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Utah Prosecutor Drops Death Penalty in Prison Killing After Corrections Officials Withheld Evidence

A Utah judge has excoriated the Utah Department of Corrections for practices he called “sneaky” and “deceitful” and a state prosecutor has dropped the death penalty after learning that state prison officials had withheld nearly 1,600 pages of prison records from a defendant facing capital charges in a prison killing. Despite a court order to produce all prison records, the department had failed to disclose medical and mental health records detailing psychiatric medication Steven Douglas Crutcher (pictured, right) had been receiving in the months before he killed his prison cellmate. On March 28, 2018, following disclosure of the records, Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels (pictured, left) withdrew the state’s notice to seek the death penalty and Judge Wallace Lee sentenced Crutcher to life. Preparing for an April 9 capital sentencing hearing, the defense learned in mid-February that the department had withheld medical and mental health records that Crutcher’s lawyer, Edward Brass, said “went to the heart” of the defense’s case. Brass alerted Daniels to the prison’s violation of the court order and Daniels, saying he was “irate” about the prison's misconduct, withdrew the death penalty from the case. “I hold myself to the highest ethical standard,” he said, “and any withholding of information is an affront to justice. The whole concept of justice is that you put all the evidence, all the cards on the table, and if you go where the evidence leads you, it’s a just result.” “This could have been a disaster,” Brass told reporters. “If it wasn’t for the integrity of the county attorney, it would have been a disaster.” Judge Lee said he was “beyond angry” over the department’s behavior. “This was totally wrong and makes me doubt the credibility of everything I hear about the Department of Corrections,” he said. In a statement, the department blamed its failure to produce the records on a “misinterpretation” of Judge Lee’s October order, but defense lawyers said medical doctors at the prison had been so difficult to work with that one doctor even refused to tell them what medical school he had attended. The judge questioned how the department could have misunderstood an order that had directed it to produce Crutcher’s “entire file,” including all mental health records. “That is something I would expect from Russia or North Korea, not a society like we have under the Constitution,” Lee said. “It’s got to stop. I’ve worried that if it’s happened in this case, it’s happening in other cases out there.” A prison spokesperson told the media that the department has retrained its clinical services records staff on responding to court orders and records requests and has started reviewing other cases to determine whether court orders had been responded to appropriately. Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers executive director Stewart Gollan said the department also has been uncooperative in releasing prisoners’ medical records in civil rights cases.

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Texas Death-Row Prisoner Denied Investigative Funding

In a decision that clarifies the showing indigent prisoners must make to obtain investigative services, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Texas death-row prisoner who was denied funding to challenge the death sentence imposed in his case. In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court unanimously ruled that the Texas federal courts had applied an overly restrictive legal standard in denying Carlos Ayestas (pictured) funding to investigate and develop his claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his trial. Federal law requires habeas-corpus courts in death-penalty cases to provide funding that is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, has instead required indigent applicants to demonstrate a "substantial need" for funding. The Court returned the case to the federal appeals court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding using the proper standard. Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national, was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in 1997. His trial counsel conducted virtually no life-history investigation and presented a case for life to the jury that lasted just two minutes and included only a single letter from an English teacher in prison. Both his trial and state post-conviction lawyers overlooked available evidence of mental illness and brain damage—including head trauma and substance abuse—and failed to develop a record of the mitigating evidence that his federal habeas lawyers argued should have been presented in his case. The lawyers appointed to represent Ayestas in federal court sought funding to investigate his background, upbringing, and mental health history, without which, they argued, he would be unable to discover mitigating evidence indispensable to presenting a meaningful case to spare his life. The Texas federal district court, applying the Fifth Circuit's "substantial need" test, denied him funding and dismissed his habeas corpus petition, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, reversed and ordered the federal appellate court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding. In determining whether a funding request is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case, Justice Alito wrote, federal courts courts should assess "whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important." This standard "requires courts to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way." In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote "to explain why, on the record before this Court, there should be little doubt" that Ayestas had already made a showing sufficient to obtain funding. Trial counsel's obligation to thoroughly investigate possible mental illness, she wrote, "exists in part precisely because it is all too common for individuals to go years battling an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. ... [T]he troubling failures of counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stages of Ayestas’ case are exactly the types of facts that should prompt courts to afford investigatory services, to ensure that trial errors that go to a 'bedrock principle in our justice system' do not go unaddressed." 

Father Who Survived Shooting Asks Texas Not to Execute His Son

Kent Whitaker, who survived a shooting in which his wife, Tricia and younger son, Kevin were murdered, has asked the state of Texas to spare the life of his only remaining son, Thomas “Bart” Whitaker (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to death for their murders. Kent Whitaker told the Austin American-Statesman, “I have seen too much killing already. I don’t want to see him executed right there in front of my eyes," he said. The petition for clemency filed on January 10 by Bart Whitaker's lawyers asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend commuting his death sentence to life without parole, saying the execution—scheduled for February 22—will “permanently compound” Kent Whitaker's suffering and grief. The petition asks the Board: “Is killing Thomas Whitaker more important than sparing Kent Whitaker?” Texas prosecutors have argued that Bart Whitaker arranged with an acquaintance in 2003 to murder his family as part of a plot to collect a $1 million inheritance. Bart's father, however, believes "[i]t was never about the money. ... The prosecution always way overexaggerated my wealth because that played into their arguments,” he said. Instead, he believes his son had been suffering from unrecognized mental-health issues at the time of the murders. The clemency petition is supported by more than 60 letters from family members, friends, teachers and counselors, religious leaders, and fellow death-row prisoners. Fort Bend county District Attorney John Healy mocked the letters as coming from "a noble group of supporters." In an emotional op-ed published on January 18 in the Houston Chronicle, Kent Whitaker defended his son's supporters, saying it "is a noble group: people who knew Bart and have seen him grow and change." The clemency petition, Kent Whitaker wrote, "tries to correct the district attorney's over reach in pursuing the death penalty and how it will once again hurt all of the victims. For 18 months pre-trial, every victim—my wife's entire family, me and all of my family—actually begged the district attorney to accept two life sentences and spare us the horror of a trial and an eventual execution. But we were ignored.” Kent Whitaker writes that the clemency petition "is asking the board to acknowledge that Texas is a victim's rights state, even when the victim asks for mercy.” He says that he knows his late wife and son would not want Bart, who he says has matured and bettered himself while in prison, to be executed. Kent told the American-Statesman that he did not want to see the execution, "[b]ut I can’t imagine letting him be in the room by himself without anyone there with him. ... As he goes to sleep, I want him to be able to look at me and see that I love him.” he said. The man who carried out the killings received a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder. The getaway driver, who also could have faced the death penalty under Texas law, was permitted to plead to a 15-year prison term in exchange for testifying against Whitaker.

John Thompson, Death-Row Exoneree and Social Justice Activist, Has Died

Death-row exoneree John Thompson (pictured), described by Innocence Project New Orleans director Emily Maw, as "an amazing force in the world" and a "national legend," died October 3 at a New Orleans-area hospital after suffering a heart attack. Exonerated in 2003, he had survived a corrupt Orleans Parish prosecution, seven death warrants, and an imminent execution by the state of Louisiana for a murder he did not commit. Following his release, Thompson became a national advocate for criminal justice reform and founded Resurrection After Exoneration, a re-entry and support program for released prisoners. Thompson's odyssey towards exoneration began when he was wrongly charged with, and wrongly convicted of, two crimes that took place a few months apart in 1984—a carjacking and the unrelated murder of New Orleans hotel executive Ray Liuzza, Jr. He was wrongly sentenced to death for Liuzza's murder. Just 30 days from an execution date, an investigator in his case discovered a report about exculpatory blood evidence on the carjacking victim's clothes that the state had never revealed. The blood did not belong to Thompson and both the carjacking and murder cases against him soon unraveled.  A former prosecutor revealed that one of the prosecutors who tried Thompson, Gerry Deegan, had confessed on his death bed in 1994 that he intentionally hid the blood evidence. Thompson won a new trial and was acquitted and released in 2003. He had spent 18 years in prison (14 years on death row), and lost his grandmother and father during that time. Thompson was prosecuted by the Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney's office during the administration of District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr. His lead prosecutor, James Williams—who had a replica electric chair on his desk and framed photographs of the men he had sent to death row on his office wall—told a reporter in 2007, “There was no thrill for me unless there was a chance for the death penalty.” 11 of the 36 men sentenced to death during Connick’s tenure had their convictions overturned as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, and four—including two wrongly prosecuted by Williams—were exonerated. Thompson later won a federal jury verdict for $14 million in 2007 after suing the District Attorney's Office for prosecutorial misconduct, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a controversial 5-4 decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reversed the verdict, ruling that the prosecutors had immunity from liability. In a 2011 op-ed in the New York Times, The Prosecution Rests, but I Can't, Thompson wrote that more than money, justice was at stake. "I don't care about the money," he said. "I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn't do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves."

Federal Appeals Court Removes Military Judge From Case For Comments Prejudging 9/11 Detainee's Guilt

A federal appeals court in Washington has ordered the recusal of a military judge from hearing an appeal in the Guantánamo military commission death penalty trial of five defendants accused of direct responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on August 8 that Judge Scott L. Silliman of the United States Court of Military Commission Review (CMCR) was disqualified from participating in appeals in the case because of prior public comments he had made prejudging the guilt of accused 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Lawyers for Mohammad had petitioned the court to have Silliman removed from the case, citing more than a dozen instances in which, they said, Silliman had made comments exhibiting a constitutionally intolerable risk of bias. Before becoming a judge, Silliman gave an interview to The World Today in 2010 about the case of Guantánamo Bay detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. During that interview, he said: “We’ve got the major conspirators in the 9/11 attacks still at Guantánamo Bay—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others.” Later in the same interview, Silliman compared Ghailani's culpability to that of Mohammed, calling them "two totally different types of cases” and saying “the magnitude of what they did is very different.” The judges wrote that “the Court can hardly perceive how calling Petitioner one of the ‘major conspirators in the 9/11 attacks’ and referring to what he 'did’ is anything other than the expression of an opinion concerning his responsibility for those attacks.” Such statements, they wrote, required Silliman to disqualify himself from the case. Because “Judge Silliman failed to do so," the court wrote, Mohammad had provided "clear and indisputable” grounds for his removal. Mohammad's petition also cited remarks made by Silliman in a 2008 interview with the Los Angeles Times, where he said that “we’re going to have a military commission for those the United States believes, and most of the world acknowledges, to be ring leaders of the 9/11 attacks.” The petition also said that Silliman was quoted in another media interview in 2011 discussing how and where Mohammad “will be” executed. The ruling vacates a June 29 order by the CMCR that had reinstated two charges against the defendants that the trial judge had dismissed. The CMCR will now have to re-hear the government's appeal of that issue before a new panel. University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck, who represents several Guantánamo detainees in petitions seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of their cases, called the decision “yet another stinging rebuke" of the CMCR by the Court of Appeals. He said the decision in Mohammad's case puts off resolution of another question raised concerning the CMCR, “whether active-duty military officers (including the other two judges on the CMCR panel that originally heard the government’s appeal) may lawfully serve as judges on the CMCR."

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.

Innocents Lost: Remembering The Wrongfully Condemned Who Died in 2015

Three death-row exonerees, including two who became symbols of the risks of wrongful capital convictions, died in 2015. David Keaton (pictured, far left), the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty, died on July 3 at the age of 63. A teenaged Keaton was sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based upon a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. Keaton was exonerated in 1973 when new evidence revealed the actual perpetrator. Glenn Ford (pictured, left), who was exonerated in 2014 after spending nearly 30 years on Louisiana's death row, died of lung cancer on June 29 at age 65. Ford was tried before an all-white jury, represented by appointed counsel who had never handled a criminal case. He was convicted despite the absence of any evidence linking him to the murder weapon, when prosecutors failed to disclose that confidential informants had identified two other men as the murderers. They ultimately admitted that "credible evidence" showed that "Ford was neither present at, nor a participant in," the murder. Death-row exoneree Andrew Golden, who spent 26 months on Florida's death row from 1991 to 1994, died in May. Golden had been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife although police investigators and the medical examiner had testified that the evidence did not suggest foul play. At least four other death-row prisoners who may have been wrongfully condemned - Lester BowerBrian Keith TerrellDonnis Musgrove, and Ronald Puksar - were executed or died on death row before judicial review of their cases were complete.

North Carolina Court Reverses Racial Justice Act Ruling, Orders New Hearings

The North Carolina Supreme Court has reversed the historic rulings of a Cumberland County, N.C. trial court that had overturned the death sentences of four North Carolina death-row prisoners under the state's Racial Justice Act. Ruling entirely on procedural grounds, the state's high court expressed no opinion on the lower court's fact findings that North Carolina prosecutors had engaged in a decades-long practice of intentional race discrimination in jury selection in capital cases. In April 2012, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks overturned the death sentence imposed on Marcus Robinson (pictured, left),holding that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” at the time of Robinson’s trial. After a second hearing in the cases of Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin, the court again found that “a wealth of evidence show[ed] the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” After the lower court overturned these death sentences and imposed sentences of life without parole, the North Carolina legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act law. In its ruling, the North Carolina Supreme Court said that the trial court should have given prosecutors more time to prepare for the evidentiary hearing at which the prisoners presented a comprehensive statistical analysis of North Carolina's exercise of discretionary strikes in capital prosecutions over a 20-year period. Writing that "fundamental fairness" required that the state be given "an adequate opportunity to prepare for this unusual and complex proceeding," the court invited both sides to present additional statistical evidence at a new hearing. In the second case, the court also said the three prisoners' Racial Justice Act claims should have been heard separately. Executions have been stayed indefinitely in North Carolina pending resolution of the Racial Justice Act litigation and will remain on hold.

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