Arbitrariness

NEW VOICES: "Life in Prison, With the Remote Possibility of Death"

Justin Wolfers, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently underscored the problems identified in a sweeping ruling holding California's death penalty unconstitutional. "Capital punishment," Wolfers said, "is not only rare, but it’s also an extraordinarily long and drawn-out process." For many offenders, "death row may actually be safer than life on the street." He compared the relatively few executions to the large number of people on death row: "A simple thought experiment makes the point: If a death sentence puts you at the back of the queue of 3,000 prisoners to be executed, and only 50 people are executed each year, then it would take you, on average, 60 years to reach the front of the line. Not surprisingly, many die of natural causes while waiting their turn." He concluded by quoting the federal judge in the California ruling that a death sentence is effectively a sentence of "life in prison, with the remote possibility of death."

NEW STATEMENTS: The Death Penalty Is Incompatible with Human Dignity

On July 19 Prof. Charles Ogletree of Harvard University Law School wrote in the Washington Post about the future of the death penalty in the U.S. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed (Hall v. Florida) that executing defendants with intellectual disabilities serves “no legitimate penological purpose,” Prof. Ogletree said this reasoning could be applied to the whole death penalty: "The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows." He cited a study published in the Hastings Law Journal that found that "the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits," such as mental illness, youthful brain development, or abuse during childhood. He concluded that when you examine capital punishment more closely, "what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible." Read the op-ed below.

Inspector General's Report Faults FBI Review of Death Penalty Cases

According to a report released on July 16 by the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to provide timely notice to many capital defendants that their cases were under review for possibly inaccurate testimony by FBI experts. Some of these defendants were executed without being informed of the misleading testimony provided by the government. The report stated: "[T]he FBI did not take sufficient steps to ensure that the capital cases were the Task Force’s top priority. We found that it took the FBI almost 5 years to identify the 64 defendants on death row whose cases involved analyses or testimony by 1 or more of the 13 examiners. The Department did not notify state authorities that convictions of capital defendants could be affected by involvement of any of the 13 criticized examiners. Therefore, state authorities had no basis to consider delaying scheduled executions." At least three defendants were executed before the FBI made it known that their cases were under review. The report recommended retesting of physical evidence for 24 defendants who were executed or died on death row.

Federal Judge in California Rules State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

In a sweeping ruling on July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney held that California's death penalty is so dysfunctional as to amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Vacating the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has been on death row for almost 20 years, Judge Carney said the punishment cannot serve the purposes of deterrence or retribution when it is administered to a tiny select few, decades after their sentencing: "Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional." Read the Court's Opinion.

LAW REVIEWS: The American Experiment with Capital Punishment

A recent law review article by Professors Carol and Jordan Steiker describes how the Supreme Court's attempt to closely regulate the death penalty has led instead to more unpredictability in its practice, especially with executions. Writing in the Southern California Law Review, the Steikers, of Harvard Law School and the University of Texas Law School respectively, note that, "[T]he shape of contemporary death penalty practice is in many respects less regular than the practice it replaced. ... Some death penalty jurisdictions execute a substantial percentage of those sentenced to death, whereas others carry out virtually no executions. Overall, we have largely replaced a lottery for death sentences with a lottery for executions, and the engine behind that change is regulation itself." As an example, the authors point to Texas and Virginia, which have been responsible for almost half (620) of the executions in the modern era. On the other hand, California and Pennsylvania, which have had more death sentences than Texas and Virginia, have carried out only 16 executions in the same time span. The Steikers conclude that the death penalty's arbitrariness may lead to its abolition: "regulation now appears to pose extraordinary problems for the continued retention of the death penalty."

Georgia Grants Clemency Just Before Execution

On July 9, just one day before he was scheduled to be executed, Tommy Lee Waldrip was granted clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Waldrip will now serve a sentence of life without parole. Although the Board did not give a reason for its decision, one of the issues raised in the case was the disproportionality of Waldrip's sentence compared to that of his co-defendants. Three men were involved in the murder that sent Waldrip to death row, but the other two were given life sentences. One of those was Waldrip's son, who was directly involved in killing the victim. He has been eligible for parole since 1998. Waldrip is the ninth death row inmate to receive clemency in Georgia since 1976, and the 275th in the nation. This is the second clemency granted in the U.S. in 2014.

Texas Bar Taking Action Against Prosecutor in Innocence Case

The State Bar of Texas has found "just cause" to pursue disciplinary action against prosecutor Charles J. Sebesta, whose conduct in the trial of Anthony Graves (pictured) resulted in a wrongful conviction and death sentence. Sebesta, the District Attorney of Burleson County, did not inform Graves' attorneys that the main witness against Graves had confessed to the crime. Graves spent over 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, before being exonerated in 2010. Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service and counsel to Graves, said, "A prosecutor’s duty is not simply to secure convictions, but to see that justice is done. Conviction of an innocent man like Mr. Graves through prosecutorial misconduct is abhorrent and undermines public trust and confidence in the Texas justice system. The way to restore that trust and confidence is to hold prosecutors like Charles Sebesta accountable when they violate their legal and ethical obligations."

After Almost 30 Years, DNA Shows State's Case "Has Collapsed"

On June 26, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the capital murder conviction of Paul Hildwin and ordered a new trial because new DNA evidence completely contradicted the state's evidence presented at trial. Hildwin was convicted of a 1985 murder and sexual assault. At trial, an FBI forensics expert wrongly claimed that bodily fluids found at the crime scene matched Hildwin and could not have come from the victim's boyfriend. However, more recent DNA testing excluded Hildwin and found that the fluids matched the boyfriend, who is incarcerated for the sexual assaults of two minors. In the decision overturning Hildwin's conviction, the Court said, "We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a significant pillar of the state’s case, as presented to the jury, has collapsed and that this same evidence actually supports the defense." Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which was involved in Hildwin's appeal, said, “As Mr. Hildwin’s thirty year quest to free his name so dramatically illustrates, there is a real danger that the recently enacted ‘timely justice act’ could result in the execution of innocent people.” 

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