State supreme court

With Death Penalty, How Should States Define Mental Disability?

march 3, 2014 (

Twelve years after banning the execution of the “mentally retarded,” the U.S. Supreme Court is examining the question of who qualifies as having mental retardation, for purposes of capital cases, and who does not.

In 2002, the high court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing “mentally retarded” people is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. But the justices left it to the states to define mental retardation.

Now the court is focusing on what limits, if any, there are to those definitions.

The case before the court involves the brutal murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 years old and seven months pregnant when she was kidnapped, raped, and killed by Freddie Lee Hall and an accomplice.

Hall was sentenced to death, but after the Atkins decision, his lawyers challenged the sentence. They cited multiple diagnoses of Hall as having a mental retardation and quoted the state supreme court as having previously declared that Hall had been “mentally retarded his entire life.” The state court, nonetheless, subsequently upheld Hall’s death sentence on grounds that his IQ tests averaged higher than 70.

Hall appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the question Monday is whether states can establish a hard statistical cutoff in these cases.

Florida’s statute, as interpreted by the state supreme court, sets the definition of developmental disability at an IQ score of 70 or below. With anything higher, the defendant cannot put on other evidence to show he is intellectually disabled. Moreover, the state does not allow use of the standard error of measurement that is deemed inherent in IQ tests.

Hall’s various test scores added up to an average of more than 70, but no more than 75, meaning that he would qualify as having a disability if the state had used the standard five-point error of measurement. Without that statistical norm, however, Hall’s lawyers were barred from putting on any other evidence of disability — for example, school records that consistently identified Hall as being mentally retarded.

“Florida’s position is inconsistent with the views of all the mental disability organizations and professional organizations that are involved in the definition of mental retardation,” says Jim Ellis, a longtime advocate for people with mental disabilities. He has also filed a brief in the case.

Allowing states to redefine “mental retardation” in defiance of professional standards, he argues, is nothing more than a way to undo the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling.

But the state of Florida counters that the Supreme Court did not require any particular clinical definition. Rather, the court relied on what it deemed to be a national consensus that executing mentally disabled people is cruel and unusual punishment. And Florida argues that national consensus is not necessarily the same as a clinical definition.

“The line separating ‘retarded’ from ‘not retarded’ is itself arbitrary,” says Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “It is itself a matter of convention and not science.” Scheidegger has filed a brief in support of Florida’s position.

Florida is one of only five states that have set an inflexible line for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. The others are Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia and Idaho, and the results there have been stark. Only two claims of mental retardation have been successful in those states since 2002, according to a Cornell University study. That’s about 2 percent, compared to a 28 percent success rate in the other 45 states.

Daylong hearing set in death sentence appeal – Michael Addison

November 13, 2012

The state’s only death-row inmate will have his day in court — all day — when the New Hampshire Supreme Court hears arguments pertaining to his sentence.

Michael Addison was sentenced to death for fatally shooting a 35-year-old Manchester police officer, Michael Briggs, in 2006, when Briggs tried to arrest him on robbery charges.

The justices in Addison’s case will be deliberating the death penalty for the first time in more than 50 years — deciding, among other things, whether Addison’s sentence is just or was a product of passion or prejudice.

The justices will hear arguments in the case beginning Wednesday morning, holding four blocks of hearings that are scheduled to end at 3 p.m.

Court observers say the daylong hearing on Addison’s conviction and death sentence is unprecedented. A typical hearing before the justices lasts half an hour.

If his sentence is upheld and carried out, Addison — now 32 — would be the first convict executed in New Hampshire since 1939.

Former chief justice John Broderick, now dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said the court, on occasion, has granted more time for arguments.

‘‘But an entire day? I don’t know of another case where that’s happened,’’ Broderick said.

Attorneys for Addison have raised 22 issues, with everything from the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty statute to the political ambitions of Kelly Ayotte, a former attorney general and current US senator, in their appeal.

Addison’s lawyers want the court to vacate his death sentence and order a new sentencing hearing. They stress that jurors determined Addison shot Briggs to evade arrest, but rejected the state’s argument that he shot Briggs with the intention of killing him.

Before Addison’s case could reach this point, the state Supreme Court first had to fashion the method it would use in weighing the fairness of his death penalty.

Addison’s lawyers argued his case should be compared with all other death penalty cases in this state and others, to test whether racial bias or other factors influenced his sentence. Addison is black; Briggs was white.

The only other New Hampshire capital case in decades to reach the penalty phase was that of John Brooks, who was convicted of plotting and paying for the killing of a handyman he suspected of stealing from him. A jury spared him a death sentence in 2008 — the same year Addison was sentenced to die.

But the court ruled in October 2010 that it would compare his death sentence with cases ­nationwide in which a police officer was killed in the line of duty.

The court stressed, in its 41-page ruling, that comparison cases do not have to precisely mirror the details of Addison’s case.

‘‘Ultimately, no two capital murder defendants are alike,’’ the ruling states. ‘‘Perfect symmetry and uniform consistency are not possible under a statutory scheme that requires juries to make individualized sentencing decisions based upon the unique circumstances of a case, given the nature of the crime and the character and background of the defendant.’’

PENNSYLVANIA- Inmate could still be executed even though death penalty was thrown out – Terrance Williams


Clock is still ticking on Terrance Williams’ execution

Although convicted murderer Terrance “Terry” Williams was granted a stay of execution last week by a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who ruled that recently unearthed evidence shows the prosecution coached its main witness and withheld relevant information at trial, the execution could still go forward if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturns the stay.

terrance williams 2012 cropTerrance Williams

Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who was Philadelphia District Attorney at the time of the trial and who personally signed the death penalty certification for Williams, refused to recuse himself from considering the request from current Philly DA Seth Williams to overturn the stay.

One of Williams’ defense attorneys is in a car heading west out of Philadelphia toward Rockview, where the execution could take place — just in case.
The Department of Corrections has put previously approved witnesses to the execution on notice to be ready if the court overturns the stay.
A DOC spokeswoman would not comment on whether or not Williams has been transported from the prison in Greene County to Rockview, where the state’s execution chamber is housed, citing security concerns.
The Supreme Court has ordered an end to a flurry of last-minute filings and responses from the prosecution and the defense.
A ruling is expected soon.
Defense attorneys are double-checking an emergency filing to the US Supreme Court they plan to file if the stay is overturned.
Members of the Board of Pardons remain in the wings, having taken an application for clemency “under advisement.” They are the penultimate bulwark to the death chamber; a unanimous vote for clemency sends the decision to the governor, who would then have the final say whether or not the execution would proceed.

October 2, 2012 

Lawyers of a Pennsylvania inmate on death row still fear he could be executed even though his death sentence has been thrown out. 

Terrance Williams could still be executed if the State Supreme Court reverses the decision before midnight tomorrow. Williams is on death row for killing two men when he was a teenager. He claimed that both men had sexually abused him.

A judge found evidence to support the claims and halted Williams’ execution.

Prosecutors have appealed the judges decision to the State Supreme Court.

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.

S. DAKOTA – S. Dakota death row inmate says justice will not be served until he is executed

June 18, 2012 :

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A convicted murderer said in a letter written from death row that the South Dakota Supreme Court owes it not only to him but to the family of the prison guard he killed to allow his execution to take place in a timely manner. It’s the only way, he said, the guard’s family can get justice.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2011, file photo Eric Robert appears during a hearing in Sioux Falls, S.D. Robert pleaded guilty to killing Ron Johnson during a botched prison escape at the South Dakota State Penitentiary and asked to be put to death. A judge determined in October that the crime merited the death sentence, and Robert was scheduled for execution the week of May 13 but the state Supreme Court postponed the date in February to allow more time for a mandatory review to make sure the death penalty was proper, even though Robert hadn't appealed the conviction or sentence. The review could take up to two years. (AP Photo/Argus Leader, Emily Spartz, File)

Eric Robert, 50, pleaded guilty to killing Ron Johnson during a botched prison escape at the South Dakota State Penitentiary and asked to be put to death. A judge determined in October that thecrime merited the death sentence, and Robert was scheduled for execution the week of May 13.

But the state Supreme Court postponed the date in February to allow more time for a mandatory review to make sure the death penalty was proper, even though Robert hadn’t appealed the conviction or sentence. The review could take up to two years.

In a three-page letter to The Associated Press, Robert detailed why he believes the death sentence is appropriate in his case and described his aggravation with the delay. The letter represented Robert’s first public comments since his October sentencing.

He said justice works differently in death penalty cases than in others.

“Victims of non-capital offenses receive their justice when the perpetrator is placed in custody. Victims in capital cases receive their justice when the perpetrator is executed. Give the Ron Johnson family their justice, they have been forced to wait too long. I finish where I started — I deserve to die,” he said, alluding to a statement he read during his trial that started with “I deserve to die.”

Robert, a chemist who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency before overseeing a city water treatment department, was serving an 80-year-sentence on a kidnapping conviction when he attempted to escape April 12, 2011, with inmate Rodney Berget.

Robert contends he was drunk and trying to rob an 18-year-old woman of $200, not sexually assault her, in the kidnapping case. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison and would not have been eligible for parole until he was 83. He focused obsessively on getting his sentence reduced, but his appeal was denied in 2009, leading to what the judge at his death penalty trial called an “internal war” that eventually left Johnson dead.

Johnson was working alone on the morning of his death — also his 63rd birthday — in a part of the prison known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects. Prosecutors said after the inmates killed Johnson, Robert put on the guard’s uniform and tried to push a large box on a cart containing Berget to the prison gate. The inmates were apprehended before leaving the grounds.

In his letter, Robert noted that everyone agrees he is mentally competent.

“Yet, as recently as May 8, 2012, the (South Dakota Supreme Court) was still nosing around this issue. They just can’t seem to fathom that a defendant would accept a just fate,” he wrote, later adding he has a right to plead guilty and receive the death penalty. “I am free to admit my guilt, as well as acknowledge and accept society’s punishment just as I am free to proclaim innocence in defiance of a verdict. I believe that the sentence of death is justly deserved in any murder and should be carried out.”

Robert said the issue at hand is not about him wanting to die. Instead, it’s about the Legislature providing the South DakotaSupreme Court with adequate guidance on how to handle a sentence review when there’s no appeal.

In court briefs recently filed by his lawyer, Robert proposed the Legislature consider changes to the law, allowing death penalty proceedings to be given priority in the state Supreme Court or, absent an appeal, requiring the court to review the case in a set number of days before the execution date.

The briefs noted the state Supreme Court has reviewed numerous cases, including a civil dispute between actor Kevin Costner and an artist about whether sculptures were appropriately displayed at a Deadwood resort, while Robert’s case is still pending.

The justices noted in their February decision that unless a proper review is done before Robert is killed, the execution could be found unconstitutional under death penalty guidelines established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The other inmate who tried to escape, Berget, 50, also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death, although he is now appealing both his conviction and sentence. A third inmate, Michael Nordman, 47, was given a life sentence for providing the plastic wrap and pipe used in the slaying.

The penitentiary boosted security after Johnson’s death, including adding officers, installing more security cameras and mandating body alarm “panic buttons” for staff.

Tennesse – Memphis man released after 27 years in prison

June 12, 2012  Source :

A former death row inmate who won a new trial in the 1983 murder of a Memphis grocer has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time he already has served.

Erskine Leroy Johnson, 54, was released Friday morning after serving 26 years, 11 months and five days for the shooting death of Joe Belenchia during a holdup on Oct. 2, 1983, at the Food Rite Grocery at 2803 Lamar.

“He is overjoyed at being out,” said Gerald Skahan, chief capital-case attorney in the Public Defenders Office. “He is looking forward to enjoying the rest of his life and spending it helping others.”

He said Johnson has always maintained his innocence, but entered an Alford plea, also called a best-interests plea, so he could get out of prison and avoid putting his family through a trial.

He was released Friday morning from the Shelby County Jail after entering his plea this week in Criminal Court.

Johnson was on death row from Jan. 26, 1995, to Nov. 15, 2004, but was re-sentenced to life in prison after the state Supreme Court ruled prosecutors did not give the defense a police report showing the defendant could not have fired a shot that wounded a customer in the store.

Then last December the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals awarded Johnson a new trial, ruling that newly discovered evidence raised by the defense may have caused the jury to reach a different verdict.

The court found that new evidence indicating close relationships among several of the state’s witnesses, if true, could have been viewed as a motive to protect other possible suspects and could have weakened the witnesses’ credibility before the jury.

Johnson said that around the time of the murder he was in St. Louis at a birthday party for his mother.

Prosecutors said Johnson’s palm print was found on the getaway car and that one witness told the jury that Johnson had confessed to “a cold-blooded” shooting in Memphis.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Campbell said the state offered the settlement because the case was nearly 30 years old and Johnson already had served nearly 27 years in prison. A life sentence under laws in effect at the time of the murder was at least 25 years.

Campbell said prison officials had called Johnson “an exemplary prisoner” and that the state parole board had granted his release scheduled for June 11.


CALIFORNIA – S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Man Who Burned Woman to Death

june 8, 2012 Source :

The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a man who killed his son’s mother by setting her afire in a Fontana pizza parlor parking lot.

The justices rejected claims by Howard Larcell Streeter that the trial judge abused his discretion by admitting evidence that may have had a significant emotional impact on the jury, including a tape of the victim screaming in pain for 20 minutes on her way to the hospital where she died.

San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Bob Krug sentenced Streeter to death in 1999 for the 1997 murder of Yolanda Buttler, 39.  Witnesses testified that Streeter sat in the parking lot waiting for Buttler, who was bringing their son to visit with him in the pizza parlor; her two older children were with her as well.

The two had recently ended a five-year relationship, which members of Buttler’s family said was violent. Buttler had recently obtained a restraining order against Streeter, who had been unsuccessfully seeking reconciliation.

After Buttler emerged from her car, witnesses said, Streeter poured gasoline over her from a can and dragged her back toward his car, from which he obtained a lighter and set the victim ablaze. Bystanders doused the fire with water and blankets, but the burns were so severe that paramedics could not locate a vein to administer pain medication.

Died in Hospital

Buttler succumbed to her wounds after 10 days in the hospital. Streeter, who was pursued by a bystander as he tried to leave the scene and was eventually arrested, was charged with first degree murder with special circumstances of lying in wait and torture.

Streeter admitted killed Buttler. But he denied that he planned the murder, saying he acted because he was distraught over the breakup and losing the opportunity to be with his son, and was under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

A jury found him guilty and found both special-circumstance allegations to be true, but deadlocked as to penalty. A new jury was empaneled and voted to impose the death penalty.

On appeal, the defense argued that Krug should not have allowed the jury to hear the 20-minute tape. Given its offer to stipulate to the cause and manner of death, the defense contended, the admission of the tape was more prejudicial than probative.

Highly Probative

Justice Ming Chin, however, wrote for the high court that the tape was highly probative of whether Streeter intentionally caused the victim extreme pain, an element of the torture special circumstance to which the defense did not stipulate.

“In any event, the prosecution may not be compelled to accept a stipulation where the effect would be to deprive the state’s case of its persuasiveness and forcefulness,” Chin wrote, concluding that the evidence was no more sensational than was necessary to demonstrate what had occurred.

Chin went on to say that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that Buttler’s murder arose from a premeditated plan to cause her extreme pain and not from an“an unplanned, impulsive explosion of violence resulting from a fight that spun out of control” as the defense contended.

“Given defendant’s prior physical abuse of Yolanda, his attempts to control her by preventing communication with her family, his anger with Yolanda for leaving him and taking his child, and concealing her whereabouts, and the repeated threats against Yolanda’s family, the jury could have reasonably concluded that when defendant intentionally set Yolanda on fire as he had planned, he intended to cause Yolanda extreme pain and suffering as punishment or for revenge,” Chin wrote.

Flight Considered

Jurors could also consider the fact that he fled the scene, rather than attempting to help put the flames out, conduct more consistent with murderous intent than sudden rage, Chin said.

The justice agreed with the defense that Krug committed error when he instructed the jury that it could consider the defendant’s prior misdemeanor conviction for shooting into an occupied dwelling as an aggravating factor under Penal Code Sec. 190.3(c). But the error was certainly harmless, he said.

While Sec. 190.3(c) only applies to felony convictions, the jury was entitled to consider the underlying violent criminal conduct as an aggravating factor under Sec. 190.3(b), Chin explained. “The danger that the jury would assign significant additional aggravating weight to the fact of conviction was minimal,” the jurist said.

The case is People v. Streeter, 12 S.O.S. 2772.

MISSISSIPPI – Miss. court sets execution dates for 2 of 3 men

May 24, 2012 Source :

From left: Brawner, Simmons and Jackson

From left: Brawner, Simmons and Jackson / Miss. Dept. of Corrections

Mississippi will not execute three men on three consecutive days in June, after the state Supreme Court set execution dates a week apart for two men and declined to set a date for a third.

Attorney General Jim Hood’s office had asked earlier this month that justices set execution dates for Henry Curtis Jackson Jr., Gary Carl Simmons Jr. and Jan Michael Brawner on June 12, 13 and 14, respectively.

Justice David Chandler, joined by Justices James Kitchens and Leslie King, dissented, citing claims that Brawner’s case, in its early stages, was handled by a law clerk who hadn’t yet passed the bar exam.

“Because the issue of whether a non-lawyers purported representation of Brawner during critical stages of the proceedings never has been addressed by this court and the issue is now clearly before the court, we would allow Brawner to file a successive motion for post-conviction relief on this issue,” Chandler wrote.

  • Brawner, 34, was convicted of the 2001 killings of his 3-year-old daughter, ex-wife and former father-in-law and mother-in-law in Sarah, a Tate County community west of Senatobia.
  • Brawner went to his former in-laws’ home after learning that his former wife planned to stop him from seeing their child, trial testimony showed. He also had no money and contemplated robbing his former in-laws, according to testimony. Brawner admitted to the killings at trial and told a prosecutor he deserved death.
  • Jackson, 47, was convicted of stabbing two nieces and two nephews, ranging in age from 2 years to 5 years, at his mother’s home near Greenwood in 1990. He also was convicted of stabbing his adult sister and another niece, who both survived. Prosecutors said Jackson, 26 at the time, planned to steal his mother’s safe and kill the victims.

On Wednesday, the court set June 5 as the execution date for Jackson on an 8-0 vote. It also set a June 12 execution for Brawner on a 5-3 vote. Meanwhile, it ordered Hood’s office to reply to Simmons’ claims that his original lawyers were ineffective at trial and that he never later had lawyers good enough to point out shortcomings.

Current lawyers argue Simmons should get a chance to be resentenced because they have evidence that Simmons may have post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses and had suffered from abuse as a child. They’re also seeking a court order allowing access to an expert for a mental evaluation.

  • Simmons, 49, was convicted for shooting and dismembering Jeffrey Wolfe. Wolfe was killed in August 1996 after he went to Simmons’ Pascagoula home to collect on a drug debt, according to court records. Timothy Milano, Simmons’ co-defendant and the person authorities said shot Wolfe, was convicted on the same charges and sentenced to life in prison.
  • Simmons worked as a grocery store butcher when he and Milano were charged with killing Wolfe. Police said the pair kidnapped Wolfe and his female friend and later assaulted the woman and locked her in a box. Police found parts of Wolfe’s dismembered body at Simmons’ house, in the yard and in a nearby bayou.

Simmons and Brawner both said their legal causes suffered in part because of ineffective assistance by Bob Ryan, formerly head of the state office meant to handle post-conviction appeals for people sentenced to death. Five justices, though, said Brawner’s claims have already been litigated and that courts had decided against them.