Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of May 32021

NEWS (5/6/21) - Florida: The Florida Supreme Court issued two decisions denying relief in capital cases.

In Randall Deviney v. State, the court denied Deviney’s direct appeal from the death sentence imposed in 2017 in Deviney’s capital resentencing trial. The trial judge had initially sentenced Deviney to death in 2008 under Florida’s unconstitutional judicial factfinding procedures, imposing the death penalty after four of the jurors in the case had voted for a life sentence.

The main issue in Deviney’s appeal involved the trial court’s unconstitutional refusal to excuse a juror whose views “indicat[ed] an unyielding predisposition to vote for death in any case of premeditated murder,” forcing Deviney’s lawyer to exercise one of his discretionary strikes to remove the juror. Four of the seven justices acknowledged that existing Florida case precedent would have required the court to overturn Deviney’s death sentence. However, only one justice — Justice Jorge Labarga — voted to apply the law to Deviney’s case and grant a new sentencing hearing. The other three justices — in an opinion by Justice Alan Lawson, joined by Chief Justice Charles T. Canady and Justice Jamie R. Grosshans — acknowledged the trial court’s constitutional violation, but said they would recede from Florida Supreme Court precedent that required the death sentence be overturned for forcing Deviney to exercise a peremptory challenge against the juror.

In the second case, the court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the portion of David Martin’s post-conviction petition that challenged his conviction. The court denied Martin’s claim that his right to an impartial jury had been violated when a juror was empaneled who had failed to disclose that he had a juvenile adjudication of delinquency for sexual battery; a DUI conviction; and that his grandmother had murdered his grandfather. The court upheld Martin’s conviction, ruling that he had not proven that the juror was biased.

Prosecutors did not appeal the portion of the trial court’s order that had overturned Martin’s death sentence, which the trial court had imposed after a non-unanimous jury sentencing vote.

NEWS (5/6/21) — Oklahoma: The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has voided the conviction and death sentence of Miles Bench in a 2015 murder on tribal lands.

Applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark tribal sovereignty ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the court found that the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction over the case because Bench is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation and the murder occurred on tribal lands. Bench remains in custody and will be tried for the crime in federal court, where he will not face the death penalty.

NEWS (5/6/21) — Missouri: In the first Missouri death penalty trial since the pandemic, a St. Louis City jury has voted to sentence Eric Lawson to life on all counts. The high-profile case involving the murders of Lawson’s girlfriend, her mother, and his 10-month-old son was prosecuted by the state attorney general’s office instead of the St. Louis City Circuit Attorney because a former prosecutor in the Circuit Attorney’s Office had previously represented Lawson while on the staff of the public defender’s office.

The case was scheduled to go to trial in 2019 but was delayed when the trial court was unable to find enough jurors willing to impose the death penalty. It was then further delayed as a result of the pandemic. Rather than proceed non-capitally, the attorney general’s office insisted on empaneling a death-qualified jury to hear the case.

NEWS (5/4/21) — Arizona: The Arizona Supreme Court has reversed a trial court ruling that had overturned the death sentence imposed on William Miller in 2011 after his defense counsel failed to object to a jury instruction that misinstructed the jury on how to treat mitigating evidence relating to Miller’s mental illness.

The trial court instructed the jury that it could find Miller’s mental illness to be a mitigating circumstance under Arizona’s death-penalty statute if it “prevented the defendant from appreciating the wrongfulness of the conduct.” The correct standard for proving the statutory mitigating circumstance was that the defendant’s mental illness “substantially reduced [his] ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct.” Furthermore, the Eighth Amendment prohibits states from statutorily limiting the mitigating evidence a jury may consider, and so the jury was entitled to consider and weigh any functional impairments arising from Miller’s mental illness. The post-conviction court found that counsel’s failure to object to the erroneous jury instruction constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Arizona Supreme Court reversed, holding that counsel’s failure did constitute unreasonably deficient performance because defense counsel appointed to represent Arizona capital defendants had frequently made the same mistake in the past. It further ruled that counsel’s failure was not prejudicial, asserting that there was no reasonable probability that a properly instructed jury would have imposed a life sentence.

NEWS (5/3/21) — California: The California Supreme Court has overturned the death sentences imposed on Sandi Nieves for the arson murders of her four daughters in a direct review opinion rendered more than two decades after her July 1998 offense.

The court found that misconduct by the trial judge — who later committed suicide — had permeated the sentencing stage of Nieves’ trial, requiring that her death sentence be reversed. The appeals court found that the judge had improperly prevented the defense from presenting a range of mitigating evidence, “exclude[ing] evidence related to neuropsychological testing and PET scan

results, and … sustain[ing] objections to lay witness testimony about defendant’s good character.” The court also repeatedly denigrated the defense and expressed “deep hostility” towards defense counsel in front of the jury, included making sarcastic remarks directed at defense counsel and citing him for contempt in front of the jury. The trial court also directed his hostility at defense witnesses, asking argumentative questions and remarking that one witness “just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

NEWS (4/29/21) — Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued rulings in three death penalty cases, directing a resistant trial court to honor a federal court grant of habeas corpus relief in one case and denying post-conviction relief in two others.

In Commonwealth v. Melvin Speight, the court vacated a Philadelphia trial court’s order that had reimposed a death sentence on Speight instead of enforcing a federal district court that had vacated the death penalty and remanded the case to impose a life sentence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the trial court’s authority to act was limited to resentencing Speight to life.

In Commonwealth v. George Lopez, the court ruled that a capital defendant’s successor petition for post-conviction relief claiming that the prosecution had not disclosed the full extent of a deal with its key witness was untimely. Lopez claimed that the prosecution’s lead witness had materially misled the jury about the nature of his deal for favorable treatment by the state, telling the jury he would be sentenced to life when he actually was sentenced to 20-40 years in prison. The court held that the factual basis for Lopez’s claim could have been discovered earlier and that his petition was filed outside the time period set forth in the statute of limitations.

In Commonwealth v. Kenneth Hairston, the court affirmed the trial court’s denial of post-conviction relief, including a broad challenge to the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s death penalty. The court also denied Hairston’s claim that his trial and appellate counsel had been ineffective for failing to object to a verdict slip that included a non-statutory aggravating factor of sexual abuse when Pennsylvania law prohibited the consideration of non-statutory aggravating evidence. The court ruled that although the verdict slip listed sexual abuse as the aggravating circumstance, the jury had actually found the statutory aggravating circumstance that Hairston had a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence.