In Brief: October 2017


In Texas, 38-year-old Robert Pruett was executed last night, convicted of murdering a prison guard in 1999. He had been in prison since he was 15 years old, sentenced to 99 years in prison simply for being with his father when his father stabbed a neighbor to death. That conviction was the result of the state’s “law of parties” rule, which allows a person to be charged with murder, even the death penalty, if he/she is simply present during a murder. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeal, in which Reuters reports his lawyers had argued that “Pruett, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted on the unreliable testimony of prison informants and that neither Pruett’s fingerprints nor DNA material were found” [at the scene]. It was Texas’ sixth execution this year.

In California, the Office of Administrative Law rejected the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation’s new lethal injection protocol earlier this week, finding it had many of the same problems that a previous proposal rejected by the OAL in December had. This protocol called for inmates to be executed by one of two drugs, or opt for the gas chamber.

Also in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill by Democratic Senators Ricardo Lara and Holly Mitchell that prohibits the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The U.S. is the only country in the world where, statutorily, minors can be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Mitchell told the Sacramento Bee that 300 people will be eligible for a parole hearing and “eliminate the need for potentially multiple resentencing hearings and litigation.”

In Georgia, on September 26, the execution of Keith Tharpe was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 6-3 decision, hours before he was scheduled to die. Tharpe was convicted in 1991 of killing his sister-in-law, Jaquelin Freeman, and was sentenced to death. But one of the (white) jurors in his trial referred to the defendant with a racial slur, and told Tharpe’s lawyers that there were “two kinds of black people,” respectable ones like the victim, and less-respectable people like Tharpe. He explained that if the victim had been like Tharpe he wouldn’t have voted for death, and wondered out loud if “black people even have souls.” The Washington Post reports that Tharpe’s lawyers wrote in their filing that “racism played [a] pivotal role in his death sentence.” They also argued that he is intellectually disabled, with an IQ of about 70.

In Florida, 57-year-old Michael Lambrix was executed last Thursday for killing Clarence Moore and Alesiha Bryant in 1983. The Miami Herald reports that Lambrix’s attorney had argued in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court that because neither of the juries in his two trials had unanimously voted for death, his sentence should be thrown out. Florida also plans to execute 52-year-old Patrick C. Hannon on November 8, which would make him the third inmate executed since August, when the state resumed executions after an 18-month hiatus triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hurst v. Florida, which found Florida’s death penalty scheme unconstitutional.

In Arkansas, the state parole board unanimously agreed not to recommend that Jack Greene’s death sentence be commuted to life without parole. Greene is scheduled to be executed November 9. The final decision on whether to commute Greene’s sentence is now up to Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Arkansasonline reports that Greene’s pending execution could also be affected by a lawsuit filed by attorney Steven Shults against the Department of Corrections demanding the release of information relating to the source of the state’s lethal injection drugs. The state Supreme Court agreed to speed up its consideration of the lawsuit in order to issue a decision before November 9.

Also in Arkansas, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen is suing the state Supreme Court after it barred him from hearing any death penalty cases. The court’s action came after Griffen participated in anti-death penalty demonstrations after he issued a temporary restraining order to halt the executions of seven Arkansas death row inmates in April. 5 News reports that Griffen’s lawsuit maintains that the all-white high court was motivated by “racial animus” and deprived him of  ”rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion and religious exercise that are guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

In Missouri, KCUR reports that an already overworked and underfunded public defender system is seeing a growing number of public defenders refusing to take additional clients after the state Supreme Court suspended an overworked public defender saying he “failed to provide adequate representation” to six of his clients. The state’s public defender system director said some lawyers are handling hundreds of cases at a time.

In Ohio, HB 81, which would exclude defendants who are mentally ill at the time of their crime from being charged with the death penalty, and is sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Seitz and Democrat Rep. Nickie Antonio, has been re-introduced. The Akron Beacon-Journal reports that the proposal, which has strong support, is one of “the most notable” of the 56 recommendations that a statewide task force made in 2014 to improve the state’s death penalty scheme.

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