Alabama is the only state that permits judges to overrule a jury’s recommendation and sentence a defendant to death, a practice sharply criticized by the Equal Justice Initiative, an advocacy group based in the state. After gaining bipartisan approval by a House committee, a proposal to end the overrides moves on to broader legislative consideration.
All pending capital murder trials and executions in Delaware have been halted until the state supreme court determines the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty law, reports the Wilmington News Journal. The stay, issued by President Judge Jan Jurden on Monday, is expected to affect at least four death penalty cases that were scheduled to go to trial in the next 120 days. No executions had been scheduled for the coming months. The stay will give the Delaware Supreme Court time to consider five questions that have arisen in light of a U.S. Supreme court decision striking down Florida’s death penalty system. The high court said Florida gave too much power to judges instead of juries.
Georgia today executed the oldest man on death row, Brandon Astor Jones. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Jones, 10 days shy of his 73rd birthday, died at 12:46 a.m., ending a decades-long journey for the daughter and widow of the man he murdered in 1979. Jones fought death. His eyes closed within a minute of the warden leaving the execution chamber, but 6 minutes later his eyes popped open. He looked at a clock on the wall, and then appeared to look at the man who prosecuted him in 1979, former Cobb County District Attorney Tom Charron, who was sitting on the front row.
Florida’s highest court today hears a case that may determine the fate of 390 people on death row, NPR reports. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida’s system for imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. Florida has an execution set for next week. The state court must decide whether it can go forward. The case involves Cary Michael Lambrix, who killed Clarence Moore Jr. and Aleisha Bryant in 1983 after inviting them back to his trailer for dinner in a rural part of central Florida.
Florida has more than 170 people on death row who may not have been condemned to die in any other state. It is the result of its one-of-a-kind law that allows a jury to recommend capital punishment by a simple majority vote, says the Tampa Bay Times. Unburdened by the need to reach a unanimous decision, Florida juries typically don't. Two-thirds of the people Florida has executed since 1995 were condemned to die on the recommendation of fewer than 12 jurors. No other state allows juries to recommend death by a 7-5 vote.
James Garrett Freeman, who nine years ago shot and killed Texas game warden Justin Hurst, was executed last night, the Houston Chronicle reports. Afterward, Greg Hurst, Justin’s brother, thanked the 100 game wardens and other law enforcement officers who had gathered and stood vigil outside the prison. Freeman’s execution was the second of nine scheduled in Texas in the first half of 2016, after the Jan. 20 execution of 43-year-old Richard Masterson. A game warden had tried to stop Freeman, who was 35 when he died, for illegally hunting at night.
In Texas’ first execution of 2016, a man convicted in a fatal strangling and robbery was executed last night, the Texas Tribune reports. Richard Masterson, 43, was sentenced to death for the 2001 strangulation of Darin Honeycutt and served almost 14 years on death row. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court both denied last-minute requests for stays of execution. Masterson's lawyers asked for a new hearing to challenge the constitutionality of a statute that allows the state to keep execution drug manufacturers secret. The execution was the first of nine scheduled for the first six months of the year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with the second scheduled for James Freeman next Wednesday.
The Supreme Court eased the burden for prosecutors seeking the death penalty yesterday, throwing out state court rulings intended to make sure jurors properly considered evidence defense lawyers introduce to argue against a defendant's execution, the Wall Street Journal reports. The issue came from Kansas, where a 2001 state supreme court ruling required trial judges to tell jurors that mitigating evidence need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury instructions were omitted at trials for brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr, who were convicted of mass murder, rape and kidnapping in what was dubbed the Wichita Massacre. The trial judge told jurors at a sentencing hearing that it was the prosecution's burden to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that “aggravating circumstances” justify death and “are not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances.” That instruction led the Kansas Supreme Court in 2014 to reverse the Carrs' sentences, along with that of Sidney Gleason, convicted of unrelated murders.
Ten years ago Sunday, California executed Clarence Ray Allen, at 76 the oldest person ever put to death in the state. No one has been executed since. Soon after Allen's death in 2006, problems with lethal injection protocols brought the state's execution machinery to a halt, and it has never restarted, The Intercept reports. In the meantime, California's death row, by far the nation’s largest, has continued to grow, from 646 people in January 2006 to some 750 today. Last year, California officially ran out of space on death row, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to request $3.2 million from the state legislature for more cells.
In an ongoing shift in public opinion about the death penalty in California, the number of voters who favor doing away with capital punishment has grown to virtually the same size as those seeking to speed up the execution process, says a new Field Poll reported by the Sacramento Bee. State officials continue to grapple with legal challenges that have long stalled executions in the state. When asked what the state should do in response, 48 percent of registered voters said California should take steps to speed up the process. Forty-seven percent of registered voters said the state should do away with the death penalty and replace it with life sentences without the possibility of parole. The result reflects a shift since 2014, when Californians favored speeding the execution process by a 52 percent-to-40 percent margin.