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Posts Tagged ‘capital prosecutions’

A Fourth Circuit panel today ordered habeas relief to overturn a South Carolina capital conviction. The 2-1 decision was issued 14 months after argument. The underlying crime took place almost 30 years ago (in January 1982).

Judge King wrote the opinion for the panel in Elmore v. Ozmint, which was joined in by Judge Gregory. Judge Wilkinson wrote a dissenting opinion.

The combined opinions take up 194 pages (163 for the majority, 31 for the dissent).

Here are the first two paragraphs of Judge Wilkinson’s dissent:

It would be amusing, if it were not so very serious, to imagine for a moment the majority’s visit to a haberdashery. The visit would be a fun one, because my friends in the majority would try on every hat in the shop, except, of course, the one that might conceivably fit. Here, the majority dons the headwear of the jury, the state trial court, the state appellate court, the state post-conviction relief (PCR) court, and the federal district court, but then inexplicably leaves the premises without a passing glance at the cap befitting federal appellate judges reviewing under AEDPA the considered judgment of  a state court that a defendant’s counsel was not ineffective  and that there was no prejudice arising from that counsel’s  allegedly deficient performance.

The majority spends a considerable amount of time defending its conclusion that Edward Lee Elmore is entitled to habeas relief on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  But as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.”  SEC v. Chenery  Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 214 (1947) (Jackson, J., dissenting).  Simply put, the majority’s rejection of the South Carolina  PCR court’s determination that defense counsel’s alleged  deficiencies did not result in prejudice cannot be squared with  the deferential standards required under AEDPA, the facts of  this case, or Supreme Court precedent. And in the course of its decision, the majority unjustly impugns the criminal justice system of South Carolina, slanders a deceased man who simply had the misfortune of discovering his neighbor’s mutilated body, and grants habeas relief to a prisoner whom overwhelming evidence suggests brutally raped and murdered an  elderly woman in her home. For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.

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Over at Sentencing Law and Policy, Doug Berman has an interesting analysis of the effects of aggressively deploying the federal death penalty in Buffalo, New York. Berman’s analysis discusses a news story that begins in the following way:

It’s hard to find a federal prosecutor anywhere in the nation who has filed as many potential death penalty cases as William J. Hochul Jr., the U.S. attorney for Western New York.

So far, none of those cases has led to an execution.

But they have cost taxpayers a bundle of money — more than $661,000 in the past year.

Berman argues, contrary to some of those quoted in the article, that these prosecutions are a sound use of taxpayer money. Here’s a taste, but as they say, read the whole thing:

If and whenever a capital prosecution prompts a murderer to plead guilty, the cost savings from avoiding a full-blown federal trial and appeals are significant and save many times more than gets spent at the outset of a federal capital prosecution.  (Though federal capital trials surely cost millions more than non-capital trials, a full-blown non-capital trial in just one big federal criminal case is likely to cost much more than the $661,000 figure being stressed here.)

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that USA William Hochul’s decision to seek a federal capital prosecution in these 24 cases results in the defendants receiving a “Cadillac” defense which should help ensure (1) there is no wrongful prosecution/conviction of an innocent defendant, (2) that prosecutors do not engage in any misconduct, and (3) that all relevant mitigating evidence is discovered as early as possible.  In other words, the extra money being spent on defense costs because of USA Hochul’s capital charging decisions likely benefit not only defendants, but also the entire federal criminal justice system, in lots of ways.  Defendants receiving a great defense from the very outset of their prosecution are far less likely to be wrongfully convicted or over-punished, which can and should save significant federal resources in the long-run.

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