Life Without Parole

Split Jury Spares Iraq-War Vet in High Profile Virginia Capital Case

A Virginia jury has spared the life of Iraq war veteran Ronald Hamilton (pictured, right, with his father) in the 2016 killings of his wife and a rookie police officer. The jury split 6-6 on whether to impose the death penalty for Hamilton's murder of his wife, Crystal Hamilton, but unanimously agreed to impose a life sentence for the death of Officer Ashley Guindon, who was killed while she responded to Crystal Hamilton's 911 call. Under Virginia law, the court must impose a life sentence if any of the jurors vote for life. At the sentencing phase of the trial, Hamilton's lawyers presented evidence of his possible posttraumatic stress disorder from two tours of duty in Iraq, emphasized his development into a model soldier who, as an Army sergeant, saved a colleague's life while they were under mortar fire, and presented testimony from his father, Ronald W. Hamilton, and other family members. During his testimony, the elder Ronald Hamilton—a retired police officer whose career included service at the White House and who served as the second-in-command of the Charleston, South Carolina police force—expressed his sympathy to the family of Officer Guindon and to the two other officers who were wounded. "I see the prosecutor’s side and defense side, and I can sit on either side. I feel the pain. I understand the duty," Hamilton testified. "If anyone in this courtroom had their relative sitting where my son was, they’d be asking for mercy," he said. As is often the case in capital trials of war veterans, the prosecution had attempted to convert Hamilton's military service into an aggravating factor, repeatedly referring to him as "depraved" and "dangerous." Prosecutor Richard Conway told the jury that soldiers "deserve respect and deserve protection, but they don't get a pass for capital murder," while his co-counsel, Matthew Lowery urged the jury to "[p]ut him in the grave because that's what he deserves."

No Virginia jury has imposed a death sentence since 2011 and Hamilton had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. However, Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert – known for his frequent use of the death penalty – rejected the offer. The county is responsible for more executions since 1976 than any other county in the Commonwealth and is among the 2% of counties that account for a majority of all executions in the United States in that period.

New Neuroscience Research Suggests Age Limit for Death-Penalty Eligibility May be Too Low

When the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons, Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion for the Court acknowledged the inherent arbitrariness in selecting an age cutoff. "The qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18," he wrote. "However, a line must be drawn." New neuroscience research suggests that the age-18 line may be too low. The court's opinion in Roper found that a national consensus had developed against subjecting juveniles to the death penalty based upon behavioral evidence that juveniles are less able to understand the consequences of their actions, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to control their impulses. One word missing from the Roper court's analysis of the age-18 death-penalty cutoff: "brain." An August 12, 2018 article for The Marshall Project by Beth Schwartzapfel explores the judicial system's response to new neurological research on brain development and whether 18 is the most appropriate age of eligibility for the harshest sentences, including the death penalty and mandatory life without parole. Brain research now clearly demonstrates that those portions of the brain that regulate impulse control and decision-making do not fully mature until well into a person's 20s, and defense lawyers have begun to argue that the same limitations on extreme punishments applicable to juveniles should apply to youthful offenders in “late adolescence,” between the ages of 18 and 21. Brain research by Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg (pictured), a national expert in adolescent brain development, found that impulsive thrill-seeking and the need for immediate gratification peaks in late adolescence around age 19, before declining through an individual's 20s. In a 2017 case in which a Kentucky trial judge declared the death penalty unconstitutional for defendants charged with committing a crime before age 21, Steinberg testified, "Knowing what we know now, one could’ve made the very same arguments about 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds that were made about 16- and 17-year-olds in Roper." Judge Ernesto Scorsone agreed, writing, "If the science in 2005 mandated the ruling in Roper, the science in 2017 mandates this ruling." On February 5, the American Bar Association House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to adopt a resolution calling for an end to the death penalty for offenders who were 21 or younger at the time of the crime. According to a report accompanying the resolution, "there is a growing medical consensus that key areas of the brain relevant to decision-making and judgment continue to develop into the early twenties." In September 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Ohio death-row prisoner Gary Otte's claim that the death sentence was unconstitutionally imposed in his case because he was only 20 years old at the time of the offense. Otte was executed September 13, 2017.

DPIC Study Shows 97% of Prisoners Who Overturn Pennsylvania Death Sentences Are Not Resentenced to Death

In Pennsylvania, death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences are overturned in state or federal post-conviction appeals are almost never resentenced to death, a new Death Penalty Information Center study has revealed. Since Pennsylvania adopted its current death-penalty statute in September 1978, post-conviction courts have reversed prisoners' capital convictions or death sentences in 170 cases. Defendants have faced capital retrials or resentencings in 137 of those cases, and 133 times—in more than 97% of the cases—they received non-capital dispositions ranging from life without parole to exoneration. Only four prisoners whose death sentences were reversed in post-conviction proceedings remain on death row. Philadelphia cases accounted for more than half of the post-conviction reversals (86 cases) and 54% of the non-capital case dispositions (72 cases). DPIC reviewed all of the cases in which Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have won post-conviction relief. Contrary to the often-expressed perception that most death-penalty reversals occur in federal courts, state courts reversed twice as many Pennsylvania capital convictions or death sentences as did their federal counterparts. Pennsylvania death-row prisoners obtained state post-conviction relief from their convictions or death sentences—and, in some instances, both—in 116 cases. State courts granted 18 post-conviction petitioners new trials and vacated 108 death sentences. Of the vacated sentences, the state courts granted 91 new sentencing hearings, and declared prisoners constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty in 17 cases. Life sentences were imposed in fifteen cases as a result of a prisoner's intellectual disability and in two cases because the prisoner had been younger than age 18 at the time of the offense. Federal courts granted Pennsylvania capital habeas corpus petitioners relief from their convictions and/or death sentences in 58 cases, awarding new trials in 24 cases and new sentencing hearings in 44. Three death-row prisoners who were granted penalty-phase relief in state court later overturned their convictions in federal court. One prisoner who was granted a new penalty-phase trial by the federal courts also overturned his conviction after the case was remanded back to the state courts. The DPIC study found that 86% of the reversed death-penalty cases  concluded with a non-capital resentencing to life without parole. Those included 89 cases resulting from sentencing pleas or prosecutorial decisions to drop the death penalty, 12 capital sentencing retrials that resulted in life sentences, and the 17 cases in which defendants were declared constitutionally ineligible to face the death penalty. Two formerly death-sentenced prisoners—Nicholas Yarris and Harold Wilson—were exonerated, and a third, Frederick Thomas, died on death row while Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a trial judges' ruling that new evidence presented in the post-conviction proceedings established that no jury would have convicted him. Thirteen prisoners—including several widely considered to be innocent—pled guilty or no contest to lesser murder charges and were sentenced to time served or to terms of years. Six have completed their sentences and two others have been released on parole. The DPIC study found that the odds were 33.25 to 1 against a prisoner who won post-conviction relief remaining on death row. Six defendants were resentenced to death, but two of those death sentences were later overturned and the defendant resentenced to life without parole. The remaining four death sentences are still on appeal. Calling Pennsylvania's death-penalty system "riddled with flaws, ...error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible," Govenor Tom Wolf in February 2015 imposed a moratorium on executions in the Commonwealth. The state has not carried out an execution since 1999.

Wake County, North Carolina Jury Rejects Death Penalty in Ninth Consecutive Case

A Wake County, North Carolina jury has rejected the death penalty for 24-year-old Donovan Jevonte Richardson (pictured) and sentenced him to two life sentences, marking the ninth consecutive Wake County capital trial to result in a life verdict. No jury has imposed the death penalty in the county since 2007. “The reality," said Gretchen Engel, Executive Director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, is that "it just doesn’t make sense to pursue the death penalty in Wake County. Juries have made it crystal clear that they no longer want to impose death sentences, and these costly protracted trials benefit no one.” The jury voted on January 24 to spare Richardson's life, finding that 11 mitigating circumstances—including his age, lack of premeditation, and mental duress at the time of the crime—outweighed the aggravating factors of burglary and robbery during a 2014 home break-in that ended in the murders of Arthur Lee Brown, 74, and David Eugene McKoy, 66. The jury also found as mitigating circumstances that Richardson's father had abandoned him, refusing to acknowledge that Richardson was his son until after a paternity test; that sentencing Richardson to death could harm his two young sons, aged 3 and 7; and that Richardson’s family had offered assurances that Richardson would have a relationship with his sons while he is imprisoned. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman characterized the case as "everybody's worst nightmare[,] ... two men who worked hard (and) loved their families (but) were murdered in the sanctity of their home at night." She said, "This was a case that we felt strongly (that) under the law (and) under the facts of the case, it was appropriate to go to a jury on that issue." Engel disagreed. “Donovan Richardson wasn’t the most culpable murderer in Wake County, or even in this case. He was just the one who refused to accept the plea bargain," she said. "That’s why he ended up facing the death penalty. It’s a system that makes no sense. It’s entirely arbitrary and goes against our ideas about justice and a death penalty reserved only for a carefully selected few.” The evidence in the case showed that another man Gregory Crawford, committed at least one of the killings and may have shot both men. He pleaded guilty in May 2016 to charges of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and burglary and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. A third man, Kevin Britt, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and burglary, but was permitted to plead guilty to being an accessory to murder after agreeing to testify against Richardson. He is expected to serve less than two years in prison. A 2013 study by DPIC showed that Wake County had the 50th largest county death row in the United States and was among the 2% of U.S. counties accounting for 56% of all prisoners then on death row in the country. In February 2016, after jurors had returned the sixth consecutive life sentence in Wake County, District Attorney Freeman said it might be time to reassess whether to seek the death penalty in future cases. The county nonetheless has sought the death penalty in at least one capital trial in each of the last three years, a time period in which there have been only ten capital trials in the state's 100 counties and only one death sentence.

BOOKS: End of Its Rope—How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice

"The death penalty in the United States is at the end of its rope [and] its abolition will be a catalyst for reforming our criminal justice system." So argues University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett in his widely anticipated new book, End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice, which analyzes the reasons behind the steep decline in capital punishment in over the last 25 years. With the help of other researchers at the University of Virginia, Garrett analyzed death-sentencing data from 1990 to 2016, county by county. He found that numerous interrelated factors contributed to the decline: the drop in murders across the country, the creation of institutional capital defender offices that greatly improved the quality of representation, the availability of life without parole as a sentencing option, the cost of the death penalty system, and growing public awareness of exonerations and the risk of wrongly sentencing innocent defendants to death, fueled further by the abolition of capital punishment in some states and the abandonment of capital prosecutions by many counties. Local culture had a profound effect on death sentencing practices: Garrett found that states and counties that most frequently executed people developed what he terms a “muscle memory” for the practice and “imposed far more death sentences just as a function of having done so in the past." But, the converse was also true: when a county stopped sentencing people to death, it was less likely to resume the practice. Garrett found that death sentences have now all but disappeared from rural America, and are now imposed mainly in larger, urban areas. Garrett told the The Marshall Project, "we found a strong county-level pattern of racial bias. Counties with more black residents have more death sentences. And counties with more white victims of murder have more death sentences. Call it a 'white lives matter' effect," he said. In an interview with University of Virginia publicists, Garrett described the death penalty as "a failed experiment." He said states’ recent efforts to reform death-penalty procedures to “save the death penalty from itself” have failed because “the bias, both racial and geographic, is too ingrained. Lawmakers have tried to speed up executions, but have instead seen more delays and botched executions. They have tried to insist on higher-quality proof, and have still seen exonerations of innocent death row inmates." Garrett hopes that as the death penalty wanes, the lessons learned can buttress other efforts to reform America's criminal justice system and to move away from "mass incarceration and harsh punishment more broadly.”

Prosecutors Accept Life Plea by Severely Mentally Ill Man in Killing of Texas Sheriff's Deputy

Texas prosecutors have dropped their pursuit of the death penalty against a severely mentally ill capital defendant charged with what they characterized as the "ambush murder" of a Harris County sheriff’s deputy. Special prosecutor Brett Ligon (pictured, left)—the Montgomery County District Attorney who was handling the prosecution because Houston prosecutors had a conflict that prevented them from participating in the case—announced on September 13 that he had agreed to a plea deal in which Shannon Miles (pictured, right) would be sentenced to life without possibility of parole in the killing of Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth. Miles’s lawyers say that he has schizophrenia and episodic psychosis when he is not on psychiatric medication, that he has no memory of the murder, and that they intended to pursue an insanity defense in the case. In 2012, the trial court had declared Miles incompetent to be tried. In March of 2017, after treatment at a state mental hospital that had been delayed by a shortage of available beds, the court found Miles competent to stand trial. In explaining the plea deal, Ligon said "[t]he state's experts all came to the same conclusion, the likelihood of executing a mentally incompetent man was almost zero."  The victim’s widow, Kathleen Goforth, said she supported to deal because her two children “have been spared” the ordeal of extended death-penalty proceedings. She said, “They will not have the backdrop of their lives, for the next 10 to 25 years, being court dates, trials and appeals…. They won't have that inflicted upon them and that is merciful. It's compassionate and it's the right thing to do." Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Donald Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, said justice had been served by the plea deal. The plea had been entered against the backdrop of an emerging sex scandal. The sole grounds on which prosecutors could seek the death penalty in the case was if Officer Goforth had been killed in the performance of his duties. However, evidence had come to light that Goforth was at the gas station to meet his mistress, who was a witness to the murder and would be called upon to testify in the case. Two sheriff’s officers—one who was assigned to investigate the case—had been fired for having sexual relations with the woman, and a third had been fired for sending her an email soliciting sex. The Goforth murder once again focused attention on the role of mental illness in premeditated murders of police officers. In July 2016, in unrelated incidents, mentally ill Gulf War veterans who exhibited symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder fatally shot five police officers in Dallas, Texas and three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In July 2015, a Washington jury sentenced a mentally ill and delusional capital defendant, Christopher Monfort, to life without parole for the ambush murder of a Seattle police officer.

Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.

Recent Jury Trials in Dallas Highlight Death Penalty Decline Across Texas

From 2007 to 2013, Dallas sentenced twelve capitally charged defendants to death—more than any other county in Texas—and Dallas ranks second nationally, behind only Harris County (Houston), in the number it has executed since 1972. But the county has not imposed any new death sentences since then, and the recent life sentences in the capital trials of Justin Smith and Erbie Bowser highlight a statewide trend away from the death penalty. Smith was charged with killing three and injuring two others in a drug-house robbery; Bowser, with killing four women and injuring four children in what has been described as "a two-city rampage." After hearing evidence of Bowser's prison adjustment after being medicated for mental illness, his jury split on whether he posed a future threat to society and he was sentenced to life without parole. When Smith's jury told the court it was split on whether he had proven mitigating circumstances, he agreed to accept a plea deal to life. Such outcomes are becoming more common in Texas. About half (7 of 15) of the death penalty trials in the state since 2015 have resulted in life sentences. The fact that prosecutors have taken death penalty cases to trial just 15 times in two-and-a-half years is itself a significant change. A combination of factors, including declining public support for capital punishment, the availability of a life-without-parole sentencing option, the high cost of death penalty trials, and concerns about innocence, have led prosecutors to seek death sentences less often. Former Montague County District Attorney Tim Cole said his views on the issue have shifted: "It is time for the death penalty to go away. My primary concern with it is we don't seem to get it perfectly.... The execution of one innocent person isn't worth it to me." He said he believes the option of life without parole has also contributed to the declining number of death sentences by giving prosecutors and jurors a severe alternative punishment. Paul Johnson, an attorney for Justin Smith, agreed: "[Jurors] know that if they don't give them death, they're going to die in prison anyway. Why put someone to death when you can give them life without parole?" In an editorial, The Dallas Morning News wrote, "[e]vidence continues to mount that this system is too ripe for mistakes." The newspaper lauded the state's progress in reducing death sentences, and pointed to recent legislation as further evidence of capital punishment's decline. A death penalty repeal bill was given public hearings this session, and legislators have passed and sent to the governor reforms aimed at reducing wrongful convictions. Under the new bill, "Police would be required to record interrogations, and prosecutors would have to provide jurors more information about testimony from so-called prison snitches. Stricter protocols also would be in place for eyewitness identification." (Click image to enlarge.)

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