Oct. 18


3 reasons the death penalty is dying

Have you ever killed somebody? The question in and of itself is haunting.

Have you ever killed somebody? Each word rattles my soul.

Have you ever killed somebody? The more times I ask the question, the more times I'm brought face-to-face with my own complicity in killing.

Most people don't think about it like that. The more times I ask the question to others, the more times I get adamant denials of ever being involved in killing anyone. Yet in the midst of a quickness to absolve ourselves of any evil, there is our death penalty. Each time the State of Texas kills someone, the citizens are responsible. Since 1982, we have killed 538 people.

There is no hope to be found in what we are. There is only hope to be found in what we can become.

Recently, the Pew Research Forum reported that support for the death penalty hit its point lowest in four decades. I grabbed my heart and almost fell over. Though I'd known that support for the death penalty has been declining for a number of years nationally, this was the first time that I'd realized had fallen so low. Just under 1/2 of Americans now support the death penalty (49 %), while 42 % oppose it. Support is down from a high of 80 % in 1994. Support has even dropped 7 % since March of last year.

The death penalty is dying. How could this be? We've had that killer instinct for so long. People are changing. While I can't say for sure why, 3 possible reasons are worthy of deep thought.

1. The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. How do you teach someone not to kill by killing? The death penalty is supposed to be a deterrent to killing. But how could it be? Capital punishment teaches people that there are ethical ways of killing. We can't persuade people to stop killing by showing them how to do it again and again. The Death Penalty Information Center has consistently reported that the murder rates in death penalty states are higher than in states that don't have the death penalty. The death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. Some people are finally figuring out they are less safe with a death penalty than they are without one.

2. The death penalty costs too much. A Dallas Morning News article in 1992 showed that the death penalty costs multiple times the amount that it would cost to put someone in a maximum security prison for life. And the cost isn't going down, as the newspaper reported a few years ago that the cost of execution drugs had skyrocketed. Pharmaceutical companies don't want to sell drugs meant to save lives to people dedicated to taking lives. The cost to carry out these executions is only going to continue to grow. The bottom line is that we know it is far more expensive to execute someone than to put them in prison for life. The death penalty is starting to earn a reputation for being another expensive failed government program.

3. What if we execute someone who is innocent? That's a question that eats at the souls of those with knowledge about the death penalty. I think we already have. Surely out of the hundreds, there's got to be at least one. Was it Carlos De Luna? Was it Cameron Todd Willingham? Or was it someone else entirely? In 2014, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences released a study concluding 1 in 25 sentenced to death in the U.S. is innocent. Despite recent exonerations, Texas has still probably executed many innocent people. There is no way to stop the execution of the innocent without stopping executions entirely.

The 3 reasons to abolish the death penalty meet to form 1 question.

Is the death penalty worth it?

(source: Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor and activist in Dallas----Dallas Morning News)


Poll: Delawareans support keeping death penalty

The poll revealed 55 % of registered voters are in favor of the death penalty.

"Delaware is a historically a blue state, you'd expect a liberal position, which I take as being repeal of the death penalty to come out stronger, but on this issue there is that party divide as well," said Brewer. The Democrats who are in favor of repealing are in line with the majority opinion of their party, but not necessarily in line with the public as a whole."

(source: WDEL news)

GEORGIA----impending execution

Georgia board scheduled to hold clemency hearing for man set to executed

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is scheduled to hear arguments for clemency from representatives of an inmate scheduled for execution this week.

Gregory Paul Lawler is scheduled to die Wednesday by injection of the barbiturate pentobarbital at the state prison in Jackson. A clemency hearing is set for 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The 63-year-old was convicted of murder in the October 1997 shooting death of Atlanta police Officer John Sowa. Authorities say Lawler also critically injured Officer Patricia Cocciolone.

Prosecutors say Lawler shot the officers as they tried to bring his intoxicated girlfriend home.

Lawler's lawyers say a recent autism diagnosis helps explain his actions the night the officers were shot. They're seeking a commutation of his sentence.

Lawler would be the 7th Georgia inmate executed this year.

(source: Associated Press)


Death penalty ruling could mean new sentencing for 386 murderers in Florida

The Florida Supreme Court's decision last week to require unanimous jury votes for executions has thrown the state's death penalty into disarray.

In a Friday ruling in Hurst vs. Florida, the justices eliminated part of Florida's death sentencing laws, but lawyers and legislators disagree about what comes next.

Some say that it could lead to sentences being thrown out for nearly 400 convicted murderers awaiting execution at Florida State Prison, and that it may cripple the state's death penalty long term. Others say the only thing that has changed is that a jury must now vote unanimously in favor of the death penalty.

What's clear is this: Even with the case decided, Florida's legal fights over capital punishment are far from over.

Death-row defense lawyers say the Hurst decision leaves Florida without a functioning death penalty until the state Legislature can convene and rewrite the law.

"This is so big," said Martin McClain, a Broward County lawyer who represents death-row inmates appealing their sentences. "I don't know of a way to overstate the significance."

But legislative leaders say that such action won't be necessary.

"With Friday's ruling, imposing the death sentence will require a unanimous verdict with or without legislative action," said Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President-designate Joe Negron, R-Stuart. "In the past, the Senate has been supportive of the unanimous verdict requirement."

Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents the 20 state attorneys, agrees that no legislative action is necessary.

"The death penalty is certainly still legal in Florida," he said. "The procedure is what the Supreme Court reacted to."

The court's ruling has raised other questions about how the state should handle the 386 inmates on death row under old sentencing rules that have since been thrown out. The Supreme Court has not indicated which inmates could be eligible to have their sentences changed.

Even the most experienced death-row defense lawyers don't know what to expect. McClain said he thinks the court will issue a ruling about which cases are going to be treated like that.

"Until we have that sort of broad picture," McClain said, "we're kind of stuck waiting."

Some death row inmates - including Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of killing a co-worker in Pensacola in 1998 - will have new sentencing hearings. The court will bring in a new jury to hear evidence and decide whether Hurst should be executed or sentenced to life in prison.

But not all death penalty cases are the same. So it's possible the court could decide that certain kinds of cases are eligible for a re-sentencing and others are not.

For example, the court could throw out sentences from time periods when the death penalty laws were overturned as unconstitutional, or they could only allow a new jury for death-row inmates who raised certain complaints in their appeals.

But Maria DeLiberato, a defense lawyer with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa, warns that could be seen as an "arbitrary and capricious" enforcement of the law and raise new allegations that Florida's death sentences flout the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

She's hopeful that the court would allow all inmates a new sentencing hearing, not just some of them.

The state attorneys worry about the high costs of a small wave of re-sentencing hearings, let alone 386 cases.

"We do not have the manpower to do that," said Jacobs. "We'd have to get assistance to do that from the Legislature."

With so much uncertainty, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has yet to publicly respond.

Asked Monday how Bondi believed the courts should handle the 386 cases in limbo, her spokesman Whitney Ray said, ???We are still reviewing the ruling and considering a rehearing."

(source: Miami Herald)


75 Tampa Bay area religious leaders call for end to death penalty in wake of Harvard report

The names of those who signed the letter read like a who's who of the local religious community, with Catholics, Jews and various Protestant denominations represented.

There was James Favorite, the pastor of Beulah Baptist International Church. There was Betsy Torop of Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon. There was Bishop Robert Lynch of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The 3 were among 75 Tampa Bay clergy members who urged Hillsborough and Pinellas prosecutors on Monday to put an end to the death penalty.

Addressed to Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the letter referenced a report from Harvard's Fair Punishment Project, which found the two counties are among 16 in the nation that sentenced five or more people to death between 2010 and 2015.

Researchers accused prosecutors in both counties of being overzealous in pursuit of capital punishment, and noted racial disparities and cases in which defendants had severe mental illness or intellectual disabilities.

"None of us deny the need for accountability and severe consequences for those guilty of grave crimes," the group stated. "At the same time, our criminal justice system must recognize the dignity of every person, and not close off hope and the possibility for redemption."

9 Tampa Bay area pastors and priests carried the letter to a news conference in Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in downtown Tampa. They stood together to denounce capital punishment before delivering their missive to the State Attorney's Office.

Ober, in a statement, didn't directly address the demand from the clergy members but said his office would continue its practice of reviewing cases individually, while following the law as interpreted by courts.

McCabe and his chief assistant were both unavailable for comment Monday, his office said.

After the Harvard report was released, both Ober and McCabe defended the handling of death penalty cases by their respective offices. Both said the report was unfair and written in a manner that favored an anti-death penalty position.

Appearing at the news conference across the street from Ober's office were the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches; the Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson of the First United Church of Tampa; Pastor Robert Schneider of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico; Pastor Mel Harris of Destiny Baptist Church in Spring Hill and 5 other clergy who signed the letter.

"Right now, today, the time has come, the moment is here," Meyer said. "It is our opportunity as faith leaders and as people of good will from across the state of Florida and particularly Tampa Bay to say it's time to end the death penalty. It serves no public good."

Bishop Lynch, who leads Catholics in Tampa Bay and the north Suncoast, was among the most prominent names on the list. He signed the letter but could not attend Monday's gathering because he was out of the country, said Sabrina Schultz of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. The Catholic Church maintains an official stance against the death penalty.

Meyer, who recited a litany of moral and legal objections, noted the death penalty's effect even on victims' families, who are often subjected to years of legal wrangling before an execution.

"It's punitive to the families of the victims," Meyer said. "Why would we put families who are victims of horrendous crime through decades of emotional torture?"

(source: Tampa Bay Times)


Of course, Florida is the nation's slacker in death penalty reforms

We are, as usual, on the wrong side of normal in Florida.

By now, most states have come around to the idea that the death penalty should be a rare occurrence in our justice system. Too many exonerations, too much racial disparity, too many sentences overturned and far too many families of victims waiting for executions that never take place.

So the trend nationwide has been a higher bar and, thus, a lower number of death sentences.

And, yet, Florida remains stubbornly stuck in some spaghetti western version of America.

We represent about 6 % of the U.S. population, and yet accounted for almost 20 % of new death sentences in 2015. We've contributed about 15 % of U.S. executions over the past 4 years.

All of which explains the flurry of headlines you've seen recently about the death penalty. Alarming numbers are being tossed around, and advocacy groups are speaking out.

Yet, all the noise and activity means little compared to the widely anticipated decision handed down by the Florida Supreme Court on Friday.

Essentially, the justices told state legislators to get their act together.

Florida is one of a handful of states that doesn't require a unanimous jury verdict to impose a death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court slapped Florida back in January, and the Legislature tried to fudge its way past with a compromise law. And now the state Supreme Court has backhanded that idea, too.

"You have a great number of opinions on whether the death penalty is allowable from a theological point of view,'' said the Rev. Russell Meyer, the executive director of the Florida Council of Churches. "But there is unanimity on whether the application of the death penalty has been unjust in Florida.''

Meyer was among a group of clergy members who delivered letters to the state attorney's offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties on Monday, demanding an immediate moratorium on the death penalty.

Their passion was obvious and commendable. Their aim, a little less so.

The clergy seemed to target prosecutors after a critical report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project spotlighted Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Pinellas as some of the most aggressive counties in the nation when it comes to death penalty verdicts.

The numbers from the Harvard project are indisputable, but they seemed to gloss over the point that Florida's death penalty laws are more lax than almost every other state. So, from a statistical point of view, it would make sense that the largest counties in Florida would have the highest number of cases.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe had not yet seen the letter on Monday afternoon, but suggested the clergy might direct their attention to lawmakers, not enforcers.

"Philosophically, I'm not opposed to unanimity as the standard for death penalty sentences,'' McCabe said. "My only concern is what do we do with all of the cases that came before (a new law).''

The reality is most of the nearly 400 residents of Florida's death row would never be executed even if the law was not changed. A Washington Post study last year showed that, during a 40-year span nationally, about only 16 % of prisoners sentenced to death were ever executed. Most had their convictions or sentences overturned and more than 1/3 spent decades on death row.

The point being, Florida lawmakers shouldn't worry about what happens retroactively to any death penalty sentences that were not the result of a unanimous jury decision. It would be a waste of money and energy to retry cases of inmates who are never going to get out of prison anyway.

Instead, we should be focused on fixing an unconstitutional and ineffective law.

Whether you believe in capital punishment or not, we should at least be able to agree that we need a higher bar for death sentences.

And Florida needs to join the rest of the nation in the 21st century.

(source: John Romano; Tampa Bay Times)


Report: Jefferson County sends more to death row than most counties nationwide

Jefferson County sent more criminal defendants to death row between 2010 and 2015 than almost every other county in the nation.

That's according to a report released last week by Harvard Law's Fair Punishment Project. The report also states that all five of those sentenced to death in Jefferson County during that period were black.

Those numbers landed Alabama's most populous county on the short list of 16 outliers in the group's report "Too Broken to Fix."

"These outlier death penalty counties are defined by a pattern of bad defense lawyering, prosecutorial misconduct and overzealousness, and a legacy of racial bias that calls into question constitutionality of the death penalty," Rob Smith, one of the report's researchers, stated in a press release.

It's a report that Jefferson County's District Attorney Brandon Falls believes is flawed and doesn't address the underlying facts of the cases to explain why the defendants were sentenced to death.

"Educated minds can disagree about the effectiveness and appropriateness of the death penalty," Falls stated in an email to AL.com. "The role of the District Attorney's Office is to protect the citizens of Jefferson County by enforcing the law as set out by the Alabama Legislature, the Alabama appellate courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court, and to do so ethically and without bias toward any individual. This responsibility is and always will be the highest priority of my office."

The 1st part of the report was issued in August and included a look at 8 counties, including Mobile County. The 2nd half of the report with the other 8, including Jefferson County, was released last week.

Nationwide, the report states, juries in 2015 returned 49 death sentences, which is the fewest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. That came from 33 counties in 14 states, according to the report. 31 states still have the death penalty.

But 16 counties were "outliers," imposing 5 or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, the report states. Among these "outliers", 2 were in Alabama (Jefferson and Mobile) and 4 in Florida.

Meanwhile Alabama's reputation as being an outlier state when it comes to the death penalty also grew last week.

Florida and Alabama were the only 2 states that permitted a split jury to recommend death, the report noted. But that changed Friday when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous jury death recommendations are unconstitutional.

That now leaves Alabama as the only state to allow a jury to recommend the death penalty for a defendant on a non-unanimous vote - at least 10 of 12 jurors have to vote for death.

180 capital murder cases and 205 murder cases were charged in Jefferson County between 2010 and 2015 - JeffCo DA

Alabama also finds itself alone in allowing judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole and single-handedly increase the sentence to death. Florida's override law was declared unconstitutional early this year. Delaware had been the only other state to allow judicial override (although judges there didn't use it) but that state's supreme court in August also declared override unconstitutional.

Of the remaining 10 counties in the report's top 16, 5 are in Southern California, 2 in Texas, and 1 each in Louisiana, Nevada, and Arizona.

The report also found that:

--10 of the 16 counties had at least 1 person released from death row since 1976. -- The 10 counties account for more than 10 % of all death row exonerations nationwide.

--Jefferson had 3 men taken off death row in that period - Anthony Ray Hinton, Wesley Quick, and Montez Spradley, the report states.

--Jefferson County imposes about 1.47 death sentences per 100 homicides.

--All 5 of the cases in Jefferson County between 2010 and 2015 had non-unanimous jury recommendations on what the defendants' sentences should be. 2 had their jury recommendations for life without parole overridden to death by a judge. And 1/3 - 33 % - of the cases had defendants with intellectual disability, severe mental illness, or brain damage.

"The study does not address the facts of any of those cases, but those facts are worth noting for a better perspective of why they received that sentence," Falls said.

The report doesn't also consider the sheer volume of homicide cases in Jefferson County.

Falls notes that during that six-year period of 2010 to 2015 the report studied, there were 180 capital murder cases and 205 Murder cases charged in Jefferson County.

The report doesn't name the defendants in the 5 cases it reviewed for its report, but according to project officials the 5 death sentences imposed between 2010 and 2015 in Jefferson County are:

--Jeffery Tyrone Riggs - A jury in 2010 found Riggs guilty of capital murder in the 2008 shooting death of his girlfriend Norber Payne. She was shot 4 times with a .50 caliber pistol inside her Birmingham apartment. In a 10-2 vote the jury recommended he be sentenced to life without parole. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Clyde Jones, however, overrode the vote and sentenced Riggs to death. Riggs, however, won a new trial based on a problem with jury instructions. Another jury in February 2015 recommended in an 8-4 vote to sentence Riggs to life without parole. Jones this time followed the jury's recommendation and Riggs is no longer on death row. Falls said the new sentence should exclude Riggs from the study as he is no longer facing the death penalty.

--Justin White - A jury in December 2009 found White guilty in the July 2006 death of Jasmine Parker, whose nearly nude body was found inside a Birmingham apartment she shared with her mother. A pair of jeans was wrapped around her neck. The jury in Parker's death had recommended life without parole in a 9-3 vote but Jefferson County Circuit Judge Clyde Jones overrode that recommendation and imposed the death penalty. By the time of White's 2009 trial, he was already serving a life without parole sentence for the 2006 rape and murder of a University of Alabama at Birmingham student, 20-year-old Sierra Black.

--Anthony Lane A jury in 2011 convicted Lane of capital murder during the commission of a robbery for the 2009 shooting death of 57-year-old Frank Wright, of Schererville, Ind., who was killed off Messer Airport Highway while en route to pick up his wife at Birmingham's airport. Following the jury's recommendation for the death penalty, a 10-2 vote, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Clyde Jones sentenced Lane to death. Lane claims he is intellectually disabled and shouldn't be executed. Falls said before the trial Lane was given the opportunity to plead guilty and receive a sentence of life without parole, which he refused.

--Dontae Callen - A jury in 2013 found Callen guilty of capital murder in the Oct. 29, 2010 stabbing deaths of his aunt, Bernice Kelly, 59; and his cousins Quortes Kelly, 33; and Aaliyah Budgess, 12, and setting fires in the Birmingham apartment after the slayings. The jury had recommended in an 11-1 vote to recommend Callen, who had confessed to the 3 slayings, be sentenced to death. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Laura Petro followed the jury's recommendation.

--Marcus Benn - Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd in January 2015 sentenced Benn to death for his conviction in the 2010 shooting deaths of three people, and dumping their bodies along Birmingham-area roads. Jurors had recommended in a 10-2 vote that Benn be sentenced to death for the slayings of Jaime Luna Gutierrez, Jose Manuel Martinez Calderon, and Evelyn Peralta. At the direction of an appeals court Todd in June re-sentenced Benn because she had originally sentenced him in a written order, not in person. Falls said the study fails to mention that Benn was convicted of murder in 1994 and was sentenced to life, but was released on parole in 2009.

Study: Mobile, Jefferson counties 'outliers' with death penalty

This week's report focuses on 8 of those "outlier" counties, including Mobile. The 2nd half of the report, which will provide details on Jefferson County, is to be released in September.

The report also reviewed 18 capital murder cases that were decided on direct appeal from Jefferson County - including both Birmingham and Bessemer divisions - from 2006 to 2015.

Of those 18 cases, 89 % involved black defendants. And six of the cases involved defendants with serious mental illnesses, brain damage, or intellectual impairment, including the case of former death row inmate Esaw Jackson, who was resentenced to life without parole in 2012 for the 2006 shooting deaths of 2. The judge found Jackson had an IQ score of 56 and could not be executed.

56 % of the 400 cases it looked at in the 16 counties nationwide in the study involved defendants with significant mental impairments or other forms of mitigation, such as the defendant's young age.

"It has become clear that a significant proportion of individuals we are sending to death row suffer from serious mental impairments, or are so young in age, that they appear to be nearly indistinguishable from the categories of people whom the Supreme Court has said we shouldn't be executing due to their diminished culpability," said Carol S. Steiker, Professor of Law at Harvard.

(source: al.com)


Judge: Triple-murder trial can continue in Lafourche

For the second time, a judge has rejected defense attorneys' requests to move a triple-murder trial out of Lafourche Parish and bar the death penalty from being considered.

David Brown's trial is now in its 6th week of jury selection in Thibodaux, and attorneys are expected to make opening statements Saturday, though that schedule could change.

Brown, 38, of Houma, is charged with 1st-degree murder in the Nov. 4, 2012, stabbings of 29-year-old Jacquelin Nieves and her daughters, 7-year-old Gabriela and 1-year-old Izabela. He is also accused of sexually assaulting Jacquelin and Gabriela Nieves and then setting the family's Lockport apartment ablaze.

State District Judge John LeBlanc denied motions from the Capital Defense Project of Southeast Louisiana, led by New Orleans attorney Kerry Cuccia. The defense team had unsuccessfully made the same requests to now-retired state District Judge Jerome Barbera in 2014, though for different reasons.

This time, Brown's attorneys argued that he couldn't get a fair trial in Lafourche because a sequestration requirement severely limited the number of potential jurors. They asked to bar the death penalty for the same reason.

Once jurors are selected, they will remain in a local hotel for the rest of the trial and won't have access to the news or be able to contact family members except for emergencies.

In court documents filed early this month, Cuccia said almost two-thirds of the potential jurors had been excused because sequestration would have presented too much of a hardship for them. Because so many people were eliminated, he wrote, the remaining pool may not be representative of the parish.

Among the groups underrepresented in the pool, Cuccia said, were black residents and working people.

LeBlanc sided with prosecutors, who noted that for most of the potential jurors released because of hardships, the defense asked that they be excused. In a written opposition to moving the trial, Assistant District Attorney Joe Soignet said potential jurors were dismissed for individual, legitimate reasons and not as a class.

"What the defense motion ignores is that jury selection, by its very nature, is a process of attrition," Soignet wrote. "It is designed to take a large (yet never mandated) number of potential jurors and reduce it to only 12. Thus, the mathematical proportions are always 12/x, with the only variable being the number of potential jurors the trial court decides to screen. ... The process employed in this particular case need only result in the selection of 12 jurors and four alternates."

(source: Daily Comet)
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