Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that Tennessee death row inmate Gary Cone deserves a new hearing to determine whether evidence withheld by the prosecution in Shelby County would have changed the jury’s mind about imposing the death sentence.
Cone, a Vietnam veteran, who suffered from combat stress, mental illness, and a drug addiction, claims that he was in an amphetamine psychosis when he killed elderly Memphis couple, Shipley and Cleopatra Todd, while hiding in their home after a robbery of a jewelry store in 1980.
At the time he was tried, prosecutors called his addiction “baloney” and told jurors that Cone was a drug dealer and cold-blooded killer and not an addict. However, the prosecutor withheld information that substantiated Cone’s claims, including police and FBI communications identifying Cone as a drug user and addict and witness statements describing his behavior as “weird” and “wild-eyed.”
Paul Bottei, Cone’s federal public defender, said that Cone first requested access to files from the district attorney’s office in Memphis in 1993. The Supreme Court has twice reinstated Cone’s death sentence on different appeals, but this current issue about his mental state is his strongest claim.
During arguments before the Supreme Court, the justices demonstrated outrage at Tennessee prosecutors for not turning over all the evidence to Cone’s defense attorneys.
“You’re saying that the lawyer, the trained lawyer for the government, who knew this information and knew the defense, just what? Just overlooked it by accident?” Justice Stephen Breyer demanded of Jennifer Smith, representing Tennessee.
Later, Justice David Souter addressed Smith saying, “I believe you have just made a statement to me that is utterly irrational.”
The justices sent the case back to U.S. District Court Judge Jon McCalla to determine whether or not there is a reasonable probability that the withheld evidence would have altered the penalty Cone received.
After hearing such stories, I must ask the question, “What are the consequences for the prosecutor who withheld this valuable information which could potentially cost Gary Cone his life and has cost taxpayers untold dollars in pursuing appeals to get to the truth?” I thought a prosecutor’s first responsibility is to pursue the truth and to ensure that those who commit crime are held accountable for their crimes, not to get convictions and death sentences at any cost.
The murder of this elderly couple is tragic and reprehensible, and I am sure that there was immense pressure on the district attorneys’ office to pursue the death penalty for Cone. However, it is inexcusable that this prosecutor, an officer of the court, knowingly withheld this evidence from the defense at the trial. How is he/she being held accountable? If you or I lied to the court regardless of our reasons for lying, we could be charged with perjury. Until we start holding everyone involved to the same standards with real consequences, this system will remain as flawed and broken as ever.
Gary Cone’s conviction stands. He has been in prison for nearly 30 years. The question for the courts now is not Cone’s guilt but the tactics by which a sentence of death was secured when other options were available. Such actions are not only unfair to the defendant but to the jury who didn’t have all the facts needed to render their decision, to the court itself, and to all citizens who expect our court officers to follow the law.
“I’m just a bill.
Yes, I’m only a bill.
And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.”
Those are lyrics from the legendary Schoolhouse Rock video “I’m Just a Bill.” Click HERE to watch it. For TCASK’s 2009 Justice Day on the Hill, the bill was House Bill 1496, enacting a one year moratorium on Tennessee’s death penalty. While the Schoolhouse Rock video is educational, there is a lot more that goes into bill passage than a three minute video can depict. One of the most important factors in bill passage is citizen lobbying.
Justice Day brings concerned Tennesseans from across the state to meet with their legislators. A face to face meeting is the most effective way to advocate for the passage of a bill. The day began with a stark reminder of why we were there. In a press conference organized by TCASK, Michael McCormick and Joyce House both spoke. Michael was on Tennessee’s death row for 20 years before finally receiving an acquittal in a new trial. Joyce’s son, Paul House, was on Tennessee’s death row for 23 years before being released where he is now awaiting retrial. Tennessee’s death penalty is broken. Innocent people are caught up in the system. This is why Tennesseans came to Nashville to meet with their legislators.
Click HERE to see pictures from Justice Day on the Hill.
For some folks, this was their second, third, or even fourth Justice Day on the Hill. They strode into their legislator’s office with confidence. For others, this was their first time walking through the Tennessee statehouse. They were participating in the democratic process and initiating a relationship with their elected officials. For all, it was a reminder that while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Legislators are turning to TCASK for thoughtful and objective education on the death penalty. They respect our mission and drive. However, there are still those who are clouded by misconception and myth. TCASK will continue to provide clarity to the brokenness of the death penalty system. And someday, as more legislators realize that supporting a broken system does not serve their constituents or the state of Tennessee, we will not by lobbying for a moratorium, but for repeal of Tennessee’s death penalty.
On March 26th the New Hampshire House of Representatives became the first legislative body in the country to pass a crime victims equality act to prohibit discrimination against family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. HB 370, “An act relative to the treatment of victims of crime”, was passed by a 213-114 margin. This bill amends New Hampshire’s Crime Victims Bill of Rights by adding this new right to crime victims:
” The right to all federal and state constitutional rights guaranteed to all victims of crime on an equal basis, and notwithstanding the provisions of any laws on capital punishment, the right not to be discriminated against or have their rights as a victim denied, diminished, expanded, or enhanced on the basis of the victim’s support for, opposition to, or neutrality on the death penalty.”
Not all victims feel the same way about the death penalty. In fact, the sponsor of HB 370, Rep. Renny Cushing, is himself a murder victim’s family member whose father was murdered in 1988.
The Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, which met from October 2007-February 2009, also discussed a process for ensuring that all victims’ families are treated the same by the system regardless of their position on the death penalty. Charles Strobel, whose mother was murdered and who represented Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights on the Tennessee Study Committee, suggested the creation of an independent office for the victim’s advocate. Currently, the victim’s advocate is located in the office of the district attorney, the same office which decides whether or not to seek the death penalty.
Congratulations to New Hampshire for this legislation.
“Testing has again failed to find DNA from a former Tennessee death row inmate on evidence that will be used to retry him for a woman’s murder.”
Read the rest of this article by CLICKING HERE.
“But the tests also found DNA from one of the stains is a combination of Muncey’s and an unknown male, according to a lab analysis by Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings in North Carolina dated March 24.”
I remain perplexed as to how these jeans, which are obviously tainted, could possibly be used to convict House. The fact that they were initially sent in the same package as the blood vials from Carolyn Muncey’s autopsy lends itself to the possibility that this other blood was introduced onto the jeans at a later time as well. Bottom line, there is no physical evidence linking Paul House to the murder of Carolyn Muncey.
Read the AP article about Paul House here.
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Tennessee inmate E.J. Harbison who had asked the court to allow his federal public defender to serve as his clemency counsel. Harbison, who is indigent, cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent him at clemency proceedings and requested that his federal public defender, who has worked on his case for years, continue to represent him.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Harbison saying that the law, “does not authorize federal compensation for legal representation in state matters.” The high court disagreed.
Several Governors and former Governors, including Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, joined Harbison in arguing that inmates should be given the best possible legal representation during clemency proceedings.
Tennessee death row inmate, Steve Henley, also raised this issue with the courts, requesting that his federal public defender serve as his clemency counsel. Henley was not given a stay of execution in order for a clemency hearing to proceed. Instead, he was executed on February 4, 2009.
Read more here.