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South Carolina Vacates the Conviction of 14-Year-Old Executed in 1944

On December 16, a South Carolina judge vacated the conviction of George Stinney, Jr., the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the last century. Judge Carmen Mullen wrote: “I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case.” Stinney, a black, 14-year-old boy, was convicted by an all-white jury of killing two young white girls. Police said Stinney confessed to the crime, but no confession was ever produced. His sister said in an affidavit in 2009 that she was with Stinney on the day of the murders and he could not have committed them, but she was not called to testify at his trial. The Stinney family was forced to leave town because of danger of violence. His trial lasted just 3 hours, and the jury deliberated for only ten minutes before finding him guilty. He was sentenced to die by electrocution. His attorneys did not file an appeal, and he was put to death less than three months after the offense.


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Supreme Court to Hear Case on Intellectual Disability Hearings

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari in Brumfield v. Cain, a death penalty case from Louisiana dealing with intellectual disability. Kevan Brumfield was sentenced to death prior to the Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which banned the execution of defendants with intellectual disabilities. After that ruling, Brumfield filed a claim of intellectual disability in state court. The court denied him a hearing because the trial transcript showed no evidence of his disability. A federal district court found that the state court had "mistakenly – and unreasonably– considered the record from Petitioner’s pre-Atkins penalty phase as determinative of Petitioner’s mental retardation claim under Atkins," granted Brumfield a hearing, and found him to be intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the federal district court's decision. Brumfield's attorneys said, "As a result of this decision, the compelling evidence presented to the district court will be ignored, and a person who was found to be mentally retarded will be executed." The Supreme Court will determine whether Brumfield should have been granted a hearing on his claim of intellectual disability.


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Georgia Inmate Whose Lawyer Was Drunk Seeks Clemency

Attorneys for Robert Holsey, an inmate on death row in Georgia, have filed a clemency petition before the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Holsey is scheduled to be executed on December 9, despite the fact that the lawyer who represented him at trial drank a quart of vodka a day and failed to present key evidence during the sentencing phase of Holsey's trial. The lawyer was later disbarred for embezzling clients' money and admitted that he was not fit to represent Holsey. Holsey's new attorneys say that mitigating evidence of Holsey's intellectual disabilities and abusive childhood should have been presented to the jury and could have resulted in a lesser sentence. Holsey has an IQ of about 70 and experienced severe abuse as a child. Brian Kammer, his current attorney, said, “The home where he lived in Milledgeville was known to the neighbors as the torture chamber because of the way they observed his mother to treat him, which was to beat him merciless.” The Board will hold Holsey's clemency hearing on December 8.


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STUDIES: Death Row Inmates Pay the Price for Lawyers' Mistakes

In Part Two of its investigation into the federal review of state death penalty cases, Death by Deadline, The Marshall Project found that in almost every case where lawyers missed crtiical filing deadlines for federal appeals, the only person sanctioned was the death row prisoner. Often the inmate's entire federal review was forfeited. The report highlighted the disparity between the 17 federal judicial districts where government-funded attorneys carefully monitor capital cases to ensure deadlines are met, and the other 77 districts, where appeals lawyers are appointed by judges and receive little oversight. In Florida, which produced 37 of the 80 missed deadline cases, appeals lawyers are selected from a state registry that includes lawyers who have previously missed deadlines in several capital cases. U.S. District Court judge Timothy Corrigan chastised one attorney who filed after the cutoff in three separate cases, saying, "I would be remiss if I did not share my deep concern that in these cases our federal system of justice fell short in the very situation where the stakes could not be higher.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently commented on the strict deadlines in capital cases, saying, “When you’re talking about the state taking someone’s life, there has to be a great deal of flexibility within the system to deal with things like deadlines. If you rely on process to deny what could be a substantive claim, I worry about where that will lead us.”


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STUDIES: Lawyers for Death Row Inmates Missed Critical Filing Deadlines in 80 Cases

An investigation by The Marshall Project showed that since Congress put strict time restrictions on federal appeals in 1996, lawyers for death row inmates missed the deadline at least 80 times, including 16 in which the prisoners have since been executed. The most recent of such cases occurred on Nov. 13, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida with no review in federal court. This final part of a death penalty appeal, also called habeas corpus, has been a lifesaver for inmates whose cases were marked with mistakes ignored by state courts. The Project's report, Death by Deadline, noted, "Some of the lawyers' mistakes can be traced to their misunderstandings of federal habeas law and the notoriously complex procedures that have grown up around it. Just as often, though, the errors have exposed the lack of care and resources that have long plagued the patchwork system by which indigent death-row prisoners are provided with legal help." One Alabama lawyer who missed the deadline was addicted to methamphetamine and was on probation for public intoxication. An attorney in Texas who filed too late had been reprimanded for misconduct, while another Texas lawyer had been put on probation twice by the state bar. Two weeks after being appointed in the death penalty case, he was put on probation again.


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NEW VOICES: Judges Call for Appellate Review Before Impending Execution

A group of 15 former state and federal judges, including a former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in support of a stay of execution for Mark Christeson in Missouri. Christeson is scheduled to be executed on October 29, but the judges said he has not received "any meaningful federal review of his death sentence." In their brief, organized by the Constitution Project, the judges stated: "[O]ur system would be broken indeed if it did not even provide him with an opportunity, assisted by conflict-free counsel, to present his case to a federal court." The supportive appeal was signed by judges from across the country, including Nathaniel Jones, formerly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Karla Gray, former Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, Gerald Kogan, former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, Marsha K. Ternus, former Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, and Michael A. Wolff, former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.


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Former Death Row Inmate in Texas Freed Because Attorneys Missed Evidence

On October 8, 2014 former death row inmate Manuel Velez (pictured with his son before his arrest) was freed from a Texas prison, following a "no contest" plea to a lesser charge on August 25. Velez had been convicted of killing his girlfriend's one-year-old son but consistently maintained his complete innocence. Velez's conviction was overturned in 2013 because his attorney failed to present evidence that the injuries leading to the child's death were sustained while Velez was 1,000 miles away. Medical records indicated the child's head ballooned in size in the months prior to his death in a manner that could only have been caused by head injuries. During that time, the child's mother was the only adult living with him. Velez's trial was also tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecution presented a witness who claimed that if Velez were not executed, he would be imprisoned under lax conditions with a risk for escape, making him a "future danger." The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said this testimony was false and contrary to known prison regulations, which the prosecution knew. Velez agreed to the no-contest plea so he could rejoin his family without the delay of a retrial, even though a retrial might have fully exonerated him.


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Supreme Court Begins New Term with at Least One Capital Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its 2014-15 term on October 6. One of the cases the Court will hear during its first month is Jennings v. Stephens, a Texas death penalty case involving ineffectiveness of counsel and whether a separate appeal is necessary for each such claim. Oral arguments will take place on October 15. The Court has been asked to review an appeal from Scott Panetti, another death row inmate from Texas, who may be mentally incompetent. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability. In that case, Hall v. Florida, the Court concluded that "Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world."


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BOOKS: "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has written a new book, Just Mercy, about his experiences defending the poor and the wrongfully convicted throughout the south. It includes the story of one of Stevenson's first cases as a young lawyer, that of Walter McMillian, who was eventually exonerated and freed from death row. McMillian, a black man, had been convicted of the murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. His trial lasted just a day and a half, prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, and the judge imposed a death sentence over the jury's recommendation for life. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the book, “Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all. Just Mercy should be read by people of conscience in every civilized country in the world to discover what happens when revenge and retribution replace justice and mercy. It is as gripping to read as any legal thriller, and what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation."


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REPRESENTATON: Death Row Inmate Received Bizarre Defense

Phillip Cheatham was represented at his death penalty trial by a lawyer who failed to develop a readily available alibi defense and portrayed Cheatham as a possible killer. The lawyer, Ira Dennis Hawver (pictured at his disbarment hearing, left), presented Cheatham as a drug-dealing killer who would not have left a witness alive to identify him and would have taken fewer shots to kill the victims. Hawyer admitted he might not have jumped through every "American Bar Association hoop" in defending his client. He appeared at his disciplinary hearing before the Kansas Supreme Court dressed as Thomas Jefferson. In overturning Cheatham's conviction in 2013, the state Supreme Court concluded, "Hawver's representation bore a greater resemblance to a personal hobby engaged in for diversion rather than an occupation that carried with it a responsibility for zealous advocacy."


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