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Two Capital Cases Involving Innocence Claims Resolved Decades After Conviction

This week, two decades-old cases involving men with innocence claims reached final resolution: Louisiana inmate Gary Tyler (pictured) was released after 42 years in prison and Paul Gatling was exonerated in New York more than 50 years after his wrongful conviction. Both men had once faced the death penalty. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old white boy in 1974 during a riot over school integration. A white mob had attacked a bus filled with black students, including Tyler. After the shooting, Tyler was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace for talking back to a sheriff's deputy. The bus and students were searched, but no weapon was found. Police later claimed to have found a gun on the bus during a later search. That gun turned out to have been stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff's department. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury when he was 17 years old. His death sentence was overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Louisiana's mandatory death penalty statute unconstitutional in 1976, and his life sentence was recently overturned after the Supreme Court barred mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders. Tyler was released on April 29, after the district attorney's office agreed to vacate his murder conviction, allow him to plead guilty to manslaughter, and receive the maximum sentence of 21 years, less than half the time he had already served. Mary Howell, one of Tyler's attorneys, said, "This has been a long and difficult journey for all concerned. I feel confident that Gary will continue the important work he began years ago while in prison, to make a real difference in helping to mentor young people faced with difficult challenges in their lives." On May 2, 81-year-old Paul Gatling was exonerated. Brooklyn prosecutors charged Gatling with capital murder in 1963 despite the fact that he did not fit the description of the killer and no physical evidence linked him to the killing. He pled guilty to second-degree murder after his lawyer told him he would get the death penalty if the case went to trial. Governor Nelson Rockefeller commuted Gatling's sentence in 1974 and he was released from prison, but he continued to seek exoneration, in part, because his conviction prevented him from voting. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, whose Conviction Review Unit reinvestigated the case, said, "Paul Gatling repeatedly proclaimed his innocence even as he faced the death penalty back in the 60s. He was pressured to plead guilty and, sadly, did not receive a fair trial.... We're here because Mr. Gatling would not let go of his demand to be deemed innocent." 

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Alabama to Reconsider Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and has directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Johnson, represented by lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence, which was imposed by a trial judge after a nonunanimous jury vote of 10-2 recommending a death sentence, as violating the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. According to Johnson's Supreme Court pleadings, the trial court had instructed the jury that it did not need to unanimously agree to any particular fact that would have made Johnson eligible for the death penalty, nor did it have to identify for the court any specific aggravating factors that it found to be present in the case. Hurst ruled that Florida's capital sentencing procedures, which permitted critical factual findings necessary to impose a death sentence to be made by the trial judge, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing scheme suffers from the same constitutional defect and that, "[i]n Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury." Bryan Stevenson, EJI's executive director, said that the Court's ruling could have systemic implications: "This ruling implicates all [capital] cases in Alabama. We have argued that Alabama's statute no longer conforms to current constitutional requirements. The Court's ruling today supports that view." In March, an Alabama Circuit Judge barred the death penalty in four cases on the grounds that Alabama's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision to order reconsideration of Johnson's case could also affect a court challenge currently pending in the Delaware Supreme Court over the constitutionality of its death penalty statute, which employs similar sentencing procedures. Likewise, defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that the death penalty statute in that state — which has been repealed by the legislature pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November — impermissibly vests key fact-finding authority in the trial judge, rather than the jury. 

Florida Judge Sentences Man to Death Under Sentencing Law That Supreme Court Ruled Unconstitutional

A Florida trial judge in St. Lucie County sentenced Eriese Tisdale to death on April 29 for the killing of a sheriff's sergeant, relying on sentencing procedures from the version of Florida's death penalty law that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida. The jury in Tisdale's case considered the evidence in the penalty phase of Tisdale's trial under the old Florida law, voting 9-3 to recommend a death sentence without specifying the aggravating factors that would make Tisdale eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing procedure in Hurst because a judge, rather than a jury, made the factual determination of aggravating circumstances that were necessary to impose a death sentence. In response to Hurst, Florida enacted a new law, which went into effect March 7, requiring juries to make unanimous determinations of aggravating factors, and preconditioning any death sentence upon a jury vote of at least 10-2 vote in favor of death. The statute declares "If fewer than 10 jurors determine that the defendant should be sentenced to death, the jury's recommendation to the court shall be a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole." In those circumstances, the law states, "the court shall impose the recommended sentence." Tisdale's penalty phase was tried in October 2015, before the Supreme Court declared the sentencing procedures unconstitutional, and the jury's 9-3 recommendation for death came before the new law adopted the 10-2 requirement. His lawyers argued that he could not be sentenced to death because the old procedures were unconstitutional and the jury vote did not qualify as a death recommendation under the new law. But a St. Lucie County judge ruled that the jury's unanimous vote to convict Tisdale for the murder of a law enforcement official amounted to a unanimous finding of an aggravating circumstance, accepted the jury's 9-3 death recommendation, and sentenced Tisdale to death. Tisdale is the first person sentenced to death in Florida since the new law went into effect.

Ruling Expected on Arizona Execution Hold, Amid Systemic Problems With Arbitrariness, Lethal Injection

Arizona's last execution, the botched lethal injection of Joseph Wood in July 2014, sparked controversy and legal challenges to the state's lethal injection procedure, and came at a time when Arizona was struggling not only with the logistics of carrying out executions, but also broader issues of fairness and costs. In a sweeping piece for The Arizona Republic, Michael Kiefer, who witnessed Wood's execution, describes the historical and legal background that led up to Arizona's current hold on executions.  He describes how Arizona's list of statutory aggravators — factors that make a case eligible for the death penalty — became so expansive that then-Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a proposed aggravator in 2014 because she worried it would make the death penalty law unconstitutionally broad and vague. Kiefer notes Arizona's 42% reversal rate in capital cases, meaning that 129 of the 306 death sentences in the state were reversed or remanded by higher courts. Nine people have been exonerated in Arizona, and one, Jeffrey Landrigan, was executed despite test results weeks before his execution that found DNA from two different men, but not Landrigan, on the victim's clothing. Landrigan was executed in 2010 using lethal injection drugs imported illegally from London. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration later seized the remaining drugs, causing Arizona to switch first to pentobarbital and later to midazolam, the first drug in Wood's botched execution. U.S. District Judge Neil Wake halted all executions in Arizona, asking the state to clearly specify what drugs it has and how it intends to carry out executions. His ruling is expected soon.

Missouri Execution Drug Supplier Being Sold After Committing Nearly 2,000 Violations of Pharmacy Regulations

The assets of The Apothecary Shoppe, a Tulsa, Oklahoma compounding pharmacy that provided lethal injection drugs to Missouri, have been auctioned off after the company defaulted on its loans, and is being sold after admitting to nearly two thousand violations of pharmacy regulations, according to a report by BuzzFeed News. Inspectors from the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Oklahoma Board of Pharmacy found that the drug compounder had committed "significant" violations of pharmacy regulations, including engaging in questionable potency, disinfecting, and sterilization practices. State investigators witnessed improper refrigeration, storage, and sterilization practices at the pharmacy and caught the company producing drugs without legitimate medical need, improperly expanding drug expiration dates, and operating during periods in which its lab was not certified. In 2013 and 2014, the pharmacy prepared execution drugs for at least three Missouri executions, receiving cash payments from the Department of Corrections. In challenges to Missouri's lethal injection practices, death-row prisoners – hampered by state execution secrecy provisions – argued in court that “Compounding-pharmacy products do not meet the requirements for identity, purity, potency, efficacy, and safety that pharmaceuticals produced under FDA regulation must meet.” Among the possibilities they listed, were that the drug may not be sterile, may be less potent than it needs to be, or may be contaminated. Missouri responded in its court filings that the condemned prisoners' concerns were speculative and that the inmates did "not make a plausible claim that Missouri’s execution procedure is sure or very likely to cause serious illness or needless suffering and give rise to sufficiently imminent dangers.” The problems found at The Apothecary Shoppe confirmed the prisoners' concerns. 

Supreme Court Asked to Review Texas' Use of Factors Based on a Fictional Character to Reject Death Row Prisoner's Intellectual Disability Claim

Bobby James Moore (pictured) faces execution in Texas after the state's Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his claim of intellectual disability in September 2015, saying he failed to meet Texas' “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them), an unscientific seven-pronged test which a judge based on the character Lennie Smalls from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." In doing so, the appeals court reversed a lower court's ruling that tracked the scientific diagnostic criteria set forth by medical professionals, which found that Moore had intellectual disability. On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will conference to decide whether to hear Moore's case. Moore's lawyers argue, supported by briefing from national and international mental health advocates, that he has intellectual disability and that the non-scientific standard employed by Texas in denying his intellectual disability claim violated the Court's 2014 ruling in Hall v. Florida. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the 8th Amendment prohibits the use of the death penalty against persons with mental retardation, now known as intellectual disability. But Atkins left it to the states to adopt procedures for determining whether defendants were intellectually disabled. Hall struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability because it "disregards established medical practice." Texas is the only state that uses the Briseño factors, which include whether the crime required forethought or planning, whether the person is capable of lying effectively, and whether the defendant is more of a leader or a follower. The state court disregarded Moore's clear history of intellectual disability, documented since childhood, and IQ scores ranging from the low 50s to the low 70s, in favor of Texas' idiosyncratic method.

Tennessee Legislature Unanimously Passes Bill to Require Preservation of Biological Evidence in Capital Cases

On April 13, the Tennessee House of Representatives joined the Tennessee Senate in unanimously approving a bill that would mandate the preservation of biological evidence in cases involving a death sentence. The House voted 94-0 in favor of the bill after the Senate had passed the bill on April 4 by a 31-0 vote. If the governor signs the bill, such evidence must be held until the defendant is executed, dies, or is released from prison. Destruction of evidence will be handled as criminal contempt. At the House hearing for the bill, Ray Krone (pictured), who was exonerated from Arizona's death row and now lives in Tennessee, testified to the importance of DNA evidence. Krone was exonerated after DNA from the victim's shirt was tested and was found to match neither the victim nor Krone. "That DNA not only saved my life.” Krone said. “It also, because it was preserved by the Phoenix Police Department, it identified the true murderer.” DNA testing also played a key role in the Tennessee death row exonerations of Paul House and Michael McCormick. A March 2007 Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project (now the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project) had found that Tennessee death penalty law failed to comply with ABA recommendations on the collection, preservation, and testing of DNA and other evidence. The ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project has found that only 2 of the 14 states whose death penalty procedures it assessed complied with the ABA recommendations on preservation of biological evidence in death penalty cases.

Supreme Court to Consider Hearing Texas Capital Case Where Expert Said Defendant Posed Greater Danger Because He Was Black

UPDATE: The Supreme Court docket indicates that its conferencing of Mr. Buck's case, originally set for April 22, has been rescheduled. The Court is now scheduled to considering the case on April 29. PREVIOUSLY: On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to confer on whether to review the case of Duane Buck (pictured), who was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas after a psychologist testified that he posed an increased risk of future dangerousness because he is black. In the case, the defense presented psychologist, Walter Quijano, as its own witness, even though he had previously testified in other cases to a supposed link between race and future dangerousness. During cross-examination, the prosecution asked Quijano - without objection by the defense - whether "the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons." Quijano replied, "yes." The prosecution then returned to this race-based testimony during its closing argument in calling for the jury to sentence Buck to death. Buck is one of six defendants who a Texas Attorney General's report identified as having unfair capital-sentencing hearings that were tainted by Quijano's race-based testimony, and the only one to be denied a new sentencing hearing. Courts initially rejected Buck's claim of prosecutorial misconduct for presenting race-based evidence and argument on the grounds that Buck's own lawyer had presented the witness. However, the lower courts then denied relief when he subsequently presented the argument that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation on this issue. The case has attracted widespread attention, and several stakeholders in Buck's case, including the second-chair prosecutor from Buck's trial, former Texas Governor Mark White, and a surviving victim have urged that Buck be granted a new sentencing hearing. Linda Geffin, the second-chair prosecutor, said "The state of Texas can't put Mr. Buck to the ultimate punishment without having a fair, just, color-blind sentencing hearing." A bipartisan group of amici have urged the Supreme Court to grant review of what they called the "noxious and deeply prejudicial use of race" in this case. American Bar Association President Paulette Brown recently wrote in the Houston Chronicle, "Obviously, an odious race-based argument is never acceptable, let alone in a criminal case where the defendant's life is at stake. And a defendant whose lawyer invites such racist testimony not only has a strong chance of being sentenced to death but a strong claim of ineffective counsel." 

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