Mississippi

Mississippi

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

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

In Two Mississippi Cases, Justice Breyer Renews Call to Review Constitutionality of Death Penalty

As its 2017-2018 term came to a close, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review two Mississippi cases that presented significant challenges to capital punishment as implemented in that state and across the country. Over the dissent of Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured), who renewed his call for the Court to review the constitutionality of the death penalty as a whole, the Court on June 29 denied certiorari in the cases of Timothy Evans and Richard Jordan. Reiterating concerns he first voiced in his landmark dissent three years ago in Glossip v. Gross (2015), Justice Breyer wrote: “the death penalty, as currently administered, suffers from unconscionably long  delays, arbitrary application, and serious unreliability.” Two Mississippi cases, he wrote, illustrate the first two of those factors. Evans and Jordan were both sentenced to death in Mississippi’s Second Judicial District, which—according to death sentencing data maintained by Mississippi’s Office of the State Public Defender—has imposed more death sentences than any of the 21 other judicial districts in the state and nearly 1/3 of all the death sentences imposed in the state this century. Evans’s petition for writ of certiorari had argued that his death sentence was unconstitutionally arbitrary because of the geographic disproportionality in the way in which the death penalty was imposed and carried out across the state. Jordan had asked the Court to review the constitutionality of his more than forty-year tenure on Mississippi’s death row for a crime committed in 1976. Jordan’s death sentence was overturned three separate times because of different constitutional violations in each of his sentencing trials. In 1991, after his sentence had been overturned for the third time, a special prosecutor agreed that Jordan should be sentenced to life without parole. However, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the life sentence saying the sentence was invalid because it had not been authorized by Mississippi law in effect at the time of the murder. The state then sought and obtained the death penalty against Jordan for a fourth time. “Jordan has lived more than half of his life on death row,” Breyer wrote, living most of that time “in isolated, squalid conditions.” Breyer said the cruelty of the conditions of Jordan’s imprisonment constitute an “additional punishment” that warrants review by the Court to address whether the lengthy delay, in and of itself, violates the Eighth Amendment. The geographically arbitrary death-sentencing practices in the Second District also warranted review, Breyer wrote. “This geographic concentration reflects a nationwide trend. Death sentences, while declining in number, have become increasingly concentrated in an ever-smaller number of counties,” he wrote. This arbitrariness, Justice Breyer explained, “is aggravated by the fact that definitions of death eligibility vary depending on the state.” As a result, in Mississippi, unlike most states, a defendant may be sentenced to death for a felony robbery-murder, which does not require that the defendant actually intended to kill someone. Justice Breyer also found evidence in Mississippi that the death penalty was not reliably administered. He noted that just “[f]our hours before Willie Manning was slated to die by lethal injection, the Mississippi Supreme Court stayed his execution,” and in April 2015, Manning became the fourth Mississippi death-row prisoner to be exonerated. With six more death-row prisoners exonerated throughout the U.S. since January 2017, the unreliability of the death penalty, Justice Breyer argued, provides a third reason for the Court to review the constitutionality of capital punishment. “[M]any of the capital cases that come before this court,” Justice Breyer wrote, “involve, like the cases of Richard Jordan and Timothy Evans, special problems of cruelty or arbitrariness. Hence, I remain of the view that the court should grant the petitions now before us to consider whether the death penalty as currently administered violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.” 

STUDY: Local Mississippi Prosecutors Struck Black Jurors at More than Four Times the Rate of Whites

A new study shows that the Mississippi District Attorney's office that has prosecuted Curtis Flowers for capital murder six times—striking almost all black jurors in each trial—has disproportionately excluded African Americans from jury service for more than a quarter century. Reviewing the exercise of discretionary jury strikes in 225 trials between 1992 and 2017, American Public Media Reports discovered that during the tenure of Mississippi's Fifth Circuit Court District Attorney Doug Evans (pictured) prosecutors have exercised peremptory strikes to exclude African Americans from jury service at nearly 4½ times the rate at which they struck white jurors. APM Reports collected and analyzed data on more than 6,700 jurors called for jury service in the the Fifth District. Its study—which was reviewed before its release by a statistics expert and two law professors who had conducted prior jury-strike studies—found that Fifth District prosecutors struck 50 percent of all eligible black jurors compared to only 11 percent of eligible whites. Looking at potentially race-neutral factors raised during juror questioning, APM Reports found that prosecutors were still far more likley to strike black jurors than similarly situated white jurors (click here to enlarge graph). Controlling for these factors, the study found that the odds prosecutors would strike a black juror were six times greater than the odds that they would strike a white juror. APM Reports prepared the study in connection with its acclaimed podcast series In the Dark, which this season focuses on the Flowers case. Evans' office has been scrutinized for alleged race-related abuses of powers during the course of Flowers' six trials for the murder of four furniture store employees. Flowers has consistently professed his innocence. In his first three trials, Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death by all-white or nearly all-white juries. In each of these cases, the state Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ordered new trials. Just before the second trial, Flowers' parents' house burned down. Shortly afterwards, his mother was told of a threat made by a white resident that, "If they let that n----- go, another house is going to burn." Jurors deadlocked in Flowers' fourth and fifth trials, split along racial lines. All the white jurors voted for death in both of those trials. Only one black juror served on the sixth jury, and Flowers was sentenced to death in that trial. Although it is unconstitutional to exclude jurors from service based on race, the practice is ubiquitous in many jurisdictions that heavily use the death penalty. Over the course of 332 criminal trials in CaddoParish, Louisiana in the decade from 2003-2012, prosecutors struck black jurors at more than triple the rate of other jurors, approximately the same disproportionate rate at which black jurors were struck in 35 cases resulting in death sentences in South Carolina in the fifteen years between 1997-2012. In 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period in North Carolina, and in more than 300 capital trials over more than two decades in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, prosecutors struck black jurors twice as frequently as other jurors. Most recently, in Georgia, Johnny Gates, who was sentenced to death in Columbus, Georgia in 1977, has challenged his conviction with evidence that his prosecutors struck every black juror they could in the seven capital trials they prosecuted between 1976 and 1979, empaneling all-white juries in six of those cases. 

Mississippi, Pennsylvania Courts Grant New Trials to Wrongly Condemned Prisoners

Appeals courts in Mississippi and Pennsylvania have granted new trials to two men who have long asserted their innocence of charges that had sent them to their states' death rows. On October 26, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Sherwood Brown (pictured, left), after reviewing exculpatory results of DNA testing and evidence that Brown's triple-murder conviction and death sentence had been obtained as a result of misleading forensic testimony. On October 31, the Pennsylvania Superior Court granted a third trial to former death-row prisoner Daniel Dougherty (pictured, right), who had been wrongly convicted of setting a fire in which his two sons died, ruling that Philadelphia prosecutors improperly presented the same questionable arson testimony in his retrial that had caused his first conviction to be overturned in 2013. Brown was sentenced to death in 1995 for the sexual assault and murder of a 13-year-old girl and received life sentences for the murder of the girl's mother and grandmother. Prosecutors had argued that blood on Brown's shoes came from the victims, and a forensic bitemark expert had claimed that a bitemark on Brown's wrist matched the girl's bite pattern. In 2012, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Brown's motion for DNA testing. The results showed that the blood on Brown's shoe could not have come from any of the victims because it was male DNA and a saliva sample taken from the victim who had allegedly bitten Brown showed no evidence of Brown's DNA. In their motion for a new trial, Brown's lawyers, including lawyers from the Mississippi Innocence Project, argued that "the two pieces of physical evidence that the state alleged at the 1995 trial, linked petitioner to the crime scene—and upon which the state relied to gain a conviction and sentence in this matter—do not in fact link the petitioner to the crime scene, and are not what the state purported them to be." In an act it described as “extraordinary and extremely rare in the context of a petition for leave to pursue post-conviction collateral relief,” the court overturned Brown's convictions without need for an evidentiary hearing on the DNA evidence and returned the case to the DeSoto County Circuit Court for a new trial. The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed Dougherty's conviction for a second time, ruling that the trial court had improperly permitted prosecutors to use the same testimony an assistant fire marshal had presented in Dougherty's first trial in 2000, even though Dougherty's 2000 conviction and death sentence had been overturned because of his trial lawyer's failure to retain a fire science expert to explain the scientific invalidity of that testimony and the lawyer's resulting inadequate cross-examination of the fire marshal. The court ruled that Philadelphia prosecutors also improperly presented the testimony of another former Philadelphia fire marshal that relied on and prejudicially bolstered the initial questionable arson testimony. At the time of the retrial, Pennsylvania Innocence Project legal director Marissa Boyers Bluestine had said the case against Dougherty "should never have been allowed to go to trial." Boyers had criticized the testimony of the prosecution's experts as having "no scientific validity." She said "To be able to put that in front of a jury today, in 2016, was a travesty." Dougherty's jury in 2016 acquitted him of first-degree murder, determining that he had not intended to kill his children, but convicted him of arson and two counts of second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence in Pennsylvania. Dougherty's current lawyer, David Fryman, expressed gratitude "that the Superior Court righted the errors committed by this trial judge.... We’re hopeful the District Attorney’s office will finally put an end to the pursuit of a case that never should have been brought in the first place," he said.

Jury Vote Spares Death Penalty for Mississippi Man With History of "Chronic and Severe" Mental Illness

A Jackson County, Mississippi judge has sentenced Scotty Lakeith Street (pictured), a capital defendant suffering from chronic paranoid schizophrenia, to life without possibility of parole after his capital sentencing jury did not reach a unanimous sentencing verdict. The sentence is another in a series of notable cases in which jurors presented with evidence of mental illness have spared severely mentally ill defendants the death penalty. Street was convicted murdering a retired special education teacher, stabbing her 37 times. His lawyers presented evidence from family members, caregivers, and mental health experts of his lifelong history of "erratic" behavior and what two psychiatrists called his "chronic and severe" mental illness. Family testimony detailed his repeated mental health hospitalizations, with one sister testifying "Scotty's been institutionalized so much, it's beyond my count." A mental health professional who treated Street testified that as a result of the effects of his schizophrenia, he needed to live in a group home with the services of a caregiver.  Witnesses described some of Street's schizophrenia-induced bizarre behavior, including putting plastic bags on his head "to keep his brain from leaking out," swallowing nails, painting his body, running naked in public, and tying a Coke bottle to his genitalia. A poll released in December 2014 found that Americans oppose the death penalty for people with mental illness by more than a 2-1 margin. That has been reflected in a number of high-profile jury verdicts in the last few years in cases involving severely mentally ill defendants. James Holmes, a severely mentally ill and delusional man who killed twelve people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, and Joseph McEnroe, who murdered 6 members of his girlfriend's family near Seattle, Washington, were sentenced to life when multiple jurors in their cases believed their mental illness made the death penalty an inappropriate punishment. Juries returned unanimous life sentences for mentally ill Dexter Lewis in the stabbing deaths of five people in a Denver bar and Christopher Monfort in the murder of a Seattle police officer. An April 2017 study of 21st century executions revealed that 43% of the prisoners executed since the turn of the century had received a mental illness diagnosis at some point in their lives. In 2012, Mississippi executed Edwin Turner, a mentally ill man with a family history of mental illness: his great-grandmother and grandmother were committed to state hospitals and his mother attempted suicide twice. A Florida man, John Ferguson, also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was executed in Florida on August 5, 2013, despite reportedly having experienced severe hallucinations since 1965. This year, legislation has been introduced in seven states to bar the death penalty for severely mentally ill defendants.

Missouri Execution Pharmacy Calls Sale of Drugs to State 'Political Speech,' Claims First Amendment Right to Secrecy

A pharmacy that has received more than $125,000 in cash payments from Missouri for providing lethal injection drugs that the state has used in 16 executions has argued in a court filing that its identity should remain secret, claiming that selling execution drugs to the state's Department of Corrections is political speech protected by the First Amendment. The supplier's information was requested in a subpoena by Mississippi death row inmates who are challenging that state's execution protocol, and seeking information about other state practices as part of their lawsuit. The pharmacy, which is identified in court documents as "M7," filed a motion stating that its "decision to provide lethal chemicals to the Department was based on M7’s political views on the death penalty, and not based on economic reasons. ...The fact that M7’s expression of political views involves a commercial transaction does not diminish M7’s First Amendment rights." BuzzFeed News reports that Missouri paid the pharmacy $7,178.88 for two vials of pentobarbital per execution, which it describes as well above market value, amid concerns that the cash payments may have violated federal tax laws. Analyzing M7's claim, Bloomberg News columnist Noah Feldman described the pharmacy's constitutional argument as "deeply flawed." Feldman writes that "there’s an enormous difference between speaking and acting—particularly when that action is a for-profit commercial transaction with the government. ... [I]n a democracy, it’s crucially important for the government to disclose its vendors, both to avoid corruption and to promote transparency." M7 asserted in its filing that releasing its identity could subject the pharmacy to harassment and boycotts, relying on statements from a security consultant, Lawrence Cunningham, whose previous statements about the potential threats to execution drug suppliers have been exposed as unsupported or exaggerated. "The M7 situation helps demonstrate why it’s so dangerous to treat corporations as though they have fundamental constitutional rights while doing business," Feldman writes. "Those basic rights are designed to protect individuals against government power. They aren’t supposed to be used to exempt businesses from regulation or publicity whenever it’s convenient for them."

Mississippi Attorney General Tries to Remove Defense Lawyers Who Challenged Suspect Bitemark Evidence

Attorneys for Mississippi death row prisoner Eddie Lee Howard (pictured) are seeking to prove his innocence and challenging the questionable expert bite mark testimony that persuaded jurors to convict him and sentence him to death in 1992. As part of the attack on that evidence, Howard's lawyers recently deposed Michael West, the discredited forensic odontologist who testified against Howard and many other defendants in the 1990s, primarily in Mississippi and Louisiana. A two-part story by Washington Post columnist Radley Balko recounts the combative deposition in which defense lawyers systematically picked apart the credibility of West's testimony in Howard's case, and the apparent retaliatory efforts by the office of Mississippi's attorney general to remove the lawyers from the case after they asked that charges against Howard be dropped. West, who was belligerent, openly contemptuous, and profane during the deposition, was popular as a prosecution expert witness because he purported to be able to match marks to a single individual, excluding all other possible suspects through an idiosyncratic technique that, he said, he alone was capable of using and could reveal bite marks that other experts couldn't find. In the mid-1990s, Newsweek and 60 Minutes profiled West and raised questions about the veracity of his techniques. He was later expelled from three professional organizations, and several people he testified against have later been proven innocent, including Kennedy Brewer, who was exonerated in 2008 after DNA evidence implicated another suspect, who then confessed to the crime. Bitemark claims such as those made by West were the subject of stinging criticism in a 2009 report of the National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The report criticized the field of forensic odontology as lacking any "evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others" and "lack[ing] valid evidence to support many of the assumptions made by forensic dentists during bite mark comparisons.”

FBI Documents Show States' Claims of Threats to Execution Drug Suppliers Were Exaggerated

FBI records show that state claims that execution drug suppliers have been the subject of threats by anti-death penalty activists are largely unsubstantiated and exaggerated, according to an investigation by BuzzFeed NewsBuzzFeed found that "few concrete examples" of the alleged harassment, intimidation, and physical threats states claim have been made against drug suppliers, and that "the states’ marquee example — in which the FBI allegedly investigated a serious bomb threat sent to a drug supplier — is contradicted by internal FBI documents." Instead, BuzzFeed found, "the real danger to drug suppliers appears to be legal and economic risk, not risk of violence." Texas and Ohio have claimed secrecy was necessary to protect the safety of potential drug suppliers, citing an alleged threat against a disgraced and now defunct Tulsa, Oklahoma pharmacy, The Apothecary Shoppe, that had been supplying execution drugs to Missouri. That "threat" appears to have consisted of an email sent by a retired college professor who used his own name and included his own phone number, and which the professor has characterized as a warning to the pharmacy to be cautious. An expert witness for the two states—a former Secret Service officer named Lawrence Cunningham who is now employed by a private security company—testified in litigation over their secrecy policies that the email constituted a "serious threat," as evidenced by the fact that it was investigated by the FBI. However, FBI and Tulsa Police Department records show that neither agency was aware of any threats against the pharmacy until a reporter called the FBI months later to ask about alleged threats. The pharmacy had not filed any complaint about the email and, FBI records show, did not come forward with copies of any threatening emails after having been given an opportunity to do so. Cunningham also testified in the Ohio case that the Texas Department of Public Safety had investigated the email, including interviewing the professor—a claim that is contradicted by Cunningham's own sworn testimony in the Texas case and, BuzzFeed says, by Texas DPS documents, sworn statements of the DPS department head, and FBI internal documents. Indeed, Colonel Steven McCraw of Texas DPS testified in a deposition, “I did not do any investigations. We didn’t look at any people. We didn’t do anything.” Officials in Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri also exaggerated threats by stating suppliers were "harmed" or "threatened" by facing lawsuits or disparaging comments in the media. 

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