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Murder Victims’ Family Members Speak of Moving Forward, Without the Death Penalty 

Family members of murder victims share no single, uniform response to the death penalty, but two recent publications illustrate that a growing number of these families are now advocating against capital punishment. In From Death Into Life, a feature article in the January 8, 2018 print edition of the Jesuit magazine America, Lisa Murtha profiles the stories of how several prominent victim-advocates against the death penalty came to hold those views. And in a recently released compilation of essays, Not in Our Name, nine family members of murder victims share their stories of coping, grieving, and reconciliation in the face of losing a loved one to murder, and tell how their experiences transformed their views about capital punishment. “While each has endured the extreme pain of losing a loved one to murder, they all are staunchly opposed to what they say is more violence in the form of a state-sanctioned execution and a death penalty,” said Ron Steiner, leader of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which released the essays in November. The death penalty is often characterized as providing justice and closure for family members of the victims. But, Murtha writes, "for many, the death penalty provides neither the closure nor the healing that legal and political systems oftentimes promise. Instead, a growing number of victims’ families are saying it inhibits that healing." Murtha reports on the different reasons offered by five different victims’ families who spoke out against the death penalty in 2016. "One learned how profoundly the murderer had changed in prison, another just wanted the appeals to stop and another discovered that the men originally convicted of the crime were actually innocent," she writes. Murtha also recounts the emotional journeys of Bob Curley, Marietta Jaeger Lane, and Bill Pelke, who are now vocal opponents of the death penalty. After his 10-year-old son Jeffrey was murdered, Curley launched a years-long crusade to reinstate capital punishment in Massachusetts, believing the death penalty might prevent something like this from happening [again].” He came to oppose the death penalty after seeing that the man he believed was less culpable for the death of his son received a harsher sentence and became convinced that "the system is just not fair" and could not be trusted to reach the right result in capital cases. Lane, a lifelong practicing Catholic, said she initially wanted to kill the man who abducted and murdered her 7-year old daughter, but she said, "I surrendered [and] did the only thing I could do, which was [give] God permission to change my heart.” Pelke's 78-year-old grandmother was robbed and murdered by group of teenage girls, and 15-year-old Paula Cooper was sentenced to death. Pelke was convinced his grandmother "would have had love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family and that she wanted me to have that same sort of love and compassion. I learned the most important lesson of my life .... I didn’t have to see somebody else die in order to bring healing from Nana’s death.”

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Federal Appeals Court to Reconsider Case Involving Racially Biased Juror

The U.S. Supreme Court has directed a federal appeals court to reconsider whether Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured) is entitled to federal court review of his claim that he was unconstitutionally sentenced to death because he is black. On January 8, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 opinion sending Tharpe's case—in which a racist juror used an offensive slur to describe the defendant and doubted whether African Americans have souls—back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration whether the federal courts should hear his claim of juror bias. Seven years after Tharpe was sentenced to death, his attorneys obtained a sworn affidavit reviewed and initialed by Barney Gattie, a white man who served as a juror at Tharpe's trial. In his statement, Gattie said, "After studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls," and, "there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Ni[**]ers." Gattie also expressed his belief that Tharpe "wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, [and] should get the electric chair for what he did." According to Gattie, the victim was one of the "nice black folks," but "[i]f [the victim] had been the type Tharpe is, then picking between life and death for Tharpe wouldn’t have mattered so much." Despite these statements, the Georgia state courts rejected Tharpe’s racial-bias claim after prosecutors obtained a second affidavit from Gattie asserting that he was not a bigot. State prosecutors have not denied that Gattie made these statements, but have attempted to defend them by saying that Gattie had been drinking when he signed the affidavit. The Georgia federal courts had also denied Tharpe relief on the claim, deferring to the fact-finding of the state courts that Gattie's bigoted statements were not prejudicial. However, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two major cases that Tharpe said required the federal courts to reconsider his claim:  Buck v. Davis, a Texas death-penalty case in which the racially biased testimony of an expert witness created an unacceptable risk that Buck was sentenced to death because he was black, and Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, a case that overturned a state-court rule that prevented defendants from using racially biased statements made by a juror as evidence of juror misconduct during deliberations. Georgia was scheduled to execute Tharpe in September 2017, but the Supreme Court granted him a last-minute stay to decide whether to review his case. The Court ultimately accepted review of the case, issued a per curiam ruling in Tharpe v. Sellers  without further briefing or argument, and returned the case to the Eleventh Circuit, which must now consider whether to issue a Certificate of Appealability—a procedural prerequisite to considering an issue on appeal. Brian Kammer, Tharpe's attorney, said, "We are thankful that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the serious implications for fundamental fairness of the clear evidence of racial animus on the part of one of the jurors who sentenced Mr. Tharpe to death." Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, criticizing the Court for interfering in the case and failing to respect the lower courts' judgments.

Conservative Voices Continue to Call for End of Death Penalty

From October 2016 to October 2017, support for capital punishment among those identifying themselves as Republicans fell by ten percetage points. Two op-eds published towards the end of the year illustrate the growing conservative opposition to the death penalty. Writing in The Seattle Times on December 27, Republican State Senator Mark Miloscia (pictured, l.) called for bipartisan efforts to repeal Washington's death-penalty statute. In a December 13 commentary in the Washington Times, conservative political strategist Richard Viguerie (pictured, r.) describes what he calls the "stunning" surge in Republican sponsorship of bills to end capital punishment. Setting forth moral and practical reasons for his support of Washington Senate Bill 5354, Miloscia writes that "[i]t is time to pass a strong, bipartisan repeal of the death penalty." Miloscia cites his Catholic pro-life beliefs as the primary reason for his opposition to capital punishment and highlights Pope Francis' calls for an end to the death penalty. He writes, "Given our modern prison system and ability to neutralize individuals as threats without killing them, it is never imperative to execute someone." But beyond religious beliefs alone, Miloscia sees "many practical reasons why conservatives of all faiths are rethinking the death penalty." Among them, he cites the high cost of capital punishment and the "ever-present risk of killing an innocent person," which he says are "even more unjustifiable" given the absence of any valid evidence that executions affect murder rates. Further, he writes, "many murder victims’ families oppose capital punishment because it’s little more than a long, re-traumatizing process that doesn’t give them the justice that they deserve." Miloscia sees a major shift underway in Republican thinking on the issue, paving a path for bipartisan repeal: "Republicans are turning against the death penalty, which means that opposition to capital punishment is no longer a partisan stance. As the death penalty slowly loses its supporting constituency, the punishment’s future becomes doubtful." Conservative leader Richard Viguerie also sees a dramatic change in how conservatives view the death penalty. Viguerie cites a 2017 report by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which found a surge in Republican sponsorship of death-penalty abolition bills that Viguerie says "has been gaining momentum." As part of this "massive shift," he writes, one-third of all sponsors of death-penalty repeal bills in 2016 were Republicans. Viguerie writes, "conservatives are recognizing that capital punishment is a broken government program that runs counter to conservatism’s foundational tenets of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government." He, too, points to religion, and Catholicism in particular, as a reason for conservative opposition, but says that the Tea Party movement—with its support of limited government—and the election of younger legislators who are statistically more likely to oppose the death penalty, has contributed to the change. He foresees a continuing decline in conservative support for the death penalty: "As state legislatures undergo their makeovers, the public turns against the death penalty, and political leaders voice their capital punishment concerns, we should expect to see even more from Republican officials. Republicans will likely continue to sponsor repeal bills with increasing frequency and reverse the flawed criminal justice policies once advocated by their ideological predecessors of the 1980s and 1990s."

Retired Lt. General: Exclude Mentally Ill Vets from the Death Penalty

Saying that the death penalty should “be reserved for the ‘worst of the worst in our society,’” retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) has urged the Tennessee state legislature to adopt pending legislation that would bar the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, General Castellaw writes that the death penalty “should not be prescribed for those with severe mental illnesses, including those people with illnesses connected to their military service.” 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. “[A]s many as 30 percent of the veterans from Vietnam through today’s conflicts suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” General Castellaw writes, some of whom have not “receive[d] the care they needed and the care our country promised.” The General tells the story of Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was diagnosed with service-related PTSD and bipolar disorder. Brannan was convicted and sentenced to death in Georgia for killing a deputy sheriff during a traffic stop in which he had behaved erratically and had begged the officer to shoot him. Despte no prior criminal record and having a 100 percent disability rating from the Veterans Administration, Georgia executed Brannan. His final words were, “I am proud to have been able to walk point for my comrades, and pray that the same thing does not happen to any of them.” In arguing for a mental-illness exemption from the death penalty, General Castellaw writes, “[a]s Americans, 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. As Tennesseans, we can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness.” The Tennessee legislature is expected to consider Senate Bill 378 and House Bill 345 later this year. A similar bill under consideration in Ohio has recently received the support of the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board. In a January 3 editorial, the newspaper called Ohio Senate Bill 40 “common-sense, bipartisan—and humane.” Under both the Tennessee and Ohio proposals, people who commit murder but are found to have one of five severe mental illnesses would face a maximum sentence of life without parole.

Pledging No Death Penalty, Larry Krasner Sworn In As Philadelphia's District Attorney

Saying “[a] movement was sworn in today,” long-time civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner (pictured)—who pledged to end Philadelphia's use of the death penalty—took the oath of office on January 2 as district attorney in a county that only five years ago had the third largest death row of any county in the country. Krasner's inaugural address put a face on the “[t]ransformational change in criminal justice" he had called for during the election, saying it was time to begin “trading jails—and death row—for schools,” “jail cells occupied by people suffering from addiction for treatment and harm reduction,” and “division between police and the communities they serve for unity and reconciliation.” Krasner's election has drawn national attention, as social-justice activists focus on new strategies to bring about social change. The Los Angeles Times placed Krasner among "a growing list of district attorneys around the country ... who have declared that their role isn’t simply to prosecute, but to protect defendants from the excesses of the criminal justice system." The American Prospect described "[t]he relatively quick swing from a death penalty devotee to a crusading reformer at the helm of a major American city’s DA office [as] both a distillation of a long-brewing shift in the politics of crime—away from the standard tough-on-crime bromides and toward a smarter approach to justice—and emblematic of a new recognition from progressives that electing allies into DA offices could be one of the most effective ways to reform the system from the inside." Since 2015, "reform" prosecutors have been elected to replace prosecutors in counties historically known for their aggressive use of the death penalty, including Harris (Houston), Texas; Duval (Jacksonville), Orange (Orlando), and Hillsborough (Tampa), Florida; Caddo Parish (Shreveport), Louisiana; and Jefferson (Birmingham), Alabama. But Clarise McCants, campaign director for the racial-justice organization, Color of Change, is eyeing upcoming district attorney races in 2018, saying “[t]he small number of [reform-minded] prosecutors we have elected so far is nothing compared to the kind of impact we could have.” Krasner takes the reins of an office most recently headed by Ronald CastilleLynne Abraham, and Seth Williams. Castille served as district attorney from 1986-1991, obtaining 45 death sentences and then participating in appeals in those cases after being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Abraham was dubbed “America's Deadliest DA,” obtaining 108 death sentences in her 19 years as district attorney between 1991 and 2009. She was replaced by Williams, who resigned after being convicted in 2017 of corruption charges. Krasner's election culminates two decades of dramatically declining death penalty use in Philadelphia. Death sentences, which averaged 9.9 per year in the 1990s, have fallen to an average of fewer than one per year this decade. 

Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Mentally Incompetent Death-Row Prisoner

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the sentence of mentally incompetent death-row prisoner William Joseph Burns (pictured) on December 29, 2017, after multiple mental-health experts said Burns was unlikely to regain sufficient competency for his death sentence to ever be carried out. Burns, whose sentence was converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, became the fifth death-row prisoner to have been granted clemency in the United States in 2017. Burns was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law. Showing signs of severe mental illness, Burns was found incompetent to stand trial in 1999, delaying his trial for a year. At trial, his lawyers presented mitigating evidence that Burns had mental retardation (now known as intellectual disability), but the jury returned a death verdict. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 2001, but in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the use of the death penalty against people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment. In 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Burns had presented sufficient evidence of intellectual disability to warrant a trial on that issue. However, Burns exhibited continuing signs of severe mental illness and a court-appointed mental-health expert determined that he was actively psychotic, spawning more than a decade of litigation over his competency to stand trial. In issuing the commutation, McAuliffe wrote that the “continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns, both as a matter of constitutional principle and legal practicality, cannot be justified.” McAuliffe noted that Virginia has already spent more than $350,000 in "treating, transferring, monitoring, and litigating whether Mr. Burns has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether he has the intellectual capacity to be executed" and mental-health experts "have confirmed that Mr. Burns is not likely to be restored to competence. ... As of now," the Governor said, "there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence on Mr. Burns, and there is no clear path for that ever being possible." The commutation, McAuliffe said, "brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim’s family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the Commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course." Virginia governors have commuted ten death sentences since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in October 1975. In 2000, following DNA testing that proved his innocence, Governor Jim Gillmore granted an absolute pardon to Earl Washington. Most recently, Governor McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz five days before his scheduled April 25, 2017 execution, noting that the prosecution's use of false evidence to influence the jury's sentencing determination resulted in a death verdict that “was terribly flawed and unfair.”

Former Death-Row Prisoner Exonerated in Illinois, Seized by ICE

Former Illinois death-row prisoner Gabriel Solache (pictured), a Mexican national whose death sentence was one of 157 commuted by Governor George Ryan in January 2003, was exonerated on December 21, 2017 after twenty years of wrongful imprisonment, but immediately seized by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Cook County prosecutors dropped charges against Solache and his co-defendant Arturo DeLeon-Reyes after Circuit Court Judge James Obbish overturned their convictions, finding that disgraced Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara had told “bald-faced lies” under oath when he testified to having no memory of interrogating Solache and DeLeon-Reyes and denied having beaten false confessions out of the men. DeLeon-Reyes also was immediately arrested by ICE agents. Solache and DeLeon-Reyes were convicted in separate trials, and Solache was sentenced to death, for the 1998 stabbing deaths of Jacinta and Mariano Soto during a home robbery. No physical or biological evidence linked either man to the murder, but they were convicted based upon confessions they have long said were coerced by Guevara over the course of three days of interrogation in which they were denied their right to consular assistance by the Mexican government, deprived of sleep, and given little food or drink until they falsely implicated themselves. Solache's purported confession was written entirely in English by an assistant state attorney who did not speak Spanish. Solache did not speak or read English and said that Guevara never translated the written statement for Solache before getting him to sign it. Guevera has been accused of framing defendants of murder in 51 cases. According to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, Solache and DeLeon-Reyes are the sixth and seventh defendants freed in the last two years as a result of misconduct by Guevara. To date, nine defendants have been released in cases in which Guevara was alleged to have beaten them or coerced witnesses into providing false testimony. Solache is the 161st person wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the United States to have been exonerated since 1973, and the twenty-first in Illinois. At least a dozen of those exonerations have involved misconduct by Chicago police, including five cases in which the notorious "Burge Squad" beat or tortured confessions out of innocent defendants. Aaron Patterson, Leroy OrangeMadison Hobley, and Stanley Howard—members of the "Death Row Ten," who asserted that their convictions were the product of false confessions obtained as a result of police torture at the hands of notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge—received full pardons by Governor Ryan. Ronald Kitchen, another member of the Death Row Ten, was exonerated in July 2009. Among the tactics the "Burge Squad" employed to elicit confessions were shocking suspects in the genitals with cattle prods, beating suspects over the head with phonebooks, and pointing guns in the faces of minors.

Judge Finds New Jersey Federal Capital Defendant Intellectually Disabled, Bars Death Penalty

A New Jersey U.S. district court judge has barred federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against Farad Roland, finding that Roland is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for capital punishment. After an eighteen-day evidentiary hearing featuring sixteen witnesses, Judge Esther Salas ruled on December 18 that Roland—accused of five killings in connection with a drug-trafficking gang—had "abundantly satisfied his burden of proving his intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence." In 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that subjecting individuals with intellectual disability to the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. Judge Salas's ruling came almost exactly ten years after New Jersey abolished the death penalty, and ended efforts to obtain what would have been the first death sentence imposed in the state since abolition. The federal government may seek the death penalty in federal court under federal law, irrespective of whether the state in which the federal trial takes place itself authorizes capital punishment. The only other federal death-penalty case that has been tried in New Jersey ended with a life sentence in May 2007. Roland's was the third federal capital case in the last year in which a defendant was spared the death penalty because of intellectual disability. In June 2017, federal prosecutors announced they would not appeal a New York federal district court's determination that former death-row prisoner Ronell Wilson is intellectually disabled. Wilson had faced a capital resentencing hearing after his 2007 federal death sentence was overturned as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. In January 2017, President Barack Obama commuted the death sentence of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, in part because of evidence that Ortiz is intellectually disabled. Judge Salas found that Roland had satisfied all three prongs of the test to determine Intellectual Disability: "(1) intellectual-functioning deficits (indicated by an IQ score approximately two standard deviations below the mean—i.e., a score of roughly 70—adjusted for the standard error of measurement); (2) adaptive deficits (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances); and (3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor." Accordingly, she concluded, "Roland is ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment and the FDPA [Federal Death Penalty Act]." In comments to NJ Advance Media, Roland's attorney, Richard Jasper, called Judge Salas's decision "a thorough, detailed, thoughtful 135 page opinion that speaks for itself."

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