Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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 -…

An Arkansas Inmate Is Set to Be Executed Due to a Legal Technicality

Marcel Williams
Marcel Williams
Marcel Williams has spent the last 2 decades on death row, and his execution is set to take place next month. But his lawyers argue he never received a fair trial in the first place.

Marcel Williams is scheduled to die on April 24th, 2017. Williams was convicted in 1997 for the rape and murder of Stacy Errickson, a 22-year-old woman who was found in a shallow grave near Little Rock 3 years earlier. The jury deliberated Williams' sentence for just 30 minutes.

Williams is 1 of 8 men to be executed through lethal injection in Arkansas over just 4 days in April as part of the state's effort to use up its supply of midazolam before the drug expires.

But Williams' attorneys say his initial trial lawyers failed to present mitigating evidence about his traumatic upbringing to the jury in 1997. That evidence, they argue, would likely have resulted in a life sentence for Williams. Since that initial trial, a procedural technicality has prevented the legal system from righting this wrong. Now, Williams is asking the Arkansas Parole Board for clemency.

The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that the circumstances of an individual's life can influence culpability and thus sentencing. For this very reason, the Court struck down North Carolina's mandatory death sentences for 1st-degree murders in the 1976 case Woodson v. North Carolina.

"A process that accords no significance to relevant facets of the character and record of the individual offender or the circumstances of the particular offense excludes from consideration in fixing the ultimate punishment of death the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind," the Court ruled in Woodson v. North Carolina.

In Williams' case, that mitigating evidence was his violent and turbulent childhood. In written testimony to the parole board, David Lisak, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, wrote that Williams, who suffered a childhood marked by neglect, violent beatings, and sexual abuse, was "exposed to pretty much every category of traumatic experience that is generally used to describe childhood trauma." While a child, Williams' mother prostituted him out to older women in exchange for food stamps or money for bills. Lisak characterized the violence Williams endured as "unrelenting" and "savage."

Williams' trial attorneys now claim, according to Williams' petition to the clemency board, that, at that time, Williams' defense team "didn't really understand what the true meaning of what mitigation was," which runs counter to the standards for capital defense attorneys that were already standard practice in the 1990s.

"Certainly by the mid-'80s it was understood that childhood trauma, abuse, parental neglect, extreme physical abuse would be powerful evidence for a jury," says Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project. "That was some of the heart of the evidence that capital defense lawyers should be looking for and investigating in their cases."

The lawyer responsible for Williams' appeal also failed to present this evidence at the proceedings requesting a new trial in 2000 - despite the fact that the request was based on the argument that his trial attorneys did not provide adequate counsel when they failed to present mitigating evidence to the jury.

A new crop of attorneys took over Williams' case in 2006 and filed a petition in a federal district court to present evidence about Williams' troubled childhood. And they succeeded in overturning Williams' death sentence, at least temporarily. "[I]t is reasonably probable that but for the errors and omissions of his lawyers the jury would have returned a verdict to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole rather than a sentence of death," Chief Justice Leon Holmes found in 2007. Judge Holmes ordered the state to grant Williams a new sentencing hearing or change his sentence from death to life without parole. But the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his decision on the grounds that the federal court could not consider evidence that was never presented in state courts. In other words, despite the validity of the evidence, Williams no longer had the right to present it, due to his lawyers' errors.

"It's kind of astonishing to me that the court is basically saying, 'there's evidence out there, we know its out there, there's no problems with it, except a procedural problem, but let's go ahead and approve the death sentence,'" Stubbs says.

"A lot of times what the courts will say is they are protecting the law, and they have to follow the rule of the law or its not any good, and to a degree that's true," says Jason Kearney, one of the attorneys who took up Williams' case in 2006. "But ... when someone's life is on the line I think there's an exception to any rule that ought to come into play."

The Williams' parole board hearing on Monday will be the last chance for this evidence to make a difference in his sentence, but the board rarely grants clemency in capital cases, Kearney says. A negative outcome for Williams would also set a troubling precedent for anyone else who has a similar path to clemency.

"For all of this compelling mitigation information to just go unconsidered and to have never been put in front of a jury, the legal system really fails when this happens," Kearney says. "If the clemency board doesn't recognize that, then they're really not serving their purpose."

Source: Pacific Standard Magazine, March 27, 2017

Victim says death row inmate should not be executed

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Attorneys for the eight inmates scheduled for lethal injections next month filed a motion Monday asking a federal judge to block their client’s executions.

This comes the same day the Arkansas Parole Board announced it would not recommend clemency for death row inmates, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee, who both claimed innocence and asked for a sentence reduction Friday.

Monday, Marcel Williams asked for clemency. Though, he didn't try to claim innocence, he instead begged for forgiveness and the chance to make a positive impact by reducing his sentence to life without parole.

“This man has turned his life around, and he’s found God," said Dina Windle, who claims she was abducted, raped, and tied up by Marcel Williams 22 years ago. She managed to escape and is now asking the parole board to give Williams another chance at life.

“So he can help others who can see that example he has set and to say ‘that’s the wrong path,’” said Windle.

Williams asked for forgiveness from his victims during the hearing, saying, “To those I’ve hurt, ‘I’m sorry’ is not enough.”

An emotional Williams reflected on his past actions and on his childhood. He was abused and neglected. Now, he claims to be a changed man and wants clemency.

"Being in this situation has forced me to look at myself, and sometimes you don’t like the person you see looking back at you. So, you do what you can to change that, and I’ve tried," said Williams.

Williams is on death row for killing 22 year old Stacy Errickson in 1994. He was found guilty of abducting her from a gas station, raping, and suffocating the young mother of two. Her body was found in a shallow grave weeks later.

“Stacy wasn’t raised by a daddy. She didn’t have one, and her twin brother Tracy didn’t have one," said Carolyn Moore, Errickson’s mother who wants Williams executed. “Neither one of those were in jail, so that’s no excuse for these convicts."

"I still think of her every day and always will," said Trista Wussick who was babysitting Erickson's kids at the time of her disappearance. “Marcel Williams is my boogie man. He doesn’t deserve any mercy."

The Arkansas Parole board has not announced whether they recommend clemency for Williams yet. Another clemency hearing is scheduled for Friday for two more men.

Source: KTHV-TV, March 27, 2017

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