As Supreme Court Denies Stay of Execution, Justice Breyer Urges Consideration of Death Row ConditionsPosted: March 8, 2017
On March 7, the United States Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Texas death-row prisoner Rolando Ruiz, declining to consider his claim that the more than 20 years he had been incarcerated on death row, mostly in solitary confinement, violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Ruiz's lawyers had urged the Court to consider this issue, writing, "At this point, a quarter-century has elapsed since Mr. Ruiz committed a contract murder in 1992, two days after he turned twenty years old. Mr. Ruiz has lived for over two decades under a death sentence, spent almost twenty years in solitary confinement, received two eleventh-hour stays of execution, and has received four different execution dates.” Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured) agreed, saying, "Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution 'violates the Eighth Amendment' because it 'follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,' principally his 'permanent solitary confinement.' I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it." Breyer dissented from the Court's denial of a stay, citing the Court's "serious objections" to extended solitary confinement, which date back as far as 1890, when the Court, "speaking of a period of only four weeks of imprisonment prior to execution, said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is 'one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.'" He also quoted fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 2015 urged the court to consider the constitutionality of extended solitary confinement. Justice Breyer and former Justice John Paul Stevens have repeatedly questioned the constitutionality of prolonged incarceration under death-row conditions, but the Court has never reviewed the issue. Long stays on death row are increasingly common: the Fair Punishment Project estimates about 40% of death row inmates have spent more than 20 years on death row. These delays, Breyer noted in Ruiz's case, are "attributable to the State or the lower courts." Ruiz was the fifth prisoner executed in the U.S. in 2017 and the third in Texas. Prior to his execution, he expressed his remorse to the victim's family, saying, “Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness.”
Companion reports released on March 7 by the National Registry of Exonerations found record numbers of exonerations and wrongful convictions involving official misconduct in 2016, and striking evidence of racial bias both in the wrongful convictions themselves and in the time it took the judicial process to exonerate the wrongfully incarcerated. The Registry's report, Exonerations in 2016, found a record 166 exonerations in 2016, with 54 defendants exonerated of homicide. A DPIC review of the Registry's data revealed that the death penalty played a role in nearly a quarter of the homicide exonerations. In at least six of the wrongful homicide convictions, prosecutors had sought the death penalty at trial; in another, an innocent defendant had pled guilty to avoid the death penalty; and at least six additional exonerations were the product of witnesses having falsely implicated innocent defendants after police had threatened the witness or a loved one with the death penalty unless the witness cooperated with the investigation. The Registry's companion report, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States, analyzes exonerations for murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes since 1989. The report found that black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people and that African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims. Police officers were more likely to have committed misconduct in the cases in which black defendants were exonerated of murder than in exonerations of white murder defendants. In addition, justice was delayed in exonerations of black murder defendants, who, on average, waited three years longer than whites before being released from prison. An analysis of the DPIC death-row exoneration database corroborates the National Registry's conclusions: 16 of the last 18 death-row exonerations had police or prosecutorial misconduct as their primary cause. 18 of the exonerees in the last 25 misconduct-related death-row exonerations are black. While 68.8% of wrongly convicted non-black death-row exonerees were exonerated in 10 years or less, it took the judicial system 11 years or more to exonerate 57.3% of the wrongly convicted black death-row exonerees. 84.6% of all cases in which exoneration took 26 years or more involved black defendants.
A Wake County, North Carolina jury voted to spare Nathan Holden's life on March 3, marking the seventh consecutive capital sentencing trial in the county in which juries had opted to sentence a defendant to life without parole instead of the death penalty. No jury in Wake County has imposed a death sentence since 2007. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty against Holden for murdering his ex-wife's parents and attempting to kill her. The jury convicted Holden of two counts of first-degree murder but, after being presented evidence of 39 mitigating circumstances—including that he suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as a result of chronic childhood abuse—jurors chose to sentence him to life. Although the ten Wake County prisoners on North Carolina's death row placed the county among the 2% of counties that accounted for 56% of all prisoners on U.S. death rows as of 2013, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said after jurors returned the sixth consecutive life sentence in February 2016 that it might be time to rethink whether to pursue the death penalty in future cases. Wake County's experience has been typical of North Carolina, and the nation as a whole. The state has averaged fewer than two death sentences per year since 2011, with no new death sentences in 2012 and 2015. In 2016, only one of the five capital trials in the state resulted in a death sentence. By contrast, the state sent between 20 to 30 people per year to death row in the 1990s. The United States has seen a similar drop in death sentences, imposing a total of only 30 new death sentences last year, down from a peak of 315 in 1996 (see graph, click to enlarge). North Carolina's last execution was in 2006.
As the Florida legislature considers a bill that would change Florida's "Clean Hands" policy, which denies compensation for wrongful convictions if the defendant had a prior felony record, Alabama lawmakers are deciding whether to grant compensation to Anthony Ray Hinton (pictured), who was exonerated in 2015 after spending nearly 30 years on death row. In Florida, death row exoneree Herman Lindsey told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee about his having been denied compensation because of prior unrelated felony convictions. He spoke about the difficulty he has faced finding housing or a job because the arrest for murder is still on his record. He said the "Clean Hands" Provision is, "basically saying, ‘we can take anybody that has a criminal record and say let’s falsely incarcerate him and when he found it wasn’t really him, we can actually put him out on the streets and we don’t actually even have to worry about it.’ I didn’t receive any apology. I didn’t receive any compensation.” The proposed bill would allow compensation for some exonerees who have prior nonviolent felony convictions. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), a supporter of the bill, said, “If the state and the people of the state get it wrong, it shouldn’t matter what individuals have done in their past.” Lindsey said only four of Florida's 26 death-row exonerees have received compensation under the Clean Hands Act. “Now, perhaps, this might open the door for 10." Meanwhile, the Alabama Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration is considering an application to grant $1.5 million in compensation to Anthony Ray Hinton. The amount is based on the 30 years Hinton was wrongfully incarcerated. Two Assistant Attorneys General have written conflicting letters to the committee, with one stating, "I have found no information that indicates that Mr. Hinton's application is disqualified by any of the eligibility exceptions," while the other claims, "The fact that thirty years later different ballistic experts are unable to say conclusively that this gun fired the fatal shots, without the benefit of the original test fired projectiles used by the original examiners, is not evidence of innocence." Sen. Paul Bussman (R-Cullman) has introduced a bill to compensate Hinton $1.5 million, to be paid over a three-year period. He criticized the notion that a wrongly convicted person should be denied compensation when the state lacks evidence to convict, saying, "We can't convict someone in the court of public opinion. ... It has to be in a court of law."
Texas capital murder exoneree Christopher Scott (pictured) has urged Dallas County's new District Attorney, Faith Johnson, to drop the death penalty from murder charges pending against Erbie Bowser. Bowser, who is black, is a seriously mentally ill Marine veteran who was discharged from military service after having been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He faces four capital charges in the killings of his girlfriend, his estranged wife, and their daughters. When police found him, he was reportedly reciting his name, rank, and serial number, and the medical staff at the hospital to which he was taken him described him as delusional. In a guest column for the Dallas News, Scott—who served 12 years of a life sentence for a murder he did not commit—writes that the Dallas DA's office "has failed the African-American community for generations," and says that "[t]he Bowser case offers an opportunity for Johnson to change the way her office has historically treated African Americans accused of committing capital crimes." He notes that in 2013, the Dallas District Attorney's office "agreed not to seek the death penalty in a nearly identical case involving a white defendant, William Palmer[, who had] stabbed his wife and both her parents to death while his wife's sister and her six-year-old hid in a closet." Dallas has long been criticized for its history of racial bias in enforcing its criminal laws, including bias in jury selection and the application of the death penalty. During the 30-year administration of Henry Wade, the office produced a training manual instructing prosecutors to exclude people of color from juries, and in a death penalty decision in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found that black people in Dallas County had been "almost categorically ... excluded from jury service." The racially disproportionate use of the death penalty has continued in subsequent prosecutorial administrations. A report from the Fair Punishment Project identified Dallas is one of only 16 U.S. counties that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015; seven of the eight people sentenced to death in that period were black. Johnson, whom Wade hired in 1982, is the first African-American woman to serve as District Attorney and Bowser's case is considered a barometer of the path she will follow in capital prosecutions. In addition to the issue of racial fairness, Bowser's case presents serious questions about the appropriateness of the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness, and in particular, veterans with PTSD. Bowser has a history of hallucinations and psychosis stretching back to his adolescence, and reportedly was on more than a dozen medications, including sedatives and antipsychotics, at the time of his arrest. So far this year, seven states have proposed legislation to exempt people with serious mental illness, including PTSD, from the death penalty.
The costs of the death penalty are more than financial, they are emotional; and these effects are felt not just by the parties to the trial and the families of victims and defendants, but by the jurors as well. A recent report in the Akron Beacon Journal describes the traumatic psychological impact serving in the Summit County, Ohio death penalty trial of Eric Hendon had on the jurors in that case. After a three-month trial and capital-sentencing hearing, the jury found Hendon guilty of a 2013 triple murder and sentenced him to life without parole. Before the trial even began, one juror wrote about her concerns about the death penalty, saying, "It is very difficult for me to fathom crime against people, especially violent crime. It is equally difficult for me to fathom how capital punishment can be good. I understand it is our law. If necessary, I will do my duty. I must admit, though, my hope coming in was that I would serve on a trial that would not tear my soul apart." In the aftermath of the trial, several jurors said the experience had adversely affected them. One juror reported trouble sleeping for weeks after the trial ended. Another said he was haunted by images of the crime. A white juror reported becoming paranoid after the trial, saying seeing two black men (defendant Eric Hendon is also black) in an older model car near his home "kind of freaked me out." A number of jurors did not want to talk to the press and, fearing harassment for their jury service, tried to keep their names and addresses from being released to the Beacon Journal. After the trial ended, Judge Amy Corrigan Jones held hearings to decide whether to release the jurors' information. Six jurors attended the hearings and said they worried for their safety if their information was released. One woman became emotional at the hearing, saying she did not want to relive the experience. “I don’t want to think about this,” she said. “I need to stop messing with my life. I need to move on.”
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed orders on February 27 for an unprecedented eight executions to be carried out over a period of ten days in April. The scheduled dates for the four sets of double executions are: April 17, Bruce Ward and Don Davis; April 20, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee; April 24, Jack Jones and Marcel Williams; and April 27, Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked that the dates be set after the U.S. Supreme Court on February 21 declined to review a state court decision upholding Arkansas' lethal injection protocol. Because of drug shortages and challenges to its lethal injection procedures, the state has not carried out an execution since 2005. If all eight executions are performed, it will be the first time since 1997 that a state has executed eight people in one month, when Texas conducted eight executions in both May and June of that year. No other state has conducted as many as eight executions in a single month since executions resumed in the U.S. in 1977, and no state has carried out eight executions in ten days. Scheduling two or more executions on the same day is also unusual; states have executed two or three inmates on the same day just ten times in the last forty years, and no state has carried out more than one double execution in the same week. The hurried schedule appears to be an attempt to use the state's current supply of eight doses of midazolam, which will expire at the end of April. Arkansas does not currently have a supply of potassium chloride, the killing drug specified in its execution protocol, but believes it can obtain supplies of that drug prior to the scheduled execution dates. Attorneys for the eight death-row prisoners filed an amended challenge to Arkansas' lethal injection procedures in state court on February 25 and wrote a letter to the governor urging him to reconsider the lethal injection protocol. "We believe it would be a mistake for you to uncritically accept the Supreme Court's opinion as a license to use the current protocol," the attorneys said. "Not only would our clients suffer, but so would our state's image and moral standing in the eyes of the country and the world." No state has successfully executed two prisoners on the same day using midazolam. Oklahoma attempted to do so on April 29, 2014, but called off the second execution after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett earlier that night. The eight prisoners scheduled for execution make up 23% of Arkansas' current death row.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the conviction and death sentence of Tennessee death-row prisoner Andrew Lee Thomas, Jr. on February 24, ruling that Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich had unconstitutionally withheld evidence that a key prosecution witness had been paid for her cooperation in the case and then elicited perjured testimony from the witness lying about the payment. Weirich is currently facing ethical charges from the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility arising out of misconduct in another murder trial, State v. Noura Jackson, in which the Tennessee Supreme Court found that Weirich had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense and had improperly commented on the defendant's decision not to testify. According to the court's ruling in Thomas's case, his former girlfriend, Angela Jackson, had provided "the only reliable testimony placing Thomas at the scene of the shooting." During trial, Weirich asked Jackson: "Have you collected one red cent for this?" Jackson replied, "No, ma'am. I have not." In fact, Jackson had been paid $750 by the FBI on behalf of the joint state and federal Safe Streets Task Force. Calling Weirich's failure to disclose the payment “egregious,” the court said the "prosecutor had a duty to disclose this payment rather than allow the witness to commit perjury by denying its existence." Shelby County, where Thomas was tried, is among the 2% of U.S. counties that account for a majority of all death sentences imposed in the United States. Its county prosecutors have been dogged by charges of misconduct. In 2014, Weirich defended the conduct of Tom Henderson, a veteran homicide prosecutor in her office who had been censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court for misconduct in the capital trial of Michael Rimmer after a judge had found that Henderson had made “blatantly false, inappropriate and ethically questionable” statements to the Court and defense counsel about the existence of exculpatory evidence, “purposefully misled counsel with regard to the evidence,” and withheld exculpatory evidence he was constitutionally required to disclose.
Human Rights Magazine, a quarterly publication by the American Bar Association, focused its first-quarter 2017 edition on capital punishment, marking the 40th anniversary of Gregg v. Georgia. Articles by nationally-renowned death penalty experts examine geographic disparities in death sentences, secrecy and lethal injection, intellectual disability, mental illness, and other critical questions in the current discourse around the death penalty. In the introduction to the magazine, Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida and chair of the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, and Misty Thomas, staff director of the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, write, "Forty years after Gregg, attorneys, scholars, and advocates continue to debate whether our collective concerns regarding the arbitrary and discriminatory application of the death penalty have indeed been adequately addressed. The anniversary of this crucial decision—which marks, in effect, the “birth” of the modern death penalty—provides an essential opportunity for reflection and consideration of this critical question."
In an expansion of their stance opposing nurse participation in executions, the American Nurses Association (ANA) announced on February 21, 2017 that the organization now for the first time opposes capital punishment itself. "Capital punishment is a human rights violation, and ANA is proud to stand in strong opposition to the death penalty," ANA President Pamela F. Cipriano said. "All human beings, regardless of their crimes, should be treated with dignity. For those states where capital punishment is currently legal, the American Nurses Association will continue to provide ethical guidance, education, and resources for nurses and other health care providers dealing with these ethical dilemmas." The ANA had long opposed nurses participating in the death penalty in any role, adopting that position in 1983. “The drafters of the subcommittee were initially supporters of the death penalty until they started doing research," Liz Stokes, the senior policy advisor for the ANA Center for Ethics and Human Rights, said. But as they studied the issue, she said, they were moved by the body of evidence showing problems in the way it was administered. Ultimately, the ANA’s board of directors unanimously adopted the new position. The ANA statement offers nine reasons for the association's opposition to the death penalty, including racially and geographically biased application, the risk of executing innocent people, botched executions, and high costs. The new position aligns with the International Council of Nurses, which "considers the death penalty to be cruel, inhuman and unacceptable," and reflects a growing consensus among medical organizations that participation in executions by medical professionals is unethical. The American Medical Association, American Board of Anesthesiology, and American Pharmacists Association, among others, have discouraged or forbidden their members from participating in executions and American pharmaceutical manufacturers have adopted policies seeking to prevent misuse of their medicines as execution drugs.