DPIC News

Law Review: Junk Mental Health Science and the Texas Death Penalty

Junk science is “enabling and perpetuating grave miscarriages of justice” in Texas death-penalty cases. So concludes Professor James Acker in his article, Snake Oil With A Bite: The Lethal Veneer of Science and Texas’s Death Penalty, published in the latest issue of the Albany Law Review. Acker’s article highlights the heightened risks of injustice from pseudo-science and junk science in capital cases in Texas, one of the few states that conditions death eligibility upon a finding of the defendant’s future dangerousness. Acker writes that, “at virtually every ... stage of the state’s capital punishment process,” Texas prosecutors “have alternately enlisted expert witnesses and scientists who have helped move accused and convicted offenders progressively closer to the execution chamber, and ignored or discounted scientific norms and developments inconsistent with securing and carrying out capital sentences. All too often, the determinations made in support of death sentences are of dubious reliability—including opinions and conclusions based on what many would agree to qualify as junk science—thus greatly enhancing the risk of miscarriages of justice ....”

Acker’s article discusses Texas’s long history of abusing expert testimony in support of execution, starting with the case of Estelle v. Smith, in which Dr. James Grigson — later nicknamed “Dr. Death” — evaluated Ernest Smith for his competency to stand trial, did not notify counsel of the evaluation, failed to advise Smith of his right to remain silent, and then testified in the penalty phase “that Smith was a severe sociopath, that his condition could not be treated, and that he ‘is going to go ahead and commit other similar or same criminal acts if given the opportunity to do so.’” The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Smith’s death sentence in 1981 for violations of his right to counsel and his constitutional privilege against compelled self-incrimination. Two years later, in Barefoot v. Estelle, the Court permitted the use of psychiatric predictions of future dangerousness, despite warnings by the American Psychiatric Association that such testimony was speculative and highly unreliable. Grigson went on to testify in 167 capital cases, repeatedly responding to hypothetical questions posed by prosecutors (even after he was expelled from state and national professional associations because of this practice) that defendants whose institutional records he had never reviewed and whom he had never evaluated were certain to commit future acts of violence. Texas has also misused expert mental health testimony in capital cases to falsely argue that capital defendants posed an increased threat to society because of their race or ethnicity, Acker writes. He describes the testimony of Dr. Walter Quijano, a clinical psychologist who testified in seven cases that defendants were more likely to pose a danger to society because they were black or Latino. The Texas Attorney General’s office ultimately conceded error in all but one of those cases. Duane Buck’s case, however, reached the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Robert condemned Quijano’s testimony as “powerful racial stereotyping.”

The Texas courts also systemically disregarded scientific standards or otherwise abused expert mental health testimony in determinations of intellectual disability and competency to be executed, Acker says. In the case of Moore v. Texas, the Supreme Court declared Texas’s approach to intellectual disability to be unconstitutional and ordered a reconsideration of Bobby Moore’s intellectual disability claim. With the prosecution, the defense, and multiple mental health groups all agreeing that Moore is intellectually disabled, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nevertheless upheld his death sentence. Finally, Acker writes, the state’s approach to competency has been an outlier, deeming Scott Panetti — who had been “hospitalized more than a dozen times [for mental illness and] been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, auditory hallucinations, and delusions of persecution and grandeur” — competent to stand trial, to represent himself, and to be executed. Texas “has alternatively coopted, disregarded, and subverted science and prevailing disciplinary norms of the mental health professions,” Acker concludes. “The death penalty in Texas, imbued with powerful symbolism and political significance, has succeeded not only in condemning offenders, but also the principled teachings of science. ... Science and politics are a deadly mixture, in the nature of snake oil with a bite.”

Tennessee Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Lethal-Injection Protocol

The Tennessee Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 3, 2018 of an appeal brought by 32 death-row prisoners challenging the constitutionality of the state's execution protocol. In a move criticized by one of the court's justices as a “rocket docket,” the court removed the case from a lower court and set argument for one week before Tennessee's scheduled October 11 execution of Edmund Zagorski. Previously, the court denied a stay of execution to Billy Ray Irick, allowing him to be executed before the lethal-injection issues were resolved. Arguing for the prisoners, assistant federal defenders Kelley Henry and Dana Hansen Chavis told the court that “unassailable science” shows that midazolam, the first drug used in Tennessee executions, is insufficient to block the intense pain caused by the second and third drugs. The prisoners asked the court to consider medical evidence from Irick’s execution that Irick had been conscious while experiencing the torturous effects of the vecuronium bromide injected to induce paralysis and the potassium chloride used to stop his heart. Witnesses to Irick’s execution reported that he choked, moved his head, and strained his forearms against restraints while being put to death. The prisoners offered a sworn statement from Dr. David Lubarsky, one of the nation’s leading anesthesiologists, who offered an opinion “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty” that Irick “was aware and sensate during his execution and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” “If the Eighth Amendment means anything,” Henry argued, “then the court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs.” Much of the argument focused on the requirement imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court that before a state’s chosen execution method can be declared unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, prisoners must prove that some other constitutionally-acceptable method is available to execute them. The Tennessee prisoners proposed that the state could switch to a one-drug protocol using pentobarbital, which both Georgia and Texas have recently used in carrying out executions. Alternatively, they suggested that Tennessee drop the paralytic drug from the execution process, citing testimony that its inclusion causes additional, unnecessary pain. Tennessee’s lawyers argued that the state had made a “diligent effort” to obtain pentobarbital but none of the approximately 100 suppliers the Tennessee Department of Correction contacted would provide the drug for use in executions. Associate Solicitor General Jennifer Smith provided no explanation for why suppliers refused the sale but said that “[t]he state bears no burden at all” to prove that the drug was unavailable. In an admission that countered one of the frequent claims of execution proponents, Smith said there was no evidence death penalty opponents had interfered with the state’s efforts to obtain the drug. In response to questions from Justice Holly Kirby about the prisoners’ burden of proving that the state could obtain pentobarbital, Henry explained that the state’s refusal to provide any information on its efforts created “procedural roadblocks” to proving that point. Justice Sharon Lee appeared to support the prisoners’ position on transparency, asking Smith how the state could fairly demand that the prisoners “prove what they can’t possibly prove because they can’t get the records.” A motion to stay Zagorski execution is pending before the court, and it is unclear whether the court will rule on the merits of the appeal before his execution date. An application for clemency has also been filed and is under review by Governor Bill Haslam.

Federal Judge Expresses Frustration at Procedural Constraints in Possible Innocence Case

In a case highlighting congressional limitations on the federal judiciary's ability to redress miscarriages of justice, a Texas federal judge has denied relief to a death-row prisoner who the court believes was denied a fair trial and may well be innocent. U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison (pictured) wrote on September 26, 2018, that he “would almost certainly have granted” a new trial to Robert Will, but the “constraints” imposed by 1990’s-era amendments to federal habeas corpus law left the court “powerless to address” what he called “the troubling possibility of [Will’s] actual innocence.” Ellison’s ruling urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to address Will’s claims, saying that his decision was a “technical ruling” that should not “obscure the extraordinarily significant issues that the Court of Appeals – unlike this Court – can properly consider.” In a trial in a Houston courtroom packed with uniformed police officers, Will was convicted and sentenced to death for the December 1999 murder of Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Barrett Hill. Investigators found no gunshot residue on Will and a footprint at the crime scene didn’t match his; Will claims that he was handcuffed when Deputy Hill was shot. Five witnesses later came forward with information that Will’s co-defendant had confessed to the crime, and additional evidence came to light during the habeas corpus proceedings that raised questions about a prosecution witness. However, Will’s state post-conviction lawyer, whose conduct Ellison said “appears to have been severely compromised by serious health conditions,” failed to investigate and raise those issues. Will’s case is also one of numerous Harris County death-penalty cases in which state judges adopted word for word the fact-findings proposed by the prosecution. Ellison said that, but for the limits on habeas review, he “would almost certainly have granted relief” on Will’s claim that “the presence of numerous uniformed law enforcement officers at his trial created an unconstitutionally coercive environment for the jury.” Ellison added: “The Court is particularly sensitive to the absence of any direct evidence of Will’s guilt, and the number of witnesses who aver that another man confessed to the underlying murder. ... The Court very much wishes it could take up all of these issues without the constraints of habeas review. With fewer constraints, the Court of Appeals can perhaps give these issues the time and attention that they merit. Nevertheless, this Court lacks jurisdiction to explore the troubling concerns that plague Will’s capital conviction.” Patrick McCann, former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said that Will’s case demonstrates that “[e]verything in the state procedure is inadequate and has been inadequate for the last three decades.” He called the requirement that federal judges defer to state court decisions “an absolute joke.” Ellison’s comments echo those of retired Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski who wrote in 2015 that Congress’s amendments to the habeas corpus law “abruptly dismantled” federal judicial review as a “safety-valve” against injustice and “pretty much shut out the federal courts from granting habeas relief in most cases, even when they believe that an egregious miscarriage of justice has occurred.” Instead, he wrote, federal courts “now regularly have to stand by in impotent silence, even though it may appear to us that an innocent person has been convicted.”

Justices Appear to Favor Prisoner with Dementia in Case Seeking to Block Alabama Execution

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in Madison v. Alabama on October 2, 2018 on whether an Alabama death-row prisoner who has vascular dementia, brain damage, cognitive deficits, and memory loss from two near-fatal strokes is competent to be executed. During oral argument, Bryan Stevenson (pictured), the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told the justices that, as a result of severe and progressively worsening dementia, Vernon Madison lacks a rational understanding of why Alabama intends to put him to death and is therefore incompetent to be executed. A majority of the justices appeared sympathetic to Madison's position, including Chief Justice John Roberts who is now regarded as the swing vote in death-penalty cases. The issues before the Court narrowed significantly as a result of concessions made by both sides at the argument. Madison's pleadings had argued that the Court's decisions in 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright and 2007 in Panetti v. Quarterman on competency to be executed applied beyond the limited circumstances of insanity and delusional mental illness at issue in those cases. "For purposes of retribution, there is no moral or constitutional distinction between a person who cannot 'recogni[ze] … the severity of the offence as a result of delusions and a person who is unable to do so as a result of dementia, cognitive decline, and memory deficits," his lawyers wrote. Alabama Deputy Attorney General Thomas Govan conceded that incompetency caused by severe dementia could also qualify. Stevenson, on the other hand, conceded in response to questioning by Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan that merely having no memory of committing the offense does not make a prisoner incompetent to be executed. Rather, Stevenson said, the memory loss must be the product of a medical or physical condition that also affects the prisoner's understanding of why he or she is to be executed. Stevenson said Madison's severe vascular dementia has left him with no memory of having killed a police officer who responded to a domestic disturbance in 1985. An MRI has shown that Madison has suffered substantial brain damage, and psychological testing has documented significant cognitive decline accompanied by IQ-loss that now places him in the borderline range of intellectual functioning. Madison's dementia has also left him disoriented as to date and time and without the ability to rationally comprehend his legal situation. He is legally blind, Stevenson said, has slurred speech, cannot recite the alphabet past the letter G or retain basic information, cannot walk without assistance, and continually soils himself because he does not know how to use the toilet in his five-by-eight cell. Madison's physical disabilities, Stevenson said, provide evidence illustrating the extent to which Madison's vascular dementia has affected all aspects of his life. Stevenson argued that Alabama's courts improperly rejected Madison's evidence of incompetency, focusing only on whether his impairments were caused by insanity, psychosis, or delusions. Govan asserted in response that by reciting the correct legal standard from Ford and Panetti and making reference to the testimony concerning Madison's impairments, Alabama had in fact considered that evidence. He further disputed whether Madison is incompetent at all, stating that Alabama would find him competent to stand trial in his current condition. Stevenson closed the argument by telling the Court that the "awesome power" to execute a person who no longer poses an immediate threat must "be utilized fairly, reliably, and humanely." The Court, Stevenson said, reviews facts and circumstances "through the window of the Constitution ..... But the Eighth Amendment isn't just a window. It's a mirror." Our norms and values "are implicated when we do things to really fragile, really vulnerable people," Stevenson said. "And what we've argued is that dementia in this case renders Mr. Madison frail, bewildered, vulnerable in a way that cannot be reconciled with executing him because of his incompetency."

North Carolina Bar Files Ethics Complaint Against Lawyer Accused of Fleecing Intellectually Disabled Death-Row Exonerees

Florida lawyer Patrick Megaro is facing an official complaint by the North Carolina State Bar for allegedly defrauding death-row exonerees Henry McCollum (pictured, right) and Leon Brown (pictured, left), and taking a third of the compensation granted to the two men. Half-brothers McCollum and Brown were exonerated in 2014 after spending 30 years in prison, some on death row, for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Both men are intellectually disabled, a factor that made them more vulnerable to wrongful conviction, and, the Bar complaint says, vulnerable to exploitation by Megaro. After McCollum and Brown were exonerated and formally pardoned by Governor Pat McCrory, they sought compensation from North Carolina for their wrongful convictions and incarceration. Megaro became McCollum's and Brown's lawyer in March 2015, after two women who claimed to be advocating on behalf of the brothers persuaded them to fire the lawyers who had been representing them in their compensation action and to hire Megaro's firm instead. The brothers received compensation awards of $750,000, but Megaro—who the complaint says did virtually no work on their exonerations or compensation cases—took $250,000 in fees from each man. Within seven months, McCollum was out of money and taking out high-interest loans that Megaro arranged and approved. Megaro also negotiated a proposed settlement of the brothers' wrongful prosecution lawsuit in which he was to receive $400,000 of a $1 million payment. The complaint alleges that Megaro committed 16 ethical violations, including lying to judges, double-billing his clients, and engaging in fraud by signing for loans with a 42% interest rate. It also alleges that he violated his duty to act competently when he failed to determine the police department's insurance policy limits before agreeing to settle the brothers' wrongful prosecution case. McCollum expressed his disappointment with Megaro, saying, "He took money that he should have never took. I could have that money right now." According to the Marshall Project, "Wednesday’s complaint begins a legal process similar to a civil lawsuit that will likely culminate in a public trial of the charges, with three members of the state’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission sitting as judge and jury." Megaro—whose law partner derided the disciplinary action as "a political prosecution"—could face disbarment if he is found guilty.

Finding “Bad Faith,” Judge Grants Injunction Preventing Nevada From Using Drug in Execution

Finding that the Nevada Department of Corrections acted in “bad faith” to obtain the drug midazolam through “subterfuge,” a Las Vegas trial court has issued a preliminary injunction barring the state from using its supply of that drug in carrying out any execution. The 43-page ruling issued by Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez (pictured) on September 28, 2018 effectively freezes efforts by Nevada prosecutors to execute Scott Dozier, who has waived his appeals and asked to be put to death. Judge Gonzalez found that Nevada prison officials knew when they purchased supplies of each of the drugs in the state's three-drug lethal-injection protocol from drug distributor Cardinal Health that the manufacturers of all three drugs prohibited the use of their medicines in executions. However, Judge Gonzalez limited the injunction to the midazolam produced by the generic-drug manufacturer Alvogen Inc., finding that the company’s distribution contract with Cardinal Health specifically barred sales of the sedative for use in lethal injections. While Gonzalez said she was “disturbed by the conduct of the State” in its purchase of the paralytic drug cisatracurium and its “illegitimate acquisition” of the opiate fentanyl, she said the absence of evidence that drug manufacturers Sandoz Inc. and Hikma Pharmaceuticals USA Inc. had sales controls in place with Cardinal Health at the time Nevada purchased supplies of those drugs was sufficient to deny them injunctive relief. The court issued its order after week-long hearing on a lawsuit filed by Alvogen just before Dozier’s scheduled July 11, 2018 execution. Alvogen’s suit alleged that Nevada had obtained its supply of midazolam “by subterfuge” and that Nevada had “intentionally defrauded Alvogen’s distributor” by concealing its intention to use the drugs to execute Dozier and by “implicitly ma[king] the false representation that they had legitimate therapeutic rationale” for buying the drug. Gonzalez’s order notes that even before beginning to distribute midazolam, “Alvogen put in place controls to prevent the direct sale [of the drug] to any department of corrections, or any sale that Alvogen believed could be diverted to be used in an execution.” The judge determined that both Nevada’s prison director, James Dzurenda, and its prison pharmacy director, Linda Fox, knew when they bought Alvogen’s drugs that the company “objected to their use in lethal injection and that they had controls in place to prevent sales for such use... Indeed,” Judge Gonzalez wrote, “when purchasing the Alvogen Midazolam Product, Fox’s response to Alvogen’s objections was ‘Oh shit.’ She then asked if Mr. Dzurenda if he would like her to order more [midazolam] because she was ‘certain once it’s in the press that we got it [she] will be cut off.’” Knowing “that it was not allowed to acquire this product for use in capital punishment,” Judge Gonzalez wrote, the Nevada Department of Corrections “was not a good faith purchaser” of Alvogen’s midazolam. The court also found that Nevada's use of the medicines in executions “will irreparably harm the three companies’ reputations,’ ... result[ing] in lost sales, lost licensing opportunities, weakened employee recruitment, divestitures by investors, increased financing costs, lost opportunities to enter the market for generic drugs, and lost opportunities to develop new branded drugs.” The case is the first time a court has conducted a hearing into state misconduct in acquiring execution drugs. In 2017, drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical sued Arkansas and multiple drug companies alleged misconduct by the state in obtaining its execution drugs. Although the Arkansas Supreme Court permitted that lawsuit to move forward, the drugs expired and the parties agreed to dismiss the action before the court could take evidence in the case. 

Judge Approves Plea Deal in Case That Challenged the Constitutionality of the Federal Death Penalty

A federal judge in Vermont has accepted a plea deal between Donald Fell and federal prosecutors, permanently removing Fell from death row and ending a case that had raised serious questions about the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. Under the terms of the deal, approved by U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford on September 28, 2018, Fell will serve a sentence of life without parole for the interstate kidnapping and murder of Teresca King in 2000. Fell and his co-defendant, Robert Lee, abducted King in Rutland, Vermont, and drove her to New York state, where she was killed. Fell was convicted and sentenced to death in federal court in 2005, a sentence he could not have received if he had been tried in state court because Vermont does not have the death penalty. Fell's conviction was overturned and he was granted a new trial in July 2014 as a result of juror misconduct. Federal prosecutors also charged Lee with capital murder, but Lee committed suicide in prison in 2001 before either defendant's case went to trial. In November 2015, Fell's lawyers filed a comprehensive constitutional challenge to the federal death penalty, arguing based on significant racial and geographic inequities in its administration that it was unreliable, arbitrary, and discriminatorily applied. After a two-week-long evidentiary hearing, Judge Crawford found that the federal death penalty "operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles" and "falls short of the [constitutional] standard . . . for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty." He nonetheless allowed the death penalty to remain in the case, writing that as a federal trial judge, he lacked "authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority position at the Supreme Court." Fell's lawyers later unsuccessfully argued based on a March 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a federal sports betting law that the federal death penalty violated the 10th Amendment by conscripting state officials to carry out executions. However, Judge Crawford did grant a defense motion to bar prosecutors from presenting various statements made by Lee by prior to his death attempting to shift blame to Fell for King's murder. In July 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with Crawford, calling Lee's statements "unreliable." The ruling left prosecutors without key evidence to prove the extent of Fell's alleged involvement in the killing, reducing the chances that a jury would return a death sentence in the case. Fell is the 10th prisoner to be permanently removed from the federal death row after having overturned an unconstitutional conviction or death sentence. Sixty-two prisoners are currently on federal death row.

Ethics Board Files Charges Against Arkansas Supreme Court Justices for Treatment of Anti-Death-Penalty Judge

An Arkansas ethics board has filed disciplinary charges against six members of the Arkansas Supreme Court alleging that they violated the canons of judicial ethics in removing a trial judge from all death-penalty cases as a result of the judge's participation in an anti-death-penalty vigil. On September 20, 2018, the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission announced that it had filed formal disciplinary charges against state Supreme Court Chief Justice John Dan Kemp and Justices Robin Wynne, Courtney Goodson, Jo Hart, Karen Baker, and Rhonda Wood, after an investigatory panel of the commission found probable cause that the Justices had "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" in removing Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen from drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc.'s case against Arkansas for alleged misconduct in obtaining execution drugs and from all pending cases involving the death penalty or the state's execution protocol. The panel found that the justices had given Judge Griffen no meaningful opportunity to respond to a motion filed by the state attorney general's office that sought to remove him from the McKesson lawsuit. Prosecutors had complained that Griffen, who is also a Baptist minister, had committed misconduct by strapping himself to a mock gurney in front of the Governor's mansion as part of an April 14, 2017 Good Friday anti-death-penalty vigil and protest. After the close of business that day, the attorney general's office notified the state supreme court—but not Judge Griffen—that it intended to seek his disqualification from presiding over the McKesson case. On Saturday, April 15, the court set a 3:00 p.m. deadline that day to respond to the attorney general's petition, but failed to notify Judge Griffen of its order. That same evening, the supreme court clerk's office sent an email to Griffen's chambers finally notifying him of the proceedings and giving him until 9:00 a.m. Monday, April 17 to respond. However, the panel wrote: "It cannot be reasonably assumed that Judge Griffen would receive the email at his chambers address on a weekend" and that he "could not have reasonably been expected to have effectuated a meaningful response to the state's petition to remove him from the McKesson case." Even more seriously, the panel found that Griffen "was never given notice of, and the opportunity to be heard on, the Supreme Court's ultimate action—[his removal] from all death penalty and execution protocol cases pending and in the future." None of the parties to the McKesson litigation "had even raised or argued the issue of Judge Griffen's blanket disqualification," the panel said, only disqualification from the McKesson case. Nonetheless, the panel wrote, the justices went beyond the requested remedy and "acted sua sponte to remove judicial duties from Judge Griffen which he would otherwise have been legally obligated to discharge regarding other death penalty and execution protocol cases." The panel concluded, "where disciplinary action is taken against another judge without sufficient notice to that judge and goes beyond the relief requested by any party, we believe that such arbitrary and capricious conduct could form the basis for disciplinary action by the Commission of the judge or judges ordering the action taken against another judge." The ethics panel did not find probable cause to believe that the justices had any improper communications with the attorney general's office in removing Griffen from the death-penalty cases and dismissed those allegations against the justices.

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Texas Schedules Back-to-Back Executions of Prisoners Who Claim Innocence

Texas has scheduled executions on consecutive nights of two prisoners who have long asserted their innocence. Troy Clark (pictured, left), who is scheduled to be executed on September 26, 2018, was convicted and sentenced to death based on the changing statements of a former girlfriend who could have faced the death penalty under the Texas law of parties but was tried as an accomplice and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Daniel Acker (pictured, right), scheduled to be executed September 27, was convicted and sentenced to death based upon since recanted forensic testimony that he had strangled his girlfriend. Clark was convicted of the 1998 kidnapping and murder of Christina Muse in Tyler Texas, and prosecutors have also accused him two other methamphetamine-related murders. He has no legal challenges pending and his clemency petition was turned down by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on September 24. Clark alleges that he was set up by his girlfriend, who initially told police that another murder victim was responsible for Muse’s death and then later gave police a statement saying she had killed Muse out of jealousy and that Clark was not involved. Clark also argued in an unsuccessful habeas corpus petition that his court-appointed counsel at trial and in the post-conviction process failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence—including mental health evidence related to fetal alcohol syndrome—that he says could have persuaded the jury to spare his life. Acker, who also maintains his innocence, was convicted of strangling his girlfriend, Marquetta George, and dumping her body. He does not deny involvement in her death, but alleges that she jumped out of his moving car during an argument and died accidentally, likely having been struck and killed by a passing car. Acker's attorneys have filed appeals saying that his trial was tainted by the court's exclusion of evidence, and the inclusion of “false,” “misleading,” and erroneous forensic testimony. The prosecution changed its explanation for George’s death after a state medical examiner admitted in a 2011 evidentiary hearing that she had not been strangled. Instead, the prosecution argued for the first time that Acker pushed George from the truck. “He didn’t have the physical ability to strangle her while he was driving,” Acker’s attorney said, and had no motive to kill George. The Texas pardons board has also denied Acker’s application for clemency. On September 21, he filed a petition for review and a motion to stay his execution in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that due process is violated when “a State has repudiated a false theory of criminal liability on which it based a death sentence, but intends to carry out that sentence based on a new theory of liability” that was never presented to the jury. Texas has already executed eight people in 2018.

FBI Crime Report Shows Murder Rates Stable in 2017

The FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2017, released by the U.S. Department of Justice, reports that murder rates stabilized across the United States in 2017, decreasing marginally compared to adjusted homicide figures from 2016 but remaining above the record lows recorded earlier in the decade. The initial FBI crime figures for 2017 report 17,284 murders across the United States in 2017, compared to 17,413 in 2016, dropping the nationwide murder rate from 5.4 murders per 100,000 people to 5.3. The homicide numbers are virtually identical to the initial FBI homicide figures included in the 2016 FBI Uniform Crime Report, which initially reported 17,250 murders and a murder rate of 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2016. Once again, states with the death penalty tended to have higher murder rates than states without the death penalty, with Louisiana and Missouri topping the list at 12.4 and 9.8 murders per 100,000 population, respectively. Seven of the nine states with the highest murder rates (and sixteen of the twenty highest) are death-penalty states, while five of the eight states with the lowest murder rates (and nine of the lowest fifteen) do not have the death penalty. New Hampshire, which has the death penalty, and North Dakota and Maine, which do not, had the lowest murder rates at 1.0, 1.3, and 1.7 murders per 100,000 population, respectively. The data also supports the idea that abolishing the death penalty does not make states more dangerous. Delaware, which ended the death penalty in 2016, saw a 7.8% decrease in its murder rate from 2016 to 2017. As in past years, regional data showed that more executions do not mean lower murder rates. The South, which has performed far more executions than any other region, continued to have the highest murder rate (6.4 per 100,000 people), while the Northeast, which has carried out only four executions since 1976, had the lowest (3.5). FBI data shows that murder rates have fallen dramatically since the 1980s and 1990s, contributing to the nationwide decline in capital punishment. The current murder rate is 45.9% below 1991's murder rate of 9.8 per 100,000 people. However, the decline in new death sentences has been even greater, with the 39 death sentences imposed in 2017 87.5% below the 315 death sentences imposed in 1994 and 1996.

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