2017-08-01 13:48:27 UTC
Man accused of murder says Missouri's death penalty law is unconstitutional
A southwest Missouri man charged with abducting and killing Hailey Owens,10, in
Springfield in 2014 says the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional.
A court hearing took place last week in Greene County.
Reporter Brea Douglas from Missourinet Springfield television partner KOLR-10
reports defense attorneys presented a national jury researcher as an expert
Douglas says the researcher has found that it's difficult for jurors to follow
instructions throughout a trial. The researcher also testifies that jurors have
a misunderstanding about the death penalty and are racially biased in some
Douglas reports prosecutors are asking Judge Thomas Mountjoy to reject the
Greene County prosecutors have charged Craig Wood with 1st degree murder, armed
criminal action, kidnapping, rape and sodomy.
His jury trial is scheduled to begin on October 23.
Wood contends Missouri's death penalty statute is unconstitutional, because of
a "flawed jury selection process."
Wood cites a case called "Furman vs. Georgia", and also cites "Mills vs.
The Owens' family attorney, David Ransin, says the family wants the legal
process to end. The family is not requesting the death penalty.
"Their basic wish would be for Mr. Wood to step up and confess his crimes,
accept his responsibility, which also means accepting accountability," Ransin
tells KOLR-10. "Hailey did not get a chance to choose her fate. Mr. Wood did
that for her. Mr. Wood needs to surrender his fate."
Judge Mountjoy hasn't ruled on the death penalty issue yet. Wood's next court
appearance is set for August 30.
Meantime, 2 state lawmakers plan to file "Hailey's Law" again next year. State
Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, and State Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, have
told Missourinet they plan to pre-file the bill in December.
The bill would require Missouri's Amber Alert Oversight Committee to meet at
least annually. The current state law says the committee should "regularly
review" the Amber Alert System, but doesn't specify what "regularly" means.
The Hailey's Law language passed in both the House and the Senate in 2017, but
not in the same bill.
Nebraska Supreme Court agrees to take death-row inmate's appeal
The Nebraska Supreme Court last week accepted the appeal of death row inmate
Marco Torres, who was denied a hearing in Hall County District Court where his
attorneys had sought to argue the state's death penalty is unconstitutional.
Torres' case is the first of the 11 men on death row to reach the state's
highest court since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2016 struck down Florida's
Defense attorneys, like Bob Creager of Lincoln, say Hurst v. Florida, which
said jurors must make every finding necessary for someone to get the ultimate
penalty, put the constitutionality of Nebraska's system in doubt, too.
Creager said he thinks the decision means the court would strike down
Nebraska's scheme, too.
That's because here a 3-judge panel weighs mitigating circumstances after a
jury finds a case death-eligible.
While attorneys can raise the issue in cases going forward, he said, the big
question now is if it could apply to those already on death row.
Torres filed a 38-page motion for post-conviction relief in state court on June
14, with the help of attorneys with Federal Defender Services of Eastern
Tennessee, appointed by a U.S. District Judge in his federal case.
A week later, the attorneys filed a 109-page petition in U.S. District Court in
Lincoln arguing that Torres' death sentences are unconstitutional.
A week after that, on June 28, retired state District Judge James Livingston
denied the motion in state court, saying Torres raised the issue 5 months too
He cited a case that sets a 1-year limitation period to raise an issue, which
in the Hurst case ran up Jan. 12, 2017.
Torres has appealed that decision, and the Nebraska Supreme Court agreed to
take his case last week. But the court only would be deciding if he should've
gotten a hearing.
So the question of whether Nebraska's death penalty procedures are
constitutional won't be answered any time soon. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court
takes a case and answers whether the Florida decision should be retroactive.
It's just another step in a slow process of reviews for death penalty cases.
Creager said every time a decision comes down or lawmakers make a change to the
death penalty or the protocol, it raises potential issues.
"Death is different, as the court says," he said.
In 2009, a jury convicted Torres of 1st-degree murder for killing roommates
Timothy Donohue, 48, and Edward Hall, 60, in Grand Island in 2007. His DNA was
at the crime scene and he had used Hall's debit card 2 days before his body was
While Torres is the 1st of the state's death row inmates to reach the state's
highest court raising the constitutionality issue, 5 others have open cases in
2 others, John Lotter and Jeffrey Hessler, have both state and federal
Only Carey Dean Moore, Ray Mata, Jose Sandoval, Erick Vela and Jorge Galindo
have no pending appeals.
(source: Lincoln Journal Star)
Should the US death penalty still exist?
The US is witnessing a significant decline in the use of the death penalty.
Oliver Pickup investigates the change in public mood, the reasons why and asks:
will it be abolished any time soon?
"America is in the midst of a climate change on capital punishment," according
to Robert Dunham, executive director of the (DPIC). He would know; for 2
decades before taking his current position at the venerated, nonpartisan
organisation, in March 2015, Dunham was a leading capital appellate lawyer in
Pennsylvania. And statistics overwhelmingly back up his statement that capital
punishment in the United States is dying, slowly.
Last year there were just 20 executions and 31 new death sentences handed out,
marking a record low since 1991 and 1973 respectively. "We are witnessing a
significant decline in the use of the death penalty, and it's a long-term
decline," Dunham tells Raconteur, suggesting that despite there being 2,902
people on death row, at the latest count (taken at the end of October 2016) the
prevailing mood is that country-wide abolition is nearer than it has been for 4
"When you look at public opinion polls, support for the death penalty is also
at a 40-year low," he continues. "We're seeing a historical movement away from
the death penalty."
There have been 1,457 executions in America since 1973, the year after the
Supreme Court declared the existing death penalty statutes were
unconstitutional. With states hastily re-writing their capital punishment laws,
the numbers crept up again to reach a high of 98 in 1999, but they have
steadily fallen in the 21st century. 5 years ago, in 2012, there were 43
executions, and the figure has continued to drop to 39 in 2013, 35 the next
year, and 28 in 2015.
In an increasingly abolitionist world, it has become harder and harder for
retentionist countries to justify their resort to this anachronistic punishment
While Dunham says the 2017 total is likely to increase from last year's 20 -
with 16 chalked up at the time of writing, and 11 more scheduled before the
year is out (though some stays of execution and additional death warrants are
likely) - the pattern is clear.
"Executions are a lagging indicator, and new death sentences are a leading
indicator," he continues. "The 31 new death sentences last year were the fewest
imposed in the modern era of the United States Capital Punishment. Consider
that in 1994 there were 316 death sentences imposed; that's more than 10 times
the amount of the 2016 figure, so there has been a significant reduction."
At present 19 American states have abolished the death penalty, including 6
since 2007. It is retained in 31, though 11 of those - California, Colorado,
Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon,
Pennsylvania and Wyoming - have not carried out executions for at least a
There are numerous factors for the change in climate around the death penalty,
and developments in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing, which became available
in the late 1980s, is a key one. DPIC research highlights that 159 death row
prisoners have been exonerated since 1973, and 20 of those have been thanks to
fresh DNA evidence.
Convicted rapist and murderer Nick Yarris, a former client of Dunham's, was a
beneficiary of scientific advancements in this field. He was freed in 2004
after 22 brutal years on death row, most of which was spent in solitary
confinement, and now resides in Britain. "The majority of people given the
evidence that was presented would think that it was an open-and-shut case
against Nick," recalls Dunham.
"He had the same blood type as the murderer, by unfortunate coincidence, and 4
separate eye witnesses claimed to have seen someone who matched his description
at the shopping mall from where the victim was abducted. Objectively most
juries would have convicted Nick.
"The DNA not only showed that Nick didn't do it, it showed that all of this
other evidence was wrong. And it's that type of error that we see in case after
case. DNA testing erodes confidence in the reliability of these other forms of
That capital punishment is incredibly exorbitant to pursue is another reason it
is losing support. Dunham states that on average the death penalty "costs the
state $23 million (17.5 million pounds) per year more than a system of justice
that does not have the death penalty, and in states like California the cost
runs as high as $100 million (76 million pounds) more a year".
Further, capital punishment does not discourage would-be murderers, seemingly.
"There is, in fact, no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent," notes
Dunham. "In actuality, murder rates are higher, on average, in the states that
have the death penalty than in the states that do not have the death penalty."
French philosopher Albert Camus wrote, in an 1957 essay entitled Reflections on
the Guillotine: "For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by
barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime
persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the
law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium."
Rob Freer, an American-based researcher for Amnesty International agrees, and
tells Raconteur: "The deterrence argument has largely fallen out of favour in
the US, leaving retribution or incapacitation as the main justifications."
Freer points to the words spoken by Justice John Paul Stevens - then the then
most senior US Supreme Court Justice - in 2008. "Despite 30 years of empirical
research in the area, there remains no reliable statistical evidence that
capital punishment ... deters potential offenders," he said. "It is the
retribution rationale that animates much of the remaining enthusiasm for the
Indeed, Justice Stevens referred to a study which found that 37 % of death
penalty supporters cited "an eye for an eye" as their reason for backing
capital punishment; another 13 % answered "they [the criminals] deserve it".
"In Amnesty International's opinion," Freer continues, "the death penalty
breaches 2 essential human rights: the right to life and the right to live free
from torture. Both rights are protected under the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. No argument can render the
death penalty compatible with basic human rights principles and human dignity.
In an increasingly abolitionist world, it has become harder and harder for
retentionist countries to justify their resort to this anachronistic
That is certainly a view shared by Clive Stafford Smith, a British lawyer who
has devoted his entire working life to fighting capital punishment and calls it
"a total farce". "I went to America when I was 18 to put an end to the death
penalty, having become obsessed by it at school," he tells Raconteur. After
completing his law degree at New York's Columbia University he became renowned
for his doggedness and passion at capital trials. "I've represented over 300
prisoners in America, and we have avoided executions in 98 % of those cases,"
Incredibly, Stafford Smith has taken cases to the US Supreme Court a handful of
times, and won on all five occasions. In 1999 he founded Reprieve, a 37-strong,
London-based organisation - whose patrons include Vivienne Westwood, Martha
Lane Fox, Jon Snow, and Alan Bennett - that provides free legal and
investigative support to some of the world's most vulnerable people. A year
later he was awarded an OBE "for humanitarian services in the legal field".
With typical modesty, he says he cherishes "a verdict of acquittal for someone
who deserves it" above his various accolades.
Stafford Smith has watched half a dozen of his clients "die in the chamber";
unsurprisingly all six killings have stayed with him, mentally - not least
31-year-old half-British Nick Ingram's execution, by electric chair, in April
1995. "I was emotionally close to Nick, having represented him for 10 years,"
he recalls. "He was electrocuted in an unbelievably barbaric way. If I close my
eyes today I can still see the black-and-white negative of him being tortured
in the chair. I suffer a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder from
Then there was Larry Lonchar, who suffered from bipolar disorder, and was
finally executed, again by electrocution, in November 1996. "We came within 40
minutes of his execution 4 times before getting a stay," says Stafford Smith,
"and that 4th time we came within 58 seconds. He was sitting there, already
shaved and waiting to be strapped into the electric chair.
"Whenever Larry became depressed, the state of Georgia in all its munificence
would refuse to hand him medication. They wanted him to drop his appeals so he
would be executed, and thereby commit suicide by execution. His life was so
miserable, and towards the end he became a Christian, and terribly sincere. He
thought he was going to a better place, and he was incredibly kind to me, and
absolutely calm. When his executors asked Larry if he had any last words he
said: 'Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.' That really pissed
everyone off, and he went through a tortuous death in a completely happy state.
Weirdly, that was one of the most life-affirming experiences I've had."
37 % of death penalty supporters cited "an eye for an eye" as their reason for
backing capital punishment
Stafford Smith makes mention of Jesse Tafero's notorious execution in 1990,
during which the electric chair, dubbed 'Old Sparky', malfunctioned. One of the
execution team had erroneously chosen a synthetic sponge, rather than opting
for a sea sponge that provides greater electric conductivity. 6-inch flames
shot out of Tafero's head, and the process took an agonising 7 minutes. Inmates
said they could smell his burning flesh for days afterwards.
"It's utterly terrifying," Stafford Smith says of the electric chair, which has
been used on 158 occasions since 1976 to execute prisoners, compared to 1,282
times a lethal injection has been administered - though that approach has come
under intense scrutiny of late with expiring drugs failing to be efficient.
For instance, Ronald Phillips, a child rapist and murderer, had evaded
execution 6 times because of legal fears over the lethal injection, though on
July 25 2017 his luck ran out. He was put to death by a 3-drug cocktail, and
became the first person since January 2014 to be executed in Ohio, when Dennis
Maguire took 26 minutes to die.
"There's no murder that I've ever come across that is anywhere near to the sort
of torture that government puts these guys through, especially when you include
the years of abuse leading up to it.
"Whatever method they use, it's always in the middle of the night, because
people are basically ashamed of the whole process. You come out and you look up
at the stars and you say to yourself: 'Did torturing that guy to death suddenly
make the world a better place?' The answer to that is pretty obvious.
"The problem with this whole business is no-one with any sensibilities wants to
be involved. Doctors are prohibited by the Hippocratic oath from taking part,
and pharmaceutical companies don't want their drugs to kill people. So you end
up only having the people doing it who are gung-ho; they wouldn't know how to
find a vein if you gave them the training, and they always screw up."
Americans thought that the death penalty was carried out in as humane a manner
as possible, but the botched executions over the last several years have done
away with that perception
The DPIC's Dunham concurs, and says: "Americans thought that the death penalty
was carried out in as humane a manner as possible, but the botched executions
over the last several years have done away with that perception. The
gruesomeness of those executions has made Americans even more queasy about
capital punishment, to the extent that the vision of capital punishment that
they support doesn't exist in reality."
Another of most uncomfortable issues surrounding the death penalty is that,
because it is dealt with on a state-by-state basis, it is administered in "a
racially discriminatory way", suggests Dunham, pointing out that around 80 % of
the executions since 1973 have taken place in the southern states.
When Stafford Smith is asked why that might be, he says: "It's an extension of
racism. It's a method of control. Look at death row today: it's 42 % black in a
country where it???s 13 % black. Equally, look at the probability of getting
the death penalty for killing a white person rather than a black person - if
you are black and kill a white person you're 44 times as likely to get the
death penalty as vice-versa. That says it all, really."
Will the death penalty be abolished any time soon?
Marc Hyden, National Advocacy Coordinator at Conservatives Concerned about the
Death Penalty (CCATDP), founded in 2013, thinks so. "I don't believe there is a
compelling argument for keeping our current death penalty system," he tells
Raconteur. "It is dangerously flawed. Most Americans aren't willing to accept
killing some innocent people to also kill the guilty. That kind of collateral
damage is unacceptable.
"As more and more Americans are confronted with the death penalty's failures -
risk to innocent life, high financial cost, failure to protect society, and
harm on murder victims' families - its days are numbered."
The 58-year-old Stafford Smith is bold enough to predict that it will be
abolished within his lifetime. "Even the people who support the death penalty
are deeply ambivalent; they know that the argument it achieves something
positive is ridiculous, and increasingly so," he says.
Dunham, who insists that so far the presidency of Donald Trump has not presaged
a resurgence as some predicted, won't be pressed on a timescale prediction for
the abolition of capital punishment in America, which is understandable given
his status as Executive Director of the DPIC. But he adds: "We now have 40
years of experience that show that the tinkering that the US courts have done
with the 'machinery of death' - to use a phrase from the late Justice Harry
Blackmun - has not eradicated the arbitrariness that was present when the US
Supreme Court found the death penalty statutes unconstitutional in the 1970s.
"The public has seen the evidence of innocence: 159 people have now been
exonerated after having been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the
United States since 1973. It's arbitrary, and it is discriminatory. It does not
deter, it does not make the public safer, and it does not provide closure for
family members of the murder victims.
"All of these things provide very telling evidence that the policy is broken.
The main justification for the death penalty is that for certain offences it is
the only acceptable punishment, but more and more Americans are moving away
from that stance, because they simply don't believe it."
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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