We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.
The case before the Supreme Court concerned a specific question: Was a certain sort of capital punishment via lethal injection constitutional? In a decision issued Monday morning, the four conservative justices plus swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy said yes, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion for the court’s liberals taking the opposite position. But in a stinging dissent of his own, Justice Stephen Breyer, who was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, went much further: He called for abolishing the death penalty, contending that capital punishment, as it is currently practiced, violates the Constitution. His opinion was methodically argued and chockfull of research (on exonerations, various disparities in the application of the death sentence, and more). Breyer, who in 2008 sided with the court majority in upholding the use of lethal injections in Kentucky, noted that his own experience overseeing capital punishment cases has led him to a forceful and passionate position: The death penalty must go.
Here are the best passages from his opinion.
In 1976, the Court thought that the constitutional infirmities in the death penalty could be healed; the Court in effect delegated significant responsibility to the States to develop procedures that would protect against those constitutional problems. Almost 40 years of studies, surveys, and experience strongly indicate, however, that this effort has failed. Today’s administration of the death penalty involves three fundamental constitutional defects: (1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose. Perhaps as a result, (4) most places within the United States have abandoned its use.
I shall describe each of these considerations, emphasizing changes that have occurred during the past four decades. For it is those changes, taken together with my own 20 years of experience on this Court, that lead me to believe that the death penalty, in and of itself, now likely constitutes a legally prohibited “cruel and unusual punishmen[t].” U. S. Const., Amdt. 8.
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[R]esearchers have found convincing evidence that, in the past three decades, innocent people have been executed.
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[T]he evidence that the death penalty has been wrongly imposed (whether or not it was carried out), is striking. As of 2002, this Court used the word “disturbing” to describe the number of instances in which individuals had been sentenced to death but later exonerated. At that time, there was evidence of approximately 60 exonerations in capital cases….Since 2002, the number of exonerations in capital cases has risen to 115……Last year, in 2014, six death row inmates were exonerated based on actual innocence. All had been imprisoned for more than 30 years (and one for almost 40 years) at the time of their exonerations.
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[T]he crimes at issue in capital cases are typically horrendous murders, and thus accompanied by intense community pressure on police, prosecutors, and jurors to secure a conviction. This pressure creates a greater likelihood of convicting the wrong person.
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[R]esearchers estimate that about 4% of those sentenced to death are actually innocent.
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[B]etween 1973 and 1995, courts identified prejudicial errors in 68% of the capital cases before them.
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This research and these figures are likely controversial. Full briefing would allow us to scrutinize them with more care. But, at a minimum, they suggest a serious problem of reliability. They suggest that there are too many instances in which courts sentence defendants to death without complying with the necessary procedures; and they suggest that, in a significant number of cases, the death sentence is imposed on a person who did not commit the crime….Unlike 40 years ago, we now have plausible evidence of unreliability that (perhaps due to DNA evidence) is stronger than the evidence we had before. In sum, there is significantly more research-based evidence today indicating that courts sentence to death individuals who may well be actually innocent or whose convictions (in the law’s view) do not warrant the death penalty’s application.
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Thus, whether one looks at research indicating that irrelevant or improper factors—such as race, gender, local geography, and resources—do significantly determine who receives the death penalty, or whether one looks at research indicating that proper factors—such as “egregiousness”—do not determine who receives the death penalty, the legal conclusion must be the same: The research strongly suggests that the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily.
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The studies bear out my own view, reached after considering thousands of death penalty cases and last-minute petitions over the course of more than 20 years. I see discrepancies for which I can find no rational explanations… Why does one defendant who committed a single-victim murder receive the death penalty (due to aggravators of a prior felony conviction and an after-the-fact robbery), while another defendant does not, despite having kidnapped, raped, and murdered a young mother while leaving her infant baby to die at the scene of the crime…Why does one defendant who committed a single-victim murder receive the death penalty (due to aggravators of a prior felony conviction and acting recklessly with a gun), while another defendant does not, despite having committed a “triple murder” by killing a young man and his pregnant wife?… For that matter, why does one defendant who participated in a single-victim murder-for-hire scheme (plus an after-the fact robbery) receive the death penalty, while another defendant does not, despite having stabbed his wife 60 times and killed his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son while they slept?… In each instance, the sentences compared were imposed in the same State at about the same time.
The question raised by these examples (and the many more I could give but do not), as well as by the research to which I have referred, is the same question Justice Stewart, Justice Powell, and others raised over the course of several decades: The imposition and implementation of the death penalty seems capricious, random, indeed, arbitrary. From a defendant’s perspective, to receive that sentence, and certainly to find it implemented, is the equivalent of being struck by lightning. How then can we reconcile the death penalty with the demands of a Constitution that first and foremost insists upon a rule of law?
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[N]early all death penalty States keep death row inmates in isolation for 22 or more hours per day….This occurs even though the ABA has suggested that death row inmates be housed in conditions similar to the general population, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has called for a global ban on solitary confinement longer than 15 days… And it is well documented that such prolonged solitary confinement produces numerous deleterious harms. See, e.g., Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement, 49 Crime & Delinquency 124, 130 (2003) (cataloging studies finding that solitary confinement can cause prisoners to experience “anxiety, panic, rage, loss of control, paranoia, hallucinations, and self-mutilations,” among many other symptoms)
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The dehumanizing effect of solitary confinement is aggravated by uncertainty as to whether a death sentence will in fact be carried out. In 1890, this Court recognized that, “when a prisoner sentenced by a court to death is confined in the penitentiary awaiting the execution of the sentence, one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected during that time is the uncertainty during the whole of it.”… The Court was there describing a delay of a mere four weeks. In the past century and a quarter, little has changed in this respect— except for duration. Today we must describe delays measured, not in weeks, but in decades.
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The second constitutional difficulty resulting from lengthy delays is that those delays undermine the death penalty’s penological rationale, perhaps irreparably so. The rationale for capital punishment, as for any punishment, classically rests upon society’s need to secure deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, or rehabilitation. Capital punishment by definition does not rehabilitate. It does, of course, incapacitate the offender. But the major alternative to capital punishment—namely, life in prison without possibility of parole—also incapacitates.
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Recently, the National Research Council (whose members are drawn from the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine) reviewed 30 years of empirical evidence and concluded that it was insufficient to establish a deterrent effect and thus should “not be used to inform” discussion about the deterrent value of the death penalty.
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Sometimes the community believes that an execution could provide closure. Nevertheless, the delays and low probability of execution must play some role in any calculation that leads a community to insist on death as retribution. As I have already suggested, they may well attenuate the community’s interest in retribution to the point where it cannot by itself amount to a significant justification for the death penalty…. In any event, I believe that whatever interest in retribution might be served by the death penalty as currently administered, that interest can be served almost as well by a sentence of life in prison without parole (a sentence that every State now permits.
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The upshot is that lengthy delays both aggravate the cruelty of the death penalty and undermine its jurisprudential rationale. And this Court has said that, if the death penalty does not fulfill the goals of deterrence or retribution, “it is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering and hence an unconstitutional punishment.”
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And that fact creates a dilemma: A death penalty system that seeks procedural fairness and reliability brings with it delays that severely aggravate the cruelty of capital punishment and significantly undermine the rationale for imposing a sentence of death in the first place…(one of the primary causes of the delay is the States’ “failure to apply constitutionally sufficient procedures at the time of initial [conviction or] sentencing”). But a death penalty system that minimizes delays would undermine the legal system’s efforts to secure reliability and procedural fairness.
In this world, or at least in this Nation, we can have a death penalty that at least arguably serves legitimate penological purposes or we can have a procedural system that at least arguably seeks reliability and fairness in the death penalty’s application. We cannot have both. And that simple fact, demonstrated convincingly over the past 40 years, strongly supports the claim that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.
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The Eighth Amendment forbids punishments that are cruel and unusual. Last year, in 2014, only seven States carried out an execution. Perhaps more importantly, in the last two decades, the imposition and implementation of the death penalty have increasingly become unusual.
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[I]f we look to States, in more than 60% there is effectively no death penalty, in an additional 18% an execution is rare and unusual, and 6%, i.e., three States, account for 80% of all executions. If we look to population, about 66% of the Nation lives in a State that has not carried out an execution in the last three years. And if we look to counties, in 86% there is effectively no death penalty. It seems fair to say that it is now unusual to find capital punishment in the United States, at least when we consider the Nation as a whole.
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I recognize a strong counterargument that favors constitutionality. We are a court. Why should we not leave the matter up to the people acting democratically through legislatures? The Constitution foresees a country that will make most important decisions democratically. Most nations that have abandoned the death penalty have done so through legislation, not judicial decision. And legislators, unlike judges, are free to take account of matters such as monetary costs, which I do not claim are relevant here….
The answer is that the matters I have discussed, such as lack of reliability, the arbitrary application of a serious and irreversible punishment, individual suffering caused by long delays, and lack of penological purpose are quintessentially judicial matters. They concern the infliction— indeed the unfair, cruel, and unusual infliction—of a serious punishment upon an individual.
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I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment. At the very least, the Court should call for full briefing on the basic question.
April 25, 2014
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — An ex-Marine was sentenced to death Thursday for murdering a fellow service member in 2009, after a federal jury concluded he had been responsible for a series of violent, sexually motivated attacks on women and young girls over the last nine years.
The jury deliberated for less than four hours before sentencing jorg, of Zion, Ill., to death for the murder of Navy Petty Officer Amanda Snell, a Las Vegas native, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, in a barracks where both lived a few doors down from each other.
On the verdict form, the jury also unanimously concluded that Torrez also killed two young girls — 8-year-old Laura Hobbs and 9-year-old Krystal Tobias — in 2005 in his hometown of Zion, when he was just 16.
After Torrez was found guilty earlier this month of Navy Petty Officer Amanda Snell’s murder, Torrez ordered his lawyers not to put on any defense or question the government’s case during the trial’s sentencing phase. On Thursday, during closing arguments in the morning and when the verdict was read in the afternoon, Torrez sat impassively in front of the jury in his green jail jumpsuit, forgoing the civilian clothes he has worn all trial.
His lawyer, Robert Jenkins, left little doubt that Torrez preferred a death sentence to life in prison, though he would not directly confirm it.
“My client certainly had a goal, and I think in his mind, he achieved that goal, and I think he welcomed it,” Jenkins said. “It wasn’t as much a trial as it was an assisted suicide.”
During Thursday’s closing arguments, prosecutor James Trump emphasized to the jury that Snell’s murder was far from his only crime. The Illinois girls’ murders were especially brutal — jurors saw gruesome photos of Hobbs’ body with stab wounds to the eyes that medical experts concluded occurred while she was still alive. Semen found on Hobbs was linked by DNA evidence to Torrez.
And in 2010, Torrez committed a series of stalking attacks on three women in northern Virginia, including one who was raped, choked and left for dead. It was Torrez’s arrest in those cases that helped investigators tie him to Snell’s murder and the Illinois slayings. He is already serving a life sentence for the Arlington attacks.
Until his arrest in Virginia, Trump told jurors, Torrez believed he had literally gotten away with murder.
But Torrez bragged about the killings to another inmate after his arrest in the Arlington attacks, and prosecutors played recordings of those confessions to the jury in which he laughed about the killings and showed no remorse.
Trump reminded jurors that Torrez bragged about being “an army of one” while preying on defenseless children.
“There’s no room for doubt. Jorge Torrez deserves to die,” Trump said.
Torrez is the first person since 2007 to be sentenced to death at the federal courthouse in Alexandria. Torrez will join 59 other prisoners on federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Torrez will be formally sentenced May 30. The judge, Liam O’Grady, does not have the option to change the death sentence, unless he finds some sort of legal error.
The federal government has not executed anyone since 2003. Jenkins said that some of the usual appellate steps in a capital case will be carried out whether Torrez acquiesces to them or not. Other appeals, Jenkins said, are voluntary, so the length of the appeals process could be shortened considerably if Torrez maintains his current stance.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said it is highly unusual among the federal death row inmates to have a defendant who does not fight to stop his execution. Dieter said Torrez’s stance “creates a lot of unknowns” but agreed that it could result in a dramatically shorter appeals process.
Just because an inmate wants to be executed, though, doesn’t mean it will happen automatically, Dieter said. Legal challenges, such as the constitutionality of the lethal injection process, can potentially affect all death-row inmates and not just those who have filed the challenge, he said.
April 23, 2014
PHOENIX (AP) — State prosecutors are asking the Arizona Supreme Court to order the execution of a man sentenced to death for killing his estranged girlfriend and her father in Pima County nearly a quarter-century ago.
Appeals courts have upheld Wood’s convictions and death sentence and the Attorney General’s Office says Wood has exhausted his appeals and has no action pending in any court.
A defense lawyer for Wood, assistant public defender Dale Baich (bache), says the Department of Corrections‘ recent decision to use a two-drug combination for executions is “novel and highly untested.”
April 15, 2014
A man with a history of mental illness has been sentenced to death by a jury for killing a South Dakota hospice nurse as part of a plot to assassinate President Barack Obama.
James McVay pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder in 2012 in connection with the stabbing death of 75-year-old Maybelle Schein.
McVay, 43, said he killed Schein and stole her car as part of his plan to drive to Washington and kill the president.
The Sioux Falls jury chose the death penalty, though jurors could have sentenced McVay to life in prison without parole.
Authorities said McVay walked away from a minimum-security prison in July 2011 in Sioux Falls and was mixing cough syrup and alcohol when he climbed under Schein’s slightly open garage door, entered her house, killed her and drove away in her car.
After Schein’s car was reported stolen, police used a tracking service in the vehicle to find McVay on Interstate 90 near Madison, Wisconsin. He was arrested after a brief chase.
Madison Police Officer Kipp Hartman testified that he was trying to get McVay to reveal his name when McVay began saying he ‘killed a little old lady’ in South Dakota and stole her car to get to Washington, D.C., to kill the president.
Prosecutor Aaron McGowan said McVay stabbed Schein nine times, with the final blow cutting her vocal cords and carotid artery, causing her to bleed to death within 16 seconds.
But public defender Traci Smith yesterday said McVay’s characterization by the prosecution as monstrous did not square with the facts of the case or his history, the Argus Leader reported.
Smith said McVay’s mental health was not properly monitored or cared for by the prison staff. She added that McVay poses no threat when his illness is cared for.
April 11, 2014
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction and death sentence for the man authorities said masterminded the robbery and killings of Byrd and Melanie Billings nearly five years ago.
Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 40, was convicted in 2010 of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of home invasion robbery with a firearm.
Gonzalez led a group of men who forced their way into the Billings home in Beulah in July 2009 and gunned down the couple during an attempted robbery. The Billingses had 17 children, 13 of them adopted. Nine of the children were home at the time of the killing.
On Feb. 17, 2011, Circuit Judge Nicholas Geeker followed a jury recommendation and sentenced Gonzalez to death.
In imposing the death sentence, Geeker found as aggravating factors that Gonzalez had a conviction for a prior violent felony, that the murder was committed during the course of a robbery, and his crimes were heinous, atrocious and cruel.
In upholding the conviction, the state Supreme Court found that the convictions were supported by competent, substantial evidence, according to the State Attorney’s Office.
“We’re very pleased with the decision and the court’s opinion on the sentence and use of the death penalty,” said Assistant State Attorney John Molchan, who prosecuted Gonzalez along with State Attorney Bill Eddins.
Although Gonzalez’s direct appeal was denied, he still can attempt to have his conviction or sentence overturned.
Gonzalez has the option to seek post-conviction relief, a review of whether deficiencies in his attorney’s performance led to Gonzalez’s conviction. He also can file a petition for a U.S. District Court to review the case, which could overturn the conviction or overturn his sentence.
April 10, 2014
CONCORD, N.H., April 10 (UPI) — New Hampshire, which has sentenced only one man to death since it reinstated the penalty, could become the next state to abolish it.
A bill repealing the death penalty that passed the state House of Representatives 225-104 was released Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 2-2 vote. The full Senate is expected to act on the measure next week in what is likely to be a close vote.
Gov. Maggie Hassan supports abolition and is expected to sign the bill if it gets to her desk. In 2000, then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, like Hassan a Democrat, vetoed an abolition bill.
New Hampshire reinstated the death penalty in 1991, after the U.S. Supreme Court found it to be constitutional while overturning most state capital punishment laws in the 1970s. But the state has not executed anyone since 1939 and has not set up an execution chamber for lethal injections.
The only inmate under sentence of death is Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006.
During Tuesday’s committee hearing, most of the speakers were pro-repeal. But Sen. Sharron Carson, the Republican chairwoman of the committee, said she feared Addison’s execution would be impossible if the bill becomes law, even though, as written, it would not commute any death sentences.
New Hampshire would be the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, along with the District of Columbia.
Legislatures in five states have repealed death penalty statutes adopted after the Supreme Court rulings, beginning with New Jersey in 2007. New Mexico, Maryland and Connecticut still have inmates under death sentence after abolition.
New Hampshire is the only New England state where the death penalty remains legal. Neighboring Maine abolished the penalty in 1887 and Vermont in 1964, while Massachusetts and Rhode Island had statutes on the books until 1984, when they were overturned by the court