Sunday, September 25, 2016

Can and will California voters "save" the death penalty in the United States?

The quirky question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new press article and its provocative headline: "Death penalty is dying across America. Will California save it?". Here are excerpts:

The last inmate executed in California was 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, legally blind and suffering from diabetes, who had his heart stopped with a lethal chemical cocktail as punishment for a triple homicide in Fresno he’d ordered from a Folsom Prison cell a quarter century earlier. It was more than a decade ago when Allen spoke his last words – “Hoka Hey, it’s a good day to die” – and the poisons flowed into his veins at San Quentin State Prison.

Now, with the death penalty dying across America, the nation is watching California as its voters weigh competing initiatives meant to either revive executions or abolish capital punishment. Several states in recent years ended their death penalties through court decisions or legislation, but California is a test of whether voters think executions are worth trying to save....

Proposition 62 on the November ballot would end the death penalty and convert the sentences to life without parole. Proposition 66 aims to speed up executions with – among other things – limits on appeals and deadlines on court rulings. Should both measures pass, the one with the most votes becomes law. California’s decision comes as the death penalty withers in the rest of the nation. There were 28 executions in America last year, the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a 70 percent decline from the peak in 1998.

Only six states had executions last year, most of them in the cotton belt. Even America’s execution capital of Texas is slowing down, with a 68 percent decline in inmates put to death over the past 15 years. A new Harvard University study found that just 16 counties in the U.S.’s 3,143 had imposed at least five death sentences since 2010. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted last year that “the number of active death penalty counties is small and getting smaller.”

Reasons include legal challenges to death sentences, botched executions – including a 2011 Oklahoma injection where the condemned man writhed and moaned as it took him more than 40 minutes to die – difficulty obtaining lethal drugs from pharmaceutical companies reluctant to play a role in ending lives, and wrongful convictions. More than 150 people on death row nationwide have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, including three in California. Wrongful convictions doomed the death penalty in Illinois, which passed legislation to abolish it in 2011.

States are also balking at costs of a death penalty case and appeals. Lawmakers in conservative Nebraska voted to join the states shedding the death penalty last year, citing expenses and religious objections. The issue will go to Nebraska’s voters in a November referendum.

The death penalty is on hold in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state as a result of legal challenges or moratoriums imposed by governors. Capital punishment has been abolished in eight other states over the past decade and is in limbo in Florida, which has the nation’s second-most-populous death row after California, following a Supreme Court decision striking down the state’s death penalty statute....

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said that regardless of what was happening in the rest of the nation she saw the death penalty as appropriate justice for the “worst of the worst” killers in California. “It’s a policy that Californians continue to support but they want the system fixed,” Schubert said.

?California voters supported keeping the death penalty in 2012 with 53 percent of the vote. Recent polling suggests this year’s initiative campaign to end capital punishment is struggling to win majority support. No state has repealed the death penalty by public vote since Oregon in 1964 – and voters there reinstated it in 1978. While courts and legislatures around the nation are abolishing capital punishment, when it goes to a public vote the hard line tends to have the advantage, said Franklin Zimring, a criminal justice expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The question is what do you do with the worst criminals you have?” Zimring said. “And if that ever becomes a question of sentiment the answer is boil them in oil.” California has the largest death row population in the Western Hemisphere, with 746 inmates who are sentenced to die. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that eliminating California’s death penalty would save around $150 million a year, including reduced costs for trials and challenges to death sentences.

According to the study from Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project, five of the 16 U.S. counties in the U.S. that imposed at least five death sentences since 2010 are in Southern California – Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. Riverside County has become the nation’s leader in death sentences – with eight people sent to death row last year alone. Meanwhile, no one is actually being executed in California....

Cal-Berkeley’s Zimring predicts the initiative designed to speed executions in California will have minimal impact if it passes. The main result would be litigation and delay, he said, since the ballot measure has so many pieces open to challenge. That’s disputed by Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. “The most important reforms of this carefully drafted initiative are virtually bulletproof,” he asserted.

September 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Latest polling suggests California voters could benefit from more information about state's competing death penalty initiatives

This news report on the latest polling concerning the competing death penalty initiatives before voters this fall reinforces my sense that Californians could benefit from a lot more public discussion and debate over the state and possible fate of capital punishment there.  The news piece is headlined "Is a plan to end the death penalty on the ropes in California?," and here are the details (with my emphasis added):

A plurality of likely voters backs the latest ballot effort to repeal the death penalty in California and shutter the nation’s largest death row, but support remains below the 50 percent threshold needed, a new poll shows. The survey, completed jointly by the Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, found Proposition 62 ahead 48 to 37 percent, with 15 percent of likely voters undecided.

Meanwhile, barely a third (35 percent) support Proposition 66, a competing initiative aimed at expediting the death-penalty process. With 42 percent undecided, it appears far less familiar to voters.  Twenty-three percent are opposed.

The see-saw measures come four years after voters narrowly rejected Proposition 34, an initiative that would have replaced capital punishment with life in prison without parole. The Field Poll’s last survey of that measure, taken a week before the 2012 election, found it leading 45 to 38 percent.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, said there are signs of encouragement for death-penalty opponents this time, despite hovering below a majority seven weeks before the Nov. 8 election. “This is not a bad-news poll for Prop. 62,” DiCamillo added....

Proposition 62 would replace death sentences with life in prison without the possibility of parole and apply retroactively to existing death sentences. Proposition 66 endeavors to speed up the process by requiring that appeals conclude within five years of sentencing. DiCamillo said there is “much greater confusion” about Proposition 66, adding, “Voters don’t fully understand what the impact is.” If both measures pass, the one with the most votes will prevail....

California’s last execution was in January 2006, with the state effectively halting executions over challenges to its lethal injection protocol.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 23, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Under the Radar: Neuroimaging Evidence in the Criminal Courtroom"

The title of this post is the title of this notable (and quite lengthy) article available via SSRN authored by Lyn Gaudet and Gary Marchant. Here is the abstract (with one line emphasized therein for sentencing fans):

This Article analyzes court decisions in 361 criminal cases involving neuroimaging evidence through the end of 2015. There has been a steady upward trend in the number of criminal cases considering neuroimaging evidence with the number of reported decisions being the highest in the most recent period of 2013-2015. Neuroimaging evidence has been used in competency, guilt, and penalty phases of criminal trials, with the most efficacy being seen in the penalty phase, especially in capital cases.

In order to provide a helpful analysis of uses and trends of this specific type of evidence, this Article includes an identification of the specific neuroimaging modality used or requested in each case (CT, MRI, EEG, PET, SPECT), the reason for the request for neuroimaging, the legal argument involving the imaging data, and the court’s response. In addition, common concerns regarding the use of neuroimaging data are also addressed, including the complexity of the various techniques and analysis, individual variability of the brain, the time gap between scanning and the criminal act, and the ability to make statements about groups versus about one individual.

As supported by the trends demonstrated in this analysis, there has been a shift in recent years from discussion about whether neuroimaging evidence is relevant and admissible toward admissibility of this type of evidence and a focus on the substantive results and appropriate use of the neuroimaging data.

September 22, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Interesting account of how Mexico invests in keeping its homicidal citizens from being sentenced to death in the US

The Marshall Project has this interesting new article headlined "How Mexico Saves Its Citizens from the Death Penalty in the U.S.: A fund is designated to train, pay and advise American defense lawyers." Here are is how it gets started:

When the body of 25-year old Lesley Hope Plott was found lying in a ditch in Russellville, Ala., in February of 2013, police had little trouble zeroing in on a suspect: hours earlier, a nearby church’s security camera had recorded her being beaten and stabbed by her estranged husband, Angel Campos Nava.

Born in Mexico, Nava, 36, had come to the United States years earlier. He had already been convicted of assaulting Plott on two earlier occasions. A murder conviction could result in the death penalty. It was up to Rebecca Thomason, Nava’s lawyer, to convince the Franklin County district attorney to instead seek a life sentence, or, failing that, to convince a jury to spare his life. It didn’t help that Nava was undocumented, and they were in Alabama, a state with some of the harshest anti-immigration laws in the country.

Then, Thomason received a call offering her something few lawyers in death penalty cases get: money, training, and advice, courtesy of the Mexican government. Nava’s case had caught the attention of the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, created by Mexican officials in 2000 to save the country’s citizens from execution in the United States.

One of the program’s chief purposes is to help defense attorneys construct a biography of the accused—to humanize them. Poverty, family dysfunction, and developmental disability are frequent themes in their clients’ lives. When presented as part of a defense, such themes can encourage mercy among jurors and dissuade them from handing down a death sentence.

To that end, the program arranges for lawyers to go to Mexico to track down school and hospital records and stories about their clients’ lives, either paying for their travel costs or advising them on how to request money from local courts. Under the program, Mexico pays American lawyers up to $220 an hour to track potential death penalty cases around the country—watching court decisions and news stories from the moment of arrest, all the way through the last minute scramble before an execution—and advise court-appointed lawyers like Thomason.

Since 2008, the program has provided these attorneys with an average annual budget of around $4 million to track as many as 135 cases at a time, according to the program’s filings with the Department of Justice.  That comes out to roughly $29,000 per case, per year.  By contrast, the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents numerous inmates on Alabama’s death row, has reported that many of them were sentenced to death after their attorneys’ fees were capped at $1,000 for out-of-court trial preparation.

September 22, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What should we make of why and how New Mexico's Gov is pushing hard to bring back the death penalty in her state?

One notable sentencing reform story in the United States over the last decade has been the growing number of states abolishing capital punishment legislatively while no new state has come to (or come back to) embrace the penalty.  Specifically, in the last decade, we have seen legislatures in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and Nebraska take their machineries of death off-line.  (The 2015 Nebraska repeal, as regular readers know, might be reversed by voter referendum this November.) 

But as highlighted by this new AP article, headlined "New Mexico Governor Wants Vote on Reinstating Death Penalty," a notable chief executive is now making a notable hard push for bringing the death penalty back in her state.  Here are the latest details:

P>New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez stepped up pressure on lawmakers Tuesday to consider reinstating the death penalty by promising to add the issue to a legislative agenda for a pending special session that was aimed solely at fixing the state's budget shortfall.

The second-term Republican governor said that she wants the death penalty as an option for convicted killers of police, children and corrections officers.  New Mexico repealed the death penalty in 2009 before Martinez took office by replacing provisions for lethal injection with a sentence of life in prison without parole.  The move by Martinez could compel lawmakers to take a public stand on capital punishment ahead of November elections for the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives and Democrat-dominated state Senate. 

"Cop killers and child murderers deserve the ultimate punishment," Martinez said in a written statement.  "If you kill an officer, you deserve the death penalty. If you kill a child, you deserve the death penalty.  It's time we say enough is enough."...

Her push to restore capital punishment follows the killings in southern New Mexico of two police officers in separate shootings in August and September by wanted fugitives, along with the horrific killing and dismemberment of a 10-year-old New Mexico girl in Albuquerque last month.

New Mexico executed nine men starting in 1933 until more than seven decades later when it abolished the death penalty.  The state's most recent execution in 2001 was its first since 1960.  Former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, cited flaws in how the death penalty was applied when he signed the legislation that abolished it.  He said the criminal justice system must be perfect if it will be used to put someone to death.

I presume Gov Martinez genuinely believes that justice demands the death penalty for cop killers and child killers (although her strong rhetoric makes me wonder if she shares GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump's view that we should have a mandatory capital punishment for cop killers as well as for child killers).  And yet, given the current timing of her push for bringing the death penalty back to New Mexico, I cannot help but wonder if Gov Martinez  (1) has some strong internal polling numbers suggesting citizens in the state also strongly favor a return of the death penalty, and (2) thinks that the death penalty can be an effective "wedge" issue for her to help get her preferred state legislative candidates elected this fall. 

September 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Lethally Deficient: Direct Appeals in Texas Death Penalty Cases"

Td2The title of this post is the title of this notable new lengthy report produced by the Texas Defender Service.  The start of this news release provides an overview of the report's contents:

Texas’ system of providing direct appeal representation in death penalty cases is in dire need of reform, according to a new report by Texas Defender Service.  The report, Lethally Deficient, evaluates six years of direct death penalty appeals and concludes that the current system is broken.  The Texas Legislature should, Texas Defender Service recommends, create a capital appellate defender office to handle these appeals, establish a statewide appointment system with caseload controls and uniform compensation, and require the appointment of two qualified lawyers to each death penalty direct appeal.

Lethally Deficient: Direct Appeals in Texas Death Penalty Cases is the first report to engage in an in-depth examination of direct appeals for Texas death penalty cases. Texas law requires all death sentences to be directly appealed from the trial court to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  A direct appeal is based on the trial record and transcript.

“This report documents that, in case after case, most death row inmates are not well represented on direct appeal,” said Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit law firm that works on capital cases and related criminal justice issues. “Texas should do what it did to address the crisis in capital habeas representation: create a public defender office that handles only direct death penalty appeals.”

TDS examined all direct appeals filed in each of the 84 death penalty cases decided by the Court of Criminal Appeals between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2015.  The study uncovers multiple deficits in capital direct appeal representation. Lawyers submitted briefs that recycled failed legal arguments without updating to reflect current law, failed to meet — and at times, correspond with — their clients, failed to request oral argument, and avoided filing reply briefs and applications for U.S. Supreme Court review.  And while other jurisdictions reported attorneys needing between 500 and 1,000 hours to brief a capital direct appeal, defense lawyers for the cases in the TDS study billed between 72.1 to 535.0 hours for each appeal, for an average of only 275.9 hours.

In the six years – 2009 through 2015 – that these deficiencies occurred, TDS found that the CCA did not reverse a single conviction in a death penalty case on direct appeal.  The CCA affirmed convictions and death sentences in 79 cases, and reversed death sentences in just three cases.

When compared to capital litigants in other jurisdictions, Texas death penalty appellants fare far worse. Death row inmates outside Texas are 2.8 times more likely to have their cases reversed on direct appeal.  TDS reviewed 1,060 capital direct appeal decisions issued by the highest courts in the 30 other death penalty states between 2005 and 2015, and these courts collectively reversed 16.0% of all death sentences.  By contrast, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed just 5.7% of the death penalty cases heard on direct appeal between 2005 and 2015.

September 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"What Executioners Can — And Cannot — Teach Us About the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Susan Bandes now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Executioners and others who come into close proximity with the condemned often come to reject the death penalty. They reject it not only in individual cases, and not only on the ground that the death penalty is poorly implemented. They conclude that capital punishment is wrong.  I argue that the perspective of the executioner helps illuminate the debate about whether to abolish capital punishment, and raises the troubling possibility that support for the death penalty can survive only at a great remove.

The essay responds to a recent article by Jeffrie Murphy focusing on the question of whether executioners can take pride in their work. I contend that Murphy asks the wrong question, and that the better question is whether anyone ought to be asked to do such work.  On this latter question, the perspective of the executioner sheds important light.  Like Murphy, I draw on works by and about Albert Pierrepoint, the “last hangman” of Britain.  I also draw on the perspectives of numerous executioners, wardens, chaplains and other death row personnel.  I argue that their perspectives offer a powerful argument against the main rationale for the death penalty: retribution.  If retribution is keyed to the offender’s character as well as his wrongful act, then post-conviction character ought to matter.  The executioners’ accounts share a common theme: that death row inmates change over time and hold the potential for redemption.

September 18, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Notable opposition to initiative seeking to enshrine the death penalty in Oklahoma's state constitutions

Two big substantive fights via voter initiative concerning the death penalty this fall are taking place in California and Nebraska. But this AP article highlights that Oklahoma voters are being presented with an important kind of stylistic question concerning capital punishment.  And, as the article explains under the headline "Oklahoma death penalty question faces bipartisan opposition," there is some notable disaffinity for its proposition. Here are the basic details:

A proposal to ask Oklahoma voters to enshrine the death penalty in the state’s nearly 100-year-old constitution sailed easily through the Legislature, but now is facing opposition from groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  In addition to various faith and civil rights organizations that traditionally oppose capital punishment, several conservative groups and the newly recognized Oklahoma Libertarian Party also are joining the fight against State Question 776.

“The conservative position is against the death penalty because it costs more than life (in prison), more than life without parole,” said Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, one of several organizations that helped kick off rallies in Oklahoma City and Tulsa opposing the question. “Beyond that … we believe the founding fathers had the foresight to institute checks and balances, and this aims to subvert those checks and balances.”

A group opposing the state question — Say No To SQ 776 — has raised about $4,000, according to its most recent report with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. There don’t appear to be any organized groups supporting the question.

The state question was sent to the voters through a resolution approved by the Legislature in 2015 following a botched execution and problems with the administration of lethal injection. Sponsored by two pro-death penalty lawmakers, it would ensure that death sentences would not be reduced if a method of execution is ever ruled invalid and gives the Legislature the explicit power to designate any method of execution not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. It also states that the imposition of the death penalty will not be considered cruel and unusual punishment, which is currently prohibited under the Oklahoma Constitution.

Because the language would be added to the state constitution, it would also make it more difficult for the courts or future Oklahoma legislatures to eliminate the death penalty, said Rep. Mike Christian, a former highway patrolman who authored the bill. “It’s such a serious issue, we decided to put it in the Constitution,” said Christian, R-Oklahoma City. “I believe it will get overwhelming support. We thought we should put it in the constitution, just to send a message that we support it as a people.”

The measure passed 80-10 in the House and 44-0 in the Senate, receiving support from Democrats and Republicans. But since its passage, Oklahoma has continued to have problems administering lethal injections....

“If we cannot trust our state government to fund our schools, our hospitals, fund our infrastructure, how in the world can we continue to trust them to strap someone down on a table, put a needle in their arm and fill it full of poison until they’re dead,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “We cannot continue to trust them to do that.”

September 17, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 16, 2016

"What crimes warrant the death penalty? Depends on the prosecutor"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Los Angeles Times editorial, which gets started this way:

If the government is going to impose a punishment as medieval and irreversible as the death penalty, it should take pains to ensure that the penalty is invoked only for the most heinous crimes and that it is applied fairly and consistently.  Data compiled by the state attorney general’s office, however, suggest that California is falling short of those ideals because of the individual judgments of local prosecutors.

To be eligible for a death sentence in this state, a person must be convicted of first-degree murder enhanced by any one of about three dozen special circumstances — more than just about any other state (if California wants to reduce death sentences, it could start by reassessing these threshold crimes). There’s murder for hire.  Murder to silence a witness.  Killing a police officer.  Wrecking a train.  Using poison.  Murder, even, when killing wasn’t the intent but occurred during the commission of any of a dozen other crimes.  And on and on.

Who decides whether a murder case involves one of those special circumstances, and thus warrants the death penalty?  A jury, followed by the trial judge’s affirmation (a judge can reduce a death sentence, but not order one if the jury didn’t recommend it).  A jury, though, doesn’t consider a death sentence unless a prosecutor asks it to. And that’s one of the places where capital punishment is inherently inconsistent.  National studies have found that whether someone faces a death sentence depends significantly on the county in which the crime is committed because county-level prosecutors are the ones who decide whether to put the death penalty in play.  In fact, 2% of counties nationwide account for a majority of death sentences.

How inconsistent is application of the death penalty?  From 2011 to 2015, California juries handed down 74 death sentences, more than half from Los Angeles and Riverside counties, with 23 each.  Yet Riverside County is only one-quarter the size of Los Angeles County and had fewer than one-sixth of the homicides during that same time. Is the nature of homicide in Riverside that much more heinous than in Los Angeles County?  No.  The difference between the two counties lies in the makeup of the prosecutorial teams deciding whether to seek the death penalty, with the standard set by the elected district attorney.

Tellingly, there was a change in the Riverside district attorney’s office in January 2015, and the current top prosecutor, Mike Hestrin, has been less aggressive in pursuing the death penalty than his predecessor, Paul E. Zellerbach, who himself sought it less often than the D.A. he replaced.  Further evidence that individual prosecutors make a difference: Hestrin inherited 22 capital cases and, after reviewing them, dropped the death penalty against seven defendants.  So two different district attorneys, looking at the same seven cases, came to different conclusions on whether the crimes merited a death sentence.

Hestrin and others argue that county district attorneys represent the views of their constituents, which explains why liberal San Francisco County tends not to seek the death penalty and more conservative Riverside County does (of the 747 people on death row, one is a San Francisco County case compared with 89 from Riverside).  Yet that is one of the many grave flaws of capital punishment in general, and in California specifically.  Capital punishment is authorized only by state law, but there is no objective statewide standard against which factors are weighed and a decision is made.  It is unconscionable that the specifics of a crime are subordinate to a prosecutor’s whim in determining whether a death sentence will be sought.

September 16, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Highlighting polling reality that death penalty remains pretty popular on Left Coast

Ed Morrissey has this effective new commentary about the latest capital punishment polling under the heading "Hmmm: Blue California wants to keep its death penalty, 52/36." Here are excerpts (with a few links retained from the original):

California voters, among the most reliably liberal in the nation, have an opportunity to pass a repeal of the death penalty in November. Proposition 62 would commute the sentence of those on California’s Death Row to life without parole and require a higher percentage of inmate income to go to victim restitution.  With opposition to the death penalty a big progressive goal, and with California’s execution process among the slowest and most frustrating in the nation, one would expect overwhelming support for Proposition 62.

Not so, according to a new poll from Survey USA. In fact, opposition to repeal leads by sixteen points, 36/52, and leads among almost all demographics.  Majorities of both men (38/54) and women (33/50) oppose repeal.  Voters under the age of 35 oppose it in plurality (40/45), but all other age groups oppose it by majorities and double-digit gaps.  Black voters and Democrats support repeal, but not significantly enough to overcome overwhelming opposition among all other ethnic and partisan groups.  Perhaps most tellingly, the only ideological demo to support repeal are those who identify as “very liberal” — and even then unimpressively at 52/32.  Even the ultra-liberal Bay Area has a slight plurality opposed to repeal, 42/47....

The problem with the death penalty in California (besides the issues that form my general opposition to it) is that it’s almost purely academic.  California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, and Clarence Ray Allen had been on Death Row for more than 23 years at that point.  That was the second-longest string for those who eventually got executed; Stanley “Tookie” Williams spent almost 25 years waiting for his execution, which finally came in December 2005.  They are two of only 13 inmates executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978.

How many are actually on Death Row now? The state’s September 2016 lists 747 inmates, with sentencing dates from 1982 to this past May.  Eight times more inmates have died of other causes (104) than of executions (13).

Death penalty proponents will also have a referendum on the November ballot. Proposition 66 would offer several reforms to speed up the execution process, including expediting all appeals to the state Supreme Court and having attorneys assigned to death-penalty appeals immediately. Presumably this will find more support than Proposition 62, although SUSA didn’t poll on it.  Will Californians take steps to fix its capital-punishment system — or be satisfied with a Death Row that just waits inmates to death?

September 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 12, 2016

Former GOP Ohio Attorney General explains why he is convinced "the death penalty is just not worth it any more"

Petro_OHflag_BG_0_0Over the weekend my local paper published this capital commentary by Jim Petro, a widely-respected local Republican leader who served as Ohio Attorney General from 2003 to 2007. Here are excerpts:

As Ohio attorney general, I oversaw 18 executions in accordance with Ohio law. As a state legislator before that, I helped write Ohio’s current death-penalty law. We thought maybe it would be a deterrent. Maybe the death penalty would provide cost savings to Ohio. What I know now is that we were wrong. What I am coming to understand is just how wrong we were, and what needs to be done to fix our mistake.

My direct experience with executions makes me more than a mere spectator as Ohio continues to struggle with capital punishment. Since I left office in 2007, I’ve been following developments and watching those most deeply engaged with it.

Earlier this week, Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) released its third report in as many years, providing perspectives on the status of Ohio’s death penalty. I am in agreement with the report, “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty,” which details a continuing decline in executions and new death sentences in Ohio while highlighting the disparities between counties that prosecute death cases.

In 2015, only one new death sentence was handed down. Cuyahoga and Summit counties, two jurisdictions responsible for more than 25 percent of death sentences, initiated zero new death penalty cases last year. In fact, new death sentences overall were down for the fourth year in a row. There were three in 2014, four in 2013, and five in 2012.

It has become clear to me that what matters most is the personal predilections of a county prosecutor. Consider Cuyahoga County, which until 2012 was seeking the death penalty in dozens of cases a year. Last year Cuyahoga County sought none. Crime rates did not plunge. There was a new prosecutor. On the other hand, consider Trumbull County, with one of the lowest homicide rates of Ohio counties which sentence people to death. Trumbull County leads the state with the highest death-sentence-per-homicide rate. Why? Again, the personal preference of the county prosecutor matters most.

The new OTSE report addresses many other issues, including 13 wrongful convictions and exonerations in Ohio death cases. After serving as attorney general, my chief concern was that our state has sentenced individuals to death or lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit....

Most urgently in my view, the new report catalogs the reluctance of Ohio legislators to consider most of the 56 recommendations made in 2014 by the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty. The charge to that task force was to find ways to make Ohio’s death penalty more fair and accurate.

Only a handful of the recommendations have been considered, and not those which would make the biggest difference. For example, the recommendation to narrow the felony murder rule would address much of Ohio’s disparity in death sentencing. Thirteen of the recommendations, individually and collectively, would go a long way toward preventing wrongful convictions. In failing to act, legislators effectively maintain the status quo, which is a broken system that currently serves only the interest of Ohio prosecutors. That is a grave mistake.

Another grave mistake is the terrible suggestion by the director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association that Ohio adopt the gas chamber to conduct executions. I hope Gov. John Kasich and all Ohio legislators soundly reject that notion. It is offensive to the human experience and has no place in our great state.

I am convinced that the death penalty is just not worth it any more, and I don’t think it can be fixed. Starting in January 2017, 28 Ohioans have execution dates. If we’re going to have the death penalty, then it must not be carried out until the legislature implements the task force’s reforms intended to ensure fairness and accuracy.

The lengthy new report referenced by former AG Petro, which was authored by Ohioans to Stop Executions and titled “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty,” is available at this link.

September 12, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Is Ohio again about to pioneer a new execution method?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Columbus Dispatch article from last week headlined "Ohio looks at nitrogen as a new execution method." Long-time readers may recall, from this post back in 2009, that Ohio was the first state to switch to a one-drug lethal injection protocol after it botch an execution. And, as this new article explains, new problems with lethal injection plans may prompt Ohio to become an execution pioneer again. Here are the details:

Ohio might consider adding nitrogen gas as a new execution method because of problems securing lethal injection drugs.

There have been no executions in the state for 2½ years, largely because of lawsuits and difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injection.  Beginning in January, there are 28 convicted killers with execution dates scheduled over four years.

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said today lethal injection is "stalled" and it's time for a change. Prosecutors have long been strong supporters of Ohio's death penalty law.   "I think the legislature ought to recommend another method of execution," Murphy said in an interview. He recommends switching to nitrogen gas, a method he called "humane and reasonably inexpensive."

Nitrogen gas, pumped into an air-tight chamber, produces asphyxiation by a lack of oxygen in the blood.  It has not been used for executions, although Oklahoma adopted it as a backup method. The sponsor of the Oklahoma law called it "foolproof."  People occasionally die accidentally from nitrogen asphyxiation. Deep-sea divers sometimes suffer from a form of it, producing an effect often described as euphoric. The gas is widely available and inexpensive.

JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the agency "continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court-ordered executions."  State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, "It's good to look at alternative methods that are humane. That's something we should definitely do."  But Butler added, "One problem is if it's something that's not been tried before, you need to vet it to make sure it's appropriate. It's certainly going to be tested in the court system."

Other states have moved ahead with alternatives.  Tennessee permits use of the electric chair, Utah allows the firing squad, and Oklahoma allows nitrogen gas.

Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine, said using nitrogen gas could be "dangerous and impractical."

"You and I are breathing 78 percent nitrogen right now," he said. "It's not a poison. It's an inert gas."  When nitrogen is introduced, oxygen is pushed out of the bloodstream, causing potentially painful suffocation, Groner said.  "I would challenge that it's foolproof. We've heard that before," he said.

September 11, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Top Texas criminal judges wonders about value of LWOP sentencing and its lesser process

This local article from Texas reports on interesting comments by a top state judge in the state about LWOP sentences. Here are excerpts from the article:

Judge Larry Meyers, the longest-serving member of the state’s highest criminal court, has grown uncomfortable with the way Texas allows for life in prison without parole, calling it a slow-motion death sentence without the same legal protections given to defendants who face the death penalty.  It can be argued, Meyers said, that the prospect of decades of prison — ended only by death from old age, medical problems or even violence — is as harsh or harsher than execution.

Even so, life without parole can be given in some capital murder cases without jurors answering two questions that must be considered before issuing a death sentence — is the defendant a future danger to society, and are there any mitigating factors such as mental disability or childhood abuse that weigh against capital punishment?

“I’m not saying the death penalty is unconstitutional.  I think right now it’s about as fair as it could be,” Meyers said. “But there are two variations of the death penalty; one is just longer than the other.  People are getting a (life without parole) death sentence without the same safeguards and procedures that you get when there is a death sentence.”

Larry Meyers has been a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1993.  Meyers, the only Democrat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, plans to make changing the life-without-parole system an issue of his re-election campaign, an admittedly uphill battle after he switched from the Republican Party in 2013 over disagreements in its direction under the surging tea party movement.

His Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 election, 22-year state District Judge Mary Lou Keel of Houston, believes Meyers has strayed from his principal task as a judge. “Policy issues like this are best left to the Legislature,” Keel said. “Doesn’t he have enough work to do as a judge?”...

Life without parole, an option for capital murder cases since 2005, has been credited with helping to sharply reduce the number of death row inmates by allowing prosecutors to reserve capital punishment for the worst cases, yet ensure that other convicted murderers are permanently removed from society.

Since life without parole became an option, the population of Texas’ death row has fallen to 244 inmates, down about 40 percent, as the pace of executions has outstripped the number of new death sentences. In contrast, 782 inmates were serving life without parole for capital murder as of July 31. An additional 54 inmates are serving life without parole after repeat convictions for sexually violent offenses, including crimes against children, since the Legislature allowed the punishment for the crime of continuous sexual abuse in 2007....

Seeking life without parole is by far the simpler option. Jurors are easier to seat — death penalty opponents aren’t allowed on juries if execution is an option — and there is no punishment phase trial. The appeals process also is less rigorous, with death row inmates granted two appeals before the state’s highest criminal court, while inmates serving life without parole go through the normal process. Meyers, a 23-year member of the Court of Criminal Appeals, believes life without parole has been made too simple, providing “an easy, inexpensive way of getting the death penalty.”

It would be fairer, he said, to let jurors consider some variation of the future danger question and to allow defense lawyers to present mitigating evidence. If jurors cannot agree that life without parole is appropriate, the defendant would get a life sentence and be eligible for parole after 40 years or some other suitable time, Meyers said.

The bigger reform — what Meyers called the “smarter fix” — would be for the Legislature to end capital punishment, making life without parole the ultimate punishment and including an option for parole. The political reality in Texas, by far the nation’s top death penalty state, makes that an extremely unlikely option for legislators, Meyers admits. “But right now, as I see it, there’s just two options — both for death,” he said....

Meyers said his change of heart on life without parole didn’t come about because of appeals. Nobody is going to tell his court that they improperly received a no-parole term when the alternative is a death sentence, he said. Instead, Meyers said, his qualms arose after coming to see the sentence as a delayed death penalty — one that is particularly harsh on young people — when a typical murder conviction is often enough to lock away killers until they are no longer a danger.

When the Legislature debated life without parole in the mid-2000s, prosecutors were divided on the best course to take, but many opposed adding a “long, drawn-out” sentencing hearing to determine the difference between a no-parole sentence and parole eligibility after 40 years, said Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “You could argue that it’s not much difference. It was a lot of squeeze without much juice,” Edmonds said.

In addition, many capital murder cases are decided by a plea bargain that allows defendants to choose perpetual prison time over execution. Some prosecutors feared losing bargaining leverage to a defense lawyer who threatened, for example, to drag out a sentencing hearing for three weeks unless offered a sentence with parole for a lesser crime like murder, Edmonds said.

Life without parole raises questions about whether Texas is imprisoning people long past the point that they “will ever be dangerous,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that provides capital murder legal representation at trial and on appeal. “We’ve got places in prisons that look like nursing homes. It makes me wonder, as a taxpayer, are these people dangerous? Why are we paying the extra cost of imprisoning them when they are geriatrics?” Kase said.

September 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Feds file motion seeking to limit how jury might consider mercy in capital trial of Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof

This new BuzzFeed News article, headlined "Prosecutors Want To Limit Dylann Roof’s Use Of A “Mercy” Defense," provides an effective summary of this interesting motion filed by prosecutors in a high profile federal capital case. Here are the basic details:

Federal prosecutors trying the death penalty case against alleged Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof want to limit the use of “mercy” when he goes on trial later this year.  In a new court filing, prosecutors argue that should Roof be convicted, the jury should determine his sentence based on a weighing of the factors for and against — known as aggravating and mitigating factors — the death penalty.  Roof is accused of fatally shooting nine people inside the historically black Emanuel AME Church on July 17, 2015.

The prosecutors argue that allowing the defendant to instruct the jury that, regardless of their findings, they are never required to sentence someone to death isn’t consistent with the Federal Death Penalty Act.  In arguing against a mercy defense, prosecutors point out that during the sentencing phase of the trial, if it gets to that, the government’s burden is much higher — they must convince the jury to unanimously find that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors.  The defendant’s burden is “significantly lower” — he needs to convince one juror that there is enough mitigating evidence to merit a sentence less than death, such as life in prison without parole.

In the filing, the prosecution did say that mercy may enter into equation when the jury debates aggravating versus mitigating factors.  “It is within that context, and that context alone, that mercy may enter into the death penalty process,” the prosecution writes....

Earlier this month, the court revealed that 3,000 people were sent jury summonses notifying them that they are being considered to serve on the jury at Roof’s trial.  

This week, a South Carolina circuit court judge set the date for Roof’s state trial, which is expected to be tried after the conclusion of the federal trial.  That case, where Roof is also facing the death penalty, is scheduled to begin in late January 2017.

September 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, September 05, 2016

A not-so-deadly summer: only one US execution from Memorial Day to Labor Day

I have been fascinated to see Texas courts, as detailed here by the Death Penalty Information Center, intervene to stay roughly a half-dozen scheduled executions in the state in the summer months.  Consequently, as detailed on this DPIC executions page, on this Labor Day as we mark the unofficial end to the summer, throughout the United States there was only one completed execution in the months of June, July and August.

A quick review of yearly execution lists leads me to think that it has been more than three decades since the US had a year in which so few murderers had their death sentences carried out in the summer months.  Thus, for those rooting for the death of the death penalty, I think this Labor Day there is a notable milestone to celebrate.

September 5, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Latino legislator group calls for ending the death penalty

As reported in this NBC News piece, a "group of Latino legislators passed a resolution demanding the end of the death penalty in the United States because it disproportionately affects people of color of all ages." Here is more:

The National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators said there is disproportionate punishment for Latinos, Black Americans and Native Americans. "The disproportionate and prejudicial application of the death penalty towards Latinos and other minorities, the high costs of this cruel and unusual punishment to our tax payers and the increasing likelihood that innocent people can be wrongfully executed by the states — among many other compelling reasons — led us to raise our voices to call for an end to capital punishment," said NHCSL President and Pennsylvania State Representative Ángel Cruz in a statement.

The non-profit, non-partisan group is made up of 320 Hispanic legislators in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. "Black, Latino, Native Americans, and all people of color are sentenced to longer prison terms, more likely to be tried as an adult, and are more likely to be sentenced to death in the USA," the resolution reads.

The resolution asks the U.S. congress and local municipalities to search for alternatives to combating violence and repeal the death penalty. The group points out that death penalty cases often cost taxpayers millions of dollars — an Urban Institute study found death penalty cases cost an average $3 million per trial, nearly three times as expensive as a trial without the possibility of a death penalty. "We cannot allow more government dollars to be diverted to killing people, instead of investing them in prevention, rehabilitation, and effective crime fighting measures that ensure greater safety in our communities," Cruz stated....

Rep. Dan Pabón, D-Colorado, said the death penalty is the "civil rights issue of our time."

"Even if repealing the death penalty results in one innocent life being saved, it's worth it. Our criminal justice system should focus on 'justice,'" Pabón said.

As I noted in this prior post, because Latinos make up nearly 40% of the population in California, how they cast their votes in this November's death penalty reform/repeal initiative battle is going to play a huge rule in the future of the death penalty in that state. But, if they focus a bit on the fuzzy thinking of Rep. Dan Pabón, they might end up being inclined to vote in favor of retaining the death penalty. Though the evidence about the deterrence effective of the death penalty are mixed, I think it is likely folks think that the death penalty is more likely to save innocent lives than to end them. For that reason (and because many think justice supports capital punishment for the worst murderesrs), I am not sure he is making a strong argument for repeal.

In addition, I cannot help but find remarkable the assertion that the death penalty, which impacts at most a few dozen people of color each year, should be considered the "civil rights issue of our time." I guess the Representative must think that all the other civil rights issues that impact tens of millions of individuals in the US are now all squared away.

August 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Fourteen Years Later: The Capital Punishment System in California"

The title of this post is the title of this new and timely article authored by Robert Sanger and avaiable for download via Bepress.  Here is the abstract:

Fourteen years ago, the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment issued a Report recommending 85 reforms in the criminal justice system in that state to help minimize the possibility that an innocent person would be executed.  The following year, this author conducted an empirical study, later published in the Santa Clara Law Review, to determine if California’s system was in need of the same reforms.  The study concluded that over ninety-two percent of the same reforms were needed in California.  In addition, the study showed that the California system had additional weaknesses beyond those of Illinois that also could lead to the execution of the innocent.

This article is an effort, fourteen years later, to determine what has transpired in California during the last fourteen years.  It will survey of the major scholarly and judicial work that has been published in the last fourteen years on the death penalty nationally and specifically with regard to California as well as on the progress, if any, to meet the unmet recommendations of the Illinois Commission.  

This article concludes that there has been much additional criticism of the failures of the criminal justice and death penalty systems in the country and specifically in California. Nevertheless, the empirical study demonstrates that no additional Recommendations of the Illinois Commission have been met in California in the last fourteen years.  Illinois, itself, enacted significant reforms to meet at least some of the Illinois recommendations.  Nevertheless, Illinois repealed its death penalty.  California, despite no reforms, has not, as yet. The voters will have that option on November 8, 2016.  By voting “Yes“ on Proposition 62, the California death penalty would be repealed.

August 27, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Remarkable and disconcerning stories emerging from just a few months into Philippine Prez Duterte's aggressive new "war on drugs"

In prior posts here and here, I noted the eagerness of the Philippines new Prez to rachet up a "war on drugs" to almost unheard-of new levels. This new Washington Post article reports on recent developments on this front under the headline "Nearly 2,000 have died in Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines. One is a 5-year-old girl."  Here are excerpts:

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs" has left hundreds of people killed in less than two months.  One of the most recent victims — and possibly the youngest — is 5-year-old Danica May Garcia, who was shot in the head on Tuesday.

According to the online news website Rappler, two motorcycle riders barged into the girl's family's home in Dagupan City, more than 130 miles northwest of Manila, while they were having lunch and opened fire.  The men's main target was Danica's grandfather, 53-year-old Maximo Garcia, who had already surrendered to police a few days earlier after he was told he was on a drug watch list.  Garcia ran to the back of the house toward the bathroom as the gunmen chased and shot at him. Danica, who was stepping out of the bathroom, was gunned down, Rappler reported.

"This is so painful for us," Garcia's wife, Gemma, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.  "I would miss the nights when Danica would massage us until we fell asleep. I would miss her laughter when she teased her mother." Gemma Garcia, who runs a small eatery, told the Inquirer she was surprised to find out that her husband was a drug suspect, saying he had never been involved in illegal drugs.  Maximo Garcia used to earn a living by driving a tricycle, a form of auto rickshaw commonly used to carry passengers in the Philippines.  But he had to stop after he suffered a stroke three years ago, according to the paper.

Superintendent Neil Miro, Dagupan's police chief, told the Inquirer that 26 suspected drug dealers have been killed in the city as of Tuesday.  Nationwide, more than 1,900 killings have occurred since Duterte took office June 30, according to estimates by several media outlets.  Nearly 700,000 drug users and peddlers have turned themselves in, according to Reuters.

Duterte, a tough-talking former mayor of the southern city of Davao, ran on a pledge to eradicate his country's problems with drugs. Illegal drugs, particularly methamphetamine, locally known as "shabu," have been rampant in the Philippines for decades. The 71-year-old former prosecutor has publicly advocated killing suspected criminals, even once urging citizens to take matters into their own hands.

On Monday, Philippine senators started an investigation into the rising death toll under Duterte's administration. Witnesses, with their faces covered to protect their identities, testified about how their loved ones were arrested and gunned down by police.  Sen. Leila de Lima, head of the Senate justice committee leading the investigation, said in her opening remarks Monday that she's concerned about the spate of killings that appear to have been carried out by vigilantes, not by the government.  "What is particularly worrisome is that the campaign against drugs seems to be an excuse for some — may I just emphasize, some — law enforcers and other vigilantes to commit murder with impunity," de Lima said.

De Lima has been accused of having an affair with her former driver and authorizing him to collect money from drug lords detained in the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City, Metro Manila when de Lima was justice secretary. De Lima has denied the allegations.

Philippine National Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa reported to the Senate committee earlier this week that of those who died, only 756 were killed during confrontations with police. Dela Rosa, nicknamed "Bato," which means rock or stone, told the Senate committee that the drug suspects were killed because they resisted arrest. "If they did not resist, they would still be alive," dela Rosa told the committee, according to the Inquirer.

The majority of the killings — 1,160 — were committed outside police operations, mostly by vigilantes, and are under investigation, dela Rosa said. He added that not all the deaths are drug-related.

International advocacy groups, meanwhile, have been vocal in opposing Duterte's policy. Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, wrote Thursday about Danica May's death. Kine noted that Philippine Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre defended the killings linked to Duterte's war on drugs. "If you're in the Philippines, you will choose to kill these drug lords," Aguirre said. "Desperate times call for desperate measures. So this is what the president is doing, and we support it."

Amnesty International has called on Duterte to "break the cycle of human rights violations" and to curb his "inflammatory" rhetoric. "President Duterte has been elected on a mandate to uphold the rule of law. It is encouraging that he spoke of honouring the Philippines' obligations under international law in his inauguration speech," Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, wrote in June. "But now he is in power, he needs to lend substance to those words and break with his earlier rhetoric."...

Gemma Garcia said that her granddaughter's death has left her and her family in fear for their lives. "We are afraid to stay here. But the problem is, where will we go?" Gemma Garcia told the Inquirer. "The killers may come back for my husband."

When I discuss deterrence and related utilitarian justifications for various sentencing and punishment schemes, I often suggest that a "hard core" utilitarian with no concens about retributivist/desert-based limits on punishment might be willing to consider not just summary executions of convicted criminals, but even executions of relatives of criminals as part of an effort to dramatically deter certain types of wrong-doing. This report suggests that Philippine Prez Duterte's regime is functionally trying out what I always considered just a hypothetical thought experiement.

Prior related posts:

August 27, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

New York Times magazine takes deep dive into "Where the Death Penalty Still Lives"

In this post earlier this week, I highlighted the new Fair Punishment Project report taking close look at the small number of US counties still actively utilizing the death penalty.  That report,  Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties, has justifiably received a good deal of national and local media coverage.  But the biggest and most impressive discussion of the report and the various issues it raises appears in this week's forthcoming New York Times magazine via this lengthy feature article under this full headline: "Where the Death Penalty Still Lives: As capital punishment declines nationwide, a tiny fraction of the country generates an alarming number of death sentences. What this new geography tells us about justice in America."   Here are a few excerpts of a great read from the pen of Emily Bazelon:

What separates the 16 counties where the death penalty regularly endures from the rest of the country, where it is fading away?  The 16 counties span seven states in the South and the West.  They include major cities, like Los Angeles, Houston, Las Vegas and Phoenix; suburban areas like Orange County, Calif., and San Bernardino, Calif.; and semirural pockets like Mobile County, Ala., and Caddo Parish, La.  Some are dominated by Demo­cratic voters, some are dominated by Republicans and a few are evenly split.  Many of the counties have high numbers of murders, but so do plenty of other places that don’t use the death penalty.

Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, along with a research team at Harvard Law School called the Fair Punishment Project, has been trying to identify the factors that explain why certain counties still regularly impose capital punishment.  They have been delving into the death-penalty records of the 16 counties and comparing them with those of other jurisdictions and have found three key features that often characterize the 16. “The people who get the death penalty tend to live in places with overaggressive prosecutors and defense lawyers who aren’t up to the task of defending against them — that’s a double whammy,” says Robert J. Smith, who directs the project. “Then in some places there’s a third element: a cultural legacy of racial bias and exclusion. It’s just not true that we execute the people who are the most culpable.”...

Black jurors are relatively absent from death-penalty trials, which can affect their outcomes.  “Research shows the mere presence of blacks on capital juries — on the rare occasions they are seated — can mean the difference between life and death,” Melynda J. Price, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, wrote in a 2009 law review article. But to be seated on a death-penalty case, a prospective juror must say he or she could vote for execution without substantial moral or religious qualms, in keeping with the test set by the Supreme Court.  Since African-Americans oppose capital punishment at a higher rate than whites, fewer of them can serve.

Prosecutors also can take steps to keep them off juries.  In Caddo Parish, La., which is among the 16 counties, prosecutors excluded black jurors at three times the rate of white jurors between 2003 and 2012, according to Reprieve Australia, a legal-assistance group.  “You see all-white or nearly all-white juries at capital murder trials where you’d never expect it given the diversity of the population,” says Smith of the Fair Punishment Project.

Florida and Alabama also diminish the influence of any juror who wants to spare a defendant’s life.  They are the only states that don’t require a unanimous vote for execution. Between 2010 and 2015, there was only one unanimous verdict among 13 death sentences in Jefferson County and Mobile County, both on the list of 16.  Of the 24 death sentences Angela Corey has won, three came from unanimous juries. The jury split 8 to 4 in eight cases, and in three others, the vote was 7 to 5.

Many of the 16 counties where the death penalty is prevalent have a criminal-justice system with a power structure similar to Duval’s.  Whites retain control to a striking degree, despite the presence of sizable numbers of African-Americans or Latinos.  This phenomenon is the most pronounced within the former borders of the Confederacy. “Alabama has 19 appellate judges,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents clients on death row in the state.  “They are all white.  Fourteen percent of the trial judges are black.  Out of 42 elected prosecutors in the state, one is black.”  Stevenson says that by seeking numerous death sentences, prosecutors in the Deep South “hark back to the history of using the criminal-justice system to maintain racial control.”  Mobile County is the site of the last known lynching in the country, in 1981.  (After a jury deadlocked in the trial of a black man accused of killing a white police officer, two Ku Klux Klan members abducted a black 19-year-old who had nothing to do with the death, cut his throat and hanged his body from a tree.)  Jefferson had the state’s highest total of lynchings between 1877 and 1950.  In Caddo Parish, men have been hanged outside the courthouse, where a monument to the Confederacy still stands on the front lawn.

August 25, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Should I feel guilty finding delicious ironies in reports of condemned California murderers killing themselves with smuggled illegal drugs?

The question in the title of this post is my sincere uncertainty concerning my reaction to this new lengthy Los Angeles Times article headlined "Illegal drugs are flowing into California's most guarded prisons — and killing death row inmates."  Here is how the article starts and ends:

Condemned murderer Michael Jones was acting strangely and profusely sweating when guards escorted him in chains to the San Quentin medical unit that doubles as the psych ward on death row.

“Doggone, I don’t think you’re ever going to see me again,” he told a fellow inmate, Clifton Perry.  Hours later, Jones was dead.  Toxicology tests later found that he had toxic levels of methamphetamines in his blood.

The condemned inmates on California's death row are among the most closely monitored in the state.  Death row’s 747 inmates spend most of their time locked down, isolated from the rest of the prison system under heavy guard with regular strip searches and checks every half-hour for signs of life.  Still, six death row inmates died between 2010 and 2015 with detectable levels of methamphetamines, heroin metabolites or other drugs in their system, according to Marin County coroner records.

Three of them had toxic levels of drugs, including one in whose intestines were found five snipped fingers of a latex glove, each packed with methamphetamine or marijuana. He had overdosed when they burst.  A 70-year-old man among the three died of acute methamphetamine toxicity. He left a stash of marijuana in his cell. State psychological reports and court files document at least eight non-fatal drug overdoses that required death row inmates to be hospitalized during this period.

Jones' death was reported as a suicide. In the psych ward, he attempted to strangle himself with an electrical cord.  He was cut free by officers but died 10 minutes later. The coroner's report showed that Jones bore signs of chronic drug abuse. State corrections officials declined to discuss the case or provide data on drugs found on death row — at first citing that investigation and then citing a wrongful death claim filed by Jones’ family.  The department provided a statement saying the prison has thwarted past attempts by visitors to bring drugs into San Quentin.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the state prison medical office, the drug-related death rate in California prisons is seven times higher than that of prisons in the rest of the country. “Drugs have considerable value inside prison and so some inmates have a very strong incentive to procure them," the statement said. "Regardless of the security level of the inmate, the presence of any contraband items is concerning to us.”

The overdoses on death row mirror the larger problem with drugs in California’s prison system as a whole.  From 2010 to 2015, 109 inmates died of overdoses, according to state figures.  California's prison drug trade is notoriously robust.   The drug-related death rate in California prisons — 18 deaths per 100,000 inmates in 2013 — is seven times higher than prisons in the rest of the country, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the state prison medical office.

Reports to the Legislature show that as many as 80% of inmates in some cell blocks tested positive for illegal substances in 2013. The same year, the state's prison watchdog, the independent Office of Inspector General, chastised corrections officials for making "very little or no effort" to trace the source of drugs when inmates overdose....

Because of the high security on death row, some who have worked at San Quentin suspect that the drug trade is abetted by prison staff. During his tenure as a death row psychologist, Patrick O’Reilly said in an interview that he discovered a psychiatric technician bartering alcohol and amphetamines for inmates’ prison-prescribed opiates. Similarly, the inspector general's office reported that a death row officer in 2011 was accused of buying morphine from condemned inmates. The report states she paid with ramen noodles and candy.

Outside of death row, the trade takes place on an enormous scale.  This spring, federal agents busted a Southern California prison narcotics ring in which a state drug counselor allegedly smuggled $1 million of meth and heroin sealed in potato chip bags to inmates in her treatment group.  The state prison guard union has long raised objections to vigorous screening of guards as they arrive and leave work, noting that the state would have to pay large amounts for the extra time that would add to each shift. The union "supports the department's efforts to keep drugs out of prison," said spokeswoman Nichol Gomez. "Anyone who brings contraband inside prisons should be held accountable. ... The majority of correctional officers take their oath seriously. "

All of the men on San Quentin’s death row are there for murder.  Many arrived on death row with long histories of drug addiction.  Most killed their victims during robberies or gang fights, but the population also includes psychopaths and serial killers.  Until a psychiatric unit for the condemned was opened in 2014, severely mentally ill and psychotic inmates were housed with the rest of the condemned.

Former San Quentin Warden Jeannie Woodford, state prison director under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said extreme idleness and the cramped, ill-suited confines of death row complicate drug abuse.  “Idleness is such a problem and it leads people to self-medicate,” Woodford said.

Although guards are supposed to randomly search cells each shift as a curb against drugs, weapons and other contraband, one former San Quentin corrections officer said staffing issues have made it impossible for guards to do all the required checks. Moreover, the amount of property that condemned inmates accumulate over decades of confinement clutters many cells. "What is said and what is done are two different things," said Tony Cuellar, a former San Quentin officer. In that environment, Cuellar said, officers "picked and chose" when to try to confront a condemned drug user.

There are soooooo many ironies in this report, I do not know where to start. In an effort to keep them straight (and to encourage comments about which irony is most remarkable), I will provide a numbered list of just some of the ironies that jump out at me:

  1. California has not conducted an execution of a condemned murderer in over a decade due in large part to the incompetence of prison officials and others in California in acquiring and handling drugs involved in its planned execution protocols ... and yet corrupt prison officials seem to be able to indirectly help condemned inmates access the drugs with which they are killing themselves.
  2. Many abolitionist have complained and litigated aggressively to try to prevent prison officials in many states nationwide from finding ways to "smuggle" into the state the drugs needed to conduct lawful (painless?) official executions ... and yet California prison officials are smuggling drugs directly to condemned inmates in ways that functionally facilitate what are essentially unlawful (painful) self-executions.
  3. This article suggests that we should be seriously concerned that the "drug-related death rate in California prisons — 18 deaths per 100,000 inmates in 2013 — is seven times higher than prisons in the rest of the country" ... and yet that (stunningly high) drug-related death rate in California prisons is still almost half of the drug-overdose death rate  — reported to be at over 32 deaths from drug overdose per 100,000 inhabitants — according to the latest figure in the state of West Virginia.
  4. With a death row population of less than 1000, just a single overdose per year on California's death row is a relatively high rate ... and yet the reality that so many arrived "on death row with long histories of drug addiction ...  [and murderered during] robberies or gang fights" surely suggests the real possibility that a many of those unfortunate souls now condemned to die in California have lived a lot longer on death row than they might have lived on the mean streets of California.

I could go on, but I already am starting to feel mean and crass about how I am responding to this new report from California's always notable death row.

August 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

New Fair Punishment Project report takes close look at small number of US counties still actively utilizing the death penalty

FairJustIn this post earlier this year, I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).   I received an email this morning highlighting a new big project and report from the the FPP.  Here are excerpts from the email:

Today [FPP] released a new report offering an in-depth look at how the death penalty is operating in the small handful of counties across the country that are still using it.  Of the 3,143 county or county equivalents in the United States, only 16—or one half of one percent—imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015.  Part I of the report, titled Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties examined 10 years of court opinions and records from eight of these 16 “outlier counties,” including Caddo Parish (LA), Clark (NV), Duval (FL), Harris (TX), Maricopa (AZ), Mobile (AL), Kern (CA) and Riverside (CA). The report also analyzed all of the new death sentences handed down in these counties since 2010....

The report notes that these “outlier counties” are plagued by persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias. Researchers found that the impact of these systemic problems included the conviction of innocent people, and the excessively harsh punishment of people with significant impairments.  The report notes that many of the defendants appear to have one or more impairments that are on par with, or worse than, those that the U.S. Supreme Court has said should categorically exempt individuals from execution due to lessened culpability.  The Court previously found that individuals with intellectual disabilities (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and juveniles under the age of 18 (Roper v. Simmons, 2005) should not be subject to the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.

In conducting its analysis, we reviewed more than 200 direct appeals opinions handed down between 2006 and 2015 in these eight counties. We found:

  • Sixty percent of cases involved defendants with significant mental impairments or other forms of mitigation.
  • Eighteen percent of cases involved a defendant who was under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. In Riverside County, 16 percent of the defendants were age 18 at the time of the offense.
  • Forty-four percent of cases involved a defendant who had an intellectual disability, brain damage, or severe mental illness. In four of the counties, half or more of the defendants had mental impairments: Maricopa (62 percent), Mobile (60 percent), Caddo Parish (57 percent), and Kern (50 percent).
  • Approximately one in seven cases involved a finding of prosecutorial misconduct. Maricopa and Clark counties had misconduct in 21 percent and 47 percent of cases respectively.
  • Bad lawyering was a persistent problem across all of the counties. In most of the counties, the average mitigation presentation at the penalty phase of the trial, in which the defense lawyer is supposed to present all of the evidence showing that the defendant’s life should be spared -- including testimony from mental health and other experts, lasted approximately one day. While this is just one data point for determining the quality of legal representation, this finding reveals appalling inadequacies. In Duval County, Florida, the entire penalty phase of the trial and the jury verdict often came in the same day.
  • A relatively small group of defense lawyers represented a substantial number of the individuals who ended up on death row. In Kern County, one lawyer represented half of the individuals who ended up on death row between 2010 and 2015.

Additional findings:

  • Five of the eight counties had at least one person exonerated from death row since 1976. Harris County has had three death row exonerations, and Maricopa has had five.
  • Out of all of the death sentences obtained in these counties between 2010 and 2015, 41 percent were given to African-American defendants, and 69 percent were given to people of color.  In Duval, 87 percent of defendants were Black in this period. In Harris, 100 percent of the defendants who were newly sentenced to death since November 2004 have been people of color.
  • The race of the victim is also a significant factor in who is sentenced to death in many of these counties. In Mobile County, 67 percent of the Black defendants, and 88% of all defendants, who were sentenced to death were convicted of killing white victims. In Clark County, 71 percent of all of the victims were white in cases resulting in a death sentence. The report noted just three white defendants sentenced to death for killing Black victims between 2010 and 2015. One of those cases was from Riverside, and in that case the defendant was also convicted of killing two additional white victims. The two other cases were from Duval.
  • Five of the 16 “outlier counties” are from Florida and Alabama, the only two states that currently allow non-unanimous jury verdicts.  In Duval, 88 percent of the decisions in the review period were non-unanimous, and in Mobile the figure was 80 percent. 

Part II of this report, which will be released in September, will look at the remaining eight “outlier counties,” including: Dallas (TX), Jefferson (AL), Pinellas (FL), Miami-Dade (FL), Hillsborough (FL), Los Angeles (CA), San Bernardino (CA), and Orange (CA).

August 23, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, August 19, 2016

"The Firing Squad as a 'Known and Available Alternative Method of Execution' Post-Glossip"

The title of this post is the title of this timely article now available via SSRN authored by execution-method expert Deborah Denno. Here is the abstract:

In Glossip v. Gross, the United States Supreme Court’s most recent effort to review a state’s lethal injection protocol, the Court affirmed Oklahoma’s use of a drug called midazolam and also stressed that petitioners had failed to “identify a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain.”  This Article proposes that the Glossip Court’s “known and available alternative method of execution” requirement, however objectionable, adds another dimension to execution method challenges that attorneys must address.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in Glossip notes, the requirement also strengthens the viability and suitability of the firing squad as an appropriate means of execution.  For example, the firing squad has a long history and world-wide application, making it a “known” method; it is also an easily “available” method, given the pervasive use of firearms in our society for purposes such as law enforcement and self-protection.  There is also ample evidence suggesting that the firing squad is currently the most humane and reliable method of execution and that it meets the “lesser risk of pain” standard.  

Indeed, the primary hurdle faced by advocates of the firing squad is the method’s “primitive” or “violent” image.  Yet this Article contends that there is no evidence that such an image is deserved, quite the contrary. Witnesses to modern firing squad executions describe a process that may be far more sterile in perception and procedure than lethal injection — a viewpoint that may come to be shared by the public and prisoners alike.  In Glossip, Justice Sotomayor’s dissent briefly yet convincingly touches on reasons why death row inmates may prefer the firing squad over lethal injection, marking the first time that a Justice proactively and favorably compared the firing squad — or any other execution method — to lethal injection.  Such practicality may with time trump perceived barbarity in favor of the firing squad as states are increasingly unable to obtain acceptable lethal injection drugs.

August 19, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Poll suggests Californians will vote in November 2016 to mend rather than end the death penalty in their state

This new press release from the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, which is titled "IGS Poll Finds Support for Retaining Death Penalty," suggests that California voters have some strong preferences regarding competing death penalty ballot initiatives.  Here are the interesting details via the main text of the press release:

California voters oppose an effort to abolish the death penalty and strongly support a competing measure that would streamline procedures in capital cases, according to a new poll released today by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Respondents opposed the abolition measure 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent, while three out of four respondents supported the streamlining proposition, the survey found. Since the two measures conflict, if both should pass, the measure receiving more votes would take effect.

The poll used online English-language questionnaires to survey respondents from June 29 to July 18. All respondents were registered California voters, and the responses were then weighted to reflect the statewide distribution of the California population by gender, race/ethnicity, education and age. The sample size for the questions on the two death penalty initiatives was 1,506 respondents for one question and 1,512 for the other.

A stark partisan difference emerged on Proposition 62, which would abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Democrats supported the measure, 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent. Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it, 70.2 percent to 29.8 percent. Independents were also opposed, though by only 60.6 percent to 39.4 percent. By contrast, there was support across partisan lines for Proposition 66, which would streamline procedures in capital cases to speed up the resolution of those cases. Even among Democrats there was strong support (69.7 percent) for the measure, and support was even higher among independents (81.1 percent) and Republicans (85 percent).

A majority (60 percent) of African-Americans favored abolishing the death penalty, but among all other ethnic groups, most respondents opposed that proposal. Support for the death penalty was stronger among older people.

Interestingly, religious differences were reflected in views about abolishing the death penalty, but mostly that difference was related to whether the respondent was or was not religious, rather than to differences among various religious denominations. Among all religious groups there was majority opposition to eliminating the death penalty; only among the self-identified atheists and agnostics did most voters support abolition of capital punishment.

Prior related posts:

August 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

New York Times editorial pushes for "Mercy on Texas’ Death Row" for condemned getaway driver

Today's New York Times has this notable new editorial discussing a notable capital case in Texas under the headline "Rare Chance for Mercy on Texas’ Death Row." Here are excerpts:

When it comes to capital punishment, there is not much official mercy to be found in the state of Texas.  As 537 death row inmates were executed there over the last 40 years, only two inmates were granted clemency.  The last commutation to life in prison occurred nine years ago, when Gov. Rick Perry, despite his formidable tally of 319 executions, chose to make an exception and spare a man convicted of murder under the state’s arcane and patently unfair “Law of Parties.”

This law in effect holds that someone waiting outside at the wheel of a getaway car deserves the same capital punishment as his associate inside who shoots and kills a store clerk.  This is the rough equation that now finds Jeffrey Wood on death row in Texas, 20 years after his involvement in just such a crime.  The actual killer was executed in 2002; Mr. Wood faces execution next Wednesday as a somehow equally culpable party, unless the state commutes his sentence to life in prison.

The Law of Parties has been on trial as much as Mr. Wood has in the arduous criminal justice process in which he faces death. With an I.Q. of 80 and no criminal history, Mr. Wood, who was 22 then, was initially found by a jury to be incompetent to stand trial. But the state persisted, and he was convicted in a slipshod proceeding in which no mitigating evidence or cross-examination was attempted in his behalf during the crucial sentencing hearing....

The theory underpinning the Law of Parties — that an accomplice deserves to die even though he did not kill the victim — has been abandoned as difficult to apply if not unjust in most state jurisdictions in recent decades.  It holds that an accomplice should have anticipated the likelihood of a capital murder and deserves the ultimate penalty.  Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, there have been only 10 executions in six states under accomplice culpability laws, in which defendants did not directly kill the victim, according to Texas Monthly.  Five of them have been in Texas. Jared Tyler, Mr. Wood’s lawyer, who specializes in the state’s death row cases, says he has never seen a sentence of execution “in which there was no defense at all on the question of death worthiness.”

This is just one of many grounds for the clemency that four dozen evangelical leaders have recommended to avoid a gross injustice. The state parole board would have to make this recommendation, with the final decision by Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not granted clemency in 19 executions.

The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is. The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared.

UPDATE:  For more interesting and timely coverage of this case, check out this new Texas Tribune article headlined "State Rep. Leach Tries to Stop Jeff Wood Execution."  Here is how the article gets started:

It’s not often that a staunch conservative loses sleep over imposition of the death penalty, but state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, says he is up nights over the impending execution of Jeff Wood.

The two-term legislator has spent the past week poring over court documents and speaking with the governor’s office and Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, hoping to prevent what would be the state’s seventh execution of the year. Wood is set to die by lethal injection Aug. 24.  “I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence,” Leach told the Tribune. “I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything.”

August 18, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Noting that the 2016 major Prez candidates seem disinclined to say much about the death penalty

Donald-Trump-Hillary-ClintonThe Guardian has this lengthy new article providing an interesting take on the modern realities of presidential politics and capital punishment. The article is headlined "Politics and the death penalty: for Clinton and Trump, safest stance may be silence: Neither candidate seems keen to take on the controversial topic of capital punishment in the 2016 election, despite waning public support for it." Here are excerpts:

Donald J Trump phoned in to Fox & Friends in May 2015, shortly after two police officers were shot dead in Mississippi. Presenter Steve Doocy wanted to know what an appropriate punishment for the killers would be. “Well, it’s the death penalty,” Trump said airily.  “We have people who are, these two, animals who shot the cops … the death penalty, it should be brought back and it should be brought back strong.”

A month later, Trump announced he was running for president. He has barely said the words “death penalty” in public since, although a top adviser has called for Hillary Clinton’s execution, saying she “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason”.

Clinton only talks about capital punishment when pressed and then, clumsily. Unlike most of her own party — including running mate Tim Kaine — the Democrat supports death in the case of terrorists. She has said she would be happy if someone would outlaw execution. Someone else.

In campaign 2016, the safest stance on the ultimate punishment may be silence. Both candidates need to woo disaffected members of the other’s party.  Neither can afford to lose their own loyal base.  “Why bring it up if it’s going to stir the pot if you don’t have to?” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

For the first time since 1972, the Democratic party platform advocates repealing the death penalty. Mainstream Republican opinion has begun to turn away from it, too. Executions and death sentences are down nationwide, while the number of exonerated death row inmates creeps upward.

The percentage of Americans who support the death penalty has been steadily declining since its high of 80% in the mid-1990s, although a comfortable majority — 61% according to Gallup, and 56% according to the Pew Research Center — still favor the use of capital punishment for a person convicted of murder.  And California — with the biggest death row in the country — could become the sixth state in recent years to do away with executions as voters there face dueling ballot measures in November, one to repeal the death penalty, the other to streamline it.

Trump has increasingly positioned himself as a law and order candidate. He doubled down on fear of immigrant criminals in his speech to the Republican national convention and recently said he supported “extreme vetting” of people from other countries. Yet he has so far shied away from promising grisly execution for murderers.  The main exception was a December speech to the New England Police Benevolent Association, a police officers’ union, in which he promised an executive order mandating death sentences for cop-killers. (This would not work out, in any case; mandatory death sentences were rendered unconstitutional by a 1976 supreme court decision.)...

The Republican platform, recently ratified at the party’s convention in Cleveland, contains just two sentences on the subject of capital punishment.  “The constitutionality of the death penalty is firmly settled by its explicit mention in the Fifth Amendment,” it says.  “With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court’s erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states.”...

In the 1980s and 90s, opposition to the death penalty was “political poison in most elections”, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Now, you are seeing Republican legislators, many of them conservative Republicans, openly oppose the death penalty.”  Still, most of the decline in death penalty support comes from Democrats, according to a 2015 study by Pew Research Center.  Nearly 60% of Democrats oppose the death penalty, compared to just 25% in 1996.

Which may be part of the problem for Clinton, who was roundly criticized for her awkward responses to questions about the death penalty during the primary season. Both of her primary rivals — Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — opposed capital punishment. Now that the general election is under way, a Clinton challenge will be getting Sanders’ fervent and progressive supporters to the polls.

August 17, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Poll suggests Nebraska voters will reject legislature's rejection of death penalty

As this local article reports, "poll results released Sunday by death penalty supporters suggest a majority of Nebraska voters favor repealing the bill that ended capital punishment in the state last year." Here is more from this press report:

In the poll of 600 likely general election voters conducted Aug. 7-10, 47.8 percent said they would definitely vote to keep the death penalty and another 10.5 percent said they probably would vote to keep the death penalty, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said. Combined, voters favoring a vote to repeal the bill outpaced voters in support of the bill eliminating the death penalty by a 58.3-30.3 percent margin. The poll's margin of error is 4 percent.

“If the election were held today, Nebraskans would vote in overwhelming numbers to repeal LB268 in order to keep the death penalty,” Don Stenberg, honorary co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said in a news release. Stenburg is a former Nebraska attorney general and current state treasurer....

In a response to the poll, a spokesman for Retain a Just Nebraska said residents of the state are tired of spending millions of dollars on a failed government program. “This is a flawed poll and should not be viewed as an accurate measurement of how Nebraskans view the death penalty," Dan Parsons said. "It’s a push poll that misleads Nebraskans into thinking they have no other option than getting rid of the death penalty. When in reality, the question that will appear on the November 8 ballot asks voters if they wish to replace the death penalty with life in prison.

"Our polling and numerous others across the country show that when given that choice, voters chose life in prison.”...

According to the survey, support for the death penalty is strong among men and women, across all of Nebraska’s congressional districts and among members of different political parties. The Legislature passed LB268 last year over a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, but a successful petition drive last summer blocked the law until voters have their say in November.

Helpfully, we will have an actual vote in a few months and so will not have to figure out whether this poll is accurate or not as a reflection of Nebraskan voters' perspective on capital punishment.

August 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Could "conservative Latinos religious groups" become a significant voice and force in death penalty debates (at least in California)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing new Fox News Latino article headlined "Conservative Latino religious groups make big push to end death penalty." Here are excerpts:

A growing number of conservative Latino religious groups are beginning to shift their position on capital punishment, due in large part to a belief among them that it disproportionately affects minorities. “Given studies on how the death penalty is meted out, particularly for people of color, if it’s not a level playing field, we need to speak out,” Reverend Gabriel Salguero, founder of the national Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) told Fox News Latino.

“The needle has moved for Latinos and evangelicals," Salguero said. "Botched executions and advancements in DNA science have awakened us to a moral response."

According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Latinos represent a larger portion of those on death row than they did in the past. Half of new Latino death row inmates were from California, bringing their total to 157 inmates, the most in the country. Hispanics now represent 13.5 percent of the U.S. death row population – up from 11 percent in 2000.

A study conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology and ethnic studies professor, Cynthia Willis-Esqueda and her colleague, Russ K.E. Espinoza of California State University, Fullerton, found that white jurors were more likely to impose the death penalty in cases where the defendant was Latino and poor. A study in California found that those who killed whites were over 3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks and over 4 times more likely than those who killed Latinos.

“There’s an almost impossibly disproportionate number of Latinos incarcerated – a third of the labor force has a criminal record,” Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice (PRLDEF), told Fox News Latino. “There’s easy acceptance that the criminal justice system is a racially skewed system,” Cartagena said.

In June, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), a coalition of 40 prominent Latino organizations, joined several bipartisan groups calling for the end to the death penalty, saying that Latinos are “directly affected by its injustices.”...

This November, the death penalty will be on the California ballot. Proposition 62 seeks to repeal the statute. “There’s been a shift, not just attributed to religion, but a heightened understanding of the death penalty and its implicit bias in the criminal justice system,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, and a nationally recognized civil rights attorney, told Fox News Latino. “The time is right, but it’s a ballot with 17 measures on it. Whether the issue gets the attention it deserves, who knows,” he added.

Salguero said it made sense for clergy to lead the charge on the fight to end the death penalty. “We’ve been pro-life all along, but what does that mean? If even one innocent person is killed, it’s too many,” Salguero said....

“The gospel teaches us that crime has a place, but God has the last word," Salguero said. "We’re against the ultimate role. We have ministries in prisons. If anyone has a moral platform it is the clergy. I think in my heart of hearts we can do better than executing people." “Christ was an innocent man who was executed. If there’s a possibility that we execute one innocent person we should have pause.”

Because Latinos make up nearly 40% of the population in California, how they general cast their votes in this November's death penalty reform/repeal initiative battle is going to play a huge rule in the future of the death penalty in the state.  This press article from January 2016 reports on polling done around that time suggesting that Latino voters favored repealing the death penalty to speeding up executions by a margin of 54% to 42%.  If the opposition within the Latino community has continued to grow (and certainly if it reaches the typical 2-1 opposition found in polling of African Americans), I think the repeal efforts of abolitionists in California might have a pretty good shot at carrying the day.

August 11, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

"It's Silicon Valley vs. law enforcement on California death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this local press report on the alignment of various participants in the debate over the future of the death penalty in California, where voters will be considering reform initiatives this fall.  Here are the details:

Two competing November ballot measures that aim to abolish or expedite California’s long-dormant death penalty each raised more than $3 million through the first half of the year, according to state campaign finance records, and largely drew their funding from a narrow group of major donors: Silicon Valley executives and law enforcement unions.

Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, led its rival campaign with nearly $4.1 million raised through June 30, filings show. Proponents argue that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people.

The dozen top contributors, each of whom gave at least $50,000, are nearly all affiliated with the technology industry in the Bay Area. They include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John O’Farrell, and data management company Integrated Archive Systems, which was founded by major Democratic donor Amy Rao. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Nicholas McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who has started several technology companies, have each given $1 million to the effort so far. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham both put in $500,000.

Supporters of Proposition 66, an initiative to speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of a revised appeals process with strict time limits, raised almost $3.5 million through June 30, according to financial records. It currently can take decades for a death row inmate to exhaust their appeals, though California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail.

Nearly 80 law enforcement groups have given to the campaign, led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association with $325,000, the Peace Officers Research Association of California with $305,000, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen with $250,000 and the Los Angeles Police Protective League with $225,000. Among the largest contributors, twenty of whom have donated more than $50,000 to the campaign, are a handful of individuals, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III, and A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of Univision....

California voters last weighed in on capital punishment in 2012, when another initiative to repeal the death penalty narrowly failed. A January Field Poll showed an even split, with 48 percent of respondents supporting speeding up the process and 47 percent favoring abolishing it. If both Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 pass in November, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.

Prior related posts:

August 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

In wake of Hurst, Delaware Supreme Court declares state's death penalty unconstitutional

The post-Hurst hydra took an especially big bite out the the death penalty in the First State this afternoon: as reported in this local article, via "a landmark decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled that the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional." Here are the basics:

A 148-page opinion released Tuesday afternoon said that the current law is a violation of the Sixth Amendment role of the jury. The decision of whether and how to reinstate the death penalty should now be left to the General Assembly, the opinion said.

The question before the top state court arose after the U.S. Supreme Court found in January that Florida's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it gave judges – not juries – the final say to impose a death sentence. Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life....

The last execution in the state was in 2012, when Shannon Johnson, 28, was killed by lethal injection. All pending capital murder trials and executions for the 14 men on death row are currently on hold while the court considered the constitutionality issue.

The full 148-page opinion in Rauf v. Delaware is available at this link.  A brief per curiam summary kicks off the opinion, starting this way:

The State has charged the Defendant, Benjamin Rauf with one count of First Degree Intentional Murder, one count of First Degree Felony Murder, Possession of a Firearm During those Felonies, and First Degree Robbery.  The State has expressed its intention to seek the death penalty if Rauf is convicted on either of the First Degree Murder counts.  On January 12, 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida‘s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."  On January 25, 2016, the Superior Court certified five questions of law to this Court for disposition in accordance with Supreme Court Rule 41.  On January 28, 2016, this Court accepted revised versions of the questions certified by the Superior Court and designated Rauf as the appellant and the State as the appellee.

In this case, we are asked to address important questions regarding the constitutionality of our state‘s death penalty statute. The Superior Court believed that Hurst reflected an evolution of the law that raised serious questions about the continuing validity of Delaware‘s death penalty statute.  Specifically, Hurst prompted the question of whether our death penalty statute sufficiently respects a defendant‘s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

Because answering the certified questions requires us to interpret not simply the Sixth Amendment itself, but the complex body of case law interpreting it, we have a diversity of views on exactly why the answers to the questions are what we have found them to be.  But that diversity of views is outweighed by the majority‘s collective view that Delaware‘s current death penalty statute violates the Sixth Amendment role of the jury as set forth in Hurst.  We also have a shared belief that the importance of the subject to our state and our fellow citizens, reflected in the excellent briefs and arguments of the parties, makes it useful for all the Justices to bring our various perspectives to bear on these difficult questions.

August 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Charleston mass murderer now making mass attack on constitutionality of federal death penalty

As reported in this BuzzFeed News piece, headlined "Dylann Roof Challenges Constitutionality Of Federal Death Penalty Law," a notorious mass murderer filed a notable motion in federal court yesterday in an effort to prevent being subject to the ultimate punishment.  Here are the details:

Lawyers for Dylann Roof on Monday filed a motion challenging the federal government’s intention to seek the death penalty in his murder trial, arguing that the penalty is unconstitutional. “[T]his Court should rule that the federal death penalty constitutes a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments,” lawyers write in defense of Roof, who is charged with murder for the shooting deaths of nine people inside a historically black South Carolina church this past summer.

In the filing, the lawyers argue that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional, as is the federal death penalty law. “[T]he [Federal Death Penalty Act] may have been designed with as much care as possible under the circumstances, the capital sentencing process that the statute provides is constitutionally inadequate in practice,” the lawyers write. “The results of jurors’ good-faith grappling with the law — arbitrary, biased, and erroneous death verdicts — are intolerable as a matter of due process and proportional punishment.”

The challenge is only being brought, the lawyers write, because the federal government is seeking the death penalty in Roof’s case after rejecting his offer to plead guilty and accept multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole....

In addition to the two broad constitutional challenges, Roof’s lawyers are also challenging the jury selection process referred to as “death qualification” — finding a jury willing to impose the death penalty. As the lawyers note, “conscientious objectors to the death penalty are systematically excluded” from such juries. “Because the practice of death qualifying a jury has no constitutional or statutory underpinnings, distorts the jury function, introduces arbitrariness into capital sentencing and increases the influence of racism and sexism on the death determination, there is no justification for maintaining it,” the lawyers write.

The lawyers are also challenging related to the use of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) in the prosecution, noting that the legislation considered including the death penalty as a punishment but ultimately rejected it. “[D]espite Congress’s deliberate decision not to provide for the death penalty in HCPA prosecutions, the government has effectively amended the statute to permit a death sentence to be imposed,” the lawyers argue. 

The full 34-page filing seeking to "strike the death penalty as a possinle punishment" is available at this link.

A few prior related posts:

August 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 01, 2016

Will there be fewer than 20 executions in 2016?

As I changed the month on my calendars, I thought to take a looks at the Death Penalty Information Center's list of recent executions and list of scheduled executions.  These lists confirmed my sense that, after a notable number of executions a notable number of states in the first part of 2016 (a total of 14 executions in five different states through early May), there is now almost a de facto moratorium on executions throughout nearly all of the United States.

Specifically, there has been only a single execution in summer 2016 (a few weeks ago in Georgia), and Texas appears to be the only state right now with any serious execution dates scheduled for the rest of 2016.  And if only a couple of the remaining 2016 scheduled Texas executions get delayed, there will be the fewest executions in the US this year in a quarter-century.

With highly symbolic votes on the death penalty's future in California and Nebraska in November, I have already begun thinking about 2016 as a possible "tipping point" year for capital punishment.  But this year's execution realities highlights that, for most functional purposes, the death penalty is continuing to die a slow death throughout the United States.

August 1, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, July 30, 2016

"Rethinking 'Death Row': Variations in the Housing of Individuals Sentenced to Death"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting report authored by a group at Yale Law School and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In 2015, individuals sentenced to death in the United States were housed in varying degrees of isolation.  Many people were kept apart from others in profoundly isolating conditions, while others were housed with each other or with the general prison population.  Given the growing awareness of the debilitating effects of long-term isolation, the placement of death-sentenced prisoners on what is colloquially known as “death row” has become the subject of discussion, controversy, and litigation.

This Report, written under the auspices of the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School, examines the legal parameters of death row housing to learn whether correctional administrators have discretion in deciding how to house death-sentenced individuals and to document the choices made in three jurisdictions where death-sentenced prisoners are not kept in isolation.  Part I details the statutes, regulations, and policies that govern the housing of those sentenced to death and reviews prior research on the housing conditions of death-sentenced prisoners.  Part II presents an overview of decisions in three states, North Carolina, Missouri, and Colorado, where correctional administrators enable death-sentenced prisoners to have meaningful opportunities to interact with others. Given the discretion that correctional officials have over housing arrangements, these states provide models to house capital-sentenced prisoners without placing them in solitary confinement.

July 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives."

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy report recently published by the Alarcón Advocacy Center at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and co-authored by Professor Paula Mitchell, executive director of the Alarcón Advocacy Center, and Nancy Haydt, Board of Governors, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.  The perspective on whether to end or mend the California death penalty is somewhat predictable based on the past work of the authors, and this overview from the document itself provides a summary of its analysis:

California voters will decide the fate of the state’s death penalty this November. There is now a broad consensus that California’s death penalty system is broken.  Voters will be asked to choose between two starkly different proposals to address its dysfunction and failures.  Competing ballot initiatives will ask voters either to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, or to double down on the failed system by spending millions more to modify and expand it.

Voters can either support YES on Prop 62, which will replace the death penalty with life without parole and save the state $150 million per year.  Or, voters can support Prop 66 to keep the death penalty system and implement multiple changes to how it operates.  Each proposition would make substantial and far reaching changes to California’s criminal justice system. But only one can pass into law: if both propositions receive more than 50% of the vote, then the one with most votes will become law and the other will not.

This Report analyzes the competing initiatives.  It looks at the current state of the death penalty system in California and analyzes how each initiative will work in practice.  In particular it looks at whether the initiatives will achieve their stated goals, and whether there would be other, perhaps unintended, consequences to their passage into law.

This Report concludes that Prop 66’s proposed “fixes” to the current system will cost millions more than the already expensive death penalty system and will not speed up executions.  In fact, Prop 66 will only make matters worse by creating more delays and further clogging the state’s over-burdened court system.  Prop 66 will add layers of appeals to a system already facing an insurmountable backlog of decades of death penalty appeals waiting to be decided.

Prop 66 contains other provisions that proponents claim will speed up executions, such as keeping the lethal injection protocols secret and out of the public’s purview, exempting them from the Administrative Procedures Act.  This and other key features of Prop 66 will certainly be subject to litigation challenging the provisions on constitutional and other grounds, should Prop 66 pass, adding yet more delays to death penalty cases.

The Report further finds that Prop 66 fails to make the constitutional changes required to deliver the results it promises.  At the same time, its proposals are so convoluted that they are likely to create many new problems that will not only complicate the administration of the death penalty system, but will also impact and harm the rest of California’s legal system.

This Report finds that Prop 62, by contrast, is straightforward and transparent.  It replaces the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, saving the state $1.5 billion in the next ten years alone.  Prop 62 requires inmates to work and increases the victim compensation rate.  Prop 62 ensures that the state never executes an innocent person, without jeopardizing public safety.

July 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"The Death Penalty and the Fifth Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this essay authored by Joseph Blocker and just published online by the Northwestern Law Review. Here is part of the introduction: 

Can the Supreme Court find unconstitutional something that the text of the Constitution “contemplates”?  If the Bill of Rights mentions a punishment, does that make it a “permissible legislative choice” immune to independent constitutional challenges?

The dueling opinions in Glossip v. Gross have brought renewed attention to the constitutionality of the death penalty. In a dissent joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer identified “three fundamental constitutional defects” with the death penalty.... Justice Breyer’s dissent marked the first time that two members of the current Court have announced a belief that the death penalty is likely unconstitutional “in and of itself,” and the opinion has justifiably been treated as a significant development.

In a blistering concurrence, Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas) wrote that the dissent was full of “gobbledy-gook,” and that “not once in the history of the American Republic has this Court ever suggested the death penalty is categorically impermissible.” Justice Scalia argued that the Fifth Amendment afforded a textual basis for the capital punishment’s continued constitutionality....   Announcing his concurrence from the bench, Justice Scalia made the point even more strongly, saying that “the death penalty is approved by the Constitution.” He and many others have made some version of this point...

The Fifth Amendment contains prohibitions, not powers, and there is no reason to suppose that it somehow nullifies other constitutional prohibitions — most importantly, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The real target of the Fifth Amendment Argument can only be the Court’s longstanding Eighth Amendment doctrine, which is not limited to the punishments considered cruel and unusual at the time of the Constitution’s framing. Unless and until that doctrine changes, the Argument itself carries no weight.

To be clear, the inverse argument would be equally faulty. The weakness of the Fifth Amendment Argument does not mean that the death penalty is unconstitutional, let alone “categorically” so, only that the “constitutional defects” Justice Breyer identifies cannot be dismissed out of hand.  Glossip, along with other developments in law and practice, have made the continuing constitutionality of capital punishment a pressing question. That question should be answered without the distraction of the Fifth Amendment.

July 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

California DA makes the case for mending rather than ending California's capital punishment system

The District Attorney of Sacramento County has this new commentary urging citizens of her state to vote for reform rather than repeal of the death penalty.  The piece is headlined "California’s broken death penalty system can be fixed," and here are excerpts:

In 1978, California enacted today’s California death penalty statute, the so-called Briggs Initiative. Now, Ron Briggs supports repealing the statute his “family wrote,” but his argument reads more like a surrender to death penalty abolitionists (“Death penalty is destructive to California”; Forum, July 10).  Instead of waving a white flag, Briggs should endorse Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, as a worthy successor to his family’s work.  This initiative deals with the concerns Briggs raises about California’s death penalty system.

The reason that no executions have occurred in California for 10 years is the state’s delay in drafting regulations for a method of execution.  Otherwise, there could have been at least 15 sentences carried out during the past decade.  It’s outrageous that victims’ families were forced to sue the state to draft these regulations. Proposition 66 will prevent biased and unsympathetic politicians and government bureaucrats from interfering with this process.

Proposition 66 also addresses concerns about how death row inmates occupy their time, requiring them to work or lose their privileges.  If they owe restitution, it will come out of their wages. The proposal makes other significant reforms as well.  It addresses the backlog of cases at the state level by expanding the pool of qualified counsel for death row inmates.  The initiative expedites review of prisoners’ complaints by returning their cases to the original trial court and prompts the Judicial Council to develop standards for the completion of appeals in state court in five years. Victims’ families will have the right to sue to force them to meet deadlines.

Briggs believes abolition will benefit victims’ survivors by closing cases and sparing them further “wounds.”  That is offensive and presumptuous. In our experience, most survivors want “justice” for the murderers of their family members. Repealing the death penalty will not heal these peoples’ wounds; it keeps them permanently open.

Briggs naively touts life without parole as a sufficient alternative to the death penalty. He forgets that the last murderer executed in California, Clarence Ray Allen, was sentenced to death for the murder of three people, which he planned while already serving a life sentence for murder.  Life imprisonment was not enough to protect the public from Allen....

Finally, Briggs is dead wrong to assert that the death penalty has been conclusively shown not to deter crime. Experience and common sense confirm a deterrent effect.  Briggs risks lives on the unproven idea that the death penalty does not deter murder and that life sentences will protect public safety. Rather than capitulating to abolitionist arguments, he should support his families’ legacy and endorse Proposition 66.

Prior related posts:

July 21, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Defense builds case for unconstitutionality of death penalty in federal court in Vermont

Those who follow the federal death penalty closely surely have heard of the long-running case from Vermont involving Donald Fell.  Fell was involved in the murder of three persons way back in 2000, and the feds have been trying to secure and preserve a death sentence for the last dozen years.  After an original death sentence reversed on appeal, Fell is getting a new opportunity to build a record in the District Court concerning his claims that the death penalty is unconstitutional.  This recent local article, headlined "Fell's defense: The federal death penalty is 'irrational'," reports on these recent developments.  Here are excerpts:

The final witness for the defense in the Donald Fell death penalty hearing in Rutland testified on the results of more than 20 years of research he’s gathered for the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council Project.

Based on that data, Kevin McNally, the project’s director and an attorney in Kentucky, said that the “federal death penalty is driven by irrational or illegal considerations,” including race, gender, geography, or luck. “It’s akin to being struck by lightning,” McNally said.

McNally cited the Donald Fell case as a prime example of the role luck and timing can play in capital cases and the authorization of the death penalty....

Fell was convicted in the brutal killing of Terry King, a North Clarendon grandmother, and sentenced to death in 2005. The verdict was overturned due to juror misconduct and a retrial is scheduled for early next year.  The two-week long hearings in Rutland could lead to a historic Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the death penalty....

The lack of a uniform standard for seeking the death penalty is one of many factors that has eroded public trust in capital punishment, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who also testified on Friday.  Although a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, Dieter said, growing numbers have expressed concern about the way it is applied....

Counsel for the U.S. government questioned whether the Death Penalty Information Center was a neutral source of information as Dieter characterized it.  Attorney Sonia Jimenez read the titles of several reports published by the center: “Struck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty”; “The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All”; and “A Crisis of Confidence: Americans’ Doubts About the Death Penalty.”

Asked if he was opposed to the death penalty, Dieter said he took a fact-based approach. “It’s not a philosophical issue for me,” he said. “It’s not a moral issue.”

“The present system is broken,” he continued. “Can it be fixed? Maybe it can’t be fixed.”

The government will present its case next week in Rutland District Court.

In this post over at PrawfsBlawg, Michael J.Z. Mannheimer provides some additional context and highlights his distinct interest in the case:

The defense filed the usual battery of motions for a capital case, arguing among other things that the death penalty has become cruel and unusual punishment.  Curiously, the court issued an order this past February calling for a hearing on the issue.  Citing Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2755 (2015) (Breyer, J., dissenting), the court expressed an interest in the suggestion there that the risk of wrongful execution, the geographic disparities in the implementation of the death penalty, the long delays before execution, and the purported arbitrariness in meting out the death penalty all added up to its unconstitutionality.  However, the court seemed unsatisfied with deciding these issues without a factual record complete with testifying experts, and wrote that the purpose of a hearing “is to develop the fullest possible expression of both sides' factual and empirical arguments.”  In particular, while capital defendants typically repeat the same empirical assertions in their briefs, a hearing would provide the Government the opportunity to “cross-examine[] the sources of social and statistical information cited by the defense” and “offer[] its own empirical evidence in response.”...

Irrespective of how the court rules, it appears that the court is attempting to get as complete a factual record as possible in order to tee the unconstitutionality issue up for appeal.  My interest in this particular case stems from the fact that this is a federal capital prosecution for crimes occurring in a non-death penalty State (well, here, two separate non-death penalty States).  I have appeared in the case as an amicus and have filed an amicus brief on my own behalf making the argument, based on my prior scholarship, that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause forbids the imposition of the federal death penalty under these circumstances.  Presumably, the court will ultimately address that issue as well, unless it is mooted by a broader ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional full stop.

July 17, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (15)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"Why Capital Punishment Is No Punishment at All"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative article by Jason Iuliano just recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Capital punishment has generated an incredible amount of public debate.  Is the practice constitutional?  Does it deter crime?  Is it humane?  Supporters and opponents of capital punishment disagree on all of these issues and many more. There is perhaps only one thing that unites these two camps: the belief that the death penalty is society’s most severe punishment.

In this Article, I argue that this belief is mistaken. Capital punishment is not at the top of the punishment hierarchy.  In fact, it is no punishment at all.  My argument builds from a basic conception of punishment endorsed by the Supreme Court: for something to qualify as a punishment, it must be bad, in some way, for the person who is punished.  By drawing upon the philosophical literature regarding death, I show that this is not the case.  Contrary to our intuitions, the death penalty is not bad, in any way, for a condemned criminal.

This conclusion should not be understood to suggest that death is never bad. In most circumstances, death is bad.  There are, however, situations in which it is not, and capital punishment, as employed in the United States penal system, is one such situation.  By showing that capital punishment is not bad for the condemned criminal, I provide a strong constitutional objection to the practice.

July 12, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Monday, July 11, 2016

Spotlighting that the death penalty, practically speaking, is now really dying

BuzzFeed News reporter Chris Geidner has this lengthy and timely article highlighting some notable capital realities circa 2016. The piece carries this full headline: "Practically Speaking, The Death Penalty Is Disappearing In The United States: Although nearly 3,000 people are on death row in America, there has not been an execution in the country for two months — and few executions are expected in the coming months."  Here is the start of a piece that merits a full read:

It has been two months since any state in the United States has carried out an execution. This marks the longest time between executions in the U.S. since the Supreme Court effectively halted them in the fall of 2007 through spring 2008 while considering a case about the constitutionality of lethal injection.

This time, the situation is very different. Although there are pending court cases about the death penalty’s application, the source of the two-month stoppage in executions isn’t the Supreme Court. It’s a variety of state-specific issues, ranging from the aftermath of Supreme Court rulings that come down earlier this year to drug availability to fallout from botched executions.

The pause on executions — since it is state-specific — won’t last forever.  The stoppage could end as soon as Thursday if an execution scheduled for Georgia goes ahead as planned.  It isn’t, however, only that there have been no executions in the past two months.  This year, there have been fewer executions overall — just 14 in the first half of the year — than in years past.  It’s extremely unlikely, moreover, that the number will be higher in the second half of the year.

There are, in fact, only three states — Georgia, Missouri, and Texas — that have executed anyone since January of this year. What’s more, these states appear to be the only ones that could hold an execution today — despite the nearly 3,000 people on death row across the country.  The only other state where executions still seem to be a possibility this year is Arkansas, and that is only so if the state obtains a new supply of execution drugs — which is by no means a sure thing.

Before the 2007-08 gap in executions, the next most recent time when there was such a gap was nearly 25 years ago, when there were no executions held between Nov. 12, 1991, and Jan. 22, 1992.  Even then, the stoppage is not entirely comparable to the current one because there often have been shorter periods with no executions surrounding the holiday season.  Gaps prior to then were more common, but they were due to the fact the states were still passing and implementing their execution process in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision approving execution statutes after a nationwide ruling against the death penalty laws four years earlier.

In short, this is an unprecedented moment in the modern era of the death penalty.  Why, in the absence of any overarching federal prohibition on executions, is this so?

July 11, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (34)

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Notable sparring over sequence of capital trials for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof

In this post not long after the racist mass murderer committed by Dylann Storm Roof, I flagged the possibility of a double capital prosecution by both the feds and South Carolina in this post. Now that, a year later, this prospect has become a reality, the logistical dynamics are presenting interesting legal issues. And this new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Death Penalty Freeze Puts Charleston Church Shooting Trials in Conflict: State prosecutors say likelihood of execution gives their case precedence," explores some of this novel capital ground:

The alleged shooter of a South Carolina church congregation is scheduled to appear in state court next week amid a dispute over whether a state or federal case against him should go to trial first.

State prosecutors said in June their case against Dylann Roof should happen first because, in part, it is more likely to result in the death penalty. There is currently an effective moratorium on executions in the federal prison system, due to an internal review of the drugs used to execute prisoners.

South Carolina prosecutors charged Mr. Roof, 22 years old, with nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder last year for the June 2015 slaying of nine parishioners at an African-American church, and Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has said she would pursue the death penalty. Federal prosecutors, who charged Mr. Roof within weeks of the state indictment, are also seeking a death sentence.

Mr. Roof has pleaded not guilty but his lawyers have said he would plead guilty if the state or federal governments dropped requests for the death penalty. A lawyer for Mr. Roof didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The federal trial is scheduled to begin in November, while the state trial is slated for January. A hearing in state court is set for Wednesday to discuss the scheduling issues.

The dueling prosecutions have raised complicated procedural issues. Ms. Wilson said in court papers that because Mr. Roof is in the state’s custody, if he were sentenced to death in the federal trial, but received a life sentence in the state trial, the state would likely never relinquish custody of him, defeating any chance of an execution.

Ms. Wilson also argued that because the federal government last executed a prisoner in 2003, the state couldn’t trust that a death penalty verdict in the federal trial will actually result in an execution. “Because of the apparent unwillingness of the United States to implement a sentence of death, the state submits that the outcome of the federal trial has little to no relevance to the defendant’s ultimate fate,” Ms Wilson wrote. “For that reason, it disserves the victims to ask them to endure two trials, but the United States nonetheless has imposed its contrary will.”

Lawyers for Mr. Roof argued in court papers filed Wednesday that issues surrounding scheduling could be easily resolved if prosecutors would remove their request for the death penalty and accept Mr. Roof’s plea. “It was predictable that the unprecedented decision of both the state and federal governments to seek the execution of the same man at the same time would lead to scheduling problems,” defense attorneys wrote.

Federal prosecutors haven’t responded to the requests for the state trial to go first. In a letter to victims’ families Wednesday, South Carolina U.S. Attorney Beth Drake wrote, “While it may appear in court pleadings that the state and federal court are both working towards a speedy trial, at the end of the day, we are all after the same thing—justice.”

Mr. Roof’s attorneys have moved to dismiss the federal case, saying it ignores the division between state and federal jurisdictions.

A few prior related posts:

July 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

"Implementing Proportionality"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Perry Moriearty and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Over the last fourteen years, the Supreme Court has issued five decisions that impose substantive constraints on our harshest punishments -- forbidding the execution of those with “mental retardation” in Atkins v. Virginia, of juveniles in Roper v. Simmons, and of those convicted of child sexual assault in Kennedy v. Louisiana, and forbidding the sentence of life without parole for juveniles who had not killed in Graham v. Florida and for all juveniles when it is imposed mandatorily in Miller v. Alabama.  Because the offenders in question were categorically less culpable, the proscribed punishment was disproportionately severe, the Court held.  

In many respects, these decisions reinvigorated the Court’s substantive proportionality jurisprudence, which had been virtually dormant for two decades.  Yet, three of the five decisions simply have not yielded in practice what they promised in principle.  The implementation of Atkins, Graham and Miller has been so protracted, litigious and encumbered by procedural obstacles that, of the nearly 3,000 inmates nominally impacted by the decisions, only a fraction has been relieved of their sentences.  In the meantime, inmates with IQs of 61 have been executed, and others have died waiting to hear whether the Court’s decisions apply retroactively.

This Article argues that, despite its transformative potential, the Court’s contemporary proportionality jurisprudence has been diminished in scope and potency in the course of its implementation -- a dynamic that has been called “slippage.”  In many respects, the “slippage” of these mandates can be attributed to the decisions themselves, which are deregulatory and, in concert with the Court’s broader efforts to limit federal court jurisdiction over state criminal justice processes, tie the scope of relief to the political whims and majoritarian preferences of the States.  On some issues, the procedural docility of these decisions has proven so problematic that the Court has twice within the last two years had to intervene, striking portions of Florida’s capital sentencing scheme in 2014 and, just weeks ago, declaring in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller does in fact apply retroactively.  

While the Court’s reluctance to regulate the implementation of its proportionality mandates may be rationalized as necessary deference to the principles of federalism and finality, these justifications are far less compelling in the Eighth Amendment context.  The very establishment of federal habeas, executive clemency, and Supreme Court review suggests that the Framers themselves recognized that there are normative points when interests in federalism and finality simply must yield.  By contrast, the risk of offending constitutional norms through slippage may be at their most pronounced since one of the Eighth Amendment’s primary purposes is to protect the politically powerless from government overreach.  I conclude that, if the Court is serious about implementing in practice the substantive constraints on punishment it has imposed over the last fourteen years, it must accompany its substantive mandates with a minimum threshold of procedural prescription.

July 6, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Might the Nebraska death penalty repeal referendum in 2016 be even more important symbolically than the dueling California capital initiatives?

As highlighted in prior posts here and here, death penalty opponents and supporters will surely be focused on California during the 2016 election season as voters there will be have a clear capital punishment reform choice between "end it" and "mend it" based on two competing ballot proposals. But this local article from Nebraska, headlined "Death penalty debate heats up," provides a useful reminder that citizens in a very different state will also be voting on the future of the death penalty in their jurisdiction. Here are the basics:

Nebraskans will go to the polls four month from now and vote for an array of issues-one being whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in Nebraska. The legislature voted 30-19 to repeal it in the Spring of 2015, but supporters of capital punishment were able to get enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.

“It's a very complicated system, the system is broken and it doesn't work,” said Retain a Just Nebraska campaign manager Darold Bauer [campaign website here]. “The repeal of the death penalty was very unpopular across the state,” said Rod Edwards, state director for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty [campaign website here].

Those for the death penalty say murder victim’s families want justice. “They want that just penalty for the people who killed their loved ones,” said Edwards.

However the group Retain a Just Nebraska said the system doesn’t work and actually harms murder victim’s families. “Eliminate years and years of appeals, and eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person,” said Bauer.

Both sides of this issue are now ramping up their campaigns this summer coordinating their army of volunteers and getting their message out. “We are re-energizing those volunteers we are working with our Facebook followers to make sure they get the message out and working with those 166-thousands signature gathers to expand that to an electorate,” said Edwards.

Even churches are getting involved-handing out materials urging their people to vote for a specific item. This past weekend, some parishioners likely saw a bit of politicking in the pews. “We are getting help from a number of different churches and different denominations, we are not turning anyone away, if they believe what we do in eliminating the death penalty, we welcome their support,” said Bauer.

Both campaigns will start airing ads on TV and radio soon.

Because California has the nation's largest death row (as well as the largest population of any state in the nation), the outcome of the death penalty reform initiatives in that state will, practically and politically, be far more consequential in the short-term than whatever happens in Nebraska.  But, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the vote in Nebraska could have more symbolically importance and long-term significance for the future of the death penalty in the United States.

California is, of course, a "deep-blue" state and its quirky and complicated history with the death penalty will make it relatively easy for whichever side that loses in November to claim that the result is not really representative of the views of the national as a whole.  But Nebraska is a "deep-red" state, and its legislative repeal of the death penalty was driven by conservative elected officials.  If Cornhusker voters embrace capital repeal at the ballot this November, I think death penalty abolitionists can and will assert forcefully that this vote shows that even conservative citizens want to see an end of capital punishment int he US. But if Nebraska voters reject the repeal, and especially if they do so by a large margin, supporters of capital punishment can and still will be able to point to the outcome as proof that most voters in most states still support the punishment of death for some murderers.

July 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

New Philippines Prez wasting no time executing deadly "tough on crime" plans

In this post a couple of months ago, I noted then Philippine President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte was talking about bringing back capital punishment for drug users(!) and about give police shoot-to-kill powers to go after mobsters and drug dealers.  As now reported in this Newsweek article, President Duterte has followed up his talk with action his first week on the job.  The article is headlined "30 'Drug Dealers' Executed in Duterte's First Four Days as President," and here are the remarkable details:

The Philippines’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, appears to be living up to his nickname after less than a week in office. Police in the island country have said that some 30 suspected drug dealers have been killed since Duterte — dubbed The Punisher for his hardline stance on drugs — was sworn into office Thursday.

Formerly the mayor of the southern town of Davao, Duterte, 71, was elected in May following an explosive campaign in which he vowed to kill thousands of criminals and “fatten the fish” in Manila Bay in the capital Manila by dumping their bodies there. Following his oath, Duterte urged his supporters to do away with drug traffickers, reportedly saying: “Go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.”

The police chief for the Manila region, Oscar Albayalde, said that five drug dealers were killed following a gun battle with police Sunday, Reuters reported. Three other people were killed in other parts of Manila Sunday, while 22 were killed outside the capital. Police also made a seizure of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine — known locally as shabu — worth around 900 million Philippine pesos ($19 million), according to national police chief Ronald dela Rosa.

In total, more than 100 people have died — most suspected drug dealers, rapists and car thieves — in police operations since the election on May 9.

Prior related post:

July 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Draft DNC party platform calls for abolition of death penalty ... which means?

In this post last week, I wondered whether it really mattered what the traditional political parties had to say about criminal justice issues in their party platforms.  But this latest platform news as reported by CNN from the Democratic National Committee will surely matter to those who are eager to see abolition of the death penalty in the United States:

Democrats are calling for an end to capital punishment.  The latest draft of the party's platform, released Friday, says the death penalty "has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment" that "has no place in the United States of America."

The inclusion of the provision represents a victory of sorts for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- a longtime opponent of the punishment who has said he is remaining in the presidential race in order to fight for progressive causes.  Sanders offered mild praise for the platform Friday evening, tweeting, "The Democratic Platform includes some accomplishments that will begin to move this country in the right direction."

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has supported the death penalty in the past, albeit on a limited basis, suggesting that there could be cases for "very limited use" of the punishment in "horrific" terrorist crimes.  She was confronted over the issue during a CNN-TV One town hall event in May by an exonerated former death row inmate who spent 39 years in jail for a murder he did not commit.

For a host of reasons, I would be very surprised to hear Hillary Clinton now express opposition to the death penalty for the likes of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or even Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof. Thus, it would seem the DNC is charting a path toward adopting a party platform that will not be fully embraced by its Prez nominee. And that, in turn, means .... I have no idea.

July 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, July 01, 2016

California initiative to reform death penalty in state qualifies for ballot (and will compete with repeal initiative)

As helpfully explained by Kent Scheidegger via this post at Crime & Consequences, an "initiative to fix problems that have obstructed the enforcement of the death penalty in California has qualified for the ballot." The group supporting the effort is called Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings, and its website has all the details of its reform efforts. Kent's post provides this additional context and information:

Four years ago, the friends of murderers came within four percent of repealing the death penalty because they had the money to qualify an initiative while the forces of justice did not. Many people believed that the choice was therefore one between repeal and the status quo of a penalty that is never enforced.

Not this time. The status quo will be history come November, and the people have a clear choice between "end it" and "mend it."

If both initiatives pass, the one that gets the greater number of "yes" votes will prevail.

The greatest problem, once again, will be the great disparity in funding. Softness on crime is the cause of deep-pocketed elitists who do not suffer the consequences of crime, while the base for toughness on crime consists mainly of regular folks of modest means who do. The other side will be able to run deceptive ads, and we will have limited ability to counter them with truthful rebuttal through paid advertising.  Hopefully we will be able to get the truth out through other means.

Among the interesting aspects of this story to watch in the coming months is whether various prominent California (or national) officials will officially support/endorse the mend or the end proposal. I suspect most will try to avoid talking about the issue, but I am hopeful the press and advocates will press prominent politicans to express a position.

Prior related post:

July 1, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

New report highlights huge role of a handful of local prosecutors on the size of death rows

20160628_FPP-ShareableThis notable new report from Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project highlights the consequential role of just a handful of local prosecutors on the modern US death penalty.  The report, titled "America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive The Death Penalty," gets started this way (with footnotes removed):

Last year, a journalist asked Dale Cox, then the District Attorney of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, about the wisdom of the death penalty in light of the recent exoneration of Glenn Ford, a man who spent thirty years on death row for a crime that he did not commit.  Cox told the reporter: “I think we need to kill more people.” “Revenge,” he said, “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.”  Between 2010 and 2015, Cox alone secured one-third of Louisiana’s death sentences.

Cox’s disproportionate use of the death penalty illustrates a point that Justice Stephen Breyer recently made. “It is now unusual to find capital punishment in the United States,” Breyer wrote, because “capital prosecutions are being pursued in only a few isolated counties.”  There are more than 3,100 counties, 2,400 head prosecutors, and thousands of line prosecutors in America — yet only a tiny handful of prosecutors are responsible for a vastly disproportionate number of death sentences. The question that this disparity prompts is: Why?

This report analyzes the records of five of America’s deadliest head prosecutors.  Three of them personally obtained over 35 death sentences each: Joe Freeman Britt in North Carolina, Bob Macy in Oklahoma, and Donnie Myers in South Carolina.  These men shared an obsession with winning death sentences at almost any cost.  For example, Joe Freeman Britt, who committed misconduct in more than 36% of his death penalty prosecutions, said: “Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that constantly whispers in our ear ‘preserve life, preserve life, preserve life at any cost.’ It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.” The remaining two prosecutors, Lynne Abraham (Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania) and Johnny Holmes (Harris County, Texas), did not personally prosecute as many death penalty cases as the three men above, but nonetheless oversaw the imposition of death sentences against a staggering 108 and 201 people, respectively, during their terms.

Of these five prosecutors, only one — Donnie Myers — remains in office, and he plans to retire at the end of the year. One of the most remarkable findings from our research is the fact that once these prosecutors and their protégés left their positions, death sentences dramatically declined in these jurisdictions — a pattern that has only become clear in the years since their departures.

We also highlight five additional prosecutors who came very close to becoming members of this notorious group.  These runners-up have egregious records in their own states, and like the prosecutors above, the striking drop in new death sentences that has occurred in their respective jurisdictions since their departures illustrates their outsized impact on the death penalty.

Unfortunately, the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing has continued beyond the tenure of these prosecutors.  Over the past fifteen years, prosecutors have pursued far fewer capital cases and juries have returned far fewer death sentences than in years past.  Indeed, in 2015, juries returned just 49 death sentences, the fewest in recent history.  This number represents an 84.4% drop from the 1996 high of 315 death verdicts.  However, in the increasingly small number of the counties that still actively sentence people to death, a handful of prosecutors dominate death-sentencing statistics.

In the final section of this report, we offer a snapshot of three active prosecutors who, if they continue on their current trajectories, may soon join the ranks of the deadliest prosecutors in America.  Taken together, the profiles featured in this report demonstrate that the death penalty has been, and continues to be, a personality-driven system with very few safeguards against misconduct and frequent abuse of power, a fact that seriously undermines its legitimacy.

June 30, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Updates on considerable success of "guerilla war" over executions and access to lethal injection drugs

In the Glossip litigation, Justice Alito famously complained that capital lawyers contesting execution protocols were part of a broader "guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment." Against that backdrop, two recent articles about execution drugs provide an interesting snapshot of the remarkable success that opponents of the death penalty have achieved in this so-called "guerilla war":

June 27, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Unexpectedly(?), new post-Hurst hydra head takes big bite out of Ohio capital case

Download (1)As regularly readers know, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.  That hydra has been taking various bites out of capital cases most prominently in Alabama and Delaware as well as Florida, but this article from my own local Ohio paper highlights how new heads can pop up in unexpected places.  The article is headlined "Prosecutor: Marion County judge's ruling puts death penalty in jeopardy," and here are the interesting details:

A Marion County judge this week dropped the death penalty elements from a convicted murderer-rapist's sentence on the grounds that there were similarities to a Florida death sentence ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Because Florida and Ohio have similar sentencing and procedural guidelines, defense attorneys argued that Maurice A. Mason, sentenced in 1994 for raping and beating to death Robin Dennis, then 19 and pregnant, should not be executed.

The case could have implications in other capital cases in Ohio, said Marion County Prosecutor Brent Yager, who disagreed with Monday's decision by Marion Common Pleas Court Judge William Finnegan. "I was surprised," said Yager. "I believe that there is a distinction between the death penalty in Florida and in Ohio."...

Finnegan, in his ruling, wrote that the Hurst decision makes clear that the Sixth Amendment requires juries make specific findings to authorize the death penalty.  Ohio, he wrote, "has no provision for the jury to make specific findings related to the weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors," and thus is unconstitutional.

Yager said Ohio differs from Florida because juries here directly decide the aggravating circumstances in a capital case used in the penalty phase and sentencing, although judge's have the ability to commute the death sentence in lieu of life in prison....  Yager said the ruling is frustrating, in part because victim families and lawmakers expect swift and certain justice.

"Ohio and the state legislature have decided we still should have a death penalty in Ohio," said Yager. "But based on the judge's ruling here, if this stands, our death penalty would be unconstitutional. This decision does become a statewide issue." Yager said he plans to file an appeal with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Lima.

Mason's attorney, Kort Gatterdam, said the decision should "withstand scrutiny from higher courts and will become the law of this state ... and could become the basis to eliminate the death penalty in Ohio."...

Mason, now 52, has been moved from death row to a regular cell at the Mansfield Correctional Institution. With no sentence on record for the murder conviction, he technically is eligible for a parole hearing. But the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the parole board have said that won't happen his ultimate sentence for murder is resolved.

Not long after SCOTUS ruled in Hurst, a very smart and savvy local lawyer told me that he thought a strong argument could be made that Ohio's capital sentencing scheme has Hurst problems. Apparently, at least one state trial judge agrees, and it will be very interesting to watch the certain appeal of this ruling in the state courts as well as whether this ruling echoes through lots and lots of other Ohio capital cases past and present.

The full 50-page ruling in Ohio v. Mason, No. 93CR1053 (Ohio Common Pleas Ct. June 20, 2016), is available at this link. I have not yet had a chance to read the opinion, but I think it surely is a must-read for capital litigators of all stripes in Ohio and elsewhere.

June 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Split Arkansas Supreme Court upholds state's new secrecy law to allow execution plans to move forward

Download (21)As reported in this AP piece, "Arkansas can execute eight death row inmates, a split state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in upholding a state law that keeps information about its lethal injection drugs confidential."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she would request new execution dates once the stays are lifted on the eight inmate executions.  Generally, a ruling goes into effect 18 days after it is issued. A paralytic drug, vecuronium bromide, expires on June 30, and the supplier has said it will not sell the state more. So, for the stays to be lifted before the drugs expire, Rutledge must ask the court to expedite the certification process, which she had not done as of Thursday.

"I will notify the governor once the stays of executions have been lifted so that he may set execution dates. I know that victims' families want to see justice carried out, and that is exactly what I will continue to work toward as Attorney General," she wrote in an emailed statement.  Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves would not say whether the agency would try to move forward with the executions. When asked whether the department had tried to negotiate purchasing additional drugs or contacted the suppliers to see whether Thursday's ruling would entice them to sell, Graves said he could not engage in hypotheticals....

The court noted in its ruling an affidavit from a prison official, who said he had contacted at least five other drug wholesalers and manufacturers that said they would not sell the drugs to the state or would not sell them without the makers' permission. It was unclear whether Thursday's actions would change those companies' decisions.  The attorney general's office would not advise the Department of Correction to use the drugs after they expire, spokesman Judd Deere said.

A group of death row inmates had argued that Arkansas' execution secrecy law, which requires the state to conceal the maker, seller and other information about the drugs, could lead to cruel and unusual punishment and that the state reneged on a pledge to share information.  But the high court said in its 4-3 majority opinion that a lower court "erred in ruling that public access to the identity of the supplier of the three drugs (the Arkansas Department of Correction) has obtained would positively enhance the functioning of executions in Arkansas. As has been well documented, disclosing the information is actually detrimental to the process."

Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney representing the inmates, said he is "studying the decision and anticipate filing a petition for rehearing."  Three justices wrote full or partial dissents, including Associate Justice Robin Wynne, who wrote that he believed the inmates proved their claim that the law violated the state constitution's prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment. Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote that the dismissal of the complaint was premature and that she would have ordered disclosure of the drug information....

For more than 10 years, Arkansas' executions have been stalled because of multiple court challenges over different drug protocols and problems obtaining those drugs. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson set execution dates last September that were later stayed by the high court until the inmates' challenge could be heard.  Hutchinson "believes Judge Griffen overstepped his authority and is pleased the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed his ruling upholding the law protecting the confidentiality of the supplier," spokesman J.R. Davis said, adding that Hutchinson is reviewing the decision and talking with Rutledge regarding "the appropriate next steps to take."

The inmates had argued that without disclosure of the source and other information they had no way to determine whether the midazolam, vecuronium bromide or potassium chloride would lead to cruel and unusual punishment.  The inmates also argued that the secrecy law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information. The state has said that agreement is not a binding contract, and the court agreed Thursday.

Several other issues remain before the state can complete the eight pending executions in the seven days before the paralytic drug expires. A handful of the inmates have not been given a chance to have clemency hearings, and for those who already had them, it was unclear whether they would need another opportunity to apply for clemency because a new date of execution would have to be set.

The full ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court can be accessed at this link, and this passage from the majority opinion helps explain the import of the Supreme Court's Glossip ruling on this state case:

In this case, the Prisoners urge us to disavow the requirement established in Baze, as amplified by the Court in Glossip, that a prisoner bears the burden of proving a known and available alternative to a state’s current execution protocol.  They assert that we should construe our provision differently because the Eighth Amendment uses the words “cruel and unusual punishment,” whereas the Arkansas Constitution contains the disjunctive phrase “cruel or unusual punishment.”  As the Court made clear in Glossip, the burden of showing a known and available alternative is a substantive component of an Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claim.  We are not convinced that the slight variation in phraseology between the two constitutions denotes a substantive or conceptual difference in the two provisions that would compel us to disregard any part of the test governing a challenge to a method of execution.  Accordingly, we decline the Prisoners’ invitation to depart from our practice of interpreting our constitutional provision along the same lines as federal precedent, and we hereby adopt the standards enunciated in both Baze and Glossip. Accordingly, in challenging a method of execution under the Arkansas Constitution, the burden falls squarely on a prisoner to show that (1) the current method of execution presents a risk that is sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering and that gives rise to sufficiently imminent dangers; and (2) there are known, feasible, readily implemented, and available alternatives that significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.

June 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Religious Objections to the Death Penalty after Hobby Lobby"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing piece authored by Danieli Evans now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In this short essay, I consider how the logic of the complicity-based claims in Hobby Lobby and subsequent nonprofit cases could be applied to challenge the common policy of “death qualifying” jurors in capital punishment cases — removing any juror who reports conscientious opposition to the death penalty.  I argue that just like religious nonprofits that object to reporting a religious objection to contraceptives on the grounds that it enables someone else to provide contraceptives, a juror might object to reporting a religious objection to the death penalty on the grounds that it will enable someone else to replace them who is more likely to impose the death penalty.

June 23, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Intriguing review of Georgia's intriguing modern history with capital punishment

Because many modern landmark Supreme Court death penalty cases came from Georgia (e.g., Furman, Gregg, Coker, McKlesky), the Peach State will always have a plum role in any story of the modern history of the death penalty.  And this recent local article, headlined "Georgia executions rise, while death sentences plummet," details why Georgia's most recent history with capital punishment also merits attention.  Here is how the piece starts:

It’s Georgia’s new death penalty paradox: the state is executing inmates at a record clip, but prosecutors almost never seek the death penalty anymore, and juries refuse to impose it when they do.

During each of the past two years, Georgia executed five inmates. If, as expected, the state carries out another execution later this year, it will have put more people to death — six — in 2016 than in any single year since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment four decades ago. But the last time a Georgia jury imposed a death sentence was in March 2014. And district attorneys have been turning away from death as a sentencing option, more often allowing killers to receive sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A decade ago, state prosecutors filed notices of intent to seek the death penalty against 34 accused killers. That number dropped to 26 in 2011 and to 13 last year. How many times have Georgia DAs sought the death penalty so far this year? Once. And this was against a man accused of killing a priest — a clergyman who had signed a document saying if he died a violent death he did not want his killer to face the death penalty.

The incongruity of the increasing numbers of executions and the plummeting numbers of death sentences took both prosecutors and defense attorneys by surprise. “Wow,” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Akil Secret said. “Maybe the times are changing.” The precipitous declines raise the question of whether prior capital sentences were justified, Secret said. “If a life-without-parole sentence is sufficient for today’s worst crimes, why isn’t it sufficient for those crimes from the past where death was imposed?”

June 21, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)