Even though the state of Virginia admits that the question of Daryl Atkins' mental retardation is a "close case," it is still pursuing a lengthy jury trial to ensure his execution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 that those with mental retardation must be excluded from the death penalty, but they issued no opinion with regard to Mr. Atkins' mental status. As the trial in Virginia began this week, Atkins' mother and former teachers testified about his long-term struggles in dealing with his disability, noting that he did not finish high school, could not get a driver's license, and was cut from the football team because he could not grasp the rules.
A North Carolina Superior Court judge orderd a new trial for death row inmate Rex Penland following DNA testing that discredited the state's case. Penland was convicted of a rape and murder 11 years ago, but DNA testing at the time of his trial was inconclusive. More recent testing was favorable to Penland and did not place him at the scene of the crime. Penland was convicted largely on the basis of testimony from his two nephews who were also involved in the crime. Ken Rose, one of the Penland's attorneys, said: "I think there are substantial questions about whether they got the wrong person. We have other evidence calling into question the [nephews'] testimony."
A recent Philadelphia Inquirer editorial criticized the proposed "Streamlined Procedures Act," federal legislation that would deny or sharply restrict the reach of federal judges in hearing habeas-corpus claims from those on death row. Noting that the measure would increase the possibility of executing an innocent person, the editorial stated:
Amid Washington lawmakers' latest drive to further restrict the appeals of (capital) defendants, they need to recognize what could be at risk with their tough-on-crime crackdown - innocent lives.
In both Senate and House versions, the innocently titled Streamlined Procedures Act amounts to an unconscionable assault on federal court oversight of the fairness of criminal trials in the state courts.
The Republican-sponsored measure would deny or sharply restrict the reach of federal judges in hearing habeas-corpus claims from convicts. These claims range from whether adequate legal counsel was provided to indigent (and often minority) defendants, on up to whether an innocent person may have been convicted wrongly.
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) will honor journalists from The Birmingham News and The Chicago Tribune, and directors from Big Mouth Productions during its 9th Annual Thurgood Marshall Journalism Awards at the National Press Club on Monday, July 25. The awards recognize those journalists who have made an exceptional contribution to the understanding of problems associated with capital punishment.
The federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 with a limited statute for murders in the course of a drug conspiracy. It was expanded to 60 offenses in 1994 and included crimes such as carjacking and drive-by shootings if a death results. During the Clinton administration, no one from a non-death penalty state was sentenced to death. Since 2000, there have been at least 5 individuals in non-death states who have received death sentences: 2 in Iowa (Dustin Honken and Angela Johnson), 1 in Massachusetts (Gary Sampson), 1 in Michigan (Marvin Gabrion), and most recently, 1 in Vermont (Donald Fell). A total of 40 people are now under a federal death sentence (in some cases, a judge has not formally imposed the sentence).
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney recently testified that the proposed "foolproof" death penalty statute he hopes will bring capital punishment back to the state does not eliminate the possibility that an innocent person could be executed. Romney acknowledged to members of the joint House and Senate Judiciary Committee that the proposed law cannot protect the state against the potential for human error, stating, "A 100 percent guarantee? I don't think there's such a thing in life. Except perhaps death - for all of us."
Representative Michael A. Costellow, one of the lawmakers who questioned Romney during the hearing, said that the Governor's admission "does knock out the initial premise" that the plan is foolproof, adding, "I think they put the best and the brightest together to try to come up with a foolproof policy, and it isn't foolproof."
More than a decade after juvenile offender Martin Soto Fong and two other men were tried and sentenced to death in Arizona, questions about Fong's guilt linger and are underscored by the fact that he is the only one of the three men to remain convicted of the crime. The prosecutor who won their convictions, Kenneth Peasley, was disbarred last year for intentionally eliciting false testimony to win capital murder convictions in the re-trials of Soto's co-defendants, Christopher McCrimmon and Andre Minnit. McCrimmon was aquitted in a retrial and Minnit was released when the Arizona Supreme Court vacated his conviction.
In ordering Peasley's disbarment, a rarity for someone of his stature, the state Supreme Court stated, "We cannot conceive of a more serious injury, not just to the defendants but to the criminal justice system, than a prosecutor's presentation of false testimony in capital murder cases." Though Fong was removed from death row after the Supreme Court outlawed the execution of juvenile offenders earlier this year, he remains in jail and those familiar with Peasley's misconduct believe Fong may be innocent. "I do not believe McCrimmon and Minnit did this. I have seriously strong doubts about Fong," notes Karen Clark, the State Bar of Arizona attorney who headed the effort to disbar Peasley. Clark states that among the problems with Soto's case are 2 police reports covering the same anonymous tip that name different suspects.
The Reverend Carroll Pickett, former chaplain on death row in Texas:
Ninety-five times, I personally walked a man who was sentenced to die to the death chamber in Texas. From the very first person executed by lethal injection, through 16 years of walking those eight steps from the holding cell in the death house to the impeccably clean gurney in the death chamber, I led a man - some were older, some convicted in their teens, some mentally ill, some very hardened by life and, I fully know, some who were innocent.
A variety of legal experts and national organizations have expressed
strong concerns about a bill introduced in Congress that would greatly
limit federal review of death penalty cases.
The American Bar Association called for rejection of the legislation:
S. 1088 should not be enacted. Its primary effect would be to insure that the federal courts did not hear compelling claims – including claims of actual innocence. Any possible gain in speed would be offset
Following an investigation indicating that Missouri may have executed an innocent man for the 1980 murder of Quintin Moss, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote that the case was filled with problems that are typical of wrongful convictions in capital cases. Herbert stated that St. Louis circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce has taken "the extraordinary step of officially reopening a murder investigation after the defendant was executed," adding that it is difficult to prove that an innocent person has been executed because official investigations cease once the death penalty has been carried out. Herbert wrote:
If Larry Griffin were being tried today for the murder of Quintin Moss, he would almost certainly be acquitted. The evidence is overwhelming that he did not kill Mr. Moss.
But Mr. Griffin is not being tried today. He has already been executed for the murder.