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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."

New Podcast: Columnist Nicholas Kristof on "The Framing of Kevin Cooper"

In his May 20 column in the Sunday New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Nicholas Kristof (pictured, left) focused national attention on the troubling case of California death-row prisoner, Kevin Cooper (pictured, right) and the disturbing evidence suggesting that San Bernardino police planted blood and other evidence to frame him for murder. Kristof joined DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham for a Discussions with DPIC podcast to talk about his recent column, Was Kevin Cooper Framed for Murder?, and how police came to focus on a 155-pound Black man as the sole suspect in a grizzly quadruple murder, despite physical and eyewitness evidence pointing to three white men, including one already convicted murderer, as the perpetrators. Kristof explained how an opinion by a federal judge led him to write about the case: "What really struck me about [Cooper's case] was that you had a number of federal judges who not only argued that there was doubt about his innocence, but simply argued that, look, he is innocent, he is framed by the sheriff's office. And one very well respected Ninth Circuit judge, William Fletcher, came out and said he is framed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office, and wrote a hundred-page judicial opinion about that, and that just doesn't happen in the law." He says that his piece on Cooper, the longest column in New York Times history, was also inspired by his own failure, and that of the news media at large, to adequately cover the possible innocence of Texas prisoner Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004. Willingham's case garnered a great deal of media attention only after he was executed. "I think Kevin Cooper is innocent," Kristof said, and "I want to write while there's still time to affect the outcome." As he does in his column, Kristof describes the rampant irregularities in Cooper's case that led him to conclude that Cooper had been framed, but he also talks in the podcast about the broader systemic problems that lead to wrongful convictions, especially in cases involving defendants of color. Kristof pointed to the lack of accountability for official misconduct as one of most important systemic issues. "There have to be consequences for police or prosecutors when they engage in this kind of misconduct," he said. "Too often, there are no consequences. We understand that there have to be consequences for bank robbery or murder, but there also have to be consequences for police officers who perjure themselves or sheriff's deputies who plant evidence." Finally, he explains how Cooper's case is emblematic of other problems: "The reason I wrote about the Cooper case is not just because of the injustice, I believe, to one man, but more broadly, because it's a window into the way the criminal justice system is periodically just plain broken, especially with regard to defendants of color or indigent defendants in really sensational cases. Sometimes the system works and sometimes it doesn't, but it shouldn't be a game of lottery when people are arrested and charged with capital offenses."

New York Times Columnist Says Kevin Cooper May Have Been Framed, Urges DNA Testing That Could Prove His Innocence

Citing extensive evidence that California death-row prisoner Kevin Cooper (pictured) may have been framed, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof has urged Governor Jerry Brown to permit advanced DNA testing of evidence that could potentially prove Cooper's innocence. In a column electronically posted by the Times on May 17, 2018 and scheduled to appear in the paper's May 20 Sunday print edition, Kristof joins a former FBI agent, the American Bar Association, and Judge William A. Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in calling for closer review of the case. In his column, Kristof calls Cooper's case "a failure at every level," and says that he believes Cooper was framed by the San Bernardino's sheriff's office, which had a history of planting and mishandling evidence. Cooper, who is Black, became the lead suspect in the 1983 killings of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica Ryen, and 11-year-old neighbor Chris Hughes, in spite of statements by 8-year-old Josh Ryen, the sole survivor of the attack, who twice told investigators that three White men had committed the murders. The four victims had been stabbed or slashed a combined 140 times with an ice pick, a hatchet, and at least one knife—an assault, Kristof said, that a single perpetrator, much less the 155-pound Cooper, was unlikely to have been able to carry out. Multiple witnesses saw three White men driving a vehicle fitting the description of the Ryens' car—which had been stolen from their home—near the time of the murders. Other witnesses reported three White men in bloody clothes acting strangely at a nearby bar the night of the crime. When the car was found 30 miles away, Kristof writes, it "inconveniently had blood on the driver’s seat, the front passenger seat and the back seat—suggesting at least three killers." Cooper came under suspicion because he had escaped from a local prison, where he had been incarcerated for robbery, and had hidden in an empty house near the Ryen family's home. An initial police search of Cooper's hideout turned up no evidence, but the day after they identified him as a suspect, police "found" the sheath of a hatchet and a bloody prison-uniform button in a room they claimed—falsely, Kristof says—to have not previously searched. The hatchet itself was found in a different direction, near the path the Ryens' vehicle took the night of the murder, and the button later turned out to be a different color from the uniform Cooper had been wearing. Numerous leads pointed to an alternative suspect, a recently released convicted murderer whom Kristof identifies only as "Lee," but police destroyed key evidence—a pair of bloody coveralls given to police by Lee's girlfriend—before any testing took place. In 2004, Cooper was allowed to test a blood sample from a tan T-shirt that was found near the murder scene. The shirt was the same color, size, and brand as a T-shirt Lee's girlfriend said she had recently bought for him and that he had been wearing earlier on the day of the murders. The testing found Cooper's blood on the shirt, but his blood was contaminated with a chemical used in preserving blood samples, indicating that it had likely been planted on the shirt. The lab then tested the sample of Cooper's blood held by the sheriff's office and found multiple blood types, suggesting that Cooper's sample had been topped off with someone else's blood. Testing of other evidence, including the murder weapon and strands of hair found at the scene, could prove Cooper's claim that he is innocent. Kristof said, "[I]f we execute a man in so flawed a case without even bothering to test the evidence rigorously, then a piece of our justice system dies along with Kevin Cooper." [UPDATE: U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who as California's Attorney General had opposed Cooper's requests for DNA testing and had initially declined to comment for the story, joined in Kristof's request for DNA testing. On May 18, she posted on Facebook: "As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing in the case of Kevin Cooper."]  

STUDIES: Death-Penalty Jury Selection “Whitewashes” Juries and is Biased Towards Death

As support for the death penalty has declined in America, the process of "death-qualification"—which screens potential jurors in death-penalty cases based upon their views about capital punishment—produces increasingly unrepresentative juries from which African Americans are disproportionately excluded and, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, increasingly biases juries in favor of conviction and death sentences. Death-qualification, the researchers say, "systematically 'whitewashes' the capital eligible pool [and] leaves behind a subgroup [of jurors] that does not represent the views of its community." Professor Mona Lynch (pictured, l.) of University of California-Irvine's Department of Criminology, Law, and Society, and Professor Craig Haney (pictured, r.) of University of California-Santa Cruz's Department of Psychology conducted two surveys of jurors in Solano County, California—which has the highest concentration of African Americans in the state—18 months apart to examine how racial differences in death-penalty opinions affect the composition of capital juries. As support for the death penalty has declined in recent years, the gap between the views of Whites (and particularly White males) and the views of African Americans and women has grown, exacerbating what the authors call "tension between the constitutionally sanctioned practice of death-qualification and a capital defendant’s constitutional right to be tried by a representative and unbiased jury." The researchers asked respondents about their views on the death penalty, and about whether those views would interfere with their ability to apply the law in a death-penalty trial, which would make them legally excludable from a jury. They found that the death-qualification process excluded a far greater percentage of people who said they opposed the death penalty than said they supported it, and that the rate of exclusion was even more disproportionate for African Americans. And while nearly equal percentages of White men and women were excluded by the process, the women who were excluded were much more likely to oppose capital punishment. The death-qualification process, they said, also contributed to racially disparate use of discretionary jury strikes by the prosecution by providing a facially race-neutral reason for disproportionately excluding African-American jurors. When the researchers asked jurors about their attitudes towards potentially aggravating and mitigating evidence, they found that a majority of White jurors—and particularly White male jurors—disregarded most mitigating evidence that would be offered to spare a defendant's a life and that a significant minority of these jurors inappropriately viewed many of these mitigating factors as reasons to impose a death sentence. They also found that White respondents "were significantly more receptive to aggravating evidence and were more inclined to weigh these specific items in favor of a death sentence compared to African American respondents." The process, they said, "creat[es] a jury whose members are unusually hostile to mitigation," which may "functionally undermine" the fair consideration of a capital defendant's case in mitigation. "This risk," the authors wrote, "is particularly high in cases involving African American defendants, especially where white men dominate the jury." The overall result, they said, is that, "[i]n a county in California where support for and opposition to capital punishment are beginning to approach parity, death qualification still has the potential to produce jury pools that are significantly more likely to favor the death penalty." 

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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