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Lawyers Seek Clemency for Tennessee Death-Row Prisoner Dying of End-Stage Cancer

Charles Wright (pictured), a prisoner on Tennessee’s death row, may die of cancer before the October 10, 2019 execution date that the state has set for him. His attorneys and supporters, including a former U.S. Congressman, are seeking clemency so Wright can spend his final days with his family. Wright has prostate cancer that has spread to his bones, and was recently moved from Tennessee’s death-row facility to a prison infirmary. He is asking the governor to either reduce his sentence to time served or to life without parole, allowing him to apply for a medical furlough, a special release that can be granted to terminally ill prisoners, but not to those on death row.

In September 2018, former Congressman Bob Clement wrote to then-Governor Bill Haslam, asking Haslam to grant clemency to Wright. “It is clear to me that Charles is not among the ‘worst of the worst’ for whom the ultimate punishment is to be reserved,” Clement wrote. “He was a product of his environment and the deprivation in which he — I will not say ‘was raised’ as the fact is, Charles and his siblings basically raised themselves. He turned to drugs early in his teenage years — he was fourteen or fifteen when an older drug dealer put a heroin needle in Charles’ arm. Charles does not absolve himself of his responsibility for making wrong choices.” Clement’s father, Frank Clement, served as governor of Tennessee in the 1960s, and commuted all the state’s death sentences in 1965, after the legislature defeated an abolition bill by one vote.

In court filings, Wright’s attorneys also raised issues of arbitrariness and racial bias. Wright, who is Black, was convicted and sentenced to death for a drug-related double-homicide in 1985. According to his attorneys, capital cases in the 1980s were infected with racial bias, and Wright’s case exemplifies the arbitrariness of Tennessee’s death penalty. While Wright was sentenced to death, many other drug-related murders have resulted in life sentences, even when there were more than two victims. A 2018 study of Tennessee's death-penalty system called it “a cruel lottery” and found that the best indicators of whether a case would result in a death sentence were arbitrary factors such as where the murder occurred, the race of the defendant, the quality of the defense, and the views of the prosecutors and judges assigned to the case.

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Cases Alleging Racial Bias in Oklahoma Death Penalty

The United States Supreme Court has declined to review challenges brought by two Oklahoma death-row prisoners who alleged that their death sentences were the unconstitutional product of racial bias. Julius Jones and Tremane Wood had sought to overturn their death sentences based on the findings of a 2017 study that showed significant racial disparities in Oklahoma’s death sentencing practices. On January 22, 2019, the Court denied the petitions for writ of certiorari after having rescheduled consideration of Jones’s (pictured, left) and Wood’s (pictured, right) cases 25 times each.

In their petitions for certiorari, Jones and Wood relied upon a statistical study of Oklahoma death sentences imposed between 1990 and 2012 to argue that racial bias unconstitutionally infected their death sentences. In 2017, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission released a report on the state’s administration of the death penalty that included the findings of Dr. Glenn L. Pierce and professors Michael L. Radelet and Susan Sharp about the impact of race on death sentences. The study found that a murder defendant in Oklahoma accused of killing a white victim was more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death than a defendant accused of murdering a nonwhite victim. In cases like Jones’s and Wood’s, which involved only male victims, the study found that death sentences were nearly three times more likely to be imposed if the victim was white than if the victim was a person of color. It also found that when the victim was a white male, defendants of color, like Jones and Wood, were twice as likely as a white defendant to be sentenced to death.

Jones and Wood described other evidence that racial bias affected decisionmakers in their cases. The judge who presided over Wood's trial has made openly racist remarks, saying in 2011 that Mexicans are “nothing but filthy animals.” Jones was sentenced to death by a nearly all-white jury, following what his current lawyers describe as “pervasive and highly racialized pre-trial media coverage” and “racialized remarks made by prosecutors and at least one juror” during his trial. Dale Baich, one of Jones’s appellate lawyers, told The Oklahoman, that the facts of the case “vividly show how racial bias can lead to a wrongful conviction.” Jones is scheduled to file a separate petition for certiorari on January 28 raising the issue that one of the jurors in the case said “they should just take the n****r out and shoot him behind the jail.”

Bill to Abolish Wyoming’s Death Penalty Introduced with Bipartisan Support

A bipartisan coalition of Wyoming legislators has introduced a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty. On January 15, 2019, Cheyenne Republican State Representative Jared Olsen (pictured, left) and Republican State Senator Brian Boner (pictured, right), introduced HB145, which would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a judicially imposed sentence of life without parole or life imprisonment. The bill, co-sponsored by sixteen other representatives and senators, has the backing of several legislative leaders, including Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. “You’ve got social conservatives and libertarians and that’s a little more of a mix than we’ve had before,” Olsen said. “And then if you look at the heavy hitters on the bill, we’ve got three-quarters of the House leadership on the bill.”

A coalition of outside organizations that includes he League of Women Voters of Wyoming, the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, and the ACLU of Wyoming also are supporting the repeal effort. The groups released a statement on January 16 calling the death penalty “a costly and unfair practice that does not enhance public safety or promote justice in Wyoming.” The breadth of the support distinguishes this year’s effort to abolish capital punishment from prior efforts over the past five years, according to Rep. Olsen. “The momentum and desire behind all those groups is just flourishing right now,” he said. “They’re coming to me every day, working different legislators and reporting back to me on what they’re doing. I think there’s a lot of outreach in the community as well. There’s a lot of momentum.”

Proponents of the bill say that Wyoming’s death penalty is impractical and costs too much. The state has only carried out one execution since 1976, and does not currently have any prisoners facing an active death sentence. (The death sentence imposed on Dale Wayne Eaton, who had been the state’s only death-row prisoner, was overturned in 2014, and federal appeals relating to that grant of relief are still pending.) Despite the rarity of the death penalty in Wyoming, the fiscal note that accompanies the abolition bill estimates it would cost the state $750,000 to maintain capital punishment in 2020. “We continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to maintain the death penalty,” Sen. Boner said. “I believe the availability of a life without parole sentence adequately balances the need to protect public safety while recognizing the need to reduce the strain on taxpayer resources.”

The Casper Star-Tribune editorialized in 2013 that life without parole was a better option than the death penalty for many family members of murder victims. The current abolition efforts have also gained the editorial support of the Powell Tribune, which wrote on January 22 that “[i]t seems that, for all practical purposes, the death penalty has already been abolished in Wyoming.” Noting that “like anything else that involves people, [the Wyoming legal system] will sometimes get it wrong,” the paper said that when someone is wrongfully executed, “that mistake is irreversible. And it’s a risk that’s not worth taking.”

Virginia Senate Passes Bill to Bar the Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill Offenders

By a vote of 23-17, the Virginia State Senate has approved a bill that, if enacted, would ban capital punishment for defendants with severe mental illness. With the support of all nineteen Democratic senators and four Republicans, the bill passed the GOP-controlled Senate on January 17, 2019. It now moves on to the Commonwealth’s House of Delegates, which is comprised of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats.  

SB 1137 defines severe mental illness as “active psychotic symptoms that substantially impair a person’s capacity to (i) appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct; (ii) exercise rational judgment in relation to the person’s conduct; or (iii) conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of the law.”However, the bill excludes disorders that are “manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct or attributable to the acute effects of voluntary use of alcohol or any drug.”Under the proposal, the determination of severe mental illness would be made in the sentencing phase of trial, after the defendant already has been convicted. The jury (or the judge, if the defendant waives the right to a jury trial) would decide if the defendant has proven “by a preponderance of the evidence” that he or she was severely mentally ill at the time of the offense. A defendant found to be severely mentally ill would be sentenced to life without parole. The bill also provides for indigent defendants with mental illness claims to receive assistance from a mental health expert appointed by the court. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Barbara Favola (D – Arlington), called the proposal “a vehicle for us to administer justice in a way that’s humane and, I would say, in a way that reflects the values of Virginians.” Sen. Scott Surovell (D – Fairfax), said the mental illness exemption would have limited impact in Virginia because of the decline in death sentences across the state, but was a necessary mental-health reform. “The reality is we have a broken mental health system in this country,” he said. “We have a broken mental health system in this state. We don’t give it enough money.” Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D – Fairfax), who called himself “a pretty strong proponent of capital punishment,” supported the bill, saying that, when it comes to defendants who are severely mentally ill, “probably we ought to think twice.”

Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions carried out since 1976, but it has had a sharp decline in the use of the death penalty in recent years. No one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011, and just two men remain on the state’s death row. In July 2017, lawyers for William Morva, a seriously mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from a delusional disorder that his lawyers said left him unable to distinguish his delusions from reality, unsuccessfully sought a commutation from Governor Terry McAuliffe. Previously, Governors James Gilmore and Timothy Kaine commuted the death sentences of Calvin Swann and Percy Walton, citing concerns about serious mental illness. Other states are also considering legislation that would ban the death penalty for seriously mentally ill defendants. In 2017, bills were introduced in seven states, including Virginia, calling for such measures. The American Bar Association in 2016 issued a white paper in support of a mental-illness exemption.

Citing Evidence of Innocence, Race Discrimination, Georgia Court Grants New Trial to Former Death-Row Prisoner

A Georgia judge has granted a new trial to Johnny Lee Gates (pictured recently, right, and at the time of trial, left) based on new evidence that excludes him as the source of DNA on implements used by the killer during the 1976 rape and murder for which Gates was sentenced to death. DNA testing disclosed that Gates’s DNA was not found on a necktie and the bathrobe belt the prosecution said were used by the killer to bind Kathrina Wright, the 19-year-old wife of a soldier stationed at Fort Benning during the murder. In a January 10, 2019, decision overturning Gates’s conviction, Senior Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen credited the analysis of defense DNA expert Mark Perlin that Gates’s DNA was not present on the evidence. Judge Allen noted that Perline had trained the two Georgia Bureau of Investigation scientists the prosecution relied upon in the most recent court proceedings in the case and that the testimony of the GBI witnesses supported Perlin's conclusions. Judge Allen wrote that “[t]he exclusion of Gates’ profile to the DNA on the two items is material and may be considered exculpatory” and entitled Gates to a new trial.

Gates, who is African American, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a racially charged case. His death sentence was overturned in 2003 based upon evidence that he is intellectually disabled, and he was resentenced to life. Heightening the racial tensions of a black man accused of raping and murdering a young white woman, prosecutors deliberately excluded African American jurors from the case. Lawyers from the Georgia Innocence Project and Southern Center for Human Rights filed a motion in March 2018 arguing that Columbus, Georgia prosecutors engaged in a pattern and practice of systematically striking black prospective jurors because of their race in Gates’s case and six other capital cases with black defendants, discriminatorily empanelling all- or nearly-all-white juries in those cases. The prosecutors’ jury selection notes in those seven capital trials showed that the state attorneys in his case had carefully tracked the race of jurors, struck every black juror they could, and repeatedly wrote derogatory comments about blacks and black prospective jurors. A Georgia Tech mathematics professor provided expert testimony that the probability that black jurors were removed for race-neutral reasons was infinitesimally small – 0.000000000000000000000000000004 percent. In an opinion that excoriated local prosecutors for “undeniable ... systematic race discrimination during jury selection,” Judge Allen found that the prosecutors “identified the black prospective jurors by race in their jury selection notes, singled them out … and struck them to try Gates before an all-white jury.” However, the court said the race discrimination against Gates was not grounds to grant him a new trial because he had not shown that the lawyers who previously represented him did not have access to the evidence of systematic discrimination.

New Voices: Former Texas Criminal Appeals Judge Suggests “Pause” on Texas Death Penalty

Retiring Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge and former prosecutor Elsa Alcala now believes that the death penalty is unreliably and discriminatorily applied in the nation’s most aggressive capital punishment state. In a new Houston Chronicle “Behind the Walls” podcast, Judge Alcala – who calls herself “a Republican hanging on by a thread” – told reporter Keri Blakinger, “I think we know enough right now to even call for a moratorium or just to pause all of this and to say, you know, ‘What is going on? Why does Texas have such a high percentage of people who get the death penalty and are executed as compared to the rest of the country?’”

Hired as a prosecutor by Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who gained notoriety as one of the nation’s deadliest prosecutors, Alcala spent nine years trying capital cases in the DA’s office of the country’s leading death-sentencing county. She then served as a county trial judge before being appointed by then-governor George W. Bush to serve on the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. As she was exposed to a range of problems in Texas death penalty cases, her views on the capital punishment evolved. She became a skeptic of capital punishment, often dissenting from denials of death-penalty relief and, in the case of Julius Murphy, called on the court to consider whether the state’s death penalty was constitutionally administered. When she left the bench, Judge Alcala accepted a policy role at the Texas Defender Service, where she will advocate for criminal justice reform. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, she joked, “[m]aybe I can have more success at the legislative level to get somebody to understand that there are some real true problems.”

In the podcast interview, Alcala cites a range of factors that changed her views about capital punishment. She discusses ineffective lawyers and parole laws that, at the beginning of her career, forced jurors to choose between a 15-year prison sentence and a death sentence for death-eligible defendants. “What do you do with these people who ... got there back to in the 90s when we know for a fact that the lawyers were not doing what they should have been doing in my mind?” Alcala asked. “And then the question is, as they come up to be executed, are we going to continue to execute them and tolerate the fact that things were done imperfectly? … I think, still percolating through all of that is that a lot of those [cases] are subject to that old parole law.”

When asked about the decline of the death penalty in Texas, Alcala said, “It is on the decline significantly. Whether it will ever go away and when it will go away – I don't know, I think it is imperfect. More accurately, I should say it is unreliable – I have lost faith in the reliability of the death penalty. And that is what underlies my involvement with the Texas Defender Service. It is: If you're going to have the death penalty, then do it correctly. You know, give them a good trial lawyer, give them a good appellate lawyer, give them a good habeas lawyer at the state level, give them a good federal lawyer and don't let racial prejudice at all influence anything that's going on.” The death penalty, she said, “is just not reliable. It’s not something that I can say is being done the way that it should be done to give you confidence in it as a punishment form. … I think, why is Texas so out of line with the rest of the country? It can't be that our people are worse, right? I mean, Texans are good people. Are our crimes worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so. Are our people worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so.  So somehow we are out of line.”

Human Rights Group—Politically Motivated Use of Death Penalty Widens in Saudi Arabia

Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia amid widening pursuit of politically motivated death sentences, mass death penalty trials, and use of the death penalty against female activists, according to a European-based Saudi human rights organization. In its 2018 Death Penalty Report: Saudi Arabia’s False Promise, issued January 16, 2019, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said Saudi Arabia conducted at least 149 executions in 2018, more than double the number conducted in 2013, continuing a four-year surge the group associates with the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Half of those executed were foreign nationals, including 33 from Pakistan and women from Ethiopia and Indonesia. ESOHR reported that the Saudi government concealed at least one execution and failed to announce the execution of the Indonesian woman, and the human rights group expressed concern that the actual number of executions in the country may be higher. 

The Saudi royal family has sought to deflect international criticism of its escalated use of the death penalty by pointing to the use of capital punishment by the United States and other countries. In an April 2018 interview with TIME magazine, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deflected a question on whether the Kingdom would reduce the number of public beheadings and executions in his country, saying: “I believe until today the United States of America and a lot of states, they have capital punishment. We’ve tried to minimize [its use],” he said, and suggested that the monarchy was working with the Saudi parliament on an initiative to change punishments for some offenses from execution to life in prison. The ESOHR report, however, said bin Salman’s statement “is not reflected in the death penalty statistics of 2018. Execution rates have sky rocketed [sic] in the last four years [and] do not indicate any attempts to ‘minimise’ or ‘reduce’” death penalty use. 

ESOHR’s report catalogues an intensified use of “politically motivated death sentences … against an increasing spectrum of government critics,” including human rights advocates, non-violent clerics, and other political opponents. It lists among the politically motivated death sentences the case of Israa al-Ghomgham, the first female activist to face execution in Saudi Arabia for non-violent human rights-related work. Al-Ghomgham was detained in December 2016 during a raid on her home. Her case is being prosecuted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to address acts of terrorism. However, Oliver Windridge – an international human rights lawyer who has written briefs supporting al-Ghomgham – says that its “focus appears to have moved from terrorist suspects to human rights defenders and anti-government protesters.” The ESOHR report describes the terrorism charges against al-Ghomgham as “trumped up” and the trial proceedings as “grossly unfair.” UN human rights experts also have condemned the prosecution, saying that “[m]easures aimed at countering terrorism should never to be used to suppress or curtail human rights work.” 

ESOHR says that 59 Saudi prisoners are currently at risk of imminent execution, including eight who were minors at the time of their purported crimes and twelve men convicted of spreading the Shia faith and allegedly spying for Iran. 

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Kentucky Court in Intellectual Disability Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a Kentucky state court ruling that would have permitted the Commonwealth to execute death-row prisoner Larry Lamont White (pictured) without an evidentiary hearing on his claim that he is intellectually disabled. In a one-paragraph order issued on January 15, 2019, the Court granted White’s petition for review, vacated the Kentucky Supreme Court’s denial of his death-penalty appeal, and directed the state court to reconsider White’s eligibility for capital punishment in light of the standard for determining intellectual disability set forth in the justices’ 2017 decision in Moore v. Texas. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissented.

White’s trial lawyers argued that he was ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, providing evidence from IQ testing conducted in 1971 when he was 12 years old. The trial court summarily denied relief and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, based on a Kentucky statute that required a capitally-charged defendant to score 70 or below on an IQ test to be considered intellectually disabled. The court said White could not be considered intellectually disabled because his IQ score was 76. The court also relied upon White’s filing of motions without the assistance of counsel to conclude “that there is ample evidence of [White]'s mental acumen.” However, ten months after White’s appeal, the state court ruled that Kentucky’s statutory IQ cutoff violated Moore and the Eighth Amendment, holding that “any rule of law that states that a criminal defendant automatically cannot be ruled intellectually disabled and precluded from execution simply because he or she has an IQ of 71 or above, even after adjustment for statistical error, is unconstitutional.”

Justice Alito dissented, citing a previous dissent by the late Justice Antonin Scalia that the Supreme Court’s summary reversals for reconsideration should be reserved for cases in which an intervening factor is present. Here, Alito argued, the Court should not have intervened because the Moore decision “was handed down almost five months before the Supreme Court of Kentucky reached a decision in [White’s] case.” White’s lawyer, Kathleen Schmidt, praised the majority’s ruling, saying “[n]early 20 years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, in part out of concern that intellectually disabled defendants are more likely to be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. We have similar concerns in this case, and we are grateful that the Supreme Court has remanded the case to ensure that all issues in the case are fully and properly litigated.”

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