In brief: June 2018


In Texas, a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel said yesterday it will consider parts of an appeal that lawyers for death row prisoner Andre Thomas presented in oral argument, but not the question of whether he should not be executed because he is mentally ill. Thomas gouged out both of his own eyes, eating one of them. His lawyers argued that their client suffers from schizophrenia, and was “actively psychotic” at the time he murdered and mutilated his ex-wife, son and stepdaughter. The 5th Circuit said his lawyers can continue their appeals on the grounds that Thomas’s trial lawyers were ineffective and that his jury was racially biased. In an editorial, the Houston Chronicle says the state’s determination to execute Thomas in spite of his “long history of severe mental illness … is another instance of the death penalty run amok — a cruel and unusual practice that should be put to an end.”

Also in Texas, 37-year-old Juan Castillo was executed last month for the 2003 robbery and murder of Tommy Garcia, Jr. Castillo’s execution had been stayed three previous times since May of last year. The Texas Tribune reports that lawyers had asked Gov. Greg Abbott for a 30-day stay to give them time “to fully investigate claims they said discredited the prosecution’s evidence against Castillo—including recanted statements and video of police interrogations that contradict testimony at trial.”

In Alabama late last month, a federal judge ordered the Alabama Dept. of Corrections to release its lethal injection protocol. The Montgomery Advertiser reports that in response to a motion filed by the paper and other media outlets, U.S. Judge Karon Bowdre ordered the state to release its protocol, sealed transcripts of two court hearings, and a related motion in the case of Doyle Lee Hamm, who suffered excruciating pain after a botched two-and-a-half hour execution in April. The paper says the ruling stated that, ”Capital punishment is a hotly contested issue that involves an irrevocable punishment for prisoners convicted of terrible crimes. The public has a great interest in understanding how the state carries out its punishment.”

In South Dakota, ThinkProgress reports that lawyers for Charles Rhines are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to order a new sentencing hearing for their client based on the homophobia openly displayed by some of the jurors who sentenced him to death in 1993. The lawyers argue that the Court’s 6-2 ruling ordering a retrial for Duane Buck, who was sentenced to death after his own lawyer presented testimony from a psychologist who said Buck was likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black, is no different from their client being sentenced to death because he is gay. At the time of the Buck ruling, the court said the “law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” and Rhines’s lawyers are asking that that assertion be applied to their gay client.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month in McCoy v. Louisiana that Robert McCoy’s Sixth Amendment right to make his own decisions in his defense was violated when his lawyer told the jury in his death penalty trial that he was guilty, in spite of McCoy’s objections. The 6-3 decision means McCoy, accused of killing his estranged wife, her son, mother, and stepfather, will get a new trial. Writing in the George Washington Law Review, Robin M. Maher says, “While I cannot disagree that defendants should make certain critical decisions about their defense, I worry about capital defendants like McCoy whose mental impairments drive extremely poor decision-making.”

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