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Court Finds Prosecutorial Misconduct, but Allows Colorado Death Sentence to Stand

An Arapahoe County judge has denied the appeal of Colorado death-row prisoner Sir Mario Owens (pictured), despite finding that prosecutors withheld evidence and failed to disclose money, gifts, and favors they provided informants in exchange for their testimony. In a 1,343-page Order and Opinion issued on September 14, Senior Judge Christopher Munch found that county prosecutors had presented false evidence from two of their most critical witnesses and unconstitutionally withheld more than 20 separate pieces of evidence that could have helped the defense challenge the testimony of seven prosecution witnesses, but said a defendant "must establish more than helpfulness to sustain a claim of constitutional error." The ruling followed the controversial removal from the case of Senior Judge Gerald Rafferty, as the judge was preparing his decision after having presided over the case for more than a decade. Rafferty had ordered the prosecution to produce hundreds of pages of records and granted 37 weeks of hearings on what he had characterized as prosecutors’ “deliberate choice” to withhold evidence from the defense. Owens was sentenced to death in June 2008 for the 2005 shooting death of Javad Marshall-Fields (the son of a Colarado state representative) and Fields's fiancé, Vivian Wolfe. A co-defendant, Robert Ray, was separately tried and sentenced to death. The case against Owens was largely circumstantial. As described by news reports in The Colorado Independent, there was "no definitive physical evidence, no confession, and no eyewitnesses who identified Owens in a case prosecutors built almost entirely on the testimony of informant witnesses to whom the DA’s office gave plea bargains, funds, or both in return for their cooperation against Owens."  Owens alleged that the prosecution had withheld evidence from the defense that they had secured the testimony of cooperating informants by making thousands of dollars of cash payments and providing undisclosed favors in unrelated criminal cases. The Denver Post reported that one witness had been "promised and later given a district attorney’s office car" and another "received $3,400 in benefits, including cash for Christmas presents in the months prior to testifying on behalf of the prosecution." The Colorado Independent's review of court records reported that "one of the main witnesses [had been] threatened with being charged for the murders Owens was accused of and with receiving two life sentences" if he didn’t cooperate. Another witness had been granted an undisclosed suspended jail sentence conditioned upon cooperating with prosecutors in Owens’s case. "People working for the prosecution would appear at informant witnesses’ court hearings and ask for lesser sentences on the condition that they testify against Owens," the paper wrote, and "informants who had been convicted of crimes were allowed to violate probation and commit future crimes without consequences as long as they cooperated." Owens's appeal has attracted attention because it was the first in Colorado's "unitary review" process that had been billed as speeding up capital appeals. Instead, it has substantially increased the length of appeals. It also raised questions of transparency because of the extraordinary levels of secrecy throughout the proceedings. Court files were sealed and a gag order prevented the parties from speaking about the case for seven years, until the order was lifted in 2013. Numerous case exhibits remain under seal. Owens's lawyers issued a written statement saying “We disagree with the court’s conclusion that none of this matters and can be tolerated in Colorado in any case, never mind a capital one. This is a sad day for ... the Colorado criminal justice system.”

Capitally Charged, Alabama Man Imprisoned 10 Years Without Trial

In a racially charged case raising questions of prosecutorial overcharging, inadequate representation, and questionable jury practices, Kharon Davis (pictured), an African-American man charged with capital murder in Dothan, Alabama, has been imprisoned for 10 years without trial. Davis—who has consistently maintained his innocence and whose prior offense was driving without a license—was 22 years old when he and two others were arrested for the shooting death of a man from whom they were purchasing marijuana. After refusing a plea deal, Davis’s case has gone through two judges, three prosecutors, four sets of defense lawyers, and nine scheduled trial dates, and he has been placed in segregation in the county jail for minor infractions, faced restrictions on his ability to review legal documents, and been denied visits by his mother. A New York Times report described the pre-trial delays as “among the most protracted” the paper could find, and George Washington University law professor and constitutional consultant Jonathan Turley said “It is impossible to look at [the case] and not find it deeply, deeply troubling.” Houston County’s District Attorney Doug Valeska’s decision to seek the death penalty reignited questions of the county’s overuse of the death penalty. Despite a population of only 103,000, its 17-person death row makes Houston County one of the most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country. The county’s prosecutorial and law enforcement practices have also come under scrutiny: a number of capital cases have been overturned for racially biased jury selection, presenting improper evidence, and improper comments to juries. In 2015, Valeska also was accused of covering up evidence that a group of Dothan police officers with ties to white supremacist groups had been planting drugs on young black men. Davis’s case has been rife with questionable activity. His first lawyer, Benjamin Meredith, was the father of one of the investigating officers in the case and cross-examined his son in the preliminary hearing. That conflict was not disclosed for four years, after a new judge was appointed in the case, when Valeska brought it to the attention of the court. In those four years, Meredith had filed only two motions on Davis’s behalf. In that same time, Davis’s co-defendant, Lorenzo Staley, who told police where to find the gun used in the murder, went to trial in 2009 and was acquitted. A second co-defendant, Kevin McCloud—a childhood friend of Davis’s who had no criminal record—had pled guilty and agreed to testify against Davis to avoid the death penalty, although McCloud later said in a letter that Valeska had asked him to “get on the stand and lie” about Davis’s involvement in the case. The case was further delayed when, looking through the court record of Staley’s trial, new defense counsel discovered a gunshot residue kit that prosecutors had failed to disclose. A new district attorney who had once represented one of the co-defendants was elected in February 2017, requiring the case to be transferred to the attorney general’s office. At that point, the prosecution dropped the death penalty from the case. Finally, on September 19, the trial was again held up amid allegations that some members of the newly empaneled jury of 11 whites and one black may have had improper contact with people connected to the case.

STUDY: Worst Crimes Carry Highest Risk of Bad Evidence, Wrongful Convictions

Two professors of sociology and criminology who reviewed more than 1500 cases in which convicted prisoners were later exonerated have found a direct relationship between the seriousness of the crime and miscarriages of justice: "the 'worst of the worst crimes,'” they say, "produce the 'worst of the worst evidence.'" In their research—reported in the law review article, The Worst of the Worst: Heinous Crimes and Erroneous Evidence—University of Denver professors Scott Phillips (pictured) and Jamie Richardson found that "as the seriousness of a crime increases, so too does the chance of a wrongful conviction." Prosecutions for the most serious crimes tend to involve the most inaccurate and unreliable evidence, they said, and the risks are greatest in cases producing murder convictions and death sentences. "The types of vile crimes in which the state is most apt to seek the death penalty are the same crimes in which the state is most apt to participate in the production of erroneous evidence..., from false confession to untruthful snitches, government misconduct, and bad science." Delving into the phenomenon of false confessions, the professors found that "[a]s the seriousness of a particular crime increases, or the seriousness of the general crime problem increases, police interrogation becomes more aggressive. In turn, aggressive interrogation produces more true confessions and more false confessions." They say police officers are under institutional pressures to solve high-profile cases and the "most heinous" and serious crimes, which leads them to use more aggressive tactics to obtain a confession. Phillips and Richardson divided cases with false confessions into two categories: general-population exonerees convicted in murder and other cases; and the cases of death-row exonerees, examined by the level of heinousness of the murder. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 234 of those 1535 exonerated from 1989 through 2014 falsely confessed, 22 of whom were sentenced to death. The sociologists found that 21% of those convicted of murder falsely confessed, as compared with only 7% of those convicted of less serious crimes. In exoneration cases in which DNA evidence bolstered claims of innocence, 41% of those wrongly convicted of murder had confessed, a false confessions rate that was seven times higher than those convicted of crimes other than murder. As for death-row exonerees, 39% of people who were convicted of the most heinous murders confessed, five times the false confession rate (7%) of those who convicted of murders the researchers had determined were less heinous. Phillips and Richardson also found that the heinousness of the murder predicts "the government's reliance on an untruthful snitch, government misconduct, and bad science." Of the death-row exonerations, the state committed misconduct in 86% percent of high-heinous murders, compared to 66% percent of low-heinous murders; the state used prison informant testimony implicating the wrong suspect in 42% of high-heinous murders, as compared to 15% of low-heinous murders; and bad science was presented in 39% of high heinous murders, compared to 23% of low heinous murders. 

Prosecutors Accept Life Plea by Severely Mentally Ill Man in Killing of Texas Sheriff's Deputy

Texas prosecutors have dropped their pursuit of the death penalty against a severely mentally ill capital defendant charged with what they characterized as the "ambush murder" of a Harris County sheriff’s deputy. Special prosecutor Brett Ligon (pictured, left)—the Montgomery County District Attorney who was handling the prosecution because Houston prosecutors had a conflict that prevented them from participating in the case—announced on September 13 that he had agreed to a plea deal in which Shannon Miles (pictured, right) would be sentenced to life without possibility of parole in the killing of Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth. Miles’s lawyers say that he has schizophrenia and episodic psychosis when he is not on psychiatric medication, that he has no memory of the murder, and that they intended to pursue an insanity defense in the case. In 2012, the trial court had declared Miles incompetent to be tried. In March of 2017, after treatment at a state mental hospital that had been delayed by a shortage of available beds, the court found Miles competent to stand trial. In explaining the plea deal, Ligon said "[t]he state's experts all came to the same conclusion, the likelihood of executing a mentally incompetent man was almost zero."  The victim’s widow, Kathleen Goforth, said she supported to deal because her two children “have been spared” the ordeal of extended death-penalty proceedings. She said, “They will not have the backdrop of their lives, for the next 10 to 25 years, being court dates, trials and appeals…. They won't have that inflicted upon them and that is merciful. It's compassionate and it's the right thing to do." Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Donald Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, said justice had been served by the plea deal. The plea had been entered against the backdrop of an emerging sex scandal. The sole grounds on which prosecutors could seek the death penalty in the case was if Officer Goforth had been killed in the performance of his duties. However, evidence had come to light that Goforth was at the gas station to meet his mistress, who was a witness to the murder and would be called upon to testify in the case. Two sheriff’s officers—one who was assigned to investigate the case—had been fired for having sexual relations with the woman, and a third had been fired for sending her an email soliciting sex. The Goforth murder once again focused attention on the role of mental illness in premeditated murders of police officers. In July 2016, in unrelated incidents, mentally ill Gulf War veterans who exhibited symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder fatally shot five police officers in Dallas, Texas and three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In July 2015, a Washington jury sentenced a mentally ill and delusional capital defendant, Christopher Monfort, to life without parole for the ambush murder of a Seattle police officer.

Human Rights Groups Urge U.S. Government To Sanction Officials Accused Of Torture, Executions Under New Law

A coalition of 23 human rights groups, including Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Reprieve, has urged the United States government to issue sanctions against foreign government officials who they say have used the death penalty to repress political dissent by torturing peaceful protesters into confessing to capital offenses they did not commit. In a September 12, 2017 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the non-governmental organizations ("NGOs")  asked the United States to invoke provisions of the Global Magnitsky Act, a new law that "authorizes the President to impose financial sanctions and visa restrictions on foreign persons in response to certain human rights violations and acts of significant corruption." The law, enacted in 2012 and expanded in 2016, was named after Sergei Magnitsky (pictured), a Russian lawyer and whistleblower who was beaten and died in a Moscow prison in 2009. The letter called the sanctions available under the act “a potentially revolutionary tool” to deter human rights abuses by "those that would use violence to silence dissent and maintain their grip on power." The NGOs requested that the State Department and U.S. Treasury investigate 15 cases "from every region of the world" that, they say, "involve horrific stories of torture, enforced disappearance, murder, sexual assault, extortion and bribery.” They ask the U.S. to investigate Bahrain's Chief of Public Prosecution, Ali bin Fadhul Al Buainain, for his alleged involvement in the torture of Shia political activist Ali al-Singace and two others, and their execution on January 15, 2017. The rights groups say Bahraini prosecutors "sought and obtained the harshest possible punishment, the death sentence, with full awareness that the defendants claimed their confessions had been coerced and that the case had been marred from the start by this and other grave violations of due process." They also seek investigation of judges on Saudia Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court, who "repeatedly rel[ied] on confessions allegedly obtained through torture" in convicting members of religious minorities for participating in pro-democracy protests in 2011. The NGOs say the judges also "sentenced several of the defendants to death for conduct allegedly undertaken while they were minors," in violation of international law and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Reprieve's Director, Maya Foa, who oversees the organization's strategic initiatives on the death penalty and extreme human rights abuses, called the use of torture to force confessions, executing children, and using the death penalty to suppress free speech "grotesque rights abuses that fly in the face of American values." She said the U.S. should use the powers of the Global Magnitsky Act "to hold to account the individuals responsible for gross human rights abuses, and to save the lives of innocent young [protesters]." Senator John McCain, one of the authors of the Global Magnitsky Act and its amendments, said the involvement of non-governmental human rights organizations is crucial to the success of the Act. In a statement to Reuters, he said he "will continue working to ensure the administration enforces the law and utilizes this powerful tool to advance freedom and justice around the world.” Rob Berchinski, Senior Vice President of Policy at Human Rights First, said “[o]ur process is designed to assist the government.... Now the question is simply one of political will.” The Act requires the White House to report to Congress by December 10 on sanctions it has imposed under the law.

Ohio Executes Gary Otte as State and Federal Courts Decline to Review Use of Death Penalty Against Those Under Age 21

Ohio executed Gary Otte on September 13 after both the United States Supreme Court and the Ohio Supreme Court declined to review his challenge to the constitutionality of applying the death penalty against people who were younger than age 21 at the time of the offense. Otte's lawyer, supervisory assistant federal public defender Carol Wright, said Otte exhibited "abnormal" chest and stomach movements when he was injected with the execution drug, midazolam, showing signs of struggling for air and what she described as "air hunger." Wright attempted to leave the witness room to reach a phone to alert a federal judge to possible problems with the execution, but prison officials delayed her exit for several minutes and it took several more minutes to reach the court. By that time, Otte's stomach movements had ceased and the court declined to intervene. Corrections spokesperson, JoEllen Smith, said the prison "followed proper security protocol, and once [Wright's] identity and intention was verified she was given permission to exit the room." Smith said the execution was "carried out in compliance with the execution policy and without complication." Otte had sought stays of execution from the state and federal courts, asking them to review his claim that his death sentence should be overturned because he was only 20 years old at the time he killed Robert Wasikowski and Sharon Kostura in 1992. Otte's lawyers cited an August 2017 decision by a Kentucky trial court that had found the brain development and maturation of individuals aged 18-20 to be similar in critical respects to that of adolescents under age 18, and had declared the death penalty unconstitutionally cruel and unusual for defendants under age 21. They argued that "[t]he current scientific understanding of adolescent development underscores [that] their moral culpability is reduced making them categorically exempt from the death penalty." The Kentucky trial court issued a second ruling on September 6 that barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against an 18-year-old defendant in another case. On Tuesday night, September 12, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the issue and denied a stay of execution. The Ohio Supreme Court followed suit on the morning of September 13. Otte was pronounced dead shortly before 11:00 a.m.

NEW PODCAST: DPIC Study Finds No Evidence that Death Penalty Deters Murder or Protects Police

A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of U.S. murder data from 1987 through 2015 has found no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or protects police. Instead, the evidence shows that murder rates, including murders of police officers, are consistently higher in death-penalty states than in states that have abolished the death penalty. And far from experiencing increases in murder rates or open season on law enforcement, the data show that states that have abolished the death penalty since 2000 have the lowest rates of police officers murdered in the line of duty and that killings of police account for a much smaller percentage of murders in those states. In a new Discussions With DPIC podcast, "Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?," DPIC Fellow Seth Rose and Executive Director Robert Dunham explore the assertions long made by death-penalty proponents that capital punishment advances public safety by deterring murders and by protecting police officers. Dunham said the short answer—after analyzing twenty-nine years of annual murder data from FBI Uniform Crime Reports ("UCR") and FBI annual data on Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted, Officers Feloniously Killed ("LEOKA reports")—is no. "There's no evidence that the death penalty deters murder and there's no evidence that it protects the police," Dunham says. "Murder rates may be affected by many things, but the death penalty doesn't appear to be one of them." DPIC divided the states into three categories to analyze murders and murder trends: states that have long had the death penalty ("death-penalty states"), states that have long abolished capital punishment ("non-death-penalty states"), and states that have abolished capital punishment since 2000 ("transitional states"). The data show that the death-penalty states had an overall UCR murder rate that was 1.39 times higher than the non-death penalty states and accounted for 12 of the 16 states with the highest murder rates. Police officers were murdered in death-penalty states at a rate that was 1.37 times higher than in non-death-penalty states, and accounted for 22 of the 25 states with the highest LEOKA rates of officers feloniously killed. Killings of police were lowest, however, in the transitional states that most recently abolished the death penalty. And while killings of officers accounted for 33 of every 10,000 murders in both death-penalty and non-death-penalty states, they were 1.6 times lower in transitional states. What the numbers show, Dunham says, is that "the death penalty doesn't drive murder rates; murder rates drive the death penalty." While the death penalty, he says, "makes no measurable contribution" to police safety, "the rate at which police officers are killed drives the political debate about the death penalty." 

Sixteen Years Later, No Date in Sight for Death-Penalty Trial of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators

Sixteen years later, the alleged perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 hijackings and attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and the downing of Flight 93, have yet to be tried, and issues relating to the use of evidence obtained by torture, the appropriateness and legality of trials by military commission, and where and how they should be tried raise questions as to whether and when a trial may take place. The five men charged in the attack—alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and alleged co-conspirators Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi—remain detained in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, facing 2,973 individual counts of murder. Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and turned over to the CIA, charged in 2008, and arraigned in 2012. A 2014 report on CIA interrogations by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—known as “The Torture Report”—documents that Mohammed was subjected to numerous acts of torture, including sleep deprivation, "rectal rehydration," and being waterboarded 183 times in a single month. As with the case of accused USS Cole bombing suspect, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the five defendants have accused the government of continuing misconduct and are challenging the legality of the military commissions that have been established to conduct the terrorism trials, the use of evidence obtained by means of torture, and the destruction of evidence they say is vital to defend the case. Military prosecutors have requested a January 2019 trial date, with fast-tracked briefing deadlines that trial judge Army Col. James L. Pohl has already said he will not adopt. But given the numerous pre-trial issues that need to be resolved, defense lawyers say it could be years before the men face trial. These issues include whether the judge and his staff have a high enough level of security clearance to review top secret documents that are critical to defense motions challenging the reliability of confessions made to FBI agents by defendant Ammar al-Baluchi in post-torture interrogations conducted shortly after al-Baluchi arrived at Guantánamo in 2006. Another issue is whether the defendants should be tried in civilian court or by a military commission. In 2011, then-Attorney General Eric Holder warned that Mohammed’s case could take years to bring to trial unless it were transferred to a civilian court. Michael Bachrach, an attorney who represented Ahmed Ghailani, the Tanzanian al-Qaida terrorist convicted in New York in 2010 for his part in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, says that Ghailani’s case proved that a fair civilian trial is possible. “We had classified and unclassified material involved, torture involved, and the jury saw what was necessary for them to see," Bachrach said. "Can Mohammed get a fair trial by military commission? I’m not as confident about that.” Mohammed's lawyer, David Nevin, told The Guardian that, once it gets started, the trial itself could last for more than a year, followed by appeals that could take nearly two decades. “There’s every possibility that [Mohammed] will die in prison before this process is completed,” he said. With the reduced life expectancy of "someone who’s been tortured," he said, "you have to ask, why exactly are we doing this, or doing it in this way? We are spending millions and millions of [public] dollars every week for something that could be pointless.”

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