Discussing the Death Penalty

As you likely know, the BBA has long opposed the death penalty, for more than 40 years to be exact.  Our reasoning is based on sound and practical principles – that the death penalty simply too fraught with peril, too likely to lead to the execution of the innocent, too likely to result in discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, and too expensive and time-consuming—to play any role in our criminal-justice system.  We recently reaffirmed this stance and extended it to the federal death penalty with our 2013 report, The BBA and the Death Penalty and now we are proud to announce the release of the BBA’s first ever podcast, which takes the discussion of this position to the next level. With conviced murderer Gary Lee Sampson currently facing the death penalty at the Moakley Courthouse, the Co-Chairs of the BBA’s Death Penalty Working Group that produced that report, Martin Murphy (Foley Hoag) and retired Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle (now at JAMS), discuss their experiences with the death penalty and on the Working Group, and BBA President Carol Starkey shares her thoughts.

We have advocated against the death penalty through public education, such as in the aforementioned report and our 2015 press release urging the Department of Justice to seek a life sentence without parole instead of the death penalty for Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  We have made the same point when the Legislature has considered reinstating the death penalty and in amicus briefs including:

  • 1975 –Commonwealth v. O’Neal – Commonwealth v. O’Neal concerned the constitutionality of a law mandating use of the death penalty for a murder committed in the course of rape or attempted rape. The brief argued that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent for a rapist-murderer because such defendants would not consider variations in punishments, given their twisted and psychotic mental state. The brief also established mainstays of the BBA’s arguments against the death penalty: the possibility of mistake, the disparate impact on minorities, and the massive expenses inherent in pursuing the punishment. The Court rejected the state’s unconstitutional mandatory death-penalty provision.
  • 1984 –Commonwealth v. Colon-Cruz – Our brief challenged the constitutionality of a 1982 amendment to Article 26 of the Massachusetts Constitution, permitting the death penalty in the state, and related statutes providing for the imposition and execution of the death penalty in certain murder cases. In addition to reiterating our major tenets, the brief explained the major fiscal, emotional, and professional impacts of the death penalty cases on members of the bar:

Historically, the vast majority of capital defendants have been indigent. The immense defense costs thus fall on the Commonwealth and the private bar, especially through pro bono contributions.  It is unfair to impose the extraordinary burden of capital defense, often involving 8-10 years of complex litigation, on only a small segment of the bar, and life is too precious to be left to the defense of underpaid volunteers.

The psychological and emotional burdens on counsel, particularly on the defense, are immense. Aside from the onerous length and complexity of cases, defense lawyers are torn between close relationships with their clients and wanting to distance themselves in case of a death sentence.  In addition, prosecutors and defense counsel alike face unique community pressures.

Death’s severity and finality as a penalty and defense counsel’s failure to understand the nature and use of a bifurcated trial regularly lead to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Such claims degrade the bar, but are inevitable when death is at issue, a client poor, and an attorney court-appointed and dependent on the judiciary for a fee.

The SJC invalidated the constitutional amendment and statutes, in line with our brief, finding that they violated Article 12 of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution by impermissibly burdening a defendant’s right against self-incrimination and his right to a jury trial.

  • 2005 –S. v. Darryl Green – The BBA submitted an amicus brief in this case that combined our opposition to the death penalty with advocacy in support of both access to justice and diversity. This brief on the federal death penalty, eight years before our aforementioned Report formally declaring opposition to the federal death penalty, was drafted by David Apfel and Julie Wade of Goodwin Procter LLP (now Goodwin).

The brief explains that African-American defendants in the Eastern Division of Massachusetts are likely to face an all-white jury, given population statistics, and that social-sciences statistics show that African-American defendants are far more likely to be convicted and sentenced to death when facing an all-white jury.  It details how African-American jurors simply bring a different perspective to their role – they are more likely to: believe minority witnesses are credible, harbor lingering doubts about defendants’ guilt, view defendants as remorseful, and consider mitigating evidence.  Furthermore, the brief opposes the District’s proposed solution – the empanelment of two separate juries: one to determine guilt and the other, totally different in composition, to determine whether to impose the death penalty.  It states that this “remedy” is “a mere baby step” and “little more than a modest gesture” that does not in any way guarantee fairness.

The Court ruled in line with this argument, finding that the District Court’s suggestion of multiple juries relied on a misinterpretation of the Federal Death Penalty Act, but it did not address the concerns over disparate racial impact, as expressed in the brief.

Despite a general trend away from capital punishment recently, in the last few days, the death penalty has again made headlines.  Georgia executed its U.S. leading ninth inmate of the year.  The Georgia case described in the article suffers from some of the hallmarks we’ve highlighted in our opposition.  For example, the crime took place in March 1990, but the defendant was not sentenced to death until his second trial eleven years later.  Even more concerning, the case raises major due process issues:

[Defendant William Sallie’s] lawyers argued that he should, once again, be granted a new trial because a woman who ultimately ended up on the jury during the second trial lied during jury selection and failed to disclose her own history of domestic violence, messy divorces and child custody fights — traumatic events that they said were “bizarrely similar” to Sallie’s case.

But no court ever properly considered the alleged juror bias, his lawyers argued in a recent legal challenge, because the issue wasn’t discovered until more than a decade later, and courts had ruled that Sallie’s petitions raising that evidence were procedurally barred because he missed a filing deadline by eight days at a time when he didn’t have a lawyer.

The defense team also made those arguments in a clemency petition to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, urging it to act as a “fail safe” against a miscarriage of justice. But the board, the only authority in Georgia with power to commute a death sentence, declined to spare Sallie’s life after a clemency hearing Monday.

Earlier in the week, Florida appealed the state Supreme Court’s interpretation of a US Supreme Court decision finding unconstitutional the state’s system of allowing judges, instead of juries, to find the facts needed for a death sentence.  The US Supreme Court held that this gave judges too much power, violating the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.  From the Miami Herald:

At the time of the January [US Supreme Court] ruling, Florida’s system allowed jurors by a simple majority to recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that “sufficient” aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, existed for the death sentence to be imposed, a process known as “weighing.”

Florida lawmakers hurriedly rewrote the law this spring, requiring jurors to unanimously find that at least one aggravating factor exists before a defendant can be eligible for a death sentence and requiring at least 10 jurors to recommend death for the sentence to be imposed.

The Florida Supreme Court then found the new law unconstitutional, because it did not require unanimity in imposing the death penalty (something Judge Hinkle experienced firsthand in a Florida death penalty case and discusses in the podcast).  The state’s attorney general is appealing the ruling to the US Supreme Court for discretionary review.

As always, we’ll be on the lookout for latest developments in capital punishment and continue our advocacy in opposition.  We hope you enjoy the podcast and we’ll keep you posted on the forthcoming second episode which will cover our role in a major state scandal…

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association