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Tennessee Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Gaile Owens

On July 14, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen commuted the death sentence of Gaile Owens to life in prison. Owens, who was sentenced to death in 1986 for hiring a man to kill her husband, had accepted a deal to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for a sentence of life in prison. However, the man who did the killing refused to plead guilty, and prosecutors then rescinded the deal for Owens.  Both co-defendants were sentenced to death.  In deciding to commute her sentence to life in prison, Governor Bredesen said the decision was based in part on the plea bargain that was later withdrawn and the possibility that Owens was abused by her husband. Governor Bredesen said, “Nearly all the similar cases we looked at resulted in life-in-prison sentences.” John Seigenthaler, formerly on staff at the Tennessean, said of her case, “As heinous as the crime was, the record of how Tennessee has dealt with similar cases over the last century makes it clear that her death would have been a terrible miscarriage of justice."

After Two Faulty Trials With Inadequate Representation, Oklahoma Death Row Inmate Released 27 Years Later

An inmate who spent 27 years on Oklahoma’s death row was released earlier in July after he accepted a plea agreement with prosecutors. James Fisher  was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1983. A federal appeals court overturned his death sentence because of inadequate attorney representation, thus sending the case back to trial. In 2005, Fisher was again convicted and sentenced to death. The second death sentence was also overturned, this time by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, again for inadequate representation. Under the new plea agreement, Fisher pleaded guilty to murder and was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole. District Judge Kenneth Watson suspended the sentence and released Fisher to a re-entry program run by the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, the same group that was representing Fisher on appeal.  Fisher will be on probation for life, and he is not allowed to return to Oklahoma. First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said, “I believe if he had been convicted and sentenced to life in 1983, he would probably have been out in 15 years.”

Why Someone Might Confess to a Crime He Did Not Commit

More often than many realize, innocent people falsely confess to crimes they did not commit, according to a recent review in the Chicago Tribune.  For example, Kevin Fox, was accused of sexually assaulting and murdering his 3-year-old daughter in Illinois.  He confessed to the crime after spending 14 hours in interrogation, during which police ignored his requests for a lawyer and told him that they would arrange for inmates to rape him in jail. Fox was later released after DNA evidence excluded him as a suspect, and another man was subsequently charged with the crime.   Saul Kassin, psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explained the pressures that could lead to this happening, "The interrogation itself is stressful enough to get innocent people to confess. But add to that a layer of grief and shock and perhaps even some guilt — 'I should have been there' — and then that the parent is trying like hell to be cooperative because they want the murder of their child solved." Trauma, lack of sleep and highly manipulative interrogation techniques can cause false confessions to even the most heinous crimes, including ones carrying the death penalty.  Experts believe that false confessions account for an estimated 25% of wrongful convictions.   "We know that for certain kinds of people, particularly those with mental illness and mental deficiencies, but other people as well, the psychological intensity of an interrogation can prove absolutely as torturous as physical pain," said Lawrence Marshall, a Stanford University law professor who co-founded Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Texas Judge to Hold Hearing on Risk of Executing the Innocent

Texas District Judge Kevin Fine scheduled a hearing in a death penalty case to consider whether there is a substantial risk that Texas's death penalty laws could result in the execution of an innocent person. The hearing, expected to last two weeks, will likely include testimony from experts around the country. Casey Kiernan, one of the attorneys for the defendant, John Green, filed a pre-trial motion regarding the issue of innocence, which led to the hearing.  Kiernan said, "I think everybody in the United States would agree that the possibility exists [an innocent person has been executed]. We think there is much more than a possibility, based on all the exonerations, all the problems with the forensics." Defense attorneys are also planning to raise other issues at the hearing, including the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The hearing will begin on November 8.  Judge Fine had initially granted the motion in March, finding Texas' death penalty law to be unconstitutional.  However, he withdrew that decision so that more evidence from both sides could be submitted.  UPDATE: On Jan. 12, 2011, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a motion by the prosecutors to order an end to the pre-trial hearing on the constitutionality of Texas's death penalty statute.  The Court had earlier stayed the proceeding after 2 days of testimony in December.

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Reconsideration of Georgia Death Sentence Because of Inadequate Representation

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court returned a death penalty case to the Georgia Supreme Court to reconsider whether the failures of the defendant's lawyer probably affected the sentence he received. Demarcus Sears was sentenced to death in 1993 for the murder of a woman in Cobb County.  Sears' attorneys attempted to convince jurors to spare his life by saying that he came from a stable and loving family who would be devastated if he received the death penalty. However, the defense lawyers failed to conduct an adequate investigation of Sears' childhood. They neglected to show that his parents had been in a physically abusive relationship, that he was sexually abused and inappropriately disciplined. By the time Sears reached high school, he was “described as severely learning disabled and as severely behaviorally handicapped.” One expert determined he was among the "most impaired individuals in the population" as a result of significant frontal lobe brain damage. Although a lower court in Georgia found the defense attorneys conduct to be faulty, it concluded that the mitigating evidence that was not presented would not have made a difference.  The U.S. Supreme Court held that the evidence "might well have helped the jury understand Sears and his horrendous acts ...." The Court granted certiorari, vacated the judgment below, and ordered Georgia to reconsider the possible prejudice to Sears from the ineffective representation rendered by his lawyers, especially in light of other Supreme Court decisions where attorneys failed to conduct a thorough investigation.

EDITORIALS: "Forget the Death Penalty"

On June 24, the Democrat Herald (Oregon) featured an editorial about Randy Lee Guzek, who was recently sentenced to death for the fourth time for murders committed in 1987. The Oregon Supreme Court overturned his three previous death sentences on various grounds. The editorial questioned whether such a death penalty process made any sense.  "If the procedures are so difficult that Oregon trial courts cannot get them right in three tries, maybe there is something wrong with the procedures and the system."  In 26 years, Oregon has executed two defendants, both of whom waived their appeals.  The paper concluded, "The appellate courts are telling the people something: Forget the death penalty; it's not gonna happen. And if it ever does happen, it will be many, many years after the crime. By that time, it will be easy to argue that the man facing execution is not the same bad character who, decades before, took someone's life. So why kill him now?"  The editorial posed life without parole as an alternative to death penalty in Oregon, saying " Unless we want to keep making a mockery of the death penalty law by refusing to carry it out, Oregon would be better off if prosecutors just asked for life without parole instead." Read full editorial below.

Federal Court Reviews New Evidence that Might Prove Troy Davis's Innocence

On June 23-24, U.S. District Judge William T. Moore heard new testimony in the case of death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis, who was given an unusual chance by the U.S. Supreme Court to "clearly establish" his innocence after almost 20 years. Davis was convicted in 1991 of the shooting of a Savannah police officer based on eyewitness testimony that identified him as the shooter.

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Alabama Inmate's Challenge to Death Sentence

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Billy Joe Magwood, an Alabama defendant convicted of a 1979 murder whose challenge to the state's death penalty law had been ruled untimely by lower courts. Magwood's first death sentence was overturned, but he was sentenced to death a second time.  When Magwood filed a habeas petition challenging his new death sentence, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Magwood's challenge to his new death sentence was an unreviewable “second or successive” challenge since he could have brought the same challenge to his first death sentence.  Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, said "because Magwood's habeas application challenges a new judgment for the first time, it is not 'second or successive.'" The Supreme Court decision allows Magwood to challenge his second death sentence as a brand new judgment, even if it raises issues that could have been made against the original sentence.  Justices Stevens, Scalia, Breyer, and Sotomayor concurred.  Justice Kennedy, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Ginsburg and Alito, dissented.