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December 24, 2008

Effective media coverage of capital punishment realities in China (but not of federal capital realities)

Just yesterday I was talking to a colleague about the interesting and dynamic issues surrounding China's approaches and attitudes concerning the death penalty.  And today the Washington Post published this front page story headlined "China's Capital Cases Still Secret, Arbitrary."  Here are snippets:

Starting in 2007, China began for the first time in more than two decades to require a final review of every capital case by the Supreme People's Court. The hope was to reduce the number of executions and bring some consistency to a process that had been handled unevenly by lower courts. The former president of the Supreme People's Court who pushed for the review, Xiao Yang, vowed that the death penalty would be used only on "extremely vile criminals."

As a result of its reforms, China says, the Supreme People's Court overturned about 15 percent of the death sentences handed down by high courts in the first half of 2008. In a brief report in May, the New China News Agency quoted anonymous sources as saying Chinese courts handed down 30 percent fewer death sentences last year compared with 2006. But in a largely closed legal system directed by party committees, the changes have not been as far-reaching as the statistics suggest, and consistency remains a distant goal.

Defendants on death row continue to be executed for such nonviolent crimes as illegal fundraising, graft, drug dealing and espionage. They are prosecuted and dispatched with a lack of transparency, according to Chinese lawyers who complain of blocked access to their clients and say many confessions are still coerced.

I am intrigued and pleased to see these international death penalty issues getting front-page attention from the Washington Post.  But I continue to be greatly troubled and quite stunned that national federal death penalty issues continue to be ignored by the Post and all other major media outlets. 

As I have noted in prior posts, the status and developments in federal capital cases remain shrouded in secrecy and seem to be subject to all sorts of arbitrary forces.  Specifically, as I reported here, federal executions were put on hold long ago when the legal debate over lethal injection protocols started heating up.  But, even though these legal issues were resolved by the Baze ruling and even though many states are back in the execution business, the federal capital system remains in a state of suspended animation.  And it is very difficult to even discover what is going on legally and procedurally in the federal capital system.

Given the eagerness with which the traditional media and many academics and courts obsess over state capital cases, I continue to be perplexed and flummoxed by the lack of attention given to federal capital cases.  As detailed here at DPIC, there has not been a single federal execution in nearly six years!  Nor, to my knowledge is there a single serious execution date set for a single defendant sitting on federal death row.  I can certainly riff of the Post headline by asserting that USA's "capital cases are still secret, arbitrary."

As detailed here at DPIC, there are 55 murderers on federal death row and more than a dozen of these killers have been languishing on the federal row for over a decade.  Indeed, three defendants who were sentenced to death by a federal jury for series of drug-related murders have been on federal death row since February 1993!  I have not seen any news about any of these cases in over a year and there is no reason to believe that these defendants are scheduled to be executed anytime soon.  And, I am still patiently awaiting a single public account — from the Bush Administration or from Congress or from the media — concerning why the federal death penalty is still apparently subject to a de facto moratorium on executions and even execution dates.

Some related posts on the federal death penalty:

December 24, 2008 at 10:14 AM | Permalink


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CA6 released its en banc on acquitted conduct at sentencing; you're cited a lot (in the dissent, sadly).


Posted by: Sentencing Observer | Dec 24, 2008 10:56:59 AM

And Happy Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Sol Invictus, to you, professor.

Posted by: GF | Dec 24, 2008 10:58:53 AM

You can view pictures of the Number One Killing Bus on my blogpost here.

Most states seem reluctant to open up executions to journalists and school children, because they fear that if people see what it looks like to see a bureaucrat kill someone, they might vote against it. Strangely, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran there is much more respect for press freedom in this area, and the people love to watch executions, because watching bureaucrats kill people is part of their culture. In the US, our culture revolves around complaining about bureaucrats killing poor people.

Posted by: S.cotus | Dec 24, 2008 9:46:55 PM

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