The Charlotte School of Law is sponsoring a symposium on "Mental Illness and the Death Penalty: Seeking a 'Reasoned Moral Response' to an Unavoidable Condition" on October 20, 2006 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The conference will bring together medical experts, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and other experts to discuss whether current law adequately accounts for the role of mental illness in capital cases. Among those scheduled to speak are James Coleman of Duke University Law School, Ronald Tabak, a leader in the American Bar Association's involvement with this issue, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Alyson Kuroski, M.D, Director of Forensic Psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Medicine.
The former Director of the FBI, William Sessions (pictured), along with Timothy Lewis, a former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, called on members of Congress to refrain from barring death row inmates and other defendants from the full access to the federal courts in their appeals. Some legislators have proposed eliminating federal habeas corpus review in many cases, and barring access to the federal courts to many of those raising challenges to their death sentences. The authors of the op-ed wrote, in part:
The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's "Death Row USA" shows that the number of people on the death row in the United States is continuing to decline, falling to 3,366 as of July 1, 2006. The size of death row increased every year between 1976 and 2000, but since then it has been in a slow decline.
Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 45% white, 42% black, and 11% latino/latina. Of jurisdictions with more than 10 people on death row, Texas (69%) and Pennsylvania (70%) continue to have the largest percentage of minorites on death row. Nearly 80% of the victims in crimes that resulted in executions were white.
California, with 657 inmates, and Texas, with 401 inmates, have the largest death row populations in the country. New Hampshire has no one on death row.
The FBI recently released the latest version of its Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States 2005. The report showed that the murder rate in 2005 (5.6 murders per 100,000 people) was the same as in 2001, with little change in the intervening years. Death sentences, executions and the size of death row all declined during this period.
As in previous years, the South had the higherst murder rate, 6.6, among the 4 geographical regions. Over 80% of the executions in the country have occurred in the South since the death penalty was reinstated. The Northeast had the lowest murder rate, 4.4. Less than 1% of the executions in the country have occurred in the Northeast.
The state with the largest increase in its murder rate was Alabama, where the murder rate increased 46%. The state with the largest decrease in its murder rate was Vermont, a non-death penalty state, where the rate decreased by 51%.
State Assemblyman Nelson T. Albano of Cape May, New Jersey, announced at a forum on the death penalty that he has changed his mind and now opposes capital punishment. Albano said that his change of heart came after reading a book about Kirk Bloodsworth, the 1st death-row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence. The book led him to the insight into that the capital-punishment system is flawed and should be put on hold.
In an article entitled The Death Penalty: No Evidence for Deterrence, John Donnohue and Justin Wolfers examined recent statistical studies that claimed to show a deterrent effect from the death penalty. The authors conclude that the estimates claiming that the death penalty saves numerous lives "are simply not credible." In fact, the authors state that using the same data and proper methodology could lead to the exact opposite conclusion: that is, that the death penalty actually increases the number of murders. The authors state: "We show that with the most minor tweaking of the [research] instruments, one can get estimates ranging from 429 lives saved per execution to 86 lives lost. These numbers are outside the bounds of credibility."
At a hearing in federal District Court in Maryland, Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist and assistant professor at Columbia University, testified that those designated to carry out lethal injections in the state were unprepared and unqualified for the task. "The totality of all their knowledge is grossly inadequate," Heath stated.
Sworn testimony from members of the execution team was shown at the hearing. In one videotaped segment, the doctor who was responsible for declaring that executed inmates were dead expressed surprise that the state had also designated her as the person who would slice into an inmate's limb to insert a catheter in a deeper vein if the team's nursing assistant could not start a standard IV.
Jeffrey Deskovic had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1990 for the rape and murder of a high school classmate in New York. He was freed from prison on September 20 after DNA evidence from the crime was matched with another man who also confessed to the murder. The other man was already in prison for a murder in the same county.
The DNA evidence that did not match Deskovic was presented at his original trial. However, Deskovic had confessed to the crime to the police after six hours of questioning, and the jury chose to believe the confession over the scientific evidence. The prosecution's theory of the case was that the DNA from the victim was the result of consensual sex with another person, and hence was unrelated to the crime and Deskovic's involvement.
Mr. Deskovic was freed after Barry Scheck from the Innocence Project approached the Westchester County District Attorney about the case and she agreed to run the evidence through a national DNA databank. The Innocence Project reported that 184 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution to Clarence Hill who is scheduled to be executed at 6 pm on September 20 in Florida. Four Justices would have granted the stay. Hill had raised a civil rights challenge to Florida's lethal injection law after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in June in his favor that such a challenge was proper. However, the lower courts stated that his claim was filed too late and they denied him an evidentiary hearing on the merits of his lethal injection challenge.
As the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission continued its review of the state's law, the Asbury Park Press called for replacing capital punishment with the sentence of life without parole. This would better serve the families of victims, according to the editorial, because the death penalty causes years of uncertainty with little prospect that the sentence will be carried out. The editorial stated:
Reasons to drop death penalty Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 09/15/06
State legislators need no further proof about the merits of the death penalty law than to listen to the families of murder victims. Their pain at the thought that their loved one's killer can walk free after a successful appeal or at the end of his sentence should convince any wary lawmaker that life without parole is a far better punishment than a cell on death row.