A bill to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts was rejected by the House of Representatives, ending Governor Mitt Romney's effort to establish a "gold standard" for capital punishment. House members defeated the measure by a vote of 100-53 after four hours of floor debate. Romney had described the bill as "foolproof," stating that it contained strict safeguards that could protect against wrongful convictions and that the narrow scope of the bill meant that the death penalty would be rarely sought.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill recently announced that he is rethinking capital punishment because it is expensive, can be politically motivated, and risks innocent lives. Winmill, who freed death row exoneree Charles Fain in 2001 after DNA evidence proved his innocence, said that Fain's case and the very different experience of sentencing a guilty man to die for murder prompted him to rethink capital punishment. During a speech before the City Club of Boise, Winmill was joined by Fain as he urged Idahoans to reconsider the death penalty. Judge Winmill stated:
A statement approved during this week's meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) calls for an end to the death penalty in the United States and notes that the death penalty "contributes to a cycle of violence in our society that must be broken." The statement, drafted by the USCCB Domestic Policy Committee, is the first comprehensive statement focused on the death penalty by the Catholic bishops of the United States in 25 years. It is part of the wider "Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty." This program aims to improve victims' services, to educate Catholics and other citizens about the Church's teachings regarding the death penalty, and to advocate for an end to capital punishment in the U.S. The campaign and the proposed USCCB statement echo the position of the late Pope John Paul II on the death penalty. The statement notes:
The Bureau of Justice Statistics released its latest report on the status of the death penalty in the U.S., Capital Punishment, 2004, on November 13. According to the report, the nation's death row population, executions, and the number of people given death sentences last year all declined. There were 3,315 people on state and federal death rows at the conclusion of 2004, 63 fewer than in 2003. Last year, 125 people were sentenced to death, the fewest since 1973. Twelve states executed 59 prisoners in 2004, six fewer than in 2003.
According to the North Carolina News & Record, death sentences in the state have significantly declined since the 2001 enactment of legislation that allows defendants to plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Juries are also returning fewer death sentences. The paper argues that the emergence of the life-without-parole alternative should result in a reconsideration of the sentences of those already on death row:
In a ruling that criticized the state for concealing a $500 payoff to a key state witness in a 1997 death penalty case, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court decision ordering a new trial for Willie Palmer.
On November 7, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear cases in two areas that could have broad implications for many defendants facing the death penalty. In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, No. 05-184, the Court will rule on the constitutionality of the military tribunals established by President Bush following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A U.S. District Court had halted the military trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who had been captured in Afghanistan, because the trial violated domestic law and U.S. international treaty obligations. This decision was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Hamdan is charged with conspiracy, murder and terrorism. Under the current military tribunals, the government may seek the death penalty for certain offenses. Chief Justice John Roberts has recused himself from the case because he was part of the panel of judges in the prior decision. (N.Y. Times, Nov. 8, 2005).
In an editorial in its Sunday, November 6 edition, the Birminham News announced that "After decades of supporting the death penalty, the editorial board no longer can do so." The paper cited both practical and ethical reasons for the change in its stance: "[W]e have come to believe Alabama's capital punishment system is broken. And because, first and foremost, this newspaper's editorial board is committed to a culture of life. . . . We believe all life is sacred. And in embracing a culture of
A recent Dayton Daily News video editorial urged Ohio Governor Bob Taft to grant clemency to John Spirko, an Ohio death row inmate scheduled to be executed on November 15. The video states that Spirko's case was plagued with gaps and inconsistencies, and that he may actually be innocent. The video was partly shot inside Ohio's "death house" in Lucasville prison. To view the video on the Web, click here.
In an article about the approaching 1,000th execution in the U.S., Tarrant County prosecutor Alan Levy and Harris County District Attorney Charles Rosenthal addressed the current state of the death penalty and the impact of growing concerns about the issue of innocence:
Levy, who heads the criminal division of the Tarrant County D.A.'s office, said that he often wonders whether the executions that have taken place have been worth the expense, controversy, and time: "It's a pretty clumsy mechanism." When the penalty isn't paid until "eight or 10 or 15 years later, it's difficult to think of it being very useful." Levy added that prosecutors in his office are encountering prospective jurors who are concerned about sentencing an innocent person to death. According to Levy, these prospective jurors are "absolutely convinced that innocent people are being executed," and believe that they might "wake up in the middle of the night and find out they've sentenced an innocent man to death row."