Posts Tagged ‘death penalty’

What Would Plato Do?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Wanda: What would an intellectual do?  What would… Plato do?

Otto: Apol-

Wanda: Pardon me?

Otto: Apollgzz.

Wanda: What?

Otto: Apologize!

Well, no.  He probably wouldn’t.  Not Plato.

And certainly not in the case of Troy Davis, whose final clemency request was denied this morning, and who now faces execution tomorrow evening for the killing of a police officer in 1989.  He was convicted at trial 20 years ago, but since then the reliability of that verdict has been called into serious question.  Seven of the nine major witnesses recanted their testimony, many claiming that the police pressured them to give false eyewitness accounts.  No forensic evidence ever tied Davis to the crime, the murder weapon was never found.  In the intervening years, ten new people have come forward to point the finger at another individual known to have been present at the scene.

So it’s possible that Troy Davis might not have shot the officer.  It’s possible that he might have.  Twenty years of second-guessing and changing stories make it uncertain.  But what is certain is that he was convicted, and that the conviction stands.

Should we be troubled by this?

We started pondering this after our kids’ bedtime story the other night.  We were reading to the lads from the Dialogues of Plato [what, you got a problem with that? Shut up, these are not your children.], specifically the Crito.  That’s the one where Socrates has been condemned to death, and his friend Crito shows up to talk him into escaping.  Boiled down to its essence, the Crito runs something like this: (more…)

States Consider Ending Capital Punishment Because It’s Too Damn Expensive

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Last year, we posted an analysis of capital punishment as practiced in the U.S., and concluded that it ought to be scrapped.  Not for the usual “killing is wrong” or “what about the innocent” reasons, but because as practiced it fails to serve the purposes of punishment.  It doesn’t deter anything, rehabilitate anyone, and even removal only occurs after insane expense and delay.  The unbelievable delay and its ancillaries only undermine faith in justice, while imposing absurd societal costs, for no marginal benefit.

Now it seems that some states are thinking along the same lines.  Over at he WSJ Law Blog, Ashby Jones reports that the administration of capital punishment is being seen as not worth the extra expense.  37 states now are just spending too much money to deal with years and years of appeals (25-year average in California, something like 14 years nationwide) and the associated incarceration and litigation and facilities.  With budgetary concerns becoming ever more critical, the exorbitant costs are becoming a significant reason for legislatures to get rid of capital punishment.

Sounds good to us.

Innocence Not Proven

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

 

A year and eight days ago, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of granting an “original writ,” and handed down a novel decision directing a federal court to revisit the murder conviction of Troy Anthony Davis by allowing Davis to put on evidence of actual innocence.  (See our original post on the decision here.)  Davis was convicted after trial of shooting a police officer to death in 1989.  He always claimed he was there, but didn’t shoot anyone.  Several witnesses said otherwise, and the jury found him guilty.  After some of the witnesses recanted, however, and evidence was discovered that indicated that the prosecution’s star witness was the real shooter, the issue of actual innocence was put into play.  With some serious debate among the Justices, the Supreme Court sent it back specifically for the district court to determine whether there was evidence not available at the trial would “clearly establish” his innocence.

Yesterday, the federal court finished hearing the evidence of actual innocence, and found nothing worth reversing the conviction.  “Mr. Davis vastly overstates the value of his evidence of innocence,” the court found.  “Some of the evidence is not credible and would be disregarded by a reasonable juror. … Other evidence that Mr. Davis brought forward is too general to provide anything more than smoke and mirrors.”  You can read the CNN story here, and the decision itself here (part 1) and here (part 2).

“This court concludes that executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth Amendment (barring cruel and unusual punishment) of the U.S. Constitution,” ruled U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr.  “However, Mr. Davis is not innocent.”  Although the state’s case “may not be ironclad, most reasonable jurors would again vote to convict Mr. Davis of officer MacPhail’s murder.”  Repeating a phrase, it went on “ultimately, while Mr. Davis’ new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors,” Moore ruled. “The vast majority of the evidence at trial remains intact, and the new evidence is largely not credible or lacking in probative value.”

We’d be surprised if there wasn’t yet another appeal.  We’ll save you our rant on why this process is precisely why capital punishment doesn’t work.  If you’re interested, you can read it here.

Steering the Broken Machine

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Mississippi Gas Chamber

The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates
By John Temple
2009 University Press of Mississippi, 234 pages, $25.95
Amazon.com :: Barnes & Noble

The world is loaded with books about criminal lawyers. They fill the shelves in the mystery and thriller aisles, dominate true crime and related nonfiction genres. After all, a book about what we do is almost a guaranteed page-turner. Conflict? We got it — trials, accusations, at least two sides fighting in every case. Character? Our characters range from the noblest of all to the most despicable and inhuman. Plot? It’s already there, from the crime to the acquittal or execution. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. We’re not fighting over love or money, we’re fighting for people’s lives and liberty.

So it’s no surprise that there are so many John Grishams out there, and so many nonfiction books about criminal defense. And with so many books out there, you’d think that there would be plenty that give a fairly accurate insight into what criminal practice is really like.

And you would be wrong.

For it is rare indeed to find a book that really does the job. There are plenty that entertain, grip the reader, and even have something worth saying. But books that really draw the reader into our world, and let the reader see it with our eyes and our experience? Such books are few and far between.

Which is why we were genuinely delighted to read The Last Lawyer, by John Temple, an associate professor of journalism and associate dean at West Virginia University. Temple is not a criminal lawyer, he’s not a mystery writer, and that’s a good thing. He’s the kind of writer who comes from the outside, and digs deep into his subject. Like the lawyers and investigators he describes in this book, he clearly put in the time and effort to find out what really happened, who did it, how it happened, and why. And then he took all that data and crafted it into a story that is no less powerful simply because it is true.

True stories almost always suffer from bad writing. “But that’s how it really happened” is a crutch for lame writing, an excuse for having told a story poorly. Yes, real life does not play out according to a scripted dramatic formula. But that doesn’t mean reality can’t be presented that way. The Last Lawyer, however, tends to avoid this trap. With few exceptions, Temple grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

So okay, he’s a good writer. But what does he have to say? That’s the best part.

Because Temple really gets it. He really, really gets it. If you read only one book in your life about what it’s like to be a criminal defense lawyer, read this one.

-=-=-=-=-

When we’re reading a book that particularly engages us, it’s like we’re having a conversation with the author. We find ourselves picking up a pen and scribbling back at him. Books at our house sometimes become dog-eared and annotated beyond any hope of resale. Our copy of The Last Lawyer quickly joined their ranks.

Why, when we already do this stuff for a living? Were we picking fights, or pointing out errors? Not at all. Instead, we frequently found ourselves encountering an insight, or a way of looking at things where we hadn’t looked at it ourselves that way. And we’d go “oh!” or “aha!” And then we’d take that fresh insight and run with it a bit in our head, and it would lead to a new thought we’d always sort of known, but had never actually thought before.

Not as much as we do when reading Proust, Patrick O’Brian or Terry Pratchett. But often enough. Often enough.

-=-=-=-=-

The Last Lawyer takes you through Ken Rose’s decade-long fight to appeal the capital conviction of Bo Jones, a low-IQ Black man sentenced to die for a 1987 murder.

Trial counsel had done little of the work that needed to be done now, and the case had to be investigated from scratch.. Uncooperative witnesses, some who lied and others with good reasons to lie — these were the least of their worries. They had to deal with a client who just did not seem to get the concept. And worse, judges who didn’t get the concept, and couldn’t be bothered to make the effort in the first place. Prosecutors who were the opposite of sympathetic, who railed against attempts to make technical legal arguments, but who were perfectly happy to get a conviction on technicalities themselves. A broken legal system that, instead of seeking justice, becomes a machine for churning people into prison or the gas chamber.

The book takes you through ten years of this struggle, as Ken Rose and his team slowly and gradually discover the facts and arguments they need to save Bo Jones’ life. In the process, you get to see firsthand the best and the worst that our system has to offer. Like any other human enterprise, you see a handful of outstanding performers, another handful of ruinous subverters, and a huge majority of folks just going along to get along. You see a system with powerful inertia.

Our adversarial system is designed to achieve justice, but it needs honest and good-faith opposition to function properly. Both sides need to play by the rules, and try their best, if justice is going to result. And it needs judicial referees to keep a keen eye out, not only for fouls, but for merit as well. But the reader of this book sees law enforcement that isn’t always as honest as we expect it to be, prosecutors who stop trying to seek justice and instead get invested in winning at all cost, defense attorneys who stop protecting their client above all else and instead become mere grease in the wheels of this machine. And judges who have seen so many frivolous arguments that they can’t spot the valid ones any more, and who aren’t terribly inclined to look for them in the first place.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s not just the broken system. There is good out there. And you get to see that, too. The single most important variable in whether a case is won or lost is preparation. And you see how good lawyers prepare, do the hard work, take the time to do the job right. You see real dedication, not to ego or money or advancement, but to saving the life of a fellow human being. To seeking real justice. To making the system a little bit better, for all of us.

This is the day-to-day experience of a criminal lawyer. The sometimes odd personalities, the deep injustices, the soaring heights of the human spirit, and everything in between.

Go get the book.

More Harm Than Good: Why Capital Punishment Doesn’t Work

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Capital Punishment Sentence Length

Without much media fanfare, the Supreme Court has already decided two capital-punishment cases this month.

The first, Bobby v. Van Hook, came down on the 9th, and dealt with a case from early 1985. Nearly 25 years ago, Van Hook went looking for someone to rob, trolled a Cincinnati gay bar, and seduced a guy he met there. The victim invited Van Hook to his apartment, where Van Hook got him into “a vulnerable position.” Then Van Hook strangled his victim till he was unconscious, killed him with a kitchen knife, and mutilated his body, before taking off with his victim’s valuables. Van Hook later confessed, and was sentenced to death.

His appeals lasted for nine years, all of which were denied. He then spent the next 14 years litigating a single federal habeas petition. First, he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of his confession, losing those arguments all the way up to a denial of certiorari by the Supremes in 2007. Then he tried a new argument, that he’d gotten ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing, because all the work they had done wasn’t enough. The Sixth Circuit said his sentence should be reconsidered under new standards that had arisen 18 years after the fact. Ohio appealed, and the Supreme Court said you can’t apply these new standards retroactively like that. Van Hook argued that his counsel was ineffective under the standards at the time, anyway, to which the Supremes replied: “He is wrong.”

The Sixth Circuit being reversed, Robert Van Hook is now once again back in the queue for execution, nearly a quarter of a century later.

The second case decided was Wong v. Belmontes, which came out on the 16th. This case started way back in 1981, when Fernando Belmontes bludgeoned Steacy McConnell about 20 times with a steel weightlifting bar. She fought back desperately, to try to save herself, but ultimately Belmontes succeeded in killing her, so he could steal her stereo. He sold it for $100, which he spent on beer and drugs for that evening. He was convicted in California and sentenced to death.

His appeals went back and forth, and he lost. He tried to get federal habeas relief, but the District Court wouldn’t go for it. He appealed that, and the nothing-if-not-consistent Ninth Circuit bent over backwards to find instructional error, but the Supreme Court slapped that down in 2006. The Ninth Circuit tried again, this time finding ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing. In its ruling this month, the Supreme Court pointed out not only how much work went into the defense case at sentencing, but also how wise and skillful it had been. “If this counsel couldn’t make it work,” the Court seems to say, “then nobody could.” You just can’t mitigate away a case where the victim had obviously suffered so needlessly and brutally.

So now, the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and Fernando Belmontes is back on the capital-punishment track 28 years after the crime.

-=-=-=-=-

It being close to Thanksgiving, these decisions remind us of one of the first cases we ever worked on, back when we labored at all hours over Thanksgiving 1995 with the famed Carter Phillips, trying to prevent the execution of a retarded man, Walter Correll. Especially in light of the Supreme Court’s turnaround in the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, ruling that executing the mentally retarded is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, we always get a little gloomy when we think back on that case.

But these decisions also remind us that, Republican though we may be, we remain firmly opposed to the death penalty. Not because it’s inherently cruel or inappropriate, but because it takes so damn long to carry out. The way the death penalty works in this country results in real injustice, harms society, and just makes things worse.

-=-=-=-=-

Look at the graph we stuck up there at the top of this post. We made that graph based on data freely available from the United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. You can see the raw data here.

That chart shows the average elapsed time, from sentence to execution, for each year. This is the average, and as the recent cases attest, actual times can be much much longer. But on average, the wait has gone from 51 months (4-1/4 years), to 153 months (12-3/4 years). That is an insane delay!

Elsewhere in the statistics, we see that the average inmate on death row right now has been waiting for 141 months, or about 11-3/4 years.

That’s a long time, in anyone’s book.

Now don’t get us wrong — we’re glad of the opportunity this affords us to find evidence of actual innocence, DNA evidence, or other means to exonerate the truly innocent. We’re not advocating for speedier executions, here. It takes this long because that’s just how long it takes. Our system is set up to give a lot of opportunity to review death sentences before they’re carried out. There is no appeal after execution, so society wants to make sure that everything was done right, that the convict has been afforded every procedural and constitutional protection that our jurisprudence has devised. And it just takes a long time to do that.

Our point is that the death penalty is improper (among perhaps other reasons) because this necessary delay makes it counterproductive.

-=-=-=-=-

Why do we punish people in the first place? Punishment is when the awesome might of the government is brought to bear on an individual, taking away rights, liberties, property, and even his life. Why do we do that?

We do that because we’ve deemed some actions so harmful to society that, to protect itself, society has to impose this harm. But that begs the question. It’s more of a definition of “what is a crime” than “why do we punish, to begin with.”

We punish because, over history, societies have discovered that it works. At some instinctive level, you get retaliation. Someone hits you, so you hit them back without thinking. It’s a primal urge, not a civilized one, but it would be foolish to pretend that society does not have its own primal urges. We don’t punish strictly to hit back at those who would hurt us, not consciously perhaps, but it is part of the reason why.

A more civilized reason is deterrence. It’s like spanking a child — the criminal associates the punishment with the crime, and decides not to do that any more. And if the spanking is public and seen by others, then others will also realize that this could happen to them, and they won’t do it either.

Deterrence only works, of course, if the punishment is close enough in time to the offense to have a psychological effect. If you spank a kid for something he did three weeks ago, the only psychological message you’re sending is that you’re unfair and cruel, and thereby weakening your own authority.

Deterrence only works if the punishment is connected to the crime. If you spank a kid and he has no idea why you’re spanking him, you’re not deterring anything. All you’re doing is demonstrating that you are arbitrary and unjust. The kid doesn’t know what to expect from you, and will grow to fear and despise you.

General deterrence of other potential criminals only works if the punishment is known, in addition to being close in time and tied to the offense. If people don’t know that it happened, then there is zero deterrent effect from any particular offense.

Perception then, as in so much of life, is everything. You want the system set up in such a way as to create the impression that sentences are just and fair, but you also want the perception that sentences are also going to be imposed. That, if you commit this offense, that punishment is actually going to happen.

Ideally, a utilitarian and a social idealist might even agree that the best way to do this would be to create the perception that sentences are speedily and fairly meted out, without going to all the expense and social harm of actually imposing them.

The flip side of that would be the opposite of ideal, then. And the flip side is exactly what we’ve got.

In our present system, capital punishment is not imposed close in time to the offense. It takes a decade or two before it is carried out. That’s like spanking a kid three weeks later. Far from having any deterrent effect, it undermines faith in justice and weakens the law’s authority.

As practiced, capital punishment is not connected to the crime. It’s almost random. Some horrific murders get the death penalty, others don’t. The reasons for the variety are not obvious or predictable. Unpredictability = no deterrent effect.

And public perception? After all the randomness and delay, there may be a perception that you could get the chair for a given crime, but nobody really thinks you will get the chair. Folks just don’t have an experience of the death penalty as being imposed consistently enough that we simply understand, deep down at a visceral level, that a given crime is likely to result in one’s own death. At best, public perception is a vague theoretical possibility. At worst, and what is more likely, is the perception that the death penalty is so rarely imposed, and only after such an interminable (ha) delay, that it’s really not a factor worth considering in the first place.

(Of course it goes without saying that no punishment can have a deterrent effect on crimes of passion, where no thought went into the crime. But those kinds of crimes tend not to be death-penalty cases, so that argument isn’t really applicable here.)

Another purpose of punishment is rehabilitation, but it’s hard to get one’s act together after one is dead, so that one is out the window.

The only remaining purpose of punishment is removal — getting this threat to public safety off the streets.

Now this one has some promise. Execution certainly removes the offender from our midst. So does exile, though, without all the mess and expense (though dumping our worst threats on someone else could create bigger problems). Life without parole does the same job, though at theoretically great cost — 75% of all death-penalty inmates were under 35 years old when they went in (see more statistics), so they’ve got lots of decades of feeding, sheltering, guarding, clothing, counseling, treating, educating, etc. to pay for.

Unfortunately, as practiced, capital punishment is just a more expensive form of life without parole. At some point, an ordinary prisoner is going to run out of appeals, but the capital inmate doesn’t. And the capital appeals take priority over other judicial needs, while costing the system and everyone involved a lot more in time and resources. By the time someone actually gets executed, all the various costs involved more than cover the costs of a life sentence.

So if removal is the only concern, then life without parole would be the way to go. You don’t get any extra removal from execution. All you get is increased tax burdens, significant extra burdens on the judicial system, loss of enormous amounts of time and money all around, and the intangible losses from harm to the system’s perception and reputation and authority.

-=-=-=-=-

So, speaking as a fairly conservative Republican here, we just don’t see how capital punishment as practiced in America today makes the least bit of sense. It accomplishes little, at enormous unnecessary societal cost.

That’s not the message the Supreme Court probably intended to send with these two cases this month, but that’s the message we heard loud and clear.

Supreme Court Smackdown: Sixth Circuit Gets Lectured on Double Jeopardy

Monday, June 1st, 2009

supreme-court-fountain.png

In a unanimous decision today, the Supreme Court held that the Double Jeopardy Clause doesn’t prevent Ohio from re-litigating a capital defendant’s mental retardation, after the state’s highest court had opined that he had “mild to borderline” mental retardation.

The case is unique, in that the defendant was sentenced to death before the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, which outlawed execution of mentally retarded offenders. So the mental capacity of the defendant was taken into consideration at sentencing, but was held to be outweighed by the horrific facts of the crime (the aggravated murder, kidnapping and attempted rape of a ten-year-old boy). Evidence of borderline mental retardation was presented, but no factual finding was reached as to his capacity. On appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the conviction, and made a passing observation that the defendant had mild to borderline mental retardation, but agreed that its mitigating value was outweighed by the crime.

But then the Supreme Court rendered its Eighth Amendment decision in Atkins, so the trial court ordered a new hearing to make the factual finding of the defendant’s mental capacity, for the purpose of determining whether his death sentence should be commuted to a life sentence.

The defendant, Michael Bies, challenged that on habeas, and the federal District Court said the new hearing shouldn’t be held, and the defendant’s death sentence should be vacated, because the Ohio high court’s observation amounted to a finding of fact that Bies was retarded.

The state appealed that order, but the Sixth Circuit upheld it, holding that the Ohio high court had made a definitive determination of fact, and that determination entitled Bies to a life sentence. Any new hearing would violate Double Jeopardy, by putting Bies at risk of a death sentence again.

Writing for the unanimous Supreme Court today, in Bobby v. Bies, Justice Ginsburg stated that the Sixth Circuit didn’t understand what Double Jeopardy means. The Circuit “fundamentally misperceived the application of the Double Jeopardy Clause and its issue preclusion (collateral estoppel) component.”

Bies was not “twice put in jeopardy,” wrote Ginsburg. Ohio took no action to seek further prosecution or punishment. The new efforts were entirely of the defendant’s doing — rather than serial prosecutions, we have “serial efforts by the defendant to vacate his capital sentence.”

Also, the issues to be litigated aren’t identical. The first time around, the issue was whether his mental capacity mitigated the criminal offense. This time around, the issue is whether he is mentally retarded for the purposes of Atkins, which has not yet been decided.

Also, the Sixth Circuit failed to understand that “issue preclusion” is not a claim that the loser gets to bring. It’s only a claim that winners get to bring, so they don’t have to keep litigating determinations that were necessary to the outcome of a prior proceeding. Here, the Ohio high court did recognize Bies’ mental capacity as a mitigating factor, but that observation was not essential to the death sentence he got — it was the opposite, something that “cut against” it. “Issue preclusion, in short,” wrote Ginsburg, “does not transform final judgment losers, in civil or criminal proceedings, into partially prevailing parties.”

So the upshot is that “the federal courts’ intervention in this case derailed a state trial court proceeding designed to determine whether Bies has a successful Atkins claim.” And the state hearing is exactly what the Supreme Court intended to happen when it wrote Atkins.

* * * * *

Interestingly, in the briefs and arguments, the defense made a point of showing that Ohio wasn’t making much of an argument on AEDPA grounds (the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996). The Supreme Court dismissed the entire issue in a footnote:

This case, we note is governed by the [AEDPA]. Bies plainly fails to qualify for relief under that Act: The Ohio courts’ decisions were not “contrary to, or . . . an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), and were not “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” §2254(d)(2).

* * * * *

Although it may seem at first glance that the defendant got a raw deal here — he has to re-litigate an issue he already thought he’d prevailed on — the Court’s reasoning is sound. Double Jeopardy happens when the same sovereign tries to get a second chance to punish you for the same offense.

Here, the state wasn’t trying to do that at all. All Ohio was trying to do was determine whether new caselaw permitted it to let the original punishment stand, or whether the new law required it to reduce the original punishment.

You can see how easy it is to make the Sixth Circuit’s error, of course. It appeared as though the Ohio high court had made a factual determination that, by operation of the new caselaw, automatically required commutation of the death sentence here. So ordering the new hearing looks like the state trying to get a second shot at it. But really, as the Court pointed out, the issues are not the same. There never was any finding of fact that the defendant actually was mentally retarded for Eighth Amendment purposes, and that was precisely what needed to happen.

* * * * *

And Ginsburg is the last person on the Supreme Court to rule otherwise, if there was any chance that the defendant ought to have prevailed.

We recall a case we worked on back in 1995 with the famed Carter Phillips. We worked through our holiday with him, well into the night, trying to get the Supreme Court to commute the death sentence of a mentally retarded convict. But this was pre-Atkins, and the Court rejected our application. Only Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg would have granted it. The case was Correll v. Jabe, No. 95-7283, and Mr. Correll became the last mentally retarded person to be executed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Justice was not done then, and the case has since become the stuff of plays and campaigns, but had Ginsburg had her way then, we might now be discussing the Correll rule instead of the Atkins rule. So it would be dishonest to claim that she is callous to this defendant’s situation.

All in all, this is a good opinion. The clarification of what Double Jeopardy and issue preclusion mean was absolutely necessary. And while Mr. Bies’ situation cannot worsen, it actually stands a good chance of improving after his upcoming hearing.

Supreme Screwup: After 27 Years of Appeals, Court’s Decision Was “Too Summary?”

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

supreme-do-over.png

The Supreme Court this morning exemplified exactly what’s wrong with the death penalty in this country. In a clear effort to avoid a decision that would impose a death sentence, the Court made a nonsense ruling so it could extend the course of appeals — appeals that have already run for three decades. The Court further delayed an outcome, continuing the stress and injustice of uncertainty to the defendant, the victims, and the criminal justice system.

One Saturday afternoon in 1980, Gary Cone robbed a Memphis jewelry store of about $112,000 worth of trinkets. He led a police officer on a high-speed chase through town and into a residential neighborhood. Abandoning his car, he ran off on foot. He shot a police officer who pursued him, and a citizen who tried to stop him. Re-thinking his abandonment of the getaway car, he tried his hand at carjacking, tried to shoot the driver, but was out of ammo.

Cone ran and hid all that day and into the next morning. He then tried to force his way into an old lady’s apartment at gunpoint, but she refused to let him in. The highly-intelligent Vietnam War veteran was foiled again. But later that Sunday afternoon, he broke into the home of an elderly couple, Shipley and Cleopatra Todd, aged 93 and 79, and brutally beat them to death.

After hiding the bodies, ransacking their home, and shaving off his beard, he made his way to Florida. There, he robbed a drugstore, got arrested, and admitted to killing the Todds and shooting the police officer.

In 1982, he was convicted of the murders, after unsuccessfully arguing that he had been on drugs and suffered from post-traumatic stress, and thus lacked the necessary mens rea. He didn’t really present a lot of evidence to back that up. The jury found him guilty, found the requisite aggravating factors, and sentenced him to death.

In yet another bleak example of modern American capital punishment, Cone spent the next 27 years filing appeal after appeal, up to the Supreme Court and back again.

This morning, the Supreme Court ruled on his federal habeas claim. Cone was arguing that the government violated his Brady rights, by withholding evidence material to his mental state.

On direct review in state court, the Tennessee Supreme Court had affirmed the conviction and the death sentence. Cone then filed a petition claiming various violations, including Brady violations. While the petition was pending, he got to see the prosecutor’s case file, and amended his petition to add more detailed Brady claims. He claimed that his thin evidence at trial would have been bolstered by this stuff, had he seen it at the time.

The reviewing court denied the petition, on the grounds that the Brady claims had already been considered and denied. Cone then sought a writ of habeas corpus, seeking relief for the alleged Brady violation. The Sixth Circuit said no to the Brady claim, because the state decision was based on grounds that weren’t applicable in federal court.

Appeals then went back and forth on other matters. In 2001, the Circuit granted relief for ineffective assistance of counsel, but the Supreme Court reversed that in 2002. In 2004, the Circuit granted relief for the use of an unconstitutional aggravating factor, but the Supreme Court reversed that one also.

Back in the Sixth Circuit in 2007 on remand, Cone once again raised the Brady claim. The Circuit again said no, that the claim was procedurally barred, because Tennessee had relied on independent state grounds in its determination of the Brady claim. And in any event, the prosecutor’s files weren’t Brady material in the first place, because nothing in them would have “overcome the overwhelming evidence of Cone’s guilt” and “the persuasive testimony that Cone was not under the influence of drugs.”

On cert to the Supreme Court this time around, Cone argued that the prosecutor’s file contained witness statements and police reports that would have corroborated his insanity defense during the guilt phase, and would have mitigated the aggravating factors during the sentencing phase. He argued that the Tennessee court’s decision did not rest on grounds that precluded federal review, contrary to the Circuit’s finding.

In its decision this morning, written for the majority by Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court ruled in Cone v. Bell that Cone was right — the Tennessee court’s decision did not rest on grounds that precluded federal review. Nevertheless, Cone was still wrong, because the prosecution’s files were not Brady material — the withheld documents simply were not material to any defense based on his mental state.

If Stevens had stopped there, this would have been a unanimous decision.

Instead, however, Stevens screwed up. “While we agree that the withheld documents were not material to the question whether Cone committed murder with the requisite mental state,” he wrote, “the lower courts failed to adequately consider whether that same evidence was material to Cone’s sentence.”

Say what? It clearly wasn’t material to the issue of guilt, but the appellate courts were too hasty in saying it was not material for sentencing? Stevens is basically saying, the files weren’t Brady, because they weren’t material to the issue of his mental state. But on the other hand, they might have been material to the issue of his mental state, so we’re remanding for a do-over.

So, in all these years of considering this very issue on appeal, the Circuit got it right when it decided that the files simply weren’t material. But in all these years of considering this very issue, the Circuit acted too hastily in deciding that the files weren’t material.

That simply doesn’t make sense, and in his dissent (joined by Scalia), Thomas makes that exact point. Alito felt the same way, and dissented to that extent, but concurred with the rest of the decision.

Chief Justice Roberts felt the same way, but wasn’t moved strongly enough to dissent, so he merely wrote a concurring opinion voicing his concerns. Instead, “this is what we are left with,” he wrote: “a fact-specific determination, under the established legal standard, viewing the unique facts in favor of the defendant, that the Brady claim fails with respect to guilt, but might have merit as to sentencing. In light of all this, I see no reason to quarrel with the Court’s ruling on the Brady claim.

That’s just weak. He and the rest of the majority clearly punted the issue. There is no distinguishing difference between the guilt phase or the sentencing phase, when determining whether something was Brady or not. Either it’s material or it isn’t. The issue in both was whether Cone’s mental state was impaired, and the courts seem to agree that the files were immaterial to that issue.

It’s clear what’s really going on, of course: the majority didn’t want to suck it up and just deny the claim. To do so would be to impose a death sentence, and the Stevens majority doesn’t want to do that unless there’s no way out for them. But they found a way out here. Not a particularly meaningful one, but it was all they needed. So they weaseled out of it, and kicked it back to the Sixth Circuit to do their dirty work for them.

We predict that the Circuit will simply make the same finding again on remand, and spill some more ink to spell out that its finding applies to both the sentencing phase as well as the guilt phase. Then today’s majority will be able to feel a little better about themselves when they affirm, and sentence Cone to death.

But delaying this foregone conclusion is unjust. It’s exactly what’s wrong with capital punishment in this country. There is no deterrent effect, because there is no predictability as to whether capital punishment will be carried out, and any such punishment is too far off in the dim and distant future to be meaningful. There is clearly no rehabilitation or attempt to rehabilitate, as the alternative is just life in prison. There is no just retribution, as society does not gain anything from punishment that neither certain nor contemporaneous.

Until the courts can work out a fair way of resolving death-penalty appeals justly and swiftly, the death penalty will continue to be an inhumane sentence in this country. Inhumane not only to defendants, but to the families of their victims, and to the community at large.

Death Row: Court OK’s Federal Defenders for State Clemency Hearings

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

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In an unusually mixed decision for the consensus-driven Roberts Court, the Supreme Court today ruled that federal public defenders can represent death-penalty clients at state clemency hearings. The more liberal justices said federal defenders could do so, but only if the state hearings followed a federal proceeding. Justice Thomas went further, saying that the law as written does not impose such a restriction, and in fact federal defenders would be allowed in any state capital case. Chief Justice Roberts agreed with the majority, but only insofar as the subsequent state proceedings are extra-judicial. Only Justices Scalia and Alito felt that federal defenders shouldn’t be allowed at state proceedings, period.

To get the result they wanted, the majority clearly made hash of the relevant statute, interpreting parts one way but other parts the opposite way, and then adding new interpretations to undo the absurdities that could have then resulted. Roberts allowed himself to justify the same outcome on a fine-point quibble. Only Thomas, Scalia and Alito had truly intellectually honest positions, but they didn’t fit the policy which the Court sought to advance. Once again, it was a case of making the law fit the Justices’ policy wishes — an undercurrent that often explains appellate decisionmaking.

At issue here was 18 U.S.C. § 3599, which provides for appointed counsel in federal proceedings. These lawyers are paid for out of the federal budget, when a client cannot afford a private attorney, and usually only handle matters in federal court. State court matters are typically handled by lawyers appointed and paid for by the state. Among other things, § 3599 sets forth what kind of matters a federally appointed lawyer can handle.

In this case, Harbison v. Bell, Edward Harbison was sentenced to death back in 1983 (yes, 26 years ago!) for beating a 62-year-old woman’s head to a pulp with a vase, after she surprised him while he was burgling her house.

Skipping over years of appellate back-and-forth, we come to a 2005 habeas petition in federal court. The Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee were appointed to represent Harbison during this habeas proceeding. The petition was ultimately denied.

That having failed, Harbison tried for a clemency hearing in Tennessee state court. But he couldn’t get appointed counsel for such a hearing. The Tennessee Supreme Court had held that state law did not allow state-appointed lawyers in clemency hearings.

So Harbison’s federal defender filed a motion, asking that she be allowed to include the state clemency proceeding as part of her federally-compensated representation.

It wasn’t a huge stretch to ask for this, as §3599 permits federal defenders to represent their clients at “proceedings for executive or other clemency as may be available.” But Tennessee is in the 6th Circuit, which had previously construed §3599 as only applying to federal proceedings. So the district court denied the motion, and the 6th Circuit affirmed.

There being a split in the circuits on this issue — the 5th, 6th and 11th saying no federal assistance at the state level, but the 8th and 10th saying it’s okay — it was no surprise that the Supreme Court granted cert. Oral arguments were held in January.

The Court’s majority opinion is fairly straightforward: the plain language of §3599 doesn’t say anything limiting its scope to federal proceedings. In fact, its reference to “or other clemency” has to mean state proceedings, because federal clemency is strictly executive.

You can’t go out and get a federal defender for a state clemency hearing, however, unless you already had that federal defender to start with. In this case, the federal defender was on the case for the habeas proceeding, and the clemency one came afterward, so it was okay. But if the order had been reversed, the Court wouldn’t have permitted it.

Justice Stevens wrote the majority decision, and got the other four more liberal Justices to go along with the whole thing. Stevens was a little muddled, though, as his reading of the statute was dramatically different from clause to clause, and thus found that parts of it only apply to federal capital defendants.

Chief Justice Roberts agreed with Stevens’ result, but not with his reasoning. Roberts agreed that the federal defenders ought to be permitted at subsequent state clemency hearings. But he did not think that the plain language of §3599 said so. Just because the federal statute didn’t come out and say it was limited to federal cases, that doesn’t mean that’s not what Congress intended. Roberts felt (and Harbison conceded) that “it is highly unlikely that Congress intended federal habeas petitioners to keep their federal counsel during subsequent state judicial proceedings.”

Roberts astutely noted, however, that §3599 does not open the door to subsequent judicial proceedings. That would be a problem, because post-habeas judicial proceedings are by definition new matters, and §3599 only mentions “subsequent stages” of the federal matter. Clemency hearings, however, are non-judicial requests for mercy from the governor or a panel. We would expect this distinction to be raised for sure in some future case.

Justice Thomas was true to form, refusing to look outside the words Congress used to seek its intent, as “our task is to apply the text, not to improve upon it,” even if that produces “very bad policy.” He therefore felt the §3599 necessarily included state clemency proceedings, because the statute applied to people challenging either state or federal convictions, and state clemency is the only clemency available for state convictions.

In fact, Thomas went beyond the majority’s reading. The majority (and Roberts) assumed that parts of §3599 must be limited to federal proceedings, at least in some respects. But under Thomas-style interpretation it must be read to provide federal counsel “to indigent defendants in every criminal action in which a defendant is charged with a crime which may be punishable by death.” (Emphasis his.)

Justices Scalia and Alito were the only holdouts, finding that Congress was only talking about federal proceedings. After pointing out the obvious befuddlement of Stevens’ argument (as one would expect Scalia to do), they pointed out that “Section 3599 was enacted as part of a bill that created a new federal capital offense, and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that a federal statute, providing federally funded counsel, applies in federal proceedings only, even where the statute contains no such express limitation.” (Emphasis Scalia’s.)

As to the “or other clemency” on which the majority hung its hat, Scalia pointed out that the very congressional history which the majority felt was important “defeats the inference the Court wishes to draw.” The phrase “or other clemency” clearly did not imply or contemplate state proceedings, but was simply and unquestionably superfluous.

The Chutzpah Defense: Should Defendants be Able to Appeal Their Way to an 8th Amendment Violation?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

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Few would deny that 32 years is a long time to spend in jail. It’s a long time to spend on death row, as well. But is delaying the execution — particularly when the delay is caused by the convict’s own appeals — cruel and unusual punishment violating the 8th Amendment?

This issue has sparked a fierce debate among the justices of the Supreme Court, three of whom put their positions in writing this week. The Court itself punted the issue, which was brought by William Lee Thompson, declining to hear his claim that 32 years on death row was cruel and unusual. But Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas took their disagreement out of the conference room and put it on paper.

Justice Stevens has been trying to get the Court to take on this issue since 1995, when he wrote a memorandum statement arguing that, although novel at the time, the proposition was “not without foundation.” Lackey v. Texas, 514 U.S. 1045 (1995). The state’s interest in retribution, he then mused, might be satisfied by the uncertainties a prisoner must suffer during a lengthy delay of execution (though why he felt that retribution was a proper purpose of punishment in a modern civilized society is a whole nother topic). Any deterrent purpose would be negligible after such a delay, he argued, and any penalty with little marginal return would essentially be gratuitous, and therefore cruel and unusual. Stevens also pointed out that other countries’ courts had found similar arguments to be persuasive.

In his statement this week, Stevens pointed out that the average execution happens nearly 13 years after sentencing, adding that “to my mind, this figure underscores the fundamental inhumanity and unworkability of the death penalty as it is administered in the United States.”

However, he went on to say that the delays are mostly the result of judicial process. “Judicial process takes time, but the error rate in capital cases illustrates its necessity. We are duty bound to [ensure] that every safeguard is observed when a defendant’s life is at stake.” He concluded that “our experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable, and that executing defendants after such delays is unacceptably cruel.”

We’re no fans of the death penalty, but Stevens’ argument is a bit too much of a non sequitur, even for us. His argument is essentially: A) Delay is necessary to ensure justice in capital cases, and B) Delay sucks, if you’re the one on death row, so therefore C) Delay is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Which is the opposite of A. It doesn’t follow.

Stevens doesn’t need it to follow, however, because his ulterior motive is to find the death penalty itself unconstitutional. He says as much in his conclusion (quoting a previous opinion of his, which itself echoed his argument in the 1995 statement).

Justice Breyer has been pushing this issue almost as long as Stevens has, joining the cause in 1999 when he opposed denial of cert. in two Florida cases, Foster v. Florida, 537 U.S. 990 and Knight v. Florida, 528 U.S. 990. His statement in this week’s case can be found here.

Like Stevens, Breyer clearly had an ulterior motive for wanting to grant cert. He also agrees that delay is necessary to ensure justice in capital cases, and the defendant caused most of the delay in his case with apparently meritless appeals.

However, critically important to Breyer is the fact that a portion of the delay was spent on a meritorious appeal. The trial judge didn’t allow some evidence at the sentencing hearing, but was compelled to allow it at a new hearing. The defendant got the same sentence of death.

Breyer’s argument is that the delay involved in the meritorious appeal was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, because the appeal would not have happened but for the sentencing judge’s error, which is state action. The delay involved in the meritless appeals is a necessary safeguard of the criminal justice system, and is just fine.

Seriously, that’s his argument. Read it yourself. What Breyer really wanted was to undo the death sentence itself, which he felt wasn’t really deserved here.

So what about Justice Thomas? He took the other side, arguing the 32 years were spent in appellate litigation brought by the petitioner. He caused the very delay of which he now complains. He used a quote from Mike Luttig to make the point: “It makes a mockery of our system of justice . . . for a convicted murderer, who, through his own interminable efforts of delay . . . has secured the almost-indefinite postponement of his sentence, to then claim that the almost-indefinite postponement renders his sentence unconstitutional.”

Thomas felt that ulterior motives should not undercut the decisions of three separate juries, each of which held that the petitioner should be executed for kidnapping and horribly torturing a woman to death. The Constitution permitted the death penalty, and it was “the considered judgment of the people of Florida” that it was warranted here.

So all three justices seem to tacitly admit that the Supreme Court will take on a case, even if the arguments presented aren’t the right arguments, if it feels there is some other injustice that needs to be cured. Stevens and Breyer wanted to take on this case, because they felt the death penalty shouldn’t have been imposed — Stevens because he thinks it should never be imposed, and Breyer because he thinks the petitioner wasn’t as guilty as his co-defendant, who didn’t get the death penalty. Thomas didn’t see any injustice, so didn’t need to overlook the defendant’s chutzpah, though his dwelling on the merits of the sentence indicate that he might have done so in another case.

As of now, there is still no “Chutzpah Defense.” But don’t be surprised if some enterprising defense attorneys don’t craft some new versions of that argument, inspired by these three opinions.

Will SCOTUS Reopen Question of Discriminatory Application of the Death Penalty?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

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Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, has suggested to the Washington Post that the Supreme Court may be getting ready to review “whether the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory discriminatory way, an issue the Court has not taken up for two decades.”

Dieter drew this conclusion from the Supreme Court’s denial of cert. yesterday in the capital punishment case Walker v. Georgia. As we pointed out recently, the Supreme Court has taken to using denials of cert. for raising questions on capital punishment.

The issue here is how thorough a court’s proportionality review must be, to ensure that a death sentence is not based on arbitrariness or discrimination. Justices Stevens and Thomas concurred with the denial of cert., but gave strongly opposed written opinions.

Stevens, the more liberal of the two, stated that Walker’s case was “troubling,” because it involved a black killer and a white victim. Numerous studies over the years have shown that black defendants are much more likely than whites to be charged with capital crimes, regardless of the race of the victim, but that capital crimes are also much more likely to be charged when the victim is white, regardless of the race of the killer.

Stevens felt that the Georgia Supreme Court wholly ignored its job, and only performed a perfunctory review of proportionality. It merely cited 21 similar death sentences and said that was good enough. The court didn’t describe or compare the facts of those cases, which differed in heinousness.

Thomas, on the other hand, said that Stevens was “simply wrong.” “There is nothing constitutionally defective about the Georgia Supreme Court’s determination. Proportionality review is not constitutionally required in any form.” Georgia has chosen to do some kind of proportionality review, and that’s fine, but the Supreme Court has never required that it do so. If Georgia wants to administer its own additional rule in its own way, that’s up to Georgia.

Thomas, the more conservative of the two, pointed out that the Court already looked at all of the arguments Stevens raised, and rejected them in McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987).

The fact that these arguments are being raised in written cert. opinions, however, is certainly giving some folks reason to believe that the Court may be interested in looking at them again, should the right case come its way.