Recent court rulings in Arkansas and Arizona reaching opposite outcomes highlight the continuing controversy over state practices keeping information relating to state acquisition of drugs for use in executing prisoners secret from the public. A state trial court judge in Pulaski County, Arkansas ruled on September 19 that the Arkansas Department of Correction must disclose package inserts from the supplies of the sedative midazolam recently purchased by the state as part of its three-drug execution protocol. On September 21, a federal district court judge in Arizona denied a First Amendment challenge brought by a coalition of news organizations seeking disclosure of who supplies execution drugs to the state. In the Arkansas case, circuit court judge Judge Mackie Pierce rejected arguments by lawyers for the state that the packet inserts were shielded from disclosure under state law because disclosure of the inserts would ultimately result in the discovery of who supplied execution drugs to the state. The Arkansas ruling was the second time a state trial court had ordered the Arkansas Department of Correction to disclose packaging information about its execution drugs under the state's Freedom of Information Act and public-disclosure requirements in the Arkansas Method of Execution Act. In April, another Arkansas judge directed the state to disclose packaging information related to its supply of potassium chloride, the third drug in the execution protocol, which causes the prisoners searing pain before it stops the heart unless the prisoner has been adequately anesthetized. Also in April, the drug distributor, McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc., sued the state in an attempt to prevent it from carrying out executions with supplies of the paralytic drug, vercuronium bromide, obtained from the company under what McKesson described as false pretenses. Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Merritt had told Judge Pierce that it was necessary to keep the package labels secret because some drug manufacturers had objected to the state’s use of their drugs in executions. In his ruling, Judge Pierce said the Arkansas legislature knew how to grant pharmaceutical companies secrecy under the state's execution law, but didn’t do so. “They know what manufacturers are. They knew what the issues were," he said. The state has appealed the April order and is seeking an emergency stay to block implementation of the current order. In the Arizona case, a group of local and national news organizations, including The Arizona Republic, Guardian News & Media, Arizona Daily Star, The Associated Press, and two local television stations had sought disclosure of the state's drug suppliers, arguing that such disclosure was essential for the integrity of the criminal justice system and to determine whether the death penalty was being carried out humanely. District court judge Grant Murray Snow wrote that while the First Amendment protects speech about the death penalty, it does not require Arizona to disclose "protected information" about the identity of its drug supplier, "to the detriment of the state's ability to carry out its constitutional, lawfully imposed criminal punishments." Last December, Judge Snow had ruled in favor of the media on a separate secrecy issue, requiring the Arizona Department of Corrections to permit media witnesses to see the entire execution, including each time drugs are administered. Media witnesses had been unable to see key portions of the botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood in 2014, when he was administered 15 doses of lethal-injection drugs in an execution that took nearly two hours to complete. Arizona has not carried out an execution since then and no executions are currently scheduled.
Two African nations—The Gambia and Madagascar—acting in connection with the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, have taken major steps committing themselves to the irreversible abolition of the death penalty. On Thursday, September 21, shortly after making his first address to the United Nations, The Gambia's President Adama Barrow signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty at the 72nd General Assembly of the United Nations, committing his nation to death penalty abolition. For The Gambia, this is the first step in abolishing the death penalty. The small West African nation last carried out an execution in 2012, when nine prisoners were executed by firing squad. Those executions, the first in 31 years, had been widely criticized. President Barrow said that The Gambia's acceptance of the treaty shows the nation’s commitment to promote democracy and “protect lives of political activists.” Also on September 21, at a General Assembly event devoted to the treaty, Madagascar completed the ratification process by depositing the instruments of ratification with the United Nations’ General Secretary. The Gambia and Madagascar bring the total number of signed parties to 85. Madagascar, an island nation off the Southeast coast of the African continent, signed the Second Optional Protocol at the 67th U.N. General Assembly in September 2012 and abolished the death penalty by law in January 2015. The nation of 20 million has not executed anyone since 1958. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966 as part of the International Bill of Human Rights, which also includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948). The ICCPR has two optional protocols that nations may join. The First Optional Protocol, which 116 parties have signed, created an international tribunal—the U.N. Human Rights Committee—to adjudicate complaints about human rights violations. The Second Optional Protocol, adopted in 1989, obligates its signatories to abolish the death penalty, although countries are permitted to make reservations permitting use of the death penalty for certain war crimes. Brazil, with a population of more than 209 million, is the largest nation to sign the treaty, which it ratified in 2009. China, India, and the United States, the most populous nations in the world, have not signed the treaty.
An Arapahoe County judge has denied the appeal of Colorado death-row prisoner Sir Mario Owens (pictured), despite finding that prosecutors withheld evidence and failed to disclose money, gifts, and favors they provided informants in exchange for their testimony. In a 1,343-page Order and Opinion issued on September 14, Senior Judge Christopher Munch found that county prosecutors had presented false evidence from two of their most critical witnesses and unconstitutionally withheld more than 20 separate pieces of evidence that could have helped the defense challenge the testimony of seven prosecution witnesses, but said a defendant "must establish more than helpfulness to sustain a claim of constitutional error." The ruling followed the controversial removal from the case of Senior Judge Gerald Rafferty, as the judge was preparing his decision after having presided over the case for more than a decade. Rafferty had ordered the prosecution to produce hundreds of pages of records and granted 37 weeks of hearings on what he had characterized as prosecutors’ “deliberate choice” to withhold evidence from the defense. Owens was sentenced to death in June 2008 for the 2005 shooting death of Javad Marshall-Fields (the son of a Colarado state representative) and Fields's fiancé, Vivian Wolfe. A co-defendant, Robert Ray, was separately tried and sentenced to death. The case against Owens was largely circumstantial. As described by news reports in The Colorado Independent, there was "no definitive physical evidence, no confession, and no eyewitnesses who identified Owens in a case prosecutors built almost entirely on the testimony of informant witnesses to whom the DA’s office gave plea bargains, funds, or both in return for their cooperation against Owens." Owens alleged that the prosecution had withheld evidence from the defense that they had secured the testimony of cooperating informants by making thousands of dollars of cash payments and providing undisclosed favors in unrelated criminal cases. The Denver Post reported that one witness had been "promised and later given a district attorney’s office car" and another "received $3,400 in benefits, including cash for Christmas presents in the months prior to testifying on behalf of the prosecution." The Colorado Independent's review of court records reported that "one of the main witnesses [had been] threatened with being charged for the murders Owens was accused of and with receiving two life sentences" if he didn’t cooperate. Another witness had been granted an undisclosed suspended jail sentence conditioned upon cooperating with prosecutors in Owens’s case. "People working for the prosecution would appear at informant witnesses’ court hearings and ask for lesser sentences on the condition that they testify against Owens," the paper wrote, and "informants who had been convicted of crimes were allowed to violate probation and commit future crimes without consequences as long as they cooperated." Owens's appeal has attracted attention because it was the first in Colorado's "unitary review" process that had been billed as speeding up capital appeals. Instead, it has substantially increased the length of appeals. It also raised questions of transparency because of the extraordinary levels of secrecy throughout the proceedings. Court files were sealed and a gag order prevented the parties from speaking about the case for seven years, until the order was lifted in 2013. Numerous case exhibits remain under seal. Owens's lawyers issued a written statement saying “We disagree with the court’s conclusion that none of this matters and can be tolerated in Colorado in any case, never mind a capital one. This is a sad day for ... the Colorado criminal justice system.”
In a racially charged case raising questions of prosecutorial overcharging, inadequate representation, and questionable jury practices, Kharon Davis (pictured), an African-American man charged with capital murder in Dothan, Alabama, has been imprisoned for 10 years without trial. Davis—who has consistently maintained his innocence and whose prior offense was driving without a license—was 22 years old when he and two others were arrested for the shooting death of a man from whom they were purchasing marijuana. After refusing a plea deal, Davis’s case has gone through two judges, three prosecutors, four sets of defense lawyers, and nine scheduled trial dates, and he has been placed in segregation in the county jail for minor infractions, faced restrictions on his ability to review legal documents, and been denied visits by his mother. A New York Times report described the pre-trial delays as “among the most protracted” the paper could find, and George Washington University law professor and constitutional consultant Jonathan Turley said “It is impossible to look at [the case] and not find it deeply, deeply troubling.” Houston County’s District Attorney Doug Valeska’s decision to seek the death penalty reignited questions of the county’s overuse of the death penalty. Despite a population of only 103,000, its 17-person death row makes Houston County one of the most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country. The county’s prosecutorial and law enforcement practices have also come under scrutiny: a number of capital cases have been overturned for racially biased jury selection, presenting improper evidence, and improper comments to juries. In 2015, Valeska also was accused of covering up evidence that a group of Dothan police officers with ties to white supremacist groups had been planting drugs on young black men. Davis’s case has been rife with questionable activity. His first lawyer, Benjamin Meredith, was the father of one of the investigating officers in the case and cross-examined his son in the preliminary hearing. That conflict was not disclosed for four years, after a new judge was appointed in the case, when Valeska brought it to the attention of the court. In those four years, Meredith had filed only two motions on Davis’s behalf. In that same time, Davis’s co-defendant, Lorenzo Staley, who told police where to find the gun used in the murder, went to trial in 2009 and was acquitted. A second co-defendant, Kevin McCloud—a childhood friend of Davis’s who had no criminal record—had pled guilty and agreed to testify against Davis to avoid the death penalty, although McCloud later said in a letter that Valeska had asked him to “get on the stand and lie” about Davis’s involvement in the case. The case was further delayed when, looking through the court record of Staley’s trial, new defense counsel discovered a gunshot residue kit that prosecutors had failed to disclose. A new district attorney who had once represented one of the co-defendants was elected in February 2017, requiring the case to be transferred to the attorney general’s office. At that point, the prosecution dropped the death penalty from the case. Finally, on September 19, the trial was again held up amid allegations that some members of the newly empaneled jury of 11 whites and one black may have had improper contact with people connected to the case.
The failed capital prosecution of Scott Dekraai for the worst mass murder in Orange County, California history has cost taxpayers more than $2.5 million—more than double the average cost of a California death-penalty case—and the pricetag for continuing investigations into official misconduct by the county district attorney's and sheriff's offices continues to rise. Unlike most capital cases, the costs were not primarily for the trial itself, but the product of a multi-year investigation and court hearings into decades-long abuses by Orange County law enforcement involving the deliberate misuse of jailhouse informants to obtain incriminating statements from targeted prisoners, including Dekraai. “The price of misconduct is steep,” said Seattle University criminal justice professor Peter Collins, an expert on death penalty costs. Dekraai pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder in May 2014, and in normal circumstances, the penalty phase of the case would have been completed later that year. However, for the past three years, the case has been dominated by the informant scandal. In May 2015, Judge Thomas Goethals disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney's Office from involvement in the case after finding that prosecutors had engaged in widespread misconduct, failed to disclose the improper practices, and repeatedly lied to the court about it. Additional failures by the county sheriff's office to comply with court orders to produce records related to the scandal extended the length of the court's investigation, and ultimately led to the court barring the state from pursuing the death penalty. According to an analysis by the Southern California News Group, taxpayers had already spent more than $2.5 million on the case, not including costs incurred by the Orange County District Attorney's office—which said it did not track what it spent on the case—or by the state attorney general's office after it took over the case. Known costs include approximately $1 million for defense costs over the nearly six years the case has been pending; an estimated $743,000 in costs for court time and personnel; more than $370,000 in costs for a grand jury investigation; $290,000 in pretrial incarceration costs; and more than $100,000 for the county to provide legal representation to the sheriff's department during the investigation. In addition to prosecutor salaries and other prosecution costs, the $2.5 million estimate does not include the costs of the Orange County District Attorney's appeal of the order removing it from the case; any state money spent on the ongoing investigation into the county's informant abuses; nor the costs of a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the informant scandal. Dekraai is scheduled to be sentenced on September 22 to eight terms of life without parole.
Two professors of sociology and criminology who reviewed more than 1500 cases in which convicted prisoners were later exonerated have found a direct relationship between the seriousness of the crime and miscarriages of justice: "the 'worst of the worst crimes,'” they say, "produce the 'worst of the worst evidence.'" In their research—reported in the law review article, The Worst of the Worst: Heinous Crimes and Erroneous Evidence—University of Denver professors Scott Phillips (pictured) and Jamie Richardson found that "as the seriousness of a crime increases, so too does the chance of a wrongful conviction." Prosecutions for the most serious crimes tend to involve the most inaccurate and unreliable evidence, they said, and the risks are greatest in cases producing murder convictions and death sentences. "The types of vile crimes in which the state is most apt to seek the death penalty are the same crimes in which the state is most apt to participate in the production of erroneous evidence..., from false confession to untruthful snitches, government misconduct, and bad science." Delving into the phenomenon of false confessions, the professors found that "[a]s the seriousness of a particular crime increases, or the seriousness of the general crime problem increases, police interrogation becomes more aggressive. In turn, aggressive interrogation produces more true confessions and more false confessions." They say police officers are under institutional pressures to solve high-profile cases and the "most heinous" and serious crimes, which leads them to use more aggressive tactics to obtain a confession. Phillips and Richardson divided cases with false confessions into two categories: general-population exonerees convicted in murder and other cases; and the cases of death-row exonerees, examined by the level of heinousness of the murder. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 234 of those 1535 exonerated from 1989 through 2014 falsely confessed, 22 of whom were sentenced to death. The sociologists found that 21% of those convicted of murder falsely confessed, as compared with only 7% of those convicted of less serious crimes. In exoneration cases in which DNA evidence bolstered claims of innocence, 41% of those wrongly convicted of murder had confessed, a false confessions rate that was seven times higher than those convicted of crimes other than murder. As for death-row exonerees, 39% of people who were convicted of the most heinous murders confessed, five times the false confession rate (7%) of those who convicted of murders the researchers had determined were less heinous. Phillips and Richardson also found that the heinousness of the murder predicts "the government's reliance on an untruthful snitch, government misconduct, and bad science." Of the death-row exonerations, the state committed misconduct in 86% percent of high-heinous murders, compared to 66% percent of low-heinous murders; the state used prison informant testimony implicating the wrong suspect in 42% of high-heinous murders, as compared to 15% of low-heinous murders; and bad science was presented in 39% of high heinous murders, compared to 23% of low heinous murders.
Texas prosecutors have dropped their pursuit of the death penalty against a severely mentally ill capital defendant charged with what they characterized as the "ambush murder" of a Harris County sheriff’s deputy. Special prosecutor Brett Ligon (pictured, left)—the Montgomery County District Attorney who was handling the prosecution because Houston prosecutors had a conflict that prevented them from participating in the case—announced on September 13 that he had agreed to a plea deal in which Shannon Miles (pictured, right) would be sentenced to life without possibility of parole in the killing of Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth. Miles’s lawyers say that he has schizophrenia and episodic psychosis when he is not on psychiatric medication, that he has no memory of the murder, and that they intended to pursue an insanity defense in the case. In 2012, the trial court had declared Miles incompetent to be tried. In March of 2017, after treatment at a state mental hospital that had been delayed by a shortage of available beds, the court found Miles competent to stand trial. In explaining the plea deal, Ligon said "[t]he state's experts all came to the same conclusion, the likelihood of executing a mentally incompetent man was almost zero." The victim’s widow, Kathleen Goforth, said she supported to deal because her two children “have been spared” the ordeal of extended death-penalty proceedings. She said, “They will not have the backdrop of their lives, for the next 10 to 25 years, being court dates, trials and appeals…. They won't have that inflicted upon them and that is merciful. It's compassionate and it's the right thing to do." Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Donald Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, said justice had been served by the plea deal. The plea had been entered against the backdrop of an emerging sex scandal. The sole grounds on which prosecutors could seek the death penalty in the case was if Officer Goforth had been killed in the performance of his duties. However, evidence had come to light that Goforth was at the gas station to meet his mistress, who was a witness to the murder and would be called upon to testify in the case. Two sheriff’s officers—one who was assigned to investigate the case—had been fired for having sexual relations with the woman, and a third had been fired for sending her an email soliciting sex. The Goforth murder once again focused attention on the role of mental illness in premeditated murders of police officers. In July 2016, in unrelated incidents, mentally ill Gulf War veterans who exhibited symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder fatally shot five police officers in Dallas, Texas and three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In July 2015, a Washington jury sentenced a mentally ill and delusional capital defendant, Christopher Monfort, to life without parole for the ambush murder of a Seattle police officer.
Human Rights Groups Urge U.S. Government To Sanction Officials Accused Of Torture, Executions Under New LawPosted: September 14, 2017
A coalition of 23 human rights groups, including Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Reprieve, has urged the United States government to issue sanctions against foreign government officials who they say have used the death penalty to repress political dissent by torturing peaceful protesters into confessing to capital offenses they did not commit. In a September 12, 2017 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the non-governmental organizations ("NGOs") asked the United States to invoke provisions of the Global Magnitsky Act, a new law that "authorizes the President to impose financial sanctions and visa restrictions on foreign persons in response to certain human rights violations and acts of significant corruption." The law, enacted in 2012 and expanded in 2016, was named after Sergei Magnitsky (pictured), a Russian lawyer and whistleblower who was beaten and died in a Moscow prison in 2009. The letter called the sanctions available under the act “a potentially revolutionary tool” to deter human rights abuses by "those that would use violence to silence dissent and maintain their grip on power." The NGOs requested that the State Department and U.S. Treasury investigate 15 cases "from every region of the world" that, they say, "involve horrific stories of torture, enforced disappearance, murder, sexual assault, extortion and bribery.” They ask the U.S. to investigate Bahrain's Chief of Public Prosecution, Ali bin Fadhul Al Buainain, for his alleged involvement in the torture of Shia political activist Ali al-Singace and two others, and their execution on January 15, 2017. The rights groups say Bahraini prosecutors "sought and obtained the harshest possible punishment, the death sentence, with full awareness that the defendants claimed their confessions had been coerced and that the case had been marred from the start by this and other grave violations of due process." They also seek investigation of judges on Saudia Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court, who "repeatedly rel[ied] on confessions allegedly obtained through torture" in convicting members of religious minorities for participating in pro-democracy protests in 2011. The NGOs say the judges also "sentenced several of the defendants to death for conduct allegedly undertaken while they were minors," in violation of international law and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Reprieve's Director, Maya Foa, who oversees the organization's strategic initiatives on the death penalty and extreme human rights abuses, called the use of torture to force confessions, executing children, and using the death penalty to suppress free speech "grotesque rights abuses that fly in the face of American values." She said the U.S. should use the powers of the Global Magnitsky Act "to hold to account the individuals responsible for gross human rights abuses, and to save the lives of innocent young [protesters]." Senator John McCain, one of the authors of the Global Magnitsky Act and its amendments, said the involvement of non-governmental human rights organizations is crucial to the success of the Act. In a statement to Reuters, he said he "will continue working to ensure the administration enforces the law and utilizes this powerful tool to advance freedom and justice around the world.” Rob Berchinski, Senior Vice President of Policy at Human Rights First, said “[o]ur process is designed to assist the government.... Now the question is simply one of political will.” The Act requires the White House to report to Congress by December 10 on sanctions it has imposed under the law.
Ohio Executes Gary Otte as State and Federal Courts Decline to Review Use of Death Penalty Against Those Under Age 21Posted: September 13, 2017
Ohio executed Gary Otte on September 13 after both the United States Supreme Court and the Ohio Supreme Court declined to review his challenge to the constitutionality of applying the death penalty against people who were younger than age 21 at the time of the offense. Otte's lawyer, supervisory assistant federal public defender Carol Wright, said Otte exhibited "abnormal" chest and stomach movements when he was injected with the execution drug, midazolam, showing signs of struggling for air and what she described as "air hunger." Wright attempted to leave the witness room to reach a phone to alert a federal judge to possible problems with the execution, but prison officials delayed her exit for several minutes and it took several more minutes to reach the court. By that time, Otte's stomach movements had ceased and the court declined to intervene. Corrections spokesperson, JoEllen Smith, said the prison "followed proper security protocol, and once [Wright's] identity and intention was verified she was given permission to exit the room." Smith said the execution was "carried out in compliance with the execution policy and without complication." Otte had sought stays of execution from the state and federal courts, asking them to review his claim that his death sentence should be overturned because he was only 20 years old at the time he killed Robert Wasikowski and Sharon Kostura in 1992. Otte's lawyers cited an August 2017 decision by a Kentucky trial court that had found the brain development and maturation of individuals aged 18-20 to be similar in critical respects to that of adolescents under age 18, and had declared the death penalty unconstitutionally cruel and unusual for defendants under age 21. They argued that "[t]he current scientific understanding of adolescent development underscores [that] their moral culpability is reduced making them categorically exempt from the death penalty." The Kentucky trial court issued a second ruling on September 6 that barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against an 18-year-old defendant in another case. On Tuesday night, September 12, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the issue and denied a stay of execution. The Ohio Supreme Court followed suit on the morning of September 13. Otte was pronounced dead shortly before 11:00 a.m.
A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of U.S. murder data from 1987 through 2015 has found no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or protects police. Instead, the evidence shows that murder rates, including murders of police officers, are consistently higher in death-penalty states than in states that have abolished the death penalty. And far from experiencing increases in murder rates or open season on law enforcement, the data show that states that have abolished the death penalty since 2000 have the lowest rates of police officers murdered in the line of duty and that killings of police account for a much smaller percentage of murders in those states. In a new Discussions With DPIC podcast, "Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?," DPIC Fellow Seth Rose and Executive Director Robert Dunham explore the assertions long made by death-penalty proponents that capital punishment advances public safety by deterring murders and by protecting police officers. Dunham said the short answer—after analyzing twenty-nine years of annual murder data from FBI Uniform Crime Reports ("UCR") and FBI annual data on Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted, Officers Feloniously Killed ("LEOKA reports")—is no. "There's no evidence that the death penalty deters murder and there's no evidence that it protects the police," Dunham says. "Murder rates may be affected by many things, but the death penalty doesn't appear to be one of them." DPIC divided the states into three categories to analyze murders and murder trends: states that have long had the death penalty ("death-penalty states"), states that have long abolished capital punishment ("non-death-penalty states"), and states that have abolished capital punishment since 2000 ("transitional states"). The data show that the death-penalty states had an overall UCR murder rate that was 1.39 times higher than the non-death penalty states and accounted for 12 of the 16 states with the highest murder rates. Police officers were murdered in death-penalty states at a rate that was 1.37 times higher than in non-death-penalty states, and accounted for 22 of the 25 states with the highest LEOKA rates of officers feloniously killed. Killings of police were lowest, however, in the transitional states that most recently abolished the death penalty. And while killings of officers accounted for 33 of every 10,000 murders in both death-penalty and non-death-penalty states, they were 1.6 times lower in transitional states. What the numbers show, Dunham says, is that "the death penalty doesn't drive murder rates; murder rates drive the death penalty." While the death penalty, he says, "makes no measurable contribution" to police safety, "the rate at which police officers are killed drives the political debate about the death penalty."