Life Without Parole

NEW VOICES: Creators of California's Death Penalty Law Now Call for Life Without Parole

Donald Heller (pictured), who wrote California's death penalty law, and Ron Briggs, who led the campaign to reinstate the law in 1978, are now advocating for replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. Both now say that the law did not have the result they intended. “At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Briggs said. But the costs of the death penalty system has led him to reconsider his stance: "I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’" Donald Heller, a former prosecutor, called California's death penalty system a "colossal failure," also mentioning its high costs, “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it — and now I think there’s very little or zero benefit — is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose." Both men are supporting a November ballot initiative that would replace death sentences with life without parole and use the money saved to solve cold cases. California has not carried out an execution in six years, and has about 720 inmates on death row.

Connecticut Senate Poised to Vote on Death Penalty Repeal

The Connecticut Senate is expected to vote as early as Wednesday (April 4) on a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. The bill, which would only affect future sentencing, passed the Judiciary Committee on March 21 and needs at least 18 votes to pass in the Senate. If it passes the Senate, it is considered likely to pass the House, and Governor Dannel Malloy has pledged to sign the bill into law. A similar bill passed the General Assembly in 2009, but was vetoed by then-Governor Jodi Rell. Murder victims’ families and friends are among the strongest supporters of the repeal. A letter signed by 179 Connecticut murder victims’ families stated, “Our direct experiences with the criminal justice system and struggling with grief have led us all to the same conclusion: Connecticut’s death penalty fails victims’ families.... In Connecticut, the death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims’ families frustrated and angry after years of fighting the legal system. And as the state hangs onto this broken system, it wastes millions of dollars that could go toward much needed victims’ services.” If Connecticut repeals the death penalty, it will become the 5th state to do so in the past 5 years. Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York have all abandoned the death penalty in recent years. Other states are also considering repeal of the death penalty, including California, where 800,000 signatures have been gathered to place the issue on the ballot in November.

Case Testing Maryland's New Death Penalty Law Ends with Life Sentence

A case testing new death penalty statutes in Maryland has recently concluded. The new statutes limited when the death penalty could be sought to cases of first degree murder in which there is DNA or other biological evidence linking the defendant to a murder, a video-taped confession by the defendant, or a video linking the defendant to the murder. Lee Edward Stephens, who was convicted of the fatal stabbing of Cpl. David McGuinn, was spared the death penalty, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. McGuinn's blood was found on Stephens' clothes, meeting the biological evidence criteria necessary to seek the death penalty. The jurors, who deliberated for six days, cited Stephens’ impoverished upbringing, unaddressed learning disability and low IQ, and sexual abuse he endured as a child as reasons for sparing his life. Assistant State's Attorney Sandra Howell said that the sentence was “a major step forward toward justice for Cpl. David McGuinn.” Janice McGuinn, the victim’s mother, is also satisfied with the verdict, saying that her son was “a firm believer in the justice system and would be satisfied with the outcome.”

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Now Says Society Better Off Without Death Penalty

Jim Petro (pictured), former Attorney General of Ohio, strongly supported the death penalty as a state legislator, believed the state would save money because of the death penalty, and that it would act as a deterrent. But, he recently said, "Neither of those things have occurred, so I ask myself, 'Why would I vote for it again?'  I don't think I would. I don't think the law has done anything to benefit society and us. It's cheaper and, in my view, sometimes a mistake can be made, so perhaps we are better off with life without parole."  He added, "We are probably safer, better and smarter to not have a death penalty."  Many of Petro's concerns are in his book, False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent, in which he underscores the risks of mistake and identifies flaws in how police and prosecutors have handled capital cases. He also noted that many prosecutors recognize these problems: "I would bet certainly well over half the prosecutors in the country looking at this book would ultimately agree with most of the issues," he said.

Delaware Death Row Inmate Granted Clemency, Citing Evidence of Severe Childhood Abuse

On January 17, Delaware Governor Jack Markell commuted the death sentence of Robert Gattis (pictured) to life without parole, citing the defendant's troubled childhood. Gattis was scheduled for execution on January 20. By a 4-1 vote, the Delaware Board of Pardons had recommended sparing Gattis’s life, citing evidence from Gattis’s childhood that indicated severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by family members. In granting clemency, Gov. Markell stated: "Even if one were to discount certain of the allegations of sexual abuse recently alleged by Mr. Gattis (as the Board did), the fact remains that Mr. Gattis’s family background is among the most troubling I have encountered… My decision is among the most difficult I have had to make in all my years in public service. But in light of the Board’s unprecedented decision and the reasons set forth above, I believe it is the correct one under the circumstances.”  As a condition of clemency, Gattis must agree not to challenge his conviction or sentence and to not request a further commutation.

PUBLIC OPINION: Gallup Poll Reports Lowest Support for Death Penalty in Nearly 40 Years

Recent polls conducted by Gallup and CNN indicate Americans' support for the death penalty is continuing to decline.  According to Gallup's 2011 poll, the percentage of Americans approving the death penalty as a punishment for murder dropped to its lowest level in 39 years.  Only 61% supported capital punishment in theory, down from 64% last year and from 80% support in 1994. This is the lowest level of support since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia voided death penalty statutes across the country.  Opposition to the death penalty (35%) in this recent poll reached a 39-year high. The Gallup poll also showed an increase from last year in those who believe the death penalty is applied too often or unfairly.  Support for the death penalty dropped compared to last year among both Republicans and Democrats.  This year, among Democrats (or those leaning that way) more opposed the death penalty than supported it, a reverse from a year ago.  A recent CNN poll (conducted by ORC International) showed that when given a choice of sentences between life in prison without parole or the death penalty for the crime of murder, more Americans (50%) would opt for the life sentence than for death (48%). Seven years ago, the majority (56%) chose the death penalty over the life-without parole sentence. In CNN's recent poll, the number of Americans who believe that at least one person in the past five years has been executed for a crime that he or she did not commit increased to 72%.

PUBLIC OPINION: New Poll Shows California Voters Support Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

The recent Field Poll conducted in California indicated that more voters now prefer life without the possibility of parole instead of the death penalty for convicted murderers. For the first time since the poll began asking the question over a decade ago, more voters (48%) say they would prefer that someone convicted of first-degree murder be sentenced to life without parole than the death penalty (40%). Eleven years ago, only 37% of respondents favored the life sentence and 44% preferred the death penalty, a 15 point change in the spread. Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said that voters are far more skeptical of the death penalty now than they were twenty years ago: "There has been a change in attitude," he said. "Twenty-two years ago, the death penalty side argument prevailed by a large majority - now voters are divided in their opinions on many statements, including the cost of death versus life in prison, does a life sentence actually guarantee they will stay in prison, whether innocent people are executed, and their views of how it is administered to the ethnic population."  A recent study in California found that maintaining the death penalty costs taxpayers $184 million a year more than if the state's condemned killers were kept in prison for life.

CLEMENCY: Ohio Death Row Inmate Granted Clemency, Citing 'Brutally Abusive Upbringing'

On September 26, Ohio Governor John Kasich (pictured) granted clemency to Joseph Murphy, commuting his death sentence to life without parole, citing the defendant's horrific childhood. Murphy was scheduled for execution on October 18. The Ohio Parole Board had unanimously recommended sparing Murphy's life, citing evidence from Murphy's childhood that indicated he was beaten, starved and sexually abused.  The Parole Board also cited a 1992 Ohio Supreme Court decision in which late Justice Moyer said he knew of no other case in which a defendant "was as destined for disaster as was Joseph Murphy."  Governor Kasich issued the following statement regarding the clemency: "Joseph Murphy’s murder of Ruth Predmore was heinous and disturbing and he deserves—and continues to receive—severe punishment. Even though as a child and adolescent Murphy suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him, it does not excuse his crime.... After examining this case in detail with counsel I agree with Chief Justice Moyer, the National Association of Mental Illness and the Parole Board’s unanimous 8-0 decision that considering Joseph Murphy’s brutally abusive upbringing and the relatively young age at which he committed this terrible crime, the death penalty is not appropriate in this case. Thus, I have commuted his sentence to life in prison with no chance for parole."