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USS Cole Lawyers Resign From Guantánamo Death-Penalty Defense, Say Government Spied on Client Communications

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied review of a petition filed by lawyers on behalf of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri—accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s October 12, 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off the coast of Yemen—challenging the legality of his death penalty trial before a Guantánamo Bay military commission. But in what has been described as "a stunning setback" to what would have been the first death-penalty trial held before the special military tribunals established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the entire civilian legal team has resigned from the case amid allegations that the government was illicitly listening in on their legal meetings. The Miami Herald reported on October 13, just three days before the Supreme Court decision, that the Chief Defense Counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Brigadier General John Baker (pictured) had “found good cause” to permit Nashiri's defense team to withdraw from the case as a result of ethical concerns created by alleged government spying on privileged attorney-client meetings. In June 2017, Gen. Baker advised war court defense attorneys that he had lost confidence in the integrity of “all potential attorney-client meeting locations” at Guantánamo, saying that he was “not confident that the prohibition on improper monitoring of attorney-client meetings” at the detention center was being followed. Attorney Rick Kammen, who has defended Nashiri since 2008, alleges in the Supreme Court petition that his team discovered classified information contradicting government assurances that the facilities in which they met with Nashiri were not being improperly surveiled. In the past, the spying has included, among other things, "microphones hidden in smoke detectors." Because the information relating to the violation of the right to counsel is classified, the defense lawyers have been ordered by the judge in the case, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, not to share the information with the public or their client. Although Brig. Gen. Baker has released Kammen from representing Nashiri, the case cannot proceed until another experienced death-penalty defender is brought onboard. Two other civilian defense attorneys who are Pentagon employees—Rosa Eliades and Mary Spears—also quit the case with permission from Baker but remain on his staff. The only member of Nashiri's defense team who remains on the case is Lieutenant Alaric Piette—a former Navy SEAL who has never tried a murder case. “I am certainly not qualified as learned [death-penalty] counsel,” Lt. Piette told the Miami Herald, which he says Nashiri “is entitled to and should have ... since the government is trying to kill him.” Kammen says the defense team is "angry about being placed in an ethically untenable position, disappointed in not being able to see the case through, and devastated to leave Mr. Nashiri, whom we genuinely like and who deserves a real chance for justice.” The pretrial proceedings at the Guantánamo Bay that were scheduled to begin on October 30th are expected to be delayed for months, until learned death-penalty counsel who has received Top Secret security clearance to review the evidence in the case is appointed.


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Prosecutors Seeking Death Sentences for Aging Defendants Despite Taxpayer Cost, Likelihood of Dying Before Execution

Two cases in which prosecutors have elected to pursue the death penalty against aging or infirm defendants who will almost certainly never be executed have raised questions about the costs and benefits of capital charges and the arbitrary exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Federal prosecutors in Missouri are seeking the death penalty against 61-year-old Ulysses Jones Jr., a man with terminal renal disease, for the 2006 killing of another prisoner at a federal prison hospital. At the same time, Philadelphia's judicially-appointed interim district attorney, filling the unexpired term of a district attorney convicted of public corruption charges, is pursuing the death penalty against 64-year-old Robert Lark in the retrial of a 1979 murder. Lark won a new trial in 2014, seven years after Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a lower federal court ruling that they had unconstitutionally struck African Americans from serving as jurors in Lark's case because of their race. Jones is currently facing a capital sentencing hearing in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri after having been convicted on October 4 of murdering 38-year-old Timothy Baker with a makeshift knife in January 2006 at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Jones has been receiving dialysis for the last 30 years, and the medical center, known as Fed Med, houses the nation’s largest dialysis center. Two other prisoners, Wesley Paul Coonce Jr. and Charles Michael Hall, are on federal death row for another murder at Fed Med. Jones's lawyer, Thomas Carver, argues that the capital trial is senseless, both because Jones is already serving a life sentence for two unrelated robberies and murders, and because, if he is sentenced to death, he will likely die before his appeals process is complete, and almost certainly before an execution would be scheduled. "We're talking millions of dollars here," Carver said. Carver believes Jones—whom the defense says has significant intellectual and cognitive impairments—was not indicted until 2010 "because the government was hoping he would die.” In Lark's case, Interim Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge has decided to seek the death penalty even though Lark's appeals in his case, if he were sentenced to death, would not be completed before Lark was in his late-70s or his 80s, far beyond his expected survival on death row. Marc Bookman, a longtime Philadelphia public defender who now serves as Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, called the decision to seek death, made "by a prosecutor chosen by Philadelphia judges rather than one chosen by the community[,] ... a needless step backward" for Philadelphia. Quoting Lawrence Krasner—who overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia district attorney after campaigning on a promise not to seek the death penalty and is heavily favored in the November general election—Bookman says, “We have to stop lighting money on fire.” Krasner has said that the death penalty “has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962,” and his Republican opponent, Beth Grossman has publicly "wonder[ed] whether [the death penalty] is at this point even economically feasible.” In February 2015, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions, noting that Pennsylvania’s failing death-penalty system forced “the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies” with each reversed death sentence. The only certainty in the current system, he said, “is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.”


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Newly Released Documents Show Dylann Roof Feared Being Labeled Mentally Ill More Than He Feared Death Sentence

Newly unsealed psychiatric evaluations and court transcripts in the case of Dylann Roof (pictured)—sentenced to death for the racially motivated killing of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina—raise additional questions as to whether Roof was competent to waive representation in his death penalty proceedings and to forego presenting mental health evidence in his defense. The documents confirm that Roof represented himself in jury selection and in the penalty stage of his federal capital trial out of anxiety that his defense attorneys would present evidence that he was mentally ill. In his journals, Roof wrote, “I want state that I am morally opposed to psychology,” which he called "a Jewish invention [that] does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they dont [sic].” The newly released documents show that Roof became irate when he realized his lawyers wanted to present a mental health defense that involved introducing evidence that he suffered from delusions, a crippling anxiety disorder, depression, and autism.  The unsealed transcripts reveal that defense counsel, David Bruck, told the court that Roof “firmly believes that there will be a white nationalist takeover of the United States within roughly six, seven, eight years, and when that happens, he will be pardoned. He also believes it probable, although not certain, that he will be given a high position, such as the governorship of South Carolina.” At a pretrial hearing, Roof told U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, "If they say I have autism, it's like they are trying to discredit me. It discredits the reason why I did the crime." He also told the judge he believed being labeled autistic would be worse than receiving a death sentence, "Because once you've got that label, there is no point in living anyway." Dr. James Ballenger, a clinical psychiatrist who evaluated Roof, wrote, "The only thing that is important to him is to protect his reputation." Bruck argued to the court that Roof was not competent to represent himself, saying, "If he is incapable of cooperating with counsel, if the decisions that he is making are affected by delusions, by fixed false beliefs, if they are the product of mental illness … the mere fact that he has figured out how to sabotage his defense doesn't mean that he's competent. It is an illustration of why it is so terrible to try an incompetent defendant." Roof was ultimately found competent to stand trial and represent himself. He was convicted and sentenced to death on January 10, 2017.


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President Obama Commutes Two Death Sentences

On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama (pictured) commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th. Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty. In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment." Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die. Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.


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