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.
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Amid Questions of Competency, South Dakota to Execute Special-Olympics Defendant Who Gave Up Appeals
The South Dakota Supreme Court has denied motions that sought to delay the October 29, 2018 execution of Rodney Berget (pictured). As the state prepared to execute Berget, the former public defender who represented him at trial took action to fight a prospective legal guardian’s efforts to keep the former Special Olympics participant from being put to death. On Friday, October 26, Juliet Yackel, a Chicago-based lawyer who had been retained in Berget’s state post-conviction proceedings as a mitigation investigator, filed a pleading called a petition for writ of prohibition that asked the South Dakota Supreme Court to halt Berget’s execution and to appoint her as his legal guardian “because he has an intellectual disability and [is] otherwise incompetent, rendering him ineligible to be executed.” Berget waived a jury trial and pled guilty to murder for his involvement in the death of a prison guard, and is currently attempting to waive his appeals. At the close of the trial, he told the sentencing judge, “I believe I deserve the death penalty for what I’ve done.” Yackel’s petition describes Berget as “intellectually disabled and suicidal.” The motion alleges Berget “is not able to protect his own interests and the attorneys assigned to do so have refused” to do so. On Saturday, October 27, Berget’s trial lawyer, Jeff Larson—whom the court removed from the case after he attempted to continue to represent Berget in appeal proceedings meant to raise issues of his possible ineffective assistance at trial—filed an affidavit from Berget opposing Yackel’s motion and reasserting the reasons why Berget says he wants to drop all appeals. On October 29, the South Dakota high court denied the petition.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that individuals with intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—may not be executed. Yackel’s petition includes a litany of evidence she says “clearly demonstrates” Berget’s ineligibility for the death penalty: IQ tests administered during Berget’s childhood in which he scored under 70, public welfare records in which a psychologist noted that “the boy appears ... to be suffering from borderline mental retardation,” Berget’s assignment to special education classes and participation in Special Olympics, and a diagnosis of intellectual disability by several leading national mental health experts. The petition and an accompanying affidavit also set forth evidence that Berget has a “lengthy history of self-harm and suicidality.” “This is one of the clearest-cut cases of intellectual disability that I’ve ever worked on,” Yackel told Liliana Segura, an investigative reporter for The Intercept. “There is no question here. This is not a close call.”
With Larson describing his client as “very intelligent and quite competent,” Berget pled guilty and waived his right to a jury trial. After Larson was fired from the public defender’s office, he continued to represent Berget pro bono, and did not retain a mitigation investigator to research Berget’s background, upbringing, and mental health history. He presented what Segura describes as “an astonishingly weak defense.” After the court removed Larson from the case, Berget was represented by Eric Schulte, a civil lawyer with no capital case experience, who also failed to present evidence of Berget’s participation in Special Olympics. The trial court rejected the intellectual disability claim raised by Schulte, relying on testimony from a prosecution psychologist who had employed scientifically unsupported methods for assessing intellectual disability that were similar to those the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in Moore v. Texas in 2017. According to Yackel’s petition, acting on “the advice of his personal spiritual advisor, [Schulte] disregarded the clear need for appellate review and refused to file a Notice of Appeal,” effectively waiving Berget’s right to appeal. Dr. Stephen Greenspan, one of the leading national experts on intellectual disability, called the trial court’s ruling “egregious” and the case “one of the most outrageous” he had seen.
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Another Louisiana Capital Conviction Overturned for Lawyer Conceding Guilt Over Client’s Objection
The Louisiana Supreme Court has unanimously overturned the conviction of death-row prisoner Brian Douglas Horn (pictured), after Horn’s lawyer conceded—over Horn’s explicit objection—that his client had killed and also may have molested 12-year-old Justin Bloxom. The September 7, 2018 ruling is the latest fallout in Louisiana from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in McCoy v. Louisiana, which declared that such concessions violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Prior to and during trial, Horn told his lawyer and filed motions with the court saying that he did not want to concede guilt or admit he committed the crime. Horn’s lawyer ignored his client’s objections, telling the jury during closing argument, “We know that Brian Horn killed Justin Bloxom.… I’m not asking you to let him walk the streets. I’m not asking you to find him ‘not guilty.’” Instead, counsel suggested that Horn was guilty of either second-degree murder or manslaughter, neither of which carry the death penalty as a possible punishment. Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote that this concession denied Horn the assistance of counsel in his defense and was a “structural error” that required overturning the conviction. “While conceding guilt in the hope of avoiding a death sentence may be a reasonable strategic decision in some cases, the decision to do so belongs to the defendant,” she said. The ruling echoed the language of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 6-3 opinion for the Court in McCoy in which she stated, “With individual liberty—and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito likened the issue to “a rare plant that blooms every decade or so. Having made its first appearance today, the right is unlikely to figure in another case for many years to come.” However, a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in connection with McCoy’s case described a pattern of Louisiana state court rulings that have permitted capital defense counsel to concede guilt over their clients’ express objection or required capital defendants to represent themselves to avoid having their lawyer concede guilt. In a media statement at the time of the McCoy decision, his lawyer, Richard Bourke, said, “[w]hile rare in the rest of the country, ... Mr. McCoy’s was one of ten death sentences imposed in Louisiana since 2000 that have been tainted with the same flaw.” On June 25, in another of those cases, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision upholding the conviction of death-row prisoner Jeffrey Clark and returned the case to the state court for reconsideration in light of McCoy. Prosecutors in Horn’s case must now decide whether to appeal the decision and whether to again seek the death penalty if they retry the case.
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Justice Sotomayor Criticizes Supreme Court For Failing to Intervene in Texas Death-Row Prisoner’s Case
Over a strong dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor (pictured), the United States Supreme Court on June 4 declined to review the case of Texas condemned prisoner Carlos Trevino, who had argued that his lawyer was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence of Trevino’s brain damage and developmental delays from his extensive prenatal exposure to alcohol. Having failed to investigate, Trevino's lawyer presented only a single witness whom he met for the first time the day of the sentencing hearing. That witness, the defendant’s aunt, provided cursory testimony that Trevino was a high school drop out with an alcoholic mother who was on welfare. The Court’s denial of review let stand a split 2-1 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which found counsel’s failure to present the fetal-alcohol-related evidence had not been not prejudicial because the “double-edged” character of the evidence could have led the jury to believe that Trevino would pose a continuing threat to society. Penning her sixth dissent this term in a death-penalty case the Court had declined to review, Justice Sotomayor—joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—called the circuit court's decision “flagrant error.” The Court, she wrote, has “long recognized that a court cannot simply conclude that new evidence in aggravation cancels out new evidence in mitigation.” In May 2013, the Supreme Court had reversed a prior ruling of the Fifth Circuit that had refused to review Trevino’s ineffectiveness claim, and remanded his case to the lower federal court to review the issue. After being presented new mitigating evidence that Trevino had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder caused by his mother drinking 18 to 24 cans of beer daily while pregnant, that he weighed 4 pounds at birth, and that his developmental delays (including wearing diapers until he was 8 years old) and cognitive impairments left him functioning at the level of a person with intellectual disability, the circuit court rejected Trevino’s claim. That court dismissed the mitigating value of the evidence, writing that Trevino’s impairments had contributed to his violent history. Justice Sotomayor wrote that, while Trevino had a past history of violence, the prosecution had already presented that evidence at trial, and the new evidence relating to Trevino’s fetal alcohol spectrum disorder—which the sentencing jury had never heard—was important in contextualizing that behavior. A failure to intervene in this case, Sotomayor said, leaves Trevino “subject to a death sentence having received inadequate consideration of his claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and with no jury having fairly appraised the substantial new mitigating evidence that a competent counsel would have discovered.’ The Court's refusal to intervene is even more “indefensible” in this case, she wrote, because it “sanctions the taking of a life by the state.”
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Texas Executes Juan Castillo Without a Hearing on His Claims of Innocence and Ineffective Representation
Texas executed Juan Castillo (pictured) on May 16, 2018, after its state courts stayed his execution to address whether his conviction and death sentence for a botched robbery and murder had been a product of false testimony, but then denied him an evidentiary hearing necessary to prove that claim. No physical evidence implicated Castillo in the murder, and he consistently asserted his innocence. To convict him, Bexar County prosecutors presented testimony from several admitted perpetrators who had been given favorable plea deals, corroborated by the testimony of prison informant, Gerardo Gutierrez, who claimed that Castillo had confessed to him. But in 2013, Gutierrez recanted, admitting in a sworn affidavit that he had lied "to try to help myself." With Castillo facing a December 2017 execution date, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted him a stay on November 28, and directed the trial court to resolve his claim that prosecutors had violated his rights by presenting false or perjured testimony from Gutierrez. Two days later, on November 30, the Bexar County District Attorney's office submitted proposed findings of fact and a proposed order to deny Castillo's petition without a hearing. The next day, on December 1, Judge Maria Teresa Herr adopted the prosecution's proposed findings and order verbatim—changing only the signature line on the order—without permitting Castillo's lawyers to submit proposed findings or to respond to the prosecution's submission. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the ruling, and with Texas prosecutors arguing that defects in the state-court process were not a basis for federal review because prisoners "ha[ve] no due process right to collateral proceedings," the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. Castillo also asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Greg Abbott to stop his execution. Greg Zlotnick, who represented Castillo in his clemency proceedings, argued that the treatment of Castillo's case by the courts "had been marked by unfair and arbitrary decisions" and the courts had "rubber-stamped" the denial of Castillo's latest petition "with no regard for his opportunity to be heard." Zlotnick argued that Castillo’s trial lawyers "failed to actively investigate the case, speak with witnesses, question police, request additional evidence from law enforcement and district attorney offices, and properly plead legal claims in the courts" and that the post-conviction courts had denied without a hearing Castillo's "common-sense request for DNA testing on physical evidence that could have pointed to another perpetrator." Trial counsel's performance was so bad, Zlotnick said, that "Mr. Castillo even felt compelled to represent himself at sentencing." After the pardons board denied the clemency application, the Texas Defender Service (TDS)—which became involved in the case close to the execution date—sought a 30-day reprieve from Governor Abbott to further develop evidence in the case. In a May 15 letter to the governor, executive director Amanda Marzullo wrote that TDS had discovered additional evidence that contradicted the testimony given at Castillo’s trial, including a video of a woman telling police—contrary to her prior statements—that Castillo had never told her he was the triggerman. Abbott did not act on that request. Castillo was the eleventh person executed in the United States in 2018, and the sixth in Texas.
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Supreme Court Sides With Death-Row Prisoner Whose Trial Lawyer Told Jury He Was Guilty
The United States Supreme Court has granted a new trial to Louisiana death-row prisoner Robert McCoy (pictured), whose lawyer admitted his guilt despite McCoy’s “adament” and “vociferous” insistence that he was innocent. Facing what counsel believed was overwhelming evidence of guilt and hoping to persuade the jury to spare McCoy’s life, defense lawyer Larry English told jurors his client had “committed three murders. . . . [H]e’s guilty.” In a 6-3 opinion for the Court on May 14, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: “With individual liberty—and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissented. At trial, McCoy’s defense counsel informed the jury that it could reach no other conclusion but that McCoy—who was charged with murdering the son, mother, and stepfather of his estranged wife—“was the cause of these individuals’ death,” even though McCoy had consistently maintained his innocence and repeatedly objected to counsel’s strategy. The trial court denied McCoy’s objections. On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, ruling that a lawyer has the authority to concede guilt against the wishes of his client because counsel “reasonably believed that admitting guilt” would be the “best chance” to avoid a death verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Justice Ginsburg explained that “the ‘assistance’ of counsel” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment does not require a defendant to “surrender control entirely to counsel. ... Some decisions,” she wrote, “are reserved for the client—notably, whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one’s own behalf, and forgo an appeal.” Here, the Court found that McCoy’s objective—to maintain that he was innocent of murdering his family—was irreconcilable with trial counsel’s objective—to avoid a death sentence. “When a client expressly asserts that the objective of ‘his defence’ is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts,” the Court held, “his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.” The dissent disagreed that trial counsel had conceded McCoy’s guilt by telling the jury that his client killed the victims, saying that counsel had stressed that McCoy lacked the intent to kill necessary for first-degree murder and that McCoy therefore was guilty only of second-degree murder. It also minimized the need for the ruling, describing the problem as “a rare plant that blooms every decade or so” and one that was unlikely to recur. In April 2017, the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had filed a brief supporting McCoy’s petition, pointing to a pattern of cases in which Louisiana state courts had resolved disagreements between capital defendants and their lawyers in whatever manner had been most detrimental to the defendant. “Rather than a principled and consistent commitment to the autonomy and dignity of capital defendants,” the defense lawyers wrote, “the Louisiana Supreme Court has adopted a set of rules that ameliorates always to the benefit of the state, and never to the defendant.” In a statement released to the media, McCoy’s lawyer, Richard Bourke, said “The ruling restores in Louisiana the constitutional right of every individual to present their defense to a jury. While rare in the rest of the country, ... Mr. McCoy’s was one of ten death sentences imposed in Louisiana since 2000 that have been tainted with the same flaw.”
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Texas Judge Finds Prosecutors Lied That Victim's Family Supported Death Penalty, Recommends Resentencing to Life
Finding that prosecutors withheld evidence that the family of murder victim Jonas Cherry opposed the death penalty for his accused killer and then lied to jurors that Cherry’s family supported the death penalty, a trial judge in Tarrant County, Texas has recommended overturning the death sentence imposed on Paul David Storey (pictured) and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Storey was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008 for murdering Cherry during a 2006 robbery of a Fort Worth putt-putt golf course. The victim’s parents, Glenn and Judith Cherry, told prosecutors before the trial that they did not want any of the people charged with the murder sentenced to death. But in the penalty-phase closing argument in Storey’s trial, Assistant Tarrant County District Attorney Christy Jack told the jury "[i]t should go without saying that all of Jonas [Cherry’s] family and everyone who loved him believe the death penalty [is] appropriate.” In March 2017, Cherry’s parents sought clemency for their son’s killer. In a letter to Governor Greg Abbott, they wrote that, as a result of their “ethical and spiritual values,” they strongly oppose the death penalty, and said “[w]e do not want to see another family having to suffer through losing a child and family member.” Storey’s execution, they wrote, “will not bring our son back, will not atone for the loss of our son and will not bring comfort or closure.” On April 7, 2017, less than a week before Storey was scheduled for execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay and ordered the trial court to determine whether the prosecution had knowingly misled the jury about the family’s views. After hearing testimony from nineteen witnesses, Judge Everett Young found that the prosecutor’s argument was false, that Jack had “made the argument intending it to affect the jury's verdict,” and that she “was aware of [its] falsity” when she did so. Concluding that “the false argument was reasonably likely to affect the jury's verdict,” Judge Young held that the argument violated Storey’s right to due process and that the prosecutors’ suppression of evidence relating to the Cherry family’s views violated their duty to disclose evidence favorable to the defense. The court also ruled that “[t]he false argument ... had the effect of reducing the responsibility of jurors by inviting them to acquiesce to the falsely-asserted desire of the victim's family for death,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office had argued that even if the argument had been improper, Storey had not timely raised the claim in the Texas courts. The court ruled, however, that the state had “unclean hands due to its suppression ... and false use of the evidence and had forfeited that argument. It wrote: “Because the State secreted evidence it was legally required to disclose, it cannot benefit from its wrong-doing by faulting [defense] counsel for failing to discover its own misconduct.” The case now returns to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which may accept or reject the judge’s findings and sentencing recommendation. “Basically, it is now up to the Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Keith Hampton, a member of Storey’s legal team.
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Former Prosecutors Say Intellectually Disabled Louisiana Man Entitled to New Trial After Exculpatory Evidence Withheld
Forty-four former state and federal prosecutors and Department of Justice officials—including former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey—have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant a new trial to Corey Williams (pictured), saying that Caddo Parish, Louisiana prosecutors violated their duty to ensure that “justice shall be done” by withholding exculpatory evidence in a murder case that sent an intellectually disabled teenager to death row. Williams’s petition alleges that police and prosecutors knew that Williams had been framed by the actual killers, that police coerced him to falsely confess, and that the prosecution deliberately withheld witness statements given to police that could have helped Williams prove he had been framed. No physical evidence linked Williams to the 1998 robbery and murder of Jarvis Griffin, who was delivering a pizza to a Shreveport home. Several witnesses said they saw Gabriel Logan, Nathan Logan, and Chris Moore (nicknamed “Rapist”) steal money and pizza from Griffin, while the sixteen-year-old Williams was simply standing outside at the time. The victim’s blood was found on Gabriel Logan’s sweatshirt; Nathan Logan’s fingerprints were found on the empty clip of the murder weapon; and Moore was in possession of some of the proceeds of the robbery. Only Moore claimed to have seen Williams commit the killing. Williams, who had intellectual disability caused by severe lead poisoning from regularly eating dirt and paint chips as a young child and who as a teenager still repeatedly urinated himself, initially told police he had nothing to do with the killing. But after six hours of police interrogation, Williams confessed to the murder. After detectives presented the older men with Williams’s confession, their stories changed to corroborate it. At trial, Caddo Parish prosecutor Hugo Holland presented the confession and Moore’s testimony as evidence of WIlliams’s guilt. Then, having withheld from the defense police statements that implicated his witnesses in framing Williams, Holland ridiculed the defense claim that Williams had been framed, calling it “the biggest set of circumstances concerning a conspiracy since John Kennedy was killed in 1963.” The prosecutors’ amicus brief in support of Williams states that “[t]he prosecutor’s goal is not only to strive for a fair trial, but also to protect public safety by ensuring that innocent persons are not convicted while the guilty remain free.” It stresses that this is a case in which, “[h]ad the statements not been withheld, there is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different.” Ben Cohen, Williams’s longtime lawyer, said that “[w]hat the prosecutor and the police did is outrageous. They knew Williams was innocent and they just went forward anyway.... They don’t think his life matters.” Eleven men have been exonerated from Louisiana's death row since the 1970s, including the Caddo Parish exonerations of Glen Ford and Rodricus Crawford. All eleven cases involved police and/or prosecutorial misconduct. Holland himself has been implicated in withholding witness statements in another capital prosecution showing the defendant had not participated in the killing. Holland was forced to resign his position as an assistant district attorney for Caddo Parish in 2012 after he and another prosecutor were caught falsifying federal forms in an attempt to obtain a cache of M-16 rifles for themselves through a Pentagon program that offers surplus military gear to police departments. Williams was released from death row after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, barring the death penalty for persons with intellectual disability, and is currently serving a life sentence.
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Arizona Prosecutors Drop Death Penalty in Two Cases, Citing High Costs and Lengthy Legal Process
Prosecutors in Mohave County, Arizona announced in February that they will drop the pursuit of the death penalty in two murder cases in the county. Justin Rector and Darrell Ketchner were separately charged with first-degree murder, and officials said their defense teams had already spent over $2.2 million preparing for trials that are still far from taking place. Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith said, “Everybody’s looking to save money and these death penalty cases are extremely expensive." The murders happened in 2009 and 2014, but because of the thorough investigation and preparation required to competently defend a death-penalty case, Smith said, "[t]he anticipated soonest trial date in this case will be 10 years after the events charged." Even if the defendants were sentenced to death, "there is no reasonable likelihood of the death penalty actually being imposed in a realistic and efficient timeframe given the current state of affairs surrounding persons sentenced to death," he said. Bob Allison, whose granddaughter, Ariel, was allegedly killed by Ketchner, said he approves of the prosecutor's decision, in part because his other grandchildren were being bullied as a result of publicity around the case. “We’re OK with it because we want to protect the kids,” he said. “It’s a waste of money in my opinion and the end results are going to be the same.” Between fiscal years 2010 and 2018, Mohave County has spent nearly $3.6 million on defense costs in death-penalty cases. Because no lawyers in the county public defender’s or legal defender’s office meet the state's qualifications to handle death penalty cases, the county must contract out for those services, paying lead counsel at a rate of $125 per hour and $90 an hour for second-chair counsel. In 2016, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors authorized $344,000 in county funds to cover the costs of trying Rector and Ketchner. A Mohave County Superior Court judge granted the prosecution's motion to withdraw the death penalty in Rector's case on February 20, and allowed death-penalty counsel to withdraw from representing Rector. The court granted the motion to drop the death penalty in Ketchner's case on February 14. Only one case originating in Mohave County has ever resulted in an execution.
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Pentagon Fires War Court Official Who Was Attempting to Negotiate End to Guantánamo Death-Penalty Trial
The sudden firing by U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (left) of the Pentagon official who oversaw military commission trials at Guantánamo Bay has raised concerns of political interference in the already tumultuous legal proceedings in the death-penalty trials of the five men charged with plotting the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The New York Times reports that Mattis fired Harvey Rishikof (right), who served as the Convening Authority of the Guantánamo tribunals, as Rishikof was engaged in plea negotiations that would potentially have spared the Guantánamo defendants the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to the September 11 attacks. The Pentagon provided no explanation for the February 5 firing, and David Nevin—who represents accused attack-mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—told The Times that “[t]he firing fairly raises the question" of whether the Pentagon was attempting to unlawfully influence the convening authority. The Office of the Convening Authority is responsible for approving cases for trial, plea agreements, reviewing convictions and sentences, and providing resources to defense teams. Military law prohibits even the appearance of “unlawful command influence” over the handling of a case. Nevin said the defense has "an obligation to try to learn everything we can" about possible improper influence, and he has asked prosecutors to turn over information relating to Rishikof’s firing. At the same time Rishikof was dismissed, the Pentagon's acting general counsel, William S. Castle discharged Rishikof's legal advisor Gary Brown, also without explanation. Brown and Rishikof’s firings have focused renewed attention on the dysfunctional military tribunals at Guantánamo. The death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, accused of planning the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, was thrown into chaos in October 2017 when his entire civilian defense team resigned amid allegations that military officials had violated attorney-client privilege by eavesdropping on legal meetings at the Cuban facility. Rishikof intervened in that case after the judge, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, held the chief defense counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, in contempt for allowing the resignations. Spath has directed that proceedings in the U.S.S. Cole case continue without expert death-penalty counsel, even though the only remaining member of Nashiri's defense team, Lieutenant Alaric Piette, graduated law school in 2012, does not meet the American Bar Association standards for death-penalty defense, and has never tried any murder case. During a January 2018 pretrial hearing in the case, Spath criticized Piette for seeking a continuance in the case until expert death-penalty counsel could be appointed, telling Piette to “engage in self help” by attending special training to become “more comfortable handling capital matters.” On February 5, Piette, who stayed on the case out of concern for his client’s rights, told The New York Times: “I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing, but I don’t think I really had a choice.” Piette “doesn’t come close to being qualified" to handle the case, according to Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor of legal ethics at Hofstra University. “So a death penalty case is basically going forward without a lawyer. If that is what we think passes as a court system, we’re in big trouble,” she said.
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