Studies

Study: Texas' 'Harsh and Inhumane' Death-Row Conditions Amount to 'Torture'

The conditions in which prisoners on Texas' death row are confined are "harsh and inhumane," violate international human rights norms, and amount to "a severe and relentless act of torture," according to a new study by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. The study, "Designed to Break You," collected accounts from former death-row prisoners who had been exonerated or who had received lesser sentences after their death sentences had been overturned. Their stories revealed numerous problems with death-row conditions, including, "mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient religious services." Every prisoner on death row spends about 23 hours a day in an 8-by-12 foot cell for the duration of their time on death row. "This prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health," the study reports, "exacerbating existing mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time." Ariel Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic, said, "Any person who is kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 days starts to suffer mental and psychological effects that cannot be reversed, and that fits the definition of torture." The report concludes that Texas death-row "conditions fall woefully behind international standards for confinement" and offers 13 recommendations to bring conditions in line with international norms. The recommendations include using solitary confinement only as a punitive measure of last resort and banning it altogether for prisoners with mental illness or intellectual disability. The report also recommends that death-row prisoners be permitted contact visits with their lawyers, family, and friends and that they "have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities."

Bipartisan Oklahoma Report Recommends Moratorium on Executions Pending 'Significant Reforms'

After spending more than a year studying Oklahoma's capital punishment practices, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission has unanimously recommended that the state extend its current moratorium on executions "until significant reforms are accomplished." The bipartisan commission issued its report on April 25, 2017, reaching what it characterized as "disturbing" findings that "led Commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death." The report contains recommendations for more than 40 reforms to virtually all areas of Oklahoma's death penalty system. Oklahoma has not carried out an execution since January 15, 2015, when the state used an unauthorized drug to execute Charles Warner. On October 16, 2015, lawyers for the state agreed to a federal court order barring executions until at least five months after a new execution protocol is in place. Warner's execution also prompted a grand jury investigation, which, like the Commission report, was highly critical of Oklahoma's capital punishment system. The Commission, whose eleven members included former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry, Judge Reta M. Stubhar of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, attorneys, law professors, mental health professionals, and others, examined the death penalty process from arrest to execution. The report states, "Commission members agreed that, at a minimum, those who are sentenced to death should receive this sentence only after a fair and impartial process that ensures they deserve the ultimate penalty of death. ... Unfortunately, a review of the evidence demonstrates that the death penalty, even in Oklahoma, has not always been imposed and carried out fairly, consistently, and humanely, as required by the federal and state constitutions. These shortcomings have severe consequences for the accused and their families, for victims and their families, and for all citizens of Oklahoma." In particular, the Commission raised concerns about wrongful convictions, focusing 10 recommendations on the issue of "innocence protection." Other recommendations dealt with forensic practices, training of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges, determinations of death eligibility, the clemency process, and the execution protocol.

STUDIES: 21st-Century Executions Disproportionately Involve Defendants With Mental Illness

A new study of the case records of the men and women executed in the United States between 2000 and 2015 has found that 21st-century executions disproportionately involve prisoners diagnosed with mental illness and who have experienced traumatic child abuse. In The Washington Post's data feature, Monkey Cage, Professor Frank Baumgartner and Betsy Neill of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill write that "[m]ost Americans oppose the death penalty for the mentally ill. But our research suggests that the death penalty actually targets those who have mental illnesses." The authors' examination of case files found that 43% of the executed prisoners had received a mental illness diagnosis at some point in their lives, more than double the 18% of people in the general population who have ever been diagnosed with any mental illness. 4% of Americans have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Personality disorders and depression were the most commonly diagnosed illnesses among those executed, but executed death-row prisoners also had significantly higher rates of such serious disorders as schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. Evidence of mental illness—and depression in particular—was especially prevalent among those prisoners who waived their appeals and "volunteered" for execution. 63% of volunteers had a mental illness diagnosis, compared to 39% of others who were executed. More than one-quarter (26%) of volunteers had been diagnosed with depression, 37% had documented suididal tendencies, and nearly one-third (32%) had attempted suicide, leading the authors to suggest, "If suicidal tendencies are evidence of mental illness, then death penalty states actively assist suicide." Rates of childhood trauma—a risk factor for mental illness—were also dramatically higher among executed prisoners than among the general public. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates about 10% of U.S. children are abused or neglected, but nearly 40% of executed prisoners had been abused. The study found that executed death row prisoners were 13 times more likely than U.S. children as a whole to have been sexually abused, 13 times more likely to have been physically abused, and twice as likely to have been neglected by their caregivers. According to the authors, "The CDC and independent researchers have repeatedly found that childhood trauma’s long-term effects include higher likelihoods of disrupted neuro-development, cognitive impairment, mental illness, and becoming the perpetrator or victim of violence." (Click image to enlarge.) 

STUDIES: Rarity of Executions Makes California Jurors Less Likely to Impose Death Sentences

A study published in The Yale Law Journal provides new evidence that, as public opinion continues to shift away from the death penalty, juries empaneled in capital cases may become even less representative of the community and even more prone to convict. The studyconducted by Professors Brandon Garrett (University of Virginia), Daniel Krauss (Claremont-McKenna College), and Nicholas Scurich (University of California Irvine)—found that with increased public opposition to the death penalty, more prospective jurors may be excluded from serving on capital juries because of their views against the death penalty. The researchers surveyed people reporting for jury duty in Orange County, California about their views on the death penalty itself and on the impact of the rarity of executions in California. Orange County is one of the ten most prolific death-sentencing counties in the United States and was one of just 16 U.S. counties that imposed five or more death sentences from 2010 to 2015. But despite those facts, about one-third (32%) of those surveyed said they would automatically vote for life without parole in the sentencing phase of a death penalty case. This view would make them excludable from a capital jury in a process known as death qualification, a result that the authors said, "raises new constitutional questions concerning [death qualification's] effect on the ability to secure a fair cross-section of the community in the jury venire." The researchers also found that nearly one in four jurors (24%) said that, as a result of their concerns about the death penalty, they would "refuse to vote for murder in the first degree merely to avoid reaching the death penalty issue." These so-called "nullifiers" would also be excludable from the jury, producing a jury that would be more prone than the overall population to find the defendant guilty. But at the same time that death qualification "excludes far higher percentages of the population than ever before," the researchers found that it "also has become an even less predictable prosecution tool, because even many stated death penalty proponents now harbor serious doubts about the death penalty." Finally, researchers asked the jurors whether the fact that California has not carried out an execution since 2006 would make them more likely or less likely to impose a death sentence. 67% of those surveyed said it made them less likely to vote for death. The authors urge further research into jury attitudes about the death penalty and conclude, "These findings have implications for how we should think about punishment as well as the Eighth Amendment in the area of the death penalty, but also far more broadly. Perhaps unusual punishments appear cruel or unsupported due to their rarity in practice."

Reports Find Record Number of Exonerations in 2016, Blacks More Likely to be Wrongfully Convicted

Companion reports released on March 7 by the National Registry of Exonerations found record numbers of exonerations and wrongful convictions involving official misconduct in 2016, and striking evidence of racial bias both in the wrongful convictions themselves and in the time it took the judicial process to exonerate the wrongfully incarcerated. The Registry's report, Exonerations in 2016, found a record 166 exonerations in 2016, with 54 defendants exonerated of homicide. A DPIC review of the Registry's data revealed that the death penalty played a role in nearly a quarter of the homicide exonerations. In at least six of the wrongful homicide convictions, prosecutors had sought the death penalty at trial; in another, an innocent defendant had pled guilty to avoid the death penalty; and at least six additional exonerations were the product of witnesses having falsely implicated innocent defendants after police had threatened the witness or a loved one with the death penalty unless the witness cooperated with the investigation. The Registry's companion report, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States, analyzes exonerations for murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes since 1989. The report found that black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people and that African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims. Police officers were more likely to have committed misconduct in the cases in which black defendants were exonerated of murder than in exonerations of white murder defendants. In addition, justice was delayed in exonerations of black murder defendants, who, on average, waited three years longer than whites before being released from prison. An analysis of the DPIC death-row exoneration database corroborates the National Registry's conclusions: 16 of the last 18 death-row exonerations had police or prosecutorial misconduct as their primary cause. 18 of the exonerees in the last 25 misconduct-related death-row exonerations are black. While 68.8% of wrongly convicted non-black death-row exonerees were exonerated in 10 years or less, it took the judicial system 11 years or more to exonerate 57.3% of the wrongly convicted black death-row exonerees. 84.6% of all cases in which exoneration took 26 years or more involved black defendants.

STUDIES: At Least 201 Florida Death Row Prisoners May Be Eligible for Resentencing, 134 Had Non-Unanimous Juries

A new study reports that at least 201 Florida death row prisoners—including at least 134 whom judges sentenced to death after juries had returned non-unanimous sentencing recommendations—may be eligible for resentencing hearings as a result of recent rulings by the United States and Florida Supreme Courts declaring the state's death sentencing practices unconstitutional. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's statute in Hurst v. Florida, ruling that it unconstitutionally denied defendants the right to have juries decide whether the prosecution had proven key facts necessary to impose the death penalty. Later in the year, in Hurst v. State, the Florida Supreme Court also struck down the statute for permitting judges to impose death sentences without a unanimous jury recommendation for death. In a pair of rulings issued in December 2016, Asay v. State and Mosley v. State, the court applied that decision to any defendant whose death sentence was finalized after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Ring v. Arizona, in 2002. The authors of the study, Michael Radelet (pictured), a sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and G. Ben Cohen, a capital litigator in New Orleans, Louisiana, caution that the 134 non-unanimous post-Ring death verdicts that they have identified "are not the only cases that may require resentencing, as defendants may have different claims arising from other constitutional deficiencies in the Florida statutes." Their study shows that ten counties account for nearly 60% of Florida's death row, more than 60% of those sentenced to death since Ring, and 62% of the known non-unanimous verdicts and will most heavily bear the cost of resentencing these defendants. The counties with the largest numbers of affected prisoners are also among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of people on death row nationwide. Duval County has 31 defendants who may be eligible for resentencing, of whom at least 26 had a non-unanimous jury. The same is true of 11 of 12 affected defendants from Miami-Dade County, 8 of 12 from Broward County, and 7 of 11 from Seminole County. The authors point out that the constitutional failures of Florida's statute have been evident for many years, and that earlier acknowledgement of these problems could have saved the state from the costly resentencing hearings it now faces: "The significant cost of resentencing all of these individuals under a constitutional scheme was very predictable at the time of Ring in 2002, and was also foreseen by at least some experts who examined the post-Furman statute that was enacted in 1972." They conclude that "In 2017, the Florida legislature will need to make changes in the Florida death penalty statute that were predictable when the statute was first passed in 1972, and inevitable when the U.S. Supreme Court released Ring v. Arizona in 2002. Finally, they will need to acknowledge that Ring has rung."

REPORT: Two-Thirds of Oregon's Death Row Have Mental Impairments, History of Severe Trauma, or Were Under 21 at Offense

Most of the prisoners on Oregon's death row suffer from significant mental impairments, according a study released on December 20, 2016 by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard University. The Project's analysis of case records, media reports, and opinions of Oregon legal experts found that two-thirds of the 35 people on the state's death row "possess signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred." The report argues that these characteristics make the prisoners less culpable than the average offender. "[T]he U.S. Supreme Court has held that regardless of the severity of the crime, imposition of the death penalty upon a juvenile or an intellectually disabled person, both classes of individuals who suffer from impaired mental and emotional capacity relative to typically developed adults, would be so disproportionate as to violate his or her 'inherent dignity as a human being,'" the report says, drawing parallels between those classes and the prisoners included in the report. The study found that 9 of the 35 death row prisoners (26%) "presented evidence of significantly impaired cognitive functioning as evidenced by low IQ scores, frontal lobe damage, and fetal alcohol syndrome"; approximately one in four exhibited symptoms of mental illness, or had a confirmed mental health diagnosis; one-third suffered some form of severe childhood or emotional trauma of the sort known to affect brain development; and six (17%) were under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. In one case, an Oregon death row prisoner was granted a hearing to determine whether he is intellectually disabled after evidence showed he has a psychotic disorder, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, visible brain defects in his corpus callosum, a low IQ, and deficits in adaptive behavior that left him functioning at the level of a seven-and-a-half-year old child. His co-defendant, a childhood friend who admitted that he had exerted pressure on the first defendant to participate in the crime, was given a life sentence. The report concludes, "These findings raise a legitimate question as to whether Oregon’s capital punishment scheme is capable of limiting application of the death penalty to the most culpable offenders." Oregon currently has a moratorium on executions, and has executed just two people in 40 years.

New Study Finds Oregon Death Sentences Are Significantly More Costly Than Life Sentences

A new study by Lewis & Clark Law School and Seattle University that examined the costs of hundreds of aggravated murder and murder cases in Oregon has concluded that "maintaining the death penalty incurs a significant financial burden on Oregon taxpayers." The researchers found that the average trial and incarceration costs of an Oregon murder case that results in a death penalty are almost double those in a murder case that results in a sentence of life imprisonment or a term of years. Excluding state prison costs, the study found, cases that result in death sentences may be three to four times more expensive. The study found that 61 death sentences handed down in Oregon cost taxpayers an average of $2.3 million, including incarceration costs, while a comparison group of 313 aggravated murder cases cost an average of $1.4 million. Excluding state prison costs, the difference was even more stark: $1.1 million for death sentences vs. $315,159 for other cases. The study also found that death penalty costs were escalating over time, from $274,209 in the 1980s to $1,783,148 in the 2000s. (See chart. All costs are in 2016 dollars.) The study examined cost data from local jails, the Oregon Department of Corrections, the Office of Public Defense Services, and the Department of Justice, which provided information on appeals costs. Prosecution costs were not included because district attorney's office budgets were not broken down by time spent on each case. Among the reasons cited for the higher cost in death penalty cases were the requirement for appointment of death-qualified defense lawyers, more pre- and post-trial filings by both prosecutors and the defense, lengthier and more complicated jury selection practices, the two-phase death penalty trial, and more extensive appeals once a death sentence had been imposed. Professor Aliza Kaplan, one of the authors of the study, said, "The decision makers, those involved in the criminal justice system, everyone, deserves to know how much we are currently spending on the death penalty, so that when stakeholders, citizens and policy-makers make these decisions, they have as much information as possible to decide what is best for Oregon." Oregon has carried out just two executions since the death penalty was reinstated, both of inmates who waived their appeals. The state currently has a moratorium on executions.

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