Tag Archives: Catholics

Stay of Execution Granted for Sole Native American on Federal Death Row

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A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has granted a stay of execution for federal death row prisoner Lezmond Mitchell to prevent the U.S. government from executing him before the court can review an on-going appeal concerning possible anti-Native American bias in his case. Mitchell, who was scheduled to be executed on December 11, 2019, is a member of the Navajo Nation and the only Native American on federal death row. His case is one of several in the past year highlighting the tension between tribal sovereignty and the pursuit of the death penalty by state and federal officials.

When the Department of Justice announced in July its intention to execute Mitchell and four other federal death-row prisoners in a five-week span from December 9, 2019 through January 15, 2020, it falsely claimed that the prisoners had all exhausted their appeals and that it was carrying out the executions to advance the interests of the victims’ families. In fact, although Mitchell’s initial appeals had been denied, he was in the midst of litigation in the federal courts and had been granted a “certificate of appealability,” meaning that the courts considered the issues he raised to be worthy of further judicial review. Both the Navajo Nation and the victims’ family told federal prosecutors at the time of trial that they opposed the government seeking the death penalty in the case.

Mitchell’s attorneys argued that his scheduled execution would interfere with continuing legal challenges to the constitutionality of his death sentence. They asked “for a stay of execution such that he may litigate his appeal [concerning anti-Native American bias] to conclusion.” A split panel of the federal appeals court voted 2-1 on October 4 to grant the stay so that briefing could be completed in the case and scheduled argument on the appeal for December 13.

In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado that statements by jurors that their verdict was influenced by racial stereotypes or animus were admissible to challenge the constitutionality of a defendant’s conviction. Mitchell’s lawyers sought to interview jurors about potential racial bias in his case, citing bias in the charging decision, the exclusion of Native American prospective jurors, and a closing argument that “was riddled with comment” disparaging Mitchell’s “religious beliefs and Navajo culture.” The district court refused to permit Mitchell to talk to jurors, relying on an Arizona procedural rule barring juror interviews. Mitchell then asked the Ninth Circuit for permission to appeal. On April 25, the Ninth Circuit found that he had presented sufficient basis for appeal and set a briefing schedule for the case. Notwithstanding this ruling, Attorney General Barr announced Mitchell’s execution date on July 25.

Federal Appeals Court Overturns Mother’s Conviction in Texas Child Murder Case That May Have Been an Accidental Death

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Citing trial court interference in her right to present a defense, a federal appeals court has overturned the conviction of a Texas mother who was sentenced to death on charges that she had murdered her two-year-old daughter. In an unpublished, unsigned opinion issued on July 29, 2019, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said that trial court rulings that blocked Melissa Elizabeth Lucio (pictured) from calling an expert witness to challenge the reliability of statements she gave to police violated Lucio’s right to present a “complete defense.” The appeals court reversed a federal district court decision that had upheld Lucio’s conviction and death sentence and returned the case to the lower court to grant Lucio a new trial.

The prosecution alleged that Lucia had physically abused her daughter, Mariah, over a period of time and that the child had been beaten to death by her mother. Lucia’s lawyers contested the cause of death, presenting expert testimony from a neurosurgeon that Mariah may instead have died from head trauma caused by falling down a flight of stairs. The primary evidence implicating Lucio was a recording of statements she made to police during lengthy interrogation the night her daughter died. During that interrogation, Lucio admitted to spanking Mariah, but denied ever having abused her. Late into the night, after hours of continuous interrogation, Texas Ranger Victor Escalon pressured Lucio to say more. She responded with: “I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m responsible for it.” When Escalon later asked her about specific bruises on her daughter’s body, Lucio said, “I guess I did it. I guess I did it.”

The prosecution characterized Lucio’s interrogation as evidence that she had abused her daughter, and therefore must have killed her. Lucio’s lawyers sought to present testimony from a psychologist to explain the coercive effect of the police interrogation on Lucio, whom Dr. John Pinkerman described as a “battered woman” who “takes blame for everything that goes on in the family.” The trial court barred Pinkerman from testifying, asserting that his testimony was irrelevant because Lucio had “denied ever having anything to do with the killing of the child.”

The Fifth Circuit rejected the factual and legal basis for the trial court’s finding, holding that the exclusion of the evidence was “of such a magnitude or so egregious that [it] render[ed] the trial fundamentally unfair.”

Alabama Woman Impregnated While in County Jail Awaiting Death-Penalty Trial

An Alabama woman who may have been raped by guards has given birth after being impregnated in the Coosa County jail is awaiting trial on capital murder charges. LaToni Daniel (pictured), an honorably discharged Army National Guard veteran who has been in pretrial custody without bail for more than seventeen months, had been prescribed sedatives in the prison for a supposed seizure disorder, and the medication prolonged her sleep. She first learned she was pregnant in December 2018 after having been transferred to a new jail, and she gave birth to a baby boy in late May. Daniel’s lawyers said she had no memory of having sex while in jail.

Daniel was prescribed sedatives for the first time after she was arrested. However, according to Daniel’s brother, Terrell Ransaw, she “never had any seizures before she went to jail.” Mickey McDermott, a lawyer who is representing Daniel in a potential civil suit, said Daniel says “she has no memory of having sex at all, so what we’re assuming based on the information we have is that with some of the medication, she was knocked out and someone raped her. … She’s reported she’s a rape victim and no one is investigating.” Under Alabama law, it is illegal for jail employees to have sex with prisoners, even if it is consensual. The father of the child is unknown.

Daniel was transferred from Coosa County jail to Talladega County jail in December and Coosa County Sheriff Terry Wilson told Talladega officials to give Daniel a pregnancy test. Talladega County Chief Deputy Joshua Tubbs told The Appeal that Daniel had been moved as a result of “an ongoing investigation.” In March, Daniel requested bail so she could give birth and recover outside of the jail while awaiting trial, but a bail determination was not made before she gave birth. Daniel had been indicted on capital murder charges in April 2018, and Alabama law requires judges to presume capital defendants guilty for the purposes of setting bail. In capital cases, the minimum bail is $50,000. She says she was in a car when her boyfriend and co-defendant, Ladaniel Tuck, robbed and shot an elderly white man, 87-year-old Thomas Virgil Chandler. It is undisputed that Daniel – who court records describe as an alleged getaway driver – did not kill anyone, and she maintains that she did not know Tuck intended to kill Chandler. Alabama allows death sentences for accomplices in murder cases that also involve robbery, kidnapping, rape, or burglary. Jon Taylor, Daniel’s defense lawyer in the criminal case, told The Appeal he found it “somewhat surprising that it came out of the grand jury as capital murder and even more surprising they’re going after the death penalty. There’s nothing in my mind that [says] she should qualify for the death penalty. … I believe it was unknowing conduct and I believe she was acting under duress.”

The charges against Daniel are even more out of the ordinary because of the declining use of the death penalty in Alabama. Alabama imposed three death sentences in 2018, down from a peak of 25 in 1998. Coosa County prosecutors have sought only one death sentence in the last five years, and the defendant in that case was not sentenced to death. Alabama has executed 18 African-American prisoners for killing white victims and only one white prisoner for killing an African-American victim. Both Daniel and Tuck are African American.

(Lauren Gill, AN ALABAMA WOMAN GOT PREGNANT WHILE IN JAIL. SHE HAS NO MEMORY OF HAVING SEX., The Appeal, May 31, 2019; Alabama Media Group, Family of Army vet wants to know how she got pregnant in jail for murder, PopularMilitary.com, May 16, 2019; Michael Harriot, Alabama Woman Incarcerated for 17 Months Doesn’t Know How She Ended Up Pregnant, The Root, May 14, 2019; Ashley Remkus, Family of pregnant Alabama jail inmate: ‘We just want a fair investigation’, Birmingham News/al.com, May 14, 2019.) See Women.

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Ten Years After Landmark Study, Junk Science Still Pervasive in Death-Penalty Cases

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a landmark report titled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, in which it raised significant questions about the validity of every forensic science discipline except DNA analysis. The report concluded, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.” In a report for The Intercept, journalists Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith assess the meager progress in forensic science in the decade following the release of the NAS report and explore how politics, tradition, and inertia have contributed to an “ongoing crisis within forensic science that remain[s] woefully unresolved.”

Forensic science, including fingerprint analysis, hair analysis, bite mark comparison, and arson investigation, is widely used in criminal prosecutions, but it has been found to contribute to wrongful convictions in a startling number of cases. A 2017 DPIC review of 34 death-row exonerations found that junk science contributed to nearly one-third (32.4%) of those wrongful convictions. An FBI review of hair analysis found that analysts had made erroneous statements in at least 33 death penalty cases, but many of those never had an opportunity for reconsideration – by the time the report was released, nine of those defendants had been executed and five had died of other causes. Segura and Smith explain, “high-profile forensics scandals and a rising tally of exonerations have made it hard for even the most stubborn forensic experts to ignore the problem of junk science.”

In 2016, a follow-up report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology warned, “Without appropriate estimates of accuracy, an examiner’s statement that two samples are similar — or even distinguishable — is scientifically meaningless: It has no probative value and considerable potential for prejudicial impact. Nothing — not training, personal experience nor professional practices — can substitute for adequate empirical demonstration of accuracy.” Yet, to the dismay of Harry Edwards, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia who co-authored the NAS report, law enforcement and prosecutors have actively opposed reform. “The group that surprised me the most were prosecutors,” he said. “Not just at Department of Justice, but prosecutors generally. Because I would’ve assumed, in my naïve way, that they would’ve welcomed a report saying we need more and better research to validate these practices, and to make them better. Because that serves both prosecutors and defendants well. … I think a number of them were worried that if you took the report seriously and started doubting some of what they had been doing, this would open cases that they thought were long gone.”

Edwards particularly noted the problems with bite-mark evidence. “I was flabbergasted when I listened to the person that was testifying about bite marks,” he recalled. “There were no studies of any consequence on validation, reliability, and I didn’t have to be a scientist to understand that what he was saying was fragile, at best.” Bite-mark evidence relies on two assumptions, Smith and Segura explain: “First, that human dentition, like DNA, is unique; second, that skin is a suitable medium for recording this uniqueness. The problem is that neither premise has been proven true; in fact, scientific research conducted to date has suggested the opposite — and that bite-mark matching is an entirely subjective affair.” It has been implicated in 31 wrongful convictions, and a study that asked 39 analysts certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology to examine 100 case studies found that they unanimously agreed on whether the evidence was a human bite mark in only four cases. The Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded “there is no scientific basis for stating that a particular patterned injury can be associated to an individual’s dentition,” and recommended a moratorium on its use. Despite this evidence, several leaders in forensic odontology have dug in their heels. One dentist, Dr. Robert Dorion, called the focus on wrongful convictions “fake news,” and asserted, without evidence, that wrongful convictions connected to bite marks “had ceased.”

In the ten years since the NAS report, a few reforms have been made, including the National Commission on Forensic Science banning its practitioners from using the misleading phrase “reasonable degree of scientific certainty” in their testimony. Judge Edwards said, “we’re not where we ought to be” in terms of implementing reform. Most particularly, he is disappointed that a key recommendation from the report has not been adopted: the formation of a “national group that was independent, separate from law enforcement, that oversees forensic science. That hasn’t happened,” he said.

(Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith, BAD EVIDENCE: Ten Years After a Landmark Study Blew the Whistle on Junk Science, the Fight Over Forensics Rages On, The Intercept, May 5, 2019.) See Innocence.

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Former North Carolina Death-Row Prisoner Charles Ray Finch Freed After 43 Years

A North Carolina man wrongly convicted and sentenced to death based upon false forensic testimony and an eyewitness identification manipulated by police misconduct has been freed from prison after 43 years. On May 23, 2019, federal district court judge Terrence Boyle ordered North Carolina to release former death-row prisoner Charles Ray Finch (pictured with his members of his legal team) from custody, five months after a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found Finch “actually innocent” of the murder. Finch, now 81 years old, was freed from Greene Correctional Institution in Maura, North Carolina, that afternoon. Finch’s daughter, Katherine Jones-Bailey, was two years old when he was convicted and sentenced to death. “I knew the miracle was going to happen,” she said about her father’s release. “I just didn’t know when.”

Following the appeals court ruling, Finch’s lawyers from the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic filed a motion in federal district court seeking his immediate release. The North Carolina Attorney General’s office joined in the motion. The district court formally overturned Finch’s conviction and gave Wilson County prosecutors 30 days to decide whether to retry him. With no credible evidence of guilt, a retrial is considered unlikely. If charges are not refiled, Finch will become the 166th former U.S. death-row prisoner to have been exonerated since 1973. He will be the second death-sentenced prisoner to have waited more than four decades to be exonerated. In March 2019, Clifford Williams, Jr. was exonerated in Florida 42 years after his wrongful conviction and death sentence. 

Finch was convicted in 1976 of murdering a grocery store clerk during an attempted robbery. He was sentenced to death under the mandatory death-sentencing statute then in effect in North Carolina. A state forensic witness testified at the trial that the victim had died from two shotgun wounds, and a shotgun shell was found in Finch’s car. A store employee who saw the killer flee the scene told police that the killer had been wearing a three-quarter length jacket. An eyewitness later identified Finch in three different lineups. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the sentencing statute and, in 1977, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated Finch’s death sentence and resentenced him to life in prison.

In 2013, testimony by Dr. John Butts, then North Carolina’s Chief Medical Examiner, revealed that the victim had been killed by a pistol, not a shotgun and North Carolina State Crime Laboratory Special Agent Peter Ware, the forensic scientist manager for the lab’s firearm toolmark section, testified that the bullet found at the scene and the shell found in Finch’s car did not come from the same firearm. Finch also presented testimony that the eyewitness identification procedures had been unduly suggestive. In an interview, Finch told WNCN-TV, “[w]hen I was picked up, they didn’t question me or nothing. They put me there in a line-up. Straight in a line-up. And they put me in a line-up with a black leather coat on.” Chief Deputy Tony Owens claimed that he had put the jacket on another man in the lineup, but photos the defense had discovered showed that Finch was the only person in the three lineups wearing a coat. “That’s one of the highlights at the evidentiary hearing,” said Jim Coleman, Finch’s long-time lawyer and the director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “[W]e were able to expose that [Owens] had lied about the line-up and he had dressed Ray in a coat and he was the only one wearing a coat in the line-up.”

Coleman and the clinic have represented Finch for fifteen years, and Finch was the clinic’s first client. “We have students who work their hearts out on these cases,” Coleman said. “We feel an enormous sense of vindication.”

(Olivia Neeley, Judge orders Finch to be released, The Wilson Times, May 23, 2019; Ken Smith and Matthew Burns, Wrongfully convicted Wilson man freed after four decades in prison, WRAL.com, May 23, 2019; Russ Bowen, Charles Finch speaks with CBS 17 ahead of potential release from prison, WNCN, May 21, 2019. Photo by Zak Dahlheimer, WNCN; provided courtesy of Mr. Dahlheimer and WNCN.) See Innocence and Prosecutorial Misconduct.

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New Hampshire Senate Passes Death-Penalty Repeal With Veto-Proof Majority

In a vote death-penalty opponents praised as “historic,” a veto-proof supermajority of the New Hampshire legislature gave final approval to a bill that would repeal the state’s death penalty statute. By a vote of 17-6, the senators voted on April 11, 2019 to end capital prosecutions in the Granite State, exceeding the two-thirds majority necessary to override an anticipated veto by Governor Chris Sununu. In March, the state House of Representatives passed the same abolition bill, HB 455, by a veto-proof 279-88 supermajority. For the second consecutive year, the bill received bipartisan support, including sponsorship by seven Democratic and six Republican sponsors across both legislative houses. Twelve Democratic and five Republican senators voted in favor of repeal. An identical bill to repeal the death penalty passed the legislature in 2018, but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu, and an attempt to override the veto fell two votes short in the Senate.

The Governor’s office issued a statement after the vote saying that Sununu “continues to stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community, and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty.” Repeal advocates quickly responded to that claim, noting that numerous retired prosecutors, members of law enforcement, and relatives of murder victims had testified in favor of repeal. Rep. Renny Cushing (D – Rockingham), whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in two separate incidents, was one of the leading proponents of the bill. Cushing has described the death penalty as a “ritualized killing” that does nothing to compensate for a victim’s family’s loss. “The governor has positioned himself as saying he’s vetoing the repeal of the death penalty because he cares about law enforcement and victims, but he’s refused to meet with murder victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty,” Cushing said. Sen. Ruth Ward (R – Stoddard), whose father was killed when she was 7 years old, spoke briefly before casting her vote: “He never saw us grow up. My mother forgave whoever it was, and I will vote in favor of this bill,” she said.

During the Senate debate, senators mentioned costs, racial inequities, and wrongful convictions among their reasons for supporting repeal. Senator John Reagan (R – Deerfield), a Republican who voted in favor of repeal, told The New York Times that he doesn’t trust the government with capital punishment. “The more and more experience I had with government, I concluded that the general incompetency of government didn’t make them the right people to decide life and death,” he said. The New Hampshire legislative vote reflects emerging bipartisanship in state legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty. “The vote to end New Hampshire’s death penalty included many conservative Republican lawmakers,” said Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “They join a growing number of GOP state legislators around the country who feel strongly that capital punishment does not comport with their conservative beliefs, such as limited government, fiscal responsibility, and valuing life.” Republican-backed bills to abolish the death penalty or limit its use have been introduced in a number of states this year, including Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Wyoming.

The New Hampshire repeal bill applies only to future crimes, and does not address the fate of Michael Addison, the only person on New Hampshire’s death row. No one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939. If the bill becomes law, New Hampshire will be the 21st state to abolish capital punishment and the ninth in the past 15 years.

(Dave Solomon, Death penalty repeal passes NH Senate with veto-proof majority, New Hampshire Union Leader, April 11, 2019; Kate Taylor and Richard A. Oppel Jr., With a Death Row of 1, New Hampshire Is Poised to End Capital Punishment, The New York Times, April 11, 2019; Mark Berman, New Hampshire, after failed attempts, looks poised to abolish the death penalty, Washington Post, April 11, 2019; Savannah Smith, New Hampshire lawmakers vote to repeal death penalty with veto-proof majority, NBC News, April 11, 2019; Holly Ramer, The New Hampshire Senate has voted to repeal the state’s death penalty, sending the bill to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, Associated Press, April 12, 2019.) See Recent Legislative Activity.

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Pittsburgh Rabbi’s Wife Opposes Death Penalty for Tree of Life Synagogue Killings

Beth Kissileff (pictured), a writer and the wife of a rabbi who survived the shooting rampage that killed eleven worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty against the man charged with committing those murders. In an opinion article for the Religion News Service, Kissileff wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation, engaged federal prosecutors and a social worker who had come to discuss the trial of the white supremacist accused of the act of domestic terrorism in “a discussion of Jewish concepts of justice.” Three members of the New Light Congregation were among those murdered in the synagogue. Rabbi Perlman, Kissileff wrote, told the prosecution team: “Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death. … But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.” She writes, “if as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions?”

Kissileff bases her conclusion that that a sentence of life without parole for the synagogue shooting is more appropriate than death both on Jewish teachings against the death penalty and on her hope that the killer might yet change his white supremacist beliefs. She wrote in an article for The Jerusalem Post that “[w]hen Jews are killed just for being Jewish, we commemorate them with the words ‘Hashem yikom damam,’ may God avenge their blood. This formulation absents us from the equation since it expresses that it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice. As humans, we are incapable of meting out true justice when a monstrous crime has been committed.” She explains that, although the Torah calls for a death sentence for some crimes, Jewish tradition teaches that death sentences should be very rare, if they are allowed at all. She writes that “a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out [even] once every 70 years.”

Though recognizing that repentance is rare, Kissileff said nonetheless “[t]here is always a chance for redemption. Calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve. I would rather not foreclose that possibility of change, slim as it may be, by putting someone to death.” Recounting She recounted the cases of white nationalists Derek Black, who renounced his hatred of Jews after being invited to Shabbat dinners by Jewish students at his college, and Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead leader who later co-authored a book on forgiveness with a man whose father was among the seven congregants murdered in a hate attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Referring to these examples, Kissileff said “[n]either [man] might have been expected to change their beliefs, and yet they have.”

Kissileff’s articles describe the legacy of those who were killed in the Pittsburgh attack and how the shooting has inspired others to become more involved in the synagogue and to learn more about their Jewish faith: “Creating more knowledge of what Judaism and Jewish values are, and encouraging more Jews to commit to them, is the most profound way to avenge their blood.” She writes that, “rather than seeking the shooter’s death,” a better response for Jews would be “strengthening other Jews and Jewish life in Pittsburgh and around the world. Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.” She concludes: “The most important vengeance for the murder of 11 Jews or 6 million is for the Jewish people to live and the Torah to live, not for their killer to die.”

(Beth Kissileff, WIFE OF PITTSBURGH RABBI: NO DEATH PENALTY FOR ANTISEMITIC SHOOTER, The Jerusalem Post, February 20, 2019; Bob Bauder, Wife of rabbi who survived Tree of Life shooting opposes death penalty, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 20, 2019; Beth Kissileff, The Jewish answer to how to punish the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Religion News Service, February 27, 2019.) See ReligionVictims, and Federal Death Penalty.

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After More Than Three Decades, Two Death-Row Prisoners Freed in California

Two former California death-row prisoners who had spent a combined 70 years in prison are now free men, after federal courts overturned their convictions and local prosecutors agreed to plea deals on non-capital charges. James Hardy (pictured, left) was freed on February 14, 2019 after pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in exchange for a suspended sentence and release on probation. Freddie Lee Taylor (pictured, right) was released on February 20 after pleading guilty to manslaughter and a sentence of time served. Both men have claims of innocence, but their plea deals make them ineligible for DPIC’s Innocence List. Each spent more than 30 years on death row.

James Hardy was convicted and sentenced to death in Los Angeles in 1984 for the murder of Nancy Morgan and her son, Mitchell Morgan. Hardy was tried along with two co-defendants, Mark Reilly and Clifford Morgan, the husband and father of the victims. Clifford was convicted of hiring Reilly and Hardy to kill his family so he could collect insurance money. Prosecutors argued that Hardy was the actual killer and Reilly the middleman in the conspiracy. On appeal, Hardy argued that his trial attorney had been ineffective because he had failed to investigate or present evidence that the prosecution’s key witness was actually the killer. The California Supreme Court overturned Hardy’s death sentence, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit later overturned his conviction, writing, “Hardy’s attorney failed him, and the State of California failed Hardy by putting a man on the stand that it should have known committed the crime.” The court said, “there is a substantial likelihood that the jury would not have convicted Hardy had [his trial lawyer] performed effectively.” Rather than retry Hardy, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office agreed to a plea deal.

Freddie Lee Taylor was convicted and sentenced to death in Contra Costa County in 1986. Taylor had experienced severe trauma and abuse as a child, started using drugs by the age of 10, and was housed from age 13 to 17 in a juvenile detention center that was described in court records as a “gruesome, dehumanizing and frightening world where rape, beatings and fear were constant.” He was arrested in 1984 during a “family dispute” and was sent to a mental institution, where he attempted suicide. Despite doctors’ recommendations that he be placed in a mental hospital because he was a danger to himself or others, he was released by hospital staff. He burglarized the home of 84-year-old Carmen Vasquez, leaving fingerprints in her home. When she was murdered days later, he was identified as a suspect because his fingerprints were at the crime scene. Taylor’s long history of mental illness was ignored at his trial, where his lawyer never requested and the court did not independently order a competency evaluation. His appeal lawyers argued that his conviction was invalid because he was not competent to stand trial. A federal judge reversed Taylor’s conviction in 2016 and the Ninth Circuit upheld that decision in 2018, saying there was insufficient evidence to accurately assess Taylor’s mental health at the time of the crime and his trial. The federal court gave Contra Costa County prosecutors 60 days to decide whether to retry him, but they instead agreed to the plea deal. “Had he not had the benefit of zealous appellate lawyers dedicated to his cause, Freddie Lee Taylor may well have been executed,” Chief Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said. “His is but one case. Others like him who have meritorious claims may not be so fortunate. There are over 700 more people on death row — many waiting for an attorney to be appointed to their case and others still waiting for their cases to be finally resolved by the courts.”

(Nate Gartrell, East Bay man freed from Death Row nearly 33 years after conviction, The Mercury News, February 22, 2019.) Read the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision in Hardy v. Chappell. See Innocence, Representation, and Mental Illness.

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42 Years After Death Sentence, Federal Appeals Court Says Charles Ray Finch ‘Actually Innocent’

A federal appeals court has found 80-year-old Charles Ray Finch (pictured) “actually innocent” of the murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death in North Carolina 42 years ago. The pronouncement came in a unanimous ruling issued by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on January 25, 2019. In that decision, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote that “Finch has overcome the exacting standard for actual innocence through sufficiently alleging and providing new evidence of a constitutional violation and through demonstrating that the totality of the evidence, both old and new, would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The U.S. Supreme Court has never recognized innocence alone as grounds to overturn a conviction, so the appeals court could not set Finch free. Instead, the panel reversed a lower court’s denial of relief and sent the case back for adjudication of constitutional violations relating to Finch’s innocence claim. Jim Coleman, Finch’s lawyer and the co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said he now hopes to convince North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to “remedy the miscarriage of justice in joining us in a motion to overturn Ray’s conviction and release him without any further proceedings in court.”

Finch was convicted and sentenced to death in 1976 for the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman during a failed robbery attempt, but he has consistently maintained his innocence. In 1977, the North Carolina Supreme Court reduced his sentence to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the state’s then-mandatory death penalty law unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit identified significant problems with the evidence used to convict Finch. He was subjected to “suggestive lineups,” in which he was the only suspect dressed in a three-quarter length jacket, the same style of clothing that the eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, said the perpetrator was wearing. Such lineups have since been declared unconstitutional. “These procedural issues support Finch’s allegations of constitutional error that he was misidentified by Jones,” Judge Gregory wrote. “No reasonable juror would likely find Finch guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if it knew the high likelihood that he was misidentified by Jones both outside and inside the courtroom as a murder suspect because of the impermissibly suggestive lineups.” The court also noted that Jones, who the court said “had cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall,” told police that the killer was armed with a sawed-off shotgun and had never mentioned to the police that the shooter had any facial hair. At the time Holloman was killed, Finch had a long beard and distinctive sideburns. A new review of the autopsy evidence decades after the crime disclosed that Holloman had been killed with a pistol, not a shotgun and new ballistics evidence contradicted prosecution claims that the shells found at the crime scene matched a shotgun shell found in Finch’s car. Other witnesses also indicated they had been pressured into providing testimony implicating Finch. “This new evidence,” the court said, “not only undercuts the state’s physical evidence, but it also discredits the reliability of Jones.”

The Fourth Circuit opinion also addressed whether Finch might be guilty under the felony-murder rule, which would require only that he participated in the robbery, even if he did not shoot Holloman. The court identified two problems with this argument. First, though the state now says that Finch’s conviction relied on the felony-murder rule, the trial court “provided inconsistent instructions to the jury regarding felony murder but ultimately required the jury to find that Finch fired the fatal shot in order to convict him of first-degree murder.” Second, if Jones misidentified Finch, and he was not actually present for the robbery, he could not be guilty even under the felony-murder rule. “Criminal liability under any theory, including the felony-murder rule, would not attach to Finch if there is no evidence that he was at Holloman’s store during the murder,” the opinion stated.

(Olivia Neeley, Federal court rules in Finch’s favor, The Wilson Times, January 28, 2019; Josh Shaffer, He’s spent 43 years in prison. Now judges call his murder conviction a ‘miscarriage of justice.’, Raleigh News & Observer, January 30, 2019; Antionetta Kerr, 80-Year-Old Sentenced to Death Could Be Exonerated Soon, Public News Service–North Carolina, January 31, 2018; Press release, 43 years after death sentence, Charles Ray Finch proves his innocence, North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, January 31, 2019. Photograph by Brad Coville, courtesy of the Wilson Daily Times.) Read the 4th Circuit’s opinion in Finch v. McKoy. See Innocence.

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AFRICA/DR CONGO – Nearly 900 people killed in the West in clashes among communities

Kinshasa – Almost 900 people were massacred in four villages in community violence in the west of the Democratic Republic of Congo , between 16 and 18 December. This was reported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The massacre took place near Yumbi, in the province of Mai-Ndombe, about 300 km north of the capital Kinshasa and it apparently it is not related to the tensions regarding the elections held on December 30th but to rivalry between the Banunu and Batendé communities.
In addition to the victims there are serious material damages: 465 private houses and public buildings were set on fire or looted. These include two schools, a health center, a clinic, a market and an office of the Independent National Electoral Commission . Over 16,000 people have taken refuge in the neighboring Republic of Congo .
Following the massacre, the authorities in Kinshasa decided to postpone the vote in the area scheduled for December 30th.