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NEW RESOURCES: Bureau of Justice Statistics Releases "Capital Punishment, 2013"

On December 19, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual statistical report on capital punishment in the United States, with information for 2013. It noted a continuing decline in the death row population and the number of executions. Highlights of the report include:

  • The death row population dropped to 2,979 inmates as of 12/31/13, with 60% held in just 5 states (California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Alabama).
  • 2013 was the 13th consecutive year in which the population of death row decreased.
  • Only 52.2% of death row inmates completed high school. 13.1% have less than an 8th grade education, and 24.8% have a 9th-11th grade education.
  • 14.4% of death row inmates are Hispanic.
  • The average time from sentencing to execution of those executed in 2013 was 186 months, or 15.5 years.
  • 16% of people sentenced to death since 1973 have been executed. 6% died by causes other than execution. 38% were removed from death row because a court overturned their conviction, sentence, or the capital statute under which they were sentenced. 4.6% had their sentences commuted. 

For information about the death penalty in 2014, see DPIC's Year End Report


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ARBITRARINESS: Getting a Death Sentence May Depend on the Budget of the County

Whether the death penalty will be sought in a murder may depend more on the budget of the county in which it is committed than on the severity of the crime, according to several prosecutors. A report by the Marshall Project found that the high costs of capital cases prevent some district attorneys from seeking the death penalty. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.” One capital case can bankrupt a county: “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County, Texas. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?” Prosecutors cited past cases in which counties had to drastically alter their budgets in order to pay for death penalty trials. In Jasper County, Texas, a county auditor said the budget shock of a death penalty case was as bad as a flood that destroyed roads and bridges. Seeking the death penalty in one case in Gray County, Texas, forced the county to raise taxes and suspend raises for employees. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole. When Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor Greg McPhillips decided not to seek the death penalty in a case he thought was particularly heinous, he pointed to costs as the reason: “The County Attorney’s Office wants to do their part in helping the County meet its fiscal responsibilities in this time of economic crisis not only in our County but across the nation,” he said.


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DPIC Releases Year End Report: Executions and Death Sentence Fall to Historic Lows

On December 18, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2014: Year End Report." In 2014, 35 people were executed, the fewest in 20 years. Death sentences dropped to their lowest level in the modern era of the death penalty, with 72 people sentenced to death, the smallest number in 40 years. Just seven states carried out executions, and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Florida) accounted for 80% of the executions. The number of states carrying out executions was the lowest in 25 years. Seven people were exonerated from death row this year, including three men in Ohio, who were cleared of all charges 39 years after their convictions, the longest time among all death row exonerees. There have now been 150 people exonerated from death row since 1973. “The relevancy of the death penalty in our criminal justice system is seriously in question when 43 out of our 50 states do not apply the ultimate sanction,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The U.S. will likely continue with some executions in the years ahead, but the rationale for such sporadic use is far from clear.” See DPIC's Press ReleaseView a video summarizing the report.


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Pennsylvania Death Penalty Costs Estimated at $350 Million

In a series of articles analyzing Pennsylvania's death penalty, the Reading Eagle found that taxpayers have spent over $350 million on the death penalty over a period in which the state has carried out just three executions, all of inmates who dropped their appeals. Using data from a Maryland cost study, which concluded that death penalty cases cost $1.9 million more than similar cases in which the death penalty was not sought, the newspaper estimated that the cases of the 185 people on Pennsylvania's death row cost $351.5 million. The paper said the estimate was conservative because it did not include cases that were overturned, or cases where the prosecutor sought the death penalty but the jury returned another sentence. Pennsylvania legislators commissioned a cost study in 2011, but the report has not been issued. Senator Daylin Leach, one of the legislators who called for the state report, said he will reintroduce a bill to repeal the death penalty. Even supporters of the death penalty agreed that the costs are a problem: "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," said Berks County District Attorney John Adams. Judge Thomas Parisi, also of Berks County, said he believed there was an astronomical cost difference between the average death penalty case and a life-sentence case.


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COSTS: Capital Cases in Nevada Much More Expensive Than Non-Death Penalty

A recent study commissioned by the Nevada legislature found that the average death penalty case costs a half million dollars more than a case in which the death penalty is not sought. The Legislative Auditor estimated the cost of a murder trial in which the death penalty was sought cost $1.03 to $1.3 million, whereas cases without the death penalty cost $775,000. The auditor summarized the study's findings, saying, "Adjudicating death penalty cases takes more time and resources compared to murder cases where the death penalty sentence is not pursued as an option. These cases are more costly because there are procedural safeguards in place to ensure the sentence is just and free from error." The study noted that the extra costs of a death penalty trial were still incurred even in cases where a jury chose a lesser sentence, with those cases costing $1.2 million. See Chart below.


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FBI Reports Continued Decline in Police Officers Killed

On November 24, the FBI released a report on law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2013. Twenty-seven (27) officers were killed in "felonious acts," a 45% drop compared to 2012, when 49 officers were killed, and a 53% decline since 2004. Most (15) of the 27 officers killed were in the South, with Texas having the highest number of any state (6). Six officers were killed in the West, four in the Midwest, and only two in the Northeast. California had the second highest number, with 5. In 26 out of the 27 incidents, officers were killed by firearms. Forty-nine (49) other officers died as a result of accidents.


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STUDIES: Death Row Inmates Pay the Price for Lawyers' Mistakes

In Part Two of its investigation into the federal review of state death penalty cases, Death by Deadline, The Marshall Project found that in almost every case where lawyers missed crtiical filing deadlines for federal appeals, the only person sanctioned was the death row prisoner. Often the inmate's entire federal review was forfeited. The report highlighted the disparity between the 17 federal judicial districts where government-funded attorneys carefully monitor capital cases to ensure deadlines are met, and the other 77 districts, where appeals lawyers are appointed by judges and receive little oversight. In Florida, which produced 37 of the 80 missed deadline cases, appeals lawyers are selected from a state registry that includes lawyers who have previously missed deadlines in several capital cases. U.S. District Court judge Timothy Corrigan chastised one attorney who filed after the cutoff in three separate cases, saying, "I would be remiss if I did not share my deep concern that in these cases our federal system of justice fell short in the very situation where the stakes could not be higher.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently commented on the strict deadlines in capital cases, saying, “When you’re talking about the state taking someone’s life, there has to be a great deal of flexibility within the system to deal with things like deadlines. If you rely on process to deny what could be a substantive claim, I worry about where that will lead us.”


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STUDIES: Lawyers for Death Row Inmates Missed Critical Filing Deadlines in 80 Cases

An investigation by The Marshall Project showed that since Congress put strict time restrictions on federal appeals in 1996, lawyers for death row inmates missed the deadline at least 80 times, including 16 in which the prisoners have since been executed. The most recent of such cases occurred on Nov. 13, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida with no review in federal court. This final part of a death penalty appeal, also called habeas corpus, has been a lifesaver for inmates whose cases were marked with mistakes ignored by state courts. The Project's report, Death by Deadline, noted, "Some of the lawyers' mistakes can be traced to their misunderstandings of federal habeas law and the notoriously complex procedures that have grown up around it. Just as often, though, the errors have exposed the lack of care and resources that have long plagued the patchwork system by which indigent death-row prisoners are provided with legal help." One Alabama lawyer who missed the deadline was addicted to methamphetamine and was on probation for public intoxication. An attorney in Texas who filed too late had been reprimanded for misconduct, while another Texas lawyer had been put on probation twice by the state bar. Two weeks after being appointed in the death penalty case, he was put on probation again.


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STUDIES: Murder Rate Highest in South; Northeast Has Sharpest Decline
REGION 2013 Murder Rate 2012 Murder Rate Mur
Northeast 3.5 3.8
West 4.0 4.2
Midwest 4.5 4.7
South 5.3 5.5
NATIONAL 4.5 4.7

 On November 10 the Justice Department released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2013. The report revealed an overall decline of 5.2% in the national murder rate. The Northeast had the lowest murder rate--3.5 murders per 100,000 people--and the sharpest decline from last year. The South again had the highest murder rate (5.3). The West had the second-lowest murder rate (4.0), followed by the Midwest (4.5). The states with the highest murder rates in the country were Louisiana (10.8) and Alabama (7.2). The states with the lowest rates were Iowa (1.4) and Hawaii (1.5). The Northeast has also had the fewest executions in the modern era, with 4, and none since 2005. The South has had the highest number of executions (1,132) since 1976. The average murder rate for states with the death penalty (4.4) was higher than the average rate for states without the death penalty (3.4).


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STUDIES: The Effects of Judge vs. Jury Sentencing

Judge
(Click left image to enlarge). A new study by researchers at Cornell University examined the effects of Delaware's decision to transfer capital sentencing authority from the jury to the judge at trial. The study used data from capital cases between 1977 and 2007, during which time Delaware made the shift to judge sentencing--one of very few states to employ that procedure. According to the study, "Judges were significantly more likely to give a defendant the death sentence than were juries." During the era when Delaware relied on juries for sentencing, about 20% of capital cases resulted in death sentences. In the era when it relied solely on judges, 53% of the cases were given death sentences. Today, the state has a hybrid model in which a jury must unanimously find the existence of at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt to make a case death eligible. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation to the judge, which is given appropriate consideration.


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