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Virginia Senate Passes Bill to Bar the Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill Offenders

Posted: January 22, 2019

By a vote of 23-17, the Virginia State Senate has approved a bill that, if enacted, would ban capital punishment for defendants with severe mental illness. With the support of all nineteen Democratic senators and four Republicans, the bill passed the GOP-controlled Senate on January 17, 2019. It now moves on to the Commonwealth’s House of Delegates, which is comprised of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats.  

SB 1137 defines severe mental illness as “active psychotic symptoms that substantially impair a person’s capacity to (i) appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct; (ii) exercise rational judgment in relation to the person’s conduct; or (iii) conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of the law.”However, the bill excludes disorders that are “manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct or attributable to the acute effects of voluntary use of alcohol or any drug.”Under the proposal, the determination of severe mental illness would be made in the sentencing phase of trial, after the defendant already has been convicted. The jury (or the judge, if the defendant waives the right to a jury trial) would decide if the defendant has proven “by a preponderance of the evidence” that he or she was severely mentally ill at the time of the offense. A defendant found to be severely mentally ill would be sentenced to life without parole. The bill also provides for indigent defendants with mental illness claims to receive assistance from a mental health expert appointed by the court. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Barbara Favola (D – Arlington), called the proposal “a vehicle for us to administer justice in a way that’s humane and, I would say, in a way that reflects the values of Virginians.” Sen. Scott Surovell (D – Fairfax), said the mental illness exemption would have limited impact in Virginia because of the decline in death sentences across the state, but was a necessary mental-health reform. “The reality is we have a broken mental health system in this country,” he said. “We have a broken mental health system in this state. We don’t give it enough money.” Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D – Fairfax), who called himself “a pretty strong proponent of capital punishment,” supported the bill, saying that, when it comes to defendants who are severely mentally ill, “probably we ought to think twice.”

Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions carried out since 1976, but it has had a sharp decline in the use of the death penalty in recent years. No one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011, and just two men remain on the state’s death row. In July 2017, lawyers for William Morva, a seriously mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from a delusional disorder that his lawyers said left him unable to distinguish his delusions from reality, unsuccessfully sought a commutation from Governor Terry McAuliffe. Previously, Governors James Gilmore and Timothy Kaine commuted the death sentences of Calvin Swann and Percy Walton, citing concerns about serious mental illness. Other states are also considering legislation that would ban the death penalty for seriously mentally ill defendants. In 2017, bills were introduced in seven states, including Virginia, calling for such measures. The American Bar Association in 2016 issued a white paper in support of a mental-illness exemption.

 

Citing Evidence of Innocence, Race Discrimination, Georgia Court Grants New Trial to Former Death-Row Prisoner

Posted: January 18, 2019

A Georgia judge has granted a new trial to Johnny Lee Gates (pictured recently, right, and at the time of trial, left) based on new evidence that excludes him as the source of DNA on implements used by the killer during the 1976 rape and murder for which Gates was sentenced to death. DNA testing disclosed that Gates’s DNA was not found on a necktie and the bathrobe belt the prosecution said were used by the killer to bind Kathrina Wright, the 19-year-old wife of a soldier stationed at Fort Benning during the murder. In a January 10, 2019, decision overturning Gates’s conviction, Senior Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen credited the analysis of defense DNA expert Mark Perlin that Gates’s DNA was not present on the evidence. Judge Allen noted that Perline had trained the two Georgia Bureau of Investigation scientists the prosecution relied upon in the most recent court proceedings in the case and that the testimony of the GBI witnesses supported Perlin's conclusions. Judge Allen wrote that “[t]he exclusion of Gates’ profile to the DNA on the two items is material and may be considered exculpatory” and entitled Gates to a new trial.

Gates, who is African American, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a racially charged case. His death sentence was overturned in 2003 based upon evidence that he is intellectually disabled, and he was resentenced to life. Heightening the racial tensions of a black man accused of raping and murdering a young white woman, prosecutors deliberately excluded African American jurors from the case. Lawyers from the Georgia Innocence Project and Southern Center for Human Rights filed a motion in March 2018 arguing that Columbus, Georgia prosecutors engaged in a pattern and practice of systematically striking black prospective jurors because of their race in Gates’s case and six other capital cases with black defendants, discriminatorily empanelling all- or nearly-all-white juries in those cases. The prosecutors’ jury selection notes in those seven capital trials showed that the state attorneys in his case had carefully tracked the race of jurors, struck every black juror they could, and repeatedly wrote derogatory comments about blacks and black prospective jurors. A Georgia Tech mathematics professor provided expert testimony that the probability that black jurors were removed for race-neutral reasons was infinitesimally small – 0.000000000000000000000000000004 percent. In an opinion that excoriated local prosecutors for “undeniable ... systematic race discrimination during jury selection,” Judge Allen found that the prosecutors “identified the black prospective jurors by race in their jury selection notes, singled them out … and struck them to try Gates before an all-white jury.” However, the court said the race discrimination against Gates was not grounds to grant him a new trial because he had not shown that the lawyers who previously represented him did not have access to the evidence of systematic discrimination.

 

New Voices: Former Texas Criminal Appeals Judge Suggests “Pause” on Texas Death Penalty

Posted: January 17, 2019

Retiring Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge and former prosecutor Elsa Alcala now believes that the death penalty is unreliably and discriminatorily applied in the nation’s most aggressive capital punishment state. In a new Houston Chronicle “Behind the Walls” podcast, Judge Alcala – who calls herself “a Republican hanging on by a thread” – told reporter Keri Blakinger, “I think we know enough right now to even call for a moratorium or just to pause all of this and to say, you know, ‘What is going on? Why does Texas have such a high percentage of people who get the death penalty and are executed as compared to the rest of the country?’”

Hired as a prosecutor by Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who gained notoriety as one of the nation’s deadliest prosecutors, Alcala spent nine years trying capital cases in the DA’s office of the country’s leading death-sentencing county. She then served as a county trial judge before being appointed by then-governor George W. Bush to serve on the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. As she was exposed to a range of problems in Texas death penalty cases, her views on the capital punishment evolved. She became a skeptic of capital punishment, often dissenting from denials of death-penalty relief and, in the case of Julius Murphy, called on the court to consider whether the state’s death penalty was constitutionally administered. When she left the bench, Judge Alcala accepted a policy role at the Texas Defender Service, where she will advocate for criminal justice reform. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, she joked, “[m]aybe I can have more success at the legislative level to get somebody to understand that there are some real true problems.”

In the podcast interview, Alcala cites a range of factors that changed her views about capital punishment. She discusses ineffective lawyers and parole laws that, at the beginning of her career, forced jurors to choose between a 15-year prison sentence and a death sentence for death-eligible defendants. “What do you do with these people who ... got there back to in the 90s when we know for a fact that the lawyers were not doing what they should have been doing in my mind?” Alcala asked. “And then the question is, as they come up to be executed, are we going to continue to execute them and tolerate the fact that things were done imperfectly? … I think, still percolating through all of that is that a lot of those [cases] are subject to that old parole law.”

When asked about the decline of the death penalty in Texas, Alcala said, “It is on the decline significantly. Whether it will ever go away and when it will go away – I don't know, I think it is imperfect. More accurately, I should say it is unreliable – I have lost faith in the reliability of the death penalty. And that is what underlies my involvement with the Texas Defender Service. It is: If you're going to have the death penalty, then do it correctly. You know, give them a good trial lawyer, give them a good appellate lawyer, give them a good habeas lawyer at the state level, give them a good federal lawyer and don't let racial prejudice at all influence anything that's going on.” The death penalty, she said, “is just not reliable. It’s not something that I can say is being done the way that it should be done to give you confidence in it as a punishment form. … I think, why is Texas so out of line with the rest of the country? It can't be that our people are worse, right? I mean, Texans are good people. Are our crimes worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so. Are our people worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so.  So somehow we are out of line.”

 

Human Rights Group—Politically Motivated Use of Death Penalty Widens in Saudi Arabia

Posted: January 16, 2019

Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia amid widening pursuit of politically motivated death sentences, mass death penalty trials, and use of the death penalty against female activists, according to a European-based Saudi human rights organization. In its 2018 Death Penalty Report: Saudi Arabia’s False Promise, issued January 16, 2019, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said Saudi Arabia conducted at least 149 executions in 2018, more than double the number conducted in 2013, continuing a four-year surge the group associates with the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Half of those executed were foreign nationals, including 33 from Pakistan and women from Ethiopia and Indonesia. ESOHR reported that the Saudi government concealed at least one execution and failed to announce the execution of the Indonesian woman, and the human rights group expressed concern that the actual number of executions in the country may be higher. 

The Saudi royal family has sought to deflect international criticism of its escalated use of the death penalty by pointing to the use of capital punishment by the United States and other countries. In an April 2018 interview with TIME magazine, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deflected a question on whether the Kingdom would reduce the number of public beheadings and executions in his country, saying: “I believe until today the United States of America and a lot of states, they have capital punishment. We’ve tried to minimize [its use],” he said, and suggested that the monarchy was working with the Saudi parliament on an initiative to change punishments for some offenses from execution to life in prison. The ESOHR report, however, said bin Salman’s statement “is not reflected in the death penalty statistics of 2018. Execution rates have sky rocketed [sic] in the last four years [and] do not indicate any attempts to ‘minimise’ or ‘reduce’” death penalty use. 

ESOHR’s report catalogues an intensified use of “politically motivated death sentences … against an increasing spectrum of government critics,” including human rights advocates, non-violent clerics, and other political opponents. It lists among the politically motivated death sentences the case of Israa al-Ghomgham, the first female activist to face execution in Saudi Arabia for non-violent human rights-related work. Al-Ghomgham was detained in December 2016 during a raid on her home. Her case is being prosecuted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to address acts of terrorism. However, Oliver Windridge – an international human rights lawyer who has written briefs supporting al-Ghomgham – says that its “focus appears to have moved from terrorist suspects to human rights defenders and anti-government protesters.” The ESOHR report describes the terrorism charges against al-Ghomgham as “trumped up” and the trial proceedings as “grossly unfair.” UN human rights experts also have condemned the prosecution, saying that “[m]easures aimed at countering terrorism should never to be used to suppress or curtail human rights work.” 

ESOHR says that 59 Saudi prisoners are currently at risk of imminent execution, including eight who were minors at the time of their purported crimes and twelve men convicted of spreading the Shia faith and allegedly spying for Iran. 

 

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Kentucky Court in Intellectual Disability Case

Posted: January 15, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a Kentucky state court ruling that would have permitted the Commonwealth to execute death-row prisoner Larry Lamont White (pictured) without an evidentiary hearing on his claim that he is intellectually disabled. In a one-paragraph order issued on January 15, 2019, the Court granted White’s petition for review, vacated the Kentucky Supreme Court’s denial of his death-penalty appeal, and directed the state court to reconsider White’s eligibility for capital punishment in light of the standard for determining intellectual disability set forth in the justices’ 2017 decision in Moore v. Texas. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissented.

White’s trial lawyers argued that he was ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, providing evidence from IQ testing conducted in 1971 when he was 12 years old. The trial court summarily denied relief and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, based on a Kentucky statute that required a capitally-charged defendant to score 70 or below on an IQ test to be considered intellectually disabled. The court said White could not be considered intellectually disabled because his IQ score was 76. The court also relied upon White’s filing of motions without the assistance of counsel to conclude “that there is ample evidence of [White]'s mental acumen.” However, ten months after White’s appeal, the state court ruled that Kentucky’s statutory IQ cutoff violated Moore and the Eighth Amendment, holding that “any rule of law that states that a criminal defendant automatically cannot be ruled intellectually disabled and precluded from execution simply because he or she has an IQ of 71 or above, even after adjustment for statistical error, is unconstitutional.”

Justice Alito dissented, citing a previous dissent by the late Justice Antonin Scalia that the Supreme Court’s summary reversals for reconsideration should be reserved for cases in which an intervening factor is present. Here, Alito argued, the Court should not have intervened because the Moore decision “was handed down almost five months before the Supreme Court of Kentucky reached a decision in [White’s] case.” White’s lawyer, Kathleen Schmidt, praised the majority’s ruling, saying “[n]early 20 years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, in part out of concern that intellectually disabled defendants are more likely to be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. We have similar concerns in this case, and we are grateful that the Supreme Court has remanded the case to ensure that all issues in the case are fully and properly litigated.”

 

With Backing of New Governor, Florida Clemency Board Posthumously Pardons the “Groveland Four”

Posted: January 13, 2019

On January 11, 2019, the Florida Clemency Board unanimously granted posthumous pardons to the “Groveland Four,” four young African-American men falsely accused of raping a young white woman in Lake County, Florida in 1949. During the racist hysteria following the accusation, white mobs burned down black residences, a massive white posse lynched a black suspect, all-white juries condemned two innocent men to death and an innocent teen to a life sentence, and a racist sheriff murdered one of the men and attempted to kill another. Gov. Ron DeSantis, convening the board for the first time since his election, urged it to grant clemency, calling the notorious case a “miscarriage of justice.” The state legislature issued a formal apology to the family members of the men in 2017, but former Gov. Rick Scott had taken no action on a pardon.

The four black men – Charles Greenlee, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd – were accused of the 1949 rape of a 17-year-old white woman, Norma Padgett. Thomas escaped from custody but was hunted down and murdered by an angry mob. He was reportedly shot 400 times. White mobs burned and shot at the homes of black families, many of whom fled and never returned. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were beaten until they falsely confessed to the crime. All-white juries convicted them, sentencing World War II veterans Irvin and Shepherd (pictured, right) to death and Greenlee (pictured, left), who was only 16 years old, to life in prison. The NAACP took up the men’s case, and they were represented by Thurgood Marshall, among others. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Irvin and Shepherd’s convictions. Shortly after the reversal, Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall shot the two handcuffed men while he was driving them to a court appearance, and posed for a photo in front of their prone bodies. McCall claimed that he had acted in self-defense. Shepherd died. Irvin, who survived by playing dead until others arrived at the scene, was retried and once again sentenced to death by an all-white jury. He received a last-minute reprieve when the prosecutor expressed doubt as to his guilt and his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Greenlee and Irvin were both eventually paroled, but Irvin died just one year after his release. Greenlee died in 2012.

Carol Greenlee, Charles Greenlee’s daughter, testified in favor of the pardons. In an interview, she said, “I wanted two things to happen. I wanted the world to know the truth, and I wanted my daddy’s name cleared.” Governor DeSantis said, “I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that [the] ideals of justice were satisfied. Indeed, they were perverted, time and time again.” In addition to the pardon and the legislature’s apology, the Groveland Four also received an apology from the Orlando Sentinel, which inflamed passions with its racist coverage of the case in 1949. In particular, the newspaper apologized for running a political cartoon as the grand jury convened, showing four empty electric chairs with the title “No Compromise!” A Sentinel editorial published the day before the pardons said, “We’re sorry for the Orlando Sentinel’s role in this injustice. We’re sorry that the newspaper at the time did between little and nothing to seek the truth. We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative.”

 

Texas Prisoner Seeks Stay of Execution on Claims of Junk Science, Arbitrary Sentencing

Posted: January 11, 2019

[UPDATE: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution to Blaine Milam on January 14, 2019] As Texas prepares to execute Blaine Milam (pictured) on January 15, 2019, Milam’s lawyers say his conviction and sentence rest on discredited bite-mark testimony and have asked for the execution to be halted. Milam filed a habeas corpus petition in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on January 10 challenging his conviction and sentence, along with a motion to stay his execution. While the contents of those pleadings do not appear on the public docket and have not been released to the media, his lawyers issued a statement saying that “[Texas] obtained Blaine Milam’s conviction and death sentence for capital murder based on now discredited bite mark junk science” and that “Mr. Milam’s conviction is unreliable, and his death sentence is arbitrary.”

Milam – who prior court pleadings have argued is intellectually disabled – and his mentally ill girlfriend, Jessica Carson, were convicted of killing Carson’s 13-month-old daughter, Amora, during an alleged exorcism in 2008. Both defendants were 18 years old at the time. Milam’s current lawyer, Jennae Swiergula, the Post-Conviction Director of the Texas Defender Service, said in the statement that Carson “had been experiencing a psychotic illness involving delusions that her child was possessed by a demon.” Carson, whom Milam says actually killed the baby, received a sentence of life without parole, while Milam was sentenced to death. Milam was convicted under Texas’s controversial “law of parties,” which allows defendants to be convicted and 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. Swiergula said the state did not have “any meaningful evidence that Mr. Milam played any role in causing” Amora’s death, and the jury did not hear evidence of Carson’s psychotic illness. “Even under the law of parties,” she said, “the State’s evidence that Mr. Milam ‘aided’ in the offense rested on junk science.” Bite-mark evidence has long been the subject of controversy, and the National Academy of Sciences and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have criticized it as lacking scientific validity. In 2016, the Texas Forensic Science Commission called for a moratorium on its use in court. 

Previous appeals for Milam have raised questions about his degree of culpability for the crime. His appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit argued that he was under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of the crime, and therefore could not form an “intent to commit a crime.” The same appeal also presented evidence that he is intellectually disabled, rendering him ineligible for execution. The appeals court declined to hear both claims.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted seven stays of execution since 2016 to permit review of claims that defendants were convicted or sentenced to death based on false or misleading forensic evidence or testimony. If the execution is not stayed, Milam will be the first person executed in the United States in 2019.

 

Chaos Continues in Guantánamo Death-Penalty Trial, As Another Military Judge Quits

Posted: January 10, 2019

The already chaotic Guantánamo death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, accused of orchestrating the October 2000 attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole, hit another snag as the most recent judge assigned to preside over the controversial proceedings will be leaving the military and quitting the case. In a January 4, 2019 appellate pleading recently obtained by the McClatchy News Service, prosecutors advised the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that Air Force Colonel Shelley Schools (pictured), assigned in August 2018 as the third judge to preside over the USS Cole military tribunal, one month later accepted an offer to become an immigration court judge and “intends to retire from the military in the near future.” Schools’s retirement leaves the Guantánamo tribunal yet again without a judge to handle pretrial proceedings.

Schools was assigned the case after former judge and Air Force Colonel Vance Spath also retired from the military to become a civilian immigration judge. Spath’s retirement followed months of frustration over developments in Nashiri’s case. In October 2017, Nashiri’s entire civilian legal team resigned from the case, alleging that the government had illegally eavesdropped on their legal meetings, leaving Nashiri to be represented by a single military lawyer, Lieutenant Alaric Piette, who was five years out of law school and had never tried a murder case. In November 2017, Spath found Brigadier General John Baker, the Chief Defense Counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, guilty of criminal contempt for allowing the resignations and sentenced him to 21 days of confinement. However, Harvey Rishikof, who at that time served as the Convening Authority of all of the Guantánamo tribunals, released Baker from confinement, and a federal court later overturned Baker’s contempt conviction. Then, during a January 2018 pretrial hearing, Spath criticized Piette for seeking a continuance in the case until expert death-penalty co-counsel could be appointed, telling him to “engage in self help” by attending special training to become “more comfortable handling capital matters.” Media reports described an exasperated Spath as having delivered “a 30-minute monologue” venting his frustration over having his orders ignored, alleged inaction by Pentagon officials to help him return civilian counsel to the case, and uncertainty over his authority raised by Baker’s actions. In February 2018, Spath indefinitely suspended Nashiri’s trial because of the lack of counsel.

It is unlikely that Schools will preside over any developments in the USS Cole case before she joins the immigration court in the summer of 2019. The case is currently on appeal in federal court, where Nashiri’s lawyers are seeking to vacate the rulings made by Spath during a three-year period in which he secretly pursued appointment of the civilian immigration judge job at the Department of Justice (DOJ), while presiding over Nashiri’s military tribunal case, which was being handled by DOJ prosecutors.

The USS Cole case has been plagued by other controversies, as well. Nashiri’s lawyers previously challenged the constitutionality of his detention in military custody because the CIA admittedly subjected him to 14 years of "physical, psychological and sexual torture." They also unsuccessfully argued that he should be tried in civilian, rather than military, court.

 

Supreme Court Lets Death Sentence Stand for Prisoner Whose Attorney Presented No Mitigating Evidence

Posted: January 9, 2019

Over a sharp dissent by three justices, the United States Supreme Court has let stand the death sentence imposed on a Georgia prisoner who was suffering from dementia, brain damage, and borderline intellectual functioning, but whose trial lawyer failed to present any mitigating evidence. On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed on behalf of death-row prisoner Donnie Cleveland Lance seeking the Court’s review of the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of relief in his case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan – dissented, writing that “the Court’s refusal to intervene permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Lance was sentenced to death by a Georgia court for the 1997 murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Lance’s trial lawyer – a solo practitioner who was convinced he could persuade the jury of Lance’s innocence – asked the trial court to appoint a second lawyer to handle any potential penalty phase. The court denied that request and also denied a defense motion for funds to retain expert witnesses to challenge the range of experts hired by the prosecution in the case. After the court denied his motions, Lance’s lawyer conducted no penalty-phase investigation and did nothing to prepare for the penalty phase. Following Lance’s conviction, counsel made no penalty-phase opening statement, called no witnesses, and presented no mitigating evidence. In his cursory closing argument, counsel asked the jury to think of Lance’s family and to not seek vengeance. 

New counsel represented Lance in his state post-conviction proceedings and presented extensive evidence of Lance’s serious cognitive impairments. Four mental health experts agreed that Lance had brain damage in his frontal lobe, that his IQ was on the borderline for intellectual disability, and that he suffered from clinical dementia. While the three defense experts agreed that Lance’s brain damage significantly impaired his ability to control his impulses and conform his conduct to the law, the state’s expert disagreed about the extent of his impairment. The trial court overturned Lance’s death sentence, ruling that counsel had provided ineffective representation. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that while counsel’s performance was deficient, the presentation of mitigating evidence would have been futile given the facts of the murder. On federal habeas corpus review, the Georgia federal courts ruled that the Georgia Supreme Court had not unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it upheld Lance’s death sentence.

The three-justice dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene argued that the Georgia Supreme Court decision was “an objectively unreasonable application” of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and had “mischaracterized or omitted key facts and improperly weighed the evidence.” The evidence of Lance’s “‘serious’ and ‘significant’” mental impairments, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “reasonably could have affected at least one juror’s assessment of whether Lance deserved to die for his crimes, and Lance should have been given a chance to make the case for his life.” Instead, she said, “Lance may well be executed without any adequately informed jury having decided his fate.”

 

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Reconsideration of “Vindictive Prosecution” in Virginia Capital Case

Posted: January 8, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the Virginia Supreme Court to address a claim brought by former death-row prisoner Justin Wolfe (pictured) that prosecutors had engaged in unconstitutional vindictive prosecution against him after federal courts had found that his conviction and death sentence had been obtained through egregious prosecutorial misconduct. The Virginia Supreme Court had ruled that Wolfe’s guilty plea to the enhanced charges brought against him after his first conviction was overturned barred him from challenging the prosecutors’ conduct. In a two-sentence order on January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court granted Wolfe’s petition to review his case, summarily reversed the state court decision, and directed the Virginia Supreme Court to consider Wolfe’s vindictive prosecution claim.

Wolfe was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 on charges that he had hired Owen Barber to kill Daniel Petrole, Jr. His conviction was overturned in 2011 when U.S. District Court Judge Raymond A. Jackson found that the prosecution had intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence, threatened a witness with the death penalty if he did not testify against Wolfe, and presented false testimony to the jury. Judge Jackson described the prosecutorial and police misconduct in the case as “abhorrent to the judicial process.” Barber, the admitted triggerman and the state’s key witness against Wolfe, had recanted his testimony in 2005. He said, “The prosecution and my own defense attorney placed me in a position in which I felt that I had to choose between falsely testifying against Justin or dying.” Prosecutors had in their possession, but withheld from the defense, a police report documenting that a detective had suggested to Barber that he implicate Wolfe in the murder or face execution, as well as information that Barber had confessed to his roommate that he had acted alone in committing the murder. The prosecution attempted to justify its conduct by saying it had withheld the evidence to avoid providing Wolfe with information that could be used “to fabricate a defense.”

In 2012, Judge Jackson ordered Virginia to release Wolfe and barred a retrial, saying that a prosecution visit to Barber in 2012 in which it again threatened him with the death penalty if he did not cooperate showed "the same subtle but unmistakable coercion" as earlier efforts to induce his testimony. Six months later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling and allowed the state to retry Wolfe. Prosecutors not only sought to retry Wolfe, but added six new charges. Rather than face the possibility of another death sentence, Wolfe agreed to a plea deal. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 83 years in prison, with 42 years suspended. He attempted to appeal the validity of the plea “in light of the Commonwealth’s vindictive prosecution,” but the Virginia Supreme Court on February 5, 2018 refused his petition for appeal. He sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his appeal should be allowed under its 2018 decision in Class v. United States, which held that “‘a plea of guilty to a charge does not waive a claim that—judged on its face—the charge is one which the State may not constitutionally prosecute.’” The Supreme Court reversed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling and sent the case back for further consideration in light of Class.

 

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