Life Without Parole

Prosecutors Accept Life Plea by Severely Mentally Ill Man in Killing of Texas Sheriff's Deputy

Texas prosecutors have dropped their pursuit of the death penalty against a severely mentally ill capital defendant charged with what they characterized as the "ambush murder" of a Harris County sheriff’s deputy. Special prosecutor Brett Ligon (pictured, left)—the Montgomery County District Attorney who was handling the prosecution because Houston prosecutors had a conflict that prevented them from participating in the case—announced on September 13 that he had agreed to a plea deal in which Shannon Miles (pictured, right) would be sentenced to life without possibility of parole in the killing of Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth. Miles’s lawyers say that he has schizophrenia and episodic psychosis when he is not on psychiatric medication, that he has no memory of the murder, and that they intended to pursue an insanity defense in the case. In 2012, the trial court had declared Miles incompetent to be tried. In March of 2017, after treatment at a state mental hospital that had been delayed by a shortage of available beds, the court found Miles competent to stand trial. In explaining the plea deal, Ligon said "[t]he state's experts all came to the same conclusion, the likelihood of executing a mentally incompetent man was almost zero."  The victim’s widow, Kathleen Goforth, said she supported to deal because her two children “have been spared” the ordeal of extended death-penalty proceedings. She said, “They will not have the backdrop of their lives, for the next 10 to 25 years, being court dates, trials and appeals…. They won't have that inflicted upon them and that is merciful. It's compassionate and it's the right thing to do." Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Donald Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, said justice had been served by the plea deal. The plea had been entered against the backdrop of an emerging sex scandal. The sole grounds on which prosecutors could seek the death penalty in the case was if Officer Goforth had been killed in the performance of his duties. However, evidence had come to light that Goforth was at the gas station to meet his mistress, who was a witness to the murder and would be called upon to testify in the case. Two sheriff’s officers—one who was assigned to investigate the case—had been fired for having sexual relations with the woman, and a third had been fired for sending her an email soliciting sex. The Goforth murder once again focused attention on the role of mental illness in premeditated murders of police officers. In July 2016, in unrelated incidents, mentally ill Gulf War veterans who exhibited symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder fatally shot five police officers in Dallas, Texas and three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In July 2015, a Washington jury sentenced a mentally ill and delusional capital defendant, Christopher Monfort, to life without parole for the ambush murder of a Seattle police officer.

Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.

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.)

STUDIES: Death Penalty Adversely Affects Families of Victims and Defendants

The death penalty adversely affects both families of murder victims and families of the accused, according to two recent journal articles. In his Psychology Today blog, Talking About Trauma, psychologist Dr. Robert T. Muller (pictured) reports that psychological studies have have found that the death penalty produces negative effects on families and friends of murder victims (referred to as "co-victims"). One University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of co-victims reported achieving closure as a result of capital punishment, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. That may be because, as one co-victim described it, "Healing is a process, not an event.” A 2012 Marquette University Law School study reported that co-victims had improved physical and psychological health and greater satisfaction with the legal system in cases where perpetrators received life sentences, rather than death sentences. The authors of that study said co-victims, "may prefer the finality of a life sentence and the obscurity into which the defendant will quickly fall, to the continued uncertainty and publicity of the death penalty." Lula Redmond, a Florida therapist who works with family members of murder victims, said, "More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution. Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this." A number of co-victims expressed sympathy for family members of the condemned, but the death penalty process also can polarize the families, obstructing healing for both. An article for the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform by Professor Michael Radelet of the University of Colorado at Boulder describes the retributive effects of the death penalty on the family, friends, and attorneys of death row prisoners. Radelet compares these impacts to the effect of life without parole and argues "that the death penalty’s added punishment over LWOP often punishes the family just as much as the inmate, and after the execution the full brunt of the punishment falls on the family. This added impact disproportionately punishes women and children." These effects on people other than the inmate, he writes, "undermine the principle that the criminal justice system punishes only the guilty and never the innocent. The death penalty affects everyone who knows, cares for, or works with the death row inmate."

New Poll Finds "Strong Majority" of Floridians Prefer Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

A recent poll by researcher Craig Haney, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California - Santa Cruz, has found that a "strong majority" of Florida respondents prefer life without parole to the death penalty for people convicted of murder, even as many harbor continuing misconceptions about capital punishment that would predispose them to support the death penalty. In Haney's survey of more than 500 jury-eligible respondents who were asked to choose between Florida's statutorily available sentencing options, 57% chose life without parole, while 43% chose the death penalty, as the appropriate punishment for a person convicted of murder. The preference for life held true, Haney said, across racial groups, genders, educational levels, and religious affiliation. The Florida results are consistent with recent polls in other death penalty states, such as Kentucky and Oklahoma. Dr. Haney found that Floridians held two common misconceptions about the death penalty that affected their views on the issue: 68.9% mistakenly believed that the death penalty was cheaper than life without parole, and 40.2% mistakenly believed that people sentenced to life without parole would be released from prison. Haney said "support for the death penalty plummeted" to 29% if the life sentencing option was combined with a requirement that these prisoners be required to pay restitution to victims' families. In addition, when Floridians were given the option of diverting the $1 million per case currently spent on the death penalty to investigate unsolved rapes and murders, only one quarter still supported capital punishment. Dr. Haney's research also found that a majority of Floridians oppose the death penalty for defendants with serious mental illness, do not believe the death penalty is a deterrent, and agree that most religious opinion opposes capital punishment. Haney said asking people simply if they support the death penalty is inadequate because "[t]hat question offers a limited and often flawed snapshot of voter attitudes, capturing only abstract support or opposition, but failing to expose strong preferences and deeper pragmatic thinking."

NEW VOICES: Former Utah Prosecutor Urges Death Penalty Repeal

Creighton Horton spent 30 years as a prosecutor with the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office and Utah Attorney General's Office before retiring in 2009. In a recent op-ed, he said his experience handling capital cases led him to believe Utah should abolish the death penalty. Horton noted the negative impact the death penalty can have on victims' families. "If a capital case goes to trial and the jury returns a verdict of death, that pronouncement is probably the last satisfaction the victim's family will get for years, if not decades," he said. "From that point on, the delays and uncertainties of the death penalty appeals process are likely to take a terrible toll, keeping the wound open and denying the victim's family any closure." He said a life without parole sentence for the perpetrator was often the best outcome for the families of victims: "When that happens, the murderers go to prison and, for the most part, no one hears about them again — and the victims' families are able to move on with their lives." He also raised concerns about wrongful convictions, stating, "No system of justice is perfect, and so it's possible that an innocent person could be convicted of capital murder, and wrongly executed." The Utah legislature is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty for future offenses. The bill passed the Utah Senate, and is likely to face a vote in the House on March 10.

NEW VOICES: Why Prosecutors in Texas, Pennsylvania Are Seeking Death Penalty Less Often

Prosecutors across the country are seeking the death penalty less frequently and in recent interviews two district attorneys, one from Texas and one from Pennsylvania, have given some of their reasons why. Randall County, Texas District Attorney James Farren (pictured) told KFDA-TV in Amarillo that his experience handling one particularly lengthy and costly capital case has changed how he will make decisions in future cases that are eligible for the death penalty. He said that his office has spent, "conservatively...at least $400,000" on the prosecution of Brittany Holberg, who has been on death row since 1998. Farren said the costs are too high for taxpayers and "I do not want to subject them to this kind of thing any longer." While he said he still supports the death penalty, Farren predicted that, in the near future, the U.S. Supreme Court "likely will decide society has evolved to the point that it’s no longer appropriate." In an interview with the Reading EagleJohn T. Adams, District Attorney of Berks County, Pennsylvania, says that he rarely seeks the death penalty and is "just as happy with a life sentence as I am a death sentence." If defendantants are sentenced to life without parole, Adams says, "[t]hey will not be a threat to our community ever again. And frankly, community safety is the utmost of my concerns." Adams adds, "I think you will find throughout Pennsylvania that we are seeking [the death penalty] less and less, and I think that's good."

Despite Executions, Death Penalty is in Decline in the "New Georgia"

Although Georgia carried out 5 of the 28 executions in the U.S. in 2015, it imposed no new death sentences and a significantly changed legal landscape points to a "new Georgia" with the death penalty in decline. The Georgia legal publication, Daily Report, dubbed the decline in death sentences its "newsmaker of the year," and explored the reasons for the change. Jerry Word, the division director of the Georgia Capital Defender, said that with the Defender's early intervention initiative reaching out to prosecutors to present reasons to decapitalize a case, prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty in all 29 of the cases his office handled this year. The only capital case that went to trial with the death penalty as an option was a case in which the defendant represented himself, and the jury handed down life without parole. In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and only one of the last 71 capital cases the capital defender has handled has resulted in a death verdict. Several factors have created the new landscape and contributed to the reduction in death sentences. Word said these include the cost of death penalty trials and the efforts by defense counsel to present prosecutors with mitigating evidence early in the process. But, he said, "I think the LWOP [life without parole] is the really big one. We've had that for six years now, but we've really just started seeing the impact in the last few years." Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, agreed that life without parole had played a significant role: "I certainly think things changed dramatically when the Legislature gave us the life without parole option," he said. Similar factors have contributed to death penalty declines in historically active death penalty states like Texas and Virginia. Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said "Georgia is in step with the national trend of declining use of the death penalty. The continued marginalization of the death penalty is not surprising given growing concerns about its implementation, particularly with regard to the potential of an innocent person being executed and the prevalence of botched executions as states experiment with lethal injection drugs."

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