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Texas Set to Execute Christopher Wilkins Despite Lawyers' Conflicts of Interest

Posted: January 11, 2017

Christopher Wilkins (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Texas on January 11, even as he has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that he has been improperly denied the opportunity to develop and present evidence that he suffers from significant cognitive deficits. Wilkins' Supreme Court petition asserts that his trial lawyer, Wesley Ball, who later withdrew from the case because of a potential conflict of interest, barely conducted any investigation into the case until just before jury selection and ignored a recommendation from a defense psychologist that Wilkins' mental functioning should be evaluated because he suffered from several cognitive deficits and was exposed to LSD as as a child, in addition to having other risk factors for brain damage. Wilkins' state post-conviction lawyer, Jack Strickland—who was responsible for investigating and presenting new evidence in the case—accepted a position with the prosecutor's office while representing Wilkins before filing a habeas application for Wilkins that only presented claims that had been procedurally barred or that were not reviewable. Wilkins repeatedly tried to fire Strickland but the state court refused to appoint new counsel and dismissed Wilkins' habeas petition. The federal district court judge then refused to provide Wilkins' federal lawyer funding to investigate his case, gave him only 45 days to prepare his federal habeas petition, and then denied the petition because Wilkins had not presented the evidence he says an investigation would have developed. When Wilkins' current lawyer filed a new petition in state court, the Texas courts refused to consider it, saying the evidence should have presented in his first habeas petition. Judge Elsa Alcala of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dissented, writing that Strickland "appears to have wholly failed to act as counsel" for Wilkins, and that the defective petition Strickland filed should have been considered "a nullity." Wilkins' petition in the United States Supreme Court argues that federal law entitles him to investigative and expert services that are "reasonably necessary" to assist him in developing the factual basis for his habeas corpus claims, and that the Texas federal court rulings denying him that assistance are out of step with the practices of other federal circuits. If Wilkins is executed, he will be the first person executed in the United States in 2017. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court denied Wilkins' petition for writ of certiorari and motion for stay of execution on January 11 and Texas executed him that evening.]

 

Denver's Newly Elected District Attorney Says She Will Not Seek the Death Penalty

Posted: January 10, 2017

Newly-elected Denver, Colorado District Attorney Beth McCann (pictured), sworn into office on January 10, 2017, has said that her administration will not seek the death penalty. Asked by 9News, Denver's NBC affiliate, whether Denver was "done with the death penalty," McCann said: "We are under my administration. I don't think that the state should be in the business of killing people." McCann told 9News that alternative sentences provide sufficient punishment at a substantially lesser cost: "I believe that life without the possibility of parole ... gets to the punishment piece, but doesn't cost the taxpayers those millions and millions of dollars that could be used to prosecute other cases." McCann also said she would support repeal of the death penalty in Colorado. No Denver jury has sentenced a defendant to death since 1986 and, after a lengthy capital trial, a jury in August 2015 sentenced Dexter Lewis to life for the stabbing deaths of 5 people in a Denver bar. The state currently has a moratorium on executions. McCann's views are in line with those of many new district attorneys across the country. In the November 2016 elections, voters replaced prosecutors who had aggressively sought death sentences in Hillsborough County, Florida, Harris County, Texas, and Jefferson County, Alabama. In an August primary, voters in Duval County, Florida, ousted Angela Corey, one of the nation's most pro-death penalty prosecutors.

 

National Black Caucus of State Legislators Call for Repeal of Death Penalty

Posted: January 9, 2017

Saying that "race plays a decisive role in who lives and who dies" in capital cases in the United States, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) voted at its 40th annual conference on December 14, 2016, to adopt its first ever resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The resolution states that "racial bias in the criminal justice system, including the death penalty and its application, is an undisputed fact," and notes that "from slavery to Jim Crow to the present day, the death penalty has long been a tool of injustice and discrimination." The resolution says "African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and all people of color are sentenced to longer prison terms, more likely to be tried as adults, and more likely to be sentenced to death in the United States." The NBCSL joined the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and the Movement for Black Lives, which passed anti-death penalty resolutions in August 2016, in advocating for legislation to repeal capital punishment statutes across the country.  In supporting death penalty repeal legislation, the NBCSL resolution cited studies and reports showing that: Black jurors are three times more likely than other jurors to be struck from a jury in a case in which a Black defendant faces a death sentence; according to 88% of criminologists, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent against crime; the death penalty has a negative impact on the families of both the murder victim and the defendant; and 156 wrongfully convicted death row prisoners have been exonerated and released from death row. "[T]he risk of executing an innocent person is higher than ever," the resolution states, "and evidence suggests that innocent African-Americans have been executed." The NBCSL also considered the excessive cost of the death penalty and the uses to which the money saved could be used as additional reasons to abolish the death penalty. The resolution says "repeal of the death penalty will free up millions of tax dollars in cash-strapped state budgets that could be redirected to violence prevention, combating implicit bias, or supporting victims of violence in Black communities." The NBCSL offered its support for "justice reinvestment initiatives and alternative programs that address criminal justice reform" and urged the "U.S. justice department to investigate the fairness, effectiveness, and costs of the death penalty and disproportionate sentencing."  Nebraska State Senator Tanya Cook sponsored the resolution, saying that the death penalty "is not a deterrent to violent crime. Period."  In 2002, the NBCSL had passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on capital punishment.

 

INTERNATIONAL: Human Rights Group, Reprieve Issues Report on Global Executions in 2016

Posted: January 6, 2017

Despite a sharp drop in executions, the United States ranked sixth among the world's executioners in 2016 behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to a report by the British-based international human rights group, Reprieve. Maya Foa, a director of Reprieve, said "[i]t is alarming that countries with close links to the UK and [European Union] continue to occupy the ranks of the world's most prolific executioners in 2016." Questions of innocence, execution of juvenile offenders, and use of the death penalty for non-lethal drug offenses were among the top worldwide problems in the administration of the death penalty cited by Reprieve in the report. "[W]e have found children on death row, innocent people hanged, drugs offences dealt with as capital crimes, and torture used to extract false confessions," Foa said. "Countries that oppose executions must do more in 2017 to ensure that their overseas security assistance does not contribute to others states use of the death penalty.” Reprieve's analysis of global executions in 2016 found that China continues to carry out the most executions of any country, though the exact number is a state secret. Nearly half of the more than 500 prisoners executed in Iran were killed for committing drug offenses. In Saudi Arabia, those executed included juvenile offenders and political protestors. The ongoing armed conflict in Iraq made information on the country's executions difficult to obtain. Pakistan lifted a moratorium on executions in 2014, ostensibly in response to terrorism. But Reprieve found that 94% of those executed had nothing to do with terrorism. The Pakistan Supreme Court found in 2016 that two men who had been hanged were innocent. The Reprieve report also raised concerns about Egypt's high rate of death sentencing -- more than 1,800 people have been sentenced to death in that country in the last three years.

 

California Agency Rejects Proposed Execution Protocol

Posted: January 5, 2017

In a new setback to efforts to restart executions in California, the state's Office of Administrative Law (OAL) has rejected the new lethal injection protocol proposed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. On December 28, 2016, the OAL, which is responsible for reviewing regulatory changes proposed in California, issued a 25-page decision of disapproval, citing inconsistencies, inadequate justification for certain parts of the proposal, and a failure to adequately respond to public comments. The agency gave the Department of Corrections four months to address problems in the protocol. The proposed protocol would have changed California's previous three-drug procedure to a one-drug procedure, calling for 7.5 grams of one of four barbiturates. The OAL questioned whether the 7.5 gram dose met California's requirement that a regulation be "necessary," noting that corrections officials had said 5 grams of the barbiturate would be lethal and had provided no rationale as to why they chose a larger dose. It also requested clarification of numerous ambiguities in the new regulations, including the steps taken by correctional officials in the days leading up to the execution, what steps would be taken during the course of an execution if the prisoner did not immediately die, and what would be involved in monthly inspections of the execution chamber. Among the inadequate responses to public comments, the OAL noted that "[t]he Department's response does not address the issue of 'using methods that are untested or poorly understood' or 'human experimentation' as it pertains to the use ... for lethal injection purposes" of two of the drugs in the protocol. Executions in California have been on hold since 2006 because of legal challenges to the state's lethal injection procedure. In November, voters narrowly passed Proposition 66, which proposes to speed up executions. Implementation of that proposition was blocked by the California Supreme Court, pending the outcome of a lawsuit.

 

Texas Sues Food and Drug Administration Over Seizure of Execution Drugs

Posted: January 4, 2017

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice filed suit on January 3, 2017 against the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the FDA's continued detention of drugs Texas had attempted to import for executions. In October 2015, Texas and Arizona attempted to import sodium thiopental, an anesthetic commonly used in executions prior to 2010, from Harris Pharma, a supplier in India. The FDA halted both shipments, saying that their import violated federal law. The FDA does not comment on litigation, but has previously said that sodium thiopental has no legal uses in the United States. The agency has indicated in the past that an injunction issued by a federal district court in Washington in 2013, and which later was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, requires it to halt importation of the drug. No U.S. manufacturer currently produces sodium thiopental, and so the drug is unavailable from domestic sources. Texas argues that the drug should be allowed to be imported under a "law enforcement exemption" to usual importation rules. In a statement about the lawsuit, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton attacked the agency, saying "[t]here are only two reasons why the FDA would take 17 months to make a final decision on Texas’ importation of thiopental sodium: gross incompetence or willful obstruction." Texas has used an alternative drug, pentobarbital, in executions since 2012. A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said, "We cannot speculate on the future availability [of] drugs, so the agency continues to explore all options including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process."

 

Washington Governor Issues Reprieve, Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

Posted: January 3, 2017

Citing "serious concerns about the use of capital punishment in the state of Washington," Governor Jay Inslee (pictured) granted a reprieve to Clark Richard Elmore, whom the state's Department of Corrections had scheduled for execution on January 19, 2017, and urged the state legislature to abolish capital punishment in the state. The December 29, 2016 warrant of reprieve was the first reprieve order issued under a moratorium on executions that the governor announced in 2014. The warrant prevents Washington from executing Elmore unless and until the reprieve is lifted by Inslee or a future governor, but it does not reduce Elmore's sentence. The Governor's office said Inslee spoke with the victim’s family, "who expressed a preference to see Elmore serve life in prison," before issuing the reprieve. The warrant of reprieve reiterates several of the concerns about the death penalty that led Gov. Inslee to impose the moratorium in the first place, including "[u]nequal application across the state, lack of clear deterrent value, high frequency of sentence reversal on appeal, and rising costs." It states:  "The State's two most important responsibilities in addressing criminal justice issues are to protect the public and to ensure equal justice under the law, and I do not believe the use of capital punishment effectively satisfies these responsibilities." In a separate statement to the media, the governor's office said the state's moratorium on executions was based on systemic concerns and "isn’t about individual cases." Because of those concerns, the statement said, "[t]he governor urges the state legislature to end the death penalty once and for all." Nine men are currently on death row in Washington, and the state's last execution was in 2010.

 

NEW VOICES: Regretting Execution, Murder Victim's Family Urges Governor to Commute Missouri's Death Row

Posted: December 30, 2016

When Missouri executed Jeff Ferguson in 2014 for the rape and murder of Kelli Hall, her father said the Hall family "believed the myth that Ferguson’s execution would close our emotional wounds." At that time, Jim Hall told reporters "It's over, thank God." But, he now says, it wasn't. In an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune, Mr. Hall writes that his family has "come to deeply regret [Ferguson's] execution" and appeals to Governor Jay Nixon to commute the death sentences of the 25 men remaining on the state's death row. Hall says that several weeks after Ferguson was executed, his family viewed a documentary film that featured comments from Ferguson that "conveyed such genuine remore for the pain he caused both our family and his because of his horrible actions." A few months later, the Halls also learned that Ferguson had been a leader in the prison's hospice, GED, and restorative justice programs, including one in which prisoners listened to victims share the devastating impact the crimes had on their lives.The Hall family was able to forgive Ferguson as soon as they saw the film, and Mr. Hall says "my family wishes we had known of his involvement in these programs and been invited to participate. ... I'm convinced significant healing would have occurred for us all if our family had engaged in a frank conversation with him at the prison. I wish I had had the chance -- consistent with my Christian beliefs -- to have told him in person that I forgave him for what he did to our innocent and precious daughter." While applauding Governor Nixon for "his strong advocacy of restorative justice," Mr. Hall writes "[t]he death penalty ... stands as the concept's polar opposite." Commuting all of Missouri's death sentences to life in prison without parole, he says, "would be a true gesture of restorative justice."

 

First-Degree Murder Charges Dropped Against Two Former Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoners With Innocence Claims

Posted: December 29, 2016

On December 22, Pennsylvania prosecutors dropped first-degree murder charges against two former Pennsylvania death row prisoners who have asserted their innocence for decades. In courtrooms 100 miles apart, Tyrone Moore and James Dennis entered no-contest pleas to charges of third-degree murder, avoiding retrials on the charges that had initially sent the men to death row and paving the way for their release. A Luzerne County judge sentenced Moore to 20 years and released him from prison for time served following his no contest plea. He had already served 34 years, 22 of them on death row for a murder during the course of a robbery at a veterinary office. A federal judge had granted Moore a new trial after he presented evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, including his lawyer's failure to interview a co-defendant who testified in his own trial that Moore was not present at or involved in the robbery or killing. Before entering the plea, Moore reiterated that he is "wholeheartedly innocent" of the crime, and told the court, "I want to be home with my family." The victim's family supported the plea deal. In the second case, Dennis had spent 25 years on death row for the robbery and murder of a woman at a transportation terminal in Philadelphia. A federal judge overturned his conviction in 2013 as a result of multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including suppressing evidence pointing to an alternate suspect who was a high school classmate of the victim and other evidence supporting Dennis' alibi. The court called the conviction "a grave miscarriage of justice," saying that Dennis had been convicted and sentenced to death "for a crime in all probability he did not commit." His attorney, Karl Schwartz, told the court, "James Dennis entered a no-contest plea, not a guilty plea, because he maintains the same position that he has maintained for 25 years: that he is innocent of this crime. He and his family have made this incredibly difficult decision based on his and their strong desire to have him home and free, [in] lieu of potentially years of continuing litigation." Dennis faces parole for an unrelated robbery conviction before he can be released.

 

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Orange County, California Plagued by Misconduct Scandals

Posted: December 28, 2016

Orange County, California imposed nine death sentences between 2010 and 2015, more than 99.8% of American counties, and ranking it among the 6 most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country during that period. Over the last four years, patterns of misconduct have been revealed in the Orange County District Attorney's Office, sheriff's office, and crime lab. In 2015, Judge Thomas Goethals disqualified District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (pictured) and the entire prosecutor's office from participating in the capital trial of Scott Dekraai because of systemic police and prosecutorial misconduct involving the deliberate and undisclosed use of prison informants to unconstitutionally elicit incriminating statements from defendants. A California appeals court, citing "[t]he magnitude of the systemic problems" in Orange County and the "cozy relationship" between local prosecutors and the sheriff's office, upheld the trial court's order. The sister of the victim in Dekraai's case asked the office to stop seeking the death penalty because the mishandling of the case had led to five years of delays. She called the death penalty a "false promise" for victims' families, yet the office continued to pursue a death sentence. Judge Goethals' ruling prompted the passage of a California law giving judges greater authority to remove prosecutors from cases in which they have committed misconduct, and to report misconduct to the state bar. It also led to a special committee report on the Orange County District Attorney's Office, which found a "failure of leadership" at the root of the misconduct, along with a "win-at-all-costs mentality." In mid-December, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was opening an investigation into the county's use of jailhouse informants. Meanwhile, a motion by the Orange County Public Defender's Office filed in September accused the county crime lab of doctoring testimony to benefit the prosecution, after a senior forensic analyst offered contradictory testimony in two separate murder trials, each supporting the prosecution's case. Recent death sentences in Orange County show patterns of bias and dispropotionality. 89% of those sentenced to death from 2010-2015 were people of color, and 44% were Black, though Blacks make up just 2% of Orange County's population. Half of the 24 cases decided on direct appeal from 2006-2015 involved defendants with serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual impairment, or who were under age 25 at the time of their crime.

 

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