Victims

“Often Forgotten” in the Wake of Exonerations, Wrongful Convictions Harm Murder Victims’ Families, Too

In a feature article in Politico, Lara Bazelon, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and author of the new book, Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction, describes an exoneration as “an earthquake [that] leaves upheaval and ruin in its wake.” Exonerees, she writes, “suffer horribly—both physically and mentally—in prison” and are revictimized following their release, “leav[ing] prison with no ready access to services or a support system that can help them re-acclimate to society.” But wrongful convictions that lead to exonerations have other, “often forgotten” victims, too: the family members of the crime victim. Victims’ family members, Bazelon writes, are “forced to relive the worst experience of their lives with the knowledge that the actual perpetrator was never caught, or caught far too late, after victimizing more people.”

Bazelon’s article highlights the experience of these family members, telling the story of Christy Sheppard (pictured), whose cousin, Debbie Lee Carter, was murdered in Oklahoma when Christy was eight years old. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted of the murder; Williamson was sentenced to death and Fritz to life without parole. Eleven years later, when Williamson and Fritz were exonerated, it shook Sheppard and her family. The tremors from that wrongful conviction transformed the family’s perception of the criminal justice system and turned Sheppard into an advocate for criminal justice reform. In 2013, Sheppard participated in a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Innocence Project. There, she appeared with Jennifer Thompson, a rape survivor who had misidentified her rapist, then later co-authored a book with the man who had been wrongfully convicted of her attack. Sheppard said that Thompson voiced the same sense of “re-victimization and not being included” that she and her family had felt. After the conference, Sheppard came to view the experiences of exonerees and crime victims as “completely different but also the same. ...We have all been lied to, mistreated, and not counted.”

Sheppard later wrote an op-ed about the innocence claims of another Oklahoma death-row prisoner, Richard Glossip. “[The victim] and his family deserve justice,” she wrote, “but justice won’t be served if Glossip is put to death and we find out too late that he is innocent of this crime.” She was one of eleven members of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, and the only member who was neither a lawyer nor a politician. As a member of the commission, she sought to challenge the idea that the death penalty was the only way for her family to be given justice. She has since spoken about her experiences on local and national media, testified before the Ohio Senate in support of a bill to ban the execution of people with mental illness, and campaigned for death penalty repeal in Nebraska. “I know these cases are not about the truth,” Sheppard told Bazelon. “It is politics; it is a game where people are moved around and played. It is not fair and it is not balanced.”

Texas Executes Another Defendant of Color Over Objection of Victim’s Family

Against the wishes of the victim's family and amidst charges that the rejection of his clemency application was rooted in racial bias, Texas executed Christopher Young (pictured) on July 17, 2018. Young—who had been drunk and high on drugs when he killed Hashmukh Patel during a failed robbery in 2004—had repeatedly expressed remorse for the murder and had been mentoring troubled youth in an effort to prevent them from repeating his mistakes. The victim's son, Mitesh Patel, had urged clemency for Young, saying that he didn't want Young's children to grow up without a father, and that Young could be a positive influence by continuing his mentorship activities. Mitesh Patel, who had an emotional visit with Young the day before the execution, said the meeting left him with "a sense of sadness." "I really do believe Chris Young today is not the person he was 14 years ago," Patel said. "It's really unfortunate that the [pardons] board didn't hear our request for clemency. I feel sadness for his family. They're going to be walking down the same path my family has been on the last 14 years." On July 13, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 6-0, with one abstention, to deny Young's clemency application. Young's attorneys then filed a civil-rights suit in federal court, seeking a stay of execution on the grounds that the board's decision had been racially biased. Young's lawyer, David Dow, said family members of the murder victim have asked the pardons board six times this century to commute the death sentence imposed on the person convicted of murdering their loved one. "[O]f those six," Dow said, "three are black, two are Hispanic and one is white. Only in the case of the white guy [Thomas Whitaker] did they vote to recommend commutation.” U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison denied Young's request for a stay, but expressed extreme displeasure about the constricted timeframe for judicial review and the state's lack of concern about the possibility of racial bias. The case, he said, "dramatizes much of what is most troubling about the procedures by which we execute criminal defendants." He continued, "In a rational world, the Court would be able to authorize discovery and sift through the evidence obtained thereby. ... Here, ... the time frame is designed to render impossible intelligent and dispassionate judicial review. Applicable principles of law seem nonexistent." "Those engaging in race discrimination seldom announce their motivations," Judge Ellison said, and the timeframe made it "well-nigh impossible" for Young to prove his claims. "Ideally," Ellison wrote, Texas "would be determined to show that racial considerations had not infected the clemency proceeding. ... [H]owever, the State is eager to proceed with [Young's] execution without either side having any opportunity to explore the [issue]." In his final statement, Young said "l want to make sure the Patel family knows I love them like they love me. Make sure the kids in the world know I’m being executed and those kids I’ve been mentoring keep this fight going." The execution was the eighth in Texas and the thirteenth in the U.S. in 2018. 

Texas Judge Finds Prosecutors Lied That Victim's Family Supported Death Penalty, Recommends Resentencing to Life

Finding that prosecutors withheld evidence that the family of murder victim Jonas Cherry opposed the death penalty for his accused killer and then lied to jurors that Cherry’s family supported the death penalty, a trial judge in Tarrant County, Texas has recommended overturning the death sentence imposed on Paul David Storey (pictured) and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Storey was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008 for murdering Cherry during a 2006 robbery of a Fort Worth putt-putt golf course. The victim’s parents, Glenn and Judith Cherry, told prosecutors before the trial that they did not want any of the people charged with the murder sentenced to death. But in the penalty-phase closing argument in Storey’s trial, Assistant Tarrant County District Attorney Christy Jack told the jury "[i]t should go without saying that all of Jonas [Cherry’s] family and everyone who loved him believe the death penalty [is] appropriate.” In March 2017, Cherry’s parents sought clemency for their son’s killer. In a letter to Governor Greg Abbott, they wrote that, as a result of their “ethical and spiritual values,” they strongly oppose the death penalty, and said “[w]e do not want to see another family having to suffer through losing a child and family member.” Storey’s execution, they wrote, “will not bring our son back, will not atone for the loss of our son and will not bring comfort or closure.” On April 7, 2017, less than a week before Storey was scheduled for execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay and ordered the trial court to determine whether the prosecution had knowingly misled the jury about the family’s views. After hearing testimony from nineteen witnesses, Judge Everett Young found that the prosecutor’s argument was false, that Jack had “made the argument intending it to affect the jury's verdict,” and that she “was aware of [its] falsity” when she did so. Concluding that “the false argument was reasonably likely to affect the jury's verdict,” Judge Young held that the argument violated Storey’s right to due process and that the prosecutors’ suppression of evidence relating to the Cherry family’s views violated their duty to disclose evidence favorable to the defense. The court also ruled that “[t]he false argument ... had the effect of reducing the responsibility of jurors by inviting them to acquiesce to the falsely-asserted desire of the victim's family for death,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office had argued that even if the argument had been improper, Storey had not timely raised the claim in the Texas courts. The court ruled, however, that the state had “unclean hands due to its suppression ... and false use of the evidence and had forfeited that argument. It wrote: “Because the State secreted evidence it was legally required to disclose, it cannot benefit from its wrong-doing by faulting [defense] counsel for failing to discover its own misconduct.” The case now returns to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which may accept or reject the judge’s findings and sentencing recommendation. “Basically, it is now up to the Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Keith Hampton, a member of Storey’s legal team. 

South Dakota Takes Death Penalty Off Table At Victim’s Family’s Request

At the urging of the victim’s family, Rapid City, South Dakota prosecutors have withdrawn their request for the death penalty against two murder defendants in the only capital trials pending in the state. On April 16, Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo withdrew the state’s notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Jonathon Klinetobein—charged with arranging the May 2015 murder-for-hire of his ex-girlfriend, Jessica Rehfeld—after her father, Michael Rehfeld told the court the family no longer wanted the death penalty to be imposed. On April 19, prosecutors also withdrew their notice of intent against a second defendant, Richard Hirth, the accused killer. A third defendant pleaded guilty to the murder in January in exchange for receiving a life sentence. Mr. Rehfeld said that he had been “consumed with anger” at the time the capital charges were initially sought and that he had “fully supported” that decision. However, he said, with time, he had reconsidered his position. Mr. Rehfeld said the lengthy appeal process following the imposition of a death sentence in the case would keep his daughter’s killers in the news, permitting “the guilty to become famous,” as a prolonged traumatic courtroom saga that relegated his daughter to a sidelight prevented the family from healing. He also said that the family would be unable to recover his daughter’s personal belongings—including a cellphone with the last pictures taken of her—as long as the case remained on appeal. Klinetobein and Hirth now face life without parole if convicted. Victims’ family members, concerned that the capital trial and appeals process interferes with or delays healing, are increasingly requesting that prosecutors not pursue the death penalty. A University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of victims family members reported achieving closure as a result of capital punishment, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. Another study, published in the Marquette Law Review, found that family members in homicide proceedings in which the death penalty was unavailable or had not been imposed were physically, psychologically, and emotionally more healthy and expressed greater satisfaction with the legal system than family members in death-penalty cases. Pennington County Commission Chairman Lloyd LaCroix said the decision to withdraw the death penalty would save the county money, although he was uncertain how much. In September 2017, the commissioners granted requests by the county courts and the public defender’s office for half-million-dollar increases to their 2018 budgets. The director of the public defender’s office had previously estimated that taxpayers could "reasonably expect" to pay between $500,000 and $1 million in prosecution and defense costs for the cases. Rapid City last imposed a death sentence in 1993. Charles Rhines' appeals in that case reached the U.S. Supreme Court before being sent back for additional appeals that are still in progress.

Sister of Murder Victim and Wife of Death-Row Exoneree Says Death Penalty Fails Victims’ Family Members

As the sister of a murder victim and the wife of a death-row exoneree, LaShawn Ajamu has a unique perspective on what victims’ families need and how they are treated as criminal cases wend their way through the legal process. And the co-chair of the Murder Victims Families Support Project at Ohioans to Stop Executions strongly believes that the death penalty fails victims’ family members. Ajamu, the wife of 150th U.S. death-row exoneree Kwame Ajamu, spoke in London, England on April 7 at a conference of LifeLines, an international organization that provides support for prisoners on death row in the United States. Ajamu’s brother, James Nero, was shot to death, but his accused killer—the son of a former Stark County, Ohio sheriff—claimed self-defense and was acquitted. “When the court case was over,” Ajamu said, “[t]here was no help except from our own community. My parents, my two other brothers, James’s fiancé and my nephew never received any information about resources available to help us deal with the situation in which we found ourselves. None of us had ever experienced traumatic loss like this.” Ajamu said that states need to provide “a simple guide and a list of resources that can help the loved ones of murder victims,” including trained grief counselors, assistance with funeral arrangements, and financial assistance. Frustrated at the lack of support available to her family, Ajamu became an advocate for the families of murder victims. Ajamu also advocates protecting the integrity and neutrality of government victim assistance programs by making them independent of county prosecutors, where they are housed in most states. “I’m here to tell you that if the crime victim is somehow found in disfavor, or if the victims’ family disagrees with the prosecutors’ office, their services dry up. That must be unacceptable. Victim services personnel should not be beholden to the county prosecutor.” These services, not the death penalty, are what truly help victims’ families, she said. “[E]very time they are trying to execute a prisoner, the politicians come out and say ‘We need to do this for the murder victims family.’ ‘We need executions so that the victims family can heal, or have closure.’” Instead of executions, she said, family members “want the truth about what happened, and we want the killer held accountable in a way that he can’t do it again. No amount of killing is going to bring our loved one back, and we certainly don’t want the state using our pain and suffering to justify another family losing their loved one — even if they are guilty.” The death penalty further victimizes families, she said, because the comparative infrequency with which it is sought and obtained is “really saying to most of us is that our loved ones were not valuable enough to them.” Finally, she says, her husband’s experience proves that “the state makes mistakes. ... No murder victim[’s] family wants an innocent person held accountable for the loss of their loved one. Not only does that create more victims, but it leaves the real killer free to kill again. Get rid of the death penalty and you won’t risk executing the wrong person,” she said.

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Arizona Prosecutors Drop Death Penalty in Two Cases, Citing High Costs and Lengthy Legal Process

Prosecutors in Mohave County, Arizona announced in February that they will drop the pursuit of the death penalty in two murder cases in the county. Justin Rector and Darrell Ketchner were separately charged with first-degree murder, and officials said their defense teams had already spent over $2.2 million preparing for trials that are still far from taking place. Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith said, “Everybody’s looking to save money and these death penalty cases are extremely expensive." The murders happened in 2009 and 2014, but because of the thorough investigation and preparation required to competently defend a death-penalty case, Smith said, "[t]he anticipated soonest trial date in this case will be 10 years after the events charged." Even if the defendants were sentenced to death, "there is no reasonable likelihood of the death penalty actually being imposed in a realistic and efficient timeframe given the current state of affairs surrounding persons sentenced to death," he said. Bob Allison, whose granddaughter, Ariel, was allegedly killed by Ketchner, said he approves of the prosecutor's decision, in part because his other grandchildren were being bullied as a result of publicity around the case. “We’re OK with it because we want to protect the kids,” he said. “It’s a waste of money in my opinion and the end results are going to be the same.” Between fiscal years 2010 and 2018, Mohave County has spent nearly $3.6 million on defense costs in death-penalty cases. Because no lawyers in the county public defender’s or legal defender’s office meet the state's qualifications to handle death penalty cases, the county must contract out for those services, paying lead counsel at a rate of $125 per hour and $90 an hour for second-chair counsel. In 2016, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors authorized $344,000 in county funds to cover the costs of trying Rector and Ketchner. A Mohave County Superior Court judge granted the prosecution's motion to withdraw the death penalty in Rector's case on February 20, and allowed death-penalty counsel to withdraw from representing Rector. The court granted the motion to drop the death penalty in Ketchner's case on February 14. Only one case originating in Mohave County has ever resulted in an execution.

As Support for Death Penalty Falls in Utah, New Study Again Says Life Without Parole Costs Less

An analysis by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice of the cost of capital punishment has found that cases in which prosecutors seek the death penalty are more costly than cases in which life without parole was the maximum sentence. The Commission's Death Penalty Working Group reviewed recent studies of death-penalty costs in Utah and across the country and found that, while there was disagreement about the magnitude of the cost difference, there was consensus that the death penalty was more expensive than non-capital alternatives. The two Utah studies included in the report were a 2012 analysis that estimated the death penalty added $1.6 million over the life of each case, compared to life without parole, and a 2017 study of the last 20 years that found that Utah spent about $40 million on 165 death-eligible cases, which resulted in just two death sentences. The report also reviewed recent public opinion data on the death penalty from polls administered both nationally and in Utah. Noting what it called "somewhat discrepant" results from recent Utah polls depending upon the questions respondents were asked, the report concluded "based on national data ... and consistently lower support from younger respondents in the Utah polls" that "public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs." The working group also examined Utah's aggravating circumstances, which make cases eligible for the death penalty, and the impact of the death penalty on victims' familiy members (whom it called "covictims"), but did not draw any conclusions on either. The report did note that victims in non-capital cases have a greater opportunity to be heard because their non-testimonial statements to the court are not limited by the rules of evidence that apply to testimony in capital cases. It quoted the academic literature on the impact of capital prosecutions, saying that the assumption that the death penalty provides closure is "unproven ... The process of dealing with murder and capital punishment is different for every covictim" and there is no guarantee that the death penalty will enhance recovery. While the commission did not make any policy recommendations based on its findings, Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty said the report points to the need for a reconsideration of Utah's death penalty. "This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible," said Kevin Greene, the group's director. "We have been spending tons of money without much in return and we hope lawmakers will closely examine the report and agree that the death penalty is anything but fiscally conservative."

Father Who Survived Shooting Asks Texas Not to Execute His Son

Kent Whitaker, who survived a shooting in which his wife, Tricia and younger son, Kevin were murdered, has asked the state of Texas to spare the life of his only remaining son, Thomas “Bart” Whitaker (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to death for their murders. Kent Whitaker told the Austin American-Statesman, “I have seen too much killing already. I don’t want to see him executed right there in front of my eyes," he said. The petition for clemency filed on January 10 by Bart Whitaker's lawyers asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend commuting his death sentence to life without parole, saying the execution—scheduled for February 22—will “permanently compound” Kent Whitaker's suffering and grief. The petition asks the Board: “Is killing Thomas Whitaker more important than sparing Kent Whitaker?” Texas prosecutors have argued that Bart Whitaker arranged with an acquaintance in 2003 to murder his family as part of a plot to collect a $1 million inheritance. Bart's father, however, believes "[i]t was never about the money. ... The prosecution always way overexaggerated my wealth because that played into their arguments,” he said. Instead, he believes his son had been suffering from unrecognized mental-health issues at the time of the murders. The clemency petition is supported by more than 60 letters from family members, friends, teachers and counselors, religious leaders, and fellow death-row prisoners. Fort Bend county District Attorney John Healy mocked the letters as coming from "a noble group of supporters." In an emotional op-ed published on January 18 in the Houston Chronicle, Kent Whitaker defended his son's supporters, saying it "is a noble group: people who knew Bart and have seen him grow and change." The clemency petition, Kent Whitaker wrote, "tries to correct the district attorney's over reach in pursuing the death penalty and how it will once again hurt all of the victims. For 18 months pre-trial, every victim—my wife's entire family, me and all of my family—actually begged the district attorney to accept two life sentences and spare us the horror of a trial and an eventual execution. But we were ignored.” Kent Whitaker writes that the clemency petition "is asking the board to acknowledge that Texas is a victim's rights state, even when the victim asks for mercy.” He says that he knows his late wife and son would not want Bart, who he says has matured and bettered himself while in prison, to be executed. Kent told the American-Statesman that he did not want to see the execution, "[b]ut I can’t imagine letting him be in the room by himself without anyone there with him. ... As he goes to sleep, I want him to be able to look at me and see that I love him.” he said. The man who carried out the killings received a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder. The getaway driver, who also could have faced the death penalty under Texas law, was permitted to plead to a 15-year prison term in exchange for testifying against Whitaker.

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