News Update 3.22.07

March 22, 2007

North Carolina

After being acquitted of murder in state court in 1989, Timothy Hennis went on to retire from the US Army in 2004. So why has the Army recalled him to duty just so they can try him again for the same murder?

Elsewhere

In Georgia, is the chance to execute one man really worth millions of dollars?

In Missouri, state Supreme Court orders new trial after prosecutor keeps minorities off the jury…again.

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on whether it is inflammatory for a prosecutor to tell the jury that they are “soldiers” whose “duty” is to sentence the defendant to death.

There has been some speculation that Texas may have botched last night’s execution of Charles Nealy. I will update as necessary.


Proportionality

March 21, 2007

Common sense isn’t sexy. It’s hard to get all worked up over something that seems perfectly reasonable. Maybe that’s why so little attention has been paid to House Bill 341. That, and explaining the death penalty appeals process in a soundbite is about as easy as carrying a rhinocerous in your purse.

For right now, let’s just focus on the direct appeal. After a defendant has been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, his or her case is automatically appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The purpose of this review is to ensure that the death penalty is administered consistently from case to case. Nothing wrong with that, right? Whether or not you believe that the death penalty is influenced by arbitrary factors like race and geography, you probably don’t want capital punishment to depend on passion, prejudice, and chance. Hence proportionality review.

Moving on to the ‘sense to come in out of the rain’ portion of our lesson. At present, the relevant statute directs the Supreme Court to compare the result in a given case to “the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant” to ensure that the death sentence is not “excessive or disproportionate.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 15A-2000(d)(2). What that statute says to me is, “If you’ve got a case involving a guy with a prior robbery conviction who shoots a convenience store clerk during a stick-up at 2 AM, you should check to see if there are any other murder cases involving a guy with a prior robbery conviction who shoots a convenience store clerk during a stick-up at 2 AM.” Call me crazy.

Call the North Carolina Supreme Court…something else. The Court has interpreted “similar cases” to mean “cases in which the same sentence was imposed,” thereby ignoring the 97% of homicide cases in which the defendant is not sentenced to death. Consideration of similar crimes and similar defendants is only secondary, and the Court often cobbles together its justification piecemeal. Rather than looking at the ten cases with identical facts which resulted in life sentences, the Court will reach back in time to find a death case – any death case – involving a prior felony OR a convenience store OR a killing in the middle of the night. Similar enough.

In applying such blinders, the Court has virtually ensured that no death case will be found excessive or disproportionate. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Supreme Court has failed to meet its obligation to consider each case individually. It’s as if they cut and paste reasoning from past decisions without any further thought; the Court continues to cite cases that have long been overruled. In the last twenty-four years, over two hundred death-sentenced defendants have come before the Supreme Court for proportionality review. Relief has been granted in only eight cases, and every death sentence has been upheld since 2002.

The Court has utterly failed to protect against excessive and disproportionate sentences. Even supporters of the death penalty, like former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley B. Mitchell, Jr., recognize that being sentenced to death in North Carolina is, “like being picked in a lottery…it’s totally arbitrary.”

Representatives Earle (D-Mecklenburg), Glazier (D-Cumberland), Parmon (D-Forsyth), and Wainwright (D-Craven and Lenoir) are the primary sponsors of House Bill 341, which would return common sense and judicial responsibility to direct appeals in North Carolina. The bill makes explicit the Supreme Court’s obligation to consider the full range of first-degree murder cases:

In determining whether a sentence of death imposed under this section is disproportionate, the Supreme Court shall consider and compare factually similar cases that have been reviewed on appeal by the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals. The reported cases compared by the Supreme Court shall include both those in which the jury recommended life imprisonment, with or without parole, and those in which the jury recommended the death penalty.

Nothing outrageous about that. Contact your representative and let them know that when someone’s life is at stake, the Supreme Court owes them – and all of us – more than just a rubber stamp.


News Update 3.21.07

March 21, 2007

North Carolina

Nothing to report.

Elsewhere

An article on the doctors/lethal injection controversy nationwide.

In China, man sentenced to death for selling overpriced ant farms.

In Iran, the story of a seventeen-year-old sentenced to death for a killing done in self-defense.


News Update 3.20.07

March 20, 2007

North Carolina

The Charlotte Observer on why the death penalty is a waste of money.

Elsewhere

In Nebraska, a state senator has proposed a bill every year for 37 years to abolish the death penalty.

In Ohio, appeals court stops execution to allow inmate to continue with suit alleging that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. The death warrant for Kenneth Biros is effective through midnight tonight. It is possible, but believed to be unlikely, that the United States Supreme Court will lift the stay today and allow the execution to proceed.

In Utah, governor signs bill making it a capital offense to kill a child, whether the defendant intended to or not.

In Nigeria, the UN investigates conditions in jails and on death row.


News Update 3.19.07

March 19, 2007

North Carolina

Durham County is presently seeking death for five separate defendants.

NC Policy Watch responds to legislators’ false claims about a moratorium.

Elsewhere

Oregon eyes a moratorium.

In Texas, a death row inmate, scheduled for execution next week, is on a hunger strike. The prison is threatening to force-feed Roy Lee Pippin, because it’s important that he be healthy before they kill him. Pippin is protesting the conditions on death row.


News Update 3.16.07

March 16, 2007

North Carolina

In Wilmington, State seeks death penalty against 18-year-old. Unclear why convenience store shooting has been deemed one of “the most egregious cases in the community.”

Sen. Berger keeps pushing the General Assembly, but Gov. Easley’s office says to let the courts handle it. (Scroll down to “Aid Sought for Doctors.”)

The News & Observer tells Republican lawmakers where to stick their fearmongering.

On Friday, March 23rd at 9:30 am, Bryan Stevenson (the executive director of the Alabama death penalty and poverty law firm The Equal Justice Initiative) will be speaking in Room 2003 of Duke Hospital North. The lecture, entitled “Confronting Injustice,” is presented by Duke’s Department of Social Work.

Elsewhere

Commentary from Concurring Opinions on the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision upholding a competent defendant’s right to waive further appeals.

In Maryland, bill to repeal death penalty falls one vote short in committee. Moratorium still stands.

In New York, a federal judge speaks out about the Justice Department’s capital crusade.


News Update 3.15.07

March 15, 2007

North Carolina

WRAL’s Amanda Lamb on her meeting with Allen Holman and his place in the death penalty debate.

NC Democrats unveil legislative agenda; plan for death penalty unclear.

Elsewhere

In Florida, a question of competency.

In Pennsylvania, the medical examiner thought it was an accident, the evidence disappeared, the witnesses were sketchy…and the sentence was death.

In Indonesia, questions about the constitutionality of capital punishment for drug crimes.

Even Iraq is thinking about abolishing the death penalty. Disturbing fact: over 1200 people have been sentenced to death by the US-sponsored Iraqi High Tribunal (AKA the Iraqi Special Tribunal or the Iraqi High Criminal Court) since its inception in 2003.


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