TAMPA — Thirteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, should decide death sentences, Florida stands alone in how its justice system imposes capital punishment.
“Florida’s capital sentencing system is unique among all 33 American jurisdictions that permit capital punishment,” the American Bar Association says in a brief filed before the nation’s highest court. “Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court has characterized Florida as ‘the outlier state.’ ”
Now the nation’s highest court is poised to consider in its next term whether Florida needs to change its system for deciding whom to execute.
The issue concerns the role of juries in death penalty decisions. It’s an aspect of the state’s system of capital punishment that courts have struggled with for years.
In Florida, as in other states, when defendants are convicted of murder in a death penalty case, juries hear evidence regarding the existence of “aggravating factors,” or aspects of the case that weigh in favor of a death sentence, as well as “mitigating factors,” information that favors a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In recommending a sentence, a jury determines whether aggravating factors in a case outweigh the mitigating circumstances and justify the imposition of a death sentence.
But Florida juries, unlike most other states, are told their decisions are merely advisory, and that the judge will make the ultimate determination over whether to sentence a defendant to death. Trial judges in Florida are required to make their own, independent findings and are permitted to impose sentences different from jury recommendations.
Juries in Florida also are not required to reach unanimous decisions on the existence of specific aggravating factors or on whether to recommend a death sentence.
No other state allows the imposition of a death sentence without jurors either finding unanimously that a specific aggravating factor has been established or unanimously finding that capital punishment is appropriate.
The American Bar Association, which takes no position on the overall constitutionality of the death penalty, is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to direct Florida to make changes and require jurors to specify which aggravating factors they have unanimously found to be present. The association wants the high court to require jurors to unanimously agree on the imposition of death sentences.
Among the findings was that there was significant confusion among jurors in capital cases. “Research establishes that many Florida capital jurors do not understand their role and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence,” the association’s report stated.
The ABA also concluded that not requiring jurors to be unanimous “reduces the jury’s deliberation time and thus may diminish the thoroughness of the deliberations.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 threw out Arizona’s system of capital punishment, ruling it was unconstitutional because judges, not juries, determined the existence of aggravating factors and sentenced defendants to death.
Months later, the Florida Supreme Court left intact the state’s system of capital punishment, concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly reviewed it and found it constitutional.
The state’s high court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the appeal of one of the Florida defendants challenging the state system, even after it made the Arizona decision.
That Florida appeal involved Amos Lee King, who was later executed for the 1977 murder of Natalie “Tillie” Brady inside her Tarpon Springs home. Brady was raped, stabbed and beaten while King was in a nearby prison work-release program.
The state Supreme Court called in 2005 for the state Legislature to make changes to the state’s death penalty law to require unanimity in jury recommendations. But state lawmakers didn’t act.
In the ensuing years, the state Supreme Court continued to hold that the state’s death penalty system is constitutional. One of those rulings came in the Escambia County case of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of murdering coworker Cynthia Harrison in a robbery at Popeye’s restaurant on May 2, 1998.
The state Supreme Court initially upheld Hurst’s conviction and death sentence but later granted him a new penalty phase hearing on the grounds his original defense lawyer failed to properly present and investigate mitigating evidence relating to his borderline intelligence and possible brain damage. At the conclusion of the second sentencing hearing, jurors returned a verdict of 7-5 in favor of death.
Hurst appealed again to the state Supreme Court, which upheld his death sentence, rejecting arguments that included assertions the jury should have been required to unanimously find a specific aggravating circumstance and unanimously decide his sentence.
The state Supreme Court noted in its Hurst ruling that it has previously concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Arizona case did not require juries to make specific findings of aggravating factors or to make unanimous decisions regarding death sentences. The Florida court refused to revisit its prior rulings.
Hurst also argued the jury should have been required to determine whether he was mentally disabled, a finding that would have barred the implementation of the death penalty. After hearing testimony from witnesses and experts, the trial judge ruled that Hurst was not mentally disabled.
The state Supreme Court ruled that although some states require such findings be made by juries, Florida is not one of those states, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not mandated that procedure.
Hurst appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in its next term, which begins in October.
The family of Lori Hamm, the Longview native allegedly killed by convicted killer John Wayne Thomson in 2006, wants Washington’s governor to reconsider his ban on death penalty executions.
In a letter sent to Gov. Jay Inslee in May, Jerry Hamm, Lori Hamm’s father, reminded the governor that he took “an oath to support and defend Washington’s constitution and laws,” including Washington’s law allowing death penalty sentences.
Instead of issuing the ban, Jerry Hamm suggested the governor use the same legislative process any citizen would have to use to change the law.
“Lori’s death was painful and her death impacted all of Cowlitz County,” Jerry Hamm wrote. “Your decision was not fair to my daughter and heartbreaking to myself, my wife and our family.”
Thomson is likely remain on death row in California for several years. He was sentenced to death after being convicted in April 2014 in the death of 55-year-old businessman Charles Ray Hedlund in late July or early August 2006. Hedlund was killed after he stopped alongside the road to help a stranded Thomson.
San Bernardino County spokesman Christopher Lee said Thomson’s execution has yet to be scheduled and won’t be for some time.
“In California, all death penalty cases have an automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court,” Lee said on Friday.
Thomson is accused of killing Hamm, 36, on July 16, 2006, near Castle Rock, about a month before Hedlund’s death. He’s also accused of killing Spokane’s James Ehrgott, 73, only weeks before Hamm’s death.
Even without California’s appeal process, Thomson’s execution still wouldn’t happen quickly. California has had a moratorium on executions since 2006 when a federal judge ruled that state’s death penalty system as unconstitutional.
Former county prosecutor Sue Baur had planned to bring Thomson back to Washington to stand trial for Hamm’s death. Lee said that decision will now be up to current Cowlitz County Prosecutor Ryan Jurvakainen.
When asked if his office was actively working towards returning Thomson to Cowlitz County, Jurvakainen said he hopes to be able to “provide some substantive information” in the next few weeks.
“Until then, I will not make any comment,” Jurvakainen said by email on Monday.
Although Thomson, 55, does not face the death penalty in Cowlitz County, the first-degree murder charge could be amended to qualify him for capital punishment. Thomson is charged with aggravated murder in Spokane, which would include the possibility of the death penalty if he were convicted there.
“Now it is time for Mr. Thomson to pay for his crime spree in both Cowlitz and Spokane counties,” Jerry Hamm wrote. “You have made that impossible.”
Jerry Hamm also asked the governor to provide the research he used to make his decision on the moratorium, as well as copies of the material given to the media. Lastly, he asked the governor to reconsider his decision.
“State of Washington voters voted for the death penalty for these terrible crimes and my daughter and Cowlitz County deserves it,” Jerry Hamm said.
A call to the governor’s office last week was not returned.
This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Georgia case, Foster v. Humphrey, in which an all-white jury sentenced a black man to death after prosecutors struck every black prospective juror in the case.
The Court will determine whether prosecutors violated the Court’s 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, which banned the practice of dismissing potential jurors on the basis of race.
In anticipation of the case, The New Yorker published an analysis of tactics used to evade Batson challenges by providing race-neutral reasons for striking jurors.
In Philadelphia, a training video told new prosecutors, “When you do have a black juror, you question them at length. And on this little sheet that you have, mark something down that you can articulate later….You may want to ask more questions of those people so it gives you more ammunition to make an articulable reason as to why you are striking them, not for race.”
In the 1990s, prosecutors in North Carolina — whose use of peremptory strikes have been held to violate that state’s Racial Justice Act — held training sessions featuring a handout titled, “Batson Justifications: Articulating Juror Negatives.” Defense attorneys can challenge these reasons, but such challenges are rarely successful.
Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who is representing Foster, said, “You’re asking the judge to say that the prosecutor intentionally discriminated on the basis of race, and that he lied about it. That’s very difficult psychologically for the average judge.”
Justice Thurgood Marshall recommended banning peremptory strikes so as to stop racial bias in jury selection. Louisiana Capital Assistance Center director Richard Bourke suggests a more politically realistic reform: track the racial makeup of juries in order to raise public awareness of bias.
BOOKS: “The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective”The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective by Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, now in its Fifth Edition, is “widely regarded as the leading authority on the death penalty in its international context.” The book explores the movement toward worldwide abolition of the death penalty, with an emphasis on international human right principles. It discusses issues including arbitrariness, innocence, and deterrence. Paul Craig, Professor of English Law at Oxford University, said of the fourth edition, “Its rigorous scholarship and the breadth of its coverage are hugely impressive features; its claim to ‘worldwide’ coverage is no idle boast. This can fairly lay claim to being the closest thing to a definitive source-book on this important subject.”
Jeanne Bishop has written a new book about her life and spiritual journey after her sister was murdered in Illinois in 1990. Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer tells Bishop’s personal story of grief, loss, and of her eventual efforts to confront and reconcile with her sister’s killer. She also addresses larger issues of capital punishment, life sentences for juvenile offenders, and restorative justice. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan said of the book, “When I commuted the death sentences of everyone on Illinois’s death row, I expressed the hope that we could open our hearts and provide something for victims’ families other than the hope of revenge. I quoted Abraham Lincoln: ‘I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.’ Jeanne Bishop’s compelling book tells the story of how devotion to her faith took her face-to-face with her sister’s killer …. She reminds us of a core truth: that our criminal justice system cannot be just without mercy.”
Stepping Back, Moving Forward, explores the causes and related issues behind the many wrongful convictions in the U.S. Compiled and edited by four criminal justice professors from the State University of New York, the text draws from U.S. and international sources. Prof. Dan Simon of the University of Southern California said, ”This book offers the most comprehensive and insightful treatment of wrongful convictions to date,” noting that it delves into topics such as the wars on drugs and crime, the culture of punitiveness, and racial animus, as they relate to mistakes in the justice system. The editors note that, “[The] essential premise of this book is that much of value can be learned by ‘stepping back’ from the traditional focus on the direct or immediate causes and consequences of wrongful convictions,” with the hope of moving forward by “probing for the root causes of miscarriages of justice.”
BOOKS: Imprisoned by the Past: Warren McCleskey and the American Death PenaltyA new book by Prof. Jeffrey Kirchmeier of the City University of New York examines the recent history of race and the death penalty in the U.S.The book uses the story of a Georgia death row inmate named Warren McCleskey, whose challenge to the state’s death penalty went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1987 the Court held (5-4) that his statistical evidence showing that Georgia’s system of capital punishment was applied in a racially disproportionate way was insufficient to overturn his death sentence. McCleskey was eventually executed. The book connects this individual case to the broader issue of racial bias in the American death penalty. Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said of the book,”No legal decision in the last half of the 20th century characterized America’s continuing failure to confront its history of racial inequality more than the McCleskey decision. Jeff Kirchmeier’s welcomed and insightful book brings much needed context and perspective to this critically important issue. Compelling and thoughtful, this book is a must read for those trying to understand America’s death penalty and its sordid relationship to our failure to overcome three centuries of racial injustice.”
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department will likely file federal hate crime charges against the man suspected of carrying out a massacre at a storied black church in South Carolina, federal law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Dylann Roof, 21, already faces nine counts of murder and could receive the death penalty in state court. But there is widespread agreement among officials at the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation that the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston was so horrific and racially motivated that the federal government was obligated to address it, law enforcement officials said.
F.B.I. analysts have also concluded “with a high degree of certainty” that Mr. Roof posted a racist manifesto online, which could be a key to any federal charges, a law enforcement official said. The website was registered in February under Mr. Roof’s name, but the name was made anonymous the following day.
In cases involving violations of both state and federal law, the Justice Department often refrains from bringing federal charges, particularly when suspects face long state prison sentences. But South Carolina does not have a hate crimes law, and federal investigators believe that a murder case alone would leave the racial component of the shooting unaddressed.
The site also showed 60 photographs, including one of Mr. Roof holding a Confederate flag in one hand and a handgun in the other. Other photos of Mr. Roof appeared to have been taken at Confederate heritage sites and slavery museums.
Analysts at the F.B.I. laboratory in Quantico, Va., are also analyzing a computer and phone that Mr. Roof had used, officials said. The agents and analysts are piecing together Mr. Roof’s communications and uncovering any information that may have been deleted.
When federal and state prosecutors each bring charges, they typically coordinate their cases so one does not undermine the other. The death penalty could be a factor. South Carolina’s murder law carries a possible death sentence, while a violation of the federal hate crime law carries up to life in prison. Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, has called for Mr. Roof to face the death penalty.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, condemned to death for carrying out a bombing attack near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, broke his long silence Wednesday, delivering an allocution to a packed Boston federal courtroom.
Here is Tsarnaev’s full statement, provided by the U.S. District Court:
Thank you, your Honor, for giving mean opportunity to speak. I would like to begin in the name of Allah, the exalted and glorious, the most gracious, the most merciful, “Allah” among the most beautiful names.
Any act that does not begin in the name of God is separate from goodness. This is the blessed month of Ramadan, and it is the month of mercy from Allah to his creation, a month to ask forgiveness of Allah and of his creation, a month to express gratitude to Allah and to his creation. It’s the month of reconciliation, a month of patience, a month during which hearts change. Indeed, a month of many blessings.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said if you have not thanked the people, you have not thanked God. So I would like to first thank my attorneys, those who sit at this table, the table behind me, and many more behind the scenes. They have done much good for me, for my family. They made my life the last two years very easy. I cherish their company. They’re lovely companions. I thank you.
I would like to thank those who took time out of their daily lives to come and testify on my behalf despite the pressure. I’d like to thank the jury for their service, and the Court.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said that if you do not — if you are not merciful to Allah’s creation, Allah will not be merciful to you, so I’d like to now apologize to the victims, to the survivors. Immediately after the bombing, which I am guilty of — if there’s any lingering doubt about that, let there be no more. I did do it along with my brother.
I learned of some of the victims. I learned their names, their faces, their age. And throughout this trial more of those victims were given names, more of those victims had faces, and they had burdened souls. Now, all those who got up on that witness stand and that podium related to us — to me — I was listening — the suffering that was and the hardship that still is, with strength and with patience and with dignity. Now, Allah says in the Qur’an that no soul is burdened with more than it can bear, and you told us just how unbearable it was, how horrendous it was, this thing I put you through. And I know that you kept that much. I know that there isn’t enough time in the day for you to have related to us everything.
I also wish that far more people had a chance to get up there, but I took them from you. Now, I am sorry for the lives that I’ve taken, for the suffering that I’ve caused you, for the damage that I’ve done. Irreparable damage. Now, I am a Muslim. My religion is Islam. The God I worship, besides whom there is no other God, is Allah.
And I prayed for Allah to bestow his mercy upon the deceased, those affected in the bombing and their families. Allah says in the Qur’an that with every hardship there is relief. I pray for your relief, for your healing, for your well-being, for your strength.
I ask Allah to have mercy upon me and my brother and my family. I ask Allah to bestow his mercy upon those present here today. And Allah knows best those deserving of his mercy. And I ask Allah to have mercy upon the ummah of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Amin.
New studies show that trauma biologically alters the brains of young boys in ways that affect their adult behavior.
Juan Ramirez grew up in poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, in a neighborhood infested with drug-and gang-related violence. By the age of 10 he’d started smoking marijuana and using inhalants. Within a couple of years he’d moved on to cocaine. By his middle teens he was drinking alcohol and smoking weed daily. A game he and his friends used to play in the Valley, called WAWA, involved spraying paint into a bag, sealing the lip around their mouths, and inhaling the fumes to get high.
Ramirez is the middle of five children and, according to court documents, his mother and father were alcoholics who disciplined their kids by whipping them with belts, clothes hangers, shoes—even tree branches. The severity of those beatings depended on the parents’ moods. Consequently, Ramirez spent most of his time playing outside in the street.
Inevitably, perhaps, he dropped out of school, became a drug addict and spent time in Texas Youth Commission facilities for juvenile offenders. But it was a single incident in 2003 that sealed his fate. One night in early January, 11 masked men burst into a small house in Hidalgo County to steal marijuana. By the time they left, six members of a rival drug gang in the house were dead. Ramirez was just 20 years old and the youngest of those the police said were responsible. Although he wasn’t identified as the gunman, under Texas’ law of parties, prosecutors successfully sought the death penalty.
For the uninitiated, the law of parties holds that if a person “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense,” then he or she is criminally responsible for the conduct of the other person. Of course the law can be applied inconsistently—and it often is.
This is Ramirez’s 11th year on death row, housed at the notorious Polunsky Unit in the rural East Texas town of Livingston. And his is one of numerous stories of childhood abuse and violence that condemned inmates have told the Observer as part of an informal yet wide-ranging survey of the men waiting for Texas to exercise the most brutal manifestation of its power.
Last year, I sent a questionnaire to each of the 292 inmates on Texas’ death row. It was designed to elicit information often missed in narratives about the death penalty: the effect that solitary confinement has on them; whether they had found religion in prison; and what sort of childhoods they had. I wanted to see if any patterns emerged.
Forty-one inmates responded. Ramirez was among 22 inmates (54 percent) who reported having violent or abusive childhoods. An additional nine inmates (22 percent) described their childhoods as “hard,” or said they had some sort of dominant negative issue—whether it was growing up in poverty and/or in a crime-filled neighborhood or that they endured the potentially debilitating experience of having a parent walk out on them. This is the final story in a series based on information obtained from those responses. Three others, which explore what books the inmates read, the effects of solitary confinement, and how religion factors into their lives, ran previously on the Observer website.
This is not an attempt to retry those cases or to mitigate the harm these men caused. But too often, defense attorneys lack the resources to launch in-depth investigations into the backgrounds of those facing capital convictions. And to quote the Death Penalty Information Center, “Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In many cases, the appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases.” The center cites a Dallas Morning News examination of 461 capital cases that found nearly one in four inmates was represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who had been disciplined for professional misconduct. Additionally, an investigation by the Texas Defender Service found death row inmates “faced a one-in-three chance of being executed without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that the stories of inmates’ childhoods that have emerged from the Observer’s survey are told in the inmates’ own words. When possible, they have been corroborated with court documents or contextualized by news reports.
The responses in our correspondence offer new evidence that supports findings from studies that show a correlation between childhood trauma and the potential for future violent offending. As Texas leads the nation’s death penalty states in executions, the letters also act as important reminders that it’s time we ask what this says about the fractured minds of those we execute and rethink the extent of our moral culpability.
At his trial, prosecutors said Ramirez was a member of a Rio Grande Valley gang known as the Tri-City Bombers. But of the 11 alleged perpetrators of what became known as the Edinburg Massacre, only two received a death sentence. Another, Robert Garza, was executed in 2013 for an unrelated offense. That same year, the alleged ringleader of the gang, Jeffrey Juarez, known as “Dragon,” got 20 years for drug conspiracy and trafficking but escaped prosecution for the killings in Edinburg due to lack of witnesses. Likewise, Reymundo Sauceda, who prosecutors said approved the homicides, had the capital murder indictment against him dismissed. The others in the gang either received prison terms or remain fugitives from the law.
In a letter to the Observer, Ramirez wrote, “I come from the poorest region of the nation, from a poor household. I pretty much had all the strikes against me before I had a choice of my own.”
In their paper “The Cycle of Violence,” published by the American Psychological Association, David Lisak and Sara Beszterczey, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston, looked at the life histories of 43 men on death row. They discovered that all of them reported having been neglected as children, that an astonishing 94 percent had been physically abused, 59 percent sexually abused, and 83 percent had witnessed violence in adolescence.
Another study, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality,” published in 2013 in The (Kaiser) Permanente Journal, surveyed 151 offenders and compared their answers with a “normative sample” of the population. The researchers found that the offender group reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood as the control group.
Many, if not most, condemned men were abandoned by their fathers, lived in foster care, or were abused or neglected, according to Mark Cunningham and Mark Vigen, who 13 years ago conducted a critical review of the literature on death row inmates for the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law. This observation, they wrote, is supported by the findings of seven of the clinical studies they looked at. “The presence of pathological family interactions in the histories of capital murderers is consistent with an extensive body of research demonstrating the role of disrupted attachment and disturbed family relationships in the etiology of violence,” they wrote. In the United Kingdom (which doesn’t have the death penalty), Gwyneth Boswell, a professor at the University of East Anglia, has spent 22 years conducting research into why young people become violent, and she has identified that trauma experiences in childhood are key features. Two of her studies suggest a high prevalence of abuse and traumatic loss in young offenders’ lives. In one study, Boswell examined the files of 200 young offenders and discovered 72 percent had experienced some kind of abuse—be it emotional, sexual, ritual, or a combination. And 57 percent had experienced the death or loss of contact of a parent. The total number of young offenders who had experienced abuse and/or loss was 91 percent. “Unresolved trauma,” Boswell wrote, “is likely to manifest itself in some way at a later date. Many children become depressed, disturbed, violent or all three, girls tending to internalize and boys to externalize their responses.”
Reading through the stories contained in the questionnaires that the inmates returned, you are confronted with a litany of childhood horror. There’s Eugene Broxton, sent to an orphanage before being cared for by an older sister whose partner then beat him. Broxton was sentenced to death in 1992 after breaking into a hotel room, tying up, robbing and shooting a couple that was staying there. The woman died; her husband survived. In response to Broxton’s defense counsel’s argument in mitigation concerning his home life, the state said, “his sister, his half-sister, his half-brother got the same kind of discipline. And they didn’t turn out to be mass murderers.” Willie Trottie—who was executed in September—wrote that he had an abusive and violent mother who beat him and his siblings with extension cords until they bled. “I was abandoned at a hotel in Houston, placed in foster homes, was beaten there, and I ran away from all of them only to be returned to [the homes] to be abused again,” he wrote. “I was about seven or eight years old.”
Trottie was convicted of the 1993 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Canada, and her brother Titus. Prosecutors said he had threatened to kill Barbara if she didn’t come back to him. Trottie admitted shooting the pair but said it was in self-defense after Titus Canada shot him first. (Trottie was arrested after driving himself to the hospital with gunshot wounds.)
In an appeal to the Supreme Court, Trottie’s lawyers argued that attorneys representing him at his original trial failed to produce sufficient testimony about Trottie’s abusive childhood. Maurie Levin, an attorney with vast experience defending capital cases, and who represented Trottie in his litigation concerning the lethal injection protocol, told me that all of her clients survived miserable childhoods rampant with sexual, physical and emotional abuse. “They were impoverished, often entirely outside the social safety net. … How much does it affect later behavior? Every current study says it does—developmentally, neurologically, you name it—and our clients’ stories bear that out.”
Jeff Wood, who was convicted under the law of parties for being an accomplice to the murder of a convenience store clerk in Kerrville in the mid-1990s, wrote that his father used to hit him with a razor strap so badly that Child Protective Services was called. During the punishment phase of his trial, Wood instructed his attorneys not to call any witnesses, and so evidence of his abusive childhood was never presented.
Clinton Young, who faces execution for his part in a double murder in the course of a carjacking, wrote that he grew up with an abusive father and an emotionally abusive stepfather. “My dad beat me with a 2×4 and [kicked me with] steel toe-capped boots. My step dad focused on making sure I feared him and that I knew my real father didn’t care about me—and that I wouldn’t amount to, in his words, ‘a hill of rabbit shit in life.’”
Aníbal Canales strangled his cellmate in 1997 and was sentenced to death three years later. “I think it would take way too much paper to try and talk about my childhood,” he wrote in response to the Observer’s questionnaire. “I grew up in a house that was both violent and abusive. My father was a deeply violent man [who] abused me and my family regularly. My mother was an alcoholic and abusive also. I lived in a jungle, and I learned to hide myself in the foliage that was my life—and hide deep. It wasn’t until late in life that I was able to talk about that part of my life.”
In his findings at Canales’ Fifth Circuit appeal, the judge conceded that “by [his] trial counsel’s own admission [he] did not hire a mitigation specialist, interview family members or others who knew him growing up, or ‘collect any records or any historical data on his life.’” During Canales’ sentencing, the only mitigation presented by his attorney was that he was “a gifted artist” and “a peacemaker in prison.”
The 5th Circuit added that if Canales’ trial attorneys had conducted a mitigation investigation, “they would have discovered an extensive history of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Canales’s mother was an alcoholic who neglected her children, and his father was violent, angry, and irrational. After Canales’s parents separated, his mother married a man who was physically abusive, beating Canales with a belt and fist and forcing him to strip naked prior to these beatings. Canales’s step-father sexually abused his sister, and Canales attempted, in vain, to protect her. The family lived in poor housing, infested with flea[s] and lice and located in ‘gang central.’ Canales’s grandparents were also physically and verbally abusive. Eventually, Canales’s mother left him with his father. The beatings then resumed, and Canales’s father would beat him ‘until his father got tired.’ This led Canales to abuse drugs and alcohol, ‘hook up with the wrong people,’ and begin committing crimes. He lived in half-way houses for part of his teenage years. Canales’s sister stated that the death of Canales’s mother affected Canales severely and that he ‘went off the deep end’ after she passed away.”
Thomas Whitaker wrote that his childhood was emotionally derelict, with no friends or peers and no connection to his family. In December 2003, a couple of weeks before Christmas, Whitaker and his family returned to their Houston home after dinner. Inside the house, a masked gunman shot and killed Whitaker’s brother, Kevin, and his mother, Tricia, before wounding his father, Kent, and Whitaker himself. Although it looked like a robbery, police eventually arrested Whitaker. He later confessed to hiring the gunman to kill his family because of what prosecutors termed an “irrational hate.”
And there’s Jedidiah Murphy, whose parents abandoned him at 5, forcing him to live out his childhood in a series of foster homes. “I could not tell you all of it were you to have all day,” he wrote. “It was violent and it did not help me in life at all. I don’t blame all my life’s ills on my childhood but I never had a shot with the way that I grew up. I learned the wrong way right off the bat, and hell it took forever to see what I was doing was wrong. By that time I was lost to alcoholism like my father and his father and so on.”
As if an abusive childhood weren’t bad enough, Hector Medina, another death row inmate who responded to the questionnaire, spent his in a country torn apart by a bitter civil war.
As Oklahoma’s death-row inmates await word on whether the state’s execution procedure is constitutional, states – including Oklahoma – maintain strong laws protecting disclosure of information about the way they implement the death penalty.
Last year, an Oklahoma inmate sat on a gurney for 43 minutes while the drugs that were supposed to course swiftly through his body and kill him failed to do so.
Any day now, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in a case on whether Oklahoma’s death penalty protocol is constitutional, a case filed in the aftermath of that botched execution, many of the details of which still remain shrouded in secrecy. How the Supreme Court will decide – how narrowly or broadly or whether they will issue an opinion at all – is unknown.
One thing is clear, however, in Oklahoma and elsewhere: The way people are executed in America is increasingly done in secret.
The identities of the actual executioners have been secret for a long time. But in recent years, states have extended that same secrecy to the very drugs used to kill people – where they’re purchased, how they’re purchased, and how they’re prepared and administered.
Death penalty lawyers argue the secrecy means they don’t find out about many of the problems until something goes wrong. But even in those cases, investigations are done by the state itself, shielding an unknown amount of that information – beyond what the state releases – from public disclosure.
Lockett’s execution took place more than a year ago, yet reporters in Oklahoma are still waiting for Gov. Mary Fallin’s office to turn over emails and records from that night. Eventually Ziva Branstetter, a journalist now with the Tulsa Frontier, had little choice but to sue for the documents in December of last year.
Fallin has attempted to delay the suit – arguing that, although her office hasn’t turned over the records, she hasn’t formally denied the request either. Fallin’s office claimed in court that absent a formal denial, the courts couldn’t weigh in.
The response from Fallin isn’t an anomaly, either. Her office has stopped responding to emails about a BuzzFeed News open records request from months ago.
In a statement, a Fallin spokesperson said the governor was committed to transparency.
“It is an extremely time-consuming process,” Alex Weintz said. “And, since our office gets many Open Records requests, it can take a while to receive documents in response to a request.”
The situation in Oklahoma isn’t unusual.
“Departments of Corrections have realized that the more information they provide, the more it reveals how little they know,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor who has followed the death penalty for decades.
“It’s always been there, but now it’s becoming more pronounced. The only time we really find out what’s going on is when something goes wrong and we have a really badly botched execution.”
The secrecy has also provided cover when things go wrong. That’s how it has played out in Georgia after state officials had to halt an impending execution after finding particles floating in the syringe.
Georgia officials said the state would put its executions on hold while it investigated what went wrong. Attorney Gerald “Bo” King, who represents the woman on death row, worried that the “self-investigation” would be biased.
“[The state] will not be merely the subject of this investigation; they will also conduct it,” King wrote in March. “And they will hide all critical aspects of their self-assessment from Ms. Gissendaner, the public, and this court.”
Those concerns have been borne out in the time since. After a short investigation, Georgia told the courts, the press, and the public that the likeliest cause of the drug’s issues is that it was stored at too low of a temperature. But state officials did not publicize the fact that the expert consulted by the state also pointed to a 2nd possible cause – problems with how the drug was made. The state then withheld the results of a test that could support or cast doubt on that assessment, refusing to turn those results over to BuzzFeed News in an open records request.
“After reflection,” – and a BuzzFeed News report detailing how the state was withholding the results – the state changed its mind and released them. The results cast doubt on their assessment that it was temperature, and not a problem with the secret pharmacist that mixed the drug, that caused the drug to go bad.
The lethal injection problems have not appeared to change the minds of those who have supported the secrecy.
“Georgia did the right thing, they didn’t use the drug. It’s not a problem,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an organization that works to support the death penalty. “Oklahoma – they did have one case where the insertion wasn’t done correctly. But they’ve taken steps to fix it.”
Scheidegger and other supporters argue that the secrecy is vital. Without it, he says, people wouldn’t be willing to participate in executions or sell lethal drugs.
“I cannot think of another instance where companies would face the same criticism for participating in a government function,” Scheidegger said.
Military companies aren’t shielded from public scrutiny, and the amounts the government pays those companies are a matter of public record. When asked why this should be different, Scheidegger said, “I lived through Vietnam era and I don’t remember them doing this with military contractors.”
“As long as the drug is tested, it shouldn’t matter where it comes from,” he added.
It’s the argument that almost all other states have made when the secrecy has been challenged.
In fact, these days, Nebraska seems to be the only state fine with turning over records that illustrate how its lethal drugs are procured, even if the Food and Drug Administration has said those drugs are illegal and will be seized.
Nebraska’s lethal injection drugs are purchased from a supplier in India.
A US federal judge will formally sentence Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death at a court hearing today when the 21-year-old former student will be offered the chance to speak.
Tsarnaev kept silent throughout his trial, which ended with the jury sentencing him to death on 15 May.
Victims and their relatives are expected to address the court.
Judge George O’Toole will then officially hand down the sentence, reached unanimously by the 12-person jury.
Tsarnaev expressed little emotion throughout his 12-week trial despite harrowing testimony and grisly video footage.
Neither has he expressed any public remorse, although a prominent Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who visited him in jail, said that he did to her.
“No one deserves to suffer like they did,” she quoted him as saying.
The 15 April 2013 double bombings at the Boston Marathon were one of the worst assaults on American soil since the 11 September 2001 attacks.
Carried out by Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan, the bombs killed 3 people and wounded 264 others, including 17 who lost limbs, near the finish line at the northeastern city’s popular marathon.
It took the jury more than 14 hours to choose death rather than life imprisonment for Tsarnaev on 6 counts.
It was a stinging defeat to the defence, who argued for a “lost kid” who would never have committed such horrors without being manipulated by his older brother.
The brothers went on the run and killed a police officer, before Tamerlan was shot dead and Tsarnaev arrested, 4 days later.
He was found, injured, in a grounded boat on which he had scrawled a bloody message defending the attacks as a means to avenge US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Only 3 out of 12 jurors said he acted under Tamerlan’s influence or that Tamerlan directed the bombings, while only 1 juror determined he was unlikely to commit or incite acts of violence while serving a life sentence.
The jury also rejected arguments from his defence team that he was the product of a chaotic family life, with a mentally ill father and his parents returning to Russia in 2012.
He is of Chechen descent, came to the United States as a child and took citizenship in 2012.
During the trial, government prosecutors argued Tsarnaev was a remorseless terrorist who deserved to die and declared that life imprisonment would be the “minimum” punishment.
The death sentence was possible only under federal law.
The state of Massachusetts outlawed capital punishment in 1947 and opinion polls had suggested residents favoured a life sentence for Tsarnaev.
Tsarnaev will then be flown to either America’s only “super-max” prison, ADX Florence, in Colorado or to the penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana where male inmates sit on federal death row.
Executions in Louisiana are on hold for at least a year because the state doesn’t have the drugs needed to put inmates to death, according to a court filing and a lawyer for a convicted child-killer.
Lawyers for Christopher Sepulvado and the state Department of Corrections were supposed to be in federal court Thursday to schedule a trial on the constitutionality of Louisiana’s method of execution.
Instead, a federal judge on Tuesday delayed the trial and Sepulvado’s execution – as well as 4 others on death row – until July 2016 as Louisiana tries to figure out how it can carry out the death penalty.
This is the 2nd time in a year that the state has asked to delay the trial.
States around the country have struggled to execute prisoners because of shortages of lethal injection drugs. In a few cases, it’s taken an unusually long time for inmates to die from new drug combinations.
In the motion to delay the hearing, Department of Corrections attorney James Hilburn wrote that “it would be a waste of resources and time to litigate this matter at present” because the facts in the case are changing. He wrote that he expects those issues to be “more settled” by July 2016.
Hilburn declined to elaborate on the reasons for the delay.
Louisiana’s current death-penalty protocol calls for a mix of hydromorphone and midazolam, the same drugs used last summer during an Arizona execution that took nearly 2 hours to complete. Louisiana’s last known supplies of the drugs expired earlier this year.
Mercedes Montagnes, a lawyer for Sepulvado, said the state “came to us after they were unable to locate any legal source for lethal injection drugs and asked for another year to come up with a new method of execution or source of drugs.”
Sepulvado, who was convicted of beating his stepson with a screwdriver and then submerging his body in scalding water, has delayed his execution several times in the past 2 years.
In his lawsuit, he argues that the state’s execution method violates his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
As part of that lawsuit, Sepulvado has sought to learn the exact procedure Louisiana will use to put him to death. The state has fought such disclosures in court and in response to public-records requests filed by The Lens.
Meanwhile, Louisiana corrections officials have gotten more creative in getting their hands on execution drugs and have considered new ways to carry out the death penalty.
In January 2014, as Sepulvado’s last execution date approached, the Louisiana Department of Corrections turned to Lake Charles Memorial Hospital for one of the 2 drugs it needed to execute him.
According to a hospital spokesman, the state lied to the Lake Charles pharmacist, saying the hydromorphone was for “a medical patient” rather than a prisoner on death row.
“At no time was Memorial told the drug would be used for an execution,” spokesman Matt Felder said at the time.
The state considered getting another drug from an out-of-state compounding pharmacy not licensed in Louisiana, which would have been illegal.
In 2014, the Legislature considered reinstating electrocution. It’s been outlawed since 1991.
At the request of Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, the bill was changed to drop electrocution and instead conceal details about executions, including the source of execution drugs. It was never passed.
Other states, including Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma, have passed such secrecy laws.
In February, Louisiana corrections officials asked legislators to allow them to use nitrogen, which has never been tried in the U.S. No bill was introduced.
Death-penalty opponents have responded to drawn-out executions around the country by calling execution methods “experimental.”
Last year, a prisoner in Oklahoma tried to rise from the gurney after his injections began. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of that state’s execution method.
That execution used midazolam, 1 of the 2 drugs called for by Louisiana. It prompted Louisiana officials to say they would reconsider the drug.
The state has not said what method it would use instead.
“Obviously whatever plan the state comes up with will have to be evaluated by the court for its constitutionality,” Montagnes said.
Other death-row inmates who won stays of execution with Tuesday’s ruling are:
–Jesse Hoffman, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998 for kidnapping, raping and fatally shooting Covington resident Mary “Molly” Elliot in 1996
–Bobby Hampton, who was convicted of robbing a liquor store in Shreveport and causing the death of employee Philip Russel Coleman in 1995
–Nathaniel Code, a Shreveport man convicted of four killings between 1984 and 1987
–Kevan Brumfield, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for the 1993 murder of Baton Rouge police officer Betty Smothers
Of the 5, only Sepulvado has been given an execution date.
Lawyers are set to meet July 11, 2016, to set a new trial date in his lawsuit.