In brief: October 2021

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In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law last week a bill that expands another criminal justice reform bill that became law two years ago. The San Jose Mercury News reports State Sen. Josh Becker’s (D-San Mateo/Santa Clara) bill, SB 775, will make it possible for as many as 2,000 people who were charged under the old felony murder law but were ineligible for resentencing under a reform bill passed in 2019, to appeal their convictions and “in many cases,” be released from prison.

Ernest L. Johnson was executed in Missouri last week, the New York Times reports, despite calls for clemency from Pope Francis, a former Missouri governor, and two members of Congress. Johnson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and was intellectually disabled, but his appeal on those grounds was denied by the US Supreme Court. In addition, the Missouri Supreme Court denied his request to be executed by firing squad and executed him by lethal injection. Johnson was sentenced to death for the killing of three people during a convenience store robbery in 1984. It was Missouri’s first execution since May 2020 and the seventh in the US this year.

Also, in Missouri, the Equal Justice Initiative reports that prosecutors are now able to file a motion to vacate or set aside a judgment if they have information that a person may have been wrongfully convicted. EJI says the state did not have a legal mechanism for prosecutors to seek relief in such cases until now. The new state law requires courts to hold a hearing on a prosecutor’s motion to set aside a conviction. EJI notes the new law enabled Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to file a “first-of-its-kind motion asking a court to release Kevin Strickland after 43 years in prison because he ‘is actually innocent’ and ‘should not remain in custody a day longer.'”

In Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth was awarded $400,000 by the state Board of Public Works last week in compensation for his wrongful conviction in 1985 for a rape and murder, the Washington Post reports. Bloodsworth spent nine years in prison, two on death row, before being exonerated based on DNA evidence in 1994. At the time of his release, he was awarded $300,000. Last week’s award was based on a new state law governing compensation. He was the first death row prisoner in the US exonerated based on DNA evidence.

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine issued reprieves for four men, the Columbus Dispatch reports. All four were scheduled to be executed next year, but one has been rescheduled to December 2024 and the other three in 2025. A statement from the governor’s office attributes the reprieves to “ongoing problems involving the willingness of pharmaceutical suppliers to provide drugs to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.”

An abolition effort led by Richard Branson is gaining steam, with more than 150 corporate leaders signing on to “The Business Leaders’ Declaration Against the Death Penalty,” BNN Bloomberg reports. Signatories include Bayer AG chief Werner Baumann, Salesforce.com Inc. head Marc Benioff, and Lava Records founder Jason Flom.” The movement is gaining momentum as companies become more inclined to weigh in on issues they used to avoid, especially when they are aligned with brand values,” Bloomberg says.

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