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Florida Supreme Court Rules Intellectual Disability Decision Applies Retroactively

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that death-row prisoners who had unsuccessfully argued that they are ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability must be provided a second chance to prove their claims. On October 20, the Court decided in Walls v. State that Florida must retroactively apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Hall v. Florida, which declared Florida’s procedures for determining intellectual disability to be unconstitutional. Prisoners whose intellectual disability claims had been denied under the standard rejected in Hall will now be given new opportunities to present their claims. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s outlier practice categorically barring a prisoner from presenting evidence supporting his intellectual disability claim if his IQ score was above 70 violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Writing for the Court in Hall, Justice Kennedy explained this strict IQ cut-off requirement “disregards established medical practice” and “contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.” The Hall Court held that “[i]ntellectual disability is a condition, not a number”; and therefore the determination of intellectual disability must not only consider a standard error of measure regarding IQ scores, but also consider adaptive functioning, which requires a “conjunctive and interrelated assessment.” The Florida Supreme Court recognized that “[t]he rejection of the strict IQ score cutoff increases the number of potential cases in which the State cannot impose the death penalty, while requiring a more holistic review means more defendants may be eligible for relief.” The decision could affect thirty prisoners on Florida’s death row. Like Florida, the Kentucky Supreme Court has also found Hall to apply retroactively. That court reaffirmed its retroactivy decision in White v. Kentucky, also decided on October 20.

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.

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.

EDITORIALS: Lincoln Journal Star Urges Nebraska Voters to End State's Death Penalty

Saying the death penalty is "too fallible to endure," the Lincoln Journal Star has called on Nebraska voters to end capital punishment in the state. In two editorials published in connection with the upcoming statewide death penalty ballot referendum on November 8, the paper urged Nebraskans to retain the legislature's death penalty repeal bill. The predominantly Republican legislature voted to repeal the state's death penalty in May 2015 and then, a few days later, overrode a veto by Governor Pete Ricketts. The Governor, in turn, launched a successful petition drive to place the repeal issue on the ballot. The Journal Star's first editorial focused on the "bottom line" question that, "[t]o support the death penalty, you must be willing to take the chance that the state will execute an innocent person." In addressing that question, the paper highlighted notable exonerations from Beatrice, Nebraska and elsewhere. The editorial explained that, in the largest false confession case in American history, "[t]he 'Beatrice 6' were railroaded into prison for a murder they did not commit. Finally DNA showed someone else committed the crime. Now Gage County is on the hook for $28.1 million in damages." The paper also discussed the exoneration of former Air Force sergeant Ray Krone, who—with no criminal record—was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Arizona. "If it happened to Krone," the paper said, “it can happen to anybody.” In a second editorial, the Journal Star presented what it called the "powerful" conservative argument against capital punishment. The death penalty, conservatives say, "is an extraordinary example of government overreach that costs inordinate amounts of money," violates "the sanctity of life," "[s]ometimes ... delivers erroneous results, and for years on end it delivers no results at all." A recent study found that the death penalty costs Nebraska taxpayers $14.6 million per year, even though the state has not had an execution in nearly 20 years. The paper said: "All this spending siphons away money that could and should be put to use more effectively in protecting public safety. Five hundred police chiefs were asked in 1995 and 2008 to rank the tools they found most effective in fighting violent crime, [former Lincoln Police Chief Allen] Curtis wrote. 'The death penalty came in absolutely last.'" The editorial concluded, "[t]houghtful conservatives who take the time to research the issue will vote on Nov. 8 to retain the law that eliminates the death penalty and replaces it with life in prison."

Nevada's Search for Execution Drug Suppliers Turns Up Zero Bids

After having "solicited thoroughly for vendors," the Nevada Department of Corrections announced that no pharmaceutical company has offered to sell the state drugs for use in executions. James Dzurenda, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections issued a statement on October 7 saying that the Department had sent 247 requests for proposals to pharmaceutical suppliers on September 2 and, in response, had received no bids to supply the state with lethal injection drugs. In August, Dzurenda informed the state Board of Prison Commissioners that one of the two drugs the state used in executions—midazolam and hydromorphone—had expired and that Pfizer, Inc., which produces both of the drugs, refused to provide the state with new supplies. Pfizer announced restrictions on the distribution of its medicines in May in an effort to prevent states from using them in executions. At the time, the company said, "Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment." Having failed to identify a drug supplier, Dzurenda said the Department "will work closely with the attorney general, the governor and the Legislature to examine our options and decide the best course of action moving forward." The state legislature would have to approve any change to an alternative method of execution. The state's $858,000 new execution chamber is expected to be completed by November 1, but no executions are imminent, and none could be carried out without a supply of drugs. Nevada's last execution was in April 2006. Officials said the space will be used for storage and attorney-client meetings if no executions are scheduled.

Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down State's Capital Sentencing Statute, Requires Jury Unanimity Before Imposing Death

The Florida Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional the state’s practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. In two rulings issued October 14 the court held that juries must unanimously find all facts necessary to impose a death sentence, including the existence of any aggravating factor relied upon as a reason to impose the death penalty, whether the aggravating factors in and of themselves provide sufficient grounds for imposing the death penalty, and whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances (reasons for life) presented by the defense. In the first case, Timothy Lee Hurst v. State of Florida, the court vacated Hurst's death sentence imposed and remanded his case for a new sentencing hearing. The second decision, Larry Darnell Perry v. State of Florida, struck down the Florida legislature's March 2016 revision of the state’s capital sentencing statute because it does not require a unanimous jury recommendation of death before the trial judge can consider imposing a death sentence. Hurst is the same defendant whose appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, resulting in an 8-1 decision declaring that the state's prior capital sentencing statute violated the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial by reserving for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to find the facts that could lead to a death sentence. The Court specifically held that the statute impermissibly denied Hurst a jury finding of aggravating circumstances that could make him eligible for the death penalty. In response to the Court's decision, the Florida legislature amended the statute to require juries to unanimously find at least one aggravating circumstance, but allowed the jury to recommend a death sentence if at least 10 of 12 jurors agreed. The court’s decision in Hurst made clear that the statute violated Florida state constitutional provisions requiring unanimous jury verdicts, as well as federal constitutional law. In Perry, the court struck down the amended death penalty law, saying the statute "cannot be applied constitutionally to pending prosecutions because the Act does not require unanimity in the jury’s final recommendation as to whether the defendant should be sentenced to death." While the decision in Hurst says that defendants sentenced to death under the unconstitutional sentencing procedures are not entitled to have their sentences automatically reduced to life in prison, it leaves unclear exactly what will happen in the cases of the approximately 400 people on the state's death row.

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 Reverses Oklahoma Case Over Improper Victim-Impact Testimony

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals that affirmed the death sentence imposed on Shaun Michael Bosse. In a unanimous per curiam decision issued October 11, the Court held that Oklahoma prosecutors had improperly presented testimony from three members of the victims' families asking the jury to sentence Bosse to death. The Court had ruled in 1987 in Booth v. Maryland that the use of victim-impact testimony in determining whether a capital defendant would be sentenced to death violated the 8th Amendment. Four years later, after a personnel change on the Court, it retreated from part of that decision, holding in Payne v. Tennessee that the presentation of testimony relating to the effect of the victim's death on his or her loved ones was constitutionally permissible. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals then ruled that Payne had implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety, permitting Oklahoma prosecutors to present highly emotional pleas from victims' family members asking juries to impose the death penalty. Oklahoma was the only jurisdiction in the country to interpret Payne in that manner, and Bosse's petition for review argued that "Oklahoma stands alone" and that its "outlier" practice was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Oklahoma court, writing that it has never overruled the portion of Booth that prohibits victims' family testimony offering "opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appro­priate punishment." The Court further declared that its decision in Booth "remain[s] binding prec­edent until we see fit to reconsider [it]." While the Bosse decision prevents Oklahoma prosecutors from presenting this type of testimony in the future, its impact on the numerous other cases in which Oklahoma prosecutors presented this testimony is less clear. The Court remanded Bosse's case to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which may consider whether the improper testimony constituted harmless error. Similar harmless error review may be required in other Oklahoma cases.