August 26, 2009
A new article, featured at Sentencing Law and Policy, caught my eye. Here’s the abstract:
In almost every state that authorizes capital punishment, local county prosecutors are responsible for deciding when to seek the death penalty and for handling capital trials. This approach has proven to be arbitrary and inefficient. Because death penalty cases are extremely expensive and complicated, counties with large budgets and experienced prosecutors are able to seek the death penalty often. By contrast, smaller counties with limited budgets often lack the funds and institutional knowledge to seek the death penalty in truly heinous cases. The result is geographic arbitrariness. The difference between life and death may depend on the side of the county line where the offense was committed. Furthermore, in some counties, death penalty cases are handled by subpar lawyers. Inadequate lawyering leads to capital cases being reversed for prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and inaccurate rulings by trial judges. Following reversal, these capital cases are re-litigated for years at enormous expense.
Because county control of death penalty cases has proven to be a failure, this article offers a roadmap for eliminating counties’ involvement in the death penalty system. All aspects of capital cases — charging, trial, appeal, and everything in between — can and should be handled at the state level by an elite group of prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges whose sole responsibility is to deal with capital cases. This article details how an elite statewide death penalty unit could be created and how it could minimize the geographic arbitrariness of the death penalty while simultaneously reducing the costs of handling death penalty cases.
What do you think, dear readers? Studies in multiple states have shown that where a crime occurs can have more to do with whether prosecutors seek the death penalty than the facts of the crime itself. Is centralizing resources and decision-making a wise alternative, or should local authorities be the ones to decide how a murder case is handled?
August 19, 2009
Back in 1985, two potential witnesses were shown a photo array containing a picture of Master Sergeant Timothy Hennis. The man picked Hennis’ photograph right away, but later had doubts. The woman first told police she couldn’t remember seeing anyone at all. Then she said she thought she saw a man. After picking Hennis’ photo from the lineup, she told police that she’d probably picked him because she had seen his photograph in a newspaper article connected to the case.
Twenty years and two trials later, both witnesses now say they are positive Tim Hennis is the man they saw. A judge will decide whether this evidence is reliable enough to be admitted at Hennis’ upcoming military trial. Hennis could face the death penalty if convicted.
Click here to learn more about eyewitness misidentification.
August 11, 2009
NC Governor Beverly Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act this morning, saying, “”I have always been a supporter of death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly. The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”
Local prosecutors have been up in arms about the RJA. Given their false claims, there are three things that need to be made clear:
1) The Racial Justice Act will not result in anyone on death row going free. The Act explicitly states that inmates who make successful claims will be re-sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
2) The use of statistics to prove claims of racial discrimination is nothing new. It is routine practice to use statistics in civil cases, for example in housing and employment discrimination claims.
3) It’s not just about statistics. Prosecutors will have the opportunity to present their own evidence about why they chose to seek death in a particular case. Prosecutors who can show that race was not a factor in their decisionmaking have nothing to worry about.
August 6, 2009
Last night, North Carolina became only the second state in the nation to rise to the challenge posed by the US Supreme Court in McCleskey v. Kemp, in which the Court acknowledged the existence of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty but said that states would have to fix the problem for themselves. Governor Perdue is expected to sign the bill into law.
From the Winston-Salem Journal:
The General Assembly has approved a landmark bill that will allow death row inmates to challenge the death penalty by arguing that there is systemic racial bias in the way that capital punishment has been applied.Under the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue, an inmate will be able to present statistical evidence showing racial disparities in how the death penalty has been used. If a judge finds the evidence convincing, the judge can overturn that inmate’s death sentence and convert it to a sentence of life in prison.
Similarly, in future murder trials in North Carolina, judges will be able to block prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty if they find a historical pattern of racial bias in the use of the death penalty.
The bill is seen by its supporters as a long-overdue solution to a history of discrimination that they say permeates the criminal-justice system and the system of capital punishment.
In an Associated Press interview, Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith attempted to sound the alarm, stating that the RJA could result in a flurry of former death row inmates being released on parole. Nevermind that the bill explicitly states that anyone who is granted relief under the act will be re-sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In support of his claim, Keith cited the case of Bonnie Sue Clark – who was not sentenced to death and was never a death row inmate – and who was released from prison earlier this week after serving 22 years for the murder of her husband. It is particularly interesting that Keith would select the Clark case as an argument against the Racial Justice Act, given that Clark, a white woman, received a life sentence while her co-defendant, a black man, was sentenced to death. Robert Bacon was granted clemency by Governor Easley in 2001 due to concerns that racial bias played a role in the decision to seek and impose death in his case. Bacon’s sentence was commuted to life without parole. Unlike Ms. Clark, he remains and will die in prison.
August 5, 2009
Earlier tonight, the Senate chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly voted to concur with the House version of the Racial Justice Act. The vote was 25-18.
All that remains is for Governor Perdue to sign the bill into law.
August 5, 2009
It’s impossible to know what’s going on behind the scenes, but this much we do know: the Racial Justice Act did not reach the Senate floor yesterday, but it is on today’s calendar. As a practical matter, members of the General Assembly are going to go home once the budget is final, which means that if the RJA is going to pass, it will have to do so today or tomorrow.
The NC Coalition for a Moratorium is asking people statewide to contact Sen. Don Vaughan (D-Guilford) and ask him to continue his support for the RJA. Click here to send the Senator an e-mail, or call his office at (919) 733-5856.
August 4, 2009
7 – Kenneth Baumruk (MO – stay likely)
13 – Tracy Lane Beatty (TX – stayed)
18 – Jason Getsy (OH – clemency recommended)
19 – John Richard Marek (FL)
20 – David Wood (TX)
August 4, 2009
The Senate chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly will decide today whether to concur with the House version of the Racial Justice Act, or whether to force the bill into a joint committee. The RJA would allow defendants in death penalty cases to use statistical evidence to show that race played a role in the decision to seek or impose death in their case.
The North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium says:
The North Carolina Racial Justice Act is scheduled for concurrence vote today during the Senate session at 3pm. Recent [death row] exonoree Edward Chapman will be in attendance all day to speak with legislators in swing districts.
Please come to the session, bring a friend and pack the gallery!
Please continue to contact these Senators before today’s vote:
Click here to email 8 Senators listed below
Charlie Albertson (D) 733-5705
Marc Basnight (D) 733-6854
Don Davis (D) 733-5621
Steve Goss (D) 733-5742
David Hoyle (D) 733-5734
Tony Rand (D) 733-9892
John Snow (D) 733-5875
A.B. Swindell (D) 715-3030
To follow Senate Concurrence Vote please follow NCCM on Twitter
Listen to Audio from Senate Floor
Thank you for everything you’ve done, we couldn’t have made it this far without your help!