December 10, 2010

The Death Penalty: A Year In Review

Cameron Todd Willingham: Execution and Innocence

The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, first profiled in The New Yorker magazine last year, continued to make headlines in 2010.  Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his children, but evidence now suggests that the fire may have been caused by faulty wiring.  In 2009 the Texas Forensic Science Commission was poised to issue findings that the science used to convict Mr. Willingham was faulty when Governor Rick Perry removed key members of the panel, including the chairman.  The new chairman, John Bradley, recently referred to Mr. Willingham as a “poster boy” for anti-death penalty groups and a “guilty monster,” raising serious questions about his impartiality.  Despite the controversy over the membership of the Commission, in 2010 it was able to issue its findings that the arson evidence used to convict Mr. Willingham was outdated and flawed.  A court of inquiry has opened investigations into the case and is ongoing.

The North Carolina Racial Justice Act: Discrimination and the Death Penalty

In 1987, the Supreme Court heard a case challenging a Georgia death sentence based on evidence that imposition of the death penalty is influenced by the race of the defendant and the victim.  The Court acknowledged this evidence but said that it alone was not enough to reverse the death sentence, finding that such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.”  A recent piece of legislation enacted in North Carolina suggests that not everyone would agree.  The North Carolina Racial Justice Act allows defendants facing the death penalty to challenge their sentences by presenting statistical evidence of racial discrimination, an opportunity denied to them by the Supreme Court in 1987.  Defendants in North Carolina whose cases may have been influenced by race will now have an opportunity to seek justice from the courts.  There are 119 cases now filed under this Act.

Holland v. Florida: Gross Negligence and Equitable Tolling

On June 14, 2010 the Supreme Court reversed an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision and granted Florida Death Row prisoner Albert Holland equitable tolling of the deadline for filing his federal habeas petition.  Mr. Holland had repeatedly contacted his attorney with concerns that the deadline for filing was approaching and sought assurances that his petition would be filed on time, but he received no response.  He also asked to have his attorney removed from the case, but the court would not consider his request, ironically because he was represented by the very counsel he sought to have removed.  The 11th Circuit found that that the attorney’s conduct in missing the deadline was “gross negligence” but that such negligence did not warrant setting aside the imposed deadline.  The Supreme Court reversed and instructed the 11th Circuit to reconsider an extension of the deadline based on equitable principles.  The Court emphasized that equity has been and continues to be a key part of habeas jurisprudence.  This was an important victory for defendants who had previously been penalized for the negligence of their attorneys.

Skinner v. Switzer: Access to DNA Evidence

On October 13, 2010, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether Texas Death Row prisoner Hank Skinner should be allowed bring a civil rights claim in order to access and test DNA evidence.  Last year the Court held that there is no substantive due process right to test such evidence, but left open the question of whether a prisoner could bring a procedural due process claim.  Mr. Skinner’s counsel argued that the process employed by the state of Texas, which prohibits a prisoner from seeking testing of DNA evidence if it was not done at the time of trial, denied him due process of law as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Wood v. Allen: Execution of the Mentally Retarded

On January 20, 2010, the Supreme Court let stand the death sentence of mentally impaired Alabama prisoner Holly Wood.  In 2000 the Project recruited volunteer attorneys from Kaye Scholer LLP to represent Mr. Wood in his post-conviction proceedings.  Those attorneys discovered that Mr. Wood consistently tested below 70 on IQ tests, a line commonly used to define mental retardation.  In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that executing someone who is mentally retarded is unconstitutional, but the states were left to create their own definition of mental retardation.  The state of Alabama uses a case-by-case approach rather than setting a bright-line standard.  In this case, however, Mr. Wood’s trial attorneys failed to present much of the evidence of his intellectual deficiencies to the courts.  The Court ruled against Mr. Wood, but Justice Stevens issued a strong dissent, declaring “the only reasonable factual conclusion I can draw from this record is that counsel’s decision [not to investigate and present evidence of mental deficiency] was the result of inattention and neglect.”  Mr. Wood was executed by the state of Alabama on September 8, 2010.

Judge Sharon Keller: Judicial Misconduct and the Death Penalty

In 2010 the inquiry continued into the conduct of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller.  In 2007 Judge Keller was contacted when attorneys for Michael Richards experienced printer problems as they tried to prepare an emergency petition for a stay of execution based on a Supreme Court decision earlier that day.  Judge Keller reportedly refused to hold the office open past 5 p.m., and Mr. Richards was executed while all other death sentences in the country were stayed pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.  The State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a Public Warning to Judge Keller but refused to go any further, saying that the public humiliation she had suffered was punishment enough for her actions.  Recently, even that reprimand was withdrawn after an appeals court decided that the Commission did not have authority to issue the Warning.  Judge Keller responded by saying she felt “vindicated.”