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While the number of death sentences in the United States has fallen in recent years, the drop in the rate of death sentencing has been even more dramatic. The death sentencing rate is the number of death sentences divided by the population, and is one measure of a country's support for the death penalty. The projected rate of sentencing for 2003, 0.048 per 100,000 people, is the lowest rate since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Death Sentence Upheld Despite Abysmal Representation

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the conviction and death sentence of a death row inmate on a tie vote (7-7), despite the fact that the defendant was represented by an attorney who did not even learn his client's true name.  The defense lawyer misled a reviewing court about his experience in capital cases and has been indicted for perjury.  The defendant, who was tried in Kentucky as James Slaughter but whose real name is Jeffrey Leonard, is apparently brain damaged and endured a brutal childhood.  A number of judges have concurred that the lawyer's investigation into Leonard's background was below Constitutional standards, but there were not enough votes to say that a better investigation would have made a difference in sentencing.

One of the dissenting judges, Guy Cole, sharply criticized the Court of Appeals' decision:

We are uneasy about executing anyone sentenced to die by a jury who knows nearly nothing about that person. But we have allowed it. We are also uneasy about executing those who commit their crime at a young age. But we have allowed that as well. We are particularly troubled about executing someone who likely suffers brain damage. We rarely, if ever, allow that--especially when the jury is not afforded the opportunity to even consider that evidence. Jeffrey Leonard, known to the jury only as "James Slaughter," approaches the execution chamber with all of these characteristics. Reaching this new chapter in our death-penalty history, the majority decision cannot be reconciled with established precedent. It certainly fails the Constitution."

He highlighted the arbitrariness of the court's ruling: “Although we cannot be absolutely certain that a single juror sentencing Jeffrey Leonard — a brain-damaged man whose family would corroborate his testimony and plead for his life — would come to a different conclusion, this court’s decision leaves one aspect of this case indisputable: We will never know.”
(N.Y. Times, Nov. 2, 2006; Slaughter v. Parker, 01-6359 (6th Cir., Nov. 1, 2006) (DPIC)

  Federal Judge in Maryland Sees Need to Explore Availability of Doctors for Lethal Injections

U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg, who has been overseeing the challenge to Maryland's lethal injection process filed by death row inmate Vernon Evans, has stated that he might direct state corrections officials to "test the recruitment waters" in search of doctors or highly trained nurses to participate in state executions before he rules on whether to require the medical professionals' involvement. The judge has held extensive hearings over nine days with national experts testifying about some of the problems identified with Maryland's execution process.

"I could see writing an opinion that says the state can't find anyone, and if they can't find anyone, they're perfectly entitled to use paraprofessionals," Legg told the lawyers during their closing arguments in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "But I can also see writing an opinion that if they're relatively easy to come by and don't charge too much . . . the burden on the state isn't too high."

The present execution team in Maryland consists of a doctor who pronounces the death of the inmate, a nursing assistant who oversees placement of IVs in the condemned inmate's arms, and prison employees who prepare and administer the doses of the three lethal injection drugs. The state maintains that the execution process is not a medical procedure and so doctors should not be required.

Similar challenges to the lethal injection process are under way in other states. A ruling from a federal District Court in California is expected soon regarding that state's procedures.
(Baltimore Sun, Nov. 16, 2006). (DPIC)

Clemency Urged for Mentally Ill Man in North Carolina

At a press conference on November 1, the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus called for the governor to commute the death sentence of Guy LeGrande.  Le Grande is scheduled to be executed on December 1.  He was allowed to represent himself at his 1996 murder trial, despite the fact that he claimed to be hearing messages from Oprah Winfrey and Dan Rather through television sets.  His defense lawyer, Jay Ferguson, said LeGrande falsely believes he has already been pardoned and will receive a large sum of money.  "The problem is you have a mentally ill person representing himself," Ferguson said. "When his standby counsel asked the court to review his mental competency, the judge asked the defendant if he wanted to do that and he said no. His response was to tear up the paperwork. So you've got a mentally ill defendant making the call on whether his competency should be examined."

The Black Caucus also pointed to issues of fairness and race in calling for a life sentence for LeGrande.  The co-defendant in the case, Tommy Munford, paid LeGrande to commit the murder of Munford's estranged wife.  Munford, who is white, received a life sentence.  LeGrande, who is black, was sentenced to death by an all-white jury.  "The awful reality may be that as a society we value White lives more than we do Black lives. We value all human life," said Rev. Dr. William Barber, State Conference President of the NAACP. "We want to stop the killing of our White brothers and sisters as well as our Black brothers and sisters."
(Herald Sun (NC) (Associated Press), Nov. 1, 2006; NC NAACP Press Release, Nov. 1, 2006) (DPIC)

Number of Police Officers Killed Declines in Same Period as Decline in Use of Death Penalty

According to a new report from the FBI, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty declined in 2005 compared with 2004, and was 22% less than the number killed in 2001.  Fifty-five law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in 2005, 57 in 2004, and 70 in 2001.  The South had the largest number of police officers killed, almost three times more than any of the other regions in the country.  Twenty-eight officers were killed in the South, 10 in the Midwest, 10 in the West, and 5 in the Northeast.
(Law Enforcement Officers Feloniously Killed and Assaulted 2005, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Oct. 30, 2006) (DPIC)

INTERNATIONAL: China Moves to Sharply Restrict Use of Death Penalty

China has adopted new rules that will require all death sentences to be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court, the country's highest court.  In the past, China has been consistently listed as the leading country in the world in carrying out executions.  The current reforms are a response to domestic and international criticism that cited China's widespread and arbitrary use of the death penalty.  In addition, Chinese courts have been embarrassed in recent years when a number of people who had been executed were later shown to be innocent.  The New China News Agency said the changes are "believed to be the most important reform of capital punishment in more than two decades."  Death sentences may drop by 30%, according to the state news media.
(N.Y. Times, Nov. 1, 2006). (DPIC)

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Says Mentally Ill Should be Exempt from Death Penalty

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton of the Ohio Supreme Court called upon the legislature to exempt defendants with serious mental illness from the death penalty.  Judge Stratton concurred in the affirmance of the death sentence for Donald Ketterer.  She noted that she was not questioning Ketterer's guilt, nor whether he was competent to stand trial, nor even his possible mental retardation, all of which are covered by other aspects of the law.  Rather the judge said she was constrained by existing law to uphold the death sentence, even though she believed the defendant's mental illness should merit an exemption from the death penalty:

Ketterer is a person with a serious mental illness. His family also has had a long history of mental illness and suicide attempts. Ketterer himself was hospitalized repeatedly and attempted suicide several times. His mental illness was fueled by drug and alcohol abuse. Two psychologists testified that Ketterer had a serious mental illness, known as bipolar disorder, which makes it difficult for him to control impulses normally. Not even the state disputed that he was seriously mentally ill. But the state argued that Ketterer could have controlled his behavior.
. . .
Deterrence is of little value as a rationale for executing offenders with severe mental illness when they have diminished impulse control and planning abilities. As for retribution, capital punishment still enjoys wide public support among Americans, but a Gallup Poll conducted in October 2003 found that while almost two thirds of Americans surveyed support the death penalty, 75 percent of those surveyed in 2002 opposed executing the mentally ill.  Society's discomfort with executing the severely mentally ill among us is further evidenced by the American Bar Association's formation of a task force in 2003 to consider mental disability and the death penalty. After studying the issue, the task force made recommendations that were adopted by the ABA House of Delegates in August 2006.
. . .
I urge our General Assembly to consider legislation setting the criteria for determining when a person with a severe mental illness should be excluded from the penalty of death. Unlike mental retardation, which can be determined by a number on an IQ test and other basic criteria, mental illnesses vary widely in severity. The General Assembly would be the proper body to examine these variations, take public testimony, hear from experts in the field, and fashion criteria for the judicial system to apply.

(State v. Ketterer, 111 Ohio St.3d 70 (2006), Stratton, J., concurring) (internal citations omitted).  (DPIC)

This page last updated on 11-08-06.