Clemency

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.”

Retired Warden, Former Judge and Prosecutor Urge Ohio to Grant Clemency to Raymond Tibbetts

The Ohio Parole Board held a hearing on June 14, 2018 to consider clemency for death-row prisoner Raymond Tibbetts, whose February 13 execution was halted by Governor John Kasich to consider a juror's request that Tibbets be spared. Ross Geiger, one of the twelve jurors who sentenced Tibbetts to death in 1997, wrote to Governor Kasich on January 30 expressing “deep concerns” about a “very flawed” trial and saying he “would not have recommended the death penalty” had the jury been provided complete information about Tibbetts’ upbringing. Tibbetts’ clemency application has been buoyed by the support of two criminal justice experts, Judge James A. Brogan (pictured), a former prosecutor and past chief justice of the Ohio Courts of Appeals Judges Association who chaired the Ohio Supreme Court's Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, and George D. Alexander, a former Ohio prison warden and prison chaplain. Geiger wrote that the jury had voted for death after the prosecution had led them to believe that Tibbetts and his siblings had lived normal lives and his siblings ”had turned out fine.” He later learned that Tibbetts’ trial lawyer had failed to present evidence that Tibbetts had been abandoned at age 2, then abused and malnourished in foster care, and that “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.” In a guest column in the Columbus Dispatch, Judge Brogan lauded Governor John Kasich’s decision in February to grant Tibbetts a reprieve so that Geiger could present his case to spare Tibbetts to the parole board. Brogan noted that the vote of just one juror is enough to prevent the imposition of a death sentence. “Fundamental flaws in the trial process deprived the jury of key facts that would have prevented this juror from voting in favor of death,” he wrote. “These truly extraordinary circumstances cry out for a clemency recommendation rather than an execution.” Alexander, the former prison warden and chaplain, added that Tibbetts has shown remarkable rehabilitation during his time in prison. “By all accounts, by the grace of God, Tibbetts has experienced a radical transformation,” Alexander wrote in a commentary published in the Akron Beacon-Journal. “He is no longer the troubled criminal, addicted to drugs and alcohol, as he was when he entered death row 20 years ago. He is remorseful, reflective and reformed.” The parole board will make a recommendation for or against clemency, but the ultimate decision rests with Governor Kasich. [UPDATE: On June 22, the Ohio parole board recommended that Governor Kasich deny clemency to Mr. Tibbetts.]

Georgia Parole Board Grants Stay to Robert Earl Butts, Jr. to Further Consider His Clemency Request [UPDATE: STAY LIFTED]

Robert Earl Butts, Jr.The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles has halted the execution of Robert Earl Butts, Jr. (pictured), less than 24 hours before the state intended to put him to death. On May 2, the Board stayed Butts's execution for up to 90 days, saying it needed additional time "to examine the substance of the claims offered in support of the application." In a news release accompanying the issuance of the stay, the Board said it had received a "considerable amount of additional information ... regarding the case" and, "because the Board understands the importance and seriousness of its authority and responsibility," it issued a stay. Board spokesperson Steve Hayes said the Board "will continue consideration of the case and at a later date make a final decision" and that decision "could come during the stay or at the end of the 90-days.” The Board has the power to lift the stay, allowing the execution to proceed, or grant clemency to Butts, commuting his sentence to life without parole. Because Georgia death warrants remain active for a full week, Butts remains at risk of imminent execution if the Board lifts the stay on or before May 10. A new execution warrant would be required to execute Butts if the Board denies his commutation request and lifts the stay after that date. Butts's clemency petition claims that he did not shoot Donovan Corey Parks, the off-duty correctional officer killed during a carjacking, but that his co-defendant, Marion Wilson, was the triggerman. The application includes a sworn statement from Horace May—a jailhouse informant who had testified at trial that Butts had confessed to him—saying that he had fabricated the confession after Wilson had asked him to testify against Butts. The petition also says the jury was given unsupported, false, and inflammatory information that Wilson and Butts were gang members and the killing was gang-related. Wilson is also sentenced to death, and currently has an appeal pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Butts also argued that his personal circumstances and his remorse for his involvement in the killing provided "compelling grounds for mercy." Butts was just 18 at the time of the crime and, the petition says, endured "profound childhood neglect" from parents who "left him to care for his younger siblings while they roamed the streets of Milledgeville, each in the grip of mental illness, drug addiction or both." In addition, the clemency petition argues that execution is a disproportionately severe punishment in light of the unwillingness of juries to impose the death penalty today in similar cases. In the past decade, no Georgia jury has sentenced any defendant to death in a case like this that involved a single victim and only one aggravating circumstance. [UPDATE: The Board lifted the stay late in the day on May 3, and the state executed Butts on May 4.] 

NEW RESOURCE: American Bar Association Launches New Capital Clemency Website

In response to what it calls “a critical and unmet need for education and training of both lawyers representing capital prisoners and decision makers who review petitions for clemency,” the American Bar Association (ABA) has created a new web resource devoted to the clemency process. The Capital Clemency Resource Initiative (CCRI) Clearinghouse—a joint project of the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project and Death Penalty Due Process Project—provides tools and resources for clemency decision makers, capital defense attorneys, and others interested in the clemency process. Misty Thomas, chief counsel for the Death Penalty Due Process Project, said that in every state death-penalty system the project studied, “there were insignificant resources for and attention paid to clemency, leaving it … too hollow to be comfortable for our profession.” The ABA does not take a position for or against capital punishment, but the systemic defects it found led the organization to call for a moratorium on its use. “[I]f we’re going to have the death penalty,” Thomas said, “every single stage should be robust and meaningful,” including clemency. As part of improving the clemency process, the Death Penalty Representation Project  prepared a manual for clemency lawyers, Representing Death-Sentenced Prisoners in Clemency: A Guide for Practitioners, that complements the other resources on the CCRI website. But Laura Schaefer, staff attorney for the representation project and the author of the manual, said the project has a broader educational purpose as well. “One part of what we are trying to do is increase public understanding of the clemency process in capital cases … and how it’s supposed to catch wrongful sentences,” she said. Since 1976, clemency in the form of pardons or humanitarian commutations of sentence has been granted to 287 death-row prisoners in the United States. Illinois's mass commutation of 167 death-row prisoners in January 2003 accounts for more than half of that total. Two death-row prisoners—Thomas Whitaker in Texas and William Montgomery in Ohio—have been granted clemency so far in 2018. 

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Ohio Governor Commutes Death Sentence of William Montgomery

Ohio Governor John Kasich has commuted the death sentence of 52-year-old William Montgomery (pictured) to life without the possibility of parole. Montgomery was scheduled to be executed on April 11. The one-page proclamation granting clemency (pictured right, click to enlarge) did not specify the grounds for Kasich's action and was not accompanied by a news release or statement to the media. The order, issued March 26, stated simply, "after consideration of all relevant factors, I ... have concluded that a commutation of the death sentence of William T.  Montgomery is warranted." Faced with issues of prosecutorial misconduct and questionable forensic evidence, the Ohio Parole Board voted 6-4 on March 16, 2018 to recommend that Kasich grant executive clemency to Montgomery, who was convicted and sentence to death in 1986 for two murders he maintains he did not commit. Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates opposed Montgomery's clemency application. An Ohio federal district court, affirmed by a federal appeals court panel, overturned Montgomery's conviction in 2007 because prosecutors had suppressed evidence and witness statements that undermined the state's version of how the crime occurred, but the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated the conviction in 2009, with five judges dissenting. 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 in the case withheld from the defense evidence that multiple witnesses had seen Debra Ogle, one of the women Montomgery was found guilty of murdering, alive four days after the date prosecutors said Montgomery had killed her and left her body in the woods. An independent review of the autopsy report showed that Ogle's body likely had been discovered within hours of her death. 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, he was sentenced to a term of years with eligibility for parole. The clemency grant was the sixth time Kasich had commuted a death sentence to life without parole. It was the second time a governor commuted a death sentence in 2018. Texas Governor Greg Abbott commuted Thomas "Bart" Whitaker's sentence on February 22, less than an hour before he was scheduled to be executed. There have been 287 grants of clemency to death-row prisoners in the United States on humanitarian grounds since 1976. Ohio governors have granted clemency to death-row prisoners twenty times in that time period.

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