Clemency

Supreme Court Lets Death Sentence Stand for Prisoner Whose Attorney Presented No Mitigating Evidence

Over a sharp dissent by three justices, the United States Supreme Court has let stand the death sentence imposed on a Georgia prisoner who was suffering from dementia, brain damage, and borderline intellectual functioning, but whose trial lawyer failed to present any mitigating evidence. On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed on behalf of death-row prisoner Donnie Cleveland Lance seeking the Court’s review of the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of relief in his case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan – dissented, writing that “the Court’s refusal to intervene permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Lance was sentenced to death by a Georgia court for the 1997 murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Lance’s trial lawyer – a solo practitioner who was convinced he could persuade the jury of Lance’s innocence – asked the trial court to appoint a second lawyer to handle any potential penalty phase. The court denied that request and also denied a defense motion for funds to retain expert witnesses to challenge the range of experts hired by the prosecution in the case. After the court denied his motions, Lance’s lawyer conducted no penalty-phase investigation and did nothing to prepare for the penalty phase. Following Lance’s conviction, counsel made no penalty-phase opening statement, called no witnesses, and presented no mitigating evidence. In his cursory closing argument, counsel asked the jury to think of Lance’s family and to not seek vengeance. 

New counsel represented Lance in his state post-conviction proceedings and presented extensive evidence of Lance’s serious cognitive impairments. Four mental health experts agreed that Lance had brain damage in his frontal lobe, that his IQ was on the borderline for intellectual disability, and that he suffered from clinical dementia. While the three defense experts agreed that Lance’s brain damage significantly impaired his ability to control his impulses and conform his conduct to the law, the state’s expert disagreed about the extent of his impairment. The trial court overturned Lance’s death sentence, ruling that counsel had provided ineffective representation. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that while counsel’s performance was deficient, the presentation of mitigating evidence would have been futile given the facts of the murder. On federal habeas corpus review, the Georgia federal courts ruled that the Georgia Supreme Court had not unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it upheld Lance’s death sentence.

The three-justice dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene argued that the Georgia Supreme Court decision was “an objectively unreasonable application” of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and had “mischaracterized or omitted key facts and improperly weighed the evidence.” The evidence of Lance’s “‘serious’ and ‘significant’” mental impairments, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “reasonably could have affected at least one juror’s assessment of whether Lance deserved to die for his crimes, and Lance should have been given a chance to make the case for his life.” Instead, she said, “Lance may well be executed without any adequately informed jury having decided his fate.”

Six Ex-Governors Urge Gov. Jerry Brown to Clear California’s Death Row

Six former governors have urged California Governor Jerry Brown (pictured) to “be courageous in leadership” and grant clemency to the 740 men and women on California’s death row before he leaves office on January 7, 2019. In a December 13 op-ed in the New York Times, the former governors—Ohio’s Richard Celeste, Oregon’s John Kitzhaber, Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, New Mexico’s Bill Richardson and Toney Anaya, and Illinois’s Pat Quinn—wrote that “Mr. Brown has the power to commute the sentences of 740 men and women, to save 740 lives... Such an act will take political will and moral clarity, both of which Mr. Brown has demonstrated in the past. In the interest of his legacy, the people of California need his leadership one more time before he leaves office.”

The governors called signing a death warrant “a terrible responsibility, hard even to imagine until you’re asked to carry it out, as we were. But we became convinced that it wasn’t something a civilized society should ask of its leaders. That’s why we halted executions in our states, and we call on Gov. Jerry Brown of California to do the same.” Each of the former governors granted clemency to at least one death-row prisoner during their tenures in office, and Anaya, O’Malley, and Quinn commuted the death sentences of all the prisoners on their states’ death rows. The ex-governors said, “we know it must weigh on Mr. Brown that, unless he acts soon, he will leave behind 740 men and women on California’s death row. It’s a staggering number and our hearts go out to him. From a humanitarian perspective, it is horrifying to imagine executing that many humans. As a practical matter, it’s beyond comprehension. ... If the state were to execute a single person every day, people would still be waiting on death row after two years.”

In late November, three former Ohio governors, Richard Celeste, Bob Taft, and Ted Strickland gave a joint interview to the Columbus Dispatch in which each told the paper that the toughest burden he had to bear as governor was deciding whether a condemned prisoner should live or die. Celeste commuted the death sentences of eight prisoners—four men and all four women on the state’s death row—towards the close of his second term. Although no one was executed during his eight years in office, Celeste said, “[a]s I look back on it, if I had really ... been bold, I would have ... just sa[id], ‘I’m going to commute them all to life [sentences], without the benefit of parole.’” Strickland said his biggest regret was not stopping executions in his state. “I wish I had done what my friend Jay Inslee, who’s the governor of Washington state, did when he became governor. He just said, ‘There will be no executions as long as I’m the governor of the state of Washington.’ And I wish I had had the courage to make that decision.” Strickland granted clemency five times, but allowed 17 executions to go forward. “I’m just convinced as long as we have the death penalty, innocent people are going to lose their lives .... [O]ur judicial system has serious problems that need attention,” he said.

In their New York Times op-ed, the six former governors wrote: “The achievement of high office demands that one be courageous in leadership. Mr. Brown now has the chance to do what others in our ranks have done after they became aware of the price paid for taking a human life. We were compelled to act because we have come to believe the death penalty is an expensive, error-prone and racist system, and also because our morality and our sense of decency demanded it.” Brown, they said, should commute California's entire death row or “declare a moratorium on the death penalty and give Governor-elect Gavin Newsom the time he will need to figure out how to end a system broken beyond repair.” At an international conference on the death penalty at the Italian Parliament in November, the Community of Sant’ Egidio—a Catholic group with close connections to Pope Francis—and representatives of 25 countries, including the justice ministers of South Africa, Benin, Zimbabwe and Malaysia also called upon Brown to commute all death sentences in the state before leaving office.

Tennessee Executes Mentally Ill and Sexually Abused Prisoner by Electrocution

Tennessee executed David Earl Miller (pictured at age 24) in the state’s electric chair on December 6, 2018, after Governor Bill Haslam denied his application for clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to address the denials of his challenges to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s execution methods. Miller, a 61-year-old man with a significant history of mental illness who experienced extensive sexual and physical abuse as a child, opted to be executed by electric chair after the Tennessee Supreme Court denied other prisoners’ challenges to a three-drug lethal-injection process that Miller and his lawyers believed would result in an extended torturous death.

The Tennessee prisoners challenged the state’s three-drug lethal-injection process, seeking to replace it with execution with a single barbiturate, pentobarbital. Miller presented evidence that the three-drug protocol would result in approximately 18 minutes of unnecessary pain and suffering. He submitted an affidavit from one of the nation’s leading anesthesiologists that Billy Ray Irick “was aware and sensate” during his lethal-injection execution on October 11, 2018 “and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” The prisoners’ challenge was rejected because Miller—prevented from obtaining critical information by Tennessee’s execution secrecy law—was unable to show that pentobarbital was readily available to the state. Miller elected to be executed in the electric chair, but argued that his choice of electrocution instead of lethal injection was coerced and that both methods were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. The lower courts ruled that Miller had waived his challenge to constitutionality of the electric chair by choosing it over lethal injection, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “electrocution can be a dreadful way to die,” but there was “credible scientific evidence that lethal injection as currently practiced in Tennessee may well be even worse.” It was “perverse,” she said, to require prisoners to prove that an alternative method was available to kill them. “Such madness should not continue.”

Miller was charged with murdering his intellectually-disabled girlfriend, Lee Standifer, in May 1981. He was 24 years old at the time. Miller’s attorneys submitted an 89-page clemency petition to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam detailing Miller’s upbringing and childhood abuse, including an instance in which Miller’s stepfather “knocked [Miller] out of a chair, hit him with a board, threw him into a refrigerator with such force it dented the refrigerator and bloodied [Miller’s] head, dragged him through the house by his hair, and twice ran [Miller’s] head through the wall.” Miller’s mother, who drank heavily while he was in utero, sexually abused Miller and forced him to have sex with her on at least three occasions. The document also noted that Miller attempted suicide two times before age ten. Governor Haslam denied the petition with a one-sentence statement: “After careful consideration of David Earl Miller’s clemency request, I am declining to intervene in this case.”

Following the execution, Miller’s lawyer Steve Kissinger said: “If any of you have been reading what we've been submitting to the governor, what we have been sending to the courts for the last 20 years you'll know that he cared deeply for Lee Standifer and she would be alive today if it weren't for a sadistic stepfather and a mother who violated every trust that a son should have. I came up here promising to tell you what we did here today, but I think maybe what I should be doing is ask you all that question. What is it that we did here today?”

Miller is the second death-row prisoner to be executed by electrocution in Tennessee this year. Edmund Zagorski, executed by electrocution on November 1, 2018, was the first. Miller’s last words were “beats being on death row.”

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Upholds Death Sentence Based on False Psychiatric Testimony

For the second time in less than six months, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) has upheld a death sentence that the trial court, lawyers for the prosecution and defense, and mental health experts all agree should not be carried out. On November 21, 2018, in an unpublished and unsigned opinion that misspelled death-row prisoner Jeffery Wood's name, the court rejected a recommendation by the Kerr County District Court to overturn Wood’s death sentence and grant him a new sentencing trial. The trial court had found that Wood’s death sentence was the unconstitutional by-product of “false or misleading testimony” and “false scientific evidence” by Dr. James Grigson, a discredited psychiatrist who had been expelled from state and national professional associations for his unethical practices in predicting a defendant’s future dangerousness.

Grigson, whose testimony for the prosecution in more than 100 death penalty cases earned him the nickname “Dr. Death,” had been expelled by the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians for providing scientifically invalid guarantees that defendants he had never personally examined would commit future acts of violence if spared the death penalty. Grigson never personally examined Wood, and the jury was not told that Grigson’s practice violated professional ethical norms and had led to his expulsion from the psychiatric associations. Nonetheless, over the dissent of two judges, the TCCA ruled that Grigson’s testimony did not materially affect the jury’s decision to sentence Wood to death.

Wood’s case received national attention before his August 24, 2016 execution date was stayed, because he was convicted under Texas’ law of parties despite his minimal involvement in the crime. Wood was the getaway driver in a gas station robbery. His co-defendant, Daniel Reneau, shot and killed the store clerk while Wood was sitting outside in the car. “I’m not aware of another case in which a person has been executed with as minimal participation and culpability as Jeff,” said Jared Tyler, Wood's attorney. “It’s a national first in that regard if the state does actually execute him.” In response to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision to reject Wood’s appeal, Tyler said, "The decision to let stand a death sentence based on false expert testimony can only erode public confidence in Texas's criminal justice system. This is particularly so given that all the parties agree that Mr. Wood's death sentence is disproportionate."

Wood’s case is also unique because of statements made by the prosecutor who tried his case. Kerr County District Attorney Lucy Wilke asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency for Wood, saying that his death sentence was disproportionate and that she was unaware of Dr. Grigson’s expulsion from psychiatric associations at the time of Wood’s trial. "Had I known about Dr. Grigson’s issues with said organizations, I would not have used him as the State’s expert witness in this case on the issue of future dangerousness,” Wilke wrote in a letter to the board. She later indicated that she would not seek to resentence Wood to death if his death sentence were overturned. Conservative and evangelical leaders and the editorial boards of major national and Texas newspapers also supported Wood’s plea for clemency in 2016.

Governor Rejects Jurors’ Plea for Clemency for Edmund Zagorski as Tennessee Court Allows Lethal Injections to Proceed

Ignoring declarations by six jurors in Edmund Zagorski’s 1984 trial that they would have spared Zagorski (pictured) if they could have sentenced him to life without parole, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam rejected Zagorski’s petition for clemency on October 5, 2018. In conjunction with the Tennessee Supreme Court's October 8 ruling upholding the constitutionality of the state's lethal-injection protocol, Haslam’s decision moved the state closer to executing Zagorski on October 11. At the time of Zagorski’s trial, Tennessee law required jurors in death-penalty cases to choose between sentencing a defendant to death or risk the possibility that he could later be released on parole. The jurors in Zagorski’s case submitted sworn declarations in support of clemency, saying that they would have sentenced him to life without possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty, if they had been given the no-parole option. Juror Michael Poole told Nashville Scene, “Our concern was that at some point in time maybe this man would be released and could actually be out in society and commit such a crime again. ... [Zagorski] has paid a significant price up to this point, I feel, and the continuation of his imprisonment until he dies of natural causes I think is punishment enough.” Nancy Arnold, another juror, agreed. “[A]s far as the law was concerned, all we could do was what we did. We had no choice of life without parole. I would have definitely done that if it had been available.” Zagorski’s clemency plea was also supported by correctional officials who said he has been a model prisoner and has reformed during his 34 years on death row. Despite those statements, Gov. Haslam denied clemency, writing that “the jury in Zagorski’s case heard the evidence at trial and rendered a unanimous verdict in accordance with the law at the time and their duty as jurors. Ten courts, including the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States, have reviewed and upheld the jury’s verdict and sentence, and the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the addition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option does not affect previous verdicts.” The Tennessee Supreme Court on October 8 also removed a hurdle to Zagorski’s execution, ruling 4-1 that Tennessee's lethal-injection protocol is constitutional, and that prisoners did not prove an alternative was available, as required. In response to that ruling, Zagorski requested that the state execute him with the electric chair, saying, “I do not want to be subjected to the torture of the current lethal injection method.” In a statement, Zagorski’s lawyer, assistant federal defender Kelley Henry, said the Tennessee high court decision had left Zagorski to choose between “two unconstitutional methods of execution.” Describing the prospect of “10-18 minutes of drowning, suffocation, and chemical burning” as “unspeakable,” Henry said Zagorski found the electric chair to be “the lesser of two evils.” Zagorski is appealing the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision.

Ohio Governor Commutes Death Sentence Based on Jurors Concerns About Unfair Sentencing

Ohio Governor John Kasich (pictured, left) has commuted the death sentence imposed on Raymond Tibbetts (pictured, right) to life without parole, in response to a juror's concerns about the unfairness of the sentencing proceedings in the case. It was the seventh time Kasich had commuted a prisoner's death sentence. The July 20, 2018, news release announcing the commutation explained that Kasich had granted clemency because "fundamental flaws in [the] sentencing phase of [Tibbetts’s] trial … [had] prevented the jury from making an informed decision about whether Tibbetts deserved the death penalty." Kasich had previously issued Tibbetts a reprieve, delaying his scheduled February 13 execution until October 17, after receiving a detailed letter from juror Ross Geiger asking him "to show mercy" to Tibbetts. Geiger's January 30 letter alerted the governor to serious flaws in the trial that misled jurors to sentence Tibbetts to death, including defense counsel's failure to present critical mitigating evidence about Tibbetts's horrific upbringing and the prosecution's misrepresentation of important details of Tibbetts's family history. "If I had known all the facts," Geiger wrote, "if the prosecutors had been honest and forthcoming about the horrors [Tibbetts] and his siblings experienced in the foster care system, and if we had an accurate understanding of the effects of Mr. Tibbetts' severe drug and alcohol addiction and his improper opioid prescription, I would have voted for life without parole over death." As part of his order granting the reprieve, Gov. Kasich directed the Ohio Parole Board to reconvene to hear Geiger's concerns and to reconsider Tibbetts's request for clemency. However, even after hearing from Geiger, the parole board voted 8-1 to recommend against clemency. In a statement by Tibbetts's lawyers praising the commutation, Erin Barnhart said, "Governor Kasich acted in the interests of fairness and justice by recognizing that Mr. Tibbetts’ death sentence was fundamentally unreliable. The jury was deprived of crucial information about the abusive and traumatic upbringing and the long-term impact it had on Mr. Tibbetts and his siblings. These circumstances provided compelling reasons for the exercise of clemency to correct the failures in the legal process in this case." Kasich also granted a reprieve to Ohio death-row prisoner Cleveland Jackson, pushing back his execution by nine months to "allow his newly appointed legal counsel sufficient time to review the case and properly prepare for his clemency hearing before the Parole Board." Jackson’s September 13 execution is now rescheduled for May 29, 2019.

Texas Executes Another Defendant of Color Over Objection of Victim’s Family

Against the wishes of the victim's family and amidst charges that the rejection of his clemency application was rooted in racial bias, Texas executed Christopher Young (pictured) on July 17, 2018. Young—who had been drunk and high on drugs when he killed Hashmukh Patel during a failed robbery in 2004—had repeatedly expressed remorse for the murder and had been mentoring troubled youth in an effort to prevent them from repeating his mistakes. The victim's son, Mitesh Patel, had urged clemency for Young, saying that he didn't want Young's children to grow up without a father, and that Young could be a positive influence by continuing his mentorship activities. Mitesh Patel, who had an emotional visit with Young the day before the execution, said the meeting left him with "a sense of sadness." "I really do believe Chris Young today is not the person he was 14 years ago," Patel said. "It's really unfortunate that the [pardons] board didn't hear our request for clemency. I feel sadness for his family. They're going to be walking down the same path my family has been on the last 14 years." On July 13, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 6-0, with one abstention, to deny Young's clemency application. Young's attorneys then filed a civil-rights suit in federal court, seeking a stay of execution on the grounds that the board's decision had been racially biased. Young's lawyer, David Dow, said family members of the murder victim have asked the pardons board six times this century to commute the death sentence imposed on the person convicted of murdering their loved one. "[O]f those six," Dow said, "three are black, two are Hispanic and one is white. Only in the case of the white guy [Thomas Whitaker] did they vote to recommend commutation.” U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison denied Young's request for a stay, but expressed extreme displeasure about the constricted timeframe for judicial review and the state's lack of concern about the possibility of racial bias. The case, he said, "dramatizes much of what is most troubling about the procedures by which we execute criminal defendants." He continued, "In a rational world, the Court would be able to authorize discovery and sift through the evidence obtained thereby. ... Here, ... the time frame is designed to render impossible intelligent and dispassionate judicial review. Applicable principles of law seem nonexistent." "Those engaging in race discrimination seldom announce their motivations," Judge Ellison said, and the timeframe made it "well-nigh impossible" for Young to prove his claims. "Ideally," Ellison wrote, Texas "would be determined to show that racial considerations had not infected the clemency proceeding. ... [H]owever, the State is eager to proceed with [Young's] execution without either side having any opportunity to explore the [issue]." In his final statement, Young said "l want to make sure the Patel family knows I love them like they love me. Make sure the kids in the world know I’m being executed and those kids I’ve been mentoring keep this fight going." The execution was the eighth in Texas and the thirteenth in the U.S. in 2018. 

Board Appointed By Resigned Missouri Governor to Review Death-Row Prisoner’s Case

A Board of Inquiry appointed by former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens will convene on August 22, 2018 to consider the fate of Marcellus Williams (pictured), one year to the day after Williams received a last-minute reprieve from execution based on evidence of his innocence. Citing “new information” from DNA testing made possible by a prior stay of execution, Greitens issued an executive order on August 22, 2017 just hours before Williams was to be put to death, staying his execution and creating a Board of Inquiry that would review the DNA evidence and “any other relevant evidence not available to the jury” and make recommendations on Williams’s application for executive clemency. However, the Board’s first meeting, which had been scheduled for June 4, was abruptly canceled after Greitens resigned in disgrace on June 1 as a result of a lurid sex scandal and allegations that he had misused a charity’s donors list to raise campaign funds. Former federal district court judge Carol Jackson, who was chairing the board of inquiry said the board had canceled the meeting because “Governor Greitens’ resignation ... called into question whether our authority would continue after he left office.” She said the board “needed to just put this on pause for a minute” until it could determine whether newly sworn in Gov. Mike Parson would want to continue the inquiry. Parson had equivocated earlier in the month when asked by CBS News how the case would proceed. “I would assume they would [meet],” Parson said. “I heard they're not going to. So I think once they make that recommendation, if they do meet, then we'll discuss that at the time.” Judge Jones had said the Board of Inquiry suspended its work “pending guidance from Governor Parson.” Williams’s lawyer, Kent Gipson, confirmed in a June 25 phone call with the Death Penalty Information Center that he has received notification from the Board that it will convene in August for its first meeting. Details about the Board's decision-making process remain unavailable. Williams was convicted and sentenced to death by a nearly all-white St. Louis County jury in the highly publicized stabbing death of former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle, based on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and a prostitute who was an admitted crack addict. No physical evidence links Williams to the murder, and neither footprints from the murder scene nor DNA from the victim’s clothing and under her fingernails match Williams. He obtained a stay of execution in 2015 to permit DNA testing of the killer’s knife. According to reports submitted by two DNA experts, the DNA on the knife did not match Williams or Gayle, but came from an unknown third person. Nonetheless, Missouri prosecutors sought a new execution date and the Missouri Supreme Court summarily denied Williams a new stay, without any court hearing on the DNA claim. In halting the execution and creating the board of inquiry, Greitens said, “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt.” In earlier federal habeas corpus proceedings, the district court had overturned Williams’s death sentence, finding that his trial lawyer had failed to investigate and present significant mitigating evidence relating to Williams’s history of mental deficiencies and chronic abuse throughout his childhood. That decision, however, was reversed by the Eighth Circuit in a split 2-1 decision. Williams had alleged that St. Louis County prosecutors had a pattern and practice of striking black prospective jurors, including 6 of the 7 African Americans it had the opportunity to empanel in his case. “This process is so broken and steeped in patterns of systemic racism and prosecutorial misconduct that an innocent man came within just hours of execution by lethal injection,” NAACP Missouri conference President Nimrod Chapel said. Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck said “[t]here's enough doubt in this case that [Williams’s] sentence should at least be commuted. The skin cells on the handle of the knife that was used in this murder are not from him.”

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