U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Texas Death-Row Prisoner Denied Investigative Funding

In a decision that clarifies the showing indigent prisoners must make to obtain investigative services, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Texas death-row prisoner who was denied funding to challenge the death sentence imposed in his case. In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court unanimously ruled that the Texas federal courts had applied an overly restrictive legal standard in denying Carlos Ayestas (pictured) funding to investigate and develop his claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his trial. Federal law requires habeas-corpus courts in death-penalty cases to provide funding that is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, has instead required indigent applicants to demonstrate a "substantial need" for funding. The Court returned the case to the federal appeals court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding using the proper standard. Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national, was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in 1997. His trial counsel conducted virtually no life-history investigation and presented a case for life to the jury that lasted just two minutes and included only a single letter from an English teacher in prison. Both his trial and state post-conviction lawyers overlooked available evidence of mental illness and brain damage—including head trauma and substance abuse—and failed to develop a record of the mitigating evidence that his federal habeas lawyers argued should have been presented in his case. The lawyers appointed to represent Ayestas in federal court sought funding to investigate his background, upbringing, and mental health history, without which, they argued, he would be unable to discover mitigating evidence indispensable to presenting a meaningful case to spare his life. The Texas federal district court, applying the Fifth Circuit's "substantial need" test, denied him funding and dismissed his habeas corpus petition, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, reversed and ordered the federal appellate court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding. In determining whether a funding request is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case, Justice Alito wrote, federal courts courts should assess "whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important." This standard "requires courts to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way." In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote "to explain why, on the record before this Court, there should be little doubt" that Ayestas had already made a showing sufficient to obtain funding. Trial counsel's obligation to thoroughly investigate possible mental illness, she wrote, "exists in part precisely because it is all too common for individuals to go years battling an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. ... [T]he troubling failures of counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stages of Ayestas’ case are exactly the types of facts that should prompt courts to afford investigatory services, to ensure that trial errors that go to a 'bedrock principle in our justice system' do not go unaddressed." 

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New Polls in Two Florida Counties that Heavily Use the Death Penalty Find Voters Prefer Life Sentences Instead

Recently released poll results from two Florida counties that have heavily used the death penalty suggest that voters actually prefer life-sentencing options instead. Polls conducted by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling on January 22-23, 2018, indicate that three-quarters of Miami-Dade County respondents preferred some form of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty as the punishment for people convicted of murder, and two-thirds of Pinellas County respondents preferred one of the life-sentencing options. The margin was more than 3 to 1 in Miami-Dade (75% to 21%) and more than 2 to 1 in Pinellas (68% to 30%). Of Miami-Dade respondents who chose a life-sentencing option, a plurality (40%) preferred life without parole, plus restitution; 18% preferred life with the possibility of parole after 40 years; and 17% preferred life without possibility of parole. In Pinellas, 48% preferred life without parole plus restitution; 12% preferred life without parole; and 8% chose life with parole eligibility after 40 years. Sixty-eight percent of Miami-Dade respondents said they would support a decision by their local prosecutor to reduce or eliminate the use of the death penalty, compared to 25% who opposed. In Pinellas, 64% said they would support reducing or eliminating the use of the death penalty, as opposed to 32% against. Pinellas/Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe reportedly has filed notice that he will seek the death penalty in 15 pending cases and six re-sentences, with nine death-penalty trials already scheduled for 2018. Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty released the Pinellas County poll on February 27 and the Miami-Dade poll on March 1. The organization's director, Mark Elliott, said “[t]he survey results make clear that the state attorney’s office is ignoring the will of the overwhelming majority of Pinellas County constituents who prefer life sentences for those convicted of murder." Elliott also said that "[e]xpensive death penalty trials do nothing to prevent violent crime, protect law enforcement, or help victims’ families in meaningful ways, and mistakes are also all-too-common.” DPIC reported in 2013 that both Miami-Dade and Pinellas were among the 2% of counties that accounted for more than half of all death-row prisoners and executions in the United States. Both were among the Fair Punishment Project's list of 16 outlier counties that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015—more than 99.5% of all counties in the country.

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U.S. Supreme Court to Decide if Alabama Can Execute Prisoner With Vascular Dementia and No Memory of the Crime

Less than a week after Alabama halted the failed execution of a terminally ill prisoner whose veins were not suitable for intraveneous injection, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear the case of another Alabama prisoner whose medical condition, his lawyers say, make him constitutionally unfit for execution. Strokes have slurred Vernon Madison's speech and left him legally blind, incontinent, unable to walk independently, and with no memory of the offense for which he was sentenced to death. Madison's vascular dementia, his lawyers argue, make him incompetent to be executed. This is the third time since 2016 that Madison's case has come before the Court. In May 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted Madison a stay of execution to consider his competency claim. At that time, state prosecutors asked the Court to lift the stay, but with one seat vacant from the death of Justice Scalia, the Court split 4-4, leaving the stay in place. Ten months later, citing uncontroverted evidence that Madison has "memory loss, difficulty communicating, and profound disorientation and confusion," the Eleventh Circuit ruled in Madison's favor, finding him incompetent to be executed. Alabama prosecutors again asked the Supreme Court to intervene. On November 6, 2017, the Court agreed to review the case and in a unanimous unsigned opinion reversed the circuit court's decision. The Court explained that, under restrictions on federal habeas corpus review of state decisions imposed by the Congress in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the federal courts were required to defer to state-court decisions under most circumstances. While expressing "no view on the merits of the underlying question outside of the AEDPA context," the Court ruled that "the state court’'s determinations of law and fact were not “so lacking in justification” as to give rise to error “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, concurred. However, they believed "[t]he issue whether a State may administer the death penalty to a person whose disability leaves him without memory of his commission of a capital offense is a substantial question not yet addressed by the Court." If the issue reached the Court in an appropriate procedural posture, they wrote, "the issue would warrant full airing." The Court's ruling cleared the way for Madison to be executed, and the State of Alabama set a January 25, 2018 execution date. In response, Madison's lawyers, led by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, presented the state court with additional evidence of Madison's deteriorating condition and new evidence that the doctor whose medical opinion had provided the court's basis for finding Madison competent had been addicted to drugs, was forging prescriptions, and had since been arrested. The state court denied relief without an evidentiary hearing and Madison's lawyers—emphasizing that this was no longer a habeas corpus case—asked the Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution to review the case. On the evening of the 25th, the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution, halting Madison's execution so it could decide whether to review his claim. On February 26, the Court voted to review the case to determine whether the Eighth Amendment prevents a state from executing a prisoner whose mental and physical condition prevents him from having memory of the crime for which he was convicted. The Court may now review the issue unencumbered by the limitations on habeas corpus cases. The Court will likely hear argument in the fall and a decision is expected by June 2019. 

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U.S. Supreme Court Stays Alabama Execution to Consider Vernon Madison's Competency to Be Executed

The United States Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Vernon Madison to consider for a second time questions related to his competency to be executed. In a 6-3 vote, with Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch dissenting, the Court halted Alabama's scheduled January 25 execution of Madison "pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari" he had filed seeking review of his competency to be executed. That petition was based upon new evidence of his deteriorating mental condition and that the doctor whose opinion state courts had relied upon in finding him competent had been addicted to drugs, was forging prescriptions, and was subsequently arrested. Madison—who has no memory of the crime he committed as a result of a succession of strokes that have caused dementia—has been challenging his competency to be executed for more than two years. In May 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted Madison a stay of execution to consider his competency claim, and the Supreme Court deadlocked at 4-4 on whether to vacate that stay. The Eleventh Circuit subsequently ruled in March 2017 that Madison was incompetent to be executed, saying that the Alabama state courts had acted unreasonably in finding him competent. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision in November 2017, reinstating the state-court ruling and clearing the way for Alabama to issue the latest death warrant. After the Supreme Court's ruling, Madison's attorneys returned to the state courts with the new evidence. The state court, once again, denied him relief, leading to Madison's request to the Supreme Court for a stay. The stay will provide the Court time to review two separate petitions filed by Madison's lawyers. The first affords the Court the opportunity to address whether the Eighth Amendment permits "the State to execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him without memory of his commission of the capital offense." The second petition challenges the constitutionality of Madison's death sentence itself. Madison was sentenced to death by an Alabama trial judge despite the jury's recommendation that he receive a life sentence. Since the time of his sentence, Alabama has repealed the portion of its law permitting "judicial override" of a jury's life recommendation, and no state now authorizes that practice. Madison's execution date has attracted international attention because of his severely impaired mental condition. On January 24, David O'Sullivan, the European Union's Ambassador to the United States, wrote to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey with "an urgent humanitarian appeal" for her to reconsider the state's decision to execute Madison, citing "his major neurocognitive disorder." The letter "note[d] with concern that there is undisputed evidence that Mr. Madison has suffered multiple strokes, including a thalamic stroke resulting in encephalomalacia, that have damaged multiple parts of his brain, including those responsible for memory." It also reminded Alabama that "[t]he execution of persons suffering from any mental illness or having an intellectual disability is in contradiction to the minimum standards of human rights, as set forth in several international human rights instruments." Madison's lead counsel, Bryan Stevenson, said that he was "thrilled" by the Court's decision to grant a stay and that "[k]illing a fragile man suffering from dementia is unnecessary and cruel."

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Condemned Alabama Prisoner Seeks Stay Based on Mental Incompetency and Arrest of Court-Appointed Expert

Lawyers for 67-year-old Vernon Madison (pictured), a death-row prisoner whose diagnosis of "irreversible and progressive" vascular dementia has left him with no memory of the crime for which he was sentenced to death, have filed a motion to stay his January 25 execution in Alabama. In a petition for writ of certiorari and motion for stay of execution filed January 18 in the U.S. Supreme Court, Madison's lawyers argue that the courts wrongly found Madison competent to be executed based upon the opinion of a drug-addicted psychologist who has been suspended from practice and arrested on felony charges of forging prescriptions for controlled substances. The petition says a series of strokes has left Madison with no memory of the murder for which he was sentenced to death, an IQ within the range of those with intellectual disability, and unable to recall the alphabet beyond the letter G. Madison is also legally blind, incontinent, and unable to walk independently. The U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for Madison’s execution in a November 2017 opinion, overturning an earlier federal appeals court’s ruling that Alabama's state courts had unreasonably found Madison competent to be executed. The Supreme Court noted that, at that time, its review of the case was limited by federal habeas law, which the court said required it to defer to the Alabama court ruling. The court expressed no view "outside of the [federal habeas] context" whether Madison was competent to be executed. In their current appeal, Madison's lawyers presented unrebutted new evidence challenging the opinions offered by Dr. Karl Kirkland, the court-appointed psychologist on whom the state court had relied in finding Madison to be competent. The appeal argued that Kirkland's opinions were not credible because "he was suffering from a substance abuse disorder, using forged prescriptions to obtain controlled substances just four days after the hearing in this case and was ultimately charged with four felonies and suspended from the practice of psychology." After a brief hearing in a Mobile County court, the judge denied relief in a single sentence, saying that Madison "did not provide a substantial threshold showing of insanity." Because no appeal was available in the Alabama court system, Madison brought his appeal directly to the Supreme Court. This time, his appeal notes, the Court is not constrained by the federal habeas statute. Justices Sotomayor and Breyer both issued separate concurring opinions in November, with Justice Sotomayor pointing out that "whether a State may administer the death penalty to a person whose disability leaves him without memory of his commission of a capital offense" is a question that has yet to be addressed by the Court, and Justice Breyer expressing his belief that the Court should take up the question of the constitutionality of the death penalty rather than develop law specific to older, infirm death-row prisoners. In 1994, the sentencing jury in Madison's case recommended that he be sentenced to life without parole, but the trial judge overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Madison to death. In 2017, Alabama abolished the practice of judicial override.

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Retired Lt. General: Exclude Mentally Ill Vets from the Death Penalty

Saying that the death penalty should “be reserved for the ‘worst of the worst in our society,’” retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) has urged the Tennessee state legislature to adopt pending legislation that would bar the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, General Castellaw writes that the death penalty “should not be prescribed for those with severe mental illnesses, including those people with illnesses connected to their military service.” A 2015 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, estimated that approximately 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, many suffering from mental illness caused or exacerbated by their military service. “[A]s many as 30 percent of the veterans from Vietnam through today’s conflicts suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” General Castellaw writes, some of whom have not “receive[d] the care they needed and the care our country promised.” The General tells the story of Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was diagnosed with service-related PTSD and bipolar disorder. Brannan was convicted and sentenced to death in Georgia for killing a deputy sheriff during a traffic stop in which he had behaved erratically and had begged the officer to shoot him. Despte no prior criminal record and having a 100 percent disability rating from the Veterans Administration, Georgia executed Brannan. His final words were, “I am proud to have been able to walk point for my comrades, and pray that the same thing does not happen to any of them.” In arguing for a mental-illness exemption from the death penalty, General Castellaw writes, “[a]s Americans, we can do better at recognizing the invisible wounds that some of our veterans still carry while ensuring they get the treatment that they deserve and that we owe them for their sacrifice. As Tennesseans, we can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness.” The Tennessee legislature is expected to consider Senate Bill 378 and House Bill 345 later this year. A similar bill under consideration in Ohio has recently received the support of the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board. In a January 3 editorial, the newspaper called Ohio Senate Bill 40 “common-sense, bipartisan—and humane.” Under both the Tennessee and Ohio proposals, people who commit murder but are found to have one of five severe mental illnesses would face a maximum sentence of life without parole.

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Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Mentally Incompetent Death-Row Prisoner

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the sentence of mentally incompetent death-row prisoner William Joseph Burns (pictured) on December 29, 2017, after multiple mental-health experts said Burns was unlikely to regain sufficient competency for his death sentence to ever be carried out. Burns, whose sentence was converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, became the fifth death-row prisoner to have been granted clemency in the United States in 2017. Burns was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law. Showing signs of severe mental illness, Burns was found incompetent to stand trial in 1999, delaying his trial for a year. At trial, his lawyers presented mitigating evidence that Burns had mental retardation (now known as intellectual disability), but the jury returned a death verdict. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 2001, but in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the use of the death penalty against people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment. In 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Burns had presented sufficient evidence of intellectual disability to warrant a trial on that issue. However, Burns exhibited continuing signs of severe mental illness and a court-appointed mental-health expert determined that he was actively psychotic, spawning more than a decade of litigation over his competency to stand trial. In issuing the commutation, McAuliffe wrote that the “continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns, both as a matter of constitutional principle and legal practicality, cannot be justified.” McAuliffe noted that Virginia has already spent more than $350,000 in "treating, transferring, monitoring, and litigating whether Mr. Burns has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether he has the intellectual capacity to be executed" and mental-health experts "have confirmed that Mr. Burns is not likely to be restored to competence. ... As of now," the Governor said, "there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence on Mr. Burns, and there is no clear path for that ever being possible." The commutation, McAuliffe said, "brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim’s family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the Commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course." Virginia governors have commuted ten death sentences since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in October 1975. In 2000, following DNA testing that proved his innocence, Governor Jim Gillmore granted an absolute pardon to Earl Washington. Most recently, Governor McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz five days before his scheduled April 25, 2017 execution, noting that the prosecution's use of false evidence to influence the jury's sentencing determination resulted in a death verdict that “was terribly flawed and unfair.”

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