DPIC News

Isaiah McCoy Exonerated from Delaware Death Row, the 157th Death Row Exoneration Since 1973

Isaiah McCoy (pictured), a former Delaware death row inmate, was exonerated on January 19, 2017, when a judge acquitted him at a retrial. He is the 157th person exonerated from death row in the United States, the first in 2017, and the first in Delaware. McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death in 2012, but the Delaware Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2015 as a result of prosecutorial misconduct and ordered a new trial. The Court suspended Deputy Attorney General R. David Favata from practice because of his misconduct at McCoy's trial, which included belittling McCoy for choosing to represent himself, making intimidating comments during a break in proceedings, then lying to the judge about making the comments. McCoy waived his right to a jury for his retrial, leaving the decision in the hands of Kent County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Young. In acquitting McCoy, Judge Young noted that there was no physical evidence against him and that two alleged accomplices had given contradictory testimony. One of the accomplices, Deshaun White, received a sentence reduction for testifying against McCoy. Upon his release, McCoy said, "I just want to say to all those out there going through the same thing I'm going through 'keep faith, keep fighting. Two years ago, I was on death row. At 25, I was given a death sentence – and I am today alive and well and kicking and a free man." McCoy was the second former death row prisoner in a year to be released in Delaware after obtaining a new trial for prosecutorial misconduct. In May 2014, Jermaine Wright won a new trial after 21 years on death row when prosecutors and police withheld exculpatory evidence about possible alternate suspects in a case in which no forensic or eyewitness evidence had linked Wright to the crime. Wright was released in September 2016 after pleading no contest to lesser charges and being resentenced to time already served.

Alabama Faith Leaders Hold Panel on Death Penalty, Spotlight 'Rocky' Myers' Case of Possible Innocence

Inspired by the case of Robin "Rocky" Myers (pictured), an intellectually disabled and possibly innocent Alabama death row prisoner whom an elected state judge sentenced to death despite a 9-3 jury recommendation for life, a panel of faith leaders gathered in Montgomery, Alabama to discuss religious views on the death penalty and the intersection of faith and justice. Before the discussion began, the faith leaders and the audience viewed a screening of a new documentary on Myers' case describing why his lawyers believe he is innocent. The documentary explained that no forensic evidence links Myers to the crime and that the prosecution witness who identified him has since recanted his testimony. Myers' case also highlights other problems in the death penalty system. A neuropsychologist who evaluated Myers diagnosed him with intellectual disability, a condition that would make him ineligible for execution, but courts have not granted him relief. His disability hindered Myers' opportunities to have his appeals heard. His attorney abandoned him without notice, and Myers, who cannot read, did not know his appeal deadlines had expired until a fellow inmate read him a notification letter from the state. Finally, Myers' jury voted 9-3 that he should be sentenced to life, but—in a practice no state other than Alabama still allows— the trial judge overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Myers to death. After the film presented Myers' story, leaders from a variety of faith traditions led a discussion about justice and capital punishment. The multi-faith panel included representatives of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and featured Rabbi Elliot Stevens, Sister Gilda Marie Bell, a Catholic nun of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and Aya Zaied, a youth leader for the East Montgomery Islamic Society. Zaied summarized Islamic views on the issue, saying, "If you claim Islam, … then justice is your responsibility. We try to teach that to our children really young so they understand if (someone is) hurting, then I’m hurting. We’re all in this together."

President Obama Commutes Two Death Sentences

On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama (pictured) commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th. Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty. In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment." Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die. Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

With Bipartisan Sponsors, Washington Attorney General, Governor Propose Bill to Abolish State's Death Penalty

With the support of a bipartisan group of state officials and legislators, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (pictured) and Governor Jay Inslee have proposed legislation to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. At a news conference announcing the bill, Ferguson, a Democrat, was joined by former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, in calling for abolition. The bill will be sponsored by Republican Senator Mark Miloscia and Democratic Representative Tina Orwall. “Legislatures are acting on this important issue with up-and-down votes,” Ferguson said during the news conference. “And it’s time for Washington, the state Legislature here, to take that vote.” The state's death penalty, he said, "isn’t working anymore. It is time to move on.” Governor Inslee said the evidence about the death penalty "is absolutely clear. ... Death-penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly.” Inslee, who imposed a moratorium on executions in 2014 and issued a reprieve to Clark Richard Elmore on December 29, 2016, said, “I could not in good conscience allow executions to continue under my watch as governor under these conditions.” Washington juries have imposed few death sentence in recent years, and two high-profile murder cases ended in life sentences. In response, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys called for a voter referendum on the issue. A 2015 Seattle University study examining the costs of the death penalty in the state found that each death penalty prosecution cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case in which the death penalty was not sought. Despite bipartisan support, the future of the abolition bill is uncertain. A 2015 repeal bill, also sponsored by Miloscia, never received a committee hearing.

MLK Day 2017: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Death Penalty

On Martin Luther King Day, DPIC looks at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's views on capital punishment. In a November 1957 article in Ebony, Dr. King was asked "Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?" He responded, "I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included.... Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."  Several months later, Alabama executed Jeremiah Reeves, a young black man who was 16 years old when he was charged with raping a white woman. Tried before an all-white jury, Reeves was convicted and sentenced to death. In April 1958, Dr. King stood on the state capitol steps during a prayer pilgrimage protesting what he called "a tragic and unsavory injustice." Dr. King said: "A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence." Later, in his sermon "Loving Your Enemies," Dr. King preached a philosophy that had no room for capital retribution: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."

Mental Health Professionals, Religious Leaders Join Ricky Gray's Plea for Clemency

Ricky Gray (pictured), who is scheduled to be executed on January 18, is seeking clemency from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and his clemency petition has been joined by a diverse group of mental health professionals and the Virginia Catholic Conference. A letter signed by more than 50 mental health professionals, including two former commissioners of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, urges McAuliffe to commute Gray's sentence because of Gray's history of "horrific" childhood abuse and his addiction at the time of the crime. Gray's jury never heard evidence that he was raped and sodomized almost daily from the ages of four to eleven, and that he turned to drugs as early as age 12 to numb the resulting trauma. At the time of his crime, he was under the influence of PCP. “In Mr. Gray’s case, his abuse and trauma were left unaddressed and predictably led to profound despair and other serious trauma symptoms, drug addiction, and the drug use that resulted in the tragic crimes he committed with Ray Dandridge,” the letter states. Gray's lawyers seek to have Gray's sentence commuted to life—the same sentence that Dandridge received. Gray's clemency petition includes reports from mental health experts who say that the extreme childhood trauma Gray endured altered his brain development, making him particularly susceptible to the effects of drugs. Gray has apologized for his involvement in the crimes, saying, "Remorse is not a deep enough word for how I feel. I know my words can’t bring anything back, but I continuously feel horrible for the circumstances that I put them through. ...There’s nothing I can do to make up for that. It’s never left my mind, because I understand exactly what I took from the world by looking at my two sisters. I’m reminded each time I talk and see them that this is what I took from the world." Governors in other states have granted clemency in some cases with similar circumstances. In September 2011, Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted the death sentence imposed on Joseph Murphy, citing Murphy's "brutally abusive upbringing." In January 2012, Delaware Governor Jack Markell commuted Robert Gattis' death sentence based on evidence of severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by family members. Both are now serving life sentences. Gray is also seeking a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit as he challenges the constitutionality of Virginia's proposed lethal injection protocol. UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied Gray's request for a stay on January 13.

REPORT: 5 Florida Counties Disproportionately Impose Death Penalty Against Seriously Mentally Impaired Defendants

Nearly two-thirds of death row prisoners in five Florida counties whose cases were studied by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project suffer from serious mental impairments. According to a report released by the project on January 12, 2017, the Florida Supreme Court's December 2016 ruling in Mosley v. State requires reconsideration of the sentences imposed on approximately 150 people on Florida's death row who were sentenced to death after the U.S. Supreme Court decided RIng v. Arizona in 2002. Based on Ring, Florida's death sentencing procedures were later ruled unconstitutional. Nearly one-third of the death sentences in question were imposed in just five Florida counties: Duval, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange, and Pinellas. The Fair Punishment Project report examines the 48 death sentences from those counties that involved non-unanimous jury recommendations of sentence or waivers of jury sentencing proceedings, and finds that in 63% of those cases, the defendants "exhibit signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred." Those impairments, the report argues, makes the death penalty disproportionate for those defendants. Defendants in more than a third of the cases (35%) had low IQ scores or traumatic brain injury that left them with deficits similar to people with intellectual disability, whose diminished culpability makes them constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty. Approximately 1/5th of the 48 defendants presented symptoms or diagnoses of severe mental mental illness; approximately 23% had experienced severe childhood or emotional trauma; and 6 were under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. More than a quarter—such as Victor Caraballo, who was sentenced to death in Miami-Dade County despite an "extensive history of mental illness," as well as serious trauma stemming from "child abuse, incest, and neglect"—had overlapping impairments from multiple categories. The report concludes, "These findings have raised a legitimate question as to whether Florida’s capital punishment scheme–even one with a unanimous jury requirement– is capable of limiting application of the death penalty to the most culpable offenders."

Texas Set to Execute Christopher Wilkins Despite Lawyers' Conflicts of Interest

Christopher Wilkins (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Texas on January 11, even as he has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that he has been improperly denied the opportunity to develop and present evidence that he suffers from significant cognitive deficits. Wilkins' Supreme Court petition asserts that his trial lawyer, Wesley Ball, who later withdrew from the case because of a potential conflict of interest, barely conducted any investigation into the case until just before jury selection and ignored a recommendation from a defense psychologist that Wilkins' mental functioning should be evaluated because he suffered from several cognitive deficits and was exposed to LSD as as a child, in addition to having other risk factors for brain damage. Wilkins' state post-conviction lawyer, Jack Strickland—who was responsible for investigating and presenting new evidence in the case—accepted a position with the prosecutor's office while representing Wilkins before filing a habeas application for Wilkins that only presented claims that had been procedurally barred or that were not reviewable. Wilkins repeatedly tried to fire Strickland but the state court refused to appoint new counsel and dismissed Wilkins' habeas petition. The federal district court judge then refused to provide Wilkins' federal lawyer funding to investigate his case, gave him only 45 days to prepare his federal habeas petition, and then denied the petition because Wilkins had not presented the evidence he says an investigation would have developed. When Wilkins' current lawyer filed a new petition in state court, the Texas courts refused to consider it, saying the evidence should have presented in his first habeas petition. Judge Elsa Alcala of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dissented, writing that Strickland "appears to have wholly failed to act as counsel" for Wilkins, and that the defective petition Strickland filed should have been considered "a nullity." Wilkins' petition in the United States Supreme Court argues that federal law entitles him to investigative and expert services that are "reasonably necessary" to assist him in developing the factual basis for his habeas corpus claims, and that the Texas federal court rulings denying him that assistance are out of step with the practices of other federal circuits. If Wilkins is executed, he will be the first person executed in the United States in 2017. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court denied Wilkins' petition for writ of certiorari and motion for stay of execution on January 11 and Texas executed him that evening.]

Denver's Newly Elected District Attorney Says She Will Not Seek the Death Penalty

Newly-elected Denver, Colorado District Attorney Beth McCann (pictured), sworn into office on January 10, 2017, has said that her administration will not seek the death penalty. Asked by 9News, Denver's NBC affiliate, whether Denver was "done with the death penalty," McCann said: "We are under my administration. I don't think that the state should be in the business of killing people." McCann told 9News that alternative sentences provide sufficient punishment at a substantially lesser cost: "I believe that life without the possibility of parole ... gets to the punishment piece, but doesn't cost the taxpayers those millions and millions of dollars that could be used to prosecute other cases." McCann also said she would support repeal of the death penalty in Colorado. No Denver jury has sentenced a defendant to death since 1986 and, after a lengthy capital trial, a jury in August 2015 sentenced Dexter Lewis to life for the stabbing deaths of 5 people in a Denver bar. The state currently has a moratorium on executions. McCann's views are in line with those of many new district attorneys across the country. In the November 2016 elections, voters replaced prosecutors who had aggressively sought death sentences in Hillsborough County, Florida, Harris County, Texas, and Jefferson County, Alabama. In an August primary, voters in Duval County, Florida, ousted Angela Corey, one of the nation's most pro-death penalty prosecutors.

National Black Caucus of State Legislators Call for Repeal of Death Penalty

Saying that "race plays a decisive role in who lives and who dies" in capital cases in the United States, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) voted at its 40th annual conference on December 14, 2016, to adopt its first ever resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The resolution states that "racial bias in the criminal justice system, including the death penalty and its application, is an undisputed fact," and notes that "from slavery to Jim Crow to the present day, the death penalty has long been a tool of injustice and discrimination." The resolution says "African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and all people of color are sentenced to longer prison terms, more likely to be tried as adults, and more likely to be sentenced to death in the United States." The NBCSL joined the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and the Movement for Black Lives, which passed anti-death penalty resolutions in August 2016, in advocating for legislation to repeal capital punishment statutes across the country.  In supporting death penalty repeal legislation, the NBCSL resolution cited studies and reports showing that: Black jurors are three times more likely than other jurors to be struck from a jury in a case in which a Black defendant faces a death sentence; according to 88% of criminologists, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent against crime; the death penalty has a negative impact on the families of both the murder victim and the defendant; and 156 wrongfully convicted death row prisoners have been exonerated and released from death row. "[T]he risk of executing an innocent person is higher than ever," the resolution states, "and evidence suggests that innocent African-Americans have been executed." The NBCSL also considered the excessive cost of the death penalty and the uses to which the money saved could be used as additional reasons to abolish the death penalty. The resolution says "repeal of the death penalty will free up millions of tax dollars in cash-strapped state budgets that could be redirected to violence prevention, combating implicit bias, or supporting victims of violence in Black communities." The NBCSL offered its support for "justice reinvestment initiatives and alternative programs that address criminal justice reform" and urged the "U.S. justice department to investigate the fairness, effectiveness, and costs of the death penalty and disproportionate sentencing."  Nebraska State Senator Tanya Cook sponsored the resolution, saying that the death penalty "is not a deterrent to violent crime. Period."  In 2002, the NBCSL had passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on capital punishment.

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