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 -…

Florida: Orlando Prosecutor Will No Longer Seek Death Penalty

Chief prosecutor Aramis D. Ayala
Chief prosecutor Aramis D. Ayala
MIAMI — In a startling denunciation of capital punishment in a state with one of the nation’s largest death rows, the new chief prosecutor in Orlando, Fla., said Thursday that her office would no longer seek the death penalty.

The decision by the prosecutor — Aramis D. Ayala, the state attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit — could have widespread repercussions in Florida if other prosecutors follow suit. Nationwide, support for the death penalty has steadily declined, along with the number of executions, and in Florida, years of litigation and legislative maneuvering have left the capital punishment system in turmoil.

Backlash from other law enforcement officials was swift. The state attorney general, Pam Bondi, called Ms. Ayala’s decision a “blatant neglect of duty.”

Within hours, Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order removing Ms. Ayala from a case involving an Orlando police officer’s death.

Although the Florida authorities have not carried out any executions since January 2016, the state has 381 prisoners on death row. Twenty-two of them were convicted in Orange or Osceola Counties, the two counties within Ms. Ayala’s territory.

Ms. Ayala said that the death penalty had failed as a deterrent and that it did nothing to protect law enforcement officers. She also cited the length of time between sentencing and execution, which often exceeds a decade, and the costs of capital cases. “I am prohibited from making the severity of sentences the index of my effectiveness,” she said on Thursday. “Punishment is most effective when it happens consistently and swiftly. Neither describe the death penalty in this state.”

Seeking life sentences, she said, would guarantee that “violent offenders will never be released.”

“They will never continue to drain resources from this state with decades of appeals, and we can offer families of the victims more closure and more certainty,” she added.

As recently as Tuesday, Ms. Ayala’s spokeswoman told The Orlando Sentinel that the office was seeking death sentences in six cases. By late Thursday morning, the office had reversed its stand, throwing into question the potential punishment in a high-profile case against Markeith Loyd, who the police said killed his pregnant ex-girlfriend and then gunned down an officer, Lt. Debra Clayton, as she tried to apprehend him.

After Ms. Ayala’s announcement, Mr. Scott called on her to recuse herself from the case, but she declined. He then removed her from it, saying in a statement that she had “made it clear that she will not fight for justice.”

Ms. Ayala, the first black elected prosecutor in Florida, suggested that she had not made the death penalty an issue in her campaign last year because there was a hold on executions at the time.

“I do understand that this is a controversial issue, but what is not controversial is the evidence that led me to my decision,” she said. “If I require the attorneys in my office to manage cases — their individual cases — based upon evidence, I must follow the same evidence-based approach when I implement policies.”

Later, she issued a statement saying that she had spoken to the governor, but that he had refused to hear her out. She added that she would comply with “any lawful order” he sent.

Ms. Ayala’s new approach angered many people in local law enforcement, including some officials with whom she is expected to work closely. They said the case involving Mr. Loyd, who is representing himself and whose judge entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf, warranted a death sentence.

“If there was ever a case for the death penalty, this fits,” Chief John W. Mina of the Orlando police said in an interview, adding that he was commenting only on Mr. Loyd’s case. “If there is a reason we have a death penalty in the state of Florida, it’s for the more serious, heinous crimes, which need to have serious consequences. Anything short is disproportionate.”

Lieutenant Clayton’s family did not respond to a request for comment.

Death penalty critics welcomed Ms. Ayala’s new policy for her circuit, which has a population of about 1.6 million people and draws millions of tourists each year.

“A powerful symbol of racial injustice has now been discarded in Orange County,” Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida conference of the N.A.A.C.P., said in a statement. “Ending use of the death penalty in Orange County is a step toward restoring a measure of trust and integrity in our criminal justice system.”

Mr. Scott’s decision to remove Ms. Ayala also provoked strong reactions. “My God, is this a dangerous precedent,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “Whenever the governor doesn’t like the exercise of prosecutorial decision by an elected prosecutor, he’s going to step in and appoint somebody else?”

Mr. Simon said the governor had engaged in “a very shortsighted abuse of authority.”

“‘Good and sufficient reason’ would mean an ethical problem or conflict of interest,” he said. “This is not the case here. The only reason he is using to remove the prosecutor is that he disagrees with the prosecutor’s judgment.”

Others worried about Ms. Ayala’s imposing a sweeping standard on all potential capital cases.

“You have some question whether or not the prosecutor is properly exercising prosecutorial discretion,” said George R. Dekle Sr., a former prosecutor and former University of Florida law professor. “I think any time anybody facing any kind of charging decision says ‘never,’ then they are not thinking too clearly.”

Ms. Ayala’s shift in policy came days after Mr. Scott signed a law intended to resolve constitutional concerns about the state’s death penalty. The law, which requires juries to reach unanimous agreement before imposing a death sentence, was the second time in two years that Florida tried to address court rulings casting doubt on capital punishment in the state.

Source: The New York Times, Frances Robles, Alan Blinder from Atlanta, March 16, 2017

Death by Non-Unanimous Jury

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
In Florida, nearly 300 people have been sent to death row despite dissenting votes. It’s up to state prosecutors to right that wrong.

Thursday, the newly elected state attorney representing Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties spoke out publicly against the death penalty, promising not to seek it in future cases. It was a momentous stance for a prosecutor to take in a state that has long been extremely aggressive in sentencing people to death.

“While I have discretion to pursue the death penalty, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of the community or the best interest of justice,” Aramis Ayala said in a press conference. “Florida’s death penalty has been the cause of considerable legal chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil.”

Ayala, Florida’s first black elected state attorney, presides over the judicial circuit that includes Orlando. She is thus far the only prosecutor in the state to categorically refuse to seek the death penalty. Yet her pronouncement isn’t the only reason Florida’s death penalty is in a state of uncertainty. Other prosecutors in the state are now facing a serious dilemma about how to deal with the roughly 285 people on death row whose death sentences are in limbo.

Consider the case of Emilia Carr. In 2011, by a vote of 7–5, a Florida jury sentenced Carr to death. She had been in a tumultuous on-and-off relationship with a man named Joshua Fulgham when Fulgham’s wife was murdered. Fulgham was notoriously abusive—police had previously arrested him for assaulting his wife and threatening to kill her—and evidence indicated that he hatched the plan. Still, the jury in his trial recommended a life sentence. A narrow majority of Carr’s jurors, on the other hand, recommended execution, despite a total absence of forensic evidence linking her to the murder.

Carr had led a difficult life. She was sexually abused by her father, who went to prison for the abuse. Carr’s father also pleaded guilty to solicitation to commit murder against Carr and two other women.

Carr married young and had children—she was eight months pregnant with her fourth when she was sentenced to death—and by all accounts, she was a devoted mother. But Fulgham was dominating and cruel, and Carr’s past made her an easy target. The jury at her trial never got to hear much detail about the trauma she had endured throughout her life. Still, even without the full picture of abuse and trauma, five jurors did not believe she should be sentenced to death.

Today, the 32-year-old Carr is one of the youngest women in America on death row. She lives in a solitary cell, where she spends nearly 24 hours a day. She does not see her four children.

Until recently, Florida was one of the only states that allowed a non-unanimous jury to sentence someone to death. But last October, the Florida Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence someone to death without unanimous jury support. This week, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill requiring jury unanimity in death row cases.

Unaddressed in the new legislation were inmates such as Carr, whose death row sentences were decided under the old law. Now, Florida’s 20 elected prosecutors must decide what to do about the 75 percent of death row inmates who were sentenced by non-unanimous juries. Should they be resentenced to life without parole, or should the state spend time and money trying to get unanimous juries to sentence them to death?

➤ Click here to read the full article

Source: Slate, Larry Hannan, March 16, 2017

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