Day: October 1, 2012

South Dakota Supreme Court to hear arguments in appeal by death-row inmate Rodney Berget

October1, 2012

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A lawyer for a man who pleaded guilty to killing a prison guard and was sentenced to death earlier this year is appealing the sentence to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Monday in the case of 50-year-old Rodney Berget. Berget pleaded guilty to killing guard Ronald Johnson on his 63rd birthday in April 2011 at the state penitentiary during a botched prison escape. A judge sentenced Berget to die by lethal injection. But Berget’s lawyer is now appealing the sentence.

A second inmate involved in the escape attempt, 50-year-old Eric Robert, is scheduled to die by lethal injection during the week of Oct. 14. A third inmate was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement.

SOUTH CALIFORNIA – Death Row inmate’s conviction overturned – Armenia Cudjo

September 30, 2012

A federal appeals court overturned the conviction and death sentence of a Southern California man in the 1986 battering death of a female neighbor because the jury wasn’t told that the defendant’s brother had admitted the killing to a cellmate.

Armenia Cudjo, now 54, was convicted of robbing and murdering Amelia Prokuda, whose partially clad body was found in her apartment in the desert community of Littlerock (Los Angeles County). A bloodstained hammer was found nearby.

Cudjo said he had been at the victim’s home that day and had sex with her but didn’t kill her. He said the killer was his brother Gregory, who more closely resembled a description of the intruder by the victim’s 5-year-old son. Gregory Cudjo told police his brother had confessed the murder to him.

Armenia Cudjo’s lawyer tried to present testimony by John Culver, who said Gregory Cudjo had admitted the killing in a cell at the sheriff’s office, but the trial judge barred the testimony. The state Supreme Court said the testimony should have been allowed but ruled 5-2 in 1993 that it wouldn’t have mattered because Culver had little credibility and the prosecution’s case was strong.

But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 2-1 on Friday that the trial judge had violated Cudjo’s right to present a defense. The ruling entitles him to a new trial.

Cudjo’s public defender obtained a sworn statement from Gregory Cudjo in 2008 acknowledging that he had made the admission to Culver, though he didn’t say whether he was telling the truth.

“After 26 years on Death Row, Armenia is glad to have a chance to get his life back,” the lawyer, John Littrell, said Friday.

Californians favor change of three-strikes law but not death penalty

October 1,2012

LOS ANGELES — California voters support easing the state’s tough three-strikes sentencing law by more than 3 to 1 but are reluctant to abolish the death penalty, according to a University of Southern California Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

The poll results come as voters ponder two ballot measures that, if approved, would make the most sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system in decades.

Support for an initiative that aims to replace capital punishment with life in prison without parole is trailing 38 percent to 51 percent, the poll found. But that gap narrows to a statistical dead heat when voters learn that Proposition 34 also requires convicted killers to work while in prison, directs their earnings to their victims and earmarks $100 million for police to solve murders and rapes.

Despite voters’ ambivalence over capital punishment, a ballot measure seeking to amend the three-strikes law is attracting strong support from a broad cross section, including conservatives. Proposition 36 takes aim at what critics of three strikes call its unfairest feature by changing the law so that offenders whose third strikes were relatively minor, such as shoplifting or drug possession, could no longer be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

“We’ve built this society on the idea that the penalty depends on the crime,” said poll respondent Hamilton Cerna, 31, a registered Republican from Downey who works as an employee relations consultant. “If you’re going to take away somebody’s freedom, then I feel like it should be for a damn good reason.”

The measure to soften the three-strikes law was backed by 66 percent, with only 20 percent opposed and 14 percent undecided or not answering. Both ballot initiatives need a simple majority to pass.

The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll canvassed 1,504 registered voters from Sept. 17 to 23. The survey was conducted jointly by the Democratic polling company Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. The margin of error is 2.9 percentage points.

The propositions target two of California’s most iconic and controversial tough-on-crime sentencing laws.

The “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law won overwhelming voter approval in 1994 amid heightened public anxiety over crime. The law targets offenders who have previous convictions for at least two serious or violent crimes, such as rape or robbery. Any new felony conviction can trigger a prison sentence of at least 25 years to life.

Of nearly 8,900 third-strikers serving potential life terms, about a third were convicted of drug or nonserious property crimes.

Proposition 36 would end life terms for such offenders, who would instead be treated as if they had only one previous strike and be sentenced to double the standard prison term for their latest crime. With the change, a third-striker who would have faced a 25-years-to-life sentence for a nonviolent theft that normally carries two years in prison instead would face four years.

Inmates already serving 25 years to life for nonserious and nonviolent offenses could get a reduction in their sentences if a judge decides they do not pose an unreasonable risk to the public. The proposition’s changes would not apply to offenders with previous convictions for murder, rape or child molestation, or to those whose latest offense involved a sex crime, major drug dealing or use of a firearm.

Advocates to ease the law are making their pitch while the state is under a federal court order to reduce its teeming prison population. They hope to appeal to a large swath of voters who usually favor tough-on-crime laws by emphasizing the measure’s support from Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist.

More than half of voters who described themselves as conservative said they supported amending the three-strikes law, with slightly more than a quarter opposing the measure, according to the poll.

“It’s not fair to taxpayers. It’s not fair to the offender,” said Don Chapman of Anaheim, a registered Republican who used to oversee drivers and equipment for a distribution company before retiring.

Although the poll gives the initiative a large advantage, a 2004 attempt to amend the three-strikes law held a similar lead in polls until an advertising blitz by opponents in the final week of the campaign. That proposition lost 53 percent to 47 percent.

The current measure is opposed by victims rights groups and more than a dozen law enforcement associations, including the California District Attorneys Association and the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers.

Opponents note that judges already have the authority to spare a third-striker the maximum sentence. They argue that the proposed amendment removes a powerful tool that has put away dangerous offenders before they could hurt more people.

Norman Tripp, a retired corrections officer and supervising prison counselor who participated in the survey, said he believes the initiative would result in more crime.

“At what point does society say, ‘I’m going to end this person preying on people’?” Tripp, of Susanville, asked.

Proposition 34 offers Californians their first opportunity to decide whether the state should have the death penalty since two-thirds of voters amended the state Constitution to allow capital punishment in 1972.

Only 13 inmates have been put to death in California since executions resumed and none since 2006. California has more than 725 inmates on death row, the most in the nation, and they are more likely to die of old age, illness or suicide than by lethal injection.

The USC Dornsife/Times poll mirrors similar surveys finding that support for the death penalty has waned. When voters were read the proposition language on the November ballot, 43 percent favored Proposition 34, with 45 percent against. The margin of error for that result was 4.1 percent.

The escalating costs of the death penalty — an issue highlighted by the proposition’s supporters — did not move respondents. After voters were told the state could save as much as $130 million annually by abolishing capital punishment, opponents of Proposition 34 still outnumbered supporters by the same margin — 46 percent to 44 percent.

Pollsters said the overall results did not bode well for the measure and show that most voters already have firm opinions on the issue.

MISSISSIPPI – Death row inmate back for 2nd appeal – Howard Dean Goodin

September 30, 2012

Howard Goodin

Death row inmate Howard Dean Goodin is headed back to the Mississippi Supreme Court for a second round of arguments on claims that he is mentally disabled and shouldn’t be executed.

Oral arguments are scheduled for Tuesday in Jackson.

Goodin is appealing an adverse 2010 ruling from Newton County Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon, who found Goodin mentally competent and denied his motion for a new trial.

The Supreme Court granted Goodin a hearing in 2009 on claims of mental disability and ineffective work by his case lawyer.

Those post-conviction claims were initially dismissed by Gordon in 2007. In such claims, an inmate argues he has found new evidence — or a possible constitutional issue — that could persuade a court to order a new trial.

Goodin was convicted of capital murder in 1999 in the death of a Union, Miss., shopkeeper.

What prompted the Supreme Court to order a mental disability hearing for Goodin was his claim that his former attorney failed to call for testimony any of the psychiatrists who had diagnosed Goodin as schizophrenic, and that the attorney failed to present records showing the diagnosis of schizophrenia to the trial court.

Goodin also claimed records attesting to his poor academic performance and inability to hold a job should have been introduced.

He claimed his due-process rights were violated because the trial judge ruled on the competency petition without evidence of schizophrenia and low intelligence being introduced.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2009 a hearing was necessary because Gordon, the trial judge, through no fault of this own, wasn’t presented with the evidence needed to decide the mental disability issue.

The legal work of Goodin’s former attorney, Robert Ryan, had been called into question before. Attorneys for Mississippi death row inmate Dale Leo Bishop claimed Ryan — former head of a state agency responsible for representing indigent death row inmates on appeal — suppressed evidence of a bipolar disorder and intentionally sabotaged the case.

Bishop was executed in 2008 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up his final three appeals.

At Goodin’s trial, records show a surveillance tape played in court depicted Goodin entering Rigdon Enterprises in Union on Nov. 5, 1998. He is seen on the tape stealing money from the cash register as well as taking a VCR and videotape.

The tape also showed 64-year-old Willis Rigdon raising his hands as he was led at gunpoint from the store and forced into his pickup truck.

Rigdon was shot with a pistol after a short trip down a nearby dirt road. He was dumped in a ditch and died later at a hospital.

ALABAMA – Court won’t hear Ala. death row appeal – Bobby Baker Jr

October 1, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court won’t hear an appeal from a convicted murderer who kidnapped and fatally shot his estranged wife in 1994.

The high court on Monday refused to hear an appeal from Bobby Baker Jr., who is on death row in Alabama. He was accused of kidnapping and shooting Tracy Baker four times while she sat in the back seat of his car in April 1994.

He has had his death sentence overturned once by the courts before being sentenced to death for a second time. Baker wanted the Supreme Court to rule on whether the aggravating circumstances that were used to decide to seek the death penalty were unconstitutionally vague.