Sentencing

Georgia Approaches Five Years With No Death Sentences

For the first time since Georgia brought back the death penalty in 1973, the state will go five years without imposing any death sentences. No jury has handed down a death sentence since March 2014 and, with no capital trials scheduled for February or March, the state is nearly certain to reach the 5-year milestone. The decline in death sentencing is even more dramatic in light of the fact that, prior to 2015, Georgia had never gone two consecutive years without a death sentence. Experts attribute the decline primarily to two factors: improved death-penalty representation and the availability of life without parole.

Georgia’s Office of the Capital Defender — a statewide death-penalty public defender office — represents nearly everyone facing the death penalty in the state. The capital defender has reduced the number of death sentences by thoroughly investigating the life and mental health histories of its clients and working with prosecutors before trials even begin to reach non-capital dispositions. In December 2015, Jerry Word, who heads the state defender office, credited those efforts with preempting numerous capital trials. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2019 that the capital defender’s office “has become real good at identifying mitigating factors for a defendant and talking about that with prosecutors long before lines are drawn in the sand. This has made a real difference, and you save the resources and the time required of a death-penalty case and the victims don’t have to go through the years-long process.” In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and, by the end of 2015, that case had been the only one of the preceding 71 cases handled by the capital defender that had resulted in a death verdict. Since 2015, the capital defender has closed 69 death-penalty cases, of which just five went to trial and none resulted in a death sentence.

Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said that the availability of life without parole as a sentencing option also has fundamentally changed the way potentially capital cases are tried and the verdicts juries reach. Prior to 2009, life without parole was not an option in Georgia unless prosecutors actually sought the death penalty. Now, prosecutors may seek life without parole without capitally prosecuting a defendant. Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said, “[t]he majority of prosecutors around the state are now convinced that a life-without-parole sentence actually means what it says. It’s made a huge difference.” As a result, prosecutors now file notices to seek death much less often. In 2005, Georgia prosecutors filed 40 notices of intent to seek the death penalty. By 2011, that number had dropped to 26, and in 2017, it was just three.

The decline in death sentences paints a sharp contrast between the way cases were handled in the past and how they are handled today. According to Steve Bright, former director and president of the Georgia-based Southern Center for Human Rights, the people on Georgia’s death row did not commit worse crimes than today’s defendants, they simply faced a worse system. The state has executed 19 prisoners since a jury last imposed a death sentence in the state, in cases criticized as out of step with current practices and emblematic of systemic problems with the state’s death penalty. “Those are people who were sentenced to death some time ago often with lawyers who were not qualified to try a death-penalty case,” Bright said, describing Georgia’s death-row prisoners. “They are also people who would not be sentenced to death today.”

Missouri Supreme Court Hears Case on ‘Hung Jury’ Death Sentences

The Missouri Supreme Court may soon rule on the constitutionality of the state’s practice of having the trial judge determine whether a capital defendant should live or die if the sentencing jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Death-row prisoner Marvin Rice (pictured) was sentenced to death by the trial judge in August 2017, even though 11 of the 12 jurors in his case voted for a life sentence. His appeal, which the state court heard on January 23, 2019, argues that the portion of Missouri’s death-penalty statute that gives the trial judge exclusive sentencing authority in the event of a hung sentencing jury violates his “constitutionally protected rights to due process, a trial by jury, and to a unanimous jury verdict.”

At the time of the offense, Rice – a former deputy sheriff and disabled Army veteran – was suffering from a major depressive disorder that had been worsened by the effects of a pituitary gland tumor. Court documents indicated that he had been diagnosed with 12 various medical and psychiatric conditions for which he had been taking 17 different medications. Eleven jurors were persuaded by this and other mitigating evidence that Rice’s life should be spared, but a single hold-out juror for death hung the jury. Trial judge Kelly Wayne Parker then disregarded the jury’s vote and sentenced Rice to death.

Rice’s appeal also challenges the constitutionality of Missouri’s capital punishment statute on the grounds that virtually any homicide now qualifies as a capital offense. This, he argues, violates the constitutional requirement that the death penalty be limited to a narrow class of the worst-of-the-worst killings. He also seeks a new trial based upon police and prosecutorial misconduct in his case. Police, he says, unconstitutionally continued to interrogate him while he was hospitalized for gunshot wounds sustained during his arrest, even after he had said he did not want to answer their questions. He also argues that the prosecutor repeatedly violated his constitutional right to remain silent, improperly commenting on both his decision not to testify at trial and his refusal to answer police questions after having been given his Miranda warnings. Rice’s lawyer, Craig Johnston told the state justices: “This court has repeatedly held that where an objection is made and overruled as happened here, a direct reference to the defendant’s failure to testify will invariably result in a new trial.”

Only Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to impose a death sentence following a jury deadlock in the sentencing phase of a capital trial. Alabama also allows a judge to impose a death sentence following a non-unanimous jury sentencing vote, but only if at least ten jurors vote for death. No jury in Missouri has imposed a death sentence since 2013, but judges sentenced Rice and Craig Wood to death after juries could not reach a unanimous sentencing decision. Wood was sentenced to death in 2018 after his jury voted 10-2 for a death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the constitutionality of Missouri’s hung jury sentencing practice. However, in 2016, the Court struck down Florida’s death sentencing statute saying its provision requiring the judge, rather than a jury, to find facts necessary to impose a death sentence violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

Record Lows Set Across the U.S. For Death Sentences Imposed in 2018

2018 was a record-low year for death-penalty usage in the United States, as nineteen death-penalty states set or matched records for the fewest new death sentences imposed in the modern history of U.S. capital punishment. (Click on map to enlarge.) Thirty-six U.S. states—including seventeen that authorized capital punishment in 2018—did not impose any death sentences in 2018, while California and Pennsylvania, which collectively account for nearly one-third of the nation’s death-row population, imposed record lows. Every western state except Arizona set or tied a record low, and Arizona, which imposed two new death sentences, was just one above its record low. Several southern states that were once among the heaviest users of capital punishment have now gone years without imposing any new death sentences.

For the first time in its modern history, North Carolina has gone two consecutive years without a death sentence, and it has imposed one new death sentence in the past four years. Only three capital trials took place in the state in 2018, and jurors rejected the death penalty in each. Gretchen Engel, executive director of North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said, "Jurors are turning away from the death penalty and, in response to less favorable jury pools, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty less. And so, this trend away from the death penalty is really being led by citizens who've been summoned for jury duty." In Wake County (Raleigh), one of the 2% of U.S. counties that was responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners as of 2013, the last nine capital trials—including one in 2018—have resulted in life sentences. According to the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services, taxpayers would have saved $2.4 million if prosecutors had not sought the death penalty in those cases. For the seventh consecutive year, Virginia did not sentence anyone to death in 2018. Though second only to Texas in the number of executions, Virginia has seen a dramatic decline in death sentences since establishing regional capital defender offices to provide quality representation to capital defendants. Georgia and South Carolina each marked four years with no new death sentences, a change that can also be attributed, at least in part, to improved representation.

Two of the states with the nation’s largest death rows, California and Pennsylvania, had historically low numbers of death sentences in 2018. California imposed only five death sentences, its fewest since reinstating the death penalty in 1978 and 38 fewer than its peak of 43 in 1999. Pennsylvania imposed a single death sentence for only the second time in the modern era. The previous year in which only one sentence was imposed was 2016. Neither state has carried out an execution in more than a decade, but California has the largest death row in the U.S., with 740 prisoners, and Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest, with 160.

NEW PODCAST: DPIC’s 2018 Year End Report

In the latest podcast episode of Discussions with DPIC, members of the DPIC staff discuss key themes from the 2018 Year End Report. Robert Dunham, Ngozi Ndulue, and Anne Holsinger delve into the major death-penalty trends and news items of the year, including the “extended trend” of generational lows in death sentencing and executions, election results that indicate the decline will likely continue, and the possible impact of Pope Francis’s change to Catholic teaching on capital punishment. They explore the reasons for reduced death-penalty usage, highlighting the stories of people who were exonerated in 2018, the theme of executing people with characteristics that make them vulnerable to unfair legal proceedings, and the ongoing controversy surrounding execution methods.

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham noted the importance of the shrinking death-row population, saying, “Death row is declining in size even as the number of executions is declining, which suggests that the decline is a result of the erosion of capital punishment, as opposed to it actually being carried out.” He explains the lack of death sentences in several traditional death-penalty states, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. “The biggest change is the availability of quality indigent defense,” Dunham said, adding that the adoption of life without parole as a sentencing option has also been a major contributing factor.

Dunham addresses the theme of inadequate legal process, saying that the current system fails to ensure that prisoners’ constitutional rights are fully upheld. “If we want the death penalty in the United States, ... it’s imperative that it be able to accurately assess whether somebody was fairly tried, whether somebody was fairly sentenced, and whether the individual deserves to live or die,” he said. Those procedural failures, and the secrecy that surrounds executions, have created a “distrust” among the public that Dunham predicts with have a “prolonged and lingering effect.” “In 2018, death sentences were down, executions were down for a variety of reasons, but I think one of the reasons that’s going to last and contribute to a continued reduction in the future is that more and more people think that we can’t trust the states to carry it out,” Dunham concluded.

Report on “Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor” Calls for Prosecutors to Work to End Death Penalty

A group of justice-reform organizations has issued a new report, 21 Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor, that calls on prosecutors to “work to end the death penalty” as part of its recommended reforms in prosecutorial practices. The report, prepared jointly by the organizations Fair and Just Prosecutionthe Brennan Center for Justice, and the Justice Collaborative, sets forth a series of principles that the groups say are designed “to improve the overall fairness and efficacy of the criminal justice system.”  The report sets forth 21 principles of prosecution for a “21st Century vision for meting out mercy and justice.” Ten of the principles address ways to reduce incarceration. Eleven are proposals to increase fairness in the criminal justice system. Because prosecutors “wield enormous influence at every stage of the criminal process, from initial charging decisions to the sentences sought and imposed,” the report says, they are “well positioned to make changes that can roll back over-incarceration.”

The groups’ proposals on the death penalty fall within their recommendations on increasing fairness. “Countless studies have shown that the death penalty is fraught with error, provides no more public safety benefit than other sentences, and is routinely imposed on people with diminished culpability,” the report says. “Studies also show that the death penalty is applied in a racially discriminatory manner[,] … is expensive and puts victims through decades of litigation and uncertainty.” The report recommends that prosecutors “[o]ppose legislation to expand or expedite the death penalty”; establish a review committee to determine whether to prosecute a case capitally; consider alternative punishments in cases in which the death penalty has already been imposed, “particularly when there is substantial evidence of reduced culpability”; and “[d]on’t threaten to seek the death penalty to coerce a plea.” It quotes two big-city prosecutors, Denver’s Democratic District Attorney Beth McCann and Kings County (Seattle) Republican Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, in support of the principle that prosecutors should work to end the death penalty. Shortly after her election, McCann said, “I don’t think the state should be in the business of killing people.” Satterberg spoke out in favor of abolishing Washington’s death penalty, saying that the death penalty “no longer serves the interests of public safety, criminal justice, or the needs of victims.”

Election results in 2018 continued a trend away from prosecutors known for their aggressive pursuit of capital punishment. Since 2015, voters have removed prosecutors in 11 of the 30 most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country, replacing most of them with reform candidates. This year, prosecutorial candidates who ran on reform platforms won election in St. Louis County, Missouri; Jefferson County (Birmingham), Alabama; Bexar (San Antonio) and Dallas, Texas. Two of the nation’s most aggressive pro-death-penalty prosecutors also were ousted in Orange and San Bernardino counties in California.

Unanimous Federal Appeals Court Orders New Sentencing for Virginia Death-Row Prisoner

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has unanimously overturned the death sentence imposed on Virginia death-row prisoner Mark E. Lawlor in 2011, ruling that the trial court had unconstitutionally prevented Lawlor from presenting expert mental health testimony that he posed a low risk of violence in prison if the jury spared his life. On November 27, 2018, the court reversed a decision of a Virginia federal district court that had upheld Lawlor’s conviction and sentence, ordering that he be granted a new sentencing hearing.

At trial, the judge prevented Lawlor’s defense team from calling a clinical psychologist—an expert in prison risk assessment and adaptation—who would have testified that Lawlor posed a very low risk of committing future acts of violence in prison. The testimony was offered both as mitigating evidence to support a sentence of life without parole and to rebut the prosecution’s aggravating circumstance that Lawlor “would constitute a continuing serious threat to society.” Writing for the unanimous court, Judge Stephanie D. Thacker said the state courts had disregarded clearly established U.S. Supreme Court law requiring that a capital defendant must be permitted to present and the sentencer must be permitted to consider “any admissible mitigating information in determining whether to assign the defendant a sentence less than death.” The court referenced the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Skipper v. South Carolina which specifically applied that constitutional requirement to evidence of post-arrest good conduct in prison.

In the mid-1990s, Virginia was one of only three states that offered juries a choice of sentencing a capital defendant to life without parole or death, but refused to inform the jury that a life sentence meant no possibility of parole. Death sentences dropped dramatically in Virginia after juries were truthfully instructed on their sentencing options. David Bruck, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington & Lee—who argued several of the U.S. Supreme Court cases requiring that juries be told about the life-without-parole option—said, “Virginia excludes evidence that every other death penalty state allows juries to have, so it’s not surprising that sooner or later the Virginia rule was going to be struck down by the federal courts. It’s always been illogical that the Virginia courts have restricted the evidence that juries can consider about whether an inmate would be nonviolent and well-behaved if sentenced to life without parole.”

Edward Ungvarsky, one of the lawyers who represented Lawlor, said Lawlor and his defense team were “grateful for the ruling. We thought there was nothing more important for jurors in making the decision about life in prison than to hear [whether] the person would be violent in prison. This court’s ruling brings Virginia into agreement with the entire rest of the country.” Lawlor was one of three men on Virginia’s death row, and his 2011 death sentence was the last one imposed in the state.

DPIC Analysis: The Decline of the Death Penalty in Philadelphia

During his election campaign, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner described the economic wastefulness of city prosecutors' pursuit of the death penalty as "lighting money on fire." A DPIC analysis of the outcomes of the more than 200 death sentences imposed in the city since 1978 (click image to enlarge) and the last seven years of capital prosecution outcomes provides strong support for Krasner's claim. Data tracking the final dispositions of cases in which Pennsylvania prosecutors had provided notice of intent to seek the death penalty showed that between 2011 and 2017, 98.7% of the 225 cases in which Philadelphia prosecutors had sought the death penalty ended with a non-capital outcome. Similarly, 99.5% of the 201 death sentences imposed in the city—mostly in the 1980s and 1990s—have not resulted in an execution. Two thirds of the convictions or death sentences have already been reversed in the courts and 115 of the former death-row prisoners have since been resentenced either to life sentences (101) or a term of years (11) or been exonerated (3). The single execution was of a severely mentally ill man whom courts initially found incompetent to waive his rights, but was later permitted to be executed.

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham announced the results of the DPIC analysis at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia at a news conference conducted by the death-row exonerees' organization Witness to Innocence. Dunham said that the data showed Philadelphia's pursuit of the death penalty has been "a colossally inefficient" waste of judicial resources and "a colossal waste of money." 

Death sentences imposed in Philadelphia peaked in the first term of District Attorney Ronald Castille's administration in 1986-1989, when an average of 11.25 death sentences per year were imposed. 99 more death sentences were imposed in the decade of the 1990s. By 2001, 135 prisoners were on Philadelphia's death row, and the 113 African Americans on its death row were more than in any other county in the United States. Since then, death sentencing rates have plummetted, falling to 1.5 per year in 2006-2009, the final term of District Attorney Lynn Abraham's administration, and to fewer than one a year this decade, during the administration of Seth Williams. But even as the number of death sentences fell, the proportion of defendants of color sentenced to death in Philadelphia increased. In the past two decades, 82.6% of the defendants sentenced to death in Philadelphia have been African American. Of the 46 defendants sentenced to death in Philadelphia since 1997, 44 (95.7%) have been defendants of color. 

Krasner's campaign pledge not to use the death penalty, Dunham said, was a "natural conclusion" of the steep decline in death penalty usage in the city.

Split Jury Spares Iraq-War Vet in High Profile Virginia Capital Case

A Virginia jury has spared the life of Iraq war veteran Ronald Hamilton (pictured, right, with his father) in the 2016 killings of his wife and a rookie police officer. The jury split 6-6 on whether to impose the death penalty for Hamilton's murder of his wife, Crystal Hamilton, but unanimously agreed to impose a life sentence for the death of Officer Ashley Guindon, who was killed while she responded to Crystal Hamilton's 911 call. Under Virginia law, the court must impose a life sentence if any of the jurors vote for life. At the sentencing phase of the trial, Hamilton's lawyers presented evidence of his possible posttraumatic stress disorder from two tours of duty in Iraq, emphasized his development into a model soldier who, as an Army sergeant, saved a colleague's life while they were under mortar fire, and presented testimony from his father, Ronald W. Hamilton, and other family members. During his testimony, the elder Ronald Hamilton—a retired police officer whose career included service at the White House and who served as the second-in-command of the Charleston, South Carolina police force—expressed his sympathy to the family of Officer Guindon and to the two other officers who were wounded. "I see the prosecutor’s side and defense side, and I can sit on either side. I feel the pain. I understand the duty," Hamilton testified. "If anyone in this courtroom had their relative sitting where my son was, they’d be asking for mercy," he said. As is often the case in capital trials of war veterans, the prosecution had attempted to convert Hamilton's military service into an aggravating factor, repeatedly referring to him as "depraved" and "dangerous." Prosecutor Richard Conway told the jury that soldiers "deserve respect and deserve protection, but they don't get a pass for capital murder," while his co-counsel, Matthew Lowery urged the jury to "[p]ut him in the grave because that's what he deserves."

No Virginia jury has imposed a death sentence since 2011 and Hamilton had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. However, Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert – known for his frequent use of the death penalty – rejected the offer. The county is responsible for more executions since 1976 than any other county in the Commonwealth and is among the 2% of counties that account for a majority of all executions in the United States in that period.

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