EDITORIALS: Texas Inmate With IQ of 62 Faces Imminent Execution

A recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle highlights the case of Texas death-row inmate Milton Mathis, whose IQ of 62 places him well below the threshold for intellectual disability (formerly called "mental retardation"). Mr. Mathis faces execution on June 21, despite the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which banned the execution of inmates with intellectual disabilities. The Chronicle noted, "If put to death, Milton Mathis would have one of the lowest — if not the lowest - undisputed IQ scores of any Texas inmate sentenced to capital punishment since that ruling took effect."  Mathis' lawyers raised this issue in both his state and federal appeals, but the state court rejected the claim, and the federal court denied a stay, not realizing that doing so prevented further litigation in state court. The federal judge later realized her error, but at that point, she lacked jurisdiction to change the ruling. Andrea Keilen, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said, "What is really troubling is that in this case process has trumped substance. The evidence of mental retardation is compelling, overwhelming, and, because the state courts heard it, the federal courts have not allowed the evidence to be introduced." The Chronicle concluded: "In essence, barring federal intervention or the governor's clemency, Texas will unlawfully and unjustly execute a mentally retarded individual because of legal technicalities and the state's failure to weigh Mathis' clinical condition." Read full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: Philadelphia Inquirer -- "Juries Know Better"

A recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer concludes the public is ready to scrap the death penalty in Pennsylvania, even if the legislature is not. According to the editorial, juries opted for the death penalty in just 3% of first-degree murder cases over the past four years:  “Pennsylvania juries clearly are more comfortable with the alternative sentence of life without parole, which assures that first-degree murder convicts will waste away behind bars.” The Inquirer cites several different reasons for what they called a "sea change" in attitudes toward capital punishment: “[M]oral qualms about government-sanctioned executions come into play for many jurors. There are also the widely documented instances of wrongful death sentences later being overturned, and data that suggest the penalty falls unfairly on poor and minority defendants who cannot afford to mount an effective defense.”  The editorial concludes that replacing the death penalty with life-without-parole sentences is the best choice: "New Jersey abolished capital punishment in 2007; now Pennsylvania should follow that example." Read full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: Birmingham News Calls for Moratorium on Alabama's Death Penalty

A recent editorial in the Birmingham News called on Alabama lawmakers to pass legislation that would require a three-year moratorium on imposing death sentences and carrying out executions, giving the state time to address flaws in the death penalty system. The editorial outlined five reasons why legislators with various positions should be united in such an effort. The paper stated:

- Lawmakers who are pro-life should be concerned Alabama is among the nation's most gung-ho and careless states in putting people to death.

- Lawmakers who are fiscally conservative should be concerned that studies in other states have shown it's much less expensive to lock up killers for life than to put them to death. A newspaper report found Florida could save a whopping $51 million a year by sentencing killers to life without parole rather than death.

- Lawmakers who are troubled by racial disparities should be concerned the color of a defendant's or victim's skin plays a role in who gets executed.

EDITORIALS: USA Today Urges Life Without Parole for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

On May 12, the editorial board of USA Today affirmed its opposition to the death penalty in an editorial urging that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev be sentenced to life without parole, rather than the death penalty, for his role in the Boston marathon bombing. "Laws aren't written for a single individual, and the death penalty applies to many people," the editorial said.  "Tsarnaev and other infamous defendants . . . demonstrate the penalty's arbitrary nature. While Tsarnaev has a superb legal team, most defendants get by with lawyers who are inexperienced, low-paid and often inept." USA Today noted that "[m]ore than 150 death-row prisoners have been exonerated since 1972" and many cases have been reversed because of "'intolerable' errors by the defense" and "prosecutors withholding evidence."  The editorial also criticized the death penalty as "discriminatory," saying that death sentences are more likely to be imposed if the defendant is poor or black or "most certainly" if the victim is white.  USA Today also questioned the purpose of capital punishment, saying "[t]here's no credible evidence that it deters crime. Tsarnaev certainly wasn't deterred by the execution of terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who took 168 lives in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing." After describing the conditions of the federal supermax prison where Tsarnaev would serve a life sentence, the editorial concluded, "He deserves extreme punishment. But with the death penalty or without, that outcome is assured."

EDITORIALS: Washington Post Calls for Transparency in Executions

In light of the three botched executions that took place in 2014, the Washington Post published an editorial urging states not to drop "a veil of secrecy over executions." In particular, the editorial board opposes a proposed law in Virginia, which, "would make practically everything about executions in Virginia a state secret — even the building in which they take place. " "It’s hard to see the compelling need for that kind of blatant censorship, which in other states has been challenged by death row inmates, civil liberties groups and media outlets as an infringement on the First Amendment," the editorial said. "Depriving the public of information on the dark side of capital punishment, and impoverishing the public debate, will not make botched executions any more palatable." It calls such laws constitutionally suspect, adding, "The fact that such mishaps might arouse public disgust does not justify granting anonymity to drug companies that enter into government contracts. If it did, states might conclude that any unpleasant news, and the resulting inconvenient public reaction, would occasion suspending the First Amendment." Read the editorial below.

EDITORIALS: Indiana's Death Penalty "Too Costly and Applied Unfairly"

In a recent editorial in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Journal Gazette, the paper welcomed the proposal by the state's Attorney General to reconsider the death penalty in light of its enormous costs.  At a Criminal Justice Summit held at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller asked state officials to look at the death penalty from a practical perspective. He cited a recent capital trial in Warrick County that cost $500,000 in defense attorney fees alone. “The costs can’t be borne by smaller counties," the paper quoted Zoeller as saying.   "[S]o if the crime occurs in a large county you might be charged with the death penalty, in a smaller county you’re not. That raises some significant questions about fairness.”  The paper noted that most of the high costs cannot be avoided: "[D]eath penalty cases demand the strictest set of protections and safeguards to make sure the conviction and sentence are correct and appropriate. New DNA evidence exonerating a killer can free a prisoner serving a life sentence; it can’t help someone who has been executed," and concluded, "The death penalty is too costly and applied too unfairly. Life without the possibility of parole is the appropriate penalty – and far less costly to taxpayers."  Read full editorial below.

NEBRASKA EDITORIAL: Instead of a new means of capital punishment, the Legislature should get rid of it

Days after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair was unconstitutional, a Lincoln Journal Star editorial urged the state to reconsider the death penalty:  "Instead of rushing to pass a new means of capital punishment, the Legislature should take this opportunity to finally get rid of the death penalty."   Nebraska was the only state to retain the electric chair as its sole means of execution. The paper noted that it was the right time to take a broader look at the death penalty.  "With the advent of more DNA testing, errors in sending people to death row were shown to be far more frequent than most people believed."  Hence, the paper concluded, "the time is ripe to abolish capital punishment in the state.”

EDITORIALS: Illinois Death Penalty Repeal Called a "Victory for Justice"

An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times applauded Illinois Governor Pat Quinn for signing the bill abolishing the death penalty. The editors wrote, "We’ve learned that the system makes too many mistakes to entrust it with the ultimate power of capital punishment. We’ve learned that legal safeguards can be pushed aside when emotions are high after a heinous crime. We’ve learned that political ambition sometimes blinds those in power to the weaknesses of a case. We’ve learned that evidence can disappear or be misrepresented, that witnesses seeking special deals may lie, that juries may be swayed by emotion instead of facts."  For Gov. Quinn, the flaws in the system that can lead to a wrongful execution played the most powerful role in his decision. In a statement delivered immediately after the signing, he said, “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.” He continued, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”