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LAW REVIEWS: The "Unreliability Principle" in Death Sentencing

A forthcoming article by University of Miami law professor Scott E. Sundby in the William & Mary Bill of Rights journal examines the "unreliability principle" established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons. The article defines the unreliability principle as, "if too great a risk exists that constitutionally protected mitigation cannot be properly comprehended and accounted for by the sentencer, the unreliability that is created means that the death penalty cannot be constitutionally applied." That is, certain classes of defendants can be exempt from the death penalty because juries cannot be relied upon to adequately assess the mitigating factors. This principle applied to both intellectually disabled defendants in Atkins and juvenile defendants in Roper. Sundby argues that the principle should be extended to mentally ill defendants as well. Six factors that the court considered in Atkins and Roper are identified, and subequently applied to defendants with mental illnesses. Among the factors identified are the defendant's impared ability to assist defense attorneys, the defendant's impaired ability to serve as a witness, and the defendant's distorted decision-making skills.


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NEW STATEMENTS: The Death Penalty Is Incompatible with Human Dignity

On July 19 Prof. Charles Ogletree of Harvard University Law School wrote in the Washington Post about the future of the death penalty in the U.S. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed (Hall v. Florida) that executing defendants with intellectual disabilities serves “no legitimate penological purpose,” Prof. Ogletree said this reasoning could be applied to the whole death penalty: "The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows." He cited a study published in the Hastings Law Journal that found that "the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits," such as mental illness, youthful brain development, or abuse during childhood. He concluded that when you examine capital punishment more closely, "what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible." Read the op-ed below.


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STUDIES: Raising the Minimum Age for Death Sentences

The theory of the modern death penalty is that it is to be reserved for the "worst of the worst" offenders. In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court determined (Roper v. Simmons) that those under age 18 at the time of their crime were less culpable than older defendants and should be excluded from the possibility of execution. However, a recent paper by Hollis Whitson (l.) argued that scientific research on older adolescents implied that the Court's analysis should also apply to those under 21. Whitson cited neuroscience research showing, "that older adolescents (including 18-20 year-olds) differ from adults in ways that both diminish their culpability and impair the reliability of the sentencing process." Moreover, youths under 21 are treated as minors by numerous state and federal statutes, including liquor laws, inheritance laws, and eligibility for commercial drivers' licenses. Another problem highlighted in the paper is that minority youth suffer from the application of this punishment more than white youths. From 2000 to 2014, 60% of those executed for crimes committed by 18-20 year-olds were racial minorities, while only 40% were white. For defendants aged 21 and older, the reverse was true: 40% of those executed were minorities, while 60% were white.


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ARBITRARINESS: Almost All Recently Executed Inmates Possessed Qualities Similar to Those Spared

Some defendants who commit murder are automatically excluded from the death penalty in the U.S., such as juveniles and the intellectually disabled. Others with similar deficits are regularly executed. A new study by Robert Smith (l.), Sophie Cull, and Zoe Robinson examined the mitigating evidence present in 100 recent cases resulting in execution, testing whether the offenders possessed qualities similar to those spared from execution. The authors found that "Nearly nine of every ten executed offenders possessed an intellectual impairment, had not yet reached their twenty-first birthday, suffered from a severe mental illness, or endured marked childhood trauma." In particular, "One-third of the last hundred executed offenders were burdened by intellectual disability, borderline intellectual functioning, or traumatic brain injury;" "More than one-third of executed offenders committed a capital crime before turning twenty-five—the age at which the brain fully matures;" and "Over half of the last one hundred executed offenders had been diagnosed with or displayed symptoms of a severe mental illness."


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Efforts Underway to Exonerate 14-Year-Old Executed in South Carolina in 1944

Attorneys representing the family of George Stinney, Jr., recently filed a request for a posthumous exoneration of Mr. Stinney, the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. Stinney, an African-American 14-year-old, was executed in 1944 for the murder of two young white girls less than three months after a trial that was filled with errors. Although Clarendon County, South Carolina, where the trial took place, had a population that was 72% black, only whites served on Stinney's jury. Stinney's lawyer offered virtually no defense. His relatives, who could have offered an alibi, were not called to testify. Stinney allegedly made a confession, but the contents of his statement have never been revealed. His attorney did not file an appeal, so no court ever reviewed his trial. In a supportive brief in the effort to clear Stinney, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project of Northeastern University School of Law stated, "The prosecution of George Stinney constituted a grave miscarriage of justice, causing great suffering for his family...Stinney’s shocking treatment was inconsistent with the most fundamental notions of due process, including but certainly not limited to the right to effective assistance of counsel."


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