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November 3, 2009

Fascinating newspaper report on the impact of Ring in Idaho

This local article from Idaho suggests that the Supreme Court's 2002 Ring decision concerning jury trial rights in capital cases has had a profound impact on the operation of the death penalty in The Gem State.  The article is headlined "Idaho prosecutors opting not to seek death penalty: Only 2 Idaho counties have asked for the death penalty in murder cases since 2003, and Ada hasn’t pursued it since being denied twice in 2005," and here are excerpts:

[I]n death penalty cases in Idaho since 2003, the jury is the ultimate arbiter.  And rather than take death penalty cases to juries, prosecutors across the state are opting not to pursue executions at all or are agreeing to plea deals that put killers in prison for life.  Prosecutors have to weigh the high costs of pursuing the death penalty and the suffering of victims' families through years of appeals against a sentence that is largely symbolic.

Just one person in half a century has been executed in Idaho — double-murderer Keith Eugene Wells, who dropped all appeals and demanded a lethal injection in 1994.  And since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 said that juries, not judges, must issue the death penalty, prosecutors around the state have been forced into a guessing game: Even if jurors believe the accused committed the crime, will they pass a death sentence?

So far, only Ada and Canyon counties have asked juries to issue the death penalty, and less than half of those cases resulted in death sentences.  Not one of Idaho's 42 other counties has taken a death penalty case to trial.  Of the four attempts in Ada County, juries sentenced two men to death and spared the lives of two others — including one in a child-death case....

Recent experience has shown Ada County prosecutors how difficult it is to persuade jurors to hand out a death sentence.   In 2004, juries called for the execution of convicted killers Azad Abdullah and Erick Hall, but in 2005 spared the lives of Jason McDermott and Ignacio Sanchez even after finding both guilty of first-degree murder.

In McDermott's case, one juror out of 12 could not get past defense evidence that showed McDermott had a brain injury from being shot in the head, mitigating his execution-style slaying of 18-year-old Zachariah Street in May 2003.   After Sanchez was found guilty of beating his girlfriend's 2-year-old daughter to death over a period of weeks in 2003, defense attorneys showed he had been physically abused as a child, had battled with depression and other mental illnesses, and had used methamphetamine since he was 12....

Such uncertainty has helped lead to settlements in a number of death penalty cases in Idaho since the 2003 law change.  Former Canyon County Prosecutor Dave Young dropped pursuit of the death penalty against Alofa Time in 2007 in exchange for a guilty plea to first-degree murder.  Time is now serving life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for killing and beheading his ex-wife, Theresa, in 2006.  Young said he made the deal "to spare the family from a lengthy trial and being forced to relive this horrific crime."...

In 2006, Jim Junior Nice avoided the death penalty after cutting a deal with Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs to plead guilty to murdering his three young children in Twin Falls the year before.  Prosecutors say Nice used rat poison and over-the-counter medication to kill 6-year-old twins Justin and Spencer and their 2-year-old sister, Raquel.

Loebs said he made the deal in the Nice case for a variety of reasons - including the fact that Nice's guilty plea means he will never leave prison.  But he did say Nice's attorneys would have put on mitigation evidence that their client suffered from mental illness.  Figuring out whether or not to seek the death penalty "is a tough, tough calculation to make," said Loebs. "It's one of the toughest things you have to do as a prosecutor."

November 3, 2009 at 01:56 PM | Permalink


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I don't know anything about the situation in Idaho, but the article mischaracterizes Ring when it states that the jury must issue the sentence for the defendant. Instead, Ring holds that the jury must find the fact to make the sentence death penalty eligible. If the jury makes such a finding, the judge can sentence the defendant to death.

Posted by: justice seeker | Nov 3, 2009 5:00:25 PM

Figuring out whether or not to seek the death penalty "is a tough, tough calculation to make," said Loebs. "It's one of the toughest things you have to do as a prosecutor."

I would think that the decision to prosecute a case where the evidence isn't solid would be a much tougher decision. I'd lose more sleep getting an innocent person a $50 fine than I would getting 1000 death sentences for murderers.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 3, 2009 5:40:43 PM

Idaho is a state with about 1.4 million people (barely enough to place it in the top 25 list of U.S. counties) and a far below average murder rate (about an order of magnitude lower per 100,000 people than states with the highest murder rates). It is also a fair guess to assume that a smaller than average proportion of murders in Idaho belong to the subset that qualify for the death penalty than in many other states (and of the even smaller subset of eligible for the death penalty cases where prosecutors seriously consider seeking that penalty). The numbers of cases are so small that random variation hides any discernable trend.

Most of Idaho's counties have very few people indeed, almost two-thirds of Idaho's territory is federal land (much of which is probably outside state court jurisdiction and almost all of which is very thinly populated and provides no state and local property tax base), and it is a fair guess that in its most rural areas that murder rates below the state average. Thus, the fact that two Idaho counties have used the death penalty, while 42 have not, in a six year period, doesn't mean much.

Equally important, Idaho is not notorious for having a particular pronounced anti-defendant bias in its criminal justice system, as states like Texas do. It doesn't routinely appoint drunks with no criminal law experience on the verge of being disbarred to defend capital cases in exchange for nominal fees. So, weak cases are not prosecuted as capital cases as they are in some states.

Still, one can hardly imagine a more conservative jury pool. Idaho is consistently one of the two or three most Republican leaning states in the Union, is heavily Mormon, has a frontier heritage, has a 91% non-Hispanic white population and probably a considerably more heavily non-Hispanic white population outside Boise City, which has more than a quarter of the state's people. Idaho judges may be tough, but the jury pool is not exactly sympathetic to criminal defendants.

The fact that very few executions were conducted in Idaho pre-Ring also casts doubt on its impact.

Bottom line: It is very hard to make the case that jury sentencing has had a big impact on death penalty prosecution rates in Idaho.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Nov 4, 2009 4:28:52 PM

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