217 F.Supp.2d 700 (W.D.Va. 2002), 100CR00104, United States v. Church

Docket Nº100CR00104
Citation217 F.Supp.2d 700
Party NameUnited States v. Church
Case DateAugust 19, 2002
CourtUnited States District Courts, 4th Circuit, United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)

Page 700

217 F.Supp.2d 700 (W.D.Va. 2002)

UNITED STATES of America

v.

Walter Lefight CHURCH, Defendant.

No. 1:00CR00104.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division

Aug. 19, 2002

Thomas J. Bondurant, Jr., Anthony P. Giorno, Office of the United States Attorney, Roanoke, VA, for plaintiff.

James C. Turk, Jr., Stone, Harrison & Turk, P.C., Beverly M. Davis, Davis, Davis & Davis, Radford, VA, for defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

JONES, District Judge.

The defendant, facing a trial in this court in which the government seeks the death penalty, argues in accord with a recent New York federal decision that to sentence him to death would violate due process because of the purported unreliability of the guilt process leading to the death penalty. I respectfully disagree with the case relied upon by the defendant and reject his effort to strike the death penalty as unconstitutional.

Walter Lefight "Pete" Church is accused by the government with participating in the 1989 shotgun murders of three members of a Pocahontas, Virginia, family, for the alleged purpose of silencing the husband of the family from informing on a local drug ring. His co-defendant, Sam Ealy, has already been tried and found guilty, but was spared the death penalty by the jury. In advance of Church's trial, his counsel has filed on his behalf a motion requesting the court to preclude any possibility of the death penalty in his case for the reasons set forth in the recent opinion of Judge Rakoff of the Southern District of New York in United States v. Quinones , decided on July 1, 2002. 1

Judge Rakoff reasoned that particularly because a number of death row inmates have been exonerated by the recent development of DNA testing, it has been demonstrated that "traditional trial methods and appellate review" 2 are unable to prevent executions of innocent persons. According to Judge Rakoff, because of the inherent unreliability of determining the guilt of a criminal defendant, and since the death penalty is irreversible, there is an "undue risk" 3 that innocent persons will

Page 701

be denied the ability to eventually prove that innocence--resulting in a violation of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. 4

Judge Rakoff relied heavily on a recent study by law professor James S. Liebman and his colleagues of appeals in capital cases between 1973 and 1995 in which it was found that " 'the overall rate of prejudicial error in the American capital punishment system' is a remarkable 68%." 5 Because of a system that produces such mistakes, Judge Rakoff concluded, there can be no constitutional reliance on death as a permissible punishment. 6

Constitutional challenges to the death penalty have usually been based on the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments found in the Eighth Amendment. 7 For example, the Supreme Court recently held in Atkins v. Virginia 8 that the execution of a mentally retarded criminal is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, because a "national consensus has developed against [such executions]" 9 thus informing the Court of " 'the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.' " 10

Of course, it is not contended here that the Eighth Amendment invariably forbids capital punishment. That position has been precluded by Supreme Court decisions. 11 I believe that the present due process argument is similarly answered by binding Supreme Court authority.

In Herrera v. Collins 12 a state prisoner sentenced to die claimed, some eight years after his conviction, that he had newly discovered evidence of his innocence and petitioned the federal court for habeas corpus relief. The prisoner contended that it would be a violation of due process for the state to execute him if he was in fact innocent of the murders of which he had been convicted. The Court noted that such an argument has "elemental appeal" since "the central purpose of any system of criminal justice is to convict the guilty and free the innocent." 13 Nevertheless, the

Page 702

Court refused relief, noting that the prisoner had not shown that he had been denied any constitutional right by the state during the course of its prosecution, and observing that " '[d]ue process does not require that every conceivable step be taken, at whatever cost, to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person.' " 14

In Herrera the state prisoner had received all of the protections guaranteed by the Constitution and the Court held that he thus had no "freestanding claim[] of actual innocence." 15 The fact that it was a death case made no difference, since "[i]t would be a rather strange jurisprudence, in these circumstances, which held that under our Constitution he could not be executed, but that he could spend the rest of his life in prison." 16

The Supreme Court's decision in Herrera thus forecloses the argument that the inherent fallibility of the criminal justice system supports a due process attack on the death penalty. As the Court stated, "[i]t is an unalterable fact that our judicial system, like the human beings who administer it, is fallible." 17 That is why, the Court noted, executive clemency has been used throughout our history to right the wrongs inherent in the criminal process. 18

Moreover, even assuming that the "error rate" in capital cases is as claimed in the study relied upon by Judge Rakoff, the...

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6 practice notes
  • 275 F.Supp.2d 49 (D.Mass. 2003), CR. 01-10384, United States v. Sampson
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • August 11, 2003
    ...A. 01-282, 2003 WL 1837701 (E.D.La. Apr. 9, 2003); United States v. Denis, 246 F.Supp.2d 1250 (S.D.FlA. 2002); United States v. Church, 217 F.Supp.2d 700 (W.D.VA. 2002); United States v. O'Driscoll, No. 4:CR-01-277, 2002 WL 32063823 (M.D.Pa. Sept. 16, This conclusion is not qualified by the......
  • 275 F.Supp.2d 49 (D.Mass. 2003), CR. 01-10384, United States v. Sampson
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • August 11, 2003
    ...A. 01-282, 2003 WL 1837701 (E.D.La. Apr. 9, 2003); United States v. Denis, 246 F.Supp.2d 1250 (S.D.FlA. 2002); United States v. Church, 217 F.Supp.2d 700 (W.D.VA. 2002); United States v. O'Driscoll, No. 4:CR-01-277, 2002 WL 32063823 (M.D.Pa. Sept. 16, This conclusion is not qualified by the......
  • United States v. Wilk, 042105 FLSDC, 04-60216-CR-COHN/SW
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 11th Circuit United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Southern District of Florida
    • April 21, 2005
    ..., 2003 WL 1837701 (E.D. La. 2003); United States v. Denis , 246 F.Supp.2d 1250, 1253-54 (S.D.Fla. 2002); United States v. Church , 217 F.Supp.2d 700, 702 (W.D.Va. 2002); United States v. O'Driscoll , 203 F.Supp.2d 334, 342 (E.D.Pa. 2002); United States v. Sampson , 275 F.Supp.2d 49, 60 (D.M......
  • 302 F.Supp.2d 901 (N.D.Ind. 2003), 2 01-CR-0073, United States v. Taylor
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 7th Circuit United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • December 17, 2003
    ...inherent fallibility of the criminal justice system supports a due process attack on the death penalty." United States v. Church, 217 F.Supp.2d 700, 702 (W.D.VA. Moreover, even assuming that the alarming error rate in capital cases accounted in the report relied on by Judge Rakoff is a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
6 cases
  • 275 F.Supp.2d 49 (D.Mass. 2003), CR. 01-10384, United States v. Sampson
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • August 11, 2003
    ...A. 01-282, 2003 WL 1837701 (E.D.La. Apr. 9, 2003); United States v. Denis, 246 F.Supp.2d 1250 (S.D.FlA. 2002); United States v. Church, 217 F.Supp.2d 700 (W.D.VA. 2002); United States v. O'Driscoll, No. 4:CR-01-277, 2002 WL 32063823 (M.D.Pa. Sept. 16, This conclusion is not qualified by the......
  • 275 F.Supp.2d 49 (D.Mass. 2003), CR. 01-10384, United States v. Sampson
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • August 11, 2003
    ...A. 01-282, 2003 WL 1837701 (E.D.La. Apr. 9, 2003); United States v. Denis, 246 F.Supp.2d 1250 (S.D.FlA. 2002); United States v. Church, 217 F.Supp.2d 700 (W.D.VA. 2002); United States v. O'Driscoll, No. 4:CR-01-277, 2002 WL 32063823 (M.D.Pa. Sept. 16, This conclusion is not qualified by the......
  • United States v. Wilk, 042105 FLSDC, 04-60216-CR-COHN/SW
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 11th Circuit United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Southern District of Florida
    • April 21, 2005
    ..., 2003 WL 1837701 (E.D. La. 2003); United States v. Denis , 246 F.Supp.2d 1250, 1253-54 (S.D.Fla. 2002); United States v. Church , 217 F.Supp.2d 700, 702 (W.D.Va. 2002); United States v. O'Driscoll , 203 F.Supp.2d 334, 342 (E.D.Pa. 2002); United States v. Sampson , 275 F.Supp.2d 49, 60 (D.M......
  • 302 F.Supp.2d 901 (N.D.Ind. 2003), 2 01-CR-0073, United States v. Taylor
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 7th Circuit United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • December 17, 2003
    ...inherent fallibility of the criminal justice system supports a due process attack on the death penalty." United States v. Church, 217 F.Supp.2d 700, 702 (W.D.VA. Moreover, even assuming that the alarming error rate in capital cases accounted in the report relied on by Judge Rakoff is a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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