A Criminal Enterprise

Louisiana v. Barbour: Non-unanimous verdicts hinder justice in the South

Posted in Cases, News by Sophie Cull on February 2, 2011

Despite showing interest in a cert petition dealing with the issue of non-unanimous juries, the US Supreme Court has again decided to let the issue alone, rejecting to hear Herrera v. Oregon earlier last month. The Court had asked the state of Oregon to file a response to the petition late last year, but passed over the petition in silence on January 10.

Louisiana defendant Troy Barbour is also awaiting a response from the SCOTUS to his cert petition dealing with the same issue. The ABA has filed an amicus in support of his appeal, but it remains to be seen whether Barbour’s case will catch the Court’s attention.

In Barbour’s petition, defendant cites Justice Kennedy in providing an analysis of jury dynamics and the importance of non-unanimous verdicts:

The dynamics of the jury process are such that often only one or two members express doubt as to [the] view held by a majority at the outset of deliberations. A rule which insists on unanimity furthers the deliberative process by requiring the minority view to be examined and, if possible, accepted or rejected by the entire jury. The requirement of jury unanimity thus has a precise effect on the fact-finding process, one which gives particular significance and conclusiveness to the jury’s verdict. Both the defendant and society can place special confidence in a unanimous verdict.

United States v. Lopez, 581 F.2d 1338, 1341 (9th Cir.1978)

The Equal Justice Initiative’s recent report on race and jury selection discusses the importance of the racial diversity of juries in order to promote the inclusion of different perspectives. Compared to diverse juries, all-white juries are more likely to make factual errors, are less likely to correct their mistakes, are likely to spend less time deliberating, and consider a smaller range of perspectives.

Reflecting on Justice Kennedy’s comments, it seems that we should consider the impact of non-unanimous convictions in a state like Louisiana where convictions are handed down by nearly all-white juries. If such juries are more likely to make mistakes and spend less time deliberating, then surely they shouldn’t be able to expedite the deliberative process by leaning on non-unanimous verdicts.

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Rational Responses to the Innocence Crisis Go Further Than Death Penalty Repeal

Posted in News by Bidish J. Sarma on January 22, 2011

In an exciting moment in the anti-death penalty movement, both houses of the Illinois legislature voted to repeal capital punishment. Now, the decision of whether to abolish the state’s death penalty resides in Governor Pat Quinn’s hands.

The Illinois Senate’s decision on the repeal bill came on the eight-year anniversary of former Governor George Ryan’s announcement that he would commute the sentence of 163 death row inmates and pardon another four. The Governor’s decision was motivated in large part by the concern that the State had wrongly convicted over half of the death row inmates whose cases had concluded with either execution or exoneration between 1978 and 2000. See Lawrence Marshall, The Innocence Revolution and the Death Penalty, 1 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 573, 578 (2004). Those numbers, the Governor thought, were shocking and unacceptable.

Innocence has proven to be a driving force in the current effort to push legislatures to repeal the death penalty. After all, the question we must ask ourselves is: can we tolerate the risk – any risk – that we will use the power of the State to execute someone who is innocent of the crime for which they have been convicted? The question raises a powerful and unshakeable inference: a human institution – any human institution – is imperfect. Mistakes are a reality. For many, that reality is enough to win the argument that the death penalty is not a policy option to which we should dedicate precious resources to maintain.

But, as critical a tool as innocence has been to the anti-death penalty movement, I wonder why the alarming error rate has not yet inspired many other changes in the criminal justice system. After all, many innocent individuals who were sitting on death row are now sitting in prison, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Innocence undermines the conviction, not just the punishment.

The elimination of the death penalty responds to the worry that an irreversible act, an execution, permanently prevents an inmate from bringing to light his innocence. But, that cannot be our only worry. How many people in prisons across the country will never be able to muster the immense resources it takes to be exonerated? How many inmates have died in prison without vindicating themselves and enjoying the freedom and opportunities they rightfully deserved? How many of those stories will remain unknown?

Surely, Illinois is attempting to take a step in the right direction. But, legislatures, judges, and lawyers must work greater changes in the criminal justice system to curtail the convictions of innocents. A serious look at the reliability of eyewitness identification and quasi-scientific evidence (like “bite-mark” analysis), legal and disciplinary actions against prosecutors who commit misconduct or fail to disclose exculpatory evidence, a commitment to confrontation and the presumption of innocence, and responsible consideration of evidentiary rules governing the admissibility of the other bad acts an individual has committed – these are just a handful of things that could make a meaningful impact upon the innocence crisis.

This is not to say that criminal justice reform advocates have not been pushing for these kinds of changes for years. But, it seems that innocence is most effectively and most often deployed in the battle against the death penalty. There is no doubt that the fight against the death penalty currently relies upon innocence arguments to gain traction. However, does innocence rely upon the death penalty as well?

Deterrence and the Death Penalty

Posted in News by Sophie Cull on January 18, 2011

Outgoing Governor of Pennsylvania, Edward Rendell, wrote a letter to the state General Assembly in his final days as governor, questioning the effectiveness of the death penalty. He wrote,

“As a former District Attorney and as a death penalty supporter, I believe the death penalty can be a deterrent – but only when it is carried out relatively expeditiously.”

Dissatisfied by the delays in actual executions caused by the appeals process, the Governor called on legislators to decide if the process could be sped up or otherwise, called them to consider repeal.

There is no doubt that Rendell is a death penalty supporter: he signed six execution warrants on the same day that he issued this letter – bringing the total number of execution warrants to 119 during his term as governor.

Rendell subscribes to Beccaria’s well-accepted theory that deterrence will only be achieved through punishment that swiftly follow on the heels of the crime. His frustration with capital punishment is rooted in his belief that it can deter future crimes – if only the process didn’t take so long.

Last week, the Illinois legislature voted to repeal the death penalty. Some opponents of the bill spoke about the need for capital punishment to protect prison guards and deter murderers serving life from killing inside the prison walls. Others spoke of general deterrence, claiming that without the death penalty, there would be a higher murder rate in the state of Illinois. That will remain to be seen if the Governor signs the bill.

Regardless of whether the death penalty does deter would-be murderers (and we can probably all agree that pursuing a conclusive answer to this question seems much like chasing the white rabbit), the question we should ask is: what weight should we give deterrence in deciding whether or not we want the death penalty?

It seems to me that deterrence is a secondary reason to have the death penalty which is only compelling in conjunction with a primary reason. If we believe that the death penalty is a just, retributive punishment for the taking of a life, then deterrence would provide a further reason for carrying that punishment out.

But deterrence alone should not be a satisfactory reason for our society to ask for the death penalty. We may deter a child from disobeying us by striking her across the cheek, but just because our technique is effective, it does not make it right. You may disagree, thinking “The death penalty is absolutely necessary if it means we will stop future homicides.” But that is to assume it is the only way to prevent future homicides, as though there are no alternative measures we might take. I believe that way of thinking undersells our potential to create positive change in our communities. In Louisiana, for instance, perhaps the money that is spent potentially preventing homicides by putting people on death row could be funneled into education, healthcare and infrastructure to try and turn around Louisiana’s ranking as the 2nd worse state in the U.S. to raise a child. It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of death row inmates in Louisiana grew up in poverty and dropped out of school. While the link between the death penalty and the homicide rate is inconclusive, there is no question that education and poverty plays a key role in the prevalence of violent crime.

Therefore, I submit that we should not simply ask “is the death penalty deterring crime?” as Governor Rendell urged his legislature to do; we should ask “is the death penalty the most effective way to deter crime?”

Montejo v. Louisiana (II) Cert Petition

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on November 22, 2010

The cert petition asks the U.S. Supreme Court to take a second look at this important case involving a defendant’s right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment.  You can access the pleadings here (Cert Petition _ Montejo v. Louisiana II), here (State’s Brief in Opposition), and here (Reply to Brief in Opposition).

To see thoughts on why this is a crucial issue at this time, see Prof. Ron Sullivan’s post here.

Williams v. Louisiana – Cert Conference on May 13th

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on May 6, 2010

The previous post contains a link to our cert petition in Williams v. Louisiana, which asks the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue of proportionality review of capital sentences in Louisiana.  Since the time of that post, the State has filed its Brief in Opposition, and we filed a Reply.  The Court is set to meet on the petition on May 13th. 

Both the Louisiana Supreme Court and the State have taken the position that race did not play a role in the death sentence in this case because there is no evidence that Mr. Williams intended to kill the victim because of her race.   But, there is disquieting statistical evidence that the race-of-the-defendant and race-of-the-victim play a significant role in determining which defendants receive death sentences out of East Baton Rouge Parish.  The last thirteen people sent to death row from the parish are African-American, and there is evidence a black man convicted of killing a white woman has a 1 in 2 chance of being sentenced to death, while a white man has never been sentenced to death for killing a black person in the last thirty years (or perhaps ever).

The State’s Brief in Opposition can be found here: State’s Brief on Cert 

Our Reply to the State’s Brief in Opposition can be found here: Cert Reply to BIO FINAL

Guantanamo Detainees Flounder as Europe Averts its Gaze

Posted in News by Sophie Cull on January 12, 2010

Being committed to your values is easier said than done. I am all for being green, but when the supermarket charges for recycled shopping bags, I’m tempted to stick with plastic. My decision to work in an anti-death penalty law office in the South was solely driven by my commitment to the abolition of the death penalty. But when I encounter a case involving a horrific crime, I find it hard to imagine the task of attorneys in my office who must dedicate themselves to representing the one who perpetrated it. In the case of capital punishment, though, a defense attorney’s queasiness at their client’s crime is easily reconciled with their queasiness at the state’s desired penalty – in both cases, the taking of life is abhorrent. But what happens when our commitment to our values leads us down an undesirable path with unsettling consequences?

It is eight years today since Guantanamo Bay was first used as a detention center for suspected terrorists. At present, 200 prisoners remain in Guantanamo – the vast majority of whom have never been charged. On this anniversary, it is tempting to point the finger at the United States and ask why Obama’s call for a speedy closure of the facility is taking such a long time. But Amnesty International is asking a different question.  What happened to Europe?

On 16 June 2009, the EU-US Joint Statement on the Closure of Guantanamo Bay was issued which expressed the readiness of some EU Member States to receive former detainees on a case-by-case basis. Amnesty purports that while some European states are volunteering to take in Guantanamo detainees, a number of those states that once fiercely argued for the closure of Guantanamo Bay are now disappointingly silent.

Many European governments have condemned the ongoing detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Now they can do something about it… Actions really do speak louder than words in this case; it’s time to turn the rhetoric into reality and get Guantánamo closed as soon as possible” said Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch state that other countries must take in detainees that will be tortured, subjected to further detention without charge and other human rights abuses should they be involuntarily repatriated to their country of origin. But nearly seven months since the EU-US statement was issued, only seven former detainees have been accepted by Europe as free men – 50 more await help.

If the worldwide refugee crisis has shown us nothing else, it is that when it comes to international human rights, actions cost much more than words. It is not difficult to see why governments would rather not take in Guantanamo detainees, but their inaction means these men will likely be relocated to once again be held without charge, only this time in a less visible setting.

At the root of the idea of ‘human rights’ is the idea that universal rights should be afforded to all people no matter which state they belong to. The ideal is universal; therefore the burden is international. Those states which once called for the closure of Guantanamo Bay may now realize their objective, but only if they are prepared to back their words with action. Henry David Thoreau’s quote serves as a useful check for us self-righteous moralists whose eyes quickly divert from the paper bag to the plastic when we think no one is looking: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”

Louisiana Executes Gerald Bordelon

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on January 8, 2010

The State of Louisiana took Gerald Bordelon’s life yesterday.  Mr. Bordelon volunteered for execution.  After a jury convicted him of first-degree murder at the guilt phase of his capital murder trial, he asked his trial attorneys not to present any mitigating circumstances at the penalty phase – the phase where the jury had to decide whether the convicted murderer would be executed, or would serve a life-without-parole sentence.  After the jury sentenced him to death by execution, Mr. Bordelon waived his right to challenge that sentence in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court.  The Louisiana Supreme Court nonetheless issued an opinion in his case that ultimately dismissed the appeal.  The Court indicated that it was legally obligated to decide whether Bordelon was competent to waive his appeals and also to determine if his sentence was proportionate.  In October, the Court cleared the path for today’s execution, and ruled that Mr. Bordelon is competent to waive his rights to an appeal, and that the death sentence in this case is not disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant.

Generally, it isn’t uncommon for death-sentenced defendants to “volunteer” for execution by waiving their appeals.  According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, roughly 12% of defendants waive appellate review.  Yet, Bordelon was the first person to successfully volunteer in Louisiana since the death penalty was reinstated here in 1976.  And, while every case in which someone “volunteers” presents complex legal, ethical, moral, and philosophical questions, Gerald Bordelon’s case is worth thinking about carefully.

From my perspective, Mr. Bordelon’s execution is unsettling because it was not the product of an adversarial process, and the American legal system requires that final adjudicated judgments be informed by the zealous advocacy of lawyers in adversarial positions.  Instead, Mr. Bordelon’s death was the result of multiple, compounded perversions of our criminal justice system.   

First, the jury that sentenced Mr. Bordelon to death did not hear any mitigating circumstances.  According to the Louisiana Supreme Court, “[t]he penalty phase . . . began with a waiver by defendant of his right to present mitigating evidence . . . .”  Without mitigating evidence, the jurors had incomplete information about the person the State implored them to condemn.  Not everyone who commits a first-degree murder should be executed.  Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has held that some individuals cannot be constitutionally executed.  Mitigating evidence must be presented in order for the jury to make an accurate assessment of whether this particular defendant deserves the harshest penalty available.  Was Bordelon mentally ill?  Did he suffer abuse throughout his childhood?  Would he be able to live peacefully in a controlled environment?  Did he feel remorse for the crime?  These and other critical questions were left unanswered at trial.  The penalty phase did not pit two opposing parties against each other in the way we all learn how American trials are supposed to unfold.  The jurors sat and watched, as the State’s lawyers were not challenged when they asked the jury to order Bordelon’s execution.  Not surprisingly, the jury returned a death sentence.

Second, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that the defendant was competent to waive his appeals even though no party took the position that he may not be competent.  To determine competence, the Louisiana Supreme Court remanded the case and asked a sanity commission to make a finding upon which the Court could later rely.  The Court made the work of this sanity commission sound grave: “When a defendant asserts that he is eligible for execution because he has terminated all further legal proceedings, the consequences of an erroneous determination of his competency to make that decision are so severe that the record of the proceedings conducted on the sanity commission’s findings must show by clear and convincing evidence that he has the capacity to make a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of his right to appellate review of his capital conviction and sentence of death.”  What the Court did not say is that these commissions do not typically produce conclusions in a non-adversarial setting.  When neither party provided reasons to question the inmate’s competence, the work of the commission was basically done before it even really began.  I don’t suggest here that Mr. Bordelon was not competent to waive his appeals (although the Supreme Court made the competency standard sound a whole lot more difficult to meet than it really is), but point out that the entire process by which this execution was approved does not comport with our system’s purported notion of justice.

Third, the Court’s comparative proportionality review is far from meaningful.  In the Bordelon opinion, the Louisiana Supreme Court insisted that it had an independent duty to conduct its “Rule 28 Review” of the death sentence “to determine . . . whether the sentence is disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant.”  As we’ve established here, the Court has not conducted a serious proportionality review in roughly three decades.  And, the way that Louisiana Supreme Court Rule 28 is written and the way that records are kept in Louisiana, the Court simply cannot make an effective comparative proportionality review without the full adversarial participation of both parties.  In Bordelon, the Court yet again: only truly evaluated cases that resulted in death sentences (and not those that came back with life-or-less sentences); cherry-picked death sentences from other jurisdictions without looking at the life-or-less cases from those jurisdictions; and failed to look into the mitigating circumstances present or absent in those other capital cases.  It is unclear whether the Court enforced the Rule 28 command that “[d]efense counsel shall file a [sentence review] memorandum on behalf of the defendant . . . .”  Moreover, the Court never identified or reviewed any mitigating circumstances because none were presented at trial.  How could the Court meaningfully compare “considering both the crime and the defendant” when it had utterly incomplete mitigating information about the defendant in this case?  Perhaps an intellectually honest and rigorous proportionality review would have revealed that Mr. Bordelon’s sentence was proportionate.  However, the breakdown of the adversarial process and the Court’s unwillingness to look beyond what was presented to it made a meaningful proportionality review impossible.

One could certainly argue that Mr. Bordelon was rightly allowed to waive his appeals.  And, maybe that’s true.  Even if the system functioned the way it was designed to in this case, Gerald Bordelon may still have been executed today (in accordance with his wishes).  However, the system did not work in the manner intended, and that is what troubles me.  The judges and lawyers involved ignored fundamental legal principles to facilitate the result that all interested parties apparently wanted in the end.  When we sacrifice principle for expediency, we undermine the very institutions which stand upon those principles.  Once again, the death penalty proves to be arbitrary and unprincipled above all else.

What Does the Constitution’s Text Say About Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences?

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on November 10, 2009

Yesterday, the much-awaited and highly-anticipated oral arguments in Sullivan and Graham took place at the Supreme Court.  The transcripts of those arguments are available here and here.

Though the Justices focused much of their attention on the arbitrariness that line-drawing inherently entails (as well as some procedural problems presented in Sullivan), little attention was given to the text of the Eighth Amendment.  Professor Berman at Setencing Law and Policy has this timely post on his blog.  I wanted to share a sizable portion of it as food for thought:

I have suggested that a textualist approach to the Eighth Amendment might make some seemingly hard cases not quite so hard.  In my mind, the Sullivan case argued yesterday in the Supreme Court is one of those cases that seems like it should be relatively easy for a true Eighth Amendment textualist.

Here is the full text of the Eighth Amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”  In Sullivan, the Court is considering the constitutionality of a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a 13-year-old who committed a rape.  For a textualist, the question would seem to be whether Joe Sullivan’s punishment under these circumstances is “cruel and unusual.”  

Part two of the textual analysis seems easy: Joe Sullivan’s sentence is surely “unusual.”  Sullivan is one of only two 13-year-olds to have received an LWOP sentences for a non-homicide offense in perhaps all of American history.  Because the constitutional text references “unusual” (as opposed to “unique”) punishments, a true Eighth Amendment textualist would likely have to conclude that Sullivan’s sentence satisfies the second prong of the Constitution’s punishment prohibition.

The claim the Joe Sullivan’s sentence is also “cruel” could generate more debate, though this term also seems a relatively easy call within a nation conceived in liberty that generally considers children less responsible (and worthy of more protection) than adults.  Specifically, in light of American traditions and commitments, I have a hard time envisioning a sentence more “cruel” than one which confines a juvenile to spend his entire life in prison with no hope or chance for freedom based on an act committed at age 13 which did not take another human life.

Though there was precious little focused textualist discussion in the juve LWOP cases argued yesterday, I did get the sense from the cold transcript that Justice Breyer and perhaps also Justice Sotomayor were drawn to these textualist concepts.  It would be somewhat ironic if these Justices (and not an avowed textualist like Justice Scalia) end up being the only ones who take the text of the Eighth Amendment seriously in Graham and Sullivan.

Juvenile Life Without Parole Cases Argued Today

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on November 9, 2009

This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida.  These cases have received lots of attention in the media.  Several articles, op-eds, and editorials are linked to on this Blog’s Twitter sidebar.

Oral argument transcripts should be available later today, and we will certainly review them and provide our own impressions.  In the meantime, I wanted to share something from an Atlanta Journal & Constitution Op-Ed that struck me as fairly powerful:

What is striking about these cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, is they entail the permanent denial of freedom for juveniles who, though they committed serious crimes, did not commit homicides. Such sentences for juveniles express more than just the view that these children are beyond rehabilitation. In effect, they are a societal admission that we do not believe we are capable of teaching children to do better. When we sentence a 13-year-old or 17-year-old to life in prison without any chance of parole, we not only convey our views on the child’s actions, we also make a powerful statement about ourselves. Such a penalty, when given to a child, says we do not believe that child can ever change. And because it is our job as adults to mentor children, we are conceding that we don’t have confidence as a society that we will provide the necessary guidance to ensure that child becomes a productive member of society. Why do we have such little faith in ourselves, and our children?

For a look at some of the arguments at play, check out our earlier posts on the subject here and here.

More Scrutiny Needed in Texas, Where Death Penalty Continues to Run Rampant

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on November 6, 2009

Sorry for the radio silence the past few weeks.  Things have ramped up at work for all of the bloggers here, but we hope to reconnect with the blog more fully very soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to bring attention to this AlterNet piece.  Most importantly, it points out something about the Willingham saga worth repeating here:

Perry’s role in this continuing injustice should be cause for a national uproar at least as big as the one that attended Mark Sanford’s dalliance in Argentina or Elliot Spitzer’s patronage of prostitutes. What could be more sordid than hushing up an illegitimate state-sanctioned killing? What more obvious abuse of power exists? Yet one can easily read the country’s major papers and faithfully watch TV news and barely hear a word about what’s happening in Texas.

Why this is not an issue of national importance is a question that frustrates me every day.  But, the death machine keeps working in Texas.  Our friend at StandDown notes that:

Texas carried out its 20th execution of 2009, tonight in Huntsville.  It was the state’s 443rd execution since 1982.  Texas has far and away the most active death chamber in America, accounting for more than 37% of the nation’s post-Furman executions.  To date, there have been 43 executions in the nation this year; 1,179 since 1977.

For more on the Willingham/Perry issue, check out our prior post here.