Two Cases Pit Native American Sovereignty Against U.S. Death Penalty
As federal prosecutors dropped the death penalty against a Navajo man accused of killing a police officer on Navajo land, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a separate case on the status of a treaty establishing the borders of the Creek Nation reservation that could determine whether Oklahoma has jurisdiction to carry out the death penalty against a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. The two cases highlight issues of Native American tribal sovereignty with potentially profound implications for the administration of capital punishment under state and federal death penalty laws.
On November 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Carpenter v. Murphy, Oklahoma’s appeal of a lower federal court decision that overturned the conviction and death sentence of Patrick Murphy, a citizen of the Creek Nation, for a murder the federal court ruled was committed in Indian Country, on lands within the boundaries of the Creek Nation reservation established by treaty in 1866. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in August 2017 that because the homicide with which Murphy was charged “was committed in Indian country, the Oklahoma state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him.” Under the federal Major Crimes Act, the court said, Murphy could be prosecuted by federal authorities, but not by the state. Because of tribal opposition to the death penalty, Murphy would not face capital prosecution under the act. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd hailed the Circuit court’s decision as “affirm[ing] the right of the Nation and all other Indian Nations to make and enforce their own laws within their own boundaries.”
In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only Congress had authority to disestablish or diminish an Indian reservation. Congress has never explicitly disestablished the Creek reservation. However, Oklahoma appealed the court’s ruling, arguing that the admission of Oklahoma into the Union in 1907 superseded the treaty and disestablished the reservation. Arguing for Murphy, Ian Gershengorn told the Court that the tribe has never ceded authority over the lands and “for the last 40 years, … when the Creek Nation adopted a constitution in 1979, they asserted political jurisdiction to the extent of their 1900 boundaries.” The Court’s decision in the case could affect criminal prosecutions in an 11-county region of eastern Oklahoma.
In New Mexico, federal prosecutors on November 19 withdrew their notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Kirby Cleveland in the killing of a tribal police officer. In January 2018, U.S. attorneys announced they would capitally prosecute Cleveland, prompting opposition from the Navajo Nation, which holds the official position that “capital punishment is not an acceptable form of punishment.” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch stated in a letter, “The death penalty is counter to the cultural beliefs and traditions of the Navajo People who value life and place a great emphasis on the restoration of harmony through restoration and individual attention.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office had argued that because the murder involved the death of a police officer, the tribe’s position was not binding on the federal government. The case was further complicated by the fact that the state of New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, so a death-penalty prosecution was counter to the policy of the state in which the crime took place.
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Defense Moves to Bar Death Penalty in New York Bike-Path Killings, Citing “Nakedly Political” Tweets
Defense attorneys for Sayfullo Saipov (pictured), the man accused of killing eight people by driving a truck onto a Manhattan bike path on October 31, 2017, have asked a New York federal district court to bar the U.S. government from seeking the death penalty against Saipov. Arguing that President Donald Trump has unconstitutionally injected “nakedly political considerations” into the Department of Justice's charging decision, Saipov’s lawyers on September 6, 2018, filed a motion before Judge Vincent Broderick to preclude federal prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty or, alternatively, “to appoint an independent prosecutor to decide whether the death penalty should be pursued” in the case. The defense filing cites several tweets in which the President directly called for Saipov’s execution and another in which Mr. Trump ridiculed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is ultimately responsible for deciding whether to seek any federal death sentence, for moving forward with two prosecutions that could cost Republicans seats in the U.S. Congress. In separate tweets shortly after the truck attack, Trump used all capital letters to demand the death penalty for Saipov, exclaiming “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” and “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!” In a later tweet, he referred to Saipov as a “degenerate animal.” The motion further alleges that President Trump “has recently tweeted that he expects non-case related political considerations to govern Attorney General Sessions’ charging decisions,” pointing to a tweet that “excoriated” Sessions for the indictments of “two very popular Republican Congressmen ... just ahead of the Mid-Terms.” Trump derisively tweeted: “Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job, Jeff.” Saipov’s lawyers note that this tweet attack on Attorney General Sessions comes at the same time that the President’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, ‘confirmed that he and Trump have discussed Sessions’ possible removal.’” The motion argues that “[t]he pressure from Mr. Trump’s intemperate demands are simply too great for Attorney General Sessions or anyone else who works for President Trump to appropriately exercise the fact-based, independent decision-making process required” in capital cases. This, they argue, creates an unconstitutional risk that any decision to seek death will be—or appear to be—the product of “President Trump’s arbitrary, uninformed and emotional impulses ... and/or his insistence that the Justice Department’s charging decisions should be controlled by political calculations.” There is no death penalty in New York state. Federal prosecutors have not yet announced whether they intend to seek a death sentence in the case.
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Prosecutors Withdraw Death Penalty, Agree to Guilty Pleas in Two High Profile Cases With Multiple Victims
State and federal prosecutors have agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas by defendants charged with multiple killings in two unrelated high-profile murder cases. On May 4, Lake County, Indiana prosecutors dropped the death penalty against Darren Vann (pictured, left), who had killed seven women. On May 1, federal prosecutors announced they would not pursue the death penalty against Esteban Santiago (pictured right), who killed five people and wounded six others in a shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida in 2017. Military records reflect that Vann—a former Hawk Missile system operator who had earned a National Defense Service Medal—was prematurely discharged from the Marine Corps in 1993 for conduct described as "incongruent with Marine Corps’ expectations and standards." Vann had been capitally charged in the strangulation deaths of two women after having been released from prison in Texas in 2013 where he had served time for a rape conviction. County prosecutors agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for his admission of guilt in their murders and the murders of five other women in an area of Gary, Indiana, frequented by sex workers and drug users. He was arrested in October 2014 after police found one victim's body in a motel bathtub. Vann told police he had killed six other women and later led authorities to their remains. Marvin Clinton, the longtime boyfriend of one of the victims and father of her child, called the death penalty "the easy way out" and said he preferred than Vann be sentenced to life without parole. "I want him to suffer," Clinton said. "These women will haunt him for the rest of his life.” Federal prosecutors reached a plea agreement that would avoid a protracted death-penalty trial for Santiago, a severely mentally ill Iraqi War veteran who suffers from auditory hallucinations and is being medicated for schizophrenia. Santiago opened fire in the Fort Lauderdale airport two months after having been released from a psychiatric hospitalization in Alaska. At that time, Santiago told local FBI agents in Anchorage that he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind. Local police then confiscated his handgun, but returned it to him weeks before the airport shooting. Santiago's lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen, said Santiago has expressed remorse for the shooting. U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom has ordered Santiago to undergo a mental health evaluation to ensure he is legally competent to plead guilty and has scheduled a competency hearing for May 23.
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Public Health Experts Criticize Trump’s Proposal to Seek Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers
Saying “the ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty,” President Donald Trump (pictured) announced on March 19 that he will direct the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty against drug traffickers. The proposal, included as part of the administration’s plan to address an opioid epidemic that has resulted in as many as 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016 alone, drew immediate criticism from public-health and criminal-justice experts. “We can’t execute our way out of this epidemic,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. “To be talking about the death penalty sounds to me like a step backwards.” During the announcement, Trump acknowledged resistance to his death-penalty proposal, saying, “[m]aybe our country's not ready for that. It's possible, it’s possible that our country is not ready for that.” Since 1994, federal law has authorized the death penalty for “drug kingpins” who traffic in large quantities of drugs, even if no killing has occurred. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for crimes against individuals in which no one is killed, and no prior administration—Republican or Democratic—has used the drug kingpin provision to seek the death penalty. Experts said the opioid crisis should be dealt with as a public-health issue and that harsher penalties for drug dealers would not fix the problem. Instead, they said, the administration should focus on addiction treatment. “The reality is, most people who are selling drugs are suffering from opioid addiction, and they sell drugs to support their own habit,” Dr. Kolodny said. “When I start hearing about the death penalty, it just seems to me we’re going in the wrong direction.” Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia University, agreed, saying “[c]riminal justice can play a complementary role in addressing the opioid crisis, but relying on the criminal justice system to address public health problems has proven unwise, costly, ineffective and often counterproductive.” Legal experts said the constitutionality of death sentences for drug dealers would likely be the subject of extensive litigation. “The death penalty is uncertain as a constitutionally permissible punishment without that connection to an intentional killing,” said Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman. Hamilton County, Ohio, Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters, known for aggressively pursuing the death penalty, said “[t]o seek a death penalty case [simply for for drug trafficking] would be almost impossible. We'd have serious constitutional problems.” Former Harris County, Texas, homicide prosecutor Ted Wilson called the proposal “kind of over-the-top.” The death penalty for drug dealers "in my opinion just doesn’t fit,” he said. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) compared the President’s death-penalty proposal to past failed drug policies, saying, “We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic—we tried that and ended up with an even bigger addiction problem and the world’s largest prison population. The war on drugs didn’t work in the 80’s, and it won’t work now by reviving failed deterrence measures like the death penalty for drug dealers. We must instead crack down on the over-production and over-prescribing of painkillers, and increase treatment for those suffering from addiction—both of which have bipartisan support in Congress." A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released March 8, found that harsher penal sanctions had no measurable impact on drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests. The data, Pew said, “reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.”
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