Arbitrariness

North Carolina Innocence Commission Frees Another Inmate, 38 Years Late

The same Commission that freed former death row inmates Henry McCollum and Leon Brown in September exonerated another man who had been convicted of murder, Willie Womble (l.). The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission freed Womble on October 17, dismissing his 1976 first-degree murder conviction and life sentence. Womble had been convicted of acting as a lookout while another man, Joseph Perry, robbed a convenience store and killed the cashier. Both Perry and Womble received life sentences. Though Womble had always said he was innocent, he never filed a motion to challenge his conviction, perhaps because of his diminished mental capacity (a disability also present in McCollum and Brown). In 2013, Perry wrote a letter to the Innocence Commission stating that Womble was innocent. When Perry learned that his actual accomplice had died, he decided he could reveal Womble's innocence without putting the other man in prison. The Commission investigated Womble's case and found that his confession had been possibly coerced and written by a detective working on the case. Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, said, “In 2008, the legislature passed a law requiring the recording of interrogations. This is another case showing how important that is.” Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin supported Womble's exoneration, saying, “I apologized to Mr. Womble and to the family of Mr. Roy Bullock, who was the victim. I just felt it was right. The system and the state of North Carolina failed them for 39 years.” Although not sentenced to death, Womble's case shows the risks of capital punishment and the difficulty in discovering innocence.

NEW VOICES: Judge Calls Ohio Death Penalty Costs 'Astronomical'

County Judge Michael P. Donnelly, a member of Ohio's Death Penalty Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recently called the costs of capital trials "astronomical." He went on to say that a county's budget may be a factor in decisions to seek the death penalty: “[W]ith 88 different prosecutors who have complete discretion on whether to pursue it or not, and you have to draw the inference that, in some counties, it’s not pursued because it’s just not economically feasible.” For example, Summit County is facing a 15% overrun of its court indigent defense budget because of five cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty this year. The most recent capital trial cost the county $102,715, lasted nearly two months, and ended in a sentence of life without parole. Court officials said an aggravated murder case without death penalty charges typically costs $15,000 to $20,000 and lasts only two weeks. The judge added, “There’s no way you can look at the way [the death penalty is] applied in Ohio and draw the conclusion that it’s fair, or that it’s accomplishing what it purports to do — and that is, deliver the most severe punishment to the worst of the worst. It’s just not taking place.”

Pennsylvania Has 90% Reversal Rate for Death Penalty Cases Completing Appeals

On September 24, Pennsylvania reached a new milestone with the 250th death-sentence reversal since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. The state has imposed approximately 412 death sentences since reinstatement. Only three prisoners were executed, and all three waived at least part of their appeals. There have been no executions in Pennsylvania for 15 years. Over 60% of all death sentences imposed in the state have been overturned by state or federal courts; 190 prisoners remain on death row, and many of those are likely to have their cases reversed, too. If the pool of sentences is restricted to those that have completed all of their ordinary appeals, the state reversal rate has been over 90%. Michelle Tharp was the latest person to have her sentence overturned. Pennsylvania has sent seven women to death row; all but one have had their cases reversed.

ARTICLES: Excluding Blacks from Death Penalty Juries Violates Rights As Citizens

An article in the most recent issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review examines the practice of excluding African-Americans from jury service, particularly in death penalty cases in North Carolina. In Bias in the Box, Dax-Devlon Ross notes, "Alongside the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury is an enduring pillar of our democracy....Nevertheless, there is perhaps no arena of public life where racial bias has been as broadly overlooked or casually tolerated as jury exclusion." Ross traces the history of civil rights litigation that secured blacks the right to participate in juries, but he also shows the continued use of strategies to remove them from service. In particular, the repeal of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act in 2013 removed an important protection of equality in jury service. Before the act was rescinded, a special court reduced the sentences of four death row inmates because of patterns of racial bias in jury selection. In one case, a prosecutor's notes described potential jurors as "blk wino - drugs" and as living in a "blk, high drug" neighborhood. Ross quotes a number of potential black jurors who wanted to serve in North Carolina but felt they were excluded because of their race.

Georgia Judge Would Allow Execution of Intellectually Disabled Man, But Calls for Higher Court Review

A county judge in Georgia denied relief for Warren Hill, a death row inmate whose diagnosed intellectual disabilities have failed to meet the state's narrow standard for exemption from the death penalty. However, the judge encouraged the state Supreme Court to consider whether a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hall v. Florida, should require Georgia to modify its standard. Chief Judge Thomas Wilson of Butts County said, "In light of the severity of the penalty in this case, this Court hopes that, in reviewing [Mr. Hill’s] application to appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court will fully consider any potential application of Hall v. Florida to [his] case." In Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court directed Florida to broaden its interpretation of intellectual disability. Florida refused to spare an inmate whose IQ was just one point above their cutoff. Similarly, Georgia has the narrowest standard of proof for intellectual disability in the entire country, requiring defendants to prove their disability beyond a reasonable doubt. Brian Kammer, an attorney for Hill, said,"Mr. Hill should not be eligible for execution in a nation which does not execute persons with intellectual disability, and he would not be eligible for execution in any other jurisdiction in the nation."

REPRESENTATON: Death Row Inmate Received Bizarre Defense

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."

NEW VOICES: Former FBI Director Says People Were Executed Based Partly on Faulty Agency Testimony

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."

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Mississippi Inmate Challenges Bite-Mark Evidence

A new appeal filed on behalf of Mississippi death row inmate Eddie Howard, Jr. presented DNA evidence that calls into question bite-mark evidence used to convict him in 1992. At Howard's trial, Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who had testified as a forensic expert in numerous cases, said Howard's teeth matched bite marks found on the murder victim. The victim had been buried for three days and exhumed before West examined her. He said he found three bite marks that matched Howard "to a reasonable medical certainty," but presented no photographs or other evidence to support his testimony. According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people who were convicted of rape or murder based on alleged bite matches have been exonerated since 2000. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to reconsider Howard's case, saying, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” In 2010, the court granted DNA testing of the murder weapon and other items from the crime scene. That testing, which showed no link to Howard, is the basis for the new appeal.

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