Category: Capital Punishment


Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes For Capital Defendants

Back when he was Alabama’s Attorney General, Bill Pryor used to complain that big (Northern) firms only lined up to represent capital defendants at the point of collateral challenges. Why, he’d ask, don’t they step up at the trial stage? A certain suspicion is present in this question, a suggestion that this decision is strategically designed to frustrate use of the death penalty. But as anyone experienced in criminal practice will tell you, it is easiest to prevent a death sentence at the trial stage – either by squeezing out a plea deal, winning at trial (really, almost impossible in capital cases, unless you roll the dice and give up any hope of showing forgiveness in the sentencing phase, should it occur), or “winning” life at the punishment hearing. (One caveat here: in Alabama, where judges override jury verdicts of life in order to further their own political ambitions, all the good lawyering in the world can lead to nothing. As a result, an Alabama capital defendant may actually do better on appeal than at trial. The fact that this is true shows the perversity of the Alabama override system.)

So why don’t these excellent, well-funded counsel take cases at trial? There are presumably a few reasons. One is that trials are harder and more expensive to handle when your office is 1000 miles away. A second is that firms may actually prefer that their junior associates get the experience of working on what (probably incorrectly) appear to be more law-based collateral challenges. (They also aren’t interested in giving up the large chunk of attorney time required to handle a trial.) But a third reason, I suspect, is that the lawyers in these firms just don’t feel up to the task of trying a capital case. They don’t think they have the proper background; they may even think it would be malpractice. It’s easy to picture a partner at Simpson, Thacher saying “I’ve never tried a criminal case in my life…let alone one in Alabama.”

It is one of the curiosities of capital work that the leaders in the field have successfully convinced many other good lawyers (and not just Big Law lawyers from out of state) that you shouldn’t take a capital case without a commitment of serious time and a strong background in criminal and capital practice. They’re right, of course. The problem is that when these good lawyers pass on capital cases, defendants in many jurisdictions end up with a mediocre or downright terrible lawyer. The attorneys who ultimately handle the case may have tried dozens of criminal matters, but they aren’t necessarily sophisticated or talented practitioners. They may never gave given a thought to the difference between guilt/innocence and the penalty phase. They may accept mediocre attorney/client relations that make it impossible to sell a young client on a plea of life without parole. And they may dedicate what seems to them a reasonable 30 or 40 hours to prepping the case.

When I first considered starting a capital defense clinic at Alabama, a friend who’d formerly worked at a Death Penalty Resource Center counseled me against it. He correctly believed that I was too overtaxed to dedicate the time such a clinic truly required. But I created a model that worked – reasonably well, though not perfectly – because it struck me that, in Alabama, in the year 2002 (and still today), perfection really can be the enemy of the good. I’m not sure I was right in setting up that clinic, but I hope that if nothing else, we trained a few lawyers to worry about exactly these questions.


And So It Goes: Possible Reasons to Care About Saddam Hussein’s Execution

Dan’s post asks whether we should care. This morning I was reading arguments regarding whether the United States could or should hand Saddam Hussein over to the Iraqi government because of international law concerns. The New York Times reports that news agencies have been debating whether to show the event. Now CNN reports he is dead. As I watch CNN and write this brief post Anderson Cooper notes that the execution was videotaped and photographed and that CNN will review this media possibly to show it but with some warning regarding the contents before it runs the footage.

Perhaps the reason to care is precisely the sense that Dan offers: even when we might not care about the specific person and “the intentional killing of another human being [does] not generate deep discomfort” — maybe especially at that point — we should care and look to the questions of justice that we otherwise would consider. Isn’t this in part what Arendt is addressing in Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil?

In other words, maybe we should slow down and see how we treat even the most extreme criminals rather than rapidly move from debates about international law to whether we should show or not show the execution not to mention indulging in the voyeurisitc reports of each moment before, during, and after the execution.

Then again to borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, and so it goes.

PS For those wishing to read the 298 opinion it is available at the Case Western Law Web site.


Sadaam Executed. Should We Care?

I think a lot about capital punishment, but I still haven’t figured out what to think about the (apparently completed) execution of Sadaam Hussein. Although I am deeply troubled by the use of capital punishment in the United States, and have questions whether any system can consistently offer the assurances of fairness and accuracy commensurate with the sanction, I do not oppose the death penalty categorically. If the death penalty is appropriate, it seems to me that one must feel confident that the target is actually guilty, that he received a fair trial, and that he is culpable at the highest moral and practical level for the most serious crimes. When it comes to Sadaam, there is little doubt (as far as I can tell) that he is guilty of facilitiating mass killings. I don’t know whether he received a fair trial and I don’t know enough about him personally to know whether he is morally culpable on an individual level – although he doesn’t appear to have much claim to most of the mitigators surfacing in a typical U.S. capital sentencing. At the end of the day, I don’t have much sympathy for the guy.

So should I care if he is executed? Perhaps I should not only care, but be pleased. On some level, this sentence – which unlike most death sentences in the U.S., will actually be noticed both by the people we hope to reassure and those we hope to deter – communicates a fair amount about society’s view of his conduct. In that sense, this outcome is probably better than having troops kill him while he was huddled in a bunker. And it is surely better for the U.S. that he be executed after an Iraqi trial, and by Iraqis, rather than through a U.S. military tribunal.

Maybe I shouldn’t care, even if the penalty is wrong because these sanctions aren’t ours to distribute. But that can’t be quite right, since the current Iraqi regime is (at least partially) an American creation. And if the death penalty is unjustifiable murder, if I truly believed that to be true in all cases, I would have to be upset and angry, and probably feel compelled to take at least some small action in opposition.

I can’t quite get to the bottom of my own emotions. The process seems like slow motion, a bit, though it is far faster than any American death penalty. (Isn’t that oxymoronic? The American process is so slow that it doesn’t even look like motion. In the end, the execution feels little different from a premeditated killing precisely because it is not part of a continuing, visible, inevitable process that leads directly to execution. Here, however, the process is swift enough that we can watch it unfold slowly before our eyes.) I fear that it will have negative political repercussions. I fear that it will reopen wounds that should stay closed, or close wounds that demand further inspection and investigation. I fear that the comfortable use of death in this case will reassure some people that the death penalty is appropriate for more mundane crimes.

But I don’t feel much pity. And I don’t feel a sense of injustice. So in some awful sense, I don’t care much at all. And there’s the rub. I deeply dislike the idea that the intentional killing of another human being would not generate deep discomfort in me. I seem to have found out why I don’t oppose the death penalty categorically. But I’m not sure I’m proud of the insight.


Further Thoughts On Abortion, The Death Penalty, Mental Illness, and M’Naughten

In a recent post about mental illness and the death penalty, I attempted to raise the question of how some abortion opponents justify their support for executing people with mental illness. In particular, I wondered how such an inidividual would deal with some future research which allows us to predict whether a fetus will have an exceptionally high disposition to violence – and thus to murder. For the sake of this hypothetical, at least, imagine that this research actually tells us that a person with X genetic makeup will try to kill someone later in life. Could one oppose abortion of this fetus, while simultaneously approving execution of that person, in adulthood, when his overwhelming disposition ripens into an actual murder?

Rick Garnett offered comments which helped me recognize that my own language was imprecise. I asked whether such new research might logically provide a moral justification for “pre-emptive abortion” of a likely future killer. I now see that this sounds like I was making a utilitarian argument, which was not my intent. Rather, I meant to suggest a couple of things. First, we know that many people on death row have mental health issues – so many that one can now infer, and future research could conceivably establish, that many people on death row are there as a but-for result of their mental problems. Second, if one supports execution of individuals who would not be there but-for the mental problems, one essentially supports execution of people where free-will is not the sole, or even determinative, explanation for their acts. That is, one supports execution of individuals who are, in at least some sense of the word, innocents. Third, this argument suggests that the distinction between the “inncoent” fetus and the “guilty” murderer is far less clear cut. And it suggests that if the information we might need to know about a person to determine whether they will kill can be obtained pre-birth, any moral justification for execution at a later date might have at least some force at the earlier date as well. I am not claiming that one actually should abort for these reasons. I’m merely questioning how one can call the killing of the adult any more or less “retributive” than the abortion, if the factor that created culpability – say, a mental illness – existed both before birth and after. The only thing that changed was the actual fact of a killing, but a killing that was essentially beyond the offender’s free will.

The obvious retort to all of this is that the criminal law does not allow execution – or even conviction – of an individual whose crime is caused by a mental disease or defect. The problem is that the dominant test for insanity today, the M’Naughten rule, provides a defense only when a person is not aware of the nature and quality of his act (e.g., he thought he was cutting a melon, but it was really a head), or, if aware, did not know the act was wrong. Notably missing from this standard (but present in the old ALI version of the insanity defense, which became far less common after the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan) is a defense for individuals who cannot control their acts. Yet if support for the death penalty among abortion opponents hinges, as I suspect it must, on the idea of free will – the notion that the offender has transcended his early innocence and now makes decisions independently, and thus fully culpably – must not that abortion opponent exclude from execution any person who cannot control his act?


The Strategic Use Of The Death Penalty

A BBC Newshour report, this morning (autdio link) suggests that Indonesia’s decision to execute three Christians yesterday, for their role in a 1998 Christian-Muslim conflict, might have been strategic. For example, there are several Muslims on death row for the Bali bombing. And other Muslims are facing trial, and potentially the death penalty, for the same Sulewesian rioting that gave rise to yesterday’s executions. The commentators suggested that in order for the Muslim government to execute Muslims, it may have been strategically wise to execute the Christians first.

This may be a cynical use of death, but I wonder whether some states have run similar calculations. African-Americans are disparately represented on American death rows, vis a vis their percentage of the overall population. The race critique of capital punishment has had a fair degree of traction (compared, at least, to many other criticisms.) Do some jurisdictions attempt to protect their capital scheme from such attacks by executing whites at a faster rate than African-Americans, notwithstanding the overall demographic of death row? In Alabama, for example, from 1999-2005, across two gubernatorial administrations, 12 of 17 people executed were white. And from 2002-2005, all eleven people executed were white. This in a state where almost half of death row is populated by African-Americans. I recognize that each case proceeds at its own pace – to some degree – but I’m curious whether the goal of legitimizing capital punishment ever plays into the decisions of which individuals a state seeks to execute first. (And yes, I do think it’s worth noting that at this final stage, there might actually be an anti-white bias in imposition of the sanction, notwithstanding my suspicion that – at earlier stages – the bias seems to cut the opposite way.)

This is not an accusation. I don’t have any answers. I’m simply curious about the degree to which all decisions about the death penalty – from charging all the way to seeking a warrant – might be driven by the needs of external legitimacy, rather than by broader moral, or narrower individualized, concerns.


Mental Illness And The Death Penalty

The ABA’s Florida death penalty assessment team, headed up by Chris Slobogin of the University of Florida, has released its report on the state’s capital scheme. Unlike the Alabama team, this group did not endorse a moratorium in the state. It did, however, raise a number of concerns including (among others): the large number of exonerations, inadequate compensation for conflict counsel, racial and geographic disparities, and the large number of people with mental disability on death row.

Although we did not address this at length in the Alabama report, my experience suggests that a shocking portion of people on death row have some mental illness. I suspect that many people would be troubled to learn the degree to which death rows warehouse people with mental disabilities. There has been relatively little empirical work on this question, though a recent study prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, showed that 55% of male inmates in state prisons, and 44% of men in federal pens, have mental health problems. I feel pretty confident that death row inmates ore no less than typical on this front, and probably disproportionately evidence mental health problems. It is possible that these problems are the product of imprisonment itself – SuperMax prisons, for example, are brutal – but there is certainly research suggesting that most folks on death row have a pre-existing history of either mental illness, mental retardation, or brain injuries.

There are a several issues involved in the execution of people with mental illness. First, there are the moral questions. Is it fair to execute a person who makes decisions under the influence of brain illness or damage? Can such acts, no matter how heinous, ever carry sufficient moral culpability support death? A separate issue, for those who oppose abortion on the grounds of a predictable disability and simultaneously support the death penalty, is whether one can later support execution of a person whose behavior results, at least in part, from a disability that would not have justified abortion. If a person maintains these two positions, is she essentially arguing that the offender is allowed to be born on the chance that the disability will not result in a killing? But what if future research shows that particular disabilities are high predictors of future violence. Would a “death sentence” for the fetus then be justified?

There are also separate issues of the sort previously raised by the Court. Can a mentally ill person really assist counsel? Does execution of mentally ill people serve the purposes of punishment

Then there is the human rights issue. Does allowing execution of mentally ill people undermine our credibility as human rights activists around the world?

Some people will argue that these judgments are properly left to juries as they weigh aggravating and mitigating factors. Perhaps. As long as we have capital punishment, someone will have to make these tough calls at some stage – and I don’t have any more faith in judges than twelve citizens. But the only way a jury can make a fair judgment is if the defendant’s counsel effectively investigates and presents relevant facts. Sadly, based on recent ABA reports (such as the one from Alabama), too many defense lawyers aren’t up to the task. And that makes it awfully hard for juries to do their job properly.


More On Execution Of The Innocent

Although Justice Scalia recently argued that there were no documented cases of innocents being executed, Theodore Shaw of the Legal Defense Fund offered a pretty convincing counter-argument on the point in Sunday’s Washington Post. Shaw makes the case that there is good reason to believe that at least four innocent people have been executed since 1989 but his evidence does not include any DNA test results. I wonder if Scalia would dismiss these innocence claims as baseless, suggesting that nothing has been produced that would cause him to second-guess the jury’s factfinding. If so, what would it take to convince him?

I suspect that this discussion points to the corrosive effect that DNA exonerations have had on the broader debate about erroneous convictions. None of the cases Shaw cites offered the lock-down certainty of scientific testing. But relatively few investigations or convictions turn on DNA evidence. If we conclude that the only true exonerations are those backed by DNA testing (or similar scientific proof), we will be turning our back on many equally problematic convictions. In effect, we will treating the judgment of the jury – grounded in a factfinding and presentation process potentially tainted by all sorts of problems, starting with bad lawyering – as the moral equivalent of DNA testing: virtually irrefutable. And this may be exactly Scalia’s move in his Kansas v. Marsh dissent. If innocence cannot be proven through DNA, it can’t be proven at all. That is, in the absence of DNA counter-evidence, juries are always correct.

I think Justice Thomas took the more intellectually honest position. People and criminal justice systems are imperfect. Some juries will convict innocent people. Some states will execute innocent people. And the Constitution says there’s nothing the Supreme Court can do about it.


How A Public Defender Keeps Death (Sentences) At Bay

Some people have expressed surprise, and even doubts, that the Philly PD has managed to keep all of its clients off death row. The explanation is less grand, but perhaps more important, than one might think. The PD’s – lawyers, social workers, and others assigned to these clients – simply work these cases harder than most appointed counsel. And they don’t just do thorough investigations. They do the work that so many defense lawyers appear to dread: they spend serious time with their clients. (Let me say at the outset that, notwithstanding my broad criticisms of lawyers who handle indigent appointments, there remain many such attorneys who do good work. Many, but not nearly enough.)

Most criminal cases settle with a plea bargain. The same is true for the Philly PD. But to make a plea bargain work in a capital case, you have to do two things. First, you have to sell the DA on a deal. This means you must investigate the case thoroughly – and early on – so that you can explain to the DA why your client does not deserve death, and why you would have a good chance of getting either an acquittal on the capital charge, or a life sentence, if the case proceeded to trial. In non-capital cases, defense lawyers will often be far more secretive about some of these details, figuring that they’ll do better with a jiury than with the prosecutor. Because trying capital cases is so risky, the better approach – with a DA who will talk (i.e., one who does not use every case as an opportunity to advance his or her political fortunes) – is often to bring out many of these factual and equitable claims in the negoitation process.

Perhaps even more than doing great investigation, you have to build close relationships with your client. One might assume that every defendant would be looking for a way to plead to a life sentence, in order to avoid death. But it turns out (no surprise, really) that the prospect of voluntarily accepting lifetime incarceration is a whopper. Death penalty advocates may believe that “life doesn’t mean life”, but most defendants think it does. And particularly for the 18 or 19 or 23 year old defendant, a life sentence may feel comparable to death. So the staff of the Philly PD’s homicide unit actually create strong relationships with their clients, in order to garner the trust necessary to sell a plea bargain. It turns out that this is not only good from an instrumental view – getting a better sentence – but it’s also better for the client’s psyche. Rich or poor, most defendants are the same: they’re afraid and unsure and need a great deal of information and reassurance from their lawyers. Unfortunately, few indigent clients ever receive that kind of treatment.

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Are We Too Obsessed By Capital Cases?

One of the recurring themes in Doug Berman’s (incredibly valuable) blog is his concern that capital cases receive too much scrutiny. He doesn’t deny the significance of the sanction, but believes that other sentencing issues – e.g., the new guidelines jurisprudence, the incredible overuse of long-term imprisonment, and the sense that a substantial number of innocent people may be pleading guilty to felonies – are of greater overall importance. (Of course, for all his protestations, Sentencing Law and Policy is a go-to address for news about capital punishment issues.)

I think he raises an important matter, and rather than take issue with him, I’d like to thicken the discussion a bit. Why are capital cases important? A few reasons include: their irreversibility (once the sanction is actually imposed); the gravity of the sanction; the degree to which death penalty policy seems even less teathered to good-government/empirically driven analysis than other sentencing policy (I would take substantial issue with John McGinniss’s claim that empirical data on crime has produced some clear truths about effective responses to crime – check out Dan Markel’s preliminary thoughts here); the degree to which an ongoing desire to empower states to execute twisted broader criminal justice jurisprudence; and the fact that the use of capital punishment has consequences for America’s ability to claim moral authority in many international debates and disputes.

That said, Doug is absolutely correct that far more individuals are devastated by other aspects of American criminal justice policy. Whether the issue is racial or economic justice, the over-use of imprisonment, the over-use of criminal laws generally, problematic use of discretion, or the poor quality of counsel (and, in the case of juveniles, the actual absence of counsel in many cases), capital punishment issues are only the tip of the public-policy-problem iceberg.

So why keep harping on it? First, I think that capital cases can provide a starting point for the discussion of broader issues, if only because the consequences are so serious. So, for example, there are real reasons to worry that the Strickland ineffective assistance standard fails to guarantee defendants competent representation. But the case for change can be appear more compelling when you explain that these deficiencies can cost a human life. Second, I think there is a moral imperative to continually interrogate any process that involves intentional killings by government – whether that is capital punishment, torture, or even war. Sometimes the government must kill, but it is essential that citizens continually challenge government to justify and constrain that choice. Finally, and most simply, I think the reasons I set out up front justify serious attention to death.

But I certainly don’t think that capital punishment should use up all the oxygen of criminal justice debate. Doug’s blog does a great job of highlighting the many other issues worthy of serious attention. All of us who write about criminal law issues try to keep the spotlight on the manifold ways that criminal justice policy needs significant improvement. And I think there is a legitimate critique that many individual lawyers and organizations expend vast resources on capital work, while shortchanging the many other issues worth their attention. (Capital punishment is, in many ways, the abortion issue for the left; just as anti-abortion advocates feel they reach their highest personal calling blocking women from terminating pregnancies, many death penalty abolitionists feel the same way about their habeas corpus work.) But many of these committed abolitionists wouldn’t turn their energy to other criminal law injustices, even if the Supreme Court (or the WTO) declared the penalty a no-go. They would find other grand and dramatic battles to fight, probably outside the criminal justice system.

Personally, I’m going to try to keep up a mix of commentary about crime and society. Death penalty is one of many important issues on the table. If I am too obsessed, it is only by a degree – and is perhaps the result of my own present immersion in the issue as a result of the ABA death penalty assessment project. But I do think Doug’s caution is well-founded, a good reminder that we should never get lost in any one rabbit hole when we are trying to find a herd.


Is Erroneous Conviction More Likely In Capital Cases?

Dissenting in Kansas v. Marsh, Justice Souter made the controversial claim that “among all prosecutions homicide cases suffer an unusually high incidence of false conviction.” He explained this phenomenon as due to “the combined difficulty of investigating (capital cases) without help from the victim, intense pressure to get convictions in homicide cases, and the corresponding incentive for the guilty to frame the innocent”. Doug Berman, at Sentencing Law and Policy, takes serious issue with this claim. writing:

Not only do I think that this assertion is wrong, but I think it is sad and dangerous that the four “liberal” Justices might actually believe it is true.

Unfortunately, like a couple of his commenters, I think there is a good chance that Souter is right and Doug is wrong. Why? At least six reasons.

1. The plurality, if not majority, of criminal cases involve a crime witnessed by a police officer where arrest followed immediately. In these cases – from drug cases, to DUI, to disorderly conduct – error rates are likely low. This is true for two reasons. First, notwithstanding their competitive urges, officers have relatively little incentive to lie. (This may be a bit less true in officer assault cases, where disciplinary or tort consequences for offender injuries hinge on asserting that the defender was the cause of the problem.) Second, when the arrest follows immediately after the offense, there is very low risk of misidentification. Civilian assaults – including homicides – involve seriously higher risk of jury error. In assault cases involving unknown assailants, identification errors are a significant problem. The incidents are often quick and unexpected, and witnesses have little opportunity to observe what really occurred. Cross-racial identification problems infect the accuracy of ID’s in some cases. Poor line-up and photo array techniques further undermine accuracy of these identifications. And despite all these problems, witnesses are typically very confident that their testimony is accurate. Unfortunately, juries often rely on this confidence factor to “believe” eyewitnesses; the problem is that confidence is not a proxy for accuracy. Witnesses are sure they’re telling the truth, but they are often wrong. Thus capital cases, and cases lacking officer observation more generally, involve more guilt error than average.

2. Capital juries are likely to be less sympathetic to the defense because they are death-qualified (i.e., only people who are willing to impose death are permitted to be jurors in a capital case.) This eliminates a not insignificant portion of the population that is most attractive to the defense.

3. In capital cases, defense attorneys frequently do not mount serious innocence defenses during trial for fear that, if the defendant is convicted, he or she will appear less remorseful at the punishment phase. This is basic strategy in any capital case. The sentencing tail typically wags the guilt/innocence dog.

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