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Tag: death penalty

Parker: The Supreme Court, Police Shootings and Black Lives Matter

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Have the frenzied media coverage of incidents involving police shootings of African Americans and the protests of Black Lives Matter activists affected the Supreme Court?  The Court has not addressed a case involving race and the criminal justice system in some time, but two such cases are scheduled for oral argument this month.

Coincidence or a legitimate attempt to weigh in on a crisis jeopardizing law enforcement lives and the faith of minority Americans in the fairness of the criminal process?

US_Supreme_Court

The Court exercises discretion in at least three ways: what cases to accept for hearing (only about 1% are heard), the timing of oral argument (these cases were set for the first month of the 2016-2017 term), and in the individual votes and opinions of the Justices). The first two seem to demonstrate a special sensitivity to this subject which is embroiling race relations in America.

However, the other related question is whether the open seat on the Court from the death of Justice Scalia will affect the Court’s ability to decide these cases and to resolve conflicts in the lower courts. A 4-4 vote will mean that the lower court decision will stand. In these two cases the lower courts both rejected the petitions of minority defendants on racial issues.

The first of the two cases is Buck v. Davis, a death penalty appeal which has bounced around the Texas state courts, the federal district court in Houston and the 5th Circuit since Buck’s sentence of death in 1996. Buck was convicted of capital murder of his ex-girlfriend and a man at her house in a jealousy-fueled shooting spree. During the penalty hearing his defense attorney, who had a notoriously bad record in capital cases, called a psychologist to testify on the subject of Buck’s likelihood of posing a danger in the future.

In Texas the jury must unanimously conclude that the defendant poses a danger of violence to warrant the verdict of death. The defense psychologist testified that the fact that he was Black made him statistically more likely to be dangerous. Ultimately, however, the psychologist was of the opinion that he was at a lower probability of being dangerous. His report, which included the race analysis, was admitted as a defense exhibit. The prosecutor reiterated this race opinion in cross-examination and the witness’s conclusion in his closing argument.

Ross Parker

Ross Parker

On the most recent appeal, the 5th Circuit concluded that, although racial appeals had long been unconstitutional in criminal trials, the defendant had not met the standard of a substantial showing of prejudice to justify a Certificate of Appeal. There had been no proof that the result would have been different without the expert’s testimony in view of the defendant’s callous actions and his lack of remorse. The defense showing on appeal was not extraordinary and the prejudice de minimis.

This particular psychologist had repeated this race-based statistical opinion in six other capital cases, and the Texas Attorney General announced in a press conference that it would not oppose re-sentencing in all of those cases. However, a new Attorney General reneged on this promise as to Buck’s case.

In addition to the race-based issue, the case illustrates the tension in capital cases between two important principles. In cases involving the death penalty errors in the trial are painstakingly reviewed and appellate opinions often reach to achieve due process. On the other hand, there is a need for finality in the resolution of criminal cases. The length of time capital defendants sit on death row today is considered by some to be a failure of finality in the system.

Read more »

Justice Department Seeks Death Penalty for Church Shooter Dylan Roof

Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof

By Steve Neavling
ticklethewire.com

The Justice Department is seeking the death penalty for Dylan Roof, the man accused of a carefully planned shooting that killed nine parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina, church last year.

“Following the department’s rigorous review process to thoroughly consider all relevant factual and legal issues, I have determined that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement Tuesday. “The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision.”

The Washington Post reports that federal prosecutors explained why they were pursuing the death sentence, describing the shooting as racially motivated.

Roof “demonstrated a lack of remorse” and targeted a Bible study group to “magnify the societal impact” of the massacre.

Other Stories of Interest

Supreme Court to Decide Three Thorny Capital Cases

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its 2015-2016 term with oral arguments in October on three tough cases on capital punishment from the minority of states which still maintain a de facto death penalty.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 11.44.20 AM

In Kansas v. Carr, Gleason, the issues presented involve the trial judge’s instruction to the jury and the question of joinder and severance for two defendants during the sentencing proceeding. Carr and Gleason were brothers who were convicted of a series of brutal rapes and murders during a crime spree in Wichita, Kansas in 2000. There was little doubt as to the result of the guilt phase of the trial.

During the death penalty hearing the judge denied the defendants’ request for severance of their cases. The defendants’ case of mitigation was in the words of the Kansas Supreme Court, “so weak it would not pull the skin off of rice pudding.” Although the evidence was not openly antagonistic between the two defendants, the appellate court later speculated that some of the evidence may not have been admitted against both defendants if there had been separate proceedings. The jury’s verdict was death.

The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the convictions but reversed the sentences as a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The joint proceeding deprived the defendants of an individualized sentence determination. The court went on to hold that the trial judge should have instructed the jury that the defendant need not prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the judge had instructed that each juror should assess and weigh the mitigating circumstances.

Predicting the Court’s decisions in the emotion-packed morass of death penalty cases is never easy but not as difficult as divining the rationales of each Justice to support her/his vote. Separating the ultimate result from the nuance of the legal issue without distorting the evolution of the case law in non-capital cases has been a tortured exercise for decades. The defendants point to little concrete harm that resulted from the joinder, but this seems the better issue for them. The instruction issue seems less persuasive.

Hurst v Florida

The following week, October 13th, the Court will hear the case of Hurst v. Florida on whether its previous case of Ring v. Arizona should be extended to void the Florida practice of making the jury’s sentence verdict as only advisory to the trial judge, who makes the decision on a penalty of death, as well as issues on how the jury goes about deciding the advisory verdict.

Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted of the brutal murder of a co-worker in a Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Escambia County Florida in 1998. The psychologists testified that Hurst’s IQ was between 69 and 78 and therefore not ineligible for the death penalty as being “retarded.”

The jury’s advisory verdict to the trial judge did not identify which “aggravators” they found or whether a majority agreed on a single theory. They voted 7-5 to recommend death. This procedure leaves open the possibility that less than a majority agreed on a single aggravating circumstance, which would justify the jury’s recommendation. The trial judge conducted his own hearing on the issue and ultimately sentenced Hurst to death.

The Supreme Court in Ring held that whether the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt the necessary aggravating circumstance warranting a death verdict is an issue of fact finding for the jury to determine. It did not spell out whether that decision had to be binding on the sentencing judge or how the jury was to go about the process. The case left some knotty issues: whether the jury’s role could be in the form of an advisory opinion to the trial judge; whether individual jurors could use different theories of aggravation; and whether the vote of a majority of the jury was a constitutionally adequate verdict.

Florida death penalty litigation has been a fertile ground for death penalty opponents. The state may want to allow Texas to devise the statutory system since Texas has been so much more efficient and successful at imposing and upholding its death verdicts and administering the fatal drug combination.

It is hard to believe that the Supreme Court will uphold a system in which all three of the potential issues left over from Ring have coalesced. Justice Breyer has already made clear his own views that only juries can decide to impose a death verdict. Both he and Justice Ginsburg have called for the Court to accept a case on the issue of the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.

Montgomery v Louisiana 

The third capital sentencing case for October, Montgomery v. Louisiana, did not ultimately result in a death penalty but life without parole imposed on a juvenile. Henry Montgomery was a 17 year old African American 11th grader with an IQ in the 70s who shot and killed a white Sheriff Deputy in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1963. With crosses burning in the neighborhoods and the KKK actively promoting racial tension, Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to death without any opportunity to present mitigating circumstances during a sentencing proceeding.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed, he was re-tried, convicted and automatically sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Montgomery is now 69 years old and has been in prison for 52 years.

In 2012 the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama held that sentences of mandatory life without parole for defendants under the age of 18 violated the 8th Amendment. But the Court has never decided whether Miller should be applied retroactively.

Retroactivity in criminal procedure cases is determined by a 1989 Supreme Court case called Teague v. Lane, whose rule requires the finding either that the decision involves a new substantive rule of criminal constitutional procedure or, if procedural rather than substantive, whether the case implicates fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.

These are slippery concepts and there are those who think that the Justices first decide the end result of the case from a policy perspective and then apply the Teague rule accordingly. The equities of the Montgomery case weigh on both sides of the balance. A law enforcement officer was killed, but a half century has passed since the defendant killed him. For my money, once you decide to make the sentence unavailable for minors (whether you agree with this policy or not), to make it not applicable to cases after 50 plus years seems fundamentally unfair.

Three cases with thorny legal issues to be decided under the rule of law as part of a larger agonizing debate about whether we should have two systems of punishment in this country, one by the vast majority of states which have concluded for various principled and practical reasons to abolish the death penalty, and the other in a handful of states which have concluded that the ultimate penalty of death is necessary for their system of criminal justice. Anomalies will always exist in a federal system but few seem so profoundly perplexing.

Parker: Supreme Court to Decide Three Thorny Capital Cases

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its 2015-2016 term with oral arguments in October on three tough cases on capital punishment from the minority of states which still maintain a de facto death penalty.

Ross Parker

Ross Parker

In Kansas v. Carr, Gleason, the issues presented involve the trial judge’s instruction to the jury and the question of joinder and severance for two defendants during the sentencing proceeding. Carr and Gleason were brothers who were convicted of a series of brutal rapes and murders during a crime spree in Wichita, Kansas in 2000. There was little doubt as to the result of the guilt phase of the trial.

During the death penalty hearing the judge denied the defendants’ request for severance of their cases. The defendants’ case of mitigation was in the words of the Kansas Supreme Court, “so weak it would not pull the skin off of rice pudding.” Although the evidence was not openly antagonistic between the two defendants, the appellate court later speculated that some of the evidence may not have been admitted against both defendants if there had been separate proceedings. The jury’s verdict was death.

The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the convictions but reversed the sentences as a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The joint proceeding deprived the defendants of an individualized sentence determination. The court went on to hold that the trial judge should have instructed the jury that the defendant need not prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the judge had instructed that each juror should assess and weigh the mitigating circumstances.

Predicting the Court’s decisions in the emotion-packed morass of death penalty cases is never easy but not as difficult as divining the rationales of each Justice to support her/his vote. Separating the ultimate result from the nuance of the legal issue without distorting the evolution of the case law in non-capital cases has been a tortured exercise for decades. The defendants point to little concrete harm that resulted from the joinder, but this seems the better issue for them. The instruction issue seems less persuasive.

Hurst v Florida

The following week, October 13th, the Court will hear the case of Hurst v. Florida on whether its previous case of Ring v. Arizona should be extended to void the Florida practice of making the jury’s sentence verdict as only advisory to the trial judge, who makes the decision on a penalty of death, as well as issues on how the jury goes about deciding the advisory verdict.

Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted of the brutal murder of a co-worker in a Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Escambia County Florida in 1998. The psychologists testified that Hurst’s IQ was between 69 and 78 and therefore not ineligible for the death penalty as being “retarded.”

The jury’s advisory verdict to the trial judge did not identify which “aggravators” they found or whether a majority agreed on a single theory. They voted 7-5 to recommend death. This procedure leaves open the possibility that less than a majority agreed on a single aggravating circumstance, which would justify the jury’s recommendation. The trial judge conducted his own hearing on the issue and ultimately sentenced Hurst to death.

Read more »

Guilty! Jury Will Now Consider the Death Penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston Marathon Bombing

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

As expected, a federal court jury has found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty in the Boston Marathon bombing, the Washington Post reports.

The same jury will now decide whether he spends the remainder of his life in prison or is executed under a federal death penalty statute.

Tsarnaev stood with his head bowed and his hands clasped as the verdicts were read, the Post reported.

 

Prosecutors Seek Death Penalty Against Suspects in Murder of Off-Duty Border Patrol Agent

Gustavo Tijerina (left) and Ismael Hernandez (right)

By Steve Neavling
ticklethewire.com 

Two men accused of killing an off-duty Border Patrol agent while he was on a family vacation could face the death penalty if found guilty.

The Valley Central reports that Willacy County District Attorney’s office is seeking the death penalty against Gustavo Tijerina and Ismael Hernandez.

The two men are accused in the death of Border Patrol Agent Javier Vega, Jr., who was fishing with his family when he tried to protect his family from a robbery.

Authorities said the two suspects fatally shot Vega at a remote fishing spot near Santa Monica.

A trial date has not yet been set.

Questions Raised About Lethal Injections After Botched Execution in Oklahoma on Tuesday

Steve Neavling
ticklethewire.com

The deadly cocktails administered during executions are about to come under fire after a botched lethal injection involving Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett on Tuesday.

Newsweek reports that a doctor stopped administering the lethal injection about 13 minutes into the procedure after Locket lifted his head and began mumbling.

About 40 minutes after the lethal cocktail was administered, Lockett died of an apparent massive heart attack.

“We believe that a vein was blown and the drugs weren’t working as they were designed to. The director ordered a halt to the execution,” Massie said.

Authorities are bracing for serious questions about the viability and humaneness of lethal injections.

Parker: Supreme Court to Decide Who Gets to Define “Mentally Retarded” for Purposes of the Death Penalty


Ross Parker

 Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.
  
By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com
The cut-off IQ for the death penalty in Florida is 70 or less. Freddie Lee Hall scored a 71. He has been on death row for 35 years.

Hall was convicted of killing a pregnant woman and a deputy sheriff and, following the jury’s recommendation, the trial judge sentenced him to death. For 25 years he sat in his death row cell while his lawyers filed various appeals, all without success. Then the U. S. Supreme Court handed down Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, a 6-3 decision which held that the evolving standards of decency under the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment barred the execution of mentally retarded defendants. The case, however, left to the states the details of determining who was mentally retarded.

(Medical professionals rarely use the “retarded” term any more, preferring “intellectually disabled.” Since the cases and statutes continue to use the former term, I will too for the sake of clarity.)

The reasoning of Atkins was that the mentally retarded do not act with the same level of moral culpability because they lack the reasoning, judgment, and impulse control of normal adults. Although they still deserve sanctions for their crimes, executing them would not further the retribution and deterrence rationales which justify the ultimate penalty.

There were, perhaps, two subtexts in Atkins. First, the case was one more step in the growing public consensus in America that the application of the death penalty should either be eliminated or severely limited. It was one more chip in the capital punishment edifice that is incrementally crumbling.

Atkins was an important case in this evolution. Not only did it exempt another class of persons from the death penalty, but it recognized the development of a public consensus as a basis for doing so. The Court surveyed state legislatures and found 18 which had banned the practice. Add that number to the 13 which had at that time abolished the death penalty altogether, plus several others that had done so de facto and a trend became a consensus. Additionally the opinion included a provocative footnote suggesting a growing broader consensus against capital punishment. This the dissent vehemently decried, with Justice Scalia remarking that “seldom has an opinion of this Court rested so obviously on the personal views of its members.”

I wrote two columns earlier this year that in my view the death penalty was slowly dying and that outside of a small handful of states it has already become an anachronism. Full disclosure then and now, my personal view is that the death penalty in the 21st Century is morally wrong in a civilized society; that it can be freakishly wanton in its selection of people to execute; that its no-recourse finality strains the entire criminal justice system; that it provides precious little or no deterrence to craven impulsive murderers; and that there continues to be a possibility of a botched and inhumane administration of the instrument of death.

Most Americans, however, are increasingly concluding for entirely practical reasons that the application of the death penalty is simply too expensive, the appellate delays too laborious and uncertain, and the ultimate result too fraught with the intrusion of outside factors like race, poverty, unavailability of lethal drugs and the like.

More than any subjective factor of morality, the future of the death penalty is being determined by the growing sentiment that we simply cannot afford it. Even though a majority of Americans probably continue to believe that capital punishment is justified for the mass murderers we hear about on the news with disturbing regularity, they are no longer willing to pay the increasing price. Just as likely, pragmatic considerations in an era of economic insecurity affect those moral and practical decisions on whether as a society we need capital punishment.

The other point implied in Atkins is that the criminal justice system cannot guarantee a fair, reliable, and consistent result in capital cases involving an accused whose mental abilities are seriously subpar. Their limited ability to communicate and contribute to their own defense compromises even an effective defense counsel’s job. The result is that, either they plead to a non-capital sentence without a full consideration of their defenses, or they disproportionately face the one penalty which, if wrong, is unforgiving. Death.

Atkins seems to assume in its dictum that states will use the diagnostic criteria of the American Psychiatric Association. Most of the ones which at least nominally still have capital punishment do so. Juries, legislatures, judges, and governors have on quite a few occasions either rejected or overruled the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants.

Read more »

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