In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, eight retired judges recently asked the Court to review the case of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed is scheduled to be executed in January 2015. While the judges, who served on federal and state courts in many jurisdictions around the country, did not take a stance on Reed's innocence claims, they urged the Court to hear his appeal so that new evidence in the case could be examined under the light of cross-examination in a full hearing, rather than just through the review of legal papers. "That is not how our system of justice is designed to operate," the judges said. "When courts have only affidavits without witness testimony, they lack the means of testing the accuracy, reliability, competence, scientific acumen, proper training and judgment of the [person testifying]." Reed is claiming that his trial lawyers did not adequately investigate forensic evidence that experts now say might be unreliable. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected Reed's appeal because they found the new testimony unpersuasive as presented in appellate briefs. The eight judges who petitioned the Supreme Court said the evidence should have been heard by a district judge in an evidentiary hearing, rather than by the appeals court. "Trial courts are the appropriate venue for developing a factual record and resolving questions of fact," they said. See list of judges below.
On July 19 Prof. Charles Ogletree of Harvard University Law School wrote in the Washington Post about the future of the death penalty in the U.S. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed (Hall v. Florida) that executing defendants with intellectual disabilities serves “no legitimate penological purpose,” Prof. Ogletree said this reasoning could be applied to the whole death penalty: "The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows." He cited a study published in the Hastings Law Journal that found that "the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits," such as mental illness, youthful brain development, or abuse during childhood. He concluded that when you examine capital punishment more closely, "what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible." Read the op-ed below.
According to a report released on July 16 by the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to provide timely notice to many capital defendants that their cases were under review for possibly inaccurate testimony by FBI experts. Some of these defendants were executed without being informed of the misleading testimony provided by the government. The report stated: "[T]he FBI did not take sufficient steps to ensure that the capital cases were the Task Force’s top priority. We found that it took the FBI almost 5 years to identify the 64 defendants on death row whose cases involved analyses or testimony by 1 or more of the 13 examiners. The Department did not notify state authorities that convictions of capital defendants could be affected by involvement of any of the 13 criticized examiners. Therefore, state authorities had no basis to consider delaying scheduled executions." At least three defendants were executed before the FBI made it known that their cases were under review. The report recommended retesting of physical evidence for 24 defendants who were executed or died on death row.
In a sweeping ruling on July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney held that California's death penalty is so dysfunctional as to amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Vacating the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has been on death row for almost 20 years, Judge Carney said the punishment cannot serve the purposes of deterrence or retribution when it is administered to a tiny select few, decades after their sentencing: "Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional." Read the Court's Opinion.
A recent law review article by Professors Carol and Jordan Steiker describes how the Supreme Court's attempt to closely regulate the death penalty has led instead to more unpredictability in its practice, especially with executions. Writing in the Southern California Law Review, the Steikers, of Harvard Law School and the University of Texas Law School respectively, note that, "[T]he shape of contemporary death penalty practice is in many respects less regular than the practice it replaced. ... Some death penalty jurisdictions execute a substantial percentage of those sentenced to death, whereas others carry out virtually no executions. Overall, we have largely replaced a lottery for death sentences with a lottery for executions, and the engine behind that change is regulation itself." As an example, the authors point to Texas and Virginia, which have been responsible for almost half (620) of the executions in the modern era. On the other hand, California and Pennsylvania, which have had more death sentences than Texas and Virginia, have carried out only 16 executions in the same time span. The Steikers conclude that the death penalty's arbitrariness may lead to its abolition: "regulation now appears to pose extraordinary problems for the continued retention of the death penalty."
UPDATE: Middleton was executed on July 16, after the U.S. Court of Appeals lifted his stay. On July 15, a federal judge in Missouri stayed the execution of John Middleton, less than 24 hours before it was to occur. The judge was concerned that Middleton might be mentally incompetent, and hence ineligible for execution: "Middleton has provided evidence that he has been diagnosed with a variety of mental-health disorders and has received a number of psychiatric medications over the years," Judge Catherine Perry wrote in her order staying the execution. "[Other] inmates indicate that he frequently talks to people who are not there and tells stories that could not have had any basis in reality." Middleton's attorneys have also introduced new evidence to support his claim of innocence. An expert witness who supported the prosecution's case at trial has now said the murder most likely took place when Middleton was in jail in another state. Kay Parish, an attorney for Middleton, said, "Part of the reason we don't execute people with mental deficits is that they have more difficulty navigating the system. And I think that's very true in this case, and I think that's why he had trouble in the past in getting lawyers or anyone to listen to his claim of innocence or look at this evidence."
A recent poll of 1,600 Russians found that only 52% support the death penalty, a sharp decline from 2002, when 73% said they supported it. Two years ago, 61% were in favor of capital punishment. Russia currently has a moratorium on the death penalty that was put in place in 1996 by President Yeltsin, shortly before Russia signed a relevant protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia's high court has ruled that even death sentences cannot be handed down. Hundreds of those on death row had their sentences commuted to life.
On July 9, just one day before he was scheduled to be executed, Tommy Lee Waldrip was granted clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Waldrip will now serve a sentence of life without parole. Although the Board did not give a reason for its decision, one of the issues raised in the case was the disproportionality of Waldrip's sentence compared to that of his co-defendants. Three men were involved in the murder that sent Waldrip to death row, but the other two were given life sentences. One of those was Waldrip's son, who was directly involved in killing the victim. He has been eligible for parole since 1998. Waldrip is the ninth death row inmate to receive clemency in Georgia since 1976, and the 275th in the nation. This is the second clemency granted in the U.S. in 2014.