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A Veterans Day Review: Recent Cases Highlight Concerns About Veterans and the Death Penalty

As Americans become increasingly aware of the role of combat trauma in the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders, the shift in public perceptions towards veterans suffering from these disorders has played out in the courts in recent death penalty cases. In 2018, at least four military veterans facing death sentences have instead been sentenced to life in prison, and another two veterans won relief in their death-penalty cases. One military veteran has been executed so far this year.

In January, retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) wrote in support of exempting mentally ill veterans from capital punishment, saying, "we can do better at recognizing the invisible wounds that some of our veterans still carry while ensuring they get the treatment that they deserve and that we owe them for their sacrifice. ...[W]e can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness." Prosecutors and juries in Indiana, Florida, Colorado, and Virginia have considered the military service and service-related disorders of murder defendants and determined that life sentences were more appropriate than the death penalty. In the Virginia trial of Iraq war veteran Ronald Hamilton, his attorneys presented evidence that he had been a model soldier who had saved the life of a fellow serviceman, but faced PTSD-related disorders and a deteriorating family life when he returned home. At Glen Law Galloway's trial in Colorado, Denver public defender Daniel King presented four days of testimony about Galloway’s character and background, including how the former Army veteran “snapped” following the collapse of his relationship with his girlfriend. King argued, “Mr. Galloway is not just the worst thing that he’s done. He’s committed many acts of kindness, friendship, service, love and duty.” In May, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas in two unrelated cases involving military veterans Darren Vann in Indiana and Esteban Santiago in Florida. Santiago faced federal charges for a mass shooting, but prosecutors agreed to a plea deal because Santiago, an Iraq war veteran, suffers from schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations, had unsuccessfully sought treatment and assistance from the Veterans Administration, and had been committed to a mental hospital because of the seriousness of his mental illness.

Two death-sentenced prisoners were granted relief this year as a result of failures by their defense counsel to investigate and present mitigating evidence related to their military service and their service-related mental health disorders. Andrew Witt, an air force veteran who had been on U.S. military death row, received a life sentence after a court found his attorneys ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Robert Fisher's death sentence was reversed by a Pennsylvania federal court in part because his lawyer did not investigate or present evidence related to his service in Vietnam. Fisher was a Purple Heart recipient who struggled with brain damage, drug abuse, and mental health problems after his service.

On July 18, Ohio executed Robert Van Hook, an honorably discharged veteran who was suffering from long-term effects of physical and sexual abuse as a child and untreated mental health issues at the time of the offense. Van Hook had been unable to obtain care for his mental health and addiction issues from veterans service agencies after his discharge.

A 2015 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, estimated that approximately 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, many suffering from mental illness caused or exacerbated by their military service.

2018 Midterm Elections: Governors in Moratorium States Re-Elected, Controversial California D.A. Ousted

The results of the November 6, 2018 mid-term elections reflected America's deeply divided views on capital punishment, as voters elected governors who pledged not to resume executions in the three states with death-penalty moratoriums, defeated an incumbent who tried to bring back capital punishment in a non-death-penalty state (click on graphic to enlarge), and re-elected governors who had vetoed legislation abolishing capital punishment in two other states. Continuing a national trend, voters in Orange County, California ousted their scandal-plagued top prosecutor, marking the ninth time since 2015 that local voters have replaced prosecutors in jurisdictions with the nation's largest county death rows.

In the three states with Governor-imposed death-penalty moratoriums, candidates who said they would continue execution bans or work to eliminate the state’s death penalty won easily. Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania who imposed the state’s moratorium on executions in 2015, was re-elected by with 57.6% of the vote. His challenger, Scott Wagner, who had promised to resume executions and had advocated a mandatory death penalty for school shootings, trailed badly with 40.8% of the vote. Oregon's incumbent Democratic governor Kate Brown, who continued the state’s death-penalty moratorium instituted in 2011 by then-governor John Kitzhaber, won re-election in a six candidate field with 49.4% of the vote, five percentage points higher than her Republican challenger Knute Buehler. In Colorado, Democratic congressman Jared Polis, who campaigned on the repeal of the state’s death penalty, won the governorship with 51.6% of the vote, outpacing Republican state treasurer Walker Stapleton, who received 44.7% of the vote. Democrats also took control of both houses of the Colorado legislature, increasing the likelihood that legislation to abolish the death penalty will be considered in the upcoming legislative session. Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner suffered an overwhelming election defeat at the hands of venture-capitalist J.B. Pritzker. Trailing badly in the polls, Rauner tried in May 2018 to condition passage of gun control legislation on reinstatement of the state’s death penalty. Pritzker outpolled Rauner by 54.0% to 39.3%.

On the other hand, two governors who prevented death-penalty repeal bills from going into effect in their states also won re-election. Nebraska's Republican Governor Pete Ricketts, who vetoed a bipartisan bill to abolish the state's death penalty in 2015 and then, after the legislature overrode his veto, personally bankrolled a successful state-wide referendum in 2016 to block the repeal, cruised to re-election with 59.4% of the vote. New Hampshire Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who vetoed the state’s death-penalty repeal bill in March 2018, won re-election with 52.4% of the vote. In Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis won the governorship against Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum, who had pledged, if elected, to suspend executions in Florida until he was sure the death-penalty system was nondiscriminatorily applied.

Local voters in Orange County replaced District Attorney Tony Rackauckas with a political rival, county supervisor Todd Spitzer. Rackauckas has been embroiled in a scandal involving the secret use of prison informants to obtain or manufacture confessions from suspects and then stonewalling investigation of the multi-decade illegal practice.  As of January 2013, Orange County had the seventh largest death row of any county in the U.S., and since then, it has imposed the fourth most death sentences of any county. 

Clemente Aguirre Exonerated From Florida's Death Row After DNA Implicates Prosecution Witness

With newly discovered confessions and DNA evidence pointing to the prosecution’s chief witness as the actual killer, prosecutors dropped all charges against Clemente Javier Aguirre (pictured, center, at his exoneration) in a Seminole County, Florida courtroom on November 5, 2018. The dismissal of the charges made Aguirre the 164th wrongfully convicted death-row prisoner to be exonerated in the United States since 1973 and the 28th in Florida. The announcement that prosecutors were dropping all charges against Aguirre came after jury selection for his retrial had already begun. The Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction in 2016. “Mr. Aguirre was nearly executed for a crime he didn’t commit,” said Joshua Dubin, one of Aguirre's attorneys. “While we are overjoyed that his ordeal is finally over, the case of Clemente Aguirre should serve as a chilling cautionary tale about how dangerous it is when there is a rush to judgment in a capital case.”

Aguirre was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006 for the murder of two neighbors: an elderly woman and her adult daughter. He steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying he had discovered the women only after they had been killed. He did not report the murders to authorities, he said, because he was an undocumented immigrant and feared deportation. Evidence has increasingly pointed to the victims' daughter and granddaughter, Samantha Williams, as the likely perpetrator, and an affidavit filed last week undermined Williams's alibi. DNA testing had revealed Williams's blood in several locations at the crime scene but had found none of Aguirre’s blood. Williams also has reportedly confessed to the crime on at least five occasions. A sworn affidavit from the wife of Mark Van Sandt, Williams’s boyfriend at the time of the crime and her key alibi witness, says that Van Sandt told his wife he saw Williams crawling out of his bedroom window on the night of the murders. Prosecutors said that they dropped charges “based upon new evidence that materially affects the credibility of a critical State witness.”

Aguirre is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, and his attorneys say they plan to file an asylum application on his behalf. Joshua Dubin said in a statement: “If there were ever a person that deserved a chance to become a United States citizen, it is Clemente Aguirre. He has been fully exonerated, so we are going to be asking the immigration judge to set a bond and allow Clemente to be released while his application for asylum proceeds.” Aguirre is the third foreign national to be exonerated in the last year. Gabriel Solache was exonerated in Illinois on December 21, 2017 and Vicente Benavides was released on April 19, 2018 after nearly 26 years on California's death row. Both Solache and Benavides are Mexican nationals. While there has been one exoneration for about every nine executions in the U.S. overall, there has been one exoneration of a foreign national for every 6.17 executions of a foreign national, suggesting that foreign nationals may be more likely to face wrongful convictions and death sentences than U.S. citizens.

Florida Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence Imposed in Violation of State and Federal Constitutions

The Florida Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence imposed on William Roger Davis, III (pictured), even though Davis's death sentence violates both the Florida and federal constitutions. In a decision issued on October 25, 2018, the court refused to redress the unconstitutionality of the death sentence—imposed by a trial court judge after a bare 7-5 majority of jurors had recommended death—ruling that during post-conviction proceedings before the trial court, Davis had waived review of all claims relating to his conviction and death sentence. The appeals court held that this waiver barred Davis from renewing his challenge to the unconstitutional sentencing process on appeal.  

Davis was convicted and sentenced to death in Seminole County (Tallahassee) for an October 2009 murder, kidnapping, and sexual battery. After hearing Davis accept responsibility for the crime and testify about his mental state when it occurred, five jurors recommended that he be spared the death penalty. However, at the time of trial, Florida was one of only three states that permitted judges to impose a death sentence based upon a less than unanimous jury vote for death, and its death-penalty statute directed the trial court to make its own independent findings of fact, independently weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and impose a sentence of life without parole or death. The Florida Supreme Court upheld Davis's death sentence, and in January 2016, one year after his conviction became final, the United States Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing procedures. In Hurst v. Florida, the court ruled that reserving the ultimate fact-finding on aggravating circumstances for the trial judge violated Florida capital defendants' Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. In October 2018, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. State that this Sixth Amendment violation was prejudicial to a capital defendant whenever the jury had not unanimously recommended a death verdict, and it further held in Perry v. State that the Florida constitution required a unanimous jury vote for death before a judge could consider imposing the death penalty. 

In his state post-conviction proceedings, Davis's lawyers challenged the constitutionality of his non-unanimous death sentence. However, while the case was pending, Davis sought to withdraw his petition. In a letter to the judge, Davis wrote that he did not want a life sentence and did not want to subject either his family or the victim's family to a new sentencing hearing. The court found him competent to waive his rights, and—notwithstanding the invalidity of the proceedings resulting in his death sentence—dismissed all of Davis's guilt- and penalty-stage claims. The Davis case is the latest case in which so-called "volunteers"—capital defendants or death-row prisoners who have been deemed competent to waive their appeals—have been permitted to seek execution in the face of unreliable or unconstitutional death sentences. Volunteers comprise ten percent of all prisoners executed in the United States since the 1970s. On October 29, 2018, Rodney Berget—a former Special Olympics participant—became the 148th volunteer to be executed, despite evidence of intellectual disability that led national experts to conclude that he was ineligible for the death penalty.

As Capital Retrial Begins, Former Judge Says Defendant Should Not Be Convicted

As Seminole County prosecutors seek the death penalty against Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarquin a second time despite substantial evidence implicating another suspect, the Florida judge who initially sentenced Aguirre-Jarquin to death now says he should not be convicted. Retired Judge O.H. Eaton (pictured), who presided over Aguirre-Jarquin’s double-murder trial in 2006, said he now believes that the case is a “poster child” for the flaws in the death penalty system. “The evidence I heard during the trial [in 2006] substantiated the verdict,” Eaton told the Orlando Sentinel. “The evidence I’ve heard now does not. ... If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have ordered the jury’s verdict overturned.” 

Aguirre-Jarquin, an undocumented Honduran immigrant, was convicted of murdering his next-door neighbors, Cheryl Williams and her mother Carol Bareis, who were stabbed more than 130 times. Eaton imposed death sentences for both murders, based on non-unanimous 7-5 and 9-3 jury recommendations for death. Aguirre-Jarquin’s post-conviction lawyers later discovered that the mentally ill daughter and granddaughter of the victims, Samantha Williams—who had provided eyewitness testimony against Aguirre-Jarquin—had confessed to at least five different people that she had killed her relatives. She told one person: “I’m crazy, I’m evil and I killed my grandmother and my mother.” DNA results from blood evidence at the crime scene also implicated Williams. The Innocence Project, which assisted in Aguirre-Jarquin’s post-conviction representation, found that “[n]one of the DNA found on the 84 items that were tested matched Aguirre,” but was a match to Williams and the two victims. Eight bloodstains from Williams were found in four different rooms, each, the Innocence Project said, ”inches away from the victims’ blood." Based on this evidence, the Florida Supreme Court in 2016 unanimously overturned Aguirre-Jarquin's conviction. Seminole County prosecutors nonetheless decided to retry Aguirre-Jarquin, simultaneously arguing that Williams’s mental health problems make her confessions unreliable, but relying upon her testimony against Aguirre-Jarquin in his 2006 trial. They also argue that Aguirre-Jarquin—who says he went to his neighbors’ home to get beer, found their bodies, and tried to revive them—attempted to hide clothing with the victims’ blood on it, and did not call police after discovering his neighbors had been killed. Aguirre-Jarquin said he did not call the police because he feared deportation because of his undocumented status.

Florida has more death-row exonerations than any other state, with 27. Ninety percent of those exonerations came in cases in which one or more jurors had recommended a life sentence.  

Amnesty International Issues Report on the Death Penalty in Florida

A new report by Amnesty International says Florida's approach to redressing the nearly 400 unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences imposed in the state has deepened its status as an outlier on death-penalty issues by "add[ing] an extra layer of arbitrariness to [the state's] already discriminatory and error-prone capital justice system." The report, released on August 23, 2018, examines the impact of Florida's reponse to U.S. and Florida Supreme Court rulings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State that overturned the state’s capital sentencing statute. That response, Amnesty said, would permit the execution of more than 170 prisoners whom the state acknowledges were sentenced to death under unconstitutional sentencing procedures. Executing those prisoners, Amnesty wrote, will violate "well-established" international human rights law requiring that any person "convicted of a capital offence must benefit when a change of law following charge or conviction imposes a lighter penalty for that crime." In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a state practice that permitted judges to impose a death sentence despite the recommendations of one or more jurors that a life sentence should be imposed. However, the court then declined to enforce that ruling in cases that had completed direct appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court announced in Ring v. Arizona in June 2002 that capital defendants had a right to have a jury decide all facts that were necessary to impose the death penalty. The Amnesty International report described the Florida court's refusal to enforce the constitution in cases in which it acknowledged that constitutional violations had occurred as "fear of too much justice." "Finality won out over fairness when the Florida Supreme Court decided the Hurst retroactivity issue," the report said. The report highlights the cases of prisoners with serious mental illness, those with "actual or borderline intellectual disability," youthful offenders with backgrounds of severe deprivation and abuse who were condemned in unconstitutional sentencing trials, and the wrongful impact of race on sentencing decisions, and argues that Florida's refusal to review these cases is not only arbitrary, but also violates international human rights norms and the constitutional principle that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for "the worst of the worst" cases. The report also discusses Florida's long history of employing unconstitutional death-penalty practices that were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court. It spotlights the case of James Hitchcock, who was unconstitutionally sentenced to death four times for a crime he committed at age 20. The first three times, his death sentence was overturned, including a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Florida's statutory restriction on the mitigating evidence the sentencing judge and jury could consider. The fourth time, he was sentenced to death after a non-unanimous jury vote, but was denied review of that constitutional violation. "The death penalty is no way to impart justice," said Amnesty's Americas Director, Erika Guevara Rosas. "Florida and all other states where the death penalty is still in use must impose immediate moratoriums on executions until they can end this cruel practice once and for all." In the meantime, the report urges all officials to “ensure an end to the use of the death penalty against anyone with intellectual disability or mental disability,” “ensure that all capital case decision makers are made fully aware of the mitigating evidence surrounding youth and emotional and psychological immaturity,” and “facilitate a public education campaign to raise awareness across Florida of the costs, risks and flaws associated with the state’s death penalty.”

Florida Justices Halt Execution as Handwritten Notes Contradict Police Testimony

The Florida Supreme Court has halted the execution of Jose Antonio Jimenez (pictured), scheduled for August 14, 2018. The unanimous one-page order issued by the court on August 10 did not explain the reasons the justices granted the stay. However, Jimenez’s motion for a stay referenced 80 pages of police records that, Jimenez’s lawyer said, had not previously been provided to the defense. Those records—which were part of 1,000 pages of documents turned over to the defense two weeks before the scheduled execution—included hand-written notes by the investigating detectives that appear to contradict pre-trial testimony police had given in the case. The motion, filed by Jimenez's lawyer, Marty McClain, said the “previously unseen notes" contained "surprising and downright shocking information” that the lead detective (identified as a Detective Ojeda) and a second police investigator (identified as Detective Diecidue) gave “false and/or misleading” testimony “in order to facilitate Mr. Jimenez’s conviction” when they were deposed by Jimenez’s trial counsel. McClain told The News Service of Florida, “[t]he new documents show dishonest cops,” which has added significance in this case because Jimenez has maintained his innocence “and the conviction is premised on Ojeda telling the truth.” Jimenez also sought a stay pending the United States Supreme Court’s disposition of a Missouri death-penalty case, Bucklew v. Precythe, that could clarify the standard for determining when a state’s lethal-injection protocol is unconstitutional. Jimenez has argued that Florida’s use of the drug etomidate as a sedative during three-drug executions creates an unconstitutional risk of a torturous death. During Florida’s last execution, Eric Branch screamed when the execution drugs were administered. McClain said that expert testimony in another case had indicated that a quarter of executions using etomidate could result in prisoners screaming in pain. “Is it OK to have your condemned people scream 25 percent of the time?,” McClain said. “And what about the torture to those who are next, who know that 25 percent of the time people are in pain and screaming? Are they going to be the one?” The Florida Supreme Court has set a schedule for briefs to be filed in the case, with briefing concluding on August 28. The court will then decide whether it will hear oral argument in the case.

Florida Juries Reject Death Sentences for Four Men, Highlighting Impact of Unanimity Requirement

Juries in two Broward County, Florida death-penalty trials have handed down life sentences for four capital defendants in the span of one week, highlighting the effect of a new Florida law requiring the unanimous agreement of the jury before a defendant can be sentenced to death. On July 16, a Broward County jury spared three defendants—Eloyn Ingraham, Bernard Forbes, and Andre Delancy—whom it had convicted in March of murdering a Broward sheriff's deputy. Three days later, another Broward jury rejected the death penalty for Eric Montgomery, after having convicted him in April of the murders of his wife and stepdaughter. The verdicts marked the third time in four capital trials since Florida adopted the jury unanimity requirement that Broward juries have opted for life sentences. The sole exception was the case of Peter Avsenew, who represented himself in the penalty-phase after firing his lawyers, presented no penalty-phase defense, and told the jury he had "no regrets" for his actions and was "proud of the decisions [he'd] made." South Florida juries in Palm Beach County also have recommended life sentences in the three first-degree murder trials conducted there since September 2017. In March 2017, the Florida legislature changed its death penalty law in response to two Florida Supreme Court decisions in October 2016 that declared the state’s practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendations for death to be unconstitutional. Those decisions were based on the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which ruled that Florida's previous death-penalty statute violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial by giving judges, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to find the facts that could lead to a death sentence. Florida's criminal law required unanimity for every other decision made by a jury, and the 2017 amendment brought Florida's law into line with the laws of virtually every other death-penalty state. Only Alabama still permits a trial judge to impose the death penalty based upon a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. 

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