Friday, March 07, 2008

Connecticut Death Row Inmates Win Round One

Defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants charged with killing blacks.

-- Study Of Murder Sentences In Georgia


The Cool Justice Report
March 7, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

Inmates on Connecticut's death row won a major victory recently in their collective challenge to the imposition of the death penalty based on claims of racial disparity.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees all citizens equal protection of the law. The equal protection clause has been the basis of a variety of court challenges involving claims of racial bias in the administration of the law.

In addition to this guarantee the, Fifth Amendment also guarantees that no individual will be denied the right to life, liberty or property without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment applies this constitutional protection to the states. Article I, section 8 of the Connecticut Constitution provides the right to due process as well.

Also, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and has been the cornerstone of myriad challenges to the death penalty throughout the country.

In the present litigation, seven inmates have challenged their death sentences based on a claim that statistically, minority defendants and those tried in certain of the state's 13 judicial districts, are most likely to face the death penalty.

The case is unique for several reasons. It is the first time in this state that there has been an application for relief brought to the courts on behalf of all of the inmates on death row; and, it is the first time that a court has allowed a statistical analysis of the racial disparity claim.

In the past, individual inmates have litigated issues concerning the death penalty unique to their particular situation. Here, the collective argument has been raised that the process through which certain defendants are exposed to capital punishment is not only flawed but affects potentially all capital defendants.

Courts have heretofore rejected the concept of statistical analysis to support a racial bias challenge to capital punishment.

Post-conviction claims such as this are typically raised through the vehicle of a petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, rather than through the direct appeal process. Direct appeals follow immediately upon a conviction, but are limited to issues raised during the course of the pre-trial and trial proceedings. In the event that evidence is necessary to present to a reviewing court that is outside the prior record of proceedings in the trial court, a habeas writ is the tool employed since it allows the petitioner to present additional facts necessary for a complete adjudication of the claim. The most common habeas issue raised is a claim that the right to the effective assistance of counsel, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, has been violated based on some claim of attorney incompetence. Habeas petitions are not ripe for adjudication until the direct appeal process has been fully exhausted.

This issue has been pending since it was first raised by condemned murderer, Cedric Cobb, in 1994. Since then other death row inmates have raised similar challenges, leading the Connecticut Supreme Court, in 2003, to consolidate all of the cases in this habeas corpus petition.

In 1987, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Warren McClesky v. Kemp, Superintendent , Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center. McClesky had been tried and convicted in Georgia for the crimes of armed robbery and murder. Following his appeals through the state courts, McClesky filed a federal habeas petition alleging that the Georgia sentencing process was administered in a racially discriminatory manner.

McClesky relied upon a study conducted by David Baldus, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. Baldus had studied 2,500 murder cases in Georgia. The premise he claimed to have proved was that African Americans convicted of murdering whites had a greater chance of receiving the death penalty. Defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants charged with killing blacks.

The Supreme Court, in a divided opinion, said McCleskey could not demonstrate that purposeful discrimination with a discriminatory effect occurred in this particular trial. The majority of the court refused to apply the Baldus statistical study given the unique nature of decisions that juries face in capital cases. Justice Powell, author of the majority opinion, argued that the data McCleskey produced was better directed to the legislature rather than to the courts. The essence of the court's ruling is that more than a discriminatory effect must be demonstrated. There must be proof that the law had a discriminatory purpose as its basis. The Baldus study did not go that far.

In the Connecticut habeas action, the state had moved to dismiss the action raising the McCleskey analysis as a bar to the petition moving toward a trial on its merits. In a landmark decision on Feb. 27, Judge Stanley Fuger denied the motion to dismiss. Judge Fuger ruled that Connecticut's Constitution provides greater rights than those discussed by the U.S. Supreme Court in McClesky.

Judge Fuger noted the petitioners' claim that they were condemned to be deprived of their lives in proceedings that have been tainted by improper racial determinations.

"[T]he stakes are, therefore, extraordinarily high for these petitioners and merit the closest of scrutiny before throwing the complaint out of court without any opportunity to prove the validity of the claims," Fuger said.

Fuger's ruling clears the way for a trial on the merits.

Regardless of your position on the death penalty, due process and equal justice require that there be no racial bias involved in the process. If men and women of conscience are to accept the concept of capital punishment, it must be administered in a racially neutral manner.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website,

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