Category: Capital Punishment

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Only in Texas: the Grave Error of Using Literature Rather than Scientific Methodology to Assess Mental Retardation in a Capital Sentence Case

On August 7, Texas plans to execute Marvin Wilson, a man who received a 61 on the standard Wechsler full-scale I.Q. test, a score placing him below the first percentile of human intelligence and far below the I.Q. threshold for mental retardation (MR). His adaptive functioning registers at an even lower percentile. In 1998, a Beaumont jury convicted and capitally sentenced Mr. Wilson for the 1992 murder of Jerry Williams, which allegedly occurred after a fight at a gas station.

Despite enrolling in special education classes throughout his childhood, Mr. Wilson failed the 7th grade. He received mostly Ds and Fs when he repeated it, as well as when he was socially promoted to 8th and 9th grades. He dropped out of school for good in the 10th grade. Friends and family swore affidavits stating that, as a child, he frequently clamped his belt so tightly that he cut off blood circulation, that he couldn’t use simple toys such as tops and marbles, and that he sucked his thumb into adulthood. According to the MR expert who assessed him, Mr. Wilson continues to be unable to perform even the simplest tasks without assistance.

In 2002, Atkins v. Virginia categorically barred states from executing offenders with MR. The Supreme Court observed that people with MR are less culpable for their crimes and that they are not equipped to mount effective criminal defenses. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to wrongful convictions, inflated culpability assessments, and erroneous findings of leadership in multi-party crimes. In defining MR, Atkins relied on the scientific criteria set forth by the leading clinical authorities, including what was then known as the AAMR (the American Association on Mental Retardation). The AAMR thereafter changed its name to the AAIDD (the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities).

Texas has executed more than four times as many people as any other state in the modern era. It is now poised to carry out the particularly egregious execution of Mr. Wilson—one that underscores the jurisdiction’s ongoing status as this country’s most extreme outlier on all issues pertaining to capital sentencing. Mr. Wilson was diagnosed with MR by Dr. Donald Trahan, a court-appointed, board certified neuropsychologist with 22 years of clinical experience as an MR specialist. (See this addendum to his report as well).  At Mr. Wilson’s MR hearing, the state presented no evidence whatsoever; it has never offered any expert opinion, in any form, challenging Dr. Trahan’s clinical diagnosis. The state court actually reasoned that Mr. Wilson did not have MR because he “functioned sufficiently in his younger years to hold jobs, get a drivers license, marry and have a child.”  In the absence of judicial or executive intervention, Texas will execute Mr. Wilson next Tuesday, pursuant to the bizarre criteria that its state courts use to identify offenders with MR.

Utilizing the AAMR/AAIDD’s clinical criteria for mental retardation, Dr. Trahan met with Mr. Wilson for eight hours, reviewed his school and medical records, and administered or evaluated a battery of leading neuropsychological testing. He examined Mr. Wilson’s memory, language development, adaptive skills, conceptual reasoning, practical skills and other scientifically-recognized indicia of mental functioning. Taking into account all of that data, Dr. Trahan concluded that Mr. Wilson clearly had mild MR.

Texas, however, has translated the Supreme Court’s categorical ban on executing offenders with MR in a way that does not, in practice, exempt most offenders with that intellectual disability. Instead, Texas has improvised a set of “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas decision that announced them) to determine which defendants with MR actually receive the Atkins exemption. The Briseño factors are not used by any scientists or clinicians in medical practice, and they are not recognized by the AAMR/AAIDD. The Texas Court of Criminal appeals—the state supreme court for the purposes of criminal adjudication—has actually indicated that it formulated the Briseño factors with Steinbeck’s Lennie in mind.  Although literature can tell us much about society and  law, by my lights, it should not replace or disregard well-accepted scientific measures of evaluation.  That no doubt seems obvious to our readers, but no so to the Texas Court of Criminal appeals.

As the AAIDD wrote in their recent brief in Chester v. Thaler, another case involving the Briseño factors that is pending before the Supreme Court: “[The Texas] impressionistic ‘test’ directs fact-finders to use ‘factors’ that are based on false stereotypes about mental retardation that effectively exclude all but the most severely incapacitated.”

I’m thankful to my colleague Lee Kovarsky, an extraordinary habeas scholar and tireless advocate, who has been representing Mr. Marvin and for his incredibly hard work on Mr. Marvin’s cert petition.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Regulating Through Habeas

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a Note by Doug Lieb entitled Regulating Through Habeas: A Bad Incentive for Bad Lawyers?. The author discusses the potential pitfalls in a pending DOJ rule that provides for fast-track review of a state’s death row habeas petitions if the state implements certain sanctions for lawyers found to be legally ineffective:

The most important—and most heavily criticized—provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act restricted federal courts’ ability to hear habeas petitions and grant relief to prisoners. But the 1996 law also included another procedural reform, now tucked away in a less-traveled corner of the federal habeas statute. It enables a state to receive fast-track review of its death row prisoners’ federal habeas petitions if the U.S. Attorney General certifies that the state provides capital prisoners with competent counsel in state postconviction proceedings.

Now, a pending Department of Justice (DOJ) rule sets forth extensive criteria for states’ certification for fast-track review. Piggybacking on a federal statute that does the same, the proposed DOJ rule encourages states to adopt a seemingly commonsense measure to weed out bad lawyers: if an attorney has been found legally ineffective, remove him or her from the list of qualified counsel eligible for appointment. Unfortunately, such removal provisions may do more harm than good by jeopardizing the interests of ineffective lawyers’ former clients. This Note explains why removal provisions can be counterproductive, argues that rewarding the implementation of these provisions with fast-track habeas review is especially unwise, and offers a few recommendations.

He concludes:

The lesson, at a minimum, is that policymakers should be wary of one-off regulatory interventions into indigent defense, considering the hydraulic pressure that a new requirement might exert elsewhere in the system. Leaders within the public defense bar might also wish to think carefully about their expressions of support for ineffective-attorney-removal provisions. And, while some scholars have considered the ethical obligations of predecessor counsel when faced with an ineffectiveness claim, rigorous empirical study of lawyers’ actual responses to allegations of ineffectiveness may be needed to develop sound policy. Do most attorneys actually understand themselves to owe continuing duties to former clients, or do most do what they can to protect their professional reputations against charges of deficient performance? (And are those with the latter attitude more likely to be ineffective in the first place?) The practical effect of regulatory interventions, including removal provisions, turns on the answer to these questions.

None of this is to suggest that it’s in any way acceptable for an ineffective lawyer, let alone an incorrigibly awful one, to represent a capital—or non-capital—defendant or prisoner. The point is the opposite. Even a well-intentioned patchwork of regulation through habeas is no substitute for an adequately funded system that trains, compensates, and screens counsel appropriately. If kicking ineffective lawyers off the list may do more harm than good, the goal should be keep them off the list to begin with.

Read the full article, Regulating Through Habeas: A Bad Incentive for Bad Lawyers? by Doug Lieb, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

Technocracy as Trojan Horse

Venture capitalist Eric X. Li published a remarkable opinion piece last week, entitled Why China’s Political Model Is Superior. Given that French parents have recently supplanted Chinese ones in the merry-go-round of elite media idees fixes, we can only hope that milder, Gallic paternalism will eventually displace Li’s “Wolf Father” state. In the meantime, let’s take a look at Li’s argument.

Li starts with a hard-to-dispute premise: America talks a good game about democracy, but its billionaire primaries are embarrassing and its substantive legislation is often corrupt. He then makes some sweeping claims:

In Athens, ever-increasing popular participation in politics led to rule by demagogy. And in today’s America, money is now the great enabler of demagogy. As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only. Elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election; special interests manipulate the people into voting for ever-lower taxes and higher government spending, sometimes even supporting self-destructive wars.

For anyone familiar with the George Mason school of anti-democratic theory, there is little controversial here. But for the democrat, the answer to such problems is a popular movement, however hopeless it can seem among an apathetic populace.
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Original Habeas Writ

My brilliant colleague Lee Kovarsky is an expert on the theory and practice of habeas corpus.  He’s a wunderkind.  One can find him, in any given week, arguing habeas petitions before an appellate court, working on the first habeas casebook entitled Federal Habeas Corpus: Executive Detention and Post-Conviction Litigation with his co-author Brandon Garrett, and, as I imagine is true this week, grading civil procedure exams.  Professor Kovarsky is also writing ground-breaking articles.  Here is the abstract for his most recent work entitled Original Habeas Redux, published by the Virginia Law Review:

In Original Habeas Redux, I map the modern dimensions of the Supreme Court’s most exotic jurisdiction, the original habeas writ. The Court has not issued such relief since 1925 and, until recently, had not ordered a case transferred pursuant to that authority in over fifty years. In August 2009, by transferring a capital prisoner’s original habeas petition to a federal district court rather than dismissing it outright, In re Davis abruptly thrust this obscure power back into mainstream legal debate over both the death penalty and the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction.

Scrambling to understand how the authority has evolved since its nineteenth-century heyday, commentators have been severely limited by the absence of any data reporting the attributes of the original petitions themselves. I have filled that empirical void by collecting and organizing the only modern original habeas data, and this Article presents those results for the first time. The data shows that the vast majority of original petitioners are criminally confined, but that they are not collaterally challenging that confinement in their initial habeas proceedings. Original writ procedure is now primarily a vehicle for litigating “successive” habeas corpus petitions that are otherwise subject to severe jurisdictional limits in the federal courts.

I argue that, in light of the writ’s history and the data I have compiled, Davis is not a blip in an otherwise constant state of original habeas inactivity. I observe that the availability of original habeas relief has historically exhibited two over-arching characteristics: (1) that the Supreme Court’s Article III appellate power to grant it is basically coextensive with Article III judicial power common to all federal courts; and (2) that the Court does not actually exercise that authority when it may avail itself of jurisdictional alternatives. I also present data confirming that the availability of conventional appellate jurisdiction exerts the dominant influence on the modern original habeas docket’s composition. I ultimately advance what I call the “capital safety valve paradigm”–the idea that original habeas should and likely will emerge as a means to ensure that the death penalty is not erroneously imposed.

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Goodwin Liu’s First Three Months on the California Supreme Court

Goodwin Liu now has been an associate justice of the California Supreme Court for just over three months. And while he has not yet written a majority, dissenting, or concurring opinion, the (very) early returns suggest that the comparisons between Justice Liu and former Chief Justice Rose Bird that circulated at the time of his nomination to the court may have been a tad overstated.

Bird’s tenure as chief justice ended in no small part because of her perceived absolutist stance on the death penalty. Just yesterday, the California Supreme Court reversed two capital convictions, finding that the trial court had improperly discharged a juror. Was this the work of Justice Liu, reviving the spirit of the Bird court? Well, no. The unanimous opinion was authored by Justice Carol Corrigan, a Schwarzenegger appointee.

Meanwhile, just last month the court unanimously affirmed judgments of death in two separate cases. Though neither matter raised particularly complex issues, Justice Liu’s votes in these cases belie suggestions that, if placed in a position to review capital cases, he would “overrule death penalty convictions given any excuse, no matter how far-fetched.”

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Neuroscience at Trial: Society for Neuroethics Convenes Panel of Front-Line Practitioners

Is psychopathy a birth defect that should exclude a convicted serial killer and rapist from the death penalty?  Are the results of fMRI lie-detection tests reliable enough to be admitted in court? And if a giant brain tumor suddenly turns a law-abiding professional into a hypersexual who indiscriminately solicits females from ages 8 to 80, is he criminally responsible for his conduct?  These were the questions on the table when the International Neuroethics Society convened a fascinating panel last week at the Carnegie Institution for Science last week on the uses of neuroscience evidence in criminal and civil trials.

Moderated and organized by Hank Greely of Stanford Law School, the panel brought together:

  • Steven Greenberg, whose efforts to introduce neuroscience on psychopathic disorder (psychopathy) in capital sentencing in Illinois of Brian Dugan has garnered attention from Nature to The Chicago Tribune;
  • Houston Gordon (an old-school trial attorney successful enough not to need his own website, hence no hyperlink), who has made the most assertive arguments so far to admit fMRI lie-detection evidence in a civil case, United States v. Semrau, and
  • Russell Swerdlow, a research and clinical professor of neurology (and three other sciences!).  Swerdlow’s brilliant diagnostic work detected the tumor in the newly-hypersexual patient, whom others had dismissed as a creep and a criminal.

 

In three upcoming short posts, I will feature the comments of each of these panelists and present for you, dear reader, some of the thornier issues raised by their talks.  These cases have been reported on in publications ranging from the Archives of Neurology to USA Today, but Concurring Opinions brings to you, direct and uncensored, the statements of the lawyers and scientists who made these cases happen … Can I say “stay tuned” on a blog?

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Federalism and the Death Penalty

I thought I would flag an interesting issue from U.S. v. Fell, 571 F.3d 264 (2d Cir. 2009) (denial of rehearing in banc).  Two people commit three murders and cross state lines in the process.  Federal prosecutors in Vermont (the state that is deemed to be the proper venue for trial) decline to seek the death penalty in part because Vermont does not have the death penalty.  The DOJ overrules this decision and orders that the death penalty be pursued.  A Vermont jury convicts and sentences the defendants to death.

What are the federalism implications of this case?  One thought is that if a state bars capital punishment, federal prosecutors should take that into account when deciding what sentence to seek. They would not, however, be bound to reject capital punishment just because the state does not have it.  Another is that the application of the death penalty in a state that does not have it is “unusual” and raises a valid Eighth Amendment claim for anyone who receives that federal sentence.  A third idea is that obtaining a “death qualified” jury in a state that opposes capital punishment requires the dismissal of so many jurors that it creates a Sixth Amendment claim.  Finally, one might say that all three of these questions depend on the nature of the offense.  If somebody assassinates the President or sets off a dirty bomb in a state that lacks capital punishment, few would be troubled if the feds superseded state law.  A crime that looks like a garden-variety murder, however, might be a different story.

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A very disturbing report

According to a new press release from the UK/Iraqi advocacy group Iraqi-LGBT, Iraq will begin executions this week of dozens of criminals held for capital crimes. One of those “crimes” is homosexuality, and there are believed to be several death-row prisoners who are slated for execution in the next month, simply for the crime of being gay.  The Iraqi government is not discussing the details of these prisoners’ cases.

I can’t vouch for the veracity of this report — it’s on several blogs right now, but has not yet been verified by any mainstream news source that I could find. But the report is sufficiently alarming that I thought our readers might want to know about it. (And it is very much in line with the reports that have been coming out of Iraq for years, that “morality police” death squads have targeted and killed many gay Iraqis.)

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More Coverage on Factual Error in Child Rape Decision

There has been some interesting fall-out from the NY Times article I blogged about yesterday. DOJ has admitted that it erred in failing to file a brief in support of the Kentucky statute that proscribed the death penalty for child rape, and it has indicated that it may support a petition from the state of Louisiana to rehear the case. More coverage and commentary can be found in the New York Times, as well as at the Volokh Conspiracy and at Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy.

The Blackstone Ratio at the Supreme Court

My colleague David Feige makes the following observation about the role of the Blackstone Ratio in our criminal justice system:

[In Kansas v. Marsh, Scalia] concluded that “The rate at which innocent people are convicted of felonies is less than three-hundredths of 1 percent – .027 percent, to be exact”. Scalia sleeps well knowing our system works so brilliantly. The problem, of course is that .027 percent is a hoax, and . . . I [am] struck once again that a justice generally considered to be so bright could get something this important so fundamentally wrong. But one need only look at the study Scalia cites (by Joshua Marquis, a stalwart of the prosecutorial lobby) to understand the error of his ways.

Marquis came up with the number that Scalia adopted much like a toddler solving a problem in a kindergarten math workbook: He took the total number of exonerations, (north of 200 now) picked a gratuitous multiplier (10 purely for rhetorical purposes), and then divided by 15 million—the total number of convictions during the period of years he considered. . . . As I’ve previously pointed out, here’s why that’s a ludicrous methodology.

So how should one “do the math?” Another colleague of mine, Michael Risinger, was recently cited in Justice Stevens’ concurrence in Baze v. Rees for his work on the issue.

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