New Voices

Fox Commentator: Oklahoma “Frontier Justice” Has Produced “Wretched Record” of Wrongful Capital Convictions

Calling Oklahoma “the notorious home of ‘Hang ’Em High’ executions,” conservative commentator and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin (pictured) has urged the state to adopt sytemic reforms to address its “wretched record on wrongful convictions.” Malkin says that despite 35 exonerations in the last 25 years—including 7 death-row exonerations—and a “reign of prosecutorial terror and forensic error by the late Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy and rogue Oklahoma City police department crime lab analyst Joyce Gilchrist,” the state has failed to create a forensic science commission to investigates errors and professional misconduct by crime labs and forensic analysts and “not a single Oklahoma district attorney’s office has established an official mechanism to review tainted convictions.” In an August 8, 2018 commentary for the Creators Syndicate, Malkin warns that “‘Frontier justice’ costs too many citizens of all races, creeds, and backgrounds their freedom and their lives.” She says, “In the old days of the Wild West, vigilantes worked outside the judicial system to punish rivals regardless of their guilt or innocence. Today, outlaws operate inside the bureaucracy to secure criminal convictions at all costs.” In her commentary, Malkin highlights the death-penalty exonerations of Curtis McCarty and Robert Lee Miller, Jr., and current appeals attempting to free death-row prisoner Julius Jones. Notorious former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy withheld evidence from McCarty’s attorneys, and crime lab analyst Joyce Gilchrist, implicated in at least 11 wrongful convictions, falsified and destroyed forensic evidence. Gilchrist’s false testimony in the case included claims that hairs found at the crime scene matched McCarty’s and that his blood type matched the semen found on the victim’s body. They didn’t. Miller’s case was also tainted by bad forensics and a coerced false confession. Malkin points to the case of Julius Jones—recently featured in the documentary series The Last Defense—as emblematic of some of the ongoing problems in Oklahoma cases. Jones, who is seeking appellate review of evidence that supports his innocence claims, filed motions for discovery and a request for an evidentiary hearing in December 2017. Under instructions of a court clerk, they placed supporting evidence in a sealed envelope labeled “protected material.” That crucial evidence was not presented to the court and disappeared for six months until Jones’ investigator was able to uncover them herself in the clerk’s office. The court initially rejected Jones’ appeal, but will now reconsider, due to the clerk’s “mismanagement of the exhibits.” Another Oklahoma County death-row prisoner, Richard Glossip, was convicted and sentenced to death based on solely on the testimony of a 19-year-old who confessed to the murder and then implicated Glossip in exchange for a reduced sentence. No physical evidence linked Glossip to the crime, the teen gave investigators multiple contradictory descriptions of the murder before adopting police suggestions that Glossip was involved, and two witnesses who have come forward with evidence of Glossip’s innocence say they have been subjected to retaliation and intimidation by prosecutors. Oklahoma, Malkin says, “stands out for its decades of trampling due process, subverting public disclosure, perpetuating forensic junk science, manufacturing false accusations and enabling official misconduct.” She says that, given the state’s record and its recent “chilling” history of “horrific botched executions,” permitting the state to resume executions poses a “human rights crisis.” Silence in the face of that crisis, she says, “is complicity.”

In First Post-Ferguson Election for St. Louis County Prosecutor, Death-Penalty Opponent Unseats Long-Time Incumbent

In an election viewed as a referendum on racial justice and criminal justice reform, death-penalty opponent Wesley Bell (pictured, left) soundly defeated seven-term incumbent, Robert McCulloch (pictured, right) for the Democratic nomination for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney. With no Republican opposition in the general election, Bell, a Ferguson, Missouri, city council member, is expected to become the county's first African-American chief prosecutor. The election was the first time McCulloch—who had a substantially larger campaign purse and was heavily favored to win—had faced the voters since the Ferguson protests and his failure to indict a white police officer for the murder of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Bell, a former public defender and prosecutor who called for ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses, ending mass incarceration, and eliminating use of the death penalty, was endorsed by numerous activist organizations promoting criminal justice reform, including Democracy for America, The Color of Change, and The Real Justice PAC. Surprising the political establishment, Bell won easily, receiving 57% of the vote. McCullouch—the county's Prosecuting Attorney since 1991—was known as a highly aggressive prosecutor with close ties to the police and who disproportionately sought death sentences. Community activists and civil rights groups were galvanized in opposition to McCulloch after he failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson for Brown's murder, prosecuted Ferguson protesters, and advocated for the execution of death-row prisoner Marcellus Williams despite DNA evidence revealing that another man's DNA—and not Williams'—was on the murder weapon. A July 2015 study found that the county's death-penalty practices contributed significantly to stark racial and geographic disparities in the application of capital punishment in Missouri. The study found that a person convicted of homicide in St. Louis County is three times more likely to be executed than if he or she were convicted elsewhere in the state and 13 times more likely to be executed than a person convicted in neighboring St. Louis City. Courts also have repeatedly found that the county's prosecutors discriminatorily struck African Americans from jury service because of their race. St. Louis County ranks among the 2% of U.S. counties that have produced a majority of all death sentences in the U.S. since the 1970s, and it has executed more prisoners than all but eight other counties in the country during that period. Bell's campaign website says "capital punishment is expensive, ineffective at deterrence, and is also racially biased. ... [D]ecades of data and information determine that Capital Punishment is not a deterrent for violent crime. Exercising his discretion as Prosecuting Attorney, [Bell] will never seek the death sentence."

New Conservative Voices Criticize Death Penalty as an 'Inept, Biased and Corrupt' Big Government Policy

Calling the death penalty a wasteful "big government" policy that is "inept, biased, and corrupt," a libertarian think tank and a New Orleans columnist have joined the chorus of conservative voices calling for the end of the death penalty. In Conservative doesn't mean supporting death penalty, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Tim Morris (pictured) argues that being a conservative requires neither "an unyielding fealty to a party or person [or] simply finding the polar opposite of some liberal position," and that while he believes that "capital punishment can be morally justified," "our government has proven to be ... inept, biased and corrupt in carrying out that responsibility." Likewise, in a July 22, 2018 commentary, If You Hate Big Government, You Should Oppose the Death Penalty, published on the Foundation for Economic Education website, Patrick Hauf writes that "[f]rom fiscal irresponsibility to wrongful convictions to botched executions, the death penalty is merely another wasteful government effort." Hauf, too, criticizes what he sees as reflexive support for the death penalty among some conservatives. While many "pride themselves on their unapologetic use of the death penalty, its enactment," Hauf says, "like most government programs, is both inefficient and ineffective." Morris, whom the newspaper describes as an “independent thinker with a Christian worldview and a journalist’s sense of skepticism,” dismisses the notion that all conservatives must support the death penalty. As evidence that government cannot properly administer capital punishment, he says "too many innocent people are being sentenced to death" and notes that 82 percent of death-row cases in Louisiana from 1975-2015 ended with the conviction or sentence being reversed. In another op-ed, he cites findings from a University of North Carolina study that a black male in Louisiana is 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim was a white female than when the victim was a black male. After detailing the reasons conservative political strategist Richard Viguerie and Pulitzer prize winning conservative columnist George Will also oppose capital punishment, Morris sums up: “the death penalty is arbitrary, racially discriminatory, and doesn't deter crime. I don't see anything conservative about supporting an inept, biased, corrupt system." Hauf also tauts growing Republican resistance to the death penalty, citing a 2017 report by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty that highlighted a dramatic rise in Republican sponsorship of bills to abolish capital punishment and the results of a Gallup poll that reported 10-percentage-point decrease in support for the death penalty among conservatives in 2017. He notes the ideological inconsistency between principled conservatism and the death penalty, saying capital punishment is "one issue where conservatives often give far too much power to the government." He writes, "many Republicans allow their 'tough on crime' mentality to overrule limited government ideals and innate skepticism of state overreach. This contradiction within the Republican platform, although rarely acknowledged, exposes a weakness in the party’s ideology. If Republicans pride themselves on their limited government philosophy, then why would they grant the government control over life and death?" There is, he concludes, "nothing 'small government' about capital punishment. ... It’s time for Republicans to kill capital punishment off for good." 

Kentucky Legislature Conducts Hearing on the Commonwealth's Death Penalty

A joint committee of the Kentucky legislature conducted a hearing on July 6, 2018 on the Commonwealth's rarely used death penalty, including a presentation by supporters and opponents of a bill to abolish capital punishment. The General Assembly's Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary took testimony from prosecutors, defense attorneys, correctional officials, and legislators on issues ranging from costs and arbitrariness to the length of the appeal process. Though Kentucky currently has 31 prisoners on death row, and prosecutors across the Commonwealth have filed 52 notices of intent to seek a death sentence, only three people have been executed since 1976. The last execution took place in 2008, and only one death sentence has been imposed in the last five years. Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville), one of the sponsors of a House bill to abolish the death penalty, told the committee, "Kentucky should get out of the business of killing its citizens – period." Criticizing capital punishment based on his pro-life and small government views, Nemes noted that more than 150 people have been exonerated since the 1970s after having been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S., and 49 out of the 97 death sentences imposed in Kentucky have already been overturned. "We don’t believe the government can adequately fill potholes," Nemes said. "And if we don’t believe the government can do that perfectly, then why should we give it the power to do that which is irreversible?" Senate Minority Leader Ray S. Jones (D-Pikeville) said that infrequent executions erode whatever deterrent effect the death penalty might have. Instead, he said, the death penalty creates a "false hope of closure." Rep. John Blanton (R-Salyersville), a retired Kentucky State Police officer and an execution proponent, responded, “[t]he problem is not the death sentence, the problem is the length of time we allow these people to look for everything under the sun." "Let's speed up the process," he said. The Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy estimates the cost of the death penalty to Kentucky taxpayers at about $10 million per year. Executions have been on hold in the Commonwealth since 2010, when a state judge placed an injuction halting all executions while courts reviewed the lethal injection protocol. Andrew English, general counsel for the Justice Cabinet, said the Department of Corrections has attempted to "rewrite the regulations to achieve conformity with the court rulings," but that "[t]here’s an ever-evolving change in the landscape when it comes to federal and state courts, with the death penalty." Kentucky, like other states, has encountered problems with determining what drugs are appropriate and available for use in executions.

Death-Penalty Juror Describes “Anguish” of Imposing a Death Sentence

Lindy Isonhood (click to enlarge picture) served on the Mississippi jury that sentenced Bobby Wilcher to death in 1994. In a commentary published on Medium, she writes that the decision to condemn Wilcher "continue[s] to haunt me today." Isonhood—whose experience as a death-penalty juror is the subject of a new documentary film, Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2—explains how little she and her fellow jurors knew about the death-penalty system when they were tasked with determining Wilcher's fate. They were unaware of the rarity of death sentences, the lack of adequate counsel, and changing public attitudes toward capital punishment. She describes feeling "guilt and complicity" for her role in Wilcher's execution. "Judges, lawyers, prison guards, families of the victims and families of the condemned — along with ordinary jurors like myself — are swept into a world where judgments of death are handed down, but everyone else is expected to emerge untouched," she wrote. The one-hour film, which will premiere on PBS on July 16, 2018, follows Isonhood's journey to visit other jurors from the case and discuss their experiences. Isonhood met with Wilcher before his execution, and said, "I saw him as a fellow human being, flawed but caring, even towards me." She concludes, "If I was called to serve on Bobby Wilcher’s jury today, I could not sentence him to death. I say this not because of what I learned about him before his execution, but because of what handing down a death sentence can do to people like me. I no longer feel as guilty about my decision in Bobby’s case, but I wish I could have foreseen how it would affect me and my loved ones for the rest of my life."

Retired Warden, Former Judge and Prosecutor Urge Ohio to Grant Clemency to Raymond Tibbetts

The Ohio Parole Board held a hearing on June 14, 2018 to consider clemency for death-row prisoner Raymond Tibbetts, whose February 13 execution was halted by Governor John Kasich to consider a juror's request that Tibbets be spared. Ross Geiger, one of the twelve jurors who sentenced Tibbetts to death in 1997, wrote to Governor Kasich on January 30 expressing “deep concerns” about a “very flawed” trial and saying he “would not have recommended the death penalty” had the jury been provided complete information about Tibbetts’ upbringing. Tibbetts’ clemency application has been buoyed by the support of two criminal justice experts, Judge James A. Brogan (pictured), a former prosecutor and past chief justice of the Ohio Courts of Appeals Judges Association who chaired the Ohio Supreme Court's Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, and George D. Alexander, a former Ohio prison warden and prison chaplain. Geiger wrote that the jury had voted for death after the prosecution had led them to believe that Tibbetts and his siblings had lived normal lives and his siblings ”had turned out fine.” He later learned that Tibbetts’ trial lawyer had failed to present evidence that Tibbetts had been abandoned at age 2, then abused and malnourished in foster care, and that “of Mr. Tibbetts’ four siblings, one committed suicide, one also spent time in prison, one is essentially homeless and unemployed, and only his sister is now doing well, despite having had a very turbulent younger life.” In a guest column in the Columbus Dispatch, Judge Brogan lauded Governor John Kasich’s decision in February to grant Tibbetts a reprieve so that Geiger could present his case to spare Tibbetts to the parole board. Brogan noted that the vote of just one juror is enough to prevent the imposition of a death sentence. “Fundamental flaws in the trial process deprived the jury of key facts that would have prevented this juror from voting in favor of death,” he wrote. “These truly extraordinary circumstances cry out for a clemency recommendation rather than an execution.” Alexander, the former prison warden and chaplain, added that Tibbetts has shown remarkable rehabilitation during his time in prison. “By all accounts, by the grace of God, Tibbetts has experienced a radical transformation,” Alexander wrote in a commentary published in the Akron Beacon-Journal. “He is no longer the troubled criminal, addicted to drugs and alcohol, as he was when he entered death row 20 years ago. He is remorseful, reflective and reformed.” The parole board will make a recommendation for or against clemency, but the ultimate decision rests with Governor Kasich. [UPDATE: On June 22, the Ohio parole board recommended that Governor Kasich deny clemency to Mr. Tibbetts.]

Georgia Supreme Court Hears First Death-Penalty Appeal in Two Years Amidst Sharp Decline in Death Sentences

In the midst of a sharp decline in death sentences in the state, the Georgia Supreme Court on June 4 heard a direct appeal in a capital case for the first time in two years. In March 2018, Georgia reached the four-year mark since it had last imposed a death sentence, a dramatic change for a state that once handed down 15 death sentences in a single year. The decline in Georgia's death penalty exemplifies broader national death-penalty trends. In 1987, when Georgia handed down those 15 death sentences, 288 people were sentenced to death across the country. Thirty years later, in 2017, Georgia was completing its third consecutive calendar year with no death sentences, and the national total was just 39. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, credits the public's preference for life without parole (LWOP) sentences, saying the availability of LWOP has made a "huge difference." "[W]hen you sit down with victims’ families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives," he said. Other prosecutors have found that the reluctance of juries to impose death sentences has made them less likely to seek death. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter called it "a self-fulfilling prophesy," noting, "As more and more juries give fewer death sentences, prosecutors begin to think it’s not worth the effort." The Georgia capital defender office's early intervention program has also reduced the number of death sentences by presenting prosecutors with reasons to decapitalize a case and reaching plea deals before a trial begins. Jerry Word, who leads that office, said, "The average time to resolve a case in early intervention has been less than eight months. The average time to get a case to trial is over three years. This results in a saving in court time and dollar savings to the state and county." Although prosecutors are seeking and juries imposing fewer and fewer death sentences, Georgia has continued to carry out controversial executions of defendants who likely would not be sentenced to death today. These include the December 2015 and March 2018 executions of Brian Keith Terrell and Carlton Gary, despite evidence that they may have been innocent; the May 2018 execution of Robert Earl Butts, Jr., although no Georgia jury has sentenced any defendant to death in the past decade in a case like his that involved a single victim and only one aggravating circumstance; executions of several men whose equally or more culpable co-defendants received lesser sentences; and prisoners who were intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled against Georgia in three capital cases since 2016, Foster v. Chatman, involving race discrimination in jury selection; Tharpe v. Sellers, involving a juror who said he doubted whether black people had souls; and Wilson v. Sellers, which presented a procedural habeas corpus issue.

Voters in Durham, North Carolina Expand Reach of National Reform Movement, Elect Anti-Death Penalty Prosecutor

Voters in North Carolina added their voices to an expanding movement for local criminal justice reform, ousting sheriffs who closely cooperated with federal authorities seeking to detain and deport immigrants and nominating reform candidates in local district attorney races. In Durham County, considered the state's most progressive county, voters in the Democratic primary opted for a candidate who advocated more rapid reform and said she would never pursue the death penalty, replacing incumbent Roger Echols with former defense attorney, Satana Deberry (pictured). With no Republican challenger in the Fall, the nomination virtually assures that Deberry will be elected district attorney. Durham County voters also unseated incumbent Sheriff Mike Andrews, who had honored constitutionally problematic immigration detainers, in favor of former Duke University police chief Clarence Birkhead, who vowed "to not cooperate with ICE." In an historic primary election in Mecklenburg County, Democratic voters ensured for the first time ever that African Americans would be elected to the offices of sheriff and district attorney in the county. Thirty-year Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department veteran Garry McFadden said he would end incumbent sheriff Irwin Carmichael's controversial immigrant dentention policies and interim District Attorney Spencer Merriweather called his election "a beginning in the process of building trust in our criminal justice system." Neither of the candidates face opposition in the general election. During the Durham district attorney's campaign, Echols and Deberry both said they would work to reform policies that have contributed to over-incarceration, but Deberry challenged the pace at which Echols pursued reform and called for a "culture change" in the DA's office. The candidates' views on capital punishment typified their different approaches to reform. In responses to a candidate questionnaire from the Durham's People's Alliance Political Action Committee, Echols said he was "not a proponent of the death penalty" and favored its abolition, but "recognized[d] that it is allowable under the law" and should be considered "at most ... [on] rare occasions." By contrast, Deberry's questionnaire response was unequivocal: "I am morally, ethically, theologically, and in all other ways opposed to the death penalty [and] ... as District Attorney, I would not seek the death penalty in any case in Durham County." Deberry wrote that capital punishment "is irrevocably flawed and does not provide justice to victims nor society. I believe it suffers from racial and socioeconomic bias and there is no way to ensure that it is being ethically applied." She called the death penalty "a human rights violation" and said it "should be abolished." Deberry is one of a growing number of prosecutors, such as Denver's Beth McCann and Philadelphia's Larry Krasner, who have announced they will not use the death penalty. In another closely watched local election that is considered a bell-weather for the strength of reform efforts, San Diego district attorney challenger Geneviéve Jones-Wright recently committed to exercise her prosecutorial discretion to decline to seek the death penalty. "Although the death penalty is still legal in California, it is not mandatory that a District Attorney imposes it," she responded to an ACLU-sponsored California District Attorney candidate questionnaire. "The death penalty is discriminatory, costly, and ineffective as a deterrent. I am morally opposed to it," Jones-Wright said. Jones-Wright, whose campaign is supported by the progressive REAL Justice PAC and by philanthropist George Soros' California Justice & Public Safety PAC, is attempting to unseat incumbent interim DA Summer Stephan, whose campaign is backed by a PAC sponsored by the California deputy district attorney’s association. Stephan did not respond to the questionnaire.

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