Intellectually Disabled Ex-Death Row Prisoner Released from Texas Prison After Decades Without a Valid Conviction
Jerry Hartfield, an intellectually disabled prisoner whose conviction and death sentence was overturned in 1980, was freed from prison in Texas on June 12, 2017, having spent 35 years in jail without a valid conviction and without being retried. Hartfield, whose IQ is in the 50s or 60s, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1977 on charges that he had murdered a bus station worker. Hartfield confessed to the crime, but has long asserted his innocence and that his confession was coerced. In 1980, he was granted a new trial because a prospective juror had been improperly excluded over reservations about the death penalty. Prosecutors tried for three years to change Hartfield's sentence to life without parole, including seeking a commutation from Governor Mark White, but in 1983 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals again directed that Hartfield be retried. Soon after, Governor White issued an order to commute Hartfield's sentence to life in prison. Prosecutors and the governor's staff assumed that ended the litigation in Hartfield's case, while the courts assumed prosecutors were moving forward to comply with the second retrial order. Hartfield's attorney decided not to push for a retrial. For 23 years, Hartfield waited, until in 2006, he tried to find out what was happening in his case. Another prisoner, Kevin Althouse, helped Hartfield write requests to state judges, but they were all summarily rejected. Finally, a federal judge granted Hartfield's request for a lawyer, who ruled that Hartfield was being held without a valid conviction, and that because there was no conviction, the governor's attempted commutation was ineffectual. The case bounced between federal and state courts until a judge ordered a retrial in 2013. By the time the retrial finally took place in 2015, two key witnesses had died, all of the physical evidence had been lost or destroyed, and most of Hartfield's family members who could have offered mitigation testimony had died. Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, Hartfield's lawyers argued that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated. An appeals court agreed, and ordered him released. Hartfield told The Marshall Project, “I am not bitter. I am not angry. [The prosecutors] were only doing their jobs, and I respect them for that."
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Federal Court Grants Lethal-Injection Stay to Alabama Prisoner With Claims of Attorney Abandonment, Flawed Forensics
Robert Melson (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner whose clemency petition alleges that abandonment by his post-conviction lawyers prevented him from adequately challenging the flawed forensic evidence in his case, received a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on a challenge to Alabama's lethal-injection protocol. Melson was convicted of three murders at a Popeye's restaurant in 1994. A survivor of the crime recognized one of two assailants as Cuhuatemoc “Tempo” Peraita, an acquaintance of Melson's, and described the second assailant only as a black man. More than an hour after the crime occurred, police pulled over Peraita's car, and arrested him along with the black male passenger, Robert Melson. At the suggestion of police, Peraita—a 17-year-old with intellectual impairments—confessed to having been present during the crime, but claimed Melson had shot the victims. (Peraita has since recanted his accusation.) Melson has consistently maintained his innocence. During the interrogation, police took Melson's shoes from him. According to Melson's clemency petition, "Five days later, a police evidence technician belatedly discovered, photographed, and cast footprints in a rainy drainage ditch behind Popeye’s restaurant, which they later said matched Mr. Melson’s shoes." Peraita didn't testify at Melson's trial, and the witness who had identified Peraita did not identify Melson in a photo lineup. No other forensic evidence—such as fingerprints or DNA—linked Melson to the crime. As a result, Melson's conviction relied heavily on the shoeprint evidence, a type of evidence that the landmark 2009 report on forensic science by the National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, found to be unreliable, unscientific, and susceptible to bias. In addition to the problems inherent with shoeprint evidence, nearly two inches of rain had fallen between the time of the crime and the time police reported discovering the shoeprint. Melson should have been able to challenge the shoeprint evidence during his post-conviction appeal, but was represented by an inexperienced volunteer attorney who was not licensed in Alabama and a local attorney who had a history of malpractice. The lawyers did not properly file Melson's state post-conviction petition, and then, on appeal, they filed the documents in the wrong court, causing his appeal to be dismissed. The error was compounded because the attorneys failed to inform Melson of the dismissal. Melson's time to file a petition for habeas corpus in federal court ran out before he learned his state case had been dismissed. Cases like Melson's raise concerns about Alabama's recently passed "Fair Justice Act," which would potentially exacerbate errors like those made by his attorneys, since state deadlines would be shorter and stricter and all state death penalty appeals would run concurrently. In a separate case, Melson and several other Alabama death-row prisoners challenged Alabama's use of midazolam in executions, highlighting problems that have occurred when the drug was used in past executions. The 11th Circuit stayed Melson's June 8 execution to allow time for it to consider that challenge. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay of execution, and Melson was executed as scheduled.]
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South Carolina Killer Pleads Guilty to 7 Murders in Deal to Avoid Death Penalty
Todd Kohlhepp (pictured) pleaded guilty to seven South Carolina murders on May 26, 2017 and was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 60 additional years for the kidnapping and sexual assault of surviving victim Kala Brown. Kohlhepp made a deal with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty, providing information that solved four murders at a motorcycle store in 2003 and sparing Brown and the families of the murder victims from enduring a lengthy trial and appeals process. Seventh Judicial Circuit Solicitor Barry Barnette said "This was a death penalty case. No doubt about it. But it is not fair for families to wait years and years for justice." South Carolina has not had an execution since 2011 and has imposed only one new death sentence in that period. Brown, who Kohlhepp kept chained in a storage container and raped daily for more than two months, told prosecutors she supported the deal, reportedly saying, "he's the killer, not me." Joanne Shiflet, the mother of murder victim Charles David Carver, said she appreciated the certainty of Kohlhepp's sentence: "I am a lot calmer now. There is no apprehension. There is no what if. We know he is going away and going to stay gone." Other multiple killers have also received plea deals to avoid death sentences: In 2003, "Green River" serial killer Gary Ridgway avoided the death penalty in Washington State by pleading guilty to 48 counts of aggravated murder and providing information that solved 48 killings and helped authorities recover the remains of numerous victims who had been missing for nearly two decades. Roland Dominique, who pleaded guilty to eight murders in Louisiana and was a suspect in 15 more, received a life sentence at the request of victims' families in 2008.
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Alabama Governor Signs Law Shortening Death-Penalty Appeals
On Friday, May 26, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (pictured) signed into law a statute denominated the "Fair Justice Act," which is designed to shorten the state death-penalty appeals process. The law constricts the amount of time death-row prisoners have to file appeals, imposes time limits for judges to rule on appeals, and requires prisoners to pursue their direct appeal and post-conviction appeal simultaneously, including raising claims of appellate counsel's ineffectiveness while appellate counsel is still handling the case. Governor Ivey characterized the law—which will apply to all defendants sentenced to death on or after August 1, 2017—as "strik[ing] an important balance between protecting the rights of a defendant and the state's interest in allowing justice to be achieved effectively and swiftly." Alabama Attorney General, Steve Marshall, said the statute "streamlines the appellate process" but "does not diminish the thoroughness of appellate review of death penalty cases." Critics of the law, however, say that is precisely what it does. Linda Klein, the President of the American Bar Association—which calls for fair process in the administration of capital punishment but takes no position on the death penalty itself—said that the new law "unduly limit[s] counsel’s ability to conduct that critical post-conviction investigation" and will "make Alabama an outlier on how appeals and post-conviction cases are handled." Birmingham civil-rights attorney Lisa Borden said Alabama capital cases typically suffer from a lack of “detailed investigation" into what the issues in the case actually are and if the state curtails the time for post-conviction investigation, "you are going to have people whose valid claims, whose important claims [are] cut off forever and people are going to die.” She said, "If Alabama really wants to fix the process[, it should] . . . provide competent representation and resources to people from the beginning." The National Registry of Exonerations has found that more than half of all murder exonerations involved prosecutorial failures to disclose exculpatory evidence, and that official misconduct was present in 87% of death-row exonerations of black defendants and 67% of death-row exonerations of white defendants. The study also showed that it took an average of four years longer to exonerate an innocent black defendant wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death than a wrongly convicted white death-row prisoner. Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent African-American man who spent nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row for a crime he did not commit, has said that if he were convicted under the Fair Justice Act, "I would have been executed despite my innocence." Hinton says it took more than 14 years before he was able to obtain the competent representation and expert assistance necessary to prove his innocence.
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30 Years After Murder, 14 Years After Supreme Court Ruling, Pennsylvania Drops Death Penalty At Request of Victim's Family
Thirty years after the crime that sent him to Pennsylvania's death row and 15 years after his case was argued in the U.S. Supreme Court, David Sattazahn was resentenced to life without parole—the sentence he initially received in his first trial in 1991. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the victim's family all agreed that a life sentence was the best outcome at this point in the case. Sattazahn was convicted of first-degree murder and the court sentenced him to life in prison in 1991 when his Berks County sentencing jury split 9-3 in favor of a life sentence. After his life sentence, Sattazahn pled guilty to several unrelated felony charges. His murder conviction was then overturned as a result of prejudicially inaccurate jury instructions, and in his retrial, prosecutors again sought the death penalty, using his guilty pleas as a new aggravating circumstance. In 1999, he was retried and sentenced to death, becoming the first death-after-life-sentenced defendant under Pennsylvania's death penalty statute. His appeal in that trial reached the U.S. Supreme Court (argument, pictured), which ruled 5-4 in 2003 that the non-unanimous jury vote in his case did not constitute a finding rejecting the death penalty, even though it had resulted in a life sentence. As a consequence, the Court wrote, subjecting Sattazahn to a second capital prosecution did not violate the Double Jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution. Sattazahn's 1999 death sentence was overturned in 2006 because of ineffective assistance of counsel. Faced with the possibility of a third sentencing hearing and additional appeals, the family of murder victim Richard Boyer, Sr. agreed that dropping the death penalty in favor of life without parole would help bring them closure. “Every time we try to get on with our lives, we're back in court, reliving that night again and again. There has to be an end to this madness,” said Barbara Spatz, Boyer's sister. Senior Deputy Attorney General Anthony Forray said his office consulted with Boyer's four children and four siblings before deciding to drop the death penalty. “No family should have to go through this,” Forray said. “The commonwealth believes that what is occurring today is the appropriate thing to occur if this family is ever going to have closure and if this is ever going to come to an end.” At a May 24, 2017 hearing in Reading, Pennsylvania, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas formally resentenced Sattazahn to life.
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Alabama Prisoner Facing Eighth Execution Date Claims Innocence, Challenges Execution Procedures
Tommy Arthur (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner whose 35-year journey through the court system has frustrated both proponents and opponents of the death penalty, is scheduled to be executed on May 25, 2017, the eighth time Alabama has set an execution date in his case. Arthur—whose conviction and death sentence has twice been overturned by the courts and was sentenced to death by his trial judge based upon a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation—has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker. Most recently, an evenly divided U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution four hours after Arthur's execution was set to begin on November 3, 2016, so the Court could consider whether to review Arthur's challenge to Alabama's use of the controversial drug midazolam and his request to be executed by firing squad. The Court ultimately declined to review both that claim and Arthur's separate challenge to the constitutionality of Alabama's non-unanimous sentencing practices. Arthur has repeatedly raised innocence claims, seeking new forensic testing of evidence from his case. Judy Wicker, the wife of Troy Wicker, who was charged with hiring Arthur to kill her husband, testified at her trial that her husband had been murdered by a burglar who beat and raped her. After Ms. Wicker's conviction, she changed her testimony when a prosecutor, who had previously represented her at a parole hearing, offered her early release if she testified against Arthur. The rape kit taken from Ms. Wicker at the time of the murder was lost or destroyed without being tested for DNA and, according to Arthur's current lawyer, Suhana Han, “[n]either a fingerprint or a weapon, nor any other physical evidence connects Arthur to the murder of Troy Wicker.” Hairs found near the victim have also never been tested with modern DNA technology. Arthur has also argued that his trial counsel was ineffective, and continues to litigate issues relating to Alabama's lethal injection protocol. He currently has an emergency motion pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, challenging the state's planned use of midazolam, a drug that has been linked to many problematic executions, including that of Ron Smith in Alabama in December 2016. He has also challenged the state's refusal to disclose records related to the Smith execution, which his lawyers say may provide critical evidence for his lethal-injection challenge. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued a preliminary ruling in Arthur's favor on a separate issue on May 23, reversing a Montgomery Circuit judge's order rejecting Arthur's claim that the legislature, rather than the Department of Corrections, should determine the state's execution method. But that procedural ruling will not delay his execution. His motion stated, "The role of the legislature is particularly critical given the controversial nature of the ADOC's current midazolam-based execution protocol. ...The choice of the first drug (midazolam) to be used is critical, because without an effective anesthetic, the second and third drugs would cause unbearable pain. But the drug the ADOC chose (in secret), midazolam, is not used in medical practice as a general anesthetic; rather, it is an anti-anxiety sedative in the same drug family as Valium and Xanax, and its use in lethal injection has been extremely problematic." [UPDATE: Alabama executed Thomas Arthur near midnight on May 25. He was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. on May 26. Media witnesses reported no visible indicators that the drugs had failed.]
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Death-Row Exoneree, Law Professor, Attorney Voice Opposition to Alabama's "Fair Justice Act"
Soon after passing legislation to make death penalty trials fairer by preventing judges from overriding jury recommendations of life sentences, the Alabama legislature is taking steps to enact a bill that critics say would make capital appeals far less fair. The bill, denominated the "Fair Justice Act," would constrict the amount of time death-row prisoners have to file appeals, impose deadlines for judges to rule on appeals, and require prisoners to pursue their direct appeal and post-conviction appeal simultaneously. Critics of SB 187/HB 260, which has passed the Senate and been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, include Harvard Law School Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr., Alabama death-row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton, and Birmingham attorney Lisa Borden, who say the proposal is neither fair nor just. They argue that the bill would reduce the quality of appellate representation, insulate trial errors from appellate review, and increase the risk of executing innocent people. Sullivan called the bill "deceitfully named" and wrote it would "undermine much of the progress" made when Alabama recently became the last state in the U.S. to end judicial override. Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama's death row before being exonerated, said, "If proposed changes to Alabama's postconviction procedures under consideration by the state legislature had been enacted, I would have been executed despite my innocence." Hinton explains that he spent 14 years looking for volunteer lawyers who could help him prove his innocence, saying, "Because the so called "Fair Justice Act" now pending before the state legislature puts time restrictions on how long death row prisoners have to prove their innocence or a wrongful conviction, this legislation increases the risk of executing innocent people and makes our system even less fair." Borden raises concerns that the poor quality of trial-level representation will spill over into the proposed shortened appeals process. "The average trial of a capital case with appointed counsel takes just a few days, given appointed counsel's frequent lack of preparation and failure to challenge the State's case. ...The attorneys and experts who will try to uncover and correct the injustices done to poor defendants must not be forced to rush through the process too." She suggests, "If Alabama wants to save taxpayers millions of dollars, and provide certainty and finality for the peace of mind of the victim's families, it could do so by abolishing the death penalty, or by limiting its use to only the most egregious cases and providing real, effective representation for those charged with capital crimes."
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Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Ivan Teleguz
On April 20, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz (pictured), whom the Commonwealth had scheduled to be executed on April 25. Teleguz will now serve a sentence of life without parole. It was the first death-penalty clemency ever issued by Gov. McAuliffe. The official statement released to the media in conjunction with the commutation outlined several of the factors that influenced the Governor's decision, including the prosecution's use of false evidence that tainted the jury's choice to sentence Teleguz to death. "[D]uring the trial, evidence was admitted implicating Mr. Teleguz in another murder in a small Pennsylvania town," McAuliffe said. "In arguing for the death penalty, the prosecutor made explicit reference to this evidence in arguing that Mr. Teleguz was so dangerous that he needed to be put to death. We now know that no such murder occurred, much less with any involvement by Mr. Teleguz. It was false information, plain and simple, and while I am sure that the evidence was admitted in a good-faith belief in its truthfulness at the time, we now know that to be incorrect." McAuliffe also cited the disproportionality of sentencing Teleguz to death when Michael Hetrick, the admitted killer, received a sentence of life without parole in exchange for his testimony against Teleguz. "To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds dear," McAuliffe said. Teleguz maintains that he is innocent of the crime, and his clemency petition received support from numerous political, religious, and business leaders.
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State and Federal Courts Grant Stays, Preliminary Injunctions Blocking 8 Arkansas Executions
In legal challenges filed separately by Arkansas death-row prisoners and a company involved in the distribution of pharmaceuticals, the Arkansas state and federal courts issued preliminary injunctions putting on hold the state's plan to carry out an unprecedented eight executions in the span of eleven days. After a four-day evidentiary hearing that ended late in the evening on Thursday, April 13, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas issued a preliminary injunction barring Arkansas from carrying out the eight scheduled executions with a three-drug cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. The District Court issued its opinion and order early Saturday, April 15, finding "a significant possibility” that the prisoners' challenge to the lethal injection protocol will succeed and that Arkansas' execution plan denies the prisoners meaningful access to counsel and to the courts during the course of the executions themselves. In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Kristine G. Baker wrote, "The threat of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is significant: If midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are ‘botched,’ they will suffer severe pain before they die." The ruling came a week after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction granted by an Ohio federal district court barring that state from using midazolam in a three-drug execution process. Arkansas has appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
In another lawsuit filed in state court by McKesson, the company that distributed vecuronium bromide to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, an Arkansas circuit judge issued an order in the late afternoon on Friday, April 14, temporarily blocking the state from using the drug. McKesson had filed a complaint alleging that Arkansas misled them about the intended use of the drug and refused to return it even after being issued a refund. Arkansas appealed the court's order, but after the federal injunction was issued, McKesson asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to vacate the state-court order because it would not be necessary as long as the federal injunction is in place.
Two prisoners separately received individual stays of execution. The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the execution of Bruce Ward, scheduled for April 17, to allow consideration of his claim that he is incompetent to be executed. A federal district court stayed the execution of Jason McGehee, scheduled for April 27, to comply with the required 30-day public comment period after the Arkansas Parole Board's 6-1 recommendation for clemency. [UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling staying the Arkansas executions based upon its use of midazolam and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the issue. The Arkansas Supreme Court lifted the temporary restraining order against the state's use of medicines obtained from the McKessen Corporation to carry out executions.]
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In Expanding Dispute Over Death Penalty, Florida Governor Orders Replacement of Local Prosecutor in 21 Murder Cases
Florida Governor Rick Scott issued a series of executive orders on April 3 removing locally elected 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 21 first-degree murder cases and replacing her with 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. The removal comes two weeks after Ayala announced a policy that her office would not pursue the death penalty in murder prosecutions. The cases include a number of potential capital resentencings resulting from the Florida Supreme Court's 2016 decision declaring non-unanimous death sentences to be unconstitutional. Ayala, a Democrat whose district encompasses Orange and Osceola Counties in and around Orlando, said on March 16 that, after conducting "an evidence-based review" of the issue, she had concluded that seeking the death penalty was not cost-effective and "is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice." Ayala is the only African-American elected prosecutor in Florida. Gov. Scott previously removed her from the high-profile trial of Markeith Loyd, a defendant accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer, also appointing King to handle that case. That decision prompted opposition from the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and the victim's parents. Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa called Scott's action in the 21 cases a "gross abuse of his power." Louis Virelli, a law professor at Stetson University, warned that Gov. Scott's actions set a dangerous precedent, saying, "this opens the door for governors of all political parties to cherry-pick cases away from prosecutors." Ayala has hired Roy L. Austin, Jr., a former civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, to challenge Scott's authority to issue the executive orders. Ayala's spokesperson, Eryka Washington, said Scott had not notified the State Attorney that he was issuing the executive orders and that Ayala first learned of the orders from the media. “Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position that the Governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system,” Washington said. Orange and Osceola Counties imposed a total of one death sentence from 2012-2016. Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumpter Counties—the predominantly Republican counties that make up the judicial circuit in which State Attorney King was elected—imposed six death sentences during that period.
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