News from Florida Capital Resource Center

Federal Judge Declares California's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Posted July 17, 2014

Vacating a death sentence for California death row inmate Ernest Dewayne Jones, United States District Judge Cormac J. Carney yesterday declared that California's death penalty system violates the Eighth Amendment.

In his 29-page order, Judge Carney describes how the "dysfunctional administration" of California's death penalty system has rendered it unconstitutionally arbitrary in its application.  California currently houses 748 inmates on its death row, far more than any other state (Florida comes in second with 395), but due to the "dysfunctional administration" of the State's death penalty system, for most of these inmates, actually being executed is a "remote possibility."  Aside from the fact that both federal and state courts have enjoined any executions from taking place in California since 2006 due to problems with its lethal injection protocol, inordinate delays throughout the post-conviction process have created a backlog of cases that only continues to grow with each passing year.  It is estimated that the entire post-conviction appeals process takes an average of 25 years in California, around twice the national average.  In fact, the mandatory direct review of a death sentence by the California Supreme Court alone takes an average of 11.7-13.7 years, with three to five of those years spent just waiting for counsel to be appointed to the case.  As Judge Carney says in his opinion:

California's death penalty system is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death.  Of the more than 900 individuals that have been sentenced to death since 1978, only 13 have been executed.  For every one inmate executed by California, seven have died on Death Row, most from natural causes. . . . For all practical purposes then, a sentence of death in California is a sentence of life imprisonment with the remote possibility of death - a sentence no rational legislature or jury could ever impose.

What California is left with is a system in which those who actually are executed are determined by a factor "wholly divorced from the penological purposes the State sought to achieve by sentencing him to death in the first instance: how quickly the inmate proceeds through the State's dysfunctional post-conviction review process."  The court held that such an arbitrary application of the utlimate sentence is contrary to the edicts of Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972):

The Eighth Amendment simply cannot be read to proscribe a state from randomly selecting which few members of its criminal population it will sentence to death, but to allow that same state to randomly select which trivial few of those condemned it will actually execute.  Arbitrariness in execution is still arbitrary, regardless of when in the process the arbitrariness arises.  

Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Carney's opinion will almost certainly be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and we will be sure to update this post as that process continues.  

Click here to read Judge Carney's Order in full

U.S. Supreme Court Holds Florida's Strict Cutoff of 70 IQ in Death Penalty Cases Unconstitutional

Posted May 27, 2014

Earlier today, the United States Supreme Court announcd its opinion in Hall v. Florida, Case No. 12-10882. The issue in the case was whether Florida's strict requirement that a defendant have an IQ of 70 or below in order to be exempt from the death penalty due to mental disability is constitutional.  The Court held that it is not.

In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid the execution of persons with intellectual disability.  In Florida, for purposes of upholding that rule, the State has defined "intellectual disability" as "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the period from conception to age 18."  As applied by the Florida Courts, "significant subaverage general intellectual functioning" has become a threshold inquiry with a strict cutoff of an IQ of 70.  In other words, if a defendant scored a 71 on an IQ test, the inquiry ended without further exploration into other possible (and perhaps significant) manifestations of a defendant's disability.  Moreover, the courts refused to take into account what the professionals who design, administer, and interpret IQ tests have long agreed: these tests are imprecise, and scores should be read as a "range" rather than a "single fixed number."  As the Court stated:

Florida's rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways.  It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant's intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence.  It also relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of the defendant's abilities, his IQ score, while refusing to recognize that the score is, on its own terms, imprecise.

Under the Court's holding, if a "defendant's IQ test score falls within the test's acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits."  

The Court concluded:

The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose.  Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution.  Florida's law contravenes our Nation's commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.  The States are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitution protects.

Click here to read the full opinion in Hall v. Florida, Case No. 12-10882 (Dec. May 27, 2014).

Askari Abdullah Muhammed Becomes First Man Executed in 2014

Posted Jan. 8, 2014

Askari Abdullah Muhammed, formerly known as Thomas Knight, was executed last night; he was pronounced dead at 6:45pm.

Muhammed was first convicted of murdering a Bay Harbor Islands couple in 1975, a crime for which he was sentenced to death.  However, he was later convicted and sentenced to death again for murdering a prison guard while serving on death row in 1983.  

Muhammed's execution is the first U.S. execution in 2014, and the third person to be executed in Florida utilizing the State's controversial new lethal injection protocol.  Muhammed's original death warrant was stayed by the Florida Supreme Court in November, which ordered an evidentiary hearing concerning the new lethal injection drug, midazolam hydrochloride, an anesthetic that has never before been used in executions. However, the lower court held that use of the drug would not violate the Eighth Amendment, a ruling the Florida Supreme Court subsequently upheld in an order that lifted the temporary stay of execution.

Florida now has two active death warrants, though Paul Augustus Howell's execution has been stayed by federal court order.  Juan Carlos Chavez, whose warrant was signed just after the new year, is set to be executed February 12, 2014, at 6pm.

Click here to read the FSC Order lifting Muhammed's stay of execution

Florida Capital Resource Center Presents Forensic Evidence Seminar

Posted Dec. 18, 2013

Florida Capital Resource Center is pleased to announce our next seminar - Capital Forensics: Investigating & Challenging Forensic Evidence in Capital Cases!

Dealing with forensic evidence and expert witnesses is often one of the most difficult and intimidating jobs of a defense attorney.  Join us as attorney and law professor Karin Moore leads this part-lecture/part-workshop on methods of investigating and challenging forensic evidence.  

Geared toward attorneys practicing in the capital arena, the goals of this seminar are to update trial attorneys on Florida's adoption of FRE 702 and the Daubert standard to the admissibility of scientific and technical evidence, to assist trial attorneys in the investigation and challenge of the prosecution's expert testimony (with a focus on the ethical obligations of the prosecution and defense), and to reexamine the admissibility of human decomposition odor evidence in the Casey Anthony case and DNA evidence under the new admissibility standard.

The seminar is currently scheduled to take place January 10 in Tampa and January 17th in Broward, with additional dates to be announced soon.  Click here for additional information or to RSVP!

Hospira Will No Longer Provide Midazolam Hydrochloride to States for Executions

Posted Nov. 23, 2013

Hospira, the company from which Florida obtained its supply of midazolam hydrochloride, has announced that it will no longer supply the drug to states for use in executions.  Florida recently became the first state to add the drug to its lethal injection protcol, doing so after it was unable to replenish its supply of pentobarbital.

However, the company that supplied Florida with the midazolam has made clear that it opposes capital punishment and actively works to prevent the use of its drugs in executions.  The company employs a "restricted distribution system" for specific drugs commonly used in executions to ensure that neither Hospira nor its distributors engage in the direct sale of these drugs to U.S. prison hospitals.  To this point, the restricted drugs included pancuronium bromide, potassium chloride, and propofol.  But as states scramble to find new drugs to replace pentobarbital, Hospira has responded by adding four more drugs - including midazolam - to the restricted list.  As the company stated:

Hospira makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve, and, therefore, we have always publicly objected to the use of any of our products in capital punishment. . . . Recently, Hospira has learned that several states are considering adding midazolam, hydromorphone, rocuronium bromide and vecuronium bromide to their lethal injection protocols. In light of this information, Hospira will be notifying our distributors and amending our contracts to reflect that these four additional products will be added to the restricted distribution system.

While Florida has already utilized midazolam in two executions, the Florida Supreme Court has stayed a third and ordered an evidentiary hearing after death row inmate Thomas Knight raised a challenge to the drug's use in the state's new lethal injection protocol.  And while it is unclear how much of the drug the state currently has on hand, Hospira's restricted distribution system aims to ensure it will not get any more.  That being the case, Florida's new lethal injection protocol might be short-lived.

Click here to read Hospira's Official Statement concerning the use of their products in lethal injections.

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