Thursday, December 18, 2014

GateHouse: The future of the death penalty in question?

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
December 18, 2014

The last 12 months may well mark the beginning of the end for the death penalty in America.

This has been an inauspicious year for state-sponsored death. For the first time in recent history, a state other than Texas executed more men than any other state. Missouri executed 10 men and Texas executed eight men. Not to be outdone, Texas also executed two women.

There were 35 executions carried out across the country, so to speak. Only eight states carried out executions in 2014, in fact three states — Texas, Missouri and Florida — were responsible for 28 of the 35 executions.

There are 32 states that have the death penalty on the books — so to speak. Governors in Oregon, Colorado and Washington have imposed moratoriums on executions. In Ohio, a federal judge has stopped all executions. In seven other states with the death penalty, there has not been an execution carried out in at least 10 years.

Eight executions scheduled for December were postponed by the court. Three of those postponed executions were to take place in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has executed three people since 1977, and all three volunteered to be executed. Pennsylvania has not involuntarily executed a condemned inmate since 1962.

Some of the executions in 2014 created quite a stir. In January, the Ohio execution of Dennis McGuire took much longer than anticipated. The execution lasted 25 minutes. According to NBC News, witnesses said McGuire appeared to be gasping for breath. Ohio did not carry out another execution after McGuire’s. Prior to that, going back to 2010, no state other than Texas had executed more inmates than Ohio.

Three months later, Clayton Lockett’s execution in Oklahoma went terribly awry. Lockett began to twitch and gasp after the lethal injection process began. He called out “man” and “something’s wrong,” according to The New York Times.

The administering doctor intervened and discovered that “the line had blown,” meaning that drugs were no longer flowing into Lockett’s veins. At 7:06 p.m., 43 minutes after the execution began, Lockett died of a heart attack.

Prior to Lockett’s execution, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin questioned the state Supreme Court’s authority to stay Lockett’s execution. Fallin rescheduled the execution in defiance of the Supreme Court. The near constitutional crisis focused national attention on the state just in time for the catastrophically failed execution.

Then came December. In Texas, Scott Panetti narrowly escaped execution. Panetti suffers from severe mental illness. He defended himself at trial, subpoenaing over 200 witnesses, including Jesus Christ, the pope and John F. Kennedy.

His mental health had not been evaluated by any court for more than seven years prior to his scheduled execution. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals intervened less than eight hours before his scheduled execution.

On Dec. 12, Paul Goodwin was not so lucky. Efforts to spare Goodwin’s life centered on his low IQ and claims that executing him would violate a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling which prohibits the execution of the mentally disabled.

Goodwin’s attorney, Jennifer Herndon, said Goodwin had an IQ of 73, and some tests suggested it was even lower. Goodwin received special education as a child. As an adult, he relied on relatives or his girlfriend to help with tasks such as buying groceries or paying bills.

According to Goodwin’s sister, when his girlfriend died, Goodwin wasn’t mentally capable of handling the grief and turned to alcohol, which was a factor in his crime.

There are no more executions scheduled for 2014. The 35 executions carried out this year are the fewest in 20 years. Things don’t look much better for the death penalty in 2015. The first three out of four executions for 2015 have already been postponed. The fourth is scheduled for Pennsylvania, and if history is a guide, there is little likelihood of that execution being carried out.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

UN to vote on death penalty moratorium

The United Nations General Assembly is expected on Thursday to vote on a draft resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, reported Al Jazeera.
The resolution was first adopted by the General Assembly in 2007; this is the fifth time member states will vote. On Nov. 21, 114 of the 193 U.N. member states voted “yes” on the draft resolution at a session of the Third Committee, which is responsible for social, humanitarian and cultural issues. Thirty-six countries opposed the resolution.
The U.S. has repeatedly lodged “no” votes alongside countries with troubling human rights records — including China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the top four executing countries in 2013. The United States ranked fifth.
The draft resolution calls on states to suspend executions, with a view to abolition, and asks that countries restrict their use of capital punishment, share information about the sentencing and executions they carry out and respect international standards to protect people facing execution.
The resolution, which is nonbinding, “is a very powerful symbolic gesture for the United Nations General Assembly,” said Chiara Sangiorgio, a death penalty expert at New York–based NGO Amnesty International.
To read more CLICK HERE

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Supreme Court: Police don't violate Constitution with mistaken understanding of law

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers don't necessarily violate a person's constitutional rights when they stop a car based on a mistaken understanding of the law, reported National Public Radio. The ruling prompted a lone dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who warned that the court's decision could exacerbate public suspicion of police in some communities.
In 2009, Nicholas Heien and a friend were traveling down a North Carolina highway when they were pulled over for having a broken tail light. A subsequent search of the car found a plastic bag containing cocaine. It turns out, though, that police had no legal right to stop the car in the first place because, under North Carolina law, having a single broken tail light is not an offense. Heien contended that just as ordinary citizens cannot claim ignorance of the law as a defense, police can't either, and because the traffic stop was illegal, the evidence from the search that followed should not have been permitted in evidence against him.
But the Supreme Court, by an 8-1 vote, ruled that since the officer's mistake was reasonable, it did not violate the constitution's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the keystone of the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure is the word "unreasonable." And in this case, the officer's belief that having a broken tail light was illegal counted as a reasonable mistake. The traffic stop and the subsequent consensual search of the car were therefore also reasonable.
The maxim "ignorance of the law is no excuse," does not apply here, Chief Justice Roberts maintained, because Heien "is not appealing a brake light ticket; he is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law."
The decision gives police "somewhat more power, but it's hard to imagine that it's a lot," says professor John Barrett, of St. John's University School of Law in New York City.
That's because most state traffic laws are both clear and well known. Justice Elena Kagan joined in the majority but wrote separately to stress that the ruling applies to a small number of "exceedingly rare" cases where the law is unclear. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the concurrence.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in dissent, worried about giving police a further fudge factor.
Traffic stops can be "annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating," she observed. And permitting stops based on a mistaken reading of the law has "human consequences for communities and their relationships with the police."
The perverse effect of permitting police to go ahead with a mistaken reading of the law, she wrote, is to prevent or delay clarification of the law so that doubt continues to exist in the minds of the public or police about what is and is not legal.
To read more CLICK HERE

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pennsylvania death penalty costs millions, no executions

Pennsylvania's death penalty has cost taxpayers more than $350 million for a dysfunctional system that has sentenced hundreds but hasn't executed anyone in 15 years, reports the Reading Eagle. State legislators have called for an detailed report on Pennsylvania's death penalty, but the long-overdue report is at least several months away from being issued. There has been no reckoning of the system's massive financial or psychological cost, including the agony of justice-seeking family members and the pain of families waiting for condemned relatives to be executed
There are 185 condemned inmates, making Pennsylvania's death row the nation's fifth largest. The death penalty is likely to get more scrutiny as prosecutors move ahead with a capital case against Eric Frein, accused of ambushing and murdering a state trooper this year. The newspaper's cost estimate is likely a conservative number. The estimate, which relies on a 2008 Maryland study by the Urban Institute, was calculated using the Pennsylvania inmates now on death row. It does not account for unsuccessful death penalty cases tried by prosecutors, nor does it include death row inmates whose sentences were overturned on appeal. The 2008 study found that Maryland spent an average of $1.9 million more on cases that led to death sentences than on cases where the death penalty could have been sought but was not.
To read more CLICK HERE

Sunday, December 14, 2014

US Supreme Court takes on threats posted on Facebook

Matthew T. Mangino
The Vindicator
December 14, 2014
In 1998, recording artist Marshall Mathers—better known as Eminem—wrote a song about killing his ex-wife Kim. The lyrics included the following:“Come on, we’re going for a ride B-----. Sit up front. We’ll be right back, well I will; you’ll be in the trunk.”
Mathers was not prosecuted for his threatening language. Instead, he went on to win 13 Grammys for similar hard-edged music. Anthony Elonis was not so lucky. In his effort to veil a threat against his estranged wife through the “art” of rap music, Elonis ended up on the wrong side of the law.Elonis was indicted in federal court in Pennsylvania on five counts of interstate communication of illegal threats on Facebook. ‘Rap lyrics’After his wife left him, taking the couple’s children with her, Elonis began posting about her on his Facebook page in the form of “rap lyrics.”
For instance he posted:“There’s one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya,And I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess,Soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.Hurry up and die b----.”
At the end of his federal trial, according to National Public Radio, the judge instructed the jury that to convict it must find that Elonis’ Facebook posts constituted true threats, meaning that “a reasonable person would foresee that the statements would be interpreted ... as a serious expression of an intent to inflict bodily injury.”He was convicted and sentenced to 44 months in prison.
Elonis appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that under the U.S. Constitution and federal law, a jury must find not only that a reasonable person would interpret the words as threatening, but that Elonis actually intended his words to be threatening.Elonis’ case arrived at the Supreme Court on Dec. 1.
“How does one prove what’s in somebody else’s mind?” asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In this case, she said, a “reasonable person [would] think that the words would put someone in fear.”Elonis’ attorney John Elwood argued to the Supreme Court that the postings were protected by the First Amendment citing the lyrics of various artists including Eminem. "The disclaimer posted all around the page saying basically, ‘this is all for entertainment purposes only’ or that ‘this is venting, don’t take this too seriously,’ and when you put all that in context…he did not have an intent to put anyone in fear,” argued Elwood.According to the Los Angeles Times, none of the justices appeared to agree. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., although sympathetic to the plight of aspiring artists, said Elonis can claim “it’s therapeutic or it’s art,” but that should not be enough to escape prosecution.Justice Samuel A. Alito said leaning on rules protecting artistic expression “sounds like a road map for threatening a spouse and getting away with it.”
Although much has been made of the connection of this case with Facebook, and the explosion of threatening language on the Internet, the decision’s impact will not be limited to threats on social media.“You’re accountable for the consequences” of your words, argued Deputy Solicitor Gen. Michael Dreeben.
 He reminded the high court that it is a federal offense to transmit “any threat to injure” another person via the Internet.Garrett Epps wrote in The Atlantic, “Make it too easy to prove a threat, and government can muzzle those it dislikes; make it too hard, and the rest of us — on the job, on the streets, and in our homes—are at the mercy of men like Elonis.” The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision by summer.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His recent book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Supreme Court will decide if Miller v. Alabama is retroactive

The Supreme Court will decide whether its 2012 ruling barring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively, the New York Times reports. George Toca of Louisiana was 17 in 1984 when he fatally shot a friend during a botched armed robbery. Toca was automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as required by Louisiana law.
In the case of Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that such mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The question now is whether the Miller decision entitles  Toca to a new sentencing hearing. The Louisiana Supreme Court said no. In another case, the Louisiana court said retroactivity was not required because the Miller decision “merely sets forth a new rule of criminal constitutional procedure.” The supreme courts of Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Texas have ruled in favor of retroactivity. The supreme courts of Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have rejected retroactivity.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Missouri carries out its record 10th execution

The 35th Execution of 2014
A Missouri inmate, Paul Goodwin, was put to death on December 10, 2014 for fatally beating a 63-year-old woman with a hammer in 1998, the state's record 10th lethal injection of 2014 to match Texas for the most executions in the country this year, reported the Associated Press.
Goodwin, 48, sexually assaulted Joan Crotts in St. Louis County, pushed her down a flight of stairs and beat her in the head with a hammer. Goodwin was a former neighbor who felt Crotts played a role in getting him kicked out of a boarding house.
Goodwin's execution began at 1:17 a.m., more than an hour after it was scheduled, and he was pronounced dead at 1:25 a.m.
Efforts to spare Goodwin's life centered on his low IQ and claims that executing him would violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the death penalty for the mentally disabled. Attorney Jennifer Herndon said Goodwin had an IQ of 73, and some tests suggested it was even lower.
Goodwin's sister, Mary Mifflin, wrote in a statement that the death penalty "is not a just punishment for his crime — an act that occurred out of passion, not premeditation, by a man with the mental capabilities of a child, not an adult."
But Goodwin's fate was sealed when Gov. Jay Nixon denied a clemency request and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down two appeals — one on the mental competency question and one concerning Missouri's use of an execution drug purchased from an unidentified compounding pharmacy.
Missouri's 10th execution of 2014 matches the state's previous high of nine in 1999. Neither Missouri nor Texas has another execution scheduled this year. Texas, Missouri and Florida have combined for 28 of the 34 executions in the U.S. this year.
Goodwin received special education as a child but still failed several grades, Mifflin wrote. He relied on relatives or his girlfriend to help with such tasks as buying groceries or paying bills, she said.
When the girlfriend died, Goodwin wasn't mentally capable of handling the grief and turned to alcohol, which was a factor in his attack on Crotts, Mifflin wrote.
Crotts' daughter, Debbie Decker, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Goodwin deserved no mercy.
"I've been sitting back waiting for this to happen," Decker said of the execution. "I'm hoping all these bad memories will go away."
In the mid-1990s, Goodwin lived in a St. Louis County boarding house that was next door to Crotts' home. The two had been involved in several verbal confrontations.
Goodwin was evicted in 1996 after he and friends harassed Crotts, including throwing beer cans into her yard. Court records show that Goodwin blamed Crotts for his eviction, telling her, "I'm going to get you for this," according to court testimony.
On March 1, 1998, Goodwin entered Crotts home and confronted her. After a sexual assault, he pushed her down the basement stairs before striking her head several times with a hammer. She was taken to a hospital, where she died.
Police found a handwritten note that read, "You are next" on the kitchen table. Fingerprints from the note and a Pepsi can matched Goodwin's. His hearing aid was also found inside Crotts' home. He admitted the crime after his arrest.
Missouri has scheduled one execution each month since November 2013. Two were halted by court action, but 12 were carried out over the past 14 months.
To read more CLICK HERE