Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of June 12020

NEWS (6/5/20) — North Carolina: The North Carolina Supreme Court has struck down the state legislature’s attempted retroactive repeal of the state’s Racial Justice Act, restoring the rights of approximately 130 death-row prisoners to seek redress of death sentences that they had claimed were substantially affected by racial bias.

The Court issued its 6-1 rulings in the cases of death-row prisoners Andrew Ramseur (pictured, left) and Rayford Burke (pictured, right), holding that “the retroactive application of the RJA Repeal violates the prohibition against ex post facto laws under the United States and North Carolina Constitutions.” It remanded the cases to the trial court to conduct hearings to determine whether their death sentences violated the Racial Justice Act.

DPIC will provide a more detailed analysis of the Racial Justice Act ruling in the coming week.

NEWS (6/5/20) — Pennsylvania: Walter Ogrod was freed from prison after a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge granted a joint motion by defense lawyers and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to overturn his conviction and death sentence. Judge Shelly Robins New denied Philadelphia prosecutors’ motion to dismiss all charges against him, saying she lacked jurisdiction to do so, but reduced the charges against him to third-degree murder, making him eligible for release on bail. Judge New directed that Ogrod’s case be given priority on the homicide court calendar so that the Calendar Judge could rule on the motion to dismiss.

Ogrod had been wrongfully imprisoned 28 years, including nearly 25 on death row, for the 1988 murder of a four-year-old girl. An investigation by the Philadelphia D.A.’s Conviction Integrity Unit concluded that Ogrod was “likely innocent.” On February 28, 2020, prosecutors entered a joint stipulation with defense counsel agreeing that Ogrod’s conviction and death sentence should be vacated. Prosecutors told the court that Ogrod’s conviction was a “gross miscarriage of justice” marred by extensive police and prosecutorial misconduct.

NEWS (6/5/20) — Pennsylvania: Paul Jackson Henry III has been resentenced to life without parole in a capital resentencing trial before a York County, Pennsylvania judge. The parties agreed to a bench resentencing trial last fall after the court threw out a jury’s death verdict in a double-murder as a result of the jury’s failure to consider undisputed mitigating evidence in the case.

Judge Michael Bortner delivered his verdict from the bench. He noted that Henry, a Marine veteran who had been in New York City the day of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and had stayed in the city to help with the relief efforts, had no prior criminal history and may have been in the throes of drug addiction at the time of the murders. “We’ll never know what prompts someone to act so out of character,” Bortner said.

NEWS (6/4/20) — Florida: The Florida Supreme Court rejected three death-row prisoners’ challenges to their convictions and/or death sentences.

In Valentine v. State, the court denied Terance Valentine’s post-conviction claim that his death sentence should be overturned because it had been imposed under a statute that unconstitutionally required the trial judge, rather than the jury, to determine facts necessary to impose the death penalty. The court ruled that Valentine had no basis to raise that claim because he had waived his right to a sentencing jury.

In Patrick v. State, in a case involving the beating death of a gay man who had offered Eric Patrick, who was homeless, a place to stay, the court ruled that Patrick’s counsel was not ineffective for failing to strike a juror who had expressed bias against gays. The court said that Patrick’s lawyer had strategically decided to accept the juror, despite that bias, because counsel believed the juror would be favorable to the defense in the penalty phase of the trial.

In McDonald v. State, the court denied Meryl S. McDonald’s challenge to his capital conviction based upon a 2014 letter from the Federal Bureau of Investigation acknowledging that testimony provided by an FBI forensic hair analyst at McDonald’s trial in 1995 was false. The court ruled that the prosecutor could not have known the testimony was false based upon information in a letter that was written approximately 20 years after the trial. The court further ruled that relief was unavailable to McDonald under a theory of newly discovered evidence because the knowledge that the FBI analyst’s testimony was inaccurate would not have changed the outcome of the trial.

NEWS (5/29/20) — Alabama: The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld the death sentence imposed on James Osgood by a Chilton County judge in 2018 following the appeals court’s reversal of Osgood’s initial death sentence. Osgood waived a jury for his resentencing hearing and asked the court to sentence him to death.

The court of criminal appeals rejected Osgood’s claim that his waiver had not been knowing and intelligent because, during jury selection, the District Attorney and trial court repeatedly misrepresented the jury’s role as a mere “recommender” of sentence. He also argued that his jury waiver had not been voluntary because the court had made it impossible to impanel an impartial jury by permitting the prosecution to show potential jurors a prejudicial crime-scene photograph of the victim, denying the defense a continuance it needed to adequately prepare for trial, and denying a mistrial after the district attorney told prospective jurors that Osgood had been sentenced to death at his previous trial.


Lindsey O’Laughlin, Double mur­der­er escapes death penal­ty, sen­tenced to life in prison, York Dispatch, June 5, 2020; Ivana Hrynkiw, Death row inmate re-sen­tenced, asks for the death penal­ty again, Birmingham News, April 122018