FEDERAL DEATH PENALTY: Juries in Puerto Rico Continue to Reject Death Penalty

On September 27, a federal jury in Puerto Rico rejected the death penalty for Edison Burgos Montes, who was convicted in August of the murder of his girlfriend in 2005. The jury deliberated for two days before sentencing Montes to life in prison for this drug-related crime. Puerto Rico's constitution forbids capital punishment, but U.S. prosecutors can seek the death penalty under federal law. This is the fourth capital case tried by U.S. authorities since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988. None of the cases has resulted in a death sentence. Governor Luis Fortuno and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's sole representative to the U.S. Congress, spoke out recently against the death penalty.  In addition, one of the candidates for governor, Senator Alejandro Garcia Padilla, promised to try to stop the use of the federal death penalty for Puerto Rico residents.  There also have been popular demonstrations against this use of the death penalty in the Commonwealth.

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COSTS: Federal Case Reveals High Costs of Death Penalty Prosecutions

The recent federal capital trial of Brian Richardson in Atlanta illustrated the high costs of litigation when the death penalty is sought. Richardson’s case required more than 30 lawyers, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in expert witness fees. The U.S. Attorney’s Office assigned eight prosecutors to the case and appointed 20 private attorneys to represent inmates who were testifying against Richardson. The Federal Defender’s Office assigned four attorneys and two investigators to Richardson’s defense. The office spent almost $200,000 for its experts and expenses. Other costs to taxpayers included more than $150,000 billed by mental health experts who planned to testify at trial, but were prohibited from doing so.  In the end, the defendant was sentenced to life without parole.  U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper barred the expert testimony after finding that prosecutors misled him as to how the experts would conduct Richardson’s mental health evaluation. Two assistant U.S. Attorneys were also removed from the case. One was stricken after recordings revealed a disturbing conversation between the prosecutor and a government snitch. The second prosecutor was barred because of a conflict of interest, but he continued working on the case behind the scenes, in defiance of the judge’s order.  Brian Mendelsohn, one of Richardson’s lawyers, said, “This was a colossal waste of taxpayer money. Brian was willing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence from day one. This entire episode could have been avoided.”

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BOOKS: "Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure"

A new book by Professor Jody Lynee' Madeira of the Indiana University School of Law follows the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing to explore whether the families of murder victims obtain closure from an execution. In Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure, Prof. Madeira recounts her wide range of interviews with those who experienced this tragedy first-hand. Regarding the book, Professor Carol Steiker of Harvard said, “Everyone seems to have an opinion about whether the execution of murders can offer ‘closure’ to the victims’ loved ones. Finally, we have a study that has investigated the largest, most media-saturated mass murder and execution in recent times….Madeira’s in-depth, fair-minded, and sensitive account opens a window for us into the struggles of those affected and explores the complicated role that our public institutions of criminal justice play in the complex and difficult work of reconstructing life after atrocity.”

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