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Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Ivan Teleguz

On April 20, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz (pictured), whom the Commonwealth had scheduled to be executed on April 25. Teleguz will now serve a sentence of life without parole. It was the first  death-penalty clemency ever issued by Gov. McAuliffe. The official statement released to the media in conjunction with the commutation outlined several of the factors that influenced the Governor's decision, including the prosecution's use of false evidence that tainted the jury's choice to sentence Teleguz to death. "[D]uring the trial, evidence was admitted implicating Mr. Teleguz in another murder in a small Pennsylvania town," McAuliffe said. "In arguing for the death penalty, the prosecutor made explicit reference to this evidence in arguing that Mr. Teleguz was so dangerous that he needed to be put to death. We now know that no such murder occurred, much less with any involvement by Mr. Teleguz. It was false information, plain and simple, and while I am sure that the evidence was admitted in a good-faith belief in its truthfulness at the time, we now know that to be incorrect." McAuliffe also cited the disproportionality of sentencing Teleguz to death when Michael Hetrick, the admitted killer, received a sentence of life without parole in exchange for his testimony against Teleguz. "To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds dear," McAuliffe said. Teleguz—a foreign national from the Ukraine—maintains that he is innocent of the crime, and his clemency petition received support from numerous political, religious, and business leaders.

Florida House Issues Apology for 1949 Lynchings and Wrongful Convictions

In 1949, Norma Padgett, a white 17-year-old, falsely accused four young black men in Groveland, Florida of kidnapping and raping her. Nearly 70 years later, the state of Florida is apologizing to the families of the "Groveland Four," two of whom were murdered and two of whom were wrongly sentenced to death. After the false accusations, enraged white residents of Lake County went on a violent rampage, shooting at and burning the homes of black residents. The Governor sought help from the National Guard to quell the violence. One of the falsely accused young men, Ernest Thomas, escaped from the county jail and was shot dead by an angry mob of 1,000 men led by Lake County sheriff Willis V. McCall. Thomas was shot 400 times. The three others who had been falsely accused were beaten into giving false confessions, then quickly tried and convicted by an all-white jury. The youngest, Charles Greenlee, who was only 16 years old, was sentenced to life in prison. Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both Army veterans, were sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed their convictions and ordered a new trial. During their transport from the county prison for court proceedings, Sheriff McCall claimed the pair tried to escape and shot both men, killing Shepherd. Irvin played dead, survived the shooting, and was again tried and sentenced to death. Irvin received a last-minute reprieve from execution and his sentence was commuted by the Governor. Greenlee and Irvin were both granted parole in the 1960s. Irvin died in 1970 and Greenlee in 2012. The Groveland Four, as the men came to be known, were finally given a formal apology from the Florida House of Representatives on April 19, 2017, nearly 70 years after they were first accused. Rep. Bobby DuBose (D-Fort Lauderdale), sponsored the bill and said, "This resolution, while seemingly minute, symbolizes the great state of Florida looking those families in the eyes — families, with children, who grew up not knowing their fathers but only knew their records. This resolution is us simply saying, ‘We’re sorry’ — understanding we will never know or make up for the pain we have caused." The resolution, which says the Groveland Four, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” and calls on Gov. Rick Scott to expedite posthumous pardons, passed the House unanimously. The Senate is expected to vote soon on its version of the bill.

Arkansas Prisoners, Asserting Their Innocence, File Requests for DNA Testing

Two Arkansas death-row prisoners who are scheduled be executed on April 20 have asked the Arkansas courts to stay their executions to permit DNA testing in their cases. Stacey Johnson (pictured, l.) and Ledell Lee (pictured, r.) both say they did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced to death, and both say that DNA testing methods not available at the time of their trials could prove their innocence. Stacey Johnson was convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of Carol Jean Heath. His conviction rested largely on testimony from the victim's 6-year-old daughter, but records obtained by the defense after the trial indicate that the girl told her therapist that she had not seen anything and was being pressured by her family to identify Johnson. Technology available at the time of Johnson's trial was not sensitive enough to provide DNA results from the sexual assault evidence collected from the victim's body, but newer methods may be able to rule out Johnson and even provide a match to an alternative suspect. At the trial, it was revealed that the victim's boyfriend had abused his former wife for four years, requiring her to obtain emergency custody of her children. It was also revealed that his abuse of his ex-wife included biting her breasts. Significantly, bite marks were identified on the victim’s breasts in Johnson's case. Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, which filed Johnson's request, said, "This is not some sort of last-minute, hail mary pass. Johnson asked for DNA testing in earlier appeals, but those requests were denied by State and federal courts. There have been revolutionary advancements in DNA testing since this case was initially investigated which could tell once and for all who actually committed this crime." In a separate filing, Ledell Lee sought new DNA testing of hair and blood evidence, neither of which provided conclusive results using 1995 techniques. Despite a bloody crime scene, no physical evidence directly implicated Lee in the murder. No fingerprint evidence from the scene matched Lee and no DNA evidence was presented to the jury. A state’s expert witness, however, testified at trial that he had found "Negroid head hair" at the scene and the state said there were small spots of blood on Lee's shoes. Lee's lawyers argue that "probative biological evidence currently in the custodian control of the state may now be able to provide—through the use of modern, cutting edge DNA testing technology—confirmation of the veracity of Mr. Lee’s innocence claim." Both defendants' requests have been denied by county judges, and have been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. [UPDATE: The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Stacey Johnson on the DNA issue, but denied Ledell Lee's motion for a stay. Arkansas executed Lee on April 20.]

Rodricus Crawford Becomes 158th Death-Row Exoneree

Caddo Parish, Louisiana prosecutors formally dropped charges against Rodricus Crawford (pictured) on April 17, exonerating him in a controversial death penalty case that had attracted national attention amid evidence of race discrimination, prosecutorial excess, and actual innocence. He is the 158th person exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973. Crawford was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to death on charges he had murdered his one-year-old son. Crawford's appellate counsel, Cecilia Kappel, argued that the testimony underlying his conviction—the opinion of a local doctor who claimed the infant had been suffocated—was contradicted by autopsy results that showed pervasive bronchopneumonia in the baby's lungs and sepsis in his blood. After the trial, Kappel presented additional evidence from experts in the fields of pediatric pathology, pediatric neuropathology, and pediatric infectious disease that the child had died of natural causes. In a statement announcing that it was dropping the charges against Crawford, the Caddo Parish District Attorney's Office said, "New evidence presented after the trial raised questions about the degree of pneumonia together with bacteria in the child's blood indicative of sepsis are possibilities that require consideration. ...The death of a child is a tragedy under any circumstance for the victim, the family and the community as a whole, but this office is charged with the task to consider all of the evidence in a case and to bring a charge when the evidence can support it. For these reasons, the State has elected not to retry Rodricus Crawford." In November 2016, the Louisiana Supreme Court had ordered a new trial for Crawford because prosecutor Dale Cox had improperly removed jurors on the basis of race. Caddo has a documented pattern of racially biased jury selection, with a 2015 study finding that prosecutors struck black jurors at more than triple the rate of other jurors. Data from 22 felony trials prosecuted by Cox showed he had struck black jurors at a rate 2.7 times higher than other jurors. Cox attracted national criticism for questionable comments and practices and his perceived overzealous pursuit of the death penalty. He personally prosecuted 1/3 of all the cases in which Louisiana juries returned death sentences between 2010-2015, and wrote an internal memo on the Crawford case in 2014 stating that Crawford "deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies." In 2015, he told The Shreveport Times that he believed the state needs to "kill more people." Caddo Parish is among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of death-row inmates, and had a death sentencing rate per homicide eight times higher than the rest of the state of Louisiana from 2006 to 2015. Ben Cohen, an attorney for Crawford, said, "This case has always been about injustice and the disproportionate use of the death penalty in Caddo Parish. In deciding not to retry Rodricus Crawford, the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office is righting this injustice, restoring integrity to their office."

State and Federal Courts Grant Stays, Preliminary Injunctions Blocking 8 Arkansas Executions

In legal challenges filed separately by Arkansas death-row prisoners and a company involved in the distribution of pharmaceuticals, the Arkansas state and federal courts issued preliminary injunctions putting on hold the state's plan to carry out an unprecedented eight executions in the span of eleven days. After a four-day evidentiary hearing that ended late in the evening on Thursday, April 13, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas issued a preliminary injunction barring Arkansas from carrying out the eight scheduled executions with a three-drug cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. The District Court issued its opinion and order early Saturday, April 15, finding "a significant possibility” that the prisoners' challenge to the lethal injection protocol will succeed and that Arkansas' execution plan denies the prisoners meaningful access to counsel and to the courts during the course of the executions themselves. In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Kristine G. Baker wrote, "The threat of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is significant: If midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are ‘botched,’ they will suffer severe pain before they die." The ruling came a week after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction granted by an Ohio federal district court barring that state from using midazolam in a three-drug execution process. Arkansas has appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In another lawsuit filed in state court by McKesson, the company that distributed vecuronium bromide to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, an Arkansas circuit judge issued an order in the late afternoon on Friday, April 14, temporarily blocking the state from using the drug. McKesson had filed a complaint alleging that Arkansas misled them about the intended use of the drug and refused to return it even after being issued a refund. Arkansas appealed the court's order, but after the federal injunction was issued, McKesson asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to vacate the state-court order because it would not be necessary as long as the federal injunction is in place.

Two prisoners separately received individual stays of execution. The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the execution of Bruce Ward, scheduled for April 17, to allow consideration of his claim that he is incompetent to be executed. A federal district court stayed the execution of Jason McGehee, scheduled for April 27, to comply with the required 30-day public comment period after the Arkansas Parole Board's 6-1 recommendation for clemency.  [UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling staying the Arkansas executions based upon its use of midazolam and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the issue. The Arkansas Supreme Court lifted the temporary restraining order against the state's use of medicines obtained from the McKessen Corporation to carry out executions.]

With Looming Execution and Serious Innocence Concerns, Calls Mount for Virginia to Grant Clemency to Ivan Teleguz

Amid mounting concerns that Virginia may execute an innocent man on April 25, a diverse group of religious, political, and business leaders are calling on Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant clemency to Ivan Teleguz (pictured). Their pleas for clemency stress that Teleguz was convicted based upon highly unreliable testimony and sentenced to death based upon false testimony that he had been involved in a fabricated Pennsylvania murder that had, in fact, never occurred. Teleguz was convicted and sentenced to death on charges that he had hired Michael Hetrick to kill Stephanie Sipe, Teleguz's ex-girlfriend. But as a letter from more than two dozen prominent conservatives—including former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley and former Republican Party of Virginia executive director Shaun Kenney—urging McAuliffe to spare Teleguz explains, the case against him "relied almost entirely on dubious testimony" from the confessed murderer and two other witnesses who "later admitted that they lied in court and swore under oath that Teleguz was not involved in Sipe’s murder." Hetrick, they write, "had incentive to lie, since he received a deal sparing him from the death penalty in exchange for his testimony against Teleguz." He is now serving a life sentence. The others "confessed to giving false testimony at trial because of threats from the prosecutor and promises she made to lessen the severity of their sentences." Teleguz's clemency petition is also supported by former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, the Virginia Council of Churches, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, and more than 100,000 signers of a Change.org petition. The Richmond Times-Dispatch also urged McAuliffe to grant clemency, writing that "McAuliffe does not have to decide whether Teleguz is guilty or not. He merely has to decide whether new information casts doubt on the conviction." The paper wrote, "justice still will be served" by having Teleguz serve life in prison if he turns out to be guilty, but if the state executes an innocent man, "Virginia will have committed a great crime." The editorial concluded: "Given those two alternatives, the governor seems to face an easy choice." [UPDATE: On April 20, 2017, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted clemency to Ivan Teleguz.]

Poll Shows Orange and Osceola County Voters Prefer Life Sentences Over Death Penalty

A new poll of voters in Orange and Osceola counties in Florida—taken in the wake of Governor Rick Scott's removal of their locally elected State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 22 homicide cases after she announced that her office would not pursue the death penalty—shows that the counties' voters overwhelmingly prefer the use of life imprisonment over the death penalty as punishment for murder. The poll by Public Policy Polling, released on April 10, found that 62% of Orange and Osceola county respondents preferred some form of life in prison for those convicted of first-degree murder, while just 31% preferred the death penalty. Ayala's March 17 decision not to seek the death penalty in any murder cases drew praise from the Florida Black Caucus and local civil rights groups, but provoked an immediate backlash from death penalty proponents. Republican Governor Rick Scott removed Ayala—a Democrat and the state's only locally elected African-American prosecutor—from 22 murder cases and replaced her with State Attorney Brad King, a white Republican prosecutor from a neighboring judicial district. The Public Policy Polling survey found a preference for life sentences across all racial, gender, and age groups and political affiliations. 73% of black voters preferred some form of life sentence as the punishment for murder, as compared to 19% who preferred the death penalty. Whites and Latinos also preferred life sentences over the death penalty, both by margins of 29 percentage points. The preference for life sentences transcended party affiliation, although there were clear partisan differences. 76% of Democrats preferred life sentences, while 21% favored the death penalty; Independents preferred life sentences by a margin of 22 percentage points (55%-33%); and Republicans preferred life sentences by 5 percentage points (49%-44%). A majority of voters also supported a State Attorney taking a "data-driven" approach to reducing bias in sentencing and considering costs to taxpayers and the effect on victims' families when deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Kenneth B. Nunn, a professor of law at University of Florida's Levin College of Law, said, “These results clearly show that Orange and Osceola voters strongly prefer life sentences over the death penalty. State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s position on the death penalty is very much in line with the position of her constituents.” Governor Scott lost Orange County by 12 percentage points and Osceola County by 9 percentage points in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

Louisiana Legislature Considers Bipartisan Measure to Abolish Death Penalty

Three Louisiana legislators, all of them former law enforcement officials, have proposed legislation to abolish the state's death penalty. Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge, pictured), a former New Orleans prosecutor who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the primary author of Senate Bill 142, which would eliminate the death penalty for offenses committed on or after August 1, 2017. The bill's counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Bill 101, is sponsored by Rep. Terry Landry (D-Lafayette), a former state police superintendent, with support from Rep. Steven Pylant (R-Winnsboro), a former sheriff. Both bills would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In urging repeal, Sen. Claitor said he was "well aware of the need to create an environment that is hostile to violent crime and criminals. Yet," he said, "the death penalty has failed as deterrence to such horrendous criminal activity. Moreover, the death penalty is rarely utilized in Louisiana, and, when it is, the costs of appeals in these cases are extraordinarily burdensome to our law-abiding taxpayers.” Landry, who led the Louisiana State Police portion of the investigation that led to the murder conviction and death sentencing of Derrick Todd Lee, also expressed concerns about the cost and public safety value of the death penalty. "I've evolved to where I am today," he said. "I think it may be a process that is past its time." Louisiana's last execution was in 2010, but the Department of Corrections estimates that housing death row inmates costs $1.52 million per year, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board spends about 28% of its annual budget on capital cases, totaling about $9.5 million last fiscal year. That cost has also contributed to Louisiana's chronic underfunding of public defender services for non-capital cases across the state. The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty is also a factor in the heavily Catholic state. Sen. Claitor said his Catholic faith brought about a change of heart on the issue, and Sen. Fred Mills (R-Parks), said a statement of support for repeal, expected to be released by the Louisiana Catholic bishops, "would weigh heavy on me and on the vast majority of my constituents."

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