Sept. 21


Report highlights 'broken' death penalty appeals process

A new report is raising concerns about an appeals system for death penalty cases in Texas. The analysis from the non-profit law firm Texas Defender Service found issues with the legal representation for defendants sentenced to death and who cannot afford attorneys. The report concludes that the mandatory appeals process in Texas death penalty cases called "direct appeal" is failing.

"We have attorneys that submit briefs that reuse the same losing arguments over and over again," said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service.

The report states that some attorneys have skipped oral arguments or taken on case loads big enough for 3 or more attorneys to handle.

"These deficiencies reflect systemic problems with the state's indigent defense apparatus and not merely isolated failures by a handful of attorneys," the report notes.

Anthony Graves spent more than 18 years in prison. He was sentenced to die for multiple murders in Somerville, Texas - murders he did not commit.

"I lost the opportunity to see my kids grow up," Graves said in a Skype interview with KXAN.

Graves says he looked at the report from Texas Defender Service. Graves also did not succeed in his direct appeal.

"At the end of the day it's a rubber stamp system," Graves said.

"The easy fix is to establish a statewide office responsible for representing death sentenced inmates," said Jordan Steiker, co-director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas School of Law.

Now, it will up to the legislature to decide whether to establish such an office. A member of Texas Defender Service estimated the office would likely need a budget of around $500,000 per year.

Austin lawyer Ariel Payan, who has defended clients in death penalty cases, says he agreed with the findings he was able to examine in the report. He believes the system needs changes. However, he questions how a centralized office for direct appeals would work.

KXAN News also reached out to staff at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and Travis County District Attorney's Office, but did not immediately hear back.

(source: KXAN news)


A death penalty story

Since 1976, 156 death row inmates have been released from American prisons because new evidence proved their innocence. One of them will be in New Hampshire later this month to show a documentary film about his narrow escape from execution.

In 1985, Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Marine with no prior criminal record, was erroneously convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He spent nearly a decade in prison, including 2 years on death row, before DNA evidence exonerated him.

New Hampshire is the only New England state that hasn't abolished the death penalty. As citizens of New Hampshire, we must ask ourselves whether we're willing to be complicit in the practice of legalized killing in retribution for crime. Is justice really served by taking a human life? Should we accept the occasional, but inevitable, execution of an innocent person as the price of retaining the capital punishment option?

Please spend an evening with Mr. Bloodsworth and hear his perspective on these issues. He'll be showing his film and answering questions at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester (Robert Frost Hall) on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 6 p.m. Admission is free. Go to for more information, including additional dates and times.


(source: Letter to the Editor, Concord Monitor)


NC attorney general hopefuls debate: When is it OK not to defend a state law?

There's no incumbent in this year's attorney general race, but a debate Tuesday night between the 2 candidates for the office largely centered on Roy Cooper's record.

Cooper, a Democrat, is running for governor after 12 years as attorney general. Republican Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson and former Democratic Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh are vying to replace him.

Newton repeatedly criticized Cooper during the debate, which was held in Asheboro and is the only forum featuring the attorney general race.

Newton said Cooper has refused to defend laws such as voter ID that he disagrees with. Cooper has defended the laws but declined to pursue some appeals sought by Republican lawmakers.

"As an attorney general, your job is to defend the laws of this state," Newton said. "It's a very dangerous thing for the concept of rule of law if you have an attorney general deciding which law fits their agenda."

Stein defended Cooper's approach, noting that the incumbent defended the voter ID law in court for 3 years, but he declined to appeal further after a federal court ruled it discriminated against black voters.

"When you've been told that you're denying people their constitutional rights, it's an appropriate time to step back," Stein said. "The role of the attorney general is not to make policy but to defend the state. When the state is sued, the attorney general will defend that, but it has to be consistent with the U.S. Constitution."

Stein criticized Newton for focusing on Cooper. "By the way, my name is Josh Stein, not Roy Cooper," he said. "You are running against me, not him."

Newton responded by pointing to Stein's 8 years working under Cooper as a deputy attorney general.

"Perhaps I'm running against someone who was very happy to work for him, who was very happy to be mentored by him," Newton said.

Stein, however, touted his experience. "I will not need on-the-job training as attorney general because I already know the job," he said. "My opponent has not worked a day as an assistant attorney general or a day as a criminal prosecutor."

Newton has been an attorney in private practice for 16 years. He has chaired judiciary and public safety committees in the Senate.

While both Stein and Newton said they support the death penalty, they disagreed about the Racial Justice Act, which allowed criminals facing the death penalty to get a sentence of life in prison by proving that race played a role in their jury selection. The law was passed by Democrats, including Stein, in 2009 and repealed in 2013 after Republicans took control of the legislature.

Stein says the law was needed to "ensure no one is put to death based on the color of their skin." But Newton said the law didn't work.

"This law allowed convicted white murderers of law enforcement officers to appeal their death sentence, simply because they said there weren't enough white people or black people on the jury," he said.

While both candidates have made House Bill 2 a frequent topic in their campaigns - Newton helped sponsor it and Stein is a vocal critic - debate moderators failed to ask about the controversial law.

The debate was broadcast live only by radio, but it will be televised Thursday night at 9 p.m. on UNC-TV's North Carolina Channel.



Death penalty hearings delay local murder trial

The trial of a man accused of 3 murders across the Panhandle will be pushed back as the U.S. Supreme Court assesses Florida's revision to its death penalty trial procedures.

The attorney for Derrick Ray Thompson, 43, appeared in court Tuesday on his behalf because Thompson is being housed in Santa Rosa County as a high-security prisoner. He is charged with 3 1st-degree murder charges stemming from July 2014, including the shooting death of a former Bay County sheriff's officer and nightclub owner, 66-year-old Allen Johnson. Thompson faces the death penalty, but his trial date is now in limbo as the U.S. Supreme Court looks over revisions to the state's capital trial procedures.

Prosecutors in Santa Rosa County also are pursuing the death penalty for Thompson in connection with the fatal shootings of Milton residents Steven Zackowski, 60, and Debra Zackowski, 59. A trial date in that case has yet to be announced.

During Tuesday's hearing, prosecutor Larry Basford said Thompson first will be tried in Santa Rosa on those charges. However, both circuits have concluded that taking the case to trial before a ruling on Florida's death penalty cases could be time-consuming and costly.

"We certainly want to get this case to trial, but we don't want to try it twice," he said.

Basford said he expects a ruling some time in November. A follow-up hearing was scheduled for January.

(source: Panama City News Herald)


Future of death penalty fuzzy as challenges delay executions

Like a prisoner awaiting execution, the death penalty may not have much time left.

Executions nationwide are on track to hit a 25-year low this year, caused by a mixture of drug shortages, poorly executed executions and legal changes in how death sentences can be imposed.

The state of Florida is dealing with all 3 of those issues, but the latest trouble comes from legal challenges. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a case known as Hurst v. Florida that it is unconstitutional for Florida judges alone to impose death sentences, without the recommendation of 10 out of 12 jurors.

Out of nearly 3 dozen states that have the death penalty, Florida is 1 of just 3 - including Alabama and Delaware - that do not require a unanimous recommendation for death, even with the new ruling.

Under Florida's old law, jurors by a simple majority could recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that "sufficient" aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating factors, existed for the death penalty to be imposed.

Only one execution has taken place in Florida this year, after 7 and 8 in 2013 and 2014, respectively, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that collects information and data about capital punishment.

Robert Dunham, the center's executive director, said Florida will have a number of important choices to make, including what to do with the nearly 400 death sentences that have been unconstitutionally imposed in the state.

"One way or another, the state has a problem because it will either declare Hurst v. Florida to apply retroactively, in which case most people on death row will be removed from the row, or it will say that it is OK with us to execute people despite the fact that we now know that they were not fairly sentenced to death," Dunham said.

"Either way, that's a significant problem," he said.

In a prepared statement, Gov. Rick Scott's office said his stance on the death sentence has not changed.

"Signing death warrants is one of the governor's most solemn duties," the statement read. "His foremost concerns are the families of the victims and the finality of judgments."

Stacy Scott, Alachua County's public defender, said she hopes the execution rate continues to decline.

"I hope that Florida joins the rest of the country in taking away the penalty," Scott said.

She also said the Legislature has the power to make that happen, if legislators have the will.

Besides legal troubles, Florida has, along with other states, faced drug shortages.

Up until 2013, states nationwide used a drug called pentobarbital sodium that was manufactured by Danish-based drug company Lundbeck. States had to switch to other substances once Lundbeck began to refuse to sell pentobarbital sodium for use in executions after it discovered the drug was being used for that purpose.

The 3-drug cocktail that many states switched to contains a new drug called midazolam hydrochloride, which has brought its own host of challenges. The 1st death row inmate injected with the drug was a Florida man named William Happ, in 2013. After he was injected with the drug and declared dead, he continued to move back and forth, even after his breathing stopped. Other states that have seen a dropoff in executions include Ohio, where the last execution took place in January 2014. The man put to death, Dennis McGuire, gasped and snorted repeatedly during a 25-minute execution that used a 2-drug combination that had never been tried before.

There have been 15 executions in the U.S. so far this year, and at the current pace there would be 19 by the end of 2016. That's far from the peak of 98, back in 1999.

Dunham said that he believes the death penalty may be on its way out. He notes that the punishment is being used in fewer places, is being sought by prosecutors less frequently and juries are increasingly reluctant to impose it.

"At some point, if these trends continue, the U.S. Supreme Court is going to review whether there is now a national consensus against the death penalty that would cause it to declare the practice unconstitutional," Dunham said.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in an interview with The Associated Press in July that she believes the death penalty may be fading away, based on the reduction in states that are enforcing the sentences.

"The executions that we have are very heavily concentrated in a few states and even a few counties within those states," Ginsberg said.



Trial set to begin for dad facing death penalty

Opening statements are set to begin Wednesday morning in the trial of a 34-year-old man facing the death penalty in the killing of his 2-year-old daughter who officials said was starved and tortured most of her life.

Glen Bates and his girlfriend, Andrea Bradley, are charged with aggravated murder in the 2015 death of their daughter, Glenara. Both have turned down plea deals that would have removed the option of death sentences. Bradley's case is being handled separately. On Monday, Bates for a 2nd time turned down a plea deal.

If Bates had pleaded guilty Monday, he would have faced at least 15 years to life in prison.

Officials have said Glenara likely had gone days without food or water before she died. It was Bradley who on March 29, 2015, brought her cold and limp body to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

They were living in a rented house in East Walnut Hills with Glenara and Bradley's 5 other children, although Bates told detectives he???d only been living there about 2 weeks.

Hamilton County's coroner has said Glenara had no muscle mass, and was "literally skin over bones."

The case is in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court before Judge Megan Shanahan. Jury selection began Monday; a jury was finalized Tuesday.



Reginald Clemons will face retrial in 1991 Chain of Rocks Bridge killings next August

St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison on Tuesday granted a 6-month trial date extension for Reginald Clemons in the 1991 killings of 2 sisters on the Chain of Rocks Bridge.

At the end of a nearly 2-hour hearing Tuesday, Burlison tentatively set an August trial date for Clemons, 45, in the killings of Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19. Clemons was convicted of the crime in 1993 but the Missouri Supreme Court in November overturned that conviction and sent the matter back to circuit court.

Clemons' trial date had been set for Feb. 23. His public defender, Charles Moreland, argued Tuesday that he needs more time to prepare a defense in the high-profile death penalty case. Moreland elicited testimony Tuesday from a top state public defender about the office's caseload and travel time and the complexity of defending death penalty cases.

The age of the crime is also a factor, Don Catlett, who supervises a division that handles capital cases, testified Tuesday.

"The older a case, usually the more time-consuming it is," he said.

Moreland also said additional time was needed because Clemons has retained pro bono legal help from a Washington, D.C., law firm.

Rachel Smith, chief prosecutor for Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, objected to any delay, arguing that the victims' family have "a right to move this case forward. They have waited months and years." She said Clemons' decision to retain free, private counsel should not delay the trial further.

"We really need to keep this trial date," Smith said. "This isn't an opportunity for Mr. Clemons to shop around and add new lawyers to his team."

The Missouri Supreme Court overturned Clemons' conviction last year, based on the findings of a "special master" assigned to review the case. The judge found Clemons did not prove he was innocent but that prosecutors had wrongly suppressed evidence and detectives had beaten Clemons into confessing to the crimes.

Joyce announced in January her office would retry the 1st-degree murder charges against him and seek the death penalty again.

Her office added charges of rape and robbery in the case, which Burlison said would not be tried until after the retrial of the murder case. Under Missouri law in effect at the time of the crime, a 1st-degree murder charge must be tried separately.

Clemons was in court Tuesday. In July, Burlison granted Clemons' request to be moved from the Potosi Correctional Center to the St. Louis city jail to await trial.

Authorities have said Clemons was among 4 men who encountered the Kerry sisters and their cousin on the closed bridge, attacked them and forced them to jump into the Mississippi River. 1 of the other defendants was executed, 1 is imprisoned for a life term and 1 served his time and was released.


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