The British Privy Council in London unanimously struck down the imposition of mandatory death sentences in the Bahamas. This landmark decision held that the law "should be construed as imposing a discretionary and not a mandatory sentence of death." The Privy Council ruling said that the mandatory death penalty should have been regarded as inhumane and degrading punishment as early as 1973.
Congress recently passed the re-authorization of the Patriot Act and this bill is likely to curtail the appeals of state death row inmates in federal courts. The legislation, which is due to be signed into law this week by President Bush, would allow states to obtain approval of their systems of representation in death penalty cases from the U.S.
Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a stay of execution for three co-defendants on federal death row who were scheduled to be executed in May. Judge Huvelle's order delays the executions indefinitely and is the result of a lethal injection challenge raised by the three men, James H. Roane Jr., Richard Tipton, and Cory Johnson. This case marks at least the sixth time since January that executions have been stayed after inmates raised challenges to the lethal injection process.
Attorneys for the defendants filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection, claiming that while one of the drugs used "supposedly will render the plaintiffs insensible to the pain of their deaths, it in fact can and will merely cast a 'chemical veil' over this excruciating pain, leaving plaintiffs conscious but trapped in a paralyzed body wracked with the pain of suffocation and heart attack. At the same time, this 'cocktail' will make it impossible for those observing the execution - including witnesses to it . . . to recognize and prevent the gratuitous pain and suffering being inflicted upon the plaintiffs." Huvelle's order stayed the lawsuit pending the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in a related Florida case. Arguments in the Florida case, Hill v. McDonough, are scheduled to take place on April 26, 2006. As they await the Supreme Court's decision, attorneys for Roane, Tipton, and Johnson have filed paperwork asking President Bush to grant clemency to their clients. (Terre Haute (IN) Tribune Star, March 7, 2006).
Wounds That Do Not Bind: Victim-based Perspectives on the Death Penalty, a new book by James R. Acker and David Reed Karp, examines how family members and advocates for victims address the impact of capital punishment. The book presents the personal stories of victims' family members and their interactions with the criminal justice system. It also examines the relevant areas of legal research, including the use of victim impact evidence in capital trials, how capital punishment affects victims' family members, and what is known about addressing the needs of the survivors after a murder.
Prosecutors in Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware have all chosen to seek life sentences in three high-profile murder cases. Among other concerns, they noted their wish to bring comfort to victims' families and to secure the public's longterm safety. The prosecutors expressed confidence that not seeking the death penalty was the right choice in these cases.
Californians' support for the death penalty is declining according to results of a new survey conducted in February 2006 by the Field Poll. The statewide poll revealed that only 63% of respondents favor keeping the death penalty for serious crimes, a figure that is lower than the 72% support for the death penalty measured in 2002 and significantly less than the 83% who voiced support for capital punishment in both 1985 and 1986. The survey also found a growing segment of the population questioning the fairness of the death penalty.
In his new book, Death by Design: Capital Punishment as a Social Psychological System, Craig Haney argues that capital punishment, and particularly the events that lead to death sentencing itself, are maintained through a system that distances and disengages people from the true nature of the task. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, relies on his own research and that other of other scientists in approaching the question, "How can normal, moral people participate in a process designed to take the life of another?"
Lawyers and prosecutors in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania say that concerns about innocence and shifting public attitudes on the death penalty have caused jurors in the county to "lose their taste" for capital punishment. In each of the past 8 capital cases tried, jurors spared the life of the defendant.
Pennsylvania death row inmate George E. Banks, who came within a day of being put to death in 2004, has been declared mentally incompetent to be executed. "His longstanding delusions render him unable to rationally comprehend his death sentence, its reasons or its implications. George Banks is a very mentally sick man," stated Luzerne County Judge Michael Conahan in his order. Banks was sentenced to death in 1983 for a shooting spree that ended in 13 deaths, including five of his own children. At his trial, defense attorneys argued that Banks was driven to murder by delusions of looming race wars and worried that his children might suffer racial abuse. Since his trial, Banks' mental state has deteriorated, and he has threatened to commit suicide, gone on hunger strikes, and refused medical and psychiatric treatment. As his 2004 execution date neared, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stopped the execution and ordered a competency hearing for Banks. During that hearing, two psychiatrists and a psychologist described Banks as psychotic, delusional, and irrational. Senior Deputy Attorney General Jonelle H. Eshbach said the decision will be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction of death row inmate John Robert Ballard (pictured) and ordered his acquittal in the 1999 murders of two of his acquaintances. The Court concluded that the evidence against Ballard was so weak that the trial judge should have dismissed the case immediately. The primary evidence presented against Ballard was a hair and a fingerprint, both of which he could have left during his many visits to the victims' apartment. Bloody fingerprints and a 100 other hair samples were found associated with the crime scene, none of them belonging to Ballard, who has always maintained his innocence. One of the victims was a known drug dealer.
The state Attorney General's office said that it would not seek a rehearing in the case. At Ballard's trial, only 9 of the 12 jurors recommended a death sentence. The judge decided to sentence Ballard to death, commenting: "You have not only forfeited your right to live among us, but under the laws of the state of Florida, you have forfeited your right to live at all." It is expected that Ballard will be released soon, after serving 3 years on death row.