FOREIGN NATIONALS: Information About Foreign Citizens on U.S. Death Rows

New information on foreign nationals facing the death penalty in the U.S. is now available through Mark Warren of Human Rights Research. This DPIC page includes information on 143 foreign citizens from 37 countries on state and federal death rows. California has the most (59 inmates), followed by Texas (24), and Florida (23). Many of these inmates were not informed of their right to contact their country's represenatives under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty the U.S. has ratified and relies upon to protect its citizens when they travel abroad. Thirty-one (31) foreign nationals have been executed in the U.S. since 1976, many of whom were not properly informed of their rights under this treaty. Among countries, Mexico has the largest number (60) of its citizens on death row in the U.S. 

EDITORIALS: "Florida's Death Penalty Needs a Fresh Look"

A recent editorial in Florida’s Tampa Bay Times called for lawmakers to study the state’s death penalty because of its high number of exonerations and death sentences. Using information from DPIC's recent 2012 Year End Report, the editorial noted that 2012 marked the second consecutive year in which the state led the country in new death sentences. The editorial suggested that one of the reasons for these numbers was likely Florida's failure to require a unanimous jury recommendation for death sentences, one of the few states in the country with such a policy. While implying that the better path might be complete abolition of the death penalty, the editorial called for changes in the sentencing process, saying that its current procedures are haphazard and error-prone.  The paper concluded, “Florida is long overdue for a comprehensive look at its death penalty system… It is time to better understand why the state imposes the penalty disproportionately and ends up exonerating so many. Basic justice demands it.”  Read the full editorial below.

INNOCENCE: Florida Death Row Inmate Acquitted at Re-trial

On December 21, Seth Penalver was acquitted of all charges and will be freed from Florida's death row, 13 years after being sentenced to death. He was originally charged with a triple murder and armed robbery that occurred in Broward County in 1994.  His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury.  At his second trial in 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court (Penalver v. Florida, No. SC00-1602, Feb. 2, 2006) overturned his conviction because the prosecution had introduced improper evidence at his trial. A co-defendant, Pablo Ibar, was also sentenced to death and remains on death row. A video from the crime scene helped convict Ibar, but images showing another suspect were inconclusive. Penalver has always maintained his innocence. At Penalver's most recent trial, which began 5 months ago, the jury was deadlocked 10-2, and both the prosecution and defense agreed to replace two jurors with alternates who had attended the proceedings. The newly constituted jury began deliberations afresh and found Penalver not guilty of all charges. Penalver is the 142nd person to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, and the 24th such person in Florida, the most of any state.

EDITORIALS: Preserving Independent Funding for Death Penalty Representation

A recent editorial in the Miami Herald applauded a court decision finding that the costs of represening defendants in Florida death penalty cases should be kept separate from the judges’ annual budget. A state judge held it would be unconstitutional to have judges making decisions about attorneys' fees when the money for such expenses comes from the judges' own resources. The editorial stated, "We depend on the court system to dispense justice—period. Not justice on a budget, not justice on the cheap, not justice with 'ka-ching' in the back of a judge’s mind." The costs formerly came out of general state revenue. Death penalty attorney David Markus said the law would have made “judges think twice about paying a lawyer, knowing that he or she has to also think about paying his secretary or buying copier paper.” The editorial called on lawmakers to heed the recommendations of the Florida Innocence Commission, which made several recommendations to correct the high rate of wrongful convictions in the state. The editors wrote, “Lawmakers truly interested in reform would take the recommendations seriously, even though they require more-adequate funding. Instead, the Legislature has steadily chipped away at courts’ budgets for the past six years, while the volume of cases has increased. That’s a stumbling block to real reform.” Florida leads the country in exonerations from death row, with 23 wrongful convictions overturned since 1973.  Read full editorial below.

MENTAL ILLNESS: At 11th Hour, Supreme Court Upholds Stay of Execution for Florida Inmate

On October 23, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a last-minute federal appeals court stay-of-execution for John Ferguson. Ferguson had been scheduled to be executed earlier that day, but his lawyers filed a series of motions arguing he was mentally incompetent. In September, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed Ferguson’s death warrant for October 16, but allowed time for a mental competency examination. A series of stays and reversals shifted the date to October 18, then to October 23, or later.  Mental health professionals have diagnosed Ferguson as paranoid schizophrenic with a long history of mental illness. Earlier, the ABA released a statement: "The American Bar Association is alarmed that Florida is poised to execute John Ferguson, a man diagnosed as severely mentally ill for more than 40 years, before the constitutionality of his execution is fully evaluated." The Court of Appeals will review whether the Florida Supreme made an unreasonable application of the law or determination of the facts in denying Ferguson's state appeal. Briefs must be filed by November 6. The U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly denied prior requests for a stay.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Florida Set to Execute Man Despite Judge's Finding of Paranoid Schizophrenia

On October 12, Judge David Glant (state Circuit Court) rejected a request from attorneys for Florida death row inmate John Ferguson (pictured) to halt his execution, despite acknowledging that Ferguson has severe mental illness. The judge wrote that Ferguson’s “documented history of paranoid schizophrenia” was “credible and compelling,” and that “it is inconceivable” that Ferguson would have received all those years of psychotropic medications and clinical treatment “were he not a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.” However, Judge Glant rejected Ferguson’s request for a stay of execution because, “[r]egardless of his long history of mental illness, there is no evidence that he does not understand what is taking place and why it is taking place.” As early as 1965, court records indicated that Ferguson was having “visual hallucinations.” One doctor said Ferguson “did not know right from wrong nor the nature and consequences of his acts.” A psychological diagnosis in 1975 warned that Ferguson “has a long-standing, severe illness which will most likely require long-term inpatient hospitalization” and that he was “dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances.” Ferguson was released the following year and committed a series of murders.  Now, 35 years later, he is scheduled to be executed on October 18. UPDATE: A new execution date has been set for Oct. 23, following the Florida Supreme Court's denial of Ferguson's appeal.  UPDATE: The Oct. 23 execution date has been stayed to allow for a habeas corpus hearing on Oct. 26.

COSTS: New Investigation Says Florida Spending Over $1 Million per Death Row Inmate

A newspaper's investigation into the costs of the death penalty in Florida revealed the state is spending as much as $1 million per inmate just for incarceration and appellate costs. Trial costs would add substantially to the state's total.  Florida has over 400 inmates on death row.  For example, keeping J.B. Parker under the special security of death row for 29 years has cost taxpayers $688,000; his appeals cost $296,000, for a total of $984,000. The total for Alfonso Cave has been $1,059,750. Both men remain on death row. Those figures do not include salaries for judges, prosecutors and clerks handling the cases. Shortening the appeals carries the risk of mistake. Neal Dupree, head of one of the appellate offices for death row inmates noted, "People need to know that just because someone has been convicted does not mean they are guilty," he said.  Larry Spalding, who had been head of one of the appellate offices, added: "The most important thing we know about false convictions is that they happen and on a regular basis." Spalding said.  "(Appellate) attorneys ... are trying to exonerate the innocent, and to prevent a wrongful execution. They should be admired, not excoriated."  Florida has had more exonerations from death row (23) than any other state in the country.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Evangelical Leaders Call for Mercy for Condemned Inmate

On September 26, Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) agreed to temporarily stay the pending execution of John Errol Ferguson in order to allow time for a panel of psychiatrists to determine whether Ferguson is mentally competent. The day before, evangelical leaders, including Dr. Joel C. Hunter, Senior Pastor of the 15,000-member Northland Church in Central Florida, sent a letter to the governor urging that Ferguson be allowed to live. They wrote, “The State’s psychiatrists have consistently found, over 40 years, that Mr. Ferguson suffers from severe schizophrenia and mental impairment. Now a senior citizen, he still suffers from delusions and hallucinations....The jurors at Mr. Ferguson’s sentencing hearings did not hear evidence of his extreme and long-term mental illness, the horrific abuse he experienced as a child, or the traumatic brain injury he suffered as a result of a gunshot wound to his head as a young man, which further contributed to his mental illness. Any one of these factors might have persuaded his juries to spare his life and sentence him to life in prison, but his attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence to the jurors.”  The letter concluded, "Our system must be humane and hold life sacred, while taking every step possible to support and facilitate the healing of victims."