Bobby Lee Ramdass
In 1993, a Pakistani immigrant, Mohammed Kayani, was murdered at 7-Eleven number 10775 on Beulah Street in Alexandria, Virginia. The murderer, Bobby Lee Ramdass, had previously been convicted of two armed robberies, had pistol-whipped a hotel clerk and shot a cab driver in the head, leaving him for dead. When his case went to the Supreme Court, the issue was, once again, juror confusion. Justice O'Connor cast the deciding vote, which resulted in Ramdass's execution.
No one on Ramdass's jury had any doubt about his guilt, or that, if released, he might be a threat to society. But according to Jane May, jurors were unclear about one point in their instructions: "[I]f the defendant is given life," they asked the judge, "is there a possibility of parole at some time before his natural death?"
"The note came back, 'That is not for you to consider.' There was no yea, no nay, no explanation, nothing. That was it," says May.
Ramdass's lawyers argued that the judge should have told the jury that there was no real possibility of his ever being paroled, because of his prior convictions and because Virginia has a life without parole statute. But absent any clarification, May said the jurors concluded Ramdass might indeed be released. So they voted for death.
"I was among those who would've liked to have life," explains May. "But if it could not be life, we were not willing to take the chance of his getting out at some point in time."
May also said the jurors feared that failure to reach an agreement would have resulted in a mistrial, a common misconception among jurors. They weren't told that failure to agree would have meant a court-imposed life sentence.
The Supreme Court had earlier ruled that jurors must be informed that a defendant is not parole-eligible when a state claims he will pose a "future danger" to society. That position has been strengthened in a series of subsequent opinions. But Justice O'Connor said the rule didn't apply to Ramdass. May and three of her fellow jurors later signed affidavits saying they would not have voted for death had they been told Ramdass could not have been paroled.
Ramdass was executed in October, 2000.
The New Brookland Tavern just west of the Congaree River in West Columbia, South Carolina, wears its decrepitude like a badge of honor: ancient vinyl chairs with their stuffing pouring out, a water-stained plaster ceiling with holes big enough to drop a body through, and a carpeted dance floor that has clearly had one too many. The bar showcases bands that run the gamut from folk to heavy metal. On this particular night, a group called "The Reprieves" is on stage. Its members are not your usual cast of rockers, but three high-powered death penalty lawyers and a local florist on drums.
"Well mama passed on 'fore she turned eight,
Daddy's love for life, it turned to hate.
She was her daddy's pride and joy...."
John Blume, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, is also a professor of law at Cornell University. His clients are the subjects of many of his songs, like this one about Betty Lou Beets who he represented in her final appeals. Beets, a 62-year-old grandmother was executed in February, 2000, for murdering her husband, who she buried beneath a wishing-well, in front of her mobile home near Gun Barrel, Texas.
"Several days later they found him dead.
He had three gunshot wounds in the back of his head.
The DA said it was all part of a ploy...."
As governor, George W. Bushed signed off on the execution, despite evidence that Beets's original trial lawyer withheld evidence that could have saved her from a death sentence.
But even when jurors are given all the evidence, Blume says, they frequently don't understand what the law requires them to do with it.
"I don't know if you've actually ever listened to a judge give instructions at the sentencing phase of a capital trial. If not, and you have insomnia, I would suggest that you do it. But it is incredibly mind numbing and it's incredibly confusing and I think they just don't get it," says Blume. "And just sitting there, listening to somebody talk to them for an hour about things they don't have any reason to talk about in their everyday lives, aggravation, mitigation, unanimity, beyond a reasonable doubt, blah, blah, blah..."
Most people know a death sentence requires a unanimous jury.
One question: How many jurors would it have taken to decide that Betty Beets deserved a life sentence instead of death because she was sexually abused as a child?
Answer? Just one.
Any juror who finds a factor sufficiently mitigating can effectively veto a death sentence.
But jury instructions rarely if ever make that clear. In South Carolina, the Capital Jury Project found that two out of three jurors who sat in death penalty trials believed they had to be unanimous on mitigation. Indeed, the jury project found jurors frequently don't understand what mitigation means.
Blume says the misconceptions jurors bring to their deliberations are sometimes quite outlandish. He cites the 1987 re-sentencing trial of Ernest Riddle in which the jury sentenced him to die, despite the fact that half of the jurors thought he was innocent
"You think, OK, how could that be, that sounds so strange, so bizarre," says Blume. "But here's how they spun it out. If we sentence him to life, he's just gonna go away to prison forever. But if you're sentenced to death you get an elaborate set of appeals. And one of the appeals is a new trial on the question of whether you did it or not so this guy will actually be better off if we give him the death penalty as opposed to life imprisonment."
Next: Simplifying Death Penalty Instructions