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Florida's Troubled History With the Death Penalty

A recent retrospective in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly on the state's death penalty traced some of the problems that have arisen since Florida resumed executions in 1979. During the execution of Jesse Tafero in 1990, six-inch flames shot from the prisoner’s head, and three separate jolts of electricity were required to kill him. Prison officials attributed it to “inadvertent human error.” In the execution of Pedro Medina in 1997, flames and smoke again spewed out from under the head gear. Ron McAndrew, the warden at the time, recently remarked, “For the next 11 minutes, instead of electrocuting this man, we burned him to death. We literally burned him to death.” Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw called such executions “barbaric spectacles” and said they were “acts more befitting a violent murderer than a civilized state.” Florida also has more exonerations (24) from death row than any other state. It is the only state that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence by a simple majority; most states require unanimity. The state's recent passage of the Timely Justice Act, designed to speed up executions, has raised concerns that it will reduce death row inmates' opportunities to prove their innocence.


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Death Penalty Lawyer Called America's Mandela

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof highlighted the work of Bryan Stevenson (pictured), referring to him as "America's Nelson Mandela." Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has focused his career on representing indigent defendants, especially those on death row throughout the south. In his new book, Just Mercy, Stevenson tells the story of representing and eventually winning the exoneration of Walter McMillian, a black man unjustly convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of a white woman in Alabama. Kristof asked Stevenson if "such a blatant and racially tinged miscarriage of justice" is less common today. Stevenson said, "If anything, because of the tremendous increase in people incarcerated, I’m confident that we have more innocent people in prison today than 25 years ago."


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Former Death Row Inmate in Texas Freed Because Attorneys Missed Evidence

On October 8, 2014 former death row inmate Manuel Velez (pictured with his son before his arrest) was freed from a Texas prison, following a "no contest" plea to a lesser charge on August 25. Velez had been convicted of killing his girlfriend's one-year-old son but consistently maintained his complete innocence. Velez's conviction was overturned in 2013 because his attorney failed to present evidence that the injuries leading to the child's death were sustained while Velez was 1,000 miles away. Medical records indicated the child's head ballooned in size in the months prior to his death in a manner that could only have been caused by head injuries. During that time, the child's mother was the only adult living with him. Velez's trial was also tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecution presented a witness who claimed that if Velez were not executed, he would be imprisoned under lax conditions with a risk for escape, making him a "future danger." The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said this testimony was false and contrary to known prison regulations, which the prosecution knew. Velez agreed to the no-contest plea so he could rejoin his family without the delay of a retrial, even though a retrial might have fully exonerated him.


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BOOKS: "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has written a new book, Just Mercy, about his experiences defending the poor and the wrongfully convicted throughout the south. It includes the story of one of Stevenson's first cases as a young lawyer, that of Walter McMillian, who was eventually exonerated and freed from death row. McMillian, a black man, had been convicted of the murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. His trial lasted just a day and a half, prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, and the judge imposed a death sentence over the jury's recommendation for life. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the book, “Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all. Just Mercy should be read by people of conscience in every civilized country in the world to discover what happens when revenge and retribution replace justice and mercy. It is as gripping to read as any legal thriller, and what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation."


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The Angolite Features Louisiana's Death Row Exonerees

An article in the latest edition of The Angolite, a magazine published by prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, tells the stories of the ten men who have been exonerated from death row in that state. The piece prominently features Glenn Ford, the state's most recent inmate to be freed. Ford spent 30 years on death row before being released in 2014. Among the other cases described is that of John Thompson, who was freed after it was revealed that prosecutors intentionally withheld evidence from his attorneys. A jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision, saying the prosecutor's office could not be held accountable for not training their staff based on this single violation of the law. After describing all ten cases in which the wrongfully convicted men spent a total of 120 years on death row, the article concludes, "These are symptoms of a criminal justice system in dire need of repair....These are dangers of the ultimate punishment that can never be taken back, even if down the road innocence is proven." 


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NEW VOICES: Former FBI Director Says People Were Executed Based Partly on Faulty Agency Testimony

William Sessions, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently pointed to cases of defendants who were executed based in part on faulty hair and fiber analysis in calling for changes in the use of forensic evidence. In an op-ed in the Washington Times, Sessions told the story of Benjamin Boyle, who was executed in Texas in 1997. His conviction was based on testing conducted by an FBI crime lab that an official review later determined to be unreliable and "scientifically unsupportable." Neither state officials nor Boyle's attorneys were notified of the task force's findings before his execution. In two other cases, inmates were also executed despite findings that their cases were tainted by unreliable forensic testimony from the FBI. Sessions said, "I have no idea whether Boyle was innocent, but clearly, he was executed despite great doubts about his conviction. Such uncertainty is unacceptable, especially in a justice system that still allows the death penalty."


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NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty and Calls for Reform

Jim Petro served as Ohio's Attorney General and presided over 18 executions. However, he abandoned his support for capital punishment after seeing the risks of wrongful executions: "Our justice system is based on the decision-making of human beings, and human beings are fallible. We make mistakes and our judgments are influenced by biases and imperfect motivations. Implementing the death penalty makes our errors permanent and impossible to remedy." Recently, he called on the Ohio legislature to adopt the reforms recommended by a Task Force appointed by the state Supreme Court, saying, "Without action the death penalty system will continue to be an expensive, unfairly applied, and risk-filled process that has no place in today's criminal justice system." He asked the legislature to require the recording of interrogations, certification of crime labs, and guidelines for prosecutors seeking the death penalty.


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Sen. Leahy Cites North Carolina Exonerations in Calling for Legislaton

In a recent speech in the U.S. Senate calling for the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) spoke about the recent exonerations of two men in North Carolina, citing the importance of DNA testing in their release from prison after 30 years: "The dozens of exonerations made possible by the Justice for All Act are testament enough to its value," Leahy said, "Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown are just the latest examples. The injustice they survived – and the fact that North Carolina nearly executed an innocent man–should dispel any doubt that this legislation is urgently needed." The Act was first passed in 2004 and has provided important assistance to states and local governments in using DNA evidence to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. The reauthorization is sponsored by Leahy and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The testing in the North Carolina case was funded by the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program, a portion of the Justice for All Act named for the first man exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Read Leahy's statement below.


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POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Mississippi Inmate Challenges Bite-Mark Evidence

A new appeal filed on behalf of Mississippi death row inmate Eddie Howard, Jr. presented DNA evidence that calls into question bite-mark evidence used to convict him in 1992. At Howard's trial, Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who had testified as a forensic expert in numerous cases, said Howard's teeth matched bite marks found on the murder victim. The victim had been buried for three days and exhumed before West examined her. He said he found three bite marks that matched Howard "to a reasonable medical certainty," but presented no photographs or other evidence to support his testimony. According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people who were convicted of rape or murder based on alleged bite matches have been exonerated since 2000. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to reconsider Howard's case, saying, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” In 2010, the court granted DNA testing of the murder weapon and other items from the crime scene. That testing, which showed no link to Howard, is the basis for the new appeal.


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Department of Justice Releases Special Report, "Mending Justice"

A new report from the National Institute of Justice examines ways to reduce and prevent errors, such as the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. The report proposes "sentinel event reviews" -- the examination of mistakes with a view of finding systemic problems. The report uses the death penalty exoneration of John Thompson in Louisiana to illustrate its goal: "In Connick [v. Thompson], the trial prosecutor withheld crime lab results from the defense, removed a blood sample from the evidence room, and failed to disclose that Thompson had been implicated by someone who had received a reward from the victim’s family. The conviction and death sentence were ultimately overturned on appeal, but no one learned anything from the Connick appellate opinions about the deeper, abiding issues in the case’s narrative, and those issues were left to surface again in future cases." The report includes analysis and recommendations from people involved in all facets of the criminal justice system, including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and academics.


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