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Kentucky Supreme Court Strikes Down Commonwealth’s Death-Penalty Intellectual Disability Law

Posted: June 18, 2018

The Kentucky Supreme Court has struck down the Commonwealth’s death-penalty intellectual disability law, which required proof of an IQ score of 70 or below before a death-row prisoner or capital defendant could be found ineligible for the death penalty. The court ruled on June 14, 2018, in the case of Robert Keith Woodall (pictured) that the Commonwealth’s use of a strict IQ cutoff as a prerequisite to finding a defendant intellectually disabled violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Hall v. Florida (2014) and Moore v. Texas (2017). Those decisions made clear that state standards for determining intellectual disability in death-penalty cases must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework” and that use of a fixed 70-IQ cutoff score is incompatible with that framework. The Kentucky court reversed a trial court decision that had rejected Woodall’s intellectual-disability claim, and ordered the trial court to reassess that claim using a proper standard. Woodall was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. Four years later, in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the death penalty for people with intellectual disability, and Woodall sought to have his death sentence overturned on those grounds. The trial court rejected his claim, saying he had not satisfied Kentucky's IQ requirement. The Hall decision, however, had specifically identified Kentucky’s IQ cutoff as one the statutory provisions that would violate the Eighth Amendment, and the Kentucky high court wrote that the Commonwealth's IQ standard “potentially and unconstitutionally exposes intellectually disabled defendants to execution.” Woodall’s attorneys praised the decision, saying, “While Kentucky was one of the first states to prohibit the execution of the intellectually disabled when it passed the statute that the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down today, that statute had long since become obsolete as the science moved forward. The Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision today to abandon that statute in favor of a more modern and scientific understanding of intellectual disability is very appropriate.” The court established new guidelines for lower courts to use in intellectual-disability hearings, including a “totality of the circumstances test,” which will examine whether defendants have the ability to learn basic skills and adapt their behavior to their circumstances.

 

STUDY: Local Mississippi Prosecutors Struck Black Jurors at More than Four Times the Rate of Whites

Posted: June 15, 2018

A new study shows that the Mississippi District Attorney's office that has prosecuted Curtis Flowers for capital murder six times—striking almost all black jurors in each trial—has disproportionately excluded African Americans from jury service for more than a quarter century. Reviewing the exercise of discretionary jury strikes in 225 trials between 1992 and 2017, American Public Media Reports discovered that during the tenure of Mississippi's Fifth Circuit Court District Attorney Doug Evans (pictured) prosecutors have exercised peremptory strikes to exclude African Americans from jury service at nearly 4½ times the rate at which they struck white jurors. APM Reports collected and analyzed data on more than 6,700 jurors called for jury service in the the Fifth District. Its study—which was reviewed before its release by a statistics expert and two law professors who had conducted prior jury-strike studies—found that Fifth District prosecutors struck 50 percent of all eligible black jurors compared to only 11 percent of eligible whites. Looking at potentially race-neutral factors raised during juror questioning, APM Reports found that prosecutors were still far more likley to strike black jurors than similarly situated white jurors (click here to enlarge graph). Controlling for these factors, the study found that the odds prosecutors would strike a black juror were six times greater than the odds that they would strike a white juror. APM Reports prepared the study in connection with its acclaimed podcast series In the Dark, which this season focuses on the Flowers case. Evans' office has been scrutinized for alleged race-related abuses of powers during the course of Flowers' six trials for the murder of four furniture store employees. Flowers has consistently professed his innocence. In his first three trials, Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death by all-white or nearly all-white juries. In each of these cases, the state Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ordered new trials. Just before the second trial, Flowers' parents' house burned down. Shortly afterwards, his mother was told of a threat made by a white resident that, "If they let that n----- go, another house is going to burn." Jurors deadlocked in Flowers' fourth and fifth trials, split along racial lines. All the white jurors voted for death in both of those trials. Only one black juror served on the sixth jury, and Flowers was sentenced to death in that trial. Although it is unconstitutional to exclude jurors from service based on race, the practice is ubiquitous in many jurisdictions that heavily use the death penalty. Over the course of 332 criminal trials in CaddoParish, Louisiana in the decade from 2003-2012, prosecutors struck black jurors at more than triple the rate of other jurors, approximately the same disproportionate rate at which black jurors were struck in 35 cases resulting in death sentences in South Carolina in the fifteen years between 1997-2012. In 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period in North Carolina, and in more than 300 capital trials over more than two decades in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, prosecutors struck black jurors twice as frequently as other jurors. Most recently, in Georgia, Johnny Gates, who was sentenced to death in Columbus, Georgia in 1977, has challenged his conviction with evidence that his prosecutors struck every black juror they could in the seven capital trials they prosecuted between 1976 and 1979, empaneling all-white juries in six of those cases. 

 

Retired Warden, Former Judge and Prosecutor Urge Ohio to Grant Clemency to Raymond Tibbetts

Posted: June 14, 2018

The Ohio Parole Board held a hearing on June 14, 2018 to consider clemency for death-row prisoner Raymond Tibbetts, whose February 13 execution was halted by Governor John Kasich to consider a juror's request that Tibbets be spared. Ross Geiger, one of the twelve jurors who sentenced Tibbetts to death in 1997, wrote to Governor Kasich on January 30 expressing “deep concerns” about a “very flawed” trial and saying he “would not have recommended the death penalty” had the jury been provided complete information about Tibbetts’ upbringing. Tibbetts’ clemency application has been buoyed by the support of two criminal justice experts, Judge James A. Brogan (pictured), a former prosecutor and past chief justice of the Ohio Courts of Appeals Judges Association who chaired the Ohio Supreme Court's Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, and George D. Alexander, a former Ohio prison warden and prison chaplain. Geiger wrote that the jury had voted for death after the prosecution had led them to believe that Tibbetts and his siblings had lived normal lives and his siblings ”had turned out fine.” He later learned that Tibbetts’ trial lawyer had failed to present evidence that Tibbetts had been abandoned at age 2, then abused and malnourished in foster care, and that “of Mr. Tibbetts’ four siblings, one committed suicide, one also spent time in prison, one is essentially homeless and unemployed, and only his sister is now doing well, despite having had a very turbulent younger life.” In a guest column in the Columbus Dispatch, Judge Brogan lauded Governor John Kasich’s decision in February to grant Tibbetts a reprieve so that Geiger could present his case to spare Tibbetts to the parole board. Brogan noted that the vote of just one juror is enough to prevent the imposition of a death sentence. “Fundamental flaws in the trial process deprived the jury of key facts that would have prevented this juror from voting in favor of death,” he wrote. “These truly extraordinary circumstances cry out for a clemency recommendation rather than an execution.” Alexander, the former prison warden and chaplain, added that Tibbetts has shown remarkable rehabilitation during his time in prison. “By all accounts, by the grace of God, Tibbetts has experienced a radical transformation,” Alexander wrote in a commentary published in the Akron Beacon-Journal. “He is no longer the troubled criminal, addicted to drugs and alcohol, as he was when he entered death row 20 years ago. He is remorseful, reflective and reformed.” The parole board will make a recommendation for or against clemency, but the ultimate decision rests with Governor Kasich.

 

Television Documentary Chronicles Innocence Claims of Two Death-Row Prisoners

Posted: June 13, 2018

A new documentary airing on ABC tells the stories of Darlie Lynn Routier and Julius Jones, two death-row prisoners who have long argued they were wrongfully convicted. The Last Defense, produced by Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon, focuses its first four episodes on Routier, a Texas woman convicted of killing her young son, then highlights Jones, a Black man who was a 19-year-old college student when he was arrested for the murder of a White businessman. Routier says an intruder broke into her home, killed her 5- and 6-year-old sons, and stabbed her while her husband and youngest son slept upstairs. Police concluded that Routier had staged the break-in and quickly named her as the suspect in her sons' murders. Her trial in the death of the younger child began only seven months after the murders and lasted only two days. Her attorneys say she did not receive adequate representation at trial, and that her trial attorney failed to counter forensic evidence against her because he had a conflict of interest, having previously represented Routier's husband in an unrelated case. Though a court has ordered DNA testing that could verify Routier's burglary story, bureaucratic delays have kept her waiting on death row. A June 19, 2017 status report on the testing said, “In May 2017, counsel in the Dallas County District Attorney (office) learned the materials that were supposed to have been transported to the Department of Public Safety for DNA testing, as the state trial court’s testing order had required, had never been transported to DPS.” Jones, who is on death row in Oklahoma, had been a high school athlete and honor student who did not fit the description of the shooter. Like Routier, he is seeking DNA testing that he believes will prove his innocence. Jones's case raises claims of ineffective counsel, and the series explores the role of race in his trial, as a young Black man accused of killing a White man in a suburban neighborhood. Jones has an appeal pending in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to review the race discrimination in his case. Data from a 2017 study of race and the death penalty shows that, in Oklahoma, defendants convicted of killing White victims are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing victims of color, and that among these White-victim cases, defendants of color were then nearly twice as likely as White defendants to be sentenced to death. The Last Defense airs Tuesdays on ABC.

 

Pew Poll Finds Uptick in Death Penalty Support, Though Still Near Historic Lows

Posted: June 12, 2018

Just under 54% of Americans say they support the death penalty and 39% say they are opposed, according to the results of a Pew Research poll released June 11, 2018. The poll—administered between April 25 and May 1, one month after President Trump called for the death penalty for drug trafficking—reflects a five-point increase in support for capital punishment, up from the record-low 49% recorded in Pew's 2016 poll. The results, which are in line with the 55% support level found by the Gallup organization in its October 2017 poll, are the second-lowest level of death-penalty support recorded since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. The Gallup findings marked a 45-year low in that poll. Support for the death penalty remained lowest, and opposition highest, among Democrats (35% in favor, 59% opposed), Blacks (36% in favor, 52% opposed), and people with postgraduate degrees (42% in favor, 56% opposed). The highest levels of support for capital punishment were reported among Republicans (77% in favor, 17% opposed), White evangelical Protestants (73% in favor, 19% opposed), and men (61% in favor, 34% opposed). Women and the youngest voters (aged 18-29) were evenly divided on the issue, with 1% more saying they supported the death penalty. The largest shift since 2016 was among those identifying themselves as political independents, with reported support increasing from 44% in 2016 to 52% this year. Pew does not report changes in party affiliation, and part of the shift with Independents may represent a change in those who self-identify as Independent, rather than changed beliefs on the part of individuals who previously called themselves Independents. Long-term trends, however, continue to show a clear decline in death-penalty support among all demographic groups. Support fell from 78% in 1996, to 64% in 2007, to 54% today. That decline has been sharpest among Democrats, whose support has dropped 36 percentage points since 1996, but support among Independents has fallen 25 percentage points during that period, and Republican support has fallen 10 percentage points. (Click image to enlarge.)

 

Georgia Supreme Court Hears First Death-Penalty Appeal in Two Years Amidst Sharp Decline in Death Sentences

Posted: June 11, 2018

In the midst of a sharp decline in death sentences in the state, the Georgia Supreme Court on June 4 heard a direct appeal in a capital case for the first time in two years. In March 2018, Georgia reached the four-year mark since it had last imposed a death sentence, a dramatic change for a state that once handed down 15 death sentences in a single year. The decline in Georgia's death penalty exemplifies broader national death-penalty trends. In 1987, when Georgia handed down those 15 death sentences, 288 people were sentenced to death across the country. Thirty years later, in 2017, Georgia was completing its third consecutive calendar year with no death sentences, and the national total was just 39. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, credits the public's preference for life without parole (LWOP) sentences, saying the availability of LWOP has made a "huge difference." "[W]hen you sit down with victims’ families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives," he said. Other prosecutors have found that the reluctance of juries to impose death sentences has made them less likely to seek death. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter called it "a self-fulfilling prophesy," noting, "As more and more juries give fewer death sentences, prosecutors begin to think it’s not worth the effort." The Georgia capital defender office's early intervention program has also reduced the number of death sentences by presenting prosecutors with reasons to decapitalize a case and reaching plea deals before a trial begins. Jerry Word, who leads that office, said, "The average time to resolve a case in early intervention has been less than eight months. The average time to get a case to trial is over three years. This results in a saving in court time and dollar savings to the state and county." Although prosecutors are seeking and juries imposing fewer and fewer death sentences, Georgia has continued to carry out controversial executions of defendants who likely would not be sentenced to death today. These include the December 2015 and March 2018 executions of Brian Keith Terrell and Carlton Gary, despite evidence that they may have been innocent; the May 2018 execution of Robert Earl Butts, Jr., although no Georgia jury has sentenced any defendant to death in the past decade in a case like his that involved a single victim and only one aggravating circumstance; executions of several men whose equally or more culpable co-defendants received lesser sentences; and prisoners who were intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled against Georgia in three capital cases since 2016, Foster v. Chatman, involving race discrimination in jury selection; Tharpe v. Sellers, involving a juror who said he doubted whether black people had souls; and Wilson v. Sellers, which presented a procedural habeas corpus issue.

 

Legislature Lets Illinois Governor's Death Penalty Reinstatement Proposal Die

Posted: June 8, 2018

An attempt by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (pictured) to reinstate Illinois' death penalty by attaching it as an "amendatory veto" to proposed gun-control legislation has failed. Rather than accede to a plan that would condition stricter gun regulation upon reintroducing the death penalty for murders of police officers and any murder with more than a single victim, the state legislature rewrote the gun-control measure the governor had amended, dropping any mention of capital punishment. In May, Gov. Rauner used an amendatory veto—a power some governors are granted that permits them to amend legislation in lieu of an outright veto—to add death-penalty reinstatement to a bill that created a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases. The governor's provisions would have created a new crime of "death penalty murder," potentially applicable whenever a police officer or more than one person was killed, subject to a "proof beyond all doubt." Rauner touted his changes, which also included additional gun control measures, as a comprehensive public-safety policy, but critics called it political grandstanding and state prosecutors objected to its adoption through the veto process without meaningful review and consideration. In a letter to the state House Judiciary-Criminal Committee, John Milhiser, the association's President, wrote: "there is no consensus of opinion on support for the death penalty" among Illinois prosecutors, but they agreed that the proposal "involves constitutional and legal concerns that cannot be evaluated in the brief time thus far allotted." Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, the gun-control bill's sponsor, said the governor had not consulted him about possible changes and had "hijacked my bill and put politics ahead of policy." The state house held a brief hearing on the bill on May 21, but did not act on it within the 15-day state constitutional window prescribed for consenting to an amendatory veto. On May 31, 2018, the final day of the legislative session, the legislature passed a clean version of the 72-hour waiting period bill, with no mention of the death-penalty proposal. Governor Rauner has 60 days from passage to take action on that bill.

 

“Outlier” Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Upholds Bobby James Moore's Death Sentence

Posted: June 7, 2018

In a ruling three dissenters criticized as an "outlier," and after having been rebuked by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 for ignoring the medical consensus defining intellectual disability, a sharply divided (5-3) Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) has upheld the death sentence imposed on Bobby James Moore (pictured) 38 years ago. On June 6, 2018, the CCA ruled that Bobby Moore is not intellectually disabled under the most recent clinical definition of the disability and may be executed, despite a finding by a trial court judge, a concession from the Harris County District Attorney's office, and briefs from numerous professional associations and disability advocates all concluding that Moore meets the diagnostic criteria for intellectual disability. Harris County prosecutors had filed a brief with the CCA, stating, "[a] review of the Supreme Court's decision and the record before this Court supports but a single conclusion: Bobby James Moore is intellectually disabled under current medical standards and ineligible for execution." In a forceful dissent, Judge Elsa Alcala, joined by Judges Bert Richardson and Scott Walker, catalogued the numerous groups that had concluded Moore satisfied the medical criteria for intellectual disability and wrote: "There is only one outlier in this group that concludes that applicant is ineligible for execution due to his intellectual disability, but unfortunately for applicant, at this juncture, it is the only one that matters. Today, in solitude, a majority of this Court holds that applicant is not intellectually disabled, and it denies his application for habeas relief." Moore initially presented his claim that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Atkins v. Virginia to a Harris County trial court. After making credibility determinations about the lay and expert testimony it heard, that court agreed that Moore had intellectual disability as defined by contemporary medical diagnostic criteria. However, the CCA reversed, applying an idiosyncratic set of criteria known as "Briseño factors" (named after the Texas court decision that announced them), which were based on unscientific stereotypes, including the behavior of a fictional character from Of Mice and Men. Last year, in Moore v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down Texas' use of that criteria, saying that a court's intellectual disability determination must be "informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework." The Court criticized the manner in which the CCA assessed Moore's significant deficits in adaptive functioning, saying the CCA had improperly focused on the adaptive skills Moore possessed, rather than the clinically required assessment of his areas of diminished functioning. It also said the CCA had improperly based its judgment on Moore's adaptive deficits on how he was able to function in the highly regimented prison setting. The dissent emphasized that the majority again gave improper consideration to these factors in reaching its conclusion that Moore was not intellectually disabled, and said the court had misapplied current medical standards and failed to defer to the trial court's credibility rulings. As a result, the dissent said, the CCA "essentially continues to determine that mildly intellectually disabled people are subject to the death penalty in contravention of the Supreme Court’s holding in Moore."

 

Federal Appeals Court Hears Argument in Case of Texas Death-Row Prisoner Who Gouged Out His Eyes

Posted: June 6, 2018

A severely mentally ill Texas death-row prisoner who gouged out his eyes and ate one of them has asked a federal appeals court to allow him to appeal a lower court decision that upheld his conviction and death sentence and found that he had been competent to stand trial. Andre Thomas (pictured, left when arrested; center, after gouging out his right eye prior to trial; right, after gouging out and eating his left eye while on death row); is seeking review of his claims that his conviction and sentence must be overturned because he is severely mentally ill, received inadequate representation at trial and at sentencing, and his jury was tainted by racial bias. On June 5, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit heard oral argument on whether Thomas is entitled to a “certificate of appealability” ("COA"), a procedural prerequisite to obtaining appellate review of the issues in his case. Thomas was sentenced to death in 2005 for the murders of his ex-wife, their son, and his ex-wife’s daughter. His lawyers did not contest that he had committed the murders, but argued he was incompetent to stand trial. Thomas began hearing voices at age nine and began smoking marijuana and using alcohol during his childhood. His condition sharply deteriorated shortly before the murders, as he heard voices, repeatedly mutilated himself, put duct tape over his mouth for days at a time because he believed God had told him not to talk, and attempted suicide. While in jail awaiting trial, Thomas gouged out his right eye. In 2008, while on death row, he then gouged out and ate his left eye. Three psychologists who evaluated Thomas before trial said he had paranoid schizophrenia and was incompetent to stand trial. However, after just six weeks of treatment, a state hospital psychologist claimed that Thomas had been exaggerating the symptoms, changed his diagnosis to "substance-induced psychosis," and judged Thomas competent to be tried. Thomas’s trial lawyers did nothing to contest the competency finding—allowing the trial to proceed—failed to retain an expert to challenge the state’s diagnosis of drug-related psychosis, and failed to present significant evidence of his mental illness. On appeal, Thomas challenged his lawyers’ performance on these issues. Appeal counsel also argued that, as a result of trial counsel’s failures, Thomas’s jury was impermissibly tainted by racial bias. Thomas is Black; his ex-wife was White. Written questionnaires submitted by several jurors suggested this raised serious concerns for several of the jurors. One juror wrote that he opposed interracial marriages because he believed “the bloodlines shouldn’t be mixed.” Another expressed concern that “any children” of an interracial marriage “would not have a specific race to belong to.” A third said “interracial relationships were contrary to God’s intent.” Although Thomas’s trial counsel were aware of these responses, they asked no follow-up questions of these jurors, and accepted them to serve on the jury. Finally, Thomas’s current lawyers argued that subjecting people like him, with severe mental illness, to the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional. “There is a growing consensus against the execution of the severely mentally ill,” they wrote in a brief. “The leading legal and mental-health professional organizations—including the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association—oppose the death penalty for the severely mentally ill.” [UPDATE: The Fifth Circuit granted Thomas a certificate of appealability permitting him to appeal the denial of his claims that his lawyers were ineffective in failing to challenge his competency, failing to present mitigating evidence relating to his mental illness, and failing to take action to keep jurors who expressed clear racial animus off his jury. The court denied his request for a COA on the constitutionality of executing prisoners who are severely mentally ill.] 

 

Supreme Court Asked to Review Constitutionality of Death Sentence Grounded in Anti-Gay Stereotypes

Posted: June 5, 2018

A gay man on death row in South Dakota has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case and to rule that it is unconstitutional for jurors to impose the death penalty based upon anti-gay animus and stereotypes. Charles Rhines (pictured) argues that South Dakota’s courts improperly refused to consider evidence—including an affidavit from one of his jurors that the jury “knew that he was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison”—showing that jurors in his case improperly based their death verdict on his sexual orientation. In 2017, in Buck v. Davis, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.” The Court said that a death sentence based on race would be “a disturbing departure from [that] basic premise of our criminal justice system” and ruled that Buck’s lawyer had been ineffective for presenting a witness whose testimony led to a death verdict based on “a noxious strain of racial prejudice.” The same year, the Court held in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado that “where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule [under a state rule of evidence] give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” Rhines’ petition asks the Court to rule that states may not refuse to consider evidence of juror animus based on sexual orientation and to declare that death sentences based upon prejudicial homophobic stereotypes are unconstitutional. An affidavit submitted by one of the jurors in Rhines’ case said that there had been “lots of discussion of homosexuality” during deliberations and “a lot of disgust.” While they were deliberating, jurors asked the court whether Rhines would be allowed to “mix with the general inmate population,” “create a group of followers or admirers,” “brag about his crime to other inmates, especially new and[/]or young men,” “marry or have conjugal visits,” or “have a cellmate.” According to an affidavit, one juror advocated against incarcerating Rhines with other men for life imprisonment without parole because it “would be sending him where he wants to go.” Quoting Buck, Rhines’ lawyers wrote, “To allow a juror to vote for a man’s death sentence on the basis of anti-gay animus and stereotypes unquestionably violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, along with the foundational principle that ‘[o]ur law punishes people for what they do, not who they are. Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.’” South Dakota opposes Rhines’ request, arguing that the constitutional principles that prohibit inquiring into jury sentencing based on racial bias do not apply to “bias based on gender, alienage, or sexual orientation. ... No politician has ever proposed constructing a wall to keep homosexuals out of the country,” the state’s brief says. “No civil war has been fought over [sexual orientation]. No nationwide pogrom has been perpetrated for the enslavement or eradication of homosexuals.” The Court has scheduled a conference for June 14 on whether to review Rhines’ case. [UPDATE: On June 18, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Rhines’s petition for writ of certiorari, declining to review his case.]

 

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