California

California

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.

California Justices Criticize “Dysfunctional” Death Penalty as Poll Shows Public Overwhelmingly Prefers Life Sentence

Within two weeks of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he was halting executions in the state, the decision to issue the moratorium has been bolstered from two unrelated and independent sources. A statewide poll underway at the time of Newson’s moratorium announcement and released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) on March 27, 2019 found that by a record 2:1 margin, Californians preferred life without possibility of parole over the death penalty as the punishment for first-degree murder. Then on March 28, in the first post-moratorium death-penalty decision issued by the California Supreme Court, two justices sharply criticized the state’s death-penalty system as “dysfunctional,” “expensive,” and unworkable.  

PPIC had just started its annual multi-topic poll on Californians and their government when Governor Newsom announced the moratorium on executions, and the Policy Institute added a question about the death penalty to the poll. PPIC found that, among all adults, 62% said life in prison with no possibility of parole (LWOP) should be the punishment for those who commit first-degree murder, while 31% preferred the death penalty. Among likely voters, 58% preferred LWOP versus 38% who favored the death penalty. Over the last 19 years, the percentage of Californians who prefer LWOP has risen from 47% to this year’s record high, while support for the death penalty has fallen from 49% to this year’s record low. Democrats (76%-21%) and Independents (56%-36%) overwhelmingly preferred LWOP, while Republicans preferred the death penalty by 64%-32%. In the 2016 election, California voters defeated a referendum to abolish capital punishment and narrowly passed Proposition 66, a referendum that claimed it would speed up executions. “This is a case where public opinion continues to shift, and shift support away from the death penalty,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The campaigns in 2012 and 2016 were very effective in bringing up examples of horrible crimes that were committed, and it raised questions in people’s minds about whether they were prepared to make that decision. Voters are always more willing to vote ‘no’ than ‘yes,’” he said.

In People v. Potts, the first death-penalty opinion released since Gov. Newsom’s announcement, two justices on the California Supreme Court issued a scathing rebuke to California’s death-penalty system. Justice Goodwin Liu, joined by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, agreed with the court that, under the law, Thomas Potts’ death sentence should be upheld, but criticized the state’s death penalty as “an expensive and dysfunctional system that does not deliver justice or closure in a timely manner, if at all.” Liu wrote: “A death sentence in California has only a remote possibility of ever being carried out. As leaders of the judiciary have long observed, the death penalty presents serious challenges for the fair and efficient administration of justice. For decades, those challenges have not been meaningfully addressed.” The Potts case, the justices said, demonstrates the futility of California’s death penalty. Potts was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. “Now, 21 years later, we affirm the judgment on direct appeal, but there is more litigation to come in the form of habeas corpus petitions in state and federal courts. This timeline is typical of our capital cases.” The justices called Proposition 66 an unworkable proposal that “promised more than the system can deliver.”  

Researcher—Capital Sentencing Evidence Shows Death Penalty Race Bias is Real

For decades, studies have shown persistent racial disparities in the administration of capital punishment. Saying “death sentences are unevenly and unfairly applied based on race,” California Governor Gavin Newsom on March 13, 2019 imposed a moratorium on executions in the state with the nation’s largest death row. Responding to the governor’s moratorium In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt—one of the leading researchers on social science and race—says race discrimination in the death penalty “is real” and that the research supports the governor’s claim. “In a state that is only 6% black, more than one-third of defendants sentenced to death in California are black,” Eberhardt said. California, like other death-penalty states, also shows evidence of bias in favor of white victims. Defendants who kill white victims are much more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill black victims.

“But the truth is more complicated, and more insidious, than a simple black/white divide,” Eberhardt explains. Her groundbreaking 2006 study of two decades of death sentences in Philadelphia found bias operating at the subconscious level based upon an African American’s physical appearance. “When black men are judged by juries in capital cases, their sentences can hinge on just how black they are perceived to be,” Eberhardt writes. “Those with darker skin, wider noses and thicker lips are subject to far harsher sentencing than lighter-skinned blacks with less prominent, so-called black features.” In the study period between 1979 and 1999, black defendants with stereotypically African features were much more likely to be sentenced to death than black defendants with less stereotypical features (see image), but only if the victim was white. In the study of Philadelphia capital convictions, “Of the men rated low in stereotypical features, only 24% had been sentenced to death. But more than 57% of the “highly stereotypical” black defendants were sentenced to die for their crimes.” “Those strong distinctions signal that our perspectives, our criminal justice process and our institutions are influenced by primitive racial narratives that link people of African descent to darkness and evil,” she says.

Eberhardt’s op-ed describes how racial bias has become ingrained in the criminal justice system. “Research has shown that highlighting racial differences in the justice system actually leads members of the broader public to be more supportive of punitive policies, including the death penalty. When the implicit narrative of black ‘wickedness’ is not challenged, it can seem to perfectly explain the disparities in outcomes,” she says. In addition, unlike any other equal protection challenge under the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in McCleskey v. Kemp barred defendants from using statistical evidence as circumstantial evidence of racial bias, instead requiring proof of “particularized discrimination” — that is, direct evidence of intentional discrimination in their case. “The ruling came under heavy criticism from legal scholars and civil rights activists, concerned that it made institutional racial bias constitutional, and simply part of the status quo,” Eberhardt writes, and was the one ruling Justice Lewis Powell, the author of the 5-4 decision, said he regretted in his time on the Court.

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.”

He’s on California’s Death Row, But Demetrius Howard Never Killed Anyone

A February 4, 2019 article in the criminal justice newsletter, The Appeal, features the case of Demetrius Howard, a California prisoner sentenced to death for a crime in which he didn’t kill anyone. Howard was sentenced to death in 1995 for his participation in a robbery in which another man, Mitchell Funches, shot and killed Sherry Collins. Howard was never accused of firing a shot and he has consistently maintained that he neither expected nor intended that anyone would be killed. But under California’s felony murder law, he was eligible for the death penalty because he participated in the robbery. In a letter to The Appeal, Howard wrote, “I am no saint or some angel. I’ve made my share of wrongs, but I haven’t killed no one [or] told anyone to kill someone.”

California is one of twenty states that allow the execution of defendants who neither killed nor intended that a killing take place. The controversial practice has attracted the most attention in the state of Texas, where at least six prisoners have been executed despite undisputed evidence that they were not involved in the killing itself. In Howard’s case, the man who actually shot Collins, Mitchell Funches, received a sentence of life without parole when the jury in his trial could not reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence him to life or death. In 2018, California passed a law that narrowed the scope of the felony murder law, making defendants liable for murder only if they were the killer, solicited the killer, or acted with reckless indifference to human life. The change is retroactive, but does not apply to Howard because the jury found that he had “acted with reckless indifference to human life” before it sentenced him to death.

Howard’s death sentence is also a by-product of outlier death-penalty practices in San Bernardino County. San Bernardino is one of five Southern California counties that imposed more death sentences between 2010 and 2015 than 99.5% of U.S. counties, earning the region the nickname “the new death belt.” In 1993, shortly before Howard was sentenced to death, there were 10 active capital trials in the county, and then-District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier said he was considering seeking it in two other cases. At the time, Kottmeier told the San Bernardino County Sun, “That’s higher than I’ve ever seen it. At any given time in the past the number pending seemed to be about six.” He attributed the high number of capital cases to a high rate of violent crime, as well as state laws passed in 1990 and 1993 that expanded the list of death-eligible crimes. The California Attorney General’s 2017 report, Homicide in California, shows that despite its disproportionate pursuit of capital punishment, San Bernardino’s higher-than-average murder rate has remained the same from 1997 to 2017, while murder rates have declined statewide and in many of California counties during that period.

Record Lows Set Across the U.S. For Death Sentences Imposed in 2018

2018 was a record-low year for death-penalty usage in the United States, as nineteen death-penalty states set or matched records for the fewest new death sentences imposed in the modern history of U.S. capital punishment. (Click on map to enlarge.) Thirty-six U.S. states—including seventeen that authorized capital punishment in 2018—did not impose any death sentences in 2018, while California and Pennsylvania, which collectively account for nearly one-third of the nation’s death-row population, imposed record lows. Every western state except Arizona set or tied a record low, and Arizona, which imposed two new death sentences, was just one above its record low. Several southern states that were once among the heaviest users of capital punishment have now gone years without imposing any new death sentences.

For the first time in its modern history, North Carolina has gone two consecutive years without a death sentence, and it has imposed one new death sentence in the past four years. Only three capital trials took place in the state in 2018, and jurors rejected the death penalty in each. Gretchen Engel, executive director of North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said, "Jurors are turning away from the death penalty and, in response to less favorable jury pools, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty less. And so, this trend away from the death penalty is really being led by citizens who've been summoned for jury duty." In Wake County (Raleigh), one of the 2% of U.S. counties that was responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners as of 2013, the last nine capital trials—including one in 2018—have resulted in life sentences. According to the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services, taxpayers would have saved $2.4 million if prosecutors had not sought the death penalty in those cases. For the seventh consecutive year, Virginia did not sentence anyone to death in 2018. Though second only to Texas in the number of executions, Virginia has seen a dramatic decline in death sentences since establishing regional capital defender offices to provide quality representation to capital defendants. Georgia and South Carolina each marked four years with no new death sentences, a change that can also be attributed, at least in part, to improved representation.

Two of the states with the nation’s largest death rows, California and Pennsylvania, had historically low numbers of death sentences in 2018. California imposed only five death sentences, its fewest since reinstating the death penalty in 1978 and 38 fewer than its peak of 43 in 1999. Pennsylvania imposed a single death sentence for only the second time in the modern era. The previous year in which only one sentence was imposed was 2016. Neither state has carried out an execution in more than a decade, but California has the largest death row in the U.S., with 740 prisoners, and Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest, with 160.

Six Ex-Governors Urge Gov. Jerry Brown to Clear California’s Death Row

Six former governors have urged California Governor Jerry Brown (pictured) to “be courageous in leadership” and grant clemency to the 740 men and women on California’s death row before he leaves office on January 7, 2019. In a December 13 op-ed in the New York Times, the former governors—Ohio’s Richard Celeste, Oregon’s John Kitzhaber, Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, New Mexico’s Bill Richardson and Toney Anaya, and Illinois’s Pat Quinn—wrote that “Mr. Brown has the power to commute the sentences of 740 men and women, to save 740 lives... Such an act will take political will and moral clarity, both of which Mr. Brown has demonstrated in the past. In the interest of his legacy, the people of California need his leadership one more time before he leaves office.”

The governors called signing a death warrant “a terrible responsibility, hard even to imagine until you’re asked to carry it out, as we were. But we became convinced that it wasn’t something a civilized society should ask of its leaders. That’s why we halted executions in our states, and we call on Gov. Jerry Brown of California to do the same.” Each of the former governors granted clemency to at least one death-row prisoner during their tenures in office, and Anaya, O’Malley, and Quinn commuted the death sentences of all the prisoners on their states’ death rows. The ex-governors said, “we know it must weigh on Mr. Brown that, unless he acts soon, he will leave behind 740 men and women on California’s death row. It’s a staggering number and our hearts go out to him. From a humanitarian perspective, it is horrifying to imagine executing that many humans. As a practical matter, it’s beyond comprehension. ... If the state were to execute a single person every day, people would still be waiting on death row after two years.”

In late November, three former Ohio governors, Richard Celeste, Bob Taft, and Ted Strickland gave a joint interview to the Columbus Dispatch in which each told the paper that the toughest burden he had to bear as governor was deciding whether a condemned prisoner should live or die. Celeste commuted the death sentences of eight prisoners—four men and all four women on the state’s death row—towards the close of his second term. Although no one was executed during his eight years in office, Celeste said, “[a]s I look back on it, if I had really ... been bold, I would have ... just sa[id], ‘I’m going to commute them all to life [sentences], without the benefit of parole.’” Strickland said his biggest regret was not stopping executions in his state. “I wish I had done what my friend Jay Inslee, who’s the governor of Washington state, did when he became governor. He just said, ‘There will be no executions as long as I’m the governor of the state of Washington.’ And I wish I had had the courage to make that decision.” Strickland granted clemency five times, but allowed 17 executions to go forward. “I’m just convinced as long as we have the death penalty, innocent people are going to lose their lives .... [O]ur judicial system has serious problems that need attention,” he said.

In their New York Times op-ed, the six former governors wrote: “The achievement of high office demands that one be courageous in leadership. Mr. Brown now has the chance to do what others in our ranks have done after they became aware of the price paid for taking a human life. We were compelled to act because we have come to believe the death penalty is an expensive, error-prone and racist system, and also because our morality and our sense of decency demanded it.” Brown, they said, should commute California's entire death row or “declare a moratorium on the death penalty and give Governor-elect Gavin Newsom the time he will need to figure out how to end a system broken beyond repair.” At an international conference on the death penalty at the Italian Parliament in November, the Community of Sant’ Egidio—a Catholic group with close connections to Pope Francis—and representatives of 25 countries, including the justice ministers of South Africa, Benin, Zimbabwe and Malaysia also called upon Brown to commute all death sentences in the state before leaving office.

Following Washington Death Penalty Abolition, Op-eds Encourage Other States to Follow Suit

Following the Washington Supreme Court's October 11, 2018 decision declaring the state's death penalty unconstitutional, news outlets have questioned what comes next. Op-ed writers in North Carolina, Texas, and California have responded, urging their states to reconsider their capital punishment laws. The Washington court cited racial bias, "arbitrary decision-making, random imposition of the death penalty, unreliability, geographic rarity, and excessive delays" as reasons why it struck down the death penalty. In a guest column in the Sacramento Bee, University of California Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote, "California’s death penalty suffers the same flaws and likewise should be struck down." Similarly, Kristin Collins, Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, wrote in a commentary for the North Carolina blog, The Progressive Pulse, "[i]f those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go." Writing in the Austin American-Statesman, University of Texas sociology professor William R. Kelly observed: "In light of the ever-present potential for error and bias, the absence of a deterrent effect and the extraordinary cost to prosecute, appeal and execute someone, we are left with the basic question: Is the death penalty worth it? It’s a question more states ought to ask."

Collins and Chemerinsky pointed to systemic problems in their respective states that they say provide reasons to repeal the death penalty or declare their capital punishment statutes unconstitutional. Collins said a September 2018 study by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation revealed that "most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials." "Had they been tried under modern laws," she wrote, "most wouldn’t be on death row today." Chemerinsky highlighted the lengthy delays in California's death-penalty system and the large body of evidence showing that the state's death penalty is discriminatorily applied. Quoting federal Judge Cormac Carney's summary of the state of California's death row, he wrote: "Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death." These types of problems "and the fact that the death penalty is extraordinarily expensive and does not do much to deter violent crime," Professor Kelly wrote, "may help propel other states to abolish it."

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