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Washington Supreme Court Declares State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Finding that the death penalty "is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner," a unanimous Washington Supreme Court has struck down the state's capital-punishment statute as violating Washington's state constitutional prohibition against "cruel punishment." The court's ruling, authored by Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst and issued on October 11, 2018, declared: "The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section 14 of our state constitution." The decision also converted the sentences of all eight people on the state's death row (pictured) to life imprisonment without possibility of release. The court's action makes Washington the twentieth U.S. state to have judicially or legislatively abolished the death penalty, and the eighth to have done so this century. Governor Jay Inslee, who imposed a moratorium on all executions in 2014, hailed the ruling, saying, "Today’s decision by the state Supreme Court thankfully ends the death penalty in Washington. ... This is a hugely important moment in our pursuit for equal and fair application of justice.” 

The court issued the ruling in the case of Allen Gregory (pictured, bottom row, second from the right), an African-American man sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a white woman. In declaring the death penalty unconstitutional, the court cited recent research that found Washington juries were more than three times more likely to impose a death sentence on a black defendant than on a white defendant in a similar case. "Given the evidence before this court and our judicial notice of implicit and overt racial bias against black defendants in this state, we are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance," the opinion stated. The opinion also cited "arbitrary decision-making, random imposition of the death penalty, unreliability, geographic rarity, and excessive delays" as systemic constitutional flaws supporting the court's decision.

Washington has not carried out an execution since 2010. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said that the court's ruling had finally brought to an end "Washington's four-decade experiment with the death penalty." Satterberg, a Republican, who with Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson supported bipartisan legislation to abolish Washington's death penalty, said "I think the criminal justice system will be stronger without capital punishment." The abolition bill, which was the subject of legislative hearings during the 2018 state legislative session, passed the Washington Senate and the House judiciary committee, but did not receive a vote in the full House.


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Filming Underway for Movie Adaptation of ‘Just Mercy’

Filming for the movie adaptation of Bryan Stevenson's best-selling book, Just Mercy, began August 27, 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama. The film will feature Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Black Panther) as Stevenson and Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx (Ray, Django Unchained) as wrongfully convicted death-row prisoner Walter McMillian. Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, represented McMillian — a Black man framed for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old White woman in Monroeville, Alabama — in McMillian's appeal of his conviction and death sentence. Like the book upon which it is based, the movie will tell the story of that representation and McMillian's exoneration from death row. McMillian was convicted in a trial that lasted only a day and a half. The prosecution presented three witnesses who falsely implicated McMillian in the murder. The jury — composed of eleven Whites and one African American — ignored the testimony of six African-American alibi witnesses who had been with McMillian at a church fish fry at the time of the murder. Although the jury convicted McMillian, the jurors recommended that he be sentenced to life. However, the trial judge overrode the jury’s sentencing verdict and instead sentenced McMillian to death. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and death sentence on appeal, but Stevenson's investigation revealed that prosecution witnesses had lied and that prosecutors had illegally hidden evidence that proved McMillian's innocence. After Stevenson filed a motion for a new trial, the appeals court on February 23, 1993, reversed McMillian’s conviction and ordered a new trial. One week later, on March 2, 1993, prosecutors dismissed the charges against McMillian and he was released. After spending six years on death row, McMillian was exonerated. The film is expected to open in early 2020.


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BOOK: Slavery and the Death Penalty

"It is widely recognized that capital punishment in the United States of America continues to be imbued with the legacy of slavery" and, to end it, American death-penalty abolitionists "should draw on the radicalism of [anti-slavery] abolitionists." So argues British death-penalty scholar and abolitionist Dr. Bharat Malkani, a Senior Lecturer at the Cardiff University School of Law and Politics, in his new book, Slavery and the Death Penalty: A Study in Abolition. Malkani's book explores the historical and conceptual links between slavery and capital punishment and the efforts of abolitionist to end both practices. His book contrasts the discourse of conservative and pragmatic anti-death penalty activists, which he says accepts the legitimacy of the institutional machinery of capital punishment and the moral values of harsh retributivism, with arguments that "emphasize the inherent dignity of the person facing execution." He says the lessons of history suggest that the latter, "expressly rooting anti-death penalty efforts in the idea of dignity," is more effective. Malkani looks closely at the practical and psychological links between slavery and capital punishment, which he finds to be clear and inescapable. "The imposition of death sentences discriminates along racial lines and is disproportionately imposed on the poor, just as slavery was marked by divisions over race and class. Executions have occurred mainly, albeit not exclusively, in former slave states — the same places that witnessed the highest frequencies of lynchings. And," he writes, "capital punishment, like slavery, is predicated on the notion that some people do not belong to the political and moral human community." Malkani analogizes contemporary "conservative" and "pragmatic" anti-death penalty arguments that portray the death penalty as a failed government program or that focus on the economic costs of capital punishment to the approach of those anti-slavery advocates who argued for incremental legal restrictions on slavery or called for the gradual emancipation of only some slaves. He argues that the morality-based approach of more radical slavery abolitionists — emphasizing that the inhumanity of slavery violated the dignity of the slave, the slaveholder, and the community as a whole — has greater social impact. He believes that the arguments of many modern-day anti-death penalty activists focus too narrowly on the death penalty, giving too much credence to life in prison without parole as a viable option. These arguments, he writes, ignore the broader social injustices omnipresent within the United States' administration of the criminal laws. "[C]ontemporary anti-death penalty efforts," he writes, "must be radical in their visions, in order to inspire much-needed changes to the tendency to view some people’s lives as less valuable than others."


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Congressional Black Caucus Asks Oklahoma Governor to Review Case of Julius Jones

The Congressional Black Caucus has urged Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to review the case of death-row prisoner Julius Jones (pictured) and to use her authority to correct what it characterized as his "wrongful conviction." In an August 21, 2018 letter to the Governor, the Black Caucus — an organization of African-American members of the U.S. House of Representatives — expressed its "deep concerns" about racial bias in the application of the death penalty in Oklahoma and the risk of executing an innocent person. Jones' case, it said, fell "[a]t the nexus" of those issues. Jones, an African-American honor student who was co-captain of his high school football, basketball, and track teams, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white businessman. His conviction relied heavily on the testimony of his co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, who avoided the death penalty and was given a substantially reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against Jones. According to the letter, "[t]wo prisoners even heard Mr. Jordan bragging that he set-up Julius, and that he would get out of prison in 15 years in exchange for his testimony." Jones did not fit the description of the murderer given by the victim's sister, but Jordan did. However, Jones' lawyers, the letter emphasized, had no capital trial experience, "failed to show the jury a photograph of Mr. Jones, taken a few days before the shooting ... that [proved] he could not be the person who the victim's sister described," and "did not put on a single witness to testify during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial." The letter said Jones' case also "was plagued by a racially charged investigation and trial," and his sentence was tainted by the "profound inequity in the application of the death penalty based on race." Jones' current attorneys recently uncovered evidence that one of his jurors used a racial slur during the trial. "One juror reported telling the judge about another juror who said the trial was a waste of time and 'they should just take the [n-word] out and shoot him behind the jail,'" the letter states. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to consider this new evidence, and Jones also has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Relying on a 2017 study on race and death sentencing in the state, that petition argues that Oklahoma's death penalty unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of race. One key finding of that study, the letter said, is that "a black defendant accused of killing a white male victim in Oklahoma is nearly three times more likely to receive a death sentence than if his victim were a non-white male." The congressmembers also urged Gov. Fallin to address a range of systemic reforms suggested by the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, including reforms to eyewitness identification procedures, forensic science reform, regulating the use of informants, and recording custodial interrogations. "Major reform is needed to the criminal justice system to ensure that the fair and impartial process called for by the Death Penalty Study Commission becomes a reality," they write. "Given this backdrop, we strongly urge you to use the power of your office to put these recommended reforms in place."


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Amnesty International Issues Report on the Death Penalty in Florida

A new report by Amnesty International says Florida's approach to redressing the nearly 400 unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences imposed in the state has deepened its status as an outlier on death-penalty issues by "add[ing] an extra layer of arbitrariness to [the state's] already discriminatory and error-prone capital justice system." The report, released on August 23, 2018, examines the impact of Florida's reponse to U.S. and Florida Supreme Court rulings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State that overturned the state’s capital sentencing statute. That response, Amnesty said, would permit the execution of more than 170 prisoners whom the state acknowledges were sentenced to death under unconstitutional sentencing procedures. Executing those prisoners, Amnesty wrote, will violate "well-established" international human rights law requiring that any person "convicted of a capital offence must benefit when a change of law following charge or conviction imposes a lighter penalty for that crime." In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a state practice that permitted judges to impose a death sentence despite the recommendations of one or more jurors that a life sentence should be imposed. However, the court then declined to enforce that ruling in cases that had completed direct appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court announced in Ring v. Arizona in June 2002 that capital defendants had a right to have a jury decide all facts that were necessary to impose the death penalty. The Amnesty International report described the Florida court's refusal to enforce the constitution in cases in which it acknowledged that constitutional violations had occurred as "fear of too much justice." "Finality won out over fairness when the Florida Supreme Court decided the Hurst retroactivity issue," the report said. The report highlights the cases of prisoners with serious mental illness, those with "actual or borderline intellectual disability," youthful offenders with backgrounds of severe deprivation and abuse who were condemned in unconstitutional sentencing trials, and the wrongful impact of race on sentencing decisions, and argues that Florida's refusal to review these cases is not only arbitrary, but also violates international human rights norms and the constitutional principle that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for "the worst of the worst" cases. The report also discusses Florida's long history of employing unconstitutional death-penalty practices that were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court. It spotlights the case of James Hitchcock, who was unconstitutionally sentenced to death four times for a crime he committed at age 20. The first three times, his death sentence was overturned, including a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Florida's statutory restriction on the mitigating evidence the sentencing judge and jury could consider. The fourth time, he was sentenced to death after a non-unanimous jury vote, but was denied review of that constitutional violation. "The death penalty is no way to impart justice," said Amnesty's Americas Director, Erika Guevara Rosas. "Florida and all other states where the death penalty is still in use must impose immediate moratoriums on executions until they can end this cruel practice once and for all." In the meantime, the report urges all officials to “ensure an end to the use of the death penalty against anyone with intellectual disability or mental disability,” “ensure that all capital case decision makers are made fully aware of the mitigating evidence surrounding youth and emotional and psychological immaturity,” and “facilitate a public education campaign to raise awareness across Florida of the costs, risks and flaws associated with the state’s death penalty.”


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Article Considers “Frontier Justice” and the West's Legacy of Lynching

In his recent article, Reckoning with History: The legacy of lynching in the West, historian Adam Sowards challenges the view romanticized in American popular mythology that “frontier justice” was a necessary community response in “a violent frontier where the need for justice sometimes preceded an established legal system.” In fact, he says, although Westerners created an elaborate rhetoric of a “Western vigilante tradition” to differentiate their posse killings from lynchings in the South, Western lynchings – like their Southern counterparts – were “racialized, gendered, brutal and lawless” and “disproportionately targeted people of color.” Reviewing the work of artist Ken Gonzales-Day, who catalogued more than 350 lynchings between California’s admission to the Union in 1850 and 1935, when the last known lynching occurred, Sowards notes that two-thirds of the victims of lynchings whose race is known were people of color, primarily Mexican. Lynchings of more than 871 Mexican Americans have been documented across 13 Western and Southwestern states in the years after the Civil War, and historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb estimate that more than 5,000 Mexican Americans were murdered between 1910 to 1920 by vigilantes, local law-enforcement officers, and Texas Rangers. The notion that vigilante killings “simply fulfilled a criminal justice function at a time when the state’s courts failed to execute their duty" is false, Sowards writes. “All lynch mobs are lawless and unjust, and they point to white supremacy — no matter what earlier Westerners might have insisted.” Lynching declined across America, he says, “when states — whether Western, Midwestern or Southern — instituted capital punishment efficiently and racialized the criminal justice system.”


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New Conservative Voices Criticize Death Penalty as an 'Inept, Biased and Corrupt' Big Government Policy

Calling the death penalty a wasteful "big government" policy that is "inept, biased, and corrupt," a libertarian think tank and a New Orleans columnist have joined the chorus of conservative voices calling for the end of the death penalty. In Conservative doesn't mean supporting death penalty, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Tim Morris (pictured) argues that being a conservative requires neither "an unyielding fealty to a party or person [or] simply finding the polar opposite of some liberal position," and that while he believes that "capital punishment can be morally justified," "our government has proven to be ... inept, biased and corrupt in carrying out that responsibility." Likewise, in a July 22, 2018 commentary, If You Hate Big Government, You Should Oppose the Death Penalty, published on the Foundation for Economic Education website, Patrick Hauf writes that "[f]rom fiscal irresponsibility to wrongful convictions to botched executions, the death penalty is merely another wasteful government effort." Hauf, too, criticizes what he sees as reflexive support for the death penalty among some conservatives. While many "pride themselves on their unapologetic use of the death penalty, its enactment," Hauf says, "like most government programs, is both inefficient and ineffective." Morris, whom the newspaper describes as an “independent thinker with a Christian worldview and a journalist’s sense of skepticism,” dismisses the notion that all conservatives must support the death penalty. As evidence that government cannot properly administer capital punishment, he says "too many innocent people are being sentenced to death" and notes that 82 percent of death-row cases in Louisiana from 1975-2015 ended with the conviction or sentence being reversed. In another op-ed, he cites findings from a University of North Carolina study that a black male in Louisiana is 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim was a white female than when the victim was a black male. After detailing the reasons conservative political strategist Richard Viguerie and Pulitzer prize winning conservative columnist George Will also oppose capital punishment, Morris sums up: “the death penalty is arbitrary, racially discriminatory, and doesn't deter crime. I don't see anything conservative about supporting an inept, biased, corrupt system." Hauf also tauts growing Republican resistance to the death penalty, citing a 2017 report by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty that highlighted a dramatic rise in Republican sponsorship of bills to abolish capital punishment and the results of a Gallup poll that reported 10-percentage-point decrease in support for the death penalty among conservatives in 2017. He notes the ideological inconsistency between principled conservatism and the death penalty, saying capital punishment is "one issue where conservatives often give far too much power to the government." He writes, "many Republicans allow their 'tough on crime' mentality to overrule limited government ideals and innate skepticism of state overreach. This contradiction within the Republican platform, although rarely acknowledged, exposes a weakness in the party’s ideology. If Republicans pride themselves on their limited government philosophy, then why would they grant the government control over life and death?" There is, he concludes, "nothing 'small government' about capital punishment. ... It’s time for Republicans to kill capital punishment off for good." 


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North Carolina Death-Row Prisoners Challenge Retroactive Repeal of Racial Justice Act

Four African-American death-row prisoners in North Carolina whose death sentences had been overturned for racial discrimination have challenged the constitutionality of subsequent state court rulings that reinstated their death sentences and then denied them a new hearing on their discrimination claims. The four—Marcus Robinson (pictured), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters—had overturned their death sentences in 2012 under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), presenting evidence that a multi-decade systematic exclusion of African Americans from death-penalty juries in North Carolina had infected their cases with racial bias. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated those rulings, saying state prosecutors deserved an opportunity to present additional evidence, and the North Carolina legislature repealed the RJA. The trial court then ruled that, because of the repeal, it could no longer hear the prisoners' cases. Backed by a broad coalition of civil rights groups and several former prosecutors, the prisoners filed briefs in the North Carolina Supreme Court on July 16, 2018 arguing that the lower court ruling violated numerous constitutional guarantees, including due process and the Double Jeopardy clauses of the state and federal constitutions. After nearly three weeks of testimony in Robinson’s case, which detailed state prosecutors’ use of jury strikes in 173 capital trials between 1990 and 2010, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks overturned Robinson’s death sentence, finding that the “evidence showed the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection.” Reviewing expert testimony about prosecutors’ choices to accept or strike more than 7,400 jurors, Weeks determined that prosecutors had systematically excluded black jurors from serving in capital cases “with remarkable consistency across time and jurisdictions.” Based on the same statewide evidence, plus the jury strikes in their cases, Weeks concluded that the death sentences imposed on Golphin, Augustine, and Walters also should be overturned. Prosecutors then persuaded the North Carolina Supreme Court to vacate Weeks’s rulings and send the cases back to the trial court for more evidence. “Lo and behold we get back into Superior Court, and at that point, the position shifts, and it’s well wait a minute, the statute’s been repealed, the courthouse door has been shut, and you are out of luck,” explained Gretchen Engel, director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The prisoners’ appeal drew support from numerous civil rights and law-reform organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the North Carolina NAACP, the National Association of Public Defenders, the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, the North Carolina Council of Churches, North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, and a group of former prosecutors. In a statement, LDF senior deputy director of litigation Jin Hee Lee said: “The continuing stain of racial discrimination not only invalidates the death sentences imposed on these defendants, but it also undermines public confidence in North Carolina’s judicial system as a whole.” Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley said, “Whatever one thinks of the death penalty, we should all agree that execution can never be an option when racial stereotypes are used to keep black citizens off capital juries. No civil right is more basic than this.” 


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Texas Executes Another Defendant of Color Over Objection of Victim’s Family

Against the wishes of the victim's family and amidst charges that the rejection of his clemency application was rooted in racial bias, Texas executed Christopher Young (pictured) on July 17, 2018. Young—who had been drunk and high on drugs when he killed Hashmukh Patel during a failed robbery in 2004—had repeatedly expressed remorse for the murder and had been mentoring troubled youth in an effort to prevent them from repeating his mistakes. The victim's son, Mitesh Patel, had urged clemency for Young, saying that he didn't want Young's children to grow up without a father, and that Young could be a positive influence by continuing his mentorship activities. Mitesh Patel, who had an emotional visit with Young the day before the execution, said the meeting left him with "a sense of sadness." "I really do believe Chris Young today is not the person he was 14 years ago," Patel said. "It's really unfortunate that the [pardons] board didn't hear our request for clemency. I feel sadness for his family. They're going to be walking down the same path my family has been on the last 14 years." On July 13, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 6-0, with one abstention, to deny Young's clemency application. Young's attorneys then filed a civil-rights suit in federal court, seeking a stay of execution on the grounds that the board's decision had been racially biased. Young's lawyer, David Dow, said family members of the murder victim have asked the pardons board six times this century to commute the death sentence imposed on the person convicted of murdering their loved one. "[O]f those six," Dow said, "three are black, two are Hispanic and one is white. Only in the case of the white guy [Thomas Whitaker] did they vote to recommend commutation.” U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison denied Young's request for a stay, but expressed extreme displeasure about the constricted timeframe for judicial review and the state's lack of concern about the possibility of racial bias. The case, he said, "dramatizes much of what is most troubling about the procedures by which we execute criminal defendants." He continued, "In a rational world, the Court would be able to authorize discovery and sift through the evidence obtained thereby. ... Here, ... the time frame is designed to render impossible intelligent and dispassionate judicial review. Applicable principles of law seem nonexistent." "Those engaging in race discrimination seldom announce their motivations," Judge Ellison said, and the timeframe made it "well-nigh impossible" for Young to prove his claims. "Ideally," Ellison wrote, Texas "would be determined to show that racial considerations had not infected the clemency proceeding. ... [H]owever, the State is eager to proceed with [Young's] execution without either side having any opportunity to explore the [issue]." In his final statement, Young said "l want to make sure the Patel family knows I love them like they love me. Make sure the kids in the world know I’m being executed and those kids I’ve been mentoring keep this fight going." The execution was the eighth in Texas and the thirteenth in the U.S. in 2018. 


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

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


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