Female Federal Death Row Inmate Angela Johnson Death Sentence Vacated by Federal Judge: Defense Failure at Trial Held to be "Disfunctional"

There is an interesting case being played out in Iowa right now - interesting because not only does it involves a woman on Death Row facing the death penalty, but also because it involves the federal death penalty statute.

Here's what's going on.

Last week, United States District Judge Mark Bennett, setting on the U.S. District Court Bench for the Northern District of Iowa, removed Angela Johnson - one of the two women setting on federal death row - from a death sentence, and gave a big, basic reason for his action as part of a 448-page ruling (that's a ream of paper to give his decision, imagine that):

the trial lawyers defending the woman in a trial where she was found guilty of the execution-style murders of five people did not present mitigating evidence about her troubled mental state that could have spared her from capital punishment.

(For more about mitigating evidence, read our earlier post on the subject, or delve into details about how mitgation works by reading Terry's case book/memoir shown in the left sidebar, where he describes case after case and the realities of mitigation evidence.)

Judge Bennett does not mince words: he tossed out  the death penalty sentence finding that her criminal defense attorneys had been "... alarmingly dysfunctional...." during the trial.

Read Judge Bennett's Ruling - all 448 pages of it -- online here.

What happens next?

Angela Johnson made the history books when she was given the death penalty because she was the first woman to be sentenced to death in the federal system since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty back in 1976.

She's still guilty of the crime, that hasn't changed.  Judge Bennett did not erase the conviction -- and under the law, Angela Johnson is still - in the words of Judge Bennett - overwhelmingly guilty of going with her then-boyfriend, alleged to be the leading methamphetamine dealer in the Midwest, to kill and then bury the bodies of federal informants (and drug dealers) Terry DeGeus and Greg Nicholson, along with Nicholson's girlfriend, Lori Duncan and her young daughters, Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6. 

Attorney General Eric Holder must make a decision.  The U.S. Attorney General has to decide if the federal government will try and get the death penalty again for Angela Johnson, or not.  They've got a 60 day deadline.  They can appeal this judge's ruling (and with that ream of paper, sounds like the judge is expecting this) or they can go back to trial and there would then be evidence presented once again regarding her sentencing. 

If that's the path that's taken by the U.S. Attorney, then the mitigating factors that upset Judge Bennett will come before the court ... and for the first time, evidence about her mental health will be a consideration in deciding whether or not she should be executed. 

 

Jared Loughner Facing Federal and State Death Penalty Charges: Indigent Defense Appointments Made for Death Qualified Counsel

Jared Loughner is accused of violating federal laws that carry with them the death penalty, and he's already been charged with capital murder in a Phoenix federal courtroom.  (Read the federal indictment here.) Arizona law has also been violated in this horrific crime, and the State of Arizona is planning its own separate prosecution of Loughner for capital crimes in violation of state law.

It's not two bites at the apple. 

No, it's not double jeopardy because there are separate crimes, in separate jurisdictions.  The fact that lots of money is going to be spent in this media-intense case in two systems as efforts are made to sentence this man to death seems to be acceptable to both prosecutors.  Two bites at the apple arguments aren't legally valid here. 

Meanwhile, while lots of media attention is being given to the attempted murder of Congresswoman Giffords, the assassination of federal judge John Roll should not be discounted.  It's not often that federal judges are killed in the line of duty, and federal prosecutors will be fierce in their efforts here. 

However, given the state of capital punishment today it may well be that Arizona has a better possibility of a death sentence for Loughner under Arizona law, where he undoubtedly will be tried for the death of a 9-year-old child.  This may be the stronger death case, from a prosecution perspective. 

Death Penalty Sought By US Attorney and Arizona Prosecutor Is a Given

In fact, it is so immediately clear that the death penalty will be sought by the U.S. Attorney that the federal public defender already moved the court to appoint death-qualified indigent defense counsel to the case.

High Profile Death Qualified Defense Counsel Appointed

His request was that these defense attorneys be appointed from outside of Arizona, not only because the public defender's office was not available to take the appointment but also because every other death-qualified Arizona defense attorney either had a conflict of interest in representing Loughner or they turned down the representation.  Accordingly, the federal PD moved for the appointment of California defense attorneys Judy Clarke and Mark Fleming to be appointed by the judge.

Clarke has already appeared in court for Loughner.  She is a litigator experienced with this level of trial-by-media case having already represented Ted Kaczynski, the Unibomber;  and Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who committed filicide, killing her two small boys by driving her car into a lake.  None of her high-profile clients (see the USA Today list) has been given the death penalty. 

And while the Arizona process is a step behind the federal system (as the state systems always are), it is to be expected that Jared Loughner will soon appear in a Phoenix courtroom again, this time for a state proceeding where it's likely that indigent appointments will once again be for his current defense counsel to represent him in the state proceedings. 

There's no one better than Judy Clarke -- good luck to her in this massive undertaking.

Terry Lenamon's List of Federal Death Penalty Aggravating Factors and Mitigating Circumstances

Earlier, we posted an organized list of the mitigating factors recognized by the various states still imposing the death penalty, and that effort has received a good response. It's been helpful. 

Accordingly, In tandem with that state list, we provide an itemized list (hopefully user-friendly) of the corresponding mitigating factors - as well as aggravating factors - that are recognized in federal death penalty cases (non-military).

Federal Death Penalty Statutes - Overview

Federal law provides for the sentence of death when a wide variety of crimes have been committed.  Under federal law, you can be executed without having yourself killing anyone.  For a complete list of the various federal statutes allowing for the death penalty, please refer to the excellent resource list provided by the Death Penalty Information Center.  There's over 40 listed there, at last count. 

In federal death penalty cases, the defense must have two attorneys, and one of them must be death-penalty qualified.  After guilt has been adjudicated, there is a separate trial to determine first if capital punishment is legally an option; thereafter, evidence is presented on the aggravating factors and the mitigators. 

Mitigating circumstances need only be proven by a preponderance of the evidence; however, the prosecution must establish its aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.  The federal death penalty jury cannot sentence a defendant to death unless the vote is unanimous. 

Mitigating Factors In Federal Death Penalty Cases

(1) Impaired capacity.

The defendant’s capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the defendant’s conduct or to conform conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired, regardless of whether the capacity was so impaired as to constitute a defense to the charge.

(2) Duress.

The defendant was under unusual and substantial duress, regardless of whether the duress was of such a degree as to constitute a defense to the charge.

(3) Minor participation.

The defendant is punishable as a principal in the offense, which was committed by another, but the defendant’s participation was relatively minor, regardless of whether the participation was so minor as to constitute a defense to the charge.

(4) Equally culpable defendants.

Another defendant or defendants, equally culpable in the crime, will not be punished by death.

(5) No prior criminal record.

The defendant did not have a significant prior history of other criminal conduct.

(6) Disturbance.

The defendant committed the offense under severe mental or emotional disturbance.

(7) Victim’s consent.

The victim consented to the criminal conduct that resulted in the victim’s death.

(8) Other factors.

Other factors in the defendant’s background, record, or character or any other circumstance of the offense that mitigate against imposition of the death sentence.

Aggravating Factors in Federal Death Penalty Cases

Federal law defines different aggravating factors depending upon the crime involved: treason, for example, has a different set of aggravating factors than homicide or a drug conviction.  The aggravating factors in federal capital punishment cases are as follows:

Continue Reading...

Timothy O'Reilly Trial Hits Penalty Phase This Week in Michigan's Federal Death Penalty Trial

News coverage of Timothy O'Reilly's murder trial this week is providing an example of what occurs during the penalty phase of a death penalty case, specifically one in the federal system, as the Detroit federal courtroom hears testimony from both prosecution and defense in the Timothy O'Reilly case. 

A jury has just returned a guilty verdict in the matter, finding that Timothy O'Reilly committed the crime of murdering Norman Stephens, 30, during an armed robbery of the Dearborn Federal Credit Union in Dearborn. Michigan.  This week, the penalty phase began.

Aggravating Factors - Prosecution's Argument to the Jury that O'Reilly Should Get Death Penalty

It's reported that many have cried as the victim's wife, daughter, niece and nephews testified about the slain armored car guard.  The victim's family spoke today about the loss they have experienced in the eight years since their loved one died.  The prosecution's remaining aggravated evidence is from tape-recorded jailhouse conversations between O'Reilly, his family, and other prisoners. 

Mitigators - Defense's Evidence to the Jurors Against O'Reilly Receiving Capital Punishment

Tomorrow, O'Reilly's defense team is expected to give mitigating evidence to the jury that will include evidence on abnormalities in Mr. O'Reilly's brain function as well as the troubled childhood that he suffered.  They will ask the jury to forego the penalty of death, and opt for a life sentence in the case.

Mitigation evidence should take the rest of this week, with jurors making their decision as soon as next week, after formal deliberations begin.  And, these Michigan men and women will need to have some time to consider everything they've heard as they decide whether or not they will be merciful.  The federal death penalty decision must be a unanimous one.
 

What is the Penalty Phase in a Trial?

As we've discussed here before, during the trial phase of any capital punishment case it is guilt that is at issue.  Judgment is the focus.  If the defendant is adjudged guilty, as O"Reilly has been found, then mercy takes the place of judgment for the decision-maker.

First, the prosecution provides evidence of factors it believes supports its request for death as the appropriate punishment for this man.  Afterwards, the defense produces evidence of mitigating circumstances that argue against the ultimate price for the adjudicated crime. 

Michigan?  Yes, The O'Reilly Case is a Death Penalty Case Out of Michigan.

We've posted about this case earlier, since it is very unusual to be discussing a capital punishment case coming out of Michigan.  The State of Michigan removed the death penalty from its books over a hundred years ago (1846). 

However, Tim O'Reilly was charged and is being tried under federal law, in federal court -- and of course, the death penalty is still an option under federal law.  Occasionally, the federal death penalty will come into play: recent examples include the Oklahoma trial of Timothy McVeigh and the recent Florida trial in the Turnpike killings

And the truth remains:  had this man been charged under state law instead of federal, he would have been tried in a state courtroom close to the district court in which his fate resides, with jurors theoretically chosen out of the same population as sets in the federal trial today.  Death?  If he were in the Michigan courthouse, of course, it wouldn't be on the table. 

Guest Post: Cut This: The Death Penalty by James Clark

[The following post is being republished here with the permission of its author, James Clark, field organizer for the ACLU, Southern California.  It was previously published on the Huffington Post on June 28, 2010.]

California's governor has proposed closing the state's $20 billion budget gap with a drastic cuts-only approach; slashing funding for vital human services without working to increase revenue. Yet one state program seems to be immune from these cuts: the death penalty.

We think the time has come to CUT THIS. (see video below) 

California spends vast amounts of money prosecuting death penalty cases and supporting death row. To avoid executing an innocent person, the death penalty process is long, complicated, and expensive. Each prosecution seeking death costs approximately $1.1 million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment, and with more than 700 inmates, California's death row is by far the largest and most costly in the nation. In total, California's death penalty system costs taxpayers $137 million per year.

Contrast that with just $11 million per year if we replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. Top that off with $400 million saved if we don't build a new death row, needed because the existing one is so old and overcrowded.

Today, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were to convert the sentences of all those on death row to permanent imprisonment, the state would save $1 billion over the next five years without releasing a single prisoner.

But the death penalty is not on the chopping block. Rather than cutting the death penalty, the governor has focused on cutting the "rehabilitation" side of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Programs emphasizing education, rehabilitation, and addiction treatment have all seen cuts to their budgets, while death penalty prosecutions continue statewide. 

Continue Reading...

Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings for Kagan Begin - Where Does Elena Kagan Stand on Death Penalty?

Yesterday, former Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan began answering questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee as confirmation hearings started on her nomination to the United States Supreme Court. 

Elena Kagan is young at 50 years old and her presence on the High Court could impact the law of the land for several decades.  Already, there's rumblings about Kagan never having served as a judge on any court, her scant past experience arguing before an appellate court  -- and many are wondering exactly what her stand is on several social issues.  Like the death penalty.

Where does Elena Kagan stand on capital punishment?

Supreme Court justices only have a single vote each - but they can be eloquent and powerful even when outnumbered in the voting.  Interestingly, Elena Kagan once clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

You'll remember that Justice Marshall, together with fellow Justice William Brennan, concluded in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional -- and afterwards, the two men teamed to dissent (one joining the other) in every single death penalty case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court after Furman, Gregg v. Georgia notwithstanding (in Gregg, the majority held that capital punishment was constitutional). 

Thurgood Marshall Questioning of Kagan Begins on the First Day of Confirmation Hearings

It's no surprise, then, that Elena Kagan is being grilled on her past history with Justice Thurgood Marshall -- nor that she got hit with this questioning right out of the gate.  Betcha Kagan wasn't surprised either.

However, what we're all still wondering:  what exactly does Elena Kagan think of the death penalty?  Will she take up the reins of Marshall and Brennan? 

The Texas Moratorium Network has collected statements made by Elena Kagan on the subject of capital punishment.  Read them here

Meanwhile, questioning of Judge Kagan continues the rest of this week. You can watch them live, and online, at Rod 2.0. 

Death Penalty Cases: U.S. Supreme Court - Furman thru 2009

Late last month, we published a list of Supreme Court precedent over at JD Supra, in a .pdf format (Terry Lenamon’s List of Major United States Supreme Court Death Penalty Cases:Furman v. Georgia (1972) to Harbison v. Bell (2009)). 

Suddenly, over at Twitter, my fellow Tweeters @Joachim65 (aka Joachim Kubler of Germany, blogging at Todesstrafe USA (use GoogleTranslate!)) and @TheOptimistClub (founded by Kathy Brown, blogging at The Optimist Club) had already found the list, and were spreading the word in the Twitter Universe.  @OdellaWilson was giving @TerryLenamon praise (wow) and things were getting Retweeted ... which was all very amazing and complimentary and wonderful. 

So, looks like this list may be helpful, right?  Good!  Here it is again, placed here in the blog, where it's searchable and NOT in a .pdf format, however helpful that might be.  For instance, the links to the full opinions show up in the .pdf format, but maybe they are easier to use in the blog site (maybe?). 

For a full search on all things death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court (or any other topic, for that matter), Cornell University provides a great search tool with its online library.  Cases are even divided into majority opinion vs dissents, etc.  Very handy. 

Now, here's the list.  Caveat:  it's not every case where the High Court deals with capital punishment, nor is it the only list that deals with US Supreme Court cases on the death penalty.  What is hopefully helpful here is that this list: (1) culls out the overturned cases and (2) provides the links to the full opinions so you can jump there to read the case itself. 

Terry Lenamon’s List of Major United States Supreme Court Death Penalty Cases:Furman v. Georgia (1972) to Harbison v. Bell (2009)

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court effectively halted the death penalty in this country with its opinion in Furman v. Georgia. However, the moratorium was short-lived and four years later, the government was again free to kill its citizens as punishment for certain crimes. 

 

For easy reference, here are the major High Court’s decisions dealing with the death penalty from Furman forward (excluding those that have been overruled by later precedent), hyperlinked to the full opinion:

 

1972

Furman v. Georgia

Requires consistency in execution, i.e., consistency in the states’ application of death.

 

1976

Gregg v. Georgia

Reaffirmed use of the death penalty after the states had passed legislation that met the Furman requirements.

 

1977

Coker v. Georgia

Under 8th Amendment, death penalty is not acceptable (i.e., constitutional) punishment for crime of rape of an adult woman when murder not involved, i.e., the victim is not killed. Effectively set the standard that capital punishment should only be imposed when the underlying crime involved the death of another. 

 

1978

Lockett v. Ohio

Sentencing authorities cannot be limited to a list of factors when deciding on imposing capital punishment; constitutionally, they are to have the ability to consider all mitigating factors.

 

1982

Enmund v. Florida

No death penalty for someone who does participate in a felony but not involved in killing – no intent to kill, no attempt (successful or not) to do so.

 

1985

Glass v. Louisiana

Death penalty by electric chair (electrocution) is constitutionally acceptable.

 

1986

Ford v. Wainwright

No death penalty for insane persons.

 

1987

Tison v. Arizona

Death penalty acceptable for defendant convicted of felony murder, who was a major participant and who shows an “extreme indifference to human life.”

 

1988

Lowenfield v. Phelps

State’s determination of which individuals are eligible for the death penalty can be done by statute (legislature decision) or by findings of aggravating circumstances (courtroom decision).

 

1988

Thompson v. Oklahoma

No Death Penalty for children who are 15 years old or younger at the time that the crime is committed.

 

1992

Morgan v. Illinois

In jury selection, the defense can challenge for cause anyone in the jury pool who says they would vote for death penalty in every case.

 

2002

Ring v. Arizona

Death Penalty cannot be imposed unless there is a jury (not judge) determination of the necessary aggravating factors because this is a part of the defendant’s constitutional right to a jury trial. (In 2004, Schriro v. Summerlin refused to apply this retroactively.)

 

2002

Atkins v. Virginia

No Death Penalty of mentally retarded defendants.

 

2004

Tennard v. Dretke

In capital punishment case, all mitigating factors must be considered in both the guilt phase and the penalty (sentencing) phase.

 

2005

Roper v. Simmons

No death penalty for anyone who was under 18 years old when the crime was committed, i.e., juvenile offenders.

 

2006

Oregon v. Guzek

It is constitutional for a judge to limit the sentencing phase evidence of a defendant’s innocence to that which was presented in the trial phase.

 

2006

Kansas v. Marsh

Death penalty can be imposed even though both mitigating and aggravating factors exist.

 

2006

House v. Bell

On appeal, post-conviction DNA forensic evidence can be presented in death penalty cases.

 

2008

Baze v. Rees

Lethal injection (three drug) method acceptable form of execution.

 

2008

Kennedy v. Louisiana

No death penalty for any crime "where the victim's life was not taken."

 

2009

Harbison v. Bell

When the state refuses to provide habeas counsel in post-conviction clemency proceedings, the constitutional right to counsel mandates that federally-funded legal counsel be provided to indigent death row inmates.

The Death Row Fight Continues in Ohio - New Litigation Focuses On Execution Procedures

There are some pretty tough death penalty defense lawyers over in Ohio and they are really showing there stuff right now, charging out of the gate here at the beginning of the new year with strong challenges to Ohio's practice of capital punishment.

Recap - Death Penalty in Ohio for the Past Six Months

As you'll recall from our earlier discussion, Ohio patted itself on the back last month when it became the first state in the union to execute a man using the single drug lethal injection method.  On December 8, 2009, Kenneth Biros died after state executioners essentially injected a large amount of anesthesia into his veins.  And, if that reminds you of the procedure they use to "put down" beloved pets at the vet's office, it should.  It's the same thing - massive anesthesia has been used for years to euthenize dogs and cats. 

Ohio opted for a single drug injection method instead of halting executions in the state after its notoriously horrific attempt at executing Romell Broom in September 2009.  Broom lay strapped to the Death Gurney for over two hours, sobbing (witnesses testified to this), as Ohio executioners tried to kill him with injection needles that were incapable of insertion.  Somehow, these trained personnel were not able to insert a needle into Mr. Broom in order to inject the toxins so he would die.  Finally, the execution was aborted and Mr. Broom returned to his cell. 

Of course, cries of unconstitutionality in the Broom execution immediately rang out, a temporary stay was granted, and his case taken to the courts.  However, that's not all that is happening in Ohio today.

Attorneys representing several Death Row inmates have filed arguments with the courts, challenging the procedures that the State of Ohio uses in its manner of execution.  This is a next-door challenge to the actual lethal injection of drugs itself, and it's a powerful challenge given the facts that are coming to light.

For example, just last Friday lawyers for Romell Broom (Timothy Sweeney and Adele Shank) filed arguments in federal court against the constitutionality of Broom's death sentence, based in part on the inadequate training of his executors. 

Crux of Broom's Argument: Team Member 21

One of the men that tried to find Broom's veins that day had a past employment history in the medical field as a licensed EMT (emergency medical technician), but he hadn't worked in that capacity for years.  Who knows how long it had been since he'd last tried to insert a needle into a human arm.  The Death Chamber wasn't the place for him to practice his atrophied nursing skills.  Add to that fact this one: he wasn't given any training by the Prison before trying to kill Broom on September 15th. 

Furthermore, this guy didn't bother to attend the rehearsals (yes, they rehearse the execution).  Labelled "Team Member 21" in the court filings, he was one of two men responsible for carrying out the capital punishment that day on Romell Broom. 

Even dogs and cats get a trained professional to assist them when they're euthanised.  How Ohio is not hanging its head in shame over this entire situation is amazing.... 

We send wishes for good luck as well as our prayers to our capital defense bretheren in Ohio for victory in this long, hard fight.  

As These Words Are Being Typed, Ohio Is Killing Ken Biros in an Unvetted Execution Method, Unless You Count Euthanasia of Dogs as Vetting

All this morning, there have been almost minute by minute updates on the web regarding whether or not the appellate attorneys feverishly fighting to stop this morning's execution of Kenneth Biros by the State of Ohio will be successful. 

Biros' attorneys are literally banging on the doors of the United States Supreme Court, asking that the highest court in the land act immediately to stay the execution of Ken Biros -- who is set to die this morning  (the execution is scheduled for 11 am) unless something BIG happens. 

And this needs to be stopped.  We've already written here about all the reasons why.

The State of Ohio is about to execute a man in the same way that the vet down the street "executes" pets everyday - by a single, massive injection of a drug.  As we've posted about before, no one knows how a human being will react to this procedure.  It hasn't been scrunitized in the standard legal way -- Ohio is allowing Biros to be a guinea pig.  Will this be cruel and unusual?  We don't know.

The New York Times legal blog has periodic updates.  A local TV station in Ohio has a reporter at the prison.  The Tribune Chronicle in Lucasville is posting almost minute by minute events as they transpire.   

At 9:20 am, prison officials announced that the execution might be delayed - Ohio would wait until the United States Supreme Court ruled on the defense attorneys' last minute request. 

At 10:00 am, it was announced that the United States Supreme Court will not stop the killing of Kenneth Biros by an unvetted execution method. 

Ken Biros will die today. 

And the horror exists -- if this single injection method is later shown to be legally unacceptable as a method of executing humans, there will be no way to help Mr. Biros.  

May God have mercy on us all.

US Supreme Court Recognizes Florida Combat Veteran's Post Traumatic Stress as Mitigating Factor Barring Death Penalty in Porter v. McCollum

Perhaps discussion of the November 30, 2009, opinion by the United States Supreme Court in Porter v. McCollum (08-10537) is best begun by reading the first paragraph of the opinion itself

Petititioner George Porter is a veteran who was both wounded and decorated for his active participation in two major engagements during the Korean War; his combat service unfortunately left him a traumatized, changed man.  His commanding officer's moving description of those two battles was only a fraction of the mitigating evidence that his counsel failed to discover or present during the penalty phase of his trial in 1988.

Of note, the opinion is short by Supreme Court standards (only 15 pages), it is also unsigned and per curiam

1.  It's a per curiam decision for the United States Supreme Court.  What's that telling us?

That this opinion is per curiam alone is worth some pondering.  Usually, the High Court has lots of paper with its results -- various justices writing their own explanations for the position they have taken on a case.  Here, there is just fifteen pages whose words speak for the entirety.  Consider Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98  (2000), another per curiam opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in a Florida case: it still had dissenting opinions. 

That Porter is per curiam is telling.  It's powerful.  PTSD in combat veterans is a mitigating factor that must be considered and respected by the states in death penalty cases. 

2.  Is Porter limited to its four corners?  The opinion doesn't read that way.

There are those that will argue that the Porter case is limited to the facts surrounding the crime for which George Porter, Jr. was convicted and it should not be considered as having a bigger impact.  Prosecutors will undoubtedly argue that the Porter case turned mainly on the specific facts involved in the trying of the defendant for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her current boyfriend, and the actions (or lack thereof) by both the prosecution and the defense in that trial.  And it is true that the appellate arguments advanced by Porter are hinged upon ineffective assistance of counsel.

However, reading the opinion in its entirety, the Supreme Court appears to nip that challenge in the bud by its discussion of post traumatic stress disorder arising from combat.  Not only does the opinion point out that a medical expert testified that Porter's symptoms "...would 'easily' warrant a diagnosis ..." of PTSD, the opinion also references testimony given by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric  Shinseki, where Mr. Shinseki testified that nearly 25% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking V.A. medical treatment were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Consider these words from the opinion:

Our Nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did.  ... The relevance of Porter's extensive combat experience is not only that he served honorably under extreme hardship and gruesome conditions, but also that the jury might find mitigating the intense stress and mental and emotional toll that combat took on Porter.

The opinion doesn't limit itself to discussion of the circumstances of Porter's defense representation at trial, nor to Porter's own Korean combat trauma.  Its application simply cannot be wedged into a narrow application to George Porter's particular circumstance. 

3.  What happens now?

 First: George Porter, Jr. receives a new sentencing hearing, based upon an unanimous United States Supreme Court decision and while his conviction stands, the sentence of death does not.  Mr. Porter will not be executed by the State of Florida now. 

Second: Across the country criminal defense attorneys representing clients facing the death penalty must take heed that PTSD (at least for combat veterans) is a valid mitigating factor for which evidence must be investigated and fully presented as a legally recognized defense to the state's desire for capital punishment. 

The real debate is whether (or when) the Porter PTSD defense can be applied not only to combat veterans but to all those who suffer from severe, disabling post traumatic stress disorder arising from life-threatening events (e.g. victims of kidnapping, torture, rape, etc.).

Kentucky Just Stopped Executing People Today - But It's Temporary

Today, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a ruling that no one is going to be executed in the State of Kentucky until things are done by the book regarding the lethal injection killing method.  The high court set no deadline on when capital punishment might resume in Kentucky, either.  Its formal opinion is already published online at the court's official web site.

The story starts with Ralph Baze

Ralph Baze sits on Kentucky's Death Row after being convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murder of Sheriff Steve Bennett and Deputy Arthur Briscoe of Powell County, Kentucky, back in 1992 while the lawmen were trying to arrest him.  (Baze unsuccessfully urged self-defense.)   After his conviction, Baze joined with fellow Death Row inmate Thomas Clyde Bowling, Jr. in a constitutional fight.

Baze and Bowling both argued by appeal that execution of someone with the three drug "cocktail" established by Kentucky law (and used here in Florida, as described in our earlier series) constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment. 

Baze v. Rees (Baze's appeal) was heard by the United States Supreme Court, and in April 2008, that court ruled that the three drug cocktail did not violate the constitution.  Ginsburg and Souter dissented.

Baze did not stop there.  He then urged a state appeal (joining with Bowling) challenging state procedure, and the Kentucky Supreme Court has heard him. 

What the Kentucky Supreme Court Ruled Today

In today's opinion, the state high court has found that the legal steps that are taken when Kentucky puts a condemned man (or woman) to death through the use of its three drug cocktail have to be specified -- spelled out -- in a state regulation.  

Writing for the majority, Justice Abramson states, ""[t]his court cannot ignore the publication and public hearing requirements set forth in Kentucky statutes."  The opinion then orders the Kentucky Department of Corrections "...to adopt as an administrative regulation all portions of the protocol implementing the lethal injection statute...." 

This will take time.  An adminstrative regulation doesn't just get voted upon by some group -- due process requires much more than that.  What the Kentucky Supreme Court has done is to require the agency to write a regulation and then formally debut it as proposed law.  Then, the public gets a say in the matter as there is a set amount of time for public contributions on the language of the proposed regulation.  Things are discussed, edits may happen.  And only then is the proposal taken to Kentucky's Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee, an arm of the state legislature that votes to adopt/reject the proposal.

US Supreme Court Heard Oral Arguments Yesterday in Wood v. Allen, reviewing Actions of Defense Counsel in Sentencing Phase

Representing clients facing the sentence of dying by the government's hand for crimes they have allegedly committed is what I do.  And, while I represent clients in both phases of a death penalty case, I am particularly known for my work in representing defendants during the sentencing phase. 

So, I'm watching Wood v. Allen with particular interest as it winds its way through review by the highest court in the land.

By way of background, a man named Holly Wood was convicted in an Alabama court of killing his girlfriend.   He was sentenced to die for this act.  Mr. Wood was represented by defense counsel, and Mr. Wood is now arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial because one of his trial lawyers failed to introduce key evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. 

What was that crucial evidence?  It was evidence of a mitigating factor to be considered in Mr. Wood's sentencing -- that he was mentally retarded. 

Holly Wood had three lawyers during the trial, but like many death penalty cases the defense duties were divided, and it's uncontested here that the lawyer responsible for the sentencing phase of the case was a novice.   And here is where things get complicated.

As Mr. Wood's case manuevered through the waters of the state appellate process, his appellate counsel argued that this novice attorney did not provide adequate representation -- and all the state reviewing courts failed to agree.  Instead, they held that Wood's more experienced counsel intentionally withheld the mental retardation evidence as part of their overall trial strategy. 

Entering the federal appellate system under a writ for habeas corpus under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the federal district court went Wood's way and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, opining that that the AEDPA limits review to "...whether there is evidence to support the state courts' findings" and the Alabama court's fact finding was reasonable since Wood failed to show that the defense decision not to present the evidence was not strategic.   Of course, there was a strong dissent which wisely pointed out that the Eleventh Circuit opinion was based upon nothing but "pure speculation" that not presenting key mitigating evidence was a "strategic decision."

Continue Reading...

Washington Sniper Seeks Clemency With Mental Illness Argument To Halt Nov 10th Execution

At this point, it's pretty late in the legal game for John Muhammad, known as The Washington Sniper.  Tried and sentenced to death for the killing of Dean Meyers, the victim of a sniper's bullet at a Manassas, Virginia gas station in 2002, Muhammad has already exhausted appellate avenues aside from the United States Supreme Court.  His attorneys have announced they'll be filing an appeal with the Supreme Court on or before November 3rd.

Asking for Clemency Now Rather than Later

Usually, going to the Governor with a clemency request wouldn't happen until all the court remedies had been exhausted.  With the Washington Sniper, the strategy is different.  Already, his attorneys have met with Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine -- and they've shown the governor a video prepared to support their position.

Mental Illness as a Bar to the Death Penalty

There is already precedent from the United States Supreme Court (Ford v. Wainwright) holding that the mentally ill cannot be condemned to die because it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. 

Why urge clemency with the Governor's Office now?

At the Devine, Connell, Sheldon & Flood website, defense counsel have posted their arguments in the unusual clemency request: 


  • 1.  a juror has said they would not have voted for death if they had known of Muhammad's mental illness; 

  • 2.  experts report that the Washington Sniper suffers from severe mental illness, and this is documented by his brain damage, brain dysfunction, and other neurological deficits as well as his psychotic and delusional behavior; 

  • 3.  he may additionally suffer from Gulf War Syndrome. 


According to media reports, the Governor hasn't been that open to considering clemency for the Washington Sniper -- he's said so, and his office has also leaned on the standard operating procedure of clemency considerations occuring only after judicial review is finished.  

It's an interesting and aggressive tactic that the Sniper's defense counsel is taking.  For all of us that oppose the death penalty, we're rooting for 'em.

Last week, John Marek was Executed by the State of Florida

John Marek died last Wednesday due to lethal injection at the hands of the State of Florida.  His hard-working defense attorney -- who had filed last minute appeals to the Supreme Court trying to keep Marek alive -- didn't go to watch.  Who can blame him. 

It was only a couple of weeks ago that we posted on the eleventh hour efforts to save Marek's life.   There was evidence that he wasn't the killer in this case.  There were procedural concerns regarding recusal of a lower court judge.  There is always the bigger picture -- the controversy over the constitutionality of the death penalty as well as the all-too-often forgotten concept of mercy. 

No matter.  There was no reconsideration of Marek's case by any of the powers that be and the sentence of punishment by death was carried out.   On August 19, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Marek's application for a stay of execution so they could consider his legal arguments.   And, minutes before the execution, it was confirmed that the Governor of Florida would not come forward to stop things. 

John Marek's Death was not obviously horrific, as other lethal injection executions have been.

It is reported that John Marek did not twitch or convulse or otherwise evidence any improprieties during the 13 minutes it took him to die.  Of course, we've already discussed how the Florida drug combo actually paralyzes the body, so observers wouldn't know if Marek was alive and aware for most of those 13 minutes but unable to move or speak ... or if he was in pain.  Many argue that the lethal injection method of killing someone is easier on the observers but may be very cruel to the dying inmate. 

Marek's Last Meal and Last Words

John Marek had a lettuce, tomato, and bacon sandwich (mayo, wheat bread) with onion rings and french fries -- and a Dr. Pepper -- for his last meal.   His last words were of his Christian faith, as he spoke "Jesus remember us sinners," followed by the Lord's Prayer --- and it is always ironic to remember that Christ, too, suffered execution by the government those many years ago. 

Marek lived in a small Death Row cell for 26 years. 

May he, and his loved ones, and the loved ones of murder victim Adela Marie Simmons, -- and that hard-working defense attorney who tried so hard and so well -- all find peace. 

Today John Marek Appeals to US Supreme Court, Scheduled to Die in 12 Days

John Marek's attorneys are fighting hard to stop the State of Florida  from killing their client.

Today, they filed an appeal with the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court, to try and stop the execution of John Richard Marek.  With the Florida Supreme Court ruling that it will not hear anything further in this case, Marek is left with only the U.S. Supreme Court and the Governor of Florida between him and an otherwise certain execution.  (Read docket notice of Marek's Motion to Stay Execution here -- Justice Thomas is assigned to this request. )

What arguments can Marek possibly make to the U.S. Supreme Court now -- over 25 years after the crime occurred for which he was convicted, and within two weeks of his scheduled execution?  Lots of people don't understand the importance of the appellate process in death penalty matters, but Marek's case gives us some idea of how vital appeals can be.  When the government is about to kill one of its own citizens, then the courts must insure that the government is not violating any legal rights in doing so. 

And it appears that Marek has some valid legal arguments to make, such as:   

Evidence that Marek Was Not the Killer

It is not contested at this point that Marek was present at the scene where Adella Simmons was murdered one night on Dania Beach, back in 1983.  However, there is evidence that Marek did not kill the woman that he and his buddy, Ray Wigley, picked up on the Turnpike where her car had broken down. 

The evidence comes from Wigley himself.  Seems he admitted to killing the woman to several folk while he was incarcerated.  Those inmates have come forward with testimony that Ray Wigley -- who was not sentenced to death, as Marek was -- told people on several occasions that he murdered Ms. Simmons, not his pal Marek.  Wigley himself cannot testify.  Wigley is dead.

Past Appellate Arguments Regarding Recusal of Trial Court Judge 

Part of Marek's earlier arguments have been based upon the issue of when a judge should recuse himself.  (For those interested, the Reply Brief filed by Marek's counsel before the Florida Supreme Court is online for viewing.)  This is an issue recently addressed by the US Supreme Court. 

In a far-reaching decision released this past March,  Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. [08-22] (5-4 opinion),  the high court recognizes that due process is violated when someone is before a trial court judge has "...had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge's election campaign when the case was pending or imminent...." and that judge does not recuse himself (withdraw from presiding over the matter).  Caperton has been criticized for not giving enough direction on when a trial judge should and should not recuse himself (as the dissents themselves discuss), therefore judicial recusal is a topic in Marek's appeal which may be of interest to the Justices. 

What is Before the US Supreme Court Right Now Regarding John Marek

First things first.  Justice Thomas is overseeing the Motion to Stay Execution.  Of course, halting the killing scheduled in 12 days is the first priority.  Afterwards, the Petition for Writ of Certiorari and Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis will be heard.  The deadline for the State of Florida to respond is September 7, 2009.   As of this posting, briefing was not available for review.

Considering the Importance of Sonya Sotomayor and Capital Punishment, looking back to Furman v. Georgia and its 5 -4 vote

The news has been filled this week with the questioning of the Latina who may well be our next U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and some may be wondering why all the hoopla. Well, let's look back to 1972, where one single justice's vote successfully halted capital punishment in this country for four years.

Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)

This was a case of a robbery gone bad. Billy Furman was robbing a house in the middle of the night and the homeowner woke up. The homeowner challenged the burglar, and ended up dead. Billy Furman gave two versions of what happened: in one statement, he was trying to escape, tripped, and his gun went off, killing the homeowner. In another statement, Furman shot blind into the darkness, trying to get away, and inadvertently shot the victim.

Either way, someone died during the commission of a felony and under Georgia law, Billy could die for this. And after a jury trial, Bill Furman was sentenced to death for killing the person whose home he was trying to rob.

The case made its way through the appellate courts to the U.S. Supreme Court. Furman's lawyers' question to the high court: does imposing the death penalty constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution?

One page opinion - death penalty was unconstitutional

After reading briefs from the Furman team as well as the State of Georgia and various interested parties in their "friend of the court" briefs (amicus curaie), a majority vote of 5 to 4 held that the death penalty violated the United States Constitution.

One vote, by a single justice was the deciding factor. A very, very important swing vote.

Lots of written explanations by the Justices

Of course, that one page opinion didn't get filed of record all by itself. The justices wrote to justify their positions on the vote, filing concurrences with the majority opinion and formal dissents to the outcome.

Every single justice wrote his own explanation of why he voted the way he did in Furman v. Georgia:

Justice William Brennan voted yes, believing that the death penalty was unconstitional, period. "...Ours would indeed be a simple task were we required merely to measure a challenged punishment against those that history has long condemned. That narrow and unwarranted view of the [Cruel and Unusual Punishment] Clause, however, was left behind with the 19th century. Our task today is more complex. We know "that the words of the [Clause] are not precise, and that their scope is not static." We know, therefore, that the Clause "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." ... That knowledge, of course, is but the beginning of the inquiry."

Justice Thurgood Marshall agreed with Brennan. "...The elasticity of the constitutional provision under consideration presents dangers of too little or too much self-restraint. Hence, we must proceed with caution to answer the question presented. By first examining the historical derivation of the Eighth Amendment and [408 U.S. 238, 316] the construction given it in the past by this Court, and then exploring the history and attributes of capital punishment in this country, we can answer the question presented with objectivity and a proper measure of self-restraint. Candor is critical to such an inquiry. ... Candor compels me to confess that I am not oblivious to the fact that this is truly a matter of life and death. Not only does it involve the lives of these three petitioners, but those of the almost 600 other condemned men and women in this country currently awaiting execution. While this fact cannot affect our ultimate decision, it necessitates that the decision be free from any possibility of error."

Justice Potter Stewart didn't believe that the way that the death penalty was imposed was constitutional. He voted yes. "I simply conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."

Justice William Douglas had problems with an apparent arbitrary imposition of the death penalty and on those grounds, found capital punishment to be unconstitutional. He also voted yes. "The generality of a law inflicting capital punishment is one thing. What may be said of the validity of a law on the books and what may be done with the law in its application do, or may, lead to quite different conclusions. It would seem to be incontestable that the death penalty inflicted on one defendant is "unusual" if it discriminates against him by reason of his race, religion, wealth, social position, or class, or if it is imposed under a procedure that gives room for the play of such prejudices."

Justice Byron White agreed with Justice Douglas on the arbitrariness concern. Another yes vote. "The narrower question to which I address myself concerns the constitutionality of capital punishment statutes under which (1) the legislature authorizes the imposition of the death penalty for murder or rape; (2) the legislature does not itself mandate the penalty in any particular class or kind of case (that is, legislative will is not frustrated if the penalty is never imposed), but delegates to judges or juries the decisions as to those cases, if any, in which the penalty will be utilized; and (3) judges and juries have ordered the death penalty with such infrequency that the odds are now very much against imposition and execution of the penalty with respect to any convicted murderer or rapist. It is in this context that we must consider whether the execution of these petitioners would violate the Eighth Amendment."

Justice William Reinquist voted no. "The Court's judgments today strike down a penalty that our Nation's legislators have thought necessary since our country was founded."

Justice Burger voted no. "If we were possessed of legislative power, I would either join with [Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall] ... or, at the very least, restrict the use of capital punishment to a small category of the most heinous crimes. Our constitutional inquiry, however, must be divorced from personal feelings as to the morality and efficacy of the death penalty, and be confined to the meaning and applicability of the uncertain language of the Eighth Amendment."

Justice Blackmun voted no. "...I trust the Court fully appreciates what it is doing when it decides these cases the way it does today. Not only are the capital punishment laws of 39 States and the District of Columbia struck down, but also all those provisions of the federal statutory structure that permit the death penalty apparently are voided."

Justice Powell voted no. "It is the judgment of five Justices that the death penalty, as customarily prescribed and implemented in this country today, offends the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. The reasons for that judgment are stated in five separate opinions, expressing as many separate rationales. In my view, none of these opinions provides a constitutionally adequate foundation for the Court's decision."

Innocent Man May Be Executed in Georgia - The Troy Davis Case

Around twenty years ago, a cop was gunned down in Savannah and Troy Davis was caught and convicted for the crime. Nineteen years old at the time, he was sentenced to die, and he has watched all this time pass - 1989 to today - from a small, bleak Death Row cell over in Georgia.

Teen Sent to Die Without Any Physical Evidence

Davis has consistently maintained he is innocent of this crime. Over the years, the evidence used against him has slipped away: 7 of the 9 witnesses who testified Davis did it have changed their minds and recanted their testimony. Oh, and there never was any physical evidence linking Troy Davis to the crime. It's all eyewitness testimony.

No gun. No bullets. No blood or bone or anything else to use DNA testing on - like they seem to always have in CSI or NCIS.

One of Two Remaining Un-recanting Witnesses Is Rumored to be the Real Killer

Meanwhile, there has been some witness identification of another man as being the shooter - a man who is still free, and has been free all the while that Troy Davis has lived his life behind bars. And, rumors have it that this shooter just happens to be one of the two remaining witnesses that pointed their fingers at Troy Davis and didn't recant later. Wow.

Why the Troy Davis Case?

We're visiting the Troy Davis case this week, because the U.S. Supreme Court isn't. The high court has just taken off on its summer vacation, and before they hung up their "gone fishing" sign, a clerk took the time to notify Davis's attorney that they'll get around to deciding his case when they come back to work in September.

Which means that Troy Davis, who has been through the wringer more than once already (he was two hours away from being executed in September 2008 when the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the killing), must wait some more.

The U.S. Supreme Court has Waffled

Last September, the U.S. Supreme Court halted Troy's execution. Then - less than two weeks later - the Supremes decided they wouldn't intervene, and released the hounds as it were for Georgia to proceed with the execution. The cavalry appeared in the form of a federal appeals court in Georgia, which granted a temporary stay of execution and let Davis have the chance to continue his appellate fight.

By its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court last fall was telling Georgia that it would not consider the legal issue of whether or not it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty when new evidence has been brought forth that shows the inmate's innocence. (This doesn't seem like a hard question to answer, but they refused it anyway.)

With Troy Davis back before them, Georgia considered the possibility that there might be evidence that proved Davis to be innocent, and then denied his request for a new trial - but was nice enough to hold off on capital punishment to let Troy Davis return to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oh. The Georgia Pardons and Parole Board held hearings, too, and even interviewed Davis and the witnesses all over again ...and then denied clemency. Don't know much about this Board, and apparently no one else does either. No records are made; their hearings aren't open to the public.

Davis is black, the cop was white - and Davis is asking for a new trial, not a free pass

Did I fail to mention before this that Davis is black, the cop was white? Well, some folk think this fact is important.

Did I fail to point out that all Troy Davis is asking for is just the chance to have a trial where this exculpatory evidence can be brought before a factfinder? He's not asking for mercy, he's asking for justice.

Troy Davis has some very big supporters in his corner. Like the Pope.

And lots of people think that Troy Davis deserves another trial, to have a chance to bring forth this new evidence. Over 60,000 U.S. citizens have signed a petition asking for just that ... and there's been a lot of public outcry as well, from some people that you may recognize, like:

1. The Pope. Yes, Pope Benedict XVI knows about Troy Davis's case.
2. The European Union. Yes, all 27 countries have cohesively offered their support.
3. Desmond Tutu of South Africa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
4. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Laura Moye of Amnesty International has been quoted as saying that this "gone fishing" delay of the U.S. Supreme Court is good, because it gives Troy Davis and his supporters more time to get publicity for his plight: to let people know that an innocent man is facing execution over in Georgia if nothing happens to stop it.

So, here's my little bit of publicity for Troy Davis. Please, spread the word.

For more information, please visit: Take Action for Troy

The Elusive Memo by U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor -- What is Her Position, Today, on the Death Penalty?

As I'm sure you know, Sonia Sotomayor has been nominated by President Obama to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter. For those concerned about capital punishment, it hasn't been that easy to determine exactly what the nominee's position is on the death penalty.

The Elusive Sotomayor Memo.

Judge Sotomayor did not include something she wrote over 20 years ago as part of her confirmation submission. While that may have been oversight, some are suggesting that it means something more - particularly when, for a time, it was hard to find the memo itself to read its full text. (It's been found.   Here's a copy if you would like to review it, provided by the folks over at Crime and Consequences.)

Prosecutors worry about her.

Check out 22-year law enforcement veteran Bruce Castor's concerns, as he discusses the Pennsylvania case of Joseph Kindler in an editorial he wrote for The Patriot News.

Defense attorneys worry about her.

Check out Jeff Gamso's concerns - which also include a review of Sotomayor's precedent and past history dealing with the police - at his blog, Gamso for the Defense.

And, over at Crime and Consequences, they try and take an undecided approach to the issue - viewing the memo as neither a supporter nor an opponent of the death penalty - to see what this memo tells us. It's a lengthy analysis, and worth the read.

Allegedly Improper Communications Between Judge and Broward County Prosecutor Gets Death Row Inmate Omar Louriero a New Trial

Omar Loureiro will be tried a second time for the murder of a Lighthouse Point man who he had gone home with from a local bar: right now, he's setting on Death Row for this crime.

In 2007, Loureiro was tried for first degree murder in the case, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Two years later, he's going back in the courtroom - and it's all because of the actions of the judge and the prosecutor in his first murder trial. (The new trial date hasn't been set.)

Testimony that Judge and Prosecutor Discussed the Case Over Dinner

Bottom line, there was testimony by Broward County prosecutor Sheila Alu that she had dinner with both Judge Ana Gardiner and prosecutor Howard Scheinberg, where they talked about the case, days before Loureiro was convicted. In fact, Alu testified that they had joked about the case.

Judge and Prosecutor Tell Their Side

The judge and prosecutor Scheinberg gave testimony, too - they admitted to an "appearance of impropriety," because they ran into each other at the restaurant while the trial was ongoing, but they denied discussing, much less joking, about Mr. Loureiro's trial. Critically, both also revealed in their testimony that they talked on the phone (cellphones, not office landlines) about the Louriero case sometime between this restaurant event and Mr. Louriero's sentencing several months later.

The Appearance of Impropriety is the Standard

Looks bad, especially since all attorneys everywhere recognize that phrase "appearance of impropriety" all too well. It's engrained early on that attorneys (and judges) are to err on the side of caution - we're not to give even a suggestion that anything inappropriate is taking place.

The Recent Texas Judge and Prosecutor Case Comparison

Of course, things can get much worse than this. Much worse. Over in Texas, it was revealed last year that a trial judge and the district attorney assigned to her courtroom had been carrying on a secret love affair for many years - and no one knew (though there was much courthouse gossip suggesting it) until one of the prosecutor's assistants blew the whistle on the two, which resulted in at least one Texas Death Row conviction being overturned thus far.

Charles Hood's conviction was overturned last month with the court ruling he had received an "unfair trial" due to the relationship between the judge and the prosecutor during his murder trial - and this, without any direct evidence that the judge and the district attorney ever spoke about the case directly.

Florida's 30th Anniversary for the Death Penalty

There was a time in the mid-twentieth century when this country had essentially suspended the death penalty. It didn't last long.

First, in 1972, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Furman v. Georgia, opening the doors for capital punishment to be an accepted form of punishment should a state seek to impose it upon a defendant. In Furman, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the death penalty to be imposed at the same time that a defendant was found guilty. Deciding the penalty of death would have to take place only after a guilty verdict was announced.

Second, in the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that capital punishment, in and of itself, was not in violation of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, it was legal to kill citizens as punishment for certain crimes in this country, should the state choose to do so. They just had to follow the two-prong trial phase of guilt/punishment established in Furman.

Many state statutes were unconstitutional under Furman, and if a state wanted to impose capital punishment as allowed by Gregg, a new law would have to be enacted that comported with Furman's requirements. It fell upon the Great State of Florida to be the first state to act in accordance with the Furman decision, and to reinstitute the death penalty with a newly written statute in August 1972.

Florida's 30 Year Anniversary

And while Florida did commute over 90 cases because of the Furman decision, Florida was also the first state to impose the penalty of death since 1964 - a moratorium of 15 years - when in 1979, John Arthur Spenkelink was executed by electric chair ("Old Sparky") in 1979.

There has been some worthwhile media coverage of this thirty year milestone, and of particular interest is:

1. Coverage by the Associated Press' Ron Wood, where interviews of Richard Dugger, the assistant warden of the Florida State Prison at the time of the Spenkelink Execution, as well as David Kendall, Spenkelink's attorney - and eyewitness to the execution, are provided. There is some worthwhile discussion of death by electrocution, including some graphic details of the botched executions involving Florida's electric chair, known as "Old Smokey."

2. Naples Daily News' Jeff Weiner's article focusing upon the ten Florida Death Row inmates pertaining to Southwest Florida (Lee and Collier County). Note the length of time that these individuals have been facing death, and consider once again what daily life on Death Row is like (see 04/04/09 post, "What it's Really Like on Florida's Death Row.").

In-Depth Look at the Law: Does the Florida Death Penalty by Lethal Injection Violate the Constitution?

I have real concerns about the constitutionality of the current means of capital punishment here in Florida - and really, in most of the country today. And it's not just me - many Death Penalty Qualified Defense attorneys here in Florida share the same concern regarding execution by lethal injection.

Why?

There is a strong argument that execution by lethal injection violates both the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. In the next series of scholarly posts that appear here on the blog every Friday, we'll be looking at this issue.

The State and Federal Constitutions forbid foreseeable and unnecessary pain in the execution of an individual.

Much of the language that you will be seeing here is language that commonly appears in motions filed by counsel representing defendants who have been sentenced to death by the State of Florida. It's a solid and sturdy argument against the use of lethal injection, and there are many attorneys, legal scholars, professors, sociologists, and other professionals, who stand on this position:

Both the Florida and the U.S. Constitutions forbid the infliction of unnecessary pain -- that is, any pain that could reasonably be avoided -- in the execution of a sentence of death. The courts have ruled that the infliction of a severe punishment by the state cannot comport with human dignity when it is unnecessary and nothing more than the pointless infliction of suffering. Furthermore, [p]unishments are held to be cruel when they involve . . . a lingering death. In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 447 (1890); see also Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637, 125 S.Ct. 2117, 2122,158 L.Ed. 2d 924 (2004).

A punishment is particularly constitutionally offensive - and therefore, illegal -- if it involves the foreseeable infliction of suffering. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 273 (1973). Such things as (1) the probable length of time the condemned remains conscious of the process; (2) the physical or psychological pain he or she suffers during this period; and (3) the time it takes for death to occur must all be taken into consideration in determining whether a means of execution violates the constitution. See Fierro v. Gomez, 865 F. Supp. 1387, 1413 (N.D. Cal. 1994), aff'd, 77 F.3d 301, 308 (9th Cir. 1996), vacated on other grounds, 519 U.S. 918 (1996).

Continue Reading...

US Supreme Court Finds Prosecution Intentionally Violated Due Process in 20 Yr Old Death Penalty Case

Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument in the Bies case (see 04/27/09 post), and the very next day issued its opinion in Cone v. Bell, 555 U.S. ___ (2009), both capital punishment cases where the defendant argued a diminished capacity of some sort. In today's case, there was an intentional hiding of the ball by the State and a definite due process problem.

Gary Cone was a known drug addict who murdered two people.

It is undisputed that Gary Cone was a Vietnam veteran who returned home to Memphis, Tennessee, and failed to cope well with civilian life. One Saturday morning in 1980, Gary Cone robbed a jewelry store - obviously, not very well - and was promptly pursued by local police in what turned into a high speed chase.

Veering into a residential neighborhood, Cone abandoned his car and shot both a police officer and a Good Samaritan who tried to stop him as Cone fled on foot. On the hunt for another getaway car, Cone tried to carjack someone and when they refused to give them the keys, he tried to shoot them, too, only to find he was out of bullets. By this time, helicopters were flying overhead and the scene was escalating to a frantic pace. (You've seen the reality TV shows like COPS, you can visualize these events.)

Somehow that Saturday afternoon, Cone got away. No one could find him. However, early the next morning, Gary Cone was still in the neighborhood - knocking on the door of an elderly couple, Shipley and Cleopatra Todd. He asked to use their phone; Cleo Todd refused and slammed the door on Cone. Cleo called the cops, and still Cone could not be found.

The tragedy occurred later that same day. Cone returned to the Todd home, forced himself into their house, and beat the two senior citizens to death before tearing their house apart. He shaved there, got himself to the Memphis airport, and was busted while robbing a drug store in Pompano Beach, Florida a couple of days later.

Vietnam Vet Cone Asserted an Insanity Defense - He Didn't Contest His Actions

Vietnam vet Gary Cone was arrested, tried, and convicted of the Todds' murder. He never challenged evidence that showed he committed these horrific acts. What he asserted as his defense was his mental illness: Cone's defense team brought forth evidence to show that Cone suffered from chronic amphetamine psychosis, a mental disorder caused by excessive drug abuse.

Experts testified that the drug use began while Cone was serving in Vietnam, where he was using "horrific" quantities of drugs while dealing with the bodies of dead soldiers. The mental illness caused by this drug use created a level of paranoia and a disorder including hallucinations that would keep Cone from understanding or being able to conform to everyday life and the boundaries imposed by Tennessee law.

In sum, the entirety of Cone's defense was mental illness. He was legally insane when the crimes were committed.

Continue Reading...

23 Years After Being Sentenced to Die, 55 Year Old Nathan Fields Finally Exonerated

Last week, over in a Chicago courtroom, Nathan Fields stood to hear Circuit Judge Vincent Gardenia find him not guilty of murder. Nathan Fields is 55 years old, and he's finally been cleared 23 years after he was sentenced to death by a notoriously corrupt Illinois judge.

What happened in Nathan Fields' case?

The truth has come to light, and it has been shown that the trial court judge in Fields' initial trial accepted a $10,000 bribe in the case. Judge Tom Mahoney actually took the money to find Fields and his codefendant not guilty, but apparently Mahoney got nervous that he was about to be caught. So, he returned the bribe to its source, went ahead and found both men guilty of a double murder, and sentenced them both to death.

Nathan Fields Spent 7 Years on Death Row and Awaited Retrial for 11 Years

Nathan Fields was granted a new trial in 1998, and he was released pending retrial in 2003 when a fellow Death Row inmate put up his bail. That Death Row inmate who put up the money for Fields to walk free pending full exoneration is a man named Aaron Patterson. He's still on Death Row.

Patterson's generosity allowed Fields to be free in Chicago, with his family, after serving seven years on Illinois' Death Row. Still, it was over ten years before Fields' case came before another judge and his name was cleared of the murder charge.

What are his plans now?

Nathan Fields plans on taking a vacation with his family - he's never seen the ocean or the mountains, he's told reporters. He also plans on opening a construction company with his friend Aaron Patterson - although right now, Aaron Patterson remains behind bars.

Judge Tom Mahoney Fixed Murder Trials for Money

These are all facts that have been established. Judge Mahoney was caught for his evildoing, tried, and found guilty of conspiracy, racketeering, extortion, and obstructing justice in April 1993. Thomas Mahoney spent over 12 years behind bars before he died at the age of 83.

Continue Reading...

Texas Chief Justice Sharon Keller's Lesson to Us All About Due Process

Due process under the law has been constitutionally protected since our nation began, although the phrase gets tossed around quite a bit these days without much concern as to its real importance.

Due process is protected by the 5th (federal) and 14th (state) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, although it is a principle with origins in the Magna Carta. In that historic document, England's King John promised that "...[n]o free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land."

King John signed the Magna Carta over 790 years ago. You'd think that due process of law would be pretty much settled into a traditional, solid role in our society by now. Particularly so, when it comes to those officials in positions of authority. But if you think that, you'd be wrong.

Due Process of Law is endangered in this country.

Never has our sacred right to due process under the law been more endangered than it is today. And no - I'm not about to delve into the current Florida case concerning a young woman awaiting trial for the murder of her child.

Instead, I'm looking over at our sister state, Texas, and what's been going on over there since the afternoon of September 26, 2007.

Texas Chief Justice Faces Criminal Charges, Civil Trial, and Impeachment Arising From Death Penalty Case

Criminal charges were recently filed against Sharon Keller, the Chief Justice of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, by Texans for Public Justice for her actions on the day that Michael Richard was executed by lethal injection. (In Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest court for all criminal matters; the state divides its civil and criminal caseloads, and has a separate high court, the Texas Supreme Court, which hears all civil matters as the state court of last resort.)

Continue Reading...

Jury Votes Federal Death Penalty for Florida Turnpike Killings

There is a federal death penalty, just like there is the option of capital punishment in the majority of states, and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh comes to mind as a well-recognized example of the federal death penalty statute in action. (McVeigh's 2001 execution was the first exercise of federal capital punishment since 1963.)

However, this week was the first time since federal capital punishment was authorized once again by Congress, over twenty years ago, that a Florida jury actually voted to put someone to death as punishment for their crime.

Perhaps you've heard of the Turnpike Killings.

On March 31, 2009, defendants Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez, Jr. stood to hear an unanimous jury verdict that condemned the two men to death for the killing of Luis Julian Escobedo, 4, and Luis Damian Escobedo, 3, back in October 2006, while voting that the two defendants should receive life sentences for the killings of Luis and Yessica Escobedo. The jury deliberated almost four days before returning with their decision.

Of course, this is a drug-related crime. The Escobedo couple was involved with a drug cartel run by Daniel Varela, who has been sentenced to life in prison on drug trafficking charges, and it is undisputed that the deaths were related to the distribution and sale of cocaine in South Florida.

This is far from over.

Continue Reading...

U.S. Supreme Court nixes hearing Thompson v. McNeil (08-7369) - but does 32 years in a Death Row cell amount to cruel and unusual punishment?

This month, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a well-watched Florida case, Thompson v. McNeil (08-7369), where William Lee Thompson, sentenced to death in a Florida court back in 1976, requested their consideration of the question: does extended delay of the sentence of death amount to cruel (if not unusual) punishment and therefore violate the 8th Amendment?

Well, the High Court did fail to grant writ (opinion), but that doesn't mean we don't have a lot to consider from the opinion that did spring forth. Let's ponder the following:

Justice John Paul Stevens' Statement

First, I've read that Justice John Paul Stevens issued a dissent in this case; however, technically it was not a dissent but a statement. And, a statement that conforms to his longstanding position that the the death penalty is wrong. (Stevens already called for an end to the death penalty.)

In it, Stevens wrote, "[o]ur experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable and that executing defendants after such is unacceptably cruel," to which Justice Stephen Breyer gave his support in a formal dissent from the denial of certiorari.

Justice Stephen Breyer's Dissent

In his dissent, Breyer went into the appellate pathways that the Williamson case has taken over the past 30+ years, including such considerations as the fact that Williamson's spent over half his life on Death Row while the appeals have taken a life all their own, and the reality that Williamson's accomplice - who might have been more culpable than Williamson in the underlying crime - was not sentenced to death. Interesting point.

Justice Clarence Thomas' Concurrence

Justice Clarence Thomas, meanwhile, wrote his own concurrence to the Court's denial of certiorari. In it, Thomas opined ""[i]t is the crime and not the punishment imposed by the jury or the delay in execution that was 'unacceptably cruel, ..." and thereafter provided extensive details on the underlying crime for which Thompson was convicted to support his position. (It is not disputed that the crime for which Thompson was convicted was shocking.)

Why Isn't This Cruel - If Not Unusual? Oh, and What About the Budget?

Continue Reading...
 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...