Time to end death penalty prosecutions of the mentally ill

August 9, 2015

In light of the life-without-parole sentences imposed on Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Jared Loughner (who shot and killed Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords and a federal judge) and James Eagan Holmes (who shot and killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado), that “mark the progress of a maturing society,” I believe our society’s “evolving standards of decency” have reached a point where Congress and our state legislatures should pass legislation that prohibits executing the mentally ill for murders they committed. At long last, have we not reached the point where reasonable and thoughtful people can conclude that executing the mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment?

In Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100-101 (1958), Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote,

This Court has had little occasion to give precise content to the Eighth Amendment, and, in an enlightened democracy such as ours, this is not surprising. But when the Court was confronted with a punishment of 12 years in irons at hard and painful labor imposed for the crime of falsifying public records, it did not hesitate to declare that the penalty was cruel in its excessiveness and unusual in its character. Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349. The Court recognized in that case that the words of the Amendment are not precise, and that their scope is not static. The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.

(Emphasis added)

Each of these men committed atrocious and heinous multiple murders. Each of them was schizophrenic and delusional when they committed the murders. When a person kills another human being while gripped by delusions caused by a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, it makes no sense to hold that person accountable for what he did by executing him. Indeed, such an execution serves only a desire for vengeance, which is not a legitimate societal interest. Moreover, since they have lost the capacity to reason through no fault of their own, it certainly does not deter other mentally ill people from killing.

I previously warned that the James Holmes death penalty trial is a colossal waste of time and money. Let us join together and vow to never again make this mistake.


Jury sentences James Holmes to life without parole

August 8, 2015

CTV reports,

Twelve jurors failed to agree on a death sentence for Colorado theatre shooter James Holmes, prompting shocked sobs from victims, police officers and his own mother. Holmes will instead spend the rest of his life in prison for fatally shooting 12 people.

The nine women and three men said they could not reach a unanimous verdict on each murder count. That automatically eliminates the death penalty for Holmes, who blamed the killings on mental illness.

/snip/

One juror told reporters outside court that there was a single juror who refused to give Holmes the death penalty and two others who were wavering. The key issue was Holmes’ mental illness.

“All the jurors feel so much empathy for the victims. It’s a tragedy,” the juror said, refusing to give her name. “It’s a devastating result no matter what. I am deeply, deeply sorry — that isn’t even the word.”

The verdict was a surprise because a week ago (before the victim impact testimony) the jury decided that the mitigation evidence did not outweigh the aggravation evidence. I was surprised since that is the legal test for deciding whether to impose the death penalty or life without parole. I suspect the change might be the due to the difference in believing you can kill someone versus actually doing it. Someone on that jury could not pull the proverbial trigger.

A month ago, I predicted this result when I wrote, James Holmes death penalty trial is a colossal waste of time and money.

The prosecution is seeking the death penalty even though there is no question that Holmes was mentally ill but legally sane at the time of the shootings — one psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from schizotypal disorder while a second psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from shizoaffective disorder — and he offered to plead guilty to a life-without-parole sentence. After the prosecution rejected the defense offer, Holmes changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity.

/snip/

We who have experience representing clients in death penalty cases* refer to the guilt phase in a slam dunk case like this as a slow-motion guilty plea. That is, when we lack a defense, instead of pleading guilty, we use the guilt phase to introduce evidence that mitigates the seriousness of the offense. Holmes’s insanity defense is doomed because he admitted to police that he knew killing was wrong. But there is no dispute that he was mentally ill. While not a defense, mental illness is a powerful mitigating factor and, as I’ve said previously, I think the jury will likely vote for a life-without-parole sentence after the penalty phase for the simple reason that killing somebody who was mentally ill through no fault of their own is morally and ethically repugnant to most people.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again, this trial has been a colossal waste of taxpayer time and money.

*I was a death penalty lawyer until I retired in 2005.

 


James Holmes death penalty trial is a colossal waste of time and money

July 11, 2015

James Eagan Holmes was arrested on July 20, 2012 shortly after killing 12 and wounding 70 people at the midnight premier of a new Batman film in the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, CO. He was eventually charged with 152 crimes, including 12 counts of premeditated murder, 12 counts of depraved heart murder (charged in the alternative) and 70 counts of attempted murder. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty even though there is no question that Holmes was mentally ill but legally sane at the time of the shootings — one psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from schizotypal disorder while a second psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from shizoaffective disorder — and he offered to plead guilty to a life-without-parole sentence. After the prosecution rejected the defense offer, Holmes changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial began with jury selection on January 20, 2015. Both sides rested yesterday. Closing arguments for the guilt phase are scheduled to start on Tuesday.

We who have experience representing clients in death penalty cases* refer to the guilt phase in a slam dunk case like this as a slow-motion guilty plea. That is, when we lack a defense, instead of pleading guilty, we use the guilt phase to introduce evidence that mitigates the seriousness of the offense. Holmes’s insanity defense is doomed because he admitted to police that he knew killing was wrong. But there is no dispute that he was mentally ill. While not a defense, mental illness is a powerful mitigating factor and, as I’ve said previously, I think the jury will likely vote for a life-without-parole sentence after the penalty phase for the simple reason that killing somebody who was mentally ill through no fault of their own is morally and ethically repugnant to most people.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again, this trial has been a colossal waste of taxpayer time and money.

*I was a death penalty lawyer until I retired in 2005.


Since his lawyer admitted Tsarnaev’s guilt, why didn’t he plead guilty?

March 5, 2015

Since his lawyer, Judy Clarke, admitted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt during her opening statement yesterday in the Boston Marathon bombing trial, why didn’t he plead guilty?

Many people have been asking this question in comments to news stories and blogs. The answer is the defense offered to plead guilty, if the prosecution would agree to drop the death penalty. The prosecution refused, so the defense decided to use the guilt/innocence phase of the trial to introduce evidence that they believe mitigates or reduces his culpability for the bombings relative to his older brother Tamerlan, whom the defense claims was the principal instigator or moving force who came up with idea and put it into effect.

Mitigation is not a defense to the crimes charged. Mitigation is any evidence about the defendant and the crime he committed, including the exercise of mercy, that calls for a sentence of less than death. As a matter of law, for example, a person who conspires with another to commit a crime, is just as guilty as the person who actually commits the crime, even if he is not present when the crime is committed. Even if he is present, that does not mean that he deserves or will receive the same sentence.

There is no crime, no matter how offensive, heinous or depraved that automatically merits the death penalty. Instead, jurors have to weigh the evidence admitted in aggravation (i.e., evidence about the crime and the defendant’s prior criminal record of convictions) against the evidence admitted in mitigation and decide whether the evidence in aggravation so outweighs the evidence in mitigation that a sentence of death is merited.

Evidence about the crime committed can also qualify as evidence in mitigation. For example, in a multiple defendant case such as the Boston Marathon bombing case, a defendant’s minor or minimal role in comparison to a defendant who plays a major or supervisory role is definitely a mitigating factor. The defense wants to use the guilt/innocence phase of the trial to establish that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the instigator, the committed jihadi who was the planner and the energetic force behind the scheme to detonate two IDEs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. They want to elicit evidence from prosecution witnesses, including law enforcement and his former friends testifying under oath that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a young, immature and rather typical American college kid who never would have involved himself in the crazy scheme but for his older brother who seduced him with tales of revolution, retribution and immortality in the service of God.

I have referred to this strategy as a ‘slow motion guilty plea.’ Dzhokhar has a Sixth Amendment right to go to trial, even if he is guilty. Guilty or innocent, every defendant in a criminal case has the right to force the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. What Judy Clarke said in opening statement is not evidence. The government still has the burden of proof. She believes that eliciting mitigating evidence by cross examination during the trial from witnesses testifying under oath will have greater impact than presenting the evidence in a penalty phase after the jury has decided the case. I agree because I have done this myself. In other words, timing matters.

I would never advise a client to plead guilty to a death penalty offense, unless the prosecution agreed to drop the death penalty. I believe it would be malpractice to do that.

Judy Clarke plans to use the trial to save his life.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Death Penalty Trial Started Today

January 5, 2015

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev goes on trial for his life today in federal court in the so-called Boston Marathon Bomber case. First up will be jury selection, which is expected to take about three to four weeks with the trial expected to last until late May or June. The Court will be attempting to seat a jury of twelve, plus six alternates, who can devote the next six months of their lives to fairly and impartially listening to the evidence and deciding the case. Given extensive pretrial publicity and a consuming regional interest in the case, the Court may discover that it cannot find 18 people who have not prejudged the case. If that happens, the Court will have to move the trial to another district in the United States.

Meanwhile, CNN is reporting today that the government rejected a defense offer to plead guilty in return for a sentence of life without parole.

The Court has summoned over 1200 people to report over the course of the next three days at a rate of 250 people per half-day session. At each session, the prospective jurors will be given a questionnaire in which they will be directed to write down what, if anything, they recall and disclose if they have formed any opinions about the bombing and Tsarnaev’s guilt or innocence. They will also be asked to state their views about the death penalty. Copies of the completed questionnaires will be provided to counsel. Voir dire probably will begin next week after counsel have reviewed the questionnaires.

The jury selection process will take much longer than usual because the prospective jurors must be death qualified. That has to happen before the trial starts because, if the defendant is convicted, the same jury will have to decide whether to sentence the defendant to death or life without possibility of parole. By death qualification, I mean eliminating all prospective jurors who would automatically sentence the defendant to death or to life without possibility of parole without weighing the evidence admitted in mitigation against the evidence admitted in aggravation as required by the jury instructions. Opposition to the death penalty in the United States is highest in the Boston area. Therefore, do not be surprised if half or more of the prospective jurors are excused for cause because of their opposition to the death penalty. Since those prospective jurors tend to be better than others on reasonable doubt, you can reasonably expect the jury to be conviction prone.

For more information about the importance of death-qualifying a jury and how the defense will do it, please read:

Death Penalty Cases are Won or Lost During Jury Selection

Using the Colorado Method of Jury Selection in Tsarnaev Death Penalty Trial

Let’s take a brief look at the government’s case.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is accused of conspiring with his brother Tamerlan to assemble, place and detonate two IED’s (improvised explosive devices) near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The indictment alleges that the two explosions killed a child and two adults and injured scores of other people. They also are accused of ambushing and shooting to death an MIT campus police officer four days later in a failed attempt to steal his gun and with carjacking a Mercedes sedan and kidnapping the driver who escaped on foot when they stopped for gas. The driver called 911 and provided information that enabled the police to find the Mercedes and the brothers in Watertown via GPS. A dramatic shootout ensued that ended with Dzhokhar running over his brother with the Mercedes and escaping into the night. The indictment alleges that he abandoned vehicle a few blocks away and hid in a trailered boat parked in a backyard. The owner of the boat discovered him there and called 911. Police responded quickly and, after shooting up the boat, they arrested him.

If the jury finds Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty, the biggest obstacle I see to an LWOP sentence is the death of the 8-year-old child because the jury probably decided that he intentionally placed the backpack containing the IED close to the child. If so, that act is absolutely chilling and the most difficult act to forgive. To make matters worse, his sister lost a leg.

It’s difficult to imagine the emotional impact of witnessing a child’s violent death. I still suffer PTSD from looking at crime scene and autopsy photos of dead children. This jury will get to see the boy die and it will be difficult for them to be merciful, especially if they believe in the death penalty.

Dzhokhar scrawled this note on a wall inside the boat,

The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians; I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished; We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all; Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam…. stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.

Judy Clarke and David Bruck have their work cut out for them.

For more information about the lawyers who make up the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, go here.


Using Colorado Method of Jury Selection in Tsarnaev Death Penalty Trial

January 2, 2015

Friday, January 2, 2015

Good afternoon:

Jury selection in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death penalty trial is scheduled to start in federal court in Boston on Monday morning. Today I want to introduce readers to the Colorado Method of jury selection in a capital case. Many lawyers have used it to save lives, including myself, and I am reasonably certain that Tsarnaev’s defense team will use it.

18 USC 3593(e)(3) provides in pertinent part,

[T]he jury . . . shall consider whether all the aggravating factor or factors found to exist sufficiently outweigh all the mitigating factor or factors found to exist to justify a sentence of death, or, in the absence of a mitigating factor, whether the aggravating factor or factors alone are sufficient to justify a sentence of death. Based upon this consideration, the jury by unanimous vote . . . shall recommend whether the defendant should be sentenced to death, to life imprisonment without possibility of release or some other lesser sentence.

This statute requires the jury to decide whether the evidence in aggravation (evidence about the crime committed and its impact on the victims) outweighs the evidence in mitigation (evidence about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s youth and immaturity and how he was influenced by his dominant older brother and coconspirator Tamerlan Tsarnaev) and unanimously recommend “whether the defendant should be sentenced to death, to life imprisonment without possibility of release or some other lesser sentence.”

The key word is ‘unanimously.’

What happens if the jury is not unanimous?

18 USC 3594 provides,

Upon a recommendation under section 3593 (e) that the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without possibility of release, the court shall sentence the defendant accordingly. Otherwise, the court shall impose any lesser sentence that is authorized by law. Notwithstanding any other law, if the maximum term of imprisonment for the offense is life imprisonment, the court may impose a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of release.

In other words, it only takes one juror to vote for LWOP instead of death to avoid a death sentence.

The Colorado Method was designed to maximize the probability of persuading at least one juror to vote against the death penalty. Michael Rubenstein describes the method this way:

The Colorado Method of capital voir dire is a structured approach to capital jury selection that is being used successfully in state and federal jurisdictions across the United States. Colorado Method capital voir dire follows several simple principles: (1) jurors are selected based on their life and death views only; (2) prodeath jurors (jurors who will vote for a death sentence) are removed utilizing cause challenges, and attempts are made to retain potential life-giving jurors; (3) pro-death jurors are questioned about their ability to respect the decisions of the other jurors, and potential life-giving jurors are questioned about their ability to bring a life result out of the jury room; and (4) peremptory challenges are prioritized based on the prospective jurors’ views on punishment.

Readers who have served on a jury in a non-death penalty case may recall that they were instructed to attempt to reach a unanimous verdict. That instruction cannot be given in the penalty phase of a capital case. Instead, jurors are instructed to vote their conscience after fully and fairly considering all of the evidence.

Therefore, the Colorado Method involves conditioning each juror to,

(1) realize that their decision will determine if the defendant lives or dies;

(2) accept full responsibility for their decision

(3) vote their conscience; and

(4) respect the rights of others to make up their own minds.

As in most death penalty trials, the outcome of the Tsarnaev trial likely will be determined in jury selection before the first witness testifies for the prosecution.


Greene County prosecutor may seek death penalty for Craig Wood

February 21, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

Good afternoon:

According to KMOV.com, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney, Dan Peterson, has announced that he intends to seek the death penalty against Craig Michael Wood for the kidnap and murder of 10-year-old Hailey Owens.

If true, such an announcement is premature and improper.

For the following reasons, a prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty should be delayed until defense counsel has had a reasonable opportunity to prepare and submit a report regarding the evidence that it would present to a jury in support of a request for an LWOP sentence instead of the death penalty.

First, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has ruled that the death penalty can only be imposed in some, but not all murder cases, and there is no murder, no matter how aggravated, gruesome or depraved, that automatically warrants the death penalty.

Instead, the jury or the judge in a case where the defendant waives his right to a jury trial, must decide whether to impose the death penalty by weighing evidence in aggravation (i.e, the manner in which the crime was committed and the defendant’s criminal record) against evidence in mitigation (e.g., youthful age, immaturity, developmental disability, mental illness, diminished capacity, minimal role in a multiple defendant case and absence of a criminal record are some, but not all of the factors that might call for a sentence of LWOP rather than the death penalty).

Second, since there is no murder for which the death penalty is automatic, a prosecutor’s decision to seek it should be based on a thoughtful consideration of both the aggravating and mitigating evidence in the case.

Third, since the prosecution must necessarily rely on defense counsel to discover and disclose the mitigating evidence before it decides to seek or not to seek the death penalty, it must give defense counsel an adequate period of time to prepare a mitigation report.

Pursuant to current practice in most jurisdictions, the prosecution initiates the process of deciding whether to seek the death penalty by obtaining an indictment for a death-penalty eligible murder. The prosecutor then has a specific period of time (typically at least 30 days) following the defendant’s arraignment on the charge or charges in the indictment within which to decide whether to file a notice that it intends to seek the death penalty, if the defendant is convicted of the death penalty eligible murder.

This deadline is often extended by agreement of the parties for a period of months (1) to allow the defense a reasonable opportunity to prepare a mitigation report and (2) to allow the prosecution a reasonable opportunity to review it.

A meeting usually takes place a day or so before the deadline during which lawyers for both sides discuss the relative merits and demerits of their respective positions. These meetings are surreal because they are discussions that presuppose the defendant will be convicted and focus on whether he should live or die.

Sometimes the prosecution decides not to seek the death penalty, in which case it does not file the notice.

Sometimes it does.

If followed in good faith, this process assures that the decision to seek the death penalty will not be based on a defendant’s refusal to plead guilty.

Indeed, ethical prosecutors should be opposed to using the death-penalty as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations.

Plead-guilty-as-charged-and-agree-to-a-sentence-to-life-without-possibility-of-parole (LWOP)-or-I-will-seek-the-death-penalty is extortion of the worst sort because it forces a defendant to gamble with his life, if he wants to exercise his right to a jury trial. We have seen far too many wrongful convictions of innocent people to allow a prosecutor to extort guilty pleas in premeditated murder cases.

There is one important exception to this process and that occurs when a defendant seeking to avoid the death penalty offers to plead guilty in exchange for an LWOP sentence. In this situation, the defendant’s desired outcome is an LWOP sentence and he is not being forced to accept it.

For example, in the Green River Killer case in Seattle, Gary Ridgway offered to plead guilty to 48 premeditated rape murders in exchange for providing information about the location of missing bodies. The prosecution accepted his offer, so he is serving LWOP.

Craig Michael Wood is charged with kidnapping and murdering 10-year-old Hailey Owens. This is potentially a death-penalty-eligible offense under Missouri law because it is a premeditated murder committed while engaged in a kidnapping offense and the victim was a witness or potential witness against him.

The offense probably also qualifies as a murder “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman.”

Whether Dan Peterson has already made up his mind or will follow the process I have described in good faith or eventually use the death penalty as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations remains to be seen.

Ironically, such an offer might be quickly snapped up by the defense, if the evidence of guilt is as overwhelming as it now appears to be.


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