2017-05-06 14:05:23 UTC
State's Narrow Disability Definition Resulted In Unconstitutional Death
In 1985, Pedro Solis Sosa was sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing a
sheriff's deputy in Wilson County. Prosecutors alleged that Sosa killed Ollie
Childress Jr. with the officer's own pistol after robbing a bank.
Sosa claims he's innocent, and as of Wednesday, he won't be executed for the
crime. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that because of his
intellectual disabilities, killing Sosa would be unconstitutionally cruel.
The definition of what classifies a person as 'intellectually disabled' when it
comes to the death penalty has been a bit of a grey area for some time. Robert
Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center at
Washington, says the U.S. Supreme Court it attempting to clarify that
"The definition of intellectual disability is relatively clear in medical
circles but states that have been carrying out executions have been creating
their own definitions," Dunham says. "They've made it so that some people who
are intellectually disabled will still be executed."
The Supreme Court ruled in March that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had
improperly sentenced Bobby Moore to death - that the medical standards used to
do that didn't follow a proper legal framework. Moore's case was cited in
Texas has used what's called the Bricenio Factors to determine what the
criteria for an intellectual disability is. But the Supreme Court said the
factors were basically a set of lay stereotypes that had nothing to do with
whether a person was actually intellectually disabled, Dunham says.
"Instead of looking at whether they had deficits in adaptive functioning and
significant impairments in intellectual functioning," Dunham says, "the court
in Texas [used] this requirement under the Bricenio Factors that you ask a
series of questions including 'Did people who knew the person growing up think
that they were intellectually disabled? Were they able to lie successfully and
avoid detection?' Things like that, that have nothing to do with whether you
are or aren't intellectually disabled."
Dunham says the Supreme Court's ruling does not necessarily mean there has to
be a medical determination that a person is intellectually disabled before the
court can sentence someone to the death penalty, but there does have to be a
court determination that a defendant meets the clinical criteria.
"It will make it clearer how you go about deciding whether someone is eligible
for the death penalty instead of having lay stereotypes being used," Dunham
says, "You will have to pay closer attention to the clinical definitions that
will make the determinations, I think, more accurate. And it will also have the
effect of excluding some people from the death penalty who in the past were
still being subjected to it."
This ruling doesn't broaden the definition of intellectual disability, instead
it merely brings states up to medical standards that have already been set in
"There is a fixed set of standards that are pretty clear in the medical
community," Dunham says. "States that want to execute people who have
intellectual disability have been creating their own rules that have
artificially narrowed the definition the United States Supreme Court is saying
you've got to apply the established clinical definition. That definition hasn't
changed it's just being made clearer."
The death penalty - 2 views
With all the attention the recent trial of Eric Frein has received, questions
about the death penalty in Pennsylvania have been raised again, not only in
Pike County, but across the state, and even nationally among law enforcement
officers, attorneys, civil rights groups, and the general public.
As might be expected, the views of District Attorney Ray Tonkin and Defense
Attorney Michael Weinstein, the prosecution and defense respectively in the
Frein case, represent 2 ends of the spectrum.
A brief history and current status of the death penalty in PennsylvaniaIn
December of 2011, the Pennsylvania State Senate adopted Senator Greenleaf's
Senate Resolution 6 establishing a bi-partisan task force and advisory
committee to conduct a study of capital punishment in the Commonwealth.
When Gov. Tom Wolf took office in 2015, he announced that he would put all
executions on hold until the committee released its report. The committee has
not yet released its report. Meanwhile, Wolf has been issuing reprieves on an
individual case basis.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Dec. 2015 upheld Wolf's constitutional
authority to grant temporary reprieves to inmates on death row. Thus far, he
has reprieved 5 convicted killers scheduled for execution.
There are currently 185 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania.
The death penalty remains the law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Tonkin's viewRay Tonkin believes that there is no legal standing for the
governor's moratorium on the death penalty. He recently said in an interview
with the Courier, "The death penalty has not been removed from the law of the
Commonwealth. The will of the citizenry is reflected by jurors who, after
proper instruction by a court, have unanimously determined that the appropriate
sentence under the law is a sentence of death."
Does he believe the death penalty deters crime?
"In my opinion, the death penalty deters crime and serves as the appropriate
punishment of certain criminal offenders," Tonkin said.
Tonkin acknowledged that Eric Frein's case will go through numerous appeals and
may not be finalized for at least a decade.
Responding to the question of whether the current debate on the death penalty
is political or whether there are substantive issues which can be debated,
"It's a political issue only because the legislature has to vote on it."
In Tonkin's view, the death penalty is the only answer to full justice, which
is what he asked the jury to deliver in the Frein case.
Weinstein's viewMichael Weinstein believes that Gov. Wolf has the right to
grant reprieves since the committee has not yet responded. Weinstein is against
the death penalty for a whole range of moral and ethical reasons. He thinks the
legislators who created the death penalty were not and are not qualified to do
Responding to the question of appeals in the Frein case, Weinstein pointed out
that appeals will focus on the guilt phase and the sentencing phase separately,
as well as the whole case in general.
Responding to the question of whether the current death penalty debate is
political, he said, "The current Republican party seems to favor the death
penalty. Politics will govern, but it is sentiment that tries to inform
politics. It is important to distinguish between a political label and a moral
William Ruzzo, Weinstein's co-counsel in the defense of Frein, said, "It is an
honor to be defending a case against the death penalty. I do this to honor my
mother, who was an ardent opponent of the death penalty."
In closing, Weinstein said, "Unequivocally, the government should not be in the
business of killing its citizens."
(source: The Pike County Courier)
Reports: Prosecutors to seek death penalty in York homicide case
The York County District Attorney has filed paperwork to seek the death penalty
in a homicide case, the York Daily Record reports
According to reports, authorities are seeking the death penalty against John
Ziegler III, who is accused of using a sword to kill his pregnant wife in
Diana Zeigler, 25, of Jackson Township, who was 24 weeks pregnant, died after
the incident in their home in the 1100 block of Ledge Drive, police said.
John Ziegler called 911 and reported he had struck and killed his wife with a
sword, police said.
He told police he was waiting for them with his 2-year-old son. He surrendered
without incident and the child was not injured and released into custody of
York County Children, Youth and Families.
Delaware House postpones vote on reinstating death penalty
A top lawmaker in Delaware has postponed the Legislature's vote Thursday on a
bill reinstating the state's death penalty because of a scheduling issue.
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said in a statement that a lawmaker wanted to a
call a witness who wasn't available Thursday, when Schwartzkopf had scheduled
He said he plans to put the vote on the House agenda for Tuesday.
The bill was put on Thursday's House agenda just hours after it cleared the
Judiciary Committee on a 7-4 vote Wednesday.
Consideration of the legislation comes amid a public outcry over the killing of
a correctional officer during a prison riot and hostage-taking in February as
well as the fatal shooting of a state trooper last week.
Chief sponsor Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, said he has not done a vote count, but
he believes there is more support for the measure among House lawmakers now
than there was before the killings of prison guard Steven Floyd and trooper
Smyk said he respects the arguments of death penalty opponents but that
government has a responsibility.
"There's no greater voice to remind legislators of that responsibility than to
2 murders, 2 executions, in such short order," he said.
Opponents of the legislation argued that the death penalty is not a deterrent
to crime, is too costly, is applied in a racially biased manner against blacks
and other minorities, and amounts to state-sponsored murder.
"State sanctioned murder is still murder," said Molly Keogh, president of
Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty.
But representatives of the law enforcement community have voiced overwhelming
support for the measure.
"There are some truly evil people who commit heinous crimes against innocent
citizens in this state," said Lt. Thomas Brackin, president of the Delaware
State Troopers Association. "You do need to have the ultimate punishment for
the ultimate crime."
Under the bill, jurors would have to find unanimously and beyond a reasonable
doubt that a defendant should be executed. A judge would have to agree with the
jury in order for the death penalty to be imposed but would have the discretion
to sentence a defendant to life in prison even if the jury found that the death
penalty was warranted.
A majority of Delaware's Supreme Court justices declared the state's death
penalty law unconstitutional last August because it allowed judges too much
discretion and did not require that a jury find unanimously and beyond a
reasonable doubt that a defendant deserves execution.
That ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court said Florida's death sentencing
law, which like Delaware's gave judges the final say, was unconstitutional.
Democratic Gov. John Carney has said he supports the court ruling declaring
Delaware's death penalty law unconstitutional, but he has not promised to veto
legislation reinstating capital punishment. Carney has not taken a public
position on the pending legislation but has not ruled out supporting the death
penalty for those convicted of killing a member of law enforcement.
Riverton Murder Suspect Pleads Not Guilty; Could Face the Death Penalty
The Riverton man who is charged with killing his 56-year-old roommate with a
hammer pled not guilty to 1st degree murder on Thursday.
27-year-old Florin Wyatt also pled not guilty to felony theft.
Prosecutors could seek the death penalty for the murder.
Wyatt's attorney said Thursday if that's the case; they will need to get Wyatt
a new attorney who is death penalty certified, which Fremont County has none.
It is still unsure if prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
Currently, Wyatt's bond is set at 1 million dollars cash and his trial is set
for September 25th.
(source: KCWY news)
ARIZONA----new death sentence
Jury: Man convicted of 6 killings should get death penalty
A jury decided Friday that an Arizona prisoner convicted of killing 6 people in
Yuma in 2005 should be sentenced to death.
Jurors reached their decision after several hours of deliberations in the case
of Preston Strong, who was convicted last month of the gruesome killings of his
best friend, the man's girlfriend and her 4 young children in what prosecutors
called a crime motivated by money.
Strong, 50, was found guilty April 25 of 6 counts of 1st-degree murder after a
He's already serving a life prison sentence for a separate slaying in 2007.
Last week, jurors found aggravating factors in the case against Strong. They
heard the defense's presentation of mitigating factors and the prosecution's
aggravating factors this week before beginning deliberations late Friday
Prosecutors said Strong spent hours killing 35-year-old Luis Rios, 29-year-old
Adrienne Heredia and her four children, ages 6 to 13.
They said Strong suffocated Heredia and 3 of her children and fatally shot her
youngest child and Rios.
Yuma police said the 2 oldest children were bound and strangled, the 9-year-old
girl also had been strangled and the 6-year-old was bound by electric cords.
Strong and Rios had been arguing over money and how much time he had been
spending with Heredia and her children, according to prosecutors who also said
Rios had given Strong thousands of dollars over the years but decided to cut
him off at some point before the killings, leading to a fight between the
Prosecutors said fingerprint evidence was found on bags that were discovered
near some of the victims while DNA evidence was on a nightstand and on the
steering wheel of Rios' car.
Lawyers for Strong had argued that the evidence was flimsy and that Strong's
DNA could have gotten on the family's items because he spent a lot of time with
If the jury had decided against the death penalty, Yuma County Superior Court
Judge Maria Elena Cruz would have had 2 options - sentencing Strong to life in
prison without the possibility of parole, or sentencing him to life in prison
with the possibility of parole after at least 25 years.
Strong is in prison for life in the 2007 killing of Satinder Gill, a Yuma
physician who was strangled and bludgeoned in his home.
Prosecutors said a large amount of money was stolen.
(source: Associated Press)
ACLU Death Penalty Challenge Faces Skeptical Court
ACLU attorneys faced a tough fight Thursday in asking the state judge who
dismissed its case challenging California's execution procedures to reconsider
the tentative ruling she issued in March.
Alameda County Court Judge Kimberly Colwell tentatively dismissed the Eighth
Amendment lawsuit on March 30 without leave to amend. On Thursday, ACLU
attorney Linda Lye told Colwell that the Legislature violated the California
Constitution's separation of powers clause by tasking prison officials with
developing an execution protocol, but not providing guidance on how to carry
"CDCR [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] is supposed
to kill people, but we don't know what kind death. A lingering death, a painful
death, a painless death, a swift death?" Lye asked. "Simply telling Corrections
to comply with the statute does not constitute guidance."
To align California death penalty law with the Eighth Amendment's prohibition
of cruel and unusual punishment, the Legislature in 1996 prescribed lethal
injection as the method for executions. It directed the Department of
Corrections to develop the actual execution procedures.
The ACLU claims that the Legislature - not a state agency - must develop the
execution procedures to address "fundamental policy questions" such as the pain
and speed of executions.
The ACLU sued the Department of Corrections in November on behalf of death row
inmates Mitchell Sims and Michael Morales.
The lawsuit was filed 9 days after the general election, in which California
voters narrowly approved Proposition 66, by 51 % to 49 %, to accelerate
executions by limiting habeas corpus petitions and requiring death penalty
appeals to be completed within 5 years of the death sentence, among other
things. Also on Election Day, voters rejected a proposition to repeal the death
penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.
The ACLU says the Legislature is more likely than prison officials to design
procedures that reduce pain and the amount of time it takes to die. It said in
the original complaint that the state's plan to switch from a 3-drug protocol
to use of a single drug could increase pain, and accused it of making the
switch for convenience.
The state says using 1 drug will reduce pain.
Colwell did not seem sympathetic to Lye's separation of powers argument
"Isn't that particular agency, that administers the death penalty, in the best
position to know how that is carried out?" the judge asked.
"With guidance, yes," Lye responded. She said that while severe pain is the
constitutional limit, the Legislature is responsible for determining what that
Lye said the Legislature could choose to make executions retributive for an
inmate's crime, and thus severely painful, and it would still satisfy its
responsibility under the separation of powers clause.
While acknowledging that the Department of Corrections has the expertise to
develop execution procedures, Lye said, "all the Legislature needed was to
paint in broad brushes and provide more guidance" about the acceptable level of
pain, and prison officials "could fill in the details."
However, "The idea that complying with the Constitution is a sufficient
standard is too vague," she said.
Colwell rejected that argument in her tentative ruling of March 30.
"Petitioners have not ... cited to any authority for the proposition that a
legislature that has made the fundamental decision to have a death penalty
cannot set the standard as the constitutional minimum and delegate to prison
officials the task of developing a constitutional execution protocol," she
wrote. "After the Legislature has indicated that CDCR was to develop an
execution protocol to comply with the United States Constitution, then the
Legislature could add little more."
There are 750 inmates on California's death row. The state has executed 13
prisoners since it reinstituted the death penalty in 1978. It performed its
last execution in 2006.
(source: Courthouse News)
The steady decline of America's death rows
When the state of Arkansas announced plans to carry out eight executions in an
11-day period in April, it drew intense international scrutiny that flared
until well after the final lethal injection in the series at the end of the
month. In part, this attention was fueled by the explanation, offered by state
officials, that the timetable was necessary because the supply of 1 of the
state's lethal drugs was about to expire and authorities had to carry out death
penalties for eight men convicted of murder before then.
The schedule also stood out for being a modern rarity. Capital punishment in
the United States is slowly and steadily declining, a fact most visible in the
plummeting number of death penalties carried out each year. In 1999, the
country executed 98 inmates, a modern record for a single year. In 2016, there
were 20 executions nationwide, the lowest annual total in a quarter-century.
Death sentences also sharply declined. Fewer states that have the death penalty
as a sentencing option are carrying out executions, a trend that has continued
despite two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past decade upholding lethal
injection practices. States that would otherwise carry out executions have
found themselves stymied by court orders, other legal uncertainty, logistical
issues or an ongoing shortage of deadly drugs. Fewer states have it on the
books than did a decade ago, and some that do retain the practice have declared
moratoriums or otherwise stopped executions without formally declaring an
Public opinion also has shifted. A Pew Research Center survey last year found
that for the 1st time in almost half a century, public support for the death
penalty dipped below 50 %; other polls found slightly higher support, but the
overall numbers remained considerably down from the mid-1990s, when 4 out of 5
Americans backed capital punishment.
Another way to see the changing nature of the American death penalty: The
gradual decline of death row populations. At the death penalty's modern peak
around the turn of the century, death rows housed more than 3,500 inmates. That
number is falling, and it has been falling for some time. New Justice
Department data show that death-row populations shrank in 2015, marking the
15th consecutive year with a decline.
There were 2,881 inmates on state and federal death rows in 2015, the last year
for which the Justice Department has nationwide data available. That was down
61 from the year before.
States carried out 28 death penalties in 2015, but nearly 3 times as many
inmates - 82 - were removed from death rows "by means other than execution,"
the Justice Department's report states. (Another 49 inmates arrived on death
row in 2015.)
In some cases, inmates left death row after being cleared of the crimes for
which they were sentenced. 5 people sentenced to death were exonerated in 2015,
according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University
of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law.
Other inmates died of other causes before their executions could occur. In
Alabama, 3 inmates died of natural causes in 2015 and a 4th hanged himself that
year inside a prison infirmary, according to corrections officials and local
media reports. North Carolina officials say 1 death-row inmate died of natural
causes that year, another was resentenced to life without parole and a 3rd had
his death sentence vacated and a new trial ordered.
Death sentences were thrown out in some cases. 4 death-row inmates in Maryland
had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole in 2015, a
decision made by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley after that state formally abolished
the death penalty.
As death-row populations have been shrinking for years, state and federal
prisons overall have seen a more recent decline. According to the Justice
Department, 1.53 million people were held in such facilities at the end of
2015, a decrease of 35,500 people from the year before.
Another shift also has occurred: The number of people sentenced to life in
prison has ballooned, reaching an all-time high last year, according to a
report released this week from the Sentencing Project. The report states that
more than 161,000 people were serving life sentences last year, with another
44,000 people serving what are called "virtual life sentences," defined as
long-term imprisonment effectively extending through the end of a person's
life. Similar to overall prison populations, people of color are
disproportionately represented; black people account for nearly 1/2 of the life
or virtual-life sentences tallied in the report.
The declining use of the death penalty also leaves unanswered how many of the
men and women facing the death penalty will ever enter an execution chamber.
The time between a death sentence being handed down and carried out has grown
significantly. In 2001, when the American death penalty was at its apex with
3,500 prisoners on death row, they were spending an average of 8.6 years there
after receiving their sentence, according to federal data. By 2013, the last
year for which full Justice Department data are available, the death-row
population fell below 3,000 while their time there ballooned to an average of
When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma's lethal-injection procedure in
2015, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
dissented and questioned whether the death penalty is constitutional. In that
dissent, Breyer noted the extended periods that elapse before death-row inmates
are executed, adding that the time can be even longer for those death penalties
actually carried out; for inmates executed in 2014, an average of almost 18
years elapsed between sentence and punishment, he wrote.
"A death penalty system that seeks procedural fairness and reliability brings
with it delays that severely aggravate the cruelty of capital punishment and
significantly undermine the rationale for imposing a sentence of death in the
first place," Breyer wrote.
In response, the late Justice Antonin Scalia blamed the extended delays on "the
proliferation of labyrinthine restrictions on capital punishment" that he said
stemmed from the Supreme Court's own rulings. Scalia wrote that Breyer's
"invocation of the resultant delay as grounds for abolishing the death penalty
calls to mind the man sentenced to death for killing his parents, who pleads
for mercy on the ground that he is an orphan."
Breyer revisited his dissent last month while Arkansas was seeking to carry out
its first execution since 2005. An inmate named Ledell Lee, 51, was sentenced
to die for the killing of Debra Reese, who was beaten to death in her home in
1993. Lee, who had long denied any involvement in her death, sought DNA testing
to prove his innocence. His attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a
stay, but in a 5-4 decision, the justices sided with the state and denied the
Dissenting from that decision, Breyer questioned Arkansas and its schedule of
"Why now?" he wrote. "The apparent reason has nothing to do with the
heinousness of their crimes or with the presence (or absence) of mitigating
behavior. It has nothing to do with their mental state. It has nothing to do
with the need for speedy punishment. 4 have been on death row for over 20
years. All have been housed in solitary confinement for at least 10 years.
Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these 8 executions is
that the 'use by' date of the state's execution drug is about to expire."
Lee was executed that night, becoming the 1st of 4 inmates put to death in
Arkansas in a span of 8 days. Courts blocked the other 4 executions that had
been planned. According to the state, 1 of the 3 drugs used in lethal
injections there expired on Sunday, and due to the ongoing shortage, officials
have said they are unclear when more can be obtained. Arkansas currently has no
other executions scheduled.
(source' Washington Post)
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