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Ohio Governor Commutes Death Sentence of William Montgomery

Posted: March 27, 2018

Ohio Governor John Kasich has commuted the death sentence of 52-year-old William Montgomery (pictured) to life without the possibility of parole. Montgomery was scheduled to be executed on April 11. The one-page proclamation granting clemency (pictured right, click to enlarge) did not specify the grounds for Kasich's action and was not accompanied by a news release or statement to the media. The order, issued March 26, stated simply, "after consideration of all relevant factors, I ... have concluded that a commutation of the death sentence of William T.  Montgomery is warranted." Faced with issues of prosecutorial misconduct and questionable forensic evidence, the Ohio Parole Board voted 6-4 on March 16, 2018 to recommend that Kasich grant executive clemency to Montgomery, who was convicted and sentence to death in 1986 for two murders he maintains he did not commit. Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates opposed Montgomery's clemency application. An Ohio federal district court, affirmed by a federal appeals court panel, overturned Montgomery's conviction in 2007 because prosecutors had suppressed evidence and witness statements that undermined the state's version of how the crime occurred, but the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated the conviction in 2009, with five judges dissenting. Montgomery's supporters argued to the parole board that there was too much doubt about his guilt to risk executing a potentially innocent man. Prosecutors in the case withheld from the defense evidence that multiple witnesses had seen Debra Ogle, one of the women Montomgery was found guilty of murdering, alive four days after the date prosecutors said Montgomery had killed her and left her body in the woods. An independent review of the autopsy report showed that Ogle's body likely had been discovered within hours of her death. Adding to the doubt in the case, Montgomery's co-defendant, Glover Heard, told police five different stories before settling on a version of events that fit the prosecution's theory, and instead of facing the death penalty, he was sentenced to a term of years with eligibility for parole. The clemency grant was the sixth time Kasich had commuted a death sentence to life without parole. It was the second time a governor commuted a death sentence in 2018. Texas Governor Greg Abbott commuted Thomas "Bart" Whitaker's sentence on February 22, less than an hour before he was scheduled to be executed. There have been 287 grants of clemency to death-row prisoners in the United States on humanitarian grounds since 1976. Ohio governors have granted clemency to death-row prisoners twenty times in that time period.

 

POLL: Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Death Penalty for Overdose Deaths

Posted: March 26, 2018

Americans of all ages, races, and political affiliations overwhelmingly oppose the Trump administration plan to pursue capital punishment for drug overdose deaths and believe it will have no effect on addressing the opioid public health crisis, according to a March 16-21, 2018 nationwide Quinnipiac University poll. By a 50-percentage-point margin (71% to 21%, with 8% saying they did not know or would not answer), Americans oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of selling drugs that contributed to a fatal overdose (click on graph to enlarge image). Three-quarters of Americans (75%-20%-5%) said that using the death penalty for drug sales leading to overdose deaths will not help stop the opioid crisis. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans (57%) both opposed the administration’s plan and thought it would not work. Opposition to the use of the death penalty for drug-overdose sales was highest among African Americans (90%), Democrats (87%), voters aged 18-34 (82%), and college-educated Whites (77%). 73% of women and 70% of men opposed the plan, as did 69% of Whites, Hispanics, and Independents. By margins of more than 3 to 1, men and women, Blacks and Whites, and Democrats and Independents also said using the death penalty would not help stop the opiod crisis. Hispanics by a margin of 2 to 1 thought it would not work. The Quinnipiac Poll also asked the 1,291 voters it surveyed several questions about the death penalty itself. In a question that asked simply “Do you support or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?,” 58% said they supported capital punishment, while 33% opposed. That contrasted with the most recent Gallup Poll, which reported 55% support for the death penalty, and the Pew Research Center poll, which reported support at 49%. When asked “Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole?,” 51% of Quinnipiac Poll respondents said they preferred life without parole, versus 37% who preferred capital punishment. A Quinnipiac news release said this was the first time since the poll began asking this question in 2004 that a majority of Americans said they preferred the life-sentencing option. At the same time, however, poll respondents said by a 2 to 1 margin that they would not like to see the death penalty abolished nationwide. Democrats split on that question at 47%-46% in favor of abolition, but substantial majorities of every other demographic opposed abolition. “It’s a mixed message on a question that has moral and religious implications,” said Tim Malloy, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “Voters are perhaps saying, ‘Keep the death penalty, but just don’t use it.” 

 

Jury Notes Show Georgia Prosecutors Empaneled White Juries to Try Black Death-Penalty Defendants

Posted: March 23, 2018

New court filings argue that Columbus, Georgia prosecutors had a pattern and practice of systematically striking black prospective jurors because of their race, discriminatorily empanelling all- or nearly-all-white juries to try black defendants on trial for their lives in capital murder cases. In a supplemental motion seeking a new trial for Johnny Gates (pictured)—a black man sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 1977 for the rape and murder of a white woman—lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Innocence Project presented evidence from seven capital trials involving his trial prosecutors, showing that they carefully tracked the race of jurors, struck every black juror they could, and repeatedly wrote derogatory comments about blacks and black prospective jurors. “Race discrimination undermines the credibility and reliability of the justice system,” said Patrick Mulvaney, managing attorney for capital litigation at the Southern Center. “Mr. Gates is entitled to a new trial that is fair and free of race discrimination.” Jury selection notes from the seven cases contain “W”s next to the name of each white juror and “N”s next to the names of the black jurors, and variously describe black jurors as “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “cocky,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.” They say one white male would be “a top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that works for his construction co.” Prosecutors also kept racial tallies of the empaneled jurors, with twelve marks in the white column and none in the black column. In Gates' case, prosecutors rated jurors on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most favored, and ranked every black juror a “1.” The only white juror ranked a “1” had said he was opposed to the death penalty. The Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office’s office repeatedly refused to disclose the jury notes to Gates’s lawyers until the trial court issued an order in February directing them to do so. The notes were never disclosed to the defendants in the other cases, three of whom—Jerome Bowden, Joseph Mulligan, and William Hance—Georgia has already executed. Gates was prosecuted by Douglas Pullen and William Smith. Pullen prosecuted five capital trials involving black defendants between 1975 and 1979, striking all 27 black prospective jurors and successfully empaneling five all-white juries. A decade later, he prosecuted Timothy Foster, another black defendant sentenced to death by all-white Columbus jury for strangling an elderly white woman. Foster's lawyers subsequently discovered jury selection notes that documented similar discriminatory practices in his case, and in May 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated Foster’s conviction saying that “the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.” Gates’s second prosecutor, Smith, was one of the prosecutors in four capital trials of black defendants between 1975 and 1979. In three of those case, prosecutors struck all of the black prospective jurors. In the fourth, Gates’s motion says, prosecutors struck ten black prospective jurors, but could not empanel an an all-white jury “because the final pool of prospective jurors had more black citizens than the prosecution had strikes.” Gates was taken off death row in 2003 because of intellectual disability. He is also challenging his conviction on grounds of innocence and arguing that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence in the case. Blood found at the scene was a different blood type than both Gates and the victim and DNA testing of implements used to restrain the victim did not match Gates. After interrogation by police, Gates gave a taped confession that was inconsistent with the physical evidence. A different confession, given earlier by a white man caught fondling the victim’s body in the funeral home, more accurately described the crime scene. The next court hearing in the case is scheduled for May 7.

 

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Texas Death-Row Prisoner Denied Investigative Funding

Posted: March 22, 2018

In a decision that clarifies the showing indigent prisoners must make to obtain investigative services, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Texas death-row prisoner who was denied funding to challenge the death sentence imposed in his case. In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court unanimously ruled that the Texas federal courts had applied an overly restrictive legal standard in denying Carlos Ayestas (pictured) funding to investigate and develop his claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his trial. Federal law requires habeas-corpus courts in death-penalty cases to provide funding that is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, has instead required indigent applicants to demonstrate a "substantial need" for funding. The Court returned the case to the federal appeals court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding using the proper standard. Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national, was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in 1997. His trial counsel conducted virtually no life-history investigation and presented a case for life to the jury that lasted just two minutes and included only a single letter from an English teacher in prison. Both his trial and state post-conviction lawyers overlooked available evidence of mental illness and brain damage—including head trauma and substance abuse—and failed to develop a record of the mitigating evidence that his federal habeas lawyers argued should have been presented in his case. The lawyers appointed to represent Ayestas in federal court sought funding to investigate his background, upbringing, and mental health history, without which, they argued, he would be unable to discover mitigating evidence indispensable to presenting a meaningful case to spare his life. The Texas federal district court, applying the Fifth Circuit's "substantial need" test, denied him funding and dismissed his habeas corpus petition, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, reversed and ordered the federal appellate court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding. In determining whether a funding request is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case, Justice Alito wrote, federal courts courts should assess "whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important." This standard "requires courts to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way." In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote "to explain why, on the record before this Court, there should be little doubt" that Ayestas had already made a showing sufficient to obtain funding. Trial counsel's obligation to thoroughly investigate possible mental illness, she wrote, "exists in part precisely because it is all too common for individuals to go years battling an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. ... [T]he troubling failures of counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stages of Ayestas’ case are exactly the types of facts that should prompt courts to afford investigatory services, to ensure that trial errors that go to a 'bedrock principle in our justice system' do not go unaddressed." 

 

Supreme Court Declines to Review Arizona Case Challenging Constitutionality of Death Penalty

Posted: March 21, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a sweeping challenge to the constitutionality of capital punishment brought by Arizona death-row prisoner Abel Hidalgo (pictured). After scheduling consideration of Hidalgo v. Arizona for ten separate court conferences, the Court on March 19 unanimously denied Hidalgo’s petition for writ of certiorari. In a statement issued in conjunction with the Court’s ruling, however, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, expressed concern about a second issue raised by Hidalgo—the constitutionality of Arizona’s method of deciding which defendants are eligible for the death penalty. The four justices said that the Arizona Supreme Court had misapplied Supreme Court precedent on that “important Eighth Amendment question,” but believed the factual record was insufficiently developed to warrant the court’s review of the case at this time. Hidalgo had presented records from more than 860 first-degree murder cases over an eleven-year period in Maricopa County—where he was charged—showing that 98% of first-degree murder defendants in that county were eligible for the death penalty, but had been denied an evidentiary hearing to further develop the issue. This “evidence is unrebutted,” the four justices said, and “would seem to deny the constitutional need to ‘genuinely’ narrow the class of death-eligible defendants.” Although “[e]vidence of this kind warrants careful attention and evaluation,” they wrote, the absence of an evidentiary hearing had left the Court with a factual record that “is limited and largely unexamined by experts and the courts below.” With an “opportunity to fully develop a record with the kind of empirical evidence that the petitioner points to here,” the four justices said, “the issue presented in this petition [would] be better suited for certiorari.” The court declined without comment to review a broader challenge Hidalgo presented to the constitutionality of capital punishment itself. Hidalgo is one of many death-row prisoners to raise that issue in the wake of a 2015 dissent by Justices Breyer and Ginsburg in Glossip v. Gross in which they said it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment” prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

 

Public Health Experts Criticize Trump’s Proposal to Seek Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers

Posted: March 20, 2018

Saying “the ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty,” President Donald Trump (pictured) announced on March 19 that he will direct the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty against drug traffickers. The proposal, included as part of the administration’s plan to address an opioid epidemic that has resulted in as many as 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016 alone, drew immediate criticism from public-health and criminal-justice experts. “We can’t execute our way out of this epidemic,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. “To be talking about the death penalty sounds to me like a step backwards.” During the announcement, Trump acknowledged resistance to his death-penalty proposal, saying, “[m]aybe our country's not ready for that. It's possible, it’s possible that our country is not ready for that.” Since 1994, federal law has authorized the death penalty for “drug kingpins” who traffic in large quantities of drugs, even if no killing has occurred. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for crimes against individuals in which no one is killed, and no prior administration—Republican or Democratic—has used the drug kingpin provision to seek the death penalty. Experts said the opioid crisis should be dealt with as a public-health issue and that harsher penalties for drug dealers would not fix the problem. Instead, they said, the administration should focus on addiction treatment. “The reality is, most people who are selling drugs are suffering from opioid addiction, and they sell drugs to support their own habit,” Dr. Kolodny said. “When I start hearing about the death penalty, it just seems to me we’re going in the wrong direction.” Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia University, agreed, saying “[c]riminal justice can play a complementary role in addressing the opioid crisis, but relying on the criminal justice system to address public health problems has proven unwise, costly, ineffective and often counterproductive.” Legal experts said the constitutionality of death sentences for drug dealers would likely be the subject of extensive litigation. “The death penalty is uncertain as a constitutionally permissible punishment without that connection to an intentional killing,” said Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman. Hamilton County, Ohio, Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters, known for aggressively pursuing the death penalty, said “[t]o seek a death penalty case [simply for for drug trafficking] would be almost impossible. We'd have serious constitutional problems.” Former Harris County, Texas, homicide prosecutor Ted Wilson called the proposal “kind of over-the-top.” The death penalty for drug dealers "in my opinion just doesn’t fit,” he said. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) compared the President’s death-penalty proposal to past failed drug policies, saying, “We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic—we tried that and ended up with an even bigger addiction problem and the world’s largest prison population. The war on drugs didn’t work in the 80’s, and it won’t work now by reviving failed deterrence measures like the death penalty for drug dealers.  We must instead crack down on the over-production and over-prescribing of painkillers, and increase treatment for those suffering from addiction—both of which have bipartisan support in Congress." A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released March 8, found that harsher penal sanctions had no measurable impact on drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests. The data, Pew said, “reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.”

 

Ohio Parole Board Recommends Clemency for Death-Row Prisoner William Montgomery

Posted: March 19, 2018

Faced with doubts about prosecutorial misconduct and the accuracy of forensic evidence, the Ohio Parole Board has recommended that Governor John Kasich grant executive clemency to William T. Montgomery (pictured), scheduled to be executed on April 11. Montgomery was convicted and sentence to death in 1986 for two murders he has long maintained he did not commit. An Ohio federal district court, affirmed by a federal appeals court panel, overturned his conviction in 2007 because prosecutors had suppressed evidence and witness statements that undermined its version of how the crime occurred, but with five judges dissenting, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated the conviction. Montgomery's supporters argued to the parole board that there was too much doubt about his guilt to risk executing a potentially innocent man. Prosecutors argued at trial that Montgomery murdered Debra Ogle and then killed her roommate, Cynthia Tincher to prevent her from testifying against him, then dumped Ms. Ogle's body in the woods where it was not discovered for four days. However, prosecutors withheld from the defense evidence that multiple witnesses had seen Ms. Ogle alive four days after she supposedly had been killed and an independent review of the autopsy report showed that Ms. Ogle's body likely had been discovered within hours of her death. The report noted that a body left in the woods for four days in above-freezing temperatures would have shown signs of decomposition, insect infestation, and animal predation, none of which were present, and the body's state of lividity indicated death had occurred within twelve hours of its discovery. Adding to the doubt in the case, Montgomery's co-defendant, Glover Heard told police five different stories before settling on a version of events that fit the prosecution's theory and, instead of facing the death penalty, was sentenced to a term of years with eligibility for parole. Montgomery’s lawyers also presented the parole board with affidavits that undermined its confidence in the jury verdict, including one from a juror who was confused as to what the law required, another from a juror who had doubts about Montgomery’s guilt, and a third juror whose psychiatric behavior raised questions about her ability to serve. The Board majority cited both the State’s failure to disclose the witness reports that Ms. Ogle was alive after the State claimed she had been killed and the jurors’ affidavits as reasons for recommending commutation. Four Board members opposed commutation, arguing that the information presented was insufficient to overturn the jury verdict and finding no “manifest injustice” in the case that they believed warranted clemency. In an op-ed in the Toledo Blade, Phyllis Crocker, Dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and a former member of the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, wrote: "At best, Montgomery was convicted on a false set of facts and at worst, he may be actually innocent. In death penalty cases there must be no doubt whatsoever. There is too much doubt to allow this execution." Montgomery's lawyer, Jon Oebker, reiterated that his client's assertion of innocence and said the defense plans to "explore every avenue we can." Governor Kasich must issue a decision on the pardons board's recommendation before the April 11 execution date.

 

Human Rights Advocates: Prisoner's Rare Medical Condition Risks Gruesome Botched Execution in Missouri

Posted: March 16, 2018

Human rights advocates are warning that the impending execution of Russell Bucklew (pictured) in Missouri on March 20 presents a “substantially increase[d] risk of a gruesome and botched execution.” Court pleadings and a March 14 letter from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) say that Bucklew suffers from congenital cavernous hemangioma, a rare and severe blood-vessel condition that his lawyers and doctors say compromises his veins and makes lethal injection inappropriate and potentially torturous. Bucklew’s medical condition causes large tumors of malformed blood vessels to grow on his head, face, and neck, including a vascular tumor that obstructs his airway. Dr. Joel Zivot, a board-certified anesthesiologist who reviewed Bucklew’s medical records for defense lawyers in the case, said his compromised veins will likely prevent the pentobarbital Missouri uses in executions from circulating through his bloodstream as intended, risking a “prolonged and extremely painful” execution. Zivot says there is a substantial risk that Bucklew’s throat tumor may burst during the execution and that he will suffocate, choking on his own blood. Missouri first sought to execute Bucklew on May 21, 2014. At that time, his lawyers filed a challenge to the state’s lethal-injection process based on Bucklew's medical condition, and the ACLU filed a petition in the IACHR seeking precautionary measures—the international equivalent of an injunction—against the execution. The IACHR petition argued that the execution would violate international human rights proscriptions against cruel and inhumane treatment and torture. On May 19, 2014, the Missouri federal district court denied Bucklew’s execution challenge and his motion to stay his execution. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted him a stay of execution so it could consider his lethal-injection claim, but the full court, sitting en banc, vacated the stay. Bucklew then sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, which stayed his execution pending the outcome of the lethal-injection appeal in the Eighth Circuit. While the case was working its way through the federal courts, the IACHR issued precautionary measures against the United States on May 20, 2014, requesting that the U.S. comply with its human rights obligations under the charter of the Organization of American States and the American Convention on Human Rights. The IACHR directive asked the U.S. to “abstain from executing Russell Bucklew” until the human rights body could hear his case. On March 6, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Bucklew’s appeal and affirmed the district court’s ruling, concluding that “Bucklew has failed to establish that lethal injection, as applied to him, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.” The ACLU then requested that the IACHR “immediately intervene” to halt Bucklew’s execution, and the human rights commission informed the U.S. government that its precautionary measures were still in effect. “This execution should not move forward,” ACLU’s Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar told Newsweek. “Because the state is pursuing lethal injection, that will most certainly cause severe pain and suffering which under international law is considered torture.” Bucklew’s scheduled execution comes on the heels of two failed executions of gravely ill prisoners in which states ignored warnings that the prisoners’ medical conditions had compromised their veins and would make it impossible for executioners to set intravenous execution lines. Nonetheless, Ohio tried and failed to execute Alva Campbell and Alabama called off the execution of Doyle Hamm after failing for more than 2 1/2 hours to obtain venous access in his lower extremities. Campbell subsequently died of his terminal illness and Hamm has sued to bar Alabama from attempting to execute him again. On March 15, Bucklew’s lawyers filed pleadings in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to stay his execution and review his case.

 

Oklahoma Announces Plans to Execute Prisoners with Nitrogen Gas

Posted: March 15, 2018

At a news conference on March 14, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh announced that the state plans to switch its method of execution from lethal injection to nitrogen gas asphyxiation. Attorney General Hunter said the move to nitrogen hypoxia was necessary “because of the well-documented fact that states across the country are struggling to find the proper drugs to perform executions by lethal injection." "Oklahoma,” he said, “is no exception.” No state has ever carried out an execution with nitrogen gas, and the ACLU of Oklahoma and lawyers for the state's death-row prisoners critized the new execution plan as “experimental.” Dale Baich, an assistant federal defender who is representing 20 Oklahoma death-row prisoners in a challenge to the state's execution process, cautioned that “Oklahoma is once again asking us to trust it as officials ‘learn-on-the-job’ through a new execution procedure and method. How can we trust Oklahoma to get this right when the state’s recent history reveals a culture of carelessness and mistakes in executions?” In 2015, Oklahoma legislators authorized the use of nitrogen gas as a backup method of execution should lethal injection be declared unconstitutional or unavailable. State officials said the change is a response to the unavailability of execution drugs, although there has been no judicial declaration on that issue. “Trying to find alternative compounds or someone with prescribing authority willing to provide us with the drugs is becoming exceedingly difficult, and we will not attempt to obtain the drugs illegally,” Allbaugh said. Oklahoma botched the execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, the first time the state had attempted to use the controversial drug midazolam. Lockett died of a heart attack shortly after the state halted the procedure and delayed the execution of Charles Warner, which it had scheduled for the same night. The state executed Warner on January 15, 2015—the last execution carried out in the state—using a drug that was not authorized in the state's execution protocol. Executions have been on hold since October 2015, after Richard Glossip was granted a last-minute stay when the state again obtained the wrong execution drug. A grand jury report on Warner’s execution and Glossip’s near-execution called the actions of prison officials, “careless,” “negligent,” and “reckless,” and said the state’s “paranoia" about keeping execution information secret had caused corrections personnel “to blatantly violate their own policies.” Following the mishandled executions, the independent bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission spent more than a year studying Oklahoma’s capital punishment practices and unanimously recommended that the state halt all executions “until significant reforms are accomplished.” ACLU of Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel said the commission report “paint[s] a picture of a system that fails at multiple points to provide the necessary safeguards” to protect the innocent and ensure fair trials. He said the state’s attempt to restart executions without addressing the 46 recommendations made by the commission was “deeply troubling.” The Department of Corrections has not yet written a protocol for how it will carry out executions using nitrogen gas, but Allbaugh indicated that he expected the protocol to be ready within 90 to 120 days. Under the terms of an agreement in the federal challenge to Oklahoma’s execution process, Oklahoma may not seek to carry out executions for at least five months after adopting a new protocol.

 

California Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Man Sent to Death Row 25 Years Ago by False Forensic Evidence

Posted: 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.

 

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