Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has written a new book, Just Mercy, about his experiences defending the poor and the wrongfully convicted throughout the south. It includes the story of one of Stevenson's first cases as a young lawyer, that of Walter McMillian, who was eventually exonerated and freed from death row. McMillian, a black man, had been convicted of the murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. His trial lasted just a day and a half, prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, and the judge imposed a death sentence over the jury's recommendation for life. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the book, “Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all. Just Mercy should be read by people of conscience in every civilized country in the world to discover what happens when revenge and retribution replace justice and mercy. It is as gripping to read as any legal thriller, and what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation."
Scott Panetti is a death row inmate in Texas, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder and believes he is at the center of a struggle between God and Satan. The state has continued to insist he is competent to be executed. Panetti represented himself at his trial, appearing in court wearing a cowboy outfit and making bizarre, rambling statements. He attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ, the pope, and 200 others. He was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Panetti a rehearing on his claim of incompetence, saying that the state's definition of insanity was too restrictive. The state has maintained that because Panetti acknowledges he is being executed for the murder of his in-laws, he is sane enough to be executed. Pointing to the testimony of psychiatric experts, his lawyers have argued the state's simple cause-and-effect criterion is insufficient to establish sanity, especially considering that Panetti views his crime through a lens of delusion. They have asked the Supreme Court to again consider the case, arguing that the state's definition is still overly restrictive and ignores the complete picture presented by Panetti's history of serious mental illness.
An article in the latest edition of The Angolite, a magazine published by prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, tells the stories of the ten men who have been exonerated from death row in that state. The piece prominently features Glenn Ford, the state's most recent inmate to be freed. Ford spent 30 years on death row before being released in 2014. Among the other cases described is that of John Thompson, who was freed after it was revealed that prosecutors intentionally withheld evidence from his attorneys. A jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision, saying the prosecutor's office could not be held accountable for not training their staff based on this single violation of the law. After describing all ten cases in which the wrongfully convicted men spent a total of 120 years on death row, the article concludes, "These are symptoms of a criminal justice system in dire need of repair....These are dangers of the ultimate punishment that can never be taken back, even if down the road innocence is proven."
Phillip Cheatham was represented at his death penalty trial by a lawyer who failed to develop a readily available alibi defense and portrayed Cheatham as a possible killer. The lawyer, Ira Dennis Hawver (pictured at his disbarment hearing, left), presented Cheatham as a drug-dealing killer who would not have left a witness alive to identify him and would have taken fewer shots to kill the victims. Hawyer admitted he might not have jumped through every "American Bar Association hoop" in defending his client. He appeared at his disciplinary hearing before the Kansas Supreme Court dressed as Thomas Jefferson. In overturning Cheatham's conviction in 2013, the state Supreme Court concluded, "Hawver's representation bore a greater resemblance to a personal hobby engaged in for diversion rather than an occupation that carried with it a responsibility for zealous advocacy."
William Sessions, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently pointed to cases of defendants who were executed based in part on faulty hair and fiber analysis in calling for changes in the use of forensic evidence. In an op-ed in the Washington Times, Sessions told the story of Benjamin Boyle, who was executed in Texas in 1997. His conviction was based on testing conducted by an FBI crime lab that an official review later determined to be unreliable and "scientifically unsupportable." Neither state officials nor Boyle's attorneys were notified of the task force's findings before his execution. In two other cases, inmates were also executed despite findings that their cases were tainted by unreliable forensic testimony from the FBI. Sessions said, "I have no idea whether Boyle was innocent, but clearly, he was executed despite great doubts about his conviction. Such uncertainty is unacceptable, especially in a justice system that still allows the death penalty."
Jim Petro served as Ohio's Attorney General and presided over 18 executions. However, he abandoned his support for capital punishment after seeing the risks of wrongful executions: "Our justice system is based on the decision-making of human beings, and human beings are fallible. We make mistakes and our judgments are influenced by biases and imperfect motivations. Implementing the death penalty makes our errors permanent and impossible to remedy." Recently, he called on the Ohio legislature to adopt the reforms recommended by a Task Force appointed by the state Supreme Court, saying, "Without action the death penalty system will continue to be an expensive, unfairly applied, and risk-filled process that has no place in today's criminal justice system." He asked the legislature to require the recording of interrogations, certification of crime labs, and guidelines for prosecutors seeking the death penalty.
Twenty-one Oklahoma death row inmates, including three with upcoming execution dates, have filed suit against the state of Oklahoma challenging the state's lethal injection protocol. At a hearing in the case on September 18, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot urged the state to stay the executions, which are scheduled for November and December, saying, "It does not seem realistic to me that the steps that need to be taken can hardly be completed between now and then." The inmates have asked that the state be prevented from executing them “using the drugs and procedures employed in the attempt to execute Clayton Lockett, or similarly untried, untested and unsound drugs and procedures.” The state is currently revising its protocol, but the director of the Department of Corrections has said he will need time to train his staff on the new protocol. Patti Ghezzi, an attorney representing the death row inmates, told the judge that the inmates seek a finding that Lockett's execution violated the Eighth Amendment. “We do not want our plaintiffs to suffer the cruel and unusual punishment that Clayton Lockett suffered," Ghezzi said.
The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed an ongoing decline in the size of the death row population. The number of prisoners on death row decreased from 3,070 on January 1, 2014, to 3,054 on April 1. The new total represented a 12% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,487. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania (194). The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (72%), among states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races. Only 1.9% of death row prisoners were female.