Caddo Parish Elects First Black District Attorney As Spotlight Shines on Death Penalty and Jury Selection Controversies

Caddo Parish, Louisiana, known nationally for its aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, has elected its first black District Attorney. In a November 21 runoff election conducted against the backdrop of controversial remarks about the death penalty by the current DA and a threatened civil rights lawsuit over systemic racial discrimination by Caddo Parish prosecutors in jury selection, former judge James E. Stewart, Sr. defeated current Caddo Parish prosecutor Dhu Thompson, 55% to 45%. Ten days before the election, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center announced that it intends to sue Caddo Parish over the District Attorney's office's practice of striking black citizens from juries at three times the rate of other jurors. James Craig, co-director of the New Orleans-based non-profit law center, called the racially-biased jury strikes "a blight on our criminal justice system." A recent study by the human rights group Reprieve Australia had revealed that Caddo prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors but only 15% of other jurors. (Click image to enlarge.) The study showed that Thompson's exercise of juror challenges was even more racially disproportionate, striking more than half of all prospective black jurors but fewer than 1 in 6 of all other jurors. Craig said that the announcement of the suit was not intended to influence the election: "This is not a problem of one person. This is a culture that needs to be acknowledged and changed...In the absence of concrete, specific changes in the office’s culture and approach to jury selection, this practice will continue under the administration of either of the two final candidates for district attorney. For this reason, no matter who prevails in the special election this month, the MacArthur Justice Center will proceed with the federal civil rights lawsuit that we are preparing to file." The suit is seeking an injunction to block practices that result in under-representation of blacks on juries. In his election-night victory remarks, Stewart pledged "to bring professionalism and ethics back to the district attorney’s office." 

5 Georgia Executions Emblematic of Systemic Problems With State's Death Penalty

Georgia is scheduled to execute Marcus Johnson (pictured) on November 19 despite ongoing concerns about his innocence. The execution would be Georgia's fifth since December 2014 - each raising serious questions about systemic problems in Georgia's application of the death penalty. In a commentary for The Marshall Project, Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, says these cases "are emblematic" of death sentences imposed before Georgia's statewide capital defense office opened in 2005 and "encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia." In December 2014, Georgia executed Robert Wayne Holsey, whose drunk lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence that Holsey had an IQ of 70 and had been seriously abused as a child. The lawyer was later imprisoned and disbarred for misconduct in another case. Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran with bi-polar disorder who was declared 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration as a result of combat-related PTSD, was executed in January, the first U.S. execution in 2015. The jury was never heard details of Brannan's military service or disability. Two weeks later, Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man with intellectual disabilities. A judge found that Hill had proven his disability by a "preponderance of the evidence," the standard of proof required by every other death penalty state, but Georgia requires defendants to prove intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Even after the state's doctors admitted that Hill met this higher standard, the state and federal courts refused to consider this evidence on technical procedural grounds and Hill was executed. Kelly Gissendaner's execution in September hghlighted a different type of arbitrariness: she was executed for planning to murder her husband, while her boyfriend, who actually committed the killing, made a deal with prosecutors to serve a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in seven years. Finally, Marcus Johnson's case raises concerns that Georgia may be executing an innocent man. The DNA evidence from the murder scene that was tested was inconclusive, other blood evidence was not tested, and none of Johnson's DNA was found on or in the car where the victim's body was found. The trial judge wrote to the Georgia Supreme Court that the evidence in Johnson's case "does not foreclose all doubt respecting the defendant’s guilt."

Texas Inmate Faces Execution After Appeals Lawyers Abandon His Case

Raphael Holiday (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Texas on November 18 after appeals lawyers who were appointed to his case unilaterally decided not to seek clemency or pursue additional appeals and then opposed Holiday's efforts to replace them with lawyers who would. James "Wes" Volberding and Seth Kretzer say that they were unable to find new evidence on which to base any appeal and that seeking clemency from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would give Holiday "false hope" and is pointless. When another attorney, Gretchen Sween, stepped in to help Holiday find new counsel, his current attorneys opposed her efforts to replace them. They then filed a clemency petition prepared so hastily that it twice gives the wrong execution date. The lawyers say they were exercising professional discretion in abandoning efforts to spare Holiday's life, but death penalty experts assert that counsel are required to pursue all available avenues to stop a client's execution. Stephen Bright, a Yale law professor and president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said that in decades of practice in capital cases he has never seen appointed lawyers fight so vigorously to prevent their client from retaining new counsel. "This seems unconscionable," he said. "Lawyers are often in a position of representing people for whom the legal issues are not particularly strong, but nevertheless they have a duty to make every legal argument they can." Jim Marcus, a University of Texas law professor and veteran death penalty lawyer, agreed that Holiday's attorneys are legally required to continue pursuing appeals: "There’s a difference between saying that’s not a viable strategy or viable claim and abandoning an entire proceeding altogether. The latter is not really permissible ...."

Forensic Pseudoscience and the Death Penalty

In light of the FBI's acknowledgement in April that flawed forensic testimony by its expert hair-comparison analysts had tainted at least 268 cases, including 32 death penalty cases, forensic science is coming under increased scrutiny. A commentary in the Boston Review argues that "mounting horror stories," including instances of crime-lab "corruption and dysfunction, have created a moment of crisis in forensic science." Referencing "scores of individual cases in which forensic science failures have led to wrongful convictions" and highlighting the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas based upon scientifically invalid arson testimony, the commentary questions the continued high degree of confidence accorded forensic science testimony in the courts. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) sharply critiqued many of the techniques used by forensic examiners, saying, "Many forensic tests—such as those used to infer the source of tool marks or bite marks—have never been exposed to stringent scientific scrutiny." Even widely-accepted practices like fingerprint matching had no mechanism for independent confirmation, relying entirely on the examiner's opinion. Ultimately, the NAS report concluded, "With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis . . . no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source." Yet even DNA evidence can be tainted by faulty practices or intentional malfeasance. Close affiliations between forensic laboratories and police or prosecutors raise concerns of bias. As former FBI investigator Frederic Whitehurst put it, forensic scientists can "run into a sledgehammer" when their findings contradict the theory that prosecutors are trying to advance.

Appeals Court Overturns Challenge to California Death Penalty on Procedural Grounds

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has overturned a California federal district court decision that had declared California's death penalty unconstitutional, saying that the issue presented "a novel constitutional rule" that was beyond the power of the federal courts to address in a habeas corpus proceeding. The appeals court did not address the constitutionality of California's death penalty, saying that because of technical procedural rules "we may not assess the substantive validity of [this] claim." U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney had ruled in 2014 in the case of Ernest D. Jones that the lengthy delays and arbitrariness in California's death penalty system rendered it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Judge Susan P. Graber (pictured), who wrote the 9th Circuit's decision, said, "Many agree with petitioner that California’s capital punishment system is dysfunctional and that the delay between sentencing and execution in California is extraordinary." However, she said "the purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state convictions comply with the federal law in existence at the time the conviction became final, and not to provide a mechanism for the continuing re-examination of final judgments based upon later emerging legal doctrine." California has the largest death row in the nation, but has carried out only 13 executions since 1978, and none since 2006. Jones has been on California's death row since 1995. The appeals court decision sends the case back to the district court to address other challenges to the constitutionality of Jones' conviction and death sentence that Judge Carney did not decide when he declared California's death penalty unconstitutional. 

DPIC Releases New Report, "Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty"

On November 10, on the eve of Veterans' Day, the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty. The report examines the plight of U.S. military veterans who have been sentenced to death, estimating that about 300 veterans are currently on death row. Many of these veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental disabilities caused or exacerbated by their time in combat. Often when these veterans were on trial facing the death penalty, their military service and related illnesses were barely presented to the jury. The first person executed in 2015, Andrew Brannan, was a decorated Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who had been granted 100% disability by the Veterans Administration. His combat trauma was largely unexplored at trial, and the Georgia Pardons Board denied him clemency. DPIC's press release noted: "As the country prepares to honor its military veterans on November 11, it may be a sobering and surprising revelation that many veterans have been adjudged as 'the worst of the worst,' condemned to death, and executed by the government they once served." The report urges more attention be paid to veterans facing execution: "Early intervention, peer assistance from veterans, and involvement of veteran officials with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges could all be instrumental in steering a case away from the death penalty," the report states.

History of Misconduct Chronicled in Oklahoma County With 41 Executions

Oklahoma County has executed 41 prisoners since 1976, the third highest in the country, and is among the 2% of American counties responsible for 56% of the men and women currently on the nation's death rows. A ThinkProgress report chronicles the decades-long pattern of misconduct committed under its long-time District Attorney "Cowboy Bob" Macy (pictured). Macy sent 54 people to death row during his 21 years as District Attorney, more than any other prosecutor in the U.S. in that period. “Macy would pretty much do whatever it took to win,” including making inflammatory arguments and routinely withholding exculpatory evidence, says David Autry, an Oklahoma County public defender from the Macy era. 23 of the Macy capital convictions relied heavily on the testimony of disgraced police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, whom an FBI investigation in 2001 concluded had offered testimony "that went beyond the acceptable limits of science.” An internal police investigation discovered that evidence in many of Gilchrist's major cases was missing, along with three years of her blood analysis files. In the case of Curtis McCarty, one of three death-row exonerees prosecuted under Macy, Gilchrist falsely testified that hairs found at the crime scene matched McCarty's and that his blood type matched the semen found on the victim's body. A later investigation revealed that Gilchrist had altered her notes to implicate McCarty and that the hairs she had tested were missing. McCarty was exonerated in 2007 after independent DNA testing excluded him as a suspect. Almost half of the 23 people who were sentenced to death in trials where Gilchrist testified were executed before their cases could be reviewed and ThinkProgress reports that as many as 38 of those Macy sent to death row have been executed.

Deadliest Prosecutors, Worst Defense Lawyers Linked to High Rates of Death Sentences in Heavy-Use Counties

Prisoners sentenced to death in the small number of U.S. counties that most aggressively pursue the death penalty often suffer the "double whammy" of getting "both the deadliest prosecutors in America and some of the country’s worst capital defense lawyers," according to an article in Slate by Robert L. Smith. In reviewing the the unusally high numbers of death verdicts from 3 counties that are near the top of the nation in disproportionately producing death sentences over the last 5 years, Smith found not only high rates of seeking death but a pattern of inadequate capital defense representation. In Maricopa County, Arizona, the nation's second highest producer of death sentences since 2010, two capital trial lawyers had, between them, represented 10 clients who were sentenced to death. Serious concerns about the quality of representation were also present in the two counties with the nation's highest level of death sentences per capita since 2010, Duval County, Florida, and Caddo Parish, Louisiana. 75% of defendants sentenced to death in Caddo Parish since 2005 were represented at trial by lawyers who would be found unqualified to try capital cases under capital defense standards recently put in place in the state. One Caddo Parish lawyer, Daryl Gold, was trial counsel for nearly 20% of the people sent to death row in Louisiana from 2005 to 2014. He has been suspended from practicing law three times and received 14 private reprimands, and was permitted to continue representing poor defendants in capital cases even though he was barred from taking on private clients. In Duval County, a newly elected public defender fired respected senior capital litigators and installed as deputy chief and head of homicide defense a lawyer, Refik Eler, who has at least 8 former clients on death row - the most of any lawyer in Florida. Eler has already been found ineffective by the Florida Supreme Court in three capital cases for failing to investigate both guilt and penalty issues.