Arbitrariness

California Court Bars Death Penalty in Mass Killing Because of "Unprecedented" Government Misconduct

Citing "relentless non-compliance" with court orders and "chronic obstructionism" by a prosecution team it says "has effectively compromised" Scott Dekraai's rights to due process and a fair penalty trial, a California trial court has barred prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty in the worst mass killing in Orange County history. In a scathing opinion on August 18, Judge Thomas M. Goethals (pictured)—who had disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney's office from the case as a result of earlier misconduct and lying to the court about a decades-long practice of using jailhouse informants to violate defendant's constitutional rights—wrote that in light of continued "indolence and obfuscation" from the Orange County Sheriff's Department in response to orders seeking information on the informant scandal, the court had "lost confidence that it can ever secure compliance" by the prosecution with future court orders in the case. Given the "unprecedented" nature of the government misconduct, Judge Goethals wrote, it would "be unconscionable, perhaps even cowardly," for the court not to take remedial action by barring the death penalty. Judge Goethals addressed the emotional toll on the victims' families created by the need to conduct four years of court proceedings investigating the scandal. He said the court would "do what little it can to mitigate their suffering" by imposing eight consecutive life sentences "that will end this case now and insure that this defendant dies a forgotten man in some obscure maximum security prison." Family members in the courtroom expressed anger at county prosecutors. Butch Fournier, whose sister Michelle, Dekraai’s ex-wife, was one of the eight victims, said, "It’s been six years for nothing. ... They caused us pain and suffering that was unnecessary. It was a cut-and-dry case." Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer—a former prosecutor who is considered a likely candidate for District Attorney next year—called on District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to resign, saying the conduct of the District Attorney's and Sheriff's offices had been "reprehensible" and constituted an "egregious assault on our criminal justice system." In a statement, Spitzer wrote: "I am appalled that the misconduct of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, in collusion with the OC Sheriff’s Department, resulted in this miscarriage of justice. I am incredulous that the Orange County criminal justice system has earned a national reputation for corruption that will take years, if not decades, to repair. Fundamental changes are needed." The editorial board of the Orange County Register said "the fact that a death sentence couldn’t even be secured for an admitted mass murderer speaks to the level of dysfunction within the county’s criminal justice system." The Orange County District Attorney's office was named in a July 2017 report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project as one of the prosecuting offices cited for repeated prosecutorial misconduct.

Arizona Prisoner Asks U.S. Supreme Court To Declare State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

An Arizona death-row prisoner has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the state's capital punishment statute, arguing that Arizona's sentencing scheme "utterly fails" the constitutionally required task of limiting the death penalty to the worst crimes and worst offenders. On August 15, lawyers for Abel Daniel Hidalgo (pictured) wrote that a study of more than a decade's worth of murder cases from Maricopa County, where Hidalgo was tried, showed that aggravating factors that could make a defendant eligible for the death penalty were present in 99% of all the cases. This, they say, violates the Eighth Amendment requirement established by the Court that a capital-sentencing statute must “genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty.” They wrote that evidence presented to the Arizona state courts showed that "every first degree murder case filed in Maricopa County in 2010 and 2011 had at least one aggravating factor" that made a defendant eligible for the death penalty, and that over the course of eleven years, 856 of 866 first-degree murder cases filed in the county had one or more aggravating circumstances present. In a press statement, Hidalgo's defense team says that, as a result, "geography and county resources—rather than the characteristics of the offender or the crime—play an outsized role in Arizona’s arbitrary application of the death penalty." With the fourth largest death row in the U.S. as of January 2013, Maricopa County imposed the death penalty at more than double the rate per murder as the rest of the state, and its 28 death sentences imposed between 2010-2015 were the third most of any U.S. county. Hidalgo's petition notes that defendants of color accused of killing white victims "are more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as minorities accused of killing other minorities ... [a]nd a Hispanic man accused of killing a white man is 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white man accused of killing a Hispanic victim." This, they say, makes Arizona's death penalty unconstitutionally arbitrary. In the alternative, the petition argues—citing national legislative and sentencing trends—that the death penalty nationwide now offends "evolving standards of decency" and should be declared unconstitutional. The lawyers write, "[t]he long experiment ... in whether the death penalty can be administered within constitutional bounds has failed. It has failed both in Arizona in particular and in the Nation more broadly." 

Florida Denies Relief to Prisoner Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death, in Decision that Could Affect More Than 75 Cases

In a decision that could have broad impact on the state's death row, the Florida Supreme Court on August 10 upheld the death sentence imposed on James Hitchcock, despite his having been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. In a 6-1 ruling, the court said it would not enforce its 2016 ruling in Hurst v. State—which declared unconstitutional any death sentence imposed after one or more sentencing jurors had voted that a life sentence was the appropriate punishment—in cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002. That date is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona that a capital defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to have the jury determine all facts necessary for the state to impose a death penalty. But the Florida courts did not apply Ring to death-penalty cases in the state until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death-penalty statute in 2016. At that time, in Hurst v. Florida, Justice Sonia Sotomayor reiterating that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." When Hurst's case returned to the Florida Supreme Court later that year, the state court ruled that non-unanimous jury verdicts were unconstitutional. However, the court then ruled in an appeal brought by Mark Asay—scheduled to be executed August 24—that it would not apply Hurst to cases that pre-dated Ring. Hitchcock and other Florida death-row prisoners pressed a number of other constitutional arguments, including that death sentences imposed after non-unanimous jury votes are unreliable, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that the court's bright-line cutoff for enforcing Hurst was unconstitutionally arbitrary, violating due rocess and the right to equal protection of the law. The Hitchcock court declined to consider those arguments, dismissing them as "nothing more than arguments that Hurst v. State should be applied retroactively to [Hitchcock's] sentence." Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases. Justice Barbara J. Pariente dissented, writing, "[r]eliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable." She noted that Hitchcock, who was twenty years old at the time of his crime, has had four different unconstitutional death sentences since he was first tried in 1977, with the U.S. Supreme Court twice overturning the death penalty in his case. She further noted that four Florida Supreme Court justices had written that his death sentence was disproportionate and that he should be resentenced to life. “To deny Hitchcock relief when other similarly situated defendants have been granted relief amounts to a denial of due process,” she wrote.

Mark White, Former Governor of Texas and Death-Penalty Critic, Dies at 77

Mark White (official portrait, pictured), a former governor and attorney general of Texas who became an outspoken critic of the death penalty, died on August 5 at the age of 77. Mr. White served as governor from 1983 to 1987, during which time he oversaw 19 executions. In an unsuccessful comeback bid in 1990, a campaign ad touted his strong support for the death penalty, featuring photos of the men executed during his tenure as governor and declaring, "Only a governor can make executions happen. I did and I will." Over time, however, his views changed and he became an advocate for the wrongfully condemned. In May 2014, White published a reflective op-ed in Politico, in which he declared that the administration of the death penalty is egregiously flawed. Citing the botched April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, White wrote that the death penalty lends itself to mistakes and abuse. Lockett died of a heart attack approximately 40 minutes after the state began administering an untested lethal-injection protocol. “As I’ve watched how the death penalty has been administered over the years," White wrote, "both in Texas and around the country, it has become increasingly clear to me that we just don’t do a good job at any phase of the process, from ensuring that capital trials are fair to the actual handling of executions themselves." White wrote that the death-penalty system is plagued by arbitrariness. "We now have incontrovertible evidence that America’s criminal justice system does a poor job of determining who deserves the death penalty,” he said, noting that 12 Texans had been among the many people released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. Since the publication of White's op-ed, that number has risen to 13. As a "recovering politician," White volunteered to work with reform groups and innocence organizations in an attempt to redress his concerns about the unfairness of the criminal justice system. In 2012, he lent his voice to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's efforts to obtain a fair sentencing hearing for Duane Buck—who had been sentenced to death after a defense mental health expert, and then the prosecutor, told the jury that he posed an increase risk of violence to society because he is black—narrating the video, A Broken Promise in Texas: Race, the Death Penalty, and the Duane Buck Case. He also served as the long-time co-chair of The Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, on which he worked with other former prosecutors, governors, and corrections officials to advance bi-partisan efforts at death-penalty reform.

Nebraska Death Penalty Challenge Unresolved, as Defendant Fires Lawyers, Pleads Guilty

A Nebraska trial judge has permitted Patrick Schroeder (pictured)—whose lawyers from the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy had challenged the constitutionality of the state's death penalty—to fire his lawyers, withdraw the challenge, and plead guilty to first-degree murder. The court deferred until August 22 whether to also permit Schroeder to waive his right to have a jury decide whether aggravating circumstance exist that could make him eligible for the death penalty. The court reappointed public defenders Sarah Newell and Todd Lancaster to represent Schroeder in the penalty-phase proceedings. Schroeder was serving a life sentence for a prior murder when he choked Terry Berry, his cellmate at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, to death in April. Authorities found a ripped-up note in the trash can of their cell, which read:  “You really need to get Terry Berry out of my cell before he gets hurt.” In June, Schroeder’s lawyers had filed a motion to bar the death penalty in his case, arguing that its application in Nebraska is unconstitutionally arbitrary and that the state's sentencing procedures violate the U.S. Supreme Court's 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida requiring that juries find all facts necessary to impose the death penalty. The motion argued that Nebraska's law is inconsistently applied geographically, with only four of the state's 93 counties imposing death sentences, and is racially discriminatory. Eight of the nine men sent to death row in the last 15 years in the state have been defendants of color. Schroeder's lawyers also asserted that Nebraska's three-judge sentencing panel violated Hurst because it required that judges, rather than a jury, determine whether aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances and justify imposing the death penalty. Only a handful of states permit judicial death sentencing without a prior unanimous jury finding that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigation. Courts in Florida and Delaware have already struck down those states' statutes, holding that the weighing process is a factfinding that must be made by a jury. Alabama's appeal courts overturned a trial court ruling that its judicial factfinding was unconstitutional. The motion also had challenged the state's execution protocol as an unlawful delegation of legislative powers that gives prison directors overly broad discretion to determine the types and quantities of drugs to be used in the lethal-injection process. Schroeder’s waiver leaves the constitutionality of Nebraska's sentencing statute unresolved. The Nebraska legislature repealed the state's death penalty in 2015 over the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts, but Nebraska voters restored the statute in a 2016 referendum. The state last carried out an execution in 1997. [UPDATE: The Nebraska Supreme Court has agreed to review an appeal by brought by death-row prisoner Marco Torres to determine whether his challenge to the constitutionality of the state's death-penalty statute under Hust v. Florida was timely raised and can be decided by the courts.]

Pennsylvania Prosecutors Give Up Death Penalty in Murder of 4 to Learn Location of Missing Victim

Bucks County, Pennsylvania prosecutors have agreed not to seek the death penalty for defendant Cosmo DiNardo (pictured), in exchange for his confession to a quadruple murder, information implicating an accomplice, and information permitting authorities to recover the body of one of the victims. The deal was made quickly—just one week after the beginning of the investigation into the disappearance of the four young men and the discovery of three of the bodies—to end the uncertainty faced by the victims' families. Pennsylvania defense attorney Marc Bookman said, “The defense is giving the prosecutor something compelling. He said he would direct them to where the bodies are. You’ve got four grieving families who desperately want closure, however sad that closure might be. And he’s asking for something in exchange.” All of the victims' families supported the deal, according to Mark Potash, whose son, Mark Sturgis, was killed. “Without the confession, we would have wound up leaving a boy missing. It took about half a second for all of us to agree,” he said. Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham—who a 2016 report by Harvard's Fair Punishment Project described as one of America's "deadliest prosecutors"—said that avoiding a death penalty trial and appeals would save, “hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of dollars. The deal, which won praise from both defense lawyers and prosecutors, highlights an on-going concern about systemic arbitrariness in the way the death penalty is administered: highly culpable murderers who have information leading to the discovery of additional victims or solving other murders may be able to avoid a death sentence, in spite of the seriousness of the crime, while less culpable defendants are sentenced to death for less serious murders. Earlier this year, Todd Kohlhepp avoided a death sentence by pleading guilty to seven murders in South Carolina, providing information that helped solve four cases. "Green River" killer Gary Ridgway made a similar deal in Washington in 2003, pleading guilty to 48 murders and helping investigators find the remains of numerous missing victims.

Intellectually Disabled Ex-Death Row Prisoner Released from Texas Prison After Decades Without a Valid Conviction

Jerry Hartfield, an intellectually disabled prisoner whose conviction and death sentence was overturned in 1980, was freed from prison in Texas on June 12, 2017, having spent 35 years in jail without a valid conviction and without being retried. Hartfield, whose IQ is in the 50s or 60s, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1977 on charges that he had murdered a bus station worker. Hartfield confessed to the crime, but has long asserted his innocence and that his confession was coerced. In 1980, he was granted a new trial because a prospective juror had been improperly excluded over reservations about the death penalty. Prosecutors tried for three years to change Hartfield's sentence to life without parole, including seeking a commutation from Governor Mark White, but in 1983 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals again directed that Hartfield be retried. Soon after, Governor White issued an order to commute Hartfield's sentence to life in prison. Prosecutors and the governor's staff assumed that ended the litigation in Hartfield's case, while the courts assumed prosecutors were moving forward to comply with the second retrial order. Hartfield's attorney decided not to push for a retrial. For 23 years, Hartfield waited, until in 2006, he tried to find out what was happening in his case. Another prisoner, Kevin Althouse, helped Hartfield write requests to state judges, but they were all summarily rejected. Finally, a federal judge granted Hartfield's request for a lawyer, who ruled that Hartfield was being held without a valid conviction, and that because there was no conviction, the governor's attempted commutation was ineffectual. The case bounced between federal and state courts until a judge ordered a retrial in 2013. By the time the retrial finally took place in 2015, two key witnesses had died, all of the physical evidence had been lost or destroyed, and most of Hartfield's family members who could have offered mitigation testimony had died. Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, Hartfield's lawyers argued that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated. An appeals court agreed, and ordered him released. Hartfield told The Marshall Project, “I am not bitter. I am not angry. [The prosecutors] were only doing their jobs, and I respect them for that."

Federal Court Grants Lethal-Injection Stay to Alabama Prisoner With Claims of Attorney Abandonment, Flawed Forensics

Robert Melson (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner whose clemency petition alleges that abandonment by his post-conviction lawyers prevented him from adequately challenging the flawed forensic evidence in his case, received a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on a challenge to Alabama's lethal-injection protocol. Melson was convicted of three murders at a Popeye's restaurant in 1994. A survivor of the crime recognized one of two assailants as Cuhuatemoc “Tempo” Peraita, an acquaintance of Melson's, and described the second assailant only as a black man. More than an hour after the crime occurred, police pulled over Peraita's car, and arrested him along with the black male passenger, Robert Melson. At the suggestion of police, Peraita—a 17-year-old with intellectual impairments—confessed to having been present during the crime, but claimed Melson had shot the victims. (Peraita has since recanted his accusation.) Melson has consistently maintained his innocence. During the interrogation, police took Melson's shoes from him. According to Melson's clemency petition, "Five days later, a police evidence technician belatedly discovered, photographed, and cast footprints in a rainy drainage ditch behind Popeye’s restaurant, which they later said matched Mr. Melson’s shoes." Peraita didn't testify at Melson's trial, and the witness who had identified Peraita did not identify Melson in a photo lineup. No other forensic evidence—such as fingerprints or DNA—linked Melson to the crime. As a result, Melson's conviction relied heavily on the shoeprint evidence, a type of evidence that the landmark 2009 report on forensic science by the National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, found to be unreliable, unscientific, and susceptible to bias. In addition to the problems inherent with shoeprint evidence, nearly two inches of rain had fallen between the time of the crime and the time police reported discovering the shoeprint. Melson should have been able to challenge the shoeprint evidence during his post-conviction appeal, but was represented by an inexperienced volunteer attorney who was not licensed in Alabama and a local attorney who had a history of malpractice. The lawyers did not properly file Melson's state post-conviction petition, and then, on appeal, they filed the documents in the wrong court, causing his appeal to be dismissed. The error was compounded because the attorneys failed to inform Melson of the dismissal. Melson's time to file a petition for habeas corpus in federal court ran out before he learned his state case had been dismissed. Cases like Melson's raise concerns about Alabama's recently passed "Fair Justice Act," which would potentially exacerbate errors like those made by his attorneys, since state deadlines would be shorter and stricter and all state death penalty appeals would run concurrently. In a separate case, Melson and several other Alabama death-row prisoners challenged Alabama's use of midazolam in executions, highlighting problems that have occurred when the drug was used in past executions. The 11th Circuit stayed Melson's June 8 execution to allow time for it to consider that challenge. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay of execution, and Melson was executed as scheduled.]

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