DPIC News

Judges, Commentators Critical of Habeas Law That "Keeps People on Death Row Despite Flawed Trials"

A recent article in the The New York Times Magazine examines the effects of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which was intended to streamline and shorten capital appeals. Its title summarizes the statute as "The Law That Keeps People on Death Row Despite Flawed Trials." Emily Bazelon opens the article with the story of death-row prison Hector Ayala, who was tried before a jury from which prosecutors excluded all 7 black or Latino jurors. The federal appeals court overturned Ayala's death sentence but in turn was reversed in a 5-4 opinion by the Supreme Court, with Justice Alito saying that habeas corpus judges should intervene only in "extreme" cases. AEDPA restricts federal review of habeas corpus appeals, limiting federal judges to overturning state courts only when a state court decision is not just wrong, but "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law” or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding." The High Court's interpretation of this language, say Judges Alex Kozinski and Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in separate articles criticizing the unjust impact of the statute, has often left federal judges powerless to correct constitutional violations, even when the defendant appears to be innocent. Bazelon highlights the consequences of this judicial abstentionism on innocence cases, such as when Troy Davis was denied a new trial by the federal courts and was executed despite presenting evidence that "7 of the 9 eyewitnesses who testified against [him] at trial had recanted, and new witnesses implicated someone else." The Davis case produced a now-famous statement by Justice Scalia that habeas corpus is not available to prevent the execution of an innocent person if he was fairly convicted. A 2007 study showed that rather than hastening appeals, the average time courts spend on habeas cases has actually increased since the law went into effect. Instead, the law has become, in the words of Cornell law professor John Blume, a vehicle for “agenda-driven judicial policy-making.”

Citing High Cost of Death Penalty Appeals, California Prosecutor Agrees to Reduce Prisoner's Sentence to Life Without Parole

Citing the high cost of death penalty appeals and difficulty obtaining custody of an out-of-state prisoner, the Kern County, California District Attorney's office has agreed to reduce the 1989 death sentence imposed upon Clarence Ray (pictured) to a sentence of life without parole. Ray's lawyers had filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of his California conviction and death sentence. The parties reached agreement that Ray's death sentence would be reversed in exchange for his giving up the remainder of his appeals. Prosecutors said that fighting the petition for a reduced sentence would have cost the District Attorney's office more than $100,000. They also indicated that they faced substantial obstacles in obtaining custody of Ray. Ray had confessed to the California murder while in prison in Michigan, where he is serving a life sentence for a separate crime. California prosecutors said that because Ray first had to serve that sentence, he would not be turned over to California authorities until he died. They said that officials in Michigan - which has not had the death penalty since 1847 - had intimated that Michigan would not release custody of inmates to states in which they face execution. A California Superior Court judge last week approved the deal and resentenced Ray to life without possibility of parole. 

CNN Legal Analyst Calls "Sanity of the Death Penalty” Into Question

Philip Holloway, a CNN legal analyst who has been both a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, says in a recent op-ed that "it is hard not to question the rationality -- indeed the sanity" of the death penalty. Holloway says "there are several practical reasons why the death penalty just doesn't make sense any longer, if it ever really did in the first place," and outlines five reasons why he believes the United States should reconsider capital punishment. First, he says that life without parole is actually a harsher punishment than the death penalty, citing the harsh conditions of maximum-security prisons on the state and federal level. Second, Holloway points to the ongoing trial of James Holmes in Colorado as one instance of the excessive cost of the death penalty. The Holmes trial is expected to cost about $3.5 million, compared to an average of $150,000 in cases without the death penalty. Third, he notes the toll of capital cases on victims' families: "family members and loved ones of murder victims often find themselves entangled in the justice system for a very long time" because of lengthy appeals after a death sentence is handed down. His fourth point is the uneven application of the death penalty, which he says is the result of prosecutorial discretion in whether to seek a death sentence. Finally, Holloway says, "Despite safeguards, innocent people do wind up on death row." He mentions the 154 people exonerated from death row, highlighting last year's exoneration of Henry McCollum, who spent 30 years on death row before being cleared by DNA evidence. "Our criminal justice system -- and those caught up in it, including the families of victims -- would be the biggest beneficiaries should we choose to end capital punishment in the United States," he concludes. 

One Year After Botched Execution, Many States Still Haven't Resumed Executions

On July 23, 2014, Arizona's execution of Joseph Wood was botched, taking nearly two hours from the time the state began injecting him with lethal drugs until he was finally pronounced dead. Witnesses reported that Wood gasped more than 640 times during the course of the execution, and an official report later revealed that he was injected with 15 doses of the execution drugs. Michael Kiefer, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, who witnessed Wood's execution, described it, saying, "He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed." Arizona used a combination of midazolam, the drug recently reviewed by the Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross, and hyrdromorphone, a narcotic. Wood's lawyer, Dale Baich, describing the execution, said "The experiement failed." The same drug protocol had been used in Ohio's botched execution of Dennis McGuire earlier in 2014 and witnesses to an October 2014 execution by Florida using midazolam reported that the death took longer than usual. In the year since Wood's execution, Arizona has not carried out any executions as a stay issued by a federal judge remains in place. In that time, Oklahoma and Florida have used midazolam in a total of three executions, with Charles Warner in Oklahoma saying "My body is on fire." Both states temporarily put executions on hold while the Supreme Court review was underway, but indicate they intend to resume executions now that the use of midazolam has been upheld. An Oklahoma federal court has scheduled a trial for 2016 on Oklahoma's use of midazolam. All other executions since Wood's have used a one-drug protocol of pentobarbital, likely obtained from compounding pharmacies, since the primary manufacturer of the drug opposes its use in executions. Ohio delayed all executions until at least 2016 to review executions procedures, and executions in Tennessee are on hold because of legal challenges to its lethal injection protocols. Georgia is conducting an investigation into problems with execution drugs and has not set new execution dates as a result.

NEW VOICES: Ninth Circuit Judge Calls for Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform

In a recent article for the Georgetown Law Journal, Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit calls for sweeping reforms in the criminal justice system. The former Chief Judge, who was appointed by President Reagan in 1985, outlined a number of "myths" about the legal system, raising questions about the reliability of eyewitness testimony, fingerprint evidence, and even DNA evidence, which can easily be contaminated. Judge Kozinski directed his harshest critism at the limitations the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) imposes on federal habeas corpus review of state criminal cases. He pointed to the case of Ron Williamson, the death-row inmate who was the subject of the John Grisham book, The Innocent Man, who five days before his scheduled execution obtained a stay from the federal courts "that began a process culminating in Williamson’s exoneration." AEDPA, he says, "abruptly dismantled" this habeas corpus "safety-value," and has "pretty much shut out the federal courts from granting habeas relief in most cases, even when they believe that an egregious miscarriage of justice has occurred." Instead, federal courts "now regularly have to stand by in impotent silence, even though it may appear to us that an innocent person has been convicted." He calls AEDPA "a cruel, unjust and unnecessary law that effectively removes federal judges as safeguards against miscarriages of justice. It has resulted and continues to result in much human suffering. It should be repealed." Judge Kozinski also examines the roles of decision makers in criminal cases, highlighting such myths as "juries follow instructions," "prosecutors play fair," and "police are objective in their investigations." He recommends reforms to improve the accuracy and fairness of trials, including requiring "open file discovery" - meaning that all prosecution evidence related to a case is made available to the defense - and adopting more rigorous standards for eyewitness identification, suspect interrogations, and the use of jailhouse informants. He also advocates for the elimination of elected judges, noting that studies show "that judges who face elections are far more likely to override jury sentences of life without parole and impose the death penalty" and that elected judges often face political retaliation for ruling in favor of the defense or for sanctioning prosecutors for instances of misconduct.

Legal Scholar Says President Obama May Be Close to Opposing Death Penalty

According to Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard law professor who taught President Obama and the First Lady when they were law students, the President may be changing his views on capital punishment. Obama has said that he supports executions for "especially horrific" murders, but has also raised concerns about the death penalty. Ogletree said that Obama's recent focus on racial bias in the criminal justice system, as well as declining public support for the death penalty, may drive the President to oppose capital punishment. "He's not there yet, but he's close," Ogletree said. "Even if he doesn't change his mind in the next year and a half, I think the public's point of view is going to influence him." Former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd recently compared changing public views on the death penalty and same-sex marriage, saying, "Twenty years from now, people that are for the death penalty are going to be in the same place as people that are against gay marriage." In 2014, Obama commented on the death penalty after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett. "In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems -- racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty," he said. A growing body of research supports Obama's statement about racial bias. For example, a study in Philadelphia found that the odds of a jury handing down a death sentence were 29 times higher if the defendant was black, and that murder cases involving a black defendant and a white victim resulted in death sentences at 5 times the rate of cases in which the races were reversed.

STUDY: Missouri Study Finds Significant Racial and Geographic Disparities in Application of Death Penalty

A new study by Professor Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds stark racial and geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty in Missouri. A majority of Missouri's executions came from just 2.6% of the state's counties, mirroring national trends, as 2% of U.S. counties have produced 52% of all executions since 1976. St. Louis County - the home of Ferguson, Missouri - has carried out more executions than any other Missouri jurisdiction. A person convicted of homicide in that county is three times more likely to be executed than someone convicted of the same crime elsewhere in the state and is 13 times more likely to be executed than for having committed the same crime in neighboring St. Louis City. Baummgartner also found significant racial disparities, particularly relating to the race of victims. Homicides involving white victims were 7 times more likely to result in executions than those involving black victims. Although 60% of murder victims in Missouri are black, 81% of people executed in Missouri had been convicted of killing white victims. Cases involving white female victims were 14 times more likely to result in execution than those involving black male victims. "If left unaddressed, these racial, gender, and geographic disparities may erode judicial and public confidence in the state’s ability to fairly administer the ultimate punishment," Baumgartner concludes. "A punishment that is so arbitrarily and unfairly administered could reasonably be deemed unconstitutional." (Click image to enlarge.)

94.5% of Elected Prosecutors in Death Penalty States Are White

According to a study by the Women Donors Network, 95% of elected prosecutors in the U.S. are white and 79% are white men. An analysis by DPIC of the study's data further shows that, in states that have the death penalty, 94.5% of elected prosecutors are white. In 9 death penalty states (Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming), 100% of elected prosecutors are white. These numbers reveal that there has been little change from the time of a 1998 study that found that 97.5% of District Attorneys in death penalty states were white. Prosecutors wield significant power in criminal cases, making decisions about whether to accept plea deals and whether or not to seek the death penalty in capital murder cases. This discretion can be a source of racial disparities in sentencing. “What this shows us is that, in the context of a growing crisis that we all recognize in criminal justice in this country, we have a system where incredible power and discretion is concentrated in the hands of one demographic group,” said Brenda Choresi Carter of the Women Donors Network. Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said, “I think most people know that we’ve had a significant problem with lack of diversity in decision-making roles in the criminal justice system for a long time. I think what these numbers dramatize is that the reality is much worse than most people imagine and that we are making almost no progress.” (Click image to enlarge)

STUDIES: "Untrustworthy" Faces Increase Likelihood of Death Sentence

Two new studies suggest that a defendant's facial appearance predicts whether he is sentenced to life or to death, regardless of actual guilt or innocence. A study of Florida inmates published in the July 15 edition of Psychological Science finds that the perceived degree of trustworthiness of a defendant's face predicted which of the two sentences a defendant who has been convicted of murder ultimately received. A follow-up study also showed that the link between perceived untrustworthiness and the death penalty persisted even when study participants viewed innocent people who had been exonerated after having originally been sentenced to death. Researchers John Paul Wilson (pictured, l.) and Nicholas Rule (pictured, r.) of the University of Toronto showed participants photos of Florida inmates who had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced either to life without parole or death. Participants rated the trustworthiness of each face, without knowing that the person pictured had been convicted of any crime. The inmates who had been sentenced to death had faces that the raters perceived to be less trustworthy than the faces of those who had been sentenced to life. The less trustworthy a face was rated, the more likely it was that the inmate had been sentenced to death. "Here, we’ve shown that facial biases unfortunately leak into what should be the most reflective and careful decision that juries and judges can make — whether to execute someone," Wilson and Rule said. A follow-up study included the faces of individuals who had been convicted and later exonerated. Even among the exonerees, lower trustworthiness ratings correlated with higher likelihood of a death sentence. "This finding shows that these effects aren’t just due to more odious criminals advertising their malice through their faces but, rather, suggests that these really are biases that might mislead people independent of any potential kernels of truth," the authors explained.

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