Death-Penalty News and Developments for the Week of March 8 — March 142020

NEWS (3/13) — North Carolina: The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission voted 5-3 to empanel a three-judge review committee to determine whether four men convicted as teens should be exonerated of the murder of NBA star Chris Paul’s grandfather, Nathaniel Jones. A fifth teen convicted in the murder died before he could submit his case for review by the Commission.

Nathaniel Cauthen and his younger brother, Rayshawn Banner were charged and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver, and Dorrell Brayboy were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to up to 14 years in jail. With the exception of Banner, who was 14 years old, the boys were 15 when they were accused of the murder. Bryant and Tolliver were released in 2017 and Brayboy was released in 2018. Brayboy was stabbed to death outside a supermarket in 2019 before he could submit his application for the Commission to review his case.

The boys claimed they had been coerced by police into falsely confessing, including being threatened with the death penalty, which was not a legal punishment because of their age. Police reports omitted any reference to those threats, However, during the Commission hearings, police admitted having invoked the death penalty as an interview technique when questioning two of the boys. The Commission found “sufficient evidence of factual innocence” to ask the panel of judges to review the case.

NEWS (3/12) — Arkansas: The Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled that death-row prisoner Jerry Lard, who lawyers say is intellectually disabled, may waive his post-conviction appeals.

Lard’s initial post-conviction lawyer was permitted to withdraw from the case citing “irreparable harm” to the attorney-client relationship after he had presented evidence that Lard was intellectually disabled. The court appointed new counsel to represent Lard, who then asked the trial court to withdraw his appeals. The trial court granted the motion to waive the appeals and the appeals court affirmed that ruling.

However, the court noted that a person who has intellectual disability may not be executed, but declined to rule on Lard’s intellectual disability claim, saying it is not ripe in the absence of an execution date.

NEWS (3/12) — Florida: The Florida Supreme Court has denied death-row prisoner Hector Sanchez-Torres’s post-conviction challenge to his conviction and death sentence for a 2008 armed robbery and murder. In an unsigned opinion, the court ruled that Sanchez-Torres’s counsel had not been ineffective in advising him to plead guilty to the charges and to waive a sentencing jury based on counsel’s belief that “a Clay County jury would absolutely convict [him] of first-degree murder and give him death based on the facts of the case.”

NEWS (3/12) — Federal Death Penalty: Citing a 14-year delay by federal prosecutors in bringing the case to trial, a federal district court in Texas has dismissed a federal capital murder indictment against a Salvadoran man charged with killing two Honduran immigrants.

The indictment alleges that the two victims were being held for ransom by a human-smuggling operation and that Wilmar Rene Gomez-Duran had tortured and murdered them after they tried to escape. Senior Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt (pictured) of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the charges with prejudice, saying that inexcusable delays by the prosecution had made it impossible for Gomez-Duran to defend against the charges. Hoyt wrote that “the integrity, efficiency and centrality of the rule of law and good conscience dictates dismissal.”

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas has appealed the ruling.

NEWS (3/11) — Texas: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has rejected the recommendation of an El Paso County trial court that death-row prisoner Rigoberto Avila should be granted a new trial as a result of the prosecution’s reliance on false and outdated scientific evidence. Avila was sentenced to death for the alleged murder of a 19-month-old infant based upon what he contended was false expert testimony that he had abused the child. New evidence indicated that the child’s fatal injuries were the result of an accident. In an unsigned opinion, the appeals court rejected the trial court’s findings regarding the cause of death and wrote that Avila had failed to meet the “’Herculean’ burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him based on the new evidence.”

NEWS (3/10) — Utah: A Utah federal district court has granted a new trial to death-row prisoner Von Taylor based on defense counsel’s ineffectiveness in failing to investigate the facts before advising him whether to plead guilty. Taylor pled guilty to a double murder and was sentenced to death based upon the mistaken belief that he had killed the two victims. Because of counsel’s failure to investigate, Taylor was unaware of ballistics evidence indicating that his co-defendant, not Taylor, had fired the shots that killed the victims. The court found that Taylor had “pleaded guilty to two capital murders based on inexcusably uninformed advice from counsel which then exposed him to the possibility of execution.”