Arbitrariness

INNOCENCE: Former Death Row Inmate to be Exonerated in Ohio After 39 Years

Former death row inmate Ricky Jackson will be formally exonerated on November 21 in Ohio, after spending 39 years in prison. A judge in Cleveland will dismiss all charges against Jackson, with the prosecution in agreement. Jackson is one of three men convicted of the 1975 murder of Harold Franks. The other two defendants, Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, were also sentenced to death and have filed a petition for a new trial, but that petition has not yet been resolved. Jackson's death sentence was vacated earlier, and the Bridgeman brothers' sentences were overturned when Ohio's death penalty was found unconstitutional in 1978. The men were convicted on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted his testimony, and who now has said he did not witness the crime at all. Several people confirmed the boy was on a school bus at the time of the crime. No other evidence linked the men to the murder. A gun and car seen at the crime scene were linked to a man who was arrested in 1978 for another murder, but he was never charged in Franks' murder. In dropping the charges against Jackson, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said, "The state is conceding the obvious." Ricky Jackson will be the 148th person exonerated from death row in the U.S. since 1973, the fifth in 2014, and the seventh in Ohio since 1973.

EDITORIALS: Maryland Governor Should Commute Remaining Death Sentences

In a recent editorial, the Washington Post urged Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley to commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row, saying, "To carry out executions post-repeal would be both cruel, because the legislation underpinning the sentence has been scrapped, and unusual, because doing so would be historically unprecedented." Maryland is one of three states that have repealed the death penalty prospectively but still have inmates on death row. The others are Connecticut and New Mexico. O'Malley, who is leaving office in January, was a supporter of repeal. Maryland Attorney Douglas Gansler, who opposed repeal, recently said that carrying out an execution in Maryland is, "illegal and factually impossible." The editorial concluded, "In signing the abolition of capital punishment into law last year, [O'Malley] was unequivocal: 'It’s wasteful. It’s ineffective. It doesn’t work to reduce violent crime.' Having made the moral case for abolition so eloquently, he should have no trouble making the practical case for commutation to life without parole for the four remaining condemned men. And he should act without further delay." Read the editorial below.

STUDIES: Death Row Inmates Pay the Price for Lawyers' Mistakes

In Part Two of its investigation into the federal review of state death penalty cases, Death by Deadline, The Marshall Project found that in almost every case where lawyers missed crtiical filing deadlines for federal appeals, the only person sanctioned was the death row prisoner. Often the inmate's entire federal review was forfeited. The report highlighted the disparity between the 17 federal judicial districts where government-funded attorneys carefully monitor capital cases to ensure deadlines are met, and the other 77 districts, where appeals lawyers are appointed by judges and receive little oversight. In Florida, which produced 37 of the 80 missed deadline cases, appeals lawyers are selected from a state registry that includes lawyers who have previously missed deadlines in several capital cases. U.S. District Court judge Timothy Corrigan chastised one attorney who filed after the cutoff in three separate cases, saying, "I would be remiss if I did not share my deep concern that in these cases our federal system of justice fell short in the very situation where the stakes could not be higher.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently commented on the strict deadlines in capital cases, saying, “When you’re talking about the state taking someone’s life, there has to be a great deal of flexibility within the system to deal with things like deadlines. If you rely on process to deny what could be a substantive claim, I worry about where that will lead us.”

STUDIES: Lawyers for Death Row Inmates Missed Critical Filing Deadlines in 80 Cases

An investigation by The Marshall Project showed that since Congress put strict time restrictions on federal appeals in 1996, lawyers for death row inmates missed the deadline at least 80 times, including 16 in which the prisoners have since been executed. The most recent of such cases occurred on Nov. 13, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida with no review in federal court. This final part of a death penalty appeal, also called habeas corpus, has been a lifesaver for inmates whose cases were marked with mistakes ignored by state courts. The Project's report, Death by Deadline, noted, "Some of the lawyers' mistakes can be traced to their misunderstandings of federal habeas law and the notoriously complex procedures that have grown up around it. Just as often, though, the errors have exposed the lack of care and resources that have long plagued the patchwork system by which indigent death-row prisoners are provided with legal help." One Alabama lawyer who missed the deadline was addicted to methamphetamine and was on probation for public intoxication. An attorney in Texas who filed too late had been reprimanded for misconduct, while another Texas lawyer had been put on probation twice by the state bar. Two weeks after being appointed in the death penalty case, he was put on probation again.

COSTS: Washington State Is Spending Tens of Millions on Death Penalty

Three capital cases in one county have already cost Washington almost $10 million, and have barely begun. For the trial of Christopher Monfort, King County has already spent over $4 million, and it is still in the jury selection phase. Two other capital cases in the county have cost a combined $4.9 million, and the trials have not started. The capital case of serial killer Gary Ridgway, which is believed to be the most expensive case in Washington's history, cost about $12 million and resulted in a sentence of life without parole. In February, Governor Jay Inslee instituted a moratorium on executions in Washington, highlighting both the costs and the arbitrariness of the death penalty, noting, "Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred." Defense attorney Mark Larrañaga said, "It is a complete waste of resources and time. We've had five executions in 40 years. Seventy-five to 80 percent of these cases are reversed."

NEW VOICES: Federal Judge Underscores the "Heavy Price" of the Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who presided over the first federal death penalty trial in Massachusetts in over 50 years, warned that the death penalty comes with a "heavy price" - the risk of executing innocent people: "A legal regime permitting capital punishment comes with a fairly heavy price....where there’s a death penalty innocent people will die. Sooner or later—we hope not too often—someone who didn’t commit the crime will be executed." In 2001, Judge Ponsor oversaw the capital trial of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who was charged with killing some of her patients. Gilbert was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. The judge said the trial made him question the whole process of death sentencing: "The most profound realization I took from Gilbert was that human beings getting together to decide whether someone should be executed, even when they are supervised by a judge, will make mistakes."

Texas Court Orders New Trial Because of Withheld Evidence

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, vacated the conviction and death sentence of Alfred Brown, who has been on death row for murder since 2005. Brown has maintained his innocence and has said that a landline phone call he made from his girlfriend's apartment the morning of the murder would prove it. At his trial, Brown's attorneys presented no evidence of his alibi, and his girlfriend changed her testimony after she was threatened with prosecution. In 2013, a homicide detective found a box of records in his garage containing phone records that indicated Brown made a call exactly when he claimed. The file was never shared with Brown's defense team at his original trial. District Attorney Devon Anderson said, "As a result of this review, our office agreed that Mr. Brown should receive relief in his case so that justice could be served. Following our office's agreement that relief should be granted, today the Court of Criminal Appeals sent Mr. Brown's case back to the trial court for a new trial." Anderson said she will now review the case to determine whether to retry Brown or drop the charges.

STUDIES: The Effects of Judge vs. Jury Sentencing

Judge
(Click left image to enlarge). A new study by researchers at Cornell University examined the effects of Delaware's decision to transfer capital sentencing authority from the jury to the judge at trial. The study used data from capital cases between 1977 and 2007, during which time Delaware made the shift to judge sentencing--one of very few states to employ that procedure. According to the study, "Judges were significantly more likely to give a defendant the death sentence than were juries." During the era when Delaware relied on juries for sentencing, about 20% of capital cases resulted in death sentences. In the era when it relied solely on judges, 53% of the cases were given death sentences. Today, the state has a hybrid model in which a jury must unanimously find the existence of at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt to make a case death eligible. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation to the judge, which is given appropriate consideration.

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