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NEW VOICES: New Jersey Prosecutor Calls for End to the Death Penalty

In a letter to acting New Jersey Govenor Richard J. Codey, Ocean County prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher called for an end to the death penalty in New Jersey because he feels the system is ineffective and fails to meet the needs of victims' families. Kelaher, who has been a prosecutor for 23 years, said that life without parole would be a more appropriate sentencing option for those convicted of first-degree murder. "The history of nonapplication of the law has been a cruel hoax on families of the victims and the citizens of this state. . . . Years of countless delays, continuous hearings and millions of dollars later, the condemned are invariable moved to the general prison population. The strain on prosecution budgets is enormous and the cost in human terms in incalculable," Kelaher wrote. Kelaher added that New Jersey law requires the automatic reveiw of death penalty convictions and that prosecutors must meet requirements that are virtually impossible. (The Press of Atlantic City, December 9, 2005) See New Voices, Life Without Parole, and Victims.


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NEW VOICES: Judge Urges Public to Reconsider Death Penalty

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill recently announced that he is rethinking capital punishment because it is expensive, can be politically motivated, and risks innocent lives. Winmill, who freed death row exoneree Charles Fain in 2001 after DNA evidence proved his innocence, said that Fain's case and the very different experience of sentencing a guilty man to die for murder prompted him to rethink capital punishment. During a speech before the City Club of Boise, Winmill was joined by Fain as he urged Idahoans to reconsider the death penalty. Judge Winmill stated:

I think the death penalty is perhaps sought and imposed, at least historically, more often than it should be. I think we as judges, and we as citizens now in juries, need to be very thoughtful.
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[The death penalty] requires each of us to critically think it through, consider the costs, consider the utility, consider whether we are simply getting carried away in this effort to promote law and order. And to think whether or not a life sentence without possibility of parole is an adequate punishment for far more of the murder cases than typically imposed.

Winmill added that public officials are "loathe to discuss the cost" of capital punishment, saying, "I frankly think there may be a fear of a firestorm of criticism of the actual cost of litigating if this is ever revealed publicly." During the speech, Winmill also noted that the death penalty does not deter violent crime and that the election of judges and prosecutors politicizes death penalty decisions. One reform he recommended was to create a statewide screening commission in Idaho to review cases and decide whether they meet a heightened standard for the death penalty, separating decisions from local politics.

(The Idaho Statesman, November 13, 2005).  See New Voices. See also Costs, Deterrence, Innocence, and Life Without Parole.


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North Carolina Law Results in Sharp Drop in Death Sentences

According to the North Carolina News & Record, death sentences in the state have significantly declined since the 2001 enactment of legislation that allows defendants to plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Juries are also returning fewer death sentences. The paper argues that the emergence of the life-without-parole alternative should result in a reconsideration of the sentences of those already on death row:


It's unfair to make one person serve more time in prison than another if both committed the same crime.

That idea drove a recent change in state law that encourages the parole commission to release more inmates who were locked up before sentencing guidelines changed in 1994. A prisoner serving 20 years for an offense that now requires only a 10-year penalty might deserve strong consideration for parole. It's a simple matter of fairness.

Too bad legislators didn't apply the same principle to inmates on death row. Since a 2001 change in the law, the number of death sentences imposed by North Carolina courts has fallen dramatically.

Under the new law, defendants can plead guilty to a charge of first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Many prosecutors agree to that outcome. It saves overworked district attorneys' staffs the time and expense of a trial, spares the state a lengthy appeals process and often relieves victims' families of the ordeal they endure when the facts of the crime are rehashed as the killer's execution approaches.

In addition, with public attitudes about capital punishment beginning to shift, many jurors are more comfortable voting for a life sentence rather than death as long as they know there's no possibility of parole.

The numbers tell the story: In 1999, 24 people were sent to North Carolina's death row; in 2000, 17; in 2001, 15. Then, after the new law went into effect, seven in 2002; six in 2003, four in 2004; and six so far this year.

Altogether, 156 of the 177 men and women on death row have been there since 2001 or earlier. Whether most North Carolinians still approve of the death penalty or not, North Carolina juries are slowly eliminating its use.

That invites an obvious conclusion: Death row is largely populated by inmates who, if tried again by today's legal standards, would not be sentenced to death. Yet many of them will be executed. The exceptions may win new trials for other legal reasons, be granted a commutation of sentence or perhaps die of natural causes.

These people on death row were left out when state legislators this year tried to insert a measure of fairness into the criminal-justice system. Lawmakers said to thousands of prisoners, "You shouldn't be held longer for your crime than you would be if you had committed the same offense after 1994." But to the inmates facing the most severe punishment, they said nothing.

Maybe it's not politically smart to give murderers a break. The question, however, isn't whether murderers should go free. Of course they shouldn't. But, if juries today are more inclined to sentence killers to life in prison without parole, it's only fair for legislators to consider the same leniency for those already on death row.


(News & Record, November 7, 2005; emphasis added). See Life Without Parole and Editorials.

 


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New York Times Series Examines Life Sentences

A new study by a team of researchers at the New York Times looks at the expanding use of life sentences in the American criminal justice system.  The study, headed by Times reporter Adam Liptak, found that about 132,000 of the nation's prisoners, or almost 10%, are serving life sentences.  Of those, 28% have life sentences with no chance of parole. This is a marked increase from a 1993 Times study that found 20% of all lifers had no chance of parole. Liptak also reported that about 9,700 people are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. Of these juvenile offenders, more than 20% have no chance of parole. The total number of prisoners serving life sentences has nearly doubled in the last decade and is outpacing the overall growth in the nation's prison population. Of those sentenced to life terms between 1988 and 2001, about one-third are serving time for crimes other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes.

(New York Times, October 2-3, 2005).  See Life Without Parole and Sentencing.


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Indiana Editorial Calls For End to "Costly" Death Penalty

An editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette stated that the death penalty is more expensive than life without parole and offers Indiana residents no measurable benefit for their tax dollars. The paper said that ending the death penalty and reallocating funds currently put toward capital punishment would improve programs such as victim's assistance, grassroots police programs, and social service agencies that work with at-risk youth. The Journal Gazette editorial noted:

The death penalty is not solely an issue of morality and justice. The state and counties face costs, which taxpayers finance. From the murder trial through execution, the death penalty is expensive. In fact, it costs taxpayers more to execute someone than it costs to incarcerate the same person for life without parole.

State legislators know this because the Legislative Service Agency issued fiscal-impact statements earlier this year for two death-penalty-related bills filed in the General Assembly. As the state is preparing to execute three men in the next two months, including former Allen County resident Joseph Corcoran, Hoosiers ought to ask: If it’s less expensive to lock a murderer away for life, why is the death penalty an acceptable option?

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Let’s face it: The state doesn’t get much out of executions. The deterrence argument is dubious, as is the notion that it’s better for the public’s safety.

As for costs, the state and counties spend on average $741,000 over 16 years to execute a 30-year-old offender sentenced to murder, according to the Legislative Service Bureau. The figure includes jail costs, prosecutor’s and defender’s fees from murder trial through appeals, and execution costs.

It costs states and counties $622,000 to lock the same person up for life, estimated to be 47 years in prison. That includes appeals, which aren’t automatically triggered as they are in death penalty cases, as well as health care costs. It costs $506,000 to imprison someone sentenced to 65 years with a 50 % reduction for good behavior.

The money saved could be redistributed to the juvenile justice system, victim’s assistance, offender re-entry schemes, grassroots police programs and social service agencies that work with at-risk youth.

The money and resources saved by ending the death penalty would have a more profound effect to the greater good of Indiana than executing murderers.

Other than politics, why is the death penalty immune to Indiana’s budgetary woes?

(Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, June 22, 2005) See Costs, Life Without Parole, and Editorials.


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USA Today Editorial Says Life Without Parole is "Fitting Replacement" for Death Penalty

In an editorial highlighting public support for the sentencing option of life without parole in death penalty cases and the need to take steps to protect against executing innocent people, USA Today recently stated that life without the possibility of parole is a "fitting replacement" for the death penalty. The editorial praised the historic enactment of a life without the possibility of parole statute in Texas and other recent activities around the nation that seek to address problems with capital punishment. It noted:

For the past half century, the nation has been locked — deadlocked might be a better word — in a bitter debate over the death penalty. But what if there is a middle ground?

With little fanfare, a compromise has been gaining favor more than a decade, drawing support as DNA evidence has exonerated inmates on death row. Last week, it reached a milestone. Texas, site of one in three executions, gave juries the option to sentence defendants in capital cases to life without parole rather than death.

All but one death-penalty state, New Mexico, now offers that choice, a marked change from the era when life sentences were a meaningless illusion. But why stop at making life without parole just an optional alternative to execution? It is a fitting replacement, assuring severe punishment for the worst of crimes but with a safety valve to protect those falsely accused or wrongly sentenced.

Evidence of the need pours in weekly now.

Five times in the past seven months, the Supreme Court has had to rein in state courts that mishandled death penalty cases. On Monday, the court ordered a new sentencing trial in a Pennsylvania case involving shoddy work by the lawyer for an accused murderer.

Last week, the court sent back cases from Texas and California that reeked of racial discrimination in jury selection. Earlier, the court ruled against Texas (again) and Missouri (twice) in cases of excluding relevant evidence, making defendants appear in shackles and executing juveniles.

Just last week at the state level:

•An Oklahoma appeals court ordered a new trial for a man sentenced to death in a 1982 murder on the basis of testimony from a police chemist who has since been fired for poor and unreliable lab work.

•An Illinois man jailed for eight months and facing the death penalty in his daughter's death was released when a long-overdue DNA test finally came back — negative.

•A former North Carolina judge urged the state Legislature to impose a two-year moratorium on executions.

Against this backdrop, the rate of executions has dropped 40% from its onetime high.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the Supreme Court has tried to make clear that it is to be applied carefully and evenhandedly. Nevertheless, cases of incompetent lawyering, suppression of evidence, local prejudice and other affronts to justice keep appearing.

The result is evident in the numbers who narrowly escaped execution: While 972 people have been put to death since the 1970s, at least 119 have been taken off death row because of evidence they were wrongly convicted or sentenced.

According to a Gallup Poll in May, 74% of the public supports the death penalty, but backing for capital punishment drops to 56% when respondents are given the alternative of life without parole. Even in Texas, a Scripps-Howard poll last October found that while 75% supported the death penalty, 78% favored the option of life without parole.

Already, life without the death penalty is the norm in a growing number of states. In addition to the 12 that don't allow it, five others have had no executions in more than 30 years; six have used it only once in that time.

Abolishing the death penalty and using life without parole instead can't fix all the injustices exposed in courts across the nation. But at least no one would be executed as a result. (USA Today, June 22, 2005)

See Life Without Parole and Innocence.


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Texas Governor Signs Life Without Parole Bill Into Law

Texas Governor Rick Perry (pictured) has signed the bill that gives juries in death penalty cases the option of sentencing a defendant to life without the possibility of parole. “I believe this bill will improve our criminal justice system because it gives jurors a new option to protect the public with the certainty a convicted killer will never roam our streets again,” Perry said.  The new law is not retroactive, and will apply only to those sentenced after September 1, 2005. (Governor's Office, Press Release, "Governor Perry Signs Life Without Parole Bill," June 17, 2005).  Perry's action brings the total number of death penalty states with the sentencing option of life without parole to 37.  New Mexico is the only death penalty state without this option.  The Texas bill passed in both houses by substantial majorities and was strongly supported in opinion polls.  See Life Without Parole. 


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India Moves Closer to Abandoning the Death Penalty

In a proposed amendment to its penal code, Indian leaders are seeking to implement a change that would end the nation's death penalty even "in the rarest of rare" cases. The amended Indian Penal Code would abolish the death penalty and replace it with a strict life without the possibility of parole measure. Currently, the nation's life sentence statute only requires imprisonment for 14 years. The decision to seek an official end to capital punishment fulfills a pledge made by the chairman of the Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System, Mr. Justice VS Malimath. The proposed amendment was crafted to reflect an "evolving consensus" within the nation.  The proposal to abolish the death penalty and add a true life sentence seeks to serve the twin objectives of advancing human rights and preventing such criminals from coming out of prison. The Union Cabinet is expected to review the amended Indian Penal Code before it would likely be placed before Parliament for its approval and passage. (The Statesman, May 31, 2005).  See International Death Penalty and Life Without Parole.


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Texas Legislators Near Historic Passage of Life-Without-Parole Bill

By a vote of 104-37, members of the Texas House of Representatives tentatively approved the sentencing option of life-without-parole in death penalty cases, an historic action that puts the state closer to including a sentencing alternative offered in nearly every death penalty state. The House is expected to give final passage to the measure on May 25 and the Texas Senate, which passed similar legislation earlier this year, is expected to approve an amended measure before sending the bill to Governor Rick Perry for possible signature into law.

The new life-without-parole law would eliminate the current sentencing option of life with the possibility of parole in 40 years in death cases and replace it with the no-parole alternative.   Senator Eddie Lucio, one of the chief sponsors of the legislation, commented:  "I commend the House for its overwhelming acknowledgement that Texas juries deserve this option for the safety of society."  Lucio's original bill gave jurors three choices-- death, life with parole, and life without  parole--but the parole option was dropped.  (Houston Chronicle, May 25, 2005). See Life Without Parole.


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Support for the Death Penalty Drops Sharply in Leading Execution City

Public support for the death penalty has dropped sharply in Houston, Texas according to the 2005 Houston Area Survey conducted by Rice University.  For many years Texas has led the country in executions, and Harris County (Houston) has led all Texas counties in sending inmates to death row and in executions.  But most Houston residents would prefer the sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty for those who commit murder. 

Sixty-four percent chose life without parole, increasing from 57% who chose that option in 2003.

  Overall, support for the death penalty (with no alternative offered) dropped to 60% this year, down from 68% support in 1999, according to the survey.  (See poll results, Houston Chronicle, May 6, 2005).  See

Public Opinion

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Life Without Parole

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