California Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Man Sent to Death Row 25 Years Ago by False Forensic EvidencePosted: March 14, 2018
The California Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of Vicente Figueroa Benavides (pictured), saying that the forensic evidence that sent the former Mexican farmworker to death row 25 years ago was “extensive,” “pervasive,” “impactful,” and “false.” Benavides, now 68, was sentenced to death in 1993 after being found guilty of brutally murdering Consuelo Verdugo, his girlfriend’s 21-month-old toddler, by raping and anally sodomizing her. However, the court said, medical evidence showed that the girl was never raped or sodomized and may not have been murdered at all. Instead, she may have died from complications from having been struck by a car. Benavides—whose lawyers have argued is developmentally disabled and possesses the mental ability of a 7-year-old—told the police and jury during the trial that he lost track of the toddler while he was preparing dinner on November 17, 1991 and he found her outdoors, vomiting. Consuelo’s mother took her to a local medical center that evening, where her condition worsened. After surgery and two hospital transfers, the child died a week later. At trial, forensic pathologist Dr. James Diblin testified that the toddler had died from “blunt force penetrating injury of the anus” and claimed that the major internal injuries she suffered were the result of rape. He further testified that arm injuries, internal trauma, dilated pupils, and compression rib fractures that Consuelo sustained had been “caused by tight squeezing during a sexual assault.” Dr. Jess Diamond, who evaluated the toddler at Kern Medical Center, also initially testified that the baby had been raped. However, medical records obtained by Benavides’s post-conviction lawyers showed that the examining physicians had not seen any signs of bleeding when Consuelo was brought to the hospital, and a nurse who helped treat the toddler said that neither she nor any of her colleagues saw evidence of anal or vaginal trauma when the child arrived. Instead, the court said, the injuries to Consuelo’s genitalia and anus were “attribut[able] to medical intervention,” including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter and the improper use of an adult-sized catheter on the small child. “After reviewing the medical records and photographs that I should have been provided in 1993,” Dr. Diamond withdrew his assessment that Consuelo had been raped. “I am convinced that this case presents a tremendous failing of the criminal justice system," he said. The defense also presented evidence from Dr. Astrid Heger, one of the country’s leading experts on child abuse, who described Dr. Didbin’s assertion that Consuelo’s injuries had been the product of sexual assault as “so unlikely to the point of being absurd. … No such mechanism of injury has ever been reported in any literature of child abuse or child assault.” She said the internal injuries the child sustained were commonly seen in victims of automobile accidents. During oral argument, Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, a former prosecutor, described Dibdin's testimony as being “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases." Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye compared the sexual assault allegations to “a bomb dropped on the jury” that prevented the jurors from considering the evidence that the toddler may have been hit by a car. Prosecutors admitted that the forensic evidence they used to convict Benavides was false, but asked the state court to sustain a conviction for second-degree murder. With its key evidence discredited, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green said it was improbable that prosecutors would attempt to retry Benavides. If the charges are dismissed, Benavides would be the fourth California death-row prisoner to be exonerated since the state brought back the death penalty in 1974.
Carlton Gary, a Georgia death-row prisoner scheduled for execution on March 15, is asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant him clemency on the basis of new and withheld evidence that undercuts the prosecution testimony against him and suggests he did not commit the crimes for which he was sentenced to death. Gary was convicted of raping and killing three women in the 1970s, in what prosecutors have claimed was part of a string of nine burglaries and rapes committed by a single perpetrator. Gary’s lawyers argue that new evidence that was either unavailable or undisclosed at the time of his trial raises enough doubt about his guilt that he should not be executed. In his clemency petition, his lawyers write: “We are not talking about questionable recanting witnesses who came forward long after trial, but hard physical evidence of innocence.” Bodily fluid testing performed on semen from two of the crime scenes likely excludes Gary, but conclusive DNA testing couldn’t be performed because the samples were contaminated while in the possession of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab. In some of the most damning evidence prosecutors presented at trial, the survivor of one of the attacks identified Gary as her assailant. However, DNA testing later performed on evidence from her attack excluded Gary as the perpetrator and police withheld an initial report from that rape victim in which she told officers that she had been asleep and her bedroom had been dark at the time of the attack, and she could not identify or describe her attacker. Shoeprint evidence from the scene was also withheld from Gary’s defense team until 20 years after his trial. The size 10 print found at one of the crime scenes could not have been left by Gary, who wears size 13½ shoes. Prosecutors also claimed that Gary had confessed to participating in the crimes, but not to raping or murdering the victims. However, police neither recorded nor contemporaneously documented his alleged statement, which his lawyers say “fits all the recognized hallmarks of a false confession that never happened.”
“In 2016, at least 60 prisoners were exonerated after having been condemned to death, in countries across the geographical and political spectrum,” according to a new report on wrongful capital convictions by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. The report, Justice Denied: A Global Study of Wrongful Death Row Convictions, analyzes risk factors for executing the innocent that are endemic in death penalty cases irrespective of where they are tried, and makes recommendations for systemic reform. The sixty exonerations in just one year “represent[ ] only a tiny fraction of those who are currently on death row for a crime they did not commit,” the report says. “Few innocent prisoners are able to obtain access to the courts, either because they lack lawyers or because there are no procedural mechanisms available by which they can present new evidence of innocence.” The study illustrates systemic risk factors for wrongful convictions that are present wherever capital punishment is practiced, highlighting cases from Cameroon, Indonesia, Jordan, Malawi, Nigeria, and Pakistan. According to the report, these factors include ineffective assistance of legal counsel, torture and coercion, misconduct by officials, racial and ethnic discrimination, false or misleading forensic evidence, and mistaken eyewitness identification. It recommends, among other reforms, that states provide adequate funding and training for capital defense lawyers, provide meaningful access to appellate review, allow for post-conviction DNA testing, record all police interrogations, and provide compensation to those who are exonerated. The Center chose the six countries whose systems it highlighted “not because their legal systems are uniquely flawed, or because they contribute a greater number of wrongful convictions compared to their peers,” the report says, but “because they represent a diversity of geographic regions and legal systems.” While the risk factors for wrongful capital convictions play out differently from country to country, the experience of each country illustrates the gap between the legal protections afforded on paper to those facing the death penalty and the manner in which those safeguards are implemented in practice. The report concludes: “Every country that retains the death penalty—from the poorest to the most wealthy—runs the risk that innocent persons will be executed. No criminal justice system is perfect, and the risk of error can never be entirely eliminated. The only way to completely exclude the possibility of executing the innocent is to abolish the death penalty altogether.”
Attempts Both to Repeal and to Restore Death-Penalty Statutes Fail in Legislatures Across the CountryPosted: March 9, 2018
In Washington and Utah, bipartisan or Republican-led efforts at death-penalty repeal fell short, a month after death-penalty proponents abandoned efforts to reinstate capital punishment in New Mexico and Iowa. In Washington, a bipartisan push to replace the death penalty with life without possibility of release was introduced at the request of Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson with the support of his Republican predecessor Rob McKenna, Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, a Republican from the state's largest county. With key votes from five Republican senators, SB 6052 passed the state senate on February 15 by a vote of 26-22 and was favorably reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, but the Democratic leadership in the House did not schedule it for a vote before the legislative session ended. Ferguson said he was “deeply disappointed” by the bill’s failure, but said his disappointment was “tempered somewhat by the historic progress the bill made this year” and his belief that the state has moved closer to abolishing capital punishment. The Utah death-penalty repeal effort was led by Republican legislators, and the state’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert had said he would consider signing the bill. In 2016, a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart passed the state senate and a house committee, but was not voted on by the full House before the legislative session ended. This year, Republican Rep. Gage Froerer sponsored HB 379, and won the support of Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes. But on March 2, after the bill had passed the House Judiciary Committee, Froerer pulled it from consideration because he believed the bill would lose a close vote in the House. “I was hopeful that Utah would be one of the first red states to take this, because the trend obviously is to do away with the death penalty,” Froerer said. “I’m convinced whether it’s next year or five or 10 years from now the death penalty will go away.” The failure of the abolition bills came on the heels of death-penalty proponents’ abandonment of efforts to restore capital punishment in New Mexico and Iowa. After passing the New Mexico House last legislative session, a bill to bring back the death penalty was tabled in committee on February 2. It was the fifth failed attempt by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to reinstate the practice, which was abolished under Gov. Bill Richardson in 2009. On February 13, the sponsor of Iowa’s Senate Study Bill 3134—Republican Sen. Brad Zaun, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee—announced that he did not have enough votes to move forward with the bill in 2018 and would be “putting it to rest.” Proponents of Iowa's house bill had previously withdrawn it from consideration when a key Republican supporter changed his mind after researching the bill. Rep. Steven Holt said “conceptually and morally” he believes the death penalty is sometimes appropriate, but “[s]tatistics show, without a doubt, that those of lesser means are more likely to receive the death penalty than are those with greater assets and ability to hire the best attorney.” Holt said, “I support the death penalty in theory," but “practically, I arrived at a different conclusion than I expected. ... I have great issues with its practical and fair application.”
Two former Pennsylvania death-row prisoners, whose death sentences were overturned by federal courts after the United States Supreme Court had ruled against them, have been resentenced to life without parole. On February 28, 2018, Scott Blystone (pictured) was resentenced to life by the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas in southwestern Pennsylvania, 34 years after being sentenced to death and 27 years after the U.S. Supreme Court heard his case. Two days later, on March 2, Joseph Kindler was also resentenced to life after the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office agreed to drop the death penalty in his case. Nearly 35 years had passed since Kindler had been sentenced to death and eight since the Supreme Court had ruled against him. Blystone's case was the first from Pennsylvania to challenge the state's law requiring the jury to sentence a defendant to death if it finds any aggravating circumstance present, but no mitigating circumstances. Blystone had been represented by a part-time public defender who had been practicing law for less than a year and had never tried a homicide case. The lawyer presented no defense at the guilt stage of trial and had no evidence to present in the penalty phase except for testimony from Blystone's parents. When Blystone refused to have his parents take the stand to beg for his life, the lawyer presented no case in mitigation. Even then, the jury asked the court whether it had to impose the death penalty if it found no mitigating evidence. The court answered in the affirmative, and the jury sentenced Blystone to death. In 1990, a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld Pennsylvania's death-penalty statute by a 5-4 vote. The federal district court subsequently overturned Blystone's death sentence because of his lawyer's failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence of Blystone's brain damage, mental health diagnoses, and extreme mental and emotional disturbance at the time of the murder. Kindler also overturned his death sentence in the federal courts, after the Pennsylvania state courts had refused to consider Kindler's constitutional challenges to his conviction and sentence because he had escaped to Canada. The federal courts found multiple constitutional violations in Kindler's case, including that his lawyer had failed to investigate and present available mitigating evidence and that the jury had been given an instruction that unconstitutionally limited its ability to consider the mitigating evidence that had been presented. In a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009 dealing with federal review of state procedural rules, the Court overturned the grant of a new penalty hearing and sent the case back to the federal court of appeals. The appeals court again ruled in Kindler's favor, and this time the Supreme Court let that decision stand.
According to newly disclosed records, the Harris County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Texas death-row exoneree Alfred DeWayne Brown was aware of phone records that corroborated Brown's assertion of innocence long before the case went to trial, but withheld the records from the defense and intimidated a witness who original testimony was supported by the records into falsely testifying against Brown. Brown was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005 for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk during a 2003 robbery. No physical evidence linked him to the murders and he consistently maintained that he had been at his girlfriend's apartment when the murders occurred. Brown won a new trial in 2014 after police investigator Breck McDaniel discovered copies of the phone records in his garage. At the time, prosecutors said that the records had been inadvertently misplaced. However, an email that was released by the Harris County district attorney's office on March 2 in response to a civil suit filed by Brown shows that McDaniel alerted former Harris County prosecutor Dan Rizzo to the existence of the records on April 22, 2003, the day after his girlfriend, Erica Dockery, had told the grand jury that Brown had called her from her apartment. McDaniel told Rizzo in the email that he had obtained Dockery’s phone records “hoping that it would clearly refute Erica’s claim that she received a call at work” from Brown. Instead, McDaniel said, “the call detail records from the apartment shows that the home phone dialed Erica's place of employment” twice on the morning of the killing and that Dockery had called Brown back from work. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning Houston Chronicle investigation revealed in July 2014 that, after her testimony, a police officer who served as the grand jury foreman in the case threatened Dockery with perjury for supporting Brown's alibi. Then—after Rizzo had received the email confirming the truthfulness of Dockery’s testimony—prosecutors jailed Dockery for seven weeks until she changed her testimony to implicate Brown. After Brown was exonerated, he applied for approximately $1.9 million in cash and annuity payments under Texas’ exoneration compensation law. Prosecutors claimed that the court proceedings leading to Brown’s release did not constitute a determination that he was “actually innocent,” and his application was rejected in April 2016. Cate Edwards, Brown’s lawyer in the civil case, called the email revelations “horrifying.” Brian Stolarz, who represented Brown in the appeals leading to his exoneration, called the disclosures “[v]indication.” He said he was “sickened and disheartened” that “[o]nly now, after a civil lawsuit, does the whole truth finally come out.’ But he said he was “encouraged that Dewayne is vindicated and his long journey to justice is near the end.” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who took office in November 2016 on a platform of criminal justice reform, issued a statement saying that “The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct require that ‘the appropriate disciplinary authority’ shall be informed when a lawyer becomes aware that another lawyer has committed a violation of applicable rules of professional conduct that raises a substantial question as to the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in all other respects.” The statement said “the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will notify the State Bar of Texas of the newly discovered evidence so that it may investigate the prosecutor’s professional conduct while handling the Brown case.”
Alva Campbell, Terminally Ill Prisoner Who Survived Botched Execution Attempt, Dies on Ohio Death RowPosted: March 6, 2018
Alva Campbell (pictured), the terminally ill death-row prisoner who survived a botched execution attempt by the state of Ohio on November 15, 2017, has died. Campbell, 69, was afflicted with lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory failure, prostate cancer, and severe pneumonia; he relied on a colostomy bag, needed oxygen treatments four times a day, and required a walker for even limited mobility. He was found unresponsive in his cell at Chillicothe Correctional Institution in Ross County in the predawn hours of March 3 and was pronounced dead at a local hospital at 5:24 a.m. Ohio corrections personnel were aware prior to the failed execution attempt that Campbell was gravely ill and physically debilitated. Campbell’s lawyers unsuccessfully argued in court that Campbell's medical condition had compromised his veins, making IV access problematic and creating the risk that any lethal-injection execution would be unconstitutionally torturous. Lead counsel, assistant federal public defender David Stebbins, warned that the execution could become a “spectacle” if prison staff were unable to find a suitable vein. Calling Campbell “an old and frail man who is no longer a threat to anyone,” Stebbins said that "[k]illing Alva Campbell is simply not necessary.” Ohio's attempt to put Campbell to death was delayed for nearly an hour as executioners assessed his veins. Witnesses then watched for another half hour as prison personnel used an ultraviolet light to probe Campbell's arm for a vein, repeatedly sticking his arms and legs. Columbus Dispatch reporter Marty Schladen, a media witness to the execution attempt, reported that when he was stuck in the leg, “Campbell threw his head back and appeared to cry out in pain.” After failing four times to find a suitable vein in which to set an intravenous execution line, Ohio called off the execution and Governor John Kasich granted Campbell a temporary reprieve and rescheduled his execution for June 2019. The botched execution attempt was the fourth time in twelve years that executioners in Ohio had prolonged difficulty in setting an execution IV, and the second time in which an execution attempt was halted. The failure highlights the growing problem states face in attempting to execute an aging and increasingly infirm death-row population.
On February 22, 2018, Alabama attempted to execute Doyle Hamm, a 60-year-old death-row prisoner with terminal cranial and lymphatic cancer that his lawyer had warned rendered his veins unusable for lethal injection. In a failed execution that media reports described as “horribly botched,” executioners repeatedly punctured Hamm’s legs and groin in unsuccessful attempts, spanning more than two-and-a-half hours, to set an IV line. Four days later, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of Vernon Madison, a 67-year-old Alabama death-row prisoner with vascular dementia caused by strokes that have left him legally blind, incontinent, unable to walk independently, and with no memory of the offense for which he was sentenced to death. Alabama is scheduled to execute 83-year-old Walter Leroy Moody on April 19.
The North Carolina Supreme Court announced on March 2 that it will hear appeals from three of the four prisoners whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act, then reinstated after the legislature repealed the law. Passed in 2009 and repealed in 2013, the landmark legislation allowed death-row prisoners to challenge their sentences on the basis of statistical evidence of racial discrimination. Marcus Robinson (pictured), Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin all received reduced sentences in rulings by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks. The defendants presented evidence of jury strikes or acceptances of more than 7,400 jurors from 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period. The study showed that for the entire period covered, prosecutors across the state consistently struck African-American jurors at approximately double the rate of other jurors, and disproportionately removed African-American jurors irrespective of their employment status, whether or not they expressed reservations on the death penalty, or whether they or a close relative had been accused of a crime. Weeks determined that the study was “valid [and] highly reliable” and showed “with remarkable consistency across time and jurisdictions” that prosecutors had systemically excluded African-Americans from juries in death-penalty cases. In 2015, the state Supreme Court vacated Weeks’ rulings and remanded the case to the Superior Court to permit more evidence to be presented. At that point, prosecutors argued that the prisoners could no longer rely on the Racial Justice Act because it had been repealed, and a new judge, Erwin Spainhour, agreed. The North Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether Spainhour's ruling stands in the cases of Robinson, Augustine, and Walters. It did not yet announce whether it will hear Golphin’s case. Two additional death-row prisoners, Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, will present related issues to the court. Their Racial Justice Act claims were filed, but not heard by a judge, before the law was repealed. James Ferguson, one of the attorneys who worked on the Racial Justice Act cases, said, “All we want is for the courts to look at the facts and make a fair decision. When you really look at the evidence, it’s clear that race is influencing how we use the death penalty in North Carolina. This is a chance for the state’s highest court to declare, definitively, that racial bias in the death penalty is an urgent civil rights issue that cannot be swept under the rug.”
New Polls in Two Florida Counties that Heavily Use the Death Penalty Find Voters Prefer Life Sentences InsteadPosted: March 2, 2018
Recently released poll results from two Florida counties that have heavily used the death penalty suggest that voters actually prefer life-sentencing options instead. Polls conducted by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling on January 22-23, 2018, indicate that three-quarters of Miami-Dade County respondents preferred some form of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty as the punishment for people convicted of murder, and two-thirds of Pinellas County respondents preferred one of the life-sentencing options. The margin was more than 3 to 1 in Miami-Dade (75% to 21%) and more than 2 to 1 in Pinellas (68% to 30%). Of Miami-Dade respondents who chose a life-sentencing option, a plurality (40%) preferred life without parole, plus restitution; 18% preferred life with the possibility of parole after 40 years; and 17% preferred life without possibility of parole. In Pinellas, 48% preferred life without parole plus restitution; 12% preferred life without parole; and 8% chose life with parole eligibility after 40 years. Sixty-eight percent of Miami-Dade respondents said they would support a decision by their local prosecutor to reduce or eliminate the use of the death penalty, compared to 25% who opposed. In Pinellas, 64% said they would support reducing or eliminating the use of the death penalty, as opposed to 32% against. Pinellas/Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe reportedly has filed notice that he will seek the death penalty in 15 pending cases and six re-sentences, with nine death-penalty trials already scheduled for 2018. Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty released the Pinellas County poll on February 27 and the Miami-Dade poll on March 1. The organization's director, Mark Elliott, said “[t]he survey results make clear that the state attorney’s office is ignoring the will of the overwhelming majority of Pinellas County constituents who prefer life sentences for those convicted of murder." Elliott also said that "[e]xpensive death penalty trials do nothing to prevent violent crime, protect law enforcement, or help victims’ families in meaningful ways, and mistakes are also all-too-common.” DPIC reported in 2013 that both Miami-Dade and Pinellas were among the 2% of counties that accounted for more than half of all death-row prisoners and executions in the United States. Both were among the Fair Punishment Project's list of 16 outlier counties that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015—more than 99.5% of all counties in the country.
In what lawyers for Virginia death-row prisoners have called “a landmark ruling,” a federal judge has issued an injunction barring the Commonwealth from subjecting prisoners who have been sentenced to death to automatic solitary confinement, physical isolation from visitors and other prisoners, and other harsh conditions. In a decision issued on February 21, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema wrote that the conditions to which Virginia subjected death-row prisoners before instituting reforms in 2015 violated the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishments. Virginia had refused to commit to keeping the reforms, which it adopted only after the prisoners initiated suit, and the court's order prevents the state from reverting to the prior unconstitutional conditions. Before 2015, death sentenced prisoners spent about 23 hours a day alone in a 71-square-foot prison cell and were separated from visitors—including family members—by a plexiglass wall, although the warden had discretion to permit contact visits with family. For one hour a day, five days a week, prisoners were taken to a small “outdoor cell” with a concrete floor and no exercise equipment. Death-row prisoners were barred from the recreational facilities used by prisoners in the general population and allowed to shower only three times per week. Brinkema decided in favor of the three remaining death-row prisoners who had sued the state in 2014. While the suit was pending, one of the orginal plaintiffs, Ricky Gray, was executed and another, Ivan Teleguz, was granted a commutation. Lawyers for the prisoners said Brinkema's decision was the first time a court had ruled such conditions unconstitutional. In granting the prisoners' petition, the court said that “the rapidly evolving information available about the potential harmful effects of solitary confinement” set this case apart from prior prison-conditions lawsuits, and as a result the prior “decades-old determinations” by the Supreme Court and federal appeals court upholding death-row prison conditions were not binding. “As courts and corrections officers across the country have begun to realize, the years-long isolation that the pre-2015 conditions of confinement forced on plaintiffs created, at the least, a significant risk of substantial psychological and emotional harm,” Brinkema wrote. Kathryn Ali, one of the lawyers for the prisoners, said “[t]he law in this area is very bad but it's also very old. ... Judge Brinkema's ruling is a landmark ruling but i think its also just common sense, that we shouldn't be torturing people by keeping them in isolation.” Victor M. Glasberg, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the five original plaintiffs in 2014, said the court's decision could have implications for prison-conditions lawsuits in other states. “This opinion should serve as a snowball let loose at the top of a snowy mountain, to turn into an avalanche as advocates in other states bring similar suits to end what has become increasingly recognized as untenable conditions in which to hold human beings,” he said. Under the reforms Virginia implemented in 2015, death-row prisoners are permitted to have contact visits with family members one day per week, for up to an hour and a half, as well as non-contact visits on holidays and weekends. They now have access to a covered outdoor yard for up to an hour and a half per day, five days a week. The yard has a basketball court and exercise equipment, which up to four prisoners at a time may share. Virginia now also permits daily one-hour access for up to four prisoners at a time to an indoor recreation space that has games, music, and a television. Death-row prisoners also are now permitted to shower daily.