50 Years After Historic Confirmation to Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall's Legacy Continues To Shape Future
Fifty years ago today, Thurgood Marshall (pictured) was confirmed as the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Marshall’s legacy is indelibly linked to his historic victory in 1954 as counsel in Brown v. Board of Education, breaking down the barriers of "separate but equal" segregated public education. But he is equally associated with his representation of capital defendants in racially charged cases in the Jim Crow South and his longstanding belief—first articulated in a concurring opinion in the Court's landmark 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia striking down all existing death-penalty statutes—that "the death penalty is an excessive and unnecessary punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment." A grandson of slaves and a survivor of an attempted lynching by Tennessee police officers, Marshall devoted his life to ensuring that all people, irrespective of race, enjoyed the rights of full citizenship and the equal protection of the law. This inexorably drew him to the issues of lynching and capital punishment. Seven days after the Baltimore native received his law license in October 1933, a 23-year-old intellectually disabled black man, George Armwood, who had been in custody accused of the attempted assault and rape of an elderly white woman, was lynched in nearby Somerset County, Maryland. Marshall was one of ten lawyers to petition the governor seeking anti-lynching legislation and call for an investigation into state police involvement in the lynching. Marshall won his first Supreme Court case in 1940, arguing Chambers v. Florida, which established that coerced confessions obtained by police through duress and violence are inadmissible at trial. That year, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and served as its first Director-Counsel, representing numerous black defendants charged with crimes in Southern courts. In 1941, Marshall represented W.D. Lyons, an illiterate 21-year-old black sharecropper beaten into confessing to murdering a white family and burning down their home. Enduring racial epithets from an initially hostile white community, Marshall subjected the police who had framed Lyons to withering cross-examination and showed that they had obviously lied on the stand. Lyons was convicted and—after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal—executed, but historians say the case awakened Marshall to the ability of lawyers to empower oppressed communities. Later, Marshall won retrials for three young African-American men who had been falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Lake County, Florida. Two of the "Groveland Four" (a fourth young man charged in the case had been lynched by a white mob after escaping from custody) were wrongly sentenced to death; one of them was murdered and the other shot several times by a sheriff while being transported to their retrial. The surviving defendant was convicted and resentenced to death, but received a last-minute commutation. The third defendant—who was 16 at the time—received a life sentence. In April 2017, the Florida legislature issued an apology for the killings and wrongful convictions and asked Governor Rick Scott to issue posthumous pardons for the four. In November 1946, Marshall nearly was murdered. Tennessee law enforcement intercepted his car and placed him in the back of an unmarked car after he had won an acquittal for one of 25 black man charged with riot and attempted murder in the wake of local racial violence. They drove him down isolated roads and, Marshall later said, "were taking me down to the river where all of the white people were waiting to do a little bit of lynching." A white lawyer and a white journalist saw the abduction and followed the unmarked car, foiling the lynching. The Legal Defense Fund won acquittals in 23 of the 25 Tennessee riot cases. Marshall wrote in his concurrence in Furman that "[i]t is evident ... that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the underprivileged members of society." He firmly believed that the public would do away with the punishment if they understood the facts of how the death penalty actually was applied. The question for him in Furman was "not whether a substantial proportion of American citizens would today, if polled, opine that capital punishment is barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in the light of all information presently available.”
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Report Finds High Levels of Misconduct in Four Top Death Sentencing Counties
Four counties that rank among the most aggressive users of capital punishment in the United States have prolonged patterns of prosecutorial misconduct, according to a new report by the Harvard-based Fair Punishment Project. The report, "The Recidivists: Four Prosecutors Who Repeatedly Violate the Constitution," examined state appellate court decisions in California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Tennessee from 2010-2015, and found that prosecutors in Orange County, CA; Orleans Parish, LA; St. Louis City, MO; and Shelby County, TN—all of which currently face allegations of significant misconduct—ranked among the most prolific perpetrators of misconduct in their respective states. Orange and Shelby counties ranked 7th and 13th among the 2% of counties responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners in the U.S. as of January 2013, each having more individuals on their death rows than 99.5% of all counties in the country. In the midst of a scandal on an illegal, multi-decade practice of placing informants next to targeted prisoners to attempt to extract confessions from them, Orange County imposed more death sentences from 2010-2015 than all but five other U.S. counties. St. Louis City ranked 10th in executions from 1976-2012, and Orleans Parish has long been known for its prosecutors' failures to disclose exculpatory evidence to capital defendants, including three cases that have been the subjects of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The statewide misconduct rankings produced by the Fair Punishment Project show that these counties are outliers not only in their heavy use of the death penalty, but also in their patterns of prosecutorial misconduct. Among the types of misconduct found by appellate courts were withholding exculpatory evidence, improper arguments at trial, and hiding deals and favorable treatment offered to informants in exchange for their testimony. In one case from St. Louis, prosecutors: suppressed evidence in the death-penalty trial of Reginald Clemons that would have supported Clemons' claim that he confessed only after having been beaten by police; never disclosed the existence of a rape kit that could have identified the perpetrator; and presented testimony in a co-defendant's trial that another person had committed acts attributed to Clemons at his trial. Longtime prosecutor Nels Moss, Jr. also advised police officers to omit certain observations that were initially included in their reports. Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death, but was awarded a new trial—scheduled for 2018—because of this misconduct.
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Federal Appeals Court Overturns Tennessee Death Penalty as a Result of Prosecutorial Misconduct
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the conviction and death sentence of Tennessee death-row prisoner Andrew Lee Thomas, Jr. on February 24, ruling that Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich had unconstitutionally withheld evidence that a key prosecution witness had been paid for her cooperation in the case and then elicited perjured testimony from the witness lying about the payment. Weirich is currently facing ethical charges from the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility arising out of misconduct in another murder trial, State v. Noura Jackson, in which the Tennessee Supreme Court found that Weirich had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense and had improperly commented on the defendant's decision not to testify. According to the court's ruling in Thomas's case, his former girlfriend, Angela Jackson, had provided "the only reliable testimony placing Thomas at the scene of the shooting." During trial, Weirich asked Jackson: "Have you collected one red cent for this?" Jackson replied, "No, ma'am. I have not." In fact, Jackson had been paid $750 by the FBI on behalf of the joint state and federal Safe Streets Task Force. Calling Weirich's failure to disclose the payment “egregious,” the court said the "prosecutor had a duty to disclose this payment rather than allow the witness to commit perjury by denying its existence." Shelby County, where Thomas was tried, is among the 2% of U.S. counties that account for a majority of all death sentences imposed in the United States. Its county prosecutors have been dogged by charges of misconduct. In 2014, Weirich defended the conduct of Tom Henderson, a veteran homicide prosecutor in her office who had been censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court for misconduct in the capital trial of Michael Rimmer after a judge had found that Henderson had made “blatantly false, inappropriate and ethically questionable” statements to the Court and defense counsel about the existence of exculpatory evidence, “purposefully misled counsel with regard to the evidence,” and withheld exculpatory evidence he was constitutionally required to disclose.
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Former Tennessee Attorney General Supports Mental Illness Exemption
In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, former Tennessee Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody (pictured) has expressed his support for a bill that would exempt people with serious mental illness from the death penalty. Cody, who later served as a member of the American Bar Association's Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Team, said that "as society's understanding of mental illness improves every day," it is "surprising that people with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, can still be subject to the death penalty in Tennessee." In his op-ed, Cody describes how cases with seriously mentally ill defendants differ from other capital cases: "In 2007, an ABA study committee, of which I was a member, conducted a comprehensive assessment of Tennessee’s death penalty laws and found that 'mental illness can affect every stage of a capital trial' and that 'when the judge, prosecutor and jurors are misinformed about the nature of mental illness and its relevance to the defendant’s culpability, tragic consequences often follow for the defendant.'" He also draws on his experience as the state's top prosecutor, saying, "As a former Tennessee Attorney General, I understand how horrific these crimes are and how seriously we must take capital cases. ...But in light of our increased understanding of mental illness, I believe that for those with documented mental illness of the most severe form at the time of their crime, the maximum punishment should be life in prison without parole." Tennessee is one of at least seven states in which legislators have introduced bills that would exempt those with severe mental illness from the death penalty. Numerous legal and mental health organizations, including the American Bar Association, American Psychiatric Association, and National Alliance on Mental Illness, support excluding defendants with serious mental illness from the death penalty.
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At Least Seven States Introduce Legislation Banning Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness
Bills to exempt individuals with severe mental illness from facing the death penalty are expected in at least seven states in 2017. Legislators in Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia have either introduced such legislation or announced that they plan to. Six of the seven states have sponsorship from Republican legislators, indicating bipartisan support for the measures. The author of Indiana's bill, Sen. James Merritt (pictured, R-Indianapolis), says he supports the death penalty but draws a “bright line of distinction” around executing people with severe mental illness. There are some variations in the bills, but each creates a process in which a determination is made—usually by a judge—whether the defendant qualifies for the exemption. Some bills define serious mental illness by particular diagnoses, others by behavioral impairments in functioning. Qualifying diagnoses under the exemption typically included Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury. Defendants found to be suffering from severe mental illness would not be exempted from criminal responsibility, but would be subject to a maximum sentence of life without parole. Numerous mental health organizations have called for an exemption to the death penalty for individuals with severe mental illness. The measures have the support of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), and state-level coalitions of mental health advocates. In December 2016, the American Bar Association held a national summit and issued a white paper in support of a severe mental illness exemption. Several religious leaders also have spoken out in favor of the exemption. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, wrote an op-ed for The Virginian-Pilot in late January saying, "Their conditions affect many aspects of the legal process, impacting their appearance in court, the jury’s perception of ticks or socially inappropriate interactions, the defendant’s presentation of facts, and even their own admission of guilt. Indeed, studies have shown that defendants with severe mental illness are more likely to give a false confession. ...As a faith leader, I am compelled to advocate for compassionate and fair laws such as this." Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, called the bill "prudent and just."
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