Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Cali Supreme Court Seeks Amendment to Allow Death Penalty Appeals to Go to Appellate Courts Instead of Supreme Court
From ap.org: The State Supreme Court will seek an amendment to the California constitution that would change the death penalty appeals process to help ease the court's backlog of cases, the chief justice said.
Under the current system, death sentences are automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court.
The proposal would allow many cases to be handled by one of the state's six appeals courts, with the high court stepping in when a significant legal issue needs resolution or justices find another reason to review it.
The number of automatic death sentence appeals already threatens to overwhelm the Supreme Court's docket, making up about 20 percent of the court's caseload, Chief Justice Ronald M. George said.
"I don't want to pretend this is going to solve all the problems. But it will solve a big part of it," he said Monday.
The average wait for execution in the state is now 17.5 years. The backlog is likely to grow, considering the trend: Thirty people have been on death row for more than 25 years, 119 for more than 20 years and 408 for more than a decade. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
The eight men confined to the Capital Sentences Unit of 3 Wing in the New Jersey State Prison, ranging in age from 77 to 30, have a better chance of dying of old age than they do of lethal injection on an executioner’s gurney.
For one thing, the state has not executed anyone since 1963.
But in a move that is being closely watched by both sides of the capital punishment debate, New Jersey is on track to become the first state to repeal the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976.
bill that would abolish New Jersey’s death penalty was approved by the
Senate Judiciary Committee this spring and is now on a fast track to be
considered by both houses within weeks. The Senate president, Richard J. Codey,
who supports the measure, said this month that he planned to bring the
bill to a vote before the full chamber by the end of the year. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Monday, November 19, 2007
Although polls show that about 65 percent of the public still supports capital punishment in the abstract, the number of juries opting for death has plunged, from 317 in 1996 to 128 in 2005, the latest year for which complete data are available. Similarly, the number of executions has dropped from a modern high of 98 in 1999 to 53 in 2006.
At the same time, experts agree, many prosecutors have become more reluctant to seek the death sentence.
And now the Supreme Court has imposed a de facto moratorium on executions while it considers the claims of two Kentucky death-row inmates (Baze v. Rees) and others that the often-botched lethal-injection method used by most states and the federal government may inflict gratuitous pain on condemned prisoners.
The best that death-penalty opponents can hope for in the Kentucky case is a decision requiring states to devise a less error-prone, more pain-free execution procedure. Whatever the outcome, we will probably see a temporary spike in executions after the moratorium ends.
But four factors -- more significant than anything that the justices have done or will probably do -- seem likely to keep the number of death sentences and executions down in the long run.
- Irrefutable DNA evidence has exonerated some 15 death-row inmates and almost 200 other men convicted of murder or rape, mostly since the late 1990s. This DNA-evidence revolution, along with non-DNA evidence proving the innocence of a great many more condemned men and other prisoners, has alerted many who support the death penalty in principle to the fallibility of the criminal-justice system and the risk of executing innocent people.
- More and more murder defendants have competent trial lawyers, thanks to judicial and legislative decisions requiring more state spending on indigent defense and the work of nonprofits and pro bono lawyers. Few defendants with good trial lawyers get death sentences. And the costs to the state of a well-defended death-penalty trial are often much higher than the costs of imprisoning the defendant for life. All of this has made prosecutors more reluctant to seek death.
- Fewer jurors believe that a death sentence is the only sure way
to keep a murderer off the streets. The main reason is that more states
-- notably including Texas, which leads the nation in executions --
have provided life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as an
(To be sure, a somewhat related reason for the drop in death sentencing -- the greatly diminished public fear of crime after the dramatic decline in crime rates between 1994 and 2005 -- could prove transitory if the rise in crime rates over the past two years accelerates.)
- Finally, for many centuries people have recoiled against one execution method after another, despite efforts to make them less horrible and less painful. The same seems true now.
Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Thursday, November 15, 2007
From NYTimes.com: The Supreme Court is blocking the execution of a convicted child killer in Florida. Hours before Mark Schwab was scheduled to die, the high court stepped in, as it was widely expected to do.
The court is considering the appeals of two inmates in Kentucky who are challenging the same drug combination that is used in Florida to put inmates to death.
Schwab was sentenced to death for the murder of an 11-year-old boy. He'd seen the boy's picture in the newspaper shortly after Schwab was released from prison on a sexual assault sentence. He gained the confidence of the family by claiming he was with the newspaper and was writing an article about the boy.
Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Lethal injection executions in this country are performed by untrained, unqualified prison employees using inadequate equipment and following incomprehensible protocols, according to an amicus brief filed today by the Death Penalty Clinic (DPC) at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. The brief was filed in support of the Petitioner in Baze v. Rees, currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The clinic surveyed thousands of pages of documents from more than a dozen states, concluding that states have "turned a blind eye" to the foreseeable problems inherent in the three-drug lethal injection formula, and have allowed "ignorance and neglect—rather than science and deliberation—to guide the formation and implementation of lethal injection protocols." The Supreme Court is likely to hear oral argument in the Baze case in January of 2008.
Clinic Associate Director Ty Alper, counsel of record for the clinic, and Professor Elisabeth Semel, the clinic's director, filed the brief on behalf of death-sentenced inmates who are litigating lethal injection challenges in California, Missouri, Maryland, and Florida. The brief, prepared with the assistance of the clinic's Eighth Amendment fellow and two clinic students, begins by explaining the dangers inherent in the three-drug formula, and describes how the failure to correctly administer anesthesia to the inmate can result in an excruciatingly painful, and torturous, death. Alper announced that the brief details the "widespread lack of professionalism and competency in the administration of lethal injection in this country."
The following are just a few of the Death Penalty Clinic's findings:
- Executioners in many states have never even read the lethal injection protocols that supposedly govern their actions. For example, in California, an execution team member was asked whether she had read the protocol. She responded, "I don't know what you're talking about." In Maryland, the execution team leader had never seen a copy of the execution operations manual.
- Executioners in many states have received no training with respect to implementation of the three-drug protocol. For example, in California, executioners testified that "we don't really have training, really" and that there are no procedures in place to deal with foreseeable malfunctions in the execution equipment. In Florida, where then-Governor Jeb Bush declared a moratorium on executions after a horribly botched lethal injection execution, the state's primary executioner testified that he had no medical training or qualifications, nor had he received any training to conduct executions.
- Executioners in many states are utterly unqualified to perform executions. For example, the doctor responsible for overseeing executions in Missouri has been sued for malpractice more than 20 times, and has been reprimanded by the State's medical board. Although a federal judge banned him from participating in Missouri executions, the Federal Government has used him as a consultant on its lethal injection protocols. In California, a federal judge suggested a criminal investigation may be necessary to investigate whether execution team members at San Quentin State Prison have been stealing some of the execution drugs instead of using them for practice executions.
- Lethal injections in some states have been governed by incomprehensible or nonsensical protocols. For example, until this year, Tennessee's lethal injection protocol was so poorly drafted that it contained instructions for the electrocution of the inmate, including shaving his head and ensuring a fire extinguisher was nearby prior to the lethal injection. In Oklahoma and North Carolina, protocols called for prison employees to administer a dose of anesthesia after the inmate was already dead. [Mark Godsey]
Monday, November 5, 2007
From NYTimes.com: The SCOTUS agreed today to review the case of an Idaho death row inmate who was condemned after following his lawyer’s advice to reject a plea bargain that would have spared his life.
Maxwell Hoffman was sentenced to death after being convicted of taking part in the murder of Denise Williams, a police informant in a drug deal, in 1987. Mr. Hoffman slit the victim’s throat and left her in a cave at a remote campsite, according to court papers.
When Ms. Williams tried to crawl to safety, she was stabbed by one of Mr. Hoffman’s accomplices. A third accomplice then joined with Mr. Hoffman in burying Ms. Williams under rocks, documents state. The victim died of a blow from a rock.
The justices will weigh whether the advice of Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer was so bad as to render it unconstitutionally ineffective. Courts have long held that a defense lawyer’s work need not be perfect, or anything close to it, and that a lawyer is entitled to wide latitude on trial tactics, even if they appear questionable in the clarity of hindsight.
Mr. Hoffman was sentenced to death in 1989. The Idaho state courts upheld the conviction and sentence, so the defendant turned to the federal courts. The case the justices accepted today is an appeal by the state of Idaho of a 2006 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. That court held that because of the ineffectiveness of Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer in the sentencing phase of the trial, the defendant should be released or allowed to accept the plea-bargain he originally rejected.
Five weeks before the trial began, prosecutors said that they would not seek the death penalty if Mr. Hoffman pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, but that they would seek a death sentence if he chose to go to trial.
Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer, William Wellman, believed at the time that Idaho’s death penalty-sentencing procedures would soon be declared unconstitutional because they were similar to those in Arizona, which had been voided by the Ninth Circuit. In particular, the lawyer was confident that the Idaho system of having a judge, not a jury, decide whether to impose a death sentence would be struck down.
In fact, several years after Mr. Hoffman’s conviction the Idaho procedure was changed to give jurors the final say on whether someone should be sentenced to death. And a 2002 Supreme Court decision, Ring v. Arizona, held that sentencing by judges alone is unconstitutional in death-penalty cases.
But, the Ninth Circuit noted, the Supreme Court “has also held that Ring is not to be applied retroactively.” Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
From Reuters/yahoonews.com: The American Bar Association said on Monday it was renewing its call for a nationwide moratorium on executions, based on a three-year study of death penalty systems in eight states that found unfairness and other flaws.
The lawyers' group said its study identified key problems, such as major racial disparities, incompetent defense services for poor defendants and irregular clemency review processes, making those death penalty systems operate unfairly.
The American Bar Association in 2001 launched its Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project as the next step toward a nationwide moratorium on executions. The study was part of that project.
The project was created to encourage state government leaders to establish moratoriums and undertake detailed examinations of capital punishment laws and systems in their jurisdictions.
The eight states in the study were Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
The study did not include Texas, which is by far the most active capital punishment state. Since 1976, Texas conducted 405 executions, distantly followed by Virginia with 98, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Thursday, October 25, 2007
From NYTimes.com: The presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the target of a rising national outcry a month after turning away the last appeal of a death row inmate because the rushed filing was delayed past the court’s 5 p.m. closing time.
The inmate, Michael Richard, was then executed for a 1986 sexual assault and murder — the last person to die in Texas while the US Supreme Court reviews the constitutionality of lethal injection.
The judge, Sharon Keller, has said she did not know that Mr. Richard’s defense lawyers in Houston were having computer problems when they asked the court for 20 more minutes to deliver their final state appeal to Austin hours before the scheduled execution on Sept. 25.
Without a definitive ruling from the state court, the lawyers could not properly appeal to the United States Supreme Court to block the execution.
Judge Keller, a Republican who was elected to her second six-year term last year, declined through her office this week to comment.
The court does not accept computer filings, although one of the court’s judges, Tom Price, said in an interview this week, “We’re reviewing all our procedures and policies.”
Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean will speak at the University of St. Thomas School of Law on Monday, Oct. 22, in the Schulze Grand Atrium in the School of Law building.
Her talk, “Dead Man Walking – The Journey Continues,” will begin at 12:30 p.m. and will conclude by 1:30 p.m.
Prejean is an outspoken death penalty opponent who has written extensively about the subject. Her books include The Death of Innocents and Dead Man Walking, the book on which the film was based. Over the years she has been honored by many groups for her prison ministry.
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
From statesman.com: Roiled by internal dissent over its handling of a previous execution appeal, Texas' highest criminal court Tuesday blocked the state from carrying out its next scheduled execution — signaling a temporary halt for the nation's busiest death chamber.
Heliberto Chi was scheduled to die tonight for the 2001 killing of an Arlington store manager.
Instead, the Honduran man became the second Texas inmate to win a court-ordered reprieve while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether the method of lethal injection used in Texas and three dozen other states violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court last week blocked Texas from executing Carlton Turner Jr. while the lethal injection challenge is pending.
"It seems clear, based on the actions (by the two courts), that executions will be on hold for the next several months," said Andrea Keilen, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which helped defend Chi. "We have what seems to be a temporary stop."
Chi's stay of execution, delivered in an unsigned but unanimous order from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, gives Tarrant County prosecutors 30 days to file briefs rebutting Chi's claim that the three drugs used for lethal injection can subject inmates to intense pain.
The Chi ruling came as new details emerged about the Texas court's refusal to stay open past 5 p.m. on Sept. 25 so lawyers could file an appeal on behalf of death row inmate Michael Richard. The Supreme Court had accepted the lethal injection case earlier that day, and Richard's lawyers argued that the extra time was needed to respond to the new circumstances and to address computer problems that delayed the printing of Richard's motion. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Monday, September 24, 2007
The Death Penalty Information Center recently launched Capital Punishment in Context, an innovative college-level curriculum that uses real-life capital cases to foster the research and analytical skills of college students. Capital Punishment in Context contains two teaching cases of individuals who were sentenced to death in the United States, Gary Graham and Juan Raul Garza, that are vehicles for engaging the larger issues surrounding capital punishment. The curriculum provides a detailed narrative account of each individual's legal case, including resources such as the original reports from the homicide investigation, affidavits, and transcripts of testimony from witnesses.
Available for free through a simple registration process, Capital Punishment in Context incorporates detailed teaching notes, sample syllabi, and a variety of supplementary materials to support instructors from multiple disciplines such as sociology, criminology, legal studies, literature, writing, statistics, and religion. [Mark Godsey]
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
From Omaha.com: The fate of Nebraska's electric chair will be on the docket today at the Nebraska Supreme Court. The high court will hear arguments on whether the electric chair, Nebraska's sole means of execution, is constitutional.
The case being argued involves an appeal filed by death-row inmate Raymond Mata Jr. But it also could affect the case of death row inmate Carey Dean Moore, who came within days of being executed in May.
The court cited the Mata appeal when it abruptly halted Moore's scheduled execution. The court said the legal questions surrounding the electric chair needed to be resolved before another inmate was put to death in Nebraska.
"We conclude that we acted prematurely in ordering a death warrant before resolving that constitutional question in State v. Mata," the court wrote on May 2, six days before Moore was slated to die.
Nebraska is the only state in which the electric chair is the sole means of execution. Many other states have switched to lethal injection, raising the question of whether Nebraska's chair now constitutes unusual, if not cruel, punishment. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Monday, September 3, 2007
From NPR.com: Thursday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry stopped the execution of a death row inmate who was scheduled to die hours later. It was a rare move for a state that has executed more inmates than any other. It came after media reports and pressure from the European Union to halt the execution.
Listen. . . [Mark Godsey]
Thursday, August 30, 2007
From latimes.com: The death penalty system in California is so backed up that the state would have to execute five prisoners a month for the next 10 years just to clear the prisoners already on death row.
The average wait for execution in the state is 17.2 years, twice the national figure. And the backlog is likely to grow, considering the trend: Thirty people have been on death row for more than 25 years, 119 for more than 20 years and 408 for more than a decade.
These statistics were cited by an influential judge in a recent article, one in a small but growing number of critiques of California's death penalty machinery, which has proved to be so clogged that one jurist has called capital punishment in the state an illusion. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
From heraldtribune.com: At Florida lethal injections, a man in a purple moon suit leans over the dying inmate to listen for a heartbeat and feel for a pulse. After a few seconds, he nods and an announcement is made to the witnesses that the execution has been completed.
The man is a doctor and the attire shields his identity - not just from the prisoner's family and friends, but from the American Medical Association. Its code of ethics bars members from participating in executions, as do those of the American Nurses Association, the American Society of Anesthesiologists and the Florida Medical Association.
Despite those codes, Florida will ask Marion County Circuit Judge Carven D. Angel on Tuesday to approve its plan to add more doctors, nurses, phlebotomists (people trained to draw blood) and other medical professionals to its lethal injection teams - something that's done in other states.
But death penalty experts say Florida is the only state that uses a moon suit to shield the doctor's identity - although some others draw curtains or remove the execution witnesses before the doctor emerges. The plastic moon suit, similar to those worn by hazardous materials teams, covers the doctor completely from head to toe. Goggles worn beneath the clear plastic face shield conceals the doctor's identity even further. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Monday, August 20, 2007
From dallasnews.com: Kenneth Foster's supporters say he was up for getting high and robbing a few people on that San Antonio night in 1996 but never anticipated the spree would lead to murder.
He was in a car nearly 90 feet away when one of his partners shot and killed Michael LaHood in what jurors determined was a botched robbery. Barring a last-minute commutation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Rick Perry, he'll be executed for the crime Aug. 30.
Mr. Foster is one of an estimated 80 Texas death row inmates convicted under the state's "law of parties" – which authorizes capital punishment for accomplices who either intended to kill or "should have anticipated" a murder, regardless of whether they pulled the trigger.
Most states have such laws for many types of crimes, but Texas is the only state to apply it broadly to capital cases. Death penalty opponents decry its use, saying it broadens capital punishment far too much.
Prosecutors argue that all those responsible must be held accountable for such heinous acts.
"But for Mr. Foster driving that car, but for his planning, his decision to engage in this crime, Mr. LaHood would be alive," said Cliff Herberg, a Bexar County first assistant district attorney whose office prosecuted the case. Letting Mr. Foster off the hook "would be like saying the 9/11 hijackers on the plane weren't guilty of anything because they're not the ones who flew it."
Opponents of the death penalty hope the Foster case brings a focus to the issue. They're holding rallies, sending mass e-mails and operating blogs aimed at tearing down the Texas law of parties.
Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Thursday, July 26, 2007
From al.com: Alabama's death penalty law has flaws that should be addressed, says John Carroll, dean of the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.
Open dialogue with state officials about some suggested reforms is needed, Carroll said during Tuesday's Kiwanis Club of Birmingham luncheon at The Harbert Center.
"It's a difficult topic because it involves huge emotions," said Carroll, who has defended people in and presided over death penalty cases in the past. In some instances, such cases involve politics, he said.
Carroll said 195 people in Alabama have been sentenced to death. In 2005, Alabama sentenced more people to death than Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee combined, he said. Since 1976, seven people sent to Death Row in Alabama and 120 elsewhere in the country have been exonerated, he said.
Carroll was a member of the American Bar Association's death penalty assessment team for Alabama from 2005 to 2006. Some reforms the team suggests include:
Revamping indigent defense services at trial and on direct appeal. Problems include the lack of training for lawyers on death penalty case procedures and caps on fees for appeal ($2,000) and post-conviction ($1,000). Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Defense lawyers with pending capital cases will come to college at Santa Clara Law on Aug 4 for a six-day intensive training program with some of the nation's leading death penalty attorneys.
The 17th annual Death Penalty College offers intensive training where defense lawyers discuss their cases in small-group workshops. The Death Penalty College is presented by Santa Clar University, the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and the California Public Defenders Association and co-sponsored by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project
The workshop sessions, which begin Aug 4 and continue through Aug. 9, are not open to the public because of lawyer-client privilege. (Faculty will be available for media interviews.)
"The college fosters a feeling of cooperation and community among participants and faculty who are united in the common goal of saving lives," said Ellen Kreitzberg, director of the Death Penalty College and professor of criminal law at Santa Clara University School of Law. “Every criminal defense attorney faces his or her greatest challenge in the representation of a person charged in a capital case," said Kreitzberg who directs the program. This program is unique in that lawyers work on their actual cases and not on a casebook hypothetical.
The SCU law school program has consistently attracted leading death penalty attorneys from across the country.
The Death Penalty College has been approved for 36 hours of minimum continuing legal education credit by the State Bar of California. Participants pay tuition to attend the program, and death penalty attorneys volunteer as faculty. The college focuses on helping attorneys learn how to prepare and present the penalty phase of a death penalty case, which is held after a guilty verdict has been reached in a criminal trial. During the penalty phase, a jury considers factors that shape a defendant's life.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
From clevelandplaindealer.com: Ohio has found itself in the cross hairs of the latest national debate over the death penalty: Should executioners' identities be protected?
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio raised the question with a wide-ranging request for state records seeking information on the May 24 execution of an inmate whose veins took 90 minutes to find and whose death came a record-setting 16 minutes after the toxic drugs began to flow.
Among other things, the ACLU asked for the names of Christopher Newton's execution team - a group of volunteer medics and guards whose identities are routinely shielded by the state.
Though the hooded executioner is so common as to be iconic, the ACLU and other death penalty opponents say they have new cause for seeking complete information on the people carrying out state-sanctioned deaths by injection. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]