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Alabama Cancels Cancer Surgery, Sets Execution Date for Terminally Ill Prisoner

Alabama has set an execution date for Doyle Lee Hamm (pictured), a 60-year-old man with terminal cranial and lymphatic cancer that his lawyer says has rendered his veins unusable for lethal injection. Hamm has received radiation and chemotherapy, and was scheduled for surgery to remove a cancerous lesion on December 13, but Alabama prison officials cancelled the surgery and instead informed Hamm that a death warrant had been issued scheduling his execution for February 22, 2018. In September, Hamm's attorney, Bernard Harcourt, asked anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Heath to examine Hamm to determine whether his veins would be suitable for the execution protocol. Dr. Heath found that Hamm has virtually "no accessible veins" in his arms and legs, and that his lymphatic cancer would complicate any attempts at the already challenging procedure of obtaining central vein access. Heath concluded, “the state is not equipped to achieve venous access in Mr. Hamm’s case.” In a commentary in The New York Times, Harcourt wrote that Hamm "will suffer an agonizing, bloody, and painful death” if prison officials proceed with the execution as planned. "Our justice is so engrossed with how we kill that it does not even stop to question the humanity of executing a frail, terminally ill prisoner," Harcourt wrote. “Mr. Hamm’s serious and deteriorating medical condition poses an unacceptable risk that he will experience significant pain.” Andrew Cohen of the Brennan Center for Justice wrote in a December 15 commentary that Hamm's case "has come to symbolize the injustice of [Alabama's death-penalty] system. The idea that executioners want to make sure they kill Hamm before he dies of cancer, the fact that it is likely the lethal injection itself will cause him 'needless pain' before he dies, may be abhorrent but it's entirely consistent with the way state officials have handled Hamm's case for years." When Hamm was sentenced to death in September 1987, his jury did not unanimously agree on his sentence, but Alabama law permitted the trial judge to impose a death sentence based upon a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. At that time, Alabama was one of only three states to permit that practice; and now it is the only state to do so. Cohen wrote that Hamm's constitutional rights "were ignored in virtually every way" during the trial. "Witnesses changed their stories, ultimately testifying against him only after they were charged as co-defendants and made sweetheart plea deals. His trial lawyer did a miserable job during the mitigation phase, failing utterly to give jurors a fair sense of the intellectual disability, or perhaps brain damage, from which Hamm has suffered his whole life." During state post-conviction review of Hamm's case, the trial court denied his appeal by adopting verbatim an order written by the state attorney general's office, without even removing the word "proposed" from the title. In 2016, Hamm sought review of that practice from the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court declined to review his case.

Clark County, Nevada Losing Capital Convictions Because of Prosecutors' Race Discrimination in Jury Selection

The racially discriminatory jury selection practices of the Clark County, Nevada, District Attorney's office are now causing it to lose convictions in capital cases. In a December 18 article, the prosecutorial watchdog, The Open File, details repeated violations by Clark County death-penalty prosecutors of the constitutional proscription against striking prospective jurors from service on the basis of race. Four times in the past four years, the Nevada Supreme Court has ordered new trials in Clark County cases because prosecutors violated the U.S. Supreme Court's 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky  by discriminatorily excluding jurors of color, including in three cases in which the death penalty had been imposed. The Open Files writes that “prosecutors in the Clark County District Attorney’s office either do not know, ignore, or gamble on Batson, unsuccessfully hoping the courts will not hold them accountable to it.” In June 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed the conviction and death sentence of Charles Conner, after prosecutors used six of their nine peremptory strikes against jurors of color, claiming that the jurors were “weak” on the death penalty. The court ruled that this purportedly race-neutral justification was pretextual, noting that one of the black jurors to whom prosecutors claimed the justification applied was an Air Force Reserve officer and full-time correctional officer, who had previously served in the Navy and as a police officer. The court found that the prosecutors' explanations for striking this juror were "belied by the record" and that manufacturing "[a] race-neutral explanation that is belied by the record is evidence of purposeful discrimination.” In March 2016, the court granted African-American death-row prisoner Jason McCarty a new trial after Clark County prosecutors excluded two of three eligible black jurors, pretextually attempting to justifying the strikes on the grounds that one worked in a strip club and the other had a brother with a criminal record. However, prosecuters had run detailed employment background checks on only two of the 36 potential jurors, suggesting to the court that prosecutors had not been genuinely concerned about the excluded juror's employment. The prosecutors also disparately questioned jurors whose family members had criminal histories, asking the black juror whom they struck 15 follow-up questions, while asking a similarly-situated white juror a single follow-up question. In granting McCarty a new trial, the court observed: “Discriminatory jury selection is particularly concerning in capital cases where each juror has the power to decide whether the defendant is deserving of the ultimate penalty, death.” In October 2017, the court also granted a new trial to third death-row prisoner, Julius Bradford, after the trial court had permitted the prosecution to strike one Hispanic and one African-American juror without providing the defense an opportunity to contest the race-based nature of the strikes.

Arizona Ends Death-Row Solitary Confinement, Sees Reduced Prisoner Anxiety, Lowered Costs, and Increased Safety

Several months after Arizona settled a lawsuit over the conditions of confinement on the state's death row, the state has ended the practice of automatically housing condemned prisoners in solitary confinement, and prisoners and prison officials alike are praising the changes. Carson McWilliams (pictured), Division Director for Offender Operations in the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC), told the Arizona Republic that the new incarceration conditions provide an "atmosphere where [prisoners] can socialize," resulting in "reduce[d] anxiety" that, in turn, "adds to safety control" of the prison. And, prison officials say, it has reduced institutional costs. Prior to the lawsuit, death row had meant 23-hour-per-day confinement in a concrete cell the size of a parking space, shuttered by a steel door with a perforated slot through which the prisoners would receive their meals, and with a bench bed and a sink attached to an uncovered toilet. Prisoners had no contact visits with families or lawyers, were handcuffed behind the back and subjected to body-cavity searches whenever they left their cells, and were restricted to showering or exercising three times a week. They also were denied prison jobs and educational opportunities. About the solitary conditions, McWilliams remarked, "The more you're restricted inside a cell, the more likely you are to have depression, to have anxiety, to have other types of mental problems that could lead to some type of problem inside the system, whether its self harm, or suicide, or aggression towards a staff member or towards another inmate." One death-row prisoner who was interviewed by the paper said, "It’s hard to explain the deprivation. . . . It weighs on your mind." McWilliams said it now requires fewer officers to manage death row because officers no longer have to deliver individual meals or individually escort each of the 120 prisoners. Kevin Curran, who has been a prison warden at various facilities run by the ADC, said that he "feels safer among the death-row men than among the career criminals and gangsters in the general population." Under the new conditions, prisoners are able to socialize with each other in activities such as playing basketball, volleyball, or board games, and can eat meals together. One ADC corrections officer told the Arizona Republic that he was "apprehensive" at first about the changes, but the transition has been "very good" with only a "few minor incidents," which were "a lot less" than he expected. 

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As North Carolina Juries Reject Death Penalty, Legislators Accused of Playing Politics With Executions

For the third time since 2012, no one in North Carolina was sentenced to death in 2017. All four trials in 2017 in which prosecutors sought a death sentence ended with a jury either acquitting the defendant of capital murder or returning a lesser sentence. Despite the historical decline in death sentencing in North Carolina, two state legislative leaders, in a letter derided by editorial boards as political posturing, used the recent killing of three prison guards to demand that Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein "restart" executions in the state. House Speaker Tim Moore (pictured, left) and Senate President pro-tem Phil Berger (pictured, right), claimed that Cooper’s and Stein’s purported "indifference and failure to fight the moratorium [on executions in North Carolina] endangers the lives of prison employees in close proximity to hardened murderers with nothing left to lose, who see no possibility they will face execution for killing again." Editorial reaction to the legislators' comments was swift and sharp. The Greensboro News and Record called the accusation in the letter "a vulgar insinuation unsupported by facts." The Charlotte Observer editorialized that the legislative leaders were "seeking to politicize the tragedy rather than effectively remedy the conditions that make the state’s prisons so dangerous for correctional officers." Their actions, the paper said, were akin to "creating and tolerating the conditions that allow inmates to kill prison workers, then blaming the officers’ deaths on the governor whose administration is trying to actually address the problem." Raleigh's News and Observer editorial board called Moore and Berger's letter "absurd," "shameless," and a "political gambit" that was "demagogu[ing] the death penalty." It wrote, "[n]either the governor nor the AG can restart the death penalty, which is under legal challenge on a multitude of grounds, as it is in many states. That's why no one has been put to death by the state in more than 10 years. ... [A]s long as legal challenges are pending, the death penalty can't be restarted as if the task were just like turning on a light switch." A Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial called the legislators' charges "[c]ynical and shameful" "pathetic," and "political posturing." The company said, "Regardless of how anybody feels about capital punishment ... , it will do NOTHING to help make our prisons any more secure or help to make it safer for guards and other personnel who have to work inside them." Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, provided context for North Carolina's use of the death penalty, noting that "[m]ore than three-quarters of death row inmates were sentenced at least 15 years ago, in an era when North Carolina juries sentenced to death dozens of people a year under less-enlightened laws. ... Defendants on trial for their lives did not have basic protections such as qualified attorneys or laws requiring that confessions be recorded." She credits high-profile exonerations, like that of Henry McCollum, for contributing to the reduction in death sentences in the state. “There are some elected officials in North Carolina who still like to talk about the death penalty for political purposes, but that’s about the only way it’s being used anymore,” Engel said. Rob Schofield of NC Policy Watch said, "Berger and Moore would do much more for the safety and security of prison personnel if they would invest adequate resources in our corrections system."

Supreme Court of Kenya Declares Nation's Mandatory Death Sentences Unconstitutional

The Supreme Court of Kenya has declared the nation’s mandatory death sentencing procedures unconstitutional. In a December 14, 2017 ruling that could affect 7,000 death-row prisoners, the high court overturned Section 204 of Kenya's Penal Code, which required that judges impose death sentences upon conviction of murder or armed robbery. The decision resolves conflicting rulings by the country's lower courts of appeal, and grants new sentencing hearings to those currently sentenced to death. Death-row prisoners Francis Karioko Muruatetu and Wilson Thirimbu Mwangi had challenged Kenya's mandatory death penalty, arguing that compulsory imposition of the death penalty violated the independence of the judiciary by requiring judges to impose a sentence that was pre-determined by the legislature. According to Fred Ngatia, one of the pair's lawyers, the practice “fouls the doctrine of separation of powers” by preventing judges from weighing mitigating factors. The defendants also argued that depriving judges of discretion over whether to impose a death sentence violated the right to a fair trial and constituted an arbitrary deprivation of life. The court’s justices agreed and directed the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and other government agencies to speedily review all capital cases of murder and armed robbery. In 2010, Kenya’s Court of Appeal ruled in favor of death row prisoner Geoffrey Ngotho Mutiso, who had challenged the mandatory death sentence provision on the grounds that it denied judges the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances that could spare a defendant's life. Three years later, a different panel of the appeals court restored the controversial provision. Oluwatosin Popoola, Amnesty International’s Adviser on the Death Penalty, said the Supreme Court's ruling is a step towards abolishing the “cruel and inhumane” punishment. “It’s now time for the Kenyan authorities to take the required legal steps to abolish the death penalty fully and join the 105 countries that have completely consigned the punishment to history,” he said. Kenya has not executed anyone since 1987 when Hezekiah Ochuka was convicted of treason and hanged for participating in an attempted coup. In 2009, President Mwai Kibaki commuted the sentences of more than 4,000 death prisoners to life. In 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta commuted the death sentences of 2,747 death-row prisoners to life. The Death Penalty Project, an international non-governmental organization that works to promote and protect the human rights of those facing the death penalty in British Commonwealth countries, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean, has been litigating this issue in Kenya for more than a decade. Kenya is the thirteenth country in which it has successfully challenged mandatory death sentences. Parvais Jabbar, the Project's Co-Executive Director called the court's ruling a "momentous decision ... [that] will have a huge impact," even beyond the thousands of prisoners currently on Kenya's death row. "[W]e hope it will also pave the way for further reform of the death penalty within Kenya and the Africa region more widely,” Jabbar said.

New Jersey Marks Tenth Anniversary of Abolition of Capital Punishment

On December 17, 2007, New Jersey abolished the death penalty. On the tenth anniversary of abolition, the editorial board of the New Jersey Law Journal writes, "On the Death Penalty, New Jersey Got it Right." The editorial board wrote, “Abolition has proven its worth, in that there has been no surge of murders, a significant decline of prosecution and appeal expenses, and the elimination of unremediable judicial mistakes. [Abolition] was and remains both the right thing and the sensible thing to have done.” In August 1982, New Jersey reenacted the death penalty, six years after the United State Supreme Court decision in Gregg v. Georgia upheld the constitutionality of state capital punishment laws. However, no defendant was ever executed in the state. In January 2006, the state legislature passed a bill creating the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission and imposing a moratorium on executions until the commission issued its report. The study commission’s report, released on January 2, 2007, recommended abolishing capital punishment. Among other findings, the commission determined that the costs of imposing the death penalty were “greater than the costs of life in prison without parole” and that there was “no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty serves a legitimate penological intent.” Less than a year later, Governor Jon Corzine signed legislation abolishing the death penalty. Murders fell in New Jersey after the moratorium and repeal bills became law, marking the first time since 1999 that New Jersey experienced a drop in murders for two consecutive years. One year after repeal, New Jersey prosecutors reported that the abolition had not hindered prosecution of the state’s most violent offenders. The Law Journal editorial board said that, after a decade, the study commission’s assessment that the death penalty was not a deterrent to murder “has proven its worth." The murder rate in New Jersey has been lower than it was in 2007 for eight of the past nine years and a 2017 DPIC study of murder rates over the last three decades found no difference in murder trends based upon whether a state had, or did not have, capital punishment. A December 15 statement released by the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey hailed the state’s abolition of the death penalty “as a victory for the dignity of life.” The Bishops wrote that while they “affirm the state’s duty to punish criminals, to prevent crime, and to assist victims,” they also “recognize the need to improve our criminal justice system and to forge a greater societal commitment to justice.” Society, they said, “has effective ways to protect itself and to redress injustice without resorting to the use of the death penalty.”

DPIC Year End Report: New Death Sentences Demonstrate Increasing Geographic Isolation

Nearly one-third (31%) of the 39 new death sentences imposed in the United States in 2017 came from just three counties, Riverside, California; Clark, Nevada; and Maricopa, Arizona, according to statistics compiled for DPIC's annual year end report. In a press release accompanying the annual report, DPIC said that the year's sentences reflect "the increasing geographic isolation and arbitrary nature of the death penalty." Riverside imposed five death sentences in 2017, Clark four, and Maricopa three, and no other county imposed as many as two. The other 3,140 counties and parishes in the country imposed 27 new death sentences, fewer than the record low total of death sentences imposed in the country last year. These three counties were featured in a 2016 report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project of the most prolific death sentencing counties in the country. That report found that the death penalty high-use counties tended to share "a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion," among other criminal justice issues. In a recent article about DPIC's year end report published in the Desert Sun, Dunham said, "You don’t see counties that overproduce death penalties and are model citizens in the administration of justice as a whole." Current Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin told the paper that he “strenuously” objected to that characterization, which he called "a bunch of nonsense." Riverside County Public Defender Steven Harmon said that while the county has historically overused the death penalty, Hestrin, who took office in 2015, "has taken a far more measured approach to deciding in which cases he should seek the death penalty.” The Desert Sun reported in 2016 "an astronomical rise in wiretaps" in Riverside county that was "so vast it once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps," including triple the number issued by any other state or federal jurisdiction in 2014. Riverside police ranked 9th in the nation in killings of civilians. 76% of those sentenced to death in Riverside between 2010 and 2015 were defendants of color, and during that time frame it imposed death sentences at a rate that was 9 times greater per homicide than the rest of the state. All six defendants sentenced to death in Riverside in 2016 or 2017 were black or Latino. Riverside has imposed more death sentences than any other county in the country over the last five years, and 2017 was the second time in the last three years that it sentenced more people to death than any other county. Its five death sentences constituted 45% of the death sentences imposed in California this year, and more than were imposed by any other state. Four other southern California counties (Los Angeles, Kern, Orange, and San Bernardino) are also among the ten most prolific death sentencers in the past five years, and the region has been dubbed "the buckle of a new death belt." Riverside County alone has imposed 8.5% of all new death sentences in the country since 2013, and the five-county "death belt" has imposed 21.8%. By contrast, Harris County, Texas, which has executed more people than any other county, produced no executions or death sentences this year. Only 15% of all counties in the U.S. have ever imposed a death sentence that resulted in an execution. (Click image to enlarge.)

DPIC 2017 Year End Report: Death Sentences, Executions At Near-Historic Lows

Executions and new death sentences remained near historic lows in 2017, and public support for the death penalty polled at its lowest level in 45 years, according to DPIC's annual report, “The Death Penalty in 2017: Year End Report,” released December 14. Both the 23 executions and the 39 projected new death sentences in 2017 were the second lowest totals in more than a quarter-century. Four more people were exonerated from death row in 2017, bringing the total to 160 death-row exonerations since 1973. For the 17th consecutive year, the number of prisoners on the nation’s death rows fell, as the combination of exonerations, non-capital resentencings, and 
deaths by natural causes again outpaced new death sentences 
imposed. The 3-, 5-, and 10-year periods ending in 2017 had the lowest numbers of death sentences of any corresponding periods since 1976, continuing the nation’s long-term decline in the use of the death penalty. “Perhaps more than any place else, the changes in Harris County, Texas are symbolic of the long-term change in capital punishment in the United States,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director. “For the first time since 1974, the county that has carried out more executions than any other did not execute any prisoner or sentence any defendant to death.” Public support for the death penalty dropped to 55%, according to an October 2017 national Gallup Poll, the lowest since March 1972. Support for the death penalty fell five percentage points nationally and 10 percentage points among Republicans since Gallup's October 2016 poll. Of the 81 scheduled execution dates in 2017, 58 (71.6%) were never carried out, either because of court ordered stays, gubernatorial reprieves or commutations, or rescheduling. The death penalty remains geographically isolated, with two states—Texas and Arkansas—accounting for
 nearly half (48%) of all executions in 2017 and another two states—Alabama and
 Florida—accounting for an additional quarter. More than 30% of the new death sentences nationwide came from just three counties—Riverside, California; Clark, Nevada; and Maricopa, Arizona. Indeed, the 27 new death sentences imposed in the other 3,140 U.S. counties and county equivalents, were fewer than even last year's historic low. The report found that an alarming 90% of the 23 prisoners executed in 2017 presented significant evidence of mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage, severe trauma, and/or innocence. Four prisoners were executed despite substantial concerns about their guilt. (Click image to enlarge.)

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