Arbitrariness

Louisiana Death-Penalty Case Tainted by Judge’s Conflict of Interest Returns to U.S. Supreme Court

A Louisiana death-row prisoner is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of his conviction and death sentence a second time based upon allegations that the trial judge had an undisclosed conflict of interest. In his petition to review his conviction for a triple-murder involving the death of a New Orleans police officer, Rogers Lacaze (pictured) argues that his right to due process was violated when his trial judge, Frank Marullo, failed to disclose that the judge had signed a court order releasing the probable murder weapon to Lacaze's co-defendant and that Marullo was a witness in a New Orleans Police Department investigation into the circumstances in which the weapon had been released. Judge Marullo then won re-election by a margin of 51%-49%, after running a campaign saying he was “tough on crime” and had sentenced “Lacaze to die by lethal injection.” Lacaze was convicted of a triple murder involving a 9mm gun his co-defendant—police officer Antoinette Frank—had obtained from the New Orleans Police Department property and evidence room shortly before the killing. The order releasing the gun to Officer Frank bore Judge Marullo's signature, and Marullo presided over Lacaze and Frank's trials. Before being assigned to the trials, Marullo was interviewed by police investigating the crime. The judge claimed his signature had been forged, but the officer in charge of the evidence room said he had personally given the form to Marullo's clerk, who took it into chambers and returned with the signed order. Marullo subsequently refused a police request for a second interview on the grounds that he was presiding over the trials. Marullo did not inform Lacaze of his connection to the murder weapon, even after Lacaze testified that he was not involved in the murders, but that Frank had told him she was going to get a gun from the evidence room. When Lacaze's attorneys later learned of Marullo's connection to the weapon, they filed an appeal challenging his failure to recuse himself. The Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. In 2017, Lacaze petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time, and the Court vacated the Louisiana Supreme Court's decision and remanded the case for further review based upon its March 2017 decision in Rippo v. Baker, which found “an unconstitutional potential for bias” requiring recusal when a trial judge was being criminally investigated by the same prosecutor's office that was prosecuting the defendant. On remand, the Louisiana court once again rejected the appeal, saying that Lacaze had not shown a “probability of actual bias” by Judge Marullo against any specific party in the case. Lacaze's petition is supported by friend-of-the-court briefs by ten former state and federal trial and appellate court judges, experts in judicial ethics and judicial elections, and more than thirty associations of criminal defense lawyers. The amicus brief of the former judges warns that the Louisiana court's decision “provides license not simply to preside over a capital murder case despite personal connections to the underlying facts—but to withhold disclosure of those connections entirely.” Allowing this type of “startling” judicial conflict of interest, they write, “threatens the legitimacy of not just Mr. Lacaze’s conviction and sentence, but of the administration of justice.” Writing for the American Constitution Society blog, Lawrence J. Fox, counsel of record on the brief filed by the Ethics Bureau at Yale Law School, said “well-established constitutional due process requirements make clear that Judge Marullo should have recused himself” from the case. “Fair and impartial judges are the foundation stone of fair courts, fair trials, and just results,” Fox wrote. “There’s too much at stake in Mr. Lacaze’s case for the U.S. Supreme Court not to intervene.” Briefing in the case was completed on August 27. The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule later this month on whether to hear the case.

Congressional Black Caucus Asks Oklahoma Governor to Review Case of Julius Jones

The Congressional Black Caucus has urged Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to review the case of death-row prisoner Julius Jones (pictured) and to use her authority to correct what it characterized as his "wrongful conviction." In an August 21, 2018 letter to the Governor, the Black Caucus — an organization of African-American members of the U.S. House of Representatives — expressed its "deep concerns" about racial bias in the application of the death penalty in Oklahoma and the risk of executing an innocent person. Jones' case, it said, fell "[a]t the nexus" of those issues. Jones, an African-American honor student who was co-captain of his high school football, basketball, and track teams, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white businessman. His conviction relied heavily on the testimony of his co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, who avoided the death penalty and was given a substantially reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against Jones. According to the letter, "[t]wo prisoners even heard Mr. Jordan bragging that he set-up Julius, and that he would get out of prison in 15 years in exchange for his testimony." Jones did not fit the description of the murderer given by the victim's sister, but Jordan did. However, Jones' lawyers, the letter emphasized, had no capital trial experience, "failed to show the jury a photograph of Mr. Jones, taken a few days before the shooting ... that [proved] he could not be the person who the victim's sister described," and "did not put on a single witness to testify during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial." The letter said Jones' case also "was plagued by a racially charged investigation and trial," and his sentence was tainted by the "profound inequity in the application of the death penalty based on race." Jones' current attorneys recently uncovered evidence that one of his jurors used a racial slur during the trial. "One juror reported telling the judge about another juror who said the trial was a waste of time and 'they should just take the [n-word] out and shoot him behind the jail,'" the letter states. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to consider this new evidence, and Jones also has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Relying on a 2017 study on race and death sentencing in the state, that petition argues that Oklahoma's death penalty unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of race. One key finding of that study, the letter said, is that "a black defendant accused of killing a white male victim in Oklahoma is nearly three times more likely to receive a death sentence than if his victim were a non-white male." The congressmembers also urged Gov. Fallin to address a range of systemic reforms suggested by the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, including reforms to eyewitness identification procedures, forensic science reform, regulating the use of informants, and recording custodial interrogations. "Major reform is needed to the criminal justice system to ensure that the fair and impartial process called for by the Death Penalty Study Commission becomes a reality," they write. "Given this backdrop, we strongly urge you to use the power of your office to put these recommended reforms in place."

Amnesty International Issues Report on the Death Penalty in Florida

A new report by Amnesty International says Florida's approach to redressing the nearly 400 unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences imposed in the state has deepened its status as an outlier on death-penalty issues by "add[ing] an extra layer of arbitrariness to [the state's] already discriminatory and error-prone capital justice system." The report, released on August 23, 2018, examines the impact of Florida's reponse to U.S. and Florida Supreme Court rulings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State that overturned the state’s capital sentencing statute. That response, Amnesty said, would permit the execution of more than 170 prisoners whom the state acknowledges were sentenced to death under unconstitutional sentencing procedures. Executing those prisoners, Amnesty wrote, will violate "well-established" international human rights law requiring that any person "convicted of a capital offence must benefit when a change of law following charge or conviction imposes a lighter penalty for that crime." In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a state practice that permitted judges to impose a death sentence despite the recommendations of one or more jurors that a life sentence should be imposed. However, the court then declined to enforce that ruling in cases that had completed direct appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court announced in Ring v. Arizona in June 2002 that capital defendants had a right to have a jury decide all facts that were necessary to impose the death penalty. The Amnesty International report described the Florida court's refusal to enforce the constitution in cases in which it acknowledged that constitutional violations had occurred as "fear of too much justice." "Finality won out over fairness when the Florida Supreme Court decided the Hurst retroactivity issue," the report said. The report highlights the cases of prisoners with serious mental illness, those with "actual or borderline intellectual disability," youthful offenders with backgrounds of severe deprivation and abuse who were condemned in unconstitutional sentencing trials, and the wrongful impact of race on sentencing decisions, and argues that Florida's refusal to review these cases is not only arbitrary, but also violates international human rights norms and the constitutional principle that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for "the worst of the worst" cases. The report also discusses Florida's long history of employing unconstitutional death-penalty practices that were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court. It spotlights the case of James Hitchcock, who was unconstitutionally sentenced to death four times for a crime he committed at age 20. The first three times, his death sentence was overturned, including a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Florida's statutory restriction on the mitigating evidence the sentencing judge and jury could consider. The fourth time, he was sentenced to death after a non-unanimous jury vote, but was denied review of that constitutional violation. "The death penalty is no way to impart justice," said Amnesty's Americas Director, Erika Guevara Rosas. "Florida and all other states where the death penalty is still in use must impose immediate moratoriums on executions until they can end this cruel practice once and for all." In the meantime, the report urges all officials to “ensure an end to the use of the death penalty against anyone with intellectual disability or mental disability,” “ensure that all capital case decision makers are made fully aware of the mitigating evidence surrounding youth and emotional and psychological immaturity,” and “facilitate a public education campaign to raise awareness across Florida of the costs, risks and flaws associated with the state’s death penalty.”

In Dissent, Judge Says Death Penalty Violates Arizona State Constitution

An Arizona appeals court judge has urged the state's supreme court to rule that the death penalty violates Arizona's state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In an August 16, 2018 opinion dissenting from the Arizona Supreme Court's affirmance of death-row prisoner Jason Bush's conviction and sentence, Court of Appeals Judge Lawrence Winthrop (pictured)—sitting by designation in the case because of the recusal of one of the high court's justices—wrote that "[t]he death penalty not only inflicts unnaturally cruel punishment, but the application and implementation of the death penalty is, at best, arbitrary and capricious." According to Judge Winthrop, the dangers of wrongful convictions and death sentences, systemic "flaws in administering the death penalty, and our historic inability to devise a method to implement the death penalty free from human bias and error" require that the death penalty be declared unconstitutional. His opinion catalogued a range of problems in Arizona's application of capital punishment, including racial bias, wrongful convictions, and geographic disparities. The death penalty, he also wrote, "has been shown to ... impose unintended trauma on the victim’s family and friends, and to be cost prohibitive. ... [G]iven the continued reports that demonstrate defendants may be sentenced to death because of jurors’ inherent bias, and studies that demonstrate the death penalty has no identifiable deterrent effect, the answer to the question of whether the cost of the death penalty outweighs the societal benefit is a resounding, 'No.'” Judge Winthrop's dissent echoes many of the themes of—and frequently quotes from—U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent in Glossip v. Gross (2015), which questioned whether the death penalty, as applied today, violates the U.S. Constitution. "We simply can no longer ignore the seemingly inherent variants and problems associated with implementing the death penalty," Judge Winthrop wrote. "To continue to affirm the enforcement the death penalty, given what we now know, is to approve a punishment that is both cruel and unusual." The court majority in Bush's case upheld his conviction and death sentence, rejecting a variety of arguments that the trial and sentencing were constitutionally flawed. The majority "express[ed] no opinion ... [on] the validity of capital punishment under Arizona’s Constitution," reserving that judgment for a case in which "the issue [were properly] raised, developed, and argued." However, Bush's case, they wrote, was "not the appropriate case to address or decide" that issue.

New Podcast: Authors of Tennessee Death-Penalty Study Discuss Arbitrariness

The latest edition of Discussions with DPIC features H.E. Miller, Jr. and Bradley MacLean, co-authors of a recent study on the application of Tennessee's death penalty. Miller and MacLean describe the findings from their article, Tennessee's Death Penalty Lottery, in which they examined the factors that influence death-penalty decisions in the state. Based on their survey of thirty years of homicide cases, they found that whether a death sentence is imposed is influenced far less by the circumstances of the offense than by arbitrary factors such as geography, race, and the poor quality of defense representation. MacLean says, "It operates just like a lottery. There's no rationale, there's no rhyme or reason for why an infinitesimally small number of defendants are sentenced to death and even a much smaller number are actually executed, as compared to all the defendants who are convicted of first-degree murder." The authors collected data on more than 2,500 first-degree murder cases in Tennessee from 1977-2017, and found that about 3.5% of first-degree murder defendants have been sentenced to death and fewer than 0.3% have been executed. Those few who are selected for the death penalty, though, do not represent the worst of the worst, with about 90% of multiple-victim murders resulting in life sentences. "The bottom line is, the people who get the death penalty are the most vulnerable, not the ones who commit the worst crimes," MacLean said. In the podcast, the authors also discuss the litigation surrounding Tennessee's method of execution, saying, "If the state can't get their method of execution right, then how can we expect them to get anything else right about the system?" They conclude, "The whole point of our study was to look at whether we have properly addressed the problem of arbitrariness that the Supreme Court talked about in Furman [v. Georgia, which declared all U.S. death-penalty statutes unconstitutionally arbitrary in 1972]. Our conclusion is that our system is no less arbitrary, it is just as arbitrary, as the systems that existed before Furman was decided. ...That's why we believe that our system is clearly unconstitutional."

Florida Juries Reject Death Sentences for Four Men, Highlighting Impact of Unanimity Requirement

Juries in two Broward County, Florida death-penalty trials have handed down life sentences for four capital defendants in the span of one week, highlighting the effect of a new Florida law requiring the unanimous agreement of the jury before a defendant can be sentenced to death. On July 16, a Broward County jury spared three defendants—Eloyn Ingraham, Bernard Forbes, and Andre Delancy—whom it had convicted in March of murdering a Broward sheriff's deputy. Three days later, another Broward jury rejected the death penalty for Eric Montgomery, after having convicted him in April of the murders of his wife and stepdaughter. The verdicts marked the third time in four capital trials since Florida adopted the jury unanimity requirement that Broward juries have opted for life sentences. The sole exception was the case of Peter Avsenew, who represented himself in the penalty-phase after firing his lawyers, presented no penalty-phase defense, and told the jury he had "no regrets" for his actions and was "proud of the decisions [he'd] made." South Florida juries in Palm Beach County also have recommended life sentences in the three first-degree murder trials conducted there since September 2017. In March 2017, the Florida legislature changed its death penalty law in response to two Florida Supreme Court decisions in October 2016 that declared the state’s practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendations for death to be unconstitutional. Those decisions were based on the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which ruled that Florida's previous death-penalty statute violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial by giving judges, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to find the facts that could lead to a death sentence. Florida's criminal law required unanimity for every other decision made by a jury, and the 2017 amendment brought Florida's law into line with the laws of virtually every other death-penalty state. Only Alabama still permits a trial judge to impose the death penalty based upon a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. 

North Carolina Death-Row Prisoners Challenge Retroactive Repeal of Racial Justice Act

Four African-American death-row prisoners in North Carolina whose death sentences had been overturned for racial discrimination have challenged the constitutionality of subsequent state court rulings that reinstated their death sentences and then denied them a new hearing on their discrimination claims. The four—Marcus Robinson (pictured), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters—had overturned their death sentences in 2012 under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), presenting evidence that a multi-decade systematic exclusion of African Americans from death-penalty juries in North Carolina had infected their cases with racial bias. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated those rulings, saying state prosecutors deserved an opportunity to present additional evidence, and the North Carolina legislature repealed the RJA. The trial court then ruled that, because of the repeal, it could no longer hear the prisoners' cases. Backed by a broad coalition of civil rights groups and several former prosecutors, the prisoners filed briefs in the North Carolina Supreme Court on July 16, 2018 arguing that the lower court ruling violated numerous constitutional guarantees, including due process and the Double Jeopardy clauses of the state and federal constitutions. After nearly three weeks of testimony in Robinson’s case, which detailed state prosecutors’ use of jury strikes in 173 capital trials between 1990 and 2010, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks overturned Robinson’s death sentence, finding that the “evidence showed the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection.” Reviewing expert testimony about prosecutors’ choices to accept or strike more than 7,400 jurors, Weeks determined that prosecutors had systematically excluded black jurors from serving in capital cases “with remarkable consistency across time and jurisdictions.” Based on the same statewide evidence, plus the jury strikes in their cases, Weeks concluded that the death sentences imposed on Golphin, Augustine, and Walters also should be overturned. Prosecutors then persuaded the North Carolina Supreme Court to vacate Weeks’s rulings and send the cases back to the trial court for more evidence. “Lo and behold we get back into Superior Court, and at that point, the position shifts, and it’s well wait a minute, the statute’s been repealed, the courthouse door has been shut, and you are out of luck,” explained Gretchen Engel, director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The prisoners’ appeal drew support from numerous civil rights and law-reform organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the North Carolina NAACP, the National Association of Public Defenders, the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, the North Carolina Council of Churches, North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, and a group of former prosecutors. In a statement, LDF senior deputy director of litigation Jin Hee Lee said: “The continuing stain of racial discrimination not only invalidates the death sentences imposed on these defendants, but it also undermines public confidence in North Carolina’s judicial system as a whole.” Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley said, “Whatever one thinks of the death penalty, we should all agree that execution can never be an option when racial stereotypes are used to keep black citizens off capital juries. No civil right is more basic than this.” 

In Two Mississippi Cases, Justice Breyer Renews Call to Review Constitutionality of Death Penalty

As its 2017-2018 term came to a close, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review two Mississippi cases that presented significant challenges to capital punishment as implemented in that state and across the country. Over the dissent of Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured), who renewed his call for the Court to review the constitutionality of the death penalty as a whole, the Court on June 29 denied certiorari in the cases of Timothy Evans and Richard Jordan. Reiterating concerns he first voiced in his landmark dissent three years ago in Glossip v. Gross (2015), Justice Breyer wrote: “the death penalty, as currently administered, suffers from unconscionably long  delays, arbitrary application, and serious unreliability.” Two Mississippi cases, he wrote, illustrate the first two of those factors. Evans and Jordan were both sentenced to death in Mississippi’s Second Judicial District, which—according to death sentencing data maintained by Mississippi’s Office of the State Public Defender—has imposed more death sentences than any of the 21 other judicial districts in the state and nearly 1/3 of all the death sentences imposed in the state this century. Evans’s petition for writ of certiorari had argued that his death sentence was unconstitutionally arbitrary because of the geographic disproportionality in the way in which the death penalty was imposed and carried out across the state. Jordan had asked the Court to review the constitutionality of his more than forty-year tenure on Mississippi’s death row for a crime committed in 1976. Jordan’s death sentence was overturned three separate times because of different constitutional violations in each of his sentencing trials. In 1991, after his sentence had been overturned for the third time, a special prosecutor agreed that Jordan should be sentenced to life without parole. However, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the life sentence saying the sentence was invalid because it had not been authorized by Mississippi law in effect at the time of the murder. The state then sought and obtained the death penalty against Jordan for a fourth time. “Jordan has lived more than half of his life on death row,” Breyer wrote, living most of that time “in isolated, squalid conditions.” Breyer said the cruelty of the conditions of Jordan’s imprisonment constitute an “additional punishment” that warrants review by the Court to address whether the lengthy delay, in and of itself, violates the Eighth Amendment. The geographically arbitrary death-sentencing practices in the Second District also warranted review, Breyer wrote. “This geographic concentration reflects a nationwide trend. Death sentences, while declining in number, have become increasingly concentrated in an ever-smaller number of counties,” he wrote. This arbitrariness, Justice Breyer explained, “is aggravated by the fact that definitions of death eligibility vary depending on the state.” As a result, in Mississippi, unlike most states, a defendant may be sentenced to death for a felony robbery-murder, which does not require that the defendant actually intended to kill someone. Justice Breyer also found evidence in Mississippi that the death penalty was not reliably administered. He noted that just “[f]our hours before Willie Manning was slated to die by lethal injection, the Mississippi Supreme Court stayed his execution,” and in April 2015, Manning became the fourth Mississippi death-row prisoner to be exonerated. With six more death-row prisoners exonerated throughout the U.S. since January 2017, the unreliability of the death penalty, Justice Breyer argued, provides a third reason for the Court to review the constitutionality of capital punishment. “[M]any of the capital cases that come before this court,” Justice Breyer wrote, “involve, like the cases of Richard Jordan and Timothy Evans, special problems of cruelty or arbitrariness. Hence, I remain of the view that the court should grant the petitions now before us to consider whether the death penalty as currently administered violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.” 

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