Death Row

Lawsuit: Nebraska Vote to Restore Death Penalty Does Not Apply to Those Previously Sentenced to Death

The ALCU of Nebraska, the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, and the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, LLP, have filed a lawsuit on behalf of the state's eleven death-sentenced prisoners seeking to bar Nebraska "from carrying out any executions or taking steps toward carrying out any executions" under the November 2016 voter referendum that restored that state's death-penalty law. The lawsuit, filed in Lancaster County District Court on December 4, argues that the voter referendum amounted to an "unlawful exercise of legislative power by the executive branch," in violation of the separation of powers clauses of the Nebraska constitution, because Governor Pete Ricketts (pictured), his staff, and other members of the Nebraska executive branch "improperly seized and exercised legislative power" when they allegedly "proposed, initiated, funded, organized, operated, and controlled the referendum campaign against" the death-penalty repeal law. It also alleges that the May 2015 legislative repeal of the death penalty went into effect on August 30, 2015, and converted the prisoners' death sentences to life sentences before the petition drive suspended the repeal statute. While proponents of the referendum submitted their petitions to place the referendum on the ballot on August 25, the signatures were not validated by the Secretary of State and, according to the lawsuit, did not suspend the statute until October 2015. The Governor's office characterized the lawsuit as "frivolous litigation" by a "liberal advocacy group ... work[ing] to overturn the clear voice of the Nebraska people." The Nebraska legislature voted three separate times in 2015 in favor of abolishing the death penalty, with a majority of the legislature's 30 Republicans joined by 12 Democrats and an Independent supporting repeal. After two preliminary votes in April and early May, the unicameral legislature on May 20 voted 32-15 to repeal its death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without possibility of parole. Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill, but a supermajority of the legislature, led by conservative Republicans, voted 30-19 on May 28 to override the veto. Four days later, a committee called Nebraskans for the Death Penalty filed sponsorship documents with the Nebraska Secretary of State seeking a referendum to suspend and overturn the repeal. The complaint alleges that the Governor was the actual sponsor of the referendum campaign and that, in violation of Nebraska law, none of the ostensible "sponsors" of the referendum submitted statements "sw[earing] to the truth and accuracy of their sponsorship." It says that Ricketts and his parents provided 80% of the funding for the petition drive in its first month and 30% of the total funding for the campaign to overturn the repeal, used state facilities to raise funds for the referendum campaign, and mailed a fundraising letter with the letterhead “Governor Pete Ricketts, State of Nebraska,” and that members of Rickett's executive branch served as campaign managers or otherwise worked for the referendum campaign. “[I]n Nebraska, our state Constitution ... establishes a strong tradition with a clear separation of powers," ACLU Executive Director Danielle Conrad said. ""This is way beyond what the governor can do in his personal capacity. This is about blurring the lines and overstepping the bounds.”

Ex-Virginia Death-Row Prisoner With Strong Claim of Innocence Get Parole After 38 Years

Joseph M. Giarratano (pictured), a former Virginia death-row prisoner who came within two days of execution, has been been granted parole after 38 years in jail for a rape and double murder that lawyers and supporters have long said he did not commit. On November 20, twenty-six years after Governor L. Douglas Wilder commuted Giarratano's death sentence to life, the Virginia State Parole Board voted to grant him parole. Giarratano was convicted and sentenced to death in Norfolk, Virginia in 1979 for the rape and capital murder of a fifteen-year-old girl and the murder of her mother. Giarratano had lived in their apartment—which was known as a "party house" with a free flow of visitors—in the month before the murder and was there the night of the murders, but because of drug use, he says, he has no recollection of what happened. He said he woke up on the couch, discovered the bodies, and because no one else was in the apartment, he assumed he had committed the killings. He fled to Florida, where he turned himself in to a sheriff at a Jacksonville bus station and confessed to the murders. Over the course of time, Giarratano gave a total of five confessions, which were inconsistent with one another and conflicted with the evidence at the crime scene. Footprints, fingerprints, and pubic hairs were recovered at the crime scene and did not match either Giarratano or the victims. Experts indicated that the killer was right-handed, but Giarratano is left-handed. Giarratano's confessions were so inconsistent that detectives told him they did not believe him and, he said, provided him with detailed information that he then parroted back to them in his fifth confession. Gerald Zerkin, one of Giarratano’s lawyers, said "[t]here is nothing in the physical evidence that links Joe to the murders.... The prosecution’s whole case hinged on Joe’s confessions, which were total nonsense.” Leading experts on false confessions concluded in 2001 that there was "not a shred of significant or credible physical evidence supporting the conclusion that Joseph Giarratano’s contradictory and inconsistent confessions are reliable" and that considerable evidence led to "the conclusion that his confessions are false." While on death row, Giarratano became an avid reader and an advocate for other condemned prisoners, assisting in the exoneration of Earl Washington, a wrongfully convicted intellectually disabled man who came within eight days of execution. Giarranto was also the named party in a U.S. Supreme Court case, Murray v. Giarratano, in which Giarratano and others challenged Virginia's failure to provide post-conviction attorneys for condemned prisoners. The Court ruled 5-4 against the prisoners. Following his transfer off death row to the Augusta Correctional Center, Giarratano helped found the Center for Teaching Peace, a peace education program for prisoners. The state parole board's decision marks the first time in modern Virginia history that a defendant whose death sentence was commuted was granted parole. Richmond lawyer Stephen A. Northup represented Giarratano before the parole board and said, “For all the reasons that caused Governor Wilder to give Joe a conditional pardon more than 26 years ago, I believe Joe is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted.”

Lawyer Says North Carolina Client's Brutally Traumatic Childhood Characteristic of Many on Death Row

The life of Terry Ball (pictured) "is worth remembering," says his appeal lawyer, Elizabeth Hambourger. She says Ball's life, which ended October 18 when he died of natural causes on North Carolina's death row, "hold[s] keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst." His "story of childhood trauma and brain damage" is characteristic of the backgrounds of many on death row, Hambourger says, but "was barely told at trial." Ball was convicted and sentenced to death for the cocaine-induced murder of his pastor's wife and attempted murder of his pastor in 1993, which occurred during a relapse of Ball's cocaine addition. His road to death row began when he was hit by a car at age 10, suffering injuries that kept him hospitalized for eight weeks. The head trauma changed his personality, but the severity of his brain damage was not detected at the time. He and a girlfriend ran away from home when he was 13, during which time he was abducted by a serial rapist, Jerry Wood, and repeatedly raped, kept high on drugs, and forced to steal, until he was able to escape nearly a month later. Rather than receiving mental-health services as a victim of sexual assault, Ball was adjudicated delinquent for running away and was incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, where a state psychiatrist questioned his sexual identity, writing that his month-long "association" with his rapist "raised the question of possible homosexuality." Wood, who was never prosecuted for raping and abducting Ball, was later convicted of raping two other children and sentenced to 45 years in jail. Ball then turned to drugs as self-medication for his trauma. He later enlisted in, but was swiftly discharged from, the Navy and subsequently committed several violent drug-motivated robberies and was jailed for nearly killing two people. After his release from prison, he checked himself in to three treatment centers over the course of three years, all in an unsuccessful effort to overcome his addiction to crack cocaine. Hambourger says that Ball's story is a reminder that "[t]his is who we sentence to death: the most damaged, the most abused; traumatized children who grow into adults without learning how to cope with their fear and anger." In North Carolina, death sentences have fallen from an average of 28 per year in the five years spanning 1992-1996 to an average of one per year between 2012-2016. Hambourger believes that, had Ball's trial been held today, "this mitigating evidence would have been thoroughly presented and likely would have persuaded a jury to sentence him to life without parole instead of death."

Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.

Florida Death-Row Population Drops to 12-Year Low As Jury Unanimity Ruling Takes Effect

The number of prisoners on Florida's death row is now lower than it was on June 30, 2005, as the pace of death sentencing slows and courts reverse the unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences by which numerous capital defendants had been condemned. Applying the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 ruling in Hurst v. Florida and subsequent Florida Supreme Court decisions in Hurst v. State and Perry v. State, state courts declared unconstitutional Florida's practice of permitting trial judges to impose death sentences after sentencing juries had not reached a unanimous agreement that death was the appropriate punishment. As a result, death sentences have been vacated in nearly 100 cases, and additional cases are working their way through Florida's court system. So far this year, 15 people have been removed from Florida's death row, and a 16th died after having his death sentence vacated under Hurst, while being transfered to a court hearing. The declining population on death row is not being replaced with new death sentences; the state's last death sentence was handed down in June 2016 and more than 3/4ths of death sentences imposed in the previous five years had involved non-unanimous jury votes for death. As a result, the number of prisoners housed on Florida's death row has fallen from 383 at the beginning of 2017, to 367—slightly lower than the 369 people who were on death row in 2005. Even more prisoners are expected to be removed from death row, as many of those whose death sentences have been invalidated are resentenced to life. (The Department of Corrections death-row roster only removes a prisoner from its list if the prisoner dies, receives clemency, is exonerated, or is resentenced to something other than death.) A DPIC review of Florida capital cases indicates that, through July 13, Florida courts have issued decisions involving Hurst in at least 119 cases. Those decisions have resulted in the vacation of 99 death sentences. To date, the counties most affected by the Hurst rulings have been: Duval (15 sentences); Orange (9 sentences); and Broward (9 sentences). In Duval County, 14 of the 15 death sentences reviewed (93.33%) have been vacated; in Orange County, all 9 death sentences reviewed have been vacated; and in Broward county, 7 of the 9 death sentences reviewed (77.78%) have been vacated. DPIC, in conjunction with researcher and professor Michael Radelet, has also identified at least 149 prisoners who are expected to obtain relief under the Florida court's current interpretation of Hurst, and is tracking what happens to those cases on resentencing. Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan said the resentencing hearings will present difficulties for the state's legal system: “That’s not an easy thing to go back and dig up all of this evidence and especially to dig up all the witnesses,” for a new sentencing hearing. “We have been very, very negligent in the state of Florida in handling these types of cases,” he said.

New Statistical Brief from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Documents U.S. Death Penalty Decline

The nation's death rows are shrinking more rapidly than new defendants are being sentenced to death, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical brief, "Capital Punishment, 2014–2015." The statistical brief, which analyzes information on those under sentence of death in the United States as of December 31, 2014 and December 31, 2015, documents a continuing decline in executions, new death sentences, and death row populations across the U.S. 2015 marked the fifteenth consecutive annual decrease in the number of prisoners under sentence of death in the U.S. According to BJS, 69 prisoners were admitted to state or federal death rows in 2014 and 49 were admitted in 2015. (DPIC uses a slightly different counting method that reported 73 death sentences imposed in 2014.) The data also indicates that the decline in the size of death row is attributable to factors other than execution. According to BJS, 75 prisoners were removed from death row in 2014 by means other than execution, such as exoneration, the reversal of a conviction or death sentence, commutation, or death by other causes, as compared with 35 who were executed. In 2015, 82 prisoners were taken off death row by means other than execution, while 28 death-row prisoners were executed. Over the two-year period covered by the data, 39 more prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution than were admitted as a result of new death sentences. The gap between removals from death row and new admissions is expected to widen even further in 2016 and 2017 as a result of record-low death-sentencing rates and prisoners being removed from death row due to death-penalty statutes having been declared unconstitutional in Florida, Delaware, and Connecticut. BJS reports that 2,881 prisoners remained under sentence of death in 33 states and the federal system at the end of 2015. (Click image to enlarge.)

Study: Texas' 'Harsh and Inhumane' Death-Row Conditions Amount to 'Torture'

The conditions in which prisoners on Texas' death row are confined are "harsh and inhumane," violate international human rights norms, and amount to "a severe and relentless act of torture," according to a new study by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. The study, "Designed to Break You," collected accounts from former death-row prisoners who had been exonerated or who had received lesser sentences after their death sentences had been overturned. Their stories revealed numerous problems with death-row conditions, including, "mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient religious services." Every prisoner on death row spends about 23 hours a day in an 8-by-12 foot cell for the duration of their time on death row. "This prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health," the study reports, "exacerbating existing mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time." Ariel Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic, said, "Any person who is kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 days starts to suffer mental and psychological effects that cannot be reversed, and that fits the definition of torture." The report concludes that Texas death-row "conditions fall woefully behind international standards for confinement" and offers 13 recommendations to bring conditions in line with international norms. The recommendations include using solitary confinement only as a punitive measure of last resort and banning it altogether for prisoners with mental illness or intellectual disability. The report also recommends that death-row prisoners be permitted contact visits with their lawyers, family, and friends and that they "have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities."

Federal Appeals Court Bars Automatic Solitary Confinement for Former Death Row Prisoners

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on February 9 declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement after courts had overturned their death sentences. Saying that, “Scientific research and evolving jurisprudence has made the harms of solitary confinement clear,” the unanimous three-judge panel ruled that prisoners whose death sentences have been overturned have a constitutionally protected interest against being held in solitary confinement, unless the state could show, after an individualized assessment, that such custody was necessary for security and safety reasons. Shawn Walker and Craig Williams, the former death row prisoners who brought the suit, had spent 14 and 22 years, respectively, in solitary confinement on death row before courts vacated their death sentences. Then each was kept on death row without a death sentence for the six additional years it took to conduct the resentencing proceedings in their cases. In barring continued treatment of inmates like Walker and Williams as death-row prisoners without any demonstrated security need to do so, former Chief Circuit Judge Theodore McKee warned that "Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty. Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row." According to a July 2015 DPIC analysis of Pennsylvania death row, 115 former death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences had been overturned in post-conviction proceedings had been resentenced to life or less, or acquitted. Most had been kept in death-row solitary confinement without active death sentences before being resentenced or exonerated.

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