The nation's death rows are shrinking more rapidly than new defendants are being sentenced to death, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical brief, "Capital Punishment, 2014–2015." The statistical brief, which analyzes information on those under sentence of death in the United States as of December 31, 2014 and December 31, 2015, documents a continuing decline in executions, new death sentences, and death row populations across the U.S. 2015 marked the fifteenth consecutive annual decrease in the number of prisoners under sentence of death in the U.S. According to BJS, 69 prisoners were admitted to state or federal death rows in 2014 and 49 were admitted in 2015. (DPIC uses a slightly different counting method that reported 73 death sentences imposed in 2014.) The data also indicates that the decline in the size of death row is attributable to factors other than execution. According to BJS, 75 prisoners were removed from death row in 2014 by means other than execution, such as exoneration, the reversal of a conviction or death sentence, commutation, or death by other causes, as compared with 35 who were executed. In 2015, 82 prisoners were taken off death row by means other than execution, while 28 death-row prisoners were executed. Over the two-year period covered by the data, 39 more prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution than were admitted as a result of new death sentences. The gap between removals from death row and new admissions is expected to widen even further in 2016 and 2017 as a result of record-low death-sentencing rates and prisoners being removed from death row due to death-penalty statutes having been declared unconstitutional in Florida, Delaware, and Connecticut. BJS reports that 2,881 prisoners remained under sentence of death in 33 states and the federal system at the end of 2015. (Click image to enlarge.)
White Texas Judge Reprimanded for Facebook Comment Suggesting "A Tree And A Rope" For Black Murder SuspectPosted: May 9, 2017
The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct has issued a formal reprimand to a sitting Burnet County judge who posted on Facebook a photo of a black murder suspect accused of killing a police officer with the comment, "Time for a tree and a rope." Judge James Oakley (pictured), who is white, denied that the comment about Otis Tyrone McKane was a race-based reference to lynching. "My comment was intended to reflect my personal feelings that this senseless murder of a police officer should qualify for the death penalty. In my mind, the race/gender of the admitted cop killer was not relevant," he told the commission. That is not how observers of the post saw it: 18 people filed written complaints to the Commission about Oakley's comment. The reprimand said, “Multiple Complainants also questioned Judge Oakley’s suitability for judicial office, and expressed doubts that he could perform his duties impartially." Oakley will be required to attend a 30-hour training for new judges and receive 4 hours of racial sensitivity training with a mentor, but will not be removed from office or excluded from presiding over any class of cases. In its reprimand, the Commission wrote, “During the appearance, Judge Oakley made certain statements that indicated to the Commission that he could benefit from racial sensitivity training with a mentoring judge." The incident was reminiscent of an incident in March in which a white Seminole County, Florida court employee posted a comment on Facebook that black State Attorney Aramis Ayala "should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree," for announcing that she would not seek the death penalty. After an investigation into the circumstances surrounding that posting, the clerk resigned his position.
After Remand from U.S. Supreme Court, Georgia Federal Court Vacates Brain-Damaged Prisoner's Death SentencePosted: May 8, 2017
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia has overturned the death sentence imposed on Lawrence Jefferson, saying that his trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to investigate and present available mitigating evidence in his case, including evidence related to "a head injury he sustained as a child when an automobile rolled over his head." The court also found that the state courts had denied Jefferson a "full and fair" hearing on the issue, in violation of due process, when, without notice to Jefferson's lawyer, it invited the Assistant Attorney General to submit an order dismissing Jefferson's petition for relief, then signed the order submitted verbatim, complete with factual misstatements and erroneous legal citations. The potential brain damage to Jefferson was so obvious that the U.S. Supreme Court noted in a 2010 opinion sending the case back for further consideration that "[t]he accident left [Jefferson's] skull swollen and misshapen and his forehead visibly scarred." Before trial, a psychologist had recommended that defense counsel obtain a neuropsychological evaluation of Jefferson, but no evaluation was performed. An examination conducted during Jefferson's appeals process found significant evidence of brain damage, including an enlarged head indicative of brain swelling from the accident, asymmetrical reflexes, and discrepancies in verbal and visual-spatial test scores. A neuropsychologist concluded that these findings indicated right hemisphere and frontal lobe damage to the brain. A neurologist testified, "the most common thing with a closed head injury, traumatic injury of this sort, is problems with judgments, executive planning, and impulse control, the ability to foresee the consequences of your action in the future, as opposed to right now." Jefferson's jury never heard this mitigating evidence. According to the court, "The mental health evidence would have provided the jury an explanation for Petitioner’s past behavior and his testimony regarding his past behavior." The practice of courts signing opinions and orders written by prosecutors verbatim is not uncommon. In 2016, the Supreme Court denied a petition filed by counsel for Alabama death-row prisoner Doyle Lee Hamm seeking review of his case, in which the state court adopted word-for-word an 89-page order written by the state attorney general's office and the federal court said it was bound by the state court "findings." That order rejected Hamm's claim that his lawyer was ineffective, ruling that evidence the jury had never heard concerning Hamm's childhood diagnosis of borderline mental retardation, school records reflecting Hamm's intellectual deficits, and evidence of seizures, head injuries, and drug and alcohol abuse was "cumulative."
Soon after passing legislation to make death penalty trials fairer by preventing judges from overriding jury recommendations of life sentences, the Alabama legislature is taking steps to enact a bill that critics say would make capital appeals far less fair. The bill, denominated the "Fair Justice Act," would constrict the amount of time death-row prisoners have to file appeals, impose deadlines for judges to rule on appeals, and require prisoners to pursue their direct appeal and post-conviction appeal simultaneously. Critics of SB 187/HB 260, which has passed the Senate and been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, include Harvard Law School Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr., Alabama death-row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton, and Birmingham attorney Lisa Borden, who say the proposal is neither fair nor just. They argue that the bill would reduce the quality of appellate representation, insulate trial errors from appellate review, and increase the risk of executing innocent people. Sullivan called the bill "deceitfully named" and wrote it would "undermine much of the progress" made when Alabama recently became the last state in the U.S. to end judicial override. Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama's death row before being exonerated, said, "If proposed changes to Alabama's postconviction procedures under consideration by the state legislature had been enacted, I would have been executed despite my innocence." Hinton explains that he spent 14 years looking for volunteer lawyers who could help him prove his innocence, saying, "Because the so called "Fair Justice Act" now pending before the state legislature puts time restrictions on how long death row prisoners have to prove their innocence or a wrongful conviction, this legislation increases the risk of executing innocent people and makes our system even less fair." Borden raises concerns that the poor quality of trial-level representation will spill over into the proposed shortened appeals process. "The average trial of a capital case with appointed counsel takes just a few days, given appointed counsel's frequent lack of preparation and failure to challenge the State's case. ...The attorneys and experts who will try to uncover and correct the injustices done to poor defendants must not be forced to rush through the process too." She suggests, "If Alabama wants to save taxpayers millions of dollars, and provide certainty and finality for the peace of mind of the victim's families, it could do so by abolishing the death penalty, or by limiting its use to only the most egregious cases and providing real, effective representation for those charged with capital crimes."
Supreme Court Tells Alabama to Reconsider the Factors It Has Used to Determine Intellectual DisabilityPosted: May 4, 2017
The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated the Alabama state courts' rejection of a prisoner's claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, and directed the state to reconsider his claim in light of the Court's recent decision in Moore v. Texas requiring states to employ scientifically accepted standards in determining whether a death-row prisoner is intellectually disabled. On May 1, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case of Taurus Carroll, and vacated the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in his case after Carroll's lawyer argued that the March 28 decision in Moore established that Alabama had unconstitutionally deviated from accepted methods of determining intellectual disability. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that defendants who are found to have intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—cannot be executed. The ruling left states with discretion in establishing procedures for determining which defendants have intellectual disability. In Moore, however, the Court reiterated that this discretion is not “unfettered” and that a state's intellectually disability determination must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” The Court struck down Texas' use of an unscientific set of lay stereotypes, known as the “Briseño factors," that Texas had used to determine whether Moore had deficits in adaptive functioning characteristic of intellectual disability. The Court said that, "[i]n concluding that Moore did not suffer significant adaptive deficits, the [Texas courts] overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths," but "the medical community focuses the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits." In Carroll's case, the Alabama courts had considered Mr. Carroll’s supposed adaptive strengths—that he had passed a GED exam and successfully held down a job in the prison kitchen—as proof that he was not intellectually disabled. Carroll's attorney argued that, “As in Moore, the consideration below of Mr. Carroll’s adaptive functioning ‘deviate[s] from prevailing clinical standards, by ‘overemphasiz[ing] Mr. [Carroll]’s perceived adaptive strengths.” He also argued that Alabama had unconstitutionally employed a strict IQ cutoff score, while at the same time inflating Carroll's IQ score by refusing to apply scientifically established factors that adjust for limitations in IQ testing. With the Supreme Court's ruling in Carroll's case, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals must now determine how Moore affects Alabama's methods of determining intellectual disability. John Palombi, a lawyer with the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama, said he was "pleased" with the Court's decision. “This will require Alabama courts to follow scientific principles when making the life or death decision of whether someone charged with capital murder is intellectually disabled,” he said.
Former Prosecutor on Trial on Charges that His Misconduct Led to Wrongful Execution of Cameron WillinghamPosted: May 2, 2017
John Jackson, the former Navarro County, Texas prosecutor and judge, is on trial for ethics violations in the 1992 capital trial of Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured), which many believe led to the execution of an innocent man. Willingham was convicted of arson and murder and sentenced to death in connection with the house fire that killed his three young daughters. Texas executed him in 2004. Willingham's conviction and execution rested on two key pieces of testimony: arson testimony—since discredited as junk science—claiming that burn patterns in the house established that an accelerant had been used in starting the fire, and a statement by prison informant Johnny Webb claiming that Willingham had confessed to him while the two men were both in the county jail awaiting trial. In July 2014, The Innocence Project filed a complaint against Jackson with the Texas State Bar stating that the prosecutor had “violated core principles of the legal profession, and did so with terrible consequences ... the execution of an innocent man.” The Project argued that Jackson should face sanctions for falsifying official records, withholding evidence from the defense, suborning perjury and obstructing justice. Based on those allegations, the Texas State Bar brought ethics charges against Jackson, who faces a rare public trial for that misconduct. In that trial, attorneys for the Texas State Bar allege that Jackson coerced Webb to testify, offered Webb a reduced sentence on an aggravated robbery charge, did not disclose the deal to Willingham's defense, and knowingly elicited false testimony from Webb claiming that he had not been offered any benefit for his testimony. Correspondence between Jackson and Webb shows that Jackson petitioned state officials on Webb's behalf and eventually used a legal process intended for correcting clerical errors to reduce Webb's robbery sentence. Webb has described in interviews and depositions how Jackson convinced him to falsely testify against Willingham. Webb recounted one conversation with Jackson in which “He said, well, let’s go over [what] I think needs to happen. He says I’ve got this guy Willingham who did this. We know he did it. We know he’s guilty. We just can’t prove it." Of Webb's robbery charge, Jackson allegedly told Webb, "even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later." The Intercept reports that, since 2013, roughly 10 prosecutors have been sanctioned in cases brought by the Texas State Bar, and only three prosecutors have opted, as Jackson has, to have their cases heard in public by a jury, rather than in private by a panel of lawyers. [UPDATE: On May 11, 2017, a Navarro County jury voted 11-1 that Jackson had not committed misconduct in the Willingham case.]
An independent study of the costs of seeking and imposing the death penalty in Oklahoma, prepared for the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, has concluded that seeking the death penalty in Oklahoma "incurs significantly more time, effort, and costs on average, as compared to when the death penalty is not sought in first degree murder cases." The report—prepared by Seattle University criminal justice professors Peter A. Collins and Matthew J. Hickman and law professor Robert C. Boruchowitz, with research support by Alexa D. O’Brien—found that, on average, Oklahoma capital cases cost 3.2 times more than non-capital cases. Reviewing 15 state studies of death penalty costs conducted between 2000 and 2016, the study found that, across the country, seeking the death penalty imposes an average of approximately $700,000 more in case-level costs than not seeking death. The researchers wrote that "all of these studies have found ... that seeking and imposing the death penalty is more expensive than not seeking it." The Oklahoma study reviewed 184 first-degree murder cases from Oklahoma and Tulsa counties in the years 2004-2010 and analyzed costs incurred at the pre-trial, trial, sentencing, and post-sentencing (appeals and incarceration) stages. Capital prosecutions, it found, cost the counties more than 1½ times the amount of incarceration costs than did non-capital trials because capital defendants spent an average of 324 more days in jail prior to and during death penalty trials. Prosecutors spent triple in pre-trial and trial costs on death penalty proceedings, while defense teams spent nearly 10 times more. Oklahoma capital appeal proceedings cost between five and six times more than non-capital appeals of first-degree murder convictions. Despite Oklahoma's ranking in the bottom 19 states in justice expenditures and what Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater called “horrific issues with underfunding" of Oklahoma's indigent defense system, the study "conservatively estimated" that an Oklahoma capital case cost $110,000 more on average than a non-capital case. The researchers said their results were "consistent with all previous research on death penalty costs, which have found that in comparing similar cases, seeking and imposing the death penalty is more expensive than not seeking it." They concluded, "It is a simple fact that seeking the death penalty is more expensive. There is not one credible study, to our knowledge, that presents evidence to the contrary."
Walter Ogrod was convicted and sentenced to death in Philadelphia in 1996 for the 1988 murder of a 4-year-old girl, whose body was found in a discarded television box. Ogrod, who is developmentally disabled, has long maintained his innocence, but despite significant irregularities in the case and amidst allegations of official misconduct, local prosecutors have fought efforts to obtain DNA testing of the physical evidence and to investigate the role a discredited prison informant played in implicating Ogrod. A new book, "The Trials of Walter Ogrod," by Tom Lowenstein chronicles the crime, the trial, and the failures of the criminal justice system in Ogrod's case. The book tells how a Philadelphia homicide detective interrogated the intellectually limited Ogrod for more than 14 hours before Ogrod signed a 16-page confession that was written by the detective and that was filled with emotionally-laden language Ogrod—with an autism spectrum disorder—would not have used. Ogrod's court proceedings have been controversial from the outset. The jury in Ogrod's 1993 trial voted to acquit, but as the verdict was being read, one juror called out that he had changed his mind, causing a mistrial. Before the second trial, Ogrod was placed with a prison cellmate named John Hall, a snitch so notorious for producing confessions that he was nicknamed "The Monsignor." Hall claimed that Ogrod had confessed to him, giving a story that was completely different from the written confession extracted by detectives and used in the first trial. Hall also introduced Ogrod to a second informant, who received leniency in his own case after claiming Ogrod had made a confession similar to the story Hall had reported. Ogrod did not match witness descriptions of the likely perpetrator and no physical evidence linked him to the crime, but a jury convicted him in a retrial in 1996 based upon the informant testimony. A year later, Hall was discredited after being caught fabricating a confession in another high profile Philadelphia murder case. Ogrod's lawyers have sought DNA testing of fingernail scrapings taken from the victim, but prosecutors and courts have blocked their efforts. Philadelphia is in the midst of a campaign for District Attorney, and Lowenstein believes the next person elected to that office should take another look at Ogrod's case and several others like it, in which prosecutors used jailhouse snitches and high-pressure interrogations to obtain convictions. "What I would like to see is the next DA in Philadelphia do a thorough review of death-penalty and life-imprisonment cases from the 1990s," he said. "There was a systemic problem with how that DA’s office was prosecuting people."
Lawyers Call for Investigation of "Horrifying" Arkansas Execution After Witnesses Report "Coughing, Convulsing"Posted: April 28, 2017
Calling eyewitness accounts "horrifying," attorneys for Arkansas prisoner Kenneth Williams (pictured) are seeking the preservation of evidence and "a full investigation" into what they described as Williams' "problematic execution." Williams' attorney, Shawn Nolan, said the lawyers had "tried over and over again to get the state to comport with their own protocol to avoid torturing our client to death, and yet reports from the execution witnesses indicate that Mr. Williams suffered during this execution." Media witnesses reported that they observed Williams "coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking, with sound that was audible even with the microphone turned off" during his execution. According to Associated Press reporter Kelly Kissel, "Williams' body jerked 15 times in quick succession — lurching violently against the leather restraint across his chest." Kissel, who has witnessed ten executions, said, "This is the most I've seen an inmate move three or four minutes in." Nolan called the situation "very disturbing, but not at all surprising, given the history of the risky sedative midazolam, which has been used in many botched executions." A spokesperson for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson dismissed the witness accounts, calling the execution "flawless" and Williams' movement an "involuntary muscular reaction." Nolan characterized the spokesperson's statement as "simply trying to whitewash the reality of what happened." Williams was the fourth person executed in Arkansas in eight days. The state had originally planned to execute eight inmates in eleven days, but courts stayed four of the executions for reasons specific to those prisoners. Experts, including former correctional officials, had warned that the rushed execution schedule increased the risk of problematic executions, and attorneys for the prisoners challenged the use of midazolam as the first drug in the three-drug execution protocol, arguing it would not adequately anesthetize the prisoner. Three days before Kenneth Williams' execution, problems were reported in Arkansas' execution of Jack Jones, but a federal judge allowed the state to proceed with the execution of Marcel Williams on the same night.
The conditions in which prisoners on Texas' death row are confined are "harsh and inhumane," violate international human rights norms, and amount to "a severe and relentless act of torture," according to a new study by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. The study, "Designed to Break You," collected accounts from former death-row prisoners who had been exonerated or who had received lesser sentences after their death sentences had been overturned. Their stories revealed numerous problems with death-row conditions, including, "mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient religious services." Every prisoner on death row spends about 23 hours a day in an 8-by-12 foot cell for the duration of their time on death row. "This prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health," the study reports, "exacerbating existing mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time." Ariel Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic, said, "Any person who is kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 days starts to suffer mental and psychological effects that cannot be reversed, and that fits the definition of torture." The report concludes that Texas death-row "conditions fall woefully behind international standards for confinement" and offers 13 recommendations to bring conditions in line with international norms. The recommendations include using solitary confinement only as a punitive measure of last resort and banning it altogether for prisoners with mental illness or intellectual disability. The report also recommends that death-row prisoners be permitted contact visits with their lawyers, family, and friends and that they "have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities."