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Nevada Pardons Man Imprisoned 21 Years as a Result of Wrongful Capital Murder Prosecution

Posted: November 17, 2017

Nevada has pardoned Fred Steese (pictured), who spent 21 years in prison after Las Vegas prosecutors wrongly sought the death penalty against him while witholding evidence that he was not even in the state at the time the murder occurred. In what news reports described as "a clear rebuke to the Las Vegas prosecutors," the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners voted 8-1 on November 8 to grant Steese a full pardon. “I’m a new man now,” Steese said. “It’s lifted a black cloud over me.” The seven justices of the Nevada Supreme Court and Governor Brian Sandoval voted in favor of clearing Steese's name; only Adam Laxalt, the state's attorney general and a current candidate for governor, voted against the pardon. Steese was charged with capital murder in the high-profile 1992 killing of Las Vegas circus performer, Gerard Soules. He was prosecuted by Bill Kephart and Doug Herndon, who both went on to become district judges in Las Vegas. Steese was in Idaho at the time of Soules's death, but signed a false confession after a five-hour interrogation and 35 hours without sleep. At trial he presented numerous alibi witness who testified that he was in Idaho at the time. Kephart—who also committed misconduct in several other capital trials before being elected as a judge in 2014—argued to the jury (with no supporting evidence) that the witnesses had seen Steese's brother in Idaho and that Steese had manufactured the alibi. After Steese was convicted in 1995, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty and Sreese was sentenced to two life sentences. He spent two decades in prison before federal public defenders proved that his brother, estranged since childhood, couldn’t have helped with Steese’s alibi. The federal defenders' investigation also unearthed phone records in the prosecution’s files that proved Steese was in Idaho at the time of the murder. In 2012, a Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court judge issued an Order of Actual Innocence, declaring that Steese didn’t kill anyone. But the Clark County District Attorney’s Office refused to admit it had convicted an innocent man. In 2013, Assistant District Attorney Pamela Weckerly told Steese she’d agree to release him from prison only if he entered an Alford plea, in which, while maintaining his innocence, he admitted there was sufficient evidence on which he could be convicted. After gaining his freedom, Steese—still with a murer conviction on his record— struggled to find employment and experienced periods of homelessness before finding work as a cross-country trucker. At the pardon hearing, Steese’s pro-bono attorney lawyer, Lisa Rasmussen, said that from the time of his interrogation through the time of his release from prison, his constitutional rights had been “violated in a huge way.” Rasmussen condemned the prosecutorial misconduct in the case as “an embarrassment and a black mark on Clark County and the state of Nevada." After Steese himself testified, the board heard from Kathy Nasrey, the sister of Gerard Soules, who demanded that Kephart, Herndon, and others be held accountable for knowingly convicting an innocent man while her brother’s killer remained on the loose. “Now that it was clear that certain lawyers and detectives helped convict an innocent man,” she said, “will they be held accountable for taking away 20 years of his life?”

 

Ohio Halts Execution of Physically Debilitated Prisoner After It Cannot Find Vein for Intravenous Line

Posted: November 16, 2017

Having failed to find a suitable vein in which to set an intravenous execution line, Ohio called off the scheduled November 15 execution of gravely ill and physically debilitated death-row prisoner, Alva Campbell (pictured). After execution personnel failed in four attempts to find a vein for the IV line, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr stopped the execution and Governor John Kasich granted Campbell a temporary reprieve. Kasich rescheduled Campbell's execution for June 5, 2019. The execution was delayed for nearly an hour as executioners assessed Campbell's veins, and then witnesses watched for another half hour as prison personnel used an ultraviolet light to probe Campbell's arm for a vein, sticking him twice in the right arm, once in the left arm, and once in the left leg. Columbus Dispatch reporter Marty Schladen, a media witness to the execution, reported that, when he was stuck in the leg, "Campbell threw his head back and appeared to cry out in pain." Campbell's lead lawyer, assistant federal public defender David Stebbins said, "We had warned them for months that they were going to have this problem." In court documents seeking to stay his execution, Campbell's lawyers unsuccessfully argued that a combination of severe medical ailments and physical disabilities made it inappropriate for him to be executed. These afflictions include lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory failure, prostate cancer, and severe pneumonia, and Campbell relies on a colostomy bag that hangs outside his body, needs oxygen treatments four times a day, and requires a walker for even limited mobility. Following the reprieve, Stebbins questioned whether the state would be able to successfully execute Campbell. "He's 69 years old and has all kinds of illnesses and his veins are a mess," he said. "They're just not going to get any better." "This type of state-sponsored torture is not acceptable," said ACLU of Ohio senior policy director Mike Brickner. “This marks the fifth botched execution for Ohio in recent years, and the second time the state could not complete an execution. This is not justice," he said, "and this is not humane." In the past eleven years, Ohio has also botched the executions of Joseph L. Clark, Christopher Newton, Romell Broom, and Dennis McGuire. In a video posted on the website of the Columbus Dispatch, reporter Marty Schladen, who was scheduled to witness the execution, said "I don't think anything that happened today would make anybody sanguine about the death penalty in Ohio right now."

 

Utah County Fires Lawyer Who Criticized Its Underfunding of Death-Penalty Appeals

Posted: November 15, 2017

A Utah county has fired an appeals lawyer who had publicly criticized the county's underfunding of death-penalty cases. Attorney Samuel Newton (pictured)—hired by Weber County to handle the appeals of condemned prisoners Douglas Lovell and Floyd Maestas, as well as other indigent criminal defendants in the county—had his contract terminated by County Commissioner James Harvey, who said Newton's comments to the media about underfunding were "harmful to the county's reputation." Harvey also criticized Newton for assertedly spending too much time developing a relationship with his clients when "all the state wants to know is if the appropriate decision has been made." The American Bar Association Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases require that a capital defense attorney "establish a relationship of trust with the client, and should maintain close contact with the client." Newton had previously withdrawn from Lovell's case after arguing that the financial strain placed upon him from the county's funding cap, and the county's interference with his ability to communicate with his client, has caused him stress-related heart problems. In an email to the Salt Lake Tribune, Newton said that “[t]he state gives enormous resources to the prosecution” and "must similarly commit to equally and adequately support criminal defense attorneys, which is a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution.” He said that defense attorneys—and especially solo practitioners such as himself—“should not have to personally bear and front the financial cost for the enormous review required in a capital case.” The payment dispute with Weber County, Newton said, left him feeling as thought he "had to choose" between supporting his family financially and effectively representing his clients. Commissioner Harvey told Newton that his contract to handle the appeals of indigent Weber County defendants has been terminated effective January 31. Harvey said, "I don’t agree with giving a guy an open checkbook because he wants to create a relationship with a convicted felon on the taxpayers' dime." In a letter to the judge, Lovell wrote, “For the first time, I got an attorney who represented me to the fullest, … who knows my case inside & out & now the county had pulled the rug on funding him." Ralph Dellapiana, chairman of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers capital defense committee, said that the state should not expect capital defense attorneys to work for free. “That’s a problem, the state refusing to pay qualified counsel to do the necessary work for appeals in death penalty cases,” he said. “And the solution is either to pay for it or end the death penalty.”

 

Ohio Set to Execute Gravely Ill Prisoner, Alva Campbell

Posted: November 14, 2017

Ohio death-row prisoner Alva Campbell (pictured) is 69, suffers from severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, is unable to walk without a walker, relies on a colostomy bag that hangs outside his body, requires four breathing treatments each day, may have lung cancer, and is reportedly allergic to midazolam, the controversial first drug in the state's lethal-injection process. Prison personnel have been unable to find veins suitable for inserting an intravenous line into either of Campbell's arms. Ohio intends to execute him November 15. Campbell has challenged the constitutionality of Ohio’s lethal-injection protocol, arguing that it carries unconstitutional risks for a person with his medical conditions, and has asked to be executed by firing squad. The Ohio federal courts denied Campbell's challenge earlier in November, and he has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stay his execution, arguing he is too ill for lethal injection. Ohio is defending its execution process, and officials for the state’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction say that as a medical accommodation, the state will provide Campbell with “a wedge-shaped pillow” to prop him up “in a semi-recumbent position” to help him breathe as he is being executed. Corrections spokesperson JoEllen Smith said that Campbell's “medical condition and history are being assessed and considered in order to identify any necessary accommodations or contingencies for his execution.” Campbell’s lawyer, assistant federal public defender David Stebbins, warns that Campbell's death could become a “spectacle” if prison staff are unable to find a suitable vein during his execution. “All of this in an attempt to execute an old and frail man who is no longer a threat to anyone,” Stebbins said. “Killing Alva Campbell is simply not necessary.” On November 9, Gov. John Kasich rejected Campbell's plea to stop the execution and let him die of his terminal illnesses. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court has denied Campbell's motion for a stay of execution. After four unsuccessful attempts to find a vein, Ohio called off the execution.]

 

Former Florida Death-Row Doctor: Experience of Veterans Highlights Death Penalty's Failures

Posted: November 13, 2017

A former Florida death-row doctor says the experience of U.S. military veterans who have been sentenced to death provides a lens through which the public can better understand some of the failures of the state's death penalty and identify opportunities for meaningful reform of the criminal justice system. In a Veterans Day guest column in Florida Politics, psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Thornton (pictured) writes that "18-percent of Florida’s death row is made up of veterans of our military services." Their backgrounds of "childhood trauma, drug use and more," he says, is typical of the experiences of "almost all" of the prisoners on the state's death row. In conjunction with Veterans Day 2015, DPIC released a report, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, that estimated at least 300 veterans were on state and federal death rows across the country, representing approximately ten percent of the nation’s death row population. The report highlighted the plight of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the lack of effective mental health intervention and support services, and the failures of defense counsel to investigate and present critical evidence to spare the veterans' lives. Dr. Thornton—whose more than 30-years of clinical experience includes three years overseeing medical and psychiatric care on Florida's death row—noted that two men whom Florida executed in 2017 were military veterans. Michael Lambrix, who was executed on October 5, was honorably discharged from the Army after becoming disabled in a training accident and subsequently developed a serious problem with drugs. Patrick Hannon, executed November 8, already suffered from drug abuse while in the military. "Neither," Dr. Thornton writes, "had the benefit of current intervention tactics deployed by the Veteran’s Administration to care for veterans with a history of trauma and drug abuse." Dr. Thornton advocates that Florida reallocate the money it spends on the death penalty for "more mental health treatment services, especially for military veterans, who deserve better treatment after sacrificing so much for our country." The state, he writes, should "place a moratorium on executions, and not just those of veterans, but everyone on Florida’s death row." Four veterans were executed in the United States in 2016: Georgia executed Brandon Jones and William Sallie, who had served in the Army, and Travis Hittson, who had served in the Navy; Alabama executed former Army reservist. Ronald Smith. Two men who served in the military have been exonerated in 2017: Air Force veteran Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. was exonerated in Florida in May and Rickey Dale Newman, a mentally ill former Marine suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder who was homeless at the time he was charged with capital murder in Arkansas.

 

Nebraska Proposes Untried Lethal-Injection Combination as Nevada Court Halts Execution With Similar Drugs

Posted: November 10, 2017

As Nebraska announced its intention to use a never-before-tried four-drug execution combination featuring the opiod pain medication fentanyl and the paralytic drug cisatracurium, a Nevada judge issued a stay of execution that put off the nation's first attempted execution using those drugs. On November 9, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services provided notice to death-row prisoner Jose Sandoval that it intends to execute him using a combination of the drugs diazepam (Valium), fentanyl citrate, cisatracurium besylate, and potassium chloride. Later that day, Clark County (Las Vegas) District Judge Jennifer Togliatti granted a request by lawyers for the Nevada Department of Corrections to stay the scheduled November 14 execution of Scott Dozier to permit them to appeal her order directing the state to remove cisatracurium from its also untried execution protocol of diazepam, fentanyl, and the paralytic. Dozier, who has waived his appeals and asked to be executed, is only contesting the state's method of execution. The judge issued her order after considering medical evidence that the cisatracurium could cause Dozier to experience "air hunger" and suffocate to death, while masking signs that he was conscious and suffering during the execution. Doctors testified that a paralytic drug would be unnecessary if the other two drugs, fentanyl and diazepam, were administered properly. In staying the execution to permit Nevada to appeal to the state supreme court, Judge Togliatti said: "They're going to have to be the court to make that determination that we as a state are OK with a paralytic." Nebraska law requires the state to give a prison notice of the drugs to be used in the execution at least sixty days in advance of issuing a death warrant. The state attorney general's office has indicated it will ask the Nebraska Supreme Court to issue a warrant after that time has passed. State Senator Ernie Chambers, one of the leaders of the Nebraska legislature's repeal of the state's death-penalty statute and its override of Governor Pete Ricketts's veto of the measure, criticized the notice as politically motivated and called the timing of its issuance "suspicious." The notice was issued almost a year to the day after the voters brought back the death-penalty law in a voter iniative bankrolled by Rickett, and as the governor gears up for a re-election campaign in 2018. Sandoval is currently unrepresented. The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, which typically represents death-row prisoners, cannot represent Sandoval because it represented other defendants in the case. But the commission's executive director, Jeffery Pickens, said Sandoval "has to be given some sort of opportunity to challenge [the drug protocol]."

 

Anti-Death Penalty District Attorney Elected in Philadelphia, the Nation's 3rd Largest Death Penalty County

Posted: November 9, 2017

Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniathe nation's third largest death-penalty county—has elected as its new district attorney a candidate who ran on a platform of ending mass incarceration and eschewing use of the death penalty. Democrat Lawrence Krasner (pictured), a longtime civil rights lawyer and opponent of the death penalty, who once joked that he’d “spent a career becoming completely unelectable,” received 75% of the vote in easily defeating his Republican opponent Beth Grossman. As a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, Krasner had represented political protesters and Black Lives Matter activists, and had sued the Philadelphia Police Department on numerous occasions. He has likened use of the death penalty to "lighting money on fire,” saying that capital punishment “has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962.” A July 2015 DPIC analysis of death sentences imposed in Philadelphia reported that at least 148 death sentences imposed in the city since Pennsylvania reinstituted the death penalty in 1974 had been overturned. In that time, one prisoner from Philadelphia—who voluntarily dropped his appeals—was executed. Krasner called his election a "mandate" for "transformational change." He said, "[t]his is a story about a movement. And this is a movement that is tired of seeing a system that has systematically picked on poor people—primarily black and brown poor people." Those are the people who, historically, have been most disproportionately affected by Philadelphia's death penalty. A major study of Philadelphia's death penalty in the 1980s and 1990s documented that black capital defendants faced more than triple the odds of being sentenced to death than did other defendants, and that an estimated one-third of the more than 100 African Americans who were on the city's death row at the turn of the century would have received life sentences but for their race. Another study showed that death-sentencing in the city was heavily influenced by a defendant's physical appearance: the probability that a black defendant charged with killing a white victim would be sentenced to death doubled if the defendant was perceived as having "stereotypically African" physical features—darker skin, a broader nose, and thicker lips. Even as the number of death sentences imposed in Philadelphia has dramatically declined—falling from an average of 9.9 death sentences per year in the 1990s to less than one sentence per year this decade—the racial disproportionality of the death sentences imposed in the city has grown. Nine of the 99 death sentences imposed in Philadelphia in the 1990s were directed at white defendants, as compared to only one of the 25 death sentences imposed this century, and 45 of the last 47 people sentenced to death in the city have been defendants of color. 

 

Court Rulings Raise Questions of What Constitutes Incompetency and How is it Determined

Posted: November 8, 2017

Two recent high court rulings have raised questions of whether death-row prisoners are sufficiently mentally impaired to be deemed incompetent to be executed and who gets to make that determination. On November 7, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an order staying the execution of death-row prisoner Jack Greene (pictured, left) to resolve whether that state's mechanism to determine competency—giving the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction ("ADC") sole discretion to make the decision—violates due process. One day earlier, a unanimous United States Supreme Court permitted the execution of Alabama death-row prisoner, Vernon Madison (pictured, right), to go forward—despite evidence that strokes have left him legally blind, incontinent, unable to walk independently, and with no memory of the offense for which he was sentenced to death—saying that the Alabama Supreme Court's ruling that Madison had a rational understanding of his execution was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal constitutional law. Greene's lawyers had argued to the Arkansas Supreme Court that Arkansas had violated his right to due process when corrections director Wendy Kelley ruled him competent to be executed without having conducted any independent mental health evaluation or providing Greene's lawyers any opportunity to contest her determination. According to court filings, Greene is severely mentally ill and psychotic, delusionally believes that the ADC has destroyed his central nervous system, engages in "extreme physical contortions and self-mutilations" to attempt to combat the pain, and thinks the state and his lawyers are colluding to execute him to prevent disclosure of the injuries he believes have been inflicted by the state. In his Last Will and Testament, signed on November 1, he asked that his head be surgically removed after the execution and examined by a television reality show doctor in an effort to prove that he has been subjected to "percussion concussion brain injuries . . . inflicted by the Arkansas Department of Corrections since July 5, 2004." His lawyers have been seeking a court hearing on Greene's mental status to determine his competency. In ther Alabama case, the Supreme Court reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that had found Madison incompetent to be executed. The federal appeals court had rejected the state court's finding that Madison was aware of the reasons for his impending execution, saying that because of his stroke-induced "memory loss, difficulty communicating, and profound disorientation and confusion," he lacked an understanding of the "connection between his crime and his execution." The Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, holding that there was no clearly established law concerning when "a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime," as "distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case." Prosecutors in Arkansas said that they will not seek rehearing of the decision in Greene's case, and state attorneys in Alabama have not yet asked for an execution date for Madison.

 

NEW VOICES: Former Law Enforcement Officials Say Arizona, Kansas Should End Death Penalty

Posted: November 7, 2017

Former high-ranking law enforcement officials from Arizona and Kansas have called on their states to end the death penalty. In separate op-ed stories one week apart, former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (pictured, left) and former Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz (pictured, right) conclude that the capital punishment schemes in their states have failed and should be abandoned. In a November 5 op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star headlined Arizona's 40-year experiment with the death penalty has failed, Attorney General Goddard said "Arizona does not have a good track record for getting [the death penalty] right," pointing to problems of innocence, racial disparity, cost, and persistent structural problems with the state's death penalty law. Goddard, a former Mayor of Phoenix, later oversaw the executions of six people during his tenure as the state's Attorney General from 2003 to 2011. He now says the state's death penalty has "failed ... in fundamental ways," with a statute so broad that it "captur[es] nearly every first-degree murder" and defective statutory provisions and judicial procedures that have caused "dozens of [cases to] have been set aside." He says "[s]entencing the innocent to die ... is reason alone to abandon the death penalty." Although "[g]etting it wrong once is one time too many," Arizona "has swept up the innocent in its net" at least nine times. Goddard argues that the "unsettling racial disparities" in the application of Arizona's death penalty—Hispanic men accused of murdering whites are sentenced to death at more than four times the rate of white defendants accused of murdering Hispanics—and "[t]he spiraling costs of seeking and imposing a death sentence are further reason to abandon the policy." Goddard concludes that, after four decades of using capital punishment, "Arizona has failed to narrow [its] application ... and has been unable or unwilling to provide the guidance necessary to ensure that the death penalty is only imposed on the worst offenders." Given these "myriad problems," he says, "Arizona should join the rising tide against imposing it." On October 31, Corrections Secretary Werholtz also authored an op-ed advocating ending the death penalty, though for very different reasons. In an opinion piece in the Topeka Capital-Journal entitled End the death penalty in Kansas, Secretary Werholtz addressed the state's budget shortfall and the challenges it posed to keeping corrections staff, prisoners, and communities safe. Werholtz—who served 28 years with the Kansas Department of Corrections, including eight as its Secretary—says "one simple choice" in addressing the problem "would be to eliminate the excessive amounts of money we are spending on Kansas’ broken death penalty by replacing it with life without parole." As Kansas faces a decision on whether to build a new execution facility to replace an execution chamber that the state has never used, Werholtz "believe[s] it’s time we acknowledge that the return on our investment in the death penalty has been abysmal. Numerous studies conclude that the death penalty keeps us no safer than imprisonment, and yet it siphons away far more crime prevention dollars." Currently, he says, Kansas is unable to fully staff its correctional facilities or make technological improvements to ensure the safety of corrections officers and prisoners alike. “With funds so scarce, and the needs so great,” Werholtz says, “it simply makes no sense for us to continue to invest more in our ineffective death penalty."

 

Texas Set to Execute Mexican National Despite Treaty Violations, Innocence Claim

Posted: November 6, 2017

Texas plans to execute a Mexican national on November 8, despite claims that he is innocent and that Texas violated U.S. international treaty obligations by denying him access to legal assistance from his government. Senior Mexican diplomats called the death sentence imposed on Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas (pictured) "illegal" and a violation of due process. In a news conference in Mexico City on November 6, Carlos Sada, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America, said “From the start, there has been a failure, and from our perspective, this is an illegal act.” Cárdenas was convicted and sentenced to death in Hidalgo County in 1998 for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of his 15-year-old cousin. No physical evidence links him to the crime, and his lawyers say there is no forensic evidence of sexual intercourse or any sexual assault. In a pleading filed with Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, his lawyer, Maurie Levin, has sought a stay of execution to obtain DNA testing of scrapings taken from under the victim’s fingernails, arguing that that Cárdenas’s “conviction and death sentence bear all the indicia of a wrongful conviction.” Those indicators, she writes, include “questionable eyewitness testimony, coerced, uncounseled confessions, and unreliable forensic evidence." Prosecutors have opposed permitting the DNA testing. Despite U.S. treaty obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations requiring law enforcement to notify foreign citizens of their right to assistance from their nation’s consulate, police failed to notify Mexico of Cárdenas’s arrest or Cárdenas of his right to speak with officials from his government. Levin said that Cárdenas repeatedly asked for a lawyer, but that the state did not appoint counsel for 11 days, during which time he was subject to interrogation and gave a series of inconsistent statements, including a coerced confession that was inconsistent with the physical evidence. Eyewitnesses to the abduction—including the victim’s sister, who knew Cárdenas—either did not identify Cárdenas in statements they gave to police or gave descriptions of the assailant that did not match Cárdenas. Mexico did not learn of Cárdenas’s arrest for five months, and has been attempting to assist him since that time. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention rights of 51 Mexican nationals sentenced to death in the United States, including Cárdenas, and ordered that foreign nationals whose consular rights are violated must be provided judicial review to determine whether that violation influenced the outcome of their cases. Cárdenas has sought review of his case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has granted "precautionary measures"—a form of injunction—against his execution until the treaty violation is adjudicated. However, in 2008, in a case in which Texas failed to provide such a hearing to Jose Ernesto Medellin, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that although the world court decision “constitutes an international law obligation” on the United States, it is nevertheless unenforceable against the states unless and until Congress passes legislation, which Congress has yet to do. Since then, a number of foreign nationals have been executed in the U.S. in violation of international treaty obligations without judicial review of their treaty claims. Gregory Kuykendall, a lawyer who represents Mexico, said "It's a significant treaty violation. ... What separates us from anarchy is our commitment to due process and that's the processes of the laws that are in effect in both the United States as well as internationally." Cárdenas has never been granted review of his treaty claim in the U.S. courts.

 

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