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Capital Punishment

Death-Row Prisoners Ask Supreme Court to Review Georgia, Oklahoma Verdicts Involving Racist Jurors

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Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured, above left) and Oklahoma death-row prisoner Julius Jones (pictured, above right) are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to grant them new trials after evidence showed that white jurors who described the defendants with racist slurs participated in deciding their cases. The involvement of the racist jurors, the prisoners say, violated their Sixth Amendment rights to impartial juries. A juror in Tharpe’s trial gave a sworn affidavit years after voting to convict Tharpe, in which he wondered “if black people even have souls,” and said, “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. N***rs.” Tharpe, he wrote, “wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did.” In Jones’s case, a juror told Jones’s legal team that another juror had said the trial was “a waste of time” and “they should just take the n***r out and shoot him behind the jail.”

Tharpe and Jones argue that two 2017 Supreme Court decisions, Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado and Buck v. Davis, require the Court to reconsider their cases. In Buck, Chief Justice John Roberts declared for the Court that “the law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” and overturned a death sentence imposed after a psychologist testified that Buck posed a greater risk of future dangerousness because he is black. The Chief Justice wrote that “discrimination on the basis of race, odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice,” calling racism a “toxin[ that] can be deadly in small doses.” In Peña-Rodriguez, now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a five-justice majority of the Court that courts may consider a juror’s statement showing he had relied on racial stereotypes to convict a defendant as evidence of a Sixth Amendment violation.

In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal appeals court’s refusal to consider Tharpe’s racial discrimination claim.  Less than three months later, that court again refused to consider the issue, saying Tharpe had not previously presented it to the state courts. Jones has also repeatedly sought review of claims that racial discrimination has infected his case. He previously asked the Court to overturn his death sentence based on the findings of a 2017 study that showed significant racial disparities in Oklahoma’s death sentencing practices. On January 22, 2019, after having rescheduled consideration of Jones’s appeal 25 times, the Court declined to review the case. Samuel Spital, who was co-counsel in Buck’s case and is lead counsel on the brief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s friend-of-the-court brief supporting Tharpe, said of Tharpe and Jones, “We know that these two men are facing execution at least in part because they’re black. Under those circumstances, the state just doesn’t have an interest in enforcing a death sentence, and for that reason, the procedural obstacles that you would have with respect to certain other claims should not be part of the analysis.” The cases are considered a bellwether of the post-Kennedy Court’s commitment to racial justice. [Death Penalty Information Center]

This post will be updated when new information is available. Due to executions and the appeals process surrounding them, information can rapidly change.

Capital Punishment

New Hampshire Becomes The Latest US State To Repeal The Death Penalty, Overriding Governor’s Veto

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire is the latest state to repeal its death penalty, as the state Senate had enough votes to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto.


The repeal takes effect immediately.

The 16-8 vote Thursday was the necessary two-thirds majority to override. The House narrowly voted last week to override Sununu’s veto.

New Hampshire’s death penalty applied in only seven scenarios. The state hasn’t executed anyone since 1939, and there is only one inmate on death row. The repeal law does not apply retroactively to Michael Addison, who killed Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006, but capital punishment supporters argued that courts might interpret it differently.

Sununu vetoed the bill last month at a community center named in honor of Briggs.

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Capital Punishment

US Supreme Court Will Not Consider Tennessee Death Row Inmate’s Appeal, Execution Will Occur Thursday Evening

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court won’t consider an appeal that could have delayed an upcoming Tennessee execution.


The appeal involves Tennessee’s midazolam-based lethal injection combination. Inmates claim in a lawsuit that the method causes excruciating pain.

The appeal doesn’t challenge lethal injection directly. Instead it challenges Tennessee secrecy laws surrounding the procurement of execution drugs. Inmates argue the laws prevented them from proving a more humane drug is available.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor agrees. In her dissent on Monday, she says the requirement that prisoners challenging one method of execution prove there is a better method available is “fundamentally wrong.” She adds that state secrecy laws compound the injustice.

Don Johnson is scheduled to be executed Thursday for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie Johnson.

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Capital Punishment

Texas State House OKs Death Penalty Ban For Severely Mentally Ill, Heads To Texas Senate

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Interior of the Texas death chamber. Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Republican-controlled Texas House has voted to ban the execution of inmates who are severely mentally ill in the nation’s busiest death-penalty state.


No lawmaker spoke in opposition of the bill Thursday. The legislation would amount to a rare weakening of Texas’ tough stance on capital punishment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled mentally disabled people are ineligible for execution, but that prohibition does not include those who are mentally ill.

Democratic state Rep. Toni Rose’s bill would take the death penalty off the table for people who had a severe mental illness, including schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder, at the time of the crime.

The bill passed 77-66 but could face tougher opposition in the Senate.

Rose urged her Republican colleagues before the vote to “be pro-life from womb to the tomb.”

For the second time in two weeks, the Texas House moved to change death penalty law.

On Wednesday, the chamber tentatively passed a measure that would prohibit handing down a death sentence to someone with a severe mental illness, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. House Bill 1936 by state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, would let capital murder defendants present evidence at trial that they were severely mentally ill at the time of the crime. If the jury agrees, the defendant would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if found guilty.

“When those offenders are under an active psychosis, that makes them unable to understand or be rational about the offense, so they should not be subjected to the death penalty,” Rose said on the House floor Thursday.

Rose’s bill would allow defendants with mental illness to be ineligible for the death penalty if they had schizophrenia, a schizoaffective disorder, or a bipolar disorder, and, at the time of the crime, had active psychotic symptoms that impaired the defendant’s rationality or understanding of the consequences of their actions. Rose brought a similar bill to the Legislature in 2017, but it never made it to the House floor for debate.

Last Monday, the House moved to create a pretrial process for determining if a capital murder defendant had an intellectual disability and, therefore, would be constitutionally ineligible for execution. Another bill was passed last month to clarify juror instructions in death penalty cases. Neither of those bills have made it out of Senate committees yet.

There is currently no law that restricts issuing a death sentence for mentally ill defendants, but the U.S. Supreme Court has held that inmates must be able to understand that they are about to be put to death — and why — to actually carry out executions.

The most well-known inmate with mental illness is Scott Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed his wife’s parents in 1992 and has lived on Texas’ death row for nearly a quarter century. At his trial, Panetti — who represented himself — dressed as a cowboy and tried to call witnesses such as the Pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.

(Reporting by Associated Press and Texas Tribune)

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