death sentence

What’s the Future of the Death Penalty in America?


Two recent high-profile cases have once again highlighted America’s complex relationship with the death penalty. In Colorado, a jury declined to impose the death penalty on theater shooter James Holmes. And in Connecticut, whose legislature had recently abolished capital punishment prospectively, the state supreme court held that the Connecticut constitution barred the execution of those whose offenses had preceded that legislative change.
Both cases contributed to the ongoing national capital punishment debate. Some openly wondered whether the availability of the death penalty in Colorado still has any practical meaning, if jurors couldn’t be convinced to impose it on someone like Holmes. And the Connecticut court’s opinion included an extensive discussion of the various trends taking shape across the country. It’s clear that the question of the future of capital punishment in America remains a lively one. (Full disclosure: I’m a criminal defense attorney, and my practice includes capital cases, including one that is currently pending.)
It’s not hard to understand why this debate generates such strong feelings on both sides. Although my work has been on the defense side, anyone involved in the justice system gets a first-hand look at the heinous nature of violent crime. Crime scene and autopsy photos, and the visible emotions on the faces of the family members who attend every hearing, are constant reminders of the horrific harms that human beings can inflict on one another and the irreparable damage caused to those left behind.
On the other hand, some believe that regardless of the circumstances it’s simply unacceptable for the state to take the life of one of its citizens. Others who can accept capital punishment in theory question whether our existing system is sufficiently reliable to support that penalty (a concern I’ve come to share based on my time in that system).
With such powerful motivations on both sides and the highest of stakes involved, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is such a passionate debate. And one development that’s significantly affected the course of capital punishment in America is the fact that death penalty opponents have been extremely effective in making it increasingly difficult to actually secure and impose a death sentence.
First, they’ve devoted an extraordinary amount of effort and resources to training defense lawyers at the trial level to avoid death sentences for their clients. (Colorado, where the Holmes trial took place, is a national center for this type of education; the “Colorado Method” of jury selection is a staple of capital defense training.)
And of course, an initial death penalty determination doesn’t end the matter. There are several layers of appellate review through a series of courts, and cases involving death sentences get extra appellate scrutiny. The actual legal rules are more demanding, and those rules may be applied in an especially exacting way–particularly if some of the judges along the way have their own reservations about capital punishment. The result is that death-penalty cases are regularly reversed and sent back for new trials or sentencing proceedings. For example, in Oregon, where my practice is based, the State is about to take its fourth shot at securing a death sentence for serial killer Dayton Leroy Rogers; Rogers was convicted back in 1989 and has been sentenced to death 3 times, with the Oregon Supreme Court ordering resentencing each time.
Finally, even if a death sentence survives all of this review, it still has to be imposed, and this is no mere formality–again, partly because of the efforts of abolitionists, who have made it difficult for companies to supply the chemicals needed for executions. The result is that even some states with large numbers of prisoners on death row virtually never actually execute anyone. In recent years, several governors have gone as far as declaring moratoria on executions in their states, in some cases formalizing what had already been the rule in practice.
All this means that it takes a lot of political will to actually carry the process to its end and execute someone–a point illustrated by some intriguing facts cited in the Connecticut court’s opinion. Apparently, the vast majority of American executions are concentrated within a small band of states–in 2014, for example, Texas, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma collectively accounted for approximately 90 % of the nation’s 35 executions, and similar concentrations within small subsets of states appear across broader time periods. Presumably, these are the states where legislators, prosecutors and others not only believe strongly in the death penalty themselves, but understand that their constituencies share that belief and will support them in the face of vigorous opposition.
So what’s the future of the death penalty in America? I don’t see it going away at the national level. Abolitionists have fought for decades to have the Supreme Court declare capital punishment categorically unconstitutional, but although they’ve come close at times and clearly have the ears of some current justices, I don’t expect that the Court will ever go that far–at least not anytime soon. So I expect that capital punishment will remain constitutionally permissible, and that those states with steadfast support will continue imposing it.
Meanwhile, those states whose residents are more ambivalent about the death penalty may increasingly reconsider whether a capital punishment regime is worth the immense costs, burdens and endless litigation required to keep it in place–especially given the increasingly significant possibility that even a defendant sentenced to death may never actually be executed. These questions may be mulled over by legislatures, governors, prosecutors, and others. (A judge in Kentucky, for example, recently forbade the state from seeking the death penalty in a murder case based on her apparent conclusion that that penalty would never actually be imposed, so that the enormously increased costs and burdens compared to a non-capital case would end up being wasted.) And through it all, Americans of goodwill will continue to debate the questions of whether and when the ultimate penalty should be imposed.
Source: Huffington Post, Kevin Sali, August 29, 2015. Mr. Sali is a criminal defense attorney in Portland, Oregon, USA.
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Boston Bombing juror says he regrets giving Tsarnaev the death penalty


Kevan Fagan, ‘Juror 83’ in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, says he probably would not have voted for the death penalty had he been aware that the families of some victims wanted a life sentence.
On Monday, the same day a federal judge ruled to keep the names of all jurors in the trial sealed, Mr. Fagan sat down for an interview with WBUR-FM.
Fagan is the first juror to speak publicly using his name, and to be photographed, according to the station.
Fagan would not discuss deliberations but said he “would probably change” his vote in the penalty phase of the trial if he had been aware that the parents of 8-year-old victim Martin Richard opposed the death penalty.
The week before the jury was set to deliberate on life imprisonment or death for Mr. Tsarnaev, nearly two years to the day of the bombing, Bill and Denise Richard wrote an essay, published in The Boston Globe, that a death sentence would only lead to lengthy appeals and draw out the anguish for their family:

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 jurors were ordered to avoid social media and press throughout the trial.
Source: Business Insider, August 25, 2015

Connecticut’s Top Court Overturns Death Penalty in State


Three years after Connecticut abolished the death penalty for any future crimes, the state’s highest court on Thursday spared the lives of all 11 men who were already on death row when the law took effect, saying it would be unconstitutional to execute them.
The ruling comes in an appeal from Eduardo Santiago, whose attorneys had argued that any execution carried out after repeal would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Santiago faced the possibility of lethal injection for a 2000 murder-for-hire killing in West Hartford.
The Connecticut Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, agreed with his position.
“Upon careful consideration of the defendant’s claims in light of the governing constitutional principles and Connecticut’s unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the majority.
“For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
The ruling means the 11 men on the state’s death row will no longer be subject to execution orders. Those inmates include Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who were sentenced to die for killing a mother and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.
The repeal had eliminated the death penalty while setting life in prison without the possibility of release as the punishment for crimes formerly considered capital offenses.
Santiago was sentenced to lethal injection in 2005 for the murder-for-hire killing of 45-year-old Joseph Niwinski. But the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and ordered a new penalty phase in 2012, saying the trial judge wrongly withheld key evidence from the jury regarding the severe abuse Santiago suffered while growing up.
The ruling came just weeks after lawmakers passed the death penalty repeal.
Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher argued any new death sentence would violate Santiago’s constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. He said it would be wrong for some people to face the death penalty while others face life in prison for similar murders.
He told the court that Connecticut had declared its opposition to the death penalty and it wouldn’t make sense to execute anybody now.
Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Harry Weller had argued there were no constitutional problems with the new law, and death-row inmates simply face a penalty under the statute that was in effect when they were convicted. He also argued that the court could not repeal just part of the new law.
Connecticut has had just one execution since 1960. Serial killer Michael Ross was put to death 2005 after winning a legal fight to end his appeals.
Source: Associated Press, August 13, 2015

The 20 Best Lines From the Supreme Court Dissent Calling to End the Death Penalty


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.

*   *   *

[R]esearchers have found convincing evidence that, in the past three decades, innocent people have been executed.

*   *   *

[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.

*   *   *

[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.

*   *   *

[R]esearchers estimate that about 4% of those sentenced to death are actually innocent.

*   *   *

[B]etween 1973 and 1995, courts identified prejudicial errors in 68% of the capital cases before them.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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?

*   *   *

[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)

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.”

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *
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.

*   *   *

[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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

Boston bomber to be formally sentenced to death


June 24, 2015
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.
Source: RTE, June 24, 2015

VIRGINIA – Former Marine Sentenced to Die in Sailor’s Slaying


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.

Prosecutors ask Arizona court to order execution


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.

The Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday asked for a warrant scheduling the execution of 55-year-old Joseph Rudolph Wood III for the 1989 killings of Debra and Eugene Dietz.

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.”

Jury sentences man with history of mental illness to death for killing nurse as part of plot to assassinate President Barack Obama


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.

‘The state has continually downplayed the effect of mental illness,’ Smith said.

The jury, made up of seven men and five women, agreed last week with prosecutors that McVay’s crime met two aggravating circumstances that would allow the state to impose a death sentence.

The first deemed the offense outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman; the second found that the defendant committed the offense for his own benefit or the benefit of another.

Public defender Amber Eggert during the trial argued before the jury that McVay has suffered from mental illness as well as alcohol and drug issues for much of his life and his life should be spared.

She said that the night before the killing, McVay mixed alcohol with a DXM-based cough syrup, which can cause hallucinations.

McVay said he awoke briefly at 3am to find spiritual entities surrounding him and awoke again hours later to find them still there, telling him to follow through on his plan, she told jurors.

‘That was the sign he was going to get the transportation and the final stuff he needed before going to Washington, D.C.,’ Eggert told the jury.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, earlier this month said the death penalty is traditionally reserved for the worst of the worst, and it’s rare for a state to seek the punishment of death after finding someone guilty but mentally ill.

‘I just don’t know of any cases in which you have (such) a verdict, and then the state still seeks the death penalty,’ he said.

Dieter said the guilty but mentally ill verdict gained popularity in a dozen states as part of the public outcry over John Hinckley being found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

The jury on Monday deliberated for a little more than five hours. After the verdict was announced, McGowan said the jury ‘made a brave decision.’

‘I think they made the correct decision,’ McGowan said.

McVay’s defense team did not speak to the media after the hearing. Some of them wept after the verdict was read, news outlets reported.

Three other individuals are on death row in South Dakota: Rodney Berget, Charles Rhines and Briley Piper.

FLORIDA – Gonzalez death sentence upheld in Billings murders


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.

New Hampshire could become next state to abolish the death penalty


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

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