Arbitrariness

Florida Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence Imposed in Violation of State and Federal Constitutions

The Florida Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence imposed on William Roger Davis, III (pictured), even though Davis's death sentence violates both the Florida and federal constitutions. In a decision issued on October 25, 2018, the court refused to redress the unconstitutionality of the death sentence—imposed by a trial court judge after a bare 7-5 majority of jurors had recommended death—ruling that during post-conviction proceedings before the trial court, Davis had waived review of all claims relating to his conviction and death sentence. The appeals court held that this waiver barred Davis from renewing his challenge to the unconstitutional sentencing process on appeal.  

Davis was convicted and sentenced to death in Seminole County (Tallahassee) for an October 2009 murder, kidnapping, and sexual battery. After hearing Davis accept responsibility for the crime and testify about his mental state when it occurred, five jurors recommended that he be spared the death penalty. However, at the time of trial, Florida was one of only three states that permitted judges to impose a death sentence based upon a less than unanimous jury vote for death, and its death-penalty statute directed the trial court to make its own independent findings of fact, independently weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and impose a sentence of life without parole or death. The Florida Supreme Court upheld Davis's death sentence, and in January 2016, one year after his conviction became final, the United States Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing procedures. In Hurst v. Florida, the court ruled that reserving the ultimate fact-finding on aggravating circumstances for the trial judge violated Florida capital defendants' Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. In October 2018, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. State that this Sixth Amendment violation was prejudicial to a capital defendant whenever the jury had not unanimously recommended a death verdict, and it further held in Perry v. State that the Florida constitution required a unanimous jury vote for death before a judge could consider imposing the death penalty. 

In his state post-conviction proceedings, Davis's lawyers challenged the constitutionality of his non-unanimous death sentence. However, while the case was pending, Davis sought to withdraw his petition. In a letter to the judge, Davis wrote that he did not want a life sentence and did not want to subject either his family or the victim's family to a new sentencing hearing. The court found him competent to waive his rights, and—notwithstanding the invalidity of the proceedings resulting in his death sentence—dismissed all of Davis's guilt- and penalty-stage claims. The Davis case is the latest case in which so-called "volunteers"—capital defendants or death-row prisoners who have been deemed competent to waive their appeals—have been permitted to seek execution in the face of unreliable or unconstitutional death sentences. Volunteers comprise ten percent of all prisoners executed in the United States since the 1970s. On October 29, 2018, Rodney Berget—a former Special Olympics participant—became the 148th volunteer to be executed, despite evidence of intellectual disability that led national experts to conclude that he was ineligible for the death penalty.

Following Washington Death Penalty Abolition, Op-eds Encourage Other States to Follow Suit

Following the Washington Supreme Court's October 11, 2018 decision declaring the state's death penalty unconstitutional, news outlets have questioned what comes next. Op-ed writers in North Carolina, Texas, and California have responded, urging their states to reconsider their capital punishment laws. The Washington court cited racial bias, "arbitrary decision-making, random imposition of the death penalty, unreliability, geographic rarity, and excessive delays" as reasons why it struck down the death penalty. In a guest column in the Sacramento Bee, University of California Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote, "California’s death penalty suffers the same flaws and likewise should be struck down." Similarly, Kristin Collins, Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, wrote in a commentary for the North Carolina blog, The Progressive Pulse, "[i]f those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go." Writing in the Austin American-Statesman, University of Texas sociology professor William R. Kelly observed: "In light of the ever-present potential for error and bias, the absence of a deterrent effect and the extraordinary cost to prosecute, appeal and execute someone, we are left with the basic question: Is the death penalty worth it? It’s a question more states ought to ask."

Collins and Chemerinsky pointed to systemic problems in their respective states that they say provide reasons to repeal the death penalty or declare their capital punishment statutes unconstitutional. Collins said a September 2018 study by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation revealed that "most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials." "Had they been tried under modern laws," she wrote, "most wouldn’t be on death row today." Chemerinsky highlighted the lengthy delays in California's death-penalty system and the large body of evidence showing that the state's death penalty is discriminatorily applied. Quoting federal Judge Cormac Carney's summary of the state of California's death row, he wrote: "Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death." These types of problems "and the fact that the death penalty is extraordinarily expensive and does not do much to deter violent crime," Professor Kelly wrote, "may help propel other states to abolish it."

Texas Court Stays Execution of Mentally Ill Prisoner with Schizophrenia

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on October 19, 2018 stayed the execution of Kwame Rockwell (pictured), a severely mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from schizophrenia, who had been scheduled to die on October 24. The court found that Rockwell had raised “substantial doubt that he is not competent to be executed” and reversed a ruling by the Tarrant County District Court that had rejected Rockwell’s competency claim without an evidentiary hearing and without providing funds for him to obtain a competency evaluation. The appeals court ordered the trial court to appoint “at least two mental-health experts” to evaluate Rockwell’s competency. On October 16, Rockwell’s lawyers had appealed the Tarrant County order arguing that the trial court had abused its discretion in rejecting his competency claim The appeal argued that Rockwell “does not understand he is to be executed,” “has no understanding that he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death,” and “does not comprehend that he has been incarcerated on death row since 2012 or even that he is presently incarcerated in a Texas prison.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of prisoners who have become “insane”—which the Court defined as being “unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.” In 2007, in the Texas case of Panetti v. Quarterman, the Court explained that a prisoner whose delusions prevent him from having a “rational understanding” of these circumstances is incompetent to be executed. A neuropsychologist who examined Rockwell in July reported that Rockwell said he saw snakes and demons that were inside of him, appeared to be hearing voices, and, in response to a question about his name, said “my name is God.” The doctor’s affidavit said Rockwell “does not understand or appreciate where he is, the nature of his charges, why he is in prison, or the nature of his punishment.” Rockwell’s lawyers also presented the court with evidence of his significant family history of psychotic illness, including twelve family members across three generations of his family with mental illness diagnoses, and Rockwell’s own mental illness in childhood and as an adult. Citing prison records, the appeal states: “Rockwell has consistently experienced intense hallucinations and auditory delusions, despite spending the majority of his sentence on four or more antipsychotic medications concurrently. He is haunted by snakes and demons. No medications have been able to eliminate his hallucinations or delusions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has never categorically excluded people with serious mental illness from being sentenced to death or executed. A 2014 poll found that Americans by a two-to-one margin oppose executing people with mental illness. Several states have recently considered, but not adopted, legislation to bar the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. Rockwell’s trial lawyer did not present to the jury mitigating evidence of Rockwell’s schizophrenia or his family’s history of psychotic mental illness. Nonetheless, the Texas state and federal courts denied Rockwell’s claim that he had been provided ineffective representation at sentencing. In an opinion piece for Pacific Standard written before the Texas Court of Appeals granted the stay, David M. Perry compared the courts’ treatment of Rockwell’s case with the recent stay of execution granted to fellow Texas prisoner Juan Segundo. Segundo was granted a stay so the Tarrant County court could reconsider his claim of intellectual disability after the Supreme Court had ruled that the standard Texas had previously applied unconstitutionally risked that some people with intellectual disability would still be executed. “America still doesn't have clear protections for people with severe mental illness,” Perry explains. “These two cases in Texas remind us of the unfortunate diagnostic limitations that protect only some people with disabilities from the death penalty.”

ABA Panel Explores History, Morality of Death Penalty

"Has the death penalty evolved into an anachronism?" asked a panel at the August 2, 2018 American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago. Moderator Ronald Tabak, chair of the ABA Death Penalty Committee, and panelists Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago; Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation; Meredith Martin Rountree, senior lecturer at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law; and Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center sought to answer that question through a discussion of the last forty years of American death-penalty history and the evolution of the Catholic Church's moral teachings on the subject. The panelists' consensus: the death sentences imposed upon many of the death-row prisoners executed in the past would be unconstitutional today, and most of the prisoners now being executed would not be sentenced to death if they were tried today. 

The panel serendipitously took place on the same day that Pope Francis announced that the Catholic Church had formally revised its Catechism to deem the death penalty "inadmissible." Cardinal Cupich described the evolution of the Catholic Church's teachings on capital punishment, with an emerging focus on the concept of the dignity of human life. "Our assertion that the value of a human life does not depend upon an individual’s quality of life or age or moral worth must apply in all cases," he said. "For if we protect the sanctity of life for the least worthy among us, we surely witness to the need to protect the lives of those who are the most innocent, and most vulnerable." Karen Gottlieb highlighted how accidents of timing can result in unconstitutional executions, using Florida as an example of how numerous defendants with valid constitutional claims have been executed before courts issue rulings that would have barred their execution and how recent court rulings will permit the execution of more than 150 death-row prisoners who the state court acknowledges were sentenced under unconstitutional procedures. Meredith Martin Rountree discussed how American death-penalty law has evolved to exempt youthful offenders and individuals with intellectual disability and provided examples of current death-penalty practices—including the execution of offenders aged 18-21 and of people with severe mental illness—that could likely be banned in the future. Robert Dunham explained the "sea change in America’s attitudes about capital punishment" over the past twenty-five years and the reasons behind the accompanying broad nationwide decline in death-penalty usage over that period. He provided examples of more than 250 people who have been executed despite constitutional violations that would have invalidated their death sentences today and the estimated hundreds of others who were unconstitutionally sentenced to death but executed nevertheless because of procedural technicalities that prevented federal courts from enforcing constitutional protections in those cases.

A transcript of the proceedings, with updates from the panelists, was released by the ABA's Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice in late September 2018 and recently posted on the DPIC website.

73% of North Carolina's Death Row Sentenced Under Obsolete Laws, New Report Says

Most of the 142 prisoners on North Carolina’s death row were convicted under obsolete and outdated death-penalty laws and would not have been sentenced to death if tried today, according to a new report by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The report by the Durham-based defense organization, titled Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row, says that nearly three-quarters of the prisoners on the nation’s sixth-largest death row were tried and sentenced before the state enacted significant reforms in prosecution, defense, and trial practices. “[I]f these people on death row had been tried under modern laws, most of them would be serving life without parole sentences instead of facing execution,” said Gretchen Engel, the Center’s executive director.

Seventy-three percent of the men and women on North Carolina’s death row (103 prisoners) were tried and sentenced to death before July 2001, when North Carolina repealed a 1990s-era law that had required prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in every aggravated murder case, irrespective of reasons that might call for mercy, and created a statewide office to represent indigent defendants in capital trials and appeals. North Carolina was the only state in the country that denied prosecutors the discretion to decide when to seek the death penalty, and as a result, there were more than fifty capital trials in the state each year, including cases involving defendants who were seriously mentally ill or intellectually disabled or were comparatively minor participants in a murder. Capital trials fell to an average of sixteen per year in the decade following the change. The creation of the capital defender office that same year dramatically improved the quality of representation, and further reduced the number of cases in which death verdicts were returned. Since then, North Carolina has enacted additional reforms aimed at ensuring fairer trials in capital cases. In October 2004, the state became the first in the country to require prosecutors to make all witness files, police reports, other investigative records, and physical evidence available to capital defendants prior to trial. In 2008, it adopted a series of eyewitness identification and interrogation protocols designed to prevent mistaken identifications and false or coerced confessions.

The report states that during the 1990s, before the reforms were enacted, “courtrooms were dominated by prosecutors like Ken Honeycutt in Stanly County, who celebrated new death sentences by handing out noose lapel pins to his assistant prosecutors.” “Today,” Engel said, “we are living in a different world .... Public support for the death penalty is at a 50-year low, and North Carolina has stopped executing people. Juries now see life without parole as a harsh and adequate punishment for the worst crimes.” That, however, has produced its own historical inequities. In terms of moral culpability, Engel said, the defendants facing trial in 1995 and 2015 “are equal. And yet, one of them is being subjected to execution and other is not and that is an unfairness that as a fair society, we can not tolerate.”

Washington Supreme Court Declares State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Finding that the death penalty "is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner," a unanimous Washington Supreme Court has struck down the state's capital-punishment statute as violating Washington's state constitutional prohibition against "cruel punishment." The court's ruling, authored by Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst and issued on October 11, 2018, declared: "The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section 14 of our state constitution." The decision also converted the sentences of all eight people on the state's death row (pictured) to life imprisonment without possibility of release. The court's action makes Washington the twentieth U.S. state to have judicially or legislatively abolished the death penalty, and the eighth to have done so this century. Governor Jay Inslee, who imposed a moratorium on all executions in 2014, hailed the ruling, saying, "Today’s decision by the state Supreme Court thankfully ends the death penalty in Washington. ... This is a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.” 

The court issued the ruling in the case of Allen Gregory (pictured, bottom row, second from the right), an African-American man sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a white woman. In declaring the death penalty unconstitutional, the court cited recent research that found Washington juries were more than three times more likely to impose a death sentence on a black defendant than on a white defendant in a similar case. "Given the evidence before this court and our judicial notice of implicit and overt racial bias against black defendants in this state, we are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance," the opinion stated. The opinion also cited "arbitrary decision-making, random imposition of the death penalty, unreliability, geographic rarity, and excessive delays" as systemic constitutional flaws supporting the court's decision.

Washington has not carried out an execution since 2010. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said that the court's ruling had finally brought to an end "Washington's four-decade experiment with the death penalty." Satterberg, a Republican, who with Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson supported bipartisan legislation to abolish Washington's death penalty, said "I think the criminal justice system will be stronger without capital punishment." The abolition bill, which was the subject of legislative hearings during the 2018 state legislative session, passed the Washington Senate and the House judiciary committee, but did not receive a vote in the full House.

Federal Judge Expresses Frustration at Procedural Constraints in Possible Innocence Case

In a case highlighting congressional limitations on the federal judiciary's ability to redress miscarriages of justice, a Texas federal judge has denied relief to a death-row prisoner who the court believes was denied a fair trial and may well be innocent. U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison (pictured) wrote on September 26, 2018, that he “would almost certainly have granted” a new trial to Robert Will, but the “constraints” imposed by 1990’s-era amendments to federal habeas corpus law left the court “powerless to address” what he called “the troubling possibility of [Will’s] actual innocence.” Ellison’s ruling urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to address Will’s claims, saying that his decision was a “technical ruling” that should not “obscure the extraordinarily significant issues that the Court of Appeals – unlike this Court – can properly consider.” In a trial in a Houston courtroom packed with uniformed police officers, Will was convicted and sentenced to death for the December 1999 murder of Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Barrett Hill. Investigators found no gunshot residue on Will and a footprint at the crime scene didn’t match his; Will claims that he was handcuffed when Deputy Hill was shot. Five witnesses later came forward with information that Will’s co-defendant had confessed to the crime, and additional evidence came to light during the habeas corpus proceedings that raised questions about a prosecution witness. However, Will’s state post-conviction lawyer, whose conduct Ellison said “appears to have been severely compromised by serious health conditions,” failed to investigate and raise those issues. Will’s case is also one of numerous Harris County death-penalty cases in which state judges adopted word for word the fact-findings proposed by the prosecution. Ellison said that, but for the limits on habeas review, he “would almost certainly have granted relief” on Will’s claim that “the presence of numerous uniformed law enforcement officers at his trial created an unconstitutionally coercive environment for the jury.” Ellison added: “The Court is particularly sensitive to the absence of any direct evidence of Will’s guilt, and the number of witnesses who aver that another man confessed to the underlying murder. ... The Court very much wishes it could take up all of these issues without the constraints of habeas review. With fewer constraints, the Court of Appeals can perhaps give these issues the time and attention that they merit. Nevertheless, this Court lacks jurisdiction to explore the troubling concerns that plague Will’s capital conviction.” Patrick McCann, former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said that Will’s case demonstrates that “[e]verything in the state procedure is inadequate and has been inadequate for the last three decades.” He called the requirement that federal judges defer to state court decisions “an absolute joke.” Ellison’s comments echo those of retired Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski who wrote in 2015 that Congress’s amendments to the habeas corpus law “abruptly dismantled” federal judicial review as a “safety-valve” against injustice and “pretty much shut out the federal courts from granting habeas relief in most cases, even when they believe that an egregious miscarriage of justice has occurred.” Instead, he wrote, federal courts “now regularly have to stand by in impotent silence, even though it may appear to us that an innocent person has been convicted.”

Justices Appear to Favor Prisoner with Dementia in Case Seeking to Block Alabama Execution

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in Madison v. Alabama on October 2, 2018 on whether an Alabama death-row prisoner who has vascular dementia, brain damage, cognitive deficits, and memory loss from two near-fatal strokes is competent to be executed. During oral argument, Bryan Stevenson (pictured), the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told the justices that, as a result of severe and progressively worsening dementia, Vernon Madison lacks a rational understanding of why Alabama intends to put him to death and is therefore incompetent to be executed. A majority of the justices appeared sympathetic to Madison's position, including Chief Justice John Roberts who is now regarded as the swing vote in death-penalty cases. The issues before the Court narrowed significantly as a result of concessions made by both sides at the argument. Madison's pleadings had argued that the Court's decisions in 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright and 2007 in Panetti v. Quarterman on competency to be executed applied beyond the limited circumstances of insanity and delusional mental illness at issue in those cases. "For purposes of retribution, there is no moral or constitutional distinction between a person who cannot 'recogni[ze] … the severity of the offence as a result of delusions and a person who is unable to do so as a result of dementia, cognitive decline, and memory deficits," his lawyers wrote. Alabama Deputy Attorney General Thomas Govan conceded that incompetency caused by severe dementia could also qualify. Stevenson, on the other hand, conceded in response to questioning by Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan that merely having no memory of committing the offense does not make a prisoner incompetent to be executed. Rather, Stevenson said, the memory loss must be the product of a medical or physical condition that also affects the prisoner's understanding of why he or she is to be executed. Stevenson said Madison's severe vascular dementia has left him with no memory of having killed a police officer who responded to a domestic disturbance in 1985. An MRI has shown that Madison has suffered substantial brain damage, and psychological testing has documented significant cognitive decline accompanied by IQ-loss that now places him in the borderline range of intellectual functioning. Madison's dementia has also left him disoriented as to date and time and without the ability to rationally comprehend his legal situation. He is legally blind, Stevenson said, has slurred speech, cannot recite the alphabet past the letter G or retain basic information, cannot walk without assistance, and continually soils himself because he does not know how to use the toilet in his five-by-eight cell. Madison's physical disabilities, Stevenson said, provide evidence illustrating the extent to which Madison's vascular dementia has affected all aspects of his life. Stevenson argued that Alabama's courts improperly rejected Madison's evidence of incompetency, focusing only on whether his impairments were caused by insanity, psychosis, or delusions. Govan asserted in response that by reciting the correct legal standard from Ford and Panetti and making reference to the testimony concerning Madison's impairments, Alabama had in fact considered that evidence. He further disputed whether Madison is incompetent at all, stating that Alabama would find him competent to stand trial in his current condition. Stevenson closed the argument by telling the Court that the "awesome power" to execute a person who no longer poses an immediate threat must "be utilized fairly, reliably, and humanely." The Court, Stevenson said, reviews facts and circumstances "through the window of the Constitution ..... But the Eighth Amendment isn't just a window. It's a mirror." Our norms and values "are implicated when we do things to really fragile, really vulnerable people," Stevenson said. "And what we've argued is that dementia in this case renders Mr. Madison frail, bewildered, vulnerable in a way that cannot be reconciled with executing him because of his incompetency."

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