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STUDY: Worst Crimes Carry Highest Risk of Bad Evidence, Wrongful Convictions

Two professors of sociology and criminology who reviewed more than 1500 cases in which convicted prisoners were later exonerated have found a direct relationship between the seriousness of the crime and miscarriages of justice: "the 'worst of the worst crimes,'” they say, "produce the 'worst of the worst evidence.'" In their research—reported in the law review article, The Worst of the Worst: Heinous Crimes and Erroneous Evidence—University of Denver professors Scott Phillips (pictured) and Jamie Richardson found that "as the seriousness of a crime increases, so too does the chance of a wrongful conviction." Prosecutions for the most serious crimes tend to involve the most inaccurate and unreliable evidence, they said, and the risks are greatest in cases producing murder convictions and death sentences. "The types of vile crimes in which the state is most apt to seek the death penalty are the same crimes in which the state is most apt to participate in the production of erroneous evidence..., from false confession to untruthful snitches, government misconduct, and bad science." Delving into the phenomenon of false confessions, the professors found that "[a]s the seriousness of a particular crime increases, or the seriousness of the general crime problem increases, police interrogation becomes more aggressive. In turn, aggressive interrogation produces more true confessions and more false confessions." They say police officers are under institutional pressures to solve high-profile cases and the "most heinous" and serious crimes, which leads them to use more aggressive tactics to obtain a confession. Phillips and Richardson divided cases with false confessions into two categories: general-population exonerees convicted in murder and other cases; and the cases of death-row exonerees, examined by the level of heinousness of the murder. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 234 of those 1535 exonerated from 1989 through 2014 falsely confessed, 22 of whom were sentenced to death. The sociologists found that 21% of those convicted of murder falsely confessed, as compared with only 7% of those convicted of less serious crimes. In exoneration cases in which DNA evidence bolstered claims of innocence, 41% of those wrongly convicted of murder had confessed, a false confessions rate that was seven times higher than those convicted of crimes other than murder. As for death-row exonerees, 39% of people who were convicted of the most heinous murders confessed, five times the false confession rate (7%) of those who convicted of murders the researchers had determined were less heinous. Phillips and Richardson also found that the heinousness of the murder predicts "the government's reliance on an untruthful snitch, government misconduct, and bad science." Of the death-row exonerations, the state committed misconduct in 86% percent of high-heinous murders, compared to 66% percent of low-heinous murders; the state used prison informant testimony implicating the wrong suspect in 42% of high-heinous murders, as compared to 15% of low-heinous murders; and bad science was presented in 39% of high heinous murders, compared to 23% of low heinous murders. 

Prosecutors Accept Life Plea by Severely Mentally Ill Man in Killing of Texas Sheriff's Deputy

Texas prosecutors have dropped their pursuit of the death penalty against a severely mentally ill capital defendant charged with what they characterized as the "ambush murder" of a Harris County sheriff’s deputy. Special prosecutor Brett Ligon (pictured, left)—the Montgomery County District Attorney who was handling the prosecution because Houston prosecutors had a conflict that prevented them from participating in the case—announced on September 13 that he had agreed to a plea deal in which Shannon Miles (pictured, right) would be sentenced to life without possibility of parole in the killing of Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth. Miles’s lawyers say that he has schizophrenia and episodic psychosis when he is not on psychiatric medication, that he has no memory of the murder, and that they intended to pursue an insanity defense in the case. In 2012, the trial court had declared Miles incompetent to be tried. In March of 2017, after treatment at a state mental hospital that had been delayed by a shortage of available beds, the court found Miles competent to stand trial. In explaining the plea deal, Ligon said "[t]he state's experts all came to the same conclusion, the likelihood of executing a mentally incompetent man was almost zero."  The victim’s widow, Kathleen Goforth, said she supported to deal because her two children “have been spared” the ordeal of extended death-penalty proceedings. She said, “They will not have the backdrop of their lives, for the next 10 to 25 years, being court dates, trials and appeals…. They won't have that inflicted upon them and that is merciful. It's compassionate and it's the right thing to do." Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Donald Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, said justice had been served by the plea deal. The plea had been entered against the backdrop of an emerging sex scandal. The sole grounds on which prosecutors could seek the death penalty in the case was if Officer Goforth had been killed in the performance of his duties. However, evidence had come to light that Goforth was at the gas station to meet his mistress, who was a witness to the murder and would be called upon to testify in the case. Two sheriff’s officers—one who was assigned to investigate the case—had been fired for having sexual relations with the woman, and a third had been fired for sending her an email soliciting sex. The Goforth murder once again focused attention on the role of mental illness in premeditated murders of police officers. In July 2016, in unrelated incidents, mentally ill Gulf War veterans who exhibited symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder fatally shot five police officers in Dallas, Texas and three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In July 2015, a Washington jury sentenced a mentally ill and delusional capital defendant, Christopher Monfort, to life without parole for the ambush murder of a Seattle police officer.

Human Rights Groups Urge U.S. Government To Sanction Officials Accused Of Torture, Executions Under New Law

A coalition of 23 human rights groups, including Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Reprieve, has urged the United States government to issue sanctions against foreign government officials who they say have used the death penalty to repress political dissent by torturing peaceful protesters into confessing to capital offenses they did not commit. In a September 12, 2017 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the non-governmental organizations ("NGOs")  asked the United States to invoke provisions of the Global Magnitsky Act, a new law that "authorizes the President to impose financial sanctions and visa restrictions on foreign persons in response to certain human rights violations and acts of significant corruption." The law, enacted in 2012 and expanded in 2016, was named after Sergei Magnitsky (pictured), a Russian lawyer and whistleblower who was beaten and died in a Moscow prison in 2009. The letter called the sanctions available under the act “a potentially revolutionary tool” to deter human rights abuses by "those that would use violence to silence dissent and maintain their grip on power." The NGOs requested that the State Department and U.S. Treasury investigate 15 cases "from every region of the world" that, they say, "involve horrific stories of torture, enforced disappearance, murder, sexual assault, extortion and bribery.” They ask the U.S. to investigate Bahrain's Chief of Public Prosecution, Ali bin Fadhul Al Buainain, for his alleged involvement in the torture of Shia political activist Ali al-Singace and two others, and their execution on January 15, 2017. The rights groups say Bahraini prosecutors "sought and obtained the harshest possible punishment, the death sentence, with full awareness that the defendants claimed their confessions had been coerced and that the case had been marred from the start by this and other grave violations of due process." They also seek investigation of judges on Saudia Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court, who "repeatedly rel[ied] on confessions allegedly obtained through torture" in convicting members of religious minorities for participating in pro-democracy protests in 2011. The NGOs say the judges also "sentenced several of the defendants to death for conduct allegedly undertaken while they were minors," in violation of international law and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Reprieve's Director, Maya Foa, who oversees the organization's strategic initiatives on the death penalty and extreme human rights abuses, called the use of torture to force confessions, executing children, and using the death penalty to suppress free speech "grotesque rights abuses that fly in the face of American values." She said the U.S. should use the powers of the Global Magnitsky Act "to hold to account the individuals responsible for gross human rights abuses, and to save the lives of innocent young [protesters]." Senator John McCain, one of the authors of the Global Magnitsky Act and its amendments, said the involvement of non-governmental human rights organizations is crucial to the success of the Act. In a statement to Reuters, he said he "will continue working to ensure the administration enforces the law and utilizes this powerful tool to advance freedom and justice around the world.” Rob Berchinski, Senior Vice President of Policy at Human Rights First, said “[o]ur process is designed to assist the government.... Now the question is simply one of political will.” The Act requires the White House to report to Congress by December 10 on sanctions it has imposed under the law.

Ohio Executes Gary Otte as State and Federal Courts Decline to Review Use of Death Penalty Against Those Under Age 21

Ohio executed Gary Otte on September 13 after both the United States Supreme Court and the Ohio Supreme Court declined to review his challenge to the constitutionality of applying the death penalty against people who were younger than age 21 at the time of the offense. Otte's lawyer, supervisory assistant federal public defender Carol Wright, said Otte exhibited "abnormal" chest and stomach movements when he was injected with the execution drug, midazolam, showing signs of struggling for air and what she described as "air hunger." Wright attempted to leave the witness room to reach a phone to alert a federal judge to possible problems with the execution, but prison officials delayed her exit for several minutes and it took several more minutes to reach the court. By that time, Otte's stomach movements had ceased and the court declined to intervene. Corrections spokesperson, JoEllen Smith, said the prison "followed proper security protocol, and once [Wright's] identity and intention was verified she was given permission to exit the room." Smith said the execution was "carried out in compliance with the execution policy and without complication." Otte had sought stays of execution from the state and federal courts, asking them to review his claim that his death sentence should be overturned because he was only 20 years old at the time he killed Robert Wasikowski and Sharon Kostura in 1992. Otte's lawyers cited an August 2017 decision by a Kentucky trial court that had found the brain development and maturation of individuals aged 18-20 to be similar in critical respects to that of adolescents under age 18, and had declared the death penalty unconstitutionally cruel and unusual for defendants under age 21. They argued that "[t]he current scientific understanding of adolescent development underscores [that] their moral culpability is reduced making them categorically exempt from the death penalty." The Kentucky trial court issued a second ruling on September 6 that barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against an 18-year-old defendant in another case. On Tuesday night, September 12, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the issue and denied a stay of execution. The Ohio Supreme Court followed suit on the morning of September 13. Otte was pronounced dead shortly before 11:00 a.m.

NEW PODCAST: DPIC Study Finds No Evidence that Death Penalty Deters Murder or Protects Police

A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of U.S. murder data from 1987 through 2015 has found no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or protects police. Instead, the evidence shows that murder rates, including murders of police officers, are consistently higher in death-penalty states than in states that have abolished the death penalty. And far from experiencing increases in murder rates or open season on law enforcement, the data show that states that have abolished the death penalty since 2000 have the lowest rates of police officers murdered in the line of duty and that killings of police account for a much smaller percentage of murders in those states. In a new Discussions With DPIC podcast, "Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?," DPIC Fellow Seth Rose and Executive Director Robert Dunham explore the assertions long made by death-penalty proponents that capital punishment advances public safety by deterring murders and by protecting police officers. Dunham said the short answer—after analyzing twenty-nine years of annual murder data from FBI Uniform Crime Reports ("UCR") and FBI annual data on Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted, Officers Feloniously Killed ("LEOKA reports")—is no. "There's no evidence that the death penalty deters murder and there's no evidence that it protects the police," Dunham says. "Murder rates may be affected by many things, but the death penalty doesn't appear to be one of them." DPIC divided the states into three categories to analyze murders and murder trends: states that have long had the death penalty ("death-penalty states"), states that have long abolished capital punishment ("non-death-penalty states"), and states that have abolished capital punishment since 2000 ("transitional states"). The data show that the death-penalty states had an overall UCR murder rate that was 1.39 times higher than the non-death penalty states and accounted for 12 of the 16 states with the highest murder rates. Police officers were murdered in death-penalty states at a rate that was 1.37 times higher than in non-death-penalty states, and accounted for 22 of the 25 states with the highest LEOKA rates of officers feloniously killed. Killings of police were lowest, however, in the transitional states that most recently abolished the death penalty. And while killings of officers accounted for 33 of every 10,000 murders in both death-penalty and non-death-penalty states, they were 1.6 times lower in transitional states. What the numbers show, Dunham says, is that "the death penalty doesn't drive murder rates; murder rates drive the death penalty." While the death penalty, he says, "makes no measurable contribution" to police safety, "the rate at which police officers are killed drives the political debate about the death penalty." 

Sixteen Years Later, No Date in Sight for Death-Penalty Trial of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators

Sixteen years later, the alleged perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 hijackings and attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and the downing of Flight 93, have yet to be tried, and issues relating to the use of evidence obtained by torture, the appropriateness and legality of trials by military commission, and where and how they should be tried raise questions as to whether and when a trial may take place. The five men charged in the attack—alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and alleged co-conspirators Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi—remain detained in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, facing 2,973 individual counts of murder. Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and turned over to the CIA, charged in 2008, and arraigned in 2012. A 2014 report on CIA interrogations by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—known as “The Torture Report”—documents that Mohammed was subjected to numerous acts of torture, including sleep deprivation, "rectal rehydration," and being waterboarded 183 times in a single month. As with the case of accused USS Cole bombing suspect, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the five defendants have accused the government of continuing misconduct and are challenging the legality of the military commissions that have been established to conduct the terrorism trials, the use of evidence obtained by means of torture, and the destruction of evidence they say is vital to defend the case. Military prosecutors have requested a January 2019 trial date, with fast-tracked briefing deadlines that trial judge Army Col. James L. Pohl has already said he will not adopt. But given the numerous pre-trial issues that need to be resolved, defense lawyers say it could be years before the men face trial. These issues include whether the judge and his staff have a high enough level of security clearance to review top secret documents that are critical to defense motions challenging the reliability of confessions made to FBI agents by defendant Ammar al-Baluchi in post-torture interrogations conducted shortly after al-Baluchi arrived at Guantánamo in 2006. Another issue is whether the defendants should be tried in civilian court or by a military commission. In 2011, then-Attorney General Eric Holder warned that Mohammed’s case could take years to bring to trial unless it were transferred to a civilian court. Michael Bachrach, an attorney who represented Ahmed Ghailani, the Tanzanian al-Qaida terrorist convicted in New York in 2010 for his part in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, says that Ghailani’s case proved that a fair civilian trial is possible. “We had classified and unclassified material involved, torture involved, and the jury saw what was necessary for them to see," Bachrach said. "Can Mohammed get a fair trial by military commission? I’m not as confident about that.” Mohammed's lawyer, David Nevin, told The Guardian that, once it gets started, the trial itself could last for more than a year, followed by appeals that could take nearly two decades. “There’s every possibility that [Mohammed] will die in prison before this process is completed,” he said. With the reduced life expectancy of "someone who’s been tortured," he said, "you have to ask, why exactly are we doing this, or doing it in this way? We are spending millions and millions of [public] dollars every week for something that could be pointless.”

Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.

Three Years Later, Report Explores Lessons From Two North Carolina Death-Penalty Exonerations

On the third anniversary of their groundbreaking exoneration, a new report by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL) reviews in-depth the long path from wrongful convictions and death sentences to freedom traveled by former North Carolina death-row prisoners Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. By the time DNA evidence exonerated the brothers of the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, McCollum had spent 30 years on death row and Brown was serving a life sentence for Buie's rape, after his murder conviction and death sentence had been overturned. Justice Antonin Scalia had singled out the case as epitomizing why there should be a death penalty. According to the report, if not for a single cigarette butt, “Henry and Leon would likely have remained in prison for the rest of their lives. Henry might have been executed.” Although no physical evidence connected the brothers to the murder, the 19-year-old McCollum had signed a written confession that asserted he and three others had raped Buie and murdered her by stuffing her panties down her throat. His younger brother, Leon Brown, then 15 years old, also confessed to the crime. However, the CDPL report, Saved From Execution: The Unlikely Exoneration of Henry McCollum, notes that the two intellectually disabled teenagers had been "naive, powerless, and intimidated by a cadre of law enforcement officers ... into signing false confessions. Every gory detail in those confessions," the report recounts, "was provided by investigators ..., but law enforcement never followed up on clues that might have led to the real killer. An overzealous prosecutor with a flair for courtroom theatrics hyped the manufactured evidence. And the state illegally withheld facts that might have allowed Henry and Leon’s attorneys to prove their innocence." The CDPL represented McCollum for two decades. Gretchen Engel, the Center's Executive Director, said the case “shows us the power that law enforcement and prosecutors have in our system, and how that power can be abused. It shows us how hard it is to uncover a wrongful conviction. It shows us that even cases we think are airtight can get the facts entirely wrong.” In 2005, testing on the cigarette butt had produced DNA that did not match either McCollum or Brown, but their convictions remained unaffected. Then, in 2009, Brown—having exhausted his appeals in his non-capital case—sought review from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, one of the few such commissions in existence in the country. In 2014, the Inquiry Commission ordered more advanced DNA testing of the cigarette butt, and the results matched another man who had lived around the corner from the Buies in 1983 and who raped and killed another young woman later that year. In 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory granted McCollum and Brown pardons based on innocence. Since being freed from 30 years of incarceration (including 10 years in solitary confinement and numerous sexual assaults at the hands of other prisoners), Brown has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and repeatedly hospitalized for mental health problems, including hallucinations and depression.

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