Arbitrariness

Capitally Charged, Alabama Man Imprisoned 10 Years Without Trial

In a racially charged case raising questions of prosecutorial overcharging, inadequate representation, and questionable jury practices, Kharon Davis (pictured), an African-American man charged with capital murder in Dothan, Alabama, has been imprisoned for 10 years without trial. Davis—who has consistently maintained his innocence and whose prior offense was driving without a license—was 22 years old when he and two others were arrested for the shooting death of a man from whom they were purchasing marijuana. After refusing a plea deal, Davis’s case has gone through two judges, three prosecutors, four sets of defense lawyers, and nine scheduled trial dates, and he has been placed in segregation in the county jail for minor infractions, faced restrictions on his ability to review legal documents, and been denied visits by his mother. A New York Times report described the pre-trial delays as “among the most protracted” the paper could find, and George Washington University law professor and constitutional consultant Jonathan Turley said “It is impossible to look at [the case] and not find it deeply, deeply troubling.” Houston County’s District Attorney Doug Valeska’s decision to seek the death penalty reignited questions of the county’s overuse of the death penalty. Despite a population of only 103,000, its 17-person death row makes Houston County one of the most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country. The county’s prosecutorial and law enforcement practices have also come under scrutiny: a number of capital cases have been overturned for racially biased jury selection, presenting improper evidence, and improper comments to juries. In 2015, Valeska also was accused of covering up evidence that a group of Dothan police officers with ties to white supremacist groups had been planting drugs on young black men. Davis’s case has been rife with questionable activity. His first lawyer, Benjamin Meredith, was the father of one of the investigating officers in the case and cross-examined his son in the preliminary hearing. That conflict was not disclosed for four years, after a new judge was appointed in the case, when Valeska brought it to the attention of the court. In those four years, Meredith had filed only two motions on Davis’s behalf. In that same time, Davis’s co-defendant, Lorenzo Staley, who told police where to find the gun used in the murder, went to trial in 2009 and was acquitted. A second co-defendant, Kevin McCloud—a childhood friend of Davis’s who had no criminal record—had pled guilty and agreed to testify against Davis to avoid the death penalty, although McCloud later said in a letter that Valeska had asked him to “get on the stand and lie” about Davis’s involvement in the case. The case was further delayed when, looking through the court record of Staley’s trial, new defense counsel discovered a gunshot residue kit that prosecutors had failed to disclose. A new district attorney who had once represented one of the co-defendants was elected in February 2017, requiring the case to be transferred to the attorney general’s office. At that point, the prosecution dropped the death penalty from the case. Finally, on September 19, the trial was again held up amid allegations that some members of the newly empaneled jury of 11 whites and one black may have had improper contact with people connected to the case.

REPORT: Most of the 26 Prisoners Facing Execution in Ohio Through 2020 Severely Abused, Impaired, or Mentally Ill

Almost all of the 26 men scheduled for execution in Ohio over the next three years suffer from mental, emotional, or cognitive impairments or limitations that raise questions as to whether they should have been sentenced to death, according to a new report released August 30 by Harvard's Fair Punishment Project. While the U.S. Constitution requires that the death penalty be reserved for the worst crimes and the worst offenders, the report—Prisoners on Ohio's Execution List Defined by Intellectual Impairment, Mental Illness, Trauma, and Young Age—says that, instead, these prisoners "are among the most impaired and traumatized among us." The report says Ronald Phillips, whom Ohio executed July 26, was "19 at the time he committed his crime, had the intellectual functioning of a juvenile, had a father who sexually abused him, and grew up a victim of and a witness to unspeakable physical abuse – information his trial lawyers never learned or presented to a jury." It says at least 17 of the 26 other condemned prisoners Ohio seeks to execute between September 2017 and September 2020 experienced serious childhood trauma, including "physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and exposure to serious violence"; at least 11 have evidence of "intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability, or a cognitive impairment, including brain injury"; and at least 6 "appear to suffer from a mental illness." Jessica Brand, the Project's Legal Director, describes what has happened in these cases as a "horrible trifecta" in which "people who are the most impaired received some poor representation at some time in their cases and then are facing the most severe penalty possible." The Ohio Alliance for a Mental Illness Exemption from the death penalty, which is supporting an Ohio bill seeking to ban the use of capital punishment against the severely mentally ill, issued a press statement in which they noted that two of the prisoners are so mentally ill that they should be categorically exempted from the death penalty. A Death Penalty Information Center review of Ohio’s 2017-2020 scheduled executions shows that more than 60% of the execution warrants are directed at prisoners who were sentenced to death before Ohio had adopted its life-without-parole sentencing option and jurors had to weigh the death penalty against the risk that a prisoner would be released back into society. Mirroring trends repeated across the country, death sentences fell dramatically in Ohio when the state amended its death-penalty law to make life without parole available as a sentencing alternative. Death sentences dropped by 2/3rds in the state over the next decade, from an average of 12.7 per year to 4.3. The data suggests that juries would likely have treated evidence of intellectual disability, mental illness, or behavioral problems arising from chronic abuse and trauma very differently if they had assurances that the defendants would not later be released if sentenced to life.     

California Supreme Court Upholds, But Limits, Initiative to Speed Up Death-Penalty Appeals

In a 5-2 decision that left both proponents and opponents of the death penalty declaring victory, the Supreme Court of California has upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 66, a voter initiative intended to speed up death-penalty appeals and executions, but severely limited the scope of its core provisions. In Briggs v. Brown, the court on August 24 sustained portions of the measure that shifted which court will hear capital cases, increased the pool of death-penalty appeal lawyers by requiring lawyers who accept other appellate appointments to also take capital cases, eliminated public review of execution methods, and limited both the issues that can be raised in capital habeas appeals and the time courts have to decide them. However, the majority ruled that the measure’s flagship provision—a five-year deadline on appeals by condemned prisoners—was "directive, rather than mandatory"; that "courts must make individualized decisions based on the circumstances of each case"; and that "prisoners may seek to challenge [the time limitations and limitation on the claims they are permitted to raise] in the context of their individual cases." Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who argued in support of Proposition 66 in the California Supreme Court, lauded the decision, saying that "Proposition 66 will go into effect almost entirely as written." He called the time limits for deciding appeals a “minor part” of the proposition. Scheidegger said "Californians finally have a chance to see justice carried out in the very worst murder cases." Death penalty opponents sharply disagreed with his characterization. Ana Zamora, criminal justice policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, said “Today’s decision changes nothing. The fact remains that California has not carried out an execution in over 10 years and executions will not resume any time soon.” Christina Von der Ahe Rayburn, who argued the case against the proposition, said the ruling had rendered the deadlines in Proposition 66 "toothless," allowing courts to continue to perform their "critical role in carefully reviewing the appeals of the state's death row inmates, in order to avoid the execution of an innocent person." The justices questioned the efficacy of the proposition and whether it could accomplish its stated aims. "We do not consider or weigh the economic or social wisdom or general propriety of the initiative," the court wrote. "It remains to be seen how effective the procedures enacted by Proposition 66 will be in expediting the capital posttrial review process." Justice Goodwin Liu, concurring in the court's decision, wrote "I find it stunning that Proposition 66’s proponents and the Attorney General claim that the voters intended the five-year limit to be nonbinding or aspirational when that claim is plainly belied by the ballot materials and advocacy campaign for Proposition 66." He said “Proposition 66 contains no plan to compress into five years a process that often takes two decades, and no entity – not this court, not the Judicial Council, not the Legislature – can simply wave a magic wand and make it so.” Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, who served as executive director of a state senate commission that undertook a comprehensive review of the state's death penalty in 2008, said several of the provisions in Proposition 66 may actually increase delays in deciding death penalty cases. “It is just going to boggle up the system even more,” he said.

Divided Pennsylvania Court Upholds New Sentencing Hearing in Judicial Bias Case Overturned by U.S. Supreme Court

In a case that led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on judicial bias, a divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court on August 22 upheld a lower court's order overturning the death penalty imposed on Terrance Williams (pictured) for the murder of a Philadelphia church deacon. The court split 2-2 on the outcome of a new appeal that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court after former Philadelphia District Attorney Ronald Castille—who had personally authorized seeking the death penalty against Williams—participated as a state supreme court justice in deciding a 2014 appeal that reinstated the death penalty against Williams. Under court rules, the tie vote left in place a 2012 decision by a Philadelphia trial court judge that had granted Williams a new penalty hearing. Three other justices who had participated with former Justice Castille in deciding the 2014 appeal recused themselves from the new appeal. In 1984, Williams—then barely 18 years old—killed Amos Norwood, who Williams alleges had been sexually abusing him for years. The teen never met his defense lawyer until shortly before the trial and did not confide in him that he had been sexually abused. Instead, Williams testified that he was innocent and had never met Norwood. With Williams facing an execution warrant in 2012, the state's lead witness, Marc Draper—a childhood friend of Williams and a co-defendant in the case—came forward and admitted that prosecutors had instructed him to be silent about the sexual abuse and to testify that the murder had been part of a robbery. Williams filed a petition for clemency that drew support from Norwood’s widow, five of the jurors in the case, and advocates against child abuse. Three of the five members of the Pardons Board—including the state attorney general—voted in favor of clemency, but Pennsylvania law requires a unanimous vote before the governor has authority to commute a death sentence. Days before the scheduled execution, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina ordered the prosecution to turn over its files to her to determine whether they contained any evidence that should have been disclosed to the defense. The files contained evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from Draper; withheld evidence that it had given him favorable treatment for his testimony; suppressed evidence that Norwood had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that Norwood had been simply a "kind man" and "innocent" good Samaritan who had been murdered after offering Williams a ride home. Judge Sarmina upheld Williams' conviction, but ruled that the combination of the government's suppression of exculpatory evidence and deliberate false argument to the jury denied Williams a fair sentencing decision. Williams was facing a new execution date when Governor Tom Wolf issued a reprieve and imposed a moratorium on executions in February 2015. The Philadelphia District Attorney's office challenged the governor's use of the reprieve power, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Williams's favor in December 2015.  Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Williams's judicial bias claim. The case now returns to Judge Sarmina for resentencing proceedings. Williams’s lawyer, Shawn Nolan, who heads the Philadelphia federal defender's capital habeas unit, thanked the court for its decision and urged the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to drop the death penalty in the case. “[T]hey should never have sought death against a teenager who killed his sexual abuser,” Nolan said.

California Court Bars Death Penalty in Mass Killing Because of "Unprecedented" Government Misconduct

Citing "relentless non-compliance" with court orders and "chronic obstructionism" by a prosecution team it says "has effectively compromised" Scott Dekraai's rights to due process and a fair penalty trial, a California trial court has barred prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty in the worst mass killing in Orange County history. In a scathing opinion on August 18, Judge Thomas M. Goethals (pictured)—who had disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney's office from the case as a result of earlier misconduct and lying to the court about a decades-long practice of using jailhouse informants to violate defendant's constitutional rights—wrote that in light of continued "indolence and obfuscation" from the Orange County Sheriff's Department in response to orders seeking information on the informant scandal, the court had "lost confidence that it can ever secure compliance" by the prosecution with future court orders in the case. Given the "unprecedented" nature of the government misconduct, Judge Goethals wrote, it would "be unconscionable, perhaps even cowardly," for the court not to take remedial action by barring the death penalty. Judge Goethals addressed the emotional toll on the victims' families created by the need to conduct four years of court proceedings investigating the scandal. He said the court would "do what little it can to mitigate their suffering" by imposing eight consecutive life sentences "that will end this case now and insure that this defendant dies a forgotten man in some obscure maximum security prison." Family members in the courtroom expressed anger at county prosecutors. Butch Fournier, whose sister Michelle, Dekraai’s ex-wife, was one of the eight victims, said, "It’s been six years for nothing. ... They caused us pain and suffering that was unnecessary. It was a cut-and-dry case." Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer—a former prosecutor who is considered a likely candidate for District Attorney next year—called on District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to resign, saying the conduct of the District Attorney's and Sheriff's offices had been "reprehensible" and constituted an "egregious assault on our criminal justice system." In a statement, Spitzer wrote: "I am appalled that the misconduct of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, in collusion with the OC Sheriff’s Department, resulted in this miscarriage of justice. I am incredulous that the Orange County criminal justice system has earned a national reputation for corruption that will take years, if not decades, to repair. Fundamental changes are needed." The editorial board of the Orange County Register said "the fact that a death sentence couldn’t even be secured for an admitted mass murderer speaks to the level of dysfunction within the county’s criminal justice system." The Orange County District Attorney's office was named in a July 2017 report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project as one of the prosecuting offices cited for repeated prosecutorial misconduct.

Arizona Prisoner Asks U.S. Supreme Court To Declare State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

An Arizona death-row prisoner has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the state's capital punishment statute, arguing that Arizona's sentencing scheme "utterly fails" the constitutionally required task of limiting the death penalty to the worst crimes and worst offenders. On August 15, lawyers for Abel Daniel Hidalgo (pictured) wrote that a study of more than a decade's worth of murder cases from Maricopa County, where Hidalgo was tried, showed that aggravating factors that could make a defendant eligible for the death penalty were present in 99% of all the cases. This, they say, violates the Eighth Amendment requirement established by the Court that a capital-sentencing statute must “genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty.” They wrote that evidence presented to the Arizona state courts showed that "every first degree murder case filed in Maricopa County in 2010 and 2011 had at least one aggravating factor" that made a defendant eligible for the death penalty, and that over the course of eleven years, 856 of 866 first-degree murder cases filed in the county had one or more aggravating circumstances present. In a press statement, Hidalgo's defense team says that, as a result, "geography and county resources—rather than the characteristics of the offender or the crime—play an outsized role in Arizona’s arbitrary application of the death penalty." With the fourth largest death row in the U.S. as of January 2013, Maricopa County imposed the death penalty at more than double the rate per murder as the rest of the state, and its 28 death sentences imposed between 2010-2015 were the third most of any U.S. county. Hidalgo's petition notes that defendants of color accused of killing white victims "are more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as minorities accused of killing other minorities ... [a]nd a Hispanic man accused of killing a white man is 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white man accused of killing a Hispanic victim." This, they say, makes Arizona's death penalty unconstitutionally arbitrary. In the alternative, the petition argues—citing national legislative and sentencing trends—that the death penalty nationwide now offends "evolving standards of decency" and should be declared unconstitutional. The lawyers write, "[t]he long experiment ... in whether the death penalty can be administered within constitutional bounds has failed. It has failed both in Arizona in particular and in the Nation more broadly." 

Florida Denies Relief to Prisoner Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death, in Decision that Could Affect More Than 75 Cases

In a decision that could have broad impact on the state's death row, the Florida Supreme Court on August 10 upheld the death sentence imposed on James Hitchcock, despite his having been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. In a 6-1 ruling, the court said it would not enforce its 2016 ruling in Hurst v. State—which declared unconstitutional any death sentence imposed after one or more sentencing jurors had voted that a life sentence was the appropriate punishment—in cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002. That date is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona that a capital defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to have the jury determine all facts necessary for the state to impose a death penalty. But the Florida courts did not apply Ring to death-penalty cases in the state until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death-penalty statute in 2016. At that time, in Hurst v. Florida, Justice Sonia Sotomayor reiterating that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." When Hurst's case returned to the Florida Supreme Court later that year, the state court ruled that non-unanimous jury verdicts were unconstitutional. However, the court then ruled in an appeal brought by Mark Asay—scheduled to be executed August 24—that it would not apply Hurst to cases that pre-dated Ring. Hitchcock and other Florida death-row prisoners pressed a number of other constitutional arguments, including that death sentences imposed after non-unanimous jury votes are unreliable, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that the court's bright-line cutoff for enforcing Hurst was unconstitutionally arbitrary, violating due rocess and the right to equal protection of the law. The Hitchcock court declined to consider those arguments, dismissing them as "nothing more than arguments that Hurst v. State should be applied retroactively to [Hitchcock's] sentence." Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases. Justice Barbara J. Pariente dissented, writing, "[r]eliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable." She noted that Hitchcock, who was twenty years old at the time of his crime, has had four different unconstitutional death sentences since he was first tried in 1977, with the U.S. Supreme Court twice overturning the death penalty in his case. She further noted that four Florida Supreme Court justices had written that his death sentence was disproportionate and that he should be resentenced to life. “To deny Hitchcock relief when other similarly situated defendants have been granted relief amounts to a denial of due process,” she wrote.

Mark White, Former Governor of Texas and Death-Penalty Critic, Dies at 77

Mark White (official portrait, pictured), a former governor and attorney general of Texas who became an outspoken critic of the death penalty, died on August 5 at the age of 77. Mr. White served as governor from 1983 to 1987, during which time he oversaw 19 executions. In an unsuccessful comeback bid in 1990, a campaign ad touted his strong support for the death penalty, featuring photos of the men executed during his tenure as governor and declaring, "Only a governor can make executions happen. I did and I will." Over time, however, his views changed and he became an advocate for the wrongfully condemned. In May 2014, White published a reflective op-ed in Politico, in which he declared that the administration of the death penalty is egregiously flawed. Citing the botched April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, White wrote that the death penalty lends itself to mistakes and abuse. Lockett died of a heart attack approximately 40 minutes after the state began administering an untested lethal-injection protocol. “As I’ve watched how the death penalty has been administered over the years," White wrote, "both in Texas and around the country, it has become increasingly clear to me that we just don’t do a good job at any phase of the process, from ensuring that capital trials are fair to the actual handling of executions themselves." White wrote that the death-penalty system is plagued by arbitrariness. "We now have incontrovertible evidence that America’s criminal justice system does a poor job of determining who deserves the death penalty,” he said, noting that 12 Texans had been among the many people released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. Since the publication of White's op-ed, that number has risen to 13. As a "recovering politician," White volunteered to work with reform groups and innocence organizations in an attempt to redress his concerns about the unfairness of the criminal justice system. In 2012, he lent his voice to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's efforts to obtain a fair sentencing hearing for Duane Buck—who had been sentenced to death after a defense mental health expert, and then the prosecutor, told the jury that he posed an increase risk of violence to society because he is black—narrating the video, A Broken Promise in Texas: Race, the Death Penalty, and the Duane Buck Case. He also served as the long-time co-chair of The Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, on which he worked with other former prosecutors, governors, and corrections officials to advance bi-partisan efforts at death-penalty reform.

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