Sentencing

Florida Death-Row Population Drops to 12-Year Low As Jury Unanimity Ruling Takes Effect

The number of prisoners on Florida's death row is now lower than it was on June 30, 2005, as the pace of death sentencing slows and courts reverse the unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences by which numerous capital defendants had been condemned. Applying the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 ruling in Hurst v. Florida and subsequent Florida Supreme Court decisions in Hurst v. State and Perry v. State, state courts declared unconstitutional Florida's practice of permitting trial judges to impose death sentences after sentencing juries had not reached a unanimous agreement that death was the appropriate punishment. As a result, death sentences have been vacated in nearly 100 cases, and additional cases are working their way through Florida's court system. So far this year, 15 people have been removed from Florida's death row, and a 16th died after having his death sentence vacated under Hurst, while being transfered to a court hearing. The declining population on death row is not being replaced with new death sentences; the state's last death sentence was handed down in June 2016 and more than 3/4ths of death sentences imposed in the previous five years had involved non-unanimous jury votes for death. As a result, the number of prisoners housed on Florida's death row has fallen from 383 at the beginning of 2017, to 367—slightly lower than the 369 people who were on death row in 2005. Even more prisoners are expected to be removed from death row, as many of those whose death sentences have been invalidated are resentenced to life. (The Department of Corrections death-row roster only removes a prisoner from its list if the prisoner dies, receives clemency, is exonerated, or is resentenced to something other than death.) A DPIC review of Florida capital cases indicates that, through July 13, Florida courts have issued decisions involving Hurst in at least 119 cases. Those decisions have resulted in the vacation of 99 death sentences. To date, the counties most affected by the Hurst rulings have been: Duval (15 sentences); Orange (9 sentences); and Broward (9 sentences). In Duval County, 14 of the 15 death sentences reviewed (93.33%) have been vacated; in Orange County, all 9 death sentences reviewed have been vacated; and in Broward county, 7 of the 9 death sentences reviewed (77.78%) have been vacated. DPIC, in conjunction with researcher and professor Michael Radelet, has also identified at least 149 prisoners who are expected to obtain relief under the Florida court's current interpretation of Hurst, and is tracking what happens to those cases on resentencing. Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan said the resentencing hearings will present difficulties for the state's legal system: “That’s not an easy thing to go back and dig up all of this evidence and especially to dig up all the witnesses,” for a new sentencing hearing. “We have been very, very negligent in the state of Florida in handling these types of cases,” he said.

Resentencing of Intellectually Disabled Prisoner Highlights Death Penalty Decline in South Carolina and Nationwide

In 1989, William Henry Bell, Jr. was convicted of murdering an elementary school principal. Nearly 30 years later, South Carolina's Free Times reports that the reversal of his death sentence because of intellectual disability provides evidence of the death penalty's continuing decline in the state and across the country. At the time of the murder, Bell maintained that he was innocent, but after four days in jail, he confessed to the murder. Prior appeals—including one alleging a pattern of racially discriminatory charging practices in interracial crimes involving black defendants and white victims—failed for 25 years, until a trial judge in November 2016 determined that Bell was ineligible for capital punishment because he had Intellectual Disability. In May 2017, the state attorney general's office decided it lacked grounds to appeal the court's decision, leaving Bell to face resentencing with a maximum penalty of life without parole. Emily Paavola, one of Bell's attorneys, said the case fits into a larger narrative of South Carolina's declining use of capital punishment. “It is increasingly hard to justify retaining the death penalty in South Carolina. Prosecutors rarely seek it, juries more rarely impose it, and even when the rare individual is sentenced to death, the odds are that the defendant will not be executed. We can no longer afford the financial and social costs of such a broken system,” she wrote. The last execution in South Carolina took place in 2011, and since that time only one person has been sentenced to death in the state. Similar declines have occurred nationwide, with death sentences and executions both dropping sharply in recent years. Fewer people were sentenced to death in 2016 than in any year since states began re-enacting the death penalty in 1973, and executions in 2016 were at their lowest level in 25 years. 

Recent Jury Trials in Dallas Highlight Death Penalty Decline Across Texas

From 2007 to 2013, Dallas sentenced twelve capitally charged defendants to death—more than any other county in Texas—and Dallas ranks second nationally, behind only Harris County (Houston), in the number it has executed since 1972. But the county has not imposed any new death sentences since then, and the recent life sentences in the capital trials of Justin Smith and Erbie Bowser highlight a statewide trend away from the death penalty. Smith was charged with killing three and injuring two others in a drug-house robbery; Bowser, with killing four women and injuring four children in what has been described as "a two-city rampage." After hearing evidence of Bowser's prison adjustment after being medicated for mental illness, his jury split on whether he posed a future threat to society and he was sentenced to life without parole. When Smith's jury told the court it was split on whether he had proven mitigating circumstances, he agreed to accept a plea deal to life. Such outcomes are becoming more common in Texas. About half (7 of 15) of the death penalty trials in the state since 2015 have resulted in life sentences. The fact that prosecutors have taken death penalty cases to trial just 15 times in two-and-a-half years is itself a significant change. A combination of factors, including declining public support for capital punishment, the availability of a life-without-parole sentencing option, the high cost of death penalty trials, and concerns about innocence, have led prosecutors to seek death sentences less often. Former Montague County District Attorney Tim Cole said his views on the issue have shifted: "It is time for the death penalty to go away. My primary concern with it is we don't seem to get it perfectly.... The execution of one innocent person isn't worth it to me." He said he believes the option of life without parole has also contributed to the declining number of death sentences by giving prosecutors and jurors a severe alternative punishment. Paul Johnson, an attorney for Justin Smith, agreed: "[Jurors] know that if they don't give them death, they're going to die in prison anyway. Why put someone to death when you can give them life without parole?" In an editorial, The Dallas Morning News wrote, "[e]vidence continues to mount that this system is too ripe for mistakes." The newspaper lauded the state's progress in reducing death sentences, and pointed to recent legislation as further evidence of capital punishment's decline. A death penalty repeal bill was given public hearings this session, and legislators have passed and sent to the governor reforms aimed at reducing wrongful convictions. Under the new bill, "Police would be required to record interrogations, and prosecutors would have to provide jurors more information about testimony from so-called prison snitches. Stricter protocols also would be in place for eyewitness identification." (Click image to enlarge.)

U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand Florida Decision Barring Death Sentences Based on Non-Unanimous Jury Votes

On May 22, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Florida's petition for a writ of certiorari in Florida v. Hurst, refusing to disturb a decision of the Florida Supreme Court that had declared it unconstitutional for judges to impose death sentences after one or more jurors in the case had voted for life. The ruling effectively ends Florida prosecutors' efforts to reverse the state court ruling—which could overturn approximately 200 death sentences in the state—requiring that capital sentencing juries unanimously recommend death before the trial judge may impose a death sentence. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had asked the high court to consider the Florida decision, arguing that the state court's "expansive reading" of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida was erroneous. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing scheme, saying, "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." The Florida legislature rewrote the law to require that juries unanimously find at least one aggravating factor, making a case eligible for a death sentence, and raising the threshold for a jury recommendation of a death sentence from a simple 7-5 majority to at least 10 of the 12 jurors. The Florida Supreme Court held in October 2016 that the new law violated both the state and federal constitutions because it did not require jury unanimity before the court could impose a death sentence. Most of the 386 prisoners currently on Florida's death row were sentenced to death in violation of Hurst. However, the state court has ruled that it will not apply its decision to cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that the Sixth Amendment gives capital defendants the right to have a jury find all facts that are necessary to impose the death penalty in their case. The Florida Supreme Court has already ordered more than a dozen new sentencing hearings in cases involving non-unanimous jury recommendations for death, and local prosecutors are faced with the prospect of a flood of expensive retrials in cases in which one or more jurors have already rejected the death penalty. Dave Davis, who represented Hurst, said “'[p]rosecutors are going to have to decide is it worth the effort to try to get death again. They're going to have to examine their evidence … and decide what the likelihood is that they're going to get 12 jurors to decide death.”

New Statistical Brief from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Documents U.S. Death Penalty Decline

The nation's death rows are shrinking more rapidly than new defendants are being sentenced to death, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical brief, "Capital Punishment, 2014–2015." The statistical brief, which analyzes information on those under sentence of death in the United States as of December 31, 2014 and December 31, 2015, documents a continuing decline in executions, new death sentences, and death row populations across the U.S. 2015 marked the fifteenth consecutive annual decrease in the number of prisoners under sentence of death in the U.S. According to BJS, 69 prisoners were admitted to state or federal death rows in 2014 and 49 were admitted in 2015. (DPIC uses a slightly different counting method that reported 73 death sentences imposed in 2014.) The data also indicates that the decline in the size of death row is attributable to factors other than execution. According to BJS, 75 prisoners were removed from death row in 2014 by means other than execution, such as exoneration, the reversal of a conviction or death sentence, commutation, or death by other causes, as compared with 35 who were executed. In 2015, 82 prisoners were taken off death row by means other than execution, while 28 death-row prisoners were executed. Over the two-year period covered by the data, 39 more prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution than were admitted as a result of new death sentences. The gap between removals from death row and new admissions is expected to widen even further in 2016 and 2017 as a result of record-low death-sentencing rates and prisoners being removed from death row due to death-penalty statutes having been declared unconstitutional in Florida, Delaware, and Connecticut. BJS reports that 2,881 prisoners remained under sentence of death in 33 states and the federal system at the end of 2015. (Click image to enlarge.)

Alabama Legislature Votes to End Judicial Override

The Alabama legislature has approved and sent to the Governor a bill that would bring to an end the practice of permitting trial judges to impose death sentences over a capital sentencing jury's recommendation that the defendant be sentenced to life. Alabama is the only state in the U.S. that currently permits judicial override. The legislature acted in response to mounting court challenges to Alabama's death penalty statute. On April 4, the state House of Representatives voted 78-19 to pass a bill prohibiting trial judges from overriding the sentencing recommendations of juries in death penalty cases. Governor Robert Bentley has indicated that he intends to sign the legislation. Two versions of the proposal had advanced in the state legislature. A bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) that would eliminate judicial override but retain Alabama's practice of allowing death sentences if ten or more jurors voted for death, passed the Senate 30-1 on February 23. A House bill by Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) that would have abolished judicial override and required a unanimous jury vote for death had passed the House Judiciary Committee on February 16. Rep. England agreed to substitute the Senate version of the bill, which then overwhelmingly passed the House. The bill "places the death penalty back in the proper perspective," England said. "It puts it ... where in my opinion the Constitution intends it to be: in the hands of juries." Although Alabama is no longer an outlier on judicial override, it remains the only state in the country to permit a death sentence to be imposed based upon a non-unanimous jury vote. According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), judicial override has historically been employed to impose death sentences when a jury recommended life, rather than as a safeguard against unjust jury votes for death. In 101 of the 112 cases in which Alabama judges have overriden capital jury sentencing recommendations, they have imposed the death penalty over a jury recommendation of life. The EJI study also found that the use of judicial override has been influenced by political concerns, with sentencing overrides disproportionately rising in election years. Bryan Stevenson, founder of EJI, said, "Override undermines the role of jurors, who sometimes deliberate for hours to make the right decisions in these cases on behalf of the community. Alabama has had one of the highest death-sentencing rates in the country largely because we add to death row so many people juries do not believe should be executed."

In Expanding Dispute Over Death Penalty, Florida Governor Orders Replacement of Local Prosecutor in 21 Murder Cases

Florida Governor Rick Scott issued a series of executive orders on April 3 removing locally elected 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 21 first-degree murder cases and replacing her with 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. The removal comes two weeks after Ayala announced a policy that her office would not pursue the death penalty in murder prosecutions. The cases include a number of potential capital resentencings resulting from the Florida Supreme Court's 2016 decision declaring non-unanimous death sentences to be unconstitutional. Ayala, a Democrat whose district encompasses Orange and Osceola Counties in and around Orlando, said on March 16 that, after conducting "an evidence-based review" of the issue, she had concluded that seeking the death penalty was not cost-effective and "is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice." Ayala is the only African-American elected prosecutor in Florida. Gov. Scott previously removed her from the high-profile trial of Markeith Loyd, a defendant accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer, also appointing King to handle that case. That decision prompted opposition from the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and the victim's parents. Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa called Scott's action in the 21 cases a "gross abuse of his power." Louis Virelli, a law professor at Stetson University, warned that Gov. Scott's actions set a dangerous precedent, saying, "this opens the door for governors of all political parties to cherry-pick cases away from prosecutors." Ayala has hired Roy L. Austin, Jr., a former civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, to challenge Scott's authority to issue the executive orders. Ayala's spokesperson, Eryka Washington, said Scott had not notified the State Attorney that he was issuing the executive orders and that Ayala first learned of the orders from the media. “Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position that the Governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system,” Washington said. Orange and Osceola Counties imposed a total of one death sentence from 2012-2016. Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumpter Counties—the predominantly Republican counties that make up the judicial circuit in which State Attorney King was elected—imposed six death sentences during that period.

Florida Legislature Passes Bill Eliminating Non-Unanimous Jury Recommendations for Death Penalty

A Florida bill that would require the jury to make a unanimous recommendation for death before a judge may impose a death sentence will head to Governor Rick Scott for final approval, after both houses of the Florida legislature passed it by overwhelming margins. Senate Bill 280 passed unanimously (37-0) on March 9, and the corresponding House Bill 527 passed by a 112-3 vote on March 10. If signed by the governor, the bill will bring Florida into compliance with the Florida Supreme Court's rulings in Hurst v. State and Perry v. State in 2016. Hurst struck down Florida's prior capital sentencing statute, which had allowed judges to impose the death penalty if a majority of jurors recommended death or to override a jury's recommendation of life. Perry struck down an amended version of the statute, which had permitted judges to impose a death sentence if 10 or more jurors recommended death. The Florida Supreme Court also ruled that the unanimity requirement would apply to death-row prisoners whose direct appeals had been decided after the United States Supreme Court's June 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona, which held that capital defendants had a right to a jury determination of all facts necessary to impose the death penalty. That decision is expected to overturn approximately 200 death sentences, while permitting a similar number of prisoners whose direct appeals had already been completed to be executed despite constitutional violations in their cases. Until recently, three states—Florida, Alabama, and Delaware—permitted judges to impose death sentences on the basis of non-unanimous jury recommendations for death. Non-unanimous cases accounted for more than 20% of all death sentences in the U.S. from 2010-2015 and disproportionately contributed to death-row exonerations. In 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down its state's death penalty statute, holding that death sentences based upon non-unanimous jury recommendations for death were unconstitutional. The change to Florida's law would leave Alabama as the only remaining state in which a judge may impose a death sentence based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation. 

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