EDITORIALS: "Mistakes are made"

A recent editorial in Nebraska's Journal Star urged support for a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison. Among the reasons cited for its position was the risk of executing an innocent person. The editorial noted that advancements in DNA testing have shown the fallibility of the current system: “Seventeen people who were on death row have been set free after DNA testing proved they were wrongly convicted.” The editorial also pointed to more than 250 convictions that have been overturned nationwide because of DNA testing, including the Nebraska defendants known as the "Beatrice Six," who were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder but later exonerated through DNA testing. The paper cautioned against supporting the death penalty on the basis of one horrific case: “[E]ven if the system worked without flaw in that particular case, there can be no guarantee that it will work that way every time. And if the system cannot work without error - as the facts show - then the death penalty cannot be justified. Sooner or later, an innocent person will die at the hands of the state of Nebraska." Read full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: "The Random Horror of the Death Penalty"

An editorial in the Sunday edition of the New York Times on January 8 looked at recent studies pointing to the arbitrariness of the death penalty.  The editorial noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down capital punishment in 1972 because its arbitrary implementation rendered it unconstitutional.  In particular, the Times cited a recent study of Connecticut’s death penalty indicating the death penalty was not being imposed on the worst offenders, but rather that a death sentence depended on various irrelevant factors such as geography and the race of the victim.  The study was conducted by Prof. John Donohue of Stanford Law School, who analyzed 205 death-eligible cases in the state over a 34-year period and found those facing execution are indistinguishable from equally violent offenders who escaped the penalty of death. According to the editorial: "The egregiousness scores for those charged with capital murder and those who were not were virtually identical; the nature of the crime bore almost no relationship to how the case came out. Among the 29 who had a death penalty hearing, there is no clear difference in the level of egregiousness for the 17 who got life without parole and the 12 sentenced to death ... Among the 32 most awful cases on the four-factor egregiousness scale, only one resulted in a death sentence."  The editorial noted, “In 1972, the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia struck down state death-penalty laws that lacked guidelines on how the penalty should be applied. It found that with only 15 percent of death-eligible murder convictions in Georgia leading to a death sentence, imposition of the penalty was 'freakishly' rare - and therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional. The rate in the Donohue study is far more extreme at 4.4 percent.” The editorial concluded, “This 'freakishly' rare application - among the thousands of murder cases a year - is strong evidence that every state system is arbitrary and capricious. The death penalty in Connecticut is clearly unconstitutional, barbaric and should be abolished, as it should be everywhere.”  Read full editorial below.

DPIC IN THE NEWS: Media Coverage of Year End Report

Over 400 media outlets around the country reported on DPIC's recent 2011 Year-End Report.  Coverage included stories on the dramatic drop in death sentences, the decline in executions, and fewer states having the death penalty.  Articles appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Reuters, USA Today, CNN, TIME, and many other papers.  National broadcast outlets such as NBC's Nightly News, National Public Radio's Morning Editiion, and CBS Radio ran pieces, and the headline news was noted on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  Other coverage appeared on over 100 local radio and TV stations.  Among the papers writing editorials on the trends cited in the report were, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Dallas Morning News.  The L.A. Times’s editorial noted, “The Death Penalty Information Center's annual report on capital punishment in America, released Thursday, showed that executions continued to drop in 2011, to 43; that's down from 85 in 2000 and 46 last year. More significantly, the number of death sentences across the country fell dramatically this year, to 78 from 112 in 2010.  And perhaps most significant of all, the percentage of Americans who say they support the death penalty, which was 80% in 1994, fell to 61%, the lowest ever.”  The Washington Post's editorial attributed the decline in death sentences in part to the decreasing confidence in the capital punishment system, noting, “The risk of executing an innocent person must weigh heavily in the debate. There can be no denying that the criminal justice system makes mistakes… Public safety and appropriate punishment for the worst crimes can be achieved through life sentences without the danger of taking an innocent life.”  The Dallas Morning News editorial echoed the same hesitation when it comes to the death penalty, saying “The justice system will never be foolproof, and, therefore, use of the death penalty is never justified.”

EDITORIALS: "An Intolerable Burden of Proof"

An editorial in the New York Times criticized a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, upholding the heavy burden Georgia places on offenders with intellectual disabilities.  In order to be exempt from the death penalty, defendants must prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that they are mentally retarded.  The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2002 that such defendants cannot receive the death penalty, but the Court left the procedures for determining this status to the states.  According to the editorial, Georgia is the only state requiring this extremely difficult standard of proof.  They called on the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Georgia's law. The editorial concluded, “[W]hen the court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of the mentally retarded, it made plain that states cannot weaken that protection with an unfair procedural standard. In this and other ways, Georgia’s death penalty subverts the Constitution and is further evidence that capital punishment should be abolished.”  Read full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: Calls for Florida to Revamp Its Untrustworthy Death Penalty System

The Orlando Sentinel in Florida recently called on the state to change the unusual way in which it arrives at death sentences, recommending instead unanimous jury decisions for a death sentence, the prevailing practice in the vast majority of states.  In June, a federal judge declared Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional because it only requires a simple majority to decide whether aggravating factors exist and to recommend a death sentence to the presiding judge.  In 2005, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero urged legislators to make a similar change and require a unanimous jury recommendation in capital sentencing.  The following year, a study conducted by the American Bar Association called for reforms in the state’s death penalty system which has had more exonerations than any other state, with 23 inmates released from death row since 1973.  The chair of the study, Professor Christopher Slobogin, concluded, “Much more needs to be done to ensure that Florida's death penalty system avoids executing the innocent.”  The Sentinel's editorial echoed that concern, “Florida can no longer shrug off travesties of justice that damn innocents such as Frank Lee Smith. After serving 14 years for a rape and murder, DNA testing proved his innocence. Redemption that came 11 months after he died behind bars. Florida simply can no longer accept a simple majority when lives hang in the balance.”  Read the full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: Praise for Oregon Governor's Action Halting Executions

The Register Guard (Eugene, Oregon) praised Governor John Kitzhaber's recent announcement halting all executions, calling his conclusion that the "death penalty is morally wrong and unjustly administered" to be "right on both counts." In their editorial, the paper noted that the governor's actions are in line with other developments in the U.S. and internationally: "Kitzhaber’s announcement came as the tide is turning against the death penalty. Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn abolished it in a state that since 1977 had wrongly condemned at least 20 people to death. At least 16 states — and 133 countries — now reject the death penalty."  The editors encouraged Oregonians to engage in a "great debate" on the death penalty and seek a solution that "reflects Oregon's values."  See the full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: New York Times: "An Indefensible Punishment"

The lead editorial in the New York Times on September 26 called for an end to the death penalty because, the editors said, it cannot be made to comply with the U.S. Constitution.  The editoral reviewed the 35-year history since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and concluded, "The death penalty is grotesque and immoral and should be repealed."  The paper pointed to the recent case of Troy Davis, who was executed on September 21 in Georgia, and to the continuing arbitrariness in the way the death penalty is applied.  It also highlighted the ongoing problems of racial bias, the risk of executing the innocent, and the poor quality of representation in capital cases. The death penalty, they said, is driven by political misuse: "Politics ... permeates the death penalty, adding to chances of arbitrary administration. Most prosecutors in jurisdictions with the penalty are elected and control the decision to seek the punishment. Within the same state, differing politics from county to county have led to huge disparities in use of the penalty, when the crime rates and demographics were similar."  Citing statistics from DPIC's List of Exonerations, the editorial noted, "Under this horrifying system, 17 innocent people sentenced to death have been exonerated and released based on DNA evidence, and 112 other people based on other evidence. All but a few developed nations have abolished the death penalty," and concluded,  "It is time Americans acknowledged that the death penalty cannot be made to comply with the Constitution and is in every way indefensible."  Read full op-ed below.

STUDIES: Significant Racial Disparities Found in Military Death Penalty

A soon-to-be-published study has found significant racial disparities in the U.S. military's death penalty. The study, which will be published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, found that minorities in the military are twice as likely to be sentenced to death as whites accused of similar crimes. The study examined all 105 potential capital cases since the military death penalty was reinstated in 1984.  Of the 16 death sentences handed down in that time, 10 were of minority defendants. The authors did not attribute the disparities to intentional bias: "There is no suggestion here that any participant in the military criminal justice system consciously and knowingly discriminated on the basis of the race of the accused or the victim," the authors said. "However, there is substantial evidence that many actors in the American criminal justice system are unconsciously influenced by the race of defendants and their victims." A New York Times editorial about the study noted how rarely death sentences are handed down in the military, that there have been no military executions since 1961, and that 8 out of 10 death sentences have been overturned. Six men are currently on the U.S. military's death row. The editorial concluded, "The de facto moratorium has not made the country or the military less secure. The evidence of persistent racial bias is further evidence that it is time for the military system to abolish the death penalty."