Arbitrariness

LAW REVIEW: Stephen Bright on Race, Poverty, Arbitrariness and the Death Penalty

In an article for the University of Richmond Law Review, Stephen Bright (pictured), President and Senior Counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, describes the arbitrary factors that continue to influence the death penalty. Bright first describes the historical context that led the Supreme Court to strike down the death penalty in 1976. He draws comparisons between lynchings, which he says were "used to maintain racial control after the Civil War," and capital punishment, which in 1976 "was very much tied to race - the oppression of African Americans, carried out by this country's criminal courts." He then explains how this legacy of racial bias continues today, saying, "The race of the defendant and the race of the victim continue to influence the imposition of the death penalty. The courts remain the part of American society least affected by the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century." Bright also addresses bias against the poor, and those with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. He concludes, "What purpose is the primitive penalty of death serving in a modern society? When we look closely at the issues - race, poverty, arbitrariness, conviction of the innocent, mental illness, and intellectual disability - from both a moral and practical standpoint, it will not be long before we join South Africa and the rest of the civilized world in making permanent, absolute, and unequivocal the injunction: 'Thou shall not kill.'"

Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Mentally Ill Defendant's Death Sentence as Disproportionate

In a case spotlighting issues of mental illness and the death penalty, the Florida Supreme Court on April 23 unanimously overturned the death sentence imposed on a severely mentally ill death-row inmate, Humberto Delgado (pictured). Delgado, who was convicted of killing a Tampa police officer, will be resentenced to life without parole. The court said, "We do not downplay the fact that Corporal Roberts lost his life as a result of Delgado's actions. However … we are compelled to reduce Delgado's sentence to life imprisonment because death is not a proportionate penalty when compared to other cases." Delgado had a history of delusions and psychotic behavior before the crime, including believing that police were out to kill him and that people were following him and sitting in trees outside his home. Delgado's attorneys pointed out that, because Delgado shot the police officer only after the officer had used a Taser, there was a lack of premeditation. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor released a statement in response to the decision, saying, "We respect the justice system and those who have to make tough decisions. Regardless of the conclusion, it doesn't bring Mike back and it doesn't relieve the pain that his wife, son and his TPD family feel. His life sentence will still ensure he is held accountable for his actions." 

Death Penalty Disproportionately Imposed by, Increasingly Isolated to, Small Number of Counties

(Click image to enlarge) The Atlantic reports that death sentences are heavily concentrated in a small number of heavy-use counties. According to DePaul University law professor Robert J. Smith, "1 percent of counties accounts for roughly 44 percent of all death sentences" since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Death-sentencing rates in those counties are not a product of their population or murder rates, Smith points out. For example, from 2004 to 2009, "Miami-Dade County (Florida), which has a population of approximately 2.5 million, only sentenced four people to death, whereas Oklahoma County, which has a population of approximately 750,000, sentenced eighteen people to death." DPIC's 2013 report, "The 2% Death Penalty," found that, "Houston had 8 percent more murders than Dallas, but 324 percent more death row inmates; 15 percent more murders than San Antonio, but 430 percent more death row inmates." The county disparities come from prosecutorial discretion, which allows local prosecutors to determine when to seek the death penalty. In some counties, Washington Post reporter Radley Balko reported, "a toxic culture of death and invincibility" values convictions and death sentences above all else. In 2007, Orleans Parish (Louisiana) Assistant District Attorney James Williams said, "There was no thrill for me unless there was a chance for the death penalty."

Sentence Reversal, Exoneration, and Natural Death More Likely Than Execution For Pennsylvania Death Row Inmates

(Click on image to enlarge). According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, Pennsylvania is less likely to execute a death row inmate than any other state that has carried out any executions.  A Reading Eagle analysis of BJS data from 1973 through 2013 shows that the Commonwealth has executed fewer than 1% of all death-sentenced defendants since 1973, with execution the least likely of 5 possible outcomes for people sentenced to die. Nationally, 16% of those sentenced to death have been executed. The most likely outcome for defendants sentenced to death in Pennsylvania is that their conviction or death sentence will be reversed, as is also the case nationally. However, in Pennsylvania exoneration and death by natural causes or suicide are also more common than execution. Since 1994, when death sentences peaked in Pennsylvania, the average number of removals from death row per year has doubled. The Reading Eagle reports that homicides across the state fell to a ten-year low in 2013, a period in which Pennsylvania carried out no executions. Three years ago, the Pennsylvania state legislature ordered a task force to study the state's problems in applying capital punishment, including costs, fairness in sentencing, and quality of representation. That report is expected later this year. Governor Tom Wolf has halted all executions in the state at least until the report is issued and problems are addressed.  Recent polls indicate that a majority of Pennsylvanian's now favor some form of a life sentence over the death penalty.

FBI Acknowledges Flawed Forensic Testimony Affected At Least 32 Death Penalty Cases

(Click on image to enlarge). The Federal Bureau of Investigation has formally acknowledged that examiners from the FBI Laboratory's microscopic hair comparison unit for decades provided flawed forensic testimony purportedly matching crime scene hair evidence to the hair of defendants charged with those crimes.  As part of an ongoing review of inaccurate forensic evidence, the FBI admitted that, In the 268 trials examined so far, its forensic experts systematically overstated the certainty of matches between crime scene hair evidence and defendants' hair.  That flawed testimony favored prosecutors more than 95% of the time.  The FBI admitted providing inaccurate expert testimony in 32 capital trials in which defendants were sentenced to death, including 10 cases from Florida and 5 each from Pennsylvania and Texas.  9 of the defendants -- including all 5 from Texas -- have since been executed. Studies have shown that inaccurate forensic evidence is frequently present in innocence cases -- and improper hair comparison testimony may already have contributed to at least one wrongful execution.  Senator Richard Blumenthal, a former prosecutor, said, “These findings are appalling and chilling in their indictment of our criminal justice system, not only for potentially innocent defendants who have been wrongly imprisoned and even executed, but for prosecutors who have relied on fabricated and false evidence despite their intentions to faithfully enforce the law.”

EDITORIALS: New York Times Sees "Alarming" Link Between Official Misconduct and Death Penalty Mistakes

In an editorial on April 13, the New York Times described the death penalty as "cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime" and called it "so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use."  The Times described how prosecutorial misconduct and an "all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs" played a substantial role in the convictions of many of the 152 innocent men and women who have been exonerated after beingly wrongly sent to death row and had contributed to the execution of at least two death-row inmates who almost certainly were innocent. "Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress," the editorial said. "But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases." The Times noted that "In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role."  Read full editorial below.

1 County, 2 Prosecutors Responsible for 3/4 of Recent Louisiana Death Sentences, Amid Charges of Prosecutorial Misconduct

Of the 12 death sentences handed down in Louisiana in the last 5 years, 8 have come from Caddo Parish. Caddo is also among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for 56% of people on death row. With a population of just 257,000, Caddo Parish has sent 16 people to death row, the second highest of any parish in Louisiana. Two prosecutors, one of whom is under investigation for prosecutorial misconduct, are responsible for 6 of the recent death sentences. Hugo Holland, who handled two cases that resulted in death sentences in the last five years, is being investigated by the Disciplinary Board of the state's bar association for failing to turn over evidence favorable to a defendant being tried for the murder of a prison guard. That defendant's death sentence was overturned in 2014. Prosecutor Dale Cox, who obtained four of Caddo's recent death sentences, has said he believes death row inmates spend too long awaiting execution, but waited 10 months to sign off on the release of Glenn Ford after evidence of Ford's innocence was uncovered. Ford was convicted in Caddo Parish and spent 30 years on death row before his exoneration. (Pictured: Caddo County Courthouse, 2010.)

LAW REVIEW: "The American Death Penalty and the (In)Visibility of Race"

In a new article for the University of Chicago Law Review, Professors Carol S. Steiker (left) of the University of Texas School of Law and Jordan M. Steiker (right) of Harvard Law School examine the racial history of the American death penalty and what they describe as the U.S. Supreme Court's "deafening silence" on the subject of race and capital punishment. They assert that the story of the death penalty "cannot be told without detailed attention to race."  The Steikers' article recounts the role of race in the death penalty since the early days of the United States, including the vastly disproportionate use of capital punishment against free and enslaved blacks in the antebellum South and describes the racial and civil rights context in which the constitutional challenges to the death penalty in the 1960s and 1970s were pursued. The authors contrast the "salience of race" in American capital punishment law and practice through the civil rights era with the "relative invisibility [of race] in the judicial opinions issued in the foundational cases of the modern era."

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