After Supreme Court Denies Them Relief, Pennsylvania Death-Row Prisoners Resentenced to Life

Two former Pennsylvania death-row prisoners, whose death sentences were overturned by federal courts after the United States Supreme Court had ruled against them, have been resentenced to life without parole. On February 28, 2018, Scott Blystone (pictured) was resentenced to life by the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas in southwestern Pennsylvania, 34 years after being sentenced to death and 27 years after the U.S. Supreme Court heard his case. Two days later, on March 2, Joseph Kindler was also resentenced to life after the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office agreed to drop the death penalty in his case. Nearly 35 years had passed since Kindler had been sentenced to death and eight since the Supreme Court had ruled against him. Blystone's case was the first from Pennsylvania to challenge the state's law requiring the jury to sentence a defendant to death if it finds any aggravating circumstance present, but no mitigating circumstances. Blystone had been represented by a part-time public defender who had been practicing law for less than a year and had never tried a homicide case. The lawyer presented no defense at the guilt stage of trial and had no evidence to present in the penalty phase except for testimony from Blystone's parents. When Blystone refused to have his parents take the stand to beg for his life, the lawyer presented no case in mitigation. Even then, the jury asked the court whether it had to impose the death penalty if it found no mitigating evidence. The court answered in the affirmative, and the jury sentenced Blystone to death. In 1990, a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld Pennsylvania's death-penalty statute by a 5-4 vote. The federal district court subsequently overturned Blystone's death sentence because of his lawyer's failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence of Blystone's brain damage, mental health diagnoses, and extreme mental and emotional disturbance at the time of the murder. Kindler also overturned his death sentence in the federal courts, after the Pennsylvania state courts had refused to consider Kindler's constitutional challenges to his conviction and sentence because he had escaped to Canada. The federal courts found multiple constitutional violations in Kindler's case, including that his lawyer had failed to investigate and present available mitigating evidence and that the jury had been given an instruction that unconstitutionally limited its ability to consider the mitigating evidence that had been presented. In a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009 dealing with federal review of state procedural rules, the Court overturned the grant of a new penalty hearing and sent the case back to the federal court of appeals. The appeals court again ruled in Kindler's favor, and this time the Supreme Court let that decision stand. 

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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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Nevada Prisoner Whose Case Confirmed Unconstitutionality of Mandatory Death Sentences Dies 

Raymond Wallace Shuman (pictured), whose case led to a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the unconstitutionality of mandatory death sentences, has died in a Nevada prison at age 83. Shuman, one of the longest-incarcerated prisoners in Nevada history, was serving a life sentence for a 1958 murder when he was convicted of killing a fellow prisoner in 1973. At that time, Nevada law mandated the death penalty for life-sentenced prisoners convicted of another first-degree murder. Then, in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions upholding the constitutionality of capital punishment, but overturning mandatory death-penalty statutes in North Carolina and Louisiana. The 1976 cases established an individualized-sentencing requirement pursuant to which no one could be sentenced to death without first having the opportunity to present reasons to spare his or her life. Shortly thereafter, Nevada repealed its mandatory death sentencing law. Shuman, who was the first prisoner to face execution in Nevada after the 1976 rulings, challenged the constitutionality of his sentence as violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Nevada Supreme Court upheld Shuman's death sentence. Shuman's lawyers then presented the issue to the Nevada federal courts, which declared the state's mandatory capital-punishment statute unconstitutional. The prosecution appealed, arguing that the Supreme Court's 1976 decisions had left open the question of whether the death penalty could be mandated in certain extremely narrow classes of cases such as prison killings by life-sentenced prisoners. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case and, in a 6-3 ruling in Sumner v. Shuman, issued on June 22, 1987, the Court declared the statute unconstitutional. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote: "Although a sentencing authority may decide that a sanction less than death is not appropriate in a particular case, the fundamental respect for humanity underlying the Eighth Amendment requires that the defendant be able to present any relevant mitigating evidence that could justify a lesser sentence." That evidence included the nature of the defendant's prior conviction—Blackmun noted that Shuman had not been the triggerman in the 1958 murder—the defendant's background, life history, upbringing, and mental health, and any mitigating aspect of the circumstances of the offense. Shuman died around 2:25 p.m. on February 4 at the Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center in Carson City, according to the Nevada Department of Corrections. 

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Florida Denies New Sentencing Hearings to More than Thirty Prisoners, Most Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death

In three days of bulk decision-making, the Florida Supreme Court has denied new sentencing hearings to more than thirty death-row prisoners, declining to enforce its bar against non-unanimous death sentences to cases that became final on appeal before June 2002. At least 24 of the prisoners who were denied relief had been unconstitutionally sentenced to death after non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations, including three prisoners—Etheria Verdell JacksonErnest D. Suggs, and Harry Franklin Phillips—with bare majority death recommendations of 7-5. The Florida court adopted June 24, 2002 as its cutoff date for enforcing its decision because that was when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Ring v. Arizona, an Arizona case establishing that the right to a jury trial entitles a capital defendant to have a jury find all facts that are necessary for a death sentence to be imposed. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that Florida's death-penalty statute, which reserved penalty-phase factfinding for the judge, violated Ring. Later, also in Hurst's case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a capital defendant's right to a jury trial also required a unanimous jury vote for death before the trial judge could impose a death sentence. That decision potentially invalidated more than 375 Florida death sentences. However, in December 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Ring had announced a new legal right and that it would not apply Hurst to cases that had already completed their direct appeal before Ring was decided. The court issued opinions declining to apply Hurst in ten death-penalty cases on January 22, another ten on January 23, and a third set of ten on January 24. The court also issued unpublished orders denying relief in some other cases. Still more decisions are expected. These rulings reiterate the court's decision to not grant relief to prisoners who were unconstitutionally sentenced to death prior to Ring. On August 10, 2017, the court, by a 6-1 vote, upheld the death sentence imposed on James Hitchcock, despite his being unconstitutionally sentenced to death following a non-unanimious sentencing recommendation by the jury. In dissenting, Justice Barbara J. Pariente wrote: "To deny Hitchcock relief when other similarly situated defendants have been granted relief amounts to a denial of due process." In 80% of the new opinions, juries had not unanimously recommended death, but the prisoners' appeals had been completed before Ring was decided. In four cases, the appeals of unconstitutionally death-sentenced prisoners became final in 2001. Steven Maurice Evans's appeal became final in March of 2002 and James Ford's unconstitutional death sentence became final in May 28, 2002, less than a month before Ring was decided. In the six cases in which prisoners had unanimous jury recommendations for death, the court declined to review other potential violations of Hurst and whether instructions diminishing the jury’s sense of responsibility may have unconstitutionally affected the verdict. Among those whose appeals were denied on January 22, 2018 is Eric Scott Branch, who was unconstitutionally sentenced to death following a 10-2 jury recommendation for death in 1997. Branch is set to be executed on February 22. According to a Death Penalty Information Center analysis of Florida's death-row prisoners who have non-unanimous jury recommendations and whose convictions became final post-Ring, 153 prisoners on Florida's death row are entitled to resentencing. Of them,123 (or 80.9%) have already obtained relief. At least eighteen prisoners who obtained relief under Hurst have since been resentenced to life, while two prisoners who initially had non-unanimous sentencing recommendations have been resentenced to death. In 2017, Florida executed two prisoners—Marc Asay and Michael Lambrix—after denying them relief despite their unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences. [UPDATE:  The Florida Supreme Court issued opinions denying relief in ten additional death-penalty cases on January 26, bringing the total of cases in which it declined to apply the constitutional protections announced in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State during the past week to at least 41.]  

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Missouri Judge Imposes Second Non-Unanimous Death Sentence in Four Months

For the second time in four months, a Missouri judge has imposed a death sentence after a capital-sentencing jury did not reach a unanimous sentencing decision. Greene County Circuit Judge Thomas Mountjoy sentenced 49-year-old Craig Wood (pictured) to death on January 11 for the February 2014 killing of 10-year-old Hailey Owens. Wood was convicted of first-degree murder in November 2017, but the jury—empaneled from out-of-county jurors as a result of extensive pretrial publicity—could not reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence Wood to life without possibility of parole or death. In more than 70 percent of states that have the death penalty, this would have resulted in Wood being sentenced to life. A DPIC analysis of capital-sentencing statutes in effect in the 31 death-penalty states and the federal government found that 22 states, plus the federal government mandate an automatic life sentence if a jury cannot reach a unanimous sentencing verdict. While seven states consider a non-unanimous sentencing vote a "hung jury," Missouri and Indiana stand alone in removing the sentencing decision from the jury following a deadlock and transferring fact finding and decision-making authority to the judge. The jury in Wood's case reportedly split 10-2 in favor of the death penalty and Wood's lawyers had filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of Missouri's hung-jury death-sentencing procedure. That motion argued that Wood's right to a jury trial included a requirement that a death sentence could not be imposed without a unanimous jury vote. In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court and the Delaware Supreme Court struck down provisions in their death-penalty laws permitting judges to impose death sentences based upon non-unanimous jury recommendations for death. Alabama still permits that practice if ten jurors have voted for death. No jury has sentenced anyone to death in Missouri since 2013. However, on October 6, 2017, St. Charles County Judge Kelly Wayne Parker disregarded an 11-1 jury vote in favor of a life sentence and imposed the death penalty against 50-year-old Marvin Rice, a former Dent County deputy sheriff and state correctional officer. Rice was the only person sentenced to death in Missouri in 2017

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Pledging No Death Penalty, Larry Krasner Sworn In As Philadelphia's District Attorney

Saying “[a] movement was sworn in today,” long-time civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner (pictured)—who pledged to end Philadelphia's use of the death penalty—took the oath of office on January 2 as district attorney in a county that only five years ago had the third largest death row of any county in the country. Krasner's inaugural address put a face on the “[t]ransformational change in criminal justice" he had called for during the election, saying it was time to begin “trading jails—and death row—for schools,” “jail cells occupied by people suffering from addiction for treatment and harm reduction,” and “division between police and the communities they serve for unity and reconciliation.” Krasner's election has drawn national attention, as social-justice activists focus on new strategies to bring about social change. The Los Angeles Times placed Krasner among "a growing list of district attorneys around the country ... who have declared that their role isn’t simply to prosecute, but to protect defendants from the excesses of the criminal justice system." The American Prospect described "[t]he relatively quick swing from a death penalty devotee to a crusading reformer at the helm of a major American city’s DA office [as] both a distillation of a long-brewing shift in the politics of crime—away from the standard tough-on-crime bromides and toward a smarter approach to justice—and emblematic of a new recognition from progressives that electing allies into DA offices could be one of the most effective ways to reform the system from the inside." Since 2015, "reform" prosecutors have been elected to replace prosecutors in counties historically known for their aggressive use of the death penalty, including Harris (Houston), Texas; Duval (Jacksonville), Orange (Orlando), and Hillsborough (Tampa), Florida; Caddo Parish (Shreveport), Louisiana; and Jefferson (Birmingham), Alabama. But Clarise McCants, campaign director for the racial-justice organization, Color of Change, is eyeing upcoming district attorney races in 2018, saying “[t]he small number of [reform-minded] prosecutors we have elected so far is nothing compared to the kind of impact we could have.” Krasner takes the reins of an office most recently headed by Ronald CastilleLynne Abraham, and Seth Williams. Castille served as district attorney from 1986-1991, obtaining 45 death sentences and then participating in appeals in those cases after being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Abraham was dubbed “America's Deadliest DA,” obtaining 108 death sentences in her 19 years as district attorney between 1991 and 2009. She was replaced by Williams, who resigned after being convicted in 2017 of corruption charges. Krasner's election culminates two decades of dramatically declining death penalty use in Philadelphia. Death sentences, which averaged 9.9 per year in the 1990s, have fallen to an average of fewer than one per year this decade. 

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