Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of October 192020

NEWS (10/22/20) — Florida: The Florida Supreme Court has upheld the conviction and death sentence for Daniel Craven, Jr. for a 2015 prison murder. The court denied Craven’s claims that he was unconstitutionally denied the right to represent himself and that the trial court had violated his right to a fair jury by impaneling an African-American juror whom defense counsel had attempted to peremptorily strike. It also rejected several challenges Craven posed to the aggravating circumstances presented in the case.

Chief Justice Charles Canady dissented, writing that the trial court had failed to conduct the required factual analysis before declaring that defense counsel had attempted to strike the juror based on his race. Historically, the court has rarely found an explanation for a jury strike to be pretextual when a prosecutor has asserted that he or she struck a Black juror because the juror expressed opposition to the death penalty. Here, however, the trial court ruled that Craven’s defense counsel had attempted to exclude a Black juror because of his race whom counsel asserted was predisposed to imposing the death penalty.


NEWS (10/21/20) — Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has denied David Chmiel’s post-conviction challenge to the constitutionality of his conviction and death sentence in his third trial for a triple murder based upon the prosecution’s use of junk-science hair-comparison testimony. While the court expressed “substantial concerns about the appropriate use of microscopic hair comparison analysis,” it “decline[d] … to use [Chmiel’s] case as a vehicle to categorically disapprove microscopic hair comparison analysis and bar it from the courtroom.”

Chmiel argued that new evidence demonstrated that identification testimony based on microscopic hair analysis was scientifically invalid and violated his right to due process. In support of his argument, he cited a series of developments, including the National Academy of Sciences’ groundbreaking August 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward; a September 2016 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods; statements by the FBI retracting microscopic hair comparison testimony; and a joint press release by the FBI, Department of Justice, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in April 2015 announcing that FBI expert microscopic hair comparison testimony had been erroneous in 90% of the cases in which it had been provided testimony.

The court, however, credited the trial court’s finding that the testimony of the prosecution expert in Chmiel’s case did not “exceed[] the limits of science and overstate[] to the jury the significance of the microscopic hair analysis.” It further found that any error was harmless because Chmiel “failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that the verdict against him would be different in a trial in which [the hair-comparison] testimony would be excluded.”


NEWS (10/20/20) — Missouri: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has overturned a grant of habeas relief for Missouri death-row prisoner Carman Deck and reinstated the death sentence imposed in his third capital sentencing trial. The appeals court ruled that Deck could not receive federal review of his claim that the passage of a decade between his original trial and his third sentencing trial had caused critical mitigation witnesses to become unavailable, making it impossible for him to receive a fair resentencing.

The Eighth Circuit held that Deck’s claim was procedurally defaulted because his post-conviction lawyer had failed to raise the issue in state court. It further ruled that because the law on the issue was not settled at the time of Deck’s resentencing, post-conviction counsel’s failure to raise the issue was not ineffective and Deck therefore could not establish grounds to excuse the procedural default.

Deck was convicted and sentenced to death in Columbia County, Missouri in 1998. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned his death sentence in 2002, finding that his trial lawyer had submitted a prejudicially deficient jury instruction on mitigating evidence that failed to explain what evidence the jury could consider as grounds to spare his life and that jurors did not need to unanimously agree that a mitigating circumstance was present before they could take that evidence into consideration in their sentencing decision. The United States Supreme Court overturned Deck’s second death sentence, imposed in 2003, because the trial court had violated his right to due process by requiring him to appear before the jury shackled with leg irons, handcuffs, and a belly chain. He was resentenced to death in a third sentencing hearing in November 2008, which was the subject of the April 2017 U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri decision reversed by the Eighth Circuit.

Sources

Robert Patrick, Death penal­ty restored against man con­vict­ed of mur­der­ing De Soto cou­ple in 1996, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 202020.