Blog of Rights


Brian Stull is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. He has served as trial and appellate counsel in capital cases in North Carolina and Texas. Before joining the ACLU, Stull worked for five years at the Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD) in New York City, where he represented indigent criminal defendants convicted of serious felonies on direct appeal and in post-conviction and federal habeas corpus proceedings. Stull holds a B.A. and a M.S.W. from the University of Michigan and graduated cum laude from New York University School of Law.

Jerry Guerinot: Most Dangerous Defense Attorney Ever?

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 10:32am
An article in Monday's New York Times underscores an observation we have made before: one of the biggest predictors of who gets sentenced to death has nothing to do with relevant factors such as the heinousness of the crime, the culpability of the accused, or the life history of the accused. Rather, the quality of the lawyer representing the accused very often predicts who lives and who dies.

Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Habeas

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 1:03pm

Imagine you or someone you loved were accused of a crime and tried in state court. Our federal constitutional rights give us certain protections in these state trials, but imagine your trial was an unfair one. Imagine the state court did not uphold…

Good and Bad Lawyers Determine Who Lives and Who Dies

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 12:46pm

In a separate post yesterday, I addressed how a person on death row's life can be decided on a technicality, an issue to be decided by the Supreme Court in Holland v. Florida. Today's post addresses another issue the Holland case raises —…

Executing on a Technicality

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 4:45pm

When a person accused of a crime goes free, we often hear the refrain, "He got off on a technicality." In reality, these technicalities often involve a violation of a person's constitutional rights. In the case of Holland v. Florida,…

Race and Death Penalty Links Run Deep and Wide

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 11:12am

(Also posted on Daily Kos.)

Last week, South Carolina pardoned two great-uncles of radio personality Tom Joyner, both executed in 1913 for a murder they did not commit. The two African-American men had been falsely accused and wrongfully convicted…

North Carolina Moves Against Executions Based on Race

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 5:44pm

"Ain't it a great day in North Carolina!" North Carolina General Assembly Representative Larry Womble celebrated with these words this morning, moments before North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue signed into law a bill Rep. Womble championed…

The Empty Promise of Appointed Clemency Counsel in Texas

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 11:53am

Despite a recent Untied States Supreme Court decision protecting the rights of indigent death-row inmates seeking executive clemency, Texas has continued to execute people without pausing to give effect to the high court's ruling. As a result, Texas has executed two men — Michael Rosales and Derrick Johnson — who had made strong factual showings of mental retardation but were either not afforded a lawyer or were not allowed a full hearing on their claims.

On April 1, 2009, April Fool's Day, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Harbison v. Bell (PDF), deciding that federal law entitles indigent state death-row prisoners access to clemency counsel — a lawyer appointed by a federal district court to represent prisoners during executive clemency proceedings. The Supreme Court observed that clemency is the last "fail safe" where the judicial process has failed to prevent a "miscarriage of justice." The "fail safe" of clemency in Texas is of critical importance given that the appeals of death-row inmates too often are dismissed based on procedural problems — a defense lawyer filing an appeal late, for example — that are outside prisoners' control.

Harbison overruled various lower federal court decisions, including a 2002 decision that denied the right to appointed clemency counsel to Texas death-row inmates. Since 2002, Texas has executed 180 people denied the right the right to counsel the Harbison decision found was mandated by federal law. What's worse, Rosales and Johnson were executed after the Harbison decision, but without being afforded the protections the decision requires.

Veteran Federal Judge Says Death Penalty Still Arbitrary and Too Costly

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 4:48pm

Reflecting on his 30 years as judge hearing death penalty cases on the U.S., Judge Boyce M. Martin, Jr. of the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit wrote in an opinion released today (PDF) that capital punishment in this country remains "arbitrary,…

Executing Failure

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 3:02pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Last night, I saw a grown man cry like a baby. He was kin to Kenneth Wayne Morris, executed by the State of Texas yesterday on his 38th birthday. I was on my way from a capital hearing near Dallas to Texas's death row in Livingston to visit clients. On my way I stopped in Huntsville, where Texas conducts its executions. I had two thoughts when I saw Morris's relative, crying in grief while standing among a crowd of people protesting Morris's death outside the walls of the Huntsville unit, the prison that contains Texas' death chamber.

My first thought was of a story renowned death-penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson often tells, and my second was of a recent Pew Study concerning prison spending.

I have often heard Stevenson tell about the kind treatment experienced by a client on the day leading up to his execution. In sum, every hour or so, a guard or warden approached the client asking if he needed something: "What would you like for your breakfast today? What would you like for your lunch, dinner, dessert? Would you like to speak with the chaplain? Would you like a telephone call home? Would you like a room where you can meet in private with your family?"

Texas's Failed Clemency Process

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 3:52pm

Yesterday evening at 6:18 p.m. CST, the State of Texas executed a man who posed no danger to society; a man who was universally understood to have undergone complete transformation and rehabilitation since his 1993 conviction for burglary and murder. Willie Earl Pondexter, executed two days shy of his 35th birthday, was a changed man.

Undisputedly, Texas did not execute the same violent, young person who committed his crime over 15 years ago. In the words of a corrections officer who had come to know Pondexter during his incarceration, he "could safely live out his days in a structured environment." The officer stated, "You would be hard-pressed to find anyone to say something bad about Pondexter."

Texas justifies its death sentences on a jury's finding that a convicted capital murderer will constitute a threat of future danger if not executed. In 1976, in Jurek v. Texas, the Supreme Court approved this sentencing scheme, stating that a jury's determination of future dangerousness is no "different from the task performed countless times each day throughout the American system of criminal justice." The Court cited bail as but one example. But while a wrong bail decision can later be modified if turns out a defendant is not a flight risk or risk to the public, there is no solution when it turns out a jury's determination of future dangerousness — and resulting death sentence — has proven wrong.

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