Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Court OK's Death Penalty With Non-Violent Priors

US v. Caro: Caro was convicted of drug offenses and given a 30 year sentence. In prison he became a leader in the Texas Syndicate. After being transferred to USP Lee, he was involved with the murder of another inmate and fellow Syndicate member, for which Caro pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit homicide, received an addition 27-year sentence, and was transferred to SHU. Weeks later, Caro strangled his cell mate in SHU, not for any reason relating to the Syndicate, but because his cell mate "called me mother fucker, that whore, that's why I fucked him up." Caro was charged with first-degree murder and the Government filed a notice that it would seek the death penalty. Caro was convicted and sentenced to death.

Caro raised several objections to his conviction and sentence on appeal, all of which the Fourth Circuit rejected. First, Caro argued that voir dire was flawed because the district court, in finding "death qualified" jurors, did not adequately explain the offense at issue in the trial or that information of Caro's background could be considered as mitigating evidence. Second, Caro argued that the district court erred, both under Brady and the Rules of Criminal Procedure, in denying his request for BoP records relating to its ability to sufficiently handle Caro in the ADMAX facility at Florence, as relevant to the question of future dangerousness. Third, Caro challenged the constitutionality of the two factors - related to his prior drug convictions - that made him eligible for the death penalty because they were not "rationally related to the question of who should live or die." Fourth, Caro argued that the Government's argument during closing that only a death sentence could "control" him, based on his past history, was improper (which the Fourth called "troubling" but not the cause of such prejudice to warrant reversal). Fifth, Caro argued that the Government's reference to his not showing any remorse was an improper comment on his exercise of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Sixth, Caro argued that the district court erred by refusing to give his proposed jury instruction on mercy. Seventh, Caro argued that the district court erred by admitting evidence relating to the victim and Caro's offer to plead guilty. Finally, Caro argued that there was cumulative error.

Judge Gregory dissented, arguing that the prior convictions which made Caro eligible for a death sentence "distinguished] those who live from those who die in a wholly arbitrary and capricious way." In affirming Caro's sentence, the majority had approved of the imposition of death upon someone who had "only been convicted of relatively minor, nonviolent drug offenses."

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