New Voices

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Dallas County, Texas Imposing Fewer Death Sentences After Years of Discrimination

With 55 executions since the 1970s, Dallas County, Texas, ranks second among all U.S. counties -- behind only Harris County (Houston), Texas -- in the number of prisoners it has put to death. It is also among the 2% of counties that account for more than half of all prisoners on death row across the country, and produced seven new death sentences and one resentence between 2010 and 2015, more than 99.5% of all U.S. counties during that period. Dallas County has a long history of prosecutorial misconduct and racial discrimination, evidenced most tellingly in its biased jury selection practices. Long-time Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, whose tenure in office spanned the years 1951 to 1987, once told an assistant prosecutor, “If you ever put another n****r on a jury, you’re fired.” An office manual first written in 1963 instructed Dallas County prosecutors not to “take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated.” In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court took notice of what Justice Anthony Kennedy described as a "culture of discrimination" that was “suffused with bias against African-Americans," and overturned the capital murder conviction of Thomas Joe Miller-El because prosecutors removed 10 of the 11 Black potential jurors on the basis of race. 51 people have been exonerated of serious crimes in Dallas County since 1989, including Randall Dale Adams, who had been sentenced to death after witnesses for the prosecution committed perjury at his trial. Dallas has shown signs of change in recent years. No new death sentences have been imposed since 2013. That year, District Attorney Craig Watkins said he would advocate for the Texas legislature to pass a Racial Justice Act, permitting death row prisoners to challenge their sentences based upon statistical evidence of racial discrimination. Former Assistant District Attorney James Fry said in 2009 that concerns about innocence had changed his views on the death penalty: "For years I supported capital punishment, but I have come to believe that our criminal justice system is incapable of adequately distinguishing between the innocent and guilty. It is reprehensible and immoral to gamble with life and death."

NEW VOICES: Special Olympics Chair Urges Supreme Court to Strike Down Texas' 'Horrific' Criteria for Determining Intellectual Disability

Timothy Shriver (pictured), the Chairman of the Special Olympics, has called on the U.S. Supreme Court to end Texas' "use of stigmatizing stereotypes" in determining whether a defendant has Intellectual Disability and is therefore ineligible for execution. On November 29, the Court will hear argument in Moore v. Texas, a case challenging Texas' use of the “Briseño factors”—a set of unscientific criteria based in part on the fictional character of Lennie Smalls from the novel "Of Mice and Men"—to determine whether capitally charged prisoners have significant impairments in adaptive functioning that could qualify them for an Intellectual Disability diagnosis. In a column in TIME magazine, Shriver called Texas' method of adjudicating Intellectual Disability "horrific." He wrote, "[t]he inaccurate Texas standard reinforces one of the most damaging stereotypes about people with intellectual disability—that they can’t be 'good' at anything." In Moore's case, the judge relied on the fact that Moore was able to play pool and earned money mowing lawns as evidence that he did not really have an intellectual disability. Shriver applauded the Supreme Court's 2002 decision, Atkins v. Virginia, which barred the death penalty for defendants with Intellectual Disability. His article highlights some of the reasons people with Intellectual Disability should be exempt from execution: "people with intellectual disabilities have abilities but also challenges: they are less able to advocate for themselves; more likely to be coerced into behaviors they don’t understand; less likely to understand the implications of their actions and at higher risk for unreliable trials and wrongful convictions." Shriver encouraged the Court to bolster that protection by ending Texas' practices, which he said contravene established medical and clinical criteria: "It’s time for the Supreme Court to remind our nation that the Constitution and the vision of rights it embodies have no place for ill-informed and deadly stigmas."

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Alabama's Leading Death Sentencing County Elects Prosecutors Who Oppose Capital Punishment

Jefferson County, Alabama is among both the 2% of counties that account for more than half of all executions in the U.S. and are responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death row across the country. It led the state in new death sentences from 2010-2015, putting more people on death row than 99.5% of U.S. counties. All five of the defendants sentenced to death in those cases were Black. But the county may soon see a decline in death sentences as voters appear to have ousted the county's two elected district attorneys in favor of prosecutors who say they are "personally opposed" to the death penalty and plan to use it rarely. Charles Todd Henderson was elected as district attorney of Jefferson's Birmingham division, and Lynneice Washington leads a tight race in the Bessemer division, where votes will be recounted on November 21. Henderson has criticized Alabama's judicial override policy, which allows judges to impose a death sentence even when a jury recommends life, saying "We serve at the will of the people .... We should honor what the people say." Alabama is the only state to permit such overrides and Jefferson County judges overrode jury's recommendations for life in 44% of the 18 death penalty cases from the county that were decided on direct appeal between 2006-2015. All 18 cases involved a non-unanimous jury, an outlier practice that was struck down by state courts in Delaware and Florida this year, leaving Alabama as the last state to allow it, and in every one of those cases, defense lawyers presented less than one day’s worth of mitigation evidence. Henderson also said he supports reviewing current Jefferson County death penalty cases for possible wrongful convictions, citing the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, who was released in 2015 after spending 30 years on death row. Hinton's trial was tainted by racial bias, inadequate representation, and junk science. Washington echoed Henderson's concerns, saying, "I am personally opposed to the death penalty because there have been so many people who were put on death row who were later found to be innocent." In addition to Hinton, two other wrongfully convicted death row prisoners from Jefferson County also have been released. Wesley Quick, who was just 18 years old at the time of the murder for which he was twice wrongly sentenced to death, was acquitted of all charges in his third trial in 2003. Montez Spradley was sentenced to death by a judge who overrode a 10-2 jury recommendation for life. It was later discovered that a star witnesses for the prosecution—Spradley's disgrunted ex-girlfriend—had been paid $10,000 for her testimony, and although the judge had personally approved half of that payment, neither she nor the prosecution disclosed it to the defense. Spradley entered a no-contest plea in exchange for his freedom in 2015.  

NEW VOICES: Former Reagan Attorney General and Former Manhattan Prosecutor Speak Out In Possible Innocence Case

Edwin Meese III (pictured), who served as U.S. Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, and Robert Morgenthau, the long-time district attorney of Manhattan who served as a U.S. attorney under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, believe that Alabama death row prisoner William Kuenzel is innocent and are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case. Meese and Morgenthau belong to different political parties and take opposing views on capital punishment, but both believe that Kuenzel was wrongfully convicted and condemned for the 1987 murder of a convenience store clerk and deserves a chance to present new evidence. Kuenzel was implicated in the murder after a car belonging to Harvey Venn, a boarder in Kuenzel's home, was seen near the crime scene. He was convicted after Venn admitted to having driven the car, but claimed that Kuenzel had actually shot the clerk, and a 16-year-old passenger in a car that was passing by the store testified that she had seen Venn and Kuenzel inside the store. Alabama prosecutors offered both men a deal for leniency if they agreed to plead guilty and testify against one another. Venn agreed and spent only ten years in prison, but Kuenzel maintained his innocence and rejected the deal. Since the trial, previously-withheld evidence has emerged that supports Kuenzel's innocence claim, including police notes of an initial interview with Venn in which he said another man was in the car with him, and the grand jury testimony of the passerby in which the girl said that she "couldn't really see" the faces of the men in the store. In an amicus brief, Meese calls the withholding of that evidence "the very worst kind of Brady violation, which resulted in condemning to death a defendant whose conviction was obtained in violation of the Constitution and who is very likely actually innocent." Morgenthau said of Kuenzel, "[t]here's no possible way he could have committed the murder." Meese and Morgenthau also share a concern about the quality of representation in capital cases, and are calling for automatic appellate review of the competence of defense counsel.

Death Row Exonerees Speak Out on State Death Penalty Ballot Questions

As voters get set to cast ballots on death penalty questions in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, U.S. death row exonerees from across the country have been scouring those states in an effort to inform the public of the risks of wrongful executions. On September 19, 17 of the nation's 156 death-row exonerees appeared at a California press conference advocating approval of Proposition 62, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole plus restitution, and defeat of Proposition 66, which seeks to place limits on the capital appeals process. Many, including California exoneree Shujaa Graham (pictured), Florida exoneree Juan Melendez, Arizona exonerees Ray Krone and Debra Milke, and Louisiana exoneree Damon Thibodeaux urged a no vote on Prop. 66, arguing that they would have been executed without the chance to prove their innocence if a measure like it had been effect when they were sentenced to death. A few days earlier, Illinois exoneree Randy Steidl and Ohio exoneree Kwame Ajamu spoke to the Oklahoma Republican Liberty Caucus, a group described by its chairman, Logan County Commissioner Marven Goodman, as "disenfranchised conservatives" who, as a result of their distrust of government regulation are questioning the death penalty. Steidl and Ajamu told the caucus about their wrongful capital convictions and raised concerns about the effects of limitations on judicial review under Oklahoma ballot question 776, which would bar Oklahoma courts from ruling that the imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel or unusual punishment or "contravene[d] any provision of the Oklahoma Constitution." Steidl, who was wrongfully convicted in Illinois in 1987 and exonerated in 2004, stressed the importance of appellate review in securing his exoneration: "Without the judicial review I finally got, I’d be dead today or at least be languishing in prison," he said. "I really believe that Oklahoma’s track record so far is not very pretty when you’ve got 10 people that’s been exonerated." And in Nebraska, Maryland's Kirk Bloodsworth, the first former death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA, taped an ad on behalf of Retain A Just Nebraska, the advocacy committee opposing a voter referendum that could overturn the state legislature's repeal of Nebraska's death penalty. In the ad, Bloodsworth says: "You could free a man from prison, but you cannot free him from the grave. You can not un-execute someone. ... If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal record or criminal history, it could happen to anybody in America.”

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro Says Death Penalty Unfixable, "Not Worth It Any More"

In a recent commentary in the Columbus Dispatch, former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro (pictured) criticized the state's death penalty as "a broken system that currently serves only the interest of Ohio prosecutors" and said that keeping "the death penalty is just not worth it any more." As a state legislator, Petro helped write Ohio’s current death-penalty law and he oversaw eighteen executions as Attorney General from 2003-2007. He says, at the time "[w]e thought maybe it would be a deterrent. Maybe the death penalty would provide cost savings to Ohio. What I know now is that we were wrong." Petro expressed his agreement with the conclusions in a report, “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty," released last week by Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE), which he says "details a continuing decline in executions and new death sentences in Ohio while highlighting the disparities between counties that prosecute death cases." The decline is exemplified by the fact that only one new death sentence was imposed in Ohio in 2015 -- the fourth consecutive year of decline -- and Cuyahoga and Summit counties, which are responsible for more than 25% of Ohio's death sentences, did not initiate any new death penalty cases last year. The change in death penalty practices in Cuyahoga, which through 2012 had sought death in dozens of cases a year, had nothing to do with crime rates: "there was a new prosecutor," Petro said. By contrast, Trumbull County had one of the lowest homicide rates in the state but the highest death-sentence-per-homicide rate. "It has become clear to me that what matters most is the personal predilections of a county prosecutor," Petro said. Petro also was critical of apparent legislative indifference to the flaws in Ohio's capital punishment system. Despite 13 wrongful convictions and exonerations in Ohio death penalty cases and 56 recommendations for reform made in 2014 by the Ohio Supreme Court's Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, the legislature has seen fit to consider "[o]nly a handful of the recommendations ... , and not those which would make the biggest difference." Petro concludes: "I am convinced that the death penalty is just not worth it any more, and I don’t think it can be fixed. ... If we’re going to have the death penalty, then it must not be carried out until the legislature implements the task force’s reforms intended to ensure fairness and accuracy."

National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

Calling racial bias in the administration of the death penalty "an undisputed fact," the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL), a group of 320 Hispanic legislators, has passed a resolution urging legislative action in all state and federal jurisdictions to repeal the death penalty across the United States. The legislators note that the criminal justice system subjects "Black, Latino, Native Americans, and all people of color" to more punitive treatment, including being "more likely to be sentenced to death." The resolution highlights racial inequities that occur at several key stages of capital cases. Citing studies that "white juries are more likely to sentence a Latino defendant to death," it also stresses that "racial bias extends beyond who is sentenced to death," as the mostly white prosecutors who have authority to make life and decisions in capital cases disproportionately seek death in cases involving white victims. The resolution points out that "every single one" of the ten counties with the largest death row populations in the United States "has large or majority Latino populations," magnifying the impact of capital punishment policies on the Hispanic community. NHCSL President and Pennsylvania State Representative Ángel Cruz said, "We cannot allow more government dollars to be diverted to killing people, instead of investing them in prevention, rehabilitation, and effective crime fighting measures that ensure greater safety in our communities. We therefore call on the federal government and every other jurisdiction in this country to end a senseless policy and end the death penalty now." Referencing the high cost of capital punishment, the resolution proposes alternative uses for those tax dollars: "repeal of the death penalty will free up millions of tax dollars trapped in cash-strapped state budgets that could be redirected to violence prevention, combatting implicit bias, or supporting victims of violence in Latino communities." Colorado Representative Dan Pabón, co-sponsor of the resolution, said, "This is the civil rights issue of our time.  Even if repealing the death penalty results in one innocent life being saved, it’s worth it.  Our criminal justice system should focus on 'justice.'"

NEW VOICES: Latino Evangelical Leaders Call For End to Capital Punishment

Leaders of national Latino evangelical groups are calling for an end to the death penalty, citing both religious convictions and practical concerns about the fairness of capital punishment. Reverend Gabriel Salguero (pictured), founder of the Latino Evangelical Coalition, said, “Given studies on how the death penalty is meted out, particularly for people of color, if it’s not a level playing field, we need to speak out. ... The needle has moved for Latinos and evangelicals." According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Latinos comprise a growing portion of the nation's death rows, increasing from 11% in 2000 to 13.5% in 2010, with half of the new Latino death row inmates coming from California. A 2014 study of California jurors found that white jurors were more likely to impose death sentences if defendants were Latino and poor. Another California study found that the odds that a capital defendant would be sentenced to death were were more than triple for those convicted of killing whites than for those convicted of killing blacks and more than 4 times greater than for defendants convicted of killing Latinos. "There’s been a shift, not just attributed to religion, but a heightened understanding of the death penalty and its implicit bias in the criminal justice system," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Salguero summarized the religious backing for opposition to the death penalty, saying, "The gospel teaches us that crime has a place, but God has the last word....Christ was an innocent man who was executed. If there’s a possibility that we execute one innocent person we should have pause."

Pages