Crimes Punishable by the Death Penalty

Discriminatory Use of Death Penalty Against Gays Raises Concerns Globally and in the U.S.

As human rights activists raise alarms about a new law in Brunei that would punish homosexuality by death by stoning, the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to hear a case in which jurors who exhibited anti-gay bigotry sentenced a gay defendant to death. Charles Rhines (pictured), a South Dakota death-row prisoner, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, after a lower federal court denied him the opportunity to present juror statements showing that homophobic prejudice played a role in his death sentence. Leading civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights Campaign, have asked the Court to hear the case. Meanwhile, on April 3, 2019, Brunei will institute new laws that will make homosexual sex punishable by death. Brunei’s action has drawn a sharp rebuke from United Nations officials, international human rights groups, and activists—including actor George Clooney and musician Elton John, who are calling for a boycott of properties owned by the Sultan of Brunei.

Charles Rhines filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2019 seeking review of his case after a split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit voted 2-1 not to hear his appeal. The civil rights organizations filed supporting briefs on March 25 and the Court is scheduled to consider Rhines’ petition on April 12. At Rhines’ trial, prosecution witnesses testified that he was gay and, according to jurors, “[t]here was lots of discussion of homosexuality” during sentencing deliberations. “There was a lot of disgust. … There were lots of folks who were like, ‘Ew, I can’t believe that.’” In a 2016 sworn statement, juror Frances Cersosimo reported that one juror said, “If he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go” by sentencing Rhines to life in an all-male prison. Juror Harry Keeney said in a sworn statement, “We also knew he was a homosexual and thought he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” South Dakota prosecutors have asked the Supreme Court to refuse to consider the civil rights groups’ briefs, calling the federal defenders office representing Rhines “an extremist organization” and saying the petition should “not become a cause célèbre for making Rhines of all people a false prophet of homosexual rights.”

In 2017, 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 ... the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” Rhines’ lawyers are advocating that the Court extend that ruling to include juror bias against a defendant’s sexual orientation. In an amicus brief, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund wrote, “Just as the Constitution does not permit a person to be sentenced to die because of his race, it should not permit a person to be sentenced to die because of his sexual orientation.” A brief submitted by seven LGBTQ rights organizations said, “[b]ias based on sexual orientation in jury deliberations reinforces historical prejudice against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and undermines the integrity of our judicial system.”

Anti-LGBTQ use of the death penalty came under renewed international scrutiny as Brunei prepares to put a new law in place that would make adultery and homosexual sex punishable by death by stoning. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called the law “cruel and inhuman,” “draconian,” and “a serious setback for human rights protections.” Actor and activist George Clooney urged a boycott of hotels owned by Brunei’s monarch, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. In an op-ed for Deadline, Clooney wrote, “every single time we stay at or take meetings at or dine at any of [the Sultan’s] nine hotels we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who choose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery.” Musician Elton John joined Clooney’s call for boycotts, saying, “Discrimination on the basis of sexuality is plain wrong and has no place in any society.” “I believe that love is love and being able to love as we choose is a basic human right,” John said.

He’s on California’s Death Row, But Demetrius Howard Never Killed Anyone

A February 4, 2019 article in the criminal justice newsletter, The Appeal, features the case of Demetrius Howard, a California prisoner sentenced to death for a crime in which he didn’t kill anyone. Howard was sentenced to death in 1995 for his participation in a robbery in which another man, Mitchell Funches, shot and killed Sherry Collins. Howard was never accused of firing a shot and he has consistently maintained that he neither expected nor intended that anyone would be killed. But under California’s felony murder law, he was eligible for the death penalty because he participated in the robbery. In a letter to The Appeal, Howard wrote, “I am no saint or some angel. I’ve made my share of wrongs, but I haven’t killed no one [or] told anyone to kill someone.”

California is one of twenty states that allow the execution of defendants who neither killed nor intended that a killing take place. The controversial practice has attracted the most attention in the state of Texas, where at least six prisoners have been executed despite undisputed evidence that they were not involved in the killing itself. In Howard’s case, the man who actually shot Collins, Mitchell Funches, received a sentence of life without parole when the jury in his trial could not reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence him to life or death. In 2018, California passed a law that narrowed the scope of the felony murder law, making defendants liable for murder only if they were the killer, solicited the killer, or acted with reckless indifference to human life. The change is retroactive, but does not apply to Howard because the jury found that he had “acted with reckless indifference to human life” before it sentenced him to death.

Howard’s death sentence is also a by-product of outlier death-penalty practices in San Bernardino County. San Bernardino is one of five Southern California counties that imposed more death sentences between 2010 and 2015 than 99.5% of U.S. counties, earning the region the nickname “the new death belt.” In 1993, shortly before Howard was sentenced to death, there were 10 active capital trials in the county, and then-District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier said he was considering seeking it in two other cases. At the time, Kottmeier told the San Bernardino County Sun, “That’s higher than I’ve ever seen it. At any given time in the past the number pending seemed to be about six.” He attributed the high number of capital cases to a high rate of violent crime, as well as state laws passed in 1990 and 1993 that expanded the list of death-eligible crimes. The California Attorney General’s 2017 report, Homicide in California, shows that despite its disproportionate pursuit of capital punishment, San Bernardino’s higher-than-average murder rate has remained the same from 1997 to 2017, while murder rates have declined statewide and in many of California counties during that period.

Questionable Ruling Grants Jeffrey Havard New Sentencing but Not New Trial in Controversial “Shaken Baby” Case

Sixteen years after a notorious and now-discredited forensic witness told a Mississippi jury that Jeffrey Havard had sexually abused and shaken his girlfriend's six-month-old daughter to death, Havard's death sentence—but not his conviction—has been overturned. On September 14, 2018, Adams County Circuit Judge Forrest Johnson ruled that state pathologist Steven Hayne's recantation of his diagnosis that infant Chloe Britt had been a victim of Shaken Baby Syndrome was "not sufficient to undermine this court's confidence in the conviction," but that "there is a cautious disturbance in confidence of the sentence of death, even if slight." Havard's co-counsel, Graham Carner, told the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, "With all due respect, we think the court got it wrong. We are disappointed, but we are not done." Washington Post columnist Radley Balko criticized Johnson's five-page ruling—which repeatedly misspells the expert's name as "Haynes"—as "gutless" and "sloppy." Balko, whose book The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South exposed rampant irregularities in forensic testimony in Mississippi murder cases, said, “It doesn’t seem like too much to ask that the judge correctly spell the name of the state’s expert whose testimony is the entire reason that the hearing took place.” During a 2002 trial that rocketed from jury selection to a death sentence in just two days, the state—supported by Hayne's testimony—argued that Havard had anally and orally raped the infant and shaken her sufficiently to cause injuries that would later kill her. The defense presented a single witness who provided all of three pages of testimony, failing to challenge the forensic testimony in the case. Defense counsel also failed to explain to the jury that, as Balko writes, Havard supposedly "anally raped the infant, orally raped her, shook her violently enough cause injuries that would later — but not immediately — kill her, then bathed and cleaned her" so thoroughly that "none of Havard’s hair, skin cells or semen was found on or inside the girl," "dressed her, and tucked her into bed as if nothing had happened" — all in the time it took Chloe's mother to go the store "to buy some burrito supplies." Since the trial, Hayne has recanted his testimony that Chloe was sexually assaulted and says he was wrong to attribute the child’s head injuries to SBS (Shaken Baby Syndrome). Hayne had testified under oath that he regularly performed 1,500 or more autopsies each year, nearly five times the maximum number recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners. He had never been certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology and failed the certification exam in 1980. Three other reputable experts who reviewed Hayne’s autopsy report found no evidence of abuse on the infant. In 2008, he was barred from doing autopsies for Mississippi prosecutors and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit called his work declared "discredited." At least ten men and women have been exonerated from death rows across the United States after having been wrongly convicted for killing a child. In the cases of Rodricus Crawford and Sabrina Butler, the medical evidence also showed that no crime had occurred, but the defendants were convicted based on false forensic testimony. In April 2018, Vicente Benavides was exonerated from California’s death row after the prosecution presented false forensic testimony claiming that a toddler in his care had been sexually assaulted.

Illinois Governor Uses Gun-Control Veto to Attempt to Re-Enact Death Penalty

lllinois Governor Bruce Rauner has conditionally vetoed a gun-control initiative unless the legislature agrees to reinstate capital punishment in the state. Exercising an amendatory veto—a power some governors are granted that permits them to amend legislation in lieu of an outright veto—Rauner called for making the killing of a police officer or any murder in which more than one person was killed a new crime of "death penalty murder." In a May 14, 2018 news conference at the Illinois State Police forensic laboratory in Chicago, Rauner said "individuals who commit mass murder, individuals who choose to murder a law enforcement officer, they deserve to have their life taken." He attached his death-penalty plan and several other gun-control amendments to a bill that would have established a 72-hour waiting period for the purchase of assault rifles in Illinois. Legislative leaders and major Illinois newspapers blasted the action as diversionary political gamesmanship by a weakened governor facing a difficult re-election campaign, and said the death-penalty plan had little chance of enactment. 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." Senate President John Cullerton said: “The death penalty should never be used as a political tool to advance one’s agenda. Doing so is in large part why we had so many problems and overturned convictions. That’s why we had bipartisan support to abolish capital punishment.” Thomas Sullivan, the co-chair of Commission on Capital Punishment in Illinois appointed by Republican Gov. George Ryan, said Rauner's plan was a “lousy idea.” He called the death penalty expensive and time-consuming, and said, "It doesn’t reduce crime." The Chicago Tribune editorial board characterized Rauner's amendatory veto as "cynical" and a "death penalty ploy" that the paper said was intended "to re-establish [Rauner's] bona fides with disgruntled conservative Republicans." A Chicago Sun-Times editorial said the governor knew he was "load[ing] up the bill with so many major new provisions that there is no way" the state legislature would approve it, enabling Rauner to claim he "didn’t technically kill the cooling off period ... without strictly telling a lie." In 2000, after a series of death-row exonerations, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois and appointed the commission, and in 2003 commuted the sentences of everyone on the state's death row. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill to abolish the state's death penalty in 2011. The Tribune editorial said: "The death penalty issue in Illinois was examined and debated for years in light of notorious incidents of wrongly convicted defendants sent to death row. In Illinois, the legitimate sentiment of many that certain heinous criminals should be put to death was weighed against the risk of errors, and the decision was made to end capital punishment. ... [N]othing has changed to make Rauner’s [May 14] announcement worthy of consideration."

POLL: Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Death Penalty for Overdose Deaths

Americans of all ages, races, and political affiliations overwhelmingly oppose the Trump administration plan to pursue capital punishment for drug overdose deaths and believe it will have no effect on addressing the opioid public health crisis, according to a March 16-21, 2018 nationwide Quinnipiac University poll. By a 50-percentage-point margin (71% to 21%, with 8% saying they did not know or would not answer), Americans oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of selling drugs that contributed to a fatal overdose (click on graph to enlarge image). Three-quarters of Americans (75%-20%-5%) said that using the death penalty for drug sales leading to overdose deaths will not help stop the opioid crisis. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans (57%) both opposed the administration’s plan and thought it would not work. Opposition to the use of the death penalty for drug-overdose sales was highest among African Americans (90%), Democrats (87%), voters aged 18-34 (82%), and college-educated Whites (77%). 73% of women and 70% of men opposed the plan, as did 69% of Whites, Hispanics, and Independents. By margins of more than 3 to 1, men and women, Blacks and Whites, and Democrats and Independents also said using the death penalty would not help stop the opiod crisis. Hispanics by a margin of 2 to 1 thought it would not work. The Quinnipiac Poll also asked the 1,291 voters it surveyed several questions about the death penalty itself. In a question that asked simply “Do you support or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?,” 58% said they supported capital punishment, while 33% opposed. That contrasted with the most recent Gallup Poll, which reported 55% support for the death penalty, and the Pew Research Center poll, which reported support at 49%. When asked “Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole?,” 51% of Quinnipiac Poll respondents said they preferred life without parole, versus 37% who preferred capital punishment. A Quinnipiac news release said this was the first time since the poll began asking this question in 2004 that a majority of Americans said they preferred the life-sentencing option. At the same time, however, poll respondents said by a 2 to 1 margin that they would not like to see the death penalty abolished nationwide. Democrats split on that question at 47%-46% in favor of abolition, but substantial majorities of every other demographic opposed abolition. “It’s a mixed message on a question that has moral and religious implications,” said Tim Malloy, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “Voters are perhaps saying, ‘Keep the death penalty, but just don’t use it.” 

Supreme Court Declines to Review Arizona Case Challenging Constitutionality of Death Penalty

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a sweeping challenge to the constitutionality of capital punishment brought by Arizona death-row prisoner Abel Hidalgo (pictured). After scheduling consideration of Hidalgo v. Arizona for ten separate court conferences, the Court on March 19 unanimously denied Hidalgo’s petition for writ of certiorari. In a statement issued in conjunction with the Court’s ruling, however, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, expressed concern about a second issue raised by Hidalgo—the constitutionality of Arizona’s method of deciding which defendants are eligible for the death penalty. The four justices said that the Arizona Supreme Court had misapplied Supreme Court precedent on that “important Eighth Amendment question,” but believed the factual record was insufficiently developed to warrant the court’s review of the case at this time. Hidalgo had presented records from more than 860 first-degree murder cases over an eleven-year period in Maricopa County—where he was charged—showing that 98% of first-degree murder defendants in that county were eligible for the death penalty, but had been denied an evidentiary hearing to further develop the issue. This “evidence is unrebutted,” the four justices said, and “would seem to deny the constitutional need to ‘genuinely’ narrow the class of death-eligible defendants.” Although “[e]vidence of this kind warrants careful attention and evaluation,” they wrote, the absence of an evidentiary hearing had left the Court with a factual record that “is limited and largely unexamined by experts and the courts below.” With an “opportunity to fully develop a record with the kind of empirical evidence that the petitioner points to here,” the four justices said, “the issue presented in this petition [would] be better suited for certiorari.” The court declined without comment to review a broader challenge Hidalgo presented to the constitutionality of capital punishment itself. Hidalgo is one of many death-row prisoners to raise that issue in the wake of a 2015 dissent by Justices Breyer and Ginsburg in Glossip v. Gross in which they said it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment” prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

Public Health Experts Criticize Trump’s Proposal to Seek Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers

Saying “the ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty,” President Donald Trump (pictured) announced on March 19 that he will direct the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty against drug traffickers. The proposal, included as part of the administration’s plan to address an opioid epidemic that has resulted in as many as 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016 alone, drew immediate criticism from public-health and criminal-justice experts. “We can’t execute our way out of this epidemic,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. “To be talking about the death penalty sounds to me like a step backwards.” During the announcement, Trump acknowledged resistance to his death-penalty proposal, saying, “[m]aybe our country's not ready for that. It's possible, it’s possible that our country is not ready for that.” Since 1994, federal law has authorized the death penalty for “drug kingpins” who traffic in large quantities of drugs, even if no killing has occurred. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for crimes against individuals in which no one is killed, and no prior administration—Republican or Democratic—has used the drug kingpin provision to seek the death penalty. Experts said the opioid crisis should be dealt with as a public-health issue and that harsher penalties for drug dealers would not fix the problem. Instead, they said, the administration should focus on addiction treatment. “The reality is, most people who are selling drugs are suffering from opioid addiction, and they sell drugs to support their own habit,” Dr. Kolodny said. “When I start hearing about the death penalty, it just seems to me we’re going in the wrong direction.” Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia University, agreed, saying “[c]riminal justice can play a complementary role in addressing the opioid crisis, but relying on the criminal justice system to address public health problems has proven unwise, costly, ineffective and often counterproductive.” Legal experts said the constitutionality of death sentences for drug dealers would likely be the subject of extensive litigation. “The death penalty is uncertain as a constitutionally permissible punishment without that connection to an intentional killing,” said Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman. Hamilton County, Ohio, Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters, known for aggressively pursuing the death penalty, said “[t]o seek a death penalty case [simply for for drug trafficking] would be almost impossible. We'd have serious constitutional problems.” Former Harris County, Texas, homicide prosecutor Ted Wilson called the proposal “kind of over-the-top.” The death penalty for drug dealers "in my opinion just doesn’t fit,” he said. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) compared the President’s death-penalty proposal to past failed drug policies, saying, “We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic—we tried that and ended up with an even bigger addiction problem and the world’s largest prison population. The war on drugs didn’t work in the 80’s, and it won’t work now by reviving failed deterrence measures like the death penalty for drug dealers.  We must instead crack down on the over-production and over-prescribing of painkillers, and increase treatment for those suffering from addiction—both of which have bipartisan support in Congress." A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released March 8, found that harsher penal sanctions had no measurable impact on drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests. The data, Pew said, “reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.”

New Podcast: Jeffery Wood and the Texas Law of Parties, With Expert Guest Kate Black

Today, DPIC launches a new podcast series, "Discussions With DPIC," which will feature monthly, unscripted conversations with death penalty experts on a wide variety of topics. The inaugural episode features a conversation between Texas Defender Services staff attorney Kate Black (pictured) and DPIC host Anne Holsinger, who discuss the case of Jeffery Wood and Texas' unusual legal doctrine known as the "law of parties." Wood's case garnered national media attention because he was sentenced to death despite having neither killed anyone nor even intended that a killing take place. His execution, which had been scheduled for August 24, was stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to permit him to litigate a challenge to the prosecution's use of scientifically invalid predictions of future dangerousness by a psychiatrist who had been expelled from state and national psychiatric associations for similarly improper testimony in the past. In the podcast, Black explains the law of parties and its application in Wood's case, and discusses how the national dialogue that developed around Wood's case may affect the death penalty in the future. 

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