Updated: Jun 11, 2024

Capital Case Round Up

The latest developments in capital cases around the U.S. This page includes brief updates about grants of relief, resentencings, and other important case developments.

Federal Appeals Court Denies Reconsideration of Dylann Roof Appeal

Sep 24, 2021

In a one-page order on September 24, 2021, a pan­el of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied fed­er­al death-row pris­on­er Dylann Roofs motion seek­ing to rear­gue his appeal in front of the full cir­cuit. On August 25, 2021, a spe­cial pan­el of judges from out­side the cir­cuit affirmed Roof’s con­vic­tions and death sen­tences for the racial­ly moti­vat­ed mur­ders of nine parish­ioners in an his­toric Charleston, South Carolina African-American church in 2017.

Roof can still ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, the last stage of the direct appeal process. If the court declines to hear the case or agrees to hear it but affirms his con­vic­tions and sen­tence, the next stage of the fed­er­al death penal­ty process — habeas cor­pus review — will begin. 

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Florida Supreme Court Denies James Dailey’s Innocence Challenge to His Conviction and Death Sentence

Sep 23, 2021

Calling his evi­dence of inno­cence either imma­te­r­i­al or inad­mis­si­ble, the Florida Supreme Court on September 23, 2021 denied death-row pris­on­er James Daileys post-con­vic­tion chal­lenge to his con­vic­tion for the 1985 mur­der of a teenage girl. 

Over a strong dis­sent by Justice Jorge Labarga, the Court ruled that a sworn dec­la­ra­tion by Jack Pearcy, lat­er recant­ed, that he alone had com­mit­ted the mur­der, was inad­mis­si­ble and could not pro­vide a legal basis to over­turn Dailey’s con­vic­tion. It also reject­ed Dailey’s claim that pros­e­cu­tors know­ing­ly elicit­ed false tes­ti­mo­ny from their lead wit­ness, Paul Skalnik, that he had nev­er been charged with any crime of vio­lence and then failed to cor­rect Skalnik’s tes­ti­mo­ny that he had nev­er faced charges of rape or mur­der and had no phys­i­cal vio­lence in my life.” The court said that Dailey’s dis­cov­ery that his pros­e­cu­tor had writ­ten notes about Skalnik’s tes­ti­mo­ny in which he crossed out the words sex­u­al assault(s)” did not con­sti­tute new evi­dence because Dailey was pre­vi­ous­ly aware of the notes, though not their author, and Skalnik had been impeached on oth­er matters.

In dis­sent, Justice Labarga not­ed that a sig­nif­i­cant com­po­nent of the State’s case” rest­ed on tes­ti­mo­ny from jail­house infor­mants that was unsup­port­ed by any foren­sic evi­dence. Dailey’s con­vic­tion and death sen­tence, he said, were com­pro­mised by a cloud of unre­li­able inmate tes­ti­mo­ny.” Despite Pearcy’s sub­se­quent refusal to repeat his con­fes­sion in court or depo­si­tion tes­ti­mo­ny, Labarga said, his admis­sion to being sole­ly respon­si­ble for the mur­der, cou­pled with the lack of sub­stan­tial inde­pen­dent evi­dence to cor­rob­o­rate the tes­ti­mo­ny of the jail­house infor­mants,” suf­fi­cient­ly under­mined the case against Dailey. 

While final­i­ty in judi­cial pro­ceed­ings is impor­tant to the func­tion of the judi­cial branch,” Labarga wrote, that inter­est can nev­er over­whelm the imper­a­tive that the death penal­ty not be wrong­ly imposed. Since Florida rein­stat­ed the death penal­ty in 1972, thir­ty peo­ple have been exon­er­at­ed from death row [who] … would have even­tu­al­ly been put to death for mur­ders they did not com­mit. This num­ber of exon­er­a­tions, the high­est in the nation, affirms why it is so impor­tant to get this case right,” he said. 

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Alabama Federal Court Overturns Marcus Williams’ Death Sentence

Sep 23, 2021

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama grant­ed a new penal­ty hear­ing to death-row pris­on­er Marcus Williams on September 23, 2021, find­ing his coun­sel inef­fec­tive for fail­ing to inves­ti­gate and present a con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly ade­quate mit­i­ga­tion case dur­ing the penal­ty phase of his trial.” 

The rul­ing came fol­low­ing an evi­den­tiary hear­ing ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in 2015. The dis­trict court con­duct­ed that hear­ing on May 14 – 16, 2018 and ini­tial­ly denied relief on Williams’ inef­fec­tive­ness claims. However, on Williams’ motion for recon­sid­er­a­tion, the court vacat­ed its rul­ings, say­ing it had improp­er­ly assessed Williams’ future dan­ger­ous­ness in weigh­ing aggra­vat­ing and mit­i­gat­ing evidence. 

The court found that coun­sel unrea­son­ably failed to hire a mit­i­ga­tion spe­cial­ist; inves­ti­gate and obtain insti­tu­tion­al records; ade­quate­ly inves­ti­gate Williams’ back­ground and his­to­ry, includ­ing that he was repeat­ed­ly sex­u­al­ly abused as a child; ade­quate­ly inter­view and pre­pare the penal­ty phase wit­ness­es; com­pile Williams’ his­to­ry of abuse and neglect; and show how Williams’ back­ground con­tributed to his com­mit­ting the offense. But for these fail­ures, the court said, there was a rea­son­able prob­a­bil­i­ty that Williams would have been sen­tenced to life.

Pennsylvania Court Denies Post-Conviction Relief to Death-Row Prisoner Albert Reid, Remands on Competency Issue

Sep 22, 2021

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has, with one excep­tion, affirmed a tri­al court rul­ing deny­ing death-row pris­on­er Albert Reids post-con­vic­tion chal­lenge to his con­vic­tion and death sen­tence. In a 5 – 2 deci­sion issued on September 22, 2021, the court upheld the deci­sion of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas that dis­missed Reid’s post-con­vic­tion peti­tion. The court remand­ed the case on the ques­tion of Reid’s com­pe­ten­cy to stand tri­al and assist in his defense, say­ing the tri­al court had not suf­fi­cient­ly its rea­sons for deny­ing that claim.

Former Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor, joined by Justice Christine Donohue, dis­sent­ed with respect to the denial of penal­ty-phase relief, say­ing Reid’s coun­sel had been inef­fec­tive for fail­ing to inves­ti­gate and present avail­able mit­i­gat­ing evidence.

Texas Court Halts Ruben Gutierrez Execution Pending Outcome of Supreme Court Case on Exercise of Religion in the Execution Chamber

Sep 16, 2021

At the request of Cameron County pros­e­cu­tors, a Texas tri­al court has vacat­ed the death war­rant that had sched­uled the exe­cu­tion of Ruben Gutierrez (pic­tured) for October 272021

In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Gutierrez’s exe­cu­tion after Texas refused to allow his spir­i­tu­al advi­sor to accom­pa­ny him in the exe­cu­tion cham­ber and direct­ed the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, where Gutierrez had filed a civ­il rights suit alleg­ing reli­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion, to con­duct an evi­den­tiary hear­ing to deter­mine whether per­mit­ting a spir­i­tu­al advis­er of the pris­on­er’s choice in the exe­cu­tion cham­ber would pose secu­ri­ty con­cerns. Texas sub­se­quent­ly changed its exe­cu­tion pro­to­col to allow the spir­i­tu­al advi­sor into the exe­cu­tion cham­ber. However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice inter­pret­ed the pro­to­col as pro­hibit­ing the advi­sor from pray­ing out loud with the pris­on­er, admin­is­ter­ing last rites, or touch­ing the pris­on­er in any way. Texas issued a new death war­rant against Gutierrez and he again chal­lenged that policy.

On September 8, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the exe­cu­tion of Texas death-row pris­on­er John Ramirez to con­sid­er whether the Texas pol­i­cy vio­lat­ed the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the fed­er­al Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — the exact issues that Gutierrez has raised. The Cameron County District Attorney’s office asked the tri­al court to vacate Gutierrez’s war­rant pend­ing the out­come of Ramirez’s case.

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