DPIC News

POLL: Nearly Two-Thirds in Utah Prefer Life-Sentencing Alternatives to the Death Penalty

According to a new poll, nearly two-thirds of Utah residents say they prefer some form of life sentence, rather than the death penalty, as the punishment for murder, and a majority support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole. The statewide poll of 784 Utah voters conducted by Public Policy Polling on January 13-15, 2017 and released on February 9 found that Utah residents preferred life-sentence alternatives over capital punishment by a margin of 35 percentage points. 47% said they preferred life in prison without parole, plus a requirement that the convicted person work in prison to pay restitution to the victims; 9% selected life in prison without parole; 8% chose life in prison with a possibility of parole after 40 years; and 29% preferred the death penalty. The preference for alternatives held true across political party, religion, age, gender, and race. The poll also found that a majority (53%) of Utahns said they would strongly or somewhat support a bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole, a measure estimated to save the state more than $1.6 million per case. 41% of respondents opposed the bill. “The death penalty is losing favor in our state because it wastes tax dollars, is ineffective in stopping violent crime, and risks possibly killing an innocent person, and none of those things align with our conservative principles,” said said Kevin Greene, Organizing Director of Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of the Utah Justice Coalition. In 2016, a death penalty repeal bill sponsored by Republican Senator Steve Urquhart passed the Utah Senate and a House legislative committee, but was not considered by the full House before the legislative session ended.

Capital Sentencing Reform Bills Advance in Florida, Alabama

Legislative committees in Florida and Alabama have voted to advance bills that would reform capital sentencing procedures in those states that have been the subject of extensive constitutional challenges. In Florida, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee by a vote of 6-0 approved a bill that would require a jury to unanimously recommend a death sentence before the trial judge could sentence a defendant to death. The bill would bring Florida's sentencing procedure in line with a Florida Supreme Court ruling that had declared unconstitutional death sentences that were imposed after one or more jurors had recommended a life sentence. In Alabama, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to end Alabama's practice of judicial override. Alabama is currently the only state that allows judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence and impose a death sentence. Senator Dick Brewbaker (R - Montgomery), who sponsored the bill, raised concerns about political pressure on elected judges. A majority of overrides in the last 10 years happened in election years. “I’m not saying anyone has any evil intent,” Brewbaker said. “I’m not arguing about constitutionality, but there’s no way to take politics out of politics. It’s like taking the wet out of the water. It can’t be done.” According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative, judges have used their override power to impose death sentences over jury recommendations for life 101 times, but overrode jury recommendations for death and imposed life sentences just 11 times. The U.S. Supreme Court has remanded four death penalty cases to Alabama's courts for a determination of the constitutionality of the state's sentencing practices—including judicial override. The Alabama courts have upheld the practice, and in December 2016, Alabama executed Ronald Smith despite a 7-5 jury recommendation that he be sentenced to life.

Problems in Florida, Arizona Crime Labs Renew Questions About Reliability of Forensic Testimony

More than 2,600 Florida cases—including at least one capital case—may have been tainted by erroneous fingerprint analysis by a long-term employee of the Orange County Sheriff's Office, according to letters sent to defense counsel by the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office. The revelations were another in a series of events raising questions about the reliability of forensic evidence that is being used in capital prosecutions across the United States. In early February 2017, the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office contacted defense attorneys in cases that involved Marco Palacio, a 17-year employee of the county sheriff's office, to alert the defense to a pattern of “clerical errors, failure to identify prints of value and the mislabeling of print cards” by Palacio. At least one death row inmate, Bessman Okafor, is among the affected defendants. Orlando defense attorney Hal Uhrig said, “The wrong name on the wrong card, and all the sudden you get confirmation of a print that’s not there. That’s serious stuff.” The integrity of cases in Arizona was also called into question a few months earlier, after an investigation by KPNX found that Norman Wade, the lab director of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office, had a felony conviction for stealing a gun that had been entered as evidence at his previous job in Ventura County, California. The chief medical examiner was aware of Wade's conviction when Wade was hired, but the information was never presented to defense attorneys in cases in which Wade had testified. Kindra Fleming, of the Arizona Justice Project, said, “I think juries had the right to at least hear it to evaluate for themselves whether this goes to his credibility. ...Especially in these significant cases where people are now spending their lives in prison or sitting on death row." In 2015, The Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted that examiners from the agency's microscopic hair comparison unit had for decades provided flawed forensic testimony, including in at least 32 capital cases. A 2009 study, Invalid Forensic Science Testimony and Wrongful Convictions, found that flawed forensic analysis by prosecution witnesses was present in 60% of the trials of defendants who were later exonated by DNA testing.

EDITORIALS: New York Times Hails Prosecutors' Changing Views on Death Penalty

In a February 6 editorial, The New York TImes hails the reform efforts of the "new generation" of state and local prosecutors who are working to change the United States' criminal justice system, and especially the use of the death penalty. The Times highlights the comments of two newly elected local prosecutors, Beth McCann, the new prosecutor in Denver, Colorado, and Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Harris County, Texas. McCann has said her office will not seek the death penalty because she does not think "that the state should be in the business of killing people." Ogg has pledged that there will be “very few death penalty prosecutions" during her tenure as district attorney. The Times also notes the leadership of state elected officials, pointing to Washington state, where current Democratic Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, and his Republican predecessor, Rob McKenna, are jointly supporting a death penalty repeal bill. "Prosecutors aren’t just seeking fewer death sentences; they’re openly turning against the practice, even in places where it has traditionally been favored," the editorial states, citing the historically low number of death sentences in 2016. Emphasizing the influence of these state and local officials, it calls the role of prosecutor, "one of the most powerful yet least understood jobs in the justice system." Their role is especially critical as national leaders present a "distorted ... reality of crime in America" in support of a "law and order" agenda, the Times says. "In these circumstances, the best chance for continued reform lies with state and local prosecutors who are open to rethinking how they do their enormously influential jobs."

Fifty Years After Australia's Controversial Final Execution, Opposition to Death Penalty Is Strong

On February 3, Australia marked 50 years since its last execution. That execution—the hanging of Ronald Joseph Ryan on February 3, 1967 for the murder of a prison guard during an escape attempt—came at a time in which support for capital punishment in the country was already waning. The state of Victoria, where Ryan was executed, had not had an execution since 1951. Though certain crimes carried a mandatory death sentence, the state government cabinet had commuted 34 of the other 35 death sentences imposed in the intervening 16 years. The Australian High Court had overturned the one other death sentence. A man who served on Ryan's jury said none of the jurors believed he would actually be executed, and seven of them wrote to the cabinet in favor of clemency. The Melbourne Herald, a conservative-leaning newspaper, editorialized against the execution in January 1967, saying, "The state government's insistence on this final solution is causing the deepest revulsion. It is punishment in its most barbarous form. And experience has shown it gains nothing but dishonour for the community which inflicts it." Eight years later, Victoria abolished the death penalty, and every Australian state repealed it by 1985. Since that time, Australians have grown more opposed to the death penalty. According to the BBC, the most recent national poll, conducted in August 2009, found 23% of Australians support the death penalty and 64% oppose it. In 2010, the national government, in keeping with an international treaty, passed laws banning the reintroduction of capital punishment. The Australian giovenment has been active in calling for the global abolition of capital punishment. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company at the time of the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Oslo, Norway in June 2016, Australia's Special Envoy for Human Rights, Philip Ruddock, described his efforts to persuade U.S. and Chinese officials to move away from capital punishment. "I believe when your friends suggest that maybe there's time for a change, you do start to think a bit more seriously about it," he said. "I think many Americans are embarrassed that they continue to have some states that maintain capital punishment." 

At Least Seven States Introduce Legislation Banning Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness

Bills to exempt individuals with severe mental illness from facing the death penalty are expected in at least seven states in 2017. Legislators in Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia have either introduced such legislation or announced that they plan to. Six of the seven states have sponsorship from Republican legislators, indicating bipartisan support for the measures. The author of Indiana's bill, Sen. James Merritt (pictured, R-Indianapolis), says he supports the death penalty but draws a “bright line of distinction” around executing people with severe mental illness. There are some variations in the bills, but each creates a process in which a determination is made—usually by a judge—whether the defendant qualifies for the exemption. Some bills define serious mental illness by particular diagnoses, others by behavioral impairments in functioning. Qualifying diagnoses under the exemption typically included Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury. Defendants found to be suffering from severe mental illness would not be exempted from criminal responsibility, but would be subject to a maximum sentence of life without parole. Numerous mental health organizations have called for an exemption to the death penalty for individuals with severe mental illness. The measures have the support of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), and state-level coalitions of mental health advocates. In December 2016, the American Bar Association held a national summit and issued a white paper in support of a severe mental illness exemption. Several religious leaders also have spoken out in favor of the exemption. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, wrote an op-ed for The Virginian-Pilot in late January saying, "Their conditions affect many aspects of the legal process, impacting their appearance in court, the jury’s perception of ticks or socially inappropriate interactions, the defendant’s presentation of facts, and even their own admission of guilt. Indeed, studies have shown that defendants with severe mental illness are more likely to give a false confession. ...As a faith leader, I am compelled to advocate for compassionate and fair laws such as this." Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, called the bill "prudent and just."

Federal Court Stays Texas Execution After Appeal Lawyer Abandons Prisoner

Texas federal appeals court has upheld the ruling by a U.S. district court judge to stay the execution of John Henry Ramirez, who had been scheduled to be executed in Texas on February 2. The District Court had ruled that Ramirez was entitled to a stay so new lawyers could seek clemency on his behalf after Michael Gross, the lawyer initially appointed to represent Ramirez in his state and federal habeas corpus proceedings, had failed to file a clemency petition and left Ramirez "effectively without counsel" at the time of his death warrant. The court did not rule on a second issue alleged by Ramirez's new counsel, that Gross had an inherent conflict of interest in the case because he had provided ineffective representation in state court and could not be expected to litigate his own ineffectiveness as part of the federal habeas corpus proceedings. After the federal courts denied his habeas petition, Ramirez informed Gross that he wanted to replace him as counsel, and asked him not to file a clemency petition because he wanted his new attorney to do that. The district court held that "Gross had a duty to either (1) inform the Court of his client’s wishes and seek the substitution of new counsel or (2) ensure that a clemency petition was filed on his client’s behalf. Gross did neither. Gross’ inaction prevented judicial consideration of whether the circumstances required the substitution of counsel." The court also noted that Gross had previously failed to file key motions in the death penalty case of John Battaglia, requiring the courts to issue a stay of execution in December 2016 in that case. In Battaglia's case, Gross had refused to filed a state competency petition, saying that fell "outside the scope" of his representation. The Texas Attorney General's Office appealed Ramirez's stay to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, arguing that Gross's action constituted "gamesmanship," not abandonment. A three-judge panel of the court disagreed and dismissed the state's motion to vacate the stay. 

Bishops Ask Georgia Prosecutor to Respect Wishes of Murdered Priest, Drop Death Penalty

Prosecutors in Augusta, Georgia are seeking the death penalty against a man accused of murdering the Rev. Rene Robert (pictured), despite their knowledge that the Franciscan priest had requested that the death penalty not be used "under any circumstances" if he were killed. On January 31, Catholic Bishops from Georgia and Florida traveled to Augusta to meet with Hank Sims, the acting district attorney for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, asking him to respect Reverend Robert's wishes and to withdraw capital charges against Steven Murray. They also delivered a petition signed by more than 7,400 people from Rev. Robert's diocese in St. Augustine, Florida, asking that the Reverend's wishes be honored. In his work as a Catholic priest, Rev. Robert had devoted his life to serving people convicted of crimes and those struggling with addiction and mental health problems. He had worked with Murray through his ministry. Twenty years before he was killed, Rev. Robert signed a "Declaration of Life" that stated: "I hereby declare that should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime, or how much I have suffered." His declaration also requested that the Declaration of Life be admitted as evidence at trial if the prosecution sought the death penalty for his murder, and asked that the Governor “take whatever action is necessary” to prevent any person convicted of his murder from being executed. “During my life," he wrote, "I want to feel confident that under no circumstances whatsoever will my death result in the capital punishment of another human being.” At a press conference before the meeting, St. Augustine Diocese's Bishop Felipe Estevez expressed the bishops' opposition to capital punishment. "Imposing a death sentence as a consequence of killing wrongly perpetuates a cycle of violence in our community," he said. "The death penalty only contributes to an ever-growing disrespect for the sacredness of human life. … Societies remain safe when violent criminals are in prison for life without parole." The views of Rev. Robert and the bishops reflect the Catholic Church's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, which Pope Francis reiterated in an address to Congress in 2015.

Texas Sought Execution Drugs from Company Raided by India for Illegal Drug Sales

A BuzzFeed News investigation reports that Texas sought to import execution drugs from a supplier in India that the Indian Narcotics Control Bureau shut down for allegedly selling psychotropic drugs and opioids illegally to customers in the United States and Europe. A Drug Enforcement Agency report from January 2015, obtained by BuzzFeed, indicates that Texas was in contact with an Indian drug supplier, Provizer Pharma, to obtain lethal injection drugs, just weeks before Indian narcotics control agents raided Provizer Pharma for the illegal sale of generic Xanax, generic Ritalin, opiods, and other drugs. Hari Om Gandhi, a regional director with the Indian Narcotics Control Bureau, said the drugs—which Indian court documents allege were being illegally sold online—are used medically "for relieving stress ... [, but] are also used as party drugs, as it stimulates senses.” Five Provizer Pharma partners were arrested and detained for nine months for violating India’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and the company's facility was shut down after what the Narcotics Control Bureau described as "a significant sezure" of illegal drugs. The DEA investigative report states that Texas "will be importing" 500 to 1,000 grams of sodium thiopental, which it "will be importing from the following supplier: Provizer Pharma." The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has issued a statement saying that the state has never “engaged in any transaction” with Provizer Pharma. Sodium thiopental was widely used in executions before its U.S. manufacturer halted production because it objected to the use of its medicine in executions. Shortly after the deal with Provizer Pharma fell through, Texas purchased sodium thiopental from another Indian company, Harris Pharma, but the shipment was halted by the Food and Drug Administration. Texas recently filed suit against the FDA to have the drug shipment released, but the FDA is under a federal court order to block importation of sodium thiopental. 

Missouri Set to Execute Death Row Prisoner Who Was Denied Federal Review

Missouri plans to execute Mark Christeson (pictured) on January 31, without his case ever receiving substantive review in a federal court. Christeson's appellate attorneys effectively abandoned him, failing to meet with him until a month after the filing deadline in his case had already passed. They filed his federal appeal four months late. As a result, the federal court rejected it as untimely. New attorneys offered to represent him, since the attorneys who missed the filing deadline could not effectively argue his case without admitting their own error. Two federal courts rejected the substitution before the U.S. Supreme Court granted it. A federal district court then, without explanation, denied nearly all the funding requested by his new attorneys to reinvestigate the case. In 2016, a group of former judges and three of the nation's leading criminal defense organizations filed amicus briefs with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, urging the court to grant Christeson the funding necessary to prepare his case. His attorneys say that evidence of Christeson's intellectual impairments and abusive upbringing were never presented to a jury. On January 18, 2017, the Eighth Circuit ordered the federal district court to “convene promptly a limited evidentiary hearing on the question of abandonment.” U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple found that the missed filing deadline did not constitute abandonment and denied Christeson a stay of execution. The Missouri federal district courts have been notable for their failure to intervene in a string of controversial executions, including the cases of Cecil Clayton, Andre Cole, and Richard Strong, but according to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Christeson would be the first person executed in Missouri in the modern era of the death penalty to have had no federal appeals. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court denied Christeson's petition for certiorari and motion for stay of execution and he was executed on January 31.]

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