Death Row

Federal Appeals Court Bars Automatic Solitary Confinement for Former Death Row Prisoners

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on February 9 declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement after courts had overturned their death sentences. Saying that, “Scientific research and evolving jurisprudence has made the harms of solitary confinement clear,” the unanimous three-judge panel ruled that prisoners whose death sentences have been overturned have a constitutionally protected interest against being held in solitary confinement, unless the state could show, after an individualized assessment, that such custody was necessary for security and safety reasons. Shawn Walker and Craig Williams, the former death row prisoners who brought the suit, had spent 14 and 22 years, respectively, in solitary confinement on death row before courts vacated their death sentences. Then each was kept on death row without a death sentence for the six additional years it took to conduct the resentencing proceedings in their cases. In barring continued treatment of inmates like Walker and Williams as death-row prisoners without any demonstrated security need to do so, former Chief Circuit Judge Theodore McKee warned that "Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty. Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row." According to a July 2015 DPIC analysis of Pennsylvania death row, 115 former death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences had been overturned in post-conviction proceedings had been resentenced to life or less, or acquitted. Most had been kept in death-row solitary confinement without active death sentences before being resentenced or exonerated.

REPORT: Two-Thirds of Oregon's Death Row Have Mental Impairments, History of Severe Trauma, or Were Under 21 at Offense

Most of the prisoners on Oregon's death row suffer from significant mental impairments, according a study released on December 20, 2016 by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard University. The Project's analysis of case records, media reports, and opinions of Oregon legal experts found that two-thirds of the 35 people on the state's death row "possess signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred." The report argues that these characteristics make the prisoners less culpable than the average offender. "[T]he U.S. Supreme Court has held that regardless of the severity of the crime, imposition of the death penalty upon a juvenile or an intellectually disabled person, both classes of individuals who suffer from impaired mental and emotional capacity relative to typically developed adults, would be so disproportionate as to violate his or her 'inherent dignity as a human being,'" the report says, drawing parallels between those classes and the prisoners included in the report. The study found that 9 of the 35 death row prisoners (26%) "presented evidence of significantly impaired cognitive functioning as evidenced by low IQ scores, frontal lobe damage, and fetal alcohol syndrome"; approximately one in four exhibited symptoms of mental illness, or had a confirmed mental health diagnosis; one-third suffered some form of severe childhood or emotional trauma of the sort known to affect brain development; and six (17%) were under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. In one case, an Oregon death row prisoner was granted a hearing to determine whether he is intellectually disabled after evidence showed he has a psychotic disorder, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, visible brain defects in his corpus callosum, a low IQ, and deficits in adaptive behavior that left him functioning at the level of a seven-and-a-half-year old child. His co-defendant, a childhood friend who admitted that he had exerted pressure on the first defendant to participate in the crime, was given a life sentence. The report concludes, "These findings raise a legitimate question as to whether Oregon’s capital punishment scheme is capable of limiting application of the death penalty to the most culpable offenders." Oregon currently has a moratorium on executions, and has executed just two people in 40 years.

Summer 2016 "Death Row USA" Shows Ongoing Decline in Death Row Populations

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund reports that America's death rows have continued to decline in size, with 2,905 men and women on death row across the United States as of July 1, 2016. The new figures, reported in the organization's Summer 2016 edition of its quarterly publication, Death Row USA, represent a 14% decline from the 3,366 prisoners who were on death row one decade earlier. The shrinking of death row populations across the country has exceeded the number of executions during that period, meaning that more prisoners have been removed from death row as a result of having their convictions or death sentences overturned than have been added to the row with newly death-sentenced prisoners. The nation's largest death row states remain: California (741), Florida (396), Texas (254), Alabama (194), and Pennsylvania (175). Nationwide, 42.34% of death row inmates are White, 41.79% are Black, 13.08% are Latino/a, and 2.78% are other races, but racial makeup varies by state. Among the most racially-disproportionate death row populations are Delaware (78% minorities), Texas (73% minorities), Louisiana (70% minorities), Nebraska (70% minorities), and California (66% minorities). Only 55 death row prisoners (1.89%) are women. 

"Death Row, USA Spring 2015" Illustrates Continuing Decline of Death Penalty

The Spring 2015 update to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's publication, Death Row, USA, reports that 3,002 men and women were on death rows across the United States as of April 1, 2015. This reflects a continuing decline in the size of death row, down 13% since Spring 2005, when 3,452 people were on America's death rows. Several states saw significant drops in their death row populations over that period while carrying out few or no executions: Pennsylvania dropped from 230 to 184 (no executions), North Carolina fell from 197 to 157 (9 executions), and Idaho declined by half, from 22 to 11 (2 executions). The nation's largest death row states are: California (746), Florida (401), Texas (271), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania. The racial demographics of death row nationwide are 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino/a, and 2% other races. Only 54 death row inmates (1.8%) are female. The most racially concentrated death rows are Delaware (76% racial minorities); Texas (72%), Louisiana (71%), California (66%), and Pennsylvania (65%).

"Death Row USA, Winter 2015" Shows More Than 12% Drop in U.S. Death Row in Last Decade

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA, which reports state-by-state information on death rows across the country, reflects a more than 12% decline in the size of death row nationwide. The Winter 2015 edition reports that 3,019 inmates were on America's death rows as of December 31, 2014, down 12.6% from the 3,455 men and women reported ten years earlier. The racial demographics of death row are now 43% white, 42% black, and 13% Latino/Latina. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (403), Texas (276), Alabama (198), and Pennsylvania (188). Of those jurisdictions with at least 10 people on death row, those with the highest proportions of racial minorities were Delaware (76%), Texas (72%), and Louisiana (71%).

Maryland Attorney General Asks Court to Vacate Death Sentences

On November 6, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (pictured) filed a brief with an appellate court, formally requesting that the death sentence of Jody Lee Miles be vacated. Gansler argued that Miles's death sentence is no longer valid. Miles was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. In 2006, Maryland's Court of Appeals suspended executions because the state's lethal injection procedures had not been lawfully implemented. In 2013, the state repealed the death penalty for future offenses. Upon repeal, Miles filed a motion to have his sentence changed to life in prison without parole, arguing that the repeal should apply to him, too. However, the appellate court rejected the argument, stating that the repeal only applied to future convictions. Gansler's motion contended that the absence of an execution protocol rendered an execution in Maryland a "legal and factual impossibility." He requested that Miles's death sentence be changed to life in prison without parole, and he noted that a decision on this motion would leave the door "wide open" for challenges from the other three defendants on Maryland's death row.

NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row, USA" Fall 2014 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed a continuing decline in the size of the death row population. The new total of 3,035 represented a 13% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,471. The racial demographics of death row have been steady, with white inmates making up 43% of death row, black inmates composing 42%, and Latino inmates 13%. California continued to have the largest death row, with 745 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (198), and Pennsylvania (188). Arkansas, which last carried out an execution nearly nine years ago, had a 13% decrease in its death row population since last year. The report also contains information about executions. Since 1976, 10% (143) of those executed were defendants who gave up their appeals.

NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row, USA" Spring 2014 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed an ongoing decline in the size of the death row population. The number of prisoners on death row decreased from 3,070 on January 1, 2014, to 3,054 on April 1. The new total represented a 12% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,487. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania (194). The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (72%), among states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races. Only 1.9% of death row prisoners were female.

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