Justice Sotomayor Criticizes Supreme Court For Failing to Intervene in Texas Death-Row Prisoner’s CasePosted: June 4, 2018
Over a strong dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor (pictured), the United States Supreme Court on June 4 declined to review the case of Texas condemned prisoner Carlos Trevino, who had argued that his lawyer was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence of Trevino’s brain damage and developmental delays from his extensive prenatal exposure to alcohol. Having failed to investigate, Trevino's lawyer presented only a single witness whom he met for the first time the day of the sentencing hearing. That witness, the defendant’s aunt, provided cursory testimony that Trevino was a high school drop out with an alcoholic mother who was on welfare. The Court’s denial of review let stand a split 2-1 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which found counsel’s failure to present the fetal-alcohol-related evidence had not been not prejudicial because the “double-edged” character of the evidence could have led the jury to believe that Trevino would pose a continuing threat to society. Penning her sixth dissent this term in a death-penalty case the Court had declined to review, Justice Sotomayor—joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—called the circuit court's decision “flagrant error.” The Court, she wrote, has “long recognized that a court cannot simply conclude that new evidence in aggravation cancels out new evidence in mitigation.” In May 2013, the Supreme Court had reversed a prior ruling of the Fifth Circuit that had refused to review Trevino’s ineffectiveness claim, and remanded his case to the lower federal court to review the issue. After being presented new mitigating evidence that Trevino had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder caused by his mother drinking 18 to 24 cans of beer daily while pregnant, that he weighed 4 pounds at birth, and that his developmental delays (including wearing diapers until he was 8 years old) and cognitive impairments left him functioning at the level of a person with intellectual disability, the circuit court rejected Trevino’s claim. That court dismissed the mitigating value of the evidence, writing that Trevino’s impairments had contributed to his violent history. Justice Sotomayor wrote that, while Trevino had a past history of violence, the prosecution had already presented that evidence at trial, and the new evidence relating to Trevino’s fetal alcohol spectrum disorder—which the sentencing jury had never heard—was important in contextualizing that behavior. A failure to intervene in this case, Sotomayor said, leaves Trevino “subject to a death sentence having received inadequate consideration of his claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and with no jury having fairly appraised the substantial new mitigating evidence that a competent counsel would have discovered.’ The Court's refusal to intervene is even more “indefensible” in this case, she wrote, because it “sanctions the taking of a life by the state.”
The Movement for Black Lives has called for abolishing the death penalty in the United States, asserting that capital punishment is a racist legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow that “devalues Black lives." A Spring 2018 article in the University of Chicago's philosophy journal Ethics, co-authored by Michael Cholbi, Professor of Philosophy at California State Polytechnic University and Alex Madva, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona, examines the philosophical underpinnings of those assertions and concludes that they are correct. In Black Lives Matter and the Call for Death Penalty Abolition, the authors examine "the two central contentions in the movement’s abolitionist stance"—that the death penalty as practiced in the United States wrongs Black communities as a whole, rather than just the individual Black defendants charged with capital murder or the particular Black victims whose murders were not capitally prosecuted; and that abolition of the death penalty in its entirety, rather than attempts at piecemeal reform, is "the most defensible remedy for this wrong." Cholbi and Madva review numerous 21st-century death-penalty studies and find that the data show two major classes of racial distinctions in American death-penalty practices: a White-victim preference in both prosecutorial choices to seek and jury verdicts to impose the death penalty and a sentencing bias against non-White defendants once a case has been designated as capital. Cholbi and Madva conclude that Black Americans are subject to a citizenship class that renders them vulnerable to both retributive and distributive injustice: retributive in the sense that individual Black capital defendants are empirically more likely to be subject to execution than defendants of other races and distributive in that that those who murder Black people are empirically less likely to be subject to execution than those who murder non-Black people. As a result of, in part, implicit racial biases that manifest at every level of the capital punishment system, Black capital defendants face the retributive injustice of being more likely to be sentenced to death than any other group. “Preexisting biases regarding blacks' proclivity toward and insusceptibility to violence that may otherwise remain dormant are galvanized when individuals are afforded the opportunity to render judgments regarding who ought to be executed for their crimes,” Cholbi and Madva write. In one shocking study cited by the pair, White respondents became more supportive of capital punishment when informed about the issue of racial bias in capital sentencing. Another study showed White members of a mock jury more likely to convict Black people and less likely to convict White people when informed that the maximum sentence possible was death as opposed to a life sentence. “Such results suggest that capital punishment is not just another arena infected with bias but instead represents a distinctive channel for racial discrimination” where anti-Black biases are "activate[d] and amplif[ied]." To not address the distinct and permeative nature of this discrimination, Cholbi and Madva write, “amounts to a form of societal or institutional recklessness.” Research supports the Movement for Black Lives' assertion that all Black people, not just individual Black capital defendants, are unjustly impacted by capital punishment’s systemic racial bias. Because the murder of a Black person is less statistically likely to result in a death sentence, Cholbi and Madva argue, “the law fails to penalize killings of blacks in a manner consistent with their having the equal protection of the law.” Given that the law “routinely punishes those who kill blacks less harshly than those who kill others, killing blacks becomes commensurably less risky (especially if the killer is white)." This distributive injustice “is one that all blacks face, not only those who actually are murdered.” The authors analyze attempted state-level death-penalty reforms and conclude that they “have had modest success at best” at eliminating racial bias, and therefore "abolishing the death penalty may itself be one among many necessary reforms for reducing broader racial disparities in criminal imprisonment." The task of ensuring that the lives of Black people are comparably protected and their killers are equally punished in the U.S. criminal justice system is impossible, they argue, without dismantling the capital punishment system for good.
A federal district court has ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to release its lethal-injection protocol and unseal transcripts and pleadings related to the failed execution of Doyle Hamm. In a May 30, 2018, order, Judge Karon Owen Bowdre, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama said "how Alabama carries out its executions" is "a matter of great public concern," and ruled that the public's "common law right of access to the sealed records relating to Alabama’s lethal injection protocol" outweighed arguments to keep the records secret. Doyle Hamm was scheduled to be executed in Alabama on February 22. Despite Hamm’s repeated warnings that his terminal illness would make it impossible to establish IV lines, and after an initial stay of execution issued by Judge Bowdre was overturned by the appellate courts, Alabama unsuccessfully tried for more than two hours to set an IV before calling off the execution. Hamm had filed suit against the state seeking to bar Alabama from making a second attempt to execute him. The parties reached a confidential settlement in which Alabama agreed it would not execute Hamm, leaving questions about Alabama's protocol and execution process unanswered. Three media outlets—the Associated Press, The Montgomery Advertiser, and the Alabama Media Group—intervened, seeking public release of the protocol and judicial records. Alabama argued that providing the records to the media would be improper because "the media attempts to gin up public scandal" about the death penalty. The court rejected that accusation as unsupported by any facts, emphasizing that "Public discussion is not the same as public scandal. The public," she wrote, "needs to know how the State administers its laws; without such knowledge, the public cannot form an educated opinion on this very important topic." The court's order allows the state to redact from the records information that could reveal the identities of the individuals who participated in the execution. State officials have not indicated whether they will appeal.
Facing an August 2018 expiration date for two of the drugs in Nebraska's experimental execution protocol, state Attorney General Douglas Peterson (pictured) has asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to expedite consideration of the prosecutor's request to set a July execution date for condemned prisoner Carey Dean Moore. The attorney general has petitioned the court to schedule Moore's execution for July 10 "or alternatively for a date in mid-July," despite the pendency of several lawsuits, which will not be resolved before August, that challenge various aspects of the state's authority and ability to carry out executions. Nebraska intends to use a four-drug execution protocol featuring three drugs—the opiod pain medication fentanyl, the sedative valium, and the paralytic drug cisatracurium—that have never before been used in an execution, followed by the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride. Potassium chloride has been described as feeling like liquid fire if administered to a person who has not been adequately anesthetized. Several challenges to the state's administration of the death penalty that have been filed by the ACLU of Nebraska are currently before the courts. These include a case on appeal before the Nebraska Supreme Court arguing that Governor Pete Ricketts and other state officials "improperly seized and exercised legislative power" when they allegedly "proposed, initiated, funded, organized, operated, and controlled the referendum campaign against" the death-penalty repeal law enacted by the state legislature over the governor's veto in 2015; and a second lawsuit challenging the state's lack of transparency surrounding execution drugs and team members, which is currently awaiting a trial-court ruling. The state Department of Corrections recently released some documents regarding execution team training in response to a public records request by the ACLU, but refused to provide documents indicating whether and to what extent execution team members had specialized experience or training in intravenous-access procedures or any documents relating to correspondence with doctors or experts regarding lethal injection. ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller said that the documents released by the state provide "no adequate assurance that we would be looking at a smooth, well-conducted execution," and remarked that "[t]he veil of secrecy that has dropped on all matters relating to the death penalty is very concerning." Nebraska has never carried out an execution using lethal injection. Moore, who was sentenced to death in 1980, is Nebraska's longest incarcerated death-row prisoner. At trial, he waived his right to a jury and presented no evidence in his defense. He recently fired his current appointed counsel and has asked to be executed. In a statement released in April, ACLU of Nebraska's Executive Director Danielle Conrad said, "it is precisely because [Moore] is not fighting that our institutions bear extra responsibility to check themselves by ensuring that the laws are followed and that an unlawful and potentially cruel and unusual execution does not take place."
In his May 20 column in the Sunday New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Nicholas Kristof (pictured, left) focused national attention on the troubling case of California death-row prisoner, Kevin Cooper (pictured, right) and the disturbing evidence suggesting that San Bernardino police planted blood and other evidence to frame him for murder. Kristof joined DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham for a Discussions with DPIC podcast to talk about his recent column, Was Kevin Cooper Framed for Murder?, and how police came to focus on a 155-pound Black man as the sole suspect in a grizzly quadruple murder, despite physical and eyewitness evidence pointing to three white men, including one already convicted murderer, as the perpetrators. Kristof explained how an opinion by a federal judge led him to write about the case: "What really struck me about [Cooper's case] was that you had a number of federal judges who not only argued that there was doubt about his innocence, but simply argued that, look, he is innocent, he is framed by the sheriff's office. And one very well respected Ninth Circuit judge, William Fletcher, came out and said he is framed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office, and wrote a hundred-page judicial opinion about that, and that just doesn't happen in the law." He says that his piece on Cooper, the longest column in New York Times history, was also inspired by his own failure, and that of the news media at large, to adequately cover the possible innocence of Texas prisoner Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004. Willingham's case garnered a great deal of media attention only after he was executed. "I think Kevin Cooper is innocent," Kristof said, and "I want to write while there's still time to affect the outcome." As he does in his column, Kristof describes the rampant irregularities in Cooper's case that led him to conclude that Cooper had been framed, but he also talks in the podcast about the broader systemic problems that lead to wrongful convictions, especially in cases involving defendants of color. Kristof pointed to the lack of accountability for official misconduct as one of most important systemic issues. "There have to be consequences for police or prosecutors when they engage in this kind of misconduct," he said. "Too often, there are no consequences. We understand that there have to be consequences for bank robbery or murder, but there also have to be consequences for police officers who perjure themselves or sheriff's deputies who plant evidence." Finally, he explains how Cooper's case is emblematic of other problems: "The reason I wrote about the Cooper case is not just because of the injustice, I believe, to one man, but more broadly, because it's a window into the way the criminal justice system is periodically just plain broken, especially with regard to defendants of color or indigent defendants in really sensational cases. Sometimes the system works and sometimes it doesn't, but it shouldn't be a game of lottery when people are arrested and charged with capital offenses."
Courts in Idaho and Indiana are grappling with how to respond to legal challenges to lethal-injection secrecy laws after corrections officials in both states refused to release execution information requested under state public records laws. In both states, officials refused to provide details about execution drugs and their sources, saying that state law insulates the information from public disclosure. In Idaho, Judge Lynn Norton ordered the Department of Corrections to release information about the two most recent executions in response to a public records request filed last year by University of Idaho law professor Aliza Cover seeking information on the state's execution drug purchases, expiration dates and other related information for a project researching the effects of lethal-injection secrecy. Judge Norton ruled that state officials could redact the identities of individuals involved in the executions, including correctional staff members, doctors, and witnesses. Jeff Zmuda, Deputy Director of the Department of Corrections, had argued against public disclosure, saying it endangered public safety and repeating an unsubstantiated claim made by other states that releasing the source of execution drugs would subject the provider to harassment. Judge Norton rejected the state's arguments, finding that revealing the information would not threaten public safety even if execution drugs became unavailable as a result. She said: "If all lethal injection chemicals are unavailable when an execution is scheduled, then such unavailability would not cause an inmate's release from prison. Most states wait for different chemicals to become available while some have adopted alternative forms of execution such as firing squad or electric chair. The court is not aware of any who just release death row inmates into the community." A hearing was held on May 15 in a similar case in Indiana, in which attorney A. Katherine Toomey requested lethal-injection records from the Department of Corrections in 2014. Toomey won a summary judgment in 2016, but the state legislature responded by passing a retroactive secrecy law in 2017, inserting it into a 175-page budget bill after midnight on the final day of the legislative session. The state attorney general's office has claimed that revealing the identities of "individuals who are involved in crafting public policy as it relates to the death penalty ... could subject them to harassment, public shaming and even violence from those who oppose the death penalty." However, Peter Racher, who is representing Toomey in the dispute, said DOC officials indicated during depositions that no one had received threats regarding implementation of the death penalty. Racher called the state's efforts to block the disclosure of execution documents, "insult upon insult to anyone who cares about transparency in government and openness in representative government." If the documents are released, he said, "the Indiana public will know more about one of the most consequential areas of decision making that the state of Indiana engages in.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a federal appeals court decision vacating the conviction of Patrick Dwayne Murphy (pictured), a Native-American prisoner sentenced to death in Oklahoma state court for a murder he argues could only be prosecuted by the federal government. On May 21, 2018, the Court granted Oklahoma’s petition to review an August 2017 decision by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruling that Murphy—a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation—should not have been tried in state courts because the killing occurred within the borders of the Creek Reservation, which the court found to be “Indian country.” Under the federal Major Crimes Act, certain enumerated crimes, including murder, are subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction if committed in Indian country by or against an Indian. A unanimous three-judge panel of the appeals court sided with Murphy and Native American friend-of-the-court advocates who argued that the boundaries of the Creek Reservation—which spans eleven counties across Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa—were established in an 1866 treaty between the U.S. and the Creek Nation and that Congress has never disestablished them. In their petition to the Court, state prosecutors challenged the circuit court's ruling that found that the 1866 treaty between the U.S. and the Creek Nation remains intact, claiming that the decision “threatens to resurrect Oklahoma’s pre-statehood status.” Murphy’s brief opposing the State’s petition argues that, while the State of Oklahoma has long “asserted absolute criminal and civil jurisdiction” over these lands, it has done so “in defiance of Congress’s statutes, in furtherance of one of this country’s most shameful episodes of plunder and exploitation.” The land in question in the case has long been claimed by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Kevin Dellinger, attorney general for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said that they “welcome the chance for the United States Supreme Court to affirm the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s sovereign territorial boundaries as established in our 1866 treaty with the United States.” The Tenth Circuit “found clear confirmation that Congress deliberately preserved the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation,” he said. “Unable to dispute the clear historical record and the law, the state of Oklahoma has asked the Supreme Court to read into facts that simply do not exist and/or to change the well established applicable law.” The Supreme Court will hear argument in the case in the Fall. Justice Gorsuch, who previously served as a judge on the Tenth Circuit, took no part in the decision to review the case.
STUDY: Pervasive Rubberstamping by State Courts Undermines Legitimacy of Harris County, Texas Death SentencesPosted: May 23, 2018
State-court factfinding by judges in Harris County, Texas death-penalty cases is "a sham" that "rubberstamps" the views of county prosecutors, according to a study of the county's capital post-conviction proceedings published in the May 2018 issue of the Houston Law Review. In The Problem of Rubber Stamping in State Capital Habeas Proceedings: A Harris County Case Study, researchers from the University of Texas School of Law Capital Punishment Center examined factfinding orders in 191 Harris County capital post-conviction proceedings in which factual issues were contested, and found that in 96% of the cases, Harris County judges adopted the county prosecutors' proposed findings of fact verbatim. In the vast majority of cases, judges signed the state’s proposed document without even changing the heading. Looking at the 21,275 individual factual findings that county prosecutors had proposed, the researchers discovered that 96% of the judicial findings were word-for-word what prosecutors had written. The study's authors—Capital Punishment Center Director and Judge Robert M. Parker Chair in Law Jordan M. Steiker, Center Co-Director and Clinical Professor James W. Marcus, and Clinical Fellow Thea J. Posel—identified two related state post-conviction practices that they say "undermine the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty" in the nation's most prolific county for executions: "the reluctance of state trial courts to conduct evidentiary hearings to resolve contested factual issues, and the wholesale adoption of proposed state fact-finding instead of independent state court decision-making." State post-conviction applications typically present affidavits from witnesses and experts containing evidence that could have been, but was not, presented at trial. This evidence may "relate[ ] to the accuracy of the conviction, including forensic, alibi, or eyewitness testimony; or the affidavits might highlight important [penalty-phase] mitigating evidence regarding the inmate’s psychiatric or psychological impairments, abused background, or redeeming qualities." The systemic rubberstamping rejects this evidence, often without any evidentiary hearing into contested factual issues. The "inadequate development of facts" caused by this "one-sided consideration of contested factual issues," the researchers say, "prevents Harris County post-conviction courts from enforcing federal constitutional norms." The sham state-court proceedings also lead to unreliable federal habeas corpus review of Harris County death sentences, the researchers said, "[b]ecause even rubberstamped findings receive deference in federal court." When federal habeas relief is denied and an execution occurs, "prosecutors and newspapers recount the many layers of review undertaken" in the case, notwithstanding the underlying reality that "those layers of review afforded no meaningful consideration of the inmate’s constitutional claims." The reality of rubberstamped state-court factfinding and illusory federal appellate review, they say, "undermines the legitimacy of Harris County executions."
Former Louisiana Death-Row Prisoner Released on Plea Agreement, Amid Evidence of Innocence, MisconductPosted: May 22, 2018
More than twenty years after being convicted and sentenced to death for a murder he has long said he did not commit, Corey Williams (pictured, center, with his defense team) walked free from prison in Louisiana on May 22, 2018. The deal was bittersweet for Williams, for despite the evidence of innocence, he had to agree to plead guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter and obstruction of justice to obtain his freedom. In a statement released to the media, Amir Ali (pictured, left), Williams' lead counsel in his U.S. Supreme Court proceedings, said: “Imagine your child leaving to hang out with friends, and then losing him or her for twenty years. No one can give Corey back the time that he wrongfully spent behind bars, away from his family and friends. Today, we ensure this tragedy ends here—Corey can finally go home." Williams, who is intellectually disabled, was just sixteen years old when he was arrested for the murder of a pizza deliveryman in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Police interrogated him overnight, eventually leading him to confess, despite knowing that he was intellectually disabled and therefore more susceptible to confessing falsely. Williams' attorneys said, "His confession was brief, devoid of corroborating details. Having just assumed responsibility for a homicide, Corey told the officers, 'I'm tired. I'm ready to go home and lay down.'" Witnesses reported seeing several older men rob the victim. Fingerprints from one of those men were found on the murder weapon, and the victim's blood was found on the clothing of another man. A third possible suspect, Chris Moore, nicknamed “Rapist,” was the only witness who testified against Williams. Prosecutors withheld recordings of witness interviews that supported Williams' innocence claims. Those recordings showed that police suspected Moore and the two other men were trying to frame Williams. Williams was sentenced to death, but his death sentence was vacated six years later after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the use of the death penalty against people with intellectual disability to be unconstitutional. Hugo Holland, who along with Dale Cox, is responsible for 75% of death sentences imposed in Louisiana from 2010-2015, prosecuted Williams' case. He was later investigated for withholding evidence in a separate case, and had to resign his post due to other misconduct. At the time the plea deal was made, Williams had an appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking review of his case based upon the prosecution's improper withholding of exculpatory evidence. Forty-four former state and federal prosecutors and Department of Justice officials—including former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey—filed a brief in support of Williams' claim, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to grant him a new trial. The plea deal ends the litigation of that case. Ali said, “The District Attorney’s decision not to defend the tragic decisions of his predecessors is commendable. Corey’s release is vindication that he was wrongfully targeted years ago by prosecutors who had no regard for truth or justice.”
In March 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had employed an unscientific and unconstitutionally harsh standard in rejecting Bobby James Moore’s claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability. Despite a subsequent concession by Harris County prosecutors in November 2017 that Moore (pictured) qualifies as intellectually disabled under all accepted medical definitions, the state court has still not ruled on Moore’s case, leaving him in 23-hour solitary confinement on the state’s death row. Now, two state legislators are asking why. In a May 18 commentary in the Texas Tribune publication “TribTalk,” State Representatives Senfronia Thompson and Joe Moody write that it is “unconscionable” that “Bobby Moore remains marooned on death row, waiting for the [Court of Criminal Appeals] to act.” The court, they write, “should immediately change Bobby Moore’s death sentence to life in prison so that he may be moved off of death row, as law and justice require.” Moore was convicted and sentenced to death for his involvement in the armed robbery of a Houston supermarket in 1980 in which a store employee was shot to death. In 2014, a Texas trial court determined that Moore qualified as intellectually disabled under the clinical standards accepted in the medical community and, based on the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, was not subject to the death penalty. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned that ruling, saying that to be considered intellectually disabled in Texas, a death-row prisoner also must satisfy a stringent set of lay stereotypes known as the “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them). Calling those factors an unscientific “invention” by the Texas court that was “untied to any acknowledged source” and that lacked support from “any authority, medical or judicial,” the Supreme Court reversed and returned the case to the Texas courts for a resolution that was “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” Under that framework, prosecutors told the Texas court that Moore “is intellectually disabled, cannot be executed, and is entitled to Atkins relief.” Representatives Thompson and Moody write that Moore’s current state of limbo is “unjust and unacceptable.” They say, “The time has come for the CCA to do justice in Bobby Moore’s case. More than a year since the Supreme Court’s decision in his favor, it is long past time for him to be moved off of death row and out of solitary confinement.” To the extent that the criminal appeals court “needs more time to fashion a new standard for evaluating intellectual disability claims” for all death-penalty cases in Texas, the legislators say “it should at least issue an interim order striking down Moore’s death penalty immediately[,] allowing him to be moved off of death row and out of solitary confinement. Such an order,” they say “would give effect to the Supreme Court’s decision, remove the specter of an unconstitutional death sentence and allow Moore to return to the general prison population.”