Representation

John William King Executed in Infamous Lynching Case, Said Attorneys Had Violated His Right to Present Innocence Defense

Texas has executed John William King (pictured), one of three men convicted of the brutal lynching of James Byrd, Jr., after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in his case. King's lawyers had asked the Court to grant a stay of his scheduled April 24, 2019 execution after a divided Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 5-4 on April 22 to permit the execution to proceed. King, an avowed white supremacist, had maintained since the time of his arrest that he was not present at the time of King's murder and did not participate in the killing, and he had repeatedly but unsuccessfully demanded that his lawyers present an innocence defense at trial. King’s appeal lawyers had asked the Texas appeals court and the Supreme Court to halt his execution to review King’s claim that his lawyers’ actions denied King the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

King says he left Byrd and his co-defendants, Lawrence Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry, prior to Byrd’s murder. When King’s trial lawyers decided to concede his guilt, he tried to replace them. He wrote letters to the court and to a Dallas newspaper describing his innocence claims and complaining that his attorneys would not present them. King’s appellate attorneys argued that his trial lawyers’ concession of guilt violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in McCoy v. Louisiana, which said, “With individual liberty—and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Texas appeals court dismissed King’s application for review without addressing the merits of his claim.

Judge Michael Keasler, joined by three other judges, dissented, citing “substantial” unresolved factual and legal questions. Judge Keasler wrote: “A death-sentenced man who has asserted his innocence since his capital-murder trial has asked us to review his claim that his trial lawyer overrode his express wishes to pursue a defense consistent with his innocence. In light of … the horrible stain this Court’s reputation would suffer if King’s claims of innocence are one day vindicated (or, perhaps, if the Supreme Court eventually decides that McCoy should apply retroactively), I think we ought to take our time and decide this issue unhurriedly. I would grant the stay.” The U.S. Supreme Court denied King's stay application without comment.

Ahead of King’s execution date, the Beaumont Enterprise interviewed community members in Jasper, Texas to understand how King, who grew up in the same small town as Byrd, came to be associated with one of the nation’s most notorious hate crimes. Capt. James Carter, a black man who worked for the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years, has known King since he was a child. “My boys liked him,” Carter said. “He came and spent the night with us often. I treated him like my own.” When Byrd was killed, Carter and his boss had to tell Byrd’s family. Ronald King, John William King’s father, struggled to understand how his son became a white supremacist, and linked the change to time his son spent in prison for a series of burglaries he committed at age 20. “Something happened to my boy in prison. Something bad,” Ronald King had told his priest, Rev. Ron Foshage. “He never had this kind of hate in his heart.” While in prison, the Reverend said, King had been sexually assaulted by an African-American prisoner.

Byrd’s family did not blame King’s family for the murder, and showed kindness to Ronald during the trial. According to Foshage, “Every day after the trial had ended for the day, Mr. Byrd and other members of the Byrd family would touch Ronald on the arm as they were leaving. He was so grateful for their kindness.” “We as parents raise our children to do the right thing and not hate,” said Louvon Harris, James Byrd Jr.’s older sister. “But once they’re not in your control anymore, we’re not sure what kids will grow up to be. ...There were no winners in this. We felt their pain, as well.” Shortly before the trial, Jasper residents gathered to tear down a fence separating racially segregated sections of the town cemetery. According to the Enterprise, if King chose to have his body returned to Jasper after the execution, “he’ll be buried next to his parents and just 100 yards from James Byrd Jr.”

Fresno DA Drops Death Penalty for California’s Longest Serving Death-Row Prisoner

The Fresno County District Attorney’s office has announced that it is dropping the death penalty against Douglas Stankewitz (pictured),  California’s longest-serving death-row prisoner. After reviewing extensive mitigating evidence that Stankewitz’s trial counsel had failed to investigate, Fresno prosecutors announced on April 19, 2019 that a sentence of life without parole would be “fair and just” in Stankewitz’s case and that they will not pursue a third capital-sentencing proceeding against him.

Stankewitz was first convicted and sentenced to death in 1978 for a murder committed while he was 19 years old. He was the first person sent to California's death row after the state reestablished the death penalty earlier that year. Prior to trial, Stankewitz’s trial lawyer asked the court to conduct a hearing on his client’s competency to stand trial. The court-appointed psychiatrist reported that Stankewitz suffered from “paranoid delusions that his public defender was in collusion with the prosecutor” and that this delusion “interfered with his ability to cooperate in the conduct of his defense.” Nonetheless, the trial court refused to conduct a competency hearing and Stankewitz was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The California Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1982 based upon doubts about Stankewitz’s competency. Before his retrial, the trial court found an irreparable conflict existed between Stankewitz and his public defender and appointed private counsel, Hugh Goodwin, as substitute counsel. Despite believing that Stankewitz was incompetent, Goodwin failed to obtain a psychological evaluation of his client. Stankewitz was convicted and sentenced to death a second time.

More than 25 years later, a California federal district court overturned that death sentence based upon Goodwin’s failure to investigate and present a broad range of mitigating evidence of intellectual impairment, abuse, neglect, and brain damage. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in Stankewitz v. Wong, upheld the district court’s decision in 2012. The court wrote that Goodwin presented a “paltry” penalty-phase defense that primarily “focused … on the ‘power of God’ to help persons change their lives” and that praised the work of prison chaplains.

The available mitigating evidence showed that Stankewitz had experienced a deeply traumatic upbringing, enduring a variety of abuses common among death-row prisoners. Stankewitz was born into poverty in a home without electricity or running water, where there was rarely enough food for all ten children. While she was pregnant with him, Stankewitz’s mother drank alcohol excessively, and his father hit her in the abdomen. His parents and older siblings abused him physically and mentally, and by age five, he had started sniffing paint. Alcohol and drug abuse soon followed. His older siblings abused him so severely that he has “a substantial indentation on his cranium.” He was removed from his home at age six because his mother beat him with an electrical cord and was sent to jail. From then until his arrest at age 19, he was in various forms of government care, where he continued to experience abuse. He was sexually abused, beaten, unnecessarily drugged, tied to beds, and deliberately tortured. Mental health examinations have shown that he is borderline intellectually disabled and has significant brain dysfunction, likely as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome and severe childhood trauma.

Rather than extend the case further, prosecutors ultimately agreed that this mitigating evidence justified a life sentence.

Alabama Prisoner Seeks U.S. Supreme Court Review of Attorney Conflict of Interest Case

Whose interests does a lawyer represent, the capital defendant whose life is at stake or the abusive father paying for his defense? Alabama death-row prisoner Nicholas Acklin (pictured) is seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of that issue because he alleges that the lawyer who represented him at trial had a financial conflict of interest that affected the way he represented Acklin in the penalty phase of his capital trial. Nick Acklin’s father, Theodis Acklin, paid for the legal services of Behrouz Rahmati to represent his son in the 1998 death-penalty trial. Two days before trial, as Rahmati belatedly investigated his client’s background, he learned from Nick’s mother, Velma, that Theodis had physically abused her, Nick, and Nick’s brothers, holding them at gunpoint and threatening to kill them. Rahmati asked Theodis to testify about the abuse, believing that the mitigating factor could help persuade the jury to spare Nick’s life. Theodis then gave Rahmati an ultimatum: “You tell Nick if he wants to go down this road, I’m done with him” and “done helping with this case.” Rahmati told the jury nothing about the child abuse, instead presenting testimony from Theodis that Nick had been raised in a “Christian home” with “good values.” The jury then voted 10-2 to recommend a death sentence, and the trial court imposed the death penalty, reasoning that, unlike “most killers” who are the products of abusive childhoods, Nick had chosen to reject the good values with which he had been raised.

Acklin’s petition for Supreme Court review is supported by friend-of-the-court briefs filed by four legal ethics scholars and by former Alabama appeals court judges and presidents of the Alabama State Bar. The brief of the legal ethics professors urges the Court to overturn Acklin’s death sentence, saying that Rahmati “labored under an acute and obvious conflict of interest” that violated ethics norms and rules of professional responsibility applicable in every jurisdiction in the United States. Once Theodis threatened to withdraw funding, the scholars wrote, Rahmati had a clear conflict: “He could serve his client’s interest by making the best argument possible against the imposition of the death penalty, or he could protect his own interests by avoiding antagonizing the paymaster.” At that point, they wrote, “ethics rules unanimously required Rahmati to secure an alternative fee arrangement or obtain Acklin’s informed consent to the conflict, or else seek to end the representation. None of these things occurred.” Instead, without providing Acklin the advice of conflict-free counsel, Rahmati had Nick sign a “waiver” stating that he did not want to raise the abuse issue during his trial.

The former judges and bar presidents—including Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Hornsby, Justice Ralph Cook, and Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge William Bowen—wrote that “The obligation of loyalty is at its most acute in a death penalty case, where its disregard may cost one’s client his life.” Rahmati’s conduct, they wrote, was an “utter abandonment of his client’s interests” that was exacerbated by counsel’s incompetence. “Any reasonable mitigation investigation would have revealed childhood abuse by Acklin’s father months before trial,” they wrote, when “counsel could have avoided the conflict by not becoming financially beholden to Acklin’s abuser.” Counsel also violated the duty of candor to the court, the judges and bar presidents wrote, “by knowingly presenting false and misleading testimony [that] the trial court expressly relied upon … in sentencing Acklin to death, while counsel stood silent.”

Nick Acklin’s lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn his death sentence and clarify the rules regarding attorney conflicts of interest. In 2013, an Alabama trial judge held an evidentiary hearing, ultimately rejecting Acklin’s claim. The legal ethics scholars’ brief called that decision a “departure from precedent and prevailing ethics norms.” The former judges urged the Supreme Court to intercede, saying Acklin’s execution under these circumstances would be unjust to him and would also damage “our system of justice itself.”

After More Than Three Decades, Two Death-Row Prisoners Freed in California

Two former California death-row prisoners who had spent a combined 70 years in prison are now free men, after federal courts overturned their convictions and local prosecutors agreed to plea deals on non-capital charges. James Hardy (pictured, left) was freed on February 14, 2019 after pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in exchange for a suspended sentence and release on probation. Freddie Lee Taylor (pictured, right) was released on February 20 after pleading guilty to manslaughter and a sentence of time served. Both men have claims of innocence, but their plea deals make them ineligible for DPIC’s Innocence List. Each spent more than 30 years on death row.

James Hardy was convicted and sentenced to death in Los Angeles in 1984 for the murder of Nancy Morgan and her son, Mitchell Morgan. Hardy was tried along with two co-defendants, Mark Reilly and Clifford Morgan, the husband and father of the victims. Clifford was convicted of hiring Reilly and Hardy to kill his family so he could collect insurance money. Prosecutors argued that Hardy was the actual killer and Reilly the middleman in the conspiracy. On appeal, Hardy argued that his trial attorney had been ineffective because he had failed to investigate or present evidence that the prosecution’s key witness was actually the killer. The California Supreme Court overturned Hardy’s death sentence, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit later overturned his conviction, writing, “Hardy’s attorney failed him, and the State of California failed Hardy by putting a man on the stand that it should have known committed the crime.” The court said, “there is a substantial likelihood that the jury would not have convicted Hardy had [his trial lawyer] performed effectively.” Rather than retry Hardy, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office agreed to a plea deal.

Freddie Lee Taylor was convicted and sentenced to death in Contra Costa County in 1986. Taylor had experienced severe trauma and abuse as a child, started using drugs by the age of 10, and was housed from age 13 to 17 in a juvenile detention center that was described in court records as a “gruesome, dehumanizing and frightening world where rape, beatings and fear were constant.” He was arrested in 1984 during a “family dispute” and was sent to a mental institution, where he attempted suicide. Despite doctors’ recommendations that he be placed in a mental hospital because he was a danger to himself or others, he was released by hospital staff. He burglarized the home of 84-year-old Carmen Vasquez, leaving fingerprints in her home. When she was murdered days later, he was identified as a suspect because his fingerprints were at the crime scene. Taylor’s long history of mental illness was ignored at his trial, where his lawyer never requested and the court did not independently order a competency evaluation. His appeal lawyers argued that his conviction was invalid because he was not competent to stand trial. A federal judge reversed Taylor’s conviction in 2016 and the Ninth Circuit upheld that decision in 2018, saying there was insufficient evidence to accurately assess Taylor’s mental health at the time of the crime and his trial. The federal court gave Contra Costa County prosecutors 60 days to decide whether to retry him, but they instead agreed to the plea deal. “Had he not had the benefit of zealous appellate lawyers dedicated to his cause, Freddie Lee Taylor may well have been executed,” Chief Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said. “His is but one case. Others like him who have meritorious claims may not be so fortunate. There are over 700 more people on death row — many waiting for an attorney to be appointed to their case and others still waiting for their cases to be finally resolved by the courts.”

Georgia Approaches Five Years With No Death Sentences

For the first time since Georgia brought back the death penalty in 1973, the state will go five years without imposing any death sentences. No jury has handed down a death sentence since March 2014 and, with no capital trials scheduled for February or March, the state is nearly certain to reach the 5-year milestone. The decline in death sentencing is even more dramatic in light of the fact that, prior to 2015, Georgia had never gone two consecutive years without a death sentence. Experts attribute the decline primarily to two factors: improved death-penalty representation and the availability of life without parole.

Georgia’s Office of the Capital Defender — a statewide death-penalty public defender office — represents nearly everyone facing the death penalty in the state. The capital defender has reduced the number of death sentences by thoroughly investigating the life and mental health histories of its clients and working with prosecutors before trials even begin to reach non-capital dispositions. In December 2015, Jerry Word, who heads the state defender office, credited those efforts with preempting numerous capital trials. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2019 that the capital defender’s office “has become real good at identifying mitigating factors for a defendant and talking about that with prosecutors long before lines are drawn in the sand. This has made a real difference, and you save the resources and the time required of a death-penalty case and the victims don’t have to go through the years-long process.” In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and, by the end of 2015, that case had been the only one of the preceding 71 cases handled by the capital defender that had resulted in a death verdict. Since 2015, the capital defender has closed 69 death-penalty cases, of which just five went to trial and none resulted in a death sentence.

Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said that the availability of life without parole as a sentencing option also has fundamentally changed the way potentially capital cases are tried and the verdicts juries reach. Prior to 2009, life without parole was not an option in Georgia unless prosecutors actually sought the death penalty. Now, prosecutors may seek life without parole without capitally prosecuting a defendant. Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said, “[t]he majority of prosecutors around the state are now convinced that a life-without-parole sentence actually means what it says. It’s made a huge difference.” As a result, prosecutors now file notices to seek death much less often. In 2005, Georgia prosecutors filed 40 notices of intent to seek the death penalty. By 2011, that number had dropped to 26, and in 2017, it was just three.

The decline in death sentences paints a sharp contrast between the way cases were handled in the past and how they are handled today. According to Steve Bright, former director and president of the Georgia-based Southern Center for Human Rights, the people on Georgia’s death row did not commit worse crimes than today’s defendants, they simply faced a worse system. The state has executed 19 prisoners since a jury last imposed a death sentence in the state, in cases criticized as out of step with current practices and emblematic of systemic problems with the state’s death penalty. “Those are people who were sentenced to death some time ago often with lawyers who were not qualified to try a death-penalty case,” Bright said, describing Georgia’s death-row prisoners. “They are also people who would not be sentenced to death today.”

New Voices: Former Texas Criminal Appeals Judge Suggests “Pause” on Texas Death Penalty

Retiring Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge and former prosecutor Elsa Alcala now believes that the death penalty is unreliably and discriminatorily applied in the nation’s most aggressive capital punishment state. In a new Houston Chronicle “Behind the Walls” podcast, Judge Alcala – who calls herself “a Republican hanging on by a thread” – told reporter Keri Blakinger, “I think we know enough right now to even call for a moratorium or just to pause all of this and to say, you know, ‘What is going on? Why does Texas have such a high percentage of people who get the death penalty and are executed as compared to the rest of the country?’”

Hired as a prosecutor by Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who gained notoriety as one of the nation’s deadliest prosecutors, Alcala spent nine years trying capital cases in the DA’s office of the country’s leading death-sentencing county. She then served as a county trial judge before being appointed by then-governor George W. Bush to serve on the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. As she was exposed to a range of problems in Texas death penalty cases, her views on the capital punishment evolved. She became a skeptic of capital punishment, often dissenting from denials of death-penalty relief and, in the case of Julius Murphy, called on the court to consider whether the state’s death penalty was constitutionally administered. When she left the bench, Judge Alcala accepted a policy role at the Texas Defender Service, where she will advocate for criminal justice reform. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, she joked, “[m]aybe I can have more success at the legislative level to get somebody to understand that there are some real true problems.”

In the podcast interview, Alcala cites a range of factors that changed her views about capital punishment. She discusses ineffective lawyers and parole laws that, at the beginning of her career, forced jurors to choose between a 15-year prison sentence and a death sentence for death-eligible defendants. “What do you do with these people who ... got there back to in the 90s when we know for a fact that the lawyers were not doing what they should have been doing in my mind?” Alcala asked. “And then the question is, as they come up to be executed, are we going to continue to execute them and tolerate the fact that things were done imperfectly? … I think, still percolating through all of that is that a lot of those [cases] are subject to that old parole law.”

When asked about the decline of the death penalty in Texas, Alcala said, “It is on the decline significantly. Whether it will ever go away and when it will go away – I don't know, I think it is imperfect. More accurately, I should say it is unreliable – I have lost faith in the reliability of the death penalty. And that is what underlies my involvement with the Texas Defender Service. It is: If you're going to have the death penalty, then do it correctly. You know, give them a good trial lawyer, give them a good appellate lawyer, give them a good habeas lawyer at the state level, give them a good federal lawyer and don't let racial prejudice at all influence anything that's going on.” The death penalty, she said, “is just not reliable. It’s not something that I can say is being done the way that it should be done to give you confidence in it as a punishment form. … I think, why is Texas so out of line with the rest of the country? It can't be that our people are worse, right? I mean, Texans are good people. Are our crimes worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so. Are our people worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so.  So somehow we are out of line.”

Supreme Court Lets Death Sentence Stand for Prisoner Whose Attorney Presented No Mitigating Evidence

Over a sharp dissent by three justices, the United States Supreme Court has let stand the death sentence imposed on a Georgia prisoner who was suffering from dementia, brain damage, and borderline intellectual functioning, but whose trial lawyer failed to present any mitigating evidence. On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed on behalf of death-row prisoner Donnie Cleveland Lance seeking the Court’s review of the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of relief in his case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan – dissented, writing that “the Court’s refusal to intervene permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Lance was sentenced to death by a Georgia court for the 1997 murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Lance’s trial lawyer – a solo practitioner who was convinced he could persuade the jury of Lance’s innocence – asked the trial court to appoint a second lawyer to handle any potential penalty phase. The court denied that request and also denied a defense motion for funds to retain expert witnesses to challenge the range of experts hired by the prosecution in the case. After the court denied his motions, Lance’s lawyer conducted no penalty-phase investigation and did nothing to prepare for the penalty phase. Following Lance’s conviction, counsel made no penalty-phase opening statement, called no witnesses, and presented no mitigating evidence. In his cursory closing argument, counsel asked the jury to think of Lance’s family and to not seek vengeance. 

New counsel represented Lance in his state post-conviction proceedings and presented extensive evidence of Lance’s serious cognitive impairments. Four mental health experts agreed that Lance had brain damage in his frontal lobe, that his IQ was on the borderline for intellectual disability, and that he suffered from clinical dementia. While the three defense experts agreed that Lance’s brain damage significantly impaired his ability to control his impulses and conform his conduct to the law, the state’s expert disagreed about the extent of his impairment. The trial court overturned Lance’s death sentence, ruling that counsel had provided ineffective representation. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that while counsel’s performance was deficient, the presentation of mitigating evidence would have been futile given the facts of the murder. On federal habeas corpus review, the Georgia federal courts ruled that the Georgia Supreme Court had not unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it upheld Lance’s death sentence.

The three-justice dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene argued that the Georgia Supreme Court decision was “an objectively unreasonable application” of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and had “mischaracterized or omitted key facts and improperly weighed the evidence.” The evidence of Lance’s “‘serious’ and ‘significant’” mental impairments, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “reasonably could have affected at least one juror’s assessment of whether Lance deserved to die for his crimes, and Lance should have been given a chance to make the case for his life.” Instead, she said, “Lance may well be executed without any adequately informed jury having decided his fate.”

NEW PODCAST: DPIC’s 2018 Year End Report

In the latest podcast episode of Discussions with DPIC, members of the DPIC staff discuss key themes from the 2018 Year End Report. Robert Dunham, Ngozi Ndulue, and Anne Holsinger delve into the major death-penalty trends and news items of the year, including the “extended trend” of generational lows in death sentencing and executions, election results that indicate the decline will likely continue, and the possible impact of Pope Francis’s change to Catholic teaching on capital punishment. They explore the reasons for reduced death-penalty usage, highlighting the stories of people who were exonerated in 2018, the theme of executing people with characteristics that make them vulnerable to unfair legal proceedings, and the ongoing controversy surrounding execution methods.

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham noted the importance of the shrinking death-row population, saying, “Death row is declining in size even as the number of executions is declining, which suggests that the decline is a result of the erosion of capital punishment, as opposed to it actually being carried out.” He explains the lack of death sentences in several traditional death-penalty states, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. “The biggest change is the availability of quality indigent defense,” Dunham said, adding that the adoption of life without parole as a sentencing option has also been a major contributing factor.

Dunham addresses the theme of inadequate legal process, saying that the current system fails to ensure that prisoners’ constitutional rights are fully upheld. “If we want the death penalty in the United States, ... it’s imperative that it be able to accurately assess whether somebody was fairly tried, whether somebody was fairly sentenced, and whether the individual deserves to live or die,” he said. Those procedural failures, and the secrecy that surrounds executions, have created a “distrust” among the public that Dunham predicts with have a “prolonged and lingering effect.” “In 2018, death sentences were down, executions were down for a variety of reasons, but I think one of the reasons that’s going to last and contribute to a continued reduction in the future is that more and more people think that we can’t trust the states to carry it out,” Dunham concluded.

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