Texas Executions Drop to Lowest Level in 20 Years

Texas is poised to have the fewest number of executions in 20 years. As of October, the state has executed seven prisoners in 2016, with just one more execution scheduled this calendar year. The total would mark the fewest executions in the state in any year since 1996. In that year, three people were executed, as legal challenges to a new state law billed as speeding up appeals put most executions on hold. Fifteen execution dates for 11 people have been stayed or halted in Texas this year. Several of those, most notably the case of Jeffrey Wood, hinged on questions about "junk science" testimony. Wood's execution was stayed to permit review of claims that his death sentence was a product of false psychiatric testimony from James Grigson, who earned the nickname "Dr. Death" for his testimony in numerous capital cases claiming that defendants were certain to commit future acts of violence. Another Texas prisoner, Robert Roberson, was granted a stay to allow him to challenge now-debunked testimony that his daughter died of shaken baby syndrome, when several alternative, non-homicide explanations for her death better fit the evidence. At the same time as Texas courts have halted executions over questionable scientific testimony, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two Texas cases this term (Buck v. Davis and Moore v. Texas) that also involve scientifically-unsound mental health testimony that was used to obtain or defend death sentences. "Texas courts are now aware of the dangers associated with forensic sciences and are closely scrutinizing this evidence,” said Greg Gardner, an attorney for John Battaglia, who had an execution date set for December 7. Along with the drop in executions, Texas has also seen a dramatic decline in death sentences. Death sentences have declined steadily since 2005, as life without parole became available as a sentencing alternative in death penalty trials, but the past two years have seen even lower numbers. Just two people were sentenced to death in 2015, and Texas juries have handed down three death sentences so far this year. Experts say that changing public attitudes, falling murder rates, and better lawyering have also contributed to the decline. (Click to enlarge.)

STUDIES: Ohio Executions Reveal Vast Racial, Gender, and Geographic Inequities

"Ohio’s death penalty is plagued by vast inequities" grounded in race, gender, and geography, according to a new University of North Carolina study. UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner examined the 53 executions Ohio has conducted since resuming capital punishment in the 1970s. His study found "quite significant" racial, gender, and geographic disparities in Ohio's executions that, Baumgartner said, "undermine public confidence in the state’s ability to carry out the death penalty in a fair and impartial manner." The data showed that Ohio was 6 times more likely to execute a prisoner convicted of killing a white female victim than if the victim was a black male. Although 43% of Ohio murder victims are white, 65% of Ohio executions involved the murder of white victims. Similarly, while only 27% of Ohio murder victims are female, 52% of all executions involved cases with female victims. The study also discovered significant geographic disparities in Ohio executions. More that half of the state's executions were concentrated in just 4 counties, while more than 3/4 of Ohio counties have not produced any executions. Lake County had an execution rate that was 11 times the statewide average. Although the state's three most populous counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton) have similar murder rates, Hamilton's .60 executions per 100 homicides was more than double the rate in Cuyahoga and nearly 9 times that in Franklin. Sharon L. Davies, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, said that the "race or gender of a victim, and the county of the crime, should not influence who is sentenced to die" and urged "Ohio citizens and lawmakers[to] review the findings of this important research." (Click image to enlarge.)

Missouri Likely to See Change After Historic High in Executions

A decline in executions is likely in Missouri after two years of unusually high numbers. In 2014, Missouri tied with Texas for the most executions in the U.S., and it was second to Texas in 2015. However, changing attitudes about the death penalty--similar to national shifts--are evident in Missouri's sentencing trends: no one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, and less than one person per year has been sentenced to death in the past seven years. Moreover, a bill with bi-partisan support has been introduced to repeal the death penalty. It passed the Senate General Laws committee in late January. An editorial in the Columbia Daily Tribune highlighted the political diversity in the legislative support for the measure. Among those who voted the bill out of committee were two Democrats and two Republicans. Sen. Paul Wieland cited his pro-life views as a reason for support, while Sen. Rob Schaaf said, as long as it is "not fairly applied...I'm going to be opposed to the death penalty."

Innocents Lost: Remembering The Wrongfully Condemned Who Died in 2015

Three death-row exonerees, including two who became symbols of the risks of wrongful capital convictions, died in 2015. David Keaton (pictured, far left), the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty, died on July 3 at the age of 63. A teenaged Keaton was sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based upon a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. Keaton was exonerated in 1973 when new evidence revealed the actual perpetrator. Glenn Ford (pictured, left), who was exonerated in 2014 after spending nearly 30 years on Louisiana's death row, died of lung cancer on June 29 at age 65. Ford was tried before an all-white jury, represented by appointed counsel who had never handled a criminal case. He was convicted despite the absence of any evidence linking him to the murder weapon, when prosecutors failed to disclose that confidential informants had identified two other men as the murderers. They ultimately admitted that "credible evidence" showed that "Ford was neither present at, nor a participant in," the murder. Death-row exoneree Andrew Golden, who spent 26 months on Florida's death row from 1991 to 1994, died in May. Golden had been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife although police investigators and the medical examiner had testified that the evidence did not suggest foul play. At least four other death-row prisoners who may have been wrongfully condemned - Lester BowerBrian Keith TerrellDonnis Musgrove, and Ronald Puksar - were executed or died on death row before judicial review of their cases were complete.

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Use of Death Penalty in 2015

On December 16, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report." The death penalty declined by virtually every measure in 2015. 28 people were executed, the fewest since 1991. Death sentences dropped 33% from last year's historic low, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. There have now been fewer death sentences imposed in the last decade than in the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1988; and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) accounted for 86% of all executions. For the first time since 1995, the number of people on death row fell below 3,000. Public support for the death penalty also dropped, and the 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for people convicted of murder. Six people were exonerated from death row this year, bringing the total number of exonerations since 1973 to 156. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director. See DPIC's Press ReleaseView a video summarizing the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

U.S. on Track for Fewest Executions, New Death Sentences in a Generation

Both executions and new death sentences in the United States are on pace for significant declines to their lowest levels in a generation, Reuters reports. With 25 executions conducted so far this year, and only two more scheduled, the United States could have its lowest number of executions since 1991, significantly below the peak of 98 executions in 1999. Only 8 states have carried out executions in the last two years, down from a high of 20, also in 1999. New death sentences, which peaked at 315 in 1996, declined to 73 last year, and that number is expected to drop even further this year. The slowdowns in executions and new death sentences are just two of several indicators that the U.S. is moving away from capital punishment. Reuters reports that these changes come from a combination of factors, including the high cost of death penalty cases, the recent problems surrounding lethal injection, and improved capital representation in high-use states. Texas and Virginia, two of the death penalty states that historically have been the most aggressive in carrying out executions, stand out as examples of the punishment's declining use. Both states have implemented major reforms in indigent defense in recent years, producing dramatic changes in the death penalty landscape. In Texas, which had 48 death sentences in 1999, juries have handed down only three death sentences so far this year. Virginia, which has executed the highest percentage of death row inmates of any state, is on track to have no death sentences for the fourth consecutive year.

Oklahoma Used Wrong Drug, Violated State Protocol, in January Execution of Charles Warner

A report by The Oklahoman has revealed that Oklahoma violated its execution protocol and used the wrong final drug during the execution of Charles Warner on January 15, 2015. Warner, whose final words were "My body is on fire," was executed using potassium acetate, the same drug that was delivered for Richard Glossip's aborted execution on September 30. The drug called for in the protocol is potassium chloride. Glossip's execution was stayed as a result of the mix-up, and Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested an indefinite hold on executions so his office could investigate. "I want to assure the public that our investigation will be full, fair and complete and includes not only actions on Sept. 30, but any and all actions prior, relevant to the use of potassium acetate and potassium chloride,” Pruitt said. Dale Baich, who represented Oklahoma death row inmates in Glossip v. Gross, said, "We cannot trust Oklahoma to get it right or to tell the truth. The State’s disclosure that it used potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride during the execution of Charles Warner yet again raises serious questions about the ability of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to carry out executions."

Virginia Executes Inmate with Appeal Still Pending Before Supreme Court

On October 1, Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto (pictured) before the U.S. Supreme Court had decided whether to grant a stay on his challenge to Virginia's use of an execution drug obtained from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Robert Lee, Prieto's attorney, said, "The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were considering Mr. Prieto’s request for a stay of execution but the Virginia Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution without waiting for a decision from the Justices." Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson held a hearing on a challenge to Virginia's lethal injection procedure. Virginia used compounded pentobarbital obtained from Texas, without any inquiry into the manufacture, purity, or storage of the drug. Prieto's lawyers raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the drug. Hudson denied the appeal and lifted a preliminary injunction that had put the execution on hold. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied Prieto's appeal of this issue. Prieto's lawyers then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, but Virginia carried out the execution before the Court could issue a decision. The last time a state executed an inmate with appeals still pending was January 29, 2014, when Missouri executed Herbert Smulls.