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May 20, 2007

Killers willing to be executed, raise your hand...

This coming week, Robert Comer is scheduled for execution in Arizona and Christopher Newton is scheduled for execution Ohio.  Both are "volunteers": they have given up their appeals and thus it is likely that their executions will go forward. 

I find the reality of, and reactions to, death row "volunteers" quite intriguing, and Amnesty International now has this new report on this underexamined aspect of the modern death penalty.  Here are some highlights:

About one in 10 of the men and women put to death in the USA since judicial killing resumed there in 1977 had given up their appeals.  Outside of the five main executing states of Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida, this figure rises to one in five for the remaining 28 jurisdictions that have executed since 1977.  Four of the first five executions in the USA after 1977 were of "volunteers"....

Fourteen US states, and the federal government, resumed executions after 1977 with the killing of a prisoner who had waived his appeals.  Five of the states which have resumed executions, Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon and Pennsylvania, have yet to execute a "non-volunteer".  In other words, if the eight inmates who have been put to death there had not given up their appeals, these five states would likely not yet have resumed executions.  Twenty of the 27 executions so far carried out in Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Washington have been of prisoners who waived their appeals (see table at end of report).

Race and mental health appear to be the strongest predictors of who will waive their appeals – most "volunteers" are white males (as are the five prisoners featured in the second half of this report), and many have a history of mental disorders. Nevertheless, a review of such cases suggests that any number of factors may contribute to a prisoner’s decision not to pursue appeals against their death sentence, including mental disorder, physical illness, remorse, bravado, religious belief, a quest for notoriety, the severity of conditions of confinement, including prolonged isolation and lack of physical contact visits, the bleak alternative of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, pessimism about appeal prospects, or being worn down by the cycle of hope and despair generated by winning and then losing appeals.

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May 20, 2007 at 08:47 AM | Permalink


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I hope the article, or some article, might also note the horrific position into which this plunges the defense attorneys on the case. Not only do they have to face the contempt of prosecutors and judges for daring to represent someone they despise -- and even legal experts who accuse them of lacking genuine sympathy for the victim and survivors -- but the contempt of their own client who is insisting that they help them commit suicide. Some states, e.g., Missouri, have laws making it a crime to aid another in committing suicide, yet defense attorneys whose -usually-mentally-impaired client demands that they help them be put to death are conveniently spared from that statute. For that matter, so are the citizens of the state such defendants are asking to kill them.

I wonder if it should become a requirement that no capital defendant can volunteer for execution without the endorsement of their (demonstrably competent) counsel.

Posted by: T | May 20, 2007 10:14:13 AM

Or, here's a wild idea -- since the folks "volunteering" to give up appeals #31-40 have been deemed competent, how about we stick with allowing them to accept the punishment that they received and that was approved by numerous courts thereafter.

But, heck, if we're going to let defense counsel make decisions on behalf of his client, why not let him decide if any appeal should be taken -- know your client's guilty, skip all the appeals, head right to the front of the line for your needle. Nah, we probably wouldn't let that happen.

By the by -- the article seems to support the idea that there are any number of reasons for foregoing appeals - which seem to apply across the spectrum -- not just to death cases... should we have defense counsel out there making unilateral decisions on whether to pursue PCR when the client just wants to serve his 200 years for possessing kiddie porn?

Posted by: LonesomeClerk | May 21, 2007 8:51:44 AM

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