In a statement released on Nov. 22, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon announced a halt to all executions in the state. "I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values," he wrote. "I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor." His action halts the upcoming execution of Gary Haugen, an inmate who waived his appeals and was scheduled to die on December 6. The governor further stated he acted, "Both because of my own deep personal convictions about capital punishment and also because in practice, Oregon has an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice."
On September 26, Ohio Governor John Kasich (pictured) granted clemency to Joseph Murphy, commuting his death sentence to life without parole, citing the defendant's horrific childhood. Murphy was scheduled for execution on October 18. The Ohio Parole Board had unanimously recommended sparing Murphy's life, citing evidence from Murphy's childhood that indicated he was beaten, starved and sexually abused. The Parole Board also cited a 1992 Ohio Supreme Court decision in which late Justice Moyer said he knew of no other case in which a defendant "was as destined for disaster as was Joseph Murphy." Governor Kasich issued the following statement regarding the clemency: "Joseph Murphy’s murder of Ruth Predmore was heinous and disturbing and he deserves—and continues to receive—severe punishment. Even though as a child and adolescent Murphy suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him, it does not excuse his crime.... After examining this case in detail with counsel I agree with Chief Justice Moyer, the National Association of Mental Illness and the Parole Board’s unanimous 8-0 decision that considering Joseph Murphy’s brutally abusive upbringing and the relatively young age at which he committed this terrible crime, the death penalty is not appropriate in this case. Thus, I have commuted his sentence to life in prison with no chance for parole."
Despite being found guilty of eight murders of mostly elderly people and the prosecution seeking the death penalty, a North Carolina jury recently convicted Robert Stewart of second degree murder, thereby avoiding the possibility of a death sentence. On September 5, he was sentenced to prison for over 100 years. Stewart had gone on a shooting spree at a Carthage nursing home in 2009, apparently under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs. Although none of the jurors disclosed their rationale for opting for second-degree instead of first-degree murder, both diminished mental capacity and voluntary intoxication were offered as rationales by the Stewart's defense team. The prosecutor, Peter Strickland, said the families are “getting solace in the fact that he was sentenced to more than 131 years."
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, recently discussed the impact of violence on children, comparing its effects to problems faced by soldiers returning from war. He noted, “For every soldier returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with symptoms of depression or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], there are around 10 children in the United States who are traumatized by exposure to family violence, sexual abuse, neglect and assault, with consequences comparable to those of adult exposure to war-zone violence.” Many abused children, if not properly cared for, will exhibit behavioral and psychological problems. Dr. Bessel expressed concern that funding from such treatment might be withdrawn: "Untreated, traumatized children become failing adults who populate our jails and overwhelm our human services agencies. Cutting the development of effective treatments will produce many years of increasing costs and unquantifiable human misery."
On April 4, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the opinions of two lower federal courts that had granted a new sentencing hearing to Scott Pinholster, who is on death row in California. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had held that Pinholster's attorneys provided inadequate representation in not investigating evidence of severe brain damage. The attorneys should have pursued medical evidence that Pinholster was an epileptic who suffered blows to the head in two car accidents. He was sent to a mental institution at the age of 11. His trial lawyer, however, failed to call a mental health expert to testify about his diminished mental capacity. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, reversed, holding that the lower court did not exhibit sufficient deference to the state court, which upheld the representation Pinholster received. That deference is required by both the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and by the Court's prior decisions on counsel. The Court concluded that even if Pinholster's attorneys were inadequate, the new evidence would not have made a difference: "There is no reasonable probability that the additional evidence Pinholster presented in his state habeas proceedings would have changed the jury’s verdict."
Daniel Cook is scheduled for execution on April 5 in Arizona, despite the fact that the lead prosecutor at his 1988 capital trial has said that he would not have sought the death penalty if he had known more about Cook's traumatic background and mental illness. At trial, Cook waived his right to counsel and represented himself after learning his appointed lawyer was suffering from bipolar disorder and was drinking heavily. The judge denied Cook’s petition for a mental heath expert, and Cook presented no mitigating evidence. Since his trial, it has been revealed that Cook was subjected to severe and repeated abuse as a young child by his family. He has also been diagnosed as suffering from organic brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a statement signed in 2010, Eric Larsen, the lead prosecutor in Cook’s trial and now in private practice, revealed that he would not have sought the death penalty if he had known that Cook had suffered abuse that “mirrored the circumstances surrounding the crime.” The prosecutor also noted that the appointed lawyer was “at the low end of the competency scale for the handling of the defense of a standard felony” and “appeared neither capable nor willing to put forth the effort necessary to represent a defendant charged with a capital offense.”
A forthcoming article in the ABA Journal reveals the tragic admissions of failure by a well-known defense lawyer that led to a death sentence and potential execution of Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman (pictured) in Tennessee. Lionel Barrett, who represented Abdur'Rahman in 1987, now takes full responsibility for his lack of attention to critical details and for having his client end up on death row. Looking back on the case 24 years later, Barrett said, "It was the perfect storm. Everything I could have done wrong, I did … Abu-Ali is on death row because of me. I failed him." Barrett was widely recognized as one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Tennessee, but he was overworked and burned out, and his financial troubles compelled him to accept more cases than he could handle. A series of interoffice memos regarding Abdur'Rahman's case reveals that Barrett was not adequately prepared to try the case. He failed to file important motions that would have granted him more time and resources to prepare for the case, and by the time proceedings began, Barrett had not talked to a single eyewitness, conducted any of his own investigations or explored evidence of his client's mental illness. He also never ordered testing on key pieces of evidence, including a coat owned by the defendant that allegedly had blood stains from the victims. It later turned out that the stains were paint from Abdur'Rahman's work, and Barrett unknowingly allowed this critical piece of exculpatory evidence to become the most convincing evidence of guilt.
One death row inmate from Oregon and another from North Carolina recently had their death sentences removed because of concerns about their mental competency. In Oregon, Robert James Acremant’s sentence was reduced to life without the possibility of parole. Since 2003, prison psychiatrists have diagnosed him as mentally ill, and Acremant said he hears voices and has a transmitter in his head that allows others to control him. He still has a death sentence from a case in California. Isaac Stroud in North Carolina was removed from death row after a judge ruled his mental condition kept him from assisting with his own defense. With consent from the victim's family, District Attorney Tracey Cline agreed to a life sentence for a 1995 murder conviction and an additional 30-year sentence for kidnapping. Cline said, "It was apparent that he did suffer from a mental health condition. The [victim’s] family, after so much time, basically just wanted to be sure that Mr. Stroud was not released from prison during his lifetime.” Stroud's attorney, Marilyn Ozer, said, "Everyone looks at the system differently than they did 20 years ago, so it makes sense to go back and look at these cases." Stroud was not eligible for a sentence of life without parole at the time of his conviction.