DPIC News

Governor Vetoes New Hampshire Death-Penalty Repeal Bill

New Hampshire Governor Christopher Sununu (pictured) has vetoed a bill that would have abolished the state's death penalty. Surrounded by law enforcement officers as he vetoed the bill on June 21, 2018, Sununu said, “[w]hile I very much respect the arguments made by proponents of this bill, I stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community and advocates for justice in opposing it. New Hampshire does not take the death penalty lightly and we only use it sparingly.” New Hampshire has only one person on death row, Michael Addison, who was sentenced to death for killing police officer Michael Briggs. No one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939. The death-penalty repeal bill, which applied only to future cases, passed the state Senate by a 14-10 vote in March, and passed the House by a 223-116 vote in April. It received bipartisan support in both legislative houses. While Sununu invoked the views of crime victims and law enforcement in opposition to repeal, Rep. Renny Cushing, a repeal supporter whose father was murdered, said not all crime victims agree. “Many murder victim family members in our state paid a very painful, harsh price for the right to tell Gov. Sununu that we don't want killing in our name. The reality is that the death penalty does not do the one thing we wish it would do: bring our loved ones back.” When the repeal bill passed, Rep. Richard O’Leary, a former deputy police chief in Manchester, said he voted for the bill because “I don’t believe we have the right under any circumstances, except immediate self-defense, to take a life. Once the criminal has been subdued, arrested, segregated from society and rendered defenseless, I cannot see where the state has any compelling interest in executing him. It’s simply wrong.” This is the third time since 2000 that New Hampshire has come close to abolishing capital punishment. In 2000, Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a repeal bill that had passed both houses of the legislature, and in 2014, a bill passed the House and garnered the support of Governor Maggie Hassan, but failed on a tie vote in the Senate. A DPIC study of 29 years of FBI homicide data found no discernible relationship between state murder trends and the presence or absence of the death penalty, and provided evidence that the death penalty has not made police officers or the public safer. The study found that murder rates in general and murders of police officers are consistently higher in states that have the death penalty and that police officers were killed at a rate 1.37 times higher in current death-penalty states than in states that had long abolished capital punishment. All six states in New England have murder rates well below the national average. Five New England states are among the ten safest states in the country for police officers. However, in New Hampshire—the only New England state with the death penalty—officers are killed at a rate higher than the national average.

New Podcast: Professor Carol Steiker on the History and Future of America’s Death Penalty

Harvard Law Professor Carol Steiker (pictured), co-author of the highly acclaimed book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, joins DPIC’s Robin Konrad for a provocative discussion of the past and future of America’s death penalty. In the latest episode of Discussions with DPIC, Professor Steiker—who served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—takes us inside the walls of the Court for insights on the justices’ approaches to capital-punishment jurisprudence and the impact of Justice Marshall’s legacy on the Court today. She describes her experience with death-penalty cases as a U.S. Supreme Court clerk, and talks about the recurring evolution of the justices’ views on the death penalty as they experience years of failed attempts to redress its systemic flaws. In putting the modern death penalty in context, Professor Steiker focuses particularly on the relationship between race and capital punishment. “Today’s death penalty,” she says, “is inextricably tied to a history of slavery, of lynching, of progressive anti-lynching support of the death penalty. Those are the waves of history that are still lapping at the shore of the present.” The legacy of that history, she says, continues to be felt in the overwhelmingly disproportional use of capital punishment by the states of the former Confederacy, as compared to the rest of the country, and the disparate pursuit and imposition of the death penalty in cases involving White victims. Steiker identifies systemic problems in today’s death penalty that she says could some day lead the U.S. Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional, including the politicization of judges and prosecutors and the “abysmal” state of capital representation. When and if abolition occurs, she says, will depend ultimately on the composition of the Court.

Louisiana Prisoner Alleges Prosecutor Got Death Verdict By Coercing Witness, Presenting Fabricated Testimony

Michael Wearry, a Louisiana prisoner whose conviction and death sentence were overturned by the U.S Supreme Court in 2016 because prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, has filed suit against Livingston Parish District Attorney Scott Perriloux (pictured) and former Sheriff's Deputy Marlon Kearney Foster based upon new evidence that they deliberately fabricated testimony against him. Wearry's complaint charges that the Louisiana officials "knowingly and deliberately fabricated" testimony from a troubled adolescent, Jeffery Ashton and coerced Ashton "to falsely implicate Wearry in the homicide of Eric Walber." The lawsuit says Wearry first learned that Perriloux and Foster had fabricated Ashton's testimony during the course of preparing for Wearry's re-trial, when his defense team located and interviewed Ashton and "Ashton told Wearry’s lawyers about the falsification of his witness accounts." Wearry was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002, although no physical evidence linked him to the murder. His alibi witnesses testified that he was at wedding reception 40 miles away in Baton Rouge at the time of the murder. The U.S. Supreme Court has described the case against Wearry as "a house of cards." The prosecution case relied heavily on the testimony of Sam Scott, a jailhouse informant, whose story changed so dramatically over the course of four different statements that, according to the Supreme Court, by the time of trial "his story bore little resemblance to his original account." Police records that prosecutors withheld from the defense at trial revealed that Scott had may have had a personal vendetta against Wearry, having told another prisoner he wanted to "make sure [Wearry] gets the needle cause he jacked over me." Prosecutors also failed to disclose that they had offered another witness a reduced sentence for an unrelated conviction in exchange for his testimony against Wearry, and then lied to the jury that the witness had "no deal on the table." Wearry's lawsuit concerns allegations of misconduct involving the testimony of Jeffrey Ashton, who was ten years old at the time of the murder and fourteen when he testified at Wearry's trial that he had seen Wearry throw the victim's cologne bottle into a ditch and get into the victim's car. He now says he was attending a festival on the night of the murder and had never seen Wearry before the trial. "Ashton was subject to juvenile court proceedings at the time, and was vulnerable to intimidation by authorities such as Perrilloux and Foster," the lawsuit says. In an affidavit, Ashton says he was "forced" to provide false testimony. "I went along with it because I was just ten years old. I was scared," he said. Jim Craig, Wearry's attorney, called the alleged misconduct "very disturbing," and said, "[t]he abuse of power by District Attorney Perrilloux and Mr. Foster is an outrage that should disturb anyone who believes in justice." He added that he believes the case may have implications for other cases handled by Perriloux, saying, "I think the integrity of this and other cases in that district is at stake and we expect this to be a very hard fought case. We are confident that what we have filed is correct and truthful." District Attorney Perrilloux called the allegations that he coerced testimony from Ashton "ridiculous."

Florida Supreme Court Reverses Death Sentence, Orders Hearing for Prisoner Convicted by Anti-Gay Juror

The Florida Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence imposed on Eric Kurt Patrick (pictured) and ordered the lower court to conduct a hearing on the failure of Patrick’s lawyer to adequately question a juror who admitted his belief that gay people are “morally depraved” might affect his judgment of guilt or innocence. Patrick was convicted of the 2005 murder of Steven Schumacher, a gay man who had brought Patrick home after meeting him in a park, and was sentenced to death after a bare 7-5 majority of jurors voted to recommend the death penalty. The court on June 14, 2018, reversed Patrick’s death sentence based upon its 2016 decision in Hurst v. State, which declared that death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death violated the state and federal constitutions. The appeals court directed the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Patrick’s lawyer’s handling of jury selection was ineffective. During jury selection, one juror admitted he “would have a bias if [he] knew the perpetrator was homosexual.” When asked about his ability to evaluate guilt based only the evidence proven beyond a reasonable doubt, he said, “Put it this way, if I felt the person was a homosexual, I personally believe that person is morally depraved enough that he might lie, might steal, might kill.” The juror then answered “yes” when asked if this bias might affect his deliberations. Patrick, who does not identify as gay, was homeless and acknowledged that he had engaged in sexual activity with other men to support himself. On the night of the murder, the men were in bed together after Patrick had given Schumacher a massage, when Schumacher attempted to initiate anal sex and Patrick “cut loose on” the victim, beating him to death. Patrick’s appeal lawyers argued that defense counsel should have struck the juror because of his clear bias; prosecutors argued that Schumacher, not Patrick, was gay and that Patrick’s trial lawyer accepted the juror for strategic reasons. The court wrote that “[a]pplying this evidence to the juror’s voir dire answers establishes that, by the juror’s own acknowledgement on the record, he was predisposed to believe that Patrick is morally depraved enough to have committed the charged offenses. Although Patrick does not identify as homosexual and indicated in his confession that his sexual activity with men was for material support rather than personal fulfillment,” the opinion said, “these points do not eliminate the bias that this juror said he would feel based on the evidence that trial counsel and the trial court knew the jury would hear during trial.” However, the court said it did not have enough evidence to decide the issue. Remanding the case for an evidentiary hearing, it wrote, “[o]n this record, we can neither ignore the possibility that counsel’s failure to challenge this juror was strategic nor conclude that it was.” 

Kentucky Supreme Court Strikes Down Commonwealth’s Death-Penalty Intellectual Disability Law

The Kentucky Supreme Court has struck down the Commonwealth’s death-penalty intellectual disability law, which required proof of an IQ score of 70 or below before a death-row prisoner or capital defendant could be found ineligible for the death penalty. The court ruled on June 14, 2018, in the case of Robert Keith Woodall (pictured) that the Commonwealth’s use of a strict IQ cutoff as a prerequisite to finding a defendant intellectually disabled violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Hall v. Florida (2014) and Moore v. Texas (2017). Those decisions made clear that state standards for determining intellectual disability in death-penalty cases must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework” and that use of a fixed 70-IQ cutoff score is incompatible with that framework. The Kentucky court reversed a trial court decision that had rejected Woodall’s intellectual-disability claim, and ordered the trial court to reassess that claim using a proper standard. Woodall was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. Four years later, in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the death penalty for people with intellectual disability, and Woodall sought to have his death sentence overturned on those grounds. The trial court rejected his claim, saying he had not satisfied Kentucky's IQ requirement. The Hall decision, however, had specifically identified Kentucky’s IQ cutoff as one the statutory provisions that would violate the Eighth Amendment, and the Kentucky high court wrote that the Commonwealth's IQ standard “potentially and unconstitutionally exposes intellectually disabled defendants to execution.” Woodall’s attorneys praised the decision, saying, “While Kentucky was one of the first states to prohibit the execution of the intellectually disabled when it passed the statute that the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down today, that statute had long since become obsolete as the science moved forward. The Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision today to abandon that statute in favor of a more modern and scientific understanding of intellectual disability is very appropriate.” The court established new guidelines for lower courts to use in intellectual-disability hearings, including a “totality of the circumstances test,” which will examine whether defendants have the ability to learn basic skills and adapt their behavior to their circumstances.

STUDY: Local Mississippi Prosecutors Struck Black Jurors at More than Four Times the Rate of Whites

A new study shows that the Mississippi District Attorney's office that has prosecuted Curtis Flowers for capital murder six times—striking almost all black jurors in each trial—has disproportionately excluded African Americans from jury service for more than a quarter century. Reviewing the exercise of discretionary jury strikes in 225 trials between 1992 and 2017, American Public Media Reports discovered that during the tenure of Mississippi's Fifth Circuit Court District Attorney Doug Evans (pictured) prosecutors have exercised peremptory strikes to exclude African Americans from jury service at nearly 4½ times the rate at which they struck white jurors. APM Reports collected and analyzed data on more than 6,700 jurors called for jury service in the the Fifth District. Its study—which was reviewed before its release by a statistics expert and two law professors who had conducted prior jury-strike studies—found that Fifth District prosecutors struck 50 percent of all eligible black jurors compared to only 11 percent of eligible whites. Looking at potentially race-neutral factors raised during juror questioning, APM Reports found that prosecutors were still far more likley to strike black jurors than similarly situated white jurors (click here to enlarge graph). Controlling for these factors, the study found that the odds prosecutors would strike a black juror were six times greater than the odds that they would strike a white juror. APM Reports prepared the study in connection with its acclaimed podcast series In the Dark, which this season focuses on the Flowers case. Evans' office has been scrutinized for alleged race-related abuses of powers during the course of Flowers' six trials for the murder of four furniture store employees. Flowers has consistently professed his innocence. In his first three trials, Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death by all-white or nearly all-white juries. In each of these cases, the state Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ordered new trials. Just before the second trial, Flowers' parents' house burned down. Shortly afterwards, his mother was told of a threat made by a white resident that, "If they let that n----- go, another house is going to burn." Jurors deadlocked in Flowers' fourth and fifth trials, split along racial lines. All the white jurors voted for death in both of those trials. Only one black juror served on the sixth jury, and Flowers was sentenced to death in that trial. Although it is unconstitutional to exclude jurors from service based on race, the practice is ubiquitous in many jurisdictions that heavily use the death penalty. Over the course of 332 criminal trials in CaddoParish, Louisiana in the decade from 2003-2012, prosecutors struck black jurors at more than triple the rate of other jurors, approximately the same disproportionate rate at which black jurors were struck in 35 cases resulting in death sentences in South Carolina in the fifteen years between 1997-2012. In 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period in North Carolina, and in more than 300 capital trials over more than two decades in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, prosecutors struck black jurors twice as frequently as other jurors. Most recently, in Georgia, Johnny Gates, who was sentenced to death in Columbus, Georgia in 1977, has challenged his conviction with evidence that his prosecutors struck every black juror they could in the seven capital trials they prosecuted between 1976 and 1979, empaneling all-white juries in six of those cases. 

Retired Warden, Former Judge and Prosecutor Urge Ohio to Grant Clemency to Raymond Tibbetts

The Ohio Parole Board held a hearing on June 14, 2018 to consider clemency for death-row prisoner Raymond Tibbetts, whose February 13 execution was halted by Governor John Kasich to consider a juror's request that Tibbets be spared. Ross Geiger, one of the twelve jurors who sentenced Tibbetts to death in 1997, wrote to Governor Kasich on January 30 expressing “deep concerns” about a “very flawed” trial and saying he “would not have recommended the death penalty” had the jury been provided complete information about Tibbetts’ upbringing. Tibbetts’ clemency application has been buoyed by the support of two criminal justice experts, Judge James A. Brogan (pictured), a former prosecutor and past chief justice of the Ohio Courts of Appeals Judges Association who chaired the Ohio Supreme Court's Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, and George D. Alexander, a former Ohio prison warden and prison chaplain. Geiger wrote that the jury had voted for death after the prosecution had led them to believe that Tibbetts and his siblings had lived normal lives and his siblings ”had turned out fine.” He later learned that Tibbetts’ trial lawyer had failed to present evidence that Tibbetts had been abandoned at age 2, then abused and malnourished in foster care, and that “of Mr. Tibbetts’ four siblings, one committed suicide, one also spent time in prison, one is essentially homeless and unemployed, and only his sister is now doing well, despite having had a very turbulent younger life.” In a guest column in the Columbus Dispatch, Judge Brogan lauded Governor John Kasich’s decision in February to grant Tibbetts a reprieve so that Geiger could present his case to spare Tibbetts to the parole board. Brogan noted that the vote of just one juror is enough to prevent the imposition of a death sentence. “Fundamental flaws in the trial process deprived the jury of key facts that would have prevented this juror from voting in favor of death,” he wrote. “These truly extraordinary circumstances cry out for a clemency recommendation rather than an execution.” Alexander, the former prison warden and chaplain, added that Tibbetts has shown remarkable rehabilitation during his time in prison. “By all accounts, by the grace of God, Tibbetts has experienced a radical transformation,” Alexander wrote in a commentary published in the Akron Beacon-Journal. “He is no longer the troubled criminal, addicted to drugs and alcohol, as he was when he entered death row 20 years ago. He is remorseful, reflective and reformed.” The parole board will make a recommendation for or against clemency, but the ultimate decision rests with Governor Kasich. [UPDATE: On June 22, the Ohio parole board recommended that Governor Kasich deny clemency to Mr. Tibbetts.]

Television Documentary Chronicles Innocence Claims of Two Death-Row Prisoners

A new documentary airing on ABC tells the stories of Darlie Lynn Routier and Julius Jones, two death-row prisoners who have long argued they were wrongfully convicted. The Last Defense, produced by Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon, focuses its first four episodes on Routier, a Texas woman convicted of killing her young son, then highlights Jones, a Black man who was a 19-year-old college student when he was arrested for the murder of a White businessman. Routier says an intruder broke into her home, killed her 5- and 6-year-old sons, and stabbed her while her husband and youngest son slept upstairs. Police concluded that Routier had staged the break-in and quickly named her as the suspect in her sons' murders. Her trial in the death of the younger child began only seven months after the murders and lasted only two days. Her attorneys say she did not receive adequate representation at trial, and that her trial attorney failed to counter forensic evidence against her because he had a conflict of interest, having previously represented Routier's husband in an unrelated case. Though a court has ordered DNA testing that could verify Routier's burglary story, bureaucratic delays have kept her waiting on death row. A June 19, 2017 status report on the testing said, “In May 2017, counsel in the Dallas County District Attorney (office) learned the materials that were supposed to have been transported to the Department of Public Safety for DNA testing, as the state trial court’s testing order had required, had never been transported to DPS.” Jones, who is on death row in Oklahoma, had been a high school athlete and honor student who did not fit the description of the shooter. Like Routier, he is seeking DNA testing that he believes will prove his innocence. Jones's case raises claims of ineffective counsel, and the series explores the role of race in his trial, as a young Black man accused of killing a White man in a suburban neighborhood. Jones has an appeal pending in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to review the race discrimination in his case. Data from a 2017 study of race and the death penalty shows that, in Oklahoma, defendants convicted of killing White victims are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing victims of color, and that among these White-victim cases, defendants of color were then nearly twice as likely as White defendants to be sentenced to death. The Last Defense airs Tuesdays on ABC.

Pew Poll Finds Uptick in Death Penalty Support, Though Still Near Historic Lows

Just under 54% of Americans say they support the death penalty and 39% say they are opposed, according to the results of a Pew Research poll released June 11, 2018. The poll—administered between April 25 and May 1, one month after President Trump called for the death penalty for drug trafficking—reflects a five-point increase in support for capital punishment, up from the record-low 49% recorded in Pew's 2016 poll. The results, which are in line with the 55% support level found by the Gallup organization in its October 2017 poll, are the second-lowest level of death-penalty support recorded since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. The Gallup findings marked a 45-year low in that poll. Support for the death penalty remained lowest, and opposition highest, among Democrats (35% in favor, 59% opposed), Blacks (36% in favor, 52% opposed), and people with postgraduate degrees (42% in favor, 56% opposed). The highest levels of support for capital punishment were reported among Republicans (77% in favor, 17% opposed), White evangelical Protestants (73% in favor, 19% opposed), and men (61% in favor, 34% opposed). Women and the youngest voters (aged 18-29) were evenly divided on the issue, with 1% more saying they supported the death penalty. The largest shift since 2016 was among those identifying themselves as political independents, with reported support increasing from 44% in 2016 to 52% this year. Pew does not report changes in party affiliation, and part of the shift with Independents may represent a change in those who self-identify as Independent, rather than changed beliefs on the part of individuals who previously called themselves Independents. Long-term trends, however, continue to show a clear decline in death-penalty support among all demographic groups. Support fell from 78% in 1996, to 64% in 2007, to 54% today. That decline has been sharpest among Democrats, whose support has dropped 36 percentage points since 1996, but support among Independents has fallen 25 percentage points during that period, and Republican support has fallen 10 percentage points. (Click image to enlarge.)

Georgia Supreme Court Hears First Death-Penalty Appeal in Two Years Amidst Sharp Decline in Death Sentences

In the midst of a sharp decline in death sentences in the state, the Georgia Supreme Court on June 4 heard a direct appeal in a capital case for the first time in two years. In March 2018, Georgia reached the four-year mark since it had last imposed a death sentence, a dramatic change for a state that once handed down 15 death sentences in a single year. The decline in Georgia's death penalty exemplifies broader national death-penalty trends. In 1987, when Georgia handed down those 15 death sentences, 288 people were sentenced to death across the country. Thirty years later, in 2017, Georgia was completing its third consecutive calendar year with no death sentences, and the national total was just 39. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, credits the public's preference for life without parole (LWOP) sentences, saying the availability of LWOP has made a "huge difference." "[W]hen you sit down with victims’ families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives," he said. Other prosecutors have found that the reluctance of juries to impose death sentences has made them less likely to seek death. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter called it "a self-fulfilling prophesy," noting, "As more and more juries give fewer death sentences, prosecutors begin to think it’s not worth the effort." The Georgia capital defender office's early intervention program has also reduced the number of death sentences by presenting prosecutors with reasons to decapitalize a case and reaching plea deals before a trial begins. Jerry Word, who leads that office, said, "The average time to resolve a case in early intervention has been less than eight months. The average time to get a case to trial is over three years. This results in a saving in court time and dollar savings to the state and county." Although prosecutors are seeking and juries imposing fewer and fewer death sentences, Georgia has continued to carry out controversial executions of defendants who likely would not be sentenced to death today. These include the December 2015 and March 2018 executions of Brian Keith Terrell and Carlton Gary, despite evidence that they may have been innocent; the May 2018 execution of Robert Earl Butts, Jr., although no Georgia jury has sentenced any defendant to death in the past decade in a case like his that involved a single victim and only one aggravating circumstance; executions of several men whose equally or more culpable co-defendants received lesser sentences; and prisoners who were intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled against Georgia in three capital cases since 2016, Foster v. Chatman, involving race discrimination in jury selection; Tharpe v. Sellers, involving a juror who said he doubted whether black people had souls; and Wilson v. Sellers, which presented a procedural habeas corpus issue.

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