INNOCENCE: Prosecutors Drop Charges Against Former Death Row Inmates

UPDATE (11/24): A judge formally dropped the charges against Wiley Bridgeman (pictured), making him the 149th person exonerated from death row since 1973. Previously: Cuyahoga County, Ohio prosecutors have filed a motion to drop murder charges against Ricky Jackson and his co-defendants, Wiley Bridgeman and Kwame Ajamu (formerly known as Ronnie Bridgeman). The three men were convicted of murder in 1975 on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who has since recanted and said he did not witness the crime. All three were sentenced to death. Bridgeman once came within three weeks of execution, but his and Ajamu's death sentences were struck down when Ohio's death penalty was found unconstitutional in 1978. Ajamu had been released from prison in 2003, but Jackson and Bridgeman had spent 39 years in prison. Both were released after a judge officially dismissed their charges on November 21. When he was released, Jackson said, "The English language doesn’t even fit what I’m feeling. I’m on an emotional high. You sit in prison for so long and think about this day but when it actually comes you don’t know what you’re going to do, you just want to do something.” Judge Richard McMonagle, who dismissed the charges against Jackson, said, “Life is filled with small victories, and this is a big one.”

COSTS: One Death Penalty Case Could Drain County's Budget in Washington

As Yakima County, Washington, faces the possibility of its first death penalty trial since 1989, the danger that the high cost of a capital case could drain the county's budget is a deep concern. Harold Delia, Yakima County court administrative consultant questioned the wisdom of seeking the death penalty against a defendant recently charged with murder, “You really have to wonder whether this really makes sense when you look at the cost-benefit analysis," he said. "In Yakima County, we have no reserves left. If we overspend on a death penalty case, money has to come from somewhere."  Taxpayers may spend up to $1 million on the trial proceedings alone.  In Yakima County, the 2005 slayings of a 21-year-old man and his 3-year-old daughter cost more than $2 million in defense costs alone, much of it incurred before the trial began, even though the death penalty ended up being no more than a threat in the case. A study commissioned by the Washington State Bar Association in 2006 estimated that a death penalty case can cost an additional $800,000 when considering additional costs to the prosecution and defense at the trial and the cost of appeals. 

Supreme Court to Hear Case of Man Facing Execution Because of Mailroom Mixup

On March 21, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from death-row inmate Cory Maples (pictured), who is facing execution because of a missed filing deadline in his state appeal.  Copies of an Alabama court ruling in his case were sent to the New York law firm handling his appeals pro bono but were returned unopened to the court because the attorneys representing Maples had left the firm. Maples himself was not informed of the Alabama ruling or the fact that his attorneys had left.  By the time the mailroom mix-up was discovered, Maples’s time to appeal had expired. Gregory Garre, Maples' new attorney, is arguing that Maples should not be penalized for missing the deadline because Maples was blameless, the government’s actions were a contributing factor, and his lawyers had effectively stopped representing him. The state maintains that Maples should be denied a hearing because his case is no different from “countless attorneys [who] have missed filing deadlines over the years.” A third attorney, who was acting as local counsel in Alabama but who played no part in Maples' actual representation, did receive the Alabama ruling but ignored it.  The case is Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63.

Judge Dismisses Capital Murder Charges After Finding State Report "Intentionally Misleading"

On March 10, a North Carolina superior court judge released his opinion throwing out murder charges against Derrick Michael Allen, who was accused in the 1998 death and sexual assault of a 2-year-old girl. Judge Orlando Hudson dismissed the case after finding that a State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) report was prepared in an "inaccurate, incomplete and intentionally misleading manner.” Judge Hudson also found that an SBI agent (now suspended) and a former assistant district attorney working on the case “decided to stop further testing of items for DNA testing because they believed further testing of physical evidence of the case would not prove inculpatory to the defendant Derrick Allen and could possibly inculpate others." He wrote that Allen was coerced into entering an Alford plea (a plea in which the defendant accepts that the weight of the evidence points to his guilt but without admitting actual guilt) after being threatened with the death penalty. An autopsy showed that the girl died of shaken baby syndrome. Allen spent more than 10 years in prison.  Allen’s case was among 200 cases that an outside audit discovered were mishandled by the SBI. The audit revealed that agents failed to report correct evidence in a number of cases. Because evidence has been destroyed or is missing since Allen’s case started, Judge Hudson noted, “It is no longer possible for Mr. Allen to ever receive a fair trial.”

STUDIES: Misunderstandings by Jurors Undermines Constitutionality of Death Penalty

A new study by William Bowers and others published in the Criminal Law Bulletin revealed that most jurors in death penalty cases lack sufficient understanding of their duties, rendering the process unconstitutional by Supreme Court standards. The study showed that capital jurors often mistakenly believe that a death sentence is required by law, and fail to take primary responsibility for the defendant's punishment. The study suggested that jurors tend to believe death should be the punishment for heinous crimes and that death is needed as a deterrent and required by law. When the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in Gregg v. Geogia, it stated that improved jury instructions and court procedures would reduce the arbitrariness in capital sentencing. The report's findings suggest that after many years of experimentation these remedies have failed: "It appears that jurors cannot be successfully directed in making such an ominous decision by guidelines and procedures devised to insure a reasoned moral judgment free of arbitrariness. Being outraged by heinous killings and ambivalent about ordering someone killed, are 'normal' human reactions."

Victim's Family and Jurors Urge Clemency for Texas Death Row Inmate

On February 7, attorneys for Tim Adams (pictured) filed a petition for clemency urging the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend sparing Adams' life and to ask Governor Rick Perry to commute his death sentence to life in prison without parole. Adams, an army veteran with no criminal history, killed his son while planning his own suicide in 2002. He pleaded guilty and has taken responsibility for his actions.  Family members and three jurors from Adams' trial have also voiced strong support for his clemency. Columbus Adams, Adams' father and grandfather of the victim, said, "Our family lost one child. We don’t deserve to lose another. After my grandson’s death, we lived through pain worse than anyone could imagine. Nothing good will come from executing my son Tim and causing us more anguish." Additionally, Rebecca Hayes, Ngoc Duong, and Kathryn Starling, who served as jurors in Adams' trial, have said they were not presented with information about the defendant's character and religious background that would have influenced their sentencing decision. In an affidavit, Hayes said, "Those deliberations were the most emotional experience of my life, and I have carried the guilt around for years knowing that I sentenced Adams, a man who had done wrong but who was otherwise a good, religious, and hard-working person to death."

STUDIES: USA Today Investigation Reveals Prosecutorial Misconduct in Federal Cases

An in-depth investigation conducted by USA Today found 201 criminal cases in which federal judges determined that U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors violated laws or ethics rules, including the recent prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. The investigation looked at cases since 1997, when Congress enacted a law aimed at ending prosecutorial misconduct. Some of the violations reviewed by USA Today resulted in judges throwing out charges, overturning convictions or rebuking prosecutors. Of the 201 cases, 47 ended in the exoneration and release of the defendant after the violations surfaced. Nino Lyons, for example, was convicted of drug trafficking based on suspicious testimony by prison inmates who were promised early release in exchange for their cooperation. By luck, one of Lyons’s lawyers discovered a discrepancy in one of the witness’s testimony. This led him to hundreds of pages of reports that the prosecution never disclosed.  Lyons’s conviction was overturned and he was declared innocent. In another case, federal courts blocked prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for a fatal robbery because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence. Bennett Gershman, an expert on prosecutorial misconduct, told USA Today that the abuses are becoming systemic and that the system is not able to control such behavior.  With respect to consequences for prosecutors who break the rules, the paper could identify only one federal prosecutor who was barred even temporarily from practicing law for misconduct during the past 12 years.

REPRESENTATION: Alabama Inmate--Failed by His Attorney--Is Executed Despite Jury's Vote for Life

Leroy White (pictured) was executed in Alabama on January 13 despite the fact that his trial jury, the prosecution, and members of the victim's family had sought a different sentence. Shortly before his execution, he received a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court to consider his final motion. However, nearly three hours later the stay was lifted and he was executed for the 1988 murder of his estranged wife, Ruby White. During the time that the stay was in place, White sat alone and was not allowed to confer with his attorney.  At the time of his trial, the jury recommended a life sentence, but Alabama is one of the few states in the country that allow the judge to override the jury and White was sentenced to death. The victim’s family and White’s daughter had asked for his life to be spared, and at one point the prosecution had offered a plea bargain.  One of White's earlier attorneys, G. James Benoit, admitted that he allowed his client to miss a critical appeal deadline, shortening the appeals process and expediting his execution. Benoit, who took over White’s case after another member of his firm was suspended, practiced transactional tax and corporate law, and had never been in a courtroom. He no longer practices law today. Bryan Stevenson, director of Equal Justice Initiative, took up White’s case last summer when the state asked the Alabama Supreme Court to set a date for his execution. White was surprised to hear that his execution date was approaching because he assumed he was still in the appeals process. In the week before his execution, Stevenson petitioned both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court to delay White’s execution because of the missed appeal by his former attorney and his failure to inform White. According to Stevenson, “"The death penalty is not just about do people deserve to die for the crimes they are accused of, the death penalty is also about do we deserve to kill.  If we don't provide fair trials, fair review procedures, when we have executions that are unnecessarily cruel and distressing, or if we have a death penalty that is arbitrary or political or discriminatory, then we are all implicated."