Death penaltyIt’s hard to follow the death penalty case of Richard Glossip, the latest inmate headed to execution by the state of Oklahoma, without wondering if his prosecution, conviction and, if it happens, death by lethal injection could have been bungled any more than has already happened.

Glossip, who had no arrest record and no history of violence, was sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. His conviction was based upon testimony from the actual murderer, Justin Sneed, who’d bludgeoned the victim with a bat.  In exchange for a life sentence, Sneed testified that Glossip made him do it.

Oklahoma’s Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Glossip’s first conviction because his lawyer was inept, and the case against him grew weaker by the day afterwards.

As related by Lincoln Caplan in this New Yorker piece, the prosecution then agreed that no physical evidence linked Glossip to the crime scene. Nonetheless, he was convicted and sentenced to death a second time based upon a different factual account given by Sneed — one of eight different accounts he has told, according to Glossip’s lawyers.

After Oklahoma botched the execution of another death row inmate last year through the use of a three-drug cocktail, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Glossip’s scheduled execution while the justices considered a challenge to the use of those drugs.

The high court then sustained the use of that cocktail in June, holding in a 5-4 opinion  that Glossip’s attorneys had failed to identify any alternative drug that the state could use.

Attempts at a stay based upon evidence showing innocence, including to the U.S. Supreme Court — which issued a denial over a dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer — proved fruitless, and Glossip was set for execution late yesterday.

At the last minute, though, Oklahoma’s governor issued a stay based upon yet another snafu:  the state had the wrong drug.

All of which leads to this question:  At what point should the state pull back and reconsider whether the death penalty is deserving in a case?

More importantly, at what point does the U.S. Supreme Court say enough is enough?

Caplan argues in his piece that if an abolition of the death penalty by the high court comes soon, Glossip might just be the reason:

It provides a case study in the unreliability of the application of the death sentence. Glossip’s current lawyers have raised serious doubts about his guilt, which make his conviction dubious and his death sentence unjust. His counsel in his first trial was reprehensibly bad. His counsel in his second trial exceeded the very low standard for ineffective counsel, but did a poor cross-examination of Sneed, the main witness against Glossip. From the decision to charge Glossip with a capital crime to some unsavory tactical moves in the second trial, the prosecution was overzealous and may have crossed the line into misconduct.

As Caplan notes, four of the justices are already there, including Breyer, who in his dissent in the June Glossip opinion openly invited a constitutional challenge to the death penalty.

And some experts now suggest that Justice Anthony Kennedy may be ready to cross over, in light of recent statements by Pope Francis that echo Kennedy’s own words in a 2014  opinion overturning the death sentence of an intellectually-disabled Florida man: “The Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity reflects the Nation we have been, the Nation we are, and the Nation we aspire to be.”


BrownMcCollum-v2-web-60percent-grayAs Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation explained this week in an insightful blog post, the state’s ultra-belated decision to finally compensate the exonerated Henry McCollum and Leon Brown (who were wrongfully sentenced, respectively, to death and life imprisonment for a murder they did not commit) ought not to be the end of the story on the subject. This is from her post:

“As Gretchen Engel pointed out in her recent op-ed, the N.C. legislature has not proposed a single bill that would help determine if there are more innocent people on death row — even though more than 100 of North Carolina’s 148 death row inmates, like McCollum and Brown, were tried before the enactment of key reforms designed to protect the innocent.

The problems that plagued Henry’s case have not gone away, as we see from the many wrongful prosecutions that continue to today. A recent report showed that North Carolina routinely targets people with the death penalty based on flawed investigations and weak evidence.”

Add to this the inadequate compensation that the two men have been awarded (only around $22,500 per year for each of the 30+ years during which freedom was unjustly denied to them) and the absurd delay that Gov. Pat McCrory’s failure to issue a prompt pardon caused and it’s clear that changes to the law are necessary.

Interestingly, as it turns out, the North Carolina House agrees. Back in April, the House passed two bills and sent them to the Senate that would address some of the problems highlighted.

  • House Bill 676, which passed the House unanimously, would make it easier for those erroneously convicted to gain compensation by removing the superfluous but burdensome roadblock of requiring a formal gubernatorial pardon.
  • House Bill 678, which passed 110-2, would make multiple strengthening amendments to the laws governing the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Another bill that remains in the Appropriations Committee, House Bill 398, would amend the laws governing how much compensation those who have been wrongfully imprisoned for decades can receive by, among other things, raising the cap from $750,000 to $1,500,000.

Not surprisingly, however, neither of the bills sent over by the House has yet been taken up by the Senate. Meanwhile, the proposal to raise the cap on compensation continues — as far as we can tell given the shroud of secrecy on Jones Street — to be ignored by budget negotiators.

In other words, McCollum and Brown have finally received a measure of partial and absurdly delayed justice, but the system that caused the problem remains broken and ignored.


BrownMcCollum-v2-web-60percent-grayThe exonerations of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were in the news again yesterday as the state, finally and belatedly, got around to agreeing to compensate the men for having ruined their lives.

In case you missed it, however, Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation posted this insightful take on what the exonerations mean for the system as a whole, why there is every reason to believe that there are more McCollums and Browns out there and the lack of action by state leaders to address this outrageous problem.

One year after N.C.’s most shocking exoneration: What have we learned?

By Kristin Collins

One year ago today, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were declared innocent in a Robeson County courtroom. It was a case like North Carolina had never seen before.

McCollum was North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate. During the 31 years that preceded their exonerations, the half-brothers had been held up by countless politicians and judges — including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — as examples of the kinds of savage killers who make the death penalty necessary.

Last September, we all realized, three decades too late, that we had been utterly wrong about these two no-longer-young men. Instead of the cold-hearted killers we imagined, they had been scared, intellectually disabled teenagers who were coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit.

They were poor and African Americans living in a deeply segregated county. They were powerless in a justice system that favors the powerful.

Press from all over the world covered the story. It seemed then that our justice system would never be the same.

And yet, a year later, North Carolina has done little to ensure that their story won’t be repeated.

As Gretchen Engel pointed out in her recent op-ed, the N.C. legislature has not proposed a single bill that would help determine if there are more innocent people on death row — even though more than 100 of North Carolina’s 148 death row inmates, like McCollum and Brown, were tried before the enactment of key reforms designed to protect the innocent.

The problems that plagued Henry’s case have not gone away, as we see from the many wrongful prosecutions that continue to today. A recent report showed that North Carolina routinely targets people with the death penalty based on flawed investigations and weak evidence.

What’s more, McCollum and Brown are still waiting on the meager state compensation to which they are entitled for their decades of wrongful imprisonment. (The payment was finally approved today, but has not yet been issued.)

Let’s not forget the lessons we learned one year ago today — about just how wrong our justice system can get it, and how difficult it can be to uncover the truth.

Commentary, News

A day after conservatives delivered a letter calling on Gov. McCrory to veto legislation that would jump start executions in North Carolina and shroud them in secrecy, a coalition of human rights groups has spoken up as well.

RALEIGH – A coalition of human rights groups is urging Gov. Pat McCrory to veto a bill that would hide the source of lethal injection drugs used to execute prisoners on death row and remove the requirement that a qualified physician be present at all executions.

The groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the Carolina Justice Policy Center, the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, argue that HB 774 is a dangerous proposal that would make executions more secretive, increase the risk of botched executions, and ensure continued legal challenges to the death penalty in North Carolina.

“Less than a year after other states have botched executions as a result of using experimental drugs obtained in secret, it would be foolhardy for North Carolina to go down the same road,” said Sarah Preston, acting executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “This bill would increase the likelihood of a botched execution in North Carolina, hide basic information about executions from public access, and needlessly waste taxpayer dollars on the inevitable lawsuits that will follow. Governor McCrory should take a stand for transparency and accountability and veto this bill without delay.” Read More


The following statement was released this afternoon by the group NC Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty:

NC Conservatives Concerned Urges Governor McCrory to Veto Bill Eliminating Transparency in Executions

For Immediate Release
August 4, 2015

Contact: Ballard Everett
(919) 272-0297

North Carolina Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (NC CCADP) urges Governor Pat McCrory to veto House Bill 774 “Restoring Proper Justice Act,” legislation aimed at taking transparency out of the way in which our state executes individuals.

“This legislation is bad policy for North Carolina. Conducting executions is the most extreme expression of the state’s power and should be done in an open and transparent process,” said Ballard Everett, coordinator for NC CCADP. “Making secret the way in which our state obtains the drugs needed and conducts executions practically guarantees that NC will join states around the country that have seen horribly botched executions.”

“Even the bill’s sponsors have admitted passage of H774 would invite more costly litigation,” said Everett. “Why then are they committed to wasting more tax payer dollars by creating more issues that have to be litigated in courts?”

Should executions resume, Governor Pat McCrory will be the final reviewer of death row cases slated for execution. If the Governor signs H774, he will be facing what will likely be a problematic execution process that will inevitably lead to horribly botched executions. Everett said, “Gov. McCrory should not be placed in this position by the General Assembly. The process should be open and transparent to ensure that any execution is carried out correctly and with dignity for all of those involved.”

“We urge the Governor to veto this legislation. If our state is going to engage in capital punishment, we cannot do so by cloaking the execution process in secrecy.” Everett said