The Changing Face of the Death Penalty in American Politics

A recent column in The Economist examined the growing number of governors and other political leaders in the U.S. who are challenging the death penalty. In Arkansas, Governor Mike Beebe (pictured) announced in January that he would sign a death penalty abolition bill if the legislature sent him one. In Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley has led a push to repeal the death penalty. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said he is reconsidering his support for the death penalty as that state considers its repeal. New Hampshire's new governor, Maggie Hassan, indicated she would sign a repeal bill if it reaches her, after two previous governors vetoed such actions. In Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber suspended executions for the remainder of his term and asked legislators to review the issue. The Republican governors of Ohio and Kansas also have reservations about the death penalty. Governor John Kasich of Ohio has granted four commutations in capital cases, citing the need for fair trials, and Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas said capital punishment should be reserved for figures like Osama bin Laden. The author in The Economist contrasted these developments with Arkansas' former governor, Bill Clinton, who flew home from campaigning for president in 1992 to oversee an execution.  The article stated, "[T]he death-penalty debate has changed in ways that go beyond day-to-day politics. It is less loud and more sceptical, giving thoughtful governors room to question a policy that causes them anguish—because they think it arbitrary, ineffective and costly, and because they impose it."

NEW VOICES: Arkansas Governor Reverses Position on Death Penalty

Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe recently said he would sign legislation outlawing the death penalty if legislators were to send him such a bill. Beebe ran for governor as a supporter of capital punishment, but said the experience of signing a death warrant for the first time caused his thinking on the issue to change. “It is an agonizing process, whether you're for the death penalty or against the death penalty," the governor said. "Everybody can claim they're for it until you're actually the person who's got to sign it." Arkansas has not had an execution since 2005, and has only sentenced one new person to death in the last two years. In 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state’s execution law after finding problems with how the lethal injection drugs used in executions were selected.

MULTIMEDIA: Peter Jackson's "West of Memphis"--A Compelling Story from Condemnation to Freedom

West of Memphis is a feature-length documentary by Academy-Award winner Peter Jackson, offering a penetrating look into the murder convictions and eventual freeing of the West Memphis Three. Jackson has called it his "most important film." Three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, were convicted of killing three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. Echols was sentenced to death after a trial that painted the defendants as steeped in satanic rituals. Subsequent DNA evidence did not connect them to the crime scene. After almost two decades of steadfastly claiming their innocence, and the constant work of a large community of activists, celebrities such as Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, and their legal team, the defendants were released in 2011, accepting a guilty plea in which they maintained their innocence. “West of Memphis” will debut in select theaters on December 25.  View the trailer.

FOREIGN NATIONALS: Information About Citizens from Other Countries on U.S. Death Rows

New information on foreign nationals facing the death penalty in the U.S. is now available on DPIC’s Foreign Nationals page. This page provides background information on citizens from other countries who have been sentenced to death in various states and under the federal system.  The list includes information on whether these defendants were informed of their consular rights under the Vienna Convention, which the U.S. has ratified and depends upon to protect its citizens when they travel abroad.  Some foreign nationals have been executed in the U.S. despite not being properly informed of their rights under this treaty.  The new information was provided by Mark Warren of Human Rights Research.

Arkansas Supreme Court Holds Lethal Injection Law Unconstitutional

Arkansas state sealOn June 22, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state’s lethal injection law as unconstitutional because it delegated too much authority to the Department of Corrections. In a 5-2 decision, the court sided with 10 death row inmates who argued that, under Arkansas's constitution, only the Legislature can set execution policy, and that legislators violated the state's separation of powers doctrine when it voted to give that authority to the prison system in the Method of Execution Act of 2009. The ruling does not invalidate Arkansas’s death penalty but does leave the state without a lawful way to carry out executions until a new law is passed.  Associate Justice Jim Gunter, writing for the majority, said that the law governing executions failed to include reasonable guidelines for executive branch agencies to follow when deciding on an execution protocol: "The statute provides no guidance and no general policy with regard to the procedures for the (Arkansas Department of Corrections) to implement lethal injections.” There are currently 40 prisoners on Arkansas’s death row. The last execution carried out in the state was in 2005.

MULTIMEDIA: New HBO Documentary on Freed Death Row Inmate--"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"

PL3bOn January 12, HBO cable TV will air a new documentary, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the final installment of a trilogy that recounts the story of three wrongfully convicted teenagers in Arkansas--Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley--known as the "West Memphis Three." The young men were convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences, and Echols was sentenced to death. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory shows the conclusion of their case in 2011, when Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley entered special guilty pleas in which they continued to assert their innocence but admitted the state could likely convict them again in a new trial. The pleas allowed Baldwin and Misskelley to be released from prison and Echols to be spared the death penalty, and also freed. The first two films, released in 1996 and 2000 respectively, raised awareness of the case and helped spur an international movement to free the men. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory will debut on Thursday, January 12, at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.  See below for a trailer to the film.

DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

How Preconceptions and Bias May Have Led to Wrongful Convictions of West Memphis Three

In a recent op-ed in the L.A. Times, Professor Jennifer L. Mnookin (pictured) of the UCLA Law School provided an analysis of how preconceptions and biases toward the unconventional suspects known as the West Memphis Three may have led to their wrongful convictions and a death sentence in Arkansas in 1994.  Because of the grisly nature of the murders, investigators decided early on that it was probably related to satanic cult rituals. This theory pointed them to Damien Echols, who was a self-described Wiccan with an unusual taste in clothes and music. Mnookin explained that "cognitive biases" - the tendency of humans to see what they expect to see - played a role in these convictions. Mnookin wrote, "Investigators and prosecutors, even when they are trying their best to do their jobs, may seek out or take special notice of evidence that confirms their prior beliefs rather than evidence that challenges it. And they are likely to interpret ambiguous evidence in ways that accord with their preconceptions." For example, the police interviewed Echols's friend, Jessie Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72, and accepted his account of the crime even though it contradicted the evidence.  Mnookin wrote, "The prosecutor's case was based largely on character assassination, innuendo and the not-very-credible testimony of the likes of a jailhouse snitch and a witness with a mail-order doctorate. Not a shred of physical evidence linked any of the young men to the crime scene (and post-conviction DNA testing has also failed to find any biological evidence that they were there)."  Mnookin noted that at least three of the most common causes of wrongful conviction were present in the West Memphis Three case: dubious forensic evidence, false confessions and evidence from an unreliable jailhouse informants. She attributed the recent release of the defendants partly to the work of documentary filmmakers who investigated the case. Read full op-ed below.