Texas Inmate May Be Executed Despite Proof of Intellectual Disability

Michael Hall was sentenced to death in 2000 in Texas for kidnapping and murder. At the time of his trial, his IQ was measured at 67. Generally, a person with intellectual disability is defined as someone with an IQ of 70 or lower, along with limitations in adaptive skills. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing someone who has an intellectual disability (mental retardation) constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, but the high court left it to each state to define and enforce the prohibition. State and federal judges in Texas have ruled that, even though Hall is mentally slow, he does not demonstrate an intellectual disability sufficient to be exempted from capital punishment in Texas.  Lawyers for Hall petitioned the high court to examine whether Texas has adopted adequate procedures to determine whether someone has an intellectual disability and whether those procedures were followed in Hall’s case in line with constitutional safeguards. The Supreme Court has declined to take up Hall's appeal.

Sentencing Judge Second-Guesses Death Sentence In Light of New Evidence

On October 20, attorneys for Jeffrey Landrigan filed a clemency petition with the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency calling on the Board to recommend the commutation of Landrigan’s death sentence largely because of errors by his trial attorneys. Landrigan’s original attorneys failed to present mitigating evidence at the sentencing hearing, which could have included evidence of brain damage and severe abuse. Judge Cheryl Hendrix, the judge who imposed Landrigan’s death sentence, recently signed a declaration admitting that, if she knew about Landrigan’s background and brain damage, she would not have sentenced him to death. Judge Hendrix wrote, “Had the trial counsel presented any of the mitigating information I have received [since the sentencing trial] – which was available at the time of sentencing – Mr. Landrigan would not have been sentenced to death.” UPDATE: A U.S. District Court Judge has stayed Landrigan's execution, forbidding the use of sodium thiopental in the lethal injection because the state has not adequately assured the court of the drug's efficacy.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the stay. (Oct. 26, 2010). FURTHER UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court (5-4) lifted the stay of execution and Landrigan was executed late on Oct. 26.

Expert Who Predicted "Future Dangerousness" in Texas Death Cases Ruled Unreliable

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently held that the methodology used by Dr. Richard Coons to predict the "future dangerousness" of capital defendants was unreliable.  Whether a convicted defendant would be a future danger to society is a crucial question for juries in Texas in choosing between a life or death sentence.  Dr. Coons has testified in over 150 death penalty trials across the state. He admitted in a recent hearing that he had developed his own methodology for assessing future dangerousness, one in which he considers the defendant’s conscience, attitudes toward violence and criminal history. “These factors,” according to the court opinion, “sound like common sense ones that the jury would consider on its own.” Capital defense experts consider this a significant ruling pertaining to expert testimony in death penalty cases. Russ Hunt Jr., who represented the defendant in the case where this ruling was made, said, “If you are going to be an expert, you should have some scientific basis of what you are testifying about.” Hunt continued, “[Coons] basically just says, ‘Trust me. I’m a doctor. I know it when I see it.’” Dr. Coons, a forensic psychiatrist, has recently stopped taking death penalty cases.

ARBITRARINESS: 10% of Counties Account for All Recent Death Sentences in the U.S.

A recent article in Second Class Justice, a weblog dedicated to addressing unfairness and discrimination in the criminal justice system, highlighted that the death penalty continues to be arbitrarily applied in the United States. Citing figures from the American Judicature Society, author Robert Smith revealed that only 10% of U.S. counties accounted for all of the death sentences imposed between 2004 and 2009, and only 5% of the counties accounted for all death sentences between 2007 and 2009. Even in states that frequently impose the death penalty (such as Texas, Alabama, Florida, California and Oklahoma), only a few counties produce the state’s death sentences.  According to the article, “The murders committed in those counties are no more heinous than murders committed in other counties, nor are the offenders in those counties more incorrigible than those who commit crimes in other counties. Examination of prosecutorial practices demonstrate that some prosecutors seek death in cases in their jurisdictions while other prosecutors in the rest of the state do not seek death for the same – or even more aggravated – murders.”  The article contains a series of slides illustrating the geographical disparities of the death penalty.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Regrets 1976 Vote Upholding the Death Penalty

In a recent interview on NPR, newly-retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said he particularly regretted one vote during his 35 years on the high court--his 1976 vote to uphold the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia. Stevens remarked, "I thought at the time . . . that if the universe of defendants eligible for the death penalty is sufficiently narrow so that you can be confident that the defendant really merits that severe punishment, that the death penalty was appropriate." But, over the years, he added, "the Court constantly expanded the cases eligible for the death penalty, so that the underlying premise for my vote has disappeared, in a sense."  Justice Stevens also said that the court has made death penalty procedures more sympathetic to prosecutors: “I really think that the death penalty today is vastly different from the death penalty that we thought we were authorizing.”

Texas Judge Opens Court of Inquiry on Execution of a Possibly Innocent Man

Judge Charles Baird of Austin, Texas, will conduct a court of inquiry on October 6–7 (Update: Hearing postponed until Oct. 14) to determine whether Cameron Willingham (pictured) was wrongfully convicted and executed for the death of his three daughters in a fire originally deemed to be an arson. Willingham maintained his innocence up until his execution in 2004. Former Texas Governor Mark White, one of the petitioners for this rare legal proceeding, said that attorneys representing Willingham's relatives are “prepared to put on witnesses that will be persuasive that the forensic evidence was tantamount to witchcraft.” Last month, the Texas Forensic Science Committee issued preliminary findings that outdated and flawed forensic science was used to determine that the fire that killed Willingham’s daughters was arson, and voted to continue further inquiry into the case. Judge Baird, who will be presiding over the hearings, said, “Obviously the most troubling aspect of this - and it just dwarfs everything else - is whether or not to believe that an innocent person has been executed by the state of Texas.”

INNOCENCE: DNA Test Clears Three Wrongfully Convicted Inmates Who Might Have Been Executed

Two men who were serving life sentences were exonerated on September 16 from a Mississippi prison after 30 years. Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon were accused of the 1979 rape and murder of Eva Gail Patterson. Larry Ruffin, a co-defendant who died in prison eight years ago, will be posthumously exonerated.  Ruffin was the first defendant to be arrested for the crime. Dixon and Bivens were later charged as co-conspirators, even though Patterson’s 4-year-old son, who witnessed the crime, testified that there had only been one man at the scene. Bivens was threatened with the death penalty, and, fearing for his life, backed up Dixon’s account that they were all at the crime scene that evening, even though Bivens had never met Dixon before.  Ruffin was convicted and faced the death penalty, but was given a life sentence because of a hung jury.  Lawyers from the Innocence Project, who accepted a request for help from Dixon, cited studies showing the ubiquity of false confessions and requested a DNA test of the evidence from Patterson’s rape kit. In July, test results finally came back, implicating a man who had been living near Patterson at the time of the crime and is now serving a life sentence for a prior rape. Ruffin's exoneration will be the first instance in Mississippi where DNA evidence has cleared an inmate posthumously.

Federal Judge Says Prosecutor Lied and Overturns Mississippi Death Sentence

A federal District Court judge ordered a new sentencing trial for Quintez Hodges, who is currently on Mississippi's death row, because former Assistant District Attorney James Kitchens, Jr., lied under oath during Hodges’s trial and the prosecutor conducting the trial should have known that Kitchens' testimony was false.  Kitchens is now a judge on Mississippi's circuit court.  As a part of the prosecution’s strategy to show Hodges lacked remorse and had a criminal history, Kitchens falsely testified that Hodges was given a light sentence on a previous robbery charge. The judge ruled, “[The defendant] has shown that there exists a reasonable likelihood that the jury’s verdict might have been affected as a result of the false testimony. In this instance, the State, seemingly unconcerned with the accuracy of the testimony to be given in a trial where the result could be death, provided the jury with false information.”