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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Delaware law is overturned, yet 2 remain on death row

Delaware road sign
2 men remain on death row a year and a half after the state Supreme Court ruled Delaware's death penalty unconstitutional.

Michael R. Manley and David D. Stevenson have been fighting their convictions since being sentenced 20 years ago. Ironically, those decades-long battles are what is keeping them on death row.

"It's routine," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

That's because what typically occurs when the state or U.S. Supreme Court declares a law unconstitutional is if the case is pending on appeal it will be modified the next time it comes to the sentencing court.

For example, when Ohio's death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1978 there were 54 cases pending in the that state's Supreme Court, Dunham said. As a result, all of those were immediately resentenced to life in prison. But there were another 50 in the appellant process. Those cases took longer to resentence.

Ohio has since reinstated its death penalty.

The same is being seen in Connecticut where its Supreme Court ruled the state's death penalty unconstitutional in 2015.

"The Connecticut Supreme Court was still deciding issues in its death penalty cases as recently as last month," Dunham said.

While some might think it's a waste of time to wait to modify the sentence, Dunham explained the appeals are not always challenges to the death penalty. In some cases, prisoners are challenging their convictions.

"They may not be guilty of `first-degree murder and they were wrongly sentenced to death, so this would take the death penalty off the table but it doesn't affect the fairness of their underlying conviction," Dunham said.

He pointed to Jermaine Wright who spent more than 20 years on death row before a Delaware court, in 2012, overturned his conviction and death sentence on the premise he wasn't properly advised of his rights during the police interrogation - a nearly 13-hour event in which Wright provided a confession while high on heroin.

Wright, in 2016, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time served.

Delaware's top court decided the state's death penalty was unconstitutional in August 2016, months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's law because it gave judges, and not juries, the final say to impose a death sentence. Florida's law was similar to Delaware's law.

Amid outcry over 2 Delaware law enforcement officers being killed last year - correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd and state police Cpl. Stephen J. Ballard - state House lawmakers in May passed a revised death penalty statute that addresses the constitutional infirmities noted in the state and federal court rulings by requiring unanimous jury approval. The bill is now in the Senate where it has been assigned to the Judicial and Community Affairs Committee.

Attorney Herbert Mondros, who represents Stevenson, said the 2016 Supreme Court's order vacated all the state's death sentences. What remains is a procedural thing function.

"As a result, there is no death row in Delaware, the DOC website notwithstanding," Mondros said. "I believe that all but 2 of the former death row inmates have been re-sentenced to life without parole, David Stevenson, who is my client, and Michael Manley. Presently there are motions pending before [Superior Court] Judge [Paul] Wallace concerning these two defendants, and a sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Manley and Stevenson were convicted for Nov. 13, 1995, 1st-degree murder of 25-year-old Kristopher Heath, a Macy's security officer who was about to testify against Stevenson in a theft case. Manley shot Heath at Stevenson's direction to prevent him from testifying in the theft case.

Despite claiming on its website that Manley and Stevenson remain on death row, the Department of Correction has done away with the actual area that was historically housed in Building 18 at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

"Execution protocol referred to them as ISDP (inmates sentenced to the death penalty)," said Jayme Gravell, a DOC spokeswoman.

Their cells were no different from other single cells in the Security Housing Unit or SHU, which is where inmates who have demonstrated they cannot be housed in lesser security settings are kept.

Gravell added that neither Manley nor Stevenson are housed in SHU and that they are not separated from the other inmates at Vaughn.

"Their housing is based on classification," she said.

Source: delawareonline.com, February 21, 2018


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but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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