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To End Years-Long Delays, Prosecutors in Three States Drop Death Penalty

Posted: March 12, 2019

Prosecutors in separate capital cases in Indiana, Florida, and Texas have dropped pursuit of the death penalty in order to end notoriously lengthy delays and facilitate healing for the victims’ families. On March 8, 2019, St. Joseph County, Indiana prosecutors agreed to a plea deal instead of a third death-penalty trial for Wayne Kubsch (pictured) at the request of the victims’ family. Kubsch was initially sentenced to death in 2000 and received the death penalty a second time in 2005, but both times his triple-murder convictions was overturned. In announcing the plea agreement, St. Joseph County Prosecutor Kenneth Cotter said “[t[he family actually asked us to take the death penalty off. They wanted to remember their loved ones, not remember him every time he came back with another appeal.” Kubsch pled guilty and was sentenced to life without parole, agreeing to waive his right to appeal his sentence. “I'm 75 years old. I'll soon be 76. And we decided that the best thing would be life in prison, because that way we don't have all the appeals. We don't have all this to go through and the kids don't have to deal with this constantly,” said Diane Mauk, the mother of victim Beth Kubsch. Chief Deputy Prosecutor Eric Tamashasky said, "For the family, this gives them the closure that they’ve so desperately needed for 20 years.”

Prosecutors also decided to drop the death penalty to end lengthy pre-trial delays in cases in Florida and Texas. After eight years of proceedings in what news reports described as Hillsborough County’s “longest-running murder case that has yet to see trial,” Florida state attorneys announced on February 4 that they would no longer seek the death penalty against Michael Keetly. Keetly had been in pretrial detention for nearly 3,000 days. Keetly’s attorney, Lyann Goudie, said she had recently presented mitigating evidence to the prosecutors in an effort to persuade prosecutors that they were unlikely to obtain a unanimous vote for death, and had challenged the ballistic evidence and eyewitness identification the prosecution intended to present at trial. Following the prosecution’s decision, the case is now scheduled to go to trial in June.  Todric Deon McDonald was charged with two counts of capital murder in McLennan County, Texas, more than four years ago. In 2018, with the case facing additional delays to permit the defense to prepare for a potential penalty phase, the victims’ families told prosecutors they supported withdrawing the death penalty if it meant the case would proceed to trial as scheduled. The prosecutors dropped the death penalty in August 2018 and jury selection began on February 11, 2019, after McDonald had spent 1,733 days in jail. McDonald was convicted three days later and sentenced to life without parole.

A death-penalty trial requires extensive pretrial preparation, because defense attorneys have to conduct an in-depth investigation into their client’s life history and mental health to present mitigating evidence in the event their client is convicted. The longer pretrial period is one of many reasons why death-penalty trials are significantly more expensive than trials in which a death sentence is not an option. There is also a lengthy appeals process if a defendant is sentenced to death, and at that point, the most likely outcome is that the conviction or death sentence will be reversed.

 

Two Legislatures, Two Divergent Approaches to Execution Transparency

Posted: March 11, 2019

After controversial executions raised questions of government competence or misconduct, legislatures in two states have responded with bills taking sharply different approaches to the questions of government accountability and public oversight. Following an execution in which Nebraska Department of Corrections officials closed the curtain on fourteen crucial minutes of the execution of Carey Dean Moore, the Nebraska Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on March 7, 2019 on a bill that would mandate that two legislators witness an execution and require that eyewitnesses be permitted to observe the entirety of an execution from the moment the condemned prisoner enters the execution chamber to the time death is declared or the execution is called off. By contrast, an Arkansas state senator has responded to a lawsuit by pharmaceutical companies challenging widespread improprieties in the state’s procurement of execution drugs with a proposal that the state adopt the most extreme and punitive drug-secrecy law in the country.

In her statement to the Judiciary Committee, Nebraska State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln (pictured, left), who sponsored Legislative Bill 238, said legislation was necessary to redress the “profound” lack of transparency in the state’s execution process. “This bill is not about whether the death penalty is right or wrong,” she said, “it’s about whether we have proper government accountability and transparency in carrying out this grave and somber event.” Corrections Director Scott Frakes, whom committee members criticized for failing to appear personally to respond to questions about the Moore execution, sent a letter to the committee opposing the bill. Omitting reference to the periods of the execution in which the execution-IV line was inserted and the curtain was dropped, Frakes claimed that “[w]itnesses observe the entire execution process." Referring legislators to the Death Penalty Information Center’s November 2018 report on execution secrecy in the United States, DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham told the committee of numerous incidents in which eyewitness observations could have resolved serious questions about problematic executions. Dunham told the committee that in a government by and for the people, the state “shouldn't hide important information from the people.”

In Arkansas, a bill introduced in the state senate sought to further conceal the state’s controversial execution practices. On March 6, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill sponsored by State Sen. Bart Hester (pictured, right), that would broadly exclude from public disclosure any documents, records, or information that could lead to the discovery of the state’s sources of execution drug or the identification of drug manufacturers or distributors. The bill also would make reckless disclosure of such information a felony. Arkansas’s conduct in procuring execution drugs, which led drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical to sue the state alleging that Arkansas had deliberately misled the company to believe that the drug purchase was for legitimate medical purposes, raised questions concerning the need for transparency in the execution process. Those questions were heightened following evidence of additional problems during executions with those drugs. After Arkansas state courts ruled that the state’s prisons must disclose portions of the pharmaceutical drug and packaging labels for the drugs it intended to use in executions, the Department of Corrections said it was suspending its search for new supplies of execution drugs until the legislature adopted even broader secrecy laws.

Hester downplayed the importance of transparency concerns, calling a March 8 meeting of a legislative Freedom of Information Act Task Force “a waste of my time.” Refusing to attend the meeting, Hester said “[a]nything that they have to say on it I don't think has value.” In an email to the Associated Press, Dunham said, “If a state wanted to break the law and breach contracts with impunity and hide its misconduct from the public, [the Arkansas bill] is the type of bad-government law it would pass.”

 

Veto-Proof Majority of New Hampshire House Votes to Repeal State’s Death Penalty

Posted: March 8, 2019

By an overwhelming 279-88 margin, a veto-proof majority of the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted on March 7, 2019 to repeal the state’s death penalty. Demonstrating strong bipartisan support that garnered the backing of 56 more legislators than an identical repeal bill received in April 2018, the vote ended speculation as to how the reconstituted chamber would respond to repeal. 93 of the 400 representatives in the state house who participated in the vote in 2018 did not seek reelection, and more than one-third of the representatives had never before voted on a death-penalty issue. The bill now advances to the State Senate, where 16 of the 30 senators elected in November 2018 have said they support repeal, also a veto-proof majority. A death penalty repeal bill has been considered by the Granite State’s lawmakers every session over the last two decades and was passed by the state’s House and Senate in April 2018. However, Governor Sununu vetoed that bill in June, and the Senate fell two votes shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to override the veto.

More than 100 witnesses testified at public hearings conducted by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in February, with more than 90 advocating for repeal. Representative Renny Cushing, the committee’s chairman and the prime sponsor of the bill, said, “We had a very powerful, public hearing ... with all the reasons to oppose the death penalty presented in a really clear fashion.” Cushing, whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in two different incidents, has been a death-penalty abolitionist for more than two decades. The death penalty “does nothing to bring back our loved ones,” he said. “All it does is widen the circle of violence.” Republican Representative David Welch, who supported the death penalty in the last 16 legislative sessions, said his wife’s recent death made him rethink capital punishment. “The grief I’ve experienced since then has been horrible and it has not diminished,” he said. “An inmate on death row has loved ones that care for him in spite of what he has done. The victim’s family goes through grief similar to what I went through. When that inmate is put to death, there’s another family going through that grief. Both families are innocent, and they both went through the same thing.” Freshman Democratic Representative Safiya Wazir, whose family fled Afghanistan when she was a child, argued that the United States should not be among the “terrible list of states that use the death penalty” – like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Discussing the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto, she said, “Let’s put the emphasis on living. New Hampshire is better than this.”

The prospective repeal bill would not affect the only prisoner currently on New Hampshire’s death row, Michael Addison. The state has not executed anyone since 1939.

 

Study Reports More Than Three-Fold Drop in Pursuit of Death Penalty by Pennsylvania Prosecutors

Posted: March 7, 2019

A new study of fourteen years of Pennsylvania murder convictions has documented a sharp decline in county prosecutors’ use of capital punishment across the Commonwealth. After examining the court files of 4,184 murder convictions from 2004 to 2017, the Allentown Morning Call found that Pennsylvania prosecutors sought the death penalty at more than triple the rate (3.3) at the start of the study period than they did fourteen years later — a drop of more than 70%. In 2004, the paper reported, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 123 of 309 (39.8%) murder cases that ultimately resulted in a conviction. In 2017, they sought it in 33 of 271 cases (12.2%). While there were some year-to-year fluctuations in death-penalty usage over the 14-year period, the pattern showed a clear long-term downward trend. Though most (59) of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had at least one capital prosecution, the change was largely driven by the steep decline in the pursuit of the death penalty in Philadelphia. The city, which had 88 prisoners on its death row in January 2013 — the third highest of any city or county in the country — dropped from seeking death in more than half of all murder convictions (69 out of 134) in 2004 to 15% of the cases (16 out of 106) in 2017. The Morning Call reported that of the more than 1,100 case files of capital prosecutions it reviewed, 56 resulted in death sentences during the study period. The rest ended in plea bargains or sentences other than death.

The decline in capital prosecutions accompanies a twenty-year hiatus in executions in Pennsylvania during which the state and federal courts have overturned nearly 200 Pennsylvania capital convictions or death sentences, and a drop in public support for the death penalty. A 2015 poll by Public Policy Polling reported that 54% of Pennsylvania respondents said they preferred some form of life sentence as the punishment for murder, as compared to 42% who said they preferred the death penalty. Death sentences have also plummeted by nearly 90%. According to statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the state imposed an average of 15.8 death sentences per year in the five-year period from 1989-1993. But by 2004-2008, the average had fallen to 5.2 death sentences per year, and it dropped to only 1.8 death sentences per year from 2014-2018.

Prosecutors “are scrutinizing these decisions much more than ever before,” said Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams, former president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. “All of us are very cognizant of the fact that there’s a lot that we as prosecutors are asked to do as far as seeking the death penalty.” Marc Bookman, co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, which advises lawyers who are handling death-penalty trials, said, “Mostly it is just a recognition that it is a failed public policy. We’re seeing it more and more coming from elected officials, saying it is a failed public policy.” Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions in 2015, and said he intends to extend that moratorium until the legislature addresses problems identified by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. “He looks forward to working with the General Assembly on their plans to address the report and its recommendations for legislative changes, all of which he believes should be debated and considered,” the governor’s spokesperson said in a statement.

 

Wake County, North Carolina Imposes First Death Sentence in More Than a Decade

Posted: March 6, 2019

For the first time in more than a decade, a jury in Wake County, North Carolina has sentenced a defendant to death. On March 4, 2019, a capital sentencing jury voted to impose the death penalty upon Seaga Edward Gillard, convicted of the double murder of a pregnant prostitute and her boyfriend, who was assisting her in her business. It was the county’s tenth death-penalty trial since 2008, but juries had rejected a death sentence in each of the previous nine cases. Prosecutors portrayed the Caribbean-born Gillard as a man who preyed on sex workers and told the jury that the case was about securing “maximum justice.”

The sentence bucks a trend in North Carolina, where the use of the death penalty has declined significantly over the last decade.  Just 14 death sentences have been imposed in the state from 2009-2018 ­– more than a 90% decline off the peak of 241 death sentences imposed from 1991-2000 – and North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006. However, Wake County has continued to be an outlier in the state. The ten Wake County prisoners on North Carolina's death row at the end of 2012 placed the county among the 2% of counties that accounted for 56% of all prisoners on U.S. death rows. Gretchen Engel, executive director of North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation criticized the prosecution as wasteful and discriminatory. “Since taking over as Wake district attorney, Lorrin Freeman has pursued the death penalty more than any other prosecutor in North Carolina, costing taxpayers millions of dollars,” Engel said. “That is a poor investment, even in this case.”

Wake County has had four capital trials since Freeman’s election in 2014, with another capital case in jury selection. Eight of the ten prisoners on the county’s death row are Black, one is Latino, and just one is white, and eight of the ten defendants tried capitally since 2008 have been Black. “All it shows is that, if you try ten death penalty cases in a row and exclude from the jury all the people who oppose the death penalty, you can find a jury that will sentence a person to death despite the death penalty's documented unfairness,” Engel said. Although Engel said Gillard committed a serious crime for which he should be punished, she questioned whether his crime was “the worst of the worst.” In March 2016, Wake County jurors sentenced Nathan Holden to life for the double-murder of his ex-wife's parents and attempted murder of his ex-wife. In January 2018, in a crime Freeman had called “everybody’s worst nightmare,” a jury also sentenced Donovan Jevonte Richardson to two life sentences for a home break-in that ended in a double murder. “Wake County jurors have refused to impose the death penalty in other double homicide cases and even in a case in which the defendant was convicted of murdering five people,” Engel said. “All today's verdict shows is what we already knew: That the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily, and disproportionately on black men.”

 

Alabama Prisoner Seeks U.S. Supreme Court Review of Attorney Conflict of Interest Case

Posted: March 5, 2019

Whose interests does a lawyer represent, the capital defendant whose life is at stake or the abusive father paying for his defense? Alabama death-row prisoner Nicholas Acklin (pictured) is seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of that issue because he alleges that the lawyer who represented him at trial had a financial conflict of interest that affected the way he represented Acklin in the penalty phase of his capital trial. Nick Acklin’s father, Theodis Acklin, paid for the legal services of Behrouz Rahmati to represent his son in the 1998 death-penalty trial. Two days before trial, as Rahmati belatedly investigated his client’s background, he learned from Nick’s mother, Velma, that Theodis had physically abused her, Nick, and Nick’s brothers, holding them at gunpoint and threatening to kill them. Rahmati asked Theodis to testify about the abuse, believing that the mitigating factor could help persuade the jury to spare Nick’s life. Theodis then gave Rahmati an ultimatum: “You tell Nick if he wants to go down this road, I’m done with him” and “done helping with this case.” Rahmati told the jury nothing about the child abuse, instead presenting testimony from Theodis that Nick had been raised in a “Christian home” with “good values.” The jury then voted 10-2 to recommend a death sentence, and the trial court imposed the death penalty, reasoning that, unlike “most killers” who are the products of abusive childhoods, Nick had chosen to reject the good values with which he had been raised.

Acklin’s petition for Supreme Court review is supported by friend-of-the-court briefs filed by four legal ethics scholars and by former Alabama appeals court judges and presidents of the Alabama State Bar. The brief of the legal ethics professors urges the Court to overturn Acklin’s death sentence, saying that Rahmati “labored under an acute and obvious conflict of interest” that violated ethics norms and rules of professional responsibility applicable in every jurisdiction in the United States. Once Theodis threatened to withdraw funding, the scholars wrote, Rahmati had a clear conflict: “He could serve his client’s interest by making the best argument possible against the imposition of the death penalty, or he could protect his own interests by avoiding antagonizing the paymaster.” At that point, they wrote, “ethics rules unanimously required Rahmati to secure an alternative fee arrangement or obtain Acklin’s informed consent to the conflict, or else seek to end the representation. None of these things occurred.” Instead, without providing Acklin the advice of conflict-free counsel, Rahmati had Nick sign a “waiver” stating that he did not want to raise the abuse issue during his trial.

The former judges and bar presidents—including Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Hornsby, Justice Ralph Cook, and Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge William Bowen—wrote that “The obligation of loyalty is at its most acute in a death penalty case, where its disregard may cost one’s client his life.” Rahmati’s conduct, they wrote, was an “utter abandonment of his client’s interests” that was exacerbated by counsel’s incompetence. “Any reasonable mitigation investigation would have revealed childhood abuse by Acklin’s father months before trial,” they wrote, when “counsel could have avoided the conflict by not becoming financially beholden to Acklin’s abuser.” Counsel also violated the duty of candor to the court, the judges and bar presidents wrote, “by knowingly presenting false and misleading testimony [that] the trial court expressly relied upon … in sentencing Acklin to death, while counsel stood silent.”

Nick Acklin’s lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn his death sentence and clarify the rules regarding attorney conflicts of interest. In 2013, an Alabama trial judge held an evidentiary hearing, ultimately rejecting Acklin’s claim. The legal ethics scholars’ brief called that decision a “departure from precedent and prevailing ethics norms.” The former judges urged the Supreme Court to intercede, saying Acklin’s execution under these circumstances would be unjust to him and would also damage “our system of justice itself.”

 

Alfred Dewayne Brown Declared Actually Innocent

Posted: March 4, 2019

Death-row exoneree Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured) was declared “actually innocent” by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg on March 1, 2019, making Brown eligible for state compensation for the time he spent wrongfully imprisoned on Texas’ death row. “My obligation as an advocate is not to tell people what they want to hear but to tell them the truth,” Ogg said at a press conference. “Alfred Brown was wrongfully convicted through prosecutorial misconduct.” Brown was freed in 2015, ten years after he was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk during a robbery. Until the declaration by Ogg, Brown was ineligible for compensation because Texas law requires that, if a prisoner is exonerated by the dismissal of charges against them, they cannot receive compensation unless the prosecutor says in an affidavit that he or she “believes that the defendant is actually innocent of the crime for which the person was sentenced.”

Brown’s exoneration gained momentum following the discovery of exculpatory phone records in the garage of a Houston police officer in 2013 that corroborated Brown’s claim that he was at his girlfriend’s apartment just minutes before the killings took place and could not possibly have been at murder scene at the time of the killings. Prosecutor Daniel Rizzo claimed that the records had been accidentally misplaced, rather than intentionally withheld. But in 2018, Ogg’s office discovered an email showing that Rizzo knew about the records well before Brown’s trial. A timeline of the case showed that Rizzo’s investigator had sought out the records in an attempt to rebut grand jury testimony by Brown’s girlfriend that he spoke to her by phone from her apartment shortly before the murders. Rizzo then threatened her with prosecution and jailed her until she changed her testimony. “It is impossible to examine the conviction of Alfred Dewayne Brown without confronting prosecutorial misconduct,” wrote special prosecutor John Raley, who conducted more than 1,000 hours of investigation into Brown’s case and produced the report that led to Ogg’s actual innocence declaration. “ADA Daniel Rizzo presided over a Grand Jury that abusively manipulated witnesses to supply evidence for a chosen narrative. He was provided notice of the existence and meaning of exculpatory evidence, failed to produce it to the defense and avoided it during trial. Further investigation of his conduct is warranted.” In his report, Raley concluded, “By clear and convincing evidence, no reasonable juror would fail to have a reasonable doubt about whether Brown is guilty of murder. Therefore his case meets the legal definition of ‘actual innocence.’”

Lawyers who had worked on Brown’s appeals lauded the announcement. Attorney Casey Kaplan said, “The consonant bell of justice rings loudly today and shares what Alfred Brown’s family, supporters and attorneys have known for over a decade — that he is actually innocent. It is a good day.” Brian Stolarz, the lead attorney who secured Brown’s exoneration, said, “We are heartened that he found what we have known all along: Dewayne Brown is actually innocent and was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. We commend the District Attorney’s commitment to the truth and ensuring that miscarriages of justice like this never happen again in Harris County.” Houston’s police union expressed anger at the decision, holding a separate press conference immediately after Ogg’s. Union president Joe Gamaldi urged the police department to bring the case back to a grand jury.

 

Supreme Court Decides that Executing a Person With Dementia Could Be Unconstitutional

Posted: March 1, 2019

The United States Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Alabama state courts that would have permitted the execution of Vernon Madison (pictured)death-row prisoner whose severe dementia has left him with no memory of the crime for which he was sentenced to death and compromised his understanding of why he was to be executed. The Alabama courts had narrowly construed the Supreme Court’s past rulings that prohibited the execution of prisoners who had become mentally incompetentlimiting those rulings to cases in which a mentally ill prisoner’s lack of understanding of why he was being executed had been caused by psychosis or delusions. In a 5-3 decision on February 27, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of a prisoner who does not have “a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution,” irrespective of its cause. Writing for the Court, Justice Elana Kagan said: What matters  is  whether  a  person  has  the  ‘rational  understanding’ [the constitution] requires—not  whether  he  has  any  particular memory or any particular mental illness.” 

In 2015 and 2016, Madison suffered multiple severe strokes that caused him brain damage, vascular dementia, and retrograde amnesia. The strokes also left him with slurred speech, legally blind, incontinent, and unable to walk independentlyIn addition to having no memory of the offense, he can no longer recite the alphabet past the letter G, soils himself because he does not know there is a toilet in his cell, asks that his mother—who is dead—be informed of his strokes, and plans to move to Florida when he is out of jailMadison’s lawyers argued that he had become incompetent to be executed. At a hearing in state court, he presented evidence that he had no memory of the crime for which he was sentenced to death. The state’s expert agreed that Madison exhibited cognitive decline but said there was no evidence that his impairments were a product of psychosis or delusionsState prosecutors also argued to the state courts that the Supreme Court’s caselaw limited incompetency to be executed to cases involving psychotic mental illness. Emphasizing the absence of evidence of delusions or psychosis, the Alabama courts denied Madison’s competency claim.  

The five-justice majority declared that competency determinations are governed by what a prisoner understands, not by what physical or mental health condition impairs his understanding. Lack of memory of a crime, Justice Kagan wrote, is not in itself proof of incompetence, although it may be evidence of it“If Alabama is to execute Madison,” the majority said, “the Eighth Amendment requires, and the state must find, that he’ll understand why.” Expressing no opinion on the ultimate question of Madison’s competency, the Court returned the case to the state courts for a new competency determination using the correct legal standard. In a fiery dissent the majority dismissed as “high dudgeon, Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, accused the Court of “mak[ing] a mockery of our rules” and rewarding a defense “trick” by deciding the case based on an argument he claimed was not raised in Madison’s petition for certiorariKagan responded that Madison’s petition had “presented two questions — the same two we address here.” Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in the case. 

Madison’s lawyer, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, said he was “thrilled that today the Court recognized that people with dementia like Vernon Madison, who cannot consistently orient to time and place, are protected from execution and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.” Stevenson said that “[p]risoners with dementia or severe mental illness are extremely vulnerable,” and called the Court’s decision enormously important if our system is going to function in a humane and just manner.” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall derided Madison’s competency claim as an attempt to “evade” justice and predicted that Alabama’s state courts would again rule that Madison is competent to be executed.  

 

Texas Plans to Execute Prisoner Whose Death Sentence Was Influenced by False and Unreliable Testimony

Posted: February 28, 2019

Texas is scheduled to execute Billie Wayne Coble (pictured) on February 28, 2019, despite court findings that two expert witnesses who testified for the prosecution gave “problematic” and “fabricated” testimony at his trial. Coble was sentenced to death in 1990 and resentenced in 2008 after his original sentence was overturned as a result of constitutionally deficient jury instructions. At his resentencing, the issue of future dangerousness presented a serious problem for prosecutors. Under Texas law, a capital jury is required to find that a defendant presents a continuing threat to society before it may sentence him or her to death. But in Coble’s 18 years in prison between first being sentenced to death and his resentencing trial, he “did not have a single disciplinary report,” suggesting he would not pose a future danger if sentenced to life. To persuade the jury of Coble’s future dangerousness, prosecutors retained the services of Dr. Richard Coons, a psychiatrist who testified in numerous capital cases as to the purported future dangerousness of capital defendants. Coons later admitted that his dangerousness predictions were not based on research, but that he made determinations “'his way’ with his own methodology and has never gone back to see whether his prior predictions of future dangerousness have, in fact, been accurate.” Researchers and psychiatric experts have repeatedly found that “future dangerousness” predictions are fundamentally flawed, lack scientific validity, and contribute to arbitrary death sentences.

The prosecution also presented the jury with testimony from prison investigator A.P. Merillat, as an expert on prison conditions. Merillat provided false testimony about the prevalence of prison violence and loopholes in prison rules that he claimed would allow life sentenced prisoners to commit acts of violence. Like Coons, Merillat’s testimony was later revealed to be unreliable and, as a federal appellate court wrote, “the State does not dispute that parts of Merillat’s testimony were fabricated.” The court called both Coons and Merillat “problematic witnesses,” adding “that Coons’ testimony was unreliable and should have been excluded.” The court nonetheless allowed Coble’s death sentence to stand, saying that the false and misleading expert testimony constituted harmless error.

If Coble’s execution proceeds, he will be the third person executed in the U.S. in 2019, and the second in Texas. The 70-year-old Coble would also be the oldest person executed in Texas since the reinstatement of the death penalty. He will be the eleventh person aged seventy or older to be executed in the U.S. during that period (all since 2004), and the seventh this decade.

 

7th World Congress Against Death Penalty Opens in Brussels, Belgium

Posted: February 27, 2019

An estimated 1,500 government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations from more than 140 countries gathered in Brussels, Belgium on February 26, 2019 for the opening of the Seventh World Congress Against the Death Penalty. The World Congress ­– organized by the Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty – is the world’s leading convocation on capital punishment. The four-day meeting formally opened on February 27 with a ceremony in the European Parliament in Brussels featuring remarks by European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Reynders, and video messages from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Pope Francis encouraging the delegates to strive for global abolition of the death penalty.

The opening of the Congress followed a high-level death-penalty panel discussion by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on February 26 focusing on human rights abuses in the application of capital punishment. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, introduced the panel by reiterating the international body’s long-held beliefs on capital punishment. “The UN opposes the use of the death penalty, everywhere, and in all circumstances,” Bachelet said. “Today, I am pleased to say, there is a clear international trend towards abolition.” The topic of human rights, discrimination, and the death penalty, she said “is particularly well chosen, because nowhere is discrimination more evident than when one looks at the people on death row – the people who society has decided are beyond rehabilitation and should be killed. … [D]eath rows are disproportionately populated by the poor and economically vulnerable; members of ethnic minorities; people with psycho-social or intellectual disabilities; foreign nationals; indigenous persons; and other marginalised members of society.” Speaking on behalf of the eight countries that sponsored the resolution calling for the panel debate, Minister Reynders expressed special concern about the use of the death penalty as punishment for peaceful expression of religious or political beliefs, blasphemy, same-sex relationships, and consensual sexual relations outside of marriage. “The application of the death penalty in these cases,” he said, “takes on a particularly discriminatory nature.”

In his video message to the Congress, Secretary-General Guterres said “[t]he death penalty has no place in the 21st century.” He called the record number of nations that sponsored last December’s UN General Assembly resolution for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty evidence of progress, but said it was still “far from enough.” The death penalty, he said “is still employed despite its cruelty, despite the myth that it deters crime and despite the knowledge that innocent people have been – and may continue to be -- put to death.” The video message by Pope Francis (pictured) encouraged activism against the death penalty as a “courageous affirmation of the principle of the dignity of the human person.” The Pope called capital punishment a “serious violation of the right to life. … While it is true that human societies and communities have to often face very serious crimes that threaten the common good and the safety of people, it is not less true that today there are other means to atone for the damage caused,” Francis said. The Pope stressed that “the dignity of the person is not lost even if he has committed the worst of the crimes. … It’s in our hands to recognize the dignity of each person and to work so that more lives are not eliminated.”

 

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