New Voices

Justice Stevens Says Texas Executed an Innocent Man

In a discussion at the University of Florida Law School, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that recent research reveals that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man in 1989. Stevens said, "Within the last year, Jim Liebman, who's a professor at the Columbia Law School and was a former law clerk of mine, has written a book...called The Wrong Carlos...He has demonstrated, I think, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a Texas case in which they executed the wrong defendant, and that the person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished. And I think it's a sufficient argument against the death penalty...that society should not take the risk that that might happen again, because it's intolerable to think that our government, for really not very powerful reasons, runs the risk of executing innocent people." Prof. Liebman's research showed that Carlos DeLuna's case involved faulty eyewitness testimony and police failure to investigate an alternative suspect.

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Missouri Inmate New Attorneys for Federal Appeal

On January 20 the U.S. Supreme Court (7-2) granted Missouri death row inmate Mark Christeson new attorneys to assist him in pursuing his federal appeal. Christeson's appointed attorneys missed a crucial filing deadline for his federal appeal, not even meeting with him until a month after the deadline. New attorneys offered to represent Christeson, arguing that his current attorneys had a conflict of interest, since advocating for him would mean admitting their own error. The District Court and Court of Appeals both denied the request for substitution of counsel, and Christeson's execution date was set for Oct. 29, 2014. The Supreme Court granted a stay, and, in deciding the case, wrote, "[Christeson's original attorneys'] contentions here were directly and concededly contrary to their client's interest, and manifestly served their own professional and reputational interests." Fifteen former judges filed a brief in support of Christeson, saying, "[O]ur system would be broken indeed if it did not even provide him with an opportunity, assisted by conflict-free counsel, to present his case to a federal court."

NEW VOICES: Anesthesiologist Points to Risks in Upcoming Executions

As Oklahoma prepared to carry out its first execution on January 15 since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Heath of Columbia University Medical School expressed serious concerns about the drugs it will use, particularly one that paralyzes the inmate: "Oklahoma and other states ... should abandon the barbaric use of paralyzing drugs entirely." He explained that when the prisoner is given paralytic drugs, he "will die of suffocation whether they are unconscious or they are wide awake." Dr. Heath also criticized the use of midazolam, which Oklahoma plans to use again, despite the problems in multiple states with that drug in 2014. He said it is particularly ill-suited as the first lethal injection drug because it is a weaker anesthetic than barbiturates, such as pentobarbital. In an op-ed, he concluded, "Oklahoma and other states should not be executing prisoners with midazolam; they should not proceed in the absence of qualified medical practitioners; they should only use FDA-approved drugs, and they should abandon the barbaric, outmoded and unnecessary use of chemical paralysis – ....The public and the courts could then return their attention to the more important questions and debate surrounding the death penalty enterprise."

NEW VOICES: Kentucky Judge Calls for Legislation to End the Death Penalty

Speaking from the bench at a hearing in a Kentucky capital case, Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine said, "Something needs to be done legislatively in Kentucky and in every state in the U.S. I think the death penalty probably should not be a penalty, ever." Despite her personal views, Goodwine ruled that the death penalty could be sought against a man accused of participating in a murder, even though he did not shoot the victim. "As the law in Kentucky stands right now ... he's death-eligible as a conspirator in this case," Goodwine said. "That's the law as it stands right now. I, as a trial judge, have to follow that law whether I agree with it or not. If I had my druthers, there would be no death penalty in Kentucky." She added that she was frustrated with the time and expense of capital cases and the emotional toll they take on everyone involved. 

EDITORIALS: Newspapers Around the Country Echoed Themes in DPIC's Year End Report

DPIC's 2014 Year End Report was featured in numerous editorials since its release on December 18, including:

"Thirty-five people were put to death in 2014, the fewest in 20 years, according to a report last month by the Death Penalty Information Center....[W]hile the death penalty may be increasingly infrequent, it is all too often a brutal end to a brutal life....The people executed in recent years were not the 'worst of the worst' — as many death-penalty advocates like to imagine — but those who were too poor, mentally ill or disabled to avoid it."

"According to a year-end count from the Death Penalty Information Center, the country sentenced 72 people to death this year, the fewest number in 40 years, down from a high of 315 in 1996....All states should end the death penalty within their borders. The risk of executing the innocent, evidenced by the seven men who were exonerated this year, is unacceptable. The financial cost of administering death penalty systems is also too high. Either consideration overwhelms arguments about the punishment’s usefulness as a crime deterrent."

"[Last year, only 35 inmates were put to death, according to an annual study by the Death Penalty Information Center....voters are coming to realize capital punishment isn’t applied only to those truly guilty of the most heinous crimes. In fact, all too many of those sentenced to die turned out to be innocent."

"[T]he annual report about all of this from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that Missouri, Texas and Florida accounted for 80 percent of the executions in 2014....Reasonable alternatives to the death penalty exist, including, in some cases, life in prison without parole. These alternatives, which are much less expensive to operate, would prevent the execution of some people who aren’t guilty of the crimes they’re convicted of committing."

"[T]he Death Penalty Information Center says in its annual report, 35 people have been executed in the United States — down from 98 just 15 years ago....Capital punishment is not going to disappear from this country anytime soon. But the more experience Americans have with it, the less they like it."

"In 2014, U.S. executions fell to a 20-year low — and botched executions in Ohio and other states were partly responsible. ...the Death Penalty Information Center reports. ...As states continue to experiment with lethal drug cocktails, Ohioans need to know whether executions here can proceed properly. Sadly, the administration is making that practically impossible."

NEW VOICES: Former Prosecutors Call for Repeal of Kentucky's Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, three former Kentucky prosecutors advocated for repeal of the death penalty. Citing the findings of a study by the American Bar Association on Kentucky's law, Joseph P. Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider said, "[T]he death penalty is broken beyond repair in Kentucky." Among the report's findings were a reversal rate of 60% in death penalty cases, a lack of standards for eyewitness identification and interrogations, and public defender caseloads that far exceed the national average, despite pay that is 31% lower than surrounding states. A poll taken around the time of the report found 62% of Kentucky voters in support of a moratorium on executions. The former prosecutors recommended repeal: "Without question, this is a difficult issue, and efforts to 'fix' the death penalty in Kentucky will be costly and time-consuming. But there is one approach that is simpler and less expensive: Abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole for convicted offenders....Replacing [the death penalty] with life without parole is the best approach for our state — removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed, saving limited tax dollars, protecting public safety and providing certainty and justice to the families of victims." Read the op-ed below.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Parents of Accused Colorado Shooter Plead for Mercy

The parents of James Holmes recently explained that their son is severely mentally ill and asked he be spared the death penalty. Holmes is accused of killing numerous people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Robert and Arlene Holmes said they were aware of the great harm their son caused, noting, "We are always praying for everyone in Aurora. We wish that July 20, 2012, never happened." They also recognized the sentiments among some that their son be executed: "We have read postings on the Internet that have likened him to a monster. He is not a monster. He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness." They hoped he would either be allowed to plead guilty and receive a life without parole sentence, or be found not guilty by reason of insanity, so "he could go to an institution that provides treatment for the mentally ill for the remainder of his life."

ARBITRARINESS: Getting a Death Sentence May Depend on the Budget of the County

Whether the death penalty will be sought in a murder may depend more on the budget of the county in which it is committed than on the severity of the crime, according to several prosecutors. A report by the Marshall Project found that the high costs of capital cases prevent some district attorneys from seeking the death penalty. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.” One capital case can bankrupt a county: “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County, Texas. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?” Prosecutors cited past cases in which counties had to drastically alter their budgets in order to pay for death penalty trials. In Jasper County, Texas, a county auditor said the budget shock of a death penalty case was as bad as a flood that destroyed roads and bridges. Seeking the death penalty in one case in Gray County, Texas, forced the county to raise taxes and suspend raises for employees. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole. When Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor Greg McPhillips decided not to seek the death penalty in a case he thought was particularly heinous, he pointed to costs as the reason: “The County Attorney’s Office wants to do their part in helping the County meet its fiscal responsibilities in this time of economic crisis not only in our County but across the nation,” he said.

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