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Florida May Execute Innocent Man Tonight

Wayne Tompkins is scheduled to be executed tonight in Florida. From the Florida Innocence Project(via e-mail):

We believe there are very serious doubts about whether Tompkins is guilty of murder – because the body in the case might not be that of the alleged victim, meaning no murder even took place. Several individuals have signed affidavits saying they have seen the victim alive since the alleged murder, but the Governor has failed to stay the execution.

Yesterday, we sent a letter to Governor Charlie Crist (pdf). Today, we filed a motion to preserve the evidence in the case, signaling our intent to go ahead with DNA testing, even if Tompkins is executed. One day soon, the truth will come out, and perhaps Governor Crist will become the first in US history to execute a man who was proven to be innocent.

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Supreme Court Refuses to Reject Victim Impact Videos in Death Cases

Very little is more prejudicial in the penalty phase of a death case than a video of the victim's life set to music. Juries are instructed to base their decisions on reason rather than emotion, and then view a video, on a larger than life screen, depicting images of the victim and events in his or her life, as prepared by their family, set to music.

Today, the Supreme Court refused to reject the practice in two cases.

The order Monday comes in two California cases in which jurors were shown video montages of the victims' lives, in one instance set to music by Enya.

Three justices disagreed with the ruling: Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens. Justice Stevens' statement is here (pdf.)

"The videos added nothing relevant to the jury's deliberations and invited a verdict based on sentiment, rather than reasoned judgment," Stevens said.

You can watch one of the videos here.

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12 Texecutions Set for Over Next Six Weeks

Texas has 12 executions scheduled for the next six weeks.

Two were executed the week of Oct. 13. Two were scheduled for this week. And two more the week after that. Then six more in November, adding to Texas' standing as the nation's most active death penalty state.

[Hat tip Sentencing Law and Policy.]

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World Medical Assoc. Expands Ban on Physician Assisted Executions

The World Medical Association's General Assembly met Friday and Saturday in Seoul, South Korea. It passed the following resolution, expanding those of prior years prohibiting physcian participation in executions:

RESOLVED, that it is unethical for physicians to participate in capital punishment, in any way, or during any step of the execution process, including its planning and the instruction and/or training of persons to perform executions, The World Medical Association REQUESTS firmly its constituent members to advise all physicians that any participation in capital punishment as stated above is unethical. URGES its constituent members to lobby actively national governments and legislators against any participation of physicians in capital punishment.

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Supreme Court Denies Cert for Troy Davis


The Supreme Court today denied cert for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis. In September, the Court had granted a stay hours before Davis was to be executed. 7 of the 9 witnesses against him recanted their testimony and the eyewitness evidence in the case was extremely problematic.

Amnesty International responds:

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Davis’ petition for writ of certiorari that was submitted on constitutional grounds of due process and cruel and unusual punishment violations if an individual is put to death despite significant claims to innocence. Davis’ attorneys filed the petition after the Georgia Supreme Court’s narrow 4-3 ruling to deny Davis an evidentiary hearing last March; the ruling was based on technicalities rather than basic questions of guilt and innocence.

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TX Commission to Investigate Whether Innocent Man Was Executed

This is really big news. For the first time in U.S. history, a state commission will investigate whether an innocent man was executed.

A Texas panel will investigate whether a man executed for setting a fire that killed his three daughters actually started the blaze.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed Friday to review conclusions that Cameron Todd Willingham set the fire in 1991. He was executed in 2004.... The Innocence Project, a legal group that works to overturn wrongful convictions, says experts in a report it commissioned concluded the fire was not intentionally set.

You can read JR's diary about it on Daily Kos . One of the experts who co-authored the Innocence Project report is his father, John Lentini, who has written extensively on fire science and errors made during investigations.

The executed inmate was Cameron Todd Willingham #999041. Read the results of a 2004 exhaustive investigation into the case by award-winning Chicago Tribune investigative reporters Maurice Possley and Steve Mills. [More...]

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Dem Platform Committee Meeting in Cleveland

The DNC Platform Committee is meeting this weekend in Cleveland.

The sessions begin Friday afternoon when policy experts suggest planks for the Democratic platform. On Saturday party leaders will hear comments from the public and then will turn their attention to writing a draft platform.

The draft goes before the full platform committee Aug. 9 in Pittsburgh....The platform is expected to closely reflect Obama's views.

In 2004,John Kerry insisted on removing support for the death penalty from the platform. It was the first time since the 1980's that the Democratic platform did not contain an endorsement of the death penalty. Will Obama keep it out or put it back in?

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Obama Disagrees With Supreme Court Ruling Requiring a Death to Invoke the Death Penalty


Where is Sen. Barack Obama on the death penalty? With Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas. Here is what Sen. Obama had to say about today's excellent Supreme Court ruling striking down a state statute allowing the death penalty to be imposed for crimes where no death occurs:

When asked about Supreme Court ruling against the use of the death penalty in instances of child rape today at a news conference in Chicago, Obama answered, “I disagree with the decision. I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, six or eight years old is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances, the death penalty is at least potentially applicable. That does not violate our constitution.”

He continued, “Had the Supreme Court said, ‘We want to constrain ability of states to do this to make sure that it's done in a careful and appropriate way,’ that would've been one thing, but it basically had a blanket prohibition and I disagree with that decision.”

He sounds just like John McCain: [More...]

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Supreme Court Strikes Down Death Penalty for Child Rape

Via Scotus Blog: The Supreme Court decided Kennedy v. Louisiana today, holding that "the death penalty for child rape is unconstitutional if the defendants' acts were not intended to cause death." The decision was 5-4.

The Court has released the opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana (07-343), on whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits states from imposing the death penalty for child rape, and, if not, whether Louisiana’s statute fails to narrow the class of offenders eligible for the death penalty. The ruling below, which upheld the state law, is reversed and remanded.

Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion. Justice Alito dissented, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Thomas. We will provide a link to the decision as soon as it is available.

The opinion is available here. The Court categorically says the death penalty is forbidden for crimes that do not result in death. [More..]

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"At the Death House Door" Airs Tonight

At the Death House Door airs tonight at 9:00 pm ET on IFC, the Independent Film Channel: It is the story of a minister to death row inmates in Texas, who became convinced that the risk that even one innocent person will be executed justifies abandoning capital punishment.

One person who shares such a conviction is Carroll Pickett, minister to death row inmates at a penitentiary in Texas; for 15 years, Pickett had no reservations about presiding over executions, until that fateful day when his path crossed with that of a Hispanic man named Carlos de Luna, unjustly accused of homicide.

Shortly before this - his 96th official execution - was to occur, Pickett tape recorded much of his last day with de Luna. Listening to it, he became unshakably convinced of the man's innocence, and used his inner conviction as an impetus to team up with crime reporters from the Chicago Tribune and delve into the facts surrounding De Luna's highly questionable arraignment. With their documentary At the Death House Door, James and Gilbert both tell Pickett's heart-rending story and use it as a springboard into broader penetrative issues about capital punishment.

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Death Penalty Declining: What's Next?

Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a champion in the defense of capital cases and a personal hero of mine, discusses what's next for the death penalty in the video above and in a blogpost today at MoBlogic.tv .

Although public opinion polls continue to show support for the death penalty, imposition of the death penalty is down by more than 50% over 10 years. In the late 1990s, around 280-300 people were being sentenced to death a year. In the last 5 years, it’s been around 125 to 150 a year. No one has noticed this. But it is significant that a country this large with as many homicides as we have is sentencing so few people to death each year.

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Georgia Execution: The Death Penalty Resumes

William Earl Lynd was executed in Georgia last night.

Lynd's execution at 7:51 p.m. was the first since the court ruled April 16 that the three-drug protocol most commonly used in executions by states and the federal government did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Last week, a former death row inmate was freed in North Carolina. The Death Penalty Information Center reports:

Around the country, the 129th person was recently freed from death row in North Carolina. Levon Jones was exonerated after his conviction was overturned because of inadequate representation. The state's star witness has also recanted her testimony implicating Jones. The District Attorney dismissed all charges against him on May 3. Jones is the sixth person to be freed from death row in the past 12 months, the eighth person from North Carolina, and the 3rd from North Carolina since December 2007. The last four inmates who have been freed from death row in the U.S. are black.

The New York Times reports questions of fairness remain.

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Study Examines Death Penalty and Race

Adam Liptak in the New York Times examines the results of a new study on the death penalty and crime. There are two key findings.

The first one is not a surprise: The death penalty is imposed more often when the victim is white.

The second is potentially ground-breaking:

It found that the race of the defendant by itself plays a major role in explaining who is sentenced to death.

It has never been conclusively proven that, all else being equal, blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites in the three decades since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Many experts, including some opposed to the death penalty, have said that evidence of that sort of direct discrimination is spotty and equivocal.

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Supreme Court Hears Case on Death as Penalty for Child Rape

Kennedy v. Louisiana, an important and closely followed case is being argued today in the Supreme Court: Can the death penalty be imposed as a punishment for child rape, if the child isn't murdered.

Colorado is considering such a law and I outlined the reasons against it here. I agree with this law review article (pdf)that:

First, there is a strong national consensus against imposing the death penalty for child rape. In addition, the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for the crime of rape, regardless of the age of the victim, because it does not cause death. Moreover, imposing the death penalty for child rape would fail to serve, and would likely inhibit, the retribution and deterrence functions of the U.S. penal system.

The Sex Crimes blog has a full resource page devoted to the Kennedy case. Also check out Dahlia Lathwick in Newsweek, The Supreme Penalty for Rape.

The Scotus Wiki page for the case with briefs and synopsis and other links is here.

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OH Supreme Court Reverses Death Penalty Case

Clifton White will not be executed. The Ohio Supreme Court today ruled a judge erred in substituting his opinion for that of experts as to whether White was mentally retarded. Case synopis here and the full opinion is here. (pdf).

In 2002, the Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia banned execution for the mentally retarded as cruel and unusual punishment. White was pursuing post-conviction relief at the time.

Later that year, the Supreme Court of Ohio in State v. Lott established criteria and procedures to be applied ....a petitioner is required to show by a preponderance of the evidence:

  • “(1) significantly subaverage intellectual functioning,
  • (2) significant limitations in two or more adaptive skills, such as communication, self-care, and self-direction, and
  • (3) onset (of the intellectual and adaptive limitations) before the age of 18.”

The trial court in White's case appointed experts and held a hearing. Both the state's expert and the defense expert determined he met the criteria. [More...]

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