News

NEW RESOURCES: Connecticut Study Reveals Arbitrariness in Death Cases

Professor John Donohue of Yale University's School of Law recently conducted a study of death sentences in Connecticut and found that seeking the death penalty often correlated with the race of the victim and the defendant, and not necessarily with the severity of the crimes, as the law requires. "There was basically no rational system to explain who got the death penalty," Donohue said. "It really is about as random a process as you can possibly construct."

After reviewing 207 murder cases dating back to the early 1970s that were eligible for death penalty prosecution, the study found:

  • Black defendants receive death sentences at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims were white.
  • Killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes time to decide the charges.
  • Minorities who kill whites receive death sentences at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities.

The study is being used in a suit brought by death row inmates in the state challenging the constitutionality of the way the death penalty is being applied. The state has contested the findings of the study.  Read the study in full here.

(DAVE COLLINS, "Yale study: racial bias, randomness mar Conn. death penalty cases," Associated Press, December 12, 2007).

See Arbitrariness and Studies.


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INNOCENCE: North Carolina Death Row Inmate is Second in U.S. to be Exonerated this Month

Prosecutors in North Carolina on December 11 dropped all charges against Jonathon Hoffman, who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of a jewelry store owner. Hoffman won a new trial in 2004 because information favorable to Hoffman was withheld from the defense. During Hoffman’s first trial, the state's key witness, Johnell Porter, had received immunity from federal charges for testifying against his cousin. The defense attorneys, jury, and the judge did not know of the deal. Porter has since recanted his testimony, stating that he lied in order to get back at his cousin for stealing money from him.

Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire stated, "I think in the last five to six years, there's a fairly well-demonstrated pattern of wrongful convictions in North Carolina that are only now coming to light because of our new open discovery law."

(“Prosecutor Drops Charges Against Former Death Row Inmate,” by Martha Waggoner, Associated Press, December 11, 2007). See also Innocence.

Hoffman is the sixth North Carolina person to be exonerated of capital charges and the 126th in the nation since 1973. He is the third person exonerated in 2007, and the second in December. Earlier in December, Michael McCormick was acquitted by a jury at his retrial in Tennessee. All charges were dismissed against Curtis McCarty in Oklahoma earlier this year.


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U.S. Supreme Court to Address Discriminatory Jury Selection in Death Penalty Case

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Snyder v. Louisiana, a case involving a black defendant sentenced to death by an all-white jury after the prosecution used its peremptory strikes to exclude all of the qualified black jurors.  During Allen Snyder’s 1996 trial for the murder of a man his estranged wife was dating, prosecutor James Williams of Jefferson Parish urged the all-white jury to sentence the defendant to death so that Snyder would not "get away with it" like O.J. Simpson. Simpson was acquitted of a highly publicized double homicide less than a year before. The defense challenged the selection of the jury as a violation of equal protection, but Snyder's conviction was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Texas death row inmate Thomas Miller-El because of the prosecution's racially discriminatory jury strikes. The Court not only looked at the credibility of the reasons the prosecutor gave for eliminating individual black jurors, but also drew inferences from the cumulative effect of the prosecutor's actions throughout the process.  When Snyder's case first came before the Supreme Court, it was remanded back to Louisiana in light of the Miller-El ruling.

Before the trial, the prosecutor had made public references comparing Snyder's case to O.J. Simpson's, but he promised the trial judge that he would not make such references before the jury. This same prosecutor reportedly displayed on his desk a toy electric chair with pictures of the faces of the five black men he had sent to death row pasted to it. Two of the people Williams sent to death row were exonerated after it was discovered that prosecutors had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence.  Jefferson Parish was known for having supported white supremacist David Duke in various elections.
(Posted November 30, 2007). Read the Petitioner's and State's briefs here. Amicus briefs have also been filed in support of Snyder by the Constitution Project and Religious Ministers of Jefferson Parish. 

See also U.S. Supreme Court and Race.


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INNOCENCE: Criminal Convictions in Question after FBI Bullet Evidence Discredited

An investigation by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes has cast doubt on at least 250 criminal cases in which the defendant was convicted based on FBI bullet-lead test evidence. Since the early 1960s, the FBI has used a technique called comparative bullet-lead analysis on an estimated 2,500 cases, many of which were homicide cases prosecuted at state and local levels. Comparative bullet-lead analysis, based on the assumption that all bullets in one batch will be chemically similar, examines the chemical compositions of bullets to determine if crime-scene bullets match bullets in a suspect’s possession. FBI labs have since concluded that all bullets in a single batch are not always chemically matched “because subtle chemical changes occurred throughout the manufacturing process.”

FBI concerns over comparative bullet-lead analysis were first documented in 1991, and a study by two former FBI lab technicians challenging the technique was completed in 2001. In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences also rejected comparative bullet-lead analysis, stating “that decades of FBI statements to jurors linking a particular bullet to those found in a suspect's gun or cartridge box were so overstated that such testimony should be considered ‘misleading under federal rules of evidence.’” A year later, FBI lab director Dwight Adams recommended to FBI Director Muehller that the Bureau abandon the comparative technique and discourage prosecutors from using it in future trials.

Adams believes that the government has an obligation to review cases in which the technique was used and to notify courts of any convictions that could have been erroneously based on the technique. "It troubles me that anyone would be in prison for any reason that wasn't justified. And that's why these reviews should be done in order to determine whether or not our testimony led to the conviction of a wrongly accused individual," Adams said to the Post. "I don't believe there's anything that we should be hiding."

The Post and 60 Minutes conducted a nationwide investigation, researching court files and holding interviews with dozens of lawyers and scientific experts. Their research yielded at least 250 cases in which evidence from comparative bullet-lead analysis was introduced. More than a dozen of these convictions have been reversed or are now being challenged as to whether innocent people were sent to prison.

The FBI has said it would conduct a national review of these cases and create a system where future scientific testimony can be monitored.

(“FBI Forensic Test Full of Holes” by John Solomon, The Washington Post). Read the series here.

See also Arbitrariness and Innocence.


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ARBITRARINESS: In the Leading Execution State, Many Receive Probation for Murder

In a recent investigation published in The Dallas Morning News, researchers found that 120 defendants convicted of murder in Texas between 2000 and 2006 received only a sentence of probation. In Dallas County, twice as many convicted murderers were sentenced to probation as were sent to death row. Typically in these cases, a defendant pleads guilty to murder, receives probation, and, with good behavior, can have the murder charged wiped from his or her record.

The News began researching probation-for-murder sentences in 2006 after a white man from a “politically prominent family,” John Alexander Wood, received probation for the murder of an unarmed prostitute. Reporters examined government records and interviewed key people in the murder cases in order to obtain their data. Their research excluded capital murder and manslaughter cases.

Key findings of the News' research included:

  • The majority of the murderers in the study were minorities who killed other minorities, a pattern typical of murders overall in Dallas.
  • Many of the victims, like John Wood’s victim, were considered “unsympathetic,” especially in comparison to the defendant.
  • More than one third of the defendants in the study violated their probation with crimes other than murder and were subsequently sent to prison.

According to the News' sources, probation will not be a sentencing option for juries much longer. Under a recent Texas law, juries will not be able to sentence a defendant with probation if the murder occurred after September 1, 2007. Judges, however, will retain this power and prosecutors can continue to arrange plea bargains.

Texas leads the nation with 26 executions this year and 405 since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. Nationwide, probation accounted for 9% of the total murder sentences.

(“Unequal Justice: Murderers on Probation” by Brooks Egerton and Reese Dunklin, The Dallas Morning News).

See also Studies and Arbitrariness.


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North Carolina Court Cites False Testimony and Official Misconduct in Granting New Trial to Death Row Inmate

Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin ruled that North Carolina death row inmate Glen Edward Chapman is entitled to a new trial based on ample evidence that he was wrongly convicted. Judge Ervin said that law enforcement officials withheld evidence, used false testimony, and misplaced or destroyed important documents that could have supported Chapman's innocence claim. The judge's order also revealed that Chapman's defense attorneys did not adequately represent him during his trial, and that expert testimony cast doubt that one of Chapman's alleged victims, Yvette Conley, was murdered at all. The testimony indicated that Conley may have died of a drug overdose. "The notion that a defendant can be put to death when no crime in fact occurred is troubling at best," wrote Judge Ervin after holding a series of evidentiary hearings examining Chapman's innocence claims.

Chapman was sentenced to death for the 1992 murders of Conley and Jean Ramseur. At first, prosecutor Jason Parker offered Chapman a plea bargain because "it wasn't the world's greatest case," but Chapman insisted that he was innocent and wanted to clear himself in court. Judge Ervin noted that among the covered-up evidence supporting Chapman's innocence claim was a witness who said he saw a man with Ramseur on the night of the murder who was not Chapman. Prosecutors also concealed a report that a jail inmate had confessed to Ramseur's murder. The judge explained that Chapman's attorneys did not have access to the report because a detective perjured himself at Chapman's original trial and his testimony during evidentiary hearings was "not credible."

One of Chapman's attorneys, Frank Goldsmith, noted, "After 14 years, Edward Chapman has finally had his day in court. . . . This is a significant step in an innocent man’s quest for justice. We cannot express the degree of our relief that Edward and the families of Ms. Ramseur and Ms. Conley have been granted a new opportunity for the truth to be told and justice to be served."

(Charlotte Observer, November 12, 2007, and Defense Attorneys' Press Release, November 7, 2007).

See Innocence and Arbitrariness.


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Attorneys' Organization Files Judicial Conduct Complaint Against Texas Appeals Judge

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) has filed a judicial complaint against the Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Sharon Keller (pictured), the first time the group says it has ever filed a complaint against a judge. NACDL has asked the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct to review Judge Keller's decision to turn away the last appeal of a death row inmate because the rushed filing was submitted past the court's 5 p.m. closing time. Attorneys for Michael Richard, who was executed on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the constitutionality of lethal injection practices, said they were experiencing computer problems as they prepared their client's lethal injection-based appeal just hours before Richard's execution. The appeal was being filed right after attorneys had learend that the Supreme Court would take up the issue. They asked Judge Keller for 20 more minutes to deliver their appeal to Austin because the court does not accept computer filings. They were told, "We close at 5." Without a ruling from the state court, the lawyers could not properly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to block the execution. At least 150 attorneys have filed similar complaints against Judge Keller with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which can impose sanctions ranging from additional education to suspension or a trial.


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American Bar Association Report Urges Death Penalty Reforms in Pennsylvania

According to a new report from a team of investigators sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA), flaws in Pennsylvania's death penalty system are so pervasive that the state risks executing an innocent person. "The problems found in this assessment strike at the very heart of Pennsylvania's justice system," stated ABA president-elect H. Thomas Wells, Jr. The five-member Pennsylvania assessment team that conducted the review urged a series of important death penalty reforms designed to improve capital defense representation and reduce the likelihood of false confessions, crime-lab errors, witness misidentification and racial disparities. In addition to the reform recommendations, the ABA called on Governor Ed Rendell to order a more comprehensive study of Pennsylvania's death penalty.


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Atlanta Journal-Constitution Series

MORE STAYS GRANTED On October 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit granted a stay of execution to Daniel Siebert, who was to be executed in Alabama on Oct. 25. On Oct. 22, the Georgia Supreme Court granted another stay, this time to Curtis Osborne. These stays are related to the issue of lethal injection as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the matter.

“A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH:” NEWS SERIES REVEALS ARBITRARY DEATH PENALTY IN GEORGIA
According to “A Matter of Life or Death,” a recent four-part news series published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia’s death penalty is “as predictable as a lightning strike.” Based on an investigation of 2,328 murder convictions in Georgia between January 1, 1995, and December 31, 2004, the paper determined that the state’s capital punishment system is unfairly shaped by racial and geographic bias, and fails to reserve the death penalty for “the worst of the worst.”

The AJC reporters worked with University of Maryland criminologist Ray Paternoster to examine the cases. Though their investigation determined that 1,315 of these cases involved crimes that made defendants eligible for the death penalty, prosecutors sought it in only 25% of those cases. Of those that faced a capital trial, only 1 in 23 was sentenced to death. “It’s like a roulette wheel. Arbitrariness is a weakness of the death penalty,” observed former Georgia Chief Justice Norman Fletcher.


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NEW VOICES: Texas Lt. Governor Backs Creation of Innocence Commission, Urges Review of the Death Penalty for Accomplices

In a recent meeting with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial Board, Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst (pictured) urged legislators to re-examine the state law that allows an accomplice to be tried by the same judge and jury as the shooter in murder cases, adding that he agreed with Governor Rick Perry's decision to commute Kenneth Eugene Foster's death sentence to life in prison based on similar concerns. Dewhurst also called on legislators to establish a state innocence commission to study wrongful convictions and possible reforms to the criminal justice system. "We only want the truly guilty to be subject to punishment in Texas. None of us want an innocent person convicted. ... I'd like the Senate to coalesce on a position," Dewhurst said.

Dewhurst stated that he will ask the Texas Senate to conduct an interim study during the Legislature's hiatus to determine the commission's charge. Dewhurst, who considers requests for stays of execution when Gov. Perry is out of the state, did not offer specifics about the scope of review the commission would have, but said he wants to establish the commission to ensure the criminal justice system is working properly. His concerns, in large part, stem from a series of 14 DNA exonerations in Dallas County, which has reversed more convictions because of DNA evidence than any other U.S. county. In addition, just this week in Houston, where concerns about wrongful convictions and the handling of DNA evidence have gained substantial attention in recent years, DNA evidence has prompted the Harris County district attorney's office to ask that a man convicted of sexual assault in 1995 be released from prison.

This year, Texas Senator Rodney Ellis introduced legislation to create an innocence commission, but the bill failed to pass in the House after its approval by the Senate. He welcomed Dewhurst's backing of the measure, but voiced frustration that Gov. Perry, the Texas Supreme Court, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had all failed to establish the commission without legislative approval, a power that each entity holds. Even Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who has spoken in favor of the commission in two speeches to the Legislature, has not established a commission independently. "Any opportunity to review the criminal justice system in Texas is certainly well-warranted. (But) if nobody else is willing to step up and show leadership on this issue, I may just do it for them," Ellis noted.

Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said final approval of the commission will require the vocal support of Chief Justice Jefferson, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, and other leaders. He observed, "It seems like in this building we are talking about a smarter approach to fighting crime. You want to do it right, and it is only as good as it works and as people respect it. There is something to be said about scrubbing decisions and court actions. How do we prevent the next mistake?"

(Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 4, 2007).

See Innocence, Arbitrariness, and New Voices.


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