Greene County prosecutor may seek death penalty for Craig Wood

February 21, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

Good afternoon:

According to KMOV.com, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney, Dan Peterson, has announced that he intends to seek the death penalty against Craig Michael Wood for the kidnap and murder of 10-year-old Hailey Owens.

If true, such an announcement is premature and improper.

For the following reasons, a prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty should be delayed until defense counsel has had a reasonable opportunity to prepare and submit a report regarding the evidence that it would present to a jury in support of a request for an LWOP sentence instead of the death penalty.

First, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has ruled that the death penalty can only be imposed in some, but not all murder cases, and there is no murder, no matter how aggravated, gruesome or depraved, that automatically warrants the death penalty.

Instead, the jury or the judge in a case where the defendant waives his right to a jury trial, must decide whether to impose the death penalty by weighing evidence in aggravation (i.e, the manner in which the crime was committed and the defendant’s criminal record) against evidence in mitigation (e.g., youthful age, immaturity, developmental disability, mental illness, diminished capacity, minimal role in a multiple defendant case and absence of a criminal record are some, but not all of the factors that might call for a sentence of LWOP rather than the death penalty).

Second, since there is no murder for which the death penalty is automatic, a prosecutor’s decision to seek it should be based on a thoughtful consideration of both the aggravating and mitigating evidence in the case.

Third, since the prosecution must necessarily rely on defense counsel to discover and disclose the mitigating evidence before it decides to seek or not to seek the death penalty, it must give defense counsel an adequate period of time to prepare a mitigation report.

Pursuant to current practice in most jurisdictions, the prosecution initiates the process of deciding whether to seek the death penalty by obtaining an indictment for a death-penalty eligible murder. The prosecutor then has a specific period of time (typically at least 30 days) following the defendant’s arraignment on the charge or charges in the indictment within which to decide whether to file a notice that it intends to seek the death penalty, if the defendant is convicted of the death penalty eligible murder.

This deadline is often extended by agreement of the parties for a period of months (1) to allow the defense a reasonable opportunity to prepare a mitigation report and (2) to allow the prosecution a reasonable opportunity to review it.

A meeting usually takes place a day or so before the deadline during which lawyers for both sides discuss the relative merits and demerits of their respective positions. These meetings are surreal because they are discussions that presuppose the defendant will be convicted and focus on whether he should live or die.

Sometimes the prosecution decides not to seek the death penalty, in which case it does not file the notice.

Sometimes it does.

If followed in good faith, this process assures that the decision to seek the death penalty will not be based on a defendant’s refusal to plead guilty.

Indeed, ethical prosecutors should be opposed to using the death-penalty as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations.

Plead-guilty-as-charged-and-agree-to-a-sentence-to-life-without-possibility-of-parole (LWOP)-or-I-will-seek-the-death-penalty is extortion of the worst sort because it forces a defendant to gamble with his life, if he wants to exercise his right to a jury trial. We have seen far too many wrongful convictions of innocent people to allow a prosecutor to extort guilty pleas in premeditated murder cases.

There is one important exception to this process and that occurs when a defendant seeking to avoid the death penalty offers to plead guilty in exchange for an LWOP sentence. In this situation, the defendant’s desired outcome is an LWOP sentence and he is not being forced to accept it.

For example, in the Green River Killer case in Seattle, Gary Ridgway offered to plead guilty to 48 premeditated rape murders in exchange for providing information about the location of missing bodies. The prosecution accepted his offer, so he is serving LWOP.

Craig Michael Wood is charged with kidnapping and murdering 10-year-old Hailey Owens. This is potentially a death-penalty-eligible offense under Missouri law because it is a premeditated murder committed while engaged in a kidnapping offense and the victim was a witness or potential witness against him.

The offense probably also qualifies as a murder “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman.”

Whether Dan Peterson has already made up his mind or will follow the process I have described in good faith or eventually use the death penalty as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations remains to be seen.

Ironically, such an offer might be quickly snapped up by the defense, if the evidence of guilt is as overwhelming as it now appears to be.


Texas court bars inmate’s claim that he was sentenced to death because he is black

November 24, 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Good morning:

By a vote of 6-3, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has rejected Duane Bucks’s request to vacate his death sentence and remand his case to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing. Mr. Buck was sentenced to death by a Harris County jury for the 1995 murder of his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and her friend, Kenneth Butler. He has admitted that he shot them to death in a jealous rage and does not challenge the conviction.

Mr. Buck challenges the death sentence because of the testimony of the prosecution’s controversial expert witness, Walter Quijano, regarding future dangerousness, a factor that the jury was instructed to consider in determining whether to sentence him to death.

Matthew Fleisher has the story:

Asked during his testimony if “the race factor, black,” increased Buck’s risk of re-offending, Quijano answered, “Yes.” He went on to testify that being either African-American or Latino “increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons.”

/snip/

What Quijano didn’t mention was that “the race factor, black,” also greatly increases one’s likelihood of being executed in Texas, where blacks are about three times more likely to get death penalty sentences for committing the same crimes as white people, according to University of Maryland professor Ray Paternoster.

Harris County, Texas, in which Houston is located, leads the state in executions with 100.

Because Mr. Buck asserted his claim in his second application for a writ of habeas corpus in violation of the rule that limits inmates to one application, the six-judge majority dismissed his appeal without considering the merits of his argument.

Judge Alcala, joined by judges Price and Johnson wrote a stinging 30-page dissent in which he said,

I respectfully dissent from the Court’s dismissal of applicant’s second subsequent application for a writ of habeas corpus. The record in this case reveals a chronicle of inadequate representation at every stage of the proceedings, the integrity of which is further called into question by the admission of racist and inflammatory testimony from an expert witness at the punishment phase. Applicant’s initial habeas counsel was so incompetent as to assert not even one arguably legitimate claim in the initial 11.071 application, which was summarily denied by this Court for raising only record-based or frivolous claims. As a result of prior habeas counsel’s errors and the combined force of state and federal procedural-default laws, no Court has ever considered the merits of applicant’s legitimate claims for post-conviction relief. This cannot be what the Legislature intended when it enacted Article 11.071 to provide capital habeas litigants “one full and fair opportunity to present all [] claims in a single, comprehensive post-conviction writ of habeas corpus[.]” See Ex parte Graves, 70 S.W.3d 103, 117 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002).

Since expert witnesses who predict that an inmate will be a danger to others, if released, are wrong 95% of the time, I would ban consideration of future dangerousness in all sentencings.

Whores like Quijano should be in prison instead of masquerading as experts in predicting future dangerousness.

The author of the article, Matthew Fleischer, was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

If you believe Duane Buck should get a new sentencing, please sign this petition that was started by Linda Geffin, a former prosecutor who tried his case.


Staff Sergeant Robert Bales pleads guilty to avoid death penalty

June 5, 2013

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales pled guilty today to the premeditated murder of 16 Afghans in exchange for avoiding the death penalty, according to a report from Russia Today.

The American soldier charged with murdering 16 Afghan civilians a year ago near Kandahar province pleaded guilty in court on Wednesday.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, entered the plea inside of a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state early Wednesday, the Associated Press reported from the site.

According to the AP, a military judge will hear Bales’ firsthand account of what happened during the March 2012 outburst before deciding if the plea will be accepted by the court.

/snip/

The AP wrote Wednesday afternoon that Bales pleaded guilty to all 16 counts, but came short of doing such for another charge lobbed against him: impeding an investigation. If the judge accepts his plea, a jury will likely decide later this summer the fate for the soldier — life, or life without the possibility of parole.

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Please keep those donations coming.

We’ll need the gas money to get home.

Many blessings to all of you from

Fred and Crane


Stop building a mountain of the dead

May 22, 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Good morning:

Searching Mind inspired this post from an old and tired voice for the damned.

Let him who is without sin hurl the first stone.

Your passionate voice for simple nonjudgmental human decency does not go unheard,

as the inexorable tinkering with the machinery of death continues

in this latest sad chapter,

unabated.

She does not fit,

She is mentally ill, abhorred and damned,

but not legally insane.

Vengeance serves no relief to anyone.

A mouth full of sawdust cannot spit out the venom from a fresh kill.

No satisfaction will be found today

in the halls of the Maricopa County Courthouse.

Instead,

emptiness shall reign

as it always has and always will,

unabated.

Until at last

people listen

and stop building

a mountain of the dead.

Unabated.


Arias verdict today

May 8, 2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

BREAKING NEWS: The jury has reached a verdict in the Jodi Arias case after deliberating for 15 hours, and 5 minutes. Court will convene at 4:30 pm EDT.

Livestream Link

_________________________________________________

Writing articles every day and maintaining the integrity and safety of this site from people who would like nothing better than to silence us forever is a tough job requiring many hours of work.

If you like this site, please consider making a secure donation via Paypal by clicking the yellow donation button in the upper right corner just below the search box.

Thank you,

Fred


Death Penalty or Life Without Parole: Long And Slender Fingers at Easter

October 14, 2012

Some of you have asked questions about what it is like to do death penalty work. Here is an example.

James Mayfield was in a hell of a jam when I was appointed to represent him by Magistrate Judge John Weinberg of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. He was accused along with two others with the murders of a father and his three children on the Army base at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, WA. The father was a civilian married to a woman in the Army. They had been living on the base with their three children when she was ordered to Korea for a six-month tour. He remained behind in their house on the base with the children. The murders happened while she was in Korea.

James was a private in the Army stationed at Fort Lewis. He was a polite and beautiful young African American man from a deeply religious Southern Baptist family in Beaumont, TX. He had never been in trouble with the law before. I remember his dark eyes pooled with tears and his soft and long slender fingers when I shook his hand for the last time.

His two codefendants were civilian blood brothers from Los Angeles. They were gang members and they had moved to Tacoma to sell crack cocaine. This was during the early nineties when the LA gangs started expanding their drug distribution operations into other cities to open up new markets.

Several months after they arrived in Tacoma, officers from the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department served a search warrant at their apartment seizing crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia, guns, and a substantial amount of cash. They arrested the brothers and booked them into the Pierce County Jail. Under Washington law at the time, the brothers were released 72 hours after they were booked into jail because no formal charges had yet been filed.

The brothers correctly surmised that one of their customers must have turned informant, probably after purchasing crack at their apartment. Unfortunately for the man, who was one of their customers, and his three children, the brothers concluded that he was the snitch.

I never found out how James, who was a regular church-goer at the time, hooked up with the two gangsters, but he did, and when they decided to pay the snitch a visit, they contacted James and asked him to help them get onto the base and locate the snitch’s house.

The crime scene was horrific and the bloodiest by far that I had ever seen. I will spare you the details other than to say that the brothers confessed to tying up the father in the living room and murdering each child one at a time in front of him with machetes. Then they finished him off. The feds had jurisdiction since the murders happened on the military base.

The brothers were mistaken about the father. He was not the snitch.

The case had death penalty written all over it, except no one in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and none of the federal judges in the district was pro death penalty. The Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to the case was willing to drop the death penalty, but only if all three defendants were willing to plead guilty to all four murders.

The two brothers did not need to be persuaded to take the deal, but James balked and dug in his heels. He had no defense, but he could not bring himself to admit that he had committed such an awful crime and no amount of pleading on my part changed his mind. He had decided to go to his death proclaiming his innocence, rather than admit what he did and spend the rest of his life in prison. He did not care about the consequences of his decision on the brothers.

That left it to me to figure out a solution to save three lives, my conscience, and the consciences of the federal prosecutor and the United States District Court Judge to whom the case had been assigned.

With an extremely heavy heart, I boarded a flight to Houston by way of Minneapolis and when I arrived in Houston on Easter Sunday, I rented a car and drove to Beaumont to meet with James’s extended family.

I arrived about mid-afternoon after the family returned from church and finished their traditional Easter dinner. There were expecting me when I rang the doorbell. I was greeted by more than a dozen somber people still dressed in their Easter finery. I remember a sea of black faces young and old filled with tears, an occasional sob, and grace, incredible grace such as I had never seen before as I pulled out the investigation reports, crime scene and autopsy photographs, and the autopsy reports. The photographs of the toddler were the worst and as I finished my presentation of the evidence against James, I felt worse than I have ever felt before or since.

I convinced a loving family that their golden child had willingly participated in butchering four innocent people and he would be murdered for what he had done, unless they persuaded him to choose life over death. When I asked them, if they would be willing to help, their answers were unanimous.

“Yes.”

Two weeks later James Mayfield and the two brothers pled guilty to four homicides and were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

For the last time, I shook hands with the beautiful young man with soft long slender fingers whose life incomprehensibly went off the rails one night during a murderous rampage with those hands that neither he nor anyone else will likely ever understand.

My heart was empty and cold as he turned and walked away.

My God! What have I become? I wondered.


Holmes: Why the Prosecution is Waiting to Decide Whether to Seek the Death Penalty

August 4, 2012

James Eagan Holmes has been charged with 24 counts of Murder in the First Degree and 116 counts of attempted murder for killing 12 people and wounding 58 during a shooting spree inside a movie theater at the midnight showing of the new Batman film, Dark Knight Rising.

Facts are difficult to come by because the Court “has issued a gag order on lawyers and law enforcement, sealing the court file and barring the University of Colorado, Denver from releasing public records relating to Holmes’ year there as a neuroscience graduate student.”

I have written two articles about the case here and here reviewing the potential civil liability of the University of Colorado to the victims of the shooting spree for the alleged failure of its employees, psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Fenton and the members of the university’s threat assessment team to warn the police about a possible threat to harm people that Mr. Holmes may have expressed to Dr. Fenton on or about the day that he formally withdrew in early June as a student in a Ph.D. program in neuroscience.

Probably due to the Court’s gag order, the school has not yet disclosed the specifics of Mr. Holmes’s statement to Dr. Fenton. All that we know so far is that she attempted to convene the mental health clinic’s threat assessment team to review what he said, but the team declined to do so because he had withdrawn from the school.

As I explained in my two articles, given the restrictive and limiting language in the Colorado statute, I believe it is unlikely that the university will be held liable to the victims of the shooting for failing to warn the police about Mr. Holmes. We will have to wait and see what Mr. Holmes said to Dr. Fenton before we can definitively wrap up this discussion.

Now I want to discuss a different subject in the case; namely, the death penalty. The prosecution has charged Mr. Holmes with two murder counts per homicide victim. The two charges contain different elements and basically allege two different ways to commit the same offense. CBS News explains:

Holmes is facing two separate charges for each person killed or injured. The second charge for each alleges that in killing or injuring, Holmes evidenced “an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally.”

The prosecution announced shortly after filing charges against Mr. Holmes, that it has not yet decided whether it will seek the death penalty, if Mr. Holmes is convicted of murder.

Translated into the language we speak, that means it is waiting for the defense to complete its mitigation investigation and submit its report to the prosecution to consider in determining whether to file a notice that it will seek the death penalty.

Mitigation evidence is any evidence about the defendant or the crime he committed that in fairness or in mercy calls for a sentence of less than death.

Mr. Holmes appears to suffer from a serious mental illness, possibly a type of schizophrenia. The defense likely has assembled a team of mental health experts who are testing and evaluating his competency to stand trial and well as his mental functioning. No doubt they have been reaching far back into his life collecting all existing school, medical and mental health records.

Mitigation investigation has developed into an art form as well as a necessary and highly specialized skill over the course of the past 30 years. The most common reason for appellate court reversals of death sentences has been ineffective assistance of defense counsel for failing to conduct a thorough mitigation investigation.

A diagnosis of schizophrenia would be powerful mitigating evidence, even if it did not establish legal insanity, because schizophrenia is a debilitating mental disease over which a person has little or no control. Therefore, traditional arguments for the death penalty that are based on the idea of holding people accountable for their actions by sentencing them to death, lose power in the face of evidence that the person is delusional, not like others, and incapable of making responsible decisions on a regular basis. Most people recognize that there is something fundamentally unfair about sentencing someone to death who lacked the capacity to make rational decisions.

Mr. Holmes may also satisfy the test for legal insanity. That is, that he suffers from a mental disease or defect such that he cannot distinguish between right and wrong and conform his conduct to the requirements of law. Insanity is another mitigating factor.

Regardless of his mental condition, however, he committed horrific acts that required sufficient capacity to plan and carry out a moderately complicated scheme.

When the prosecution receives the defense mitigation report, it will submit it to its own panel of mental health experts for review and comment.

Eventually, both sides will meet and engage in serious discussions regarding whether a mentally ill man should be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison without possibility of parole.

Whether the prosecution ultimately decides to file the notice that it will seek the death penalty will depend on the outcome of those discussions and the thoroughness and quality of the defense mitigation report.


Mitigation Investigation And Jury Sentencing In Death Penalty Cases

March 14, 2012

Ahem, and now back to our regularly scheduled program. That would be the law, in case you are keeping score. This article should be read in conjunction with my earlier article, Does A Seven-Year-Wait-Behind-Bars Violate The Sixth-Amendment Right To A Speedy Trial?

I practiced law in the State of Washington where a judge imposes the sentence in all criminal cases, except death penalty cases. In most cases, the sentencing occurs approximately 6 weeks after the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty by a jury. During the 6-week period, the Probation Office prepares a presentence report for the sentencing judge and the defense prepares for the sentencing by conducting a mini-mitigation investigation and arranging to have a defense expert evaluate the client, if there is a possible mental illness or impaired functioning issue due to an underlying alcohol, drug, or sexual deviance problem.

Federal court works the same way.

Death penalty cases are different because the jury that heard the evidence and convicted the defendant also sentences the defendant. Jury sentencing, in other words.

In death penalty cases, the courts proceed to sentencing within a day or two after receiving the guilty verdict, rather than recess the trial for six weeks pending the sentencing hearing. Therefore, the mitigation investigation must take place before the trial starts, which is putting the cart before the horse since a mitigation investigation must necessarily proceed from the assumption that the client is guilty.

Picture this: Very few people can afford to retain counsel in a death penalty case. Therefore, almost all death penalty lawyers are private counsel appointed by the court and paid at public expense, or they are public defenders. With few exceptions, clients charged with a death penalty offense figure that a court appointed lawyer or public defender is not a ‘real’ lawyer. Clients typically presume the lawyer is really working for the prosecutor and does not give a damn about them or their case.

Okay, let me now introduce you to Mr. Hyde. He is charged with 5 rape-murders and the prosecution is seeking the death penalty. He claims he is innocent and he is convinced that you are lower than pond-scum, unfit to sleep with the dogs, and you are going to sell him out. Greet him with your brightest smile and explain that you need some information from him to get your mitigation investigator started.

And, for God’s sake, don’t forget to duck.

Now that you understand the importance of delay . . .

Judges are concerned that it would be practically impossible to reassemble the jury following a long break after it returns a guilty verdict in a death case and they are not going to sequester jurors for six weeks with nothing to do in order to prevent them from seeing or reading anything about the case and to assure that they show-up for the sentencing hearing. That would be too expensive and impossible to police. They know that most jurors want to get on with their lives and would resent and be distracted while facing a decision to sentence a defendant to death or life without parole. Some jurors might even run away to avoid making the decision or sicken and die from stress-related causes. Sending the police out to find missing jurors would waste time and divert overstretched resources. In addition, judges know that proceeding with less than 12 jurors would raise issues about whether the defendant’s right to trial by jury was compromised. Meanwhile, retaining alternate jurors for the duration of the trial and a 6-week continuance for a sentencing hearing is impractical.

Prosecutors like to shorten the break ‘to strike while the iron is hot,’ so to speak. That is, while the jurors are still emotionally affected by the horror of the crime and more likely to vote for the death penalty. Theoretically, however, death-penalty verdicts should not be vengeance based, right? How is that for an understatement?

Defense counsel always want to lengthen the break as much as possible hoping that the delay will cool tempers and increase the possibility that the jury will return a verdict of life without parole. The more extreme members of our select fraternity and sorority of life savers, would prefer the sentencing hearing be continued for ten or more years, if not indefinitely. I include myself in that select category, just so you know where I am coming from.

In reality, we are lucky if we get more than 48 hours before we have to face a stern and hostile jury. You do not know what constitutes a tough sell until you try to convince a jury to spare your client’s life.

Death penalty trials take a long time. In the cases that I tried, for example, jury selection averaged 3 weeks (attorney conducted voir dire of prospective jurors individually out of the presence of the other prospective jurors) and the evidentiary portion of the guilt phase lasted from 6 weeks (my shortest) to 9 months (my longest).

In practice, because the client’s life is at stake, the mitigation investigation in a death-penalty case is far more extensive and intensive compared to the ordinary case.

I say ‘ordinary’ because there is no comparison to the intensity of a death penalty trial.

Mitigation investigation begins with collecting all available documents concerning your client, starting with medical reports regarding the mother’s pregnancy and your client’s birth. Then we want all medical, school, military, employment, and institutional records concerning the client.

After assembling all available records, we identify, locate, and interview every living person who had a significant relationship with the client and every person for whom he performed a favor or did something nice that he did not have to do.

We are looking for evidence of what we call “a hole in the head.” That is, evidence of an organic brain disorder or injury that impaired functioning and might have caused or contributed to the commission of the crime or crimes with which the client is charged.

We are also looking for evidence that the client might have been abused sexually, psychologically, or physically as a child. As you might well imagine, clients and families often would rather die than open up and talk about that sort of deeply personal, embarrassing, and humiliating information to strangers. We often find that they so deeply suppress or spin memories of abuse to excuse the abuser that it practically takes a miracle to break through the denial and get at the truth. And we have to dig for that information without planting false memories.

We search until we find something.

Why?

Because we honor and never judge our clients, no matter what they have done in their lives, and we do everything possible within the boundaries of the law to save their lives.

We call it God’s work.

And most of the time the money we are paid for doing this work does not even cover our monthly overhead.


Does A Seven-Year-Wait Behind Bars Violate The Sixth Amendment Right To A Speedy Trial?

March 9, 2012

What were you doing in March, 2005?

On February 27, the Georgia Supreme Court denied Khanhn Dinh Phan’s request to dismiss the death penalty case pending against him. Such an order under ordinary circumstances would not merit comment, but these are not ordinary circumstances. Khanh Dinh Phan has been locked up in the Gwinnett County Jail in Georgia for seven years without a trial.

In addition to rejecting his argument that the State of Georgia has violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial (See: Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972); Strunk v. U.S., 412 U.S. 434 (1973)), the Court removed his court-appointed counsel and appointed new counsel over his objections, even though his lawyers did not cause the delay in bringing him to trial and did nothing wrong. In fact, they did what they were required to do and what I would have done if I had been representing Mr. Phan in order to provide him with effective assistance of counsel, which is what the Sixth Amendment requires (See Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963); Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)).

The Facts

Mr. Phan is charged with intentionally killing Hung Thai and his two-year-old son by shooting them in the head execution-style, allegedly as punishment for Hung Thai’s failure to pay a gambling debt. Mr. Thai’s wife, Hoangganh Ta, was also shot in the head, but she survived and returned to live in Vietnam after emerging from a coma seven months after the shooting. She has identified Mr. Phan as the shooter and she also provided law enforcement with information regarding the alleged motive.

The trial court appointed two lawyers to represent Mr. Phan, which is standard operating procedure in a death penalty case. The two lawyers were Chris Adams, who was the Director of the Georgia Capital Defender’s Office at that time, and Bruce Harvey, a lawyer in private practice.

The Pretrial and Mitigation Investigation

Adams and Harvey did what any qualified and experienced death-penalty lawyers would have done in this case. After establishing a relationship of confidence and trust with their indigent client, they asked the trial court to authorize the expenditure of reasonable funds to travel with an investigator to Vietnam to interview Hoangganh Ta about the homicides and to interview members of Mr. Phan’s family, friends, and others who knew him in Vietnam such as neighbors, teachers, employers, counselors, and doctors who might have provided him with medical treatment. The former is routine pretrial investigation that should be conducted in any case and the latter, which we call mitigation investigation, is required in all capital cases so that no stone is left unturned in the effort to discover evidence about the defendant, or the circumstances of the crime, that might in fairness or mercy potentially cause a juror to vote for a sentence of less than death (See Porter v. McCollum, 130 S.Ct. 447 (2009)).

The mitigation investigation must be conducted prior to trial, which is necessarily before the defendant has been acquitted or convicted, because, if the defendant is convicted, the case would proceed to a sentencing phase immediately after the jury returned the guilty verdict, or within a few days, not allowing sufficient time to conduct the investigation. Clients rarely understand the necessity to pry deeply into their past history and relationships searching for clues to explain seemingly unexplainable homicidal behavior that they are adamantly denying. They regard the investigation as a form of rape and it is very difficult for the lawyers to establish a relationship of trust and confidence when the client wants to hear the lawyer say, “I believe you when you say you are innocent and I will do everything that I possibly can to win this case.”

This tension explains why a death-penalty case is much easier to handle, if the client admits guilt. Most clients, however, deny guilt inevitably generating conflict in the attorney-client relationship over the necessity for and wide ranging scope of the mitigation evidence. From the results of post-conviction DNA testing and reinvestigation, we now know for certain that a significant percentage of death-penalty defendants are innocent (approximately 20%). The attorney-client conflict generated by the mitigation investigation is an additional, but no less valid reason to abolish the death penalty.

In this case, Mr. Phan’s lawyers appear to have navigated successfully through the minefield.

Gwinnett County Cannot Afford To Pay For What The Law Requires

Mr. Phan’s case went off the rails when Gwinnett County could not afford to pay for the trip to Vietnam. Defense counsel could not agree to forego the necessary trip and they could not reasonably or legally be expected to finance the trip themselves.

Contrary to long established United State Supreme Court precedent, Gwinnett County also refused to pay for a defense expert regarding the effect of gunshot injuries to the brain on memory (Cf Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985)).

Since defense counsel could not adequately prepare for trial, the trial could not go forward. And so, Mr. Phan languished and continues to languish in jail waiting for his day in court, a day that may never come.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s Decision

Notwithstanding the passage of seven years without a trial, due to the trial court’s failure to pay for reasonably necessary defense costs to prepare for trial that it is required to compensate (Cf, Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985) and its progeny), the Georgia Supreme Court not only refused to dismiss the case for violation of Mr. Phan’s right to a speedy trial, it aggravated the situation by dismissing his lawyers replacing them with public defenders who will cost less because they are already paid a salary, regardless of how many hours they work, rather than an hourly wage.

Rather than requiring the Gwinnett County Circuit Court to pay the necessary and reasonable expenses for counsel to defend Mr. Phan, an obligation imposed by long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent, the Georgia Supreme Court fashioned a ‘solution’ to save money by destroying an existing attorney-client relationship by appointing new lawyers. Presumably, the Court believes that the financial savings can free-up sufficient funds to pay for the reasonably necessary expenses that must be paid for the trial to go forward.

Whether and when that will happen is anybody’s guess.

Conclusion

The prosecuting attorney in Gwinnett County should not be seeking the death penalty in a case when the circuit court cannot afford to pay for the reasonably necessary expenses to defend the case.

Ultimately, of course, it is the State of Georgia’s responsibility to budget and pay for the reasonable and necessary expenses that the county circuit courts must pay to fund indigent defense. Death penalty cases are expensive and, if Georgia wants to kill people, then Georgia must bear the cost of prosecuting, defending, and killing them.

Savaging and scavenging a successful seven-year attorney-client relationship to free-up money to pay for reasonably necessary defense expenses is a willful and intentional destruction of Mr. Phan’s right to counsel and a gross denial of his right to a speedy trial — all of which has been done to fund a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s decision is little more than a variation of the Ponzi Scheme. That it would employ such a tactic to kill someone speaks volumes as to its regard for the United States Constitution, the Sixth Amendment, and the Rule of Law.

If the right to a speedy trial means anything, it means that no one should be forced to rot in jail for seven years without going to trial. After all this time, he is no closer to trial than he was after he was arrested in 2005.

Shameful and disgusting.

For additional information, see John Rudolph’s article at the Huffington Post.


The Difference Between Homicide And Murder

October 23, 2011

Although states vary in their definitions, the majority of states define homicide is the unlawful killing of a human being. Killing a person in self-defense is a lawful killing of another person. Therefore, it is not a homicide.

There are four degrees of homicide which vary according to the actor’s state of mind when he or she commits an act that causes the death of another person. The four degrees of homicide are:

1. Murder in the First Degree (premeditated intent to kill another person). Note that premeditation is defined as forming the specific intent to kill before committing the act that causes the death of another person. There is no established minimum amount of time, but the actor must have had an opportunity to reflect on the decision to kill before committing the act that causes death.

2. Murder in the Second Degree (intentional murder). In effect, the actor forms the specific intent to kill another person and acts immediately such that the formation of intent and the act occur simultaneously or so close together that there is no opportunity to reflect on the decision. Murder in the Second Degree typically involves killing another person in the heat of passion.

3. Manslaughter in the First Degree (reckless killing). The actor engages in conduct knowing that there is a substantial risk that the conduct will cause the death of another person. The typical example is playing Russian Roulette with another person. There is no intent to kill, but a death results nevertheless.

4. Manslaughter in the Second Degree (criminally negligent killing). The actor causes the death of another person while committing an act that he should have known would likely cause the death of another person and his failure to know that constitutes a gross deviation from the standard to act with due care to avoid injuring others.

Depending on whether a state has the death penalty, there is another category called Aggravated Murder, which is a premeditated murder with aggravating circumstances.

Aggravating circumstances are defined by statute and typically include the premeditated killing of another person to conceal the commission of another crime. For example, a rapist kills the victim to prevent her from reporting the crime and identifying him. Other examples include the premeditated murder of a cop or a judge. In each case the aggravating circumstance is the purpose behind the premeditated intent to kill.

The death penalty is not automatically imposed upon conviction of aggravated murder, no matter how heinous or depraved. Instead, a sentencing hearing is held after the jury convicts the defendant of aggravated murder in which the same jury that convicted him considers evidence submitted by the prosecution in aggravation of the offense and evidence offered by the defense in mitigation of the offense.

Evidence in aggravation includes the evidence the jury already heard about the offense in the guilt phase, a statement from a friend of the victim or member of the victim’s family who testifies regarding the impact of the victim’s death on the witness or family, and evidence of the defendant’s prior record of criminal convictions, if any exists.

Evidence in mitigation is evidence about the defendant, such as organic brain disorder, limited intellectual functioning, mental illness, victim of childhood sexual abuse or assault, or the defendant’s role in committing the murder (e.g., an accomplice who assisted another person to commit the murder but who did not commit the murder and may not have even been present when it occurred) that in fairness or mercy warrants a sentence of life without possibility of parole instead of the death penalty.

In Washington State where I handled all of my death penalty cases, the final instruction given to the jury after both sides rest in the penalty phase is as follows:

Having in mind the crime of which the defendant has been convicted, are you convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that there are not sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit a sentence of less than death?

The jury also is instructed that the law presumes that the appropriate sentence is life without possibility of parole unless the prosecution overcomes that presumption with proof beyond a reasonable doubt that there are not sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit the life without parole sentence.

The jury must be unanimous to impose the death sentence.


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