The Skewed Politics of the Death Penalty

A Texas man condemned to death for a crime he didn’t commit was freed only after his attorney discovered a concealed phone record that proved his innocence. The attorney, Brian Stolarz, who wrote a book about the case, tells TCR that it’s an example of how capital punishment in the U.S. is hostage to a system that depends on whether you have enough money to pay for good legal help.

Alfred Dewayne Brown was condemned to death in 2005 after his conviction for killing a Houston police officer and a store clerk in a botched robbery in Texas. He spent a decade trying to prove his innocence, but it was only when an attorney named Brian Stolarz took his case and helped uncover the records of a phone call that proved he wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the crime—records that had been concealed from the grand jury—that Brown was finally exonerated and released in 2015.

Stolarz’ book about the case, Grace and Justice on Death Row (Skyhorse Publishing), arrives at a time when the movement for abolishing the death penalty continues to be stymied at the federal level—even as it has won more support in the states.

In a conversation with TCR’s Julia Pagnamenta, Stolarz discusses the outlook for the abolition of capital punishment in the U.S., how the politics of electing judges makes death sentences more likely, and how his Catholic faith influenced his own approach to the issue.

The Crime Report: Why write this book now?

Brian Stolarz: The death penalty debate in this country is trending towards abolition. In a new Gallup poll, approval is the lowest it’s been since the 70’s. A Pew research poll had [the approval rate] below 50 percent. It is my belief that it will be abolished one day. And I hope that cases like Dewayne’s shine a light on why.

TCR: And yet in the current political climate, it doesn’t seem like the death penalty will be abolished on the federal level. 

Brian Stolarz: I think the best way to attack the death penalty right now is through the states. Nebraska was a good example of a traditionally red state having that important debate. I think the federal death penalty will stay in large part because of the make-up of the Supreme Court. Now, with [Neil] Gorsuch taking Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat, I think it will be a number of years, if not decades, before the court shifts to a 5-4 for unconstitutionality of the death penalty.

So the way to attack that is on the state level and to identify what is called the “outlier counties.” There are only certain counties in this country that use it, and if there’s pressure even in those states to narrow it, and get rid of it, then maybe we can chip away at this brick by brick. If Nebraska is doing it, then other states can too, and if we get it so that it’s done only in a couple of states, then it becomes even more unconstitutional, and you may even have a federal challenge to it.

TCR: Let’s talk a little about Dewayne’s case: the prosecutor coerced Dewayne’s girlfriend, Ericka Dockery, into giving false testimony, and then hid the phone record that would have exonerated him. How did this happen?

Brian Stolarz: This case was in our view a rush to judgment. You have a high- profile case in which a black defendant is being charged in the murder of a white police officer, and there is a sense that they want to get quick justice. And so because there was never any science that connected Dewayne to the case, (and) never will be, this case was based largely on the testimony of his girlfriend Ericka Dockery.

Dewayne’s alibi was incredibly straightforward: He was at Ericka’s apartment at the time of the murders, and made a phone call to where she worked. Ericka testified that way in the grand jury.

The DA, and the grand jurors in particular, were badgering her, and in our view threatening her, and they kept pressing on her. I’ve never seen anything like the transcript in this case. But she held firm to Dewayne’s alibi. And the DA—and this is the moment where the case changed—decided that on his own, he would charge her with perjury, and ask for a very high bail, and then she sat in jail for four months. Her life fell apart. She lost her job, her kids…and so she said “fine, I’ll say whatever you want.”

Alfred Dewayne Brown

Alfred Dewayne Brown is released from prison after his exoneration. Photo courtesy Death Penalty Information Center.

But then we uncovered through our investigation that she testified about the phone call occurring on the caller ID box. The DA, Dan Rizzo, subpoenaed the phone company the day after she testified in the grand jury. The documents were sent by the phone company to the police, and it showed that Dewayne paid (for) that phone call, but they never turned the record over.

And that is still astonishing to me. The reason we got it was because the DA who was in charge of the writ of appeal emailed us in May of 2013, and said that the cop in charge of the investigation had recently spring-cleaned his garage, and found a box of documents. He sent it to us, and in the middle of the box was the phone record we had been looking for (over) eight long years.

TCR: You write about the lack of money and resources for public defenders, especially compared to the funding and political backing prosecutors receive. Please explain.

Brian Stolarz: Sadly, it’s easier to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent in this country, and it’s always more popular to pay the prosecutor than to pay a public defender. I hope that is going to change, because the Constitution is only upheld and preserved and maintained if the process is fair for everybody. In this case, Dewayne had a court-appointed lawyer, and the DA had all the resources to investigate. I see that in cases I work on all the time, and it’s bothersome to me because if Dewayne had the law firm I worked at, K & L Gates, that could have thrown a lot of resources at it, it might have been a different result for him, and he might not have spent 12 years and 62 days in jail for something he didn’t do.

Further Reading: “Legal Aid for Capital Punishment Cases Depends on Where you Live” (TCR Nov 7, 2017)

TCR: You worked pro bono nature on Dewayne’s case. Is this a common practice for private law firms?

Brian Stolarz: A strong public defender is always the first line of defense and that should be where our resources go. You can’t depend on large law firms to pick up the slack on everything because there are only a few law firms that will put the kind of resources that our firm put towards it.

TCR: How important to the capital punishment issue is the fact that judges administering these cases are elected?

Brian Stolarz: There’s a part in the book where I write that the Alabama judicial system had a jury override function, that the jury could recommend life, but then the judge could override that and give death. Well, in election years, the judges would override the jury verdicts more. It’s transparent to me to why they did that: to get elected. To me, that’s not justice, that’s political gain; I think all judges across the country should be appointed by their respective governors, or whatever bodies can do it. I think that when you politicize law, you are making it such that certain things are valued over other things, whether it’s these tough-on-crime sentences, or whether it’s a judicial override, so that a person can say at a rally, I put ten people to death. Well that’s not what I want my judge to be up there saying.

TCR: Your Catholic faith guided you through Dewayne’s case, and informs your opposition to the death penalty. And yet, in the book you recall how a religious group outside of Dewayne’s prison refused to serve you any food after you told them you were defending a person on death row. How did that affect you?

There is a certain level of hypocrisy that I see when I speak in churches. When I talked to this group, where they were all too happy to give a fish platter to the guard but they wouldn’t give one to me because I was defending someone in there. They were all happy to advocate for this man’s death. It just didn’t seem like the Christian way. Growing up Catholic, I was told that life was life, beginning and end, no matter what you’ve done, and it’s not the state’s role to kill anybody. Pope Francis has put a finer point on that now, and I hope that that combined with the advocacy work of Sister Helen, we can finally show that the Christian stance is that the death penalty should not happen.

TCR: Justice Scalia, also a practicing Catholic, supported the death penalty.

Brian Stolarz: Justice Scalia and I differed on our application of it even if we both had a strong Catholic faith.

TCR: Well, maybe in his case it wasn’t a Catholic interpretation, but a Constitutional reading of the death penalty?

brian stolarz

Brian Stolarz

Brian Stolarz: Yeah, it had to be. That’s what I read into it, but my faith has told me it’s not the right thing to do. If I were a judge I guess I would have to think about it differently, but from where I sit right now, it’s not the right thing to do. The state shouldn’t do this, and I hope Pope Francis’s message carries some weight.

TCR: There is currently an art exhibit, “Windows on Death Row” at Columbia Law School. People on death row made the art, and Columbia hosted several events this fall around the topic. At the first event, a Swiss representative who introduced the discussion said a central tenet of Switzerland’s foreign policy was a universal abolition of the death penalty. It’s also a European Union foreign policy objective. Why is it that the United States is one of the only countries in the Western world that still uses the death penalty?

Brian Stolarz: I spend a lot of time talking to folks in the European Union (EU). I’ve been to a few conferences and people are still shocked that we have it. We’re on a list with countries like Iraq and Iran and China, countries we don’t normally want to be on a list with as far as human rights. You can’t be a member of the EU if you have the death penalty. EU companies are not allowing drugs to be shipped here for this reason. Their advocacy is really important, and I think with more pressure like that, it may begin to change how we all think.

The American frontier spirit, and the Old Testament “eye-for-an-eye” approach has carried the narrative for us up to now. But I think that’s changing given the recent public opinion polls.

Julia Pagnamenta is a news intern for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org