What's New

NEW RESOURCE: American Bar Association Launches New Capital Clemency Website

Posted: April 6, 2018

In response to what it calls “a critical and unmet need for education and training of both lawyers representing capital prisoners and decision makers who review petitions for clemency,” the American Bar Association (ABA) has created a new web resource devoted to the clemency process. The Capital Clemency Resource Initiative (CCRI) Clearinghouse—a joint project of the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project and Death Penalty Due Process Project—provides tools and resources for clemency decision makers, capital defense attorneys, and others interested in the clemency process. Misty Thomas, chief counsel for the Death Penalty Due Process Project, said that in every state death-penalty system the project studied, “there were insignificant resources for and attention paid to clemency, leaving it … too hollow to be comfortable for our profession.” The ABA does not take a position for or against capital punishment, but the systemic defects it found led the organization to call for a moratorium on its use. “[I]f we’re going to have the death penalty,” Thomas said, “every single stage should be robust and meaningful,” including clemency. As part of improving the clemency process, the Death Penalty Representation Project  prepared a manual for clemency lawyers, Representing Death-Sentenced Prisoners in Clemency: A Guide for Practitioners, that complements the other resources on the CCRI website. But Laura Schaefer, staff attorney for the representation project and the author of the manual, said the project has a broader educational purpose as well. “One part of what we are trying to do is increase public understanding of the clemency process in capital cases … and how it’s supposed to catch wrongful sentences,” she said. Since 1976, clemency in the form of pardons or humanitarian commutations of sentence has been granted to 287 death-row prisoners in the United States. Illinois's mass commutation of 167 death-row prisoners in January 2003 accounts for more than half of that total. Two death-row prisoners—Thomas Whitaker in Texas and William Montgomery in Ohio—have been granted clemency so far in 2018. 

 

NEW PODCAST—Racial Discrimination in Death-Penalty Jury Selection: A Conversation with Steve Bright

Posted: April 5, 2018

Race discrimination exists at every stage of the death-penalty process, says veteran death-penalty and civil-rights lawyer Stephen B. Bright (pictured), but “the most pervasive discrimination that is going on is in jury selection.” In a new Discussions With DPIC podcast, Bright—the former President of the Southern Center for Human Rights who has argued jury discrimination cases three times in the U.S. Supreme Court—calls the “rampant” racial discrimination in jury selection “a matter of grave urgency.” In an interview with DPIC’s Anne Holsinger, Bright speaks about the most recent of those cases, Foster v. Chatman, a Rome, Georgia case in which the Court granted Timothy Foster a new trial as a result of intentional discrimination by prosecutors. New evidence, Bright says, now shows that prosecutors in Columbus, Georgia systematically struck African-American jurors in at least seven other capital cases, including three in which defendants have already been executed. Bright explains how jury-selection notes were critical in proving that prosecutors had unconstitutionally targeted African-American jurors in Foster’s case because of their race. Those notes, he says, allowed defense attorneys to “pull back the cloak of secrecy” that usually shrouds decisions on jury strikes. Jury-selection notes recently uncovered from the files of Columbus prosecutors—including the same prosecutor found to have discriminated against Foster—showed the systemic and long-standing nature of this unconstitutional practice. In 1986, in Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court declared the intentional striking of any juror on the basis of race to be unconstitutional. “Thirty years after [Batson] was decided,” Bright says, “it’s pretty clear that it has failed completely to prevent race discrimination in jury selection.” Batson “doesn’t really have any teeth,” he says, because it permits prosecutors to evade clear inferences of discrimination by providing race-neutral pretextual explanations for striking jurors of color that the trial courts routinely accept. To address the problem, Bright proposes a new legal standard for finding discrimination, moving away from ;a subjective assessment of whether the prosecutor intentionally discriminated to an objective assessment of whether “a reasonable person knowing all of the facts” would think the jurors had been stricken on the basis of race. Increasing the representation of people of color on juries would result in “much more faith in the courts and the integrity of the courts,” Bright says, because trials with all-white juries, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys erode the community’s confidence in the legal system. “People do not think that ... those trials are legitimate, because a big portion of the community has been completely excluded from participating in the judicial process.”

 

Utah Prosecutor Drops Death Penalty in Prison Killing After Corrections Officials Withheld Evidence

Posted: April 4, 2018

A Utah judge has excoriated the Utah Department of Corrections for practices he called “sneaky” and “deceitful” and a state prosecutor has dropped the death penalty after learning that state prison officials had withheld nearly 1,600 pages of prison records from a defendant facing capital charges in a prison killing. Despite a court order to produce all prison records, the department had failed to disclose medical and mental health records detailing psychiatric medication Steven Douglas Crutcher (pictured, right) had been receiving in the months before he killed his prison cellmate. On March 28, 2018, following disclosure of the records, Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels (pictured, left) withdrew the state’s notice to seek the death penalty and Judge Wallace Lee sentenced Crutcher to life. Preparing for an April 9 capital sentencing hearing, the defense learned in mid-February that the department had withheld medical and mental health records that Crutcher’s lawyer, Edward Brass, said “went to the heart” of the defense’s case. Brass alerted Daniels to the prison’s violation of the court order and Daniels, saying he was “irate” about the prison's misconduct, withdrew the death penalty from the case. “I hold myself to the highest ethical standard,” he said, “and any withholding of information is an affront to justice. The whole concept of justice is that you put all the evidence, all the cards on the table, and if you go where the evidence leads you, it’s a just result.” “This could have been a disaster,” Brass told reporters. “If it wasn’t for the integrity of the county attorney, it would have been a disaster.” Judge Lee said he was “beyond angry” over the department’s behavior. “This was totally wrong and makes me doubt the credibility of everything I hear about the Department of Corrections,” he said. In a statement, the department blamed its failure to produce the records on a “misinterpretation” of Judge Lee’s October order, but defense lawyers said medical doctors at the prison had been so difficult to work with that one doctor even refused to tell them what medical school he had attended. The judge questioned how the department could have misunderstood an order that had directed it to produce Crutcher’s “entire file,” including all mental health records. “That is something I would expect from Russia or North Korea, not a society like we have under the Constitution,” Lee said. “It’s got to stop. I’ve worried that if it’s happened in this case, it’s happening in other cases out there.” A prison spokesperson told the media that the department has retrained its clinical services records staff on responding to court orders and records requests and has started reviewing other cases to determine whether court orders had been responded to appropriately. Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers executive director Stewart Gollan said the department also has been uncooperative in releasing prisoners’ medical records in civil rights cases.

 

NEW RESOURCES: University of Virginia Interactive Database Maps the Modern Death Penalty

Posted: April 3, 2018

 The University of Virginia School of Law has created a new interactive web resource (click on map) that allows researchers and the public to visually explore death-sentencing practices in the United States from 1991 through 2017. The interactive map provides county-level data on death sentences imposed across the United States, drawing from a new database created by University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett (pictured) for his recent book, End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice. The interactive map, which is a web supplement to the book, permits users to view where and how many death sentences were imposed in the U.S. each year, and to contrast and compare sentencing patterns over time in states, counties, and the U.S. as a whole. Using a slider to view chronological shifts in sentencing patterns, the map illustrates how death sentences have declined nationwide and become increasingly isolated to a few outlier counties. “This is the first resource to map out modern death sentencing in the United States,” Garrett said. “The mapping vividly shows how geographically isolated death sentencing has become.” The data forms the backbone of End of Its Rope, in which Garrett analyzes the dramatic decline in the use of the death penalty over the last 25 years. The publicly available database contains information on more than 5,000 death sentences, allowing researchers and lawyers to analyze patterns and trends. “Several researchers, in addition to those of us at UVA, have already made use of the data, and we hope that more do so in the future,” Garrett said. Garrett worked with a UVA Law librarian, law students, and undergraduates to compile the data from government records, court rulings, and other sources.

 

Study Analyzes Causes of “Astonishing Plunge” in Death Sentences in the United States

Posted: April 2, 2018

Multiple factors—from declining murder rates to the abandonment of capital punishment by many rural counties and substantially reduced usage in outlier counties that had aggressively imposed it in the past—have collectively led to an “astonishing plunge” in death sentences over the last twenty years, according to a new study, Lethal Rejection, published in the 2017/2018 Albany Law Review. Using data on death-eligible cases from 1994, 2004, and 2014, Drake University law professor David McCord and Niagara University criminal justice professor Talia Roitberg Harmon examined a range of factors to determine what caused the more than 75% reduction in death sentences in the U.S. between 1994 and 2014. (Click image to enlarge.) The authors found that just over half the decline could be attributed to a reduction in the number of potentially death-eligible murders, as a result of a combination of lower murder rates, Supreme Court decisions making murders committed by intellectually disabled offenders and offenders aged 17 or younger ineligible for the death penalty, and the abolition of the death penalty by six states. The rest of the decline, they said, was attributable to subjective decisions by prosecutors and sentencers, a factor they called “changing perceptions of death-worthiness.” Murders in the 37 states that authorized the death penalty in 1994 fell from 19,250 that year to 12,440 in 2014—a 35.4% decline. However, death sentences dropped by more than double that rate, from 310 to 73—a 76.5% decline. McCord and Harmon also attempted to identify factors that contributed to prosecutors’ and sentencers’ perceptions of death worthiness, which accounted for nearly half of the death-sentencing decline. The addition of life without parole as a sentencing option did not, they said, have a significant impact in lowering death sentences, except in Texas. Rather, they found that death sentences were being sought and imposed at lower rates in less aggravated murder cases, in cases with multiple perpetrators, and against defendants under age 21. They also found two types of significant geographical effects: death-sentencing dropped significantly in low-population counties across the country and in five of the nation’s highest volume death-sentencing counties (Harris, TX; Cook, IL; Pima, AZ; Philadelphia, PA; and Miami-Dade, FL). While the researchers did not report how many fewer death sentences were imposed in these counties in 2014, they described the decline as having an “outsized” effect on the national total. They conclude, “The decline in death sentencing in the United States from 1994 has been relatively rapid, quite steep, and is continuing—from the endpoint of our dataset, death sentences declined from 73 in 2014 to 49 in 2015; and in 2016 only 31 death sentences were imposed. The American death penalty seems like an ever-crankier version of the Cheshire Cat: it is grudgingly disappearing, leaving behind only its frown.”

 

Confidential Settlement Leaves Questions About Alabama Execution Process Unanswered

Posted: March 30, 2018

One month after Alabama called off its two-and-a-half hour attempted execution of Doyle Hamm, the state reached a confidential settlement agreement in which it agreed not to seek another execution date and Hamm's attorney dismissed his client’s pending civil-rights lawsuit. In a March 27, 2018 press release, Columbia University law professor Bernard Harcourt, who has represented Hamm for 28 years, said the settlement was reached “after lengthy, fruitful discussions with the Alabama Attorney General's office.” But the settlement left unanswered numerous questions about what happened during the failed execution and about the state’s secret execution protocol. In response, Alabama’s death-row prisoners filed a motion in their on-going challenge to the state’s execution protocol seeking a federal court order to preserve all evidence from the attempted execution, and several leading media organizations have sought permission to intervene in Hamm’s case to obtain access to information that currently remains sealed. The confidential settlement came after Hamm’s attorney submitted a medical report by a doctor who examined Hamm three days after the failed execution. The report—the only public document describing the circumstances of the execution attempt—indicates that execution personnel unsuccessfully inserted IV needles more than 10 times into Hamm’s feet, legs, and right groin, causing bleeding in his groin, and likely puncturing his bladder, causing blood in his urine. After executioners failed for more than two hours to set an intravenous execution line, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeffrey Dunn called off the execution and held a news conference in which he repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol. “I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem,” Dunn said. In the face of conflicting reports about the attempted execution, The Montgomery Advertiser, Alabama Media Group, and The Associated Press filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit to gain access to sealed documents. “Open government is good goverment,” said Montgomery Advertiser Executive Editor Bro Krift. “There are few things the citizens of Alabama need to know more than how the state is executing someone.” Alabama does not disclose its execution protocol to the public nor does it allow the public to witness the part of the execution in which prison personnel attempt to insert the IV lines. The media's motion argued that, “[w]ithout access to the protocol, it is impossible for the public to understand if the failure was due to a problem inherent in protocol, or to some other cause.” Alabama continues to publicly deny that anything went wrong in its failed attempt to execute Hamm. On March 30, in response to motion to preserve evidence filed in the prisoners’ lawsuit, the Alabama Attorney General blamed the U.S. Supreme Court for the state’s failure to execute Hamm. Prosecutors wrote: “because the Supreme Court prevented Defendants [the Alabama Department of Corrections] from beginning preparations until a mere three hours before the execution warrant was set to expire, time ran out for Defendants and necessitated aborting the execution.” Also on March 30, Chief Judge Karon Owen Bowdre granted the media group's motion to intervene in Hamm’s case, but reserved judgment on whether to unseal the record. “The Press Movants claim an interest in this case because it centers on a ‘matter of intense public interest: the method by which the State of Alabama exercises the power to put people to death,’” Judge Bowdre wrote. “The court agrees.” In allowing the media organizations to intervene, the court found that neither Alabama prosecutors nor Doyle Hamm “adequately represent” the interests of “the public’s right of access to the records.”

 

BOOK: “Surviving Execution” Chronicles Miscarriages of Justice in the Richard Glossip Case

Posted: March 29, 2018

In his new book Surviving Execution: A Miscarriage of Justice and the Fight to End the Death Penalty, Sky News reporter Ian Woods tells the story of his relationship with condemned Oklahoma prisoner Richard Glossip, whose case gained prominence after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review his challenge to the state’s lethal-injection procedures. Although Glossip’s case is most frequently associated with the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross and Oklahoma’s dramatic, last-minute recission of his execution warrant when the state’s anonymous drug supplier delivered the wrong execution drug, Surviving Execution focuses more on Glossip’s conviction itself and the author’s belief that Oklahoma is attempting to execute an innocent man. Glossip, who has consistently maintained his innocence, was prosecuted and sentenced to death in Oklahoma County by a prosecuting administration riddled with misconduct in capital cases. The book chronicles the details of Glossip’s conviction, exposing the numerous holes Woods sees in the state’s case. Against the backdrop of multiple execution dates, Woods explains how he developed a friendship with Glossip, and in turn, witnessed the intensive ourpouring of support that Glossip gained as his execution date approached, including the high-profile involvement of Sister Helen Prejean, actress Susan Sarandon, and British businessman Richard Branson. Woods—whom Glossip asked to witness the execution—also discusses his personal struggle over whether to watch a man die at the hands of the state. Glossip's execution, originally scheduled for January 2015, was stayed while the Supreme Court reviewed his lethal-injection case. After his narrow 5-4 loss in that case, Oklahoma rescheduled his execution for September 2015. That execution date was stayed by the Oklahoma courts to consider Glossip's claim of innocence. Ultimately, the state court gave the go-ahead for the execution, and Glossip's execution was rescheduled for later in the month. However, that execution attempt was halted when the state failed to obtain the correct lethal-injection drug and all executions in Oklahoma were put on hold while the state reviewed its execution procedures. Woods’ book attempts to combine journalistic independence with his search for the truth and his conclusion that Glossip was not guilty of the murder of victim Barry Van Trease. In a Sky News podcast just before the aborted execution was to occur, Woods summarized Glossip’s case, saying, “There is no incontrovertible proof that Richard Glossip is guilty of murder. No forensic evidence, no eyewitness account, other than that of the killer, who saved his own skin by blaming Richard. The state of Oklahoma is going to kill him on Wednesday, so I’m not going to sit on the fence any longer. I'm telling you: I think that’s wrong.” In Surviving Execution, Woods explains why.

 

Tennessee Supreme Court Rejects Attorney General’s Request for 8 Executions by Drug Expiration Date

Posted: March 28, 2018

The Tennessee Supreme Court has denied a request from the state's attorney general to schedule eight executions before the June 1, 2018 expiration date of Tennessee's supply of one of its execution drugs. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery had filed the request on February 14, saying that scheduling executions "after June 1, 2018 is uncertain due to the ongoing difficulty in obtaining the necessary lethal injection chemicals." The court's March 15, 2018 order did not explain why it rejected the request, but it did set two execution dates to be carried out later in the year. The court scheduled the execution of Edmund Zagorski for October 11 and set a December 6 execution date for David Earl Miller. Three other Tennessee death-row prisoners already had execution dates this year, though two of them—James Hawkins and Sedrick Clayton—have not yet completed their appeals. Thirty-three Tennessee death-row prisoners are challenging the state's use of midazolam as part of its execution protocol, arguing that the protocol "amounts to torturing prisoners to death." The prisoners cite botched executions in other states that have used midazolam, including Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Joseph Wood in Arizona, and Ronald Smith in Alabama. Because of that litigation and the Attorney General's statements about the unavailability of lethal-injection drugs, Tennessee's ability to carry out any of the scheduled executions remains uncertain. The state prosecutor's request was reminiscent of Arkansas's controversial attempt in April 2017 to carry out eight executions over the span of eleven days before its supply of midazolam expired. Four of those executions were stayed and witnesses reported indications that two of the executed prisoners—Jack Jones and Kenneth WIlliams—remained conscious during the execution process after the midazolam was supposed to have rendered them insensate. 

 

Ohio Governor Commutes Death Sentence of William Montgomery

Posted: March 27, 2018

Ohio Governor John Kasich has commuted the death sentence of 52-year-old William Montgomery (pictured) to life without the possibility of parole. Montgomery was scheduled to be executed on April 11. The one-page proclamation granting clemency (pictured right, click to enlarge) did not specify the grounds for Kasich's action and was not accompanied by a news release or statement to the media. The order, issued March 26, stated simply, "after consideration of all relevant factors, I ... have concluded that a commutation of the death sentence of William T.  Montgomery is warranted." Faced with issues of prosecutorial misconduct and questionable forensic evidence, the Ohio Parole Board voted 6-4 on March 16, 2018 to recommend that Kasich grant executive clemency to Montgomery, who was convicted and sentence to death in 1986 for two murders he maintains he did not commit. Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates opposed Montgomery's clemency application. An Ohio federal district court, affirmed by a federal appeals court panel, overturned Montgomery's conviction in 2007 because prosecutors had suppressed evidence and witness statements that undermined the state's version of how the crime occurred, but the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated the conviction in 2009, with five judges dissenting. Montgomery's supporters argued to the parole board that there was too much doubt about his guilt to risk executing a potentially innocent man. Prosecutors in the case withheld from the defense evidence that multiple witnesses had seen Debra Ogle, one of the women Montomgery was found guilty of murdering, alive four days after the date prosecutors said Montgomery had killed her and left her body in the woods. An independent review of the autopsy report showed that Ogle's body likely had been discovered within hours of her death. Adding to the doubt in the case, Montgomery's co-defendant, Glover Heard, told police five different stories before settling on a version of events that fit the prosecution's theory, and instead of facing the death penalty, he was sentenced to a term of years with eligibility for parole. The clemency grant was the sixth time Kasich had commuted a death sentence to life without parole. It was the second time a governor commuted a death sentence in 2018. Texas Governor Greg Abbott commuted Thomas "Bart" Whitaker's sentence on February 22, less than an hour before he was scheduled to be executed. There have been 287 grants of clemency to death-row prisoners in the United States on humanitarian grounds since 1976. Ohio governors have granted clemency to death-row prisoners twenty times in that time period.

 

POLL: Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Death Penalty for Overdose Deaths

Posted: March 26, 2018

Americans of all ages, races, and political affiliations overwhelmingly oppose the Trump administration plan to pursue capital punishment for drug overdose deaths and believe it will have no effect on addressing the opioid public health crisis, according to a March 16-21, 2018 nationwide Quinnipiac University poll. By a 50-percentage-point margin (71% to 21%, with 8% saying they did not know or would not answer), Americans oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of selling drugs that contributed to a fatal overdose (click on graph to enlarge image). Three-quarters of Americans (75%-20%-5%) said that using the death penalty for drug sales leading to overdose deaths will not help stop the opioid crisis. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans (57%) both opposed the administration’s plan and thought it would not work. Opposition to the use of the death penalty for drug-overdose sales was highest among African Americans (90%), Democrats (87%), voters aged 18-34 (82%), and college-educated Whites (77%). 73% of women and 70% of men opposed the plan, as did 69% of Whites, Hispanics, and Independents. By margins of more than 3 to 1, men and women, Blacks and Whites, and Democrats and Independents also said using the death penalty would not help stop the opiod crisis. Hispanics by a margin of 2 to 1 thought it would not work. The Quinnipiac Poll also asked the 1,291 voters it surveyed several questions about the death penalty itself. In a question that asked simply “Do you support or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?,” 58% said they supported capital punishment, while 33% opposed. That contrasted with the most recent Gallup Poll, which reported 55% support for the death penalty, and the Pew Research Center poll, which reported support at 49%. When asked “Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole?,” 51% of Quinnipiac Poll respondents said they preferred life without parole, versus 37% who preferred capital punishment. A Quinnipiac news release said this was the first time since the poll began asking this question in 2004 that a majority of Americans said they preferred the life-sentencing option. At the same time, however, poll respondents said by a 2 to 1 margin that they would not like to see the death penalty abolished nationwide. Democrats split on that question at 47%-46% in favor of abolition, but substantial majorities of every other demographic opposed abolition. “It’s a mixed message on a question that has moral and religious implications,” said Tim Malloy, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “Voters are perhaps saying, ‘Keep the death penalty, but just don’t use it.” 

 

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