Criminal Justice

  • July 14, 2014
    BookTalk
    The Wrong Carlos
    Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution
    By: 
    James S. Liebman

    by James S. Liebman, Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law, Columbia Law School, and Shawn Crowley, Andrew Markquart, Lauren Rosenberg, Lauren Gallo White and Daniel Zharkovsky

    Do states with the death penalty execute innocent people? That is the fundamental question at the heart of The Wrong Carlos, a book I recently published with student coauthors.

    It is also the question facing the American public following a series of devastating developments for death penalty supporters. March brought news of the 144th death row exoneration. In April, we learned that Oklahoma had botched Clayton Lockett’s execution, leaving him awake during a massive drug-induced heart attack. The Supreme Court found in May that Florida remains hell bent on executing defendants too mentally disabled to be condemned. And in June—for the first time—a majority of Americans indicated in a poll that they prefer life without parole to capital punishment.

    Death penalty supporters are left clinging to a single promise often made but never substantiated—a promise repeated by Justice Scalia in a 2006 opinion: Whatever else we do, we don’t execute the innocent.

    I began thinking about this question between 2000 and 2003, when colleagues and I issued our Broken System studies documenting judicial findings of accuracy-impugning error in two-thirds of all U.S. capital cases reviewed between 1973 and 1995.

    Our studies sparked a heated debate over two competing interpretations. Did the courts’ discovery of so many errors prove the system worked? Or do high error rates mean it is almost certain that courts miss other errors, allowing the innocent to be executed?

  • July 11, 2014

    by Nicholas Alexiou

    Reginald Dwayne Betts tells his story of being in solitary confinement as a juvenile, before he was ever tried, in the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.

    Florida executed Eddie Davis via lethal injection on Thursday evening for the 1994 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Mark Berman at The Washington Post reports that Davis’ execution was the fourth in the U.S. since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

    The New York TimesCharlie Savage reports on a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the government’s Suspicious Activity Reporting database.

    At MSNBC, Emma Margolin explores how the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. could negatively impact the LGBT community.

  • July 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    By David Menschel, Criminal Defense Lawyer; President, Vital Projects Fund

    As the Supreme Court ends its October Term 2013 and heads off for summer recess, it is worth taking a closer look at one of the sleeper cases of the term, Hall v. Florida, a case about intellectual disability and the death penalty. Though Hall received only moderate attention in the press and was depicted as having limited practical reach, it contains significant new avenues for those who oppose the death penalty. The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, contains small but important analytical shifts that, considering Kennedy’s role not only as the Court’s swing justice but also as the Court’s most vocal interpreter of the Eighth Amendment, could ultimately make it far easier for death penalty opponents to abolish the death penalty entirely.

    On the surface at least, Hall strikes little new ground. It mostly clarifies the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision, Atkins v. Virginia, in which the Court ruled that the Constitution forbids the execution of the “mentally retarded” – people we now refer to as “intellectually disabled.” Atkins had largely left it to the states to determine which defendants fall into this category and therefore are exempt from the death penalty. Hall tells certain wayward states like Florida that in order to comply with Atkins, they must determine which defendants are intellectually disabled in a robust, less rigid way and in a manner that is consistent with medicine and science.

    Practically speaking, Hall will likely have a modest effect. In the opinion itself, Justice Kennedy estimated that “at most nine states” had laws similar to Florida’s. The New York Times suggested that “only a small number” of death row inmates would qualify for a new hearing as a result of Hall, and the Times cited death penalty expert John Blume, a law professor at Cornell University, who said that the ruling might apply to “10 to 20” inmates. Another Times piece estimated that the ruling “affects roughly 30 death row inmates” about “15 to 20” of whom are in Florida. While it is too soon to know how broad Hall’s practical effect will be – it remains to be seen how it will be applied by lower courts – these estimates suggest that only a tiny fraction of America’s approximately 3,000 death row inmates are likely to be exempted from the death penalty because of Hall.

  • June 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Frank Housh, owner of Housh Law Offices, PLLC, and chair of the ACS Western New York Lawyer Chapter. He participated in the preparation of the petition for a writ of certiorari in Johnson v. Texas, 509 US 350 (1993), a case related to the issue of the intellectual capacity of the defendant in a capital case.

    The Supreme Court’s May 27 decision in Hall v. Florida makes clear that fundamental notions of human dignity and the validity of the scientific method axiomatic in developed nations of the 21st Century have found no purchase by the majority of the Court. As a nation which still executes its own, the United States remains a peculiar outlier in the international order; the fact that our constitutional jurisprudence still tinkers with the obsolete machinery of death drags down the rule of law below the minimum standards of the world community.

    In 1989, a 5-4 Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia held that executing the “mentally retarded” was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. “Mentally retarded,” however, remained undefined in the decision. What followed was a macabre race to the bottom among the states, including Florida’s bright-line standard that funneled those capital defendants with an IQ of 69 or less to life without parole and those with a score of 70 and above to the gallows (Freddie Lee Hall scored a 71). Unfortunately, that race continues, as Hall does little to clarify the issue.

    Hall had two holdings: first, the more palatable “intellectual disability” is the phrase of choice over “mental retardation;” second, IQ score alone cannot be the final and conclusive evidence of the defendant’s intellectual capacity because “experts in the field would consider other evidence” due to the presence of a “standard error measurement.” No further guidance was given as to what constitutes a constitutionally permissible scheme to determine the the minimum standard of intellectual function necessary to strap someone to a gurney and shoot poison into them until they die.

  • May 12, 2014

    As education inequality increases, hostilities between public education and charter schools continue. Although many charter schools were established to “develop test kitchens for practices that could be exported into the traditional schools” it has “proved difficult to encourage the kind of sharing of ideas that charter schools were originally supposed to foster, given competitive dynamics.” Javier C. Hernandez at The New York Times comments on “charter and public schools and a chasm between.”
     
    Garrett Epps at The Atlantic describes a troubling scene which resulted in the shooting of an innocent man when a law enforcement official mistakenly accused him of car theft. In his article, Epps breaks down Tolan v. Cotton, in which for “the first time in a decade” the Supreme Court “held against law enforcement in a ‘qualified immunity’ case.”
     
    Adam Liptak at The New York Times discusses how “the deep and often angry divisions among [Supreme Court] justices are but a distilled version of the way American intellectuals — at think tanks and universities, in opinion journals and among the theorists and practitioners of law and politics — have separated into two groups with vanishingly little overlap or interaction.”
     
    The controversial execution of Clayton Lockett raised new questions about the merits of capital punishment in America. Boer Deng and Dahlia Lithwick at Slate explain why “in the push to abolish capital punishment, opponents of the death penalty have made it less safe.”
     
    Last week, an Arkansas state trial judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog breaks down Wright v. Arkansas