Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured, left) and Oklahoma death-row prisoner Julius Jones (pictured, right) are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to grant them new trials after evidence showed that white jurors who described the defendants with racist slurs participated in deciding their cases. The involvement of the racist jurors, the prisoners say, violated their Sixth Amendment rights to impartial juries. A juror in Tharpe’s trial gave a sworn affidavit years after voting to convict Tharpe, in which he wondered “if black people even have souls,” and said, “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. N***rs." Tharpe, he wrote, “wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did." In Jones’s case, a juror told Jones’s legal team that another juror had said the trial was “a waste of time” and “they should just take the n***r out and shoot him behind the jail.”
Tharpe and Jones argue that two 2017 Supreme Court decisions, Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado and Buck v. Davis, require the Court to reconsider their cases. In Buck, Chief Justice John Roberts declared for the Court that “the law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” and overturned a death sentence imposed after a psychologist testified that Buck posed a greater risk of future dangerousness because he is black. The Chief Justice wrote that “discrimination on the basis of race, odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice,” calling racism a “toxin[ that] can be deadly in small doses.” In Peña-Rodriguez, now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a five-justice majority of the Court that courts may consider a juror’s statement showing he had relied on racial stereotypes to convict a defendant as evidence of a Sixth Amendment violation.
In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal appeals court’s refusal to consider Tharpe’s racial discrimination claim. Less than three months later, that court again refused to consider the issue, saying Tharpe had not previously presented it to the state courts. Jones has also repeatedly sought review of claims that racial discrimination has infected his case. He previously asked the Court to overturn his death sentence based on the findings of a 2017 study that showed significant racial disparities in Oklahoma’s death sentencing practices. On January 22, 2019, after having rescheduled consideration of Jones’s appel 25 times, the Court declined to review the case. Samuel Spital, who was co-counsel in Buck’s case and is lead counsel on the brief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s friend-of-the-court brief supporting Tharpe, said of Tharpe and Jones, “We know that these two men are facing execution at least in part because they’re black. Under those circumstances, the state just doesn’t have an interest in enforcing a death sentence, and for that reason, the procedural obstacles that you would have with respect to certain other claims should not be part of the analysis.” The cases are considered a bellwether of the post-Kennedy Court’s commitment to racial justice.
In a 5-4 decision that Justice Elena Kagan characterized as “profoundly wrong,” the U.S. Supreme Court on February 7, 2019 permitted Alabama to execute a Muslim death-row prisoner, Domineque Ray (pictured), who had claimed that the state’s execution process discriminated against him because of his religion. Without explanation, the Court asserted that Ray had waited too long to challenge a provision in Alabama’s execution protocol that made a Christian chaplain part of the state’s execution team and prohibited other religious advisors from being present in the execution chamber. Ray argued that Alabama’s practice constituted an establishment of religion that discriminated against non-Christians. During federal court hearings on the constitutionality of the policy, Alabama withdrew its requirement that the chaplain be present in the execution chamber. However, it continued to reject Ray’s request that his imam—a prison-approved spiritual advisor—be permitted in the execution chamber. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Ray was likely to succeed on his religious discrimination claim, scheduled briefing in his case, and stayed his execution. The Supreme Court reversed, without addressing the constitutional issue.
Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor dissented. Quoting prior Supreme Court decisions, Kagan wrote, “‘The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.’ But the State’s policy does just that. Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion—whether Islam, Judaism, or any other—he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.” In asserting that its execution process complied with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, the Alabama Attorney General’s office told the federal courts: “Like any other inmate, Ray has been and will be given opportunities to speak with his spiritual adviser, including up to the moment that he is taken into the chamber.” However, Spencer Hahn, one of Ray’s lawyers, said the prison had failed to honor that promise and that Ray lost access to his imam three hours before the execution.
Ray was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl. No physical evidence linked him to the crimes and a sole prosecution witness, Marcus Owden, implicated Ray. In 2017, Ray’s appeal lawyers discovered for the first time that Owden—who avoided the death penalty by testifying against Ray—had schizophrenia and was suffering from delusions and auditory hallucinations when he accused Ray of the rape and murder and testified against him. Ray’s lawyers argued that the prosecution’s deliberate suppression of this evidence, despite being aware of Owden’s mental illness, violated Ray’s due process rights and entitled him to a new trial. Without comment, the Supreme Court declined to review the claim and denied a stay. Ray was the second person executed in the U.S. in 2019 and the first in Alabama.
Clemency, a film exploring the psychological toll of the death penalty, has been awarded the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival on February 2, 2019. The movie, written and directed by Nigerian-American filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu, tells the story of prison warden Bernadine Williams (portrayed by Alfre Woodard) as she prepares to oversee her 12th execution in the aftermath of a botched execution. Chukwu said she was inspired to write the script after the controversial execution of Troy Davis, a Georgia prisoner with serious claims of innocence, in 2011. “[T]he morning after [Troy Davis] was executed, so many of us were sad and frustrated and angry. And I thought, ‘If we’re all dealing with these emotions, what must it be like for the people who had to kill him? You know, what is it like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life?’ And so, that was the seed that was planted, and it was a way for me to enter an exploration of humanities that exist between prison walls.”
Chukwu said she chose to focus on the perspective of the warden “to explore and challenge the system of incarceration,” and to broaden the reach and impact of the film. “I think it would really complicate people’s thinking around the death penalty and around incarceration and the humanities that are tied to incarceration, if it’s not told through the lawyer, through the defense attorney or through a protester, but somebody who is a part of the system, somebody who might embody the values that, you know, somebody who’s for the death penalty might embody,” she said. She conducted research for Clemency by meeting with death-penalty lawyers, death-row exonerees, and former wardens like Dr. Allen Ault, an outspoken critic of the death penalty. She also volunteered on a clemency campaign for Tyra Patterson, an Ohio woman who was a life sentence for a crime she says she did not commit. Patterson was paroled in 2017 after 23 years in prison.
In her speech accepting the Best Drama prize, Chukwu said she had made the film “so we as a society can stop defining people by their worst possible acts, that we can end mass incarceration and dismantle the prison-industrial complex, and root our societies in true justice and mercy and freedom, which is all tied to our joy inside, which nobody can ever incarcerate and execute.” Chukwu is the first Black woman director to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.
According to new polling results, support for capital punishment in North Carolina has fallen dramatically, with only 25% of voters saying they prefer the death penalty for people convicted of first-degree murder. The poll, conducted the last week of January 2019 by Public Policy Polling, found that nearly three quarters of North Carolina voters rejected capital punishment for people convicted of murder, with 35% preferring a combination of life without parole plus a requirement to work and pay restitution; 19% preferring life without parole; 12% favoring a lengthy prison term, plus restitution, with the possibility of parole; and 6% favoring a lengthy prison term, without restitution. When asked whether North Carolina should keep the death penalty or replace it with life without parole, a majority of North Carolina voters (51%) said the state should replace the death penalty, while 44% said the state should keep it. Six percent said they were not sure.
The poll also disclosed that North Carolina voters have serious concerns about the administration of capital punishment in the state. 70% said it was likely that North Carolina has executed an innocent person. 24% said it was unlikely the state had done so. 57% said they believed it is likely that racial bias affects whether a person is sentenced to death and 75% believe defendants should be able to present evidence that racial discrimination affects capital trials. 39% said racial bias was unlikely to have affected sentencing and 18% would deny a defendant the opportunity to present evidence of bias. North Carolina voters also favored efforts to reform the state's death penalty. More than two-thirds (68%) said they favored banning the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness. 61% favored requiring the courts to reexamine death sentences imposed in North Carolina cases tried before the state enacted a series of reforms designed to protect defendants’ rights, provide more competent representation, and ensure fair trials. Nearly three-quarters of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were sentenced before these reforms.
Idaho officials deliberately misled the public about the costs and application of the state’s death penalty and prison officials’ questionable efforts at obtaining execution drugs, according to evidence presented in week-long court hearings on the state’s execution secrecy practices. Testimony from January 28 through February 1, 2019 in an open-records lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Corrections has revealed that Idaho paid $10,000 in cash to an undisclosed drug supplier, maintained a set of fraudulent financial records related to execution expenses, falsely denied having records documenting contacts with a disreputable drug supplier in India, and hid from the public information as mundane as the hairdressers who give prisoners their final haircuts. The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU of Idaho on behalf of University of Idaho law professor Aliza Cover (pictured) after the IDOC refused to turn over numerous execution-related records to her in response to a 2017 public records request.
Relying on Idaho’s Public Records Act, Cover had sought copies of receipts, purchase orders, and other information related to the drugs Idaho used in its last two executions in 2011 and 2012 and those it expects to use in future executions. The department disclosed only a copy of the state’s execution policy manual, but claimed the remaining documents were exempt from public scrutiny. Cover, who studies the death penalty and its application, sued, asking the court to order the records disclosed. Even then, IDOC resisted. In actions ACLU attorney Molly Kafka characterized as “relying on speculation and fear rather than data,” IDOC redacted dozens of items from execution records, including not only the names of prison staff who participated in executions, but their handwriting, and the names of people only tangentially involved in executions, such as clergy who counsel death-row prisoners and hairdressers who give prisoners their final haircuts. The state claimed, without evidence, that the redactions were necessary to protect those individuals from protest, harassment, or violence. Similar claims of threats against execution team members in other states have been found to be unsubstantiated. Idaho officials also withheld information on the source of execution drugs used in the past, claiming that suppliers would no longer provide the drugs if their identities were revealed. IDOC falsely told investigative reporter Chris McDaniel that records he had requested did not exist. In fact, records showed that Idaho had contact with Chris Harris—a drug supplier in India who had obtained drugs from a European pharmaceutical company for medical use in Africa and then misappropriated them instead for sale for executions in the United States.
Testimony at the trial also revealed that IDOC’s secrecy efforts extended to fraudulent recordkeeping practices. According to a former Idaho Department of Corrections employee, IDOC kept three sets of financial books because the department “did not want to show a tremendous amount of money being spent for the execution as well as for the anonymity for those involved in it.” When a person would ask the IDOC for execution-related data, the first set of books would be given out. A second set of books would be provided if the person persisted. “So, the first set would be a lower amount to not represent the total of what was being spent, and the second one had a little higher amount just to show due diligence — that there was work being done to capture all the amounts,” the official said. According to the official, “the third was the actual set of books that would actually represent the expenses.”
Testifying during the trial, Cover said: “If the public is not able to have this information about those issues, [it] cannot come to a decision on its moral view about the punishment that is occurring.” In closing statements Monday, February 4, 2019, one of her lawyers said: “[IDOC’s] argument at this point is crystal clear — this information is so important that we can’t release it, because it would change the way we do things.” An editorial by the Idaho Press urged the state to end the secrecy: “In the end, the state of Idaho needs to be transparent about the drugs it’s using for lethal injections and about where they’re getting those drugs. We see no exemption in the public records law for protecting a relationship with a drug provider.”
For the first time since Georgia brought back the death penalty in 1973, the state will go five years without imposing any death sentences. No jury has handed down a death sentence since March 2014 and, with no capital trials scheduled for February or March, the state is nearly certain to reach the 5-year milestone. The decline in death sentencing is even more dramatic in light of the fact that, prior to 2015, Georgia had never gone two consecutive years without a death sentence. Experts attribute the decline primarily to two factors: improved death-penalty representation and the availability of life without parole.
Georgia’s Office of the Capital Defender — a statewide death-penalty public defender office — represents nearly everyone facing the death penalty in the state. The capital defender has reduced the number of death sentences by thoroughly investigating the life and mental health histories of its clients and working with prosecutors before trials even begin to reach non-capital dispositions. In December 2015, Jerry Word, who heads the state defender office, credited those efforts with preempting numerous capital trials. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2019 that the capital defender’s office “has become real good at identifying mitigating factors for a defendant and talking about that with prosecutors long before lines are drawn in the sand. This has made a real difference, and you save the resources and the time required of a death-penalty case and the victims don’t have to go through the years-long process.” In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and, by the end of 2015, that case had been the only one of the preceding 71 cases handled by the capital defender that had resulted in a death verdict. Since 2015, the capital defender has closed 69 death-penalty cases, of which just five went to trial and none resulted in a death sentence.
Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said that the availability of life without parole as a sentencing option also has fundamentally changed the way potentially capital cases are tried and the verdicts juries reach. Prior to 2009, life without parole was not an option in Georgia unless prosecutors actually sought the death penalty. Now, prosecutors may seek life without parole without capitally prosecuting a defendant. Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said, “[t]he majority of prosecutors around the state are now convinced that a life-without-parole sentence actually means what it says. It’s made a huge difference.” As a result, prosecutors now file notices to seek death much less often. In 2005, Georgia prosecutors filed 40 notices of intent to seek the death penalty. By 2011, that number had dropped to 26, and in 2017, it was just three.
The decline in death sentences paints a sharp contrast between the way cases were handled in the past and how they are handled today. According to Steve Bright, former director and president of the Georgia-based Southern Center for Human Rights, the people on Georgia’s death row did not commit worse crimes than today’s defendants, they simply faced a worse system. The state has executed 19 prisoners since a jury last imposed a death sentence in the state, in cases criticized as out of step with current practices and emblematic of systemic problems with the state’s death penalty. “Those are people who were sentenced to death some time ago often with lawyers who were not qualified to try a death-penalty case,” Bright said, describing Georgia’s death-row prisoners. “They are also people who would not be sentenced to death today.”
A federal appeals court has found 80-year-old Charles Ray Finch (pictured) “actually innocent” of the murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death in North Carolina 42 years ago. The pronouncement came in a unanimous ruling issued by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on January 25, 2019. In that decision, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote that “Finch has overcome the exacting standard for actual innocence through sufficiently alleging and providing new evidence of a constitutional violation and through demonstrating that the totality of the evidence, both old and new, would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The U.S. Supreme Court has never recognized innocence alone as grounds to overturn a conviction, so the appeals court could not set Finch free. Instead, the panel reversed a lower court’s denial of relief and sent the case back for adjudication of constitutional violations relating to Finch’s innocence claim. Jim Coleman, Finch’s lawyer and the co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said he now hopes to convince North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to “remedy the miscarriage of justice in joining us in a motion to overturn Ray’s conviction and release him without any further proceedings in court.”
Finch was convicted and sentenced to death in 1976 for the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman during a failed robbery attempt, but he has consistently maintained his innocence. In 1977, the North Carolina Supreme Court reduced his sentence to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the state’s then-mandatory death penalty law unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit identified significant problems with the evidence used to convict Finch. He was subjected to “suggestive lineups,” in which he was the only suspect dressed in a three-quarter length jacket, the same style of clothing that the eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, said the perpetrator was wearing. Such lineups have since been declared unconstitutional. “These procedural issues support Finch’s allegations of constitutional error that he was misidentified by Jones,” Judge Gregory wrote. “No reasonable juror would likely find Finch guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if it knew the high likelihood that he was misidentified by Jones both outside and inside the courtroom as a murder suspect because of the impermissibly suggestive lineups.” The court also noted that Jones, who the court said “had cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall,” told police that the killer was armed with a sawed-off shotgun and had never mentioned to the police that the shooter had any facial hair. At the time Holloman was killed, Finch had a long beard and distinctive sideburns. A new review of the autopsy evidence decades after the crime disclosed that Holloman had been killed with a pistol, not a shotgun and new ballistics evidence contradicted prosecution claims that the shells found at the crime scene matched a shotgun shell found in Finch’s car. Other witnesses also indicated they had been pressured into providing testimony implicating Finch. “This new evidence,” the court said, “not only undercuts the state’s physical evidence, but it also discredits the reliability of Jones.”
Texas executed Robert Jennings (pictured) on January 30, 2019 for the 1988 murder of Houston police officer Elston Howard, amid questions as to his eligibility for capital punishment and the constitutionality of his death sentence. Jennings was convicted under a sentencing procedure that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down shortly before his trial in 1989 because it did not adequately allow jurors to consider evidence supporting a sentence less than death. The jury instructions given in his case to redress that error were also later declared unconstitutional, and 25 Texas death-row prisoners had their death sentences overturned as a result. However, Jennings’s court-appointed trial and appeal lawyers failed to raise the issue in Texas state court and the Texas federal courts refused to consider the issue on the grounds that the state court lawyers had procedurally defaulted the claim. The U.S. Supreme Court later changed federal habeas corpus procedures to permit review if ineffective state-court representation caused the default. But when Jennings’s federal lawyers attempted to raise the issue again, the Texas federal appeals court ruled on January 28 that its prior decision had not been based on procedural default and that it had already rejected the claim. Without comment, the Supreme Court issued an order on January 30 declining to hear Jennings’s case, and he was executed.
In challenging Jennings’s death sentence, his current lawyers also argued that both Jennings’s trial lawyer and his previous appellate attorney provided inadequate representation. Jennings’s trial attorney was defending two death-penalty cases at the same time and did not investigate significant mitigating evidence that included Jennings’s history of brain damage from a car crash and an injury with a baseball bat, an IQ of 65, and intellectual and adaptive deficits associated with his low IQ. Trial counsel also failed to present readily available evidence of Jennings’s impoverished, abusive, and neglectful upbringing: he was born as the result of a rape, and his mother frequently told him she did not want him. His original appeal lawyers also failed to raise these issues. Edward Mallett, one of Jennings’s current lawyers, said, “There has not been an adequate presentation of his circumstances including mental illness and mental limitations.”
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes took the unusual step earlier in January of asking the state to consider supporting clemency for Jennings, citing the 30-year delay between the crime and the scheduled execution. Jennings's attorneys argued in his clemency petition that the state had granted clemency last year to a white death-row prisoner with fewer mitigating circumstances. "Denying a commutation truly will demonstrate that race, class, and privilege matter in determining who is executed in Texas," attorney Randy Schaffer wrote. "This would send a terrible message to the world."
Stephen Curry (pictured, right, during a 2015 visit to the White House), star of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and executive producer of the upcoming documentary Emanuel, has publicly voiced his opposition to the death penalty. Emanuel tells the story of the murder of nine Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof. It is the first film produced by Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, and was co-produced by Viola Davis’s company JuVee Productions. After a January 23, 2019 advance screening at Howard University, Curry participated in a panel discussion of the movie’s themes, including faith, race relations, forgiveness, gun violence, and the death penalty. Asked about his views on the death penalty and Dylann Roof’s death sentence, Curry said, “I don’t believe in the death penalty. I feel like there are situations where an individual can be redeemed or be healed and mentally or physically with whatever the issue is and the root of why they are in that situation.” Curry also spoke about taking inspiration from the forgiveness that victims’ family members offered to Roof. “It’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes and empathize with what they’re going through. But it’s so inspiring the way they handled it. They chose forgiveness. They chose faith. They chose to support each other and the community. That alone speaks volumes for humanity and hope of humanity.”
Curry also addressed the issue of athletes becoming involved in social causes. “Athletes in general, especially in the NBA, guys are educated. They know what they’re talking about,” he said. “They know what they believe. And there’s a reason when you say something there are headlines. People want to hear what you have to say. We shouldn’t shy away from it.” He praised the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, for “support[ing] us in using our voice to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. And I think this era of athlete is unafraid to be unapologetically themselves, whatever that means.”
Emanuel will be released in select theaters on June 17, 2019, the fourth anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.
The Missouri Supreme Court may soon rule on the constitutionality of the state’s practice of having the trial judge determine whether a capital defendant should live or die if the sentencing jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Death-row prisoner Marvin Rice (pictured) was sentenced to death by the trial judge in August 2017, even though 11 of the 12 jurors in his case voted for a life sentence. His appeal, which the state court heard on January 23, 2019, argues that the portion of Missouri’s death-penalty statute that gives the trial judge exclusive sentencing authority in the event of a hung sentencing jury violates his “constitutionally protected rights to due process, a trial by jury, and to a unanimous jury verdict.”
At the time of the offense, Rice – a former deputy sheriff and disabled Army veteran – was suffering from a major depressive disorder that had been worsened by the effects of a pituitary gland tumor. Court documents indicated that he had been diagnosed with 12 various medical and psychiatric conditions for which he had been taking 17 different medications. Eleven jurors were persuaded by this and other mitigating evidence that Rice’s life should be spared, but a single hold-out juror for death hung the jury. Trial judge Kelly Wayne Parker then disregarded the jury’s vote and sentenced Rice to death.
Rice’s appeal also challenges the constitutionality of Missouri’s capital punishment statute on the grounds that virtually any homicide now qualifies as a capital offense. This, he argues, violates the constitutional requirement that the death penalty be limited to a narrow class of the worst-of-the-worst killings. He also seeks a new trial based upon police and prosecutorial misconduct in his case. Police, he says, unconstitutionally continued to interrogate him while he was hospitalized for gunshot wounds sustained during his arrest, even after he had said he did not want to answer their questions. He also argues that the prosecutor repeatedly violated his constitutional right to remain silent, improperly commenting on both his decision not to testify at trial and his refusal to answer police questions after having been given his Miranda warnings. Rice’s lawyer, Craig Johnston told the state justices: “This court has repeatedly held that where an objection is made and overruled as happened here, a direct reference to the defendant’s failure to testify will invariably result in a new trial.”
Only Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to impose a death sentence following a jury deadlock in the sentencing phase of a capital trial. Alabama also allows a judge to impose a death sentence following a non-unanimous jury sentencing vote, but only if at least ten jurors vote for death. No jury in Missouri has imposed a death sentence since 2013, but judges sentenced Rice and Craig Wood to death after juries could not reach a unanimous sentencing decision. Wood was sentenced to death in 2018 after his jury voted 10-2 for a death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the constitutionality of Missouri’s hung jury sentencing practice. However, in 2016, the Court struck down Florida’s death sentencing statute saying its provision requiring the judge, rather than a jury, to find facts necessary to impose a death sentence violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.