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Florida Man Exonerated 42 Years After Wrongful Conviction and Death Sentence

Posted: March 29, 2019

Forty-two years after he and his nephew were wrongfully convicted of murder in Florida and he was sentenced to death, Clifford Williams, Jr. (pictured) has been exonerated. Submitting a report from its Conviction Integrity Unit that found “no credible evidence of guilt and … credible evidence of innocence,” Duval County prosecutors asked a Jacksonville trial court to dismiss all charges against Williams, now 76 years old, and his nephew, Nathan Myers, now 61. Williams is the 165th former death-row prisoner to be exonerated in the United States since 1973.

Williams and Myers were tried and convicted in 1976 for the murder of Jeanette Williams and the wounding of her girlfriend, Nina Marshall. Marshall told police that two men had entered their bedroom at night and fired shots from the foot of the bed. She identified Williams and Myers as the shooters. However, the physical evidence — never presented by defense counsel — revealed that the bullets had been fired from outside, through the bedroom window, and had come from a single gun. Defense counsel also ignored forty alibi witnesses whom Williams and Myers had indicated would be able to testify that they had been next door at a birthday party at the time the shooting occurred. The defense presented no witnesses. The first trial resulted in a mistrial. In the second trial, which lasted two days, prosecutors argued, without presenting any supporting evidence, that the men committed the murder because Jeannette Williams supposedly owed them a $50 drug debt. The jury convicted Williams and Myers but recommended that they be sentenced to life. Judge Cliff Shepard — a notoriously harsh trial judge — overrode the jury’s sentencing recommendation for Williams and sentenced him to death. Shepard accepted the life recommendation for 18-year-old Myers.

Prosecutors began reinvestigating the case after newly elected State Attorney Melissa Nelson created the first Conviction Integrity Unit in the state in 2018. The unit issued its report, authored by Conviction Integrity Review Director Shelley Thibodeau, in February. The report noted that no physical evidence linked Williams or Myers to the shooting and that “the physical and scientific evidence actually contradicts [Marshall’s] testimony about what happened.” The report also found that another man, Nathaniel Lawson, had confessed to several people that he had committed the killings and that a 1976 police report noted his presence near the crime scene around the time of the murder. Thibodeau concluded that "[t]he culmination of all the evidence, most of which the jury never heard or saw, leaves no abiding confidence in the convictions or the guilt of the defendants.”  

Williams had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get anyone interested in the case, and responded emotionally after the hearing. “My mother died while I was on death row,” he told Florida Times-Union reporter Andrew Pantazi. Through tears, he said, “I just wanted to get out and see my kids. There wasn’t nobody but them.”

Twenty-nine wrongfully convicted death-row prisoners have been exonerated in Florida, the most in the nation. In 21 of the 23 Florida exonerations for which the jury’s sentencing vote is known, judges imposed the death penalty by overriding a jury recommendation for life or following a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. Florida now requires a unanimous jury recommendation before a judge can impose a death sentence.

 

Judges in Idaho, Nebraska Order States to Release Execution-Related Records

Posted: March 28, 2019

Judges in Idaho and Nebraska have ordered prison officials to release execution-related records the states had sought to keep secret. Finding that the Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) acted frivolously and in bad faith in its prior response to a public records request, a state court judge ruled on March 21 that officials at IDOC must release documents related to the state’s death-penalty and execution processes. In Nebraska, a federal district court judge ruled on March 15 that the state must provide information to lawyers representing Arkansas death-row prisoners relating to how Nebraska obtained the fentanyl used in executing Carey Dean Moore in August 2018.

In the Idaho lawsuit, Fourth District Judge Lynn Norton chastised IDOC for its bad faith in barely responding to a public records request for execution-related documents submitted by University of Idaho professor Aliza Cover. Judge Norton ruled that the Department must release documents that will include the state’s source of execution drugs it used in its last execution and ordered that IDOC pay court and attorney’s fees for Cover.

Cover had sought copies of receipts, purchase orders, and other information related to the drugs Idaho used in its last two executions in 2011 and 2012 and those it expects to use in future executions. The department disclosed only a copy of the state’s execution policy manual, claiming that the remaining documents were exempt from public review. Cover, who studies the death penalty and its application, sued. IDOC redacted dozens of items from execution records, including not only the names of prison staff who participated in executions, but their handwriting, and the names of people only tangentially involved in executions, such as clergy who counsel death-row prisoners and hairdressers who give prisoners their final haircuts. The state claimed, without evidence, that the redactions were necessary to protect those individuals from protest, harassment, or violence. Similar claims of threats against execution team members in other states have been found to be unsubstantiated. Idaho officials also withheld information on the source of execution drugs used in the past, claiming that suppliers would no longer provide the drugs if their identities were revealed.

Norton’s ruling will force the IDOC to release a receipt for lethal-injection drugs from a compounding pharmacy that were used in Richard Albert Leavitt’s 2012 execution, the most recent execution in Idaho. IDOC will be able to withhold information about the drugs from Paul Ezra Rhoades’s 2011 lethal-injection execution because the source may still be supplying drugs used in lethal injections.

In the Nebraska case, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Laurie Smith Camp gave the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services until April 12 to turn over documents detailing its efforts to obtain its execution drugs, but allowed the state to redact information concerning the identity of the pharmacy that supplied the drugs because the company had “made a business decision to decline any future sales of chemicals to any state, including Nebraska.” Arkansas prisoners who are challenging that state’s use of the drug midazolam in executions were seeking the information to meet the obligation imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court that they prove that an alternative drug was available. The court required Nebraska to disclose records related to how the state identified the pharmacy and persuaded it to supply fentanyl to Nebraska.

Many states attempt to shroud their execution processes and practices in secrecy. “When the state keeps secret basic information about the death penalty, the public cannot ensure that it is carried out humanely or constitutionally,” Cover said.

 

Board Denies Clemency for Texas Man Convicted Under Law of Parties Who Was Not Present When Killing Occurred

Posted: March 27, 2019

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency for Patrick Murphy (pictured) on March 27, 2019, moving the state one step closer to executing him on March 28 for a murder he neither committed nor intended to commit nor was present when it occurred. Murphy was convicted under the state’s “Law of Parties,” which allows defendants to be sentenced to death based upon the actions and intent of others, if the defendant played even a small role in a crime that resulted in someone’s death. Critics of the law argue that it violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 constitutional prohibition against executing a person who did not kill or intend that a killing take place and was a minor participant in an offense that resulted in a killing. Murphy was one of the “Texas 7,” a group of prisoners who escaped from prison in 2000. Days after their escape, the men planned to rob a sporting goods store, but Murphy told the group’s leader, George Rivas, that he did not want to participate in the robbery. Murphy waited outside the store in a truck, radioed the others when he saw police arriving, and drove away from the store to a nearby apartment complex. After he left, Officer Aubrey Hawkins was killed in a shootout with the other men.

In 1982, in Enmund v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that “the death penalty … is an excessive penalty for the robber who, as such, does not take human life.” The Court ruled that the focus of a capital punishment trial must be on the culpability of the defendant for his own acts, “not on that of those who committed the robbery and shot the victims.” Murphy’s court-appointed trial lawyer failed to object to the capital charges against him and his state-appointed post-conviction lawyer failed to raise trial counsel’s ineffectiveness, barring the issue from federal review. Murphy’s current lawyers asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reopen his case to consider the issue, but the court denied that request on March 25. They also sought clemency from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. However, the Board rejected that request and an alternative request for a temporary reprieve until the state legislature acts on pending legislation that would eliminate the death penalty for people convicted under the law of parties. In a statement, his attorneys David Dow and Jeff Newberry said, “It is unconscionable that Patrick Murphy may be executed for a murder he did not commit that resulted from a robbery in which he did not participate, at the exact moment when lawmakers are considering whether anyone possibly convicted under Section 7.02(b) of the Texas Penal Code should be eligible for the death penalty.” Following the Board’s action, Murphy’s lawyer’s submitted a request for a one-time 30-day reprieve from Governor Greg Abbott “so that he is not executed before additional legislation is passed that would [make] clear convictions obtained in trials identical to his are not eligible for a sentence of death.” While that bill would not be retroactive to Murphy’s case, his lawyers wrote, there is “a substantial possibility” that if the bill passes, the state courts “would hold Mr. Murphy’s death sentence is unconstitutional.”

Murphy also has filed motions in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in which his attorneys argue that Texas is violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by refusing to allow Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor to be present in the execution chamber instead of a Christian or Muslim chaplain. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice employs Christian and Muslim chaplains, who are allowed to be present in the execution chamber, but does not allow chaplains of other faiths, saying that they present a security risk because they are not employees. “A law or policy that is not neutral between religions, like TDCJ’s policy, is inherently suspect and strict scrutiny must be applied when determining whether the policy violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” Murphy’s attorneys wrote. A similar claim was raised before the Alabama execution of Domineque Ray, a Muslim prisoner who was not allowed to have his imam present at his execution. The state court denied his motion on March 25 and the federal court followed suit on March 27, both saying his claim was untimely filed. [UPDATE: On March 28, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Murphy a stay of execution “pending the timely filing and disposition of a petition for a writ of certiorari unless the State permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor or another Buddhist reverend of the State’s choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution.”]

 

Researcher—Capital Sentencing Evidence Shows Death Penalty Race Bias is Real

Posted: March 26, 2019

For decades, studies have shown persistent racial disparities in the administration of capital punishment. Saying “death sentences are unevenly and unfairly applied based on race,” California Governor Gavin Newsom on March 13, 2019 imposed a moratorium on executions in the state with the nation’s largest death row. Responding to the governor’s moratorium In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt—one of the leading researchers on social science and race—says race discrimination in the death penalty “is real” and that the research supports the governor’s claim. “In a state that is only 6% black, more than one-third of defendants sentenced to death in California are black,” Eberhardt said. California, like other death-penalty states, also shows evidence of bias in favor of white victims. Defendants who kill white victims are much more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill black victims.

“But the truth is more complicated, and more insidious, than a simple black/white divide,” Eberhardt explains. Her groundbreaking 2006 study of two decades of death sentences in Philadelphia found bias operating at the subconscious level based upon an African American’s physical appearance. “When black men are judged by juries in capital cases, their sentences can hinge on just how black they are perceived to be,” Eberhardt writes. “Those with darker skin, wider noses and thicker lips are subject to far harsher sentencing than lighter-skinned blacks with less prominent, so-called black features.” In the study period between 1979 and 1999, black defendants with stereotypically African features were much more likely to be sentenced to death than black defendants with less stereotypical features (see image), but only if the victim was white. In the study of Philadelphia capital convictions, “Of the men rated low in stereotypical features, only 24% had been sentenced to death. But more than 57% of the “highly stereotypical” black defendants were sentenced to die for their crimes.” “Those strong distinctions signal that our perspectives, our criminal justice process and our institutions are influenced by primitive racial narratives that link people of African descent to darkness and evil,” she says.

Eberhardt’s op-ed describes how racial bias has become ingrained in the criminal justice system. “Research has shown that highlighting racial differences in the justice system actually leads members of the broader public to be more supportive of punitive policies, including the death penalty. When the implicit narrative of black ‘wickedness’ is not challenged, it can seem to perfectly explain the disparities in outcomes,” she says. In addition, unlike any other equal protection challenge under the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in McCleskey v. Kemp barred defendants from using statistical evidence as circumstantial evidence of racial bias, instead requiring proof of “particularized discrimination” — that is, direct evidence of intentional discrimination in their case. “The ruling came under heavy criticism from legal scholars and civil rights activists, concerned that it made institutional racial bias constitutional, and simply part of the status quo,” Eberhardt writes, and was the one ruling Justice Lewis Powell, the author of the 5-4 decision, said he regretted in his time on the Court.

 

Florida Man Who Took Plea to Avoid Death Penalty Posthumously Exonerated of 1983 Rape-Murder

Posted: March 25, 2019

Broward County, Florida prosecutors moved to posthumously exonerate Ronald Stewart (pictured) of a rape and murder he did not commit. Stewart pled no contest to the 1983 rape and murder of Regina Harrison after he was threatened with the death penalty. The actual killer, whose guilt has since been confirmed by DNA testing, went on to murder at least two more women after Harrison.

On March 21, 2019, prosecutors released a statement announcing that they were seeking to overturn Stewart’s conviction in Harrison’s rape and murder after the confession of another man, Jack Jones, led them to test DNA evidence from the case. “Although Stewart is now deceased, it is appropriate that the record be corrected at this time to reflect the results of the new information and evidence uncovered since November 2018,” Broward State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Paula McMahon said in a joint news release with the Hollywood Police Department. “It is also important to try to determine if Jones killed other victims. … We regret that [Stewart] pleaded no contest to a murder he did not commit and that this diverted attention from the real killer.”

Stewart’s no-contest plea was not an admission of guilt. At his sentencing, his lawyer told the court, "Rather than, you know, run the risk of the death penalty, he chose to enter this plea." Counsel pointed out that the evidence of guilt was weak, since fingerprints from the crime scene did not match Stewart and key testimony came from unreliable jailhouse informants. However, Stewart feared that he would be sentenced to death because he had previously been convicted of a series of rapes. He was serving concurrent 50-year sentences for Harrison’s murder and three other rapes when he died in prison in 2008.

The re-examination of the case came as a result of a letter written by Arkansas death-row prisoner Jack Jones, prior to his 2017 execution. Jones sent his sister the letter with instructions not to read it for a year after his death. In that letter, Jones confessed to Harrison’s murder, writing, "So, you just let [Harrison’s family] know that I am deeply sorry, that I couldn’t rest easy until they knew the truth. Let them know that in the end I became a better person, and I did the best I could to be as much as I could for others, out of respect for the ones I’ve harmed." His sister gave the letter to detective John Curcio, who reopened the investigation and had DNA evidence tested. In 1991, Jones killed Lori Barrett, a tourist who was visiting Fort Lauderdale. Four years later, he murdered Mary Phillips in Arkansas.

The case is one of a growing number of exonerations in which the threat of the death penalty has induced false confessions or caused innocent defendants to enter guilty or no-contest pleas to crimes they did not commit. Recent high-profile examples of this phenomenon include the Beatrice Six in Nebraska and the Norfolk Four in Virginia.

 

Despite Possible Innocence and Intellectual Disability, Alabama Intends to Execute Rocky Myers

Posted: March 22, 2019

Robin “Rocky” Myers (pictured) may be innocent and intellectually disabled. His jury did not think he should be sentenced to die. Alabama intends to execute him anyway. Myers’ case is rife with legal issues, but he received no federal court review because his appellate lawyer abandoned him without notice, letting the filing deadline for challenging Myers’ conviction and death sentence expire. In a recent feature story in The Nation, reporter Ashoka Mukpo tells the story of how the intellectually-disabled Myers was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of his neighbor, Ludie Mae Tucker, even after his jury recommended 9-3 that he should be sentenced to life.

Mukpo reports that the prosecution evidence against Myers was problematic. Two informants initially told police that, on the night of the murder, another man—Anthony “Cool Breeze” Ballentine— had traded a VCR stolen from Tucker’s house for crack cocaine. Another witness corroborated their story, informing police that she had seen Ballentine, wearing a white shirt stained with blood, run into an alley near Tucker’s house. Weeks later, another man, Marzell Ewing, who had known Ballentine for 30 years, came forward to claim a reward for information about the murder. He told police he’d seen a short, stocky man near the crime scene, carrying the stolen VCR. After his statement, the original informants changed their stories, naming Myers as the man who had traded the VCR for drugs. Myers later admitted that he had found the VCR in an alley next to his house—a common drop spot for stolen goods. Because of his intellectual disability, Myers was unable to tell police when he had found the VCR, leading police to conclude he was lying. In 2004, Ewing recanted his story. In a signed statement, he revealed that a detective had offered to eliminate the record of a prior arrest if Ewing testified against Myers. Ewing’s statement admitted that his testimony was “not truthful. I did not see who brought the VCR to the shot house that night.”

Other evidence also suggested Myers is innocent. Before she died, Tucker was able to describe her assailant to the police and the clothing he was wearing. Although Tucker knew Myers, she did not identify him as her attacker. Multiple witnesses testified at Myers’ s trial that he had been wearing a dark shirt the night of the murder, not the light shirt described by Tucker. No physical evidence linked Myers to the murder and none of the fingerprints found at the crime scene matched his. Mae Puckett, one of the jurors in Myers’ case, said she and a few other jurors were not convinced of his guilt but felt pressured by the majority of the jury to vote for guilt. One white juror later spoke to Myers’ defense team, referring to him as a “thug” and describing him with a racial slur. “I never thought for a moment that he did it,” Puckett said, but she and the other jurors who doubted his guilt agreed to vote for convict if the jury would recommend a life sentence. Nonetheless, exercising a since-repealed power to override a jury’s vote for life, the trial judge sentenced Myers to death.

After Myers was sentenced to death, a Tennessee attorney, Earle J. Schwarz, agreed to represent him pro bono in his post-conviction appeals. But when the state courts denied Myers’ appeal, Schwarz never told Myers and never filed a federal habeas corpus petition, causing Myers to miss the federal filing deadline. “Mr. Schwarz decided that he could no longer represent Rocky, but unfortunately he just sat in a room and said that quietly to himself,” said Kacey Keeton, who now represented Myers. “He didn’t tell Rocky, he didn’t call the courts and let them know, he didn’t tell the prosecutors, he just quit doing anything.” On behalf of Myers, Keeton is now seeking clemency from Governor Kay Ivey, Myers’ last chance to avoid execution. “The fact that we are potentially executing a man who did not have his day in court because an attorney screwed up should give everybody pause,” Keeton said.

 

Justices Express Concern About “Disturbing History” of Race Bias in Mississippi Death Penalty Case

Posted: March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to grant a new trial to Curtis Flowers (pictured), an African-American death-row prisoner tried six times for the same murders by a white Mississippi prosecutor who struck nearly every black juror from service in each of the trials. During oral argument in Flowers v. Mississippi on March 20, 2019, eight justices expressed concern that Flowers had been denied a fair trial as a result of race discrimination in jury selection in his case. Justice Samuel Alito called the case “very troubling” and Justice Brett Kavanaugh raised concerns about prosecutor Doug Evans’ pattern of discrimination.

Flowers has been tried six times for a quadruple murder in Winona, Mississippi in 1996. His first three convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. Two of those reversals included findings that Evans had violated Batson v. Kentucky, the landmark 1986 Supreme Court decision barring the use of discretionary strikes to remove jurors on the basis of race. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials — the only trials in which more than one black juror was empaneled — ended in hung juries. At issue before the Court was Flowers’ sixth trial, in which a jury of 11 white jurors and one black juror convicted him and sentenced him to death.

The justices focused many of their questions on the records showing that Evans had a pattern of racial discrimination in selecting the juries for Flowers’ trials. Over the course of the five trials for which jury selection transcripts are available, Evans struck 41 of 42 eligible black jurors he had the opportunity to accept. Justice Kavanaugh said, “When you look at the 41 out or 42, how do you look at that and not come away thinking that was going on here was … a stereotype that you’re just going to favor someone because they’re the same race as the defendant?” Justice Alito said that Evans’ history left “reasons to be suspicious,” and said the case had an “unusual and really disturbing history.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned Evans’ motives in personally prosecuting Flowers six times. Jason Davis, the lawyer arguing on behalf of the state of Mississippi, acknowledged that the history was “troubling,” but argued that Evans’ jury strikes in the sixth trial were not racially motivated. Kavanaugh challenged Davis, saying, “Part of Batson was about confidence of the community and the fairness of the criminal justice system. That was against a backdrop of a lot of decades of all-white juries convicting black defendants …. Can you say you have confidence in how this all transpired in this case?”

Sheri Lynn Johnson, arguing on behalf of Flowers, said Evans entered Flowers’ trial “with an unconstitutional end in mind – to seat as few African-American jurors as he could.” “The history is relevant,” she said, calling it “a history of a desire for an all-white jury, a history of willingness to violate the Constitution, and a history of willingness to make false statements to a trial court.” She urged the justices to consider the pattern of discrimination, not just Evans’ actions in the most recent trial. If the Court overturns Flowers’ conviction, the case will return to the state to decide whether to try Flowers for a seventh time.

 

Federal Court Orders Alabama to Release Execution Protocol

Posted: March 20, 2019

In a victory for the media and advocates of open government, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled on March 18, 2019 that Alabama must disclose key portions of its highly secretive lethal-injection execution protocol to the public. The Associated Press, the Montgomery Advertiser, and Alabama Media Group had sued for access to the protocol, which came under intense scrutiny in the wake of Alabama’s failed attempt to execute Doyle Lee Hamm (pictured) in February 2018.

Hamm, who has terminal cancer, challenged Alabama’s execution protocol. He argued that his veins had been compromised by his illness and executing him by lethal injection would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The courts permitted the execution to proceed after Alabama said it would not attempt to insert an IV-line in Hamm’s arms or upper extremities. On February 22, 2018, executioners tried and failed for two-and-one-half hours to set an intravenous execution line. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeffrey Dunn called off the execution but told the media, “I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” Dunn repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol and claimed the execution had been halted only because the late court rulings in the case did not leave corrections personnel sufficient time to execute Hamm before his death warrant would have expired. Hamm filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit seeking to prevent Alabama from attempting to execute him a second time. As part of that suit, he filed a doctor’s report—the only public document describing the circumstances of the execution attempt—that indicated execution personnel had unsuccessfully inserted IV needles more than 10 times into Hamm’s feet, legs, and right groin, causing bleeding in his groin, and likely puncturing his bladder, causing blood in his urine. Shortly thereafter, Hamm and the state reached a confidential settlement in which Alabama agreed not to seek another execution date, the court records of the case would be sealed, Hamm would dismiss his lawsuit, and Hamm and his lawyers would not disclose any additional information about the case. In the aftermath, the three media outlets filed a motion to gain access to the protocol and execution records. A federal district court ruled in their favor in May 2018.

Alabama appealed that ruling, arguing that the lethal-injection protocol had never been formally filed with a lower court, and therefore was not a court record subject to public access. The appeals court rejected that argument, with Judge Charles Wilson writing: “Alabama’s lethal injection protocol may not have been formally filed under the rushed timeline of Hamm’s approaching execution, but the protocol constitutes a judicial record subject to the common law right of access because it was submitted to the district court to resolve disputed substantive motions in the litigation, was discussed and analyzed by all parties in evidentiary hearings and arguments, and was unambiguously integral to the court’s resolution of the substantive motions in Hamm’s as-applied challenge to the protocol.” The decision also addressed the importance of transparency to the public, saying “Judicial records provide grounds upon which a court relies in deciding cases, and thus the public has a valid interest in accessing these records to ensure the continued integrity and transparency of our governmental and judicial offices.”

Alabama’s execution secrecy has been at the core of several other execution controversies. In December 2016, execution witnesses reported that Ronald Smith clenched his fists and gasped repeatedly for nearly fifteen minutes. After the execution, Dunn told the public only that the state had “followed [its] protocol.” State officials later refused to provide any documentation about the execution. In February 2019, late disclosure of its secret protocol provision mandating that a Christian chaplain—and no other religious adviser—be present in the execution chamber led to the controversial execution of Muslim prisoner Domineque Ray without affording him access to an imam at the time of his execution.

 

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Georgia Death-Penalty Case Involving Racist Juror

Posted: March 19, 2019

For the second time in just over one month, the United States Supreme Court has cleared the way for the execution of an African-American prisoner in the face of strong evidence of racial or religious bias. On March 18, 2019, the Court unanimously declined to hear an appeal from Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured), who argued his death sentence was unconstitutionally tainted by the participation of racist white juror who called him a “ni***er” and questioned “if black people even have souls.” That juror, Barney Gattie, signed an affidavit also saying that there were “two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Ni**ers.” Tharpe, Gattie said, “wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category [and] should get the electric chair for what he did.” In February, in a decision that evoked widespread condemnation from critics across the political spectrum, the Court vacated a stay of execution for Domineque Ray, a Muslim death-row prisoner, after Alabama denied his request to have an Imam present at the execution in circumstances in which it provided a chaplain for Christian prisoners.

Though agreeing on procedural grounds that the Court should not review the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement in connection with the Court’s action saying she was “profoundly troubled by the underlying facts of the case.” She wrote: “These racist sentiments, expressed by a juror entrusted with a vote over Tharpe’s fate, suggest an appalling risk that racial bias swayed Tharpe’s sentencing.” Justice Sotomayor said the latest decision “may be the end of the road for Tharpe’s juror-bias claim,” and the Court should therefore “not look away from the magnitude of the potential injustice that procedural barriers are shielding from judicial review.” "It may be tempting to dismiss Tharpe's case as an outlier, but racial bias is a familiar and recurring evil," she wrote. "That evil often presents itself far more subtly than it has here. Yet Gattie's sentiments—and the fact that they went unexposed for so long, evading review on the merits—amount to an arresting demonstration that racism can and does seep into the jury system."

In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to reconsider Tharpe’s case, acknowledging that Tharpe had “present[ed] a strong factual basis for the argument that [his] race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.” However, the appeals court refused to review his discrimination claim, saying he had never presented the issue to the state courts. Tharpe sought review of that decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and received support from a number of groups, including Catholic bishops and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Responding to the Court’s decision, Tharpe’s attorney Marcia Widder said in a statement: “Today’s decision from the U.S. Supreme Court takes giant steps backwards from the Court’s longstanding commitment to eradicating the pernicious effects of racial discrimination on the administration of criminal justice. What happened in Mr. Tharpe’s death penalty case was wrong. … Allowing Mr. Tharpe’s death sentence to stand is an affront to the fairness and decency to which we, as a society, should aspire.  True justice would not permit the State of Georgia to execute Mr. Tharpe on the basis of this record.” The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed an amicus brief urging the Court to hear Tharpe’s case, issued a statement saying, “the Court’s refusal to consider his case on the merits is deeply distressing. As the Court recognized in Buck [v. Davis, in which a mental health expert testified that Buck posed an increased risk of future dangerousness because he is black], allowing death sentences to stand tainted by overt racial discrimination weakens public confidence in the rule of law and the administration of justice.” Putting it more directly, commentator Michael Harriot wrote for The Root, “Unlike the appeals process, apparently racism has no expiration date.”

 

Pittsburgh Rabbi’s Wife Opposes Death Penalty for Tree of Life Synagogue Killings

Posted: March 18, 2019

Beth Kissileff (pictured), a writer and the wife of a rabbi who survived the shooting rampage that killed eleven worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty against the man charged with committing those murders. In an opinion article for the Religion News Service, Kissileff wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation, engaged federal prosecutors and a social worker who had come to discuss the trial of the white supremacist accused of the act of domestic terrorism in “a discussion of Jewish concepts of justice.” Three members of the New Light Congregation were among those murdered in the synagogue. Rabbi Perlman, Kissileff wrote, told the prosecution team: “Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death. … But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.” She writes, “if as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions?”

Kissileff bases her conclusion that a sentence of life without parole for the synagogue shooting is more appropriate than death both on Jewish teachings against the death penalty and on her hope that the killer might yet change his white supremacist beliefs. She wrote in an article for The Jerusalem Post that “[w]hen Jews are killed just for being Jewish, we commemorate them with the words ‘Hashem yikom damam,’ may God avenge their blood. This formulation absents us from the equation since it expresses that it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice. As humans, we are incapable of meting out true justice when a monstrous crime has been committed.” She explains that, although the Torah calls for a death sentence for some crimes, Jewish tradition teaches that death sentences should be very rare, if they are allowed at all. She writes that “a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out [even] once every 70 years.”

Though recognizing that repentance is rare, Kissileff said nonetheless “[t]here is always a chance for redemption. Calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve. I would rather not foreclose that possibility of change, slim as it may be, by putting someone to death.” She recounted the cases of white nationalists Derek Black, who renounced his hatred of Jews after being invited to Shabbat dinners by Jewish students at his college, and Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead leader who later co-authored a book on forgiveness with a man whose father was among the seven congregants murdered in a hate attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Referring to these examples, Kissileff said “[n]either [man] might have been expected to change their beliefs, and yet they have.”

Kissileff’s articles describe the legacy of those who were killed in the Pittsburgh attack and how the shooting has inspired others to become more involved in the synagogue and to learn more about their Jewish faith: “Creating more knowledge of what Judaism and Jewish values are, and encouraging more Jews to commit to them, is the most profound way to avenge their blood.” She writes that, “rather than seeking the shooter’s death,” a better response for Jews would be “strengthening other Jews and Jewish life in Pittsburgh and around the world. Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.” She concludes: “The most important vengeance for the murder of 11 Jews or 6 million is for the Jewish people to live and the Torah to live, not for their killer to die.”

 

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