News

NEW PODCAST: DPIC’s 2018 Year End Report

In the latest podcast episode of Discussions with DPIC, members of the DPIC staff discuss key themes from the 2018 Year End Report. Robert Dunham, Ngozi Ndulue, and Anne Holsinger delve into the major death-penalty trends and news items of the year, including the “extended trend” of generational lows in death sentencing and executions, election results that indicate the decline will likely continue, and the possible impact of Pope Francis’s change to Catholic teaching on capital punishment. They explore the reasons for reduced death-penalty usage, highlighting the stories of people who were exonerated in 2018, the theme of executing people with characteristics that make them vulnerable to unfair legal proceedings, and the ongoing controversy surrounding execution methods.

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham noted the importance of the shrinking death-row population, saying, “Death row is declining in size even as the number of executions is declining, which suggests that the decline is a result of the erosion of capital punishment, as opposed to it actually being carried out.” He explains the lack of death sentences in several traditional death-penalty states, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. “The biggest change is the availability of quality indigent defense,” Dunham said, adding that the adoption of life without parole as a sentencing option has also been a major contributing factor.

Dunham addresses the theme of inadequate legal process, saying that the current system fails to ensure that prisoners’ constitutional rights are fully upheld. “If we want the death penalty in the United States, ... it’s imperative that it be able to accurately assess whether somebody was fairly tried, whether somebody was fairly sentenced, and whether the individual deserves to live or die,” he said. Those procedural failures, and the secrecy that surrounds executions, have created a “distrust” among the public that Dunham predicts with have a “prolonged and lingering effect.” “In 2018, death sentences were down, executions were down for a variety of reasons, but I think one of the reasons that’s going to last and contribute to a continued reduction in the future is that more and more people think that we can’t trust the states to carry it out,” Dunham concluded.


Read More 1,694 reads
Unanimous Federal Appeals Court Orders New Sentencing for Virginia Death-Row Prisoner

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has unanimously overturned the death sentence imposed on Virginia death-row prisoner Mark E. Lawlor in 2011, ruling that the trial court had unconstitutionally prevented Lawlor from presenting expert mental health testimony that he posed a low risk of violence in prison if the jury spared his life. On November 27, 2018, the court reversed a decision of a Virginia federal district court that had upheld Lawlor’s conviction and sentence, ordering that he be granted a new sentencing hearing.

At trial, the judge prevented Lawlor’s defense team from calling a clinical psychologist—an expert in prison risk assessment and adaptation—who would have testified that Lawlor posed a very low risk of committing future acts of violence in prison. The testimony was offered both as mitigating evidence to support a sentence of life without parole and to rebut the prosecution’s aggravating circumstance that Lawlor “would constitute a continuing serious threat to society.” Writing for the unanimous court, Judge Stephanie D. Thacker said the state courts had disregarded clearly established U.S. Supreme Court law requiring that a capital defendant must be permitted to present and the sentencer must be permitted to consider “any admissible mitigating information in determining whether to assign the defendant a sentence less than death.” The court referenced the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Skipper v. South Carolina which specifically applied that constitutional requirement to evidence of post-arrest good conduct in prison.

In the mid-1990s, Virginia was one of only three states that offered juries a choice of sentencing a capital defendant to life without parole or death, but refused to inform the jury that a life sentence meant no possibility of parole. Death sentences dropped dramatically in Virginia after juries were truthfully instructed on their sentencing options. David Bruck, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington & Lee—who argued several of the U.S. Supreme Court cases requiring that juries be told about the life-without-parole option—said, “Virginia excludes evidence that every other death penalty state allows juries to have, so it’s not surprising that sooner or later the Virginia rule was going to be struck down by the federal courts. It’s always been illogical that the Virginia courts have restricted the evidence that juries can consider about whether an inmate would be nonviolent and well-behaved if sentenced to life without parole.”

Edward Ungvarsky, one of the lawyers who represented Lawlor, said Lawlor and his defense team were “grateful for the ruling. We thought there was nothing more important for jurors in making the decision about life in prison than to hear [whether] the person would be violent in prison. This court’s ruling brings Virginia into agreement with the entire rest of the country.” Lawlor was one of three men on Virginia’s death row, and his 2011 death sentence was the last one imposed in the state.


Read More 1,020 reads
Split Jury Spares Iraq-War Vet in High Profile Virginia Capital Case

A Virginia jury has spared the life of Iraq war veteran Ronald Hamilton (pictured, right, with his father) in the 2016 killings of his wife and a rookie police officer. The jury split 6-6 on whether to impose the death penalty for Hamilton's murder of his wife, Crystal Hamilton, but unanimously agreed to impose a life sentence for the death of Officer Ashley Guindon, who was killed while she responded to Crystal Hamilton's 911 call. Under Virginia law, the court must impose a life sentence if any of the jurors vote for life. At the sentencing phase of the trial, Hamilton's lawyers presented evidence of his possible posttraumatic stress disorder from two tours of duty in Iraq, emphasized his development into a model soldier who, as an Army sergeant, saved a colleague's life while they were under mortar fire, and presented testimony from his father, Ronald W. Hamilton, and other family members. During his testimony, the elder Ronald Hamilton—a retired police officer whose career included service at the White House and who served as the second-in-command of the Charleston, South Carolina police force—expressed his sympathy to the family of Officer Guindon and to the two other officers who were wounded. "I see the prosecutor’s side and defense side, and I can sit on either side. I feel the pain. I understand the duty," Hamilton testified. "If anyone in this courtroom had their relative sitting where my son was, they’d be asking for mercy," he said. As is often the case in capital trials of war veterans, the prosecution had attempted to convert Hamilton's military service into an aggravating factor, repeatedly referring to him as "depraved" and "dangerous." Prosecutor Richard Conway told the jury that soldiers "deserve respect and deserve protection, but they don't get a pass for capital murder," while his co-counsel, Matthew Lowery urged the jury to "[p]ut him in the grave because that's what he deserves."

No Virginia jury has imposed a death sentence since 2011 and Hamilton had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. However, Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert – known for his frequent use of the death penalty – rejected the offer. The county is responsible for more executions since 1976 than any other county in the Commonwealth and is among the 2% of counties that account for a majority of all executions in the United States in that period.


Read More 1,541 reads
New Neuroscience Research Suggests Age Limit for Death-Penalty Eligibility May be Too Low

When the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons, Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion for the Court acknowledged the inherent arbitrariness in selecting an age cutoff. "The qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18," he wrote. "However, a line must be drawn." New neuroscience research suggests that the age-18 line may be too low. The court's opinion in Roper found that a national consensus had developed against subjecting juveniles to the death penalty based upon behavioral evidence that juveniles are less able to understand the consequences of their actions, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to control their impulses. One word missing from the Roper court's analysis of the age-18 death-penalty cutoff: "brain." An August 12, 2018 article for The Marshall Project by Beth Schwartzapfel explores the judicial system's response to new neurological research on brain development and whether 18 is the most appropriate age of eligibility for the harshest sentences, including the death penalty and mandatory life without parole. Brain research now clearly demonstrates that those portions of the brain that regulate impulse control and decision-making do not fully mature until well into a person's 20s, and defense lawyers have begun to argue that the same limitations on extreme punishments applicable to juveniles should apply to youthful offenders in “late adolescence,” between the ages of 18 and 21. Brain research by Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg (pictured), a national expert in adolescent brain development, found that impulsive thrill-seeking and the need for immediate gratification peaks in late adolescence around age 19, before declining through an individual's 20s. In a 2017 case in which a Kentucky trial judge declared the death penalty unconstitutional for defendants charged with committing a crime before age 21, Steinberg testified, "Knowing what we know now, one could’ve made the very same arguments about 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds that were made about 16- and 17-year-olds in Roper." Judge Ernesto Scorsone agreed, writing, "If the science in 2005 mandated the ruling in Roper, the science in 2017 mandates this ruling." On February 5, the American Bar Association House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to adopt a resolution calling for an end to the death penalty for offenders who were 21 or younger at the time of the crime. According to a report accompanying the resolution, "there is a growing medical consensus that key areas of the brain relevant to decision-making and judgment continue to develop into the early twenties." In September 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Ohio death-row prisoner Gary Otte's claim that the death sentence was unconstitutionally imposed in his case because he was only 20 years old at the time of the offense. Otte was executed September 13, 2017.


Read More 1,883 reads
DPIC Study Shows 97% of Prisoners Who Overturn Pennsylvania Death Sentences Are Not Resentenced to Death

In Pennsylvania, death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences are overturned in state or federal post-conviction appeals are almost never resentenced to death, a new Death Penalty Information Center study has revealed. Since Pennsylvania adopted its current death-penalty statute in September 1978, post-conviction courts have reversed prisoners' capital convictions or death sentences in 170 cases. Defendants have faced capital retrials or resentencings in 137 of those cases, and 133 times—in more than 97% of the cases—they received non-capital dispositions ranging from life without parole to exoneration. Only four prisoners whose death sentences were reversed in post-conviction proceedings remain on death row. Philadelphia cases accounted for more than half of the post-conviction reversals (86 cases) and 54% of the non-capital case dispositions (72 cases). DPIC reviewed all of the cases in which Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have won post-conviction relief. Contrary to the often-expressed perception that most death-penalty reversals occur in federal courts, state courts reversed twice as many Pennsylvania capital convictions or death sentences as did their federal counterparts. Pennsylvania death-row prisoners obtained state post-conviction relief from their convictions or death sentences—and, in some instances, both—in 116 cases. State courts granted 18 post-conviction petitioners new trials and vacated 108 death sentences. Of the vacated sentences, the state courts granted 91 new sentencing hearings, and declared prisoners constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty in 17 cases. Life sentences were imposed in fifteen cases as a result of a prisoner's intellectual disability and in two cases because the prisoner had been younger than age 18 at the time of the offense. Federal courts granted Pennsylvania capital habeas corpus petitioners relief from their convictions and/or death sentences in 58 cases, awarding new trials in 24 cases and new sentencing hearings in 44. Three death-row prisoners who were granted penalty-phase relief in state court later overturned their convictions in federal court. One prisoner who was granted a new penalty-phase trial by the federal courts also overturned his conviction after the case was remanded back to the state courts. The DPIC study found that 86% of the reversed death-penalty cases  concluded with a non-capital resentencing to life without parole. Those included 89 cases resulting from sentencing pleas or prosecutorial decisions to drop the death penalty, 12 capital sentencing retrials that resulted in life sentences, and the 17 cases in which defendants were declared constitutionally ineligible to face the death penalty. Two formerly death-sentenced prisoners—Nicholas Yarris and Harold Wilson—were exonerated, and a third, Frederick Thomas, died on death row while Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a trial judges' ruling that new evidence presented in the post-conviction proceedings established that no jury would have convicted him. Thirteen prisoners—including several widely considered to be innocent—pled guilty or no contest to lesser murder charges and were sentenced to time served or to terms of years. Six have completed their sentences and two others have been released on parole. The DPIC study found that the odds were 33.25 to 1 against a prisoner who won post-conviction relief remaining on death row. Six defendants were resentenced to death, but two of those death sentences were later overturned and the defendant resentenced to life without parole. The remaining four death sentences are still on appeal. Calling Pennsylvania's death-penalty system "riddled with flaws, ...error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible," Govenor Tom Wolf in February 2015 imposed a moratorium on executions in the Commonwealth. The state has not carried out an execution since 1999.


Read More 1,601 reads
Wake County, North Carolina Jury Rejects Death Penalty in Ninth Consecutive Case

A Wake County, North Carolina jury has rejected the death penalty for 24-year-old Donovan Jevonte Richardson (pictured) and sentenced him to two life sentences, marking the ninth consecutive Wake County capital trial to result in a life verdict. No jury has imposed the death penalty in the county since 2007. “The reality," said Gretchen Engel, Executive Director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, is that "it just doesn’t make sense to pursue the death penalty in Wake County. Juries have made it crystal clear that they no longer want to impose death sentences, and these costly protracted trials benefit no one.” The jury voted on January 24 to spare Richardson's life, finding that 11 mitigating circumstances—including his age, lack of premeditation, and mental duress at the time of the crime—outweighed the aggravating factors of burglary and robbery during a 2014 home break-in that ended in the murders of Arthur Lee Brown, 74, and David Eugene McKoy, 66. The jury also found as mitigating circumstances that Richardson's father had abandoned him, refusing to acknowledge that Richardson was his son until after a paternity test; that sentencing Richardson to death could harm his two young sons, aged 3 and 7; and that Richardson’s family had offered assurances that Richardson would have a relationship with his sons while he is imprisoned. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman characterized the case as "everybody's worst nightmare[,] ... two men who worked hard (and) loved their families (but) were murdered in the sanctity of their home at night." She said, "This was a case that we felt strongly (that) under the law (and) under the facts of the case, it was appropriate to go to a jury on that issue." Engel disagreed. “Donovan Richardson wasn’t the most culpable murderer in Wake County, or even in this case. He was just the one who refused to accept the plea bargain," she said. "That’s why he ended up facing the death penalty. It’s a system that makes no sense. It’s entirely arbitrary and goes against our ideas about justice and a death penalty reserved only for a carefully selected few.” The evidence in the case showed that another man Gregory Crawford, committed at least one of the killings and may have shot both men. He pleaded guilty in May 2016 to charges of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and burglary and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. A third man, Kevin Britt, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and burglary, but was permitted to plead guilty to being an accessory to murder after agreeing to testify against Richardson. He is expected to serve less than two years in prison. A 2013 study by DPIC showed that Wake County had the 50th largest county death row in the United States and was among the 2% of U.S. counties accounting for 56% of all prisoners then on death row in the country. In February 2016, after jurors had returned the sixth consecutive life sentence in Wake County, District Attorney Freeman said it might be time to reassess whether to seek the death penalty in future cases. The county nonetheless has sought the death penalty in at least one capital trial in each of the last three years, a time period in which there have been only ten capital trials in the state's 100 counties and only one death sentence.


Read More 568 reads
Wake County, North Carolina Jury Rejects Death Penalty in Ninth Consecutive Case

A Wake County, North Carolina jury has rejected the death penalty for 24-year-old Donovan Jevonte Richardson (pictured) and sentenced him to two life sentences, marking the ninth consecutive Wake County capital trial to result in a life verdict. No jury has imposed the death penalty in the county since 2007. “The reality," said Gretchen Engel, Executive Director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, is that "it just doesn’t make sense to pursue the death penalty in Wake County. Juries have made it crystal clear that they no longer want to impose death sentences, and these costly protracted trials benefit no one.” The jury voted on January 24 to spare Richardson's life, finding that 11 mitigating circumstances—including his age, lack of premeditation, and mental duress at the time of the crime—outweighed the aggravating factors of burglary and robbery during a 2014 home break-in that ended in the murders of Arthur Lee Brown, 74, and David Eugene McKoy, 66. The jury also found as mitigating circumstances that Richardson's father had abandoned him, refusing to acknowledge that Richardson was his son until after a paternity test; that sentencing Richardson to death could harm his two young sons, aged 3 and 7; and that Richardson’s family had offered assurances that Richardson would have a relationship with his sons while he is imprisoned. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman characterized the case as "everybody's worst nightmare[,] ... two men who worked hard (and) loved their families (but) were murdered in the sanctity of their home at night." She said, "This was a case that we felt strongly (that) under the law (and) under the facts of the case, it was appropriate to go to a jury on that issue." Engel disagreed. “Donovan Richardson wasn’t the most culpable murderer in Wake County, or even in this case. He was just the one who refused to accept the plea bargain," she said. "That’s why he ended up facing the death penalty. It’s a system that makes no sense. It’s entirely arbitrary and goes against our ideas about justice and a death penalty reserved only for a carefully selected few.” The evidence in the case showed that another man Gregory Crawford, committed at least one of the killings and may have shot both men. He pleaded guilty in May 2016 to charges of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and burglary and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. A third man, Kevin Britt, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and burglary, but was permitted to plead guilty to being an accessory to murder after agreeing to testify against Richardson. He is expected to serve less than two years in prison. A 2013 study by DPIC showed that Wake County had the 50th largest county death row in the United States and was among the 2% of U.S. counties accounting for 56% of all prisoners then on death row in the country. In February 2016, after jurors had returned the sixth consecutive life sentence in Wake County, District Attorney Freeman said it might be time to reassess whether to seek the death penalty in future cases. The county nonetheless has sought the death penalty in at least one capital trial in each of the last three years, a time period in which there have been only ten capital trials in the state's 100 counties and only one death sentence.


Read More 1,844 reads