DPIC News

First-Degree Murder Charges Dropped Against Two Former Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoners With Innocence Claims

On December 22, Pennsylvania prosecutors dropped first-degree murder charges against two former Pennsylvania death row prisoners who have asserted their innocence for decades. In courtrooms 100 miles apart, Tyrone Moore and James Dennis entered no-contest pleas to charges of third-degree murder, avoiding retrials on the charges that had initially sent the men to death row and paving the way for their release. A Luzerne County judge sentenced Moore to 20 years and released him from prison for time served following his no contest plea. He had already served 34 years, 22 of them on death row for a murder during the course of a robbery at a veterinary office. A federal judge had granted Moore a new trial after he presented evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, including his lawyer's failure to interview a co-defendant who testified in his own trial that Moore was not present at or involved in the robbery or killing. Before entering the plea, Moore reiterated that he is "wholeheartedly innocent" of the crime, and told the court, "I want to be home with my family." The victim's family supported the plea deal. In the second case, Dennis had spent 25 years on death row for the robbery and murder of a woman at a transportation terminal in Philadelphia. A federal judge overturned his conviction in 2013 as a result of multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including suppressing evidence pointing to an alternate suspect who was a high school classmate of the victim and other evidence supporting Dennis' alibi. The court called the conviction "a grave miscarriage of justice," saying that Dennis had been convicted and sentenced to death "for a crime in all probability he did not commit." His attorney, Karl Schwartz, told the court, "James Dennis entered a no-contest plea, not a guilty plea, because he maintains the same position that he has maintained for 25 years: that he is innocent of this crime. He and his family have made this incredibly difficult decision based on his and their strong desire to have him home and free, [in] lieu of potentially years of continuing litigation." Dennis faces parole for an unrelated robbery conviction before he can be released.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Orange County, California Plagued by Misconduct Scandals

Orange County, California imposed nine death sentences between 2010 and 2015, more than 99.8% of American counties, and ranking it among the 6 most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country during that period. Over the last four years, patterns of misconduct have been revealed in the Orange County District Attorney's Office, sheriff's office, and crime lab. In 2015, Judge Thomas Goethals disqualified District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (pictured) and the entire prosecutor's office from participating in the capital trial of Scott Dekraai because of systemic police and prosecutorial misconduct involving the deliberate and undisclosed use of prison informants to unconstitutionally elicit incriminating statements from defendants. A California appeals court, citing "[t]he magnitude of the systemic problems" in Orange County and the "cozy relationship" between local prosecutors and the sheriff's office, upheld the trial court's order. The sister of the victim in Dekraai's case asked the office to stop seeking the death penalty because the mishandling of the case had led to five years of delays. She called the death penalty a "false promise" for victims' families, yet the office continued to pursue a death sentence. Judge Goethals' ruling prompted the passage of a California law giving judges greater authority to remove prosecutors from cases in which they have committed misconduct, and to report misconduct to the state bar. It also led to a special committee report on the Orange County District Attorney's Office, which found a "failure of leadership" at the root of the misconduct, along with a "win-at-all-costs mentality." In mid-December, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was opening an investigation into the county's use of jailhouse informants. Meanwhile, a motion by the Orange County Public Defender's Office filed in September accused the county crime lab of doctoring testimony to benefit the prosecution, after a senior forensic analyst offered contradictory testimony in two separate murder trials, each supporting the prosecution's case. Recent death sentences in Orange County show patterns of bias and dispropotionality. 89% of those sentenced to death from 2010-2015 were people of color, and 44% were Black, though Blacks make up just 2% of Orange County's population. Half of the 24 cases decided on direct appeal from 2006-2015 involved defendants with serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual impairment, or who were under age 25 at the time of their crime.

United Nations Overwhelmingly Adopts Resolution Calling for Global Moratorium on the Death Penalty

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on December 20 to adopt a resolution co-sponsored by 89 countries urging a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. 117 nations voted in support of the world body's sixth resolution on the subject, equaling the record number of countries who supported a UN moratorium resolution in 2014. 40 member nations, including the United States, voted against the measure, while 31 abstained. The resolution also called upon all countries to respect international standards providing for procedural safeguards for those facing the death penalty, to comply with their obligations on consular relations, to progressively restrict their use of capital punishment, and to make available data on how and against whom they apply the death penalty. This year's vote reflected some countries' recent changes on the issue, as Guinea and Nauru, which have recently abolished the death penalty in law, joined those voting in favor. Two countries that are abolitionist in practice, but not in law, Malawi and Swaziland, also voted in favor of the resolution for the first time. Despite its status as a retentionist country, the United States has seen a decline in the use of the death penalty, with death sentences and executions both reaching historic lows this year.

REPORT: Two-Thirds of Oregon's Death Row Have Mental Impairments, History of Severe Trauma, or Were Under 21 at Offense

Most of the prisoners on Oregon's death row suffer from significant mental impairments, according a study released on December 20, 2016 by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard University. The Project's analysis of case records, media reports, and opinions of Oregon legal experts found that two-thirds of the 35 people on the state's death row "possess signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred." The report argues that these characteristics make the prisoners less culpable than the average offender. "[T]he U.S. Supreme Court has held that regardless of the severity of the crime, imposition of the death penalty upon a juvenile or an intellectually disabled person, both classes of individuals who suffer from impaired mental and emotional capacity relative to typically developed adults, would be so disproportionate as to violate his or her 'inherent dignity as a human being,'" the report says, drawing parallels between those classes and the prisoners included in the report. The study found that 9 of the 35 death row prisoners (26%) "presented evidence of significantly impaired cognitive functioning as evidenced by low IQ scores, frontal lobe damage, and fetal alcohol syndrome"; approximately one in four exhibited symptoms of mental illness, or had a confirmed mental health diagnosis; one-third suffered some form of severe childhood or emotional trauma of the sort known to affect brain development; and six (17%) were under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. In one case, an Oregon death row prisoner was granted a hearing to determine whether he is intellectually disabled after evidence showed he has a psychotic disorder, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, visible brain defects in his corpus callosum, a low IQ, and deficits in adaptive behavior that left him functioning at the level of a seven-and-a-half-year old child. His co-defendant, a childhood friend who admitted that he had exerted pressure on the first defendant to participate in the crime, was given a life sentence. The report concludes, "These findings raise a legitimate question as to whether Oregon’s capital punishment scheme is capable of limiting application of the death penalty to the most culpable offenders." Oregon currently has a moratorium on executions, and has executed just two people in 40 years.

Florida Supreme Court: More Than 200 Prisoners Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death May Get New Sentencing Hearing

More than 200 Florida death row prisoners may have their death sentences overturned, while more than 150 others who may have been unconstitutionally sentenced to death will not, as a result of two lengthy opinions issued by the Florida Supreme Court on December 22. The rulings in the cases of Asay v. State and Mosley v. State would entitle death row prisoners whose unconstitutional death sentences became "final" in or after 2002 to have their death sentences vacated in light of the decisions of the U.S. and Florida Supreme Courts in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State earlier in 2016, but would deny that relief to death row prisoners whose sentences had the same constitutional infirmity but had become final prior to 2002. In the case of Mark James Asay, the court recognized that Asay had been condemned under sentencing procedures that both it and the U.S. Supreme Court had found to be unconstitutional. It nevertheless held that he was not entitled to resentencing because he had completed the direct appeal process before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Ring v. Arizona requiring that "a jury, not a judge, [must] find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Even after the Ring decision, Florida courts continued to allow judges to find the facts necessary to sentence defendants to death; a jury would only recommend a sentence. In Asay's case, a jury recommended death by a 9-3 vote. Because his sentence was imposed in 1991 and became final before Ring, Asay was denied relief and the court lifted his stay of execution. In a second case, the Florida Supreme Court granted a new sentencing hearing to John Franklin Mosley—who was sentenced to death when the trial judge overrode the jury's 8-4 recommendation of a life sentence—because he was sentenced to death after Ring. In so holding, the court explained that "defendants who were sentenced to death based on a statute that was actually rendered unconstitutional by Ring should not be penalized for the United States Supreme Court’s delay in explicitly making this determination." The court limited its holding, however, only to those cases in which the constitutional violation was harmless. In order to be harmless, the court said "it must be clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have unanimously found all facts necessary to impose death and that death was the appropriate sentence." 

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Death Penalty Use Continue

Death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty continued their historic declines in 2016, according to DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report," released on December 21. The 30 death sentences imposed this year are the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment in the U.S.—since the Supreme Court declared all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972—and declined 39% from 2015's already 40-year low. Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the fewest executions since 1991. Both death sentences and executions were increasingly geographically isolated. Two states—Georgia and Texas—accounted for 80% of executions, and more than half of all death sentences were imposed in just three states—California, Ohio, and Texas. Election results reflected America's deep divisions about the death penalty, as voters in three states decided to retain the death penalty or add it to the state constitution, while voters in five of the highest-use death penalty counties replaced prosecutors who strongly supported the death penalty with candidates who promised reform and reductions in capital prosecutions. Courts struck down practices in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oklahoma that had contributed to disproportionately high numbers of death sentences. “America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.” See DPIC's Press Release. Watch a short video summary of the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

Federal Jury Awards Illinois Death Row Exoneree $22 Million in Damages

A federal jury awarded $22 million in damages to Nathson Fields (pictured), who was wrongfully convicted of a gang-related murder and sentenced to death in 1986. Fields was exonerated in 2009. The jury found that two Chicago police detectives violated Fields' civil rights by hiding critical evidence that suggested he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted. For many years, the Chicago police department maintained a practice of keeping secret "street files" on potential suspects. That policy was officially terminated in 1983, after exposure by a whistleblower. The secret files were hidden in a storage basement where they would not be subject to subpoena. Despite the department's claims that it was no longer keeping such files, the jury found that at the time Fields was arrested and charged, the city had a pattern and practice of keeping the secret street files in homicide investigations even though it had officially disavowed the practice. Hundreds of street files were discovered in 2011, including one relating to Fields. Fields' file contained handwritten notes on alternate suspects and lineup cards that had been withheld from his attorneys at his trial. In addition to the $22 million award for which the city of Chicago is liable, the jury also assessed a total of $40,000 in punitive damages against Sgt. David O'Callaghan and Lt. Joseph Murphy personally, which the men may be required to pay themselves. At a press conference after the ruling, Fields described the despair he had felt during his time on death row, especially as he saw other prisoners taken to their executions. "I had times that I was under so much stress I didn't think I could take any more, so this day is very humbling, and I'm so happy," he said.

Directed to Reconsider its Death Penalty Statute, Alabama Appeals Court Upholds Constitutionality of 3 Death Sentences

Directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its rulings upholding the death sentences imposed upon four Alabama defendants, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed three of the death sentences on December 16.  The state court ruled that the death sentences imposed upon Ronnie Kirksey, Corey Wimbley, and Ryan Gerald Russell do not violate the Supreme Court's January 16, 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. It has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of the death sentence imposed on Bart Johnson in the fourth case. In Hurst, the Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” In that case, the Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing law, ruling that it unconstitutionally reserved for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. In late January, three Justices noted in connection with a decision denying a stay of execution to Alabama death-row prisoner Christopher Brooks that Hurst had overruled the decisions upon which the Court had relied in previously upholding Alabama's judge-sentencing statute. The Court later vacated the Alabama court's decisions upholding the four death sentences, sending them back to the Alabama courts for reconsideration in light of the Hurst decision. In August and October, the Delaware and Florida Supreme Courts ruled that other portions of their statutes that permitted judges to override jury recommendations of a life sentence or impose death sentences after a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation violated Hurst, leaving Alabama as the only state that continues to allow either practice. In issuing its opinions, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals distinguished its law from the Florida statute the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst, saying that as part of the decision finding a defendant guilty of capital murder, Alabama juries already unanimously find facts that prove a penalty-phase aggravating circumstance and make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Without addressing the rulings of the Delaware and Florida state courts, the court of appeals upheld Alabama's provisions allowing non-unanimous juries to recommend a death sentence and permitting judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence. The state court said that the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances is not a finding of fact, so Hurst does not apply to the jury's sentencing recommendation or the sentence ultimately imposed by the judge. It also noted that in Kirksey's and Russell's cases, the sentencing juries had unanimously recommended death.

Delaware Supreme Court Decision Paves Way to Clear State's Death Row

On December 15, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. State that death-row prisoner Derrick Powell will get the benefit of its August 2016 decision in Rauf v. State declaring Delaware's death sentencing statute unconstitutional. The court directed that Powell be resentenced to life without parole, in a ruling that also paves the way for resentencing Delaware's twelve other death row prisoners to life. The court's holding is based upon a legal principle called retroactivity. When the court decided Rauf, it determined that Delaware's capital sentencing statute violated due process and the Sixth Amendment in part because it did not require that the jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt all facts legally necessary to impose a death sentence. Applying Delaware law, the court held that Rauf was a type of legal ruling that should apply to all capital cases in which juries did not make such a finding because Rauf had announced a "new watershed procedural rule for capital proceedings that contributed to the reliability of the fact-finding process." The court explained that, prior to Rauf, Delaware capital defendants had been sentenced to death using a "preponderance of the evidence standard" in which the death penalty could be imposed if the prosecution proved that aggravating circumstances justifying the death penalty even slightly outweighed mitigating factors that could justify sparing the defendant's life. That burden of proof, the court said, was materially lower than if juries were required rule out the death penalty if any juror had reasonable doubt as to whether the aggravating evidence outweighed mitigation. In Powell's case, his jury, applying the lesser preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, voted 7-to-5 that aggravating factors outweighed mitigating factors and recommended a death sentence. Under the court's ruling, Powell's death sentence was automatically converted to a sentence of life without the possiblity of "probation or parole or any other reduction."  The Delaware Attorney General's office did not appeal the court's ruling in Rauf, which was based solely on the federal constitution, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because the Powell retroactivity decision is based on Delaware state law, it does not raise federal constitutional questions and would not be subject to review by the federal courts.

NEW VOICES: Latinos Increasingly Vocal in Opposition to Death Penalty

Juan Cartagena (pictured), President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF (formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund), says there is "a growing understanding" among Latinos in Florida and across the country "that the death penalty is broken and it can't be fixed." In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, Cartagena explains the reasons for Latino opposition to the death penalty, especially in Florida, which has a large Latino population and is home to Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Duval counties. Those four counties are among the 16 counties that have imposed the most death sentences in the U.S. over the past five years and, Cartagena writes, "[t]hey all suffer from prosecutor misconduct, bad defense lawyers, wrongful convictions and racial bias. In Miami-Dade County from 2010 to 2015, every single person sentenced to death was black or Latino." Cartagena particularly emphasizes the historical opposition to the death penalty among Puerto Ricans, of whom increasing numbers have moved to Florida in recent years. "Puerto Rico abolished the death penalty in 1929. Its constitution, drafted in 1952, states that 'the death penalty shall not exist.' Opposition to capital punishment is a part of our legacy." As a result, he writes, "Puerto Ricans in Florida are paying close attention" to the serious flaws in Florida's death penalty, including allowing non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences–a practice that was struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year. All these concerns, he says, are reflected in a nationwide "shift away from the death penalty" among Latinos. In the last two years, three major Latino organizations have made strong public statements against the death penalty. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition adopted a position against the death penalty in March 2015, contributing to a change in the National Association of Evangelicals' stance later that year. In June 2016, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda called for repeal of the death penalty, and in August, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution urging repeal.

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