The United States Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Alabama state courts that would have permitted the execution of Vernon Madison (pictured), a 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 incompetent, limiting 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 independently. In 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 jail. Madison’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 delusions. State 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 certiorari. Kagan 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 TestimonyPosted: 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.
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.”
Two former California death-row prisoners who had spent a combined 70 years in prison are now free men, after federal courts overturned their convictions and local prosecutors agreed to plea deals on non-capital charges. James Hardy (pictured, left) was freed on February 14, 2019 after pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in exchange for a suspended sentence and release on probation. Freddie Lee Taylor (pictured, right) was released on February 20 after pleading guilty to manslaughter and a sentence of time served. Both men have claims of innocence, but their plea deals make them ineligible for DPIC’s Innocence List. Each spent more than 30 years on death row.
James Hardy was convicted and sentenced to death in Los Angeles in 1984 for the murder of Nancy Morgan and her son, Mitchell Morgan. Hardy was tried along with two co-defendants, Mark Reilly and Clifford Morgan, the husband and father of the victims. Clifford was convicted of hiring Reilly and Hardy to kill his family so he could collect insurance money. Prosecutors argued that Hardy was the actual killer and Reilly the middleman in the conspiracy. On appeal, Hardy argued that his trial attorney had been ineffective because he had failed to investigate or present evidence that the prosecution’s key witness was actually the killer. The California Supreme Court overturned Hardy’s death sentence, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit later overturned his conviction, writing, “Hardy’s attorney failed him, and the State of California failed Hardy by putting a man on the stand that it should have known committed the crime.” The court said, “there is a substantial likelihood that the jury would not have convicted Hardy had [his trial lawyer] performed effectively.” Rather than retry Hardy, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office agreed to a plea deal.
Freddie Lee Taylor was convicted and sentenced to death in Contra Costa County in 1986. Taylor had experienced severe trauma and abuse as a child, started using drugs by the age of 10, and was housed from age 13 to 17 in a juvenile detention center that was described in court records as a “gruesome, dehumanizing and frightening world where rape, beatings and fear were constant.” He was arrested in 1984 during a “family dispute” and was sent to a mental institution, where he attempted suicide. Despite doctors’ recommendations that he be placed in a mental hospital because he was a danger to himself or others, he was released by hospital staff. He burglarized the home of 84-year-old Carmen Vasquez, leaving fingerprints in her home. When she was murdered days later, he was identified as a suspect because his fingerprints were at the crime scene. Taylor’s long history of mental illness was ignored at his trial, where his lawyer never requested and the court did not independently order a competency evaluation. His appeal lawyers argued that his conviction was invalid because he was not competent to stand trial. A federal judge reversed Taylor’s conviction in 2016 and the Ninth Circuit upheld that decision in 2018, saying there was insufficient evidence to accurately assess Taylor’s mental health at the time of the crime and his trial. The federal court gave Contra Costa County prosecutors 60 days to decide whether to retry him, but they instead agreed to the plea deal. “Had he not had the benefit of zealous appellate lawyers dedicated to his cause, Freddie Lee Taylor may well have been executed,” Chief Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said. “His is but one case. Others like him who have meritorious claims may not be so fortunate. There are over 700 more people on death row — many waiting for an attorney to be appointed to their case and others still waiting for their cases to be finally resolved by the courts.”
Responding to the Georgia state and federal courts’ refusal to reverse a death sentence imposed on an African-American defendant by a jury tainted by racism, an ideologically diverse range of voices have called on the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured) was sentenced to death by a juror who later said, “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. N***rs,” and wondered “if black people even have souls.” Tharpe, the juror wrote in a signed affidavit, “wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, [and] should get the electric chair for what he did.” In September 2017, the Supreme Court stayed Tharpe’s execution just three hours before it was set to begin, and subsequently ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to reconsider the case. In April 2018, the circuit again denied Tharpe’s appeal. Now, as he seeks a new hearing before the Supreme Court, his case has garnered support from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a Harvard Law Professor, three Catholic bishops, and a prominent Georgia Republican. They all raise concerns that Tharpe’s execution would undermine confidence in the justice system.
In a New York Times op-ed, Harvard Law Professor Russell Kennedy wrote that Tharpe’s case carries a “stench of prejudice” and that his execution would be a miscarriage of justice. “[U]nique historical, constitutional and institutional concerns” should motivate the Court “to rectify the racism that remains all too evident in our administration of criminal justice,” he said. Sam Spital, Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., wrote in the National Law Journal that “overt racial bias in sentencing harms not only the defendant sentenced to die but undermines public confidence in the justice system.” He criticized the lower courts for inventing “inherently inconsistent … procedural roadblocks” as a way to uphold Tharpe’s death sentence. Initially, the Eleventh Circuit denied Tharpe’s race discrimination claim saying he should have raised it sooner, Spital said. But even after the Supreme Court directed the court to reconsider, the circuit refused to address the issue claiming that the case allowing him to present evidence of the juror’s racist statements had not been decided until long after Tharpe’s conviction and death sentence. Spital disagreed with the decision, arguing that “[w]hen a person has presented compelling evidence that he was sentenced to death because of his race, no judge-made procedural obstacles should preclude review of his claim on the merits.”
Three Catholic bishops called for the Supreme Court to vacate Tharpe’s death sentence “for our collective dignity.” In a joint op-ed for The Atlantic, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, Georgia, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, and Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana wrote that “part of our work as religious leaders is to challenge racism by reminding the public that we are all brothers and sisters, equally made in the image of God.” Citing policy statements committing the church to the eradication of racism and declaring the death penalty inadmissible, the bishops wrote: “The U.S. Supreme Court must intervene … to ensure that fairness is protected and justice is defended—before it’s too late.” Additionally, David J. Burge, the former Chairman of the Georgia 5th Congressional District Republican Party, wrote in Newsweek, “As a conservative, I strongly believe that the laws that govern us must be followed and applied in a fair and consistent manner to all citizens. As such, it is obvious to me that jurors who hold racially biased beliefs can never be allowed to judge a case in which their views might influence their verdict.” Tharpe’s case, he wrote, “powerfully remind[s] me that the system is not foolproof. When we know there is error, it is incumbent on the courts to intervene and make it right. … The integrity of the entire process is predicated on the assumption that all jurors evaluate the case through an unbiased lens.”
Two amicus curiae briefs filed in the Racial Justice Act appeal of North Carolina death-row prisoner Rayford Burke (pictured) are asking the North Carolina Supreme Court to redress systemic problems in North Carolina’s administration of its death penalty. One brief, filed by the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), urges the court to provide Burke “the opportunity to prove that racial bias impermissibly influenced jury selection and infected his death sentence.” A second brief, filed by the Promise of Justice Initiative and 12 former judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials from North Carolina, asks the court to declare the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.
Burke was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of a man who he said had testified falsely against him in a prior case. He had sought review of his death sentence under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA), enacted in 2009, which permitted prisoners to challenge their death sentences based on statistical evidence of racial discrimination. However, before a hearing was held on Burke’s Racial Justice Act claim, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks conducted an extensive evidentiary hearing in the case of Marcus Robinson and granted Robinson relief. In a 167-page opinion, Judge Weeks reviewed an “exhaustive study” of North Carolina prosecutors’ strikes and acceptances of more than 7,400 jurors in 173 North Carolina capital murder trials between 1990 and 2010 and found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” Weeks wrote that prosecutors struck black jurors at more than twice the rate of all other jurors, with “remarkable consistency” in strike rates in every county and across the entire period of time studied. Race, he said, “was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in decisions to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors when seeking to impose death sentences in capital cases” and he concluded that the strikes were intentionally undertaken on the basis of race.
The legislature responded by repealing the RJA in 2013. Although four death-row prisoners had received sentence reductions prior to repeal, Burke’s claim had not yet been heard in court and his trial court ruled that the repeal had extinguished any right he had to a hearing. The state courts also overturned the grants of relief to the four prisoners. In March 2018, the state supreme court announced that it would hear RJA appeals from those prisoners, as well as from Burke and another prisoner whose RJA claim had also been filed but not heard.
The LDF brief sets forth evidence that prosecutors discriminated in Burke’s case, including that prosecutors struck all African-American prospective jurors, resulting in an all-white jury, and called Burke “a big black bull” during the trial. It also catalogues what it describes as “a long and tragic history of entrenched racial discrimination in the administration of North Carolina’s death penalty.” In a statement accompanying the filing of the brief, LDF Senior Deputy Director of Litigation Jin Hee Lee said: “Allowing racial bias in Mr. Burke’s case to go unchallenged would be tantamount to condoning racial bias in the administration of justice. The Court must affirm its unwavering commitment to fundamental fairness and racial equality by affording Mr. Burke the opportunity to prove that discrimination tainted his death sentence,” said.
The Promise of Justice Initiative brief, joined by the former judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel, takes an even broader view, calling on the court to strike down North Carolina’s death penalty as unconstitutional. “The time has come to consider whether the system of capital punishment that currently operates in North Carolina violates the evolving standards of decency,” the brief states. Citing evidence that, in North Carolina, no one has been executed since 2006 and the state has averaged fewer than one new death sentence per year over the last seven years, the brief argues that “it is now beyond dispute that use of the death penalty is unusual.” It also points to recent court decisions striking down the death penalty in other states, including Delaware in 2016 and Washington in 2018. “Courts have recognized that the penalty is corrupted by arbitrariness, plagued by error and discrimination, and unsupported by evidence that it deters,” it says.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (pictured) has halted all executions in the state until its Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is able to develop a new execution protocol that gains approval from the courts. Responding to the findings of a federal court that likened Ohio’s three-drug lethal-injection protocol to a combination of waterboarding and chemical fire, DeWine said “Ohio is not going to execute someone under my watch when a federal judge has found it to be cruel and unusual punishment.” DeWine announced his decision at an Associated Press forum in Columbus on February 19. The Republican governor did not set a date on which he expected executions to resume, saying “[a]s long as the status quo remains, where we don’t have a protocol that has been found to be OK, we certainly cannot have any executions in Ohio.”
On January 14, federal magistrate Judge Michael Merz issued an opinion saying that executions under Ohio’s current drug protocol “will almost certainly subject [prisoners] to severe pain and needless suffering.” Mertz noted that 24 of 28 available autopsies from executions involving the sedative midazolam – the first drug in Ohio’s protocol – showed evidence of pulmonary edema, a build-up of fluid in the lungs that was “painful, both physically and emotionally, inducing a sense of drowning and the attendant panic and terror, much as would occur with the torture tactic known as waterboarding.” Mertz found that midazolam lacked the pharmacological properties necessary to keep the prisoner unconscious during the administration of the paralytic second drug, rocuronium bromide, and the heart-stopping third drug, potassium chloride. As a result, he said, the prisoner would experience the sensation of “fire … being poured” through his veins when those drugs were administered. The court’s ruling led DeWine to issue a six-month reprieve to death-row prisoner Warren Keith Henness, who had been scheduled to be executed February 13.
DeWine sponsored Ohio’s capital punishment law as a state senator in 1981 and later represented the state in death-penalty cases as its Attorney General. The governor, who is Catholic and identifies himself as pro-life, has not said how those beliefs affect his stance on the death penalty. When reporters at the forum asked about his personal views on capital punishment, DeWine equivocated. “It is the law of the state of Ohio,” he said. “And I’ll let it go [not comment further] at this point. We are seeing clearly some challenges that you have all reported on in regard to carrying out the death penalty.” Ohio has six more executions scheduled in 2019 and 23 scheduled through 2023.
Kevin Werner of Ohioans to Stop Executions praised the governor’s decision, but cautioned that broad problems identified in a 2014 Task Force Report on the state’s death penalty still need to be addressed. The people set to be executed, he said, are among the most vulnerable in the criminal legal system: “They are people who are poor, who killed white victims, and who have some underlying substance abuse or abuse as children or have a mental illness – I mean, that’s who we’re talking about here."
Overturning the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for the second time, the United States Supreme Court ruled on February 19, 2019, that Texas death-row prisoner Bobby James Moore is intellectually disabled and may not be executed. In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the latest Texas appeals court decision that would have allowed Moore’s execution, saying the state court had relied on many of the same improper lay stereotypes and committed many of the same errors that had led the Justices two years ago to strike down Texas’s “outlier” approach to determining intellectual disability. The Court said that the Texas ruling, “when taken as a whole and when read in the light both of our prior opinion and the trial court record, rests upon analysis too much of which too closely resembles what we previously found improper.”
This decision marked the second time the Supreme Court had reversed a Court of Criminal Appeals denial of Moore’s intellectual disability claim. In 2014, a Texas trial court, applying prevailing clinical standards, found that Moore was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) overturned that decision, saying Moore had not satisfied a Texas-specific standard called the “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them). In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected the use of these factors, calling them an unscientific “invention” of the TCCA that was “untied to any acknowledged source” and lacked support from “any authority, medical or judicial.” The Court criticized the TCCA’s reliance upon “lay stereotypes” about what people with intellectual disability can and cannot do and its misplaced focus on things Moore was able to do in a structured prison setting instead of considering his life history of impairments in daily adaptive functioning, and directed the TCCA to reconsider the issue applying appropriate diagnostic standards.
When the case returned to the state courts, numerous groups, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, filed friend-of-the-court briefs asserting that Moore met the prevailing medical definitions of intellectual disability. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office agreed with Moore and conceded that his death sentence should be vacated. Nonetheless, over the sharp dissent of three judges, the TCCA again upheld Moore’s death sentence. With the backing of the mental health professional associations, Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, and a group of prominent conservative leaders who described the TCCA’s flouting of the 2017 Supreme Court ruling as “inimical to the rule of law,” Moore again asked the Supreme Court to intervene. When Harris County prosecutors again agreed that Moore was entitled to relief, the Texas Attorney General’s office attempted to intervene in the case to defend the TCCA’s ruling. The Supreme Court reversed, writing: “We … agree with Moore and the prosecutor that, on the basis of the trial court record, Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability.” Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, dissented, accusing the majority of improperly engaging in factfinding and failing to provide clarity to lower courts.
Cliff Sloan, a lawyer representing Moore, praised the ruling: “We greatly appreciate today’s important ruling from the Supreme Court, and we are very pleased that justice will be done for Bobby Moore.” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also released a statement: “The Harris County District Attorney’s Office disagreed with our state’s highest court and the attorney general to stand for Justice in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed."
Bills to repeal and replace the death penalty with non-capital punishments have gained new traction across the United States in 2019 as a result of opposition to the death penalty among ideologically conservative legislators. That movement – buoyed by fiscal and pro-life conservatives, conservative law-reform advocates, and the deepening involvement of the Catholic Church in death-penalty abolition – has led to unprecedented successes in numerous houses of state legislatures and moved repeal efforts closer to fruition in a number of deeply Republican states. In 2019, conservative legislators are leading the call for death-penalty abolition in conservative-leaning states such as Wyoming, Montana, and Kentucky, and playing a critical role in bipartisan efforts to repeal or reform capital punishment in Virginia and New Hampshire.
The surprise strength of a death-penalty repeal bill in Wyoming is emblematic of the growing Republican abolition movement. There, in an overwhelmingly Republican legislature, a bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole garnered significant support from both parties and passed the state house and a senate committee before falling short in the full senate. In Kentucky and Montana, Republican legislators have introduced abolition legislation and are attempting to build coalition support, and in Virginia, the Republican-controlled state Senate passed a bill to ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. Conservatives have said they oppose capital punishment because of pro-life beliefs, a desire to reduce government spending, and the lack of deterrent effect. In New Hampshire, a bill to abolish the death penalty passed the legislature with bipartisan support, but was vetoed in 2018. The legislature has renewed bipartisan repeal efforts in 2019.
The Wyoming House of Representatives voted (36-21) on February 1 to pass HB 145, a bill to abolish the death penalty. The bill garnered the support of a majority of House Republicans, all the house Democrats who voted, and the chamber’s lone Independent. It then unanimously passed the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on February 13, before being defeated in the full Senate by a vote of 12-18. In the Senate, nine Republicans and all three Democrats voted in favor of abolition. The bill was introduced by Republican Rep. Jared Olsen of Cheyenne with Republican and Democratic co-sponsors in both houses. Senate co-sponsor Brian Boner (R – Converse) said, “We have an obligation to have a justice system that is blind and based on facts, and not based on what we wished it was or what it used to be.” Olsen said he was concerned about the number of exonerations from death row. “It is way too much authority to vest in our government, and we get it wrong,” he said. Concerns about costs convinced Sen. Bill Landen (R – Casper) to vote for abolition. "I finally decided that I can't go home and feel good about explaining to people all of those myriad of cuts we've made to the state budget and then defend expenditures like this, which have gone on for years and years and years," he said. Wyoming spends an estimated $750,000 per year on legal costs associated with the death penalty, but has not executed anyone since 1992 nor imposed a death sentence since 2004.
Kentucky House Majority Whip Chad McCoy (R – Nelson) said he hopes to get support for his abolition bill from Catholic legislators who have a moral opposition to the death penalty, as well as fiscal conservatives who see it as a costly, ineffective government program. “When you talk about death penalty, a lot of people immediately want to have a criminal justice angle on it or a morality angle. And mine is purely economics,” he said. Kentucky also rarely uses the death penalty. Its last execution was in 2008 and its last death sentence was in 2014. State Representative Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, the sponsor of Montana’s bill to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, told a House committee on February 18 that the state’s death penalty was simply ineffective. The two people sentenced to death in the state have been on death row for thirty years, he said, and “there is no logical measurement that 30 years equals a death sentence. … Regardless of how you feel because of capital punishment, nobody is dying from it.”
A February 4, 2019 article in the criminal justice newsletter, The Appeal, features the case of Demetrius Howard, a California prisoner sentenced to death for a crime in which he didn’t kill anyone. Howard was sentenced to death in 1995 for his participation in a robbery in which another man, Mitchell Funches, shot and killed Sherry Collins. Howard was never accused of firing a shot and he has consistently maintained that he neither expected nor intended that anyone would be killed. But under California’s felony murder law, he was eligible for the death penalty because he participated in the robbery. In a letter to The Appeal, Howard wrote, “I am no saint or some angel. I’ve made my share of wrongs, but I haven’t killed no one [or] told anyone to kill someone.”
California is one of twenty states that allow the execution of defendants who neither killed nor intended that a killing take place. The controversial practice has attracted the most attention in the state of Texas, where at least six prisoners have been executed despite undisputed evidence that they were not involved in the killing itself. In Howard’s case, the man who actually shot Collins, Mitchell Funches, received a sentence of life without parole when the jury in his trial could not reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence him to life or death. In 2018, California passed a law that narrowed the scope of the felony murder law, making defendants liable for murder only if they were the killer, solicited the killer, or acted with reckless indifference to human life. The change is retroactive, but does not apply to Howard because the jury found that he had “acted with reckless indifference to human life” before it sentenced him to death.
Howard’s death sentence is also a by-product of outlier death-penalty practices in San Bernardino County. San Bernardino is one of five Southern California counties that imposed more death sentences between 2010 and 2015 than 99.5% of U.S. counties, earning the region the nickname “the new death belt.” In 1993, shortly before Howard was sentenced to death, there were 10 active capital trials in the county, and then-District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier said he was considering seeking it in two other cases. At the time, Kottmeier told the San Bernardino County Sun, “That’s higher than I’ve ever seen it. At any given time in the past the number pending seemed to be about six.” He attributed the high number of capital cases to a high rate of violent crime, as well as state laws passed in 1990 and 1993 that expanded the list of death-eligible crimes. The California Attorney General’s 2017 report, Homicide in California, shows that despite its disproportionate pursuit of capital punishment, San Bernardino’s higher-than-average murder rate has remained the same from 1997 to 2017, while murder rates have declined statewide and in many of California counties during that period.