Death penalty

  • February 10, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    In recent years, there has been much discussion about whether America is now a “post-racial” society.  The introduction of the first non-white family into the White House was accompanied by some enthusiastic declarations of victory over the scourge of racism.  Observers looked to the president and to other successful minorities and decided that yes, racism is indeed over.

    But focusing on the most successful elements of any demographic group proves little, for wealth has the ability to elevate and to insulate.  One area where this is most evident is in the American criminal justice system.  When navigating the justice system, the ability to hire top-notch legal counsel or to post a significant bond drastically affects the outcome of a case.  This is true for both white citizens and for citizens of color.

    Unfortunately, however, racial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color.  There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.

    The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system.  From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white.

  • January 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Eric Berger, Associate Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law

    The U.S. Supreme Court last week granted certiorari in Glossip v. Gross, in which plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure.  Glossip raises important questions about how the Eighth Amendment standard announced by the Court in 2008 in Baze v. Rees applies to experimental drug combinations.  However, the questions presented in Glossip do not directly address the crucial, related question of whether states must disclose their lethal injection procedures to inmate plaintiffs.  To this extent, the Court is putting the cart before the horse.

    Indeed, many death row inmates lack important information about the procedures with which the state plans to execute them.  The problem appears to be worsening as states increasingly conceal more details of their execution procedures.  Courts, for their part, usually reject inmates’ requests to learn this information. 

    In a recent law review article, I argue that these state practices and judicial responses are wrong.  To be sure, some execution procedures, upon closer examination, may be safe and constitutional, but some certainly are not, and courts have no way of distinguishing the safe from the dangerous without inquiring into the details of the procedure.  To this extent, courts have repeatedly blessed execution procedures about which they know virtually nothing.

  • January 23, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Dr. Margaret Nygren Executive Director and CEO of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the oldest professional society concerned with intellectual disability.

    Objectively, how many different doctors must concur on a diagnosis before it is considered definitive? For that medical diagnosis to be respected by the law, how many courts need to agree? In the case of Warren Hill, a Georgia man with lifelong, documented intellectual disability, every doctor who has evaluated him (seven doctors, including those who testified for the state) and two judges (in 2002 and 2012) have found him to be a person with intellectual disability. Yet, despite the clarity of his diagnosis, and despite the constitutional protection for persons with intellectual disability from execution, Mr. Hill faces lethal injection in just days, on Tuesday, January 27, unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes.

    Warren Hill grew up in extreme poverty in rural Georgia, and, like too many adults in our criminal justice system today, did not receive a formal diagnosis and helpful therapies as a child.  In fact, at the schools Mr. Hill attended in the 1960s and early 1970s, special education was not available, and several of his former teachers have submitted sworn affidavits that had special education services been available, they would have recommended them for Mr. Hill, who clearly showed signs of the deficits in functioning, which mark intellectual disability in his childhood. 

    The organization I lead, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, AAIDD, was the first organization the U.S. to help produce a working clinical definition of intellectual disability, formerly called “mental retardation,” and among the first to promote the provision of special education services in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court used AAIDD’s clinical definition when it first ruled to protect prisoners with intellectual disability from capital punishment in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002.

  • December 2, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    In The New York Times, Mark Landler reports on President Obama’s announcement of new standards for police gear and body cameras for police officers. ACS hosted a panel on police militarization in November that featured discussion of more significant reforms to police policy that legislators could undertake.

    Noah Feldman writes in Bloomberg View about the Elonis case and asserts that “Anthony Elonis doesn’t deserve sympathy or admiration – but he does deserve for the government to prove that he meant to threaten others before he goes to jail.”

    In The Washington Post, Paul Waldman argues that the Supreme Court should be the biggest issue of the 2016 campaign.

    Caitlin Borgmann writes in the Los Angeles Times that the Supreme Court should take up a case about laws regulating abortion clinics in order to send a message to state legislatures that pass “disingenuous laws designed to shut down clinics.”

    Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz report in The New York Times that New York City will expand public health services throughout its criminal justice system.

  • December 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Nancy Leong, Associate Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Follow her on Twitter @NancyLeong.

    Scott Panetti is scheduled for execution in Texas tomorrow, Wednesday, December 3.

    Mr. Panetti has suffered from schizophrenia and other mental illness for over thirty years. He first exhibited signs of a psychotic disorder as a teenager. Between 1978 and 1992, he was hospitalized for mental illness fifteen times. He developed a delusion that he was engaged in spiritual warfare with Satan. He tried to exorcize his home by burying furniture in the backyard because, he claimed, the devil was in it.

    In 1992, Mr. Panetti went off his medication, shaved his head, and dressed in camouflage fatigues. He went to his in-laws house and murdered his mother and father-in-law in front of his wife and daughter. After turning himself in, Mr. Panetti blamed the crime on “Sarge,” one of his recurring hallucinations. He explained that God had ensured that his victims had not suffered.

    A trial judge allowed Mr. Panetti to represent himself at the subsequent trial and sentencing, even disregarding the concerns of the prosecutor.  Predictably, the proceedings were, in the words of Mr. Panetti’s stand-by attorney, “truly a judicial farce.” Mr. Panetti wore a cowboy costume and a purple bandana to court. He attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy, the Pope, Jesus Christ, and his own alter ego, “Sarge,” among 200 others. His statements were rambling and incoherent. He fell asleep during trial. While describing the shooting, he assumed the personality of “Sarge” and narrated the events in the third person. He pointed an imaginary rifle at jurors, visibly frightening them. And he rejected a plea bargain that could have saved his life.