Recently in Death Penalty Category

Yesterday, the 9th Circuit, in a 2-1 opinion in Harrison v. Gillespie, found that a defendant's right against double jeopardy would be violated if the State were allowed to seek the death penalty in a second trial.

The jury returned a verdict of guilt on the charge of first-degree murder.  Following the penalty trial, the jury reported that it was deadlocked, and two juror notes indicated that the deadlock was between life with parole, and life without. Harrison's counsel asked to poll the jurors on whether there was unanimous agreement that as to whether aggravated circumstances existed and whether they found that mitigating circumstances outweighed aggravators. The trial court denied the request, and declared a mistrial. The State of Nevada wants to seek the death penalty in a second penalty trial.  Harrison's counsel filed a petition for a writ of mandamus or prohibition with the Nevada Supreme Court, which was denied without analysis of the issue presented.  Harrison then filed a petition pursuant to 28 USC 2241 for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court.  It was summarily denied.  On appeal, the 9th Circuit (Judge Reinardt joined by Senior Judge Hug) granted relief and reversed the district court's denial of the petition. The panel held the trial court abused its discretion by declaring a mistrial without first granting petitioner's request to poll the jury to determine whether it had acquitted petitioner of the death penalty. The panel further held that, because no other alternative would adequately protect petitioner's rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause, the State could not seek and the court could not impose the death penalty at a sentencing retrial. Judge Silverman dissented, after finding that the federal constitution does not require a state trial judge to inquire into the unfinished deliberations of a discretionary matter before declaring a mistrial.

The US Supreme Court has issued two recent per curiam decisions: one today and one last week.

In Michigan v. Fisher, the Court finds that police officers acted reasonably in entering a home without a warrant based upon their belief that there was a need to render emergency assistance.  The failure to call for emergency medical assistance was not determinative because officers needed to assure that the person was not endangering someone else in the house as they had observed violent behavior inside.  Justice Stevens and Sotomayor dissented.

In Porter v. McCollum, the Court finds that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder during a capital penalty phase.  In the unanimous pc opinion, the Court noted that "Our Nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did."  This is a must read for those defending capital cases.

In a 4-3 unpublished order, in Rodriguez v. State, the Nevada Supreme Court vacates a sentence of death and remands the case for a new penalty hearing.  The ruling was based upon a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel in the penalty phase for failure to investigate mitigation evidence.

Death Penalty Costs Examined

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The Death Penalty Information Center has released a new report - Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis.

From the Executive Summary of the report:

"Smart on Crime" is a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center that explores the prospect of saving states hundreds of millions of dollars by ending the death penalty. The report also serves to release a national poll of police chiefs in which they rank the death penalty at the bottom of their priorities for achieving a safer society.

The death penalty in the U.S. is an enormously expensive and wasteful program with no clear benefits. All of the studies on the cost of capital punishment conclude it is much more expensive than a system with life sentences as the maximum penalty. In a time of painful budget cutbacks, states are pouring money into a system that results in a declining number of death sentences and executions that are almost exclusively carried out in just one area of the country. As many states face further deficits, it is an appropriate time to consider whether maintaining the costly death penalty system is being smart on crime.

The nation's police chiefs rank the death penalty last in their priorities for effective crime reduction. The officers do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder, and they rate it as one of most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars in fighting crime. Criminologists concur that the death penalty does not effectively reduce the number of murders

McConnell v. State - the Court, sitting en banc, issues a per curiam decision affirming an order of the district court dismissing McConnell's post-conviction petition for a writ of habeas corpus in a capital case.  The Court concludes, in addressing an issue of first impression in Nevada, that challenges to Nevada's lethal injection procedures are not properly raised in a state court habeas petition.  The Court also finds that McConnell's guilty plea was knowingly and voluntarily entered and he did not have a right to effective assistance of stand-by counsel.  The Court next find that appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to challenge a penalty phase instruction on the ground that it did not specify that the aggravating factors had to outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt before it could impose death.  The Court next finds that appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to challenge the Court's mandatory review of death sentences on the ground that there are no standards for the review; for failing to argue that it was prejudicial to have his trial and appeal reviewed by elected judges; for failing to challenge the death qualification process for jurors; and for failing to adequately address the aggravating circumstances issue presented in McConnell I (felony murder aggravators cannot be used if felony murder is the basis for the judgment).

The good news is that the Court rejects the State's argument that McConnell I was wrongly decided and should be overturned.  (Footnote 15).

Assemblypersons Anderson, Leslie, Ohrenshall, Segerblom, Buckley, Atkinson, Claborn, Hogan, Horne, McClain, Munford and Pierce have introduced Assembly Bill 190, which if enacted would establish a moritorium on the execution of sentences of death until July 1, 2011 and would conduct a study on the fiscal costs of the death penalty in Nevada.  The study would require an examination and analysis of the costs of prosecuting and adjudicating capital cases compared to noncapital cases.

Nevada is not alone in considering the fiscal impact of the death penalty.  Both New Mexico and Montana are considering abolishing the death penalty in those states.

Other states have studied the fiscal impact of the death penalty and all have concluded that the death penalty is far more expensive than a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  Details are available after the jump.

The Nevada Supreme Court has issued a stay of discovery ordered by Judge Mosley in the capital case of State v. Curtis Bonilla.  I don't remember how to download a pdf and the order is not published on the Court's website, so here's the text:

"This is an original petition for a writ of mandamus or prohibition challenging a district court order granting the State's motion for production of discovery pursuant to NRS 174.245, including materials to be presented during the penalty phase in a death penalty case.  Petitioner requests a stay of the proceedings and requests this court to prohibit the district court from ordering pretrial discovery of petitioner's penalty phase evidence before a finding of guilt is returned.  Cause appearing, we grant a stay of the district court's order to the extent that it compels discovery of petitioner's penalty phase evidence before the jury returns a verdict on the guilt phase of the trial.

Further, we have reviewed the petition, and it appears that petitioner has set forth issues of arguable merit and may have no plain, speedy and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law.  Accordingly, the State, on behalf of respondents, shall have 10 days from the date of this order within which to file an answer, including authorities, against issuance of the requested writ." 


In an unpublished decision of December 31, the Nevada Supreme Court granted a new penalty hearing in the capital case of Jones v. State.  The Court found ineffective assistance of trial counsel based upon failure to investigate mitigating evidence and failure to prepare for the penalty phase.  The Court also found extensive prosecutorial misconduct in the closing argument on the penalty phase.  The Court acknowledged that it relied upon an erroneous standard of review on direct appeal when it affirmed Jones' death sentence despite a finding of prosecutorial misconduct because of "overwhelming evidence of guilt."  "Rather than focusing on the evidence of guilt, when reviewing prosecutorial misconduct committed during a penalty hearing, the focus of the prejudice inquiry should be on the penalty proceedings and whether the misconduct 'so infected the proceedings with unfairness as to make the results a denial of due process."  Someone puzzling is the fact that the opinion with the erroneous standard was published, but the Court's acknowledgement of its use of incorrect standard is unpublished, so the erroneous standard appears to stand as valid despite its obvious flaw.  The Court affirms Jones' judgment of conviction as to issues raised concerning the guilt phase.

Disclosure: I am counsel for Jones.

Nevada Supreme Court issues opinion

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Nika v. State - In an en banc opinion authored by Justice Hardesty, with Justices Cherry and Saitta dissenting, the Court finds the following:  "The primary issue in this appeal concerns a jury instruction defining premeditation, commonly referred to as the Kazalyn instruction, and our decision in Byford v. State, which addressed specific concerns about that instruction.  Appellant Avram Nika challenges our subsequent decisions that Byford announced a new rule with prospective affect. In considering his argument, we reexamine whether our decision in Byford constituted a clarification of existing law or a change in the law respecting the meaning of the mens rea for first-degree murder.  We hold that Byford announced a change in state law that applies prospectively to murder convictions that were not final when Byford was decided.  Nika's conviction was final before Byford was decided.  Consequently, we conclude that Nika's trial and appellate counsel were not ineffective for failing to challenge the Kazalyn instruction as that instruction was a correct statement of the law at the time of his trial." 

In reaching this decision, the Court criticizes the Ninth Circuit's opinion in Polk v. Sandoval:  "The fundamental flaw, however, in Polk's analysis is the underlying assumption that Byford merely reaffirmed a distinction between 'willfulness,' 'deliberation,' and 'premeditation.'  It was based on that assumption that Polk concluded that the Kazalyn instruction was erroneous and that the instructional error violated the federal Constitution by omitting an element of the offense.  That underlying assumption ignores our jurisprudence."

The Court, however, also recognized that portions its holdings in Garner and Byford were not correct: "Despite our disagreement with the assumption underlying the decision in Polk, we acknowledge that the change effected by Byford properly applied to that case as a matter of due process.  The United States Supreme Court has indicated that for purposes of due process, the relevant consideration 'is not just whether the law changed' but also 'when the law changed.'  Thus, if the law changed to narrow the scope of a criminal statute before a defendant's conviction became final, then due process requires that the change be applied to that defendant.  In such cases, retroactivity is not at issue; rather, due process requires that the conviction be set aside if required by the change in the law. In this respect, our decision in Garner erroneously afforded Byford complete prospectivity because as a matter of due process, the change effected in Byford applies to convictions that were not yet final at the time of the change.  Polk involved such a conviction.  This case, however, does not. Because Nika's conviction was final when Byford was decided, whether the change effected in Byford applies to Nika is a matter of retroactivity analysis.  This court previously has held that Byford has no retroactive application on collateral review. We reaffirm that decision today."

In Sechrest v. Ignacio, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reverses death sentences based upon a 1983 conviction for two murder convictions in Washoe County.  The 41 page opinion addresses procedural default issues, law of the case, an alleged Miranda violation, and several penalty phase issues.  The Court holds that the prosecutor's repeated misstatements regarding the likelihood of Sechrest's release from prison by parole were he to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole violated his due process right to a fair trial, and that the violation had a substantial and injurious effect on the jury's sentencing decision.  The prosecutor had made four statements indicating that Board of Pardon Commissioners could -- and likely would -- release Sechrest if the jury returned a verdict of less than death.  The Court found the misconduct to be prejudicial after noting that "a jury sitting in a capital case must be given a clear choice between the death penalty and a life sentence." 

The Court also found that while the prosecutor's misconduct alone justified its holding, testimony by a psychiatrist exacerbated the prejudicial effect of the prosecutor's remarks.  Defense counsel had retained a psychiatrist to evaluate Sechrest.  Although defense counsel decided not to call the witness, counsel gave a copy of the expert's report to the State.  The State then called the psychiatrist as a witness and elicited the fact that he had examined Sechrest at defense counsel's request.  The psychiatrist informed the jury of Sechrest's criminal history, stated that he had a callous disregard for human life, and was an incurable sociopath who, if released, would pose a danger to others, particularly to little girls.  The Ninth Circuit rejected the findings by the state district court and federal district court that the psychiatrist's testimony was cumulative and instead noted the significance of testimony presented by a mental health expert.

The Court next found that defense counsel was ineffective for three reasons.  First, defense counsel should not have allowed the prosecution to review the psychiatrist's confidential report on Sechrest's mental health.  Counsel had decided not to call the psychiatrist as a witness, but inexplicably disclosed the confidential and privileged report to the prosecution.  Without this report the prosecution would not have had access to this privileged information.  "Defense counsel had absolutely no obligation to disclose [the] confidential report to the prosecution."  Second, defense counsel should not have stipulated to the prosecutor calling the psychiatrist as a witness for the prosecution.  Further, the jury was told that the psychiatrist was hired by the defense.  The Court rejected defense counsel's explanation at an evidentiary hearing, in which he stated that he did not object because he believed the psychiatrist would provide helpful information about Sechrest's troubled background, as this was not a sound strategic decision.  The Court found the explanation to be implausible as defense counsel did not call the witness and did not pursue or argue any mitigating factors related to Sechrest's troubled background.  Third, defense counsel's preparation for Dr. Gerow's testimony fell far below an objective standard of reasonableness.  Defense counsel did not speak with the psychiatrist after agreeing to let him testify for the prosecution.  The lack of preparation was evidence from counsel's lackluster performance at trial.

Congratulations on the victory to Tiffany Murphy and Michael Pescetta of the Federal Public Defender's Office.

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