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North Carolina Court Reverses Racial Justice Act Ruling, Orders New Hearings

The North Carolina Supreme Court has reversed the historic rulings of a Cumberland County, N.C. trial court that had overturned the death sentences of four North Carolina death-row prisoners under the state's Racial Justice Act. Ruling entirely on procedural grounds, the state's high court expressed no opinion on the lower court's fact findings that North Carolina prosecutors had engaged in a decades-long practice of intentional race discrimination in jury selection in capital cases. In April 2012, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks overturned the death sentence imposed on Marcus Robinson (pictured, left),holding that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” at the time of Robinson’s trial. After a second hearing in the cases of Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin, the court again found that “a wealth of evidence show[ed] the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” After the lower court overturned these death sentences and imposed sentences of life without parole, the North Carolina legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act law. In its ruling, the North Carolina Supreme Court said that the trial court should have given prosecutors more time to prepare for the evidentiary hearing at which the prisoners presented a comprehensive statistical analysis of North Carolina's exercise of discretionary strikes in capital prosecutions over a 20-year period. Writing that "fundamental fairness" required that the state be given "an adequate opportunity to prepare for this unusual and complex proceeding," the court invited both sides to present additional statistical evidence at a new hearing. In the second case, the court also said the three prisoners' Racial Justice Act claims should have been heard separately. Executions have been stayed indefinitely in North Carolina pending resolution of the Racial Justice Act litigation and will remain on hold.


BOOKS: "Examining Wrongful Convictions"

A new book, Examining Wrongful Convictions: Stepping Back, Moving Forward, explores the causes and related issues behind the many wrongful convictions in the U.S. Compiled and edited by four criminal justice professors from the State University of New York, the text draws from U.S. and international sources. Prof. Dan Simon of the University of Southern California said, ''This book offers the most comprehensive and insightful treatment of wrongful convictions to date," noting that it delves into topics such as the wars on drugs and crime, the culture of punitiveness, and racial animus, as they relate to mistakes in the justice system. The editors note that, "[The] essential premise of this book is that much of value can be learned by 'stepping back' from the traditional focus on the direct or immediate causes and consequences of wrongful convictions," with the hope of moving forward by "probing for the root causes of miscarriages of justice."

Texas Court Orders New Trial Because of Withheld Evidence

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, vacated the conviction and death sentence of Alfred Brown, who has been on death row for murder since 2005. Brown has maintained his innocence and has said that a landline phone call he made from his girlfriend's apartment the morning of the murder would prove it. At his trial, Brown's attorneys presented no evidence of his alibi, and his girlfriend changed her testimony after she was threatened with prosecution. In 2013, a homicide detective found a box of records in his garage containing phone records that indicated Brown made a call exactly when he claimed. The file was never shared with Brown's defense team at his original trial. District Attorney Devon Anderson said, "As a result of this review, our office agreed that Mr. Brown should receive relief in his case so that justice could be served. Following our office's agreement that relief should be granted, today the Court of Criminal Appeals sent Mr. Brown's case back to the trial court for a new trial." Anderson said she will now review the case to determine whether to retry Brown or drop the charges.

NEW VOICES: Another Conservative Leader Challenges the Death Penalty

In an op-ed in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tennessean Drew Johnson evoked conservatives' intentions to "protect innocent life, promote financial responsibility and support government programs that really work" in criticizing the death penalty. Johnson, a Senior Fellow at Taxpayers Protection Alliance and founder of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, cited the many exonerations from death row as another reason to challenge capital punishment: "Life is too precious to rely on mistake-prone processes like the death penalty." He noted that the Tennessee Comptroller's Office's found capital trials to be 48% more expensive than life-without-parole trials. Finally, relying on the conservative value of limited government, he concluded, "My view of limited government is not giving the state the power to kill American citizens. There is nothing limited about that authority....It's time that conservative Tennesseans begin to look at the death penalty to consider whether it's consistent with our view of the role of government and decide if retribution and revenge is worth sacrificing our principles, freedoms and liberties." Read the full op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Police Chiefs Join Innocence Project for Criminal Investigation Reforms

In a new report released on December 3, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) called for police departments to adopt new guidelines to reduce the number of wrongful convictions. The chiefs' recommendations include reforms of lineup procedures, videotaping of witness interviews, and formalizing the review of innocence claims. The IACP worked with the Justice Department and the Innocence Project to identify ways to reduce potential sources of error and bias. Walter A. McNiel, police chief of Quincy, Florida, and past president of IACP, said, "At the end of the day, the goal is to reduce the number of persons who are wrongfully convicted. What we are trying to say in this report is, it’s worth it for all of us, particularly law enforcement, to continue to evaluate, slow down, and get the right person." The recommendations take into account research that has found eyewitness error in the majority of cases later overturned by DNA evidence. (Eyewitness error is also a leading cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases.)

EDITORIALS: Expanding Conservative Concerns About the Death Penalty

A recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News highlighted the voices of prominent conservatives who now oppose capital punishment, including former Texas Congressman Ron Paul and conservative political leader Richard Viguerie. The paper noted the new partnership between the student-centered organization Young Americans for Liberty and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The editorial described why one Texas conservative, Pat Monks, a Republican precinct chairman in Harris County (Houston), changed his mind on the death penalty: "Ultimately .... [t]he impossibility of eradicating human error from the system hit home to him.... he came to see no deterrent value for a punishment that’s imposed unevenly at an intolerable expense to the public.” Read the full editorial below.

The New Yorker Looks at the Decline in Texas Death Sentences

In the May 9 issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin examines the drop in death sentences in Texas and focuses particularly on the mitigation work being done by the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE) in Houston, headed by Danalynn Recer.  Toobin cites a number of possible reasons for the drop in death sentences in Texas, including "the increasing use of mitigation, a strategy that aims to tell the defendant’s life story." The article provides a number of examples where Recer's organization presented evidence from a defendant's background, such as childhood abuse or brain damage, and convinced a jury to choose a life sentence over the death penalty, even for the murder of a police officer. Recer summed up her work, "The idea was to improve the way capital trials were done in Texas, to start an office that would bring the best practices from other places and put them to work here....It is possible to persuade a jury to value someone's life."

NEW RESOURCES: DPIC State Information Pages

DPIC is pleased to announce the launch of its latest resource, State Information Pages, providing historical and current information on the death penalty for each state. This resource is a work-in-progress, but we are happy to present the first 15 state pages. Our original state-by-state database is still the best place to look for frequently-updated information such as execution totals and murder rates. The new pages are designed as a source of information on each state's unique history related to the death penalty, including famous capital cases, past legislative actions, and other interesting facts.  Each state page includes a picture representing a unique quality of the state. The pages also provide links to relevant websites, such as state legislatures, groups doing death penalty work, and Departments of Corrections. Much of the information for these pages has been provided by individuals and organizations working on the death penalty in each state and we welcome further input. Thanks to those who helped make this new resource possible.