Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/ en-US Fri, 24 Jan 2020 17:45:00 -0500 Sun, 26 Jan 2020 08:40:15 -0500 Florida Supreme Court Retracts Jury Unanimity Requirement, Reinstates Non-Unanimous Death Sentence https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/florida-supreme-court-retracts-jury-unanimity-requirement-reinstates-non-unanimous-death-sentence Fri, 24 Jan 2020 17:45:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/florida-supreme-court-retracts-jury-unanimity-requirement-reinstates-non-unanimous-death-sentence In a dramatic reversal made possible by changes in court personnel, the Florida Supreme Court has repudiated its prior decisions requiring that capital sentencing juries unanimously agree to the death penalty before a trial judge may sentence a defendant to death. “Our court … got it wrong,” the justices said, when it ruled in 2016 that death sentences imposed after non-unanimous jury recommendations for death violated the state and federal constitutions.

The court’s January 23, 2020 decision in State v. Poole reinstated a death sentence imposed on Mark Anthony Poole in 2011 after a non-unanimous jury had voted 11-1 to recommend the death penalty. Applying the court’s 2016 ruling in Hurst v. State, a Polk County trial court had overturned his death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing.

In its unsigned opinion, the court majority said that the Hurstdecision had misunderstood the U.S. Supreme Court’s case decisions that had granted capital defendants the right to have a jury decide all facts necessary to impose a death sentence. The Poole court distinguished between aggravating circumstances — facts that make a defendant “eligible” to be sentenced to death — which must be found by the jury, and the “selection” of the ultimate sentence after the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The latter, the court said, involved judgments of mercy that could not be considered a factual determination and did not require a unanimous jury vote.

Poole’s appeal lawyer, Julius Chen, called the court’s retroactive application of the change in the law “nothing short of astonishing” and said the defense was “carefully exploring avenues for further review” of the case. The ruling could reinstate the death sentences of dozens of Florida prisoners who, under the prior court decisions, were entitled to new sentencing hearings. Most of the resentencings that have already taken place have resulted in life sentences.

Justice Jorge Labarga issued a strong dissent, writing that the court “has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida.” “The majority,” he said, “returns Florida to its status as an absolute outlier among the jurisdictions in this country that utilize the death penalty. The majority gives the green light to return to a practice that is not only inconsistent with laws of all but one of the 29 states that retain the death penalty, but inconsistent with the law governing the federal death penalty.”

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A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Injustice—Death-Row Prisoner Christopher Williams Exonerated in Philadelphia Murder Case https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/a-perfect-storm-of-injustice-death-row-prisoner-christopher-williams-exonerated-in-philadelphia-murder-case Thu, 23 Jan 2020 20:30:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/a-perfect-storm-of-injustice-death-row-prisoner-christopher-williams-exonerated-in-philadelphia-murder-case In a case prosecutors now describe as a “perfect storm” of injustice, Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Christopher Williams (pictured) and his co-defendant Theophalis Wilson have been exonerated of a 1989 triple murder in North Philadelphia.

On December 23, 2019, conceding that later-fired prosecutors had withheld “a plethora of significant material, exculpatory evidence,” the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Williams. Less than a month later, on January 21, 2020, prosecutors told a Philadelphia trial court that Wilson had been unconstitutionally convicted and withdrew all charges against him. Wilson, who was 17 years old at the time of the murders, had been sentenced to life without parole.

Both men had been wrongfully convicted based on the perjured testimony of a Commonwealth informant and the deliberate suppression of exculpatory evidence by former Philadelphia prosecutors. The state’s key witness was James White, a confessed murderer who testified pursuant to a deal that spared him capital prosecution for six separate murders. White later recanted his testimony, saying that prosecutors had met with him several times before Williams’ and Wilson’s trials and provided him with fabricated information for his testimony.

The trial court reversed Williams’ conviction in December 2013, finding that his trial lawyer had failed to investigate the crime scene and challenge White’s “eyewitness” account of the crime. The trial court said expert forensic and medical testimony would have shown that White’s version of how the murder occurred was false and physically impossible. On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote that “[t]his testimony, if believed by the jury, coupled with the other evidence impeaching White’s credibility, would likely have changed the jury’s mind and resulted in Williams’ acquittal of the three murders.”

While Williams’ case was awaiting retrial, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) began investigating Wilson’s case, later expanding its review to include Williams’ trial. In 2019, the CIU provided defense lawyers more than 40,000 pages of documents in the case. In its motion to drop the charges against Williams, the CIU wrote that its file review “disclosed evidence that contradicted White's account; impeached other witnesses; inculpated other specific individuals; and indicated that the victims in this case were caught in an ongoing dispute between two extremely violent gangs, either of which may have been responsible for their deaths.”

In early December 2019, Patricia Cummings, chief of the CIU, personally interviewed White, who, she said, continued to disavow his trial testimony. Her motion to drop the case against Williams said that “the Commonwealth no longer credits White's trial testimony and account of the murders with which Williams is charged.” Because of that, she wrote, “it cannot and will not offer White's prior testimony and statements as evidence in any future proceedings against Williams.” With “no other competent evidence of Williams’ guilt,” there was no basis to continue to prosecute him, the motion said.

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Corrections Personnel, Victims’ Families, Jurors Urge Clemency for Tennessee Death-Row “Lifesaver” https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/corrections-personnel-victims-families-jurors-urge-clemency-for-tennessee-death-row-lifesaver Wed, 22 Jan 2020 16:27:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/corrections-personnel-victims-families-jurors-urge-clemency-for-tennessee-death-row-lifesaver Saying that Nicholas Sutton “has gone from a life-taker to a life-saver,” lawyers for the Tennessee death-row prisoner filed an application for clemency with Governor Bill Lee on January 14, 2020. The clemency application, which requests that Lee commute Sutton’s sentence to life without parole, contained affidavits of support from seven Tennessee correctional officials, members of the victims’ families, and five of the jurors in the case.

Sutton currently faces a February 20, 2020 execution date for a murder committed in his early twenties while he was in prison on another murder charge.

The clemency application provides details from prison officials of how Sutton has matured and changed during his time on death row and how he has repeatedly intervened in dangerous situations to protect corrections personnel and other prisoners. “Five Tennesseans, including three prison staff members, owe their lives to him,” the petition said. The petition backs up that claim with statements from two corrections officers who say that Sutton saved their lives, and an earlier statement by a since-deceased Sheriff’s Deputy describing how Sutton protected him from an attack by another prisoner.

An affidavit from former corrections officer Tony Eden detailed an incident in which five armed prisoners attacked him and attempted to take him hostage during a 1985 prison riot. “I owe my life to Nick Sutton,” he said. “Nick and another inmate confronted them, physically removed me from the situation and escorted me to the safety of the trap gate in another building…. Nick risked his safety and well-being in order to save me from possible death.”

Officer Cheryl Donaldson provided an account of an incident in 1994 in which Sutton came to her aid after she had sustained a head injury in a fall. Serving as a prison unit manager at the time, she described lying on the prison floor, dazed, with her keys and radio sprawled out in the corridor. She said she feared that a prisoner might assault her or cause a security breach, but instead, “[Nick] sprang into action, helped me to my feet, retrieved my keys and radio, and alerted staff to come to my assistance.” That response, she said, “was typical of Nick, who always puts others before himself and is willing to help anyone in need.”

The clemency petition also offered a statement from the late Howard Ferrell, formerly a Hamblen County Sheriff’s Deputy, who described Sutton tackling a prisoner who was about to attack the deputy. “[Nick] probably could have saved my life,” Ferrell said.

Officer Eden strongly urged Governor Lee to grant Sutton’s request for clemency. “Nick Sutton is a prime example of a person's ability to change and that those convicted of murder can be rehabilitated,” Eden wrote. “If Nick Sutton was released tomorrow, I would welcome him into my home and invite him to be my neighbor.” Eden said Sutton “poses no danger to the prison staff or other inmates, and his presence in general population would be an asset to everyone at the prison.” Calling the possibility of Sutton’s execution “a grave injustice,” Eden said “I strongly support Nick Sutton receiving a life sentence.”

Five jurors who served at Sutton’s trial and voted to sentence him to death now say they support commuting his sentence to life in prison. His clemency plea also includes statements of support from family members of his victims.

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DPIC Analysis: Racial Disparities Persisted in U.S. Death Sentences and Executions in 2019 https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/dpic-analysis-racial-disparities-persisted-in-the-u-s-death-sentences-and-executions-in-2019 Tue, 21 Jan 2020 15:19:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/dpic-analysis-racial-disparities-persisted-in-the-u-s-death-sentences-and-executions-in-2019 A DPIC analysis of executions and new death sentences in 2019 has found that even as death penalty usage declined across the United States, racial disparities in its application persisted.

Studies have consistently found racial disparities at nearly every stage of the capital punishment process, from policing and charging practices, to jury selection, to jury verdicts, to which cases result in executions. Those patterns of discriminatory sentencing and executions — and particularly race-of-victim effects — were evident once again in 2019.

In 2019, new death sentences declined to 34 and executions fell to 22. A disproportionate percentage of both involved white victims. Nationwide, the murder-victimization rate for African Americans is significantly higher than for whites. About half of all murder victims are black; yet, in 2019, nearly 80% (27 of 34) of new death sentences were imposed in cases involving victims who were white. 73% of executions in 2019 (16 of 22) involved cases with only white victims.

The racial disparities were even starker when DPIC looked at the race of both the defendants who were sentenced to death and the victim(s) they were accused of killing.

In 2019, 17 white defendants were sentenced to death. In each case, there was at least one white victim and only one case involved any black victim. In the five cases in which Latino defendants were sentenced to die, four involved a Latinx victim or victims, one involved a second victim who was white, and one involved a single white victim. Only African Americans were predominantly sentenced to death for interracial murders. Of the 12 black defendants sentenced to death, three involved only black victims. By contrast, five involved only white victims and seven had at least one white victim. Black defendants were also sentenced to death for murders of LatinX-only victims and Asian-only victims. No non-black defendant was sentenced to death a killing involving only black victims.

Since executions resumed in 1977, 308 black defendants have been executed for murders involving at least one white victim, compared to 34 white defendants who have been executed for murders in which at least one black victim was killed. In 294 of these cases, black defendants were executed for murders involving only white victims, while only 21 white defendants were executed for murders in which only black victims were killed.

As the number of new death sentences decreases, death row is growing even more racially disproportionate, with a significant increase in the percentage of Latinx death-row prisoners. Half of the 34 defendants sentenced to death in 2019 were people of color, with 35% African American and 15% Latinx. Southern California counties accounted for all of the death sentences in the state in 2019, and all three defendants sentenced to death were Latino.

The counties that have most aggressively pursued capital punishment have also been imposing it in an increasingly disproportionate manner. Only two counties imposed more than one death sentence in 2019: Cuyahoga County in Ohio (3) and Riverside County in California (2). Riverside has sentenced more people to die than any other county in the United States since 2013, and 92% (23 out of 25) of those condemned in the county in that time frame have been black or Latino. In Cuyahoga County, 4 of the last 6 defendants sentenced to death have been black.

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The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/the-reverend-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-hate-cannot-drive-out-hate-only-love-can-do-that Mon, 20 Jan 2020 05:00:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/the-reverend-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-hate-cannot-drive-out-hate-only-love-can-do-that On Martin Luther King Day, DPIC looks at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's views on the death penalty.

Dr. King's philosophy of non-violence had no room for capital punishment. In one of his most famous sermons, Loving Your Enemies, Dr. King preached: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

In 1952, Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old African-American Montgomery, Alabama high school student was arrested for allegedly raping a white woman with whom he was having an affair. The teen was interrogated for two days, deprived of sleep, strapped into an electric chair, and told the only way to escape the death penalty was to confess. He did so, then recanted. The trial judge barred the defense from telling the all-white jury the circumstances of the "confession," and Reeves was sentenced to death.

Six years later, Alabama executed him. On Easter Sunday 1958, nine days after the execution, Dr. King preached to a crowd of 2,000 on the steps of the state capitol about the "tragic and unsavory injustice."

Dr. King said: "A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence."

Dr. King continued: "But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront everyday in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice. ... Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope."

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 455 people were executed for rape in the United States between 1930 and the Supreme Court's decision declaring the nation's death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972. 405 (89.1%) were black. The use of the death penalty for rape remained almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon: 443 of the executions for rape (97.4%) occurred in former Confederate states. Noting the different punishment of blacks and whites for allegations of interracial rape, Dr. King later wrote in his memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, it was "[f]or good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man's justice."

In a November 1957 interview Ebony asked Dr. King: "Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?" He responded, "I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included.... Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."

[Originally posted January 15, 2018]

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Georgia Pardons Board Grants Day-of-Execution Clemency to Jimmy Meders https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/georgia-board-grants-last-minute-clemency-to-jimmy-meders Fri, 17 Jan 2020 10:40:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/georgia-board-grants-last-minute-clemency-to-jimmy-meders The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted clemency to death-row prisoner Jimmy Meders (pictured). One day after his January 15, 2020 clemency hearing, and just six hours before his scheduled execution, the Board announced it had commuted Meders’ death sentence to a sentence of life without possibility of parole.

The Board’s commutation order was influenced in large part by affidavits submitted by every living member of the jury from Meders’ 1989 trial supporting his clemency petition. The Board listed “the jury’s explicit desire during deliberations to impose a life without parole sentence which was legally unavailable at the time, and every living, able juror’s continued support for such a sentence” among the factors it considered in reaching its decision. It also cited the circumstances of the offense, Meders’ lack of any other criminal history and his near spotless prison record.

Twenty minutes into its penalty-phase deliberations in Meders’ trial, the jury sent a note to the court asking whether they could sentence him to life without parole. At the time, Georgia did not authorize life without parole as a sentencing option, and the judge told them they could not condition a life verdict on the unavailability of parole. Four years later, the Georgia legislature changed the law to make capital murder punishable by life without parole or death.

Meders’ application for clemency also stressed the disproportionality of capital punishment for the crime Meders was convicted of committing and continuing doubts about his role in the murder. Meders was sentenced to death for the shooting death of a store clerk during a convenience store robbery. He had unsuccessfully sought DNA testing that he said would show that the prosecution’s key witness — who was not charged in the murder — was the actual shooter. He also argued that the murder would not be considered a capital case today, citing evidence that, in the past eight years, no prosecutor had sought the death penalty for a robbery/murder involving only one victim and no jury had voted for death in such a case in more than a decade.

The affidavits submitted by Meders’ jurors made clear that their sentencing decision hinged on whether or not parole would be possible if they imposed a life sentence. According to the affidavit of the jury foreperson, the jurors did not want Meders to face execution, “[b]ut that was the only option if we wanted to make sure he didn’t get out.” Another juror wrote that they “would not have voted for a death sentence” if there had been assurances that Meders could not have been released.

Meders was represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights in his clemency application and in his efforts to obtain DNA testing. Shortly after the decision, the Southern Center issued a statement from Michael Admirand, one of Meders’ lawyers, praising the Board’s “critically important role in showing mercy in these rare circumstances.” The statement said: “We are deeply grateful for the Board’s decision to commute Jimmy Meders’s death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. … By taking this action, this parole board has made real the intent of the jury to sentence Jimmy to life without parole, and not death.”

Meders is the 10th death-row prisoner granted clemency in Georgia and the 291st in the U.S. since 1976. It was the first since the state legislature enacted a new law in 2015 requiring the board to provide an explanation of its reasons when it commutes a death sentence.

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Appeals Court Hears Argument on Injunction that Halted Federal Executions https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/appeals-court-hears-argument-on-injunction-that-halted-federal-executions Thu, 16 Jan 2020 16:50:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/appeals-court-hears-argument-on-injunction-that-halted-federal-executions A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard nearly two hours of argument on January 15, 2020 in four consolidated cases that could determine whether the federal government will be able to resume executions in 2020. The appeals panel—composed of Gregory G. Katsas and Neomi Rao, both appointed by President Donald Trump, and David S. Tatel, appointed by former President Bill Clinton—sharply questioned lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and four federal death-row prisoners over whether the DOJ execution protocol adopted in July 2019 in an effort to restart federal executions complied with the requirements of the Federal Death Penalty Act.

A federal district court had issued a preliminary injunction in November 2019 halting the executions scheduled for December 2019 and January 2020, saying that the prisoners were likely to prevail on their claim that the DOJ had “exceeded its statutory authority” in adopting the protocol. Court watchers agreed that the appeals panel appeared engaged but divided on that question, with the outcome of the government’s appeal uncertain.

The core issue in the case was whether language in the Federal Death Penalty Act requiring that federal executions be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the state” in which the prisoner was convicted permitted the executive branch to instead adopt a uniform federal execution protocol. On behalf of the DOJ, Melissa Patterson argued that “manner” refers simply to the method of execution, such as lethal injection, gas chamber, or hanging. Once the general method of lethal injection was selected, she said, the U.S. Attorney General had absolute authority to designate the drug or drugs used to carry it out, whether that drug was authorized by the state’s execution law or not. She said requiring the federal government to follow the details of each state’s death penalty procedures was impractical and could permit states that had execution moratoria or dormant death penalties to make it impossible for the federal government to carry out executions for federal crimes committed in those states. “Why would Congress have intended to hamstring the federal government?,” she asked.

The prisoners’ counsel, Catherine Stetson, argued based on the plain language of the statute and historical practice that “manner” refers to the details of how the states carry out an execution, including the method of execution, which drugs are used, and how the IV is inserted. She argued that Congress had expressly delegated certain discrete functions to the attorney general and that promulgating a uniform federal execution protocol was not one of them. Instead, she said, Congress deferred to the greater experience of state governments in carrying out executions by directing that federal executions follow state procedures.

In response to questioning from Katsas, Stetson said that the statute did not compel the federal government to follow “every jot of a state’s process” — such as pre-execution visitation practices or witness practices — only those portions of the process related to “implementing the sentence” itself. Rao questioned how, under the prisoners’ approach, the federal courts were supposed to determine which practices they must follow and which they did not have to.

Nonetheless, the judges seemed receptive, at least in part, to the argument that Congress was deferring to state experience and expertise. “What this looks like is that Congress was vesting the right to carry out death penalties to the states,” Tatel said. “That's one way to look at this.” Rao agreed, saying, “You could imagine Congress wanted to defer to the states. I don’t know why that would be so peculiar.”

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As Texas Prepares for First Execution of 2020, Oklahoma Marks Five Years with No Executions https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/as-texas-prepares-for-first-execution-of-2020-oklahoma-marks-five-years-with-no-executions Wed, 15 Jan 2020 16:05:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/as-texas-prepares-for-first-execution-of-2020-oklahoma-marks-five-years-with-no-executions As Texas prepared to carry out the first execution of 2020 on January 15, neighboring Oklahoma — once the second most prolific executioner in the United States — marked five years since its last execution. The states present a contrast in execution practices. Though the use of the death penalty has sharply declined in both states, Texas continues to lead the nation in executions, while Oklahoma will join the nearly two-thirds of death-penalty states (18 of 29) that have not carried out any executions in at least five years.

Texas executed John Gardner (pictured) for the 2005 murder of his estranged wife, shortly before their divorce was to be finalized. On January 13, 2020, the Supreme Court declined to review Gardner’s claim that his trial lawyer had been ineffective for failing to present an “abandonment rage” defense to the murder charges. Gardner will be the 568th prisoner executed by Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld its capital punishment statute in 1976, by far the most of any state. Texas carried out more executions than any other state in 2018 (13) and 2019 (9), and already has eight executions scheduled through May 2020.

By contrast, Oklahoma — whose 112 executions are the third most of any state — shows no signs of resuming executions any time soon. Representatives of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the state attorney general, and Gov. Kevin Stitt all told Frontier editor-in-chief Dylan Goforth that they remained in discussions for resuming executions but had no timetable for when that might occur.

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'Just Mercy' Movie Opens Nationwide With a Message and Big Box Office Receipts https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/just-mercy-movie-opens-nationwide-with-a-message-and-big-box-office-receipts Tue, 14 Jan 2020 16:18:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/just-mercy-movie-opens-nationwide-with-a-message-and-big-box-office-receipts Just Mercy, the movie adaptation of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Executive Director Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, celebrated its nationwide release on January 10, 2020 with weekend ticket sales of more than $9.7 million. The film, which focuses on the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian—one of Stevenson’s early death-penalty cases—ranked fifth among all movies in domestic box office receipts.

McMillian, an African-American man who had angered local law enforcement by having an affair with a white woman, spent six years on Alabama’s death row after having been framed for the murder of a young white woman. He was exonerated in 1993. In interviews coinciding with the movie’s release, Stevenson and the film’s stars, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, spoke about the importance of telling McMillian’s story and about the systemic issues addressed in the film.

“[M]ost people in this country don’t want there to be inequality and injustice,” Stevenson said in an interview with WBUR’s Tonya Mosley for NPR’s Here & Now. “They don’t want people to be treated unfairly or cruelly. I just think if you get closer to it, you’ll be motivated to say more, to do more.” His hope, Stevenson said, is that people who see the movie “will walk away with a greater consciousness about why we need to do better in this country when it comes to creating a justice system that is fair and reliable.”

In addition to his work representing death-row prisoners, Stevenson and EJI spearheaded the creation of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a site that memorializes the thousands of black people who have been lynched in the United States. He has spokenand written frequently about the connections between slavery, lynching, and the death penalty.

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Georgia Set to Execute Man Jurors Would Have Sentenced to Life Without Parole https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/georgia-set-to-execute-man-jurors-would-have-sentenced-to-life-without-parole Mon, 13 Jan 2020 16:23:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/georgia-set-to-execute-man-jurors-would-have-sentenced-to-life-without-parole On January 16, Georgia plans to execute Jimmy Meders (pictured in his National Guard uniform), a man whom jurors say they would have sentenced to life without parole if that option had been available and who, state sentencing practices suggest, would not face the death penalty today. For those reasons, Meders’ lawyers say in court pleadings and an application before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, his execution would violate contemporary standards of decency and he should be granted clemency.

Meders was convicted and sentenced to death in 1989 for the murder of a convenience store clerk during an armed robbery. During the trial, prosecutors told jurors they should sentence Meders to die, asserting that he was the triggerman who shot the store clerk in the chest and the head. Meders has consistently maintained that he did not shoot anyone.

Shortly after beginning their penalty-phase deliberations, the jury submitted a question to the court asking whether they could sentence Meders to life without the possibility of parole. The court advised them that they could not. That option, say Meders’ lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights, was not available under Georgia law until four years later, in 1993, when the Georgia state legislature amended its death-penalty statute to authorize life without parole as a sentencing alternative.

That sentencing option would have changed the outcome of the case, Meders’ jurors say. According to the affidavit of the jury foreperson, the jurors did not want Meders to face execution, “[b]ut that was the only option if we wanted to make sure he didn’t get out.” Another juror wrote that “would not have voted for a death sentence” if there had been assurances that Meders could not have been released. All eight surviving jurors in Meders’ case now support his petition for clemency and six signed affidavits saying that they would not have imposed the death penalty if they could have sentenced Meders to life without parole.

Citing Georgia trial and sentencing statistics, Meders’ lawyers also say he would not have been sentenced to death if tried today. Their data show that no one in Georgia has been sentenced to death in more than a decade for the robbery and murder of a single victim. Likewise, no district attorney has even sought the death penalty in such a case in the past eight years, they say. As a result, they argue, Meders’ death sentence “is disproportionate according to the contemporary standards of decency of the people of Georgia.”

“This should never have been a death-penalty case,” Meders’ lawyer, the Southern Center’s Mike Admirand, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Had he been tried in 2020 and not 1989, Mr. Meders would not receive a death sentence.”

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Exonerees in Florida, Idaho Murder Cases Initiate Lawsuits for Wrongful Prosecution https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/exonerees-in-florida-idaho-murder-cases-initiate-lawsuits-for-wrongful-prosecution Fri, 10 Jan 2020 14:13:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/exonerees-in-florida-idaho-murder-cases-initiate-lawsuits-for-wrongful-prosecution In two cases in which the death penalty played a central role, recent exonerees in Florida and Idaho have initiated legal proceedings against government officials, alleging that they were wrongfully prosecuted and convicted.

On January 7, 2020, Florida death-row exoneree Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin (pictured with his lawyers), filed suit in federal court against Seminole County, the county sheriff’s office, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) alleging that he had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the 2004 murders of two neighbors as a result of a negligent investigation fueled by anti-immigrant bias. In December 2019, Idaho Falls officials confirmed that Christopher Tapp, whom police coerced into falsely confessing to a 1996 rape and murder by threatening him with the death penalty, has served notice of his intent to sue the city for a wide range of civil rights abuses arising out of his arrest and wrongful conviction.

Aguirre was exonerated in November 2018 after nearly 15 years of wrongful imprisonment. When DNA testing cleared Tapp of the rape charges in 2017 after more than 20 years in prison, prosecutors conditioned his release upon accepting a plea deal that left his murder conviction intact. He was exonerated in July 2019 when the actual murderer, who had been identified by the DNA testing, confessed to having acted alone.

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Nebraska Supreme Court: Death-Penalty Repeal Bill Overturned by Voters Didn’t Invalidate Prisoners’ Death Sentences https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/nebraska-supreme-court-death-penalty-repeal-bill-overturned-by-voters-didnt-invalidate-prisoners-death-sentences Thu, 09 Jan 2020 14:44:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/nebraska-supreme-court-death-penalty-repeal-bill-overturned-by-voters-didnt-invalidate-prisoners-death-sentences The Nebraska Supreme Court has ruled that the 2015 legislative repeal of the state’s death-penalty statute did not invalidate the death sentences of the prisoners on the state’s death row because the repeal bill never became law before it was rejected by a statewide voter referendum.

In a decision issued January 3, 2020, the court dismissed a claim brought by death-row prisoner Marco Torres (pictured) that the legislature’s repeal of the death-penalty law changed his death sentence to life imprisonment and the voter referendum reimposed death sentences on him and the other death-row prisoners in Nebraska. Under Nebraska law, the court said, the filing of a petition to invalidate a legislative action suspends that action until the public votes to accept or reject that legislative action. The repeal bill, L.B. 268, was suspended by “the filing of petitions on August 26, 2015,” four days before its scheduled effective date. Accordingly, the repeal law “never went into effect,” the court said; the death penalty was never reinstated; and the sentencing status of Torres and the other prisoners never changed.

Nebraska’s unicameral legislature voted three separate times in 2015 in favor of abolishing the death penalty, becoming the first Republican-dominated legislature in more than 40 years to vote to end capital punishment. A majority of the legislature’s 30 Republicans joined by 12 Democrats and an Independent supported repeal.

After two preliminary votes in April and early May advanced the repeal bill to final consideration, the unicameral legislature voted 32-15 on May 20 to replace its death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole. Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill, but a supermajority of the legislature voted 30-19 on May 28 to override the veto. Governor Ricketts then spearheaded an effort by a newly created entity, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, to place on the ballot a voter referendum that would stop the repeal from going into effect. The Governor personally contributed $200,000 and, in combination with his father, securities investor and Chicago Cubs Board chairman Thomas Ricketts, donated approximately one-third of all the money raised by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty to gather the signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot. In November 2016, the voters overwhelming voted to retain the state’s death penalty law.

Torres has previously attempted to challenge his death sentence on the grounds that Nebraska’s three-judge sentencing statute violated his Sixth Amendment right to have a jury decide any fact that could result in his being sentenced to death. The state court dismissed that challenge in 2018, saying he had waited too long before raising it.

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Controversial Mississippi Prosecutor Recuses Himself from Further Involvement in Curtis Flowers’ Case https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/controversial-mississippi-prosecutor-recuses-himself-from-further-involvement-in-curtis-flowers-case Wed, 08 Jan 2020 16:43:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/controversial-mississippi-prosecutor-recuses-himself-from-further-involvement-in-curtis-flowers-case After having been rebuked by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2019 for his pattern of racially biased jury selection in the capital prosecutions of Curtis Flowers and sued in federal court to bar future race-based jury strikes, Mississippi prosecutor Doug Evans has voluntarily recused himself from future involvement in Flowers’ case.

Evans has been the driving force in Flowers’ case for more than 20 years, personally prosecuting Flowers (pictured, right, with defense co-counsel Henderson Hill) six times for a 1996 quadruple murder in Winona, Mississippi. Flowers’ first three convictions and death sentences were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, with the court twice finding that Evans had unconstitutionally used his discretionary strikes against black jurors on the basis of race. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials — the only trials in which more than one black juror was empaneled — ended in hung juries. In Flowers’ sixth trial, a jury of 11 white jurors and one black juror convicted him and sentenced him to death.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019, focusing on Evans’ pattern of racially discriminatory jury selection. American Public Media Reports’ podcast In the Dark analyzed 26 years of jury strike records and found that Evans’ office had struck black people from juries at nearly 4.5 times the rate it struck white people. Over the course of the five Flowers trials for which data was available, Evans voluntarily accepted only one black juror, striking or attempting to strike every other black juror until he ran out of peremptory strikes. The Court vacated Flowers’ sixth conviction on June 21, 2019 in a 7-2 decision. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, wrote, “Equal justice under law requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection.” Kavanaugh wrote that Evans’ “relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals ... strongly suggests that the State wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury.”

Evans’ recusal motion, filed in the Montgomery County Circuit Court on January 6, 2020, made no mention of the history of prosecutorial misconduct and racial bias in the case. Evans said that he “remain[ed] confident in both the investigation and the jury verdicts” in the case, but had nevertheless concluded that his “continued involvement will prevent the families from obtaining justice and from the defendant being held responsible for his actions. It is for these reasons,” he wrote, “that I voluntarily recuse my office from further involvement.” Evans asked the trial court to appoint the Mississippi Attorney General’s office to prosecute the case.

Flowers’ lawyer Robert McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice issued a sharply worded statement in response to Evans’ recusal. “Doug Evans had no business staying on this case,” McDuff said, “and we are pleased he recused himself. We look forward to what we hope will be an impartial review of this case by the new Attorney General of Mississippi. As the trial judge indicated when granting bail, the evidence of innocence has become even more clear since the last trial. There is no reason to continue wasting taxpayer money and putting everyone through a seventh trial. Curtis Flowers is innocent. This misguided prosecution has been plagued from the beginning by misconduct and racial discrimination, and it is time to bring it to an end."

Flowers was released on bail on December 16, 2019 after spending 23 years in jail, most of that time on death row. Evans had initially hinted that he would try Flowers a seventh time but had not formally announced a decision. That decision will now be made by the Mississippi Attorney General.

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Louisiana Reaches Ten Years Without an Execution https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/louisiana-reaches-ten-years-without-an-execution Tue, 07 Jan 2020 12:34:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/louisiana-reaches-ten-years-without-an-execution On January 7, 2020, Louisiana marked the passage of ten years since its last execution.

As a result of the milestone, two-thirds of U.S. states have now either abolished the death penalty or gone at least a decade without an execution. Twenty-one U.S. states have judicially or legislatively abolished capital punishment. With Louisiana joining their ranks, 12 of the 29 states that still authorize the death penalty (41.4%) have gone more than a decade without carrying out an execution. (Click here to enlarge map.)

Louisiana last carried out an execution on January 7, 2010, putting Gerald Bordelon to death by lethal injection. His execution was the 28th in Louisiana in the modern era of the death penalty. Prior to Bordelon’s, Louisiana had not executed anyone since 2002.

As the state approached the anniversary of Bordelon’s execution, advocates for the abolition of the death penalty planned a vigil outside the headquarters of Resurrection After Exoneration, a non-profit founded by death-row exoneree John Thompson. Citing high costs, wrongful convictions, and declining public support for capital punishment, Michael Cahoon of the Promise of Justice Initiative, called the 10-year execution hiatus “indicative that the system is broken beyond repair.” The Promise of Justice Initiative, which represents Louisiana death-row prisoners and advocates for death-penalty abolition, was one of the sponsors of the event.

According to State Public Defender James Dixon, the Louisiana Public Defender Board spent more than $100 million on defense costs for death-penalty cases between 2008 and 2019. The figure does not include other death-penalty costs, such as prosecution, incarceration, and court costs.

Louisiana has exonerated 11 people from death row, making it fourth in the U.S. for number of death-row exonerations. Three of those exonerations took place in the decade since the state last carried out an execution. Among Louisiana’s notable exonerations are John Thompson, who was exonerated in 2003 after an investigator discovered that prosecutors withheld evidence, and Glenn Ford, who, at the time of his 2015 exoneration, was the nation’s longest-serving death-row exoneree. Thompson’s case gained notoriety after a jury awarded him $14 million in a lawsuit against the office of the prosecutor whose misconduct had resulted in his wrongful conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling, granting prosecutors conditional immunity from civil liability for misconduct. In dissent, Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan argued that the evidence “established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney’s Office bears responsibility.”

As in other states, the difficulty of obtaining lethal-injection drugs has also played a role in the decline in executions. However, the ten-year gap in executions is not the only indication that Louisiana’s death penalty is in decline. The state imposed 14 new death sentences in the decade of the 2010s, and only one in the past four years. The two death sentences imposed in the second half of the 2010s were 26 times fewer than the state imposed during Louisiana’s death-sentencing peak between 1995-1999. The state imposed 52 new death sentences during that period, for an average of 10.4 new death sentences per year.

In 2019, a bipartisan team of legislators proposed bills to abolish the death penalty. Bills passed committees in both the House and the Senate, but the Senate bill failed a floor vote and the House bill was withdrawn. The effort gained strong support from religious leaders in Louisiana.

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Criticism by Government Leaders, Victim’s Son Fuel Growing Doubts About Viability of Ohio’s Death Penalty https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/criticism-by-government-leaders-victims-son-fuel-growing-doubts-about-viability-of-ohios-death-penalty Mon, 06 Jan 2020 19:00:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/criticism-by-government-leaders-victims-son-fuel-growing-doubts-about-viability-of-ohios-death-penalty With executions on hold due to problems with the lethal-injection protocol, the future of capital punishment in Ohio is uncertain. High-ranking Ohio officials have expressed concerns about the effectiveness and viability of the state’s death penalty, and two recent columns in leading Ohio newspapers have argued that the state should end capital punishment.

In a year-end interview with the Toledo Blade, Governor Mike DeWine intimated that Ohio’s death penalty was both unworkable in practice and a failure as an instrument of public safety. “I have said for many years,” he told The Blade, “that, if you’re talking about protecting the public, whatever you think about the death penalty morally, the death penalty can never come in very high in things that protect the public.”

The state's death penalty also drew criticism from a victim's family member. A December 28, 2019 Columbus Dispatch op-ed by Jonathan Mann (pictured), whose father was murdered, said the death-penalty legal process revictimizes family members and takes resources away from services that support victims’ families. “Instead of spending millions on death penalty trials and decades of appeals, we should be investing in tools to reduce, prevent and solve crimes. If we care about victims’ families like mine, we should be prioritizing services that benefit all of us, instead of pouring millions into an arbitrarily applied death penalty,” he wrote.

Mann said he opposed the death penalty for his father’s murder, but Cuyahoga County prosecutors immediately told him that he could expect the killer to receive a death sentence. “My wishes weren’t even pretended to be considered. I was left voiceless in a scenario that affected me deeply; he was my father.”

Also on December 28, a column by Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board member Thomas Suddes argued that concerns expressed by Republican leaders about the “practicality and cost” of Ohio’s death penalty are reason enough to do away with the punishment. “Of the 56 Death Row inmates ... whom Ohio has executed beginning [in] 1999, the average time spent on Death Row was about 17 years and two months,” Suddes wrote. However, he wrote, this lengthy appeal process is necessary to redress the “injustice after injustice” they have uncovered in Ohio capital cases.

Ultimately, Suddes suggests, “[i]n courtroom after courtroom, what an Ohio death sentence may really mean is imprisonment for life—if you can call that a life—without any possibility of liberty.” He concludes: “The question is whether Ohio should admit the reality of its death penalty, or, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars in legal fees, keep denying the obvious.”

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Death Sentences Decline by More than Half in Decade of the 2010s https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/death-sentences-decline-by-more-than-half-in-decade-of-the-2010s Fri, 03 Jan 2020 11:47:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/death-sentences-decline-by-more-than-half-in-decade-of-the-2010s Death sentences imposed in the United States fell by more than half over the course of the 2010s, continuing a steep nationwide decline that has seen death sentences fall by more than 89% since the peak death sentencing years of the mid 1990s. Fewer death sentences were imposed in the second half of the 2010s than in any other five-year period since capital punishment resumed in the United States in 1973. [Click here to enlarge image]

A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of sentencing data found that three-, five-, and ten-year death sentencing rates all fell compared to their corresponding prior time periods. The United States imposed an average of 38.7 new death sentences between 2017–2019, which marked a 24.2% decline from the average of 51.0 per year imposed across the country in the preceding three-year period from 2014–2016. The five-year annual average of 39.2 new death sentences imposed between 2015-2019 was 55.1% below the average of 87.4 new death sentences imposed per year from 2010–2014, a decline of more than half. Similarly, the ten-year death-sentencing numbers reflected a decline by more than half, with the annual average of 63.3 new death sentences imposed per year over the course of the 2010s falling 56.6% below the average of 145.8 new death sentences per year in the first decade of the 21st century.

The actual number of death sentences imposed starkly demonstrated the magnitude of capital punishment’s decline. There were 825 fewer death sentences in the decade of the 2010s than in the decade of the 2000s, a drop that was 192 greater than the number of new death sentences actually imposed. The decline reached historical lows in the second half of the decade, when each year produced fewer than fifty new death sentences. The only other year in which death sentences were that low was in 1973, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down existing death-penalty statutes and before many states had enacted new capital punishment laws.

The second half of the 2010s produced 635 fewer new death sentences per year than the years 2000-2004, a decline of 76.4%, or 127 death sentences per year. The nation imposed 241 fewer new death sentences in 2015-2019 than in first half of the 2010s, a decline of 48.2 new death sentences per year.

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Report Addresses Death-Row Family Members’ Barriers to Mental Health Care https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/report-addresses-death-row-family-members-barriers-to-mental-health-care Thu, 02 Jan 2020 12:38:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/report-addresses-death-row-family-members-barriers-to-mental-health-care Families who have a loved one on death row, or who have experienced the execution of a loved one, suffer a variety of adverse mental health effects, including depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to a new report by the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP). The report, Nobody to Talk to, describes the mental health challenges faced by family members of death row prisoners and the special difficulties those family members experience in seeking mental health care that addresses their situation.

TAVP found that death row families faced unique hardships in obtaining mental health treatment resulting from the stigma of being connected to a death-row prisoner and a lack of understanding of their experiences. The report summarizes the current state of research on the psychological effects of having a family member sentenced to death. Not surprisingly, that research documented high rates of depression and symptoms of PTSD among family members of capital defendants, death-row prisoners, and people who had been executed.

TAVP reported that families affected by the death penalty face many of the same challenges experienced by other distinctive groups who have been traumatized by their exposure to violence, but also face the social stigma and guilt-by-association from having a loved one charged with or convicted of capital murder. “Researchers and advocates look both at how the experience of these families is like the experience of other victims of violent loss (particularly family members of murder victims) and how it is distinct from other experiences of loss because of the particular characteristics of the death penalty,” the report explains.

Quoting a 1983 study by Michael Radelet, the report notes that, “in contrast to others facing loss, these families must know that the death of their loved one is actively desired by others.” Death-row families also share many characteristics with other family members of prisoners, including family separation, navigating the criminal justice system, and dealing with prison visits and phone calls, but with the added difficulty of the looming death of their loved one. Because of the “combination of knowledge and uncertainty inherent in the often-repeated cycle of death sentence, litigation, and temporary reprieve means that the family members experience ‘anticipatory grief’ over an extended period of time... and the emotional whiplash of hopes raised and dashed and then raised again, sometimes several times in succession.”

Family members of death row prisoners face the same common obstacles to obtaining mental health care faced by the general population, including financial barriers and negative views of psychological medication. However, death-row family members also reported hesitation or ambivalence about seeking help for themselves when their relative on death row was in greater need of help, and also worried that providers would not understand their situation, would not be familiar with the death-penalty system, or would judge them or their family.

To address these special needs, the report recommends that providers of mental health services recognize "families of persons sentenced to death or executed” as a distinct trauma-affected group and offers suggestions to help clinicians better understand the challenges these families face. “Clinicians cannot respond optimally to a population whose existence they have not even considered, and death row family members are understandably wary of seeking help from mental health professionals who are wholly unfamiliar with their situation and whom they have good reason (based on their experiences with others outside their families) to fear might be judgmental or dismissive or at least too overwhelmed by the families’ stories to be of help,” the report states.

TAVP also recommended that clinicians be provided specialized training in working with death row families, just as current trainings focus on the needs of domestic violence survivors or other groups in need of specialized care. Clinicians who undergo such training or are interested in working with the population of death row family members can identify themselves to groups that work with that population. TAVP notes that it plans to develop training materials and create a referral list of providers who welcome family members of death row prisoners.

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Law Review: New Article Highlights Decline of Judicial Death Sentences https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/law-review-new-article-highlights-decline-of-judicial-death-sentences Mon, 30 Dec 2019 08:00:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/law-review-new-article-highlights-decline-of-judicial-death-sentences At least 99 men and one woman are on death row in eight U.S. states, condemned to death by judges without the prior authorization of a jury, according to a 2019 study by researchers Michael Radelet and Ben Cohen (pictured) published in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. Another 18 prisoners sentenced to death since the resumption of capital punishment in the U.S. in the 1970s, the study shows, have been executed after judges disregarded or overrode jury votes in favor of life.

Radelet and Cohen argue that death sentences imposed “without the protections of the right to a jury determination of sentence … violate[ ] both the original purpose of the constitutional protection and the evolving standards of decency” that govern the constitutionality of death-penalty practices today. These sentences, the authors write, are the product “of the constitutional blunder of trial judges instead of juries deciding who lives and who dies.”

Radelet and Cohen’s data “show that eight states have permitted or required some form of judge sentencing in capital cases since the dawn of the modern era of the death penalty in 1972.” However, judge-sentencing in capital cases has sharply declined this century, as a result of state and federal constitutional rulings and the actions of state legislatures.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona that the Sixth Amendment afforded a capital defendant the right to a jury determination of all facts necessary to impose a death sentence. In 2016, the Court struck down Florida’s death-penalty statute in Hurst v. Florida for violating that constitutional guarantee. Also in 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court, in Rauf v. State, declared its judicial sentencing statute unconstitutional. However, while the Delaware court ruled that Rauf applied to all cases in the state in which a death sentence had been imposed, the state and federal courts in Arizona and Florida have refused to apply Ring or Hurst to cases that had already completed the direct appeal stage of judicial review by the time Ring was decided.

Prior to Hurst, three states — Alabama, Delaware, and Florida — permitted judges to impose death sentences based upon non-unanimous jury recommendations for death and to override jury recommendations for life. Delaware and Florida have since discontinued those practices and Alabama has repealed the judicial override portion of its death-penalty statute. Indiana and Missouri direct the trial court to independently determine the sentence if the jury fails to reach a unanimous sentencing verdict.

Radelet, a professor in the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Department of Sociology and Institute of Behavioral Science and a noted death-penalty scholar, and Cohen, a capital litigator with the New Orleans-based Promise of Justice Initiative, have been tracking judicial sentencing in death-penalty cases for more than a decade. In 2017, they reported that Florida judges had imposed at least 134 death sentences after juries had returned non-unanimous sentencing recommendations in cases that were tried after Ring was decided or that were still pending on appeal when Ring was decided. For this study, they identified cases in which states permitted judges to impose the death penalty without a jury recommendation for death or permitted judges to override jury recommendations that a life sentence be imposed.

As of April 2019, they said, approximately 100 cases remained in which defendants who had not waived their right to a jury had been sentenced to death by judges. The most (40 cases) were Arizona cases that predated Ring, followed by 33 cases of judicial override in Alabama, and 11 death sentences imposed under Nebraska’s judge-only sentencing statute. They report that one woman, Robin Row, was sentenced to death in 1993 under Idaho’s pre-Ring judicial sentencing procedures. Alabama has executed 11 men whom judges sentenced to death despite jury recommendations for life, followed by Florida with four jury-override executions. Missouri has executed three prisoners who were sentenced to death in judge-only sentences.

Regarding these cases, Radelet and Cohen write, “[b]y any measure, the judge-imposed sentences … stem from an anachronistic vestigial process from a period from which the country has evolved.” The “most significant question remaining,” they write, “is of retroactivity” and “whether the evolving standards of decency prohibit the execution of judge-imposed death sentences.”

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New Podcast: The DPIC 2019 Year End Report https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/new-podcast-2019-year-end-report Fri, 27 Dec 2019 09:52:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/new-podcast-2019-year-end-report In the December 2019 edition of the Discussions with DPIC podcast, Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham and Managing Director Anne Holsinger discuss DPIC’s 2019 Year End Report. The podcast explores the major themes presented in the year’s death-penalty news and developments, including innocence, declining use of capital punishment, and systemic problems revealed by the new death sentences and executions in 2019.

The two major themes of the 2019 report, Dunham said, were “that the death penalty appears to be disappearing in some parts of the country and eroding in others” and “the continued unreliability of the death penalty” in the cases in which it was imposed or carried out. He tells the stories of some of the year’s notable cases, including Rodney Reed and Domineque Ray. The conversation also covers some of the long-term trends in capital punishment, especially the sustained decline in new death sentences and executions.

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Billy Joe Wardlow Faces Execution in Texas Based on False Evidence of Future Dangerousness https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/billy-joe-wardlow-faces-execution-in-texas-based-on-false-evidence-of-future-dangerousness Thu, 26 Dec 2019 18:13:00 -0500 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/billy-joe-wardlow-faces-execution-in-texas-based-on-false-evidence-of-future-dangerousness Billy Joe Wardlow (pictured) was 18 years old, when he killed 82-year-old Carl Cole during a botched attempt to steal Cole’s car so that Wardlow and his girlfriend could pursue their fantasy of running away from their abusive homes in Carson, Texas to start a new life in Montana. Wardlow, who had no prior history of violence, has regretted his action ever since. In the cover story for the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine The American Scholar, Wardlow told veteran journalist and legal commentator Lincoln Caplan, “it was really, really, really stupid.”

The troubled teen of a brutally abusive mother had attempted suicide three times between turning age 15 and killing Cole. Just weeks before the murder, Caplan says, Wardlaw had tried to drive a stolen truck off a bridge. In the county jail awaiting trial, Wardlow at the suggestion of the sheriff wrote a dramatic confession that the prosecution used against him at trial: “Being younger and stronger, I pushed him off and shot him right between the eyes. Just because he pissed me off,” it said. While in custody, Wardlow attempted three more times to kill himself.

The Texas jury that sentenced Wardlow to death in 1995 heard nothing about his traumatic upbringing and emotional troubles. Instead, in a practice repeated in numerous Texas capital cases, it was provided false testimony by a prosecution expert that Wardlow “would constitute a continuing threat to society” if they spared him the death penalty and sentenced him to life. Wardlow currently faces an April 29, 2020 execution date. But—after interviewing Wardlow’s current lawyers and other Texas death row prisoners about the person Wardlow has become almost 25 years later and exploring the false testimony concerning his supposed future dangerousness—Caplan’s in-depth article argues that Wardlow should not be executed.

With defense counsel who presented virtually no case for life, Wardlow’s sentence depended upon whether the prosecution proved the state-law requirement that he posed a continuing threat to society. To prove that, prosecutors presented uncontested testimony from Royce Smithey, an investigator for the Texas Special Prosecution Unit, which prosecutes felonies committed within Texas prisons. Smithey falsely testified that Wardlow would be placed in the general prison population if the jury sentenced him to life, where his presence would put prison guards and others at risk.

Wardlow’s current lawyers have filed a petition that is currently pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals arguing that Wardlow’s death sentence was obtained through false testimony and that the Texas death-penalty statute is unconstitutional because “[t]he prediction of future dangerousness called for by the Texas capital sentencing statute cannot reliably be made for a capital defendant under 21 years old.” They presented a statement from Frank G. Aubuchon, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice [TDCJ] correctional officer and prison administrator, who said that Smithey’s testimony contained “multiple falsehoods [that] served to mislead the jury into believing that TDCJ would be completely unprepared to imprison Mr. Wardlow in a secure environment unless he received a death sentence. Based on my decades of experience as a TDCJ corrections officer, administrator, and prison classifications expert" Aubuchon wrote, " I can say that this is categorically false.”

Wardlow maintains that he did not intend to kill Cole, but shot him in the head as the two struggled for Wardlow’s gun. Recounting the incident, a weeping Wardlow told Caplan, “you put a gun in someone’s face, they’re going to be terrified. So, really, two terrified people fighting over a gun is what it was. A terrified old man and a terrified kid. And the old man was winning. And when he started to take the gun out of my hand, I can remember I put my finger into the trigger, and pulled the trigger.”

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