Federal Death Penalty

Prosecutors Withdraw Death Penalty, Agree to Guilty Pleas in Two High Profile Cases With Multiple Victims

State and federal prosecutors have agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas by defendants charged with multiple killings in two unrelated high-profile murder cases. On May 4, Lake County, Indiana prosecutors dropped the death penalty against Darren Vann (pictured, left), who had killed seven women. On May 1, federal prosecutors announced they would not pursue the death penalty against Esteban Santiago (pictured right), who killed five people and wounded six others in a shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida in 2017. Military records reflect that Vann—a former Hawk Missile system operator who had earned a National Defense Service Medal—was prematurely discharged from the Marine Corps in 1993 for conduct described as "incongruent with Marine Corps’ expectations and standards." Vann had been capitally charged in the strangulation deaths of two women after having been released from prison in Texas in 2013 where he had served time for a rape conviction. County prosecutors agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for his admission of guilt in their murders and the murders of five other women in an area of Gary, Indiana, frequented by sex workers and drug users. He was arrested in October 2014 after police found one victim's body in a motel bathtub. Vann told police he had killed six other women and later led authorities to their remains. Marvin Clinton, the longtime boyfriend of one of the victims and father of her child, called the death penalty "the easy way out" and said he preferred than Vann be sentenced to life without parole. "I want him to suffer," Clinton said. "These women will haunt him for the rest of his life.” Federal prosecutors reached a plea agreement that would avoid a protracted death-penalty trial for Santiago, a severely mentally ill Iraqi War veteran who suffers from auditory hallucinations and is being medicated for schizophrenia. Santiago opened fire in the Fort Lauderdale airport two months after having been released from a psychiatric hospitalization in Alaska. At that time, Santiago told local FBI agents in Anchorage that he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind. Local police then confiscated his handgun, but returned it to him weeks before the airport shooting. Santiago's lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen, said Santiago has expressed remorse for the shooting. U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom has ordered Santiago to undergo a mental health evaluation to ensure he is legally competent to plead guilty and has scheduled a competency hearing for May 23.

Public Health Experts Criticize Trump’s Proposal to Seek Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers

Saying “the ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty,” President Donald Trump (pictured) announced on March 19 that he will direct the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty against drug traffickers. The proposal, included as part of the administration’s plan to address an opioid epidemic that has resulted in as many as 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016 alone, drew immediate criticism from public-health and criminal-justice experts. “We can’t execute our way out of this epidemic,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. “To be talking about the death penalty sounds to me like a step backwards.” During the announcement, Trump acknowledged resistance to his death-penalty proposal, saying, “[m]aybe our country's not ready for that. It's possible, it’s possible that our country is not ready for that.” Since 1994, federal law has authorized the death penalty for “drug kingpins” who traffic in large quantities of drugs, even if no killing has occurred. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for crimes against individuals in which no one is killed, and no prior administration—Republican or Democratic—has used the drug kingpin provision to seek the death penalty. Experts said the opioid crisis should be dealt with as a public-health issue and that harsher penalties for drug dealers would not fix the problem. Instead, they said, the administration should focus on addiction treatment. “The reality is, most people who are selling drugs are suffering from opioid addiction, and they sell drugs to support their own habit,” Dr. Kolodny said. “When I start hearing about the death penalty, it just seems to me we’re going in the wrong direction.” Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia University, agreed, saying “[c]riminal justice can play a complementary role in addressing the opioid crisis, but relying on the criminal justice system to address public health problems has proven unwise, costly, ineffective and often counterproductive.” Legal experts said the constitutionality of death sentences for drug dealers would likely be the subject of extensive litigation. “The death penalty is uncertain as a constitutionally permissible punishment without that connection to an intentional killing,” said Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman. Hamilton County, Ohio, Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters, known for aggressively pursuing the death penalty, said “[t]o seek a death penalty case [simply for for drug trafficking] would be almost impossible. We'd have serious constitutional problems.” Former Harris County, Texas, homicide prosecutor Ted Wilson called the proposal “kind of over-the-top.” The death penalty for drug dealers "in my opinion just doesn’t fit,” he said. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) compared the President’s death-penalty proposal to past failed drug policies, saying, “We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic—we tried that and ended up with an even bigger addiction problem and the world’s largest prison population. The war on drugs didn’t work in the 80’s, and it won’t work now by reviving failed deterrence measures like the death penalty for drug dealers.  We must instead crack down on the over-production and over-prescribing of painkillers, and increase treatment for those suffering from addiction—both of which have bipartisan support in Congress." A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released March 8, found that harsher penal sanctions had no measurable impact on drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests. The data, Pew said, “reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.”

Judge Finds New Jersey Federal Capital Defendant Intellectually Disabled, Bars Death Penalty

A New Jersey U.S. district court judge has barred federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against Farad Roland, finding that Roland is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for capital punishment. After an eighteen-day evidentiary hearing featuring sixteen witnesses, Judge Esther Salas ruled on December 18 that Roland—accused of five killings in connection with a drug-trafficking gang—had "abundantly satisfied his burden of proving his intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence." In 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that subjecting individuals with intellectual disability to the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. Judge Salas's ruling came almost exactly ten years after New Jersey abolished the death penalty, and ended efforts to obtain what would have been the first death sentence imposed in the state since abolition. The federal government may seek the death penalty in federal court under federal law, irrespective of whether the state in which the federal trial takes place itself authorizes capital punishment. The only other federal death-penalty case that has been tried in New Jersey ended with a life sentence in May 2007. Roland's was the third federal capital case in the last year in which a defendant was spared the death penalty because of intellectual disability. In June 2017, federal prosecutors announced they would not appeal a New York federal district court's determination that former death-row prisoner Ronell Wilson is intellectually disabled. Wilson had faced a capital resentencing hearing after his 2007 federal death sentence was overturned as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. In January 2017, President Barack Obama commuted the death sentence of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, in part because of evidence that Ortiz is intellectually disabled. Judge Salas found that Roland had satisfied all three prongs of the test to determine Intellectual Disability: "(1) intellectual-functioning deficits (indicated by an IQ score approximately two standard deviations below the mean—i.e., a score of roughly 70—adjusted for the standard error of measurement); (2) adaptive deficits (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances); and (3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor." Accordingly, she concluded, "Roland is ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment and the FDPA [Federal Death Penalty Act]." In comments to NJ Advance Media, Roland's attorney, Richard Jasper, called Judge Salas's decision "a thorough, detailed, thoughtful 135 page opinion that speaks for itself."

USS Cole Lawyers Resign From Guantánamo Death-Penalty Defense, Say Government Spied on Client Communications

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied review of a petition filed by lawyers on behalf of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri—accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s October 12, 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off the coast of Yemen—challenging the legality of his death penalty trial before a Guantánamo Bay military commission. But in what has been described as "a stunning setback" to what would have been the first death-penalty trial held before the special military tribunals established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the entire civilian legal team has resigned from the case amid allegations that the government was illicitly listening in on their legal meetings. The Miami Herald reported on October 13, just three days before the Supreme Court decision, that the Chief Defense Counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Brigadier General John Baker (pictured) had “found good cause” to permit Nashiri's defense team to withdraw from the case as a result of ethical concerns created by alleged government spying on privileged attorney-client meetings. In June 2017, Gen. Baker advised war court defense attorneys that he had lost confidence in the integrity of “all potential attorney-client meeting locations” at Guantánamo, saying that he was “not confident that the prohibition on improper monitoring of attorney-client meetings” at the detention center was being followed. Attorney Rick Kammen, who has defended Nashiri since 2008, alleges in the Supreme Court petition that his team discovered classified information contradicting government assurances that the facilities in which they met with Nashiri were not being improperly surveiled. In the past, the spying has included, among other things, "microphones hidden in smoke detectors." Because the information relating to the violation of the right to counsel is classified, the defense lawyers have been ordered by the judge in the case, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, not to share the information with the public or their client. Although Brig. Gen. Baker has released Kammen from representing Nashiri, the case cannot proceed until another experienced death-penalty defender is brought onboard. Two other civilian defense attorneys who are Pentagon employees—Rosa Eliades and Mary Spears—also quit the case with permission from Baker but remain on his staff. The only member of Nashiri's defense team who remains on the case is Lieutenant Alaric Piette—a former Navy SEAL who has never tried a murder case. “I am certainly not qualified as learned [death-penalty] counsel,” Lt. Piette told the Miami Herald, which he says Nashiri “is entitled to and should have ... since the government is trying to kill him.” Kammen says the defense team is "angry about being placed in an ethically untenable position, disappointed in not being able to see the case through, and devastated to leave Mr. Nashiri, whom we genuinely like and who deserves a real chance for justice.” The pretrial proceedings at the Guantánamo Bay that were scheduled to begin on October 30th are expected to be delayed for months, until learned death-penalty counsel who has received Top Secret security clearance to review the evidence in the case is appointed.

Prosecutors Seeking Death Sentences for Aging Defendants Despite Taxpayer Cost, Likelihood of Dying Before Execution

Two cases in which prosecutors have elected to pursue the death penalty against aging or infirm defendants who will almost certainly never be executed have raised questions about the costs and benefits of capital charges and the arbitrary exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Federal prosecutors in Missouri are seeking the death penalty against 61-year-old Ulysses Jones Jr., a man with terminal renal disease, for the 2006 killing of another prisoner at a federal prison hospital. At the same time, Philadelphia's judicially-appointed interim district attorney, filling the unexpired term of a district attorney convicted of public corruption charges, is pursuing the death penalty against 64-year-old Robert Lark in the retrial of a 1979 murder. Lark won a new trial in 2014, seven years after Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a lower federal court ruling that they had unconstitutionally struck African Americans from serving as jurors in Lark's case because of their race. Jones is currently facing a capital sentencing hearing in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri after having been convicted on October 4 of murdering 38-year-old Timothy Baker with a makeshift knife in January 2006 at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Jones has been receiving dialysis for the last 30 years, and the medical center, known as Fed Med, houses the nation’s largest dialysis center. Two other prisoners, Wesley Paul Coonce Jr. and Charles Michael Hall, are on federal death row for another murder at Fed Med. Jones's lawyer, Thomas Carver, argues that the capital trial is senseless, both because Jones is already serving a life sentence for two unrelated robberies and murders, and because, if he is sentenced to death, he will likely die before his appeals process is complete, and almost certainly before an execution would be scheduled. "We're talking millions of dollars here," Carver said. Carver believes Jones—whom the defense says has significant intellectual and cognitive impairments—was not indicted until 2010 "because the government was hoping he would die.” In Lark's case, Interim Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge has decided to seek the death penalty even though Lark's appeals in his case, if he were sentenced to death, would not be completed before Lark was in his late-70s or his 80s, far beyond his expected survival on death row. Marc Bookman, a longtime Philadelphia public defender who now serves as Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, called the decision to seek death, made "by a prosecutor chosen by Philadelphia judges rather than one chosen by the community[,] ... a needless step backward" for Philadelphia. Quoting Lawrence Krasner—who overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia district attorney after campaigning on a promise not to seek the death penalty and is heavily favored in the November general election—Bookman says, “We have to stop lighting money on fire.” Krasner has said that the death penalty “has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962,” and his Republican opponent, Beth Grossman has publicly "wonder[ed] whether [the death penalty] is at this point even economically feasible.” In February 2015, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions, noting that Pennsylvania’s failing death-penalty system forced “the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies” with each reversed death sentence. The only certainty in the current system, he said, “is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.”

Newly Released Documents Show Dylann Roof Feared Being Labeled Mentally Ill More Than He Feared Death Sentence

Newly unsealed psychiatric evaluations and court transcripts in the case of Dylann Roof (pictured)—sentenced to death for the racially motivated killing of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina—raise additional questions as to whether Roof was competent to waive representation in his death penalty proceedings and to forego presenting mental health evidence in his defense. The documents confirm that Roof represented himself in jury selection and in the penalty stage of his federal capital trial out of anxiety that his defense attorneys would present evidence that he was mentally ill. In his journals, Roof wrote, “I want state that I am morally opposed to psychology,” which he called "a Jewish invention [that] does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they dont [sic].” The newly released documents show that Roof became irate when he realized his lawyers wanted to present a mental health defense that involved introducing evidence that he suffered from delusions, a crippling anxiety disorder, depression, and autism.  The unsealed transcripts reveal that defense counsel, David Bruck, told the court that Roof “firmly believes that there will be a white nationalist takeover of the United States within roughly six, seven, eight years, and when that happens, he will be pardoned. He also believes it probable, although not certain, that he will be given a high position, such as the governorship of South Carolina.” At a pretrial hearing, Roof told U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, "If they say I have autism, it's like they are trying to discredit me. It discredits the reason why I did the crime." He also told the judge he believed being labeled autistic would be worse than receiving a death sentence, "Because once you've got that label, there is no point in living anyway." Dr. James Ballenger, a clinical psychiatrist who evaluated Roof, wrote, "The only thing that is important to him is to protect his reputation." Bruck argued to the court that Roof was not competent to represent himself, saying, "If he is incapable of cooperating with counsel, if the decisions that he is making are affected by delusions, by fixed false beliefs, if they are the product of mental illness … the mere fact that he has figured out how to sabotage his defense doesn't mean that he's competent. It is an illustration of why it is so terrible to try an incompetent defendant." Roof was ultimately found competent to stand trial and represent himself. He was convicted and sentenced to death on January 10, 2017.

President Obama Commutes Two Death Sentences

On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama (pictured) commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th. Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty. In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment." Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die. Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Judge Finds Federal Death Penalty Arbitrary and Unreliable, But Leaves Constitutionality for Supreme Court to Decide

After a two-week long "extensive hearing regarding the unreliability and arbitrariness of the death penalty system, the excessive delay involved in executions, and the growing decline in the use of the death penalty," U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford (pictured) ruled in the case of U.S. v. Donald Fell that the Federal Death Penalty Act ("FDPA") "falls short of the [constitutional] standard . . . for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty," but nonetheless allowed Fell's capital trial to move forward. Fell, who is awaiting retrial by federal prosecutors in Vermont, had filed a motion asking the judge to find the death penalty unconstitutional under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. Judge Crawford wrote that, like the state statutes enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia, "the FDPA operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles." But while the court's order contained detailed findings suggesting the death penalty is arbitrarily and unreliably imposed, it stopped short of declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. "A federal trial judge is without authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority position at the Supreme Court," Judge Crawford wrote. "Changing forty years of decisional law raises questions that can only be settled by the Supreme Court itself." Judge Crawford found significant problems in numerous aspects of capital proceedings. He found that instead of redressing questions of bias, death penalty jury selection procedures are "a substantial part of the problem" and create as "inherent jury bias" by selecting "jury populations which stack the deck against defendants" in both the guilt/innocence and penalty phases of the trial. He found that "the death penalty continues to be imposed in an arbitrary manner," noting that where the "crime occurs is the strongest predictor of whether a death sentence will result" and "whether the murder victim is white" is also a signficant predictor. Judge Crawford explained that "the arbitrary qualities of the death penalty are most clearly visible through the narrative comparison of crimes which do and those which do not receive death sentences." There is, he said, no principled way to distinguish between which is which.

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