What's New

NEW VOICES: Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Would Have Granted Troy Davis a Hearing

Judge Norman Fletcher served on the Georgia Supreme Court and was in the majority that upheld Troy Davis's original conviction and death sentence on direct appeal.  However, Judge Fletcher has noted he was not on the court after many of the witnesses from Davis's trial recanted their testimony, and he probably would have voted in favor of a new evidentiary hearing for Davis if he was on the court today.  Judge Fletcher recently wrote about the wisdom of retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens regarding his decision in the Troy Davis case to grant such a hearing: "[His] leadership in this case was a triumph of the common-sense notion that innocence matters; it matters more than procedural technicalities. No matter whether one opposes or supports the death penalty, I would hope we can at least agree that the innocent should not be executed." Of Davis's case, he wrote further, "No matter the outcome of this case, Davis stands for the principle that the factual innocence or guilt of people sentenced to death matters. For those facing the irreversible punishment of death, we should always do our best to get to the truth. Never should procedural rules trump the consideration of newly discovered exculpatory evidence."

EDITORIALS: "Congress Must Rewrite the Law Governing Lawyers for Poor Death-Row Inmates"

The Washington Post recently published an editorial calling for Congress to rewrite the part of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that governs legal representation for indigent death-penalty defendants. The law allows a fast-track for federal appeals of state capital convictions provided states guarantee and pay for a system of legal representation that covers all capital defendants . Originally, the program had to be certified by the federal courts. In 2006, Congress changed the law, giving the U.S. Attorney General the authority to certify a state that "'established a mechanism for the appointment of counsel for indigent prisoners under sentence of death' and has set up a 'mechanism for compensation' for appointed attorneys." According to the editorial, "These provisions are so lax that choosing lawyers by shoe size and paying them with bubble gum could meet the test."

The new rules are currently on hold and are under reconsideration by Attorney General Eric Holder. The editorial suggests stricter standards, such as requiring that lawyers who take assignments under the fast-track program have significant experience handling death penalty cases. However, it ultimately concludes that the law itself should be abandoned: "[A]ll of the administrative tinkering in the world cannot fix what is most wrong with the current law… states should not be in the business of truncating even further what for many is a last, best hope for justice." Read full editorial below.

NEW VOICES: Former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Calls for Abolition

Joseph P. Nadeau, who served on New Hampshire's Supreme Court for six years and as a judge for 37 years, recently testified before the state's death penalty commission about his opposition to the practice. In an op-ed, Judge Nadeau summarized the moral and practical reasons why he believes capital punishment should be repealed. "Our thinking evolves, as people, technology, and societies progress," he said.  "And what is acceptable at one time in our history may become unwelcome at another. So we are encouraged to re-examine our core principles and to consider whether death continues to be an acceptable punishment in New Hampshire." He dismissed the notion that the death penalty is needed to honor law enforcement officers: "Its abolition does not dishonor those who serve in law enforcement because honor comes from personal pride and earned respect, not from the ability of the state to execute a human being."

Judge Nadeau continued, "No legal system is perfect. Human beings make mistakes. That is one reason we accept the notion that occasionally the guilty will go free and the innocent will be convicted. But I do not believe anyone accepts the notion that it is all right for a person to be wrongfully executed. So with the most respected judicial system in the world, how can we willingly embrace a sentence which cannot be reversed after it is imposed; and how can we continue to believe that it is morally acceptable for the state to take a human life?" Read full op-ed below.

NEW RESOURCES: "The State of the World's Human Rights"

Amnesty International recently released its annual report on international abuses and progress in the field of human rights: "The State of the World's Human Rights." The report covers January to December 2009 and addresses human rights issues in every country around the world. The report also highlights countries' involvement in international and regional human rights treaties. Among the nations in the Americas, the United States had the most active death penalty practices with over 100 new death sentences and 52 executions. Although death sentences were handed down in the Bahamas, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago, no executions were carried out. The majority of North American and South American countries are abolitionist in law or in practice.

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear California Death Penalty Case

On June 14, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Cullen v. Pinholster. In 1984, Scott Pinholster was convicted and sentenced to death for killing two men during a burglary in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned Pinholster's death sentence because of ineffectiveness of counsel since his lawyer did not give the jury evidence of Pinholster's mental illness during the penalty phase of the trial. The appeals court said the evidence might have persuaded the jury to opt for a lesser sentence. The Supreme Court will review the lower court's decision and decide whether Pinholster should receive a new sentencing hearing or whether his death sentence should be reinstated.  The case will be heard in the Court's next term beginning in the fall of 2010.

DNA Evidence Could Show If Texas Executed an Innocent Man

Texas Judge Paul C. Murphy recently ordered prosecutors to hand over key evidence from a 1989 murder case to the Innocence Project and the Texas Observer for DNA testing. In 2007, the Innocence Project and the Observer filed suit to obtain a one-inch strand of hair that allegedly implicated Claude Howard Jones (pictured) in the killing of a liquor store owner in San Jacinto County. Other than vague eyewitness accounts and questionable testimony from Jones's two friends who were also at the scene of the crime (one of whom later recanted his testimony), the only pertinent physical evidence that linked Jones to the crime scene was a strand of hair found on the liquor store counter. At Jones's trial in 1990, a forensic expert testified that the hair appeared to belong to Jones, but DNA technology did not exist at the time to determine if the strand was a match.  Jones was executed on Dec. 7, 2000, one of the last executions overseen by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

Supreme Court Allows Late Appeal Under Extraordinary Circumstances

On June 14, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Albert Holland, who lost his right to file a federal appeal of his death sentence when his lawyer missed the 1-year deadline established under the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Holland's attorney's conduct in missing the deadline was not egregious enough to warrant setting aside the imposed deadline. The appeals court said that the attorney would have had to act with "bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, or mental impairment" to be excused from the imposed deadline, and that gross negligence was not enough of a reason. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appeals court's decision, saying that its standard was too rigid.  The  Court said, "We have previously held that a garden variety claim of excusable neglect, such as simple miscalculation that leads a lawyer to miss a filing deadline, does not warrant [an exemption from the deadline]. But this case before us does not involve, and we are not considering, a garden variety claim of attorney negligence. Rather, the facts of this case present far more serious instances of attorney misconduct." Holland's lawyer failed to communicate with him for several years, despite letters from Holland asking information regarding his appeals. Holland also contacted state courts and the Florida Bar Association in an effort to have the lawyer removed from the case.

MULTIMEDIA: "Slow Death of the Death Penalty" on CBS News Sunday Morning

 

On June 13, CBS News' program Sunday Morning featured a report entitled, The Slow Death of the Death Penalty, which addressed various issues regarding the use of the death penalty today. The report highlighted the cases of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was scheduled to be executed in Utah this week, and Gaile Owens, whose scheduled execution in September would make her the first woman to be executed in Tennessee since 1820. The video featured interviews from many death penalty experts, including Kelly Henry, a federal public defender representing Gaile Owens. Henry said mitigating circumstances of sexual and emotional abuse were not presented during Owens's trial and could have changed the outcome of the case.  She said that Owens's trial counsel provided woefully inadequate representation. The report illustrated the arbitrariness of the death penalty by pointing to another woman in Tennessee who was also responsible for her husband's death and who received only a light sentence.  Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who was also featured in the report, said, "If we had a death penalty that only picked the worst of the worst that it would make some sense, but what we have is often the death penalty for those who had the worst lawyer."

Pages