Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/ en-US Thu, 09 Jul 2020 16:02:00 -0400 Fri, 10 Jul 2020 08:32:51 -0400 Supreme Court Issues Sweeping Decision Affirming Tribal Sovereignty, Vacates Oklahoma Conviction and Death Sentence https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/patrick-dwayne-murphys-oklahoma-conviction-and-death-sentence-vacated-by-sweeping-supreme-court-decision-reaffirming-tribal-sovereignty Thu, 09 Jul 2020 16:02:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/patrick-dwayne-murphys-oklahoma-conviction-and-death-sentence-vacated-by-sweeping-supreme-court-decision-reaffirming-tribal-sovereignty The United States Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of a Native American death-row prisoner in Oklahoma, giving dramatic effect to a sweeping new decision that affirmed the sovereignty of the the Muscogee (Creek) Nation over tribal lands that span the eastern half of the state.

In an historic ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Court declared that Congress had never disestablished the Creek Reservation that was created by a series of treaties between 1832 and 1866 in the aftermath of the federal government's forcible relocation of the Creek and four other Indian nations from their homes in Alabama and Georgia. The treaties promised the Creek Nation a "forever homeland" in the Indian Territories that subsequently became part of the state of Oklahoma. The McGirt decision affirmed that these lands were still "Indian Country," as defined by federal law, within which Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to attempt to try tribal members for serious offenses.

In a one-sentence per curiam decision that cited McGirt, the Court affirmed a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that had voided Patrick Dwayne Murphy's murder conviction and death sentence imposed in the Oklahoma state courts. On August 8, 2017, the Tenth Circuit granted Murphy habeas corpus relief, finding that the murder, which occurred in Henryetta, Oklahoma, had been committed on lands within the borders of the Creek Reservation. The Court wrote: “Because Mr. Murphy is an Indian and because the crime occurred in Indian country, the federal court has exclusive jurisdiction. Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction.”

Murphy (pictured below) still faces prosecution for murder in the federal courts, but federal prosecutors will not be able to seek the death penalty.

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U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Three Cases on Scope of Protections Against Executing the Intellectually Disabled https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/u-s-supreme-court-declines-to-review-three-cases-on-scope-of-protections-against-executing-the-intellectually-disabled Wed, 08 Jul 2020 15:37:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/u-s-supreme-court-declines-to-review-three-cases-on-scope-of-protections-against-executing-the-intellectually-disabled The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to step in to resolve festering disputes about the scope of the protections its prior rulings afford to intellectually disabled death-row prisoners. On July 2, 2020, the Court denied petitions to review three such cases, allowing death sentences in Alabama and Tennessee to stand despite the application of unconstitutionally restrictive standards in assessing a prisoner’s intellectual disability, while rebuffing Oklahoma’s efforts to undo a lower court ruling that had applied the Court’s decisions to declare an intellectually disabled prisoner ineligible for the death penalty.

The three cases address three applications of Atkins v. Virginia, the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found it is unconstitutional to execute people with intellectual disabilities. The petitions raised questions about how states have implemented Atkins and the applicability of subsequent cases, including Hall v. Florida, a 2014 case that struck down Florida’s strict IQ cutoff for finding impairments in intellectual functioning, and Moore v. Texas, which in 2017 struck down Texas’ unscientific standard for determining deficits in adaptive functioning.

In Sharp v. Smith, the Court’s decision will allow a federal appeals court’s grant of relief to an Oklahoma death-row prisoner stand. In the other two cases, Keen v. Tennessee and Smith v. Dunn, the Court’s denial of a hearing leaves in place decisions that favor the state.

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74-Year-Old ‘Golden State Killer’ Joseph DeAngelo Pleads Guilty to 13 Murders and Rapes, Gets 11 Life Sentences https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/74-year-old-golden-state-killer-joseph-deangelo-pleads-guilty-to-13-murders-and-rapes-gets-11-life-sentences Tue, 07 Jul 2020 08:53:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/74-year-old-golden-state-killer-joseph-deangelo-pleads-guilty-to-13-murders-and-rapes-gets-11-life-sentences Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. (pictured), the “Golden State Killer,” whom prosecutors had one year earlier held out as a “poster child for the death penalty,” has pleaded guilty to 13 counts each of murder and rape in exchange for multiple life sentences.

At a June 29, 2020 hearing, the 74-year-old former police officer admitted to a total of 161 crimes involving 48 victims, including dozens of rapes that could not be charged because the statute of limitations on prosecuting them had long ago expired. The hearing was conducted in a Sacramento State University ballroom converted into a makeshift courtroom to permit social distancing of the 150 people who attended the proceedings.

Prosecutors from the six California counties affected by DeAngelo’s crime spree — who one year earlier had used DeAngelo’s case to deride Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to declare a moratorium on executions in California —unanimously agreed to abandon the death penalty in the case in favor of a plea deal under which DeAngelo will receive 11 life sentences. A formal sentencing hearing is scheduled for August 17.

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Kareem Johnson Becomes Nation’s 170th Death-Row Exoneree Since 1973 https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/kareem-johnson-becomes-nations-170th-death-row-exoneree-since-1973 Mon, 06 Jul 2020 00:00:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/kareem-johnson-becomes-nations-170th-death-row-exoneree-since-1973 Former Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Kareem Johnson has been exonerated, thirteen years after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death by a Philadelphia jury. On July 1, 2020, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas completed his exoneration, formally entering an order dismissing all charges against him in his capital case. On May 19, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had barred his reprosecution because of prosecutorial misconduct that exhibited a conscious and reckless disregard for his right to a fair trial .

Johnson is the third death-row exoneration in 2020 and the 170th death-row exoneration DPIC has confirmed in the United States since 1973. He is the third former Philadelphia death-row prisoner exonerated in the last six-and-one-half months. Walter Ogrod was exonerated in June 2020 and Christopher Williams was exonerated in December 2019.

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DPIC 2020 MID-YEAR REVIEW: Pandemic and Continuing Historic Decline Produce Record-Low Death Penalty Use https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/dpic-2020-mid-year-review-pandemic-and-continuing-historic-decline-produce-record-low-death-penalty-use Thu, 02 Jul 2020 15:00:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/dpic-2020-mid-year-review-pandemic-and-continuing-historic-decline-produce-record-low-death-penalty-use New death sentences and executions were at historic lows in the first half of 2020, the Death Penalty Information Center reported in its 2020 Mid-Year Review. The report, released July 2, attributed the record-low numbers to the combined effects of the coronavirus pandemic and a continuing broad national decline in the use of capital punishment.

The report indicated that, even before the pandemic, the U.S. was poised for its sixth consecutive year with 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions. At the midpoint of 2020, there have been only 13 new death sentences, imposed in seven states, and six executions carried out by five historically high-execution states. Florida (4), California (3), and Texas (2) had imposed multiple new death sentences, but only Texas (with 2) had carried out more than one execution. (To enlarge the map of 2020 death sentences, click here.)

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Four Dead, More Than 200 Infected on California Death Row as COVID-19 ‘Tears Through’ San Quentin https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/covid-19-tears-through-san-quentin-infecting-nearly-200-on-californias-death-row Wed, 01 Jul 2020 15:35:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/covid-19-tears-through-san-quentin-infecting-nearly-200-on-californias-death-row Four California death-row prisoners are dead and more than 210 have been infected in a coronavirus outbreak that news reports say is “tearing through” the nation’s largest death row.

Fueled by an influx of infected prisoners during a prison transfer at the end of May 2020, the COVID-19 virus has exploded through San Quentin State Prison (click to enlarge picture). As of July 2, nearly 1,400 San Quentin prisoners and more than 100 members of the prison staff had been infected. Sources tell DPIC that more than 210 of the state’s 725 death-row prisoners (29.0%) have now tested positive for the disease, with dozens more awaiting test results.

The outbreak killed Richard Stitely, 71, who was found dead in his cell on June 24 after exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus. He was the first condemned California prisoner to die of COVID-19. Stitely was among the numerous prisoners who had refused testing because prison medical personnel were not changing gloves between tests. Although prison officials would not confirm his cause of death, Marin County officials reported on June 29 that Stitely had posthumously tested positive for COVID-19. As of July 2, death-row prisoners Joseph S. Cordova, 76, Scott Thomas Erskine, 59, and Manuel Machado Alvarez, 59, also have died in the outbreak.

Doctor Peter Chin-Hong of the University of California–San Francisco told NBC Bay Area that San Quentin was the “Chernobyl of COVID” and a “COVID wildfire.“ ”[T]hey ran out of tests at San Quentin,” Dr. Chin-Hong said. ”People are scared there.”

Death-row prisoner Tony Rodriguez said “most of us are already infected. They’re telling us they’re going to test us and we’re waiting for that test every day, but it’s just getting worse and worse here.” He told NBC Bay Area that “[t]he alarms go off 10-to-15 times a day now. They’re responding to someone who’s not responding or barely moving. There are a lot of older guys here who have been here for a lot of years and those are a lot of the guys they’re taking out every hour on a stretcher.”

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New Podcast: Henderson Hill and North Carolina’s Historic Racial Justice Act Rulings https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/new-podcast-henderson-hill-and-north-carolinas-historic-racial-justice-act-rulings Tue, 30 Jun 2020 09:31:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/new-podcast-henderson-hill-and-north-carolinas-historic-racial-justice-act-rulings In the June 2020 episode of Discussions with DPIC, Henderson Hill (pictured), Senior Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project, speaks with Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham about North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act. Hill, who has spent decades as a public defender, capital defense attorney, and civil rights advocate, is currently representing North Carolina death-row prisoners in the Racial Justice Act litigation challenging their death sentences.

Hill and Dunham discuss the recent North Carolina Supreme Court rulings in two Racial Justice Act cases that have the potential to change the entire landscape of North Carolina’s death penalty. Hill says North Carolina has a “shameful history” of blatant race discrimination in capital cases, in which prosecutors have repeatedly excluded Black jurors and employed racially inflammatory arguments to sentence to death Black defendants before all- or nearly all-white juries. He describes how the same types of racial bias that have been found in the North Carolina cases are present in death penalty cases across the country and discusses the broader meaning the North Carolina Racial Justice Act decisions have at this transformative moment in America’s response to racial injustice.

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U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Hear Execution Protocol Case, Removing Barrier to Resumption of Federal Executions https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/u-s-supreme-court-declines-to-hear-execution-protocol-case-removing-barrier-to-resumption-of-federal-executions Mon, 29 Jun 2020 17:12:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/u-s-supreme-court-declines-to-hear-execution-protocol-case-removing-barrier-to-resumption-of-federal-executions The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge to the federal execution protocol, removing a potential major obstacle to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) plan to resume federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. The decision leaves in place an April 2020 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that lifted an injunction that had halted federal executions. The Department has scheduled four executions in July and August.

The Court offered no explanation for its denial, though Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted they would have granted the prisoners’ petition for a writ of certiorari. The prisoners are challenging the circuit court’s splintered 2-1 ruling, which their petition said “flouted precedent and upended key principles of administrative law rooted in the separation of powers.” The decision “raises more questions than it resolves about how to conduct federal executions,” the prisoners argued. The challenge centered on whether DOJ complied with federal administrative law in issuing its execution protocol and whether the Department’s promulgation of a single federal protocol satisfies the statutory requirements of the Federal Death Penalty Act, which mandates that the federal government carry out its executions in the manner employed by the state in which the federal prisoner was sentenced to death.

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Law Reviews—Valuing Black Lives: A Case for Ending the Death Penalty https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/law-reviews-valuing-black-lives-a-case-for-ending-the-death-penalty Fri, 26 Jun 2020 17:52:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/law-reviews-valuing-black-lives-a-case-for-ending-the-death-penalty “States still operating a capital punishment system are incapable of administering the death penalty free from racial discrimination and arbitrariness.” So argues Alexis Hoag (pictured), Practitioner in Residence at the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights at Columbia University, in an article in the Spring 2020 issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

Hoag’s article, Valuing Black Lives: A Case for Ending the Death Penalty was published in connection with the Columbia Law School’s Symposium, Furman’s Legacy: New Challenges to the Overbreadth of Capital Punishment. She writes that the death penalty violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because, in the nearly half-century since Furman v. Georgia declared existing U.S. death-penalty statutes unconstitutional, the capital punishment laws enacted in its wake continue to systemically discriminate on the basis of the race of murder victims.

“Since its inception, the disproportionate imposition of the death penalty has denied murdered Black victims the equal protection of the laws,” Hoag writes, placing a higher value on the lives of white murder victims while undervaluing the lives of Black murder victims. “Capital punishment is supposed to be reserved for those who commit the ‘worst of the worst’ crimes. Instead, as a result of bias, prejudice and racism, it is disproportionality reserved for those charged with killing white victims."

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Regulatory Experts Ask Supreme Court to Overturn Ruling Lifting Injunction on Federal Executions https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/regulatory-experts-ask-supreme-court-to-overturn-ruling-lifting-injunction-on-federal-executions Thu, 25 Jun 2020 10:00:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/regulatory-experts-ask-supreme-court-to-overturn-ruling-lifting-injunction-on-federal-executions A group of 15 administrative law experts have filed an amicus curiae brief in support of death-row prisoners seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of a challenge to the federal government’s proposed execution protocol. The brief was filed June 19, 2020 in Roane v. Barr, a case brought by federal death-row prisoners asking the Court to overturn an appellate court’s ruling that lifted an injunction on federal executions. According to the amicus brief, “This case presents a trifecta of classic administrative-law problems: The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) (1) misinterpreted a statute, (2) after having failed to engage in required notice-and-comment processes, and (3) the court below upheld BOP’s action on grounds not provided by the agency itself.”

The brief supports the prisoner’s assertion that the federal appellate court “violated bedrock principles of statutory interpretation, federalism, and administrative law.” On April 7, 2020, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a fractured 2-1 ruling lifting an injunction that had been blocking the federal government from resuming executions. Two of the judges found that the federal government's justification for its execution protocol was inconsistent with the language of the Federal Death Penalty Act. However, a different combination of two judges upheld the protocol, construing the language of the statute in a manner that differed from the Department of Justice's interpretation and that deviated from years of case precedent interpreting the meaning of similar statutory and regulatory terms.

The circuit court's ruling also exempted the execution protocol from the Administrative Procedure Act’s requirement that federal regulations provide the public with notice and an opportunity to comment before an agency can promulgate a new rule. Two of the judges on the panel ruled that the notice and comment requirement applied only to "substantive" rules and that the execution protocol was merely “procedural.”

The amicus brief asks the high Court to address two questions raised by the circuit panel's decision: “First, when does an agency rule become sufficiently ‘substantive,’ such that notice-and-comment rulemaking is necessary? Second, can a court rewrite an agency decision in an effort to uphold it?” The brief argues that the D.C. Circuit “altered both the Protocol itself and the existing frameworks for determining whether a rule is ‘procedural’ to shield the Protocol from public scrutiny. ... That position is deeply misguided. The means for ending a human life is not mere house-keeping.” The experts explain that the court misapplied several tests for determining what constitutes a “procedural” rule. They also argue that the court violated an 80-year-old principle of administrative law by upholding an agency’s actions on a basis that was not actually articulated by that agency.

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Gallup Poll: Record-Low Percentage of Americans Now Find Death Penalty Morally Acceptable https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/gallup-poll-record-low-percentage-of-americans-now-find-death-penalty-morally-acceptable Wed, 24 Jun 2020 01:00:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/gallup-poll-record-low-percentage-of-americans-now-find-death-penalty-morally-acceptable The percentage of Americans who consider the death penalty to be morally acceptable has fallen to a record-low, a new national poll by the Gallup organization has found.

According to the 2020 Gallup Values and Beliefs poll, released on June 23, 2020, 54% of U.S. adults now say the death penalty is morally acceptable. (Click here to see history of poll results.) That number represents a six-percentage-point decline over the course of the last year and is the lowest in the 20-year history of the poll. The results are 17 percentage points below the 71% of respondents who said in 2006 that the death penalty was morally acceptable.

Conversely, the percentage of Americans who said the death penalty is morally wrong reached a record high at 40%.

Gallup also measured the moral acceptability of the death penalty by political ideology. The percentages of self-reported moderates and liberals who said the death penalty was morally acceptable — 56% and 37%, respectively — both were the lowest recorded since the poll began in 2001. 67% of conservatives said they consider the death penalty to be morally acceptable. Belief in the acceptability of capital punishment was down significantly among all ideological groups since 2006, when endorsement of the moral acceptability of the death penalty was at its zenith. Since then, the number of conservatives and moderates who find the death penalty morally acceptable has declined by 12 percentage points, each. The number of liberals endorsing the moral acceptability of capital punishment has fallen by 22 percentage points during that period.

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Neuroscience Experts: Brain Science Shows Texas’ Use of Future Dangerousness to Sentence Those Under 21 to Death is Unreliable, Unconstitutional https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/neuroscience-experts-brain-science-shows-texas-use-of-future-dangerousness-to-sentence-those-under-21-to-death-is-unreliable-unconstitutional Tue, 23 Jun 2020 17:44:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/neuroscience-experts-brain-science-shows-texas-use-of-future-dangerousness-to-sentence-those-under-21-to-death-is-unreliable-unconstitutional Three professional organizations and eight practitioners in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology have joined a Texas death-row prisoner in challenging the constitutionality of the state’s use of “future dangerousness” findings to impose the death penalty on defendants who were younger than age 21 at the time of their offense. Their brief, filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on June 19, 2020, argues based on “[t]he great weight of scientific evidence” that predictions of whether an offender under age 21 will be a future danger to society “are inherently unreliable” and should not be permitted in decisions of whether a young offender should live or die.

The neuroscience professionals include the American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology, the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, as well eight leading experts in brain research and adolescent behavior. Their brief supports a petition filed by Billy Joe Wardlow (pictured) on June 10 that asks the Supreme Court to review whether Texas may continue to carry out death sentences “for which future dangerousness is or was used to determine death eligibility” in cases in which the defendant was younger than age 21 when the crime was committed.

Texas has scheduled Wardlow’s execution for July 8 and he has asked the Supreme Court to grant him a stay so it can consider his petition.

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DPIC Report—At least 1,300 Prisoners are on U.S. Death Rows in Violation of U.S. Human Rights Obligations https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/dpic-report-at-least-1-300-prisoners-are-on-u-s-death-rows-in-violation-of-u-s-human-rights-obligations Mon, 22 Jun 2020 17:34:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/dpic-report-at-least-1-300-prisoners-are-on-u-s-death-rows-in-violation-of-u-s-human-rights-obligations At least 1,300 prisoners have been imprisoned on U.S. death rows for more than two decades, in violation of U.S. human rights obligations, a Death Penalty Information Center report on death-row incarceration practices has found. The number represents more than half of all U.S. death-row prisoners as of January 1, 2020. Nearly one third of the prisoners whose lengthy death-row incarcerations violate their human rights are on death row in California.

DPIC also found that an additional 191 prisoners have been executed 20 or more years after having been sentenced to death and that 13 men and women who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death since 1973 had spent two decades or more on death row prior to their exonerations, also in violation of U.S. human rights obligations. In all, the report documented more than 1,500 death-penalty-related human rights violations by U.S. states and the federal government.

California, with 429 prisoners on death row for 20 or more years, had the most human rights violations of any state. Florida was next with 192 death-row prisoners incarcerated more than 20 years, followed by North Carolina with 95. Florida had the most human rights violations arising out of the execution of prisoners who had been on death row for 20 or more years, with 34. Texas was next with 31, followed by Georgia with 28 and Alabama with 20.

Three of the exonerees — Paul Browning in Nevada, Henry McCollum in North Carolina, and Glenn Ford in Louisiana — had been on death row 30 years or more before they were exonerated.

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As Support for Julius Jones Clemency Grows, Oklahoma Parole Board Turns to State Prosecutors on Scope of Commutation Power https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/as-support-for-julius-jones-clemency-grows-oklahoma-parole-board-turns-to-state-prosecutors-on-scope-of-commutation-power Fri, 19 Jun 2020 11:50:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/as-support-for-julius-jones-clemency-grows-oklahoma-parole-board-turns-to-state-prosecutors-on-scope-of-commutation-power As high-profile support mounts in the campaign for clemency for death-row prisoner Julius Jones (pictured), the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has turned to the prosecutors who are seeking his execution — the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office — for advice on whether it can consider his petition at all. The question facing the board is whether Oklahoma law permits it to conduct clemency proceedings for a death-row prisoner who does not face an active death warrant.

Jones’ case, which raises disturbing questions of innocence, official misconduct, and racial bias, has attracted the growing backing of celebrities, athletes, and racial justice organizations who have called on the state of Oklahoma to remove him from death row. The influence of racial bias in Jones’ case has come under particular scrutiny amidst nationwide protests calling for an end to police brutality and racially biased criminal justice policies.

Jones’ application for a commutation hearing, which was submitted to the Pardon and Parole Board in October 2019, included letters of support from faith and civil rights leaders, three NBA stars with strong Oklahoma connections, an Oklahoma County commissioner, Witness to Innocence, and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. His case was profiled in the 2018 documentary series, The Last Defense; rap superstar Common and reality TV celebrity Kim Kardashian West have joined his cause; and Black Lives Matter—OKC included his commutation as one of its demands for local criminal legal system reforms.

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Utah Reaches Ten Years With No Executions https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/utah-reaches-ten-years-with-no-executions Thu, 18 Jun 2020 10:20:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/utah-reaches-ten-years-with-no-executions Utah has become the latest U.S. state to have gone more than a decade without carrying out an execution. The state last put a prisoner to death on June 18, 2010, when it executed Ronnie Gardner by firing squad.

Utah joins a list of 34 states — more than two thirds of the country — that either do not have the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in at least a decade. Twenty-two states no longer authorize capital punishment. Twelve of the 28 states (42.9%) that do have the death penalty have not executed anyone in at least 10 years. It has been even longer — 12 years — since Utah last imposed a new death sentence.

The decline of the death penalty in Utah is part of a sweeping trend away from the death penalty in the western United States. In the last two years, Washington and Colorado have abolished the death penalty, California has imposed a moratorium on executions and dismantled its execution chamber, New Mexico has cleared its death row, and Oregon and Arizona have both narrowed the circumstances in which the death penalty may be imposed. 2019 marked the fifth consecutive year with no executions west of Texas. The four new death sentences imposed in 2019 were the fewest in the West since California reinstated its death penalty in 1977, and fell by half from the prior record low set in 2018. Only three counties west of Texas sentenced anyone to death in 2019. With this anniversary, only two of the eleven states west of Texas — Arizona and Idaho — still have a death penalty and have carried out an execution within the last decade.

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U.S. Supreme Court Orders Texas Court to Reconsider Case of Inadequate Representation https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/u-s-supreme-court-orders-texas-court-to-reconsider-case-of-inadequate-representation Wed, 17 Jun 2020 17:13:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/u-s-supreme-court-orders-texas-court-to-reconsider-case-of-inadequate-representation By a vote of 6-3, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) ruling upholding the death sentence imposed on Terence Andrus (pictured). The Court held that Andrus’ counsel had provided substandard representation in the penalty-phase of his trial, and directed the TCCA to determine whether counsel’s deficient performance may have affected the jury’s sentencing decision.

The unsigned decision, issued June 15, 2020, was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and the Court’s four liberal and moderate Justices, who found that Andrus’ court-appointed lawyer had unreasonably failed to investigate “abundant” mitigating evidence that could have been presented to the jury to spare Andrus’ life. That evidence included an extensive childhood history of abuse and neglect, solitary confinement Andrus was subjected to in a juvenile facility, and a history of suicide attempts.

Andrus’ appeal lawyers presented this evidence to the Texas state courts in his state post-conviction appeals. When trial counsel provided no explanation for failing to present the evidence, the trial court declared that counsel had been ineffective and overturned Andrus’ death sentence. On appeal, the TCCA reinstated the death sentence without explanation, summarily asserting that Andrus had not met his burden of proving ineffective assistance.

In an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, the right wing of the Court dissented from the majority’s ruling, calling the decision “hard to take seriously.”

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With Litigation Pending in U.S. Supreme Court, Federal Government Issues Four Death Warrants https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/with-litigation-pending-in-u-s-supreme-court-federal-government-issues-four-death-warrants Tue, 16 Jun 2020 16:44:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/with-litigation-pending-in-u-s-supreme-court-federal-government-issues-four-death-warrants With a petition for review pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on the legality and constitutionality of the federal execution protocol, U.S. Attorney General William Barr on June 15, 2020 set execution dates for four federal death-row prisoners, including three who are involved in the pending case. The warrants scheduled three executions over a five-day period in July and a fourth execution in late August. No federal executions have been carried out since 2003, and the five execution dates that had been set for December 2019 and January 2020 were halted by litigation related to the proposed method of execution.

The prisoners’ appeal of a federal appellate court decision vacating an injunction against the use of the execution protocol is still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The four prisoners scheduled for execution are Daniel Lewis Lee (July 13), Wesley Ira Purkey (July 15), Dustin Lee Honken (July 17), and Keith Dwayne Nelson (August 28). All but Nelson had previously been scheduled for execution in December or January. In its news release announcing the execution dates, the Department of Justice indicated it had selected for execution four prisoners “who were convicted of murdering children,” a crime that is typically left to the states to punish.

The news release described the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that vacated a lower injunction against executions as having “clear[ed] the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two-decade hiatus.” The release omitted any reference to the continuing litigation over the legality of the prior death warrants. It also asserted that the four prisoners “have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws. We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

In fact, the victims’ family in at least one of the cases has long opposed carrying out the death sentence in their case and litigation remains active in several of the cases. Attorneys for the prisoners said that the cases are emblematic of systemic problems in the administration of the federal death penalty, raising issues of junk science, mental illness, ineffective representation, lack of appellate review, and arbitrariness.

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Birmingham D.A. Files Brief Supporting New Trial for Death-Row Prisoner Toforest Johnson https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/birmingham-d-a-files-brief-supporting-new-trial-for-death-row-prisoner-toforest-johnson Mon, 15 Jun 2020 17:17:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/birmingham-d-a-files-brief-supporting-new-trial-for-death-row-prisoner-toforest-johnson Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr has filed an amicus brief supporting the grant of a new trial to Toforest Johnson (pictured, center, with family members), sentenced to death for the murder of an Alabama sheriff’s deputy. In a pleading filed in the Jefferson County Circuit Court, Carr wrote that, “A prosecutor’s duty is not merely to secure convictions, but to seek justice,” and that duty, he said, “requires intervention in this case” on Johnson’s behalf.

Carr urged that “a court of competent jurisdiction” should grant Johnson a new trial, outlining what he regarded as serious defects in Johnson’s trial. He noted that during the course of multiple trials of Johnson and co-defendants, prosecutors had repeatedly changed their theory as to who shot the deputy, relied upon a witness who repeatedly admitted having lied, and failed to disclose evidence that the witness had been paid for her cooperation, and that defense counsel failed to present testimony from multiple alibi witness who would have said that Johnson was elsewhere at the time of the murder.

Carr indicated that he had conferred with the original lead prosecutor from Johnson’s trial, who also “expressed concerns about this case and supports this request.” That prosecutor, Jeff Wallace, had previously expressed “grave doubts” about the case, and testified in 2014 that he did not think the evidence against Johnson was strong.

Johnson has maintained his innocence throughout his two decades on death row, but Carr’s brief did not take a position on Johnson’s guilt or innocence.

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Study: Dehumanizing Belief Systems Linked to Support for Guns Rights, the Death Penalty, and Anti-Immigration Practices https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/study-dehumanizing-belief-systems-linked-to-support-for-guns-rights-the-death-penalty-and-anti-immigration-practices Fri, 12 Jun 2020 15:41:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/study-dehumanizing-belief-systems-linked-to-support-for-guns-rights-the-death-penalty-and-anti-immigration-practices A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has documented a strong link between individuals who hold dehumanizing belief systems and support for capital punishment.

The study by University of Oregon Journalism and Communications Professor David Markowitz (pictured, left) and Psychology Professor Paul Slovic (pictured, right), was part of ongoing academic efforts to explain why some people dehumanize undocumented immigrants to the United States. The researchers found that those whose verbal behavior reflected a dehumanizing belief system were more likely to favor harsh anti-immigration practices and support gun rights and the death penalty.

The researchers found that the evidence “suggests that dehumanization is prevalent and pervasive” in the United States and that “a substantial number of Americans can be classified as dehumanizers.” This, the report said, “indicat[es] a broader social problem related to a proportion of Americans who wish to punish out-group members who they believe are generally bad, ‘less than,’ or threatening.”

“The support for social harms, particularly about guns and the death penalty, are seemingly unrelated to how one should treat an immigrant, but they matter in a large way,” Markowitz added in a statement accompanying the release of the study. “We can move forward by acknowledging our blind spots as individuals.”

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Florida Governor Signs Bill Authorizing $2.15 Million Compensation for Death-Row Exoneree Imprisoned 43 Years https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/florida-governor-signs-bill-authorizing-2-15-million-compensation-for-death-row-exoneree-imprisoned-43-years Thu, 11 Jun 2020 15:36:00 -0400 Death Penalty Information Center https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/florida-governor-signs-bill-authorizing-2-15-million-compensation-for-death-row-exoneree-imprisoned-43-years Florida death-row exoneree Clifford Williams, Jr. (pictured), who was freed in 2019 after spending 43 years in prison, will receive $2.15 million in compensation from the state of Florida under a bill signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis on June 9, 2020. The bill, specifically tailored to compensate Williams, unanimously passed both chambers of the Florida legislature in March.

Williams and his nephew, Nathan Myers, were wrongfully convicted of murder in 1976. Both received jury recommendations for life sentences, but the trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict and sentenced Williams to death. Myers, who was 18 at the time of the murder and was sentenced to life, has already received $2 million in compensation. However, Williams was ineligible for compensation under Florida law because he had previously been convicted of two unrelated crimes.

The legislature took up the compensation bill to redress that inequity. The preface to the bill states, “the Legislature acknowledges that the state’s system of justice yielded an imperfect result that had tragic consequences in this case.... [T]he Legislature is providing compensation to Clifford Williams to acknowledge the fact that he suffered significant damages that are unique to Clifford Williams for being wrongfully incarcerated.” Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson (D – Jacksonville), who sponsored the bill, said, “Mr. Williams has been steadfast in his belief that justice would prevail in the end. Today, the governor honored that long-held faith.”

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