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Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

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In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Fate of Mississippi's only female death row inmate remains in limbo

Jury box
The fate of Mississippi's only female death row inmate, Lisa Jo Chamberlin, is in limbo two years after a federal court ruling granting her a new trial in a double homicide in Hattiesburg.

The full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with the exception of Judge James Graves who recused himself, recently agreed to decide whether to uphold the federal judge's ruling. That comes after a 3-judge panel of the court voted 2-1 to affirm the ruling.

Graves is a former justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court, which had previously upheld Chamberlin's death sentence.

On a motion by the Mississippi attorney general's office, the 5th Circuit agreed to hear the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for Sept. 18.

Special Assistant Attorney General Cameron Benton argued the 2 U.S. Court of Appeals judges put together unimpressive statistics and an incomplete comparative analysis to find the existence of discrimination in the striking of 2 black prospective jurors.

"There is ample proof in the record to suggest that the exercise of peremptory strikes was not motivated by racial animus," Benton said in court papers. "Given the dearth of proof and the deference owed to the State Court, the Majority opinion seems to have improperly substituted its judgment for that of the trial judge and appellate court."

In 2015, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ordered the state to grant Chamberlin a new trial within four months, saying prosecutors intentionally struck black potential jurors from her capital murder trial.

Chamberlin is white. She argued on appeal that her rights were violated by prosecutors striking some black potential jurors for non-racial neutral reasons. "The judge went over them carefully," said attorney Elizabeth Unger Carlyle of Kansas City, Missouri, one of Chamberlin's attorneys in the appeal. "We were clearly able to show discrimination in cases of two of the potential jurors. We hope the judge's decision will be affirmed on appeal."

Chamberlin and her boyfriend, Roger Lee Gillett, were convicted of 2 counts of capital murder in the March 2004 slayings of Gillet's cousin, Vernon Hulett, 34, and Hulett's girlfriend, Linda Heintzelman, 37, in Hattiesburg. Their bodies were transported to Kansas in a freezer.

Gillett and Chamberlin were arrested March 29, 2004, after Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents raided an abandoned farm house near Russell, Kansas, owned by Gillett's father, and found the dismembered bodies of Hulett and Heintzelman in a freezer.

KBI agents were investigating Gillett and Chamberlin for their possible connection to the manufacture of methamphetamine, according to published reports.

Gillett and Chamberlin were living with Hulett and Heintzelman in Hattiesburg at the time of the slayings.

Chamberlin, in a taped confession played at her trial, said the victims were killed because they wouldn't open a safe in Hulett's home.

Chamberlain was sentenced to death row in 2006, and Gillett was sentenced in 2007.

However, Gillett's death sentence was later overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. While in custody in Kansas, Gillett attempted to escape. That crime was 1 of the aggravating factors prosecutors presented jurors to support the death penalty.

In a 6-3 decision, the state Supreme Court said not every escape is considered a crime of violence under Kansas law. Therefore, the Kansas crime cannot be used to support a death sentence in Mississippi, the court ruled.

Chamberlin filed a post-conviction challenge to her conviction in 2011 in U.S. District Court after the state Supreme Court upheld her conviction and death sentence.

One of claims was that the prosecution improperly struck 7 African Americans from serving on her jury. The prosecutor said he struck 12 potential jurors - 7 black and 5 white. He denied any effort to strike potential jurors based upon race.

Reeves said federal law requires in death penalty cases that comparative analysis be done when black potential jurors are struck compared to white jurors allowed to remain in the jury pool.

"Some may wonder why constitutional error in the jury's selection necessitates a new trial, especially given the horrific murders committed in this case," Reeves said in his court order. "But the Supreme Court has many times explained that a discriminatory jury selection process is unforgivable

Source: The Clarion-Ledger, August 1, 2017

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