Prosecutors take capital cases to federal court to avoid state jurisdictions with large minority populations

Federal prosecutors often seek the death penalty in federal court in cases that otherwise would be tried in state jurisdictions with substantial minority populations.   Because the federal districts are much larger – they are made up of many counties – they are predominately white.  Crimes that are usually prosecuted in state courts can be prosecuted in federal courts based on any “federal interest” such as a carjacking.  Federal prosecutors have repeatedly sought the death penalty in New Orleans, Richmond, St. Louis and Prince Georges County, Maryland, where African Americans make up the majority of the population in the county and the jury pools.  The decision to prosecute federally in these jurisdictions alters the racial makeup of the jury pools from predominantly black to predominantly white.  Those same federal prosecutors seldom seek the death penalty for crimes that occur in counties with largely white populations.

Continue reading

Posted in Death Penalty, Federal Death Penalty, Prosecution, Race and the Death Penalty, Racial Discrimination | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Over 50 years after Supreme Court declares lawyers must be provided for poor people accused of crimes, the right is violated every day in criminal courts

In 1963, the Supreme Court declared in Gideon v. Wainwright the right to a lawyer “fundamental and essential” to fairness in the criminal courts and held that lawyers must be provided for people who could not afford them so that every person “stands equal before the law.”  In later decisions, the Court ruled that a poor person facing any loss of liberty must have a lawyer “so that the accused may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution.”

And yet, more than a half century later this right is violated every day in thousands of courts across the nation at every stage of the process, as described in an op-ed by Stephen Bright and Sia Sanneh in the Los Angeles Times on the anniversary of Gideon.  This long-standing denial of justice to those whose life and liberty are at stake is well documented on this site and elsewhere.  On the fiftieth anniversary of Gideon in 2013, there was virtually universal agreement that, while there are reasons to appreciate what Gideon has accomplished in some jurisdictions that have good public defender or assigned counsel programs, public officials who have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution have flagrantly and persistently failed to implement the most fundamental constitutional requirement for fairness and equal justice in the criminal courts.

•  Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that the right to counsel remains in a “state of crisis” because governments have failed to meet their constitutional responsibilities Continue reading

Posted in Counsel | Comments Off on Over 50 years after Supreme Court declares lawyers must be provided for poor people accused of crimes, the right is violated every day in criminal courts

Justice Sotomayor dissents from failure to review Alabama law allowing judges to override jury verdicts of life imprisonment and impose death

Alabama law allowing elected judges to reject jury sentences of life imprisonment and impose the death penalty should be reviewed by the Supreme Court, Justice Sonya Sotomayor said in a dissent from the Court’s refusal to consider such a case.  An Alabama jury voted 8-4 to sentence Mario Woodward to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after hearing evidence of his childhood and parenting at a sentencing hearing.  However, the trial judge, elected as a Democrat to his position, overrode the death sentence and imposed the death penalty.

Since Alabama adopted its current death penalty statute, its judges have imposed death sentences on 95 defendants sentenced to life without parole by juries.  In cases in which juries voted to impose the death penalty, judges overrode and imposed life imprisonment only nine times.  Only two other states, Florida and Delaware, allow overrides, but Alabama is the only state in which judges still override jury verdicts.   Twenty-six of the 27 life-to-death overrides in the nation since 2000 were by Alabama judges.  (The other, which occurred in Delaware, was later reduced to a sentence of life imprisonment.)

Justice Sotomayor, joined in part by Justice Breyer, identified the reason for overrides in Alabama.  “Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures,” she said.  She observed that a “national consensus has Continue reading

Posted in Death Penalty, Judges | Comments Off on Justice Sotomayor dissents from failure to review Alabama law allowing judges to override jury verdicts of life imprisonment and impose death

Implicit racial bias influences imposition of the death penalty

Racial stereotypes of jurors who may associate white defendants as having more worth than black defendants contributes to the racial disparities in the infliction of the death penalty, according to a recent study.  The study further found that death-qualified jurors held stronger racial biases than potential jurors who would be excluded from serving in death penalty cases because of their inability to consider a sentence of death.  The study, Devaluing Death: An Empirical Study of Implicit Racial Bias on Jury-Eligible Citizens in Six Death Penalty States,” was based on testing of 445 jury-eligible individuals by researchers Justin Levinson, Robert Smith, and Danielle Young, and will be published in the New York University Law Review.

Other factors that contribute to racial disparities include discretionary decisions made by law enforcement with regard to stops, arrests investigation of cases, and by prosecutors with regard to charging, seeking the death penalty, resolving cases with plea bargains and striking potential jurors on the basis of race.  These and other racial factors are discussed elsewhere on this site.

Posted in Death Penalty, Racial Discrimination | Leave a comment

Louisiana defendant selected for death because of public defender’s budget constraints

For the second time this year, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review the continued indifference to funding for the right to counsel in capital cases – and the State of Louisiana’s concomitant desire to have the death penalty but not pay for it.  In Boyer v. Louisiana, the Court, after first granting review of the case, ultimately refused to address the question of whether failure to fully fund counsel, investigators and experts in a capital case for years violated the defendant’s constitutional rights to counsel and a speedy trial.  In Garcia v. Louisiana, the Court was presented with a similar occasion, where the defendant was unquestionably prejudiced by the lack of funding.  Essentially, three men were charged with capital murder in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana.   The facts of Garcia v. Louisiana are described here:

The public defender office could not represent all of them or afford to adequately provide separate capital representation to each of them.  Even the prosecutor informed the trial Continue reading

Posted in Counsel, Death Penalty | Leave a comment