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Senate Judiciary Committee Hears Testimony on Adequacy of Counsel in Death Penalty Cases

On April 8, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on "The Adequacy of Representation in Capital Cases." Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) presided over the session of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, which heard testimony from a variety of experts including Michael Greco, former President of the American Bar Association, Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the Honorable Carolyn Temin of the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania, and Donald Verilli, a partner at Jenner & Block. Copies of the testimony given, statements from members of the Judiciary Committee, and a Webcast of the proceedings are available here.


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NEW VOICES: Law Enforcement Officers and Judges Address California Death Penalty

"California's Death Penalty is Broken"


On March 28, 2008 two letters were sent to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice--one from members of the law enforcement community and the other from judges, raising concerns about the state's death penalty.

Thirty law enforcement officers, including current and former prosecutors, police chiefs and other officers, signed a letter stating that “California’s death penalty is broken.” The letter cites multiple reasons why the state’s death penalty system is not working, such as the excessive costs of capital cases, the risk of wrongful convictions, and the stress placed on victims’ families. The signers noted,

By pursuing life without parole sentences instead of death, resources now spent on the death penalty prosecutions and appeals could be used to investigate unsolved homicides, modernize crime labs, and expand effective violence prevention programs.


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Maryland Approves Death Penalty Study Commission

On March 24, Maryland lawmakers voted to create a commission to study the state’s death penalty. The House voted 89-48 and the Senate by 32-15 to establish the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment to research racial, socio-economical, and geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty as well as evaluate the risk of executing an innocent person. The commission will consider the costs of the death penalty as compared to a sentence of life without parole. Its findings and recommendations are due by December 15 and will be submitted to the General Assembly. Delegate Sandy Rosenberg stated that the bill aims to create “ a credible task force - one that will objectively look at the issues." The governor supports the establishment of the Commission.


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Georgia Rejects Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts Proposal

On March 20, the Georgia State Senate overwhelmingly (44-7) rejected a proposal that would have allowed non-unanimous jury sentencing verdicts in capital cases. The proposal would have permitted a judge to impose a death sentence when at least 10 of 12 jurors supported it. Current Georgia law requires that the jury vote unanimously for a death sentence. Some opponents of the bill said it would have put Georgia's entire death penalty law in jeopardy.  (All other death penalty states that allow the jury to decide the sentence require unanimity for a death sentence, protecting minority points of view.)


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NEW VOICES: Murder Victims’ Families Testify in Maryland on the Death Penalty

Family members of murder victims testified before the Maryland Senate Judiciary Committee on March 6 about the painful toll the death penalty has taken on their lives, stating that the resources spent on seeking death sentences could be better used elsewhere. "I've watched too many families go through this to make me believe the system will ever work," said Kathy Garcia, whose nephew was murdered 20 years ago. She continued, "The death penalty divides families at the very time they need each other the most." Other family members of murdered victims agreed, suggesting that the money spent on the death penalty could be better used in providing counseling and other support to survivors. Vicki Schieber, whose daughter was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998, told the committee that years of death penalty appeals are excruciating to families. "The system is just too painful," she said.


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New Hampshire Moves Toward Death Penalty Study Commission

The New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a bill to establish a Commission to Study the Death Penalty. Many officials who have had first-hand experience with New Hampshire’s death penalty, including former Attorneys General Phillip McLaughlin, Peter Heed and Greg Smith, former Superior Court Chief Justice Walter Murphy and former Supreme Court Justice William Batchelder, support the establishment of a commission to study the state’s death penalty procedures. If passed, the bill will establish a bipartisan commission comprised of 15 individuals including state representatives and senators, lawyers, religious groups, and families of murder victims.


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NEW VOICES: Mother of Murder Victim Testifies at California Death Penalty Hearing

At a hearing of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice held in Los Angeles, the mother of a murder victim testified about why she believed the death penalty does not serve victims' needs.  Aba Gayle’s daughter, Catherine Blount, was a teenager when she was murdered in 1980 by Douglas Mickey. At first, Gayle told the Commission, "The district attorney assured me that the execution of the man responsible for Catherine's murder would help me heal, and for many years I believed him." But in 1988, Gayle changed her mind and now no longer wants the defendant to be executed. Mickey’s death sentence was overturned in 2006 due to the ineffectiveness of his defense lawyer, but the D.A. is still seeking the death penalty against him.


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Georgia's Budget Cuts for Public Defenders May Bring Capital Cases to a Halt

The Georgia Senate Appropriations Committee cut the state public defender budget to $513,000, less than 15% of what Gov. Sonny Perdue had recommended to cover costs until the end of June. The governor had originally sought $3.6 million for the Public Defender Standards Council, which is now concerned that without necessary funds, the Georgia court system will come to a standstill, including their defense in capital cases.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said  that additional funding would have allowed the capital cases to move forward. The Senate’s budget cut, he said, is "a huge blow to the ability of prosecutors to begin prosecuting these capital cases." None of the new money is to go to the case of Brian Nichols, who is accused of an infamous courthouse shooting. Because prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty in that case, it has become very expensive for both sides.


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Nebraska and Mississippi

Nebraska Supreme Court Rules Electrocution Unconstitutional
The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled on February 8, 2008, that electrocution is cruel and unusual punishment under the state's constitution, outlawing the electric chair in the only state that still used it as its sole means of execution.

In the landmark ruling, the court said the state legislature may vote to have a death penalty, just not one that offends rights under the state constitution. The evidence shows that electrocution inflicts "intense pain and agonizing suffering," it said.

"Condemned prisoners must not be tortured to death, regardless of their crimes," Judge William Connolly wrote in the 6-1 opinion. (N. Jenkins, "Court: Nebraska Electric Chair Not Legal" Associated Press, February 8, 2008).

Read the Nebraska Supreme Court Decision, see also Methods of Execution and Botched Executions.

Kennedy Brewer is 127th Death Row Inmate Exonerated
Kennedy Brewer, who spent 12 years on Mississippi’s death row for the 1992 murder and rape of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, has been exonerated of the charges, and another man, Justin Johnson, has been arrested for the same crime. A 2001 investigation by the Innocence Project found that the semen on the victim’s body did not match Brewer’s DNA, but did match Johnson’s. Johnson was a suspect early in the case, and his blood was collected and preserved in the Mississippi State Crime Laboratory for more than 10 years. (H. Mohr, “Man charged in child slaying for which another sentenced to death,” Associated Press, February 7, 2008).


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DOJ Fails to Grant Funds Allocated for DNA Testing

At recent Congressional hearings, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned the Department of Justice as to why it has not approved any grants under the Kirk Bloodsworth DNA Post-Conviction Testing Program. Part of the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, the purpose of the program was to help defray DNA testing costs through grants to individual states. It has had congressional funding of almost $14 million over the past three years, but has failed to dole out any of the funds. Kirk Bloodsworth (pictured), the first person on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence, after whom the program is named, told the committee, "The failure of this Department of Justice to grant states money under the Bloodsworth program is not accidental, nor is it the result of the states' failure to comply with the grant's provisions. The DOJ has been against this program from the very beginning."


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