Representation

Co-Chairs of Oklahoma Commission Praise Steps Towards Death-Penalty Reform

Two of the co-chairs of the bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission have praised organizations in the state for taking "essential steps" towards implementing some of the Commission's recommendations to reform Oklahoma’s death-penalty system. In an article published December 7 in the Tulsa World, former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry (pictured, left) and Andy Lester (pictured, right), a prominent Oklahoma litigator, spotlighted actions by the Oklahoma Bar Association (OBA) and the state District Attorneys Council that they say "commit to reforms" recommended by the Commission that would improve the quality of death-penalty representation and help reduce the risk of wrongful convictions. The Commission spent more than a year "analyzing, debating and hearing from law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, families of murder victims, those wrongfully convicted and others" before publishing a nearly 300-page report in April 2017 that included 45 recommendations for reforming Oklahoma's death penalty. The report emphasized that one of the "most significant factors that influence outcomes in capital cases is the quality of a defendant’s attorney," and called for the adoption of performance standards for death-penalty defense counsel. After meeting with the Commission, the state bar association created a task force that drafted minimum standards of capital-defense practice, which have since been approved by the OBA House of Delegates. The OBA's Rules of Professional Conduct Committee is now drafting rules for capital defense lawyers for consideration by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Henry and Lester write that they "are so pleased" that the OBA's actions have shown that it "understands the importance of a qualified lawyer in death penalty cases." The co-chairs also praised the District Attorneys Council for "undertak[ing] recommendations from the commission." These included conducting a training over the summer on common causes of wrongful convictions and "considering the formation of a best practices committee." Henry and Lester recognize that the Committee's recommendations will not all be implemented overnight, but say they "are encouraged that two major players in Oklahoma’s capital punishment system are working to improve standards and training for defense lawyers and prosecutors. Without effective lawyers on both sides," they say, "we cannot guarantee that our system is just and fair."

NEW RESOURCE: Academy for Justice Report on Reforming Criminal Justice Tackles the Death Penalty

The Academy for Justice has recently released a new four-volume study, Reforming Criminal Justice, featuring research and analysis by leading academics and a wide range of proposals for criminal justice reform. The project, funded with a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation and produced with the support of Arizona State University and ASU's Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, contains more than fifty chapters covering a wide range of subjects within the areas of criminalization, policing, trial procedures, and punishment—including a chapter on Capital Punishment by renowned death-penalty scholars Professors Carol S. Steiker (Harvard Law School) and her brother, Jordan M. Steiker (University of Texas School of Law). The Steikers—authors of the critically acclaimed 2016 book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, explore the challenges in reforming the institution of capital punishment, which they describe as being "in a state of flux and fragility." They attribute the near ten-fold decrease in new death sentences since 1996 and the near 70% decrease in executions since the peak in executions in 1999 to “growing concerns about the fairness, accuracy, and effectiveness of the capital justice process across the United States.” The Steikers point to endemic arbitrariness and unfairness resulting from the wide discretion afforded to prosecutors and juries in death penalty cases. Prosecutorial discretion, they say, has produced “wildly divergent capital charging decisions” between prosecutorial offices, making geography, rather than the circumstances of a murder, the chief determinant of whether a case is capitally prosecuted. In turn, they say, the practice of "death-qualification" allows prosecutors to exclude jurors who oppose capital punishment, and the jurors who are empaneled in capital cases exercise the broad discretion they are afforded to produce unfair sentences disproportionately influenced by irrelevant factors such as race and gender. The Steikers also challenge the notion that the reduced use of the death penalty means it is being used more effectively when it is imposed. They say that the death penalty is not limited to “the worst of the worst,” and so lacks meaningful retributive value, while its continuing arbitrariness impedes any arguable deterrent effect. Indeed, they say, offenders with mental illness are disproportionately represented on death row and continue to be disproportionately executed, despite widespread public support for excluding the severely mentally ill from the death penalty. They further question the accuracy of death-penalty verdicts, citing research that estimates more than 4% of those sentenced to death may be actually innocent. The Steikers argue that these systemic issues are “difficult to adequately address through constitutional regulation or legislative reform,” concluding that “the most appropriate path forward may well be moratorium or repeal, solutions embraced by a growing number of jurisdictions.” For states that opt to retain capital punishment, they recommend three major policy reforms: the establishment of capital defense offices at all levels (trial, direct appeal, and state postconviction) to “improve the delivery of capital representation services” in compliance with the American Bar Association's Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases; centralized state-wide charging processes to combat the politicization of the death penalty by local prosecutors and the resulting geographic arbitrariness in its appliation; and the adoption of legislation to exclude people with severe mental illness from capital prosecution and execution. 

Underfunding of Capital Defense Services in Louisiana Leaves Defendants Without Lawyers

Facing court challenges for underfunding the state's public defender system and pressure from prosecutors angered by the zealous capital representation provided in the state by non-profit capital defense organizations, the Louisiana legislature enacted a law last year redirecting $3 million to local public defenders that had previously been allocated to fund capital defenders. As it has nearly every winter, however, the Louisiana public defender system has run out of money, and the underfunded capital defense offices, already at full capacity, say they cannot take any more cases. As a result, The Marshall Project reports, "[a]t least 11 Louisiana defendants facing the death penalty — including five who have already been indicted — have no defense team and may not have one until new money becomes available in July." And, with Louisiana law requiring prosecutors to seek the death penalty in murder cases unless the prosecutor explicitly decides otherwise, the wait list is expected to grow. Ben Cohen, an attorney with the non-profit The Promise of Justice Initiative likens the situation to “a conveyer belt" of murder cases. He said, "we’re grabbing them off as they come. But with the funding cuts, they essentially pulled some of us away from the line, and now the cases are piling up and crashing to the floor.” “They robbed Peter to pay Paul,” said Jay Dixon, chief defender for the Louisiana Public Defender Board. “We’re still in crisis; it’s just a different crisis ... [and] we could be facing an even greater crisis next year." Hugo Holland, a death-penalty prosecutor who doubles as chief lobbyist for the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, suggests that the capital defenders should lower their standards in providing representation, taking more than the five cases per year recommended by the American Bar Association standard adopted by the state Public Defender Board in 2007. He also argues that the defenders should back off of the ABA-recommended standard of a defense team of two lawyers, a fact investigator, and a penalty-phase mitigation specialist. He rails against the capital defenders as "boutique law firms" whom he believes are "intentionally thwarting the administration of justice." The defense lawyers, he says, should "do [their] f***ing job and provide anyone represented by [them] constitutional representation." Cohen says Louisiana has placed capital-defense lawyers "an awful moral conundrum." It is, he says, "[l]ike a doctor who has to perform 12 heart surgeries in a day, but then his staff gets cut in half. He can either do a crappier job on these life-or-death procedures, or he can take fewer of them and make the others wait." Prior to the new law, the Louisiana Public Defender Board had spent about 28% of its annual budget on capital cases, totaling about $9.5 million two years ago and 8.5 million last year. Louisiana's death penalty has been plagued with problems. Former Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero has characterized prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases as "endemic and persistent." There are equally persistent allegations of racism in its administration of capital punishment. And since 2000, courts have reversed 96% of the Louisiana death sentences that have completed appellate review. Eleven prisoners wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in Louisiana have been exonerated, the most recent exoneration occurring in April 2017. New Orleans capital defense attorney Nick Trenticosta says that if the state wants to have the death penalty, it has to pay for it. "You can’t try to put a man to death on the cheap."

Lawyer Says North Carolina Client's Brutally Traumatic Childhood Characteristic of Many on Death Row

The life of Terry Ball (pictured) "is worth remembering," says his appeal lawyer, Elizabeth Hambourger. She says Ball's life, which ended October 18 when he died of natural causes on North Carolina's death row, "hold[s] keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst." His "story of childhood trauma and brain damage" is characteristic of the backgrounds of many on death row, Hambourger says, but "was barely told at trial." Ball was convicted and sentenced to death for the cocaine-induced murder of his pastor's wife and attempted murder of his pastor in 1993, which occurred during a relapse of Ball's cocaine addition. His road to death row began when he was hit by a car at age 10, suffering injuries that kept him hospitalized for eight weeks. The head trauma changed his personality, but the severity of his brain damage was not detected at the time. He and a girlfriend ran away from home when he was 13, during which time he was abducted by a serial rapist, Jerry Wood, and repeatedly raped, kept high on drugs, and forced to steal, until he was able to escape nearly a month later. Rather than receiving mental-health services as a victim of sexual assault, Ball was adjudicated delinquent for running away and was incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, where a state psychiatrist questioned his sexual identity, writing that his month-long "association" with his rapist "raised the question of possible homosexuality." Wood, who was never prosecuted for raping and abducting Ball, was later convicted of raping two other children and sentenced to 45 years in jail. Ball then turned to drugs as self-medication for his trauma. He later enlisted in, but was swiftly discharged from, the Navy and subsequently committed several violent drug-motivated robberies and was jailed for nearly killing two people. After his release from prison, he checked himself in to three treatment centers over the course of three years, all in an unsuccessful effort to overcome his addiction to crack cocaine. Hambourger says that Ball's story is a reminder that "[t]his is who we sentence to death: the most damaged, the most abused; traumatized children who grow into adults without learning how to cope with their fear and anger." In North Carolina, death sentences have fallen from an average of 28 per year in the five years spanning 1992-1996 to an average of one per year between 2012-2016. Hambourger believes that, had Ball's trial been held today, "this mitigating evidence would have been thoroughly presented and likely would have persuaded a jury to sentence him to life without parole instead of death."

New Report Documents “Dramatic Rise” in Republican Support for Death-Penalty Repeal

"The death penalty is dying in the United States, and Republicans are contributing to its demise," concludes a new report, The Right Way, released on October 25 by the advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The report traces "the dramatic rise in Republican sponsorship of bills to end the death penalty" and the trends that it says helped contribute to this rise. Based on this data, the report says "[m]ore Republican lawmakers are recognizing that the death penalty is a broken policy and taking an active role in efforts to end it." The data in the report reflect both the emergence of Republican leadership in bills to repeal the death penalty and increased bi-partisanship in the sponsorship of these bills. Forty Republican legislators sponsored bills to abolish the death penalty in 2016, the report says, "ten times as many [who] sponsored repeal bills ... in 2000." It also reports that the percentage of repeal-bill sponsors who are Republicans has risen to 31%, a six-fold increase since 2007. The report highlights grassroots, party-level, and religious shifts in Republican views about and activism against the death penalty. In addition to the national Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, conservative anti-death-penalty advocacy groups have formed in eleven predominently Republican "red states." In Kansas, the state Republican Party "removed its death penalty support from the Party’s platform in 2014" in favor of a neutral position and voted down an attempt to restore a pro-death penalty stance in 2016. The report also says Evangelicals are increasingly "forsak[ing] the death penalty," pointing to the public involvolvement of prominent Evangelical leaders opposing state efforts to carry out executions in a number of recent cases and the new policy of position the National Association of Evangelicals, expressing neutrality on the death penalty and acknowledging its flaws. Recent national polls confirm the report's observations. The October 2017 Gallup poll on the death penalty indicated that death-penalty support among Republicans fell by ten percentage points, from 82% to 72%, in the last year, and the Pew Research Center reported a seven percentage-point decline in support for capital punishment between 2011 and 2015 among respondents who described themselves as conservative Republicans. The Right Way highlights the actions of five Republican state legislators' efforts to repeal capital punishment in predominantly Republican states, and addresses the substantive concerns that have given rise to Republican death-penalty opposition. "Plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and delays," the report says, "the death penalty has proven to be ineffective and incompatible with a number of core conservative principles. It runs afoul of conservative commitments to limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a culture of life." As renewed pushes to abolish the death penalty move forward in states like Utah and New Hampshire, the Gallup organization suggests that the actions of Republicans may be critical in determining the death penalty's future. It's analysis of this year's poll states: "Thirty-one states, primarily in Republican-leaning regions, allow the death penalty. The likelihood of many of those states changing their laws hinges on whether rank-and-file Republican support for capital punishment remains high or declines in the future."

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Louisiana Death Penalty Case Where Lawyer Conceded Guilt Over Client's Objection

The United States Supreme Court will review a Louisiana death-penalty case to answer the question "Is it unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede an accused’s guilt over the accused’s express objection?" On September 27, the court agreed to hear McCoy v. Louisiana, a case in which defense counsel informed the jury in his opening argument that Robert McCoy (pictured)—who was charged with murdering the son, mother, and stepfather of his estranged wife—had "committed these crimes," even though McCoy had consistently maintained his innocence and repeatedly objected to the defense strategy. The case is one of a number of Louisiana death penalty cases in which defense lawyers have told death penalty juries, against the defendant's wishes, that their clients had committed the killing. In McCoy's case, the prosecution offered a plea deal that McCoy turned down against the advice of his lawyer, Larry English. When English later told McCoy that he intended to concede McCoy's guilt, McCoy objected and tried to fire English two days before the start of the trial. The trial court refused to remove English from the case, and also denied McCoy’s request to represent himself. When English conceded guilt during the opening statement, McCoy interrupted, saying the police had killed the victims. He later took the stand and testified that he had been framed for the murders by a drug trafficking ring headed by law enforcement. McCoy's petition for review was supported with amicus (friend of the court) briefs by the Yale Law School Ethics Bureau and the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. English had argued that he had admitted guilt as part of his ethical duty to try to save McCoy’s life. The Ethics Bureau, however, argued that conceding McCoy's guilt over his express opposition was an "egregious" violation of the lawyer's ethical duty. It wrote that the rules of ethics "do not allow a lawyer to sell out his client in court against their wishes." The brief of the Louisiana defense lawyers, joined by the Promise of Justice Initiative, said the court's refusal to permit McCoy to obtain new counsel was emblematic of a pattern of decisions undermining the right to meaningful representation in Louisiana death penalty cases. The brief pointed to 12 capital cases in which Louisiana courts resolved disagreements between capital defendants and their lawyers in a manner that was detrimental to the defendant. The brief said that, in four cases since 2000, the Louisiana courts had allowed capital defense counsel to concede guilt over their clients’ express objection. In four other capital cases during that time frame, capital defendants were required to represent themselves to avoid having their lawyer concede guilt. Four other times, invoking the same right to personal autonomy over litigation decisions that they rejected in the prior circumstance, the state courts gave capital defendants who wanted to waive rights final say in doing so. “What can be distilled from Louisiana’s approach is that when a question about a defendant’s autonomy arises, Louisiana appears to resolve the question in favor of expediency, rather than autonomy or dignity,” the brief said. "Rather than a principled and consistent commitment to the autonomy and dignity of capital defendants, the Louisiana Supreme Court has adopted a set of rules that ameliorates always to the benefit of the state, and never to the defendant."

North Carolina Decline in Death Verdicts Highlights Penalty's Cost, Ineffectiveness

Death sentences are sharply down in North Carolina and the combination of cost concerns and more effective representation have made them progressively rare. In an interview with The Hickory Daily Record, David Learner, District Attorney for the 25th prosecutorial district encompassing Catawba, Caldwell, and Burke counties, who has personally tried two death-eligible cases, says “It’s extraordinarily difficult to get a death verdict. ... [Y]ou come to realize it’s very difficult for a jury seated in that box to say ‘yes, you need to kill that man.'” Murder cases in which the death penalty may be sought are defended by five regional capital defender offices, which have a record of effectively investigating cases and negotiating non-capital outcomes. According to statistics maintained by the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (NCIDS), from 2007 to 2015, nearly 60% of capital prosecutions ended with non-capital convictions for second-degree murder or less, and only 2.2 percent of all capital cases in the state resulted in death sentences. In Wake County, juries have returned life verdicts in eight consecutive capital sentencing trials. When a case is charged, Assistant Capital Defender Victoria James told the paper, "you know what happened, but you don’t know why it happened.... And that’s where you get into the client’s mental health, provocation, and many times, those are the kind of cases you hope to be able to resolve without going to trial.” With representation by the regional capital defenders, there have been only 5 death sentences in the state over the past five years, down from 140 death sentences imposed 20 years ago in the five years spanning 1992-1996. No one has been executed in the state since 2006 and most of the 262 prisoners who the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) says have been removed from death row have been resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after their convictions or death sentences were overturned. Although 98% of North Carolina cases that start out as capital do not end up with a death sentence, pursuing the death penalty has had significant financial consequences. NCIDS reports that, in fiscal years 2007 to 2015, the average costs were 4.4 times higher in a capital case ($93,231 per case) than when prosecutors did not pursue the death penalty ($21,022 per case). A Duke University study in 2009 concluded that repeal of the death penalty would have produced approximately $10.8 million in annual savings from reduced expenditures on murder cases. Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of cases in which prosecutors have sought the death penalty has fallen from 28.1% to 11%, and budget cuts to the North Carolina Attorney General's office have shifted to local district attorneys the cost of criminal appeals that used to be handled by state prosecutors. “This thing about, ‘we need to execute him,’ the actual mechanics of the court system, it’s not happening,” Learner said. “Realizing the reality of the death penalty in North Carolina through the court system, it’s really about worthless.” Looking to the future, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if North Carolina eventually had a moratorium or completely dismantled the death penalty.”

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.

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