Death Penalty News and Developments for November 25 — December 1

NEWS—November 29: The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed a federal district court ruling granting Arizona death-row prisoner Barry Lee Jones a new trial based on his trial lawyer’s failure to investigate and present evidence that he is innocent. Jones had been convicted of sexual assault, three counts of
child abuse, and felony murder in connection with the death of a four-year-old girl, Rachel Gold. The court found that, as a result of Jones’s trial lawyer’s inadequate investigation, the jury never heard evidence that Rachel’s injuries were sustained at a time in which Jones could not have caused them.


NEWS—November 27: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has upheld the conviction and death sentence of Oklahoma death-row prisoner Nicholas Davis. The court affirmed the ruling of an Oklahoma federal district court that had denied Davis’s claim that his trial and appellate counsel had provided ineffective representation when they failed to adequately investigate his mental health and present mitigating evidence of Davis’s depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.


NEWS—November 25: The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California has overturned the conviction of death-row prisoner Anthony Oliver, finding that that Los Angeles prosecutors had unconstitutionally exercised their discretionary jury strikes on the basis of race to exclude African Americans from serving on the jury. In granting Oliver a new trial, the federal court ruled that the California Supreme Court had unreasonably concluded that the prosecution’s jury strikes had not been racially based.

The same day the federal court decided Oliver’s case, the California Supreme Court rejected claims that Sacramento prosecutors had improperly excluded African Americans from serving as jurors in the death-penalty trials of Joe Johnson (left) and Robert Rhoades (right). Dissenting in Johnson’s case, Justice Liu wrote: “This is yet another case in which a black man was sentenced to death for killing a white victim after a jury selection process in which the prosecution disproportionately excused black prospective jurors. And this is yet another case in which this court has refused to find any inference of discrimination in jury selection, despite a well-founded suspicion that the prosecutor here, in evaluating prospective jurors, targeted only black jurors for criminal background checks.” Justice Liu also dissented in Rhoades’ case, noting that prosecutors had exercised their discretionary jury challenges to strike all four black prospective jurors.


NEWS—November 22: The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California reversed the death sentence imposed on Mary Ellen Samuels, finding that her trial lawyer had provided ineffective representation when he failed to object to the prosecution’s admission of irrelevant evidence of her drug use and involvement in drug sales and that she had posed for “cheesecake” photos. The court said the evidence was not likely to have affected the jury’s determination of guilt or innocence but had a reasonable probability of affecting its vote on life or death.