Prosecutorial Misconduct

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Maricopa, Arizona—"Outrageously Exploited Power," "Crippled" Defense, and Five Exonerations

Maricopa County, Arizona imposed 28 death sentences between 2010 and 2015 and, as described in a BuzzFeed news analysis of a new report on outlier death penalty practices, "stands out for its stark examples of the problems found across the counties that most often sentence people to death." The report, Too Broken to Fix, by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project, studied the nation's 16 most prolific death-sentencing counties and found that Maricopa County exhibited systemic problems with extreme prosecutorial misconduct, deficient defense representation, racial bias, excessive punishment, and innocence. The county's top prosecutor, Andrew Thomas, pursued capital charges at nearly double the rate of his predecesssor after winning election in 2004. His pattern of gross misconduct led a three-member panel of the Arizona Supreme Court to disbar him in 2012 for having "outrageously exploited power, flagrantly fostered fear, and disgracefully misused the law.” Three Maricopa prosecutors who served under Thomas accounted for more than one-third of all capital cases the Arizona Supreme Court has been called upon to review on direct appeal since 2006, "amass[ing] findings of improper behavior in eight [cases]." The excessive number of capital prosecutions in Thomas' tenure created a "capital case crisis" that "crippled the county's public defender system" and left a dozen murder defendants without lawyers. Four lawyers who were appointed accounted for nearly a quarter of all Arizona death cases that have reached the state supreme court since 2006. One Marciopa defense attorney, Herman Alcantar, represented five pretrial capital defendants at once, making it almost impossible for him to adequately represent his clients. In one of those cases, a month before trial, he had not filed any substantive motions or met with his client in over a year. Nathanial Carr represented four people now on death row, and spent less than two days presenting mitigation for each one. He wrote that one client, who had an IQ of 72, "looks like a killer, not a retard." In the six years covered by the Fair Punishment Project's report on outlier counties, 57% of Maricopa's death sentences were imposed on people of color. In that same period, no people of color were sentenced to death anywhere else in Arizona. Five Maricopa County death row inmates have been exonerated. Ray Krone (pictured) was convicted on junk science testimony after a prosecutor falsely claimed, "bite marks are as unique as fingerprints." He was later exonerated by DNA testing. Debra Milke spent 22 years on death row before her case was reversed and the state courts barred the prosecution from retrying her because of extensive official misconduct. An appellate court called her case, "a severe stain on the Arizona justice system."

Florida Prosecutor, Public Defender Tied to Outlier Death Penalty Practices Suffer Landslide Election Loss

In a primary election described as reshaping the political landscape of Northeast Florida, the region voted in a landslide Tuesday to oust State Attorney Angela Corey (pictured) and Public Defender Matt Shirk. The pair's controversial policies had made Duval County one of the most prolific death sentencing counties in the country and had led to national derision of its criminal justice system. Some legal experts touted Corey's defeat by political newcomer Melissa Nelson as evidence of voter backlash against overaggressive prosecutorial policies. Northeastern Law School professor Daniel Medwed said the election showed that “the era of tough-on-crime rhetoric is coming to a close" and Fordham University law professor John Pfaff said Corey’s defeat "continues a small—but important—trend of powerful, incumbent prosecutors losing primary elections for being too aggressive." Local legal experts drew a link between the election results and Corey's hard-line death penalty practices. University of Florida law school professor Kenneth Nunn, said that “[f]or too long, Duval County has been an outlier in its excessive use of the death penalty, its harsh punishment of juveniles, and its reliance on outdated sentencing practices." Florida International University Law School Professor Stephen Harper found it "refreshing to see a prosecutor who is so overly aggressive defeated in a conservative southern jurisdiction. This goes to show, among other things, that the death penalty is on its way out.” In the Public Defender election, incumbent Matthew Shirk had drawn criticism by firing the most experienced death penalty and juvenile court lawyers and installing as his chief of homicide a lawyer who had 16 clients on death row and whom courts had found to have provided ineffective representation is several death penalty cases. Shirk was defeated by retired Judge Charlie Cofer, who had spent 18 years in the Public Defender’s Office and then 17 years as a county judge. Last fall, voters in Caddo Parish (Shreveport), Louisiana voted out a prosecutorial regime known nationally for its aggressive pursuit of the death penalty and elected its first black District Attorney.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Duval, Florida--Controversial Prosecutor, Inadequate Defense, Systemic Death Penalty Problems

Between 2010 and 2015, only 16 counties in the United States imposed five or more death sentences. Duval County, Florida, which consistently ranks among the most punitive death sentencing counties in the country, sentenced 25 capital defendants to death. According to a new report released by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard University, Duval produced roughly one-quarter of the death sentences imposed in Florida during that period, although the entire Jacksonville Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area -- which includes Duval County and four other counties -- accounts for only about 9% of the state's murders. The Fair Punishment Project says the county's death-sentencing rate per homicide "is more than 40 percent higher than in the rest of the state." The county's prolific death-sentencing practices are attributable to a constellation of outlier practices. Only two states, Florida and Alabama, allow death sentences to be imposed without a unanimous recommendation for death by the sentencing jury. Since 2006, 88% of the 25 Duval death sentences reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court on direct appeal had non-unanimous jury recommendations. A second key factor is the county's prosecutor, state attorney Angela Corey (pictured), of whom The Nation asked, is she "the Cruelest Prosecutor in America?" In a piece for The New York Times, Emily Bazelon focused on Corey to explain the county's heavy use of the death penalty, saying that she "has made her reputation, in part, by winning verdicts that carry the death pen­alty." Bazelon writes that Corey "has one of the highest rates of death sentences in the country, with 24 (19 in Duval) in the eight years since she was elected." Corey has said "[i]t’s my statutory and constitutional duty to seek justice for this community and to give the victim’s family justice," but she is currently pursuing a death sentence against James Rhodes for the murder of Shelby Farah, despite strong opposition from Farah's family. The county's death sentences are also clouded by racial bias. The Fair Punishment notes that, since 2010, 87% of death sentences in Duval were imposed against Black defendants, up from 62% over the preceding two decades. Duval County Judge Mark Hulsey, who presided over the 2012 capital murder trial of a black teenager, Terrance Tyrone Phillips, is the subject of ethics charges after he allegedly told a staff member he "wished all blacks could be sent back to Africa on a boat." Analysts also fault substandard defense representation for affirmatively contributing to Duval's overproduction of death sentences. In 2008, Matt Shirk, the county's newly-elected public defender, a former intern of Corey's who had pledged fiscal responsibility and to "never call a cop a liar," slashed the office's budget and fired 10 lawyers, including senior capital litigators. The Nation reports, "Shirk has boasted that he consistently returns money to the state earmarked for the investigation of mitigation evidence for death-penalty clients." He then installed as his deputy and chief of homicide, Refik Eler, who the Fair Punishment Project reports had been defense counsel "on at least 16 cases that resulted in a death sentence." Courts have found that Eler has provided substandard representation in three capital cases, with a fourth ineffectiveness claim recently argued in the Florida Supreme Court. Both Corey and Shirk face challenges in the August 30 Republican primary election, but neither office has a general election challenger.

New Study Explores "Systemic Deficiencies" in High-Use Death Penalty Counties

As states and counties across the United States are using the death penalty with decreasing frequency, a new report issued by the Fair Punishment Project on August 23 explores the outlier practices of 16 U.S. counties that are bucking the national trend and disproportionally pursuing capital punishment. These jurisdictions, representing one-half of one percent of all U.S. counties or county equivalents, are the only locales in the United States to have imposed five or more death sentences since 2010. Six of the counties are in Alabama and Florida, the only two states that still permit non-unanimous death verdicts. Five are located in highly-populated Southern California counties that have been the focus of repeated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The others include Caddo (LA), Clark (NV), Dallas (TX), Harris (TX) and Maricopa (AZ), all of which have been criticized for systemic inequities in their administration of the death penalty. Part one of the report examines the "systemic deficiencies" that contribute to the high number of death sentences in these counties and provides detailed analysis of the circumstances in 8 of the counties (a second part of the study, examining the remaining 8 counties, will be released in September). The report finds that these counties frequently share at least three types of structural failings: "a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion." The study found that these in turn "regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities." 

Death Row Exoneree Requests DOJ Investigation of Systemic Prosecutorial Misconduct in Louisiana

Louisiana death row exoneree John Thompson (pictured, center), who was wrongly convicted of two different New Orleans murders as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, has filed a petition with the United States Department of Justice seeking an investigation of more than 100 cases prosecuted by former Orleans Parish assistant district attorney James Williams. Thompson filed his petition on August 2 under provisions of the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute, which makes it a violation of federal law for police or prosecutors to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives individuals of their constitutional rights. Thompson's petition alleges that Williams "grossly violated his duty, the power entrusted to him and the constitutional rights of countless defendants he prosecuted," including five cases in which death sentences Williams obtained were later overturned for official misconduct. Thompson was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in 1985. He was exonerated in 2003 after his attorney uncovered crucial blood analysis evidence that had been improperly withheld by the Orelans Parish District Attorney's office. In 2007, a jury awarded him $14 million in damages in a suit he filed against the prosecutor's office, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that award by a 5-4 vote in 2011, expanding the scope of individual prosecutorial immunity and finding that Thompson had not proven that the district attorney’s office itself was responsible for the individual prosecutors' negligence. In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "What happened here . . . was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish." Thompson said his new petition was prompted in part by concern for defendants who were prosecuted by Williams but did not receive a death sentence. "I was blessed to be on Death Row because it gave me access to attorneys, who eventually proved my innocence," he said. "If I weren't given a death sentence, I'd still be in Angola. My question is: What happened to the 95 or more men who Williams prosecuted but didn't get a death sentence? Where are they now?" Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said that New Orleans has the highest exoneration rate per capita in the country. Despite that fact, she said, "no state entity has taken it upon themselves to identify that this is a problem."

Bo Cochran, Acquitted in 1997 After 19 Years on Alabama's Death Row, Dies at 73

James Willie "Bo" Cochran, who spent 19 years on Alabama's death row for a killing he did not commit, has died at age 73. His lawyer, Richard Jaffe, said that Mr. Cochran and his case "are reasons why the death penalty does not work. He did not kill anyone, was wrongfully convicted and found innocent because he had lawyers that took up his cause."  Mr. Cochran, who is black, was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store clerk. His jury, which was composed of 11 white and one black jurors, had been told that the victim had followed Cochran out of the store after a robbery and that, after police had arrived on the scene, Cochran shot the clerk, leaving his body under a trailer in a nearby mobile home. There were no eyewitnesses to the actual murder. Cochran was arrested nearby with a gun that had not been fired. Cochran won a new trial after proving that prosecutors unconstitutionally removed black jurors from his case on the basis of race. He presented testimony from former prosecutors that the DA's office had a pattern of striking black jurors, had a philosophy that prospective black jurors "were anti-police, anti-establishment and should not be left on juries, if at all possible,” and that race was a factor in these strikes, "particularly where you had a white victim and a black defendant․" On retrial, Cochran was acquitted after presenting evidence that the victim had been accidentally shot by two officers responding to the robbery, who then panicked and moved the body under the trailer, where it was discovered by other officers. After Cochran's acquittal, he and Jaffe made frequent appearances to talk about the case. Jaffe described Cochran as "never bitter, always grateful." He called Cochran's life "a story of redemption and forgiveness," exemplifying the lesson that "We can be forgiving, no matter what happens to us. He truly touched a lot of lives. We loved Bo. He'll be missed." 

Court Hearing Under Way on Constitutionality of Federal Death Penalty

A court hearing is under way in the capital trial of Donald Fell in a Vermont federal district court challenging the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. This week, death penalty experts testified for the defense about systemic problems Fell's lawyers say may render the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Fell was sentenced to death in 2006, but was granted a new trial because of juror misconduct. The hearing began on July 11 and is scheduled to continue until July 22. Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, who is presiding over the hearing and is set to preside over Fell's second trial in 2017, said the hearing will, "create a rich, factual record for higher courts with broader authority to rule on the big questions." On Monday, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, discussed research on the effects of solitary confinement, the conditions under which Fell has been held on death row. "According to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, anything greater than 15 days is inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment," Haney said. On Tuesday, Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, testified about the decline of the death penalty both in use and in public opinion, saying, "Attitudes toward the death penalty have changed more rapidly than any other social issue other than gay marriage." Radelet testified that research has disclosed no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or affects overall murder rates. He also emphasized the prevalence and causes of the 156 wrongful capital convictions as a major problem with capital punishment. “Last year six people were released, most having served 25 years. In 2014, seven were released from death row as innocent. One had been in for 30 years," he said. "The number one cause of error is prejudicial prosecutorial testimony. Prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, fraudulent forensics.”

Fair Punishment Project Issues Report on Deadliest Prosecutors

A new report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that a small number of overzealous prosecutors with high rates of misconduct have a hugely disproportionate impact on the death penalty in the United States. The report, "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty," shows that, by themselves, these prosecutors are responsible for more than 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 15% of the entire U.S. death row population today. Exploring what it calls "the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing," the report details the effects of Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas. Britt, Macy, and Myers personally prosecuted a combined 131 cases that resulted in death sentences, while Abraham and Holmes oversaw offices that the report says imposed 108 and 201 death sentences, respectively. They also disproportionately sent innocent people to death row, prosecuting 1 out of 20 of the nation's death-row exonerees. The report found similar patterns involving these prosecutors, including high rates of prosecutorial misconduct, statements and actions that revealed a win-at-all-costs mentality, and a sharp decrease in death sentences once they and their proteges left office. Britt, Macy, and Myers were found to have committed misconduct in one-third to 46% of the death penalty cases they prosecuted. Prosecutors in Abraham's and Holmes' offices were found to have engaged in misconduct, including racially-biased jury selection and failures to disclose favorable evidence. Of the five prosecutors profiled in the report, only Myers—who is not seeking re-election—is still in office. After the other four prosecutors left office, the number of death sentences has declined significantly. Robeson County has imposed two death sentences in the last 10 years, Oklahoma County and Philadelphia County have each imposed three in six years, and Harris County dropped from an average of 12 death sentences a year during Holmes' last decade as prosecutor to one a year since 2008.

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