Friday, February 27, 2015

Two Death Sentence Reversals are Further Evidence the Kentucky Death System is Broken

Last week there were two additional reversals of Kentucky death sentences.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed Roger Wheeler’s death sentence. The February 20, 2015 decision recognized that a juror was improperly excused from potential jury service in violation of the right to a fair cross section of the community as required by the 6th Amendment protection.

On February 19, 2015 the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed Michael D. St. Clair’s capital conviction due to improper introduction of prejudicial 404(b) evidence of an unrelated murder in New Mexico allegedly committed by St. Clair, and improper evidence of the New Mexico victim's background.

There has to be a fix to the broken capital system in Kentucky.

Without significant changes, Kentucky’s death penalty system will continue to be inefficient and ineffective
The American Bar Association Kentucky Assessment Team examined all death sentences imposed in the Commonwealth since 1976, and found that, as of November 2011:
§  78 people have been sentenced to death
§  52 of these individuals have had a death sentence overturned on appeal by Kentucky or federal courts, or been granted clemency,
§  an error rate of  67%

Since 2012 there have been 2 additional death sentences and 2 additional reversals. There are 33 persons on Kentucky’s death row.

The Kentucky Assessment Team found that capital prosecutions occur in far more cases than result in death sentences, concluding that, “This places a significant judicial and financial burden on Commonwealth courts, prosecutors, defenders, and the criminal justice system at large, to treat many cases as death penalty cases, despite the fact that cases often result in acquittal, conviction on a lesser charge, or a last minute agreement to a sentence less than death.” 

The comprehensive 2011 program Audit recommended changes must be made to eliminate waste, abuse and error. Areas of needed reform identified by the ABA Kentucky Assessment Team audit included:
  • Inadequate Protections to Guard against Wrongful Convictions (Chapters 2, 3, 4).
  • Inconsistent and Disproportionate Capital Charging and Sentencing (Chapter 5).
  • Deficiencies in the Capital Defender System (Chapter 6).
  • Capital Juror Confusion (Chapter 10).
  • Imposition of a Death Sentence on People with Mental Retardation or Severe Mental Disability (Chapter 13).
  • Lack of Data (Chapter 12).
  • Prevention of Wrongful Convictions (Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5).
  • Improvement of Defense Services (Chapter 6).
  • Ensuring Proportionality in Capital Charging and Sentencing (Chapters 5, 7).
  • Error Correction During Post-Conviction Review (Chapters 8, 13).
  • Gubernatorial Clemency Powers (Chapter 9).
  • Improved Juror Instruction and Comprehension (Chapter 10).

Senator Robin Webb’s Senate Bill 190 implements many of the important reforms recommended by the ABA Kentucky Assessment Audit in an effort to ensure the system works. It does the following:
  1. Creates minimum standards for eyewitness identification procedures to eliminate mistaken or false identifications
  2. Directs that interviews of suspects be recorded so courts and juries receive accurate and reliable information about a defendant’s statement
  3. Prohibits the execution of a person with a severe mental illness
  4. Assures the independence and proficiency of the state crime lab
  5. Requires ongoing training and competency on death penalty issues for law enforcement, public defenders, prosecutors, corrections officers, and judges
  6. Creates a statewide database for reliable ongoing information relating to capital cases
  7. Mandates the Department of Public Advocacy to enforce standards for death penalty cases to be handled by trained competent defense attorneys

An overwhelming majority of Kentuckians support fixing the state’s death penalty system

A 2011 poll shows that a majority of Kentuckians support a suspension of executions to allow time for problems within the system to be remedied. The November 30 - December 4, 2011 survey of 405 most likely voters statewide found 62 percent support a temporary halt to executions. The support was consistent across the state: a majority of men, women, urban, suburban, and rural, Republican, Democratic, and Independent voters all favored a temporary halt to executions. The poll, with an error rate of plus or minus 4.9 percent, was conducted for the Kentucky Assessment Team by Lake Research Partners of Washington, D.C.

The two death sentence reversals in the last week are further evidence the Kentucky death system is broken. The time is now to fix the Kentucky death process or eliminate it.  There are some people who should be imprisoned for the rest of their life. Life without parole meets all appropriate needs of our society.

Contributed by Public Advocate Ed Monahan