Arbitrariness

Judge Approves Plea Deal in Case That Challenged the Constitutionality of the Federal Death Penalty

A federal judge in Vermont has accepted a plea deal between Donald Fell and federal prosecutors, permanently removing Fell from death row and ending a case that had raised serious questions about the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. Under the terms of the deal, approved by U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford on September 28, 2018, Fell will serve a sentence of life without parole for the interstate kidnapping and murder of Teresca King in 2000. Fell and his co-defendant, Robert Lee, abducted King in Rutland, Vermont, and drove her to New York state, where she was killed. Fell was convicted and sentenced to death in federal court in 2005, a sentence he could not have received if he had been tried in state court because Vermont does not have the death penalty. Fell's conviction was overturned and he was granted a new trial in July 2014 as a result of juror misconduct. Federal prosecutors also charged Lee with capital murder, but Lee committed suicide in prison in 2001 before either defendant's case went to trial. In November 2015, Fell's lawyers filed a comprehensive constitutional challenge to the federal death penalty, arguing based on significant racial and geographic inequities in its administration that it was unreliable, arbitrary, and discriminatorily applied. After a two-week-long evidentiary hearing, Judge Crawford found that the federal death penalty "operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles" and "falls short of the [constitutional] standard . . . for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty." He nonetheless allowed the death penalty to remain in the case, writing that as a federal trial judge, he lacked "authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority position at the Supreme Court." Fell's lawyers later unsuccessfully argued based on a March 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a federal sports betting law that the federal death penalty violated the 10th Amendment by conscripting state officials to carry out executions. However, Judge Crawford did grant a defense motion to bar prosecutors from presenting various statements made by Lee by prior to his death attempting to shift blame to Fell for King's murder. In July 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with Crawford, calling Lee's statements "unreliable." The ruling left prosecutors without key evidence to prove the extent of Fell's alleged involvement in the killing, reducing the chances that a jury would return a death sentence in the case. Fell is the 10th prisoner to be permanently removed from the federal death row after having overturned an unconstitutional conviction or death sentence. Sixty-two prisoners are currently on federal death row.

Death Off the Table for Four Former Death-Row Prisoners, as Death Row Continues to Shrink Nationwide

In a period of less than one week, four former death-row prisoners in four separate states learned that they no longer face execution, contributing to the continuing decline in the number of people on death rows across the U.S. The result of the unrelated court proceedings—a resentencing hearing in Pennsylvania, a non-capital grand jury indictment in Louisiana, a prosecutor’s decision to drop death in Indiana, and a court ruling on intellectual disability in Alabama—illustrate the ongoing erosion of the death-row population in America, which has fallen in size in each of the past 17 years. On September 10, 2018, Daniel Saranchak (pictured, left) was resentenced to life without parole in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, following the reversal of his death sentence by a federal court in October 2015. That court said Saranchak had been provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his original trial in 1994 and granted him a new sentencing hearing. In November 2000, Saranchak came within 45 minutes of being executed before receiving a stay. Three days after Saranchak’s resentencing, a Jefferson Parish, Louisiana grand jury returned a non-capital indictment against Teddy Chester (pictured, middle left), who had been sentenced to death in 1997. Chester was granted a new trial on June 11, 2018 based on evidence of his counsel’s failure to challenge the prosecution case against him and DNA evidence that had not been presented to Chester’s trial jury suggesting that he is not the killer. Chester and his co-defendant, Elbert Ratcliff, each claim that the other shot cab driver John Adams in order to rob him. The grand jury indicted Chester for second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence if convicted. Ratcliff was previously convicted of second-degree murder. On September 14, a St. Joseph County, Indiana trial judge approved the prosecution’s motion to remove the death penalty as a possible punishment against Wayne Kubsch (pictured, middle right). Kubsch will face a maximum sentence of life without parole at his third trial in a 1998 triple homicide. Kubsch maintains his innocence, and his second conviction was overturned because “critical evidence” was withheld. The victims’ families supported the prosecution’s decision to seek a life sentence. “I believe this is the right decision,” said Diane Mauk, mother of victim Beth Kubsch. “I feel that in the state of Indiana it would be another 15 years or more before an execution would take place, if it ever happened. ... It’s time to get justice for our families.” And also on September 14, the Alabama Supreme Court found death-row prisoner Anthony Lane (pictured, right) ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, vacated his death sentence, and directed the trial court in Jefferson County to resentence Lane to life without parole. The Alabama state courts had previously rejected Lane's claim of intellectual disability, but had applied an unconstitutional and scientifically unsupported definition of intellectual disability in reaching that conclusion. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2015 and returned the case to the state courts to decide the issue using an appropriate standard.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics brief on May 20, 2017 and DPIC's year end reports in 2016 and 2017 have shown that removals from death row—mostly in the form of resentencings—have outstripped new death sentences every year since 2001.

New DPIC Podcast: Researcher Discusses Implications of Link Between Economic Threats and Support for Death Penalty

In the latest episode of our Discussions with DPIC  podcast, Keelah Williams (pictured), assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York, joins DPIC executive director Robert Dunham to discuss the implications of new research on the death penalty and resource scarcity. “Resource scarcity” is a concept from evolutionary psychology that examines individual and social responses to environmental conditions in which resources are limited. “[E]cological variables can affect our behavior in really striking ways, and this often is happening at an unconscious level," Williams said. She and an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Arizona State University (where Williams earned her Ph.D. and J.D.) thought the concept provided “an exciting opportunity to see whether environmental factors might also play a role in how people think and feel about the death penalty.” Williams describes the team’s findings that countries with greater resource scarcity and income inequality are more likely to have a death penalty. The team discovered a similar phenomenon in the U.S., finding that “states with lower life expectancy and lower per capita income were more likely to have the death penalty, and ... this relationship wasn’t explained by other variables like how politically conservative the states were or state murder rates.” Williams also discusses two experimental studies the team conducted to assess the extent to which perceptions of economic scarcity or abundance affect individuals’ views of capital punishment. That research found that study participants who had been shown information and images of economic hardship tended to be more supportive of the death penalty than those of the same political ideology and socioeconomic status who had been given information and images about economic prosperity. She explains the results, saying, “If your resources are limited, then you have to be more choosy in how you invest them. So, in the context of punishment decisions, we think this means you become less willing to risk repeated offending, and more favorable towards punishments that eliminate the threat.” Although the team‘s research focused on resource scarcity, Williams says it also has relevance in explaining how race may affect views of capital punishment. “We think that people are trying to figure out what the potential future value is of the offender because that’s the information that helps them to evaluate the costs and benefits of getting rid of someone versus keeping them around.” Race, and “whether someone is in your ‘in-group’ or your ‘out-group,’” she says, “can play a role in these kinds of calculations.” This, she believes, may lead to harsher punishment of individuals perceived as belonging to the out-group and discretionary acts of leniency that favor individuals who are members of the in-group, and may cause individuals to feel more threatened when a member of their favored group is killed. Williams says that perhaps “the most interesting take-away from our study is that these features of our environment really can influence the way that we feel and the way that we behave, and can do so in ways we are not necessarily consciously aware are happening.” This raises problematic constitutional and policy questions about the arbitrariness of the death penalty’s application across the United States. “If these extraneous factors, like the state of the economy, are influencing people’s attitudes about something as important as how they feel about the death penalty and their willingness to impose death over life,” Williams says, “[t]hat’s something we, as a society, need to consider if we’re comfortable with.”

Defense Moves to Bar Death Penalty in New York Bike-Path Killings, Citing “Nakedly Political” Tweets

Defense attorneys for Sayfullo Saipov (pictured), the man accused of killing eight people by driving a truck onto a Manhattan bike path on October 31, 2017, have asked a New York federal district court to bar the U.S. government from seeking the death penalty against Saipov. Arguing that President Donald Trump has unconstitutionally injected “nakedly political considerations” into the Department of Justice's charging decision, Saipov’s lawyers on September 6, 2018, filed a motion before Judge Vincent Broderick to preclude federal prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty or, alternatively, “to appoint an independent prosecutor to decide whether the death penalty should be pursued” in the case. The defense filing cites several tweets in which the President directly called for Saipov’s execution and another in which Mr. Trump ridiculed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is ultimately responsible for deciding whether to seek any federal death sentence, for moving forward with two prosecutions that could cost Republicans seats in the U.S. Congress. In separate tweets shortly after the truck attack, Trump used all capital letters to demand the death penalty for Saipov, exclaiming “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” and “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!” In a later tweet, he referred to Saipov as a “degenerate animal.” The motion further alleges that President Trump “has recently tweeted that he expects non-case related political considerations to govern Attorney General Sessions’ charging decisions,” pointing to a tweet that “excoriated” Sessions for the indictments of “two very popular Republican Congressmen ... just ahead of the Mid-Terms.” Trump derisively tweeted: “Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job, Jeff.” Saipov’s lawyers note that this tweet attack on Attorney General Sessions comes at the same time that the President’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, ‘confirmed that he and Trump have discussed Sessions’ possible removal.’” The motion argues that “[t]he pressure from Mr. Trump’s intemperate demands are simply too great for Attorney General Sessions or anyone else who works for President Trump to appropriately exercise the fact-based, independent decision-making process required” in capital cases. This, they argue, creates an unconstitutional risk that any decision to seek death will be—or appear to be—the product of “President Trump’s arbitrary, uninformed and emotional impulses ... and/or his insistence that the Justice Department’s charging decisions should be controlled by political calculations.” There is no death penalty in New York state. Federal prosecutors have not yet announced whether they intend to seek a death sentence in the case.

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.

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