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Colorado Law to Speed Up Death Penalty Appeals Has Faltered and Failed

Twenty years ago, frustrated by what they perceived to be the slow pace of capital punishment, Colorado legislators adopted a law to "fix" their death penalty by speeding up appeals. Proponents and opponents of the state's death penalty agree on one thing: the law hasn't worked. As The Denver Post reports, the state law intended to streamline the death penalty appeals process by imposing a two-year deadline for decision and consolidating direct appeals and post-conviction appeals into a "unitary" system of review has failed. Colorado's two death row prisoners affected by the law have spent more than seven years at the first step in the appeals process, with no ruling on their cases in sight. The 1997 law changed the order of death penalty appeals, putting the lengthier post-conviction appeal (involving new evidence and claims of ineffective representation or prosecutorial misconduct) first, before the direct appeal (which involves only issues that were raised by defense counsel at the time of trial). Once the trial court rules on the post-conviction appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court would review and resolve both appeals together, in a single "unitary" appeal proceeding. But while the law originally allowed "no extensions of time of any kind" in post-conviction appeals, a 2010 Colorado Supreme Court ruling allowed extensions to be granted under "extraordinary circumstances" necessary to protect a defendant's procedural rights. Death row inmates Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens both received extensions. Seven years later, Owens' case has had an extensive evidentiary hearing, but the appeal may have to be redone because the state supreme court fired the judge presiding over the case just before he was expected to issue his ruling. Ray's post-conviction hearings have not yet begun. Christopher Decker, a Denver defense attorney, voiced concerns about whether a fast appeals system would adequately protect defendants' constitutional rights: “If they just speed up the process and strip everyone of due process, we’ll have a very fast outcome that will be worth nothing. It won’t stand up to constitutional review.” Jeanne Adkins, the former state representative who sponsored the 1997 bill to speed up appeals, said, "I’m almost to the point where I would say, ‘Let’s do away with it and save the taxpayers the money.'" Expressing frustration with the death penalty system, she says “[t]he death penalty has become so politicized, truthfully, in the last decade or so in Colorado that I really think that a lot of what the legislature tried to do may actually be pretty pointless now.” 


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Nebraska Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Death Penalty Referendum

The Nebraska Supreme Court heard oral argument on May 25 in a challenge to the proposed November referendum that could reverse the state legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty (vote results pictured left). Christy and Richard Hargesheimer, who oppose the death penalty, are challenging the documents submitted by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, the organization supporting the referendum, on the grounds that the group violated state law when they failed to list Governor Pete Ricketts as a sponsor of the referendum. Nebraska state law requires proponents of a ballot initiative to disclose all of the sponsors of the proposed referendum. Ricketts vetoed the legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty, but the legislature voted 30-19 to override his veto. Ricketts then personally contributed $200,000 and, in combination, he and his father donated approximately one-third of all the money raised by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty to gather the signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot. Much of the argument Wednesday focused on the definition of who is a "sponsor" for the purposes of a referendum campaign. Alan Peterson, an attorney for the Hargesheimers, said the sponsor is the primary initiating force, "the initiator, the instigator." Attorneys for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty argued that the sponsor is someone willing to take legal responsibility for the petition paperwork and said Peterson's definition was "unworkable and would chill involvement in the democratic process." Peterson also argued that a key document required to place the referendum on the November ballot had been filed improperly because it was not an affidavit or sworn statement, as required by Nebraska law. A trial court ruled in February in favor of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, leading to the Hargesheimer's appeal. [UPDATE: On July 8, 2016, the Nebraska Supreme Court that Governor Ricketts’ financial and other support for the petition drive did not make him a “sponsor” of the referendum, and therefore proponents' of the referendum did not have to disclose his involvement in the petition drive. The court rejected the Hargesheimers' efforts to remove the referendum from the ballot.] 


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Florida Judge Sentences Man to Death Under Sentencing Law That Supreme Court Ruled Unconstitutional

A Florida trial judge in St. Lucie County sentenced Eriese Tisdale to death on April 29 for the killing of a sheriff's sergeant, relying on sentencing procedures from the version of Florida's death penalty law that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida. The jury in Tisdale's case considered the evidence in the penalty phase of Tisdale's trial under the old Florida law, voting 9-3 to recommend a death sentence without specifying the aggravating factors that would make Tisdale eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing procedure in Hurst because a judge, rather than a jury, made the factual determination of aggravating circumstances that were necessary to impose a death sentence. In response to Hurst, Florida enacted a new law, which went into effect March 7, requiring juries to make unanimous determinations of aggravating factors, and preconditioning any death sentence upon a jury vote of at least 10-2 vote in favor of death. The statute declares "If fewer than 10 jurors determine that the defendant should be sentenced to death, the jury's recommendation to the court shall be a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole." In those circumstances, the law states, "the court shall impose the recommended sentence." Tisdale's penalty phase was tried in October 2015, before the Supreme Court declared the sentencing procedures unconstitutional, and the jury's 9-3 recommendation for death came before the new law adopted the 10-2 requirement. His lawyers argued that he could not be sentenced to death because the old procedures were unconstitutional and the jury vote did not qualify as a death recommendation under the new law. But a St. Lucie County judge ruled that the jury's unanimous vote to convict Tisdale for the murder of a law enforcement official amounted to a unanimous finding of an aggravating circumstance, accepted the jury's 9-3 death recommendation, and sentenced Tisdale to death. Tisdale is the first person sentenced to death in Florida since the new law went into effect.


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NEW VOICES: Head of National Pharmacist's Group Opposes Lethal Injection Secrecy

Leonard Edloe (pictured), President of the American Pharmacists Association Foundation has urged Virginia lawmakers to reject Governor Terry McAuliffe's proposal to conceal the identity of the state's execution drug supplierssaying that the plan "undermines everything our profession stands for, and is actually against the law." In an op-ed in The Virginian-Pilot on the eve of a veto session in which the Virginia state legislature will consider the secrecy proposal, Edloe wrote: "Medicines are made to save lives, not end them. They’re not designed, or tested, to kill people." Edloe says "[k]eeping pharmacies out of the execution process is not just a point of principle. Federal law says drugs must be prescribed to a specific patient for a medicinal purpose. An execution clearly does not qualify." He describes the risks of compounding, pointing to the 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis caused by badly compounded drugs, which killed 64 people. "In response, the federal government passed laws and regulations to increase the scrutiny of compounding pharmacies to protect the public," he said. "McAuliffe proposes the opposite approach — to give irresponsible compounders insulation from regulation — preventing the state taking action if a compounder supplied bad drugs that led to a botched execution." In 2015 the American Pharmacists Association issued a declaration opposing pharmacist involvement in capital punishment, and Edloe called such involvement "fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of healthcare." The current debate over secrecy, he says, "helps drive home the point that professional pharmacists have no place in the process." UPDATE: The Virginia legislature approved Gov. McAuliffe's amendments on April 20. 


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Tennessee Legislature Unanimously Passes Bill to Require Preservation of Biological Evidence in Capital Cases

On April 13, the Tennessee House of Representatives joined the Tennessee Senate in unanimously approving a bill that would mandate the preservation of biological evidence in cases involving a death sentence. The House voted 94-0 in favor of the bill after the Senate had passed the bill on April 4 by a 31-0 vote. If the governor signs the bill, such evidence must be held until the defendant is executed, dies, or is released from prison. Destruction of evidence will be handled as criminal contempt. At the House hearing for the bill, Ray Krone (pictured), who was exonerated from Arizona's death row and now lives in Tennessee, testified to the importance of DNA evidence. Krone was exonerated after DNA from the victim's shirt was tested and was found to match neither the victim nor Krone. "That DNA not only saved my life.” Krone said. “It also, because it was preserved by the Phoenix Police Department, it identified the true murderer.” DNA testing also played a key role in the Tennessee death row exonerations of Paul House and Michael McCormick. A March 2007 Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project (now the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project) had found that Tennessee death penalty law failed to comply with ABA recommendations on the collection, preservation, and testing of DNA and other evidence. The ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project has found that only 2 of the 14 states whose death penalty procedures it assessed complied with the ABA recommendations on preservation of biological evidence in death penalty cases.


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Virginia Governor Rejects Mandatory Use of Electric Chair, Proposes Lethal Injection Secrecy

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe rejected a bill that would have employed the electric chair as the state's method of execution if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. Instead, he offered amendments that would permit the Commonwealth's Department of Corrections to enter into confidential contracts to obtain execution drugs from compounding pharmacies, whose identities would be concealed from the public. His proposal is similar to legislation he backed last year that failed because of concerns about its secrecy provisions. McAuliffe's amendments will go before the Virginia legislature during their veto session, which begins April 20. Under Virginia law, the legislature may accept the amendments by a simple majority vote or override the governor's action again passing the unamended original bill by a two-thirds vote in both Houses of the legislature. If there is insufficient support for either option, the original bill returns to the Governor where he can veto it, sign it, or allow it to become law without his signature. Many states have adopted secrecy policies as they seek alternative sources of lethal injection drugs, but a Missouri judge recently ordered that state to reveal the sources of its execution drugs. The amendment proposed by Gov. McAuliffe states that pharmacies' identifying information, "shall be confidential, shall be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act . . . and shall not be subject to discovery or introduction as evidence in any civil proceeding unless good cause is shown." Virginia law currently directs condemned prisoners to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair, but the bill as initially approved by the legislature would have given the state authority to use the electric chair if lethal injection drugs were deemed to be unavailable, even if the prisoner had selected lethal injection.


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EDITORIALS: Kentucky Newspaper Reverses Position on the Death Penalty

The Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky's second-largest newspaper, announced it was ending its long-held support for the death penalty, and now believes the state legislature should abolish capital punishment. Describing its previous position as "keep it but fix it," the editors stated, "we must now concede that the death penalty is not going to be fixed and, in fact, probably cannot be fixed at any defensible cost to taxpayers." Citing the 2011 American Bar Association assessment of Kentucky's death penalty, the Herald-Leader said the system was "rife with injustices and the potential for error." Among the reasons cited in the paper's editorial for the changing its position was the negative effects of the death penalty on victims' families and correctional officers. It quoted Dr. Allen Ault, who oversaw executions in Georgia, and who said, "I do not know one [correctional officer] who has not experienced a negative impact," noting an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.


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Florida Legislature Passes Bill Requiring Agreement of 10 Jurors Before Judge May Impose Death Sentence

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law on March 7. Previously: The Florida legislature passed a bill on March 3 to restructure its death penalty statute in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida, which declared the state's death penalty procedures unconstitutional. The bill modifies Florida's practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences without the unanimous agreement of jurors by requiring that at least ten jurors recommend death before the judge may impose a death penalty. It also directly addresses Hurst by requiring that jurors unanimously find any aggravating circumstances that the prosecution seeks to prove to make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Previously, Florida judges made the determination whether the prosecution had proven aggravating circumstances that made the defendant eligible for the death penalty, and the statute permitted the judge to impose death based upon a simple majority recommendation or, in certain circumstances, when the jury had recommended life imprisonment. The new 10-2 requirement matches the standard applied in Alabama. Along with Delaware - which permits the court to impose death after a simple majority recommendation by the jury - these states stand alone in the country in allowing a death sentence after a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. Delaware and Alabama still permit judicial override. Delaware's system is currently under review by that state's highest court, and on March 3, an Alabama circuit court judge declared that state's sentencing procedure unconstitutional.


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NEW VOICES: Republican Former Death Penalty Supporter Leads Repeal Effort in Utah

Stephen Urquhart (pictured), a Republican state senator in Utah, supported the death penalty until about a year ago, when a friend convinced him that capital punishment didn't fit his conservative beliefs. Now Urquhart sees the death penalty as inefficient, costly, and wrong and is the lead sponsor of a bill to repeal the state's death penalty. He said concerns about the cost of the death penalty and the risk of executing an innocent person changed his stance on the issue. In discussions with his colleagues in the legislature, he draws a distinction between, "the death penalty in reality and the death penalty in theory." He points out the lengthy time between the time a death sentence is imposed and when it is carried out, which he says victimizes families and leaves them with "scars that can never heal." He also points to the high cost of the death penalty, which he placed at "$1.6 million for every prisoner we execute." Then, he says, "for the clincher, I ask my conservative friends what they think government does extremely well. And then I ask them what they think government does perfectly. And they usually say, ‘It doesn't do anything perfectly.’ And then I ask, ‘Yet we’re going to give ourselves the godlike power over life and death?’" He also said that, increasingly, he has moral qualms about capital punishment: "I’m thinking that it’s wrong for government to be in business in killing its own citizens. That cheapens life." Described as a longshot to succeed this year, Urquhart's bill to prospectively repeal the death penalty passed Utah's Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support in February on a vote of 5-2. The bill will face debate by the full Senate later in this legislative session.


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Florida Holds Hearing On Capital Sentencing As Experts Urge Reform

In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero (pictured) and ABA Death Penalty Assessment Team member Mark Schlakman call on the Florida legislature to repair the constitutional violations in Florida's capital sentencing scheme. The U.S. Supreme Court found in Hurst v. Florida that the state's sentencing process violates the Sixth Amendment because a jury does not unanimously find the aggravating factors that justify a death sentence. Cantero and Schlakman urge the legislature to enact legislation to "require unanimity for findings of aggravators and recommendations of death." Such a measure has the support of the American Bar Association, which highlighted Florida's sentencing scheme as an area of "critical concern" in a 2006 report and passed a resolution in 2015 urging all states to adopt unanimity in capital sentencing. At a Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on January 27, public defenders, retired judges, and death penalty experts testified in favor of requiring jury unanimity in order to recommend a death sentence, saying that such a change would prevent further constitutional challenges. Florida prosecutors also testified, asking legislators to require unanimous findings of aggravating factors, and at least nine jurors to recommend a death sentence. Currently, Florida is one of just three states, along with Alabama and Delaware, that does not require a unanimous jury to impose a death sentence.


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