capital punishment

  • July 17, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Unless the U.S. Supreme Court steps in to uphold its precedent on the death penalty, Texas and Georgia will execute two men who are mentally disabled.

    Although several states over the last five years have abolished capital punishment, others such as Texas and Georgia remain seemingly oblivious to Supreme Court precedent or obstinately opposed to providing those on death row a proper hearing.

    In Texas, the nation’s most ruthless proponent of capital punishment, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has flat out refused to follow the Supreme Court’s March 2012 Martinez v. Ryan opinion, which cleared the way for federal courts to review some post-conviction habeas reviews raising ineffective counsel claims.

    Yokamon Hearn convicted and sentenced to death for kidnapping and murdering a man in Dallas was not competently represented at trial or at post-conviction proceedings. As the Texas Defender Service notes, Hearn’s trial attorneys failed to uncover and reveal at trial a slew of mitigating circumstances, such as the fact that he suffered from brain damage. During his appeals, Hearn’s new attorney’s also failed to raise the mitigating circumstances.

    Even after the high court’s opinion in Martinez, the Fifth Circuit panel, in what the Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen details as a rather strained opinion found a way to shut down any further review of mitigating factors in Hearn’s case. The court, “the most stridently conservative federal appeals court in the nation” found a way “to avoid giving Hearn the relief to which he is entitled,” Cohen wrote.

    Texas Defender Service Executive Director Kathryn M. Kase notes that the full Fifth Circuit has been asked to review the panel decision, but because of the Circuit’s “history of flouting” Supreme Court rulings fears that Hearn will be executed on July 18, unless the Supreme Court intervenes.

    In the Georgia case, which Cohen also covers, Warren Hill is facing the death penalty even though, as Cohen notes, a veteran Georgia state judge has said Hill is mentally disabled.

    Again, Supreme Court precedent is in play.

  • May 15, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    With an increasing number of states dispensing with or reconsidering capital punishment, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review (HRLR) has released an exhaustive issue, which should push more state lawmakers to join the discussion. The HRLR issue provides compelling and highly troubling documentation of the likely wrongful 1989 Texas execution of Carlos DeLuna.

    As Andrew Cohen writes for the Atlantic the HRLR’s issue, “an astonishing blend of narrative journalism, legal research, and gumshoe detective work,” should be read, especially by Justice Antonin Scalia, who in a 2006 concurrence staunchly defended the integrity of capital punishment cases, saying they are “given especially close scrutiny at every level ….”

    Since being reinstituted in the United States, Texas has executed more inmates than all other states, except for California and Florida, where the death row populations are higher. In the last five years, however, five states have chosen to abolish capital punishment, with Connecticut the most recent. Californians in November will consider a ballot measure to end the death penalty.

    HRLR’s issue called Los Tocayos Carlos, provides a stunning account of a criminal justice system gone terribly awry, with prosecutors, witnesses, judges all faltering in ways that tragically bungled a capital punishment case. While these officials and actors ignored evidence to the contrary, the likely perpetrator, Carlos Hernandez, continued a life of violent crime after DeLuna was convicted and sitting on death row.

    In a press release about the report, Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman, and lead author of the issue, said, “Carlos DeLuna’s execution passed with little notice. No one cared enough about the defendant or the victim [Wanda Lopez stabbed to death working at a convenience mart in Corpus Christi] to make sure they caught the right guy. Everything that could go wrong in a death penalty case did go wrong for DeLuna. Sadly, DeLuna’s story is not unique. The very same factors that sent DeLuna to his death – faulty eyewitness testimony, shoddy legal representation, prosecutorial misfeasance – continue to put innocent people at risk of execution today.”

  • April 24, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Californians are set to engage in a high-profile debate over capital punishment, with an initiative to end the death penalty approved for the November ballot. The Los Angeles Times reports if the ballot measure passes “more than 700” death sentences would be commuted to life-without-parole sentences, making it that state’s “most severe form of criminal punishment.”

    A coalition to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison lauded the approval of the measure for the November ballot, calling the current system “broken, expensive,” and a danger to innocent people on death row. (Former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti told the Times that with more than 700 people on death row, there is a strong possibility that at least one innocent person is among the group. Garcetti is also a supporter of the campaign to repeal the state’s death penalty and replace it with the Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement for California Act, or the SAFE California Act.)

    Jeanne Woodford, former warden at San Quentin state prison and supporter of the SAFE California Act, said in a press statement, “Back in 1978 [when the state expanded its use of capital punishment], we did not have an alternative sentence that would keep convicted killers behind bars forever. We certainly did not know that we would spend $4 billion on 13 executions.”

    The Los Angeles Times noted a three-year study of the state’s death penalty that concluded it cost “$183 million more to administer than life without possibility of parole, and that California’s 13 executions cost taxpayers $4 billion. The additional expense includes legal costs for expanded trials and appeals and for housing inmates in single cells.”

    Fair and Unbalanced reports that “polls show California voters are ready to replace the death penalty, and join a nationwide trend.” If Californians vote to dump the death penalty, it will become the 18th state without capital punishment.