole, to have that be the ultimate penalty available to juries. It is more of a death lottery instead of something that is evenly applied across the state. The correct thing to do is take it off the books."

Key Witness In Cameron Willingham Trial May Have Testified In Exchange for Reduced Sentence

A previously undisclosed letter written by jailhouse informant Johnny E. Webb, a crucial witness in the trial of Cameron Willingham (pictured) in Texas, indicates that Webb's sentence may have been reduced in exchange for his testimony that Willingham had confessed to intentionally starting a house fire that killed his three daughters.  The defense had never been informed of the existence of any deal between Webb and prosecutors in the case. Willingham was executed in 2004, but he consistently maintained his innocence, and forensic evidence of arson in the case was later discredited. Webb testified that Willingham had confessed to him while they were held in the same jail, but later recanted that testimony. Prosecutor John Jackson is now under investigation by the Texas State Bar for his handling of the Willingham case and the alleged deal with Webb. Webb's 1996 letter to Jackson said, “Recently, as I was going over my case notes, I noticed that you had told me that the charge of aggravated robbery would be dropped, or lowered, to robbery. . . . You told me this would be done before my transfer to TDC [Texas Department of Corrections].” He added that if Jackson did not take care of the change, Webb might file a court motion, possibly making their deal public. In a recent interview, Webb told The Marshall Project, “I did not want to see Willingham go to death row and die for something I damn well knew was a lie and something I didn’t initiate. I lied on the man because I was being forced by John Jackson to do so. I succumbed to pressure when I shouldn’t have. In the end, I was told, ‘You’re either going to get a life sentence or you’re going to testify.’ He coerced me to do it.”

Growing Number of Pharmaceutical Companies Object to Use of Drugs in Executions

On March 4, Akorn Pharmaceuticals, a manufacturer of two drugs (midazolam and pentobarbital) that have been used in executions, released a statement announcing measures to block the sale of its products to prisons. Akorn joins at least two other U.S.-based drug companies and several European companies in expressing opposition to the use of their products in lethal injections. In 2014, Par Pharmaceuticals responded to Indiana's proposed use of one of their anesthetics by prohibiting the sale of the drug to prisons. Stephen Mock, a spokesman for Par, said, “It’s not because we take public policy positions on issues like capital punishment. We’re a pharmaceutical company, and we have a mission statement. Par’s mission is to help improve the quality of life. Indiana’s proposed use of our product is contrary to our mission.” Akorn's statement announcing their new restrictions said, “The employees of Akorn are committed to furthering human health and wellness. In the interest of promoting these values, Akorn strongly objects to the use of its products to conduct or support capital punishment through lethal injection or other means.”

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