News

He’s on California’s Death Row, But Demetrius Howard Never Killed Anyone

A February 4, 2019 article in the criminal justice newsletter, The Appeal, features the case of Demetrius Howard, a California prisoner sentenced to death for a crime in which he didn’t kill anyone. Howard was sentenced to death in 1995 for his participation in a robbery in which another man, Mitchell Funches, shot and killed Sherry Collins. Howard was never accused of firing a shot and he has consistently maintained that he neither expected nor intended that anyone would be killed. But under California’s felony murder law, he was eligible for the death penalty because he participated in the robbery. In a letter to The Appeal, Howard wrote, “I am no saint or some angel. I’ve made my share of wrongs, but I haven’t killed no one [or] told anyone to kill someone.”

California is one of twenty states that allow the execution of defendants who neither killed nor intended that a killing take place. The controversial practice has attracted the most attention in the state of Texas, where at least six prisoners have been executed despite undisputed evidence that they were not involved in the killing itself. In Howard’s case, the man who actually shot Collins, Mitchell Funches, received a sentence of life without parole when the jury in his trial could not reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence him to life or death. In 2018, California passed a law that narrowed the scope of the felony murder law, making defendants liable for murder only if they were the killer, solicited the killer, or acted with reckless indifference to human life. The change is retroactive, but does not apply to Howard because the jury found that he had “acted with reckless indifference to human life” before it sentenced him to death.

Howard’s death sentence is also a by-product of outlier death-penalty practices in San Bernardino County. San Bernardino is one of five Southern California counties that imposed more death sentences between 2010 and 2015 than 99.5% of U.S. counties, earning the region the nickname “the new death belt.” In 1993, shortly before Howard was sentenced to death, there were 10 active capital trials in the county, and then-District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier said he was considering seeking it in two other cases. At the time, Kottmeier told the San Bernardino County Sun, “That’s higher than I’ve ever seen it. At any given time in the past the number pending seemed to be about six.” He attributed the high number of capital cases to a high rate of violent crime, as well as state laws passed in 1990 and 1993 that expanded the list of death-eligible crimes. The California Attorney General’s 2017 report, Homicide in California, shows that despite its disproportionate pursuit of capital punishment, San Bernardino’s higher-than-average murder rate has remained the same from 1997 to 2017, while murder rates have declined statewide and in many of California counties during that period.


Read More 678 reads
Alabama Executes Muslim Prisoner Amidst Charges of Religious Discrimination

In a 5-4 decision that Justice Elena Kagan characterized as “profoundly wrong,” the U.S. Supreme Court on February 7, 2019 permitted Alabama to execute a Muslim death-row prisoner, Domineque Ray (pictured), who had claimed that the state’s execution process discriminated against him because of his religion. Without explanation, the Court asserted that Ray had waited too long to challenge a provision in Alabama’s execution protocol that made a Christian chaplain part of the state’s execution team and prohibited other religious advisors from being present in the execution chamber. Ray argued that Alabama’s practice constituted an establishment of religion that discriminated against non-Christians. During federal court hearings on the constitutionality of the policy, Alabama withdrew its requirement that the chaplain be present in the execution chamber. However, it continued to reject Ray’s request that his imam—a prison-approved spiritual advisor—be permitted in the execution chamber. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Ray was likely to succeed on his religious discrimination claim, scheduled briefing in his case, and stayed his execution. The Supreme Court reversed, without addressing the constitutional issue.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor dissented. Quoting prior Supreme Court decisions, Kagan wrote, “‘The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.’ But the State’s policy does just that. Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion—whether Islam, Judaism, or any other—he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.” In asserting that its execution process complied with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, the Alabama Attorney General’s office told the federal courts: “Like any other inmate, Ray has been and will be given opportunities to speak with his spiritual adviser, including up to the moment that he is taken into the chamber.” However, Spencer Hahn, one of Ray’s lawyers, said the prison had failed to honor that promise and that Ray lost access to his imam three hours before the execution.

Ray was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl. No physical evidence linked him to the crimes and a sole prosecution witness, Marcus Owden, implicated Ray. In 2017, Ray’s appeal lawyers discovered for the first time that Owden—who avoided the death penalty by testifying against Ray—had schizophrenia and was suffering from delusions and auditory hallucinations when he accused Ray of the rape and murder and testified against him. Ray’s lawyers argued that the prosecution’s deliberate suppression of this evidence, despite being aware of Owden’s mental illness, violated Ray’s due process rights and entitled him to a new trial. Without comment, the Supreme Court declined to review the claim and denied a stay. Ray was the second person executed in the U.S. in 2019 and the first in Alabama.


Read More 1,050 reads
Texas Executes Robert Jennings in Nation’s First Execution of 2019

Texas executed Robert Jennings (pictured) on January 30, 2019 for the 1988 murder of Houston police officer Elston Howard, amid questions as to his eligibility for capital punishment and the constitutionality of his death sentence. Jennings was convicted under a sentencing procedure that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down shortly before his trial in 1989 because it did not adequately allow jurors to consider evidence supporting a sentence less than death. The jury instructions given in his case to redress that error were also later declared unconstitutional, and 25 Texas death-row prisoners had their death sentences overturned as a result. However, Jennings’s court-appointed trial and appeal lawyers failed to raise the issue in Texas state court and the Texas federal courts refused to consider the issue on the grounds that the state court lawyers had procedurally defaulted the claim. The U.S. Supreme Court later changed federal habeas corpus procedures to permit review if ineffective state-court representation caused the default. But when Jennings’s federal lawyers attempted to raise the issue again, the Texas federal appeals court ruled on January 28 that its prior decision had not been based on procedural default and that it had already rejected the claim. Without comment, the Supreme Court issued an order on January 30 declining to hear Jennings’s case, and he was executed.

In challenging Jennings’s death sentence, his current lawyers also argued that both Jennings’s trial lawyer and his previous appellate attorney provided inadequate representation. Jennings’s trial attorney was defending two death-penalty cases at the same time and did not investigate significant mitigating evidence that included Jennings’s history of brain damage from a car crash and an injury with a baseball bat, an IQ of 65, and intellectual and adaptive deficits associated with his low IQ. Trial counsel also failed to present readily available evidence of Jennings’s impoverished, abusive, and neglectful upbringing: he was born as the result of a rape, and his mother frequently told him she did not want him. His original appeal lawyers also failed to raise these issues. Edward Mallett, one of Jennings’s current lawyers, said, “There has not been an adequate presentation of his circumstances including mental illness and mental limitations.”

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes took the unusual step earlier in January of asking the state to consider supporting clemency for Jennings, citing the 30-year delay between the crime and the scheduled execution. Jennings's attorneys argued in his clemency petition that the state had granted clemency last year to a white death-row prisoner with fewer mitigating circumstances. "Denying a commutation truly will demonstrate that race, class, and privilege matter in determining who is executed in Texas," attorney Randy Schaffer wrote. "This would send a terrible message to the world."


Read More 1,174 reads
Missouri Supreme Court Hears Case on ‘Hung Jury’ Death Sentences

The Missouri Supreme Court may soon rule on the constitutionality of the state’s practice of having the trial judge determine whether a capital defendant should live or die if the sentencing jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Death-row prisoner Marvin Rice (pictured) was sentenced to death by the trial judge in August 2017, even though 11 of the 12 jurors in his case voted for a life sentence. His appeal, which the state court heard on January 23, 2019, argues that the portion of Missouri’s death-penalty statute that gives the trial judge exclusive sentencing authority in the event of a hung sentencing jury violates his “constitutionally protected rights to due process, a trial by jury, and to a unanimous jury verdict.”

At the time of the offense, Rice – a former deputy sheriff and disabled Army veteran – was suffering from a major depressive disorder that had been worsened by the effects of a pituitary gland tumor. Court documents indicated that he had been diagnosed with 12 various medical and psychiatric conditions for which he had been taking 17 different medications. Eleven jurors were persuaded by this and other mitigating evidence that Rice’s life should be spared, but a single hold-out juror for death hung the jury. Trial judge Kelly Wayne Parker then disregarded the jury’s vote and sentenced Rice to death.

Rice’s appeal also challenges the constitutionality of Missouri’s capital punishment statute on the grounds that virtually any homicide now qualifies as a capital offense. This, he argues, violates the constitutional requirement that the death penalty be limited to a narrow class of the worst-of-the-worst killings. He also seeks a new trial based upon police and prosecutorial misconduct in his case. Police, he says, unconstitutionally continued to interrogate him while he was hospitalized for gunshot wounds sustained during his arrest, even after he had said he did not want to answer their questions. He also argues that the prosecutor repeatedly violated his constitutional right to remain silent, improperly commenting on both his decision not to testify at trial and his refusal to answer police questions after having been given his Miranda warnings. Rice’s lawyer, Craig Johnston told the state justices: “This court has repeatedly held that where an objection is made and overruled as happened here, a direct reference to the defendant’s failure to testify will invariably result in a new trial.”

Only Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to impose a death sentence following a jury deadlock in the sentencing phase of a capital trial. Alabama also allows a judge to impose a death sentence following a non-unanimous jury sentencing vote, but only if at least ten jurors vote for death. No jury in Missouri has imposed a death sentence since 2013, but judges sentenced Rice and Craig Wood to death after juries could not reach a unanimous sentencing decision. Wood was sentenced to death in 2018 after his jury voted 10-2 for a death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the constitutionality of Missouri’s hung jury sentencing practice. However, in 2016, the Court struck down Florida’s death sentencing statute saying its provision requiring the judge, rather than a jury, to find facts necessary to impose a death sentence violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.


Read More 626 reads
Lawyers Seek Clemency for Tennessee Death-Row Prisoner Dying of End-Stage Cancer

Charles Wright (pictured), a prisoner on Tennessee’s death row, may die of cancer before the October 10, 2019 execution date that the state has set for him. His attorneys and supporters, including a former U.S. Congressman, are seeking clemency so Wright can spend his final days with his family. Wright has prostate cancer that has spread to his bones, and was recently moved from Tennessee’s death-row facility to a prison infirmary. He is asking the governor to either reduce his sentence to time served or to life without parole, allowing him to apply for a medical furlough, a special release that can be granted to terminally ill prisoners, but not to those on death row.

In September 2018, former Congressman Bob Clement wrote to then-Governor Bill Haslam, asking Haslam to grant clemency to Wright. “It is clear to me that Charles is not among the ‘worst of the worst’ for whom the ultimate punishment is to be reserved,” Clement wrote. “He was a product of his environment and the deprivation in which he — I will not say ‘was raised’ as the fact is, Charles and his siblings basically raised themselves. He turned to drugs early in his teenage years — he was fourteen or fifteen when an older drug dealer put a heroin needle in Charles’ arm. Charles does not absolve himself of his responsibility for making wrong choices.” Clement’s father, Frank Clement, served as governor of Tennessee in the 1960s, and commuted all the state’s death sentences in 1965, after the legislature defeated an abolition bill by one vote.

In court filings, Wright’s attorneys also raised issues of arbitrariness and racial bias. Wright, who is Black, was convicted and sentenced to death for a drug-related double-homicide in 1985. According to his attorneys, capital cases in the 1980s were infected with racial bias, and Wright’s case exemplifies the arbitrariness of Tennessee’s death penalty. While Wright was sentenced to death, many other drug-related murders have resulted in life sentences, even when there were more than two victims. A 2018 study of Tennessee's death-penalty system called it “a cruel lottery” and found that the best indicators of whether a case would result in a death sentence were arbitrary factors such as where the murder occurred, the race of the defendant, the quality of the defense, and the views of the prosecutors and judges assigned to the case.


Read More 799 reads
U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Cases Alleging Racial Bias in Oklahoma Death Penalty

The United States Supreme Court has declined to review challenges brought by two Oklahoma death-row prisoners who alleged that their death sentences were the unconstitutional product of racial bias. Julius Jones and Tremane Wood had sought to overturn their death sentences based on the findings of a 2017 study that showed significant racial disparities in Oklahoma’s death sentencing practices. On January 22, 2019, the Court denied the petitions for writ of certiorari after having rescheduled consideration of Jones’s (pictured, left) and Wood’s (pictured, right) cases 25 times each.

In their petitions for certiorari, Jones and Wood relied upon a statistical study of Oklahoma death sentences imposed between 1990 and 2012 to argue that racial bias unconstitutionally infected their death sentences. In 2017, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission released a report on the state’s administration of the death penalty that included the findings of Dr. Glenn L. Pierce and professors Michael L. Radelet and Susan Sharp about the impact of race on death sentences. The study found that a murder defendant in Oklahoma accused of killing a white victim was more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death than a defendant accused of murdering a nonwhite victim. In cases like Jones’s and Wood’s, which involved only male victims, the study found that death sentences were nearly three times more likely to be imposed if the victim was white than if the victim was a person of color. It also found that when the victim was a white male, defendants of color, like Jones and Wood, were twice as likely as a white defendant to be sentenced to death.

Jones and Wood described other evidence that racial bias affected decisionmakers in their cases. The judge who presided over Wood's trial has made openly racist remarks, saying in 2011 that Mexicans are “nothing but filthy animals.” Jones was sentenced to death by a nearly all-white jury, following what his current lawyers describe as “pervasive and highly racialized pre-trial media coverage” and “racialized remarks made by prosecutors and at least one juror” during his trial. Dale Baich, one of Jones’s appellate lawyers, told The Oklahoman, that the facts of the case “vividly show how racial bias can lead to a wrongful conviction.” Jones is scheduled to file a separate petition for certiorari on January 28 raising the issue that one of the jurors in the case said “they should just take the n****r out and shoot him behind the jail.”


Read More 873 reads
New Voices: Former Texas Criminal Appeals Judge Suggests “Pause” on Texas Death Penalty

Retiring Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge and former prosecutor Elsa Alcala now believes that the death penalty is unreliably and discriminatorily applied in the nation’s most aggressive capital punishment state. In a new Houston Chronicle “Behind the Walls” podcast, Judge Alcala – who calls herself “a Republican hanging on by a thread” – told reporter Keri Blakinger, “I think we know enough right now to even call for a moratorium or just to pause all of this and to say, you know, ‘What is going on? Why does Texas have such a high percentage of people who get the death penalty and are executed as compared to the rest of the country?’”

Hired as a prosecutor by Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who gained notoriety as one of the nation’s deadliest prosecutors, Alcala spent nine years trying capital cases in the DA’s office of the country’s leading death-sentencing county. She then served as a county trial judge before being appointed by then-governor George W. Bush to serve on the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. As she was exposed to a range of problems in Texas death penalty cases, her views on the capital punishment evolved. She became a skeptic of capital punishment, often dissenting from denials of death-penalty relief and, in the case of Julius Murphy, called on the court to consider whether the state’s death penalty was constitutionally administered. When she left the bench, Judge Alcala accepted a policy role at the Texas Defender Service, where she will advocate for criminal justice reform. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, she joked, “[m]aybe I can have more success at the legislative level to get somebody to understand that there are some real true problems.”

In the podcast interview, Alcala cites a range of factors that changed her views about capital punishment. She discusses ineffective lawyers and parole laws that, at the beginning of her career, forced jurors to choose between a 15-year prison sentence and a death sentence for death-eligible defendants. “What do you do with these people who ... got there back to in the 90s when we know for a fact that the lawyers were not doing what they should have been doing in my mind?” Alcala asked. “And then the question is, as they come up to be executed, are we going to continue to execute them and tolerate the fact that things were done imperfectly? … I think, still percolating through all of that is that a lot of those [cases] are subject to that old parole law.”

When asked about the decline of the death penalty in Texas, Alcala said, “It is on the decline significantly. Whether it will ever go away and when it will go away – I don't know, I think it is imperfect. More accurately, I should say it is unreliable – I have lost faith in the reliability of the death penalty. And that is what underlies my involvement with the Texas Defender Service. It is: If you're going to have the death penalty, then do it correctly. You know, give them a good trial lawyer, give them a good appellate lawyer, give them a good habeas lawyer at the state level, give them a good federal lawyer and don't let racial prejudice at all influence anything that's going on.” The death penalty, she said, “is just not reliable. It’s not something that I can say is being done the way that it should be done to give you confidence in it as a punishment form. … I think, why is Texas so out of line with the rest of the country? It can't be that our people are worse, right? I mean, Texans are good people. Are our crimes worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so. Are our people worse than the rest of the country? I don't think so.  So somehow we are out of line.”


Read More 1,041 reads
Disparate Death-Penalty Rulings in Same Florida Murder Case Raise Arbitrariness Concerns

The Florida Supreme Court issued rulings in thirteen death penalty cases in the last two weeks of 2018, upholding convictions and death sentences in ten, reversing one death sentence, remanding one case for a new hearing on intellectual disability, and allowing limited DNA testing in another case. The most notable of the decisions came in the cases of Gerald Murray (pictured left) and Steven Taylor (pictured, right), decided on December 20, 2018, who were sentenced to death for the same murder and raised exactly the same challenge to their unconstitutional death sentences. Murray’s death sentence was overturned, but Taylor’s was upheld, renewing criticism that the Florida Supreme Court has arbitrarily and unfairly applied its decisions declaring that death sentences that are based on non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations are unconstitutional.

Murray and Taylor were tried separately for the same 1990 Jacksonville burglary, sexual assault, and murder. Taylor was tried once and sentenced to death by the trial judge following a 10-2 jury recommendation for death. The Florida Supreme Court decided his direct appeal in 1993. His conviction and death sentence became final in October 1994, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case. Because of a series of constitutional errors in Murray’s case, his conviction was overturned twice and the death penalty imposed against him in another trial also was overturned. The trial judge imposed a death sentence in his fourth trial following an 11-1 jury recommendation for death. The Florida Supreme Court upheld that conviction and death sentence on direct appeal in 2009, and the conviction and sentence became final when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case later that year.

In January 2016, in Hurst v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the sentencing procedures under which both Murray and Taylor were tried violated Florida capital defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to have a jury determine all the facts that could subject them to the death penalty. Later that year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. State that the Sixth Amendment violation could never be harmless in a case in which one or more jurors had voted for life and that death sentences based on such non-unanimous jury verdicts also violated the Florida state constitution. However, the court also decided that it would limit enforcement of its constitutional ruling to cases that became final after June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court first announced the Sixth Amendment right to jury factfinding in the penalty-phase of a capital trial. At that time, Justices Pariente and Perry dissented, calling the appeal cutoff date arbitrary. In her December 20 concurring opinion in Taylor’s case, Pariente called the Murray and Taylor rulings “the textbook example of the ‘unintended arbitrariness’” she had warned about in her prior dissent. “Taylor and Murray were both convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death after nonunanimous jury recommendations for death for the murder of Alice Vest in September 1990. Yet, only one will receive a new penalty phase. Clearly, the Court’s line-drawing for the retroactivity of Hurst creates unconstitutional results for defendants like Taylor,” she wrote.


Read More 784 reads