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Federal Appeals Court Upholds Ohio Lethal-Injection Process, Vacates Execution Stays

A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on June 28 reversed the decision of a federal district court that had stayed executions in Ohio. In an 8-6 en banc decision, the court voted to allow Ohio to proceed with executions using a proposed combination of the controversial sedative midazolam, the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, and the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride. Midazolam has been implicated in botched executions in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma and flawed executions in Arkansas. After a five-day evidentiary hearing in early January 2017, the District Court issued a preliminary injunction that stayed the executions of Ohio death-row prisoners Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, and Gary Otte. At that time, it found "that administration of a paralytic drug and potassium chloride will cause a person severe pain" that would not be amerliorated by using midazolam, that the protocol itself created a "substantial" and "objectively intolerable" risk of serious harm, and that a compounded version of the drug pentobarbital was available as an alternative method of execution. The State appealed that decision to the Sixth Circuit, and in April, a three-judge panel affirmed the lower court's decision. The State then appealed that decision to the full court (a procedure called en banc review). The majority agreed that the prisoners "have shown some risk that Ohio’s execution protocol may cause some degree of pain," but said "some risk of pain 'is inherent in any method of execution—no matter how humane'” and "the Constitution does not guarantee ‘a pain-free execution.’” Allen Bohnert, one of the lawyers for the prisoners, said in a statement: "Multiple executions have demonstrated that midazolam is not a suitable drug for lethal injection, and especially when used with the two excruciatingly painful drugs Ohio abandoned in 2009. ... Ohio should not take the risk of continued botched executions by going back to using these dangerous, unsuitable drugs." He said the prisoners will seek review of the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court because "[n]o one in Ohio wants to see another botched execution." The decision permits Ohio to move forward with 30 executions that are scheduled between this month and 2021, while the District Court conducts a full trial on the lethal-injection challenge brought by death-row prisoners. Ohio has scheduled the execution of Ronald Phillips for July 26.

New Podcast: Duane Buck's Appeal Lawyer Tells Story of His Case, Discusses Future Dangerousness and Racial Bias

In DPIC's latest podcast, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Litigation Director Christina Swarns (pictured, center, outside the U.S. Supreme Court following the argument in Buck v. Davis) discusses the issues of race, future dangerousness, and ineffective representation presented in the landmark case. She calls the case—in which a Texas trial lawyer who represented 21 clients sent to death row presented an expert witness who testified that his own client was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black—"astonishing" and "a complete failure, literally, of all aspects of the criminal justice system." Swarns argued in the Supreme Court on behalf of Texas death-row prisoner Duane Buck, one of seven death-row prisoners whose trials were tainted by the racist testimony of Texas psychologist Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck presented a greater risk of future dangerousness because he is black. The Texas Attorney General's office conceded the impropriety of the testimony and agreed to new sentencing hearings in the other cases, but when a new attorney general was elected, opposed relief for Buck. In Texas, a jury must find that a defendant is a future danger to society as a prerequisite to imposing the death penalty, and the prosecutor seized on Dr. Quijano's testimony as a reason to sentence Buck to die. On February 22, 2017, nearly 20 years after his trial and after all state and federal courts to have considered his case had denied relief, the Supreme Court overturned Buck’s death sentence. In a conversation with DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, Swarns explains how Buck's case made its way to the Supreme Court, and how racial bias and the concept of future dangerousness are inextricably linked. Texas had argued that Quijano's testimony, while improper, was harmless because his and the prosecutor's comments on race were very short. Swarns, however, explains that "[t]he race-as-dangerousness link is so pernicious and so ingrained in history and culture and the death penalty in this country, that ... the explicit introduction of that evidence by a defense expert can only be deeply prejudicial ... no matter how many lines of transcript space it occupies." Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the Court's majority opinion, agreed, stating, "When a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses." Later in the discussion, Swarns places the Buck case in the broader context of the historically racially discriminatory application of the death penalty in the U.S. "This is a story as old as the death penalty itself," she says. "There has never been a time, there has never been a place in the administration of the death penalty where there isn't a race effect. Period. Hard stop."

European Union Calls for Abolition of Capital Punishment as World Coalition Hosts International Death Penalty Conference

At an international death penalty conference in Washington, DC, hosted by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the European Union strongly renewed its call for a global end to the use of capital punishment. In his opening remarks for the conference, David O'Sullivan, the European Union's Ambassador to the United States, expressed optimism about recent declines in the use of the death penalty in the United States and said "the abolition of capital punishment ... would put the U.S. on the right side of history." On June 22-24, 2017, government representatives, non-governmental organizations, abolitionists, and death-penalty experts from around the world gathered on the campus of Catholic University in Washington, DC for a conference on the state of the death penalty throughout the world and a celebration of the World Coalition's 15th anniversary. The 2017 conference looked in-depth at the relationship between poverty and capital punishment, with speakers from India, Nigeria, and the U.S. describing the pervasive impact of poverty on crime, death-penalty charging practices, and access to qualified defense counsel and the courts. Other sessions included a panel of seven U.S. death-row exonerees, who discussed their cases and the inherent risk of sentencing innocent people to death. In his remarks, Ambassador O'Sullivan described as an "inherent flaw of the death penalty ... that it is deeply rooted in social injustice. Everywhere the death penalty is applied globally, statistics show that it discriminates against the poor, the minorities and the marginalised citizens of a society." O'Sullivan said, "[a]s a union founded on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, it is natural for us to oppose [the death penalty]." He described capital punishment as "a dehumanizing practice" that disserves victims' families. "We are also convinced that it is an illusion to believe that the death penalty deters the most serious crimes," he said. "What we need, in the United States and in those countries where the death penalty continues to be legal, is a vibrant civil society working in conjunction with political leaders, who together with public support will work to repeal the death penalty, thus ending this blight on our common humanity."

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Texas Death-Row Prisoner Cannot Challenge Ineffectiveness of His Appeal Lawyer

In a 5-4 decision released June 26, the United States Supreme Court upheld the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, denying review of Texas death-row prisoner Erick Daniel Davila's claim that he had been provided ineffective representation by his state appeal lawyer. The case, Davila v. Davis, raised the question of whether two earlier Supreme Court decisions (Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler) permitted a federal court to review a prisoner's claim that his direct appeal counsel had been ineffective, if—because of his state post-conviction lawyer's ineffectiveness—the appellate ineffectiveness claim had never been presented to the state courts. Davila's federal habeas corpus lawyer challenged an improper jury instruction to which his trial lawyer had objected at trial, but both his direct appeal and his state habeas lawyers failed to raise the issue. When his state habeas lawyer also failed to challenge the adequacy of his appellate lawyer's performance in failing to raise the issue, the federal habeas court ruled that the claim was procedurally defaulted and would not be reviewed. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that Martinez is limited to claims of trial counsel's ineffectiveness and does not apply to appellate-ineffectiveness claims. "Because a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings, ineffective assistance in those proceedings does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default," Thomas wrote. He said granting prisoners like Davila federal review of meritorious claims of constitutional error "could flood the federal courts with defaulted claims of appellate ineffectiveness," calling that "especially troublesome because those claims could serve as the gateway to federal review of a host of trial errors." Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, arguing that the majority had interpreted Martinez too narrowly. "[E]ffective trial counsel and appellate counsel are inextricably connected elements of a fair trial," Breyer wrote. He added, “[t]he fact that ... nearly a third of convictions or sentences in capital cases are overturned at some stage of review suggests the practical importance of the appeal right, particularly in a capital case such as this one.” The dissent also said the majority’s concern was unfounded that granting review of the type of constitutional violation in Davila's case would overburden federal habeas corpus courts. He wrote, “there is no evidence before us that Martinez has produced a greater-than-expected increase in courts’ workload.”

Lawyers for Seriously Mentally Ill Virginia Death-Row Prisoner Ask Governor for Clemency

Lawyers for William Morva (pictured), a seriously mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from a delusional disorder that leaves him unable to distinguish his delusions from reality, has petitioned Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe seeking clemency from his scheduled July 6, 2017 execution. Morva's lawyers say that he has suffered for years from "a serious psychotic disorder" that includes beliefs that "local law enforcement and the Administration of former President George W. Bush conspired to harass him, to arrest him unjustly, and to incarcerate him in jail conditions that would cause his death." He also believes that he suffers from "a life-threatening gastrointestinal condition that require[s] him to spend hours every day on a toilet and adhere to a diet of raw meat, berries, and pinecones." Morva was sentenced to death for killing a hospital security guard and a corporal with the sheriff's office in an escape from custody. Because Morva was misdiagnosed with a personality disorder before trial, his jury was never told about his serious mental illness and the role that it played in the murders. According to Morva's lawyers, after having been taken to a hospital for evaluation of his complaint of having been injured falling from a bunk in an overcrowded county jail, Morva falsely believed that his life was in imminent danger and that he needed to escape. Morva has been on death row since 2008, but has never received treatment for his mental illness, although, his lawyers say, "administration of anti-psychotic medications has proven successful in controlling symptoms of people similarly affected.” His mental condition has continued to deteriorate in his time on death row. The psychiatrist who diagnosed Morva considered his prognosis for successful treatment to be “very promising,” in part because Morva’s older brother was successfully treated for a psychotic disorder when he was around Morva's current age. Virginia Governors James Gilmore and Timothy Kaine cited concerns about serious mental illness when they commuted the death sentences of Calvin Swann and Percy Walton. Governor McAuliffe is out of the country through June 30, but a spokesman says he will review the clemency petition and make an announcement when the review is complete.  [UPDATE: Governor McAuliffe denied clemency to Morva on July 6 and Virginia executed him that night. McAuliffe also denied a request for a temporary reprieve after Morva's lawyers learned of problems with the execution of Ricky Gray. An independent autopsy report suggested that Gray had suffered an an acute pulmonary edema during his execution and had blood in his lungs while he was still breathing.]

Decisions Not to Seek Death in Two New Orleans Cases Highlights Louisiana's Trend Away From Capital Punishment

The New Orleans District Attorney's office has decided not to pursue the death penalty in two high-profile murder cases, highlighting a trend in Louisiana away from the use of capital punishment. In a one-week period, Leon Cannizzaro (pictured), the District Attorney for Orleans Parish, announced that his office would not seek the death penalty against Travis Boys, charged with fatally shooting a New Orleans police officer, and Chelsea Thornton, charged with killing her 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. According to capital defense lawyer Nick Trenticosta, “prosecutors throughout the state are thinking twice about taking a case to trial for the death penalty.” Defense lawyers say that, in New Orleans, District Attorney Cannizzaro's office has been taking note of jury verdicts: one death sentence in 19 years. "New Orleans juries are life-giving people,” Trenticosta said. Assistant DA Christopher Bowan, a spokesperson for the Orleans DA's office, said the office evaluates each prosecution "on a case-by-case basis." In the Boys case, he said, dropping the death penalty would assure a quicker resolution of the case for Officer Daryle Holloway's family. Officer Holloway's mother, Olander Holloway, said, "I just think, at some point in time, this needed to move forward. I think with the death penalty issue, this would've dragged on forever and ever." Bowan did not give a reason for dropping the death penalty against Thornton, who has a long history of mental illness, but noted that Louisiana's prisons do not have a stock of lethal injection drugs and "there's no means for carrying out a capital verdict at this point.” No prisoner has been executed in the state since 2010, when Gerald Bordelon waived his right to appeal, and the last contested Louisiana execution was in 2002. Since the turn of the century, the state has carried out three executions, while eight death-row prisoners have been exonerated. In addition, the one case in which an Orleans Parish jury did vote for death—after convicting Michael Anderson for a quintuple murder—was overturned by the courts and later resolved with a plea to lesser charges. In 2016, federal authorities presented evidence that another man had committed the five killings.

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BOOKS: "The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado"

When University of Colorado Boulder sociology professor Michael Radelet began doing research on the death penalty in the 1970s, the noted death-penalty scholar tells Colorado Public Radio, he didn't have an opinion about capital punishment and "didn't know anything about it." After researching issues of race, innocence, and the death penalty, he came to have grave reservations. "I believe the death penalty is about making god-like decisions without god-like accuracy," he told Colorado Matters interviewer Andrea Dukakis. Radelet's latest book, The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado, chronicles the historic use of capital punishment in a state in which the practice is currently under scrutiny. Proponents and opponents of the death penalty both invoke "justice" in support of their positions, Radelet told Colorado Matters. "There's a debate about what 'justice' really means," he said, noting that Governor John Hickenlooper raised important questions about the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty when he imposed a moratorium on executions in Colorado in 2013. Commenting on the book, Hickenlooper said, "Professor Radelet reminds us we are not unique in asking whether our 'experiment with the death penalty' has worked: we have asked this question since our territorial days. The History of the Death Penalty is an insightful examination of the death penalty and whether it has a place in our state." Radelet's book documents each execution in the state since 1859 and explores the systemic concerns that have affected its implementation throughout Colorado's history. A Denver Post book review says: "In what could have been a dismal treatise, Radelet turns this fact-filled book into an absorbing history of Colorado’s flirtation with legal killing."

Nevada Death-Row Prisoner Released on Plea Deal After Medical Evidence Suggests No Crime Occurred

Ha'im Al Matin Sharif (pictured), formerly known as Charles Robins, has been released from Nevada's death row, nearly 30 years after he was convicted of killing his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter, after medical evidence revealed that the baby died from infantile scurvy, rather than from physical abuse. Prosecutors agreed to amend the charges against Sharif and release him on time served after a prosecution doctor confirmed that Brittany Smith actually died of Barlow's disease, a form of scurvy affecting infants. The child's autopsy showed broken bones and hemorrhages, a local medical examiner listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma, and Las Vegas police accused Sharif of torturing her. “I was confused as to the nature of the injuries they described, because I had done nothing,” Sharif said. The child's mother initially told police that Sharif was not abusive, but then testified against him. She later recanted her testimony and told Sharif's appellate attorney that police had coerced her into providing false testimony implicating Sharif by threatening to take her other children away. During Sharif's appeals, medical experts who reviewed the baby's X-rays to rule out disease as the cause of death said the injuries were likely caused by scurvy. The Nevada Supreme Court ordered that the case be sent back to the trial court, writing, "We are satisfied that Robins has presented specific factual allegations that, if true, would show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him of first-degree murder and child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt or found the single aggravating circumstance used to make him death eligible." Prosecutors agreed to a deal in which Sharif would plead guilty to second-degree murder and be sentenced to time served. Although Sharif continues to maintain his innocence, he agreed to the reduction in charges to obtain his immediate release. Sharif's case is the latest in a growing number of cases in which men and women have been wrongly sentenced to death based upon erroneous forensic testimony that they had murdered a child, when the children had actually died from natural or accidental causes. Rodricus Crawford was exonerated in Louisiana in 2017 on evidence that his one-year-old son died of pneumonia and sepsis, not suffocation. Sabrina Butler was just 17 years old when her infant son died. She spent five years on death row in Mississippi before she was acquitted at a retrial, where she presented evidence that her child died of a hereditary kidney condition. Others have been condemned for the deaths of their children in cases that junk-science testimony misattributed to arson:  Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 based on faulty fire testimony; in 2006, after more than 15 years on Pennsylvania's death row, Dennis Counterman agreed to enter a no-contest plea to third-degree murder and was released. 

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