Studies

STUDY: Worst Crimes Carry Highest Risk of Bad Evidence, Wrongful Convictions

Two professors of sociology and criminology who reviewed more than 1500 cases in which convicted prisoners were later exonerated have found a direct relationship between the seriousness of the crime and miscarriages of justice: "the 'worst of the worst crimes,'” they say, "produce the 'worst of the worst evidence.'" In their research—reported in the law review article, The Worst of the Worst: Heinous Crimes and Erroneous Evidence—University of Denver professors Scott Phillips (pictured) and Jamie Richardson found that "as the seriousness of a crime increases, so too does the chance of a wrongful conviction." Prosecutions for the most serious crimes tend to involve the most inaccurate and unreliable evidence, they said, and the risks are greatest in cases producing murder convictions and death sentences. "The types of vile crimes in which the state is most apt to seek the death penalty are the same crimes in which the state is most apt to participate in the production of erroneous evidence..., from false confession to untruthful snitches, government misconduct, and bad science." Delving into the phenomenon of false confessions, the professors found that "[a]s the seriousness of a particular crime increases, or the seriousness of the general crime problem increases, police interrogation becomes more aggressive. In turn, aggressive interrogation produces more true confessions and more false confessions." They say police officers are under institutional pressures to solve high-profile cases and the "most heinous" and serious crimes, which leads them to use more aggressive tactics to obtain a confession. Phillips and Richardson divided cases with false confessions into two categories: general-population exonerees convicted in murder and other cases; and the cases of death-row exonerees, examined by the level of heinousness of the murder. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 234 of those 1535 exonerated from 1989 through 2014 falsely confessed, 22 of whom were sentenced to death. The sociologists found that 21% of those convicted of murder falsely confessed, as compared with only 7% of those convicted of less serious crimes. In exoneration cases in which DNA evidence bolstered claims of innocence, 41% of those wrongly convicted of murder had confessed, a false confessions rate that was seven times higher than those convicted of crimes other than murder. As for death-row exonerees, 39% of people who were convicted of the most heinous murders confessed, five times the false confession rate (7%) of those who convicted of murders the researchers had determined were less heinous. Phillips and Richardson also found that the heinousness of the murder predicts "the government's reliance on an untruthful snitch, government misconduct, and bad science." Of the death-row exonerations, the state committed misconduct in 86% percent of high-heinous murders, compared to 66% percent of low-heinous murders; the state used prison informant testimony implicating the wrong suspect in 42% of high-heinous murders, as compared to 15% of low-heinous murders; and bad science was presented in 39% of high heinous murders, compared to 23% of low heinous murders. 

NEW PODCAST: DPIC Study Finds No Evidence that Death Penalty Deters Murder or Protects Police

A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of U.S. murder data from 1987 through 2015 has found no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or protects police. Instead, the evidence shows that murder rates, including murders of police officers, are consistently higher in death-penalty states than in states that have abolished the death penalty. And far from experiencing increases in murder rates or open season on law enforcement, the data show that states that have abolished the death penalty since 2000 have the lowest rates of police officers murdered in the line of duty and that killings of police account for a much smaller percentage of murders in those states. In a new Discussions With DPIC podcast, "Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?," DPIC Fellow Seth Rose and Executive Director Robert Dunham explore the assertions long made by death-penalty proponents that capital punishment advances public safety by deterring murders and by protecting police officers. Dunham said the short answer—after analyzing twenty-nine years of annual murder data from FBI Uniform Crime Reports ("UCR") and FBI annual data on Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted, Officers Feloniously Killed ("LEOKA reports")—is no. "There's no evidence that the death penalty deters murder and there's no evidence that it protects the police," Dunham says. "Murder rates may be affected by many things, but the death penalty doesn't appear to be one of them." DPIC divided the states into three categories to analyze murders and murder trends: states that have long had the death penalty ("death-penalty states"), states that have long abolished capital punishment ("non-death-penalty states"), and states that have abolished capital punishment since 2000 ("transitional states"). The data show that the death-penalty states had an overall UCR murder rate that was 1.39 times higher than the non-death penalty states and accounted for 12 of the 16 states with the highest murder rates. Police officers were murdered in death-penalty states at a rate that was 1.37 times higher than in non-death-penalty states, and accounted for 22 of the 25 states with the highest LEOKA rates of officers feloniously killed. Killings of police were lowest, however, in the transitional states that most recently abolished the death penalty. And while killings of officers accounted for 33 of every 10,000 murders in both death-penalty and non-death-penalty states, they were 1.6 times lower in transitional states. What the numbers show, Dunham says, is that "the death penalty doesn't drive murder rates; murder rates drive the death penalty." While the death penalty, he says, "makes no measurable contribution" to police safety, "the rate at which police officers are killed drives the political debate about the death penalty." 

NEW RESOURCES: Capital Punishment and the State of Criminal Justice 2017

The American Bar Association has released a new publication, The State of Criminal Justice 2017, an annual report examining major issues, trends, and significant changes in America's criminal justice system. In a chapter devoted to capital punishment, Ronald J. Tabak, chair of the Death Penalty Committee of the ABA's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, describes significant death penalty cases and developments over the past year. Tabak reports on historic declines in new death sentences and in executions in the U.S.: new death sentences were at their lowest level since 1973, with nearly three-quarters concentrated in just five states—California, Ohio, Texas, Alabama, and Florida; and there were fewer executions than in any year since 1991. The chapter notes that only 27 counties imposed any new death sentences in 2016, highlighting the small number of counties—16 nationwide—that produced five or more death sentences in the first half of this decade, and describing the "problems permeating" the administration of the death penalty in those jurisdictions. It also discusses the potential for further national declines in new death sentences as a result of the electoral defeat of prosecutors in four of the most prolific death-sentencing counties, and their replacement with prosecutors who have expressed "great skepticism about capital punishment." Tabak's chapter also includes sections on "major court cases that will greatly diminish new death sentences," other key Supreme Court cases, legislative activity involving death penalty issues, and the effects of death penalty moratoria imposed by four governors. Tabak says "[t]here is accelerating recognition of major systemic problems with capital punishment" and that "[t]he more that people know about the death penalty as actually implemented, the more they oppose it." As a result, he says, the death penalty in practice has increasingly "been attacked by people who have served in the judiciary or law enforcement, taken part in executions, written death penalty laws, or are politically conservative." Ultimately, he concludes, "our society must decide whether to continue with a penalty implemented in ways that cannot survive any serious cost/benefit analysis."

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Report Finds High Levels of Misconduct in Four Top Death Sentencing Counties

Four counties that rank among the most aggressive users of capital punishment in the United States have prolonged patterns of prosecutorial misconduct, according to a new report by the Harvard-based Fair Punishment Project. The report, "The Recidivists: Four Prosecutors Who Repeatedly Violate the Constitution," examined state appellate court decisions in California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Tennessee from 2010-2015, and found that prosecutors in Orange County, CAOrleans Parish, LASt. Louis City, MO; and Shelby County, TN—all of which currently face allegations of significant misconduct—ranked among the most prolific perpetrators of misconduct in their respective states. Orange and Shelby counties ranked 7th and 13th among the 2% of counties responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners in the U.S. as of January 2013, each having more individuals on their death rows than 99.5% of all counties in the country. In the midst of a scandal on an illegal, multi-decade practice of placing informants next to targeted prisoners to attempt to extract confessions from them, Orange County imposed more death sentences from 2010-2015 than all but five other U.S. counties. St. Louis City ranked 10th in executions from 1976-2012, and Orleans Parish has long been known for its prosecutors' failures to disclose exculpatory evidence to capital defendants, including three cases that have been the subjects of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The statewide misconduct rankings produced by the Fair Punishment Project show that these counties are outliers not only in their heavy use of the death penalty, but also in their patterns of prosecutorial misconduct. Among the types of misconduct found by appellate courts were withholding exculpatory evidence, improper arguments at trial, and hiding deals and favorable treatment offered to informants in exchange for their testimony. In one case from St. Louis, prosecutors: suppressed evidence in the death-penalty trial of Reginald Clemons that would have supported Clemons' claim that he confessed only after having been beaten by police; never disclosed the existence of a rape kit that could have identified the perpetrator; and presented testimony in a co-defendant's trial that another person had committed acts attributed to Clemons at his trial. Longtime prosecutor Nels Moss, Jr. also advised police officers to omit certain observations that were initially included in their reports. Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death, but was awarded a new trial—scheduled for 2018—because of this misconduct.

Equal Justice Initiative Report on Lynchings Outside the Deep South Suggests Links to Capital Punishment

Lynching has long been regarded as a regional phenomenon, but in an updated edition of its landmark 2015 report "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror," the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has now documented more than 300 lynchings of African Americans in states outside the Deep South. "Racial terror lynching was a national problem," said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson (pictured). More than six million African American migrants fled "as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South," but the racial terror often followed them. "Hundreds of lynchings took place outside the American South," he said. The original EJI lynching report documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states, and described the historical link between lynching and the modern-day death penalty. The new edition tracks lynchings in eight states in the Midwest and Upper South: Oklahoma (76), Missouri (60), Illinois (56), West Virginia (35), Maryland (28), Kansas (19), Indiana (18), and Ohio (15). The pattern of lynchings suggests a continuing link to modern capital punishment: Oklahoma and Missouri rank second and fifth in the number of executions in the U.S. in the last fifty years and have executed far more prisoners than any other states outside the Deep South. Working with Google, EJI has created an interactive website providing audio, video, and maps to tell the stories of the victims of racial terror and illuminate the geographic patterns of lynching. “These lynchings were intentionally barbaric, torturous, gruesome,” Stevenson said, and often whole communities actively participated in the public spectacle. "Our collective failure to acknowledge this history has created a contemporary political culture that doesn't adequately value the victimization of people of color today," he said. In an interview with The Washington Post, Stevenson explained how the legacy of lynching affects today's criminal justice system, and the death penalty in particular. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld capital punishment in 1976, Justice Potter Stewart justified capital punishment as an advance from "self-help, vigilante justice, and lynch law." “They started trying people inside." Stevenson said, "and they had the same kind of unreliable verdicts and the same kind of death sentencing and the same kind of abuse of people of color in the courtroom that existed outside the courthouse during the lynching era."

STUDY: Juries Have Never Found Anyone Intellectually Disabled Under Georgia's Insurmountable Standard of Proof

No death penalty jury has ever found a defendant charged with intentional murder to be ineligible for the death penalty under Georgia's intellectual disability law, according to a new empirical study published in Georgia State University Law Review. The study, by Georgia State Law Professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas, examined 30 years of jury verdicts under the state's Guilty But Mentally Retarded statute, which has the most onerous standard in the nation for proving intellectual disability. “Georgia is an outlier," Lucas says. It is the only state to require a capital defendant to prove his or her intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, and the only state to require that this determination be made at the same time that the jury is considering the defendant's guilt. “This study provides, for the first time, an accounting of how Georgia defendants have been unable to overcome the very high burden of establishing intellectual disability before a jury at the guilt phase of a capital trial—a finding that," Lucas says, "has never occurred in a case of intentional murder.” In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that defendants with intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—cannot be executed. The ruling, however, left states with discretion in establishing procedures for determining which defendants have intellectual disability. Some states responded by adopting practices that made it more difficult to prove intellectual disability. In two recent cases, Hall v. Florida (2014) and Moore v. Texas (2017), the Supreme Court struck down other outlier intellectual disability standards that deviated from accepted clinical definitions of intellectual disability. It has never ruled on Georgia's standard of proof. To illustrate the effect of Georgia's outlier practice, Lucas explores the case of Warren Hill (pictured), whom Georgia executed in 2015 even though every mental health expert who had evaluated Hill agreed he had intellectual disability. A state court judge found that Hill had proven his intellectual disability by a "preponderance of the evidence" (more likely than not), the standard employed in nearly every death penalty state. However, the state courts ruled that Hill had not proven his intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the use of that standard, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the cae, and Hill was executed. Lucas concludes, "The absence of a single jury finding of intellectual disability in an intentional murder death penalty case in the nearly three decades of the statutory exemption, and the absence of a single jury finding of intellectual disability in any murder case post-Atkins, leaves little question that Georgia’s statute has failed to protect those with intellectual disability from execution as promised, and as required by the U.S. Constitution and Georgia constitution."

New Statistical Brief from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Documents U.S. Death Penalty Decline

The nation's death rows are shrinking more rapidly than new defendants are being sentenced to death, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical brief, "Capital Punishment, 2014–2015." The statistical brief, which analyzes information on those under sentence of death in the United States as of December 31, 2014 and December 31, 2015, documents a continuing decline in executions, new death sentences, and death row populations across the U.S. 2015 marked the fifteenth consecutive annual decrease in the number of prisoners under sentence of death in the U.S. According to BJS, 69 prisoners were admitted to state or federal death rows in 2014 and 49 were admitted in 2015. (DPIC uses a slightly different counting method that reported 73 death sentences imposed in 2014.) The data also indicates that the decline in the size of death row is attributable to factors other than execution. According to BJS, 75 prisoners were removed from death row in 2014 by means other than execution, such as exoneration, the reversal of a conviction or death sentence, commutation, or death by other causes, as compared with 35 who were executed. In 2015, 82 prisoners were taken off death row by means other than execution, while 28 death-row prisoners were executed. Over the two-year period covered by the data, 39 more prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution than were admitted as a result of new death sentences. The gap between removals from death row and new admissions is expected to widen even further in 2016 and 2017 as a result of record-low death-sentencing rates and prisoners being removed from death row due to death-penalty statutes having been declared unconstitutional in Florida, Delaware, and Connecticut. BJS reports that 2,881 prisoners remained under sentence of death in 33 states and the federal system at the end of 2015. (Click image to enlarge.)

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."

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