OUTLIER COUNTIES: Former Death Penalty Capital Shows Signs of Change

Harris County, Texas, the county that leads the nation in executions, has served as a bellwether in recent years of the nationwide decline of the death penalty. Although the 10 new death sentences imposed in Harris County since 2010 are more than were imposed in 99.5% of U.S. counties, they are significantly fewer than the 53 new death sentences that were handed down in Harris in 1998-2003 and the 16 from 2004-2009. The 2016 Kinder Institute survey of Houston residents showed that just 27% prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder. Though the number of death sentences has dropped, systemic problems of prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate representation, and racial bias persist. Kelly Siegler, a prosecutor who obtained 19 death sentences, was found by a Texas court to have committed 36 instances of misconduct in a single murder case. In another case, she brought the victim's bloodstained bed into the courtroom and reenacted the murder using one of the knives from the crime scene. Harris County became nationally known in the 1990s for bad defense lawyering when a capital defense attorney slept through his client's trial. A judge told the defendant, "the Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake." Today, Harris County defendants still receive ineffective counsel because of a pay system that discourages defense lawyers from seeking plea bargains or hiring expert witnesses. Every new death sentence imposed in Harris County since November 2004 (not including resentences) has been imposed upon a Black or Latino defendant. Former Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who oversaw 40 death sentences between 2001 and 2008, resigned after a civil suit uncovered racist emails he sent using his official email account. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently deciding Buck v. Davis, a Harris County case in which a Black defendant was sentenced to death after his defense attorney introduced racially-biased testimony during sentencing. Three Harris County defendants have been exonerated from death row, most recently Alfred Brown (pictured) in 2015. Prosecutors withheld evidence that corroborated Brown's alibi, Brown's girlfriend was threatened and eventually imprisoned until she agreed to testify against him, and officials refused requests to test DNA that may implicate another suspect.

Texas Executions Drop to Lowest Level in 20 Years

Texas is poised to have the fewest number of executions in 20 years. As of October, the state has executed seven prisoners in 2016, with just one more execution scheduled this calendar year. The total would mark the fewest executions in the state in any year since 1996. In that year, three people were executed, as legal challenges to a new state law billed as speeding up appeals put most executions on hold. Fifteen execution dates for 11 people have been stayed or halted in Texas this year. Several of those, most notably the case of Jeffrey Wood, hinged on questions about "junk science" testimony. Wood's execution was stayed to permit review of claims that his death sentence was a product of false psychiatric testimony from James Grigson, who earned the nickname "Dr. Death" for his testimony in numerous capital cases claiming that defendants were certain to commit future acts of violence. Another Texas prisoner, Robert Roberson, was granted a stay to allow him to challenge now-debunked testimony that his daughter died of shaken baby syndrome, when several alternative, non-homicide explanations for her death better fit the evidence. At the same time as Texas courts have halted executions over questionable scientific testimony, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two Texas cases this term (Buck v. Davis and Moore v. Texas) that also involve scientifically-unsound mental health testimony that was used to obtain or defend death sentences. "Texas courts are now aware of the dangers associated with forensic sciences and are closely scrutinizing this evidence,” said Greg Gardner, an attorney for John Battaglia, who had an execution date set for December 7. Along with the drop in executions, Texas has also seen a dramatic decline in death sentences. Death sentences have declined steadily since 2005, as life without parole became available as a sentencing alternative in death penalty trials, but the past two years have seen even lower numbers. Just two people were sentenced to death in 2015, and Texas juries have handed down three death sentences so far this year. Experts say that changing public attitudes, falling murder rates, and better lawyering have also contributed to the decline. (Click to enlarge.)

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Argument in Buck v. Davis, Texas Case Dealing With Racist Testimony

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 5 in Buck v. Davis, a Texas case in which Duane Buck was sentenced to death after his own lawyer presented expert testimony from a psychologist who called Buck more likely to commit acts of violence in the future because he is Black. While Cecilia Marshall, widow of Thurgood Marshall, and Buck's stepsister, Phyllis Taylor—a survivor of the shooting—observed from the audience, Buck's counsel told the Court that the jury had sentenced Buck to death penalty based upon "a false and pernicious group-based stereotype" that equated being Black with being dangerous. Each of the seven justices who spoke during the hearing sharply criticized trial counsel's conduct, with Justice Samuel Alito saying "what occurred at the penalty phase of this trial is indefensible." Six other defendants whose cases had been tainted by similarly biased testimony by the same psychologist have already received new sentencing hearings, but Buck has not. Texas argued that Buck's case is unique because his defense attorney, not prosecutors, invited the biased testimony. Buck's attorneys previously sought review of his case on the grounds that his lawyer was ineffective, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Buck a "Certificate of Appealability" (COA), which allows a defendant's claims to be heard on the merits by an appeals court. During argument, the Justices raised concerns about the disparate rates at which Circuit Courts grant COAs. The Fifth Circuit denies them in about 60% of cases, while the Eleventh and Fourth Circuits deny them in only 6% and 0% of cases, respectively, meaning that defendants in the Fifth Circuit receive less review of their claims than those in the Eleventh or Fourth. Justice Elena Kagan said, "[I would assume] you think this is such an extraordinary case, and that the 5th Circuit got this so wrong, that it’s the best proof that there is that the court is approaching the COA inquiry in the wrong way." Justice Stephen Breyer agreed, saying, "It seems to me it proves the arbitrariness of what’s going on." (Pictured: Buck's lead counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund Litigation Director Christina Swarns, being interviewed on the steps of the Court.) 

REPORT: "Lethally Deficient" Texas Death Penalty Appeal System in "Dire Need of Reform"

A September 20 report by the Texas Defender Service says that Texas "has failed to ensure effective counsel" for appellants in capital cases and that the state's system of reviewing death penalty cases on direct appeal is "in dire need of reform." The report, titled Lethally Deficient, reviewed all 84 capital direct appeals decided by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) from 2009 to 2015 and identified numerous "persistent deficits in the provision of counsel on direct appeal in death penalty cases." Among those problems, the report found that the Texas capital defense system "fails to meaningfully evaluate attorney qualifications" before assigning a lawyer to handle a capital appeal; "understaffs the defense" by appointing only one lawyer—frequently a solo practitioner—to the case; improperly "subjects defense counsel to political pressures"; provides inconsistent and often inadequate resources and compensation; and fails to control attorney workload to ensure that appointed lawyers have time to provide appropriate representation. The report said that, these "fundamental flaws ... led to multiple instances" in which appeal lawyers recycled boilerplate arguments relying on outdated legal authority that had already been rejected in other cases, failed to meet or consult with their clients before filing briefs, failed to file replies to prosecutors' briefs, and failed to seek review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the period examined, the CCA upheld every capital conviction and more than 94% of all death sentences, and overturned just three death verdicts. Looking at 1,060 capital direct appeal decisions between 2005 and 2015 by courts in the other 30 death penalty states, the study found that Texas's reversal rate was 2.8 times lower than the national average. “The tragedy of direct appeals in Texas capital cases is not simply that lawyers underperform, often pasting together briefs, skipping oral argument, or declining to do other basic tasks such as filing reply briefs. It is that everyone knows that this is happening, from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on down. It is an embarrassment to the legal profession and a testament to the low expectations in Texas surrounding defense representation in capital cases,” said Jordan Steiker, Co-Director of the Capital Punishment Center at The University of Texas School of Law. The Texas Defender Service offers three major reform recommendations, suggesting that Texas should 1) "establish a statewide capital appellate defender office," 2) "create a statewide appointment system with effective caseload controls and uniform attorney compensation," and 3) "appoint two lawyers to represent death-sentenced defendants on direct appeal." Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said "Texas has made enormous strides in its effort to reform indigent legal services in general, and in capital indigent representation, since 2001." These new measures, she said "are the necessary next steps in delivering a promise that the first Texas Code of Criminal Procedure laid out in 1857, promising adequate legal assistance to indigents facing the mighty powers of the state."

New Podcast: Jeffery Wood and the Texas Law of Parties, With Expert Guest Kate Black

Today, DPIC launches a new podcast series, "Discussions With DPIC," which will feature monthly, unscripted conversations with death penalty experts on a wide variety of topics. The inaugural episode features a conversation between Texas Defender Services staff attorney Kate Black (pictured) and DPIC host Anne Holsinger, who discuss the case of Jeffery Wood and Texas' unusual legal doctrine known as the "law of parties." Wood's case garnered national media attention because he was sentenced to death despite having neither killed anyone nor even intended that a killing take place. His execution, which had been scheduled for August 24, was stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to permit him to litigate a challenge to the prosecution's use of scientifically invalid predictions of future dangerousness by a psychiatrist who had been expelled from state and national psychiatric associations for similarly improper testimony in the past. In the podcast, Black explains the law of parties and its application in Wood's case, and discusses how the national dialogue that developed around Wood's case may affect the death penalty in the future. 

FBI Documents Show States' Claims of Threats to Execution Drug Suppliers Were Exaggerated

FBI records show that state claims that execution drug suppliers have been the subject of threats by anti-death penalty activists are largely unsubstantiated and exaggerated, according to an investigation by BuzzFeed NewsBuzzFeed found that "few concrete examples" of the alleged harassment, intimidation, and physical threats states claim have been made against drug suppliers, and that "the states’ marquee example — in which the FBI allegedly investigated a serious bomb threat sent to a drug supplier — is contradicted by internal FBI documents." Instead, BuzzFeed found, "the real danger to drug suppliers appears to be legal and economic risk, not risk of violence." Texas and Ohio have claimed secrecy was necessary to protect the safety of potential drug suppliers, citing an alleged threat against a disgraced and now defunct Tulsa, Oklahoma pharmacy, The Apothecary Shoppe, that had been supplying execution drugs to Missouri. That "threat" appears to have consisted of an email sent by a retired college professor who used his own name and included his own phone number, and which the professor has characterized as a warning to the pharmacy to be cautious. An expert witness for the two states—a former Secret Service officer named Lawrence Cunningham who is now employed by a private security company—testified in litigation over their secrecy policies that the email constituted a "serious threat," as evidenced by the fact that it was investigated by the FBI. However, FBI and Tulsa Police Department records show that neither agency was aware of any threats against the pharmacy until a reporter called the FBI months later to ask about alleged threats. The pharmacy had not filed any complaint about the email and, FBI records show, did not come forward with copies of any threatening emails after having been given an opportunity to do so. Cunningham also testified in the Ohio case that the Texas Department of Public Safety had investigated the email, including interviewing the professor—a claim that is contradicted by Cunningham's own sworn testimony in the Texas case and, BuzzFeed says, by Texas DPS documents, sworn statements of the DPS department head, and FBI internal documents. Indeed, Colonel Steven McCraw of Texas DPS testified in a deposition, “I did not do any investigations. We didn’t look at any people. We didn’t do anything.” Officials in Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri also exaggerated threats by stating suppliers were "harmed" or "threatened" by facing lawsuits or disparaging comments in the media. 

Seventh Consecutive Scheduled Execution in Texas Halted as Court Grants Ronaldo Ruiz a Stay

In a 5-2 order, with two judges dissenting and two others not participating, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the scheduled August 31 execution of Rolando Ruiz (pictured). The order did not specify the reason why the court issued the stay, saying only that after reviewing a new challenge to Ruiz's death sentence that his lawyers had filed, "we have determined that his execution should be stayed pending further order by this Court." Although Texas remains the most prolific state in carrying out executions and, along with Georgia, has executed six prisoners in 2016, this is the seventh consecutive time a scheduled Texas execution has been halted or postponed as a result of either a stay, a rescheduled execution date, or the withdrawal of the death warrant. Ruiz's stay came after his new lawyers filed a petition for relief in the Texas courts seeking relief from his death sentence on the grounds that his trial lawyer unreasonably failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence to spare his life at the punishment phase of his trial, violating his right to effective assistance of counsel, and that the lawyer Texas appointed to represent him in his initial state habeas challenge to his conviction and sentence also unreasonably failed to investigate and present that evidence. Ruiz also claimed that executing him more than two decades after his conviction would constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. This was Ruiz's third death warrant. He first faced execution in 2007, but he received a stay from a federal appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case in May 2015 and he faced a second death warrant earlier this year, when his execution was set for July 27. That execution was rescheduled for Aug. 31, reportedly because Texas failed to provide Ruiz's lawyers with sufficient notice of the execution. Texas has four more executions scheduled for 2016, with the execution of Robert Mitchell Jennings scheduled for September 14. Its last execution was on April 6. Texas has not gone that long between executions since June 2008, when executions resumed after a nearly nine-month hiatus while the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of lethal injection.


Diverse Range of Voices Call for Sparing Jeff Wood, Who Never Killed Anyone, from Execution in Texas

As his August 24 execution date approaches, Jeffrey Wood's case has garnered mounting attention from groups and individuals calling on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott to commute Wood's sentence. These diverse voices include a conservative Texas state representative, a group of evangelical leaders, and the editorial boards of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and several Texas newspapers, among others. Wood (pictured) was convicted under Texas' "law of parties," but he neither killed nor intended for anyone to be killed and, his supporters say, was not even aware the robbery in which a codefendant killed a store clerk was going to occur. His trial also featured misleading testimony from Dr. James Grigson, who had been expelled from psychiatric associations because of his unethical testimony regarding the potential future dangerousness of capital defendants. Republican state representative Jeff Leach, a long-time death penalty supporter, said "Jeffery Lee Wood’s case has caught my attention unlike any death row inmate in my time in office has. ...I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence. I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything." Leach has spoken with Gov. Abbott's office and the parole board about the case and is urging other legislators to contact the board in support of commutation before the board votes on Wood's clemency petition on Monday. Gov. Abbott also received a petition from a group of evangelical Christian leaders, who said "Our faith compels us to speak out in this case, where a looming execution date threatens the life of an individual with significant mental impairments who never should have been sentenced to death." The 49 religious leaders also noted the disproportionality of Wood's sentence: "As the getaway driver, Wood committed a crime, but not one deserving the death penalty." A New York Times editorial also urged clemency for Wood and sharply critiqued the law of parties. "The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is," it said. "The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared." Wood's supporters say they will deliver a petition to Gov. Abbott and the parole board Friday with thousands of signatures seeking commutation of Wood's sentence. Texas last commuted a death sentence in 2007 in the case of Kenneth Foster, a getaway driver who, like Wood, had been convicted under the law of parties. [UPDATE: On August 19, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution to permit Wood to litigate his claims that the prosecution had presented false scientific evidence and that the use of false testimony from Dr. Grigson violated due process.]