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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

Citing ‘flawed’ process, Dylann Roof lawyers again fight to toss death penalty

Dylann Roof
Dylann Roof
In another attack on the legality of the death penalty, Dylann Roof’s attorneys said this week capital punishment is so fraught with potential problems it shouldn’t be used in his case.

Roof, 22, has offered to plead guilty and accept a lifetime prison sentence in the June 2015 shooting that killed nine at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. But federal prosecutors have pushed forward with the trial, seeking Roof’s execution on some of his 33 charges.

But as time passes, court rulings continue to limit how the death penalty can be applied, and further evidence has emerged showing how unfair it can be, Roof’s lawyers said Monday in a court document. To support their position, the attorneys included in their filing about 2,200 pages of court transcripts, research, news articles and opinion polls on the death penalty.

It’s time to reopen the discussion of whether the punishment is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, they said.

“The death penalty is unreliable, arbitrary, and so complicated that jurors frequently misapply it,” Sarah Gannett, an Arizona public defender on Roof’s defense team, said in the filing. “In a prosecution as consequential as this one, the court should not (allow) procedures that are proven to be flawed.”

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel already has reviewed written arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys on the death penalty’s constitutionality. Monday’s filing supplemented the defense team’s argument. Gergel has not ruled on the issue.

Initial jury selection procedures are scheduled to start Sept. 26 in downtown Charleston. The trial will follow Nov. 7.

Roof, who is white, is charged with hate crimes, religious rights violations and using a firearm in a violent crime. Authorities said he targeted the churchgoers because they were black. He penned manifestos about white supremacy, they said.

He is expected to be convicted when the case is tried, but the most contested portion of the proceeding will come during sentencing. That’s when prosecutors will present evidence of aggravation, such as the targeting of multiple vulnerable people or an intent to incite violence among others. Defense attorneys will highlight mitigating factors, such as any mental defects.

Prosecutors have said that detailed instructions can lead a jury to a fair finding. But Roof’s lawyers said they are concerned that the jurors will not follow the guidelines for weighing those factors.

“Because it cannot be implemented in a manner that avoids arbitrary, capricious and irrevocable results,” Gannett’s filing added, “the (federal death penalty) is unconstitutional and must be stricken as a possible penalty in this case.”

Source: Post and Courier, Andrew Knapp, September 13, 2016

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