Posts Tagged ‘death penalty’

Florida Supreme Court Sets New Standards for State Death Penalty

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 18, 2016 @ 4:29 PM — Comments (0)


The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state’s new death penalty law is unconstitutional. The Court has additionally called for death sentences to be determined by a unanimous jury. This news has caused a major shift in Florida’s criminal justice system with a large number of inmates awaiting possible re-sentencing on Death Row.

““We … hold, based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous,” said the Florida Supreme Court.

Now, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature must return to the drawing board, throwing out their original law which allowed for 10 out of 12 members of a jury to be able to impose a death sentence.

What does this mean for all the inmates on death row? Potentially, over 400 of the prisoners on death row in Florida now have a potential way to seek less severe sentences and be taken off death row altogether. This ruling will also offer greater changes to innocent people who have been given a death sentence for a crime they didn’t commit. “Racial disparities, over-zealous prosecutors and a lack of resources for defense counsel continue to plague death penalty cases,” said Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

While the way this ruling will affect past cases is unclear, its significance is clear and a sign of the growing doubt being cast on the purpose and justice behind the death penalty in the United States.

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Anniversary of Troy Davis’ Execution: 5 years moving forward

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 21, 2016 @ 2:58 PM — Comments (0)


Today we remember the execution of Troy Davis in Savannah, Georgia on September 21st, 2011.

Troy Davis’ case remains to this day an international symbol of tragedy and the need for progress as more and more countries around the world publically condemn the death penalty. Troy was convicted of the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail after a fight broke out at a Georgia bus station. Davis was at the scene of the crime along with several people and Sylvester “Redd” Coles, the man who instigated the fight with a homeless man, Larry Young, over a beer. However, despite eyewitness testimony stating that the man who had argued with Young was the same person who shot Officer MacPhail, Troy Davis was arrested in 1989 for the shooting.

Troy was convicted and kept on death row in 1991 for over two decades. Through this, his case became less and less clear as time went on. In 2007 and 2008, multiple witnesses in his trial confessed to the Board of Pardons and Paroles that they had either fabricated their testimony or were intimidated by police. In addition, two witnesses with connections to Cole implicated him as the shooter, Quiana Glover even going as well to swear that Cole confessed to the crime in 2009. However, her testimony was excluded from the 2010 evidentiary hearing. Finally, key physical evidence from the case, a pair of Troy’s shorts that contained traces of blood, was thoroughly challenged by the federal court and DNA and serology experts in 2008.

As the evidence got murkier and thoughts of Troy’s possible innocence began to spread, international media coverage sparked across the world. “In that time [he was on death row], he became a leader himself in the movement to end the death penalty, with his steadfast spirit and unshakeable faith in justice inspiring activists around the world. His case became a rallying cry that ignited the abolition movement, drawing hundreds and thousands of people to devote their time and energy to achieving justice,” says James Clark at Amnesty USA. Troy’s case exemplified a very real problem with the death penalty in the U.S: what does it mean for the wrongfully convicted? How much evidence is enough evidence?

Despite this global movement to stay Troy’s execution and the seemingly overwhelming evidence that he was possibly innocent, Troy was put to death by lethal injection. Today, we honor Troy Davis’ cause and recount his injustice so he may be remembered not for his conviction but for his movement. In his last words, he told the people who supported him to “continue to fight this fight.”

Since 1973, 156 people on death row have been exonerated. In addition, the Innocence Project Network has confirmed that they have “worked on cases of people who were executed before DNA testing could be conducted to confirm guilt or prove innocence, and we are aware of several non-DNA cases where evidence of innocence surfaced after people were executed.”

Because of this, policies must be put in place at both a state and federal level that help the criminal justice system understand causes of wrongful conviction, identify, and resolve them in ways that minimize the possibility of wrongful execution. We must also look at the steps forward we have taken since then: three states have abolished the death penalty (Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware). In addition, three states (Pennslyvania, Washington, and Colorado) have placed a moratorium on executions, allowing more room for investigation for people on death row.

Currently, Florida still has capital punishment. However, it could be said that the tides are shifting. In May, Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch from Miami-Dade issued a ruling that Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution. Additionally, only one person has been executed in Florida this year, compared to seven in 2013. This decline has been reflected nationwide, with executions across the country hitting a 25-year low. Public opinion has slowly been shifting in the state as well, despite Rick Scott’s pro-capital punishment stance. Finally, a recent poll by researcher Craig Haney, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Santa Cruz, has found that a majority of Florida residents prefer life without parole to the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

Today, five years after Troy Davis lost his life, we must remind ourselves of his fight and recommit ourselves not only to death penalty reform but overall criminal justice reform to ensure this never happens again.

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Exoneration Sought in Groveland Four Case to be brought to Governor Rick Scott

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 09, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Those who have been pushing for the exoneration of the “Groveland Four,” including Mayor Tim Loucks and Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks, are hoping to meet with Governor Rick Scott within the next several weeks. Loucks, who vowed to continue pursuing justice for the men of the Groveland Four, believes that Scott is interested in reviewing the case.

The Groveland Four consists of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, who were all accused and convicted of raping Norma Padgett, a white woman, in 1949. On the morning following the alleged rape, after Thomas fled Lake County, he was tracked down, shot, and killed by then-Sheriff Willis McCall and other members of a deputized posse. In addition, Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were beaten in the county jail’s basement. Although there was no physical evidence in the case, Greenlee, who was a juvenile, was sentenced to life in prison, and Shepherd and Irvin received the death penalty.

While Shepherd and Irvin were being transported from the Florida State Prison to the Lake County Jail, McCall claimed that he was jumped by the two handcuffed men and shot them three times. Shepherd died immediately and according to Irvin, he survived by playing dead. Following the incident, despite Irvin accusing the sheriff and his deputy of attempted murder, no charges were ever filed.

NAACP special counsel Thurgood Marshall petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the death penalty verdicts in November 1951. Irvin was retried and sentenced to death after being convicted a second time, but in 1954 the sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 1962, after serving 12 years in prison, Greenlee was paroled. Irvin was paroled in 1968. He was found dead in his car, however, while visiting Lake County, and there were doubts about the circumstances surrounding his death. Greenlee died in April 2012 at the age of 78.

Despite a Florida Senate resolution asking for the exoneration of the Groveland Four failing to pass during this legislative session, Lake County formally gave its support to an exoneration effort for the group on March 15, calling the men’s 1949 rape convictions a travesty and an injustice. During the city of Groveland’s council meeting on February 16, Loucks issued a similar proclamation.

The families of Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd, and Thomas not only say that exoneration would bring closure to what has been a difficult part of their history, but also that the evidence in the case does not add up. Loucks commented on the uncertain circumstances of the case, stating that there was no doubt the men were beaten and tortured and that the shooting that occurred was very questionable.

Vivian Shepherd, Samuel Shepherd’s niece, stated that although she is not angry about what happened to her uncle, it has been difficult to find closure, which would only come if the Groveland Four’s names were cleared. She believes in the men’s innocence and wants justice, but also wishes to speak with Padgett so she can forgive her, ask her why, and share with her the families of the Groveland Four’s side of the story.

Gilbert King, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Groveland Four and Marshall, Devil in the Grove, also wrote that there was no physical evidence that a rape took place. He cited multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct and a few inconsistencies in the prosecutor’s timeline of events, stating that all the physical evidence looked like it had been faked and that Padgett’s testimony was sufficient enough for the jury to hand down the convictions. He also wrote about a doctor who was supposed to testify in the case that found no evidence that Padgett was raped in the medical report, but was never called by the prosecution.

Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney for the 5th Circuit, could not comment on the case’s specific details, but he did say that a case is not as strong if there is no physical evidence of a sexual assault, and that other evidence would be needed to compensate for it. A criminal defense attorney running for Lake County judge, Benjamin Boylston, agreed with Ridgway, stating that a case can be weakened due to a lack of physical evidence if the situation is expected to have that kind of evidence available, such as if a rape is reported immediately after it allegedly occurred. He added that even if the victim is telling the truth, a number of factors could make it less likely that there would be physical evidence.

Ridgway stated that the court system is extremely different today than it was in 1949, citing multiple changes, including DNA, an appeal process for reviewing defense counsel’s effectiveness, and more sophisticated jurors.

Although Scott’s office has declined repeated attempts to issue any new comments on the Groveland Four case, they referenced their comments made on March 1, which declared that they would follow the clemency process and review any case brought in front of them.

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Tennessee Bill on Preserving Evidence Passed Unanimously in Senate Judiciary Committee

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 04, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Last month, the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill that would require biological evidence collected in death sentence cases to be preserved throughout a defendant’s life or incarceration. Nashville Republican Senator Steve Dickerson sponsored the bill. A similar bill, sponsored by Representative Jeremy Faison, was presented to a House subcommittee that same day.

During a committee meeting the week before, Dickerson told committee members that although they do believe most biological evidence has been preserved, the bill would eliminate any doubts. A Tennessee Bureau of Investigations representative, however, testified later that it is already policy to preserve that evidence, since doing so is the only way to ensure an innocent person is not executed.

At that same committee meeting, Ray Krone also testified. He was sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a 36-year-old woman in Phoenix, Arizona; a murder that he did not commit. Krone, who said he usually does not use notes when speaking, read from a prepared statement while talking to legislators because he was unsure whether he would be able to keep his composure.

Despite being arrested and charged for the crime, Krone said he still felt confident because he knew he was innocent and believed in the system and government.

While a public defender was assigned to represent Krone for a mere $5,000, the bite mark expert who testified that the bite marks on the victim belonged to Krone received $50,000 for his testimony.

In 1996, Krone’s original conviction was overturned on appeal based on procedural errors, winning him a new trial. He was once again convicted, however, but was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison because the judge had doubts about his guilt.

In 2002, biological evidence used in DNA testing proved Krone’s innocence—the same kind of evidence detailed in Dickerson’s bill. That test identified Kenneth Phillips, Jr. as the real perpetrator.

Following the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty, Krone was the 100th inmate to be exonerated from death row.

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Exoneree Questions Hillary Clinton about Her Support for the Death Penalty

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 21, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

During her recent trip to Ohio, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received what she called a profoundly difficult question. Ricky Jackson was sentenced to death after being convicted for the 1975 murder of another Cleveland man. He was exonerated in 2014, through the efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project, when the victim and prosecution’s key witness, who was only 12 years old at the time of the crime, recanted. Having almost been executed for a crime he did not commit, it is not surprising that he does not support the death penalty. After sharing his story with her, Jackson questioned Clinton as to how she could still support capital punishment, despite documented instances in which innocent people have been executed.

Clinton responded to Jackson’s inquiry, first implying that the states were to blame. She stated that they have failed to grant defendants the rights they are owed, and that they have succeeded in proving their incompetence when it comes to carrying out fair trials. She then stated that as she has mentioned before, she would be relieved if the Supreme Court or the states began eliminating the death penalty.

The senator stayed true to her stance, however, telling Jackson that she believes the death penalty could still be used sparingly for crimes of terrorism  under federal jurisdiction, although it may be a difficult distinction to support. She went on to say that this is the exception she still struggles with, and that it would only be acceptable in the federal system. She referenced the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the attacks on September 11, 2001 as examples of crimes she believes are punishable by death.

The presidential candidate wrapped up her response by commenting on Jackson’s wrongful imprisonment, lamenting what he must have gone through and wishing him the best in the future.

The host asked Jackson if he was satisfied with Clinton’s response, to which he said yes and thanked her.

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Alabama Senate to Debate Death Penalty Moratorium/Innocence Inquiry Commission Bill

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 02, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

On February 24, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill that would establish an Innocence Inquiry Commission for the state. The commission would review capital murder convictions in which new evidence of inmates’ innocence have appeared. The bill would also place a moratorium on executions until June 1, 2017. Next, the full Senate will consider the bill.

Senator Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, drafted the bill in order to ensure innocent people are not executed, and also to reassure citizens to trust in the death penalty. If Brewbaker’s bill passes, it would establish a panel consisting of eight members who would review only death penalty cases with innocence claims. If these claims are validated, the panel can send them back to the original court. While the bill originally included all felony cases, the amended version that was passed only cover cases of those sentenced to death.

Currently, there are 184 prisoners on Alabama’s death row, with the oldest case dating back to 1979.

While both democrats and republicans supported the bill, not everyone has been receptive to it. State prosecutors argue that the death penalty process is already lengthy, and the bill would only add more time and cost the state more money. One lawyer at the Alabama Attorney General’s office even stated that putting all executions on hold is unnecessary, because even prisoners who confessed to their crimes would have their executions postponed. Along with prosecutors, one victim’s advocacy group also had qualms with the bill, stating that victims just want to be done with the grueling appeals process.

While republicans are wary about the bill and doubt that the full Senate will actually pass it, they agreed that the issue is important and should at least be debated.

A lawyer at Alabama Arise, a group that promotes state policies to help people of low-income, stated that creating an Innocence Inquiry Commission was a necessity for recognizing the justice system’s human frailty.

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IPF Statement on Decision in Hurst v. Florida

Seth — January 12, 2016 @ 5:00 PM — Comments (0)

This morning, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an 8-1 opinion in Hurst v. Florida (No. 14-7505), holding Florida’s death penalty scheme unconstitutional. The Court found that because Florida’s death penalty statute gives the sentencing judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate responsibility to find aggravating factors and make the sentencing determination, the statute violates Ring v. Arizona and the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The decision may invalidate the sentences of many or even most of the roughly 400 individuals on death row, requiring new sentencing hearings, and will likely lead to a legislative amendment of Florida’s death penalty statute to conform it with the constitutional parameters announced in Supreme Court precedent.

IPF Executive Director Seth Miller, made the following statement on behalf of the organization:

“It is heartening that the United States Supreme Court recognized the need for core, necessary procedural safeguards to have a death penalty system in Florida. No person should be sentenced to death and executed as a result of a system that does not comport with the Constitution. Florida also leads the nation in exonerations from death row. Florida similarly should adopt a number of procedural safeguards, such as updates to procedures for collecting eyewitness evidence, recording of custodial interrogations and preventing the taint of unvalidated forensic sciences on trials, all of which are leading causes of wrongful convictions. Until such time that these and other safeguards are adopted, Florida should put a moratorium on death sentences and executions, as the risk of wrongful execution is too great.”

You can read the opinion here.

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Browsing the National Registry of Exonerations

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 30, 2014 @ 9:29 AM — Comments (0)

The National Registry of Exonerations is an outstanding source of information about exonerations in the United States since 1989. It is searchable, and recently, we took some time to create a short summary of exonerations in the State of Florida.

There have been 50 exonerations listed for Florida, including capital cases, since 1989. Fifteen have been based on new DNA evidence.  Florida leads the nation in exonerations for death penalty cases.

The factors contributing to Florida exonerations range from mistaken witness identification, official misconduct, perjury, false accusation, inadequate legal defense, and false or misleading forensic evidence. By far, the leading factor in Florida cases is perjury of false accusation.

Once you search for the exonerations you wish to examine, links will take you to case summary pages. Here are some examples. Click on the last names to learn more about these cases on the Registry website.

Neely, Todd; Florida; Exonerated 1989; Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct.

Townsend, Jerry; Florida; Exonerated 2001; Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession.

Britt, Cheydrick; Florida; Exonerated 2013; False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense.

Mr. Britt was exonerated with assistance from the Innocence Project of Florida just last year. In the coming months, we anticipate up to three more exonerations. Stay tuned and take some time to read about all of Florida’s exonerees, many of whom IPF has helped to free, and learn about all of the cases of injustice throughout the United States.

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DNA Evidence Clears Two men in 1983 North Carolina Murder Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 03, 2014 @ 4:03 PM — Comments (0)

After spending 30 long years in prison, two brothers in North Carolina were exonerated Tuesday by a North Carolina Judge. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were both released from prison today They had been found guilty of the heinous rape and murder of an 11-year old girl. The two African American men were 15 and 19 at the time of the murder are both considered intellectually disabled. After long hours of unethical interrogation with no lawyer present each separately confessed to the crime, by signing statements written for them by police officers. But when they were sent to trial they recanted all of their statements confessing to the crime. Key evidence was left unaccounted for at the time of the trial. A similar murder had been committed in the same town within a month of the brother’s arrest, and a local man, Roscoe Artis, had confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year old. Artis lived just a block from where the victim’s body had been found yet he was not seen as a suspect. A cigarette butt found near the vicitim’s body was tested  to see whose DNA would show up on it — there was not a match for either of the exonerees — but their was a match for Roscoe Artis’s DNA. Artis is currently serving a life sentence for his other rape and murder.

Leon Brown was sent away for life and Henry Lee McCollum received the death penalty with no evidence connecting them to the crime, but because they confessed to it under duress they had a huge chunk of their lives stolen. This just furthers the evidence that just because someone confesses to a crime when they are under immense pressure, that does not mean they are guilty of said crime. Roughly 25 percent of those wrongly convicted of crimes have admitted guilt during their initial interrogation, the only way we can stop this cruel treatment is to change the way we interrogate suspects and make sure all interrogations are videotaped. Over the past 23 years there have been over 2,000 exonerations in the United States and with the great news of today we can add two more to that ever growing list.

McCollum and Brown were defended in their search for the truth by Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

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FBI To Review 27 Death Penalty Cases for Faulty Forensic Testimony

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 23, 2013 @ 3:33 PM — Comments (2)

A review of more than 21,000 cases has revealed twenty-seven death penalty cases in which the FBI’s forensic experts may have exaggerated the scientific conclusions that could be drawn from a so-called “match” between a hair found at the scene of a crime and hair of the defendant. It is not known how many cases involve errors, how many led to wrongful convictions, or how many mistakes may now jeopardize valid convictions. Those questions will be explored as the review continues.

The discovery of the more than two dozen capital cases promises that the examination could become a factor in the debate over the death penalty. Some opponents have long held that the execution of an innocent person would solidify doubts about capital punishment. But if DNA or other testing confirms convictions, it would strengthen supporters’ arguments that the system works.

At least three Florida men, including DNA exonerees Wilton Dedge and William Dillon, were convicted based on, among other things, testimony provided by John Preston, who claimed that his dogs could perform feats of forensic detection far beyond the abilities of other investigative dogs. Preston testified in each case that his dog picked up the scent of the defendant at the scene of the crime, testimony that all but sealed their fate. By now, though, his claims have been thoroughly discredited by experts in the field of scent tracking, media reports, multiple state supreme courts, police training manuals, and law review articles.  This leads to the question of why Preston was ever considered reliable in the first place and why more was not done to do a re-review of all cases in which Preston and fraudulent dog handlers like him have testified.

Advocates for defendants and the wrongly convicted called the FBI’s reexamination of possibly faulty forensic conclusions a watershed moment in police and prosecutorial agencies’ willingness to re-open old cases because of scientific errors uncovered by DNA testing. “We didn’t do this to be a model for anyone,” said FBI general counsel Andrew Weissman. “When there’s a problem, you have to face it, and you have to figure how to fix it, move forward and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” FBI Laboratory director Chris Hassell has said that the review will be used to improve lab training, testimony, audit systems, and research.

The review is a huge step forward to improving the criminal justice system and the rigor of forensic science in the United States. Faulty forensics and science is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, and a revised approach to forensics could help to reduce that number of miscarriages of justices before the occur. Hopefully we’re not far off from reforms in other leading causes, such as eyewitness identification or snitch testimonies.

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