Race

US Votes Against UN Resolution Condemning Death Penalty for Religious Speech, Sexual Orientation

The United States has voted against an historic resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the criminalization of and use of the death penalty for apostasy, blasphemy, adultery, and consensual same-sex relations and calling on nations in which the death penalty is legal to ensure that it is not imposed “arbitrarily or in a discriminatory manner.” The resolution also called for an end to the discriminatory use of the death penalty "against persons belonging to racial and ethnic minorities ... and its use against individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities,” those under age 18, and pregnant women. In Geneva, Switzerland, the Human Rights Council on September 29 adopted the resolution by a vote of 27-13, with the U.S. joining Botswana, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in opposition. No other Western democracy opposed the resolution. Renato Sabbadini, Executive Director of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), called the resolution's passage a “monumental moment” signifying recognition by the international community that certain “horrific laws” must end. “It is unconscionable to think that there are hundreds of millions of people living in States where somebody may be executed simply because of whom they love,” he said in a statement.  Ty Cobb, director of Human Rights Campaign Global, the global branch of the U.S.'s largest LGBT rights organization, condemned the U.S. vote against the resolution as "beyond disgraceful." In a statement, he said U.S. representatives had "failed the LGBTQ community by not standing up against the barbaric use of the death penalty to punish individuals in same-sex relationships.” A State Department spokesperson responded to criticism of the U.S.'s vote saying “The United States unequivocally condemns the application of the death penalty for homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and apostasy." Heather Nauert said that the U.S. was "disappointed" to vote against the resolution, but did so, “[a]s in years past, ... because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach to condemning the death penalty in all circumstances.” In 2014, the Obama administration abstained from voting on a death penalty resolution, issuing a statement urging “all governments that employ the death penalty to do so in conformity with their international human rights obligations.” The United States ranked seventh in the world in confirmed executions in 2016, according to Amnesty International, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Duane Buck, Whose Death Sentence Was Tainted by Racial Bias, Is Resentenced to Life

Duane Buck (pictured), the Texas death-row prisoner whose controversial racially tainted death sentence was reversed by the U.S Supreme Court in February, has been resentenced to life in prison. In a plea deal entered in a Harris County (Houston) courtroom on October 3, Buck, who is 54, pled guilty to two new counts of attempted murder that each carried terms of 60 years in prison to be served concurrently with two life sentences imposed on his capital murder charges. In a news release, District Attorney Kim Ogg said, "[a]fter reviewing the evidence and the law, I have concluded that, twenty-two years after his conviction, a Harris County jury would likely not return another death penalty conviction in a case that has forever been tainted by the indelible specter of race. Accordingly, in consideration for Buck pleading guilty to two additional counts of attempted murder we have chosen not to pursue the death penalty." After 20 years on death row and numerous appeals in which he was denied relief by the state and federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February that Buck's capital sentencing hearing had been unconstitutionally poisoned by the testimony of a psychologist—presented by his own lawyer—that Buck was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black. Saying that the "law punishes people for what they do, not who they are," Chief Justice John Roberts said that the "particularly noxious" stereotyping of Buck as dangerous because he is a black man was toxic testimony that was "deadly" even "in small doses." "No competent defense attorney," Roberts wrote, "would introduce such evidence about his own client.” Because Texas did not provide life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty at the time of Buck's trial in 1995, Ogg insisted on the two additional charges for attempted murder to foreclose the possibility of release when Buck became eligible for parole from the life sentences in 2035. She said the plea deal "can close a chapter in the history of our courts, in that they will never again hear that race is relevant to criminal justice or to the determination of whether a man will live or die. Race is not and never has been evidence."

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.”

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Alabama Judge's Race-Based Override of Jury's Life Sentence

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has upheld the death sentence imposed by an Alabama trial judge who disregarded the jury's 10-2 vote in favor of a life sentence and sentenced Bobby Waldrop (pictured) to death because of his race. When he imposed Waldrop's death sentence, Randolph County Circuit Court Judge Dale Segrest, who is white, referred to three prior cases in which he had overriden jury life verdicts and said: "If I had not imposed the death sentence [in this case], I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people." In an unpublished opinion issued on September 26, the federal appeals court wrote that the judge's action did not constitute a "fundamental miscarriage of justice" that would allow federal court review of Waldrop's race claim in light of the failures by Waldrop's trial lawyer to have objected at the time of trial or raise the issue in his initial state court appeal. The opinion was issued the same day the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Georgia's execution of Keith Tharpe to determine whether to review his claim that his death sentence had been unconstitutionally tainted by the participation of a white juror who referred to him and other African Americans with a racial slur and said he wondered “if black people even have souls.” In 2014, the Eleventh Circuit refused to review a claim presented by Georgia death-row prisoner Kenneth Fults, saying that his claim of racial bias—based on the signed affidavit of a white juror who said  “I don’t know if he ever killed anybody, but that (N-word) got just what should have happened"—had not been properly presented to the state courts. Fults was executed in April 2016 without receiving any review of that claim. Ten months later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Davis that "it is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system" and that race-based capital sentences “are a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are." Two of the Eleventh Circuit judges involved in the Fults decision also decided Waldrop's appeal. They ruled that the “miscarriage of justice” doctrine, which permits review of otherwise defaulted claims, applies only when the defendant shows “by clear and convincing evidence that, but for [the alleged] constitutional error, no reasonable juror would have found [him] eligible for the death penalty.” The exception did not apply in his case, they wrote, because the jury verdict convicting Waldrop of murder during a robbery had made him death-eligible, even if the jury had overwhelmingly believed he should not be sentenced to death. The third judge on Waldrop's court panel, Beverly Martin, concurred with the court's interpretation of the law, but wrote: "I am at a loss to ... explain how a person being sentenced to death based on his race could be anything other than a fundamental miscarriage of justice."

Supreme Court Stays Execution in Georgia Case Raising Issue of Jury Racism

Three hours after his execution was scheduled to begin, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of Keith Tharpe (pictured), a Georgia death-row prisoner who sought review of his claim that he was unconstitutionally sentenced to death because a juror whom Tharpe alleged "harbored profound racial animus against African Americans voted to impose the death penalty . . . because of his race.” Over the dissents of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch, the Court issued a stay of execution on September 26, pending a final ruling on whether to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that had denied Tharpe permission to appeal the issue. Tharpe, who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his sister-in-law, had challenged his death sentence after learning that Barney Gattie, a white juror in his case, had said that there were "two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Ni**ers"; described Tharpe as "a ni**er"; doubted "if black people even have souls"; and said if the victim "had been the same type [of black person] Tharpe is, then picking between life of death wouldn't have mattered so much." The Georgia courts had refused to consider his biased-juror challenge, saying that state law prohibitted him from attempting to impeach the jury's verdict. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that overt expressions of racial bias by a juror are not insulated from judicial review, Tharpe argued that he was entitled to have his claim heard and to have a new, fair sentencing hearing. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, concluding that he had not “made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right” and "had failed to demonstrate that Barney Gattie’s behavior had [a] substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” When Tharpe again attempted to raise the issue in the Georgia state courts, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the Supreme Court decision made no difference and his challenge was barred as "res judicata"—meaning that the issue had alrady been decided against him. His appeal from the state-court decision had just been filed in the U.S. Supreme Court when it stayed his execution based upon the federal litigation. The Court's order specified that the stay "shall terminate automatically" if the Court ultimately decides not to review the issue or if the Court ultimately rules against Tharpe. Under Supreme Court rules, the votes of four Justices are sufficient to decide to hear a prisoner's appeal. However, the votes of five Justices are required to stay an execution, effectively overriding the Court's rules for cases presented during an active death warrant. Brian Kammer, one of Tharpe’s attorneys, expressed gratitude that "the court understands this case merits thoughtful consideration outside the press of an execution warrant.” He said, “We are extremely thankful that the court has seen fit to consider Mr. Tharpe’s claim of juror racial bias in regular order.”

Court Finds Prosecutorial Misconduct, but Allows Colorado Death Sentence to Stand

An Arapahoe County judge has denied the appeal of Colorado death-row prisoner Sir Mario Owens (pictured), despite finding that prosecutors withheld evidence and failed to disclose money, gifts, and favors they provided informants in exchange for their testimony. In a 1,343-page Order and Opinion issued on September 14, Senior Judge Christopher Munch found that county prosecutors had presented false evidence from two of their most critical witnesses and unconstitutionally withheld more than 20 separate pieces of evidence that could have helped the defense challenge the testimony of seven prosecution witnesses, but said a defendant "must establish more than helpfulness to sustain a claim of constitutional error." The ruling followed the controversial removal from the case of Senior Judge Gerald Rafferty, as the judge was preparing his decision after having presided over the case for more than a decade. Rafferty had ordered the prosecution to produce hundreds of pages of records and granted 37 weeks of hearings on what he had characterized as prosecutors’ “deliberate choice” to withhold evidence from the defense. Owens was sentenced to death in June 2008 for the 2005 shooting death of Javad Marshall-Fields (the son of a Colarado state representative) and Fields's fiancé, Vivian Wolfe. A co-defendant, Robert Ray, was separately tried and sentenced to death. The case against Owens was largely circumstantial. As described by news reports in The Colorado Independent, there was "no definitive physical evidence, no confession, and no eyewitnesses who identified Owens in a case prosecutors built almost entirely on the testimony of informant witnesses to whom the DA’s office gave plea bargains, funds, or both in return for their cooperation against Owens."  Owens alleged that the prosecution had withheld evidence from the defense that they had secured the testimony of cooperating informants by making thousands of dollars of cash payments and providing undisclosed favors in unrelated criminal cases. The Denver Post reported that one witness had been "promised and later given a district attorney’s office car" and another "received $3,400 in benefits, including cash for Christmas presents in the months prior to testifying on behalf of the prosecution." The Colorado Independent's review of court records reported that "one of the main witnesses [had been] threatened with being charged for the murders Owens was accused of and with receiving two life sentences" if he didn’t cooperate. Another witness had been granted an undisclosed suspended jail sentence conditioned upon cooperating with prosecutors in Owens’s case. "People working for the prosecution would appear at informant witnesses’ court hearings and ask for lesser sentences on the condition that they testify against Owens," the paper wrote, and "informants who had been convicted of crimes were allowed to violate probation and commit future crimes without consequences as long as they cooperated." Owens's appeal has attracted attention because it was the first in Colorado's "unitary review" process that had been billed as speeding up capital appeals. Instead, it has substantially increased the length of appeals. It also raised questions of transparency because of the extraordinary levels of secrecy throughout the proceedings. Court files were sealed and a gag order prevented the parties from speaking about the case for seven years, until the order was lifted in 2013. Numerous case exhibits remain under seal. Owens's lawyers issued a written statement saying “We disagree with the court’s conclusion that none of this matters and can be tolerated in Colorado in any case, never mind a capital one. This is a sad day for ... the Colorado criminal justice system.”

Capitally Charged, Alabama Man Imprisoned 10 Years Without Trial

In a racially charged case raising questions of prosecutorial overcharging, inadequate representation, and questionable jury practices, Kharon Davis (pictured), an African-American man charged with capital murder in Dothan, Alabama, has been imprisoned for 10 years without trial. Davis—who has consistently maintained his innocence and whose prior offense was driving without a license—was 22 years old when he and two others were arrested for the shooting death of a man from whom they were purchasing marijuana. After refusing a plea deal, Davis’s case has gone through two judges, three prosecutors, four sets of defense lawyers, and nine scheduled trial dates, and he has been placed in segregation in the county jail for minor infractions, faced restrictions on his ability to review legal documents, and been denied visits by his mother. A New York Times report described the pre-trial delays as “among the most protracted” the paper could find, and George Washington University law professor and constitutional consultant Jonathan Turley said “It is impossible to look at [the case] and not find it deeply, deeply troubling.” Houston County’s District Attorney Doug Valeska’s decision to seek the death penalty reignited questions of the county’s overuse of the death penalty. Despite a population of only 103,000, its 17-person death row makes Houston County one of the most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country. The county’s prosecutorial and law enforcement practices have also come under scrutiny: a number of capital cases have been overturned for racially biased jury selection, presenting improper evidence, and improper comments to juries. In 2015, Valeska also was accused of covering up evidence that a group of Dothan police officers with ties to white supremacist groups had been planting drugs on young black men. Davis’s case has been rife with questionable activity. His first lawyer, Benjamin Meredith, was the father of one of the investigating officers in the case and cross-examined his son in the preliminary hearing. That conflict was not disclosed for four years, after a new judge was appointed in the case, when Valeska brought it to the attention of the court. In those four years, Meredith had filed only two motions on Davis’s behalf. In that same time, Davis’s co-defendant, Lorenzo Staley, who told police where to find the gun used in the murder, went to trial in 2009 and was acquitted. A second co-defendant, Kevin McCloud—a childhood friend of Davis’s who had no criminal record—had pled guilty and agreed to testify against Davis to avoid the death penalty, although McCloud later said in a letter that Valeska had asked him to “get on the stand and lie” about Davis’s involvement in the case. The case was further delayed when, looking through the court record of Staley’s trial, new defense counsel discovered a gunshot residue kit that prosecutors had failed to disclose. A new district attorney who had once represented one of the co-defendants was elected in February 2017, requiring the case to be transferred to the attorney general’s office. At that point, the prosecution dropped the death penalty from the case. Finally, on September 19, the trial was again held up amid allegations that some members of the newly empaneled jury of 11 whites and one black may have had improper contact with people connected to the case.

REPORT: Most of the 26 Prisoners Facing Execution in Ohio Through 2020 Severely Abused, Impaired, or Mentally Ill

Almost all of the 26 men scheduled for execution in Ohio over the next three years suffer from mental, emotional, or cognitive impairments or limitations that raise questions as to whether they should have been sentenced to death, according to a new report released August 30 by Harvard's Fair Punishment Project. While the U.S. Constitution requires that the death penalty be reserved for the worst crimes and the worst offenders, the report—Prisoners on Ohio's Execution List Defined by Intellectual Impairment, Mental Illness, Trauma, and Young Age—says that, instead, these prisoners "are among the most impaired and traumatized among us." The report says Ronald Phillips, whom Ohio executed July 26, was "19 at the time he committed his crime, had the intellectual functioning of a juvenile, had a father who sexually abused him, and grew up a victim of and a witness to unspeakable physical abuse – information his trial lawyers never learned or presented to a jury." It says at least 17 of the 26 other condemned prisoners Ohio seeks to execute between September 2017 and September 2020 experienced serious childhood trauma, including "physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and exposure to serious violence"; at least 11 have evidence of "intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability, or a cognitive impairment, including brain injury"; and at least 6 "appear to suffer from a mental illness." Jessica Brand, the Project's Legal Director, describes what has happened in these cases as a "horrible trifecta" in which "people who are the most impaired received some poor representation at some time in their cases and then are facing the most severe penalty possible." The Ohio Alliance for a Mental Illness Exemption from the death penalty, which is supporting an Ohio bill seeking to ban the use of capital punishment against the severely mentally ill, issued a press statement in which they noted that two of the prisoners are so mentally ill that they should be categorically exempted from the death penalty. A Death Penalty Information Center review of Ohio’s 2017-2020 scheduled executions shows that more than 60% of the execution warrants are directed at prisoners who were sentenced to death before Ohio had adopted its life-without-parole sentencing option and jurors had to weigh the death penalty against the risk that a prisoner would be released back into society. Mirroring trends repeated across the country, death sentences fell dramatically in Ohio when the state amended its death-penalty law to make life without parole available as a sentencing alternative. Death sentences dropped by 2/3rds in the state over the next decade, from an average of 12.7 per year to 4.3. The data suggests that juries would likely have treated evidence of intellectual disability, mental illness, or behavioral problems arising from chronic abuse and trauma very differently if they had assurances that the defendants would not later be released if sentenced to life.     

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