What's New

U.S. Supreme Court to Decide if Alabama Can Execute Prisoner With Vascular Dementia and No Memory of the Crime

Posted: February 26, 2018

Less than a week after Alabama halted the failed execution of a terminally ill prisoner whose veins were not suitable for intraveneous injection, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear the case of another Alabama prisoner whose medical condition, his lawyers say, make him constitutionally unfit for execution. Strokes have slurred Vernon Madison's speech and left him legally blind, incontinent, unable to walk independently, and with no memory of the offense for which he was sentenced to death. Madison's vascular dementia, his lawyers argue, make him incompetent to be executed. This is the third time since 2016 that Madison's case has come before the Court. In May 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted Madison a stay of execution to consider his competency claim. At that time, state prosecutors asked the Court to lift the stay, but with one seat vacant from the death of Justice Scalia, the Court split 4-4, leaving the stay in place. Ten months later, citing uncontroverted evidence that Madison has "memory loss, difficulty communicating, and profound disorientation and confusion," the Eleventh Circuit ruled in Madison's favor, finding him incompetent to be executed. Alabama prosecutors again asked the Supreme Court to intervene. On November 6, 2017, the Court agreed to review the case and in a unanimous unsigned opinion reversed the circuit court's decision. The Court explained that, under restrictions on federal habeas corpus review of state decisions imposed by the Congress in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the federal courts were required to defer to state-court decisions under most circumstances. While expressing "no view on the merits of the underlying question outside of the AEDPA context," the Court ruled that "the state court’'s determinations of law and fact were not “so lacking in justification” as to give rise to error “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, concurred. However, they believed "[t]he issue whether a State may administer the death penalty to a person whose disability leaves him without memory of his commission of a capital offense is a substantial question not yet addressed by the Court." If the issue reached the Court in an appropriate procedural posture, they wrote, "the issue would warrant full airing." The Court's ruling cleared the way for Madison to be executed, and the State of Alabama set a January 25, 2018 execution date. In response, Madison's lawyers, led by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, presented the state court with additional evidence of Madison's deteriorating condition and new evidence that the doctor whose medical opinion had provided the court's basis for finding Madison competent had been addicted to drugs, was forging prescriptions, and had since been arrested. The state court denied relief without an evidentiary hearing and Madison's lawyers—emphasizing that this was no longer a habeas corpus case—asked the Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution to review the case. On the evening of the 25th, the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution, halting Madison's execution so it could decide whether to review his claim. On February 26, the Court voted to review the case to determine whether the Eighth Amendment prevents a state from executing a prisoner whose mental and physical condition prevents him from having memory of the crime for which he was convicted. The Court may now review the issue unencumbered by the limitations on habeas corpus cases. The Court will likely hear argument in the fall and a decision is expected by June 2019. 

 

Three Controversial Executions Turn Into A Commutation, An Execution, and an Execution Failure

Posted: February 23, 2018

Three states—Alabama, Florida, and Texas—prepared to carry out controversial executions on Thursday, February 22, all scheduled for 7 PM Eastern time, but by the end of the night, two had been halted. Less than an hour before his scheduled execution, and after having said a final good-bye to his anguished father, Texas death-row prisoner Thomas "Bart" Whitaker (pictured, left) learned that Governor Greg Abbott had commuted his death sentence to life in prison. Minutes later, Florida executed Eric Branch (pictured, center), despite undisputed evidence that he had been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. And nearing midnight Central time, two-and-one-half hours after a divided U.S. Supreme Court had given Alabama the go-ahead to execute terminally ill Doyle Hamm (pictured, right) corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn called off the execution saying prison personnel did not have "sufficient time" to find a suitable vein in which to place the intravenous execution line before the death warrant expired. For Texas, it was the first time in more than a decade and only the third time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, that any governor had granted clemency to a condemned prisoner. The Texas commutation came after a unanimous recommendation by the parole board, support from the only living victim, Whitaker's father, and various state lawmakers. In explaining his grant of clemency—the first time Gov. Abbott had commuted any death sentence—the Governor cited the fact that Whitaker's codefendant, the triggerperson, did not get the death penalty, the victim "passionately opposed the execution," and Whitaker had waived any possibility of parole and would spend the remainder of his life in prison. The final-hour commutation was relayed to Whitaker in the holding cell next to the death chamber, as he was preparing to be executed. Florida executed Eric Branch despite the fact that a judge sentenced him death after two of his jurors had voted for life and the jury had been told not to record the findings that would make Branch eligible for the death penalty. Both of those practices have now been found unconstitutional. In Hurst v. Florida, decided in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated that a capital defendant's right to a jury trial includes the right to have a jury find all facts necessary for the state to impose the death penalty, and later that year, the Florida Supreme Court declared that the Sixth Amendment and the Florida constitution require jury sentencing verdicts to be unanimous. Alabama had been warned that, because of his terminal cancer and prior history of drug use, Doyle Hamm's veins were not accessible and therefore an attempt to execute him via intravenous injection would be cruel and unusual. After the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay at 6:00pm CT, followed by a full denial of a stay with dissents from Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor around 9:00pm CT, Alabama started preparing to carry out Hamm's execution. After more than two-and-a-half hours, the state called it off. At a news conference immediately thereafter, Commissioner Dunn repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol, and said "I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” Dunn was unable to describe what the state had been doing during the time that Hamm was being prepared for the lethal injection and dismissed questions about failed attempts to set the IV lines saying he was not qualified to answer medical questions. He said he could not tell reporters how long the medical personnel had attempted to establish IV access because "I am not back there with the staff." Alabama keeps its protocol secret, making it impossible to verify the state's assertions. Hamm's attorney Bernard Harcourt, who—like all witnesses—was not permitted to view the IV insertion portion of the execution, speculated that prison personnel could not find a vein and called the process "[s]imply unconscionable." On the morning of February 23, Harcourt filed an emergency motion saying that Hamm had "endured over two-and-a-half hours of attempted venous access" and seeking a hearing to "establish exactly what happened" during that time frame. The federal district court scheduled a hearing on the issue for Monday, February 26.

 

Tennessee Attorney General Seeks Eight Execution Dates as Prisoners Challenge "Torturous" Drug Protocol

Posted: February 22, 2018

Thirty-three Tennessee death-row prisoners have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality and legality of the state's new execution protocol, after Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery (pictured) asked the state supreme court to expedite executions before one of the state's execution drugs expires. On February 14, Slatery asked the court to schedule eight execution to be carried out before June 1. Attorneys for the death-row prisoners, who were in the process of finalizing their challenge to the protocol, asked the high court for two weeks to respond to the Attorney General's request for death warrants. On February 20, they filed their own complaint in the Davidson County Court of Chancery arguing that the execution process adopted by state officials used drugs their own suppliers have told them will not work properly, and that the "torturous" drug protocol adopted by the state should be ruled unconstitutionally cruel and usual. In January, Tennessee changed its lethal-injection protocol from a one-drug barbiturate—the method used in the most recent executions carried out by Texas, Missouri, and Georgia—to a three-drug formula using the controversial drug midazolam, which has resulted in protracted and problematic executions in several states. Although Tennessee has not carried out an execution since 2009, the Attorney General said the state's ability to carry out lethal-injection executions "after June 1, 2018 is uncertain due to the ongoing difficulty in obtaining the necessary lethal injection chemicals." One of the lawyers for the prisoner, Supervisory Assistant Federal Public Defender Kelley J. Henry, said, "What Tennessee is proposing to do amounts to torturing prisoners to death, which we know because we’ve seen this protocol fail in other states." She said "You cannot break the law in order to enforce the law," but the protocol "requires pharmacists, doctors, and prison officials to act illegally." The prisoners' lawsuit references an email between a drug supplier and Tennessee corrections officials—a copy of which was obtained by the USA Today Network—showing that prison officials had been alerted to potential problems with midazolam months before they adopted their new drug protocol. In that September 2017 email, the supplier wrote: "Here is my concern with midazolam ... it does not elicit strong analgesic effects. The subjects may be able to feel pain from the administration of the second and third drugs. Potassium chloride especially." The Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have likened the unanesthetized use of potassium chloride to being "chemically burned at the stake," and the prisoners' lawyers it would unconstitutionally subject their clients to "being burned alive from the inside." In February of last year, the state of Arkansas set eight executions over an 11-day period of time—all scheduled before the end of April based on the concern that the lethal-injection drugs would expire and the state would be unable to obtain more. Arkansas only carried out four of the eight, and there were notably visible problems with the use of midazolam in at least one of the four executions. Later in the year, Arkansas obtained additional drugs for another execution, which ultimately was stayed as a result of competency issues.  [UPDATE: On March 15, 2018, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied the Attorney General's request, but did set two execution dates, scheduling the executions of Edmund Zagorski for October 1, 2018 and David Earl Miller for December 6, 2018.] 

 

Missouri Executed 17 Prisoners With Drugs Secretly Obtained From 'High-Risk' Pharmacy Cited for Hazardous Practices

Posted: February 21, 2018

BuzzFeed News investigation has disclosed that Missouri carried out seventeen executions between 2014 and 2017 using supplies of the drug pentobarbital it secretly obtained from a pharmacy the Food and Drug Administration had classified as “high risk” because of repeated serious health violations. The February 20 exposé describes a complex system of clandestine meetings, code names, and undocumented cash payments that Missouri employed to conceal the identity of Foundation Care, a suburban St. Louis compounding pharmacy that reporter Chris McDaniel discovered “has been repeatedly found to engage in hazardous pharmaceutical procedures.” Foundation Care—which was reportedly paid more than $135,000 for execution drugs—is alleged to have engaged in illegal practices, medicare fraud, and numerous manufacturing improprieties and, McDaniel reports, its cofounder has been accused of "regularly ordering prescription medications for himself without a doctor’s prescription.” Two former senior employees of the company—including the head of pharmacy operations—have alleged in a lawsuit that Foundation Care violated government regulations by reselling drugs returned by patients, intentionally omitting the names of ingredients in drugs it prepared, and failing to notify other states about a $300,000 settlement with Kansas over allegations of Medicaid fraud. Another suit by a former employee alleges that she was fired after complaining to her supervisors and the Missouri Board of Pharmacy about “serious operational violations.” Missouri switched to Foundation Care after reporters discovered the identifty of the state's prior secret supplier of execution drugs—an Oklahoma compounding pharmacy called The Apothecary Shoppe. Reporters learned that The Apothecary Shoppe was not licensed to sell drugs in Missouri and had admitted to nearly 2,000 health and safety violations. Foundation Care first came to the attention of FDA investigators after a doctor complained to the agency that a patient he was treating had developed “a 'life threatening' illness” after taking a drug that had been prepared by the pharmacy. At that time, the investigators found that the pharmacy had shipped drugs to patients without conducting tests for sterility and bacteria, and a lab sample revealed drugs that had been contaminated with bacteria. In 2013, the FDA designated Foundation Care as a "high-risk" compounding pharmacy, and cited it as an example as to why greater federal oversight of compounders was necessary. A second inspection of the company that year found “multiple examples” of practices that could lead to contamination, and that Foundation Care had failed to “assure that drug products conform to appropriate standards of identity, strength, quality and purity.” In a February 2014 letter to the Missouri Board of Pharmacy, the FDA warned that the pharmacy’s practices “could lead to contamination of drugs, potentially putting patients at risk.” The possibility of drug contamination is one of the centerpieces of prisoner challenges to Missouri's execution process, and experts in the case have indicated that contamination could create a “substantial risk of pain and suffering.” However, in a deposition in the Missouri prisoners' legal challenge, state officials refused to say whether they were aware of any problems with their drug manufacturer, and lawyers for the state have affirmatively used Missouri's secrecy provisions to deny prisoners' access to information about its drug supplier and the company's safety record, while at the same time arguing the prisoners have not proven that the execution may be unconstitutionally cruel. Foundation Care was acquired by AcariaHealth, a subsidiary of health-care giant Centene Corporation, in October 2017. After McDaniel's report was published, the company issued a statement that, “[u]nder Centene’s ownership, Foundation Care has never supplied, and will never supply any pharmaceutical product to any state for the purpose of effectuating executions.”

 

Lack of Death-Penalty Counsel Brings Guantánamo War Crimes Trial to a Halt

Posted: February 20, 2018

A Guantánamo military commission judge has indefinitely suspended proceedings in the death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, accused of planning al-Qaida’s alleged 2000 bombing of the Navy warship USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. Expressing exasperation over his continuing inability to compel civilian death-penalty lawyers to return to the case, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath (pictured) halted the proceedings on February 16. “I am abating these proceedings indefinitely,” Spath said. “We’re done until a superior court tells me to keep going.” Nashiri’s entire civilian defense team resigned for undisclosed ethical reasons, amid allegations that military officials had violated attorney-client privilege by eavesdropping on legal meetings at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility at which Nashiri has been held for the majority of his 15 years in U.S. custody. The resignations of veteran death-penalty defender Rick Kammen and civilian attorneys Rosa Eliades and Mary Spears followed Spath's refusal to allow the defense lawyers to investigate something that Kammen had discovered in a site reserved for attorney-client meetings. Because the discovery involved classified information, the lawyers were prohibitted from discussing it with their client, placing them, they said in an impossible ethical bind. Citing this ethical problem, the lawyers sought and received permission from Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, to withdraw from the case, leaving Nashiri's defense solely in the hands of a single military lawyer, Navy Lt. Alaric Piette, who had never tried a murder case. Spath then ordered Baker to rescind the order, and when Baker refused, sentenced him to 21 days of confinement for contempt of court. Harvey Rishikof, the Convening Authority of the Guantánamo tribunals, released Baker from confinement pending appeal and Spath and Piette have repeatedly clashed over Piette's request to have an experienced death-penalty lawyer appointed as his co-counsel in the case. Spath’s abatement of the proceedings came on the last day of a weeklong hearing in which Eliades and Spears ignored prosecutorial subpoenas to appear in court by video feed. After assembling the defense and prosecution in the court, Spath delivered what media reports described as "a 30-minute monologue" expressing frustration over having his orders ignored, alleged inaction by Pentagon officials to help him return the counsel to the case, and uncertainty over his authority raised by Baker's actions. “We need somebody to tell us, ‘Is that really what that says despite every other court system in America thinking differently?’” Spath said. “We need action from somebody other than me. And we’re not getting it.” Spath, who said he was considering retiring from the Air Force, said he had debated “for hours” whether to dismiss the case, but chose not to, saying that would have “reward[ed] the defense for their clear misbehavior and misconduct.” Nashiri, who has been diagnosed with PTSD and depression, remains a law-of-war detainee at Guantánamo Bay’s secretive Camp 7, which houses both captives facing war crimes trials and uncharged war prisoners.

 

Junk Forensics, Misconduct, and an Inept Defense Raise Questions of Innocence in Arizona Child-Rape/Murder Case

Posted: February 19, 2018

Arizona death-row prisoner Barry Jones (pictured) has said for the twenty-three years he has been on death row that he never raped or murdered his girlfriend's 4-year-old daughter, Rachel Gray. In a pair of recent articles for The Intercept, reporter Liliana Segura describes the inconsistent medical testimony, police "tunnel vision," inept defense lawyering, and other "hallmarks of wrongful convictions" that led to a federal court evidentiary hearing last Fall that could overturn Jones's 1995 rape and murder conviction and death sentence and potentially set him free. Rachel died of peritonitis, an inflammation of her inner abdomen caused by an injury she sustained that had ruptured her small intestine. At Jones' trial, Dr. John Howard, the local medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, testified that the injury that caused her death had occurred about 12 hours before she died, at a time she was known to have been with Jones. However, when Howard later testified at the trial of Rachel's mother, he provided a self-contradictory opinion that suited the prosecution's case against her, asserting that the injury had likely occurred at least 24 hours before Rachel's death. Although the defense had contacted an independent pathologist—Dr. Phillip Keen—in 1994 to review the autopsy findings, Jones's lawyers never sent Keen images of the tissue slides or other evidence necessary to determine when the fatal injury occurred. The defense lawyers—and the police—failed to investigate evidence pointing to other suspects, including evidence that Rachel had been physically abused by her mother and bullied by a young boy who had pushed her and hit her in the stomach with a metal bar a few days before her death—exactly the type of injury that could have caused peritonitis. Further, there was no physical evidence suggesting that Rachel had been raped at the time she sustained the fatal abdominal injury. Rather, the evidence suggested that Rachel may have been sexually abused by a prior boyfriend of her mother, well before Jones became involved with the family. Jones's lawyers failed to call any expert witness at trial, and the only witness he presented was Jones's 12-year-old daughter. The prosecution also presented suspect eyewitness identification from two children who testified to having seen a man fitting Jones' description hitting a young girl in a van. Police, however, had questioned the two children in the presence of their mother, who had prompted some of their responses, and had failed to follow standard practices to avoid eliciting false memories. Jones's case has similarities to a number of other death-penalty cases in which defendants were wrongly convicted of murdering children. Sabrina Butler was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Mississippi in 1990 when a local medical examiner testified that she had suffocated her nine-month-old son. Butler was exonerated in 1995 after medical evidence suggested that her baby died either of cystic kidney disease or from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Rodricus Crawford was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death after a local doctor claimed he had suffocated his infant son. He won a new trial as a result of unrelated prosecutorial misconduct, and was exonerated in 2017 after national experts presented affidavits saying the autopsy results showed his baby had died from bronchopneumonia and sepsis. And Ha'im Al Matin Sharif was released from Nevada's death row in 2017, nearly 30 years after he was convicted of killing his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter, after medical evidence revealed that the baby died from infantile scurvy, rather than from physical abuse. Oral argument for Jones's case is scheduled in federal court on March 2.

 

Is Racially Biased Testimony Wrongly Subjecting Intellectually Disabled Defendants to the Death Penalty?

Posted: February 16, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia categorically bars states from executing any person who has Intellectual Disability. (Daryl Atkins is pictured.) However, as reported in recent stories in Pacific Standard Magazine and the newspaper, The Atlanta Black Star, some states have attempted to circumvent the Atkins ruling by using social stereotypes and race as grounds to argue that defendants of color are not intellectually disabled. Prosecutors in at least eight states have presented opinions from expert witnesses that "ethnic adjustments" should be applied to IQ tests and tests of adaptive functioning that would deny an intellectual disability diagnosis to Black or Latino defendants who, if they were White, would be considered intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty. "Ethnic adjustments" typically take one of two forms. One adjustment purports to compensate for perceived racial bias in IQ testing by boosting the defendant's IQ scores. A second form of adjustment is determining, based upon the expert witness's subjective views about a defendant's social conditions and culture, that impairments in day-to-day functioning that would be considered adaptive deficits for White defendants are not as rare for a person with the defendant's racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background, and so are not evidence of intellectual disability. Robert M. Sanger, a trial lawyer and professor of law and forensic science at Santa Barbara College of Law in California who wrote the 2015 law review article IQ, Intelligence Tests, 'Ethnic Adjustments' and Atkins called the use of these adjustments "outrageous." “What these so-called experts do," Sanger says, "is say that, because people of color are not as likely to score as well on IQ tests, you should, therefore, increase their IQ scores from 5 to 15 points to make up for some unknown or undescribed problem in the test.” Sanger has documented the use of ethnic adjustments by prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound,” Sanger wrote. IQ scores, he says, are affected by a variety of  environmental factors "such as childhood abuse, poverty, stress, and trauma[, that] can cause decreases in actual IQ scores." Because people who experience these environmental factors "disproportionately populate death row, ethnic adjustments make it more likely that individuals who are actually intellectually disabled will be put to death." Moreover, the courts have repeatedly rejected the adjusting of test scores on the basis of race in cases that would benefit racial minorities, Sanger said, most prominently in cases in which African-American applicants for police or firefighting jobs had alleged that cities were using racially discriminatory tests. Sanger says "it’s sort of outrageous that you can adjust scores upward so you can be killed, but not so you can get a job.” In 2011, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists reprimanded psychologist Dr. George Denkowski for his misuse of ethnic adjustments in death-penalty cases. As part of an agreement dismissing disciplinary charges against him, Denkowski—who testified against sixteen Texas death-row prisoners, several of whom have been executed—was fined $5,500 and agreed that he would never again conduct intellectual disability evaluations in criminal cases. On January 4, 2018, Philadelphia prosecutors, who had used Denkowski's ethnic adjustments as part their argument that Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Jose DeJesus was not intellectually disabled, agreed that DeJesus should be resentenced to life. Ethnic adjustments are only some of the non-scientific barriers states have erected to avoid compliance with Atkins. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that Florida had unconstitutionally emplyed an IQ cut-off score to reject claims of intellectual disability. In 2017, in Moore v. Texas, the court rejected the state's use of a set of unscientific lay stereotypes to claim that a defendant did not have the adaptive deficits necessary to be considered intellectually disabled. The Court called Texas's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." Moore reiterated that a court’s determination of intellectual disability in a death-penalty case must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework."

 

Washington State Senate Passes Death Penalty Abolition Bill

Posted: February 15, 2018

A bipartisan bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington passed the state Senate on February 14 on a 26-22 vote. SB 6052 now moves to the House of Representatives, where the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee has said it will be given a hearing. "Today, the Washington State Senate took an historic, bipartisan vote, passing Attorney General-requested legislation to eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole," said incumbent Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson. He, his Republican predecessor Rob McKenna, and Governor Jay Inslee had asked the legislature to take up the measure. The bill also received support from Republican King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg, and five Republican senators voted for its passage. During an emotional debate on the floor of the senate, Sen. Mark Miloscia (R - Federal Way) told lawmakers, "all people deserve to live." Miloscia, who is one of the bill's co-sponsors, said, "I'm here to ask for mercy, literally for the worst among us." Sen. Maureen Walsh (R - Walla Walla), another sponsor of the bill, said "We spend a lot of money, our tax money, appealing these decisions, and we have done this for many, many years. I have no sympathy for people that kill people, that's not why I'm doing this. I'm doing this maybe because I feel like it's somewhat our responsibility as legislators to vet these issues here in this forum, in this venue." A third co-sponsor, Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D - Seattle), raised ongoing concerns about the risk of executing innocent defendants. "You cannot read a front page story about DNA mistakes that has someone in jail for 35 years and not be jolted to the core," he said. "That has transformed the public's view of this issue." Governor Inslee, who imposed a moratorium on executions in 2014, described the vote as reflecting “an increasing recognition of the public that this is not an effective and certainly an unequal administration of justice and is no longer acceptable in the state of Washington.” "I hope Washington joins the growing number of states that are choosing to end the death penalty," he said. Before the final vote, Senators voted down two amendments that would have narrowed the death penalty, but not eliminated it, and a third amendment that would have put the issue to voters in a public initiative. Ferguson called on the House to join the Senate in passing the measure. The bill, he said, provided the House "the opportunity to abolish our broken death penalty."

 

Pentagon Fires War Court Official Who Was Attempting to Negotiate End to Guantánamo Death-Penalty Trial

Posted: February 14, 2018

The sudden firing by U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (left) of the Pentagon official who oversaw military commission trials at Guantánamo Bay has raised concerns of political interference in the already tumultuous legal proceedings in the death-penalty trials of the five men charged with plotting the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The New York Times reports that Mattis fired Harvey Rishikof (right), who served as the Convening Authority of the Guantánamo tribunals, as Rishikof was engaged in plea negotiations that would potentially have spared the Guantánamo defendants the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to the September 11 attacks. The Pentagon provided no explanation for the February 5 firing, and David Nevin—who represents accused attack-mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—told The Times that “[t]he firing fairly raises the question" of whether the Pentagon was attempting to unlawfully influence the convening authority. The Office of the Convening Authority is responsible for approving cases for trial, plea agreements, reviewing convictions and sentences, and providing resources to defense teams. Military law prohibits even the appearance of “unlawful command influence” over the handling of a case. Nevin said the defense has "an obligation to try to learn everything we can" about possible improper influence, and he has asked prosecutors to turn over information relating to Rishikof’s firing. At the same time Rishikof was dismissed, the Pentagon's acting general counsel, William S. Castle discharged Rishikof's legal advisor Gary Brown, also without explanation. Brown and Rishikof’s firings have focused renewed attention on the dysfunctional military tribunals at Guantánamo. The death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, accused of planning the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, was thrown into chaos in October 2017 when his entire civilian defense team resigned amid allegations that military officials had violated attorney-client privilege by eavesdropping on legal meetings at the Cuban facility. Rishikof intervened in that case after the judge, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, held the chief defense counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, in contempt for allowing the resignations. Spath has directed that proceedings in the U.S.S. Cole case continue without expert death-penalty counsel, even though the only remaining member of Nashiri's defense team, Lieutenant Alaric Piette, graduated law school in 2012, does not meet the American Bar Association standards for death-penalty defense, and has never tried any murder case. During a January 2018 pretrial hearing in the case, Spath criticized Piette for seeking a continuance in the case until expert death-penalty counsel could be appointed, telling Piette to “engage in self help” by attending special training to become “more comfortable handling capital matters.” On February 5, Piette, who stayed on the case out of concern for his client’s rights, told The New York Times: “I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing, but I don’t think I really had a choice.” Piette “doesn’t come close to being qualified" to handle the case, according to Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor of legal ethics at Hofstra University. “So a death penalty case is basically going forward without a lawyer. If that is what we think passes as a court system, we’re in big trouble,” she said. 

 

As Support for Death Penalty Falls in Utah, New Study Again Says Life Without Parole Costs Less

Posted: February 13, 2018

An analysis by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice of the cost of capital punishment has found that cases in which prosecutors seek the death penalty are more costly than cases in which life without parole was the maximum sentence. The Commission's Death Penalty Working Group reviewed recent studies of death-penalty costs in Utah and across the country and found that, while there was disagreement about the magnitude of the cost difference, there was consensus that the death penalty was more expensive than non-capital alternatives. The two Utah studies included in the report were a 2012 analysis that estimated the death penalty added $1.6 million over the life of each case, compared to life without parole, and a 2017 study of the last 20 years that found that Utah spent about $40 million on 165 death-eligible cases, which resulted in just two death sentences. The report also reviewed recent public opinion data on the death penalty from polls administered both nationally and in Utah. Noting what it called "somewhat discrepant" results from recent Utah polls depending upon the questions respondents were asked, the report concluded "based on national data ... and consistently lower support from younger respondents in the Utah polls" that "public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs." The working group also examined Utah's aggravating circumstances, which make cases eligible for the death penalty, and the impact of the death penalty on victims' familiy members (whom it called "covictims"), but did not draw any conclusions on either. The report did note that victims in non-capital cases have a greater opportunity to be heard because their non-testimonial statements to the court are not limited by the rules of evidence that apply to testimony in capital cases. It quoted the academic literature on the impact of capital prosecutions, saying that the assumption that the death penalty provides closure is "unproven ... The process of dealing with murder and capital punishment is different for every covictim" and there is no guarantee that the death penalty will enhance recovery. While the commission did not make any policy recommendations based on its findings, Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty said the report points to the need for a reconsideration of Utah's death penalty. "This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible," said Kevin Greene, the group's director. "We have been spending tons of money without much in return and we hope lawmakers will closely examine the report and agree that the death penalty is anything but fiscally conservative."

 

Pages