Editorials

Illinois Governor Uses Gun-Control Veto to Attempt to Re-Enact Death Penalty

lllinois Governor Bruce Rauner has conditionally vetoed a gun-control initiative unless the legislature agrees to reinstate capital punishment in the state. Exercising an amendatory veto—a power some governors are granted that permits them to amend legislation in lieu of an outright veto—Rauner called for making the killing of a police officer or any murder in which more than one person was killed a new crime of "death penalty murder." In a May 14, 2018 news conference at the Illinois State Police forensic laboratory in Chicago, Rauner said "individuals who commit mass murder, individuals who choose to murder a law enforcement officer, they deserve to have their life taken." He attached his death-penalty plan and several other gun-control amendments to a bill that would have established a 72-hour waiting period for the purchase of assault rifles in Illinois. Legislative leaders and major Illinois newspapers blasted the action as diversionary political gamesmanship by a weakened governor facing a difficult re-election campaign, and said the death-penalty plan had little chance of enactment. Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, the gun-control bill's sponsor, said the governor had not consulted him about possible changes and had "hijacked my bill and put politics ahead of policy." Senate President John Cullerton said: “The death penalty should never be used as a political tool to advance one’s agenda. Doing so is in large part why we had so many problems and overturned convictions. That’s why we had bipartisan support to abolish capital punishment.” Thomas Sullivan, the co-chair of Commission on Capital Punishment in Illinois appointed by Republican Gov. George Ryan, said Rauner's plan was a “lousy idea.” He called the death penalty expensive and time-consuming, and said, "It doesn’t reduce crime." The Chicago Tribune editorial board characterized Rauner's amendatory veto as "cynical" and a "death penalty ploy" that the paper said was intended "to re-establish [Rauner's] bona fides with disgruntled conservative Republicans." A Chicago Sun-Times editorial said the governor knew he was "load[ing] up the bill with so many major new provisions that there is no way" the state legislature would approve it, enabling Rauner to claim he "didn’t technically kill the cooling off period ... without strictly telling a lie." In 2000, after a series of death-row exonerations, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois and appointed the commission, and in 2003 commuted the sentences of everyone on the state's death row. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill to abolish the state's death penalty in 2011. The Tribune editorial said: "The death penalty issue in Illinois was examined and debated for years in light of notorious incidents of wrongly convicted defendants sent to death row. In Illinois, the legitimate sentiment of many that certain heinous criminals should be put to death was weighed against the risk of errors, and the decision was made to end capital punishment. ... [N]othing has changed to make Rauner’s [May 14] announcement worthy of consideration."

Los Angeles Times Editorial: Exoneration Shows Why Death Penalty Needs to End

The April 2018 exoneration of Vicente Benavides Figueroa, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death on charges of raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter, illustrates why the death penalty should be abolished, the Los Angeles Times said in an April 27, 2018 editorial. Benavides — an intellectually disabled Mexican national who was working as a seasonal farm worker — was sentenced to death after medical witnesses had been provided incomplete hospital records and erroneously testified that the child had been sexually assaulted. His conviction, the paper wrote, "was an egregious miscarriage of justice; he spent a quarter-century on death row for a crime he apparently did not commit. His exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state." Benavides's case, the Times said "ought to remind us of the dangers inherent in California's efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66 .... Moving more quickly to execute convicted death row inmates increases the likelihood that due process will be given short shrift and the innocent will be put to death." The records that showed 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo had not been sexually assaulted — and that cast doubt on whether she had been murdered at all — were not discovered until 7 years after trial. The one year Proposition 66 gives appellate lawyers to investigate cases and file appeals makes it less likely that they will discover such evidence "and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death." The editorial concluded: "The unfixable problem with the death penalty is that mistakes get made, witnesses lie, confessions get coerced — all factors that can lead to false convictions. It is abjectly immoral to speed things up by limiting due process. The better solution is to get rid of the death penalty altogether."

EDITORIAL: Salt Lake Tribune Says It's "Time to end the death penalty in Utah"

As Utah legislators renewed efforts to repeal the state's capital punishment statute, The Salt Lake Tribune editorialized that it is "[t]ime to end the death penalty in Utah." The Tribune editorial page wrote: "The conservatives who dominate the Utah Legislature are coming to realize — on their own, which is the only way to truly grasp an idea — that there is nothing conservative about capital punishment." The editorial noted that "the necessary safeguards and appeals that should always go along with the ultimate punishment are quite costly in terms of money, time and emotions," but found it even "more important [that] handing the state the power to end any human being’s life is not compatible with the idea that the government that governs best is the government that governs least." The paper wrote: "It has long been hard to understand that the same people who are often the most likely to object to the government’s claim that it can competently educate children, inspect automobiles or protect public lands are often comfortable with the idea that that same government is so infallible as to be empowered to put people to death." Referencing changed public perceptions of capital punishment, the editorial said that "[t]he death penalty is increasingly seen as a relic of a more barbaric time. ... 19 other states have done away with it. None of them has been burdened with an increase in violent crime as a result. ... There is no reason to believe that it has a significant deterrent effect or that it in any way makes life in our communities any safer." Advocating a maximum sentence of life without parole, the editorial said: "Putting a human being to death is, unavoidably, a gruesome and degrading affair that harms the decent public servants who are tasked with carrying it out, reopens the wounds of those whose loved ones were killed and creates a barbarically ugly circus atmosphere that a good conservative state like Utah should seek to avoid."

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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.)

EDITORIALS: Seattle Times Urges End to Washington's "Zombie" Death Penalty

"The death penalty in Washington is like a zombie, not alive or dead, yet continuing to eat its way through precious resources in the criminal-justice system," The Seattle Times editorial board declared on May 21, urging the state legislature to end capital punishment. Washington currently has a moratorium on executions, imposed by Governor Jay Inslee in 2014, leading the Times to declare the practice "effectively dead." But because death sentences can still be imposed, and appeals continue for the eight men on death row, capital punishment is "still alive on the books." The editorial says this "limbo...gives no peace to victims’ families." It also leaves prosecutors to decide whether to continue seeking the death penalty, which they have done less often in recent years, "perhaps influenced by the legal uncertainty, the apparent reluctance of some juries and the extra $1 million or more that a death-penalty sentence adds to a murder case." The editorial calls the death penalty, "overly expensive, ineffective and immoral," joining current and former Attorneys General in asking the legislature to take up a repeal bill. The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee has agreed to hold a hearing on an abolition bill if the House takes action first. Attorney General Bob Ferguson believes a House vote may uncover hidden support for repeal: “You don’t know that reaction if you don’t take a vote,” he said. The Seattle Times agrees: "The public wants bold leadership on important issues. A path to repeal is through the Legislature, either this year or next — if they have the courage to act."

EDITORIALS: Colorado Newspapers Support Bill to Repeal Death Penalty

As Colorado's Senate Judiciary Committee considers SB 95—a bill that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole—the editorial boards of The Denver Post and The Durango Herald have urged the legislature to end capital punishment in the state. Colorado's death penalty system "is broken beyond repair and needs to be repealed," wrote The Denver Post​​. Repeal, it said, "would save the state millions in both the prosecution and defense of murderers and an untold number of judicial man hours that have so infrequently resulted in death." The Post editorial also highlighted the unwillingness of Colorado juries to impose death sentences, noting that the highly-publicized capital cases of James Holmes and Dexter Lewis both resulted in life sentences. The Durango Herald editorial board also called for repeal, agreeing with the arguments advanced by Republican legislators in the neighboring mountain states of Utah and Nevada that the death penalty "is a failed public policy, is a waste of taxpayer dollars, the risk of executing innocent people is too high and it causes unnecessary harm to victims’ families." The Herald editorial also emphasized the high cost of capital punishment—quoting estimates by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado "that the average death penalty trial costs $3.5 million, compared to $150,000 for a trial for life without parole"—and that Colorado has had only one execution in 50 years. In 2013, citing arbitrariness and unfairness in the application of the state's death penalty, Governor John W. Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to Nathan Dunlop, one of three men on Colorado's death row.  A 2015 study published in the University of Denver Law Review subsequently showed that prosecutorial decisions to seek the death penalty in Colorado "depend[] to an alarming extent on the race and geographic location of the defendant." All of Colorado's death-row prisoners are African-American men from the municipality of Aurora. SB 95 would apply prospectively to future crimes, but would not affect the cases of the prisoners currently on death row. [UPDATE: After holding hearings on SB 95, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 to defeat the bill. The vote effectively ends death penalty repeal efforts in the state for the 2017 legislative session.] 

EDITORIALS: New York Times Hails Prosecutors' Changing Views on Death Penalty

In a February 6 editorial, The New York TImes hails the reform efforts of the "new generation" of state and local prosecutors who are working to change the United States' criminal justice system, and especially the use of the death penalty. The Times highlights the comments of two newly elected local prosecutors, Beth McCann, the new prosecutor in Denver, Colorado, and Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Harris County, Texas. McCann has said her office will not seek the death penalty because she does not think "that the state should be in the business of killing people." Ogg has pledged that there will be “very few death penalty prosecutions" during her tenure as district attorney. The Times also notes the leadership of state elected officials, pointing to Washington state, where current Democratic Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, and his Republican predecessor, Rob McKenna, are jointly supporting a death penalty repeal bill. "Prosecutors aren’t just seeking fewer death sentences; they’re openly turning against the practice, even in places where it has traditionally been favored," the editorial states, citing the historically low number of death sentences in 2016. Emphasizing the influence of these state and local officials, it calls the role of prosecutor, "one of the most powerful yet least understood jobs in the justice system." Their role is especially critical as national leaders present a "distorted ... reality of crime in America" in support of a "law and order" agenda, the Times says. "In these circumstances, the best chance for continued reform lies with state and local prosecutors who are open to rethinking how they do their enormously influential jobs."

Editorial Boards, Oklahoma Conference of Churches Oppose Death Penalty Ballot Measure

The editorial boards of Oklahoma's two major newspapers and the leadership of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches are all urging voters to vote no on State Question 776, which would enshrine the death penalty in the Oklahoma constitution and remove from state courts the power to declare the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment. The Oklahoman called SQ 776 "unnecesary," saying it, "should be rejected by Oklahoma voters on Nov. 8." The Tulsa World also encouraged a no vote on 776, saying, "It’s intended effect is to allow supporters of the death penalty to feel as if they have done something, even if they haven’t. But there’s a problem with such symbolic votes. The measure has no intended consequences, but the nature of unintended consequences is that they are unintended, and sometimes unpredictable." Both editorials emphasize that the measure adds to the state constitution powers that the Legislature already has, including designating a new method of execution if the current method is ruled unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Conference of Churches joined the two editorial boards in discouraging passage of the measure. In an op-ed for the Tulsa World, the group's executive director, Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee (pictured), drew on a recent SoonerPoll survey that found, "a majority of Oklahomans (52.5 percent) favor abolishing the death penalty, if replaced by life without parole. Only 27 percent of Oklahoma’s population remains strongly in favor of capital punishment." He describes the recent problems with Oklahoma's administration of the death penalty, including the use of the wrong drug in the execution of Charles Warner. In response to those problems, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission was formed to examine the capital punishment system, and is expected to release a report early in 2017. "This measure pre-empts the work of the commission and, if passed, would permit execution by virtually any means if lethal injection drugs are unavailable," Tabbernee said. "Rather than enshrining the death penalty in the state’s Constitution now, we should let the commission finish its work and offer its recommendations on the way to proceed in the future." In an opinion piece in the Guthrie News Leader, Republican Logan County Commissioner Marven Goodman called the ballot question "a huge step in the wrong direction," noting that Oklahoma, while executing 112 people, has had 10 death-row exonerees. Goodman said, "as a conservative, I wouldn't trust the government to regulate shoe laces, let alone administer a program that kills its citizens, but that's exactly what we have."

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