Studies

ANALYSIS: Research Supports Assertion that U.S. Death Penalty "Devalues Black Lives"

The Movement for Black Lives has called for abolishing the death penalty in the United States, asserting that capital punishment is a racist legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow that “devalues Black lives." A Spring 2018 article in the University of Chicago's philosophy journal Ethics, co-authored by Michael Cholbi, Professor of Philosophy at California State Polytechnic University and Alex Madva, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona, examines the philosophical underpinnings of those assertions and concludes that they are correct. In Black Lives Matter and the Call for Death Penalty Abolition, the authors examine "the two central contentions in the movement’s abolitionist stance"—that the death penalty as practiced in the United States wrongs Black communities as a whole, rather than just the individual Black defendants charged with capital murder or the particular Black victims whose murders were not capitally prosecuted; and that abolition of the death penalty in its entirety, rather than attempts at piecemeal reform, is "the most defensible remedy for this wrong." Cholbi and Madva review numerous 21st-century death-penalty studies and find that the data show two major classes of racial distinctions in American death-penalty practices: a White-victim preference in both prosecutorial choices to seek and jury verdicts to impose the death penalty and a sentencing bias against non-White defendants once a case has been designated as capital. Cholbi and Madva conclude that Black Americans are subject to a citizenship class that renders them vulnerable to both retributive and distributive injustice: retributive in the sense that individual Black capital defendants are empirically more likely to be subject to execution than defendants of other races and distributive in that that those who murder Black people are empirically less likely to be subject to execution than those who murder non-Black people. As a result of, in part, implicit racial biases that manifest at every level of the capital punishment system, Black capital defendants face the retributive injustice of being more likely to be sentenced to death than any other group. “Preexisting biases regarding blacks' proclivity toward and insusceptibility to violence that may otherwise remain dormant are galvanized when individuals are afforded the opportunity to render judgments regarding who ought to be executed for their crimes,” Cholbi and Madva write. In one shocking study cited by the pair, White respondents became more supportive of capital punishment when informed about the issue of racial bias in capital sentencing. Another study showed White members of a mock jury more likely to convict Black people and less likely to convict White people when informed that the maximum sentence possible was death as opposed to a life sentence. “Such results suggest that capital punishment is not just another arena infected with bias but instead represents a distinctive channel for racial discrimination” where anti-Black biases are "activate[d] and amplif[ied]." To not address the distinct and permeative nature of this discrimination, Cholbi and Madva write, “amounts to a form of societal or institutional recklessness.” Research supports the Movement for Black Lives' assertion that all Black people, not just individual Black capital defendants, are unjustly impacted by capital punishment’s systemic racial bias. Because the murder of a Black person is less statistically likely to result in a death sentence, Cholbi and Madva argue, “the law fails to penalize killings of blacks in a manner consistent with their having the equal protection of the law.” Given that the law “routinely punishes those who kill blacks less harshly than those who kill others, killing blacks becomes commensurably less risky (especially if the killer is white)." This distributive injustice “is one that all blacks face, not only those who actually are murdered.” The authors analyze attempted state-level death-penalty reforms and conclude that they “have had modest success at best” at eliminating racial bias, and therefore "abolishing the death penalty may itself be one among many necessary reforms for reducing broader racial disparities in criminal imprisonment." The task of ensuring that the lives of Black people are comparably protected and their killers are equally punished in the U.S. criminal justice system is impossible, they argue, without dismantling the capital punishment system for good. 

STUDY: Pervasive Rubberstamping by State Courts Undermines Legitimacy of Harris County, Texas Death Sentences

State-court factfinding by judges in Harris County, Texas death-penalty cases is "a sham" that "rubberstamps" the views of county prosecutors, according to a study of the county's capital post-conviction proceedings published in the May 2018 issue of the Houston Law Review. In The Problem of Rubber Stamping in State Capital Habeas Proceedings: A Harris County Case Study, researchers from the University of Texas School of Law Capital Punishment Center examined factfinding orders in 191 Harris County capital post-conviction proceedings in which factual issues were contested, and found that in 96% of the cases, Harris County judges adopted the county prosecutors' proposed findings of fact verbatim. In the vast majority of cases, judges signed the state’s proposed document without even changing the heading. Looking at the 21,275 individual factual findings that county prosecutors had proposed, the researchers discovered that 96% of the judicial findings were word-for-word what prosecutors had written. The study's authors—Capital Punishment Center Director and Judge Robert M. Parker Chair in Law Jordan M. Steiker, Center Co-Director and Clinical Professor James W. Marcus, and Clinical Fellow Thea J. Posel—identified two related state post-conviction practices that they say "undermine the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty" in the nation's most prolific county for executions: "the reluctance of state trial courts to conduct evidentiary hearings to resolve contested factual issues, and the wholesale adoption of proposed state fact-finding instead of independent state court decision-making." State post-conviction applications typically present affidavits from witnesses and experts containing evidence that could have been, but was not, presented at trial. This evidence may "relate[ ] to the accuracy of the conviction, including forensic, alibi, or eyewitness testimony; or the affidavits might highlight important [penalty-phase] mitigating evidence regarding the inmate’s psychiatric or psychological impairments, abused background, or redeeming qualities." The systemic rubberstamping rejects this evidence, often without any evidentiary hearing into contested factual issues. The "inadequate development of facts" caused by this "one-sided consideration of contested factual issues," the researchers say, "prevents Harris County post-conviction courts from enforcing federal constitutional norms." The sham state-court proceedings also lead to unreliable federal habeas corpus review of Harris County death sentences, the researchers said, "[b]ecause even rubberstamped findings receive deference in federal court." When federal habeas relief is denied and an execution occurs, "prosecutors and newspapers recount the many layers of review undertaken" in the case, notwithstanding the underlying reality that "those layers of review afforded no meaningful consideration of the inmate’s constitutional claims." The reality of rubberstamped state-court factfinding and illusory federal appellate review, they say, "undermines the legitimacy of Harris County executions."

STUDIES: Death-Penalty Jury Selection “Whitewashes” Juries and is Biased Towards Death

As support for the death penalty has declined in America, the process of "death-qualification"—which screens potential jurors in death-penalty cases based upon their views about capital punishment—produces increasingly unrepresentative juries from which African Americans are disproportionately excluded and, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, increasingly biases juries in favor of conviction and death sentences. Death-qualification, the researchers say, "systematically 'whitewashes' the capital eligible pool [and] leaves behind a subgroup [of jurors] that does not represent the views of its community." Professor Mona Lynch (pictured, l.) of University of California-Irvine's Department of Criminology, Law, and Society, and Professor Craig Haney (pictured, r.) of University of California-Santa Cruz's Department of Psychology conducted two surveys of jurors in Solano County, California—which has the highest concentration of African Americans in the state—18 months apart to examine how racial differences in death-penalty opinions affect the composition of capital juries. As support for the death penalty has declined in recent years, the gap between the views of Whites (and particularly White males) and the views of African Americans and women has grown, exacerbating what the authors call "tension between the constitutionally sanctioned practice of death-qualification and a capital defendant’s constitutional right to be tried by a representative and unbiased jury." The researchers asked respondents about their views on the death penalty, and about whether those views would interfere with their ability to apply the law in a death-penalty trial, which would make them legally excludable from a jury. They found that the death-qualification process excluded a far greater percentage of people who said they opposed the death penalty than said they supported it, and that the rate of exclusion was even more disproportionate for African Americans. And while nearly equal percentages of White men and women were excluded by the process, the women who were excluded were much more likely to oppose capital punishment. The death-qualification process, they said, also contributed to racially disparate use of discretionary jury strikes by the prosecution by providing a facially race-neutral reason for disproportionately excluding African-American jurors. When the researchers asked jurors about their attitudes towards potentially aggravating and mitigating evidence, they found that a majority of White jurors—and particularly White male jurors—disregarded most mitigating evidence that would be offered to spare a defendant's a life and that a significant minority of these jurors inappropriately viewed many of these mitigating factors as reasons to impose a death sentence. They also found that White respondents "were significantly more receptive to aggravating evidence and were more inclined to weigh these specific items in favor of a death sentence compared to African American respondents." The process, they said, "creat[es] a jury whose members are unusually hostile to mitigation," which may "functionally undermine" the fair consideration of a capital defendant's case in mitigation. "This risk," the authors wrote, "is particularly high in cases involving African American defendants, especially where white men dominate the jury." The overall result, they said, is that, "[i]n a county in California where support for and opposition to capital punishment are beginning to approach parity, death qualification still has the potential to produce jury pools that are significantly more likely to favor the death penalty." 

NEW RESOURCES: BJS Releases “Capital Punishment, 2016”

The nation's death rows continue to shrink more rapidly than new defendants are being sentenced to death, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical brief, "Capital Punishment, 2016," released April 30, 2018. (Click image to enlarge.) The statistical brief, which analyzes information on those under sentence of death in the United States as of December 31, 2016, contains official government figures documenting continuing declines in executions, new death sentences, and death-row populations across the U.S. BJS reports that 2,814 prisoners remained under sentence of death in 32 states and the federal system at the end of 2016, representing a decrease of 58 prisoners and a 2% decline in the U.S. death-row population in 2016. It was the sixteenth consecutive annual decrease in the number of prisoners under sentence of death in the U.S., down 787 (22%) since the year-end high of 3,601 on December 31, 2000. BJS tracks the status of death-row prisoners from the date they are admitted to a state or federal correctional facility on capital charges, not the date they were actually sentenced. According to BJS, 32 prisoners were admitted to state or federal death rows in 2016. (DPIC uses a slightly different counting method that reported 31 new death sentences imposed in 2016.) The BJS data indicates that the decline in the size of death row is attributable to factors other than execution. BJS reports that 70 prisoners were removed from death row in 2016 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 20 who were executed. Nineteen prisoners were reported to have died on death rows of natural causes; 11 prisoners were removed from Connecticut's death row when its state supreme court declared its death-penalty statute unconstitutional; and 40 were released from death rows when their convictions and/or death sentences were overturned in the courts.

DPIC Study Shows 97% of Prisoners Who Overturn Pennsylvania Death Sentences Are Not Resentenced to Death

In Pennsylvania, death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences are overturned in state or federal post-conviction appeals are almost never resentenced to death, a new Death Penalty Information Center study has revealed. Since Pennsylvania adopted its current death-penalty statute in September 1978, post-conviction courts have reversed prisoners' capital convictions or death sentences in 170 cases. Defendants have faced capital retrials or resentencings in 137 of those cases, and 133 times—in more than 97% of the cases—they received non-capital dispositions ranging from life without parole to exoneration. Only four prisoners whose death sentences were reversed in post-conviction proceedings remain on death row. Philadelphia cases accounted for more than half of the post-conviction reversals (86 cases) and 54% of the non-capital case dispositions (72 cases). DPIC reviewed all of the cases in which Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have won post-conviction relief. Contrary to the often-expressed perception that most death-penalty reversals occur in federal courts, state courts reversed twice as many Pennsylvania capital convictions or death sentences as did their federal counterparts. Pennsylvania death-row prisoners obtained state post-conviction relief from their convictions or death sentences—and, in some instances, both—in 116 cases. State courts granted 18 post-conviction petitioners new trials and vacated 108 death sentences. Of the vacated sentences, the state courts granted 91 new sentencing hearings, and declared prisoners constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty in 17 cases. Life sentences were imposed in fifteen cases as a result of a prisoner's intellectual disability and in two cases because the prisoner had been younger than age 18 at the time of the offense. Federal courts granted Pennsylvania capital habeas corpus petitioners relief from their convictions and/or death sentences in 58 cases, awarding new trials in 24 cases and new sentencing hearings in 44. Three death-row prisoners who were granted penalty-phase relief in state court later overturned their convictions in federal court. One prisoner who was granted a new penalty-phase trial by the federal courts also overturned his conviction after the case was remanded back to the state courts. The DPIC study found that 86% of the reversed death-penalty cases  concluded with a non-capital resentencing to life without parole. Those included 89 cases resulting from sentencing pleas or prosecutorial decisions to drop the death penalty, 12 capital sentencing retrials that resulted in life sentences, and the 17 cases in which defendants were declared constitutionally ineligible to face the death penalty. Two formerly death-sentenced prisoners—Nicholas Yarris and Harold Wilson—were exonerated, and a third, Frederick Thomas, died on death row while Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a trial judges' ruling that new evidence presented in the post-conviction proceedings established that no jury would have convicted him. Thirteen prisoners—including several widely considered to be innocent—pled guilty or no contest to lesser murder charges and were sentenced to time served or to terms of years. Six have completed their sentences and two others have been released on parole. The DPIC study found that the odds were 33.25 to 1 against a prisoner who won post-conviction relief remaining on death row. Six defendants were resentenced to death, but two of those death sentences were later overturned and the defendant resentenced to life without parole. The remaining four death sentences are still on appeal. Calling Pennsylvania's death-penalty system "riddled with flaws, ...error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible," Govenor Tom Wolf in February 2015 imposed a moratorium on executions in the Commonwealth. The state has not carried out an execution since 1999.

Amnesty International Report: Death Penalty Use Down Worldwide in 2017

Use of the death penalty declined worldwide in 2017, according to the Amnesty International’s annual global report on capital punishment. The human rights organization recorded 2,591 death sentences imposed in 53 countries in 2017, down 17% from the 3,117 death sentences it recorded from 55 countries in 2016. Executions also fell, with 23 nations carrying out a recorded 993 executions, off 4% from the the 1,032 executions recorded in 2016 and 39% below the 1,634 executions reported in 2015. Two more countries—Guinea and Mongolia—abolished capital punishment, increasing the number of abolitionist nations to 106, and Guatemala outlawed executions for “ordinary crimes” such as murder, bringing to 142 the number of nations Amnesty reports as having “abolished the death penalty in law or practice.” As in previous years, Amnesty’s execution total does not include the estimated thousands of executions carried out in China or executions in North Korea and Vietnam, all of which treat information on the death penalty as a state secret. Four countries—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan—which collectively accounted for 87% of the confirmed executions in the rest of the world in 2016, accounted for 84% of the world’s confirmed executions in 2017. The United States dropped to 8th in documented executions (23) in 2017 and ranked 11th in death sentences imposed. For the 9th consecutive year, it was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions. Among human rights violations, Amnesty reported that 15 countries imposed death sentences or executed people for drug-trade related offenses, with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore executing prisoners for involvement in the drug trade. The secrecy practices in Malaysia and Vietnam prevented Amnesty from determining whether similar human rights violations had occurred in those countries. “Despite strides towards abolishing this abhorrent punishment, there are still a few leaders who would resort to the death penalty as a ‘quick-fix’ rather than tackling problems at their roots with humane, effective and evidence-based policies,” said Amnesty’s Secretary General Salil Shetty. “The draconian anti-drug measures widely used in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific have totally failed to address the issue.” Amnesty also cited Iran for violating the human rights proscription against applying the death penalty to prisoners charged with offenses committed when they were younger than age 18. Iran executed five juvenile offenders in 2017, and has at least 80 others remaining on death row. Amnesty said Japan, the Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore, and the United States violated the international prohibition on executing prisoners with mental or intellectual disabilities or keeping such prisoners under sentence of death. Amnesty reported that at least 21,919 people were known to be on death rows around the world at the end of 2017.  

NEW RESOURCES: University of Virginia Interactive Database Maps the Modern Death Penalty

 The University of Virginia School of Law has created a new interactive web resource (click on map) that allows researchers and the public to visually explore death-sentencing practices in the United States from 1991 through 2017. The interactive map provides county-level data on death sentences imposed across the United States, drawing from a new database created by University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett (pictured) for his recent book, End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice. The interactive map, which is a web supplement to the book, permits users to view where and how many death sentences were imposed in the U.S. each year, and to contrast and compare sentencing patterns over time in states, counties, and the U.S. as a whole. Using a slider to view chronological shifts in sentencing patterns, the map illustrates how death sentences have declined nationwide and become increasingly isolated to a few outlier counties. “This is the first resource to map out modern death sentencing in the United States,” Garrett said. “The mapping vividly shows how geographically isolated death sentencing has become.” The data forms the backbone of End of Its Rope, in which Garrett analyzes the dramatic decline in the use of the death penalty over the last 25 years. The publicly available database contains information on more than 5,000 death sentences, allowing researchers and lawyers to analyze patterns and trends. “Several researchers, in addition to those of us at UVA, have already made use of the data, and we hope that more do so in the future,” Garrett said. Garrett worked with a UVA Law librarian, law students, and undergraduates to compile the data from government records, court rulings, and other sources.

Study Analyzes Causes of “Astonishing Plunge” in Death Sentences in the United States

Multiple factors—from declining murder rates to the abandonment of capital punishment by many rural counties and substantially reduced usage in outlier counties that had aggressively imposed it in the past—have collectively led to an “astonishing plunge” in death sentences over the last twenty years, according to a new study, Lethal Rejection, published in the 2017/2018 Albany Law Review. Using data on death-eligible cases from 1994, 2004, and 2014, Drake University law professor David McCord and Niagara University criminal justice professor Talia Roitberg Harmon examined a range of factors to determine what caused the more than 75% reduction in death sentences in the U.S. between 1994 and 2014. (Click image to enlarge.) The authors found that just over half the decline could be attributed to a reduction in the number of potentially death-eligible murders, as a result of a combination of lower murder rates, Supreme Court decisions making murders committed by intellectually disabled offenders and offenders aged 17 or younger ineligible for the death penalty, and the abolition of the death penalty by six states. The rest of the decline, they said, was attributable to subjective decisions by prosecutors and sentencers, a factor they called “changing perceptions of death-worthiness.” Murders in the 37 states that authorized the death penalty in 1994 fell from 19,250 that year to 12,440 in 2014—a 35.4% decline. However, death sentences dropped by more than double that rate, from 310 to 73—a 76.5% decline. McCord and Harmon also attempted to identify factors that contributed to prosecutors’ and sentencers’ perceptions of death worthiness, which accounted for nearly half of the death-sentencing decline. The addition of life without parole as a sentencing option did not, they said, have a significant impact in lowering death sentences, except in Texas. Rather, they found that death sentences were being sought and imposed at lower rates in less aggravated murder cases, in cases with multiple perpetrators, and against defendants under age 21. They also found two types of significant geographical effects: death-sentencing dropped significantly in low-population counties across the country and in five of the nation’s highest volume death-sentencing counties (Harris, TX; Cook, IL; Pima, AZ; Philadelphia, PA; and Miami-Dade, FL). While the researchers did not report how many fewer death sentences were imposed in these counties in 2014, they described the decline as having an “outsized” effect on the national total. They conclude, “The decline in death sentencing in the United States from 1994 has been relatively rapid, quite steep, and is continuing—from the endpoint of our dataset, death sentences declined from 73 in 2014 to 49 in 2015; and in 2016 only 31 death sentences were imposed. The American death penalty seems like an ever-crankier version of the Cheshire Cat: it is grudgingly disappearing, leaving behind only its frown.”

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