"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Racial bias found in Texas death penalty cases, Harvard Law School study says

Texas death chamber
Texas death chamber
Harris County was named 1 of 16 'outlier' counties in the US, where 5 or more death sentences were assessed between 2010 and 2015

A Harvard Law School study has found that racial bias, overly aggressive prosecutions and inadequate representation for poor defendants affect death penalty cases in Harris County, Texas. Juries in the county, which includes Houston, have imposed the death penalty more than any other county in the US since its reinstatement in 1976.

The Fair Punishment Project also notes that the number of death sentences handed down in Harris County has fallen to 10 since 2010, from 53 between 1998 and 2003.

Harris County was named 1 of 16 "outlier" counties in the US, where 5 or more death sentences were assessed in between 2010 and 2015. In the 8 counties examined by the study, 41% of the death sentences were given to black defendants and 69% to minorities overall. In Harris County, all defendants condemned since 2004 were from racial minority groups.

"When you look at what the death penalty actually looks like on the ground in Harris County, you see things that should disturb you," Rob Smith, one of the researchers on the project, told the Houston Chronicle.

"There's a pattern of overzealous prosecution that dates back for decades but is still present in the time period for the study, and is matched by under-zealous [defense] representation in cases."

Harris County district attorney Devon Anderson said her office was judicious in its use of the death penalty.

"When we seek death, it's because we have a solid guilt/innocence case and a very strong punishment case," she said. "The death penalty is only appropriate for the worst of the worst."

Anderson said she did not know the race of a defendant or victim whenever she and 4 top staff members met to discuss whether to seek the death penalty.

"I think it's very important that it be 'blind' in that regard," she said.

Juries across the country are proving to be increasingly reluctant to sentence defendants to death, the Harvard report said, choosing instead the option of life imprisonment without parole.

The last Harris County trial in which prosecutors sought the death penalty ended in November: 28-year-old Jonathan Sanchez was given life without parole. The last Harris County jury to assess a death sentence did so in 2014, when Harlem Lewis was sent to death row for the killings of Bellaire police officer Jimmie Norman and "good samaritan" Terry Taylor.

The Harris County district attorney's office is currently seeking the death penalty in 2 cases. Ronald Haskell, who is white, is accused of killing 2 adults and 4 children from his ex-wife's family in spring 2014. David Ray Conley, who is black, is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, her husband and 6 children, including his son, last year.

Source: The Guardian, August 28, 2016

Study: Harris County death penalty cases plagued by bias


A Harvard Law School study reports that racial bias, over-aggressive prosecutions and poor representation for indigent defendants plagues the handling of death-penalty cases in the Southeast Texas county where Houston is situated.

The report by the school's Fair Punishment Project names Harris County as one of 16 "outlier" U.S. counties where 5 or more death sentences were assessed in 2010-15.

Harris County juries have imposed death penalties on more defendants than in any other county since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. The number of death sentences has fallen from 53 in 1998 through 2003 to 10 since 2010. However, all condemned since 2004 are from minorities.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2brIHX6) her office is judicious in its use of the death penalty.

Source: Associated Press, August 28, 2016

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Pakistan's death row: Where even angels fear to tread

Gallows
Last week, the Supreme Court of Pakistan set a date for the final appeal hearing for Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death in 2010 on accusations of alleged blasphemy. The 51-year-old Christian convict and mother of 5 will have her final appeal heard before the court during the 2nd week in October.

Bibi initially appealed against her death sentence to the Lahore High Court, which in October 2014, upheld the verdict. The Supreme Court agreed last July to hear Bibi's case and stayed her death sentence.

One of the most controversial blasphemy cases to-date, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated for standing with Bibi; Minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down by terrorists and Taseer's assassin Mumtaz Qadri was given death in February 2016.

It all began over Bibi sharing a bowl of water with a Muslim woman in June 2009 in the town of Sheikhupura in the Punjab province. As the women were picking berries, a Muslim woman became furious when Bibi drank from the same bowl that the Muslim women drank out of, which lead to a heated debate.

Becoming prey to decades-old bias and prejudice against religious minorities, Bibi paid the price for standing her ground and asking for equality. She was accused of blasphemy, which she has repeatedly said she never committed.

Bibi, who has been in the jail for 6 years now, has a deteriorating health and the Christian rights groups in Pakistan have been reporting how she needs special medical care as she has had lung infection and has trouble walking too. The reports from these groups suggest that she is suffering from "Death Row Syndrome" and is under mental trauma.

A lot has changed even outside Bibi's jail cell. Pakistan, which had a moratorium on death penalty, has executed over 400 people since resuming hangings in December 2014 after the Army Public School attacks, according to an international human rights organisation, Reprieve.

What started out to execute terrorists is now a penalty on non-terrorists too. Pakistan has become one of the world's most prolific executioners since lifting a moratorium on hangings, which had been in place for several years. According to publicly available data analysed by Reprieve, June saw 4 hangings, bringing the total since December 2014 to 404 - though the figure could be higher as not all executions in the country are reported. 86 of those hangings have taken place in 2016, which means that Pakistan likely holds its position in the world's top 5 executioners for the year so far behind China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but ahead of the US.

Pakistan has seen a number of controversial death penalty cases recently. Abdul Basit, a paralysed prisoner who needs to use a wheelchair, continues to be held under sentence of death despite concerns that there is no way to execute him that would not carry a high risk of prolonged suffering. He recently told his lawyers that, during a previous attempt to hang him, the prison authorities had built a slope or ramp up to the gallows to take him to be hanged in his wheelchair.

Also facing potential imminent execution is Muhammad Anwar, despite his having been arrested as a child. His case is currently before the Supreme Court, as both Pakistani and international law prohibit the execution of people arrested for alleged offences that took place when they were under-18.

The Justice Project Pakistan in its report explains how the country has one of the largest death row populations in the world. This is partly because there are over 20 offences for which a person may receive death penalty, including non-lethal crimes such as blasphemy, kidnapping, and drug offences. There are around 7,595 prisoners on death row, hanging being only legal means of execution in the country.

A blasphemy convict has never been hanged by the state. Will the Supreme Court of Pakistan uphold Bibi's sentence? Or will President Mamnoon Hussain hear her clemency appeal and pardon her?

Source: newindianexpress.com, August 28, 2016

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Illegal drugs are flowing into California's most guarded prisons — and killing death row inmates

San Quentin Death Row
San Quentin Death Row
Condemned murderer Michael Jones was acting strangely and profusely sweating when guards escorted him in chains to the San Quentin medical unit that doubles as the psych ward on death row.

“Doggone, I don’t think you’re ever going to see me again,” he told a fellow inmate, Clifton Perry.

Hours later, Jones was dead.

Toxicology tests later found that he had toxic levels of methamphetamines in his blood.

The condemned inmates on California's death row are among the most closely monitored in the state. Death row’s 747 inmates spend most of their time locked down, isolated from the rest of the prison system under heavy guard with regular strip searches and checks every half-hour for signs of life.

Still, six death row inmates died between 2010 and 2015 with detectable levels of methamphetamines, heroin metabolites or other drugs in their system, according to Marin County coroner records.

Three of them had toxic levels of drugs, including one in whose intestines were found five snipped fingers of a latex glove, each packed with methamphetamine or marijuana. He had overdosed when they burst. A 70-year-old man among the three died of acute methamphetamine toxicity. He left a stash of marijuana in his cell.

State psychological reports and court files document at least eight non-fatal drug overdoses that required death row inmates to be hospitalized during this period.

Jones' death was reported as a suicide. In the psych ward, he attempted to strangle himself with an electrical cord. He was cut free by officers but died 10 minutes later. The coroner's report showed that Jones bore signs of chronic drug abuse.

State corrections officials declined to discuss the case or provide data on drugs found on death row — at first citing that investigation and then citing a wrongful death claim filed by Jones’ family. The department provided a statement saying the prison has thwarted past attempts by visitors to bring drugs into San Quentin.

“Drugs have considerable value inside prison and so some inmates have a very strong incentive to procure them," the statement said. "Regardless of the security level of the inmate, the presence of any contraband items is concerning to us.”

The overdoses on death row mirror the larger problem with drugs in California’s prison system as a whole. From 2010 to 2015, 109 inmates died of overdoses, according to state figures.

California's prison drug trade is notoriously robust. The drug-related death rate in California prisons — 18 deaths per 100,000 inmates in 2013 — is seven times higher than prisons in the rest of the country, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the state prison medical office.

Reports to the Legislature show that as many as 80% of inmates in some cell blocks tested positive for illegal substances in 2013.

By law, all condemned men are imprisoned at San Quentin, and by policy they are isolated from the rest of the population. The majority live on East Block, a long, granite structure that contains more than 500 cells stacked in tiers five high. The prisoners live in single cells and spend almost all of their time alone. Every half-hour, a guard walks by to check that the man inside is alive — a court-ordered protection against suicide. The doors are grated, so it is difficult to slip a sheet of paper through them.

Small groups of men are allowed to go out on tennis court-sized exercise yards under the watch of an armed guard standing overhead for a few hours, three days a week.

Except for chapel services twice a month, there are no other group activities. Condemned men are escorted individually, in chains, to prison hospital appointments or a special law library set aside for them.

Visits are tightly monitored. Visitors are allowed to bring in only handfuls of coins for the prisoners to use in vending machines. Before and after such contact, even with lawyers, the condemned are subject to strip searches.

Still, when discussing prison drug problems in the system overall, state officials primarily cite cases of visitors trying to smuggle in drugs. In one case, officials described how drugs were packed into soccer balls and thrown over the fence of minimum-security prisons.

Click here to read the full article (+ videos)

Source: L.A. Times, Paige St. John, August 24, 2016

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Jeff Wood's Stay of Execution Casts More Doubt on the Texas Death Machine

Texas Death Row, Livingston, Texas
Texas Death Row, Livingston, Texas
Terri Been was being interviewed by a reporter inside a Whataburger restaurant in East Texas on the afternoon of August 19 when the text came in: Her brother, Jeff Wood, on death row for his alleged involvement as an accomplice in the 1996 murder of his friend, and facing imminent execution, had been granted a stay. She read the text sent by Wood's attorney twice before dialing him up. "Are you serious?" she asked.

It had been a long and emotionally taxing day: Been and her husband, her parents, Wood's daughter, and another friend had traveled to Huntsville, Texas, the location of the state's execution chamber, for the first of several 8-hour visits with Wood in anticipation that he would be executed sometime after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, August 24. The news from the lawyer, Jared Tyler, was a serious relief. "I consider it a miracle," she told The Intercept. "He's stopped Texas from killing my brother."

That afternoon the state's highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, agreed with Tyler that a state district court should determine whether the punishment hearing portion of Wood's 1998 trial was infected by junk science and misleading testimony offered by the notorious Dr. James Grigson. If the district court agrees that it was tainted, Wood could get a new hearing, and a chance to get off of death row.

Grigson, who died in 2004, was known even among peers in the psychiatric community as "Dr. Death" for routinely offering scientifically unsupportable testimony that helped to send defendants to death row in a number of capital cases. He was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and its Texas counterpart prior to testifying in Wood's case, where he opined that unless sentenced to die Wood would continue to be violent, a determination he made without ever examining Wood.

But the court majority sidestepped - at least for now - the biggest question in Wood's case: Is he legally eligible for the death penalty? That prompted a strongly worded opinion from one of the court's 9 jurists, Elsa Alcala, who for at least the 2nd time this year has called into question whether Texas' death system itself is constitutional - an unusual stance for a jurist on such a conservative and notoriously pro-death penalty court in the state with the nation's most active execution chamber. Indeed, Alcala has been airing concerns that have not been expressed in any meaningful way by any member of that court in nearly 2 decades. Wood, she wrote, "may be actually innocent of the death penalty because he may be categorically ineligible for that punishment."

An Unconstitutional Sentence

Wood is on death row even though he has never killed anyone. He was convicted and sentenced to die for the January 2, 1996, robbery of a convenience store that ended with the shooting death of his friend Kriss Keeran, who worked at the store. But it was another man, Danny Reneau, who entered the store armed, intending to rob the place, and who shot Keeran. Wood, Reneau, Keeran and another store employee had planned an inside-job robbery for the previous day, but the plan had been aborted. Wood said he had no idea that Reneau intended to rob the store that day, and certainly had no idea that Reneau would kill Keeran. After the murder, Wood admits that he did help Reneau steal money from the store, along with a surveillance videotape, but says he did so only after Reneau threatened to harm his daughter.

But a quirk of Texas law allows the state to seek the death penalty against a defendant who never killed or intended to kill anyone. Known as the law of parties, the law posits that if conspirators plan to commit 1 crime - in this case a robbery - but in the course of events someone ends up committing another crime (such as a murder) all parties are liable for the crime committed regardless of their individual intent, under the notion that everyone should have anticipated that the crime committed would occur.

Advocates and lawyers argue that Wood's impending execution would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It is an argument that would appear to be in line with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which holds that a sentence must be proportional to the crime committed. In 2 cases involving parties to a planned crime that ended in murder, the court determined that the death penalty would be unconstitutional when a person lacked either the intent to kill or failed to exhibit a clear "reckless indifference" to human life.

No court has ever considered whether Wood's sentence was proportionate to his crime. Although Tyler finally raised the question directly in Wood's most recent appeal, in staying the execution last week the Court of Criminal Appeals declined to ask the lower court to address the issue - except for Alcala, who opined in favor of addressing the question head on. "Perhaps one might suggest that I should not concern myself with the fact that applicant's death sentence appears to be unconstitutional under [Supreme Court precedent] because [Wood] should have raised this claim at some earlier stage of his post-conviction challenges and he is now procedurally barred from raising this challenge," she wrote. "I, however, would disagree with that suggestion."

It was the latest in a string of opinions by the conservative jurist questioning the legality of the death penalty and the approach of her colleagues to affirming death sentences. Alcala, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, has questioned her colleagues' reluctance to allow inmates to present evidence challenging the Texas system as racist and out-of-step with a nation that is moving away from the death penalty. She has written strongly-worded dissents in two notable cases, involving the question of whether racially discriminatory testimony and poor lawyering condemned Duane Buck to die, and in another urging her colleagues to act to "uphold the federal Constitution" by setting up a modern and fair system for determining which defendants are barred from execution because of their intellectual disability. In the absence of a legislative standard, the court set up its own scheme for determining cognitive disability, a standard based on the mental abilities of the character Lennie from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

The level of skepticism Alcala has expressed regarding the state's death penalty scheme - and her colleagues' role in maintaining the status quo - hasn't really been seen in Texas since Republicans took over the court in its entirety nearly 2 decades ago. As conservative jurists came to power in the 1990s, a waning contingent of Democratic judges held on, including Judge Charlie Baird, now a defense attorney in private practice in Austin. Baird said he and his colleagues would regularly dissent from the majority's rubber-stamping of death convictions. In 1996 Baird authored a dissent suggesting that Texas was not fulfilling its promise to the U.S. Supreme Court in the wake of the 1976 opinion that reauthorized the death penalty. Texas had promised "we would interpret the statute fairly and apply the death penalty fairly," he recalled. "And I don't think we ever kept those promises."

To be fair, other Republican judges have joined or written dissenting opinions in the intervening years, but none so clearly skeptical of the system as Alcala's - save for a literal swan song opinion by Judge Tom Price, who opined in 2014, just before retiring his seat, that the death penalty "should be abolished."

Although Alcala hasn't uttered the same words, she nonetheless stands out even more than Price in 1 key way - her current term is up in 2018, meaning that speaking out could derail her chances to remain on the court in the future. In a profile published by Fusion, Alcala said it was "unlikely" that she'd run again, but also acknowledged that she has not made any definitive decision.

Attorneys with considerable experience litigating capital cases before the Texas court say that they are encouraged by Alcala's opinions, but are nonetheless skeptical that her more moderate and thoughtful approach to considering death penalty cases would necessarily have any outwardly obvious effect on her colleagues. "I've been waiting and I haven't seen it. I just haven't seen it," said Keith Hampton, a veteran defense attorney who was behind the only successful bid to have a death sentence commuted by Perry during his 3-term tenure as the state's governor, during which time he presided over more executions than any other modern governor. Hampton said he could see Alcala's approach evolving in recent years, and believes now that she's "genuinely dedicated" to reform. "Clearly she's not playing to the crowd - because we're in Texas and there is no crowd for this here." In fact, Hampton worries that Alcala's writings and public posture may have given ammunition to any number of aggressive prosecutors who could try to force her recusal from considering appeals of their death cases.

Bryce Benjet, a former lawyer with the nonprofit Texas Defender Service who now works for the Innocence Project, said it might be more significant that the concerns Alcala has expressed haven't "happened with more frequency" on the court. But what is especially noteworthy, he said, is that these concerns are coming from a former prosecutor for Harris County (which includes the city of Houston), a jurisdiction responsible for sending hundreds of defendants to death row, and the U.S. county responsible for the most executions since 1976.

To Tyler, Wood's attorney, Alcala's views are more in line with those of the U.S. Supreme Court than with her colleagues. He notes that the Supreme Court has accepted for review 2 recent cases where she authored stern dissents - in the Buck case and in the case challenging the state's process for determining cognitive disabilities. And he said he believes the Supreme Court should take up Wood's case as well, to finally decide whether Wood's sentence is proportionate to his crime.

In the meantime, Wood's family and supporters have attracted another contingent of unlikely supporters in the form of conservative state House members who have been airing their own concerns about whether Wood's sentence is proper. Ultra-conservative members have each spoken out about their concerns and have been trying to persuade the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbot to consider commuting Wood's sentence. "I believe the death penalty, and in some cases the law of parties, has a place. Human life, being made in the image of God, is very precious," East Texas state Representative David Simpson, wrote in a column published in the Dallas Morning News. "In the case of Wood, I have seen enough questions to warrant advocating that his life be spared. Ultimately, God will judge our actions, and as humans we make mistakes and our justice system is not perfect."

Source: theintercept.com, August 26, 2016

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

The pursuit of capital punishment for Dylann Roof is a step backward

Dylann Roof
Dylann Roof
On Nov. 7 in Charleston, S.C., a federal court will begin selecting a jury in the death penalty prosecution of Dylann Roof, the accused killer of 9 African American worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. At first glance, the notion of a white man facing the death penalty for murdering black people in the South - in a killing inspired by the murderer's racist views - may seem like a marker of racial progress.

It isn't - and those who champion civil rights should not celebrate this moment. Roof's crime was surely heinous, and his racism was repugnant. But supporters of racial equality and equal treatment under the law should support Roof's offer to plead guilty and serve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

How can it be that a lifelong civil rights lawyer such as myself would take this position? Because the death penalty cannot be separated from the issue of racial discrimination, especially in the South. The history of slavery and lynching left deep scars in the black community, and the current death penalty does not fare much better. More than 8 in 10 of the executions carried out since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 have occurred in the South. Blacks make up more than 1/3 of the 1,170 defendants executed in the region, with most convicted of murdering a white victim.

Given the racial disproportion inherent in the modern application of the death penalty, it is no surprise that most African Americans (including me) oppose the death penalty, a position that would also disqualify most of them (and me) from serving on the jury in Roof's case.

As a result, if the Roof trial continues on its present course, a jury will be chosen that represents only part of the community. Those who oppose the death penalty on principle will be struck from the pool of jurors by the presiding judge. Those who express doubts about the death penalty will likely be struck by the prosecution. The resulting jury will have fewer blacks, fewer women and fewer people of faiths that oppose the death penalty than a jury selected at random from the residents of Charleston. That cannot be a desirable outcome in such an emotional and racially charged case.

Neither would the adversarial proceeding necessitated by a refusal to accept Roof's offer to plead guilty and accept a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Once the trial begins, there will be a detailed recounting of the worst day this community has ever experienced. It will be the prosecution's duty to portray this multiple murder as gruesomely as possible in order to secure a death sentence. Family members may be called to the stand to describe precisely what they went through that day and how it affected them.

Likewise, the defense will be obligated to do everything in its power to lessen Roof's culpability. This is how our adversarial process works, but it is not necessary here. Without the agony of trying to decide between life and death, a sentencing proceeding that followed a guilty plea could pay tribute to the victims, focusing on the value of their lives and the consequences of their loss. All family members could voice their pain, regardless of their view on the death penalty. It would not be an easy day, but far better than months of focusing only on Roof, followed by years of appeals and uncertainty.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch has allowed this case to proceed as a capital prosecution until now, but a new decision point is coming soon. Most criminal cases settle before trial because it is in the best interests of the entire community. That could happen here; the offer is already on the table. The attorney general need only agree.

After the racially inspired attack on the parishioners of Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, South Carolina took the bold and important step of permanently lowering the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds. This powerful symbol - perceived by many as the embodiment of racism and discrimination - had to go.

With the death penalty, the Justice Department now has the power to lower another flag that has torn communities apart along racial lines. Capital punishment in this case may appear to be just retribution for Roof's unfathomable crime. Yet the real-life operation of the death penalty suggests that its application to Roof would only pave the way for future cases in which the death penalty is invoked to harm the very community on which he inflicted so much pain.

Source: Washington Post, Opinion, Wade Henderson, August 27, 2016. Mr. Henderson is president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

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Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halts upcoming execution of Ronaldo Ruiz

'The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, Texas
'The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, Texas
Ronaldo Ruiz was set to be executed on Aug. 31, but - as with the prior 6 scheduled executions in Texas that have been stayed or delayed - a Texas court ordered a stay of execution for him on Friday.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday halted the upcoming execution of Ronaldo Ruiz, who was set to be put to death on Aug. 31.

Texas was set to execute Ruiz, a hit man in the 1992 murder of a 29-year-old woman. Ruiz, 43, was set to die by lethal injection on Aug. 31 after he was convicted in the murder-for-hire of Theresa Rodriguez.

Ruiz would have become the 6th inmate to be executed in Texas in 2016.

In his latest habeas corpus application, Ruiz raised questions about deficiency of his trial counsel and his initial habeas counsel, as well as questions about the constitutionality of executing him "over 2 decades after his conviction" - a matter the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to consider.

In the Court of Criminal Appeals' brief, unsigned order, the court restates Ruiz's claims and then concludes, "After reviewing applicant's writ application, we have determined that his execution should be stayed pending further order by this Court."

The country's busiest death chamber has not carried out an execution in nearly 4 months. The past 6 scheduled executions in Texas - including Ruiz's previously scheduled July execution date - were stayed, delayed, or withdrawn for various reasons.

This marks the longest period Texas has gone without killing inmates since 2014, when no executions took place for nearly 5 months amid furor over Oklahoma's botched execution of Clayton Lockett and legal challenges related to Texas' drug secrecy.

Jason Clark, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), told BuzzFeed News prior to Friday's ruling in Ruiz's case that the agency was "not involved in setting or withdrawing execution dates." He added that the TDCJ "stands ready to carry out" executions.

In a year already marked by fewer executions, Texas is the only state with executions scheduled for the remainder of 2016. Other active death penalty states are grappling with a variety of obstacles ranging from the effect of Supreme Court rulings earlier this year to drug shortages and the fallout from botched executions.

Even in Texas, in August alone now, 3 scheduled executions have been stayed - while the date for another was changed.

Ruiz was hired by 2 brothers, Mark Rodriguez and Michael Rodriguez, to kill Michael's wife Theresa for a life insurance scheme. Ruiz shot and killed Theresa in the couple's garage after following them home from a movie theater. The brothers paid Ruiz $2,000 for the murder.

Ruiz was first scheduled to die in 2007, but a federal appeals court gave him a reprieve. His execution was then set for July 27 of this year after the US Supreme Court refused to review his case in May 2015. However, his execution was pushed to Aug. 31 because of the state's failure to sufficiently notify his counsel of his pending execution, Jennifer Moreno, an attorney at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic told BuzzFeed News.

On Aug. 19, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from 5 death row inmates, including Ruiz, who demanded that the state retest its drugs before executing them. That case is now on appeal before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Source: BuzzFeed News, August 27, 2016

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Singapore: Nathan granted zero presidential pardon during his 2 terms

S R Nathan
S R Nathan
S R Nathan, the longest serving president from 1999 to 2011 did not grant clemency to any death row inmates during his 2 terms as President.

This is according to the Singapore Working Group on the Death Penalty (SWGDP) in its statement issued on the 13th World Day Against the Death Penalty last October.

SWGDP stated, "Since Singapore's independence, only 7 clemencies have been granted (as at Oct 2015), with the last being exercised by the late President Ong Teng Cheong."

It went on to reveal that of the 7 clemencies, 2 were granted in the term of President Benjamin Sheares, 1 under President Devan Nair, 3 under President Wee Kim Wee, and 1 under President Ong Teng Cheong.

Presidential clemencies granted by past Presidents:

-- Benjamin Sheares (1971-1981): 2 in 10 years

-- Devan Nair (1981-1985): 1 in 4 years

-- Wee Kim Wee (1985 -1993): 3 in 8 years

-- Ong Teng Cheong (1993-1999): 1 in 6 years

-- S R Nathan (1999 - 2011): 0 in 12 years

The SWGDP is an advocacy group in Singapore which believes in giving convicted people a 2nd chance to live. It advocates for the abolishment of the death penalty in Singapore as well as commits to raising awareness on issues surrounding the death penalty.

On its website, it said:

Although we believe that everyone needs to take the responsibility for his or her mistakes and that no crime should go unpunished, we also believe that unjust and problematic laws and procedures need to be debated and revised.

The death penalty is an irreversible punishment at the end of a process that is prone to human error, which means that it is all too possible that innocent lives will be taken away. And that is something that should not be allowed to happen.

As at Oct 2015, the last clemency was granted by the late president Ong Teng Cheong in May 1998. He commuted Mr Mathavakannan Kalimuthu's death sentence to life imprisonment. He was 19 when he and 2 other men killed a gangster in 1996.

After Nathan stepped down as President in 2011, he gave an interview to the media. During the interview, he was asked about granting presidential pardons during his 12-year term in office. He was asked if he found it difficult.

"The constitution clearly lays it down that I have to act on the advice of the cabinet, and the cabinet acts on the advice of the Attorney-General," he said.

"You have a right to question it... through the process, you determine whether all the facts have been taken into account, whether there's anything that needs special consideration." Upon further probing by a reporter from Yahoo, Nathan finally said, "Of course it's a difficult thing when it comes to the death penalty. It's a matter of conscience. That's the law... and you do your best to see that there is justice done."

"You are in no position to contradict the submission when you have not heard the case," he continued. "You can't purely go on human emotions."

"I have to ask the man up there to forgive me for what is done for the good of society."

Source: The Independent, August 27, 2016

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Death penalty failing to deter drug trafficking in Iran - official

The death penalty has failed to reduce drug trafficking in Iran, a senior Iranian judiciary official said on Saturday shortly before the scheduled execution of 12 people for narcotics-related offences.

His criticism was unusual in a judiciary that has long been a bastion of the hardline security establishment in the Islamic Republic, which carries out more executions per capita than any other country. Nearly 1,000 prisoner were put to death in 2015, most of them for drug trafficking.

Most narcotics are smuggled into Iran along its long, often lawless border with Afghanistan, which supplies about 90 percent of the world's opium from which heroin is made.

"The truth is, the execution of drug smugglers has had no deterrent effect," Mohammad Baqer Olfat, deputy head of judiciary for social affairs, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

"We have fought full-force against smugglers according to the law, but unfortunately we are experiencing an increase in the volume of drugs trafficked to Iran, the transit of drugs through the country, the variety of drugs, and the number of people who are involved in it," Olfat said.

He said he had suggested to the judiciary chief that rather than the death penalty, traffickers should serve long prison terms with hard labour.

Mohammad-Javad Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Human Rights Council and a brother of the powerful judiciary chief, said in 2015 that more than 90 % of executions in the country were for drug-related crimes.

He said the death penalty has not led to a significant fall in drug-related crimes and that the policy must be re-evaluated.

The Islamic Republic seized 388 tonnes of opium in 2012, around 72 % of all such seizures globally, but says it has lost many security personnel in skirmishes with drug traffickers in volatile regions bordering Afghanistan and also Pakistan.

The United Nations has repeatedly praised Iran's battle against narcotics trafficking but opposed its death penalty.

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran urged Tehran on Friday to halt the execution of 12 people on drug-related offences scheduled for Saturday.

"It is regrettable that the (Iranian) government continues to proceed with executions for crimes that do not meet the threshold of the 'most serious crimes' as required by international law," Ahmed Shaheed said in a statement.

Given Iran's large number of executions, some countries including Britain and Denmark have stopped providing funding for the United Nations drug control programme in Iran.

Source: Reuters, August 27, 2016

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Iran: 12 Prisoners Hanged on Drug Charges

Iran Human Rights (AUG 27 2016): Iran Human Rights (IHR) warned yesterday about the imminent execution of more than 10 prisoners in Karaj Central Prison. 

According to close sources, 12 prisoners were executed at this prison early morning on Saturday August 27.

Close sources have identified nine of the prisoners who were executed this morning:

Alireza Madadpour, Bahman Rezaei, Arman Bahrami, Alireza Asadi (pictured below), Mohsen Eslami, Hossein Bahrami, Mehdi Rostami, Amir Sarkhah and Alireza Sarkhah". All the prisoners were reportedly sentenced to death for drug related offences.

The death sentences were carried out despite an urgent call by Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, to halt the executions.

During the past two years several high ranking Iranian officials have admitted that executions have not deterred drug crimes in Iran. But still, Iranian authorities continue the execution of hundreds every year for such charges.

Alireza Asadi was one of the prisoners who was executed in Karaj Central Prison early Saturday morning August 27.

Source: Iran Human Rights, August 27, 2016

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ho Chi Minh City People's Court upholds death sentence for Australian drug mule

Ho Chi Minh City People's Court
Ho Chi Minh City People's Court
The Ho Chi Minh City People's Court Wednesday confirmed the death sentence for a Vietnamese-Australian for drug smuggling after a reinvestigation determined the drug amount was too big to commute the sentence.

Pham Trung Dung, 39, was arrested at Tan Son Nhat Airport in May 2013 when checking in for a flight to Sydney after customs officers suspected he had drugs in his luggage.

He was sentenced to death in April 2014 after police identified the powder as more than four kilograms of heroin.

The Supreme People's Court later ordered authorities to weigh the heroin afresh, and it turned out there were nearly 3.6 kilograms.

The judges ruled Wednesday that it was "a huge amount" that poses a threat to society.

Dung said he was in Vietnam for a family vacation and a local had asked him to carry the drug to Australia for a fee of US$30,500.

Vietnam has some of the world's toughest drug laws. 

Those convicted of possessing or smuggling more than 600 grams of heroin or more than 2.5 kilograms of methamphetamine face the death penalty.

The production or sale of 100 grams of heroin or 300 grams of other illegal narcotics is also punishable by death.

Source: Thanh Nien News, August 25, 2016

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Iran's executions continue as West prioritizes nuclear deal

Earlier this month Iran executed at least two dozen political prisoners on various charges of activities against the regime or membership in extremist groups. Though there was nothing new either with the charges or the number of executions, the action this time brought wide condemnation, especially by Kurds who thought the world was turning a blind eye to Iran's human rights violations due to its nuclear deal with the West.

"The application of overly broad and vague criminal charges, coupled with a disdain for the rights of the accused to due process and a fair trial have in these cases led to a grave injustice," said Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Among those hanged was Hassan Afshar, a 19-year-old who was arrested and convicted of rape at the age of 17. Al Hussein called the execution of juveniles "particularly abhorrent."

On August 2, the Iranian government announced that it had executed 20 members of a "takfiri" group (a term used by Iran to denote false Islam) that were mainly Kurdish and Sunnis. A few days later, members of the family of Kurdish nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri said that he had been executed.

These executions immediately caught the attention of rights groups who described them as shameful and made Iran a regional leader in executions.

"Iran's mass execution of prisoners on August 2 at Rajai Shahr prison is a shameful low point in its human rights record," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release on August 8.

"With at least 230 executions since January 1, Iran is yet again the regional leader in executions but a laggard in implementing the so far illusory penal code reforms meant to bridge the gap with international standards," she added.

Many have blamed the West, the United States in particular, for not holding Iran accountable to its human rights violations mainly in order to keep their Vienna nuclear deal in place. But the US State Department says that it remains concerned about human rights in Iran and has raised the issue with them through many channels.

"We reaffirm our calls on Iran to respect and protect human rights, and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases," a State Department official told Rudaw English. "We have consistently and publicly expressed our concerns about Iran's human rights record through a range of channels."

Emad Kiyaei, Director of External Affairs at the American Iranian Council, says that his council has condemned the recent executions in Iran and that it has raised the issue with the US government. However, he believes that the nuclear deal does not mean Iran has been given a blank check to act as it wants. On the contrary, he sees the deal as a chance to bring the Islamic Republic out of isolation and help improve its human rights record.

"Instead of resorting to coercive policies, the Council recommends the creation of a joint working group between Iran and the EU to examine policies and methodologies to reform the judicial system in Iran," Kiyaei told Rudaw English.

Kiyaei said that the issue of human rights in Iran should be separated from the nuclear deal as it was specific to dealing with Iran's nuclear program, which was not intended to address all the issues that exist between Iran and the international community. "Therefore, it is unlikely that human rights issues would derail this accord."

He argued that keeping the sanctions on Iran could only worsen the situation for prisoners and would not necessarily reduce the number of executions.

"The Council does not believe that coercive or further sanctions on Iran would improve the human rights condition within the country," Kiyaei said, adding, "Instead, through open dialogue, diplomacy and weaving Iran more intimately within the international community would be more conducive in empowering those within the Iranian government who seek to reform, moderate and transform the country to be more in line with universal human rights."

Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow and Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington differs. He does not think the nuclear deal would improve Iran's human rights record as it was only to make sure Iran did not become a nuclear power which has now turned into a business scheme.

"The nuclear deal was never meant to change Iran's overall character but simply to make sure it did not become a nuclear weapons power," Vatanka told Rudaw English. "I don't see any signs that the P5+1 would want to void the deal because of Iranian behavior towards its own people at home."

Vatanka believes that Tehran uses the executions as a show of force especially to deter its opponents and drown any dissent.

He argues: "At the moment the int. community wants to safeguard the nuclear deal and is looking for commercial opportunities in Iran. Unfortunately the human rights record of Iran is not on the top of the list in either Europe or in America."

Some critics of Iran's judicial system believe that the authorities seem to be particular in who they execute and they mostly target minority groups, chief among them the Kurds.

"We should know that currently out of 915 political prisoners documented, 411 are Kurds," Taimoor Aliassi, UN representative of the Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan - Geneva (KMMK-G), told Rudaw English, adding that 75 % of Kurdish prisoners are accused and convicted of being mohareb, a judicial term in Iran for enmity against God.

Aliassai said that since the establishment of the Islamic Republic nearly 4 decades ago more than 14,000 prisoners have been executed, a great majority of them ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Balochis and Afghan refugees and most of them not announced to the public.

"A significant number of these victims are political prisoners and ethnic rights activists who were executed under the cover of drug offences," he said. "Regarding the last mass executions, they are all Kurdish and faith political prisoners sentenced in a hasty and unfairly manner for crime of mohareb based on Articles 279 and 286 of Iran???s Penal Code."

In 2015, Iran was the 2nd highest executioner in the world after China but 1st per capita.

Aliassi urged the world powers, especially the US and European Union, to make the lifting of sanctions and easing of economic and diplomatic ties conditional to Tehran's respect for human rights and the rights of groups such as Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs and Baluchis.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is governing by spreading violence, fear and terror. So hanging prisoners in public is part of controlling mechanism and Islamic Republic will not abolish death penalty unless there is a change of regime."

Source: rudaw.net, August 25, 2016

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Judge Sees No Wrongs in Texas Executions

Texas death chamber
Texas death chamber
Texas' execution protocol is constitutional, a federal judge ruled, dismissing a lawsuit from 5 death row inmates who say the state should retest its drugs before killing them.

Texas revised its lethal-injection procedure in 2012 from a 3-judge cocktail to a dose of compounded pentobarbital. Since then, Texas has executed 30 prisoners without any reported problems, according to U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes' Aug. 19 ruling.

Texas changed its protocol and started buying its pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy after large drug manufacturers, unwilling to be complicit in the death penalty, stopped producing the drugs the state used.

Lead plaintiff Jeffery Wood sued 2 directors of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the warden of the Huntsville prison on Aug. 12, seeking an injunction to stop the state from carrying out his execution, which was set for Aug. 24.

Though Hughes refused to grant Wood relief in the federal case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday afternoon remanded Wood's case to the trial court that oversaw his death penalty conviction.

The appeals court told the trial court to look into allegations from Wood's attorneys that a psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution, the late Dr. James Grigson, dubbed "Dr. Death" by the media, lied to the jury about how often he found defendants pose a danger to society in the numerous capital murder trials in which he had testified. Wood's reprieve came on his 43rd birthday, the Texas Tribune reported.

Church leaders, death penalty opponents and state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, say Wood does not deserve the death penalty because he didn't kill anyone.

Wood was sentenced under a Texas law that makes anyone involved in a crime that causes death equally responsible.

A jury convicted Wood for the 1996 murder of a convenience store clerk in Kerrville, though Wood was sitting outside the store in a pickup when his friend fired the fatal shot.

Wood is fighting to overturn his death sentence in the state case, but his conviction will stand.

In his federal lawsuit, Wood says that because Texas agreed to retest its compounded pentobarbital before using it on inmates Perry Williams and Thomas Whitaker in a settlement of their 2013 federal lawsuit, the state should do the same for him and his 4 co-plaintiffs.

He claims that Texas will violate his Eighth and 14th Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by using a drug that presents a "substantial risk of causing severe pain," an argument his attorneys backed with an affidavit, medical report and lab results from pharmacologist James Ruble and anesthesiologist David Waisel.

Judge Hughes didn't buy it. Describing Ruble's report as a "pseudo-scientific dump of partial facts and incomplete data" and Waisel's affidavit as rife with "speculative, unsubstantiated, and partial data," Hughes dismissed the case Friday.

Wood et al. claim Texas uses expired pentobarbital, an argument Hughes found unpersuasive, because the state administers twice the lethal dose to execute prisoners.

"The plaintiffs have not shown that Texas uses expired drugs to execute people. That should end the inquiry. Their medical support is wholly unreliable to show that the drugs have a demonstrated risk of severe pain," Hughes wrote in a 12-page order, voluminous compared to his typically terse rulings.

Hughes dismissed most of the claims for not meeting Texas' 2-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims.

"The equal protection claim will be dismissed because the plaintiffs have not shown that Texas has infringed upon a fundamental right," he wrote.

Here are the other plaintiffs and their execution dates: Rolando Ruiz, Aug. 31; Robert Jennings, Sept. 14; Terry Edwards, Oct. 19 and Ramiro Gonzales, Nov. 2.

Texas leads the nation with 6 executions so far this year.

Source: Courthouse News, August 24, 2016

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Just 16 counties are fueling America's use of the death penalty

"The death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried."
"The death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried."
Just 16 counties in the US are driving the use of the death penalty, despite a nationwide movement away from the sentence, a new report from the Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found.

The "outlier counties" - scattered throughout Alabama, Florida, California, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, and Arizona - have each imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, a major departure from the overall downward trend in death penalty use since it peaked in 1996 with 315.

The report determined that the reasons behind the counties' deviation can be boiled down to 3 "structural failures" that they tend to have in common: overzealous prosecutors, inadequate defense lawyers, and racial bias and exclusion.

The outcomes of these sentencings, according to the report, regularly resulted in wrongful convictions and excessive punishment of young people, or those who suffer from mental illnesses or disabilities.

"Studies have shown [death sentences] to be extremely expensive, prone to error, applied in discriminatory ways, and imposed upon the most vulnerable, rather than the most culpable people," the report said.

For instance, in Maricopa County, Arizona, the report found that a disproportionate 57% of those sentenced to death between 2010 and 2015 were people of color. The county is notable for drawing national scrutiny in recent days - its sheriff, Joe Arpaio, was referred by a federal judge for criminal contempt charges last week after he allegedly failed to abide by a court order meant to prevent his office from racially profiling Latinos.

Arpaio has been accused by the Department of Justice of overseeing the "worst pattern of racial profiling by a law enforcement agency in US history."

The report also looked into Duval County, Florida, where 87% of its death sentences since 2010 have been used on African-American defendants. The report attributed much of the county's outlier status to State Attorney Angela Corey, who is currently campaigning for re-election and was dubbed the "cruelest prosecutor in America" last week by The Nation magazine.

Corey slammed the Fair Sentencing Project's statistics as being unfair in an interview with the Florida Times-Union on Tuesday.

The study's focus on 16 counties hearkens back to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent in the 2015 Glossip v. Gross case, in which he pegged geography as being a major factor in determining which defendants are sentenced to death.

"Within a death penalty State, the imposition of the death penalty heavily depends on the county in which a defendant is tried," Breyer wrote.

The report, released Tuesday, examined just 8 of the 16 counties, while a second report detailing the remaining eight is set to be released in September.

Source: Business Insider, August 24, 2016

Harvard Death-Penalty Study Rips Maricopa County Prosecutors


Maricopa County's death-penalty system is plagued by "overzealous" prosecutors and creates a high number of questionable death-penalty cases, according to a new Harvard Law School report.

"Too Broken to Fix: Part I: An In-Depth Look at America's Outlier Death Penalty Counties," by the school's Fair Punishment Project, identifies Maricopa as 1 of 16 "outliers" among the nation's 3,143 counties or "county equivalents," for having sentenced 5 or more defendants to death during the period 2010-2015.

The report calls out three deputy county attorneys by name, suggesting they're reckless, and it lays heavy implications on the current county attorney, Bill Montgomery. But it also notes that the number of death-penalty cases has declined since the departure of former county attorney Andrew Thomas.

Thomas, who resigned office in 2010 for an unsuccessful run for state Attorney General, was disbarred in 2012 for abuse of power - as the Harvard study prominently mentions. Voters put Montgomery, also a Republican, in office in 2010 with a special election, re-electing him in 2012. He's running for office once again in 2016 against low-profile Democratic contender Diego Rodriguez.

For much of Montgomery's time in office, he has sought the death penalty at a higher-than-average rate, according to the study. Between 2010 and 2015, the county had 28 capital-punishment cases. On a per-homicide basis, the county's rate of death sentencing is 2.3 times higher than the rest of Arizona. Nationally, it accounts for about about 1 % of the country's population but 3.6 % of the country's death-penalty cases between 2010 and 2015.

"If I were charged with a crime in Maricopa County, based on what we've seen in capital cases - it's not a place where I would feel confident that the county attorney's office would play by the rules," Robert Smith, a Harvard researcher and director of the Fair Punishment Project tells New Times.

The report illuminates problems that go back much further than 2010, showing that Maricopa County has had more cases - and more problems with those cases and its prosecutorial system - than nearly any other U.S. county.

Founded in 2005 by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., the Fair Punishment Project has a stated mission to serve as a "critical critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy and practice to solve the challenges of a multi-racial society." The project, led by professor Ronald Sullivan Jr., is a collaboration between the law school's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute.

Citing media coverage, including stories from New Times, the report notes that starting in 2004, Thomas sought capital cases at twice the rate of his predecessor, Rick Romley - thus crippling the county's public-defender system and leaving a dozen murder defendants without lawyers. While the county has backed off its zeal for the death penalty since 2010, Montgomery's office retains three deputies whose strong interest in capital cases appears to color their conduct in court.

Jeannette Gallagher, Juan Martinez, and Vincent Imbordino account for more than 1/3 of all of the capital cases (21 of 61) in which the Arizona Supreme Court has found problems on direct appeal since 2006. The higher court overturned or vacated the death penalty in 4 of the 21 cases and found instances of "improper behavior" in 8 of the cases.

The report notes that the state Supreme Court found that Martinez - who gained worldwide fame as the prosecutor in the Jodi Arias murder trial - committed misconduct in at least 3 capital cases. Additionally, the state's high court cited 17 examples where Martinez had acted "inappropriately" in the murder prosecution of Shawn Patrick Lynch. (The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in that case for reasons unrelated to alleged prosecutor problems.)

The report cites instances in which the state Supreme Court deemed Gallagher's conduct "improper," "very troubling," and "entirely unprofessional."

"Gallagher, who heads Maricopa's capital case unit, has personally obtained at least nine death sentences, including against a military veteran diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and a brain-damaged child whom she described to the jury as '16 going on 35,'" according to the report.

Smith has harsh words for the 3 prosecutors.

"They don't have the temperament required to prosecute a jaywalking citation, and what they're being entrusted with is the death penalty," he tells New Times. "They shouldn't be prosecuting misdemeanor cases, much less deciding whether or not somebody lives or dies."

The report delves into the problems behind the high rate of cases, noting overworked or incompetent defense attorneys, racial bias, and the exonerations of 5 Maricopa County death-penalty defendants since 1978. More than 1/2 of the people sentenced to death between 2010 and 2015 were people of color. The Fair Punishment Project can't say for certain whether Maricopa County has executed any innocent people, but Smith says it has come "perilously close."

It's Montgomery's responsibility to fix the county's sorry record on the death penalty, Smith adds, even though many of its problems predate his tenure. As things stand now, Montgomery shows a "callous disregard" for the people he's been entrusted to protect, Smith says.

Montgomery did not return a message seeking comment.

Source: phoenixnewtimes.com, August 24, 2016

Harvard Law: Duval County among nation's leaders in death penalty sentences


In Duval County, it has taken just 66 minutes in the sentencing phase to decide to impose the death penalty on a murderer. And often, it has been done without a unanimous jury.

That stat illustrates why one group believes Duval is among the worst of the worst when it comes to death penalty sentences, with roughly 1/4 of Florida's death sentences coming from Duval County, with a mere five percent of the state's population.

A new report from the Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project contends Duval County is one of a group of "outlier" counties, where the death penalty is used more than anywhere else in the country.

The report contends Duval and other so-called outlier counties are "plagued by prosecutorial misconduct, bad lawyers, and racial bias."

Turning its attention to Duval County specifically, the report contends 48 % of Duval County death penalty cases involve defendants who have an intellectual disability, brain damage, or mental illness.

The report cites a death penalty conviction for a man with an IQ of 67 who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a vivid example.

Further, 20 % of those death penalty cases involve defendants under the age of 21.

Duval County had findings of prosecutorial misconduct in 16 % of its cases; Angela Corey, the current state attorney, and her chief prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda were named in the report specifically.

"Of the death sentences that the Florida Supreme Court has reviewed from Duval County since 2006, 1 in every 6 cases involved a finding of inappropriate behavior, misuse of discretion, or prosecutorial misconduct, including 2 recent death sentences tried by Bernie de la Rionda that the Florida Supreme Court vacated due to their excessive harshness," the report contends.

Other issues arose also, according to the Fair Punishment Project.

In Duval, the guilty verdict and the sentencing often occurred in the same day, permitting no mitigating evidence to be offered.

Of the defendants sentenced to death in Duval County, 87 % were African-American.

This trend predated Corey, claims the FPP, though it has escalated under her watch.

"Between 1991-2009, 62 percent of death sentences from Duval County were imposed against African-American defendants, compared to just 33 % in the rest of Florida. Since 2010, 1 year after Angela Corey took office, 87 % of death sentences have been imposed against African-American defendants, compared to 44 % in the rest of the state. African-Americans make up approximately 30 % of Duval's population, and 17 % of the state's population," the report contends.

Of those sentenced to death, 88 % were "non-unanimous," the report added.

An expert quoted in the press release lamented the insufficiency of defense in counties like Duval.

"This report vividly shows how the last remnants of the American death penalty still survive: in counties that have wholly crippled the defense function," said Professor Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law. "Conversely, in the places that provide minimally fair resources for defense representation, we have seen a steep decline in death sentences. Readers of this report will learn that what is left of the death penalty persists only through extreme unfairness and arbitrariness."

With Corey facing a competitive primary in the state attorney race, national scrutiny has been inconveniently timed for the 2-term incumbent.

The Nation posed the question: "Is Angela Corey the cruelest prosecutor in America?"

When asked about this article last week, Corey was dismissive, saying that the article was from a "liberal blogger in San Francisco."

One can expect a similar response to this report.

Source: floridapolitics.com, August 24, 2016

State Attorney Angela Corey calls new Harvard study about death-sentencing 'unfair and untrue'


Duval County is again among a handful of U.S. counties that most frequently send convicted criminals to their deaths, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday.

The Fair Punishment Project, of Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, highlighted the 16 U.S. counties that sentenced at least 5 people to death from 2010 to 2015. Duval had 16 death sentences, and 88 % of its death sentences since 2006 were not unanimous.

The same day the Harvard report was released, a New York Times Magazine story highlighting the top death-sentencing counties focused on the murder of Shelby Farah of Jacksonville. Farah's mother, Darlene, has asked local prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, but they are still seeking death.

The feature also discussed the area's chief assistant public defender, Refik Eler, who has had 2 death cases overturned because of his ineffective assistance of counsel.

"I wouldn't say it's troubling. There were only 2 cases reversed" and 1 is pending on appeal, Eler said. "In a 30-year career, I've tried several hundred cases."

As one of the attorneys who's represented many poor clients in death cases, Eler said, he's proud of the times he has succeeded. "You have to really be there and do it and understand the many factors that go into strategic decisions."

State Attorney Angela Corey rebutted the Harvard Law School report, saying the statistics were unfair and the researchers should've shared data with her before publishing.

The report focused on:

-- Corey's "overzealous" prosecution

-- Public Defender Matt Shirk's office providing ineffective counsel

-- Racial bias at the courthouse.

("Since 2010, 1 year after Angela Corey took office, 87 % of death sentences have been imposed against African-American defendants, compared to 44 % in the rest of the state. African-Americans make up approximately 30 % of Duval's population, and 17 % of the state's population.") The Times story was the 2nd magazine article in a week focusing on Duval's role as a leader in tough-on-crime sentencing. Last week, liberal magazine The Nation published a feature asking, "Is Angela Corey the Cruelest Prosecutor in America?", and back in June, conservative magazine National Review criticized her.

"It's totally without merit," Corey said of the report, saying she was unfairly targeted when she didn't divert from her predecessors' approaches to prosecuting death-penalty cases.

COREY HAS ANOTHER EXPLANATION

Corey called the Fair Punishment Project report and the magazine story untrue. She questioned why the report came out a week before her Aug. 30 primary.

But Rob Smith, the legal research fellow who headed the project, said the election had nothing to do with the timing.

"We looked at the study not to persecute her. We weren't just picking anecdotes out and picking on people. We wanted to have an objective, thematic, national look. Surely she doesn't believe the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School decided to create a gigantic project with a dozen people working on it over months to pick a time period just to affect Angela Corey's election. ...

Contrary to Ms. Corey's belief, the world doesn't revolve around her."

Smith said, 'I also think that she's a bully, and what I mean by that is that when a Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz called her out in a case, she calls and threatens the university. When her predecessor critiques something she did, she criticizes Mr. Shorstein. When her IT person criticizes something she does, she fires that person. She gets upset and she lashes out. Bullies shouldn't be deciding who lives and who dies."

In interviews Tuesday, Corey said it was unfair to report on the findings without first reviewing the data the project collected. Over the course of 2 telephone interviews, Corey grew increasingly combative while 2 of her top homicide attorneys remained collegial. 3 times she interrupted one of them to tell him to stop being apologetic.

Those attorneys, Bernie de la Rionda and Mark Caliel, addressed many of the statistics in the report and said why they felt they were misleading. Caliel said when considering the race of all 1st-degree murder suspects, there likely isn't a disparity between those who qualified for death and those sentenced to death. They said they believe seeking the death penalty honors the many black victims of murder.

"What scholars tend to forget is all lives matter," de la Rionda said. "I'd venture to ask this question. Who are our victims? If the focus is going to be on race, what was the race of our victims?"

He said he respects organizations that oppose the death penalty, but he believes it's the right punishment for certain crimes.

Corey and de la Rionda also said the manner of handling death cases and the number of death cases haven't changed much since Ed Austin and Harry Shorstein were the elected state attorneys before Corey. Smith disagreed, saying that while most the country reduced the number of death sentences, Corey increased it even when the murder rate dropped.

THE TIMING OF THE REPORT

Harvard's Smith, who has handled death-penalty cases, said the decision to do this study came after a Supreme Court dissent last summer noted the geographic concentration of death-penalty cases. At the time, only 15 counties had 5 or more death penalties from 2010 to 2015; that number grew to 16. Many viewed that dissent as an open invitation to challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the intellectually disabled and juveniles should not be executed. Smith said he wanted to see if the few counties still sending people to death were sentencing "the worst of the worst" or the types of people the Supreme Court said shouldn't be executed.

Smith has previously published reports noting that de la Rionda is one of the nation's most prolific death-penalty prosecutors.

"In Duval what happens is you have both this aggressive prosecutor in Angela Corey where she seeks the death penalty in cases where many other prosecutors would not and this non-unanimous jury rule," he said. The law didn't used to require any specific number of jurors to agree to a death sentence; it now requires a 10-2 decision. "Those 2 things work together."

Smith said in places like Duval County, he found that the people on death row were not the most heinous criminals. Instead, the report noted, 48 % had an intellectual disability, severe mental illness or brain damage. 1 in 5 were younger than 21.

And shockingly, he said, the sentencing phase of the trial - when prosecutors explain why a crime is particularly egregious, defense attorneys explain why someone shouldn't be executed and a jury decides death or life - in Jacksonville lasts one day. That means opening statements, witnesses, evidence, closing statements and jury deliberation all occur in the same workday.

For that, Smith blamed defense attorneys. "You have an overaggressive prosecutor and defense lawyers who you wouldn't want to represent you in a parking ticket case."

Source: jacksonville.com, August 24, 2016

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