Florida Denies New Sentencing Hearings to More than Thirty Prisoners, Most Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death

In three days of bulk decision-making, the Florida Supreme Court has denied new sentencing hearings to more than thirty death-row prisoners, declining to enforce its bar against non-unanimous death sentences to cases that became final on appeal before June 2002. At least 24 of the prisoners who were denied relief had been unconstitutionally sentenced to death after non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations, including three prisoners—Etheria Verdell JacksonErnest D. Suggs, and Harry Franklin Phillips—with bare majority death recommendations of 7-5. The Florida court adopted June 24, 2002 as its cutoff date for enforcing its decision because that was when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Ring v. Arizona, an Arizona case establishing that the right to a jury trial entitles a capital defendant to have a jury find all facts that are necessary for a death sentence to be imposed. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that Florida’s death-penalty statute, which reserved penalty-phase factfinding for the judge, violated Ring. Later, also in Hurst’s case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a capital defendant’s right to a jury trial also required a unanimous jury vote for death before the trial judge could impose a death sentence. That decision potentially invalidated more than 375 Florida death sentences. However, in December 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Ring had announced a new legal right and that it would not apply Hurst to cases that had already completed their direct appeal before Ring was decided. The court issued opinions declining to apply Hurst in ten death-penalty cases on January 22, another ten on January 23, and a third set of ten on January 24. The court also issued unpublished orders denying relief in some other cases. Still more decisions are expected. These rulings reiterate the court’s decision to not grant relief to prisoners who were unconstitutionally sentenced to death prior to Ring. On August 10, 2017, the court, by a 6-1 vote, upheld the death sentence imposed on James Hitchcock, despite his being unconstitutionally sentenced to death following a non-unanimious sentencing recommendation by the jury. In dissenting, Justice Barbara J. Pariente wrote: “To deny Hitchcock relief when other similarly situated defendants have been granted relief amounts to a denial of due process.” In 80% of the new opinions, juries had not unanimously recommended death, but the prisoners’ appeals had been completed before Ring was decided. In four cases, the appeals of unconstitutionally death-sentenced prisoners became final in 2001. Steven Maurice Evans‘s appeal became final in March of 2002 and James Ford‘s unconstitutional death sentence became final in May 28, 2002, less than a month before Ring was decided. In the six cases in which prisoners had unanimous jury recommendations for death, the court declined to review other potential violations of Hurst and whether instructions diminishing the jury’s sense of responsibility may have unconstitutionally affected the verdict. Among those whose appeals were denied on January 22, 2018 is Eric Scott Branch, who was unconstitutionally sentenced to death following a 10-2 jury recommendation for death in 1997. Branch is set to be executed on February 22. According to a Death Penalty Information Center analysis of Florida’s death-row prisoners who have non-unanimous jury recommendations and whose convictions became final post-Ring, 153 prisoners on Florida’s death row are entitled to resentencing. Of them,123 (or 80.9%) have already obtained relief. At least eighteen prisoners who obtained relief under Hurst have since been resentenced to life, while two prisoners who initially had non-unanimous sentencing recommendations have been resentenced to death. In 2017, Florida executed two prisoners—Marc Asay and Michael Lambrix—after denying them relief despite their unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences.

(“Florida Supreme Court rejects 10 Death Row appeals at same time,” Orlando Sentinel, January 22, 2018.) Read DPIC’s webpage providing background on Florida’s handling of the cases litigated under Hurst here. See Arbitrariness and Sentencing

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A Pipeline Runs Through it?

In 2013, Enrique Peña Nieto’s government deregulated Mexico’s energy sector, opening it up to foreign investors for the first time 75 years. In what he called an “historic opportunity”, the Mexican President proclaimed “This profound reform can lift the standards of living for all Mexicans.”

But not everyone stands to see their quality of life materially improve from the deregulated sector. Such is the case for the Yaquí Peoples in Sonora state, Mexico, whose territory is currently home to an 84-kilometre stretch of natural gas pipeline.

The Aguaprieta (Agua Prieta) pipeline starts out in Arizona and stretches down 833km  to Agua Prieta, in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Sonora—cutting through Yaqui territory along the way.

Once completed, the pipeline would also cross Yaqui River (Río Yaqui), the Yaqui’s main source of water.

More than a few Yaqui are adamant that they will see no benefits from the project.  “The gas pipeline doesn’t help us, it only benefits businessmen, factory owners, but not the Yaqui” said Francisca Vásquez Molina, a Yaquí from the Loma de Bacúm community.

As with Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, the Aguaprieta project comes with its own share of risks.

In addition to the  considerable environmental impact that stems from the pipeline’s construction, the high methane content of natural gas could bring on disaster.  Rodrigo Gonzalez, natural resources and environmental impact expert, maintains that in the event of a gas explosion all human, plant and animal life within a one-kilometre radius surrounding the explosion would be lost. Anyone within the second kilometre would risk second and third-degree burns.

In the community of Loma de Bacúm, the gas pipeline is just 700 m from houses. In nearby Estación Oroz, it is 591m from a primary school.

Gonzalez has pointed out that another viable route for the pipeline was initially considered by the company that could have avoided Yaqui territory altogether. He suggests this route was ultimately rejected to save costs. “At the beginning of the project, two routes were mooted. That which didn’t cross indigenous territory cost 400 million pesos whilst that which puts Yaquí lives at risk costs 100 million pesos.”

IEnova, the company behind the pipeline, has repeatedly made assurances that all due safety procedures have been followed in construction and that the risk of accidents is minimal but this has not been enough to assuage the fear or anger of everyone opposing the gas pipeline.

In a public statement last year, the group Solidaridad Tribu Yaquí said, “This is a people that say no to a megaproject of death, dispossession and destruction[…]These rich men don’t care about the life of one, two, or three people, much less if they are indigenous… [they] don’t care if the Yaqui culture is exterminated. What is important to these rich men is to conclude the work and pocket all the profits to be brought about by the appropriation of the Yaqui territory.”

Not all Yaquí communities are united in rejecting the gas pipeline, however. Indeed, of the eight Yaquí communities consulted, only the Loma de Bacúm community refused to give their consent to the project. The other seven communities chose to accept the compensation offered. This decision has sadly resulted in tensions between Loma de Bacúm and the other communities. Things reached a critical point in October 2016 where one Yaquí member died and thirty injured in a confrontation involving different Yaquí communities.

Seemingly alone in their struggle, the Loma de Bacúm Yaquí have consistently resisted the Aguaprieta pipeline. In April 2016, they successfully fought to be granted a moratorium on its construction. When, in 2017, it became clear that IEnova, would carry on regardless and that neither federal nor state or authorities could be counted on for support, the Loma de Bacúm community resorted to more drastic measures. On May 21, community members removed cables which had been laid down in the preliminary stages of the gas pipeline construction. Then, after another court ruling that IEnova should remove all infrastructure within 24 hours fell on deaf ears, on August 22 the community went ahead and cut a 25-foot section out of the live gas pipeline, despite the grave risks they ran in doing so. As a result of the community’s actions in August, IEnova was forced to cut off the gas flow in the area and it has remained out of service ever since.

The community has been accused of sabotage and vandalism to IEnova property but the community maintains that IEnova, a company owned by US-based Sempra Energy, is trespassing on their land and holds them responsible for all damage brought on by the construction of a pipeline to which they never consented.

In a video shared on Facebook, one community member explained “If you want to have us killed, there’s no problem. We’re not scared of that… We’re not scared of this company nor this project…All that the Yaquí tribe is asking for is that the law is upheld and that federal and state government respect it. If you want to have us killed, go ahead there’s no problem but we’ll defend our land and that is our right.”

In September 2017, a judge once again found in favour of the Yaquí community ruling that IEnova did not have the right to enter Yaquí territory to repair the gas pipeline. Whether this latest ruling will carry more weight with both local and state authorities than the previous ones remains to be seen.

For the time-being, the stand-off looks set to continue. Loma de Bacúm has made it clear it will not back down until the pipeline is removed or rerouted. “If they want to build a pipeline. that’s fine”, said community spokesperson Guadalupe Flores, “but it will not pass through here.” At the same time, IEnova refuses to accept that one small community can curtail their plan to use Yaquí territory in order to provide electricity to the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), the country’s largest electric utility. Nor does it seem willing to brazenly defy the court’s latest ruling, at least for the time-being.

The struggle in Loma de Bacúm echoes loudly among all Indigenous Peoples who are grappling to make sure the resource sector cannot run roughshod over human rights and environmental concerns; but it is perhaps loudest in Mexico. Since the new energy policy went into effect, four other pipeline projects have been suspended. Looking ahead, a “shale offensive” is now set to begin later this year should the PRI retain power in July, leading to a proliferation of similar conflicts.

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Turkey’s offensive in Syria: Why a muted response from the US and Russia?

What’s one more genocide? We looked the other way for the Armenians, the Jews, Cambodians, Gazans, and Rwanda… what’s one more atrocity? STOP ALREADY!

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The US and Russian response to Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria has been understated. The International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann explains to DW why the global powers have refrained from speaking out.

Padmaavat row: Hindu groups rally ahead of India’s Bollywood epic release

Calling them Hindu groups is a disservice to believers and gives aid and comfort who use hate and delusion as a means to gain and hold power over people!

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Supporters of fringe Hindu groups have rampaged through several Indian cities against the release of the controversial film about a legendary Hindu queen. India’s Supreme Court has refused to allow bans on the movie.

‘We might start an operation in Syria’s Manbij,’ says Turkish FM

Genocide 2.0 and no one is saying STOP!

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In an interview with FRANCE 24, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said that Turkey’s ongoing military operation against Kurds in northern Syria could be expanded to the neighbouring Manbij region and even east of the Euphrates river. “This operation is targeting Afrin region. But the threat is also coming from Manbij”, Cavusoglu told FRANCE 24. “For now, Afrin is the target. But in the future, we might also start an operation in Manbij and also in the eastern part of the Euphrates.”