Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of April 262021

NEWS (4/29/21) — Oklahoma: The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has vacated the convictions and death sentences of two more death-row prisoners who, the court found, had committed their offenses against Native Americans on tribal lands. Applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark tribal sovereignty ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the court found that the murders for which Benjamin Robert Cole Sr. and James Chandler Ryder had been convicted occurred in “Indian country” within the historical boundaries of the Cherokee Nation reservation and that the victims were enrolled members of the Cherokee tribe.

Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court had voided the conviction of Muscogee (Creek) citizen, Patrick Murphy for murders that had occurred within the historical borders of the Creek Reservation. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals also voided the conviction of Shaun Bosse for murders of members of the Chickasaw Nation within the borders of the Chickasaw Reservation.

NEWS (4/29/21) — California: The California Supreme Court upheld the death sentence imposed on Maurice Steskal in his resentencing trial, unanimously rejecting his argument that the execution of severely mentally ill individuals constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Steskal had contended that the evolving standards of decency in the United States no longer found it acceptable to execute those who are severely mentally ill.

Steskal’s first sentencing proceeding ended with the jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of a life sentence. The trial court declared a mistrial and the new jury returned a verdict of death.

NEWS (4/29/21) — Pennsylvania: A judge of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas has overturned the death sentence imposed on Patrick Stollar in 2007 after the trial court failed to instruct the sentencing jury that it must find that Stollar’s lack of a prior criminal record is a mitigating circumstance and consider it as a reason to spare his life.

Pennsylvania law includes as its first statutorily enumerated mitigating circumstance “The defendant has no significant history of prior criminal convictions.” Stollar had no prior criminal record, establishing the mitigating circumstance as a matter of law. Nonetheless, his trial prosecutor argued to the jury that it should not treat his lack of a criminal record as mitigating, and the court failed to provide any jury instruction on the issue. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has reversed several death sentences in virtually identical circumstances, and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office conceded during Stollar’s post-conviction proceedings that the jury should have been instructed to find the “no significant history” mitigating circumstance.

NEWS (4/26 and 4/27/21) — Georgia: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has issued opinion in two Georgia death penalty cases.

On April 27, a unanimous three-judge panel reversed a federal district court’s denial of sentencing relief to death-row prisoner Willie James Pye. In an unpublished opinion, the appeals court held that Pye’s court-appointed lawyer, Johnny B. Mostiler, failed to investigate and present a broad range of available mitigating evidence, as well as court records that rebutted the prosecution’s argument that he would pose a future danger in prison if the jury sentenced him to life.

Billing records indicated that Mostiler spent only 150 hours on Pye’s representation, including jury selection and the trial itself. He has been the subject of allegations of ineffective representation and/or racial bias against Black clients in at least four capital case.

On April 26, a different circuit panel denied habeas corpus relief to Askia Mustafa Raheem. The court denied Raheem’s claim that his court-appointed lawyer provided ineffective representation in the penalty-phase of trial, saying that the Georgia state courts had not unreasonably applied U.S. Supreme Court ineffectiveness caselaw. It also ruled that Raheem’s state-court lawyers had procedurally defaulted claims that he had been unconstitutionally forced to wear a stun belt at trial, that the prosecution improperly commented on his exercise of his constitutional privilege not to testify, and that the prosecution made impermissible arguments concerning his alleged future dangerousness, including telling the jurors that Raheem would kill them if he was not sentenced to death. The circuit also denied Raheem’s claim that the state court had unconstitutionally denied him a competency hearing and that he had been tried while incompetent.