In brief: June 2019


In Virginia, the Washington Post reports that progressive challengers defeated longtime incumbent prosecutors in Fairfax and Arlington counties on Tuesday. “The shift marks a stunning change: Neither challenger has prosecuted a case in state court, but they bested incumbents with more than 60 years of experience between them in the court system,” the Post reports.

In North Carolina, the Winston-Salem Journal reports that two experts, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, have “allege[d] in court papers that Forsyth County prosecutors used a training document in a murder case more than 20 years ago that is steeped in racist stereotypes and is specifically designed to exclude black people from juries.” The case concerns 52-year-old Russell William Tucker who is currently serving time on death row after being sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of Kmart security guard Maurice Travone Williams. Tucker’s attorneys have filed an amended motion for appropriate relief that includes Stevenson’s and Kendi’s affidavits “to bolster Tucker’s claims that prosecutors used the training document to keep black people off the jury for his murder trial.”

In Ohio, the Toledo Blade reports that by a vote of 76-17, the House passed HB 136, which would prohibit charging a defendant who was severely mentally ill at the time of the crime — there are four categories of mental illness that qualify — with the death penalty. If it is determined that the defendant was severely mentally ill, the strictest sentence would be life without parole. And it will be applied retroactively. The bill, which now goes to the Senate, had the support of the Ohio Psychological Association, the Ohio Psychiatric Physician’s Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio. Executions are on hold in Ohio by order of Gov. Mike DeWine, who has asked corrections officials to review the state’s lethal injection protocol. There are 137 men and one woman on Ohio’s death row.

In Florida, the Florida Phoenix reports that more men and women have been exonerated from death row there than anywhere else in the nation. The paper reports that with the release of 76-year-old Clifford Williams, Jr. in March, after 42 years on death row, there are now 29 people who have been released since the 1970s. Florida International University professor Stephen Harper told the Phoenix that there are several reasons for the high number of exonerations, and “One is that prosecutors have pretty much unfettered discretion as to when to seek death and when not to seek death. And the defense lawyering in Florida is not what it should be.”

In Oregon, a bill that would eliminate several of the special circumstances that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty was passed in the Senate with an 18-9 vote. The Statesman Journal reports that SB 1013 would narrow the number of special circumstances that define aggravated murder — the only crime punishable by death in the state —  from the current 20 to just three: the premeditated murder of a child under the age of 14; a murder committed in a jail or prison by a person already incarcerated on aggravated murder charges; or acts of terrorism in which two or more people are killed. The bill will now go to the House although a date hasn’t been set. Oregon’s last execution was in 1997. There has been a moratorium since 2011. The state’s death penalty can only be abolished by voters.

In Kentucky, reports that lawyers for James Mallory, who could face the death penalty if convicted of killing 15-year-old Gregory Holt in 2012 during a home invasion, are asking a judge to dismiss the murder case because they claim that prosecutors listened to phone calls between Mallory and his defense team. WDRB says that in their motion to dismiss because of prosecutorial misconduct, the lawyers say “there is ‘no possible explanation’ for the prosecution to listen to the calls, where Mallory and his legal team discussed privileged information such as witnesses and trial strategy.” WDRB says the prosecutor’s office notified the defense “that some of their calls had been recorded and listened to by a law clerk in the office.”

In Indiana, the Indiana Lawyer reports that the state department of corrections was ordered to pay attorney fees of $538,000 to plaintiffs who sued the department to obtain records of the lethal injection protocol that would be used in the event that an execution was carried out. According to Indiana Lawyer, the attorneys successfully sued the department for information on the drugs the DOC planned to use, “but rather than comply . . . the DOC used an 11th-hour statehouse maneuver to slip a so-called secrecy statute into the Indiana budget bill in the closing days of the 2017 General Assembly.” That law was subsequently struck down and the award of legal fees was ordered.

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