In Brief: September 2016

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The National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution last week calling for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. The 320-member group pointed out the “disproportionate and prejudicial application of the death penalty toward Latinos and other minorities” as well as the high risk of innocent people being executed. “This is the civil rights issue of our time,” said one caucus member.

In New Mexico, Republican Governor Susana Martinez wants the state legislature to bring back the death penalty. The state abolished capital punishment in 2009. Martinez announced her plan a few days after a police officer in Hatch was shot and killed by a fugitive from Ohio.

In Florida, a state appeals court gave prosecutors the go-ahead to seek the death penalty in four murder cases. Citing Hurst v. Florida, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that Florida’s death penalty system violated the Sixth Amendment because it allowed judicial override, two defendants had asked circuit judges to stop their cases from moving forward as death penalty cases, and two other defendants asked to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole sentences. In all four cases, circuit judges granted the requests. The state attorney general’s office appealed to the 2nd District, which rejected all four lower court rulings.

In Texas, which leads the nation in executions, no one has been executed since April 6th — its longest lull since 2008. Each of the last eight scheduled executions in Texas has been stayed or delayed. The most recent stay was granted last Friday to Robert Woods, who was scheduled to be executed on September 14 for the 1988 murder of a Houston police officer. The 5-4 opinion did not explain why the stay was granted, except for noting that Woods’ plea claimed that “the unconstitutional ‘nullification’ instruction prevented the jury from fully considering and giving effect to mitigating evidence of [his] remorse.”

In South Carolina, the Department of Justice announced last week that it will call 3,000 prospective jurors in the federal death penalty trial of Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old man accused of killing nine people in a Charleston church last year. The trial is scheduled to begin in December.

Also in Texas, a defense attorney who never successfully defended a client in approximately three dozen capital murder cases over 40 years, is giving up death penalty work. Jerry Guerinot practiced in Harris County, which has sent more people to death row than any other county in the country.

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