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Poll Shows Orange and Osceola County Voters Prefer Life Sentences Over Death Penalty

Posted: April 13, 2017

A new poll of voters in Orange and Osceola counties in Florida—taken in the wake of Governor Rick Scott's removal of their locally elected State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 22 homicide cases after she announced that her office would not pursue the death penalty—shows that the counties' voters overwhelmingly prefer the use of life imprisonment over the death penalty as punishment for murder. The poll by Public Policy Polling, released on April 10, found that 62% of Orange and Osceola county respondents preferred some form of life in prison for those convicted of first-degree murder, while just 31% preferred the death penalty. Ayala's March 17 decision not to seek the death penalty in any murder cases drew praise from the Florida Black Caucus and local civil rights groups, but provoked an immediate backlash from death penalty proponents. Republican Governor Rick Scott removed Ayala—a Democrat and the state's only locally elected African-American prosecutor—from 22 murder cases and replaced her with State Attorney Brad King, a white Republican prosecutor from a neighboring judicial district. The Public Policy Polling survey found a preference for life sentences across all racial, gender, and age groups and political affiliations. 73% of black voters preferred some form of life sentence as the punishment for murder, as compared to 19% who preferred the death penalty. Whites and Latinos also preferred life sentences over the death penalty, both by margins of 29 percentage points. The preference for life sentences transcended party affiliation, although there were clear partisan differences. 76% of Democrats preferred life sentences, while 21% favored the death penalty; Independents preferred life sentences by a margin of 22 percentage points (55%-33%); and Republicans preferred life sentences by 5 percentage points (49%-44%). A majority of voters also supported a State Attorney taking a "data-driven" approach to reducing bias in sentencing and considering costs to taxpayers and the effect on victims' families when deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Kenneth B. Nunn, a professor of law at University of Florida's Levin College of Law, said, “These results clearly show that Orange and Osceola voters strongly prefer life sentences over the death penalty. State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s position on the death penalty is very much in line with the position of her constituents.” Governor Scott lost Orange County by 12 percentage points and Osceola County by 9 percentage points in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

 

Louisiana Legislature Considers Bipartisan Measure to Abolish Death Penalty

Posted: April 12, 2017

Three Louisiana legislators, all of them former law enforcement officials, have proposed legislation to abolish the state's death penalty. Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge, pictured), a former New Orleans prosecutor who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the primary author of Senate Bill 142, which would eliminate the death penalty for offenses committed on or after August 1, 2017. The bill's counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Bill 101, is sponsored by Rep. Terry Landry (D-Lafayette), a former state police superintendent, with support from Rep. Steven Pylant (R-Winnsboro), a former sheriff. Both bills would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In urging repeal, Sen. Claitor said he was "well aware of the need to create an environment that is hostile to violent crime and criminals. Yet," he said, "the death penalty has failed as deterrence to such horrendous criminal activity. Moreover, the death penalty is rarely utilized in Louisiana, and, when it is, the costs of appeals in these cases are extraordinarily burdensome to our law-abiding taxpayers.” Landry, who led the Louisiana State Police portion of the investigation that led to the murder conviction and death sentencing of Derrick Todd Lee, also expressed concerns about the cost and public safety value of the death penalty. "I've evolved to where I am today," he said. "I think it may be a process that is past its time." Louisiana's last execution was in 2010, but the Department of Corrections estimates that housing death row inmates costs $1.52 million per year, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board spends about 28% of its annual budget on capital cases, totaling about $9.5 million last fiscal year. That cost has also contributed to Louisiana's chronic underfunding of public defender services for non-capital cases across the state. The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty is also a factor in the heavily Catholic state. Sen. Claitor said his Catholic faith brought about a change of heart on the issue, and Sen. Fred Mills (R-Parks), said a statement of support for repeal, expected to be released by the Louisiana Catholic bishops, "would weigh heavy on me and on the vast majority of my constituents."

 

Amnesty International Report: U.S. Falls to 7th in Executions Amidst 37% Global Decline

Posted: April 11, 2017

Executions worldwide fell by 37% last year, according to the 2016 Amnesty International Global Report on Death Sentences and Executions, released on April 11. With 20 executions in 2016, the United States ranked seventh in the world among confirmed executions, the lowest it has ranked since at least 2005. For the 8th consecutive year, the U.S. was the only country in the Americas to conduct any executions, and the only Western democracy in the world to do so. Amnesty International confirmed that at least 1,032 people were executed worldwide in 2016, not including the estimated thousands executed in China, which classifies information on the death penalty as a state secret. Vietnamese media uncovered secret executions in that country, revealing that Vietnam had carried out 429 executions since August 2013, making it the world's third biggest executioner in that period, following China and Iran. The report found that 23 countries carried out executions in 2016, with 87% of the known executions occurring in just four countries (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan). Iran's 567 executions accounted for 55% of all documented executions worldwide. Death sentencing trends were mixed worldwide, with improved data collection documenting 3,117 death sentences in 2016—a record number for a single year—but those death sentences were concentrated in a smaller number of countries (55). Benin and Nauru abolished the death penalty for all crimes—bringing to 104 the number of countries to have done so—and Guinea abolished it for ordinary crimes. 141 countries worldwide, more than two-thirds, have now either abolished the death penalty in law or not executed anyone in more than a decade. Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, summarized the international trends in the death penalty, saying, “Just a handful of countries are still executing people on a large scale. The majority of states no longer condone the state taking human life. With just four countries responsible for 87 percent of all recorded executions – the death penalty is itself living on borrowed time.” (Click image to enlarge.)

 

Texas Court Stays Execution of Paul Storey Based on False Argument About Wishes of Victim's Family

Posted: April 10, 2017

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has issued an order staying the scheduled April 12 execution of Paul Storey. The unpublished April 7 order sends Storey's case back to the trial court to consider whether the prosecution knowingly presented false evidence about the victim's family's views on the death penalty. Storey had been scheduled to be executed on April 12. His lawyers argued that "the State denied him his right to due process because it argued "evidence it knew to be false" when prosecutors told jurors that the family of victim Jonas Cherry supported a death sentence for Storey. During the penalty phase of Storey's trial, the prosecution argued that "[i]t should go without saying that all of Jonas [Cherry’s] family and everyone who loved him believe the death penalty was appropriate." However, Cherry's parents (pictured) say they always opposed the death penalty and had made their beliefs known to the prosecution at the time of Storey's trial. They recently released a video and statement in support of clemency, saying "Paul Storey’s execution will not bring our son back, will not atone for the loss of our son and will not bring comfort or closure." Storey presented his claim as part of a second state post-conviction challenge to his death penalty. He faces the procedural hurdle of establishing that the evidence supporting this claim could not have been discovered "with the exercise of reasonable diligence" at the time he filed his initial post-conviction petition. The stay continues a recent pattern of decisions by the Texas court permitting judicial review of claims that death sentences had been procured as a result of false or unreliable prosecutorial evidence or argument. In August 2015, the Court stayed Nicaraguan national Bernardo Tercero's execution based on allegations that he had been "denied due process because the State presented false testimony at his trial." In May 2016, the court stayed the execution of Charles Flores to permit him to challenge the use of scientifically unreliable hypnotically refreshed testimony. One month later, it stayed the execution of Robert Roberson to permit him to challenge the State's use of "false, misleading, and scientifically invalid testimony” about Shaken Baby Syndrome. And in August 2016, the Court stayed the execution of Jeffery Wood to permit him to litigate a claim that prosecutors had presented false scientific evidence and false testimony from a discredited psychiatrist to persuade the jury that Wood would pose a future danger to society.

 

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Injunction Against Ohio Execution Protocol

Posted: April 7, 2017

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has upheld a lower federal court ruling blocking the state of Ohio from proceeding with plans to carry out executions with its new three-drug execution protocol. The decision affirmed a district court preliminary injunction that barred the state from using the drug midazolam as part of a three-drug execution process, and barred the state from using "any lethal injection method which employs either a paralytic agent...or potassium chloride." Judge Karen Moore, writing for the 2-1 majority, said, “We are bound by the district court’s factual finding that ‘use of midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug execution protocol will create ‘a substantial risk of serious harm.’” Midazolam, a sedative, has been linked to botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alabama. Three Ohio death-row prisoners, Gary Otte, Ronald Phillips, and Raymond Tibbets, challenged Ohio's proposed protocol, which would use midazolam, followed by a paralytic drug, followed by potassium chloride to stop the heart. In January, a U.S. Magistrate Judge conducted the most extensive evidentiary hearing to date on the constitutionality of using midazolam in executions. After hearing five days of testimony featuring expert medical witnesses and eyewitness accounts of previous midazolam executions, the court issued a preliminary injunction against Ohio's execution protocol. The Sixth Circuit upheld the district court's decision, ruling that—given the evidence presented at the hearing—the court's findings of fact regarding the risks posed by midazolam were not clearly erroneous. The appeals court also upheld the lower court's injunction against the use of any paralytic drug or potassium chloride, agreeing with the district court that Ohio was bound by its previous repeated representations that it would not use those drugs in future executions. In reliance on those representations, the death-row plaintiffs had dropped claims related to those drugs from the litigation. The Sixth Circuit wrote, "[a]llowing the State to reverse course and use pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in executions not only would unfairly advantage the State, but also would undermine the integrity of this litigation." In a short concurring opinion, Judge Jane Stranch commented: "This dialogue about the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is closely intertwined with our ongoing national conversation about the American criminal justice system. Woven through both is disquiet about issues such as punishing the innocent, discrimination on the basis of race, and effective deterrence of crime. These concerns are present throughout the criminal justice processes from arrest, to trial, to sentencing, to appeals, and to the final chapter in death penalty litigation such as this." Judge Raymond Kethledge dissented from the majority opinion. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.  

 

Arkansas Parole Board Recommends Clemency for Jason McGehee

Posted: April 6, 2017

The Arkansas Parole Board voted 6-1 on April 5 to recommend clemency for Jason McGehee, one of the eight death-row prisoners scheduled to be executed in an unprecedented eleven-day period later this month. McGehee's clemency petition drew support from both the former Director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, Ray Hobbs, and the trial judge who presided in his case, Robert McCorkindale. Speaking on McGehee's behalf, Hobbs told the Board, "He has learned his lesson, and he still has value that can be given to others if his life is spared." McGehee's lawyer, assistant federal defender John C. Williams, said clemency was warranted for numerous reasons and "respectfully ask[ed] the Governor to accept the parole board’s recommendation and sentence Mr. McGehee to life without the possibility of parole instead of death." Williams emphasized that McGehee was only twenty years old when the murder occurred and had a "near-perfect" prison record. He said, "The parole board determined Mr. McGehee warrants clemency instead of death because of his exemplary behavior, his youth at the time of the crime, and also because his sentence is not proportional." Two of McGehee's co-defendants, whom his lawyers argued were at least as culpable as McGehee, had received lesser sentences. The Fair Punishment Project chronicled numerous mitigating factors that, because McGehee's lawyer at trial barely investigated the case, his jury never heard. This included evidence that McGehee had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and that he had experienced severe abuse and neglect as a child that led him to use drugs and alcohol as early as sixth grade. The parole board has recommended against clemency for four of the other prisoners, despite issues in those cases that include seriously inadequate defense, histories of mental illness, and borderline intellectual disability. The board's recommendations are advisory, not binding, and Governor Asa Hutchinson makes the final decision whether or not to grant clemency. [UPDATE: The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas has stayed McGehee's execution pending final action by Governor Asa Hutchinson on the Parole Board's clemency recommendation.]

 

Alabama Legislature Votes to End Judicial Override

Posted: April 5, 2017

The Alabama legislature has approved and sent to the Governor a bill that would bring to an end the practice of permitting trial judges to impose death sentences over a capital sentencing jury's recommendation that the defendant be sentenced to life. Alabama is the only state in the U.S. that currently permits judicial override. The legislature acted in response to mounting court challenges to Alabama's death penalty statute. On April 4, the state House of Representatives voted 78-19 to pass a bill prohibiting trial judges from overriding the sentencing recommendations of juries in death penalty cases. Governor Robert Bentley has indicated that he intends to sign the legislation. Two versions of the proposal had advanced in the state legislature. A bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) that would eliminate judicial override but retain Alabama's practice of allowing death sentences if ten or more jurors voted for death, passed the Senate 30-1 on February 23. A House bill by Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) that would have abolished judicial override and required a unanimous jury vote for death had passed the House Judiciary Committee on February 16. Rep. England agreed to substitute the Senate version of the bill, which then overwhelmingly passed the House. The bill "places the death penalty back in the proper perspective," England said. "It puts it ... where in my opinion the Constitution intends it to be: in the hands of juries." Although Alabama is no longer an outlier on judicial override, it remains the only state in the country to permit a death sentence to be imposed based upon a non-unanimous jury vote. According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), judicial override has historically been employed to impose death sentences when a jury recommended life, rather than as a safeguard against unjust jury votes for death. In 101 of the 112 cases in which Alabama judges have overriden capital jury sentencing recommendations, they have imposed the death penalty over a jury recommendation of life. The EJI study also found that the use of judicial override has been influenced by political concerns, with sentencing overrides disproportionately rising in election years. Bryan Stevenson, founder of EJI, said, "Override undermines the role of jurors, who sometimes deliberate for hours to make the right decisions in these cases on behalf of the community. Alabama has had one of the highest death-sentencing rates in the country largely because we add to death row so many people juries do not believe should be executed."

 

In Expanding Dispute Over Death Penalty, Florida Governor Orders Replacement of Local Prosecutor in 21 Murder Cases

Posted: April 4, 2017

Florida Governor Rick Scott issued a series of executive orders on April 3 removing locally elected 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 21 first-degree murder cases and replacing her with 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. The removal comes two weeks after Ayala announced a policy that her office would not pursue the death penalty in murder prosecutions. The cases include a number of potential capital resentencings resulting from the Florida Supreme Court's 2016 decision declaring non-unanimous death sentences to be unconstitutional. Ayala, a Democrat whose district encompasses Orange and Osceola Counties in and around Orlando, said on March 16 that, after conducting "an evidence-based review" of the issue, she had concluded that seeking the death penalty was not cost-effective and "is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice." Ayala is the only African-American elected prosecutor in Florida. Gov. Scott previously removed her from the high-profile trial of Markeith Loyd, a defendant accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer, also appointing King to handle that case. That decision prompted opposition from the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and the victim's parents. Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa called Scott's action in the 21 cases a "gross abuse of his power." Louis Virelli, a law professor at Stetson University, warned that Gov. Scott's actions set a dangerous precedent, saying, "this opens the door for governors of all political parties to cherry-pick cases away from prosecutors." Ayala has hired Roy L. Austin, Jr., a former civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, to challenge Scott's authority to issue the executive orders. Ayala's spokesperson, Eryka Washington, said Scott had not notified the State Attorney that he was issuing the executive orders and that Ayala first learned of the orders from the media. “Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position that the Governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system,” Washington said. Orange and Osceola Counties imposed a total of one death sentence from 2012-2016. Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumpter Counties—the predominantly Republican counties that make up the judicial circuit in which State Attorney King was elected—imposed six death sentences during that period.

 

STUDIES: 21st-Century Executions Disproportionately Involve Defendants With Mental Illness

Posted: April 3, 2017

A new study of the case records of the men and women executed in the United States between 2000 and 2015 has found that 21st-century executions disproportionately involve prisoners diagnosed with mental illness and who have experienced traumatic child abuse. In The Washington Post's data feature, Monkey Cage, Professor Frank Baumgartner and Betsy Neill of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill write that "[m]ost Americans oppose the death penalty for the mentally ill. But our research suggests that the death penalty actually targets those who have mental illnesses." The authors' examination of case files found that 43% of the executed prisoners had received a mental illness diagnosis at some point in their lives, more than double the 18% of people in the general population who have ever been diagnosed with any mental illness. 4% of Americans have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Personality disorders and depression were the most commonly diagnosed illnesses among those executed, but executed death-row prisoners also had significantly higher rates of such serious disorders as schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. Evidence of mental illness—and depression in particular—was especially prevalent among those prisoners who waived their appeals and "volunteered" for execution. 63% of volunteers had a mental illness diagnosis, compared to 39% of others who were executed. More than one-quarter (26%) of volunteers had been diagnosed with depression, 37% had documented suididal tendencies, and nearly one-third (32%) had attempted suicide, leading the authors to suggest, "If suicidal tendencies are evidence of mental illness, then death penalty states actively assist suicide." Rates of childhood trauma—a risk factor for mental illness—were also dramatically higher among executed prisoners than among the general public. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates about 10% of U.S. children are abused or neglected, but nearly 40% of executed prisoners had been abused. The study found that executed death row prisoners were 13 times more likely than U.S. children as a whole to have been sexually abused, 13 times more likely to have been physically abused, and twice as likely to have been neglected by their caregivers. According to the authors, "The CDC and independent researchers have repeatedly found that childhood trauma’s long-term effects include higher likelihoods of disrupted neuro-development, cognitive impairment, mental illness, and becoming the perpetrator or victim of violence." (Click image to enlarge.) 

 

Corrections Officials Warn Arkansas Leaders About Psychological Trauma From Unprecedented Execution Schedule

Posted: March 31, 2017

As Arkansas moves toward attempting to conduct an unprecedented eight executions in eleven days, former corrections officials from across the country are warning Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson of the psychological toll the compressed execution schedule could take on prison personnel. Dr. Allen Ault (pictured), former warden and corrections commissioner in Georgia who oversaw five executions in that state, said "[t]he rapid schedule will put an extraordinary burden on the men and women required by the state to carry out this most solemn act, and it will increase the risk of mistakes in the execution chamber — which could haunt them for the rest of their lives." Dr. Ault joined 22 other former corrections officers in sending a letter to Governor Hutchinson, urging him to "reconsider the pace of the planned executions to protect the professionals who will carry them out and to ensure that the procedures are legal and humane." They caution, "[a]s former corrections officials and administrators—some of whom have directly overseen executions—we believe that performing so many executions in so little time will impose extraordinary and unnecessary stress and trauma on the staff responsible [for] carrying out the executions." Frank Thompson, a former warden of prisons for the Arkansas Department of Corrections and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, spoke of the mental health problems he has witnessed in prison officials who participated in executions, saying, "There is absolutely no way to conduct a well-run execution without causing at least one person to lose a little bit of their humanity, or to start at least one person on the cumulative path to post-traumatic stress. So for Arkansas to do this eight times in 10 days, to me that is unimaginable – it is compounding the stress, laying traumatic experiences on top of each other.” Jerry Givens, who carried out 62 executions for the state of Virginia, said simply, "I just ask the governor a favor.... [J]ust have some heart for the officers that have this task that they want them to carry out. Think about their lives afterwards."

 

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