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January 15, 2010

Noting the reduction in Florida death sentences

The Orlando Sentinel has this new piece about modern capital punishment trends, which is headlined "Fewer Florida juries voting for death — why is unclear: Trend toward fewer executions evident elsewhere in nation as wel."  Here is how it starts:

Juries in Florida recommended 14 men die by lethal injection last year after hearing about their crimes and why the state should execute them. The number is 10 fewer than were recommended for death in 2008, when 24 defendants were sentenced to die, according to figures kept by the Department of Corrections.

The decline continues a downward trend in the state's death sentences, mirroring what is happening across the country. "Outside a few states, the death penalty is not a regular occurrence," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that provides analysis about the death penalty.

A year-end study by the Death Penalty Information Center reported 106 death sentences nationwide, a 63 percent drop in the past decade. No one can point to a single direct cause for the drop, saying it's a mix of the economy, a decline in violent crimes and juries' reluctance to vote for death. It could be more states with the death penalty have added the option of life in prison without parole.

January 15, 2010 at 09:45 AM | Permalink


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Maybe if Charlie Crist would start signing death warrants for the killers who have exhausted their appeals (Florida has a big backlog), then Floridians would be willing to sentence more people to death. I think that there's a real "use it or lose it" thing with the death penalty.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 15, 2010 10:58:51 AM

Yeah, federalist, I'm sure that when juries are deliberating in the jury room about whether to recommend death, they are saying "I don't think we should because Crist hasn't signed any death warrants lately." Yup, that's definitely the reason. [sarcasm].

Posted by: DEJ | Jan 15, 2010 11:47:41 AM

DEJ, do you really think that actual executions have no impact on death verdicts?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 15, 2010 12:56:37 PM

Is there any actual evidence for either side of this dispute? That is, does anyone have any real evidence that jurors consider execution rates when deciding whether to impose a death sentence?

Anyone can speculate all they want, but I'm more interested in facts.

Posted by: arx | Jan 15, 2010 4:27:31 PM

I tend to disagree with Federalist a lot, but I think he's right on this one. Surely juries don't consider execution rates in the jury room, but surely their impressions of the effectiveness of capital punishment generally – including frequent (and to my mind largely offensive) anecdotes about "endless appeals" – impact juror enthusiasm for the punishment. It's not considered directly but it's part of the atmospherics.

Posted by: dm | Jan 15, 2010 5:31:36 PM

"Outside a few states, the death penalty is not a regular occurrence," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that provides analysis about the death penalty.
Yet again the DPIC pulls the wool over another lazy reporter's eyes. The DPIC is an actively anti-death penalty organization--it doesn't merely provide analysis. Mr. Dieter never seems to volunteer that information because he knows he can be more effective if his phony "exoneration" list seems to come from an unbiased source. An effort needs to be made to make news organizations aware that the DPIC is not unbiased at all but is indeed stridently opposed to capital punishment. From a pro-DP perspective, it's important to do so especially since Mr. Dieter is quoted in nearly every article there is about the death penalty.

Posted by: Alpino | Jan 15, 2010 6:54:36 PM


Kent Scheidegger gets quoted often enough that I think reporters have the difference down. They aren't interested in neutral sources, they want reliable slant.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 15, 2010 7:04:46 PM

We know for a fact that murder rates are down (partially because there is less crime and partially because trauma care is getting better, so fewer people are dying when violently attacked). There is also strong suggestive evidence based upon the demographics of the offenders who are caught and the victims in the murders that do occur that a smaller proportion of them involve gang or organized crime activity which is more often eligible for the death penalty.

In other words, there may simply be fewer death penalty eligible crimes being committed.

There may also be tipping point issues. If fewer death penalties are imposed due to a decline in the murder rate, the penalty becomes more rare and more members may cease to view the death penalty as the normative punishment for aggravated murder. At its core, a death sentence jury is being asked to apply what they see as community norms, and actual practice can impact the community norms that the jury channels.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jan 15, 2010 7:30:28 PM

While the left wing academic celebrates this partial victory for the criminal lover, obstructionist lawyer, he forgets something.

The 17,000 extra-judicial executions brought to us courtesy of the criminal lover lawyer and its running dogs on the bench, protecting murderers and violent criminals.

The families of murder victims should be making lists of those really responsible for the murder of their loved ones. Then they should bring street justice to these internal traitors.

There is no recourse in the law. The system is rigged airtight. And self-help has full moral and intellectual justification due to the self-dealt immunities of the criminal lover traitor. These are heartless racists, making their livings protecting violent criminals, including the prosecutors and judges.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 15, 2010 9:38:31 PM

Alpino --

For an evenly matched death penalty debate (well, it wasn't all that even in my biased opinion), try this: http://www.fed-soc.org/debates/dbtid.20/default.asp

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 15, 2010 10:42:18 PM

Soronel, while reporters themselves may have the difference down (although I think that it varies widely), it's important that they make abundantly clear to their readers who's being quoted. Certain news organizations do so consistently, such as the AP, who consistently identify the Death Penalty Information Center as being against capital punishment. However, when news articles don't make it clear that Dieter and the Death Penalty Information Center are against the death penalty, then they end up giving the DPIC's various assertions, especially the 130 "exonerations", the appearance of fact.

Posted by: Alpino | Jan 15, 2010 11:17:19 PM

Alpino --

The press, which is anti-DP to a far greater extent than the electorate (see, e.g., the NYT, LAT and WaPo), knows what it's doing. It has three prongs: selection, emphasis and timing. This recent story about fewer death sentences in 2009 could just as easily been headlined: EXECUTIONS SPIKE IN 2009. But that's not what it was. You find that out 11 column inches down the story (which is where Kent gets quoted), but the first three or four paragraphs are all about the decline in death sentences and the DPIC spin on it.

Other sorts of stories will quote the DPIC up front, and then tell you a few paragraphs later that it's an abolitionist organization (although I have not one time seen them use the word "abolitionist").

Another thing I've never seen is for Kent or any pro-DP person get quoted or cited BEFORE the DPIC hoves into view; the DPIC automatically goes to the front of the line. Nor do I recall seeing stories about how anti-DP bills get defeated; the spin is always that "four more states considered anti-DP legislation this year," when of course all that necessarily would mean is that a single abolitionist legislator would toss a bill in the hopper to have it die for lack of interest.

Stories about "international condemnation" of the DP are also wildly slanted, partly because of their chosen (by the reporter) sourcing. The strories report, correctly as far as it goes, that Britain has done away with the DP, along with France, Germany and the rest of Western Europe -- "even Russia"! The DP remains, they go on to tell us, in such places as Iran, Yemen and North Korea and other yuuuuuchy countries.

What they omit to say in this coverage of the "international reach" of abolitionism is that well over half the world's population retains the DP, including large, democratic, rule-of-law countries such as India and Japan, the latter with a murder rate a fraction of that in abolitionist Western Europe. They never tell us that the world's four largest countries retain the DP. In other words, the press spin on "international condemnation" of the death penalty turns out to be parochial and Euro-centric if not ourright racist.

Finally for now, the press almost always takes these supposed "exoneration" figures whole cloth, even though, as you have pointed out, what gets passed off as "exoneration" in abolitionist circles is not always (indeed not all that often) proof that the defendant was FACTUALLY INNOCENT. And the abolitionists frequently use the slippery phrase "wrongly convicted," which is intended to create the impression that the defendant being talked about was actually innocent, whereas this may be very far from the case. It's similar to, for example, the notion that Sen. Stevens was "wrongly convicted" -- which he was -- but it's a far cry from saying that he was innocent -- which in all likelihood he was not.

That abolitionists and their press allies so frequently resort to this slippery sort of stuff would seem to me to be unfortunate in its own right, and, even more revealing, a tip-off to the fact that they know the weakness, if forthrightly stated, of their own case.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 16, 2010 10:32:45 AM

It appears to me that the reporters and copy editors use standard forms to write about common topics.
Articles about the DP tend to be very similar which suggests they are using a form.

My guess is that if they use a standard form they think they can skip to fact checking step and if that is so old facts are not updated and incorrect facts are repeated. A reporter and a copy editor can make the person interviewed look like a fool without intending to do so by simply substituting a common term for a technical term. I hate to think how much damage they could do if they did that on purpose.

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 16, 2010 5:28:16 PM

Charlie Crist has softened up since he became Governor.He was our Attorney General before and was quite aggressive. The Florida Legislature should authorize a change in the statute to have the Circuit court where the inmate was sentenced to set the execution dates. Several states do it this way along with some that authorize the State Supreme Court to order it. This eliminates a Governor who doesn't have guts to do it.

Posted by: DaveP | Jan 16, 2010 6:13:49 PM

The capital trial I sat on didn't involve the DP but I spoke to a friend of mine who did sit on a jury where at least 4 of the jurors to his recollection repeatedly argued that it would never be carried out so why not do a LWOP. Some jurors stated that by the time the inmate exhausted his appeals, it would be declared unconstitutional. The jury chose life 7-5 and the judge agreed.

Posted by: DaveP | Jan 16, 2010 6:28:22 PM

The jurors may also be becoming increasingly aware of the police and prosecutorial misconduct that undermines the integrity of the system and the prosecutor's calls for death--even in those cases where that penalty may well be deserved. See e.g., Wilson v. Beard 2009 WL 4981199 (3rd Cir. 2009) (murder conviction and sentence of death vacated because of prosecutor’s suppression of favorable information regarding witnesses criminal convictions and providing money to witnesses); Montgomery v. Bagley, 581 F.3d 440 (6th Cir. 2009) (murder conviction and death penalty vacated because of prosecutor’s failure to disclose exculpatory report); U.S. v. Robinson, 583 F.3d 1265 (10th Cir. 2009) (non-capital)[prosecutor's opposition to disclosure of informant’s mental health records to defense violated Due Process and Confrontation Clause); U.S. v. Price 566 F.3d 900 (9th Cir. 2009)(non-capital)(conviction reversed where prosecutor violated his due process duty under Brady to learn the results of investigation into criminal past of government witness); Tennison v. City and County of San Francisco,570 F.3d 1078(9th Cir. 2009) (state's motion for summary judgement denied in civil suit under § 1983 as a result of Brady violations that resulted in two innocent men serving 13 years in prison where evidence showed state's suppression of (1) the taped confession of the actual killer, (2) statements by an eyewitness exonerating defendant) Police officer has affirmative duty to convey exculpatory information to the prosecutor)

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jan 17, 2010 2:14:03 PM

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