In brief: February 2019


In California, the state Supreme Court unanimously overturned the death sentence of Jamelle Edward Armstrong, convicted of killing a Southern California woman in 1998. The LA Times reports that the court said “prospective jurors were improperly excused for expressing ambivalence about the death penalty.” All of the excused jurors had indicated they would be able to vote for death in spite of their personal views. Additionally, three of the seven justices said they would have overturned Armstrong’s conviction because four black jurors were struck, leaving an all-white jury. Armstrong is black. He was one of three men convicted of the rape, torture, and murder of Penny Sigler in Long Beach.

In Oklahoma, lawyers for death row prisoner Julius Jones petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court last week. The Stillwater News Press reports that at issue is the dismissal of a petition Jones filed with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals seeking a hearing to present new evidence of racial bias in his case. Jones was sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, who was shot and killed during a carjacking. Federal public defender Dale Baich maintains that at least one of the jurors in Jones’ trial was racist and in front of other jurors used the “n” word in describing Jones, who is black. Baich is also asking the court to consider an Oklahoma race study that found that an African-American who kills a white man is three times more likely to get the death penalty.

In Texas, Robert Jennings was executed last week for the 1988 murder of Houston police officer Elston Howard. The Texas Tribune reports that at the time Jennings was sentenced to death in 1989, “Texas juries were not told they could opt for a sentence of life in prison rather than death if they believed the defendant’s background or character warranted mercy — a key aspect of death penalty trials now.” Jennings’ execution was the first in the United States this year.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis pardoned four black men who were accused of raping a white woman in 1949, saying that the “ideals of justice were perverted time and time again.” The New York Times reports that the four men, known as the Groveland Four, were accused of raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett, who was stranded at the side of a road with her husband after their car broke down. Three of the men, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, and Samuel  Shepherd, were arrested, but the fourth, Ernest Thomas, was killed by a mob the night of the alleged crime. Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death, Greenlee to life in prison. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Irvin’s and Shepherd’s convictions in 1951, Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall shot them both while driving the two to a court appearance, killing Shepherd. Greenlee died in 2012; Irvin in 1969. The case was the subject of at least two books, one of which, “Devil in the Grove,” won a Pulitzer Prize.

In Georgia, “Capital Punishment in 2019 Seems to be Going the Way of the Guillotine and the Gallows: It’s Disappearing,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. The paper notes that no capital trials are set for early this year, making it “all but certain the state will go at least five years without a death sentence.” The Journal Constitution says that is the longest hiatus since the death penalty was reinstated 40 years ago. One major factor for the decline in death sentences is the fact that in 2009, lawmakers changed a state law to allow district attorneys to seek life-without-parole sentences in non-death penalty cases. Prior to 2009, DAs had to seek the death penalty in order to have the option of LWOP, according to the paper.

In Kansas, a county judge is allowing private attorneys to assist the prosecution in the death penalty trial of a man charged with fatally shooting  two Wyandotte County sheriff’s deputies.  The Kansas City Star reports that under state law “crime victims can pay for lawyers to assist prosecutors as ‘associate attorneys.’ ” The families of the deputies, Theresa King and Patrick Rohrer, have hired two private attorneys to assist in the prosecution of 30-year-old Antoine Fielder, who is accused of killing the two deputies as they escorted him back to jail after a court hearing in a robbery case. The paper reports that Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit attorneys, who are representing Fielder, have objected to having  the private attorneys assist, saying it’s unprecedented in a death penalty case.

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