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The Writ of Habeas Corpus and the Warren Hill Case

UPDATE: Warren Hill was granted a stay of execution by a Georgia court just hours before his scheduled execution on July 15. A hearing is scheduled for July 18 to consider challenges to a new state law that shields the identity of the lethal injection drug's manufacturer and the prescribing physician from the public. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 15, 2013).

As a petition on behalf of Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill awaits consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, the role of habeas corpus in protecting defendants' fundamental rights has assumed greater importance. A recent article by Lincoln Caplan in the American Prospect explores the significance of the "Great Writ." This guarantee of constitutional protections allows federal courts to determine whether an inmate is being held in violation of the Constitution or other laws, and has been used to challenge death sentences that may have been unlawful. In 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was passed by the U.S. Congress, imposing a time limit on filing such petitions and generally allowing only one such petition. Hill's recent appeal containing clear proof of his mental retardation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was denied because the court said it was a second petition and could only be considered if it related to his innocence, rather than his death sentence. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote, “The perverse consequence of such an application of AEDPA is that a federal court must acquiesce to, even condone, a state’s insistence on carrying out the unconstitutional execution of a mentally retarded person.” Hill is scheduled to be executed on July 15 unless the Supreme Court intervenes.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Texas Inmate Gouges Out Eyes, Remains on Death Row

Texas death-row inmate Andre Thomas has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and auditory hallucinations drove him to gouge out both of his eyes. Nevertheless, prosecutors still believe he should be executed. In a revealing recent essay in Mother Jones magazine, author Marc Bookman described in vivid detail Thomas's family history of mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence going back at least two generations.  A brief excerpt from the article epitomized Thomas's delusions:  "On July 14, 2008, Andre managed to procure something sharp and slash a seven-centimeter gash in his throat, requiring eight stitches. He insisted that he was the cause of all the problems in the world, and that if he killed himself all the problems would stop. The next day, he reported that he had been reading his Bible and got confused because he wasn't sure if it was the voices or his own thoughts that were telling him to kill himself. During a psychiatric assessment one week later, he explained that 'The government is conspiring to read my mind. That's why I ripped out my right eye. That's the righteous side. They can't hear my thoughts no more. I cut my throat. Gotta shed a little blood to save the world.'" In the three weeks before he killed his wife and two children, police were asked to apprehend him and bring him to a mental hospital on two separate occasions.  After Thomas removed his second eye, he was moved to a facility for mentally ill prisoners, but the state continues to pursue his execution.

How the Death Penalty Might Be Ended in California

In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, death penalty scholar Franklin Zimring suggested that the close (52-48%) vote in November on California’s Proposition 34 to end capital punishment means the repeal effort is far from over. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote, “For decades, it has been assumed that the death penalty was the third rail of California politics …. Measured against that reputation, the narrowly divided electorate on Prop. 34 is quite a surprise." He suggested two traditional ways--other than another referendum--that capital punishment might be abolished. One way involves a finding by the courts that California's law is unconstitutional: "A federal court has been considering whether the current California laundry list of aggravating circumstances is too promiscuous to meet minimum constitutional standards. If this current grab bag is struck down, the California Legislature then would have to consider whether and how to write a new death penalty statute. After courts struck down state statutes in New York and Massachusetts, the legislatures of each state decided the best course was no death penalty." A second alternative would be for the governor to declare a moratorium on executions, followed at a later time by complete abolition. Zimring concluded, “Whatever the endgame for state execution in California, the saga of 2012's Prop. 34 will have been an important step toward an outcome that now looks inevitable on the near horizon.” Read full op-ed below.

STUDIES: Reasons Behind the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Illinois

A new report by Rob Warden (pictured), Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, explores the conditions that led to the end of Illinois's death penalty in 2011. Warden says abolition came about because of a series of fortuitous circumstances, but also because of the work of countless attorneys, academics, journalists and activists who took advantage of these developments. The cavalcade of exonerations from death row, including the high-profile release of Anthony Porter, who was freed through the work of journalism students, underscored the flaws in the death penalty. Police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct caused an erosion of public confidence in the death penalty system. Finally, the report of the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee, finding that the state could have saved $200 million if it ended the death penalty in 2000, greatly impacted the movement for repeal. Warden noted that what happened in Illinois carried over to other states and said he believes, “The future of the movement [to end the death penalty] hinges on how the arguments that carried the day in Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Connecticut resonate in the thirty-three states where death penalties remain in force but have fallen increasingly into disuse.”  The report is published in the Journal of Law and Inequality.

ARTICLES: The Tensions Between Protecting the Innocent and the Objectives of Capital Punishment

A recent article in the Justice Quarterly by Professor James Acker (pictured) and Rose Bellandi of the University at Albany, New York, examined whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between recent reforms to prevent the execution of the innocent and the traditional goals of capital punishment. The authors studied recent changes to Maryland’s death penalty statute that were designed to reduce the risk of wrongful executions while trying to maintain the death penalty for the most heinous crimes.  Maryland's law requires either biological evidence of guilt, a videotaped confession, or a video conclusively linking the defendant to a murder as a prerequisite to seeking a death sentence.  The authors concluded that such a statute will not impose the death penalty on the worst offenders, but only on those whose cases contain certain evidence of guilt:  “No one supports executing the innocent. Yet, many support executing those who are guilty of heinous crimes. How to guard against the former risk while advancing the latter objective evokes special challenges, if not paradoxes of sufficient magnitude that suggest that the twin goals defy reconciliation.”  Acker and Bellandi further add that even these protections will not be infallible, and that the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment recommended abolition of the death penalty.

RACE: Commentary on the Anniversary of McCleskey v. Kemp

In an op-ed written for the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCleskey v. Kemp, nationally acclaimed death penalty expert James Acker (pictured) called for a reassessment of how race is affecting death penalty decisions. Prof. Acker questioned the Court's refusal to find bias in the wake of the strong statistical evidence presented in that case.  He wrote, "The time has surely come for a sober reassessment of this ruling" and "we must question if justice truly has been served when racial prejudices influence capital case decisions."  Acker noted that the recent case involving the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida raises the question of "how confident [we can be] that the pernicious influence of race has been expunged from punishment by death?"  Read full commentary below.

DPIC IN THE NEWS: Media Coverage of Year End Report

Over 400 media outlets around the country reported on DPIC's recent 2011 Year-End Report.  Coverage included stories on the dramatic drop in death sentences, the decline in executions, and fewer states having the death penalty.  Articles appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Reuters, USA Today, CNN, TIME, and many other papers.  National broadcast outlets such as NBC's Nightly News, National Public Radio's Morning Editiion, and CBS Radio ran pieces, and the headline news was noted on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  Other coverage appeared on over 100 local radio and TV stations.  Among the papers writing editorials on the trends cited in the report were, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Dallas Morning News.  The L.A. Times’s editorial noted, “The Death Penalty Information Center's annual report on capital punishment in America, released Thursday, showed that executions continued to drop in 2011, to 43; that's down from 85 in 2000 and 46 last year. More significantly, the number of death sentences across the country fell dramatically this year, to 78 from 112 in 2010.  And perhaps most significant of all, the percentage of Americans who say they support the death penalty, which was 80% in 1994, fell to 61%, the lowest ever.”  The Washington Post's editorial attributed the decline in death sentences in part to the decreasing confidence in the capital punishment system, noting, “The risk of executing an innocent person must weigh heavily in the debate. There can be no denying that the criminal justice system makes mistakes… Public safety and appropriate punishment for the worst crimes can be achieved through life sentences without the danger of taking an innocent life.”  The Dallas Morning News editorial echoed the same hesitation when it comes to the death penalty, saying “The justice system will never be foolproof, and, therefore, use of the death penalty is never justified.”

OP-ED: Mario Cuomo Calls Capital Punishment Corrosive to Society

In a recent op-ed in the New York Daily News, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo called the death penalty a "serious moral problem" that is "corrosive" to a democratic citizenry. He said many of the problems of the death penalty--ineffectiveness as a deterrent, unfairness, and the risk of executing the innocent--are inevitable: "These imperfections - as well as the horrible and irreversible injustice they can produce - are inevitable. In this country, a defendant is convicted on proof beyond a reasonable doubt - not proof that can be known with absolute certainty. There's no such thing as absolute certainty in our law." He advocated for alternative punishments for murder, particularly life in prison without the possibility of parole: "There is a punishment that is much better than the death penalty: one that juries will not be reluctant to impose; one that is so menacing to a potential killer, that it could actually deter; one that does not require us to be infallible so as to avoid taking an innocent life; and one that does not require us to stoop to the level of the killers." Cuomo mentioned the execution of Troy Davis as an example of the risks posed by the uncertainties in the system.  As governor, Cuomo repeatedly vetoed legislation to restore New York's death penalty. Read full op-ed below.

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