Two Cases Pit Native American Sovereignty Against U.S. Death Penalty
As federal prosecutors dropped the death penalty against a Navajo man accused of killing a police officer on Navajo land, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a separate case on the status of a treaty establishing the borders of the Creek Nation reservation that could determine whether Oklahoma has jurisdiction to carry out the death penalty against a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. The two cases highlight issues of Native American tribal sovereignty with potentially profound implications for the administration of capital punishment under state and federal death penalty laws.
On November 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Carpenter v. Murphy, Oklahoma’s appeal of a lower federal court decision that overturned the conviction and death sentence of Patrick Murphy, a citizen of the Creek Nation, for a murder the federal court ruled was committed in Indian Country, on lands within the boundaries of the Creek Nation reservation established by treaty in 1866. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in August 2017 that because the homicide with which Murphy was charged “was committed in Indian country, the Oklahoma state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him.” Under the federal Major Crimes Act, the court said, Murphy could be prosecuted by federal authorities, but not by the state. Because of tribal opposition to the death penalty, Murphy would not face capital prosecution under the act. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd hailed the Circuit court’s decision as “affirm[ing] the right of the Nation and all other Indian Nations to make and enforce their own laws within their own boundaries.”
In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only Congress had authority to disestablish or diminish an Indian reservation. Congress has never explicitly disestablished the Creek reservation. However, Oklahoma appealed the court’s ruling, arguing that the admission of Oklahoma into the Union in 1907 superseded the treaty and disestablished the reservation. Arguing for Murphy, Ian Gershengorn told the Court that the tribe has never ceded authority over the lands and “for the last 40 years, … when the Creek Nation adopted a constitution in 1979, they asserted political jurisdiction to the extent of their 1900 boundaries.” The Court’s decision in the case could affect criminal prosecutions in an 11-county region of eastern Oklahoma.
In New Mexico, federal prosecutors on November 19 withdrew their notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Kirby Cleveland in the killing of a tribal police officer. In January 2018, U.S. attorneys announced they would capitally prosecute Cleveland, prompting opposition from the Navajo Nation, which holds the official position that “capital punishment is not an acceptable form of punishment.” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch stated in a letter, “The death penalty is counter to the cultural beliefs and traditions of the Navajo People who value life and place a great emphasis on the restoration of harmony through restoration and individual attention.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office had argued that because the murder involved the death of a police officer, the tribe’s position was not binding on the federal government. The case was further complicated by the fact that the state of New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, so a death-penalty prosecution was counter to the policy of the state in which the crime took place.
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New Mexico Supreme Court Hears Argument on Whether State May Execute Last Two Men on Its Death Row
Nine years after New Mexico prospectively abolished capital punishment, lawyers for the state’s two remaining death-row prisoners argued to the New Mexico Supreme Court that the death penalty was unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment as applied to Timothy Allen (pictured, left) and Robert Fry (pictured, right), and that they should not be executed. The lengthy oral argument on April 10 turned on how the court should go about determining whether a death sentence is arbitrary and disproportionate. State prosecutors urged the court to follow a 1983 decision that would limit the court’s review to cases involving the same aggravating factors that were present in the prisoners’ crimes. “[T]he ultimate question,” said Assistant Attorney General Victoria Wilson, “is: ‘Was this sentence imposed arbitrarily?’” On the other hand, the prisoners’ lawyers argued that executing the men would be disproportionate punishment and unconstitutionally arbitrary when compared to all the cases in which New Mexico could have imposed the death penalty. Between 1979 and 2009, when New Mexico authorized capital punishment, prosecutors sought the death penalty more than 200 times. The sentence was imposed in only 15 cases, leading to a single execution in 2001, when Terry Clark waived his appeals. During the argument, Justice Charles Daniels questioned whether New Mexico had applied the death penalty in an “evenhanded” manner. “In the first 47 years of our existence as a state, we executed 27 people with fairly regular frequency,” Daniels said. “In the next 57 years, we executed one—at a time when there were horrible murders and over 200 where the death penalty was sought.” Given that history, he asked, “[c]an we really look in the mirror and say we’ve walked the talk and imposed the death penalty consistently in New Mexico?” Allen, who suffers from schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations, was sentenced to death in connection with the kidnapping, attempted rape, and murder of a 17-year-old girl in 1994. His lawyer had never tried a capital case, conducted no mental health investigation, and presented no witnesses in the penalty phase of Allen’s trial. Fry was sentenced to death for stabbing and bludgeoning a mother of five to death in 2000. Fry’s lawyer, Kathleen McGarry, argued: “What we’re looking at are cases that are far worse than Mr. Fry’s case and yet those persons are not going to be … sentenced to death. How does that make Mr. Fry’s death sentence be the poster child of what we’re going to do here in New Mexico?”
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Attempts Both to Repeal and to Restore Death-Penalty Statutes Fail in Legislatures Across the Country
In Washington and Utah, bipartisan or Republican-led efforts at death-penalty repeal fell short, a month after death-penalty proponents abandoned efforts to reinstate capital punishment in New Mexico and Iowa. In Washington, a bipartisan push to replace the death penalty with life without possibility of release was introduced at the request of Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson with the support of his Republican predecessor Rob McKenna, Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, a Republican from the state's largest county. With key votes from five Republican senators, SB 6052 passed the state senate on February 15 by a vote of 26-22 and was favorably reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, but the Democratic leadership in the House did not schedule it for a vote before the legislative session ended. Ferguson said he was “deeply disappointed” by the bill’s failure, but said his disappointment was “tempered somewhat by the historic progress the bill made this year” and his belief that the state has moved closer to abolishing capital punishment. The Utah death-penalty repeal effort was led by Republican legislators, and the state’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert had said he would consider signing the bill. In 2016, a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart passed the state senate and a house committee, but was not voted on by the full House before the legislative session ended. This year, Republican Rep. Gage Froerer sponsored HB 379, and won the support of Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes. But on March 2, after the bill had passed the House Judiciary Committee, Froerer pulled it from consideration because he believed the bill would lose a close vote in the House. “I was hopeful that Utah would be one of the first red states to take this, because the trend obviously is to do away with the death penalty,” Froerer said. “I’m convinced whether it’s next year or five or 10 years from now the death penalty will go away.” The failure of the abolition bills came on the heels of death-penalty proponents’ abandonment of efforts to restore capital punishment in New Mexico and Iowa. After passing the New Mexico House last legislative session, a bill to bring back the death penalty was tabled in committee on February 2. It was the fifth failed attempt by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to reinstate the practice, which was abolished under Gov. Bill Richardson in 2009. On February 13, the sponsor of Iowa’s Senate Study Bill 3134—Republican Sen. Brad Zaun, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee—announced that he did not have enough votes to move forward with the bill in 2018 and would be “putting it to rest.” Proponents of Iowa's house bill had previously withdrawn it from consideration when a key Republican supporter changed his mind after researching the bill. Rep. Steven Holt said “conceptually and morally” he believes the death penalty is sometimes appropriate, but “[s]tatistics show, without a doubt, that those of lesser means are more likely to receive the death penalty than are those with greater assets and ability to hire the best attorney.” Holt said, “I support the death penalty in theory," but “practically, I arrived at a different conclusion than I expected. ... I have great issues with its practical and fair application.”
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New Mexico Bill to Restore Death Penalty Dies in Committee
The latest effort by death-penalty proponents to reinstate the death penalty in New Mexico has died in a House committee. House Bill 155, which would have brought back the death penalty for murders of children, police officers, and corrections employees, was tabled by the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee by a 3-2 vote following a Saturday hearing on the bill on February 3, 2018. The bill, introduced by Albuquerque Rep. Monica C. Youngblood, was the fifth and, according to news reports, likely the final attempt under Gov. Susana Martinez to bring back the death penalty in the state. Youngblood has sponsored or co-sponsored each of those bills. In October 2017, death-penalty proponents had attempted to make the restoration of the death penalty an election issue, introducing the bill during a special legislative session that had been called to address the state's budget crisis and holding a pre-dawn hearing on the bill with no advance public notice on October 5. That bill passed on a party-line vote in the House before dying in the Democratic-controlled State Senate. Then, in the November elections, death-penalty supporters lost control of the House. Media accounts reported that this time “a long line of opponents waited for their three minutes to oppose the bill” during the committee's public hearing, while only four speakers—two of whom worked for the Governor—advocated for the bill. Department of Public Safety Secretary Scott Weaver and Secretary of Corrections David Jablonski each argued that the death penalty was an important tool for law enforcement. Five religious leaders, including a representative of the New Mexico Council of Catholic Bishops, spoke against the bill. Bennett Bauer, the state’s chief public defender, argued that the death penalty was not a deterrent and would be applied unequally throughout the state. The bill's sponsors asserted that the murders it subjected to capital sanctions were limited to the "worst of the worst" cases. However, the bill defined “children” as any victim under age 18—which would have been the broadest definition of "child victim" in any death-penalty statute in the United States. According to a DPIC review of recent FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, that definition would have encompassed 8%-9% of all murders. A DPIC study of FBI annual data on Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted over the past twenty-nine years also indicated that having the death penalty did not make law enforcement officers safer. Describing the study's findings, DPIC executive director Robert Dunham said, “When you look at the officer-victim rate, you see—as we did with murders generally—that officers are disproportionately killed in states that have the death penalty, as compared to states that don't.” The DPIC data showed that “Eight of the nine safest states for police officers were states that either did not have the death penalty at any time in the study period or … states that recently abolished capital punishment. By contrast, death penalty states comprised 22 of the 25 states with the highest rates of officers murdered in the line of duty.” New Mexico’s high rate of law enforcement deaths was the exception. But the data showed the state’s significantly higher-than-average rate of violence against police officers long predated its abolition of the death penalty in 2009.
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Experience Shows No “Parade of Horribles” Following Abolition of the Death Penalty
States that have recently abolished the death penalty have not experienced the “parade of horribles”—including increased murder rates—predicted by death-penalty proponents, according to death-penalty experts who participated in a panel discussion at the 2017 American Bar Association national meeting in New York City. Instead, the panelists said, abolition appears to have created opportunities to move forward with other broader criminal justice reforms. The transcript of that panel presentation, Life After the Death Penalty: Implications for Retentionist States, which was posted by the ABA on January 3, features discussion of the political factors that contributed to repeal and research into the effects of death-penalty abolition in those states in which repeal has recently occurred. The panel discussion, jointly hosted by the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and the New York City Bar Association in August 2017, featured four speakers with backgrounds in death-penalty activism, reform, or research: Thomas P. Sullivan, Co-Chair of the 2000 Commission on Capital Punishment in Illinois; Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA; Celeste Fitzgerald, former Director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The first three speakers described the circumstances that led to abolition in the six states that legislatively repealed or judicially abolished capital punishment between 2007 and 2014 and explained how abolition sponsors overcame opponents' arguments that, as Fitgerald characterized it, “abolition would bring about a 'parade of horribles.'” Silberstein summarized those worries, saying, “The death penalty proponents' arguments were all the traditional ones you would expect. They talked about the bloodbath that would come if there were no death penalty: murders would spike; the killings of police officers would spike; killings of corrections officers would spike.” Dunham discussed DPIC's research on three decades of murder rates in the U.S., which, he said, shows that abolition of the death penalty had no discernible effect on murder rates in general or murder rates of police and corrections officers killed in the line of duty. Dunham said that if the arguments advanced by death-penalty proponents were factually supported, murder rates in general and the rates at which police and corrections officers were killed should have risen after states abolished the death penalty, both in those states and in comparison to trends in other states. And, Dunham said, “if—as opponents of death-penalty abolition had argued—police officers were especially vulnerable without the death penalty and its repeal would lead to 'open season on police officers,' you'd expect to see not just an increase in the rate at which police officers were killed, but an increase in the number of murders of police officers as a percentage of all homicides.” None of this happened, he said. Instead, murders of law enforcement officers were much lower in the states that recently abolished the death penalty. “[T]he death penalty appears to make no measurable contribution to police safety,” Dunham said. The panelists also observed that repeal of capital punishment had created an opportunity for additional criminal justice reform. Sullivan noted that, prior to repeal, “[a] great deal of time, attention, and effort were spent on the few cases that involved the death penalty in Illinois, while little attention was given to the huge number of people who were convicted and incarcerated for crimes. All that time, attention, and money can now be shifted to reforming the entire Illinois criminal justice system. That would mean that there has been a double benefit from having abolished the death penalty in Illinois.” Silberstein said that in New York, abolition permitted “stakeholders who could not talk to each other in the same way when the death penalty was on the table because [of] differences over the death penalty” to discuss “how best to achieve the key goals of safety and healing [and] work on increasing funding and programs to reduce violence.”
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