Ohio Parole Board Recommends Clemency for Death-Row Prisoner William Montgomery

Faced with doubts about prosecutorial misconduct and the accuracy of forensic evidence, the Ohio Parole Board has recommended that Governor John Kasich grant executive clemency to William T. Montgomery (pictured), scheduled to be executed on April 11. Montgomery was convicted and sentence to death in 1986 for two murders he has long maintained he did not commit. An Ohio federal district court, affirmed by a federal appeals court panel, overturned his conviction in 2007 because prosecutors had suppressed evidence and witness statements that undermined its version of how the crime occurred, but with five judges dissenting, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated the conviction. Montgomery's supporters argued to the parole board that there was too much doubt about his guilt to risk executing a potentially innocent man. Prosecutors argued at trial that Montgomery murdered Debra Ogle and then killed her roommate, Cynthia Tincher to prevent her from testifying against him, then dumped Ms. Ogle's body in the woods where it was not discovered for four days. However, prosecutors withheld from the defense evidence that multiple witnesses had seen Ms. Ogle alive four days after she supposedly had been killed and an independent review of the autopsy report showed that Ms. Ogle's body likely had been discovered within hours of her death. The report noted that a body left in the woods for four days in above-freezing temperatures would have shown signs of decomposition, insect infestation, and animal predation, none of which were present, and the body's state of lividity indicated death had occurred within twelve hours of its discovery. Adding to the doubt in the case, Montgomery's co-defendant, Glover Heard told police five different stories before settling on a version of events that fit the prosecution's theory and, instead of facing the death penalty, was sentenced to a term of years with eligibility for parole. Montgomery’s lawyers also presented the parole board with affidavits that undermined its confidence in the jury verdict, including one from a juror who was confused as to what the law required, another from a juror who had doubts about Montgomery’s guilt, and a third juror whose psychiatric behavior raised questions about her ability to serve. The Board majority cited both the State’s failure to disclose the witness reports that Ms. Ogle was alive after the State claimed she had been killed and the jurors’ affidavits as reasons for recommending commutation. Four Board members opposed commutation, arguing that the information presented was insufficient to overturn the jury verdict and finding no “manifest injustice” in the case that they believed warranted clemency. In an op-ed in the Toledo Blade, Phyllis Crocker, Dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and a former member of the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, wrote: "At best, Montgomery was convicted on a false set of facts and at worst, he may be actually innocent. In death penalty cases there must be no doubt whatsoever. There is too much doubt to allow this execution." Montgomery's lawyer, Jon Oebker, reiterated that his client's assertion of innocence and said the defense plans to "explore every avenue we can." Governor Kasich must issue a decision on the pardons board's recommendation before the April 11 execution date.

Georgia Prisoner Seeks Clemency with New Evidence of Possible Innocence

Carlton Gary, a Georgia death-row prisoner scheduled for execution on March 15, is asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant him clemency on the basis of new and withheld evidence that undercuts the prosecution testimony against him and suggests he did not commit the crimes for which he was sentenced to death. Gary was convicted of raping and killing three women in the 1970s, in what prosecutors have claimed was part of a string of nine burglaries and rapes committed by a single perpetrator. Gary’s lawyers argue that new evidence that was either unavailable or undisclosed at the time of his trial raises enough doubt about his guilt that he should not be executed. In his clemency petition, his lawyers write: “We are not talking about questionable recanting witnesses who came forward long after trial, but hard physical evidence of innocence.” Bodily fluid testing performed on semen from two of the crime scenes likely excludes Gary, but conclusive DNA testing couldn’t be performed because the samples were contaminated while in the possession of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab. In some of the most damning evidence prosecutors presented at trial, the survivor of one of the attacks identified Gary as her assailant. However, DNA testing later performed on evidence from her attack excluded Gary as the perpetrator and police withheld an initial report from that rape victim in which she told officers that she had been asleep and her bedroom had been dark at the time of the attack, and she could not identify or describe her attacker. Shoeprint evidence from the scene was also withheld from Gary’s defense team until 20 years after his trial. The size 10 print found at one of the crime scenes could not have been left by Gary, who wears size 13½ shoes. Prosecutors also claimed that Gary had confessed to participating in the crimes, but not to raping or murdering the victims. However, police neither recorded nor contemporaneously documented his alleged statement, which his lawyers say “fits all the recognized hallmarks of a false confession that never happened.”

Three Controversial Executions Turn Into A Commutation, An Execution, and an Execution Failure

Three states—Alabama, Florida, and Texas—prepared to carry out controversial executions on Thursday, February 22, all scheduled for 7 PM Eastern time, but by the end of the night, two had been halted. Less than an hour before his scheduled execution, and after having said a final good-bye to his anguished father, Texas death-row prisoner Thomas "Bart" Whitaker (pictured, left) learned that Governor Greg Abbott had commuted his death sentence to life in prison. Minutes later, Florida executed Eric Branch (pictured, center), despite undisputed evidence that he had been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. And nearing midnight Central time, two-and-one-half hours after a divided U.S. Supreme Court had given Alabama the go-ahead to execute terminally ill Doyle Hamm (pictured, right) corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn called off the execution saying prison personnel did not have "sufficient time" to find a suitable vein in which to place the intravenous execution line before the death warrant expired. For Texas, it was the first time in more than a decade and only the third time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, that any governor had granted clemency to a condemned prisoner. The Texas commutation came after a unanimous recommendation by the parole board, support from the only living victim, Whitaker's father, and various state lawmakers. In explaining his grant of clemency—the first time Gov. Abbott had commuted any death sentence—the Governor cited the fact that Whitaker's codefendant, the triggerperson, did not get the death penalty, the victim "passionately opposed the execution," and Whitaker had waived any possibility of parole and would spend the remainder of his life in prison. The final-hour commutation was relayed to Whitaker in the holding cell next to the death chamber, as he was preparing to be executed. Florida executed Eric Branch despite the fact that a judge sentenced him death after two of his jurors had voted for life and the jury had been told not to record the findings that would make Branch eligible for the death penalty. Both of those practices have now been found unconstitutional. In Hurst v. Florida, decided in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated that a capital defendant's right to a jury trial includes the right to have a jury find all facts necessary for the state to impose the death penalty, and later that year, the Florida Supreme Court declared that the Sixth Amendment and the Florida constitution require jury sentencing verdicts to be unanimous. Alabama had been warned that, because of his terminal cancer and prior history of drug use, Doyle Hamm's veins were not accessible and therefore an attempt to execute him via intravenous injection would be cruel and unusual. After the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay at 6:00pm CT, followed by a full denial of a stay with dissents from Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor around 9:00pm CT, Alabama started preparing to carry out Hamm's execution. After more than two-and-a-half hours, the state called it off. At a news conference immediately thereafter, Commissioner Dunn repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol, and said "I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” Dunn was unable to describe what the state had been doing during the time that Hamm was being prepared for the lethal injection and dismissed questions about failed attempts to set the IV lines saying he was not qualified to answer medical questions. He said he could not tell reporters how long the medical personnel had attempted to establish IV access because "I am not back there with the staff." Alabama keeps its protocol secret, making it impossible to verify the state's assertions. Hamm's attorney Bernard Harcourt, who—like all witnesses—was not permitted to view the IV insertion portion of the execution, speculated that prison personnel could not find a vein and called the process "[s]imply unconscionable." On the morning of February 23, Harcourt filed an emergency motion saying that Hamm had "endured over two-and-a-half hours of attempted venous access" and seeking a hearing to "establish exactly what happened" during that time frame. The federal district court scheduled a hearing on the issue for Monday, February 26.

Ohio Governor Grants Reprieve to Raymond Tibbetts Following Juror’s Call for Mercy

Ohio Governor John Kasich (pictured, left) has granted a reprieve to Raymond Tibbetts (pictured, right), temporarily halting his execution to permit the Ohio Parole Board to consider a juror's plea for mercy in the case. In a February 8 letter to parole board Chairman Andre Imbrogno, the Governor requested that the Board convene a hearing to consider concerns about the case raised by Ross Geiger, one of the Tibbetts jurors. To facilitate that review, Kasich issued a temporary reprieve of Tibbetts’s execution, rescheduling it from February 13 to October 17, 2018, “unless further reprieve or clemency is granted.” On January 30, Kasich received a letter from Geiger alerting the Governor to Geiger’s “deep concerns about the trial and the way it transpired.” Geiger said the jury had never been given critical information from witnesses and institutional records that detailed Tibbetts's brutal upbringing, abandonment, and abuse in the foster care system and that “prosecutors got it wrong if not lied” to the jury about Tibbetts’s siblings having overcome that abuse to live normal lives. Geiger told the Governor “that the system was and seems to be today very flawed in this case.” He said, “if I had known all the facts, 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.” In the Governor’s letter to the Board, Kasich wrote: “Mr. Geiger claims that had he known then all of the information presented at Inmate Tibbetts’ 2017 clemency hearing, including the testimony of Inmate Tibbett’s sister, he would not have voted to recommend death back in 1997. Since this letter was received by me after the board's hearing and vote on Inmate Tibbetts’ case, I would like the board to review his case in light of this new information.” In a statement, Tibbetts’s attorney, Erin Barnhart, said that Geiger’s letter provided “incontrovertible proof that Mr. Tibbetts never would have ended up on death row had the system functioned properly” in his case. She praised Kasich for “act[ing] in the interests of fairness and justice” and said the Governor “has done our State a great service today by ensuring that careful consideration is given” to the new information from Geiger. Barnhart said the defense was “confident” that after considering Geiger's concerns, “the Board and the Governor will agree that clemency is appropriate to correct the failures in the legal process in this case.”

Ohio Juror Asks Governor to Commute Death Sentence of Raymond Tibbetts

A juror who served on the capital murder trial of Raymond Tibbetts (pictured) and voted to sentence Tibbetts to death has written to Ohio Governor John Kasich asking Kasich to halt Tibbetts’s scheduled February 13 execution and commute his sentence to life without parole. In a January 30 letter to Governor Kasich, juror Ross Geiger—who, at the time of trial, described himself as a conservative Republican—said after learning the “truly terrible conditions” in which Tibbetts was brought up and the role the prescription of opioid painkillers played in the murder, he had “deep concerns about the trial and the way it transpired.” Geiger told the Governor “that the system was and seems to be today very flawed in this case” and that, “[b]ased on what I know today, I would not have recommended the death penalty.” Geiger became interested in the status of Tibbetts’s case after reading a recent news story about a challenge to Ohio’s method of execution. Researching on his own, he learned of Tibbetts’s pending execution and saw links to the clemency materials filed in the case. “Imagine my anger,” he wrote, “when I was able to review the clemency [materials]” and found “[p]ages of relevant information” that were never provided to the jury detailing “the abandonment, foster abuse, and reabandonment” that Tibbetts had experienced “and that it began before Tibbets was even two years old.” At trial, Tibbetts’s lawyer presented a psychiatrist who provided anecdotal testimony about Tibbetts’s background, but provided the jury with no social service records or family witnesses supporting that testimony. Prosecutors, Geiger said, “dismantled” the defense evidence by arguing that “lots of people with troubled childhoods do not become murderers [and] strongly impl[ying] that Tibbets [sic] siblings turned out fine.” Geiger said his mind was changed when he learned of defense counsel’s ineptitude, that the defense had never asked Tibbetts’s sister to testify, and what he called “[t]he revelation that the prosecutors got it wrong if not lied about Tibbets [sic] siblings having normal lives.” Geiger said he was shocked to learn about the brutal conditions in the foster home in which Tibbetts and his brothers lived, including being tied to a bed, thrown down stairs, having their fingers burned and beaten, and not being fed properly. "In fact," Gieger wrote in an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dearer, "of Mr. Tibbetts' four siblings, one committed suicide, one also spent time in prison, one is essentially homeless and unemployed, and only his sister is now doing well, despite having had a very turbulent younger life." Also supporting his plea for mercy, Geiger said that he and his fellow jurors did know that Tibbetts had a history of drug abuse and they were “not aware of the very real problem of prescribing opioids to people with addictive behaviors.” Tibbetts never received mental health treatment for his traumatic childhood and turned to alcohol and drugs to dull the pain. Although he repeatedly tried to combat his addiction, and for several years seemed to have his life under control, he then suffered an on-the-job back injury, for which he was prescribed an opioid painkiller, causing him to relapse into addiction. In the months leading up to the crime, Tibbetts attempted suicide and tried to get into a treatment program, but was turned down. Tibbetts killed two people after a crack-related argument. Geiger told Associated Press that, at the time of trial, he believed the law required him to vote for death based on the evidence the jury had heard and that he now feels "duped by the system." He said, “The state asked me to carry the responsibility for such a decision but withheld information from me that was important.” Ohio prosecutors oppose clemency for Tibbetts, saying that his mitigating evidence does not outweigh the circumstances of the crime. 

Father Who Survived Shooting Asks Texas Not to Execute His Son

Kent Whitaker, who survived a shooting in which his wife, Tricia and younger son, Kevin were murdered, has asked the state of Texas to spare the life of his only remaining son, Thomas “Bart” Whitaker (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to death for their murders. Kent Whitaker told the Austin American-Statesman, “I have seen too much killing already. I don’t want to see him executed right there in front of my eyes," he said. The petition for clemency filed on January 10 by Bart Whitaker's lawyers asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend commuting his death sentence to life without parole, saying the execution—scheduled for February 22—will “permanently compound” Kent Whitaker's suffering and grief. The petition asks the Board: “Is killing Thomas Whitaker more important than sparing Kent Whitaker?” Texas prosecutors have argued that Bart Whitaker arranged with an acquaintance in 2003 to murder his family as part of a plot to collect a $1 million inheritance. Bart's father, however, believes "[i]t was never about the money. ... The prosecution always way overexaggerated my wealth because that played into their arguments,” he said. Instead, he believes his son had been suffering from unrecognized mental-health issues at the time of the murders. The clemency petition is supported by more than 60 letters from family members, friends, teachers and counselors, religious leaders, and fellow death-row prisoners. Fort Bend county District Attorney John Healy mocked the letters as coming from "a noble group of supporters." In an emotional op-ed published on January 18 in the Houston Chronicle, Kent Whitaker defended his son's supporters, saying it "is a noble group: people who knew Bart and have seen him grow and change." The clemency petition, Kent Whitaker wrote, "tries to correct the district attorney's over reach in pursuing the death penalty and how it will once again hurt all of the victims. For 18 months pre-trial, every victim—my wife's entire family, me and all of my family—actually begged the district attorney to accept two life sentences and spare us the horror of a trial and an eventual execution. But we were ignored.” Kent Whitaker writes that the clemency petition "is asking the board to acknowledge that Texas is a victim's rights state, even when the victim asks for mercy.” He says that he knows his late wife and son would not want Bart, who he says has matured and bettered himself while in prison, to be executed. Kent told the American-Statesman that he did not want to see the execution, "[b]ut I can’t imagine letting him be in the room by himself without anyone there with him. ... As he goes to sleep, I want him to be able to look at me and see that I love him.” he said. The man who carried out the killings received a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder. The getaway driver, who also could have faced the death penalty under Texas law, was permitted to plead to a 15-year prison term in exchange for testifying against Whitaker.

Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Mentally Incompetent Death-Row Prisoner

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the sentence of mentally incompetent death-row prisoner William Joseph Burns (pictured) on December 29, 2017, after multiple mental-health experts said Burns was unlikely to regain sufficient competency for his death sentence to ever be carried out. Burns, whose sentence was converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, became the fifth death-row prisoner to have been granted clemency in the United States in 2017. Burns was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law. Showing signs of severe mental illness, Burns was found incompetent to stand trial in 1999, delaying his trial for a year. At trial, his lawyers presented mitigating evidence that Burns had mental retardation (now known as intellectual disability), but the jury returned a death verdict. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 2001, but in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the use of the death penalty against people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment. In 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Burns had presented sufficient evidence of intellectual disability to warrant a trial on that issue. However, Burns exhibited continuing signs of severe mental illness and a court-appointed mental-health expert determined that he was actively psychotic, spawning more than a decade of litigation over his competency to stand trial. In issuing the commutation, McAuliffe wrote that the “continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns, both as a matter of constitutional principle and legal practicality, cannot be justified.” McAuliffe noted that Virginia has already spent more than $350,000 in "treating, transferring, monitoring, and litigating whether Mr. Burns has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether he has the intellectual capacity to be executed" and mental-health experts "have confirmed that Mr. Burns is not likely to be restored to competence. ... As of now," the Governor said, "there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence on Mr. Burns, and there is no clear path for that ever being possible." The commutation, McAuliffe said, "brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim’s family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the Commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course." Virginia governors have commuted ten death sentences since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in October 1975. In 2000, following DNA testing that proved his innocence, Governor Jim Gillmore granted an absolute pardon to Earl Washington. Most recently, Governor McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz five days before his scheduled April 25, 2017 execution, noting that the prosecution's use of false evidence to influence the jury's sentencing determination resulted in a death verdict that “was terribly flawed and unfair.”

Texas District Attorney Asks State to Spare Life of Man She Prosecuted Under Controversial “Law of Parties”

The Texas prosecutor who sought and obtained the death penalty almost 20 years ago against Jeffery Wood (pictured), a man who never killed anyone, has now asked that his sentence be reduced to life in prison. In a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, sent in August and obtained December 7 by the Texas TribuneKerr County District Attorney Lucy Wilke asked the board to recommend that Governor Greg Abbott grant Wood clemency and commute his sentence to life in prison. In 1998, Wilke—then an assistant district attorney—prosecuted Wood for the 1996 murder of Kriss Keeran, a Kerrville convenience store clerk who was shot to death by Wood's roommate, Daniel Reneau, while Reneau was robbing the store. Reneau was executed. Wood, who has denied that he had any knowledge that Reneau was going to commit a robbery or had taken a gun into the store, was sitting outside in the truck when the shooting occurred. He was prosecuted for murder and sentenced to death under Texas’s felony-murder statute, commonly known as the law of parties, which holds an accomplice liable for the actions of every other participant in the crime, even if the accomplice did not know and did not intend that a murder would occur. Wood's case drew national attention when the state scheduled his execution for August 2016. At that time, a broad range of groups, including evangelical leaders, state representatives, and editorial boards, called for Wood to be spared. More than 50 House members of both parties signed on to a letter written by conservative Rep. Jeff Leach asking Gov. Abbott and the pardons board to reduce Wood's sentence. Six days before his scheduled execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Wood's execution on unrelated grounds, sending his case back to the Kerr County trial court to review Wood’s claim his death sentence was the product of false predictions of future dangerousness by a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who had been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians for his unprofessional practices. "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 the letter. Although Wilke actively pursued the death penalty against Wood, she told the pardons board that “the penalty now appears to be excessive.” “While I am aware that requests for clemency in Death Penalty Capital Murder cases are normally considered when there is an execution date pending,” Wilke wrote, “I respectfully ask that you consider this request for commutation of sentence and act on it now, in the absence of such an execution date, in the interest of justice and judicial economy." Along with the fact that he wasn't the shooter, Wilke cited Wood's below-average IQ of 80, his history of nonviolence, and Dr. Grigson’s testimony as grounds for clemency. The letter was co-signed by Kerrville Police Chief David Knight, who was an officer at the time of the murder, and District Court Judge Keith Williams, who is presiding over Wood's challenge to the constitutionality of the prosecution's use of "false testimony and false scientific evidence" from Dr. Grigson.