Juries in 15 of the last 16 federal capital trials have declined to impose the death penalty, despite a more aggressive pursuit of this punishment by the Justice Department. Since President George Bush took office, 15% of the capital trials have resulted in death sentences, compared to 46% of cases in which the death penalty was sought from 1988 to 2000. Legal experts believe that overreaching by prosecutors and some jurors' growing unease with the death penalty may account for the trend. Former U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad noted, "It reflects that the tide is turning in this country with regard to attitudes about the death penalty. There has been so much publicity about wrongfully convicted defendants on death row that people sitting on juries are reluctant to impose the ultimate sanction."
A recent editorial in The Beacon Journal notes that Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, who played a leading role in writing Ohio's death penalty statute 22 years ago when he was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now calling for passage of legislation to analyze the state's death penalty system. The review, which also has the endorsement of the Ohio State Bar Association, would create a Capital Case Commission to study the state's death penalty and make reform recommendations to ensure accuracy and fairness. The editorial concludes:
A Capital Case Commission would amount to a first step toward a thorough evaluation. Justice Pfeifer emphasized why the commission is "critically important." Ohio must have a system of the capital punishment that is "fair and just and equally applied to all" if it expects public confidence in criminal justice as a whole.
"Burden of Proof" is a 32-minute documentary detailing the need for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina. The video was prepared by New Context Video Productions and offers evidence to suggest that North Carolina's capital punishment system is badly broken and in need of a legislative review. (June 2003) Watch the video.
In a vote that will dramatically change the way murder investigations are conducted, the Illinois House has overwhelmingly approved legislation requiring audio-or videotaping of most homicide-related interrogations and confessions. The bill, which unanimously passed the Senate last month, now goes to Governor Rod Blagojevich for signature into law. The Governor has vowed to sign the legislation. Attorney Thomas Sullivan, who co-chaired the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment that made more than 80 reform recommendations after a thorough review of the state's death penalty, noted, "It is extremely significant in that it will be a major step forward for law enforcement and for the entire criminal justice system in Illinois."
NEW VOICES: Former FBI Chief Sessions Calls for Innocence Commission in Texas In a recent op-ed, William Sessions called on state legislators in Texas to pass a measure to create an Innocence Commission. The Commission would examine the Texas criminal justice system in an effort to protect against wrongful convictions. Sessions, a former director of the FBI and federal judge, noted that numerous exonerations , recent crime lab scandals (see below) in the state, and other troubling events should prompt state leaders to take immediate action:
When we study our criminal justice system in Texas and make it better, we not only reduce the chances of convicting the innocent, we increase the chances of convicting the guilty. We also show that our system is strong enough to recognize and repair its own mistakes.
As investigators continue to scrutinize the Houston Crime Lab's history of shoddy practices and inaccurate test results, including evidence in capital cases, an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle called for District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal and Houston Police Chief Clarence Bradford to recuse themselves from the investigation to ensure a fair review:
To date, District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has refused to recuse himself from the investigation, instead insisting that his office can impartially investigate the wrongdoing, even though it is possible that his office may have known about the wrongdoing.
Like Rosenthal, Chief Bradford has also obstinately refused to acknowledge that an outside, independent investigator is called for. However, there is a specific reason that Rosenthal should recuse himself regardless of the fate that befalls Bradford. The DA's office has a significant and unmistakable conflict of interest in the matter because that office defends the reliability of the convictions and death sentences of death row inmates from Harris County. As a result of what we have learned about the crime lab, many of those inmates now have new and viable legal claims that are predicated on the failures of that lab. The DA's office simply cannot perform an impartial investigation while simultaneously opposing the legal efforts of those death row inmates.
Texas legislators have failed to pass laws that could bring the state into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Atkins v. Virginia that bans the execution of those with mental retardation. Nearly a year after the Court's ruling in Atkins, Texas officials have no idea how many of the 449 death row inmates have the disability, and no safeguards to ensure that those affected by the ruling are not put to death. Most of the legislative efforts have focused on identifying defendants with mental retardation before their trials, not finding those who are already on death row. Houston defense attorney Dick Burr stated, "People facing the death penalty here are dependent on the good will of their lawyers. It means that some people are lucky and others are not." The state's testing has revealed that 7% of Texas convicts have IQs below 70, the commonly accepted benchmark for mental retardation. Thus, there could be as many as 31 condemned inmates who qualify to have their death sentences lifted. Texas Governor Rick Perry has stated that he believes that no one on death row has mental retardation, and his belief is echoed by Houston assistant district attorney Roe Wilson, who handles most of Harris County's capital appeals. "I don't know of any who are mentally retarded," Wilson said.
According to the FBI's Preliminary Uniform Crime Report for 2002, the murder rate in the South increased by 2.1% while the murder rate in the Northeast decreased by almost 5%. The South accounts for 82% of all executions since 1976; the Northeast accounts for less than 1%.
"Harmful Error," a new report released by the The Center for Public Integrity, is the end product of an extensive two-year review of prosecutorial misconduct around the nation. The report notes that while many local prosecutors perform their difficult work admirably, inadvertent and intentional misconduct still permeates some district attorneys' offices. Among other pieces of valuable information contained in the report, "Harmful Error" documents cases in which prosecutorial misconduct played a role in convicting innocent defendants, many of whom were sentenced to death.
By a vote of 7-2, the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out the death sentence of Maryland death row inmate Kevin Wiggins, ruling that his inexperienced attorneys failed to adequately represent him at trial. Wiggins' original lawyers made no attempt to inform members of the jury that sent Wiggins to death row that their client was repeatedly raped, beaten and denied food as a child, and that his mother burned his hands on the stove as punishment. In an opinion authored by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court said that if jurors knew the ghastly details of Wiggins' childhood, they might have chosen a life sentence for Wiggins. Wiggins, who is borderline mentally retarded, will now receive a new sentencing hearing. Justices O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have publicly expressed qualms about the quality of legal help available to many people accused of murder.