Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of June 152020

NEWS (6/19/20) — California: In one of the few capital trials to move forward during the COVID-19 pandemic, a San Jose jury acquitted Manuel Anthony Lopez of charges that he had raped and murdered his girlfriend’s two-year-old son. Lopez, who had been jailed four years awaiting trial, had consistently professed his innocence, and news reports said his lead defense counsel, Santa Clara County deputy public defender Michael Ogul, believed so strongly in Lopez’s innocence that he postponed his retirement two years to be able to see the case to its conclusion.

Prosecutors presented DNA evidence that they asserted linked Lopez to the child’s death. Defense counsel, however, retained an expert witness in probabilistic genotyping who showed the jury that the low levels of Lopez’s DNA and the presence of multiple other people’s DNA in the samples proved only the uncontested fact that Lopez had been present in his girlfriend’s house and failed to link him to any of the injuries sustained by the child.

NEWS (6/18) — Washington, D.C.: The U.S. Supreme Court has issued an order granting a joint proposal by federal death-row prisoners and the Department of Justice to expedite briefing and consideration relating to the prisoners challenge to the federal execution protocol. The ruling will allow the Court to consider the prisoners’ petition during its regularly scheduled June 25 conference before the Court adjourns for the summer. The Department of Justice had issued death warrants scheduling the execution of three of the prisoners despite the pendency of their execution protocol appeal.

The Court directed the Department of Justice (DOJ) and any groups who wish to file amicus curiae briefs in the case to file their pleadings by Friday, June 19. The prisoners were directed to file their reply by Monday, June 22, 2020. The attorney general’s office filed its brief opposing the prisoners’ petition, and a group of 15 law professors who study and teach federal administrative law filed an amicus brief in support of the prisoners.

NEWS (6/18) — California: A split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the ruling of a California federal district court that denied death-row prisoner Deondre Staten’s habeas corpus challenge to his conviction and death sentence.

The court agreed that Staten’s trial lawyer had unreasonably failed to investigate and present evidence that a Los Angeles gang had claimed credit for the murders and failed to call a defense expert who could have rebutted the testimony of the prosecution’s gang expert. However, two of the judges held that Staten did not show that the California Supreme Court, which summarily dismissed Staten’s claim without an explanation of its reasons, had “no reasonable basis” for its decision. Judge Marsha S. Berzon dissented, saying the court should have returned the case to the district court for a hearing on whether counsel’s deficient representation had been prejudicial.

NEWS (6/15) — Ohio: A Summit County, Ohio trial court declared a mistrial in the death-penalty trial of Stanley Floyd after jurors expressed concerns about resuming the high-profile arson-murder proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic. Ford is charged with setting two fires in which a total of nine people, including five children, were killed.

Ford’s trial had been scheduled to resume on June 16, with at least two weeks of testimony remaining in the guilt phase, followed by a penalty-phase if the jury convicted. A pretrial conference has been set for August 11 to schedule a new trial date.