Life Without Parole News and Developments: 2004

Poll Finds Waning Support for Death Penalty

According to a recent poll conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, only 62% of respondents support capital punishment for persons convicted of murder, and Americans prefer the sentencing option of life without parole when given the choice. Overall support for capital punishment has fallen since Quinnipiac's poll in June 2004, when support registered 65%. Similar shifts in public opinion found growing support for life-without-parole sentences. In the December poll when respondents were given a choice, only 42% supported capital punishment while 46% supported life without parole. (Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, December 18, 2004). Other national polls have also noted a decrease in public support for the death penalty. The 62% support reported here is one of the lowest levels in recent years. See Public Opinion.

California's Record on Wrongful Convictions

A recent San Francisco magazine article entitled "Innocence Lost," examines California's record of wrongful convictions. The researchers report that the nation's largest criminal justice system has sent more innocent people to prison for longer terms than any other state. Among the exonerees are three from the state's death row and nearly 200 people who were serving either life or very long terms. The magazine notes that despite these numbers, state lawmakers have repeatedly passed up opportunities to put safeguards in place that could prevent such errors from happening in the future. Among other key finding's in the magazine's year-long review of wrongful convictions were the following:

  • Over the past 15 years, at least 200 California inmates have been freed after courts found they were unjustly convicted - nearly twice the number of exonerations as in the next two states (Illinois and Texas) combined.
  • California has been sentencing people to life at an alarming rate. More than 30,000 inmates are serving life terms, twice as many as in the entire European Union, which has a population 12 times larger. Approximately 17% of California inmates are lifers, compared to 9% of prisoners in the U.S. as a whole.
  • Some 63% of wrongful convictions in San Francisco's research sample of 30 cases involved serious police error or misconduct. Some 47% of wrongful convictions in the sample involved serious prosecutorial error or misconduct. More than 90% were upheld on direct appeal.
  • In a survey of 676 voters conducted for the magazine by David Binder Research, 69% believe lifers should have the same rights to free attorneys and levels of appeal as people facing execution. Of those polled, 61% also support adding safeguards to prevent wrongful life sentences and 78% favor firing police or prosecutors who break the rules to get a conviction. Currently, action is rarely ever taken against these individuals.
  • While DNA databases may be helpful in freeing some wrongly convicted individuals, only about 10% of criminal cases have any biological evidence - blood, semen, etc. - to test.
  • California's "three strikes" law has added approximately 7,500 people serving life terms to the state's prisons. It has pressured some innocent people to accept deals and plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit rather than risk the automatic life sentence of a third strike.

(San Francisco, November 2004) Read the article (pdf format). See Innocence.

Supreme Court to Hear Pennsylvania Death Penalty Case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear a death row appeal from a Pennsylvania man who maintains that jurors at his trial should have been told that they had the option of sentencing him to life without parole instead of the death penalty. According to the brief filed on behalf of Ronald Rompilla, the jury asked several questions during his trial about Rompilla's "future dangerousness," yet were never told that if sentenced to prison he would never be eligible for later release. The jury then sentenced him to death. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3d Circuit ruled that jurors did not have to be given a special instruction. Rompilla was convicted of murder during a 1988 robbery in Allentown.
Rompilla also alleges that his public defenders presented inadequate evidence of his mental retardation and traumatic upbringing.
Most death penalty states offer life without parole, but only Pennsylvania and South Carolina have routinely declined to tell jurors that a defendant will not be released if sent to prison, according to Rompilla's brief. (Rompilla v. Beard, 04-5462, Associated Press, Sept. 28, 2004). See Supreme Court.

New Resource: Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook

The Bureau of Justice Statistics' Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002 contains its latest catalog of data on crime, the administration of justice, and public attitudes toward criminal justice issues such as the death penalty. For example, a growing number of Americans support the sentence of life without parole over the death penalty. In 1985, a Gallup Poll found that 34% of those polled favored life in prison without parole. This latest edition of the Sourcebook shows that by 2001 the number of respondents favoring life without parole had climbed to 44% (and higher since then). The support for life without parole is even stronger among black respondents (73%), respondents holding college post-graduate degrees (62%), and those who identify themselves as Democrats (60%). The Sourcebook also revealed an increase in the number of Hispanic inmates on death row in the United States. With an increase recorded each year between 1996 and 2001, the population has grown from 8.8% to 11.2%. The Sourcebook is updated as new data becomes available and may be found online at (Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002-(published 2003; contains some 2003 data; cost $9)). See Race and Resources.

New Voices: Time to Re-Think the Death Penalty

An op-ed in Oregon's Albany Democrat Herald called on the state to re-think its reliance on the death penalty:

20 years after voters in Oregon reinstated the death penalty, it is time to take a dispassionate look and conclude that it hasn't done much good.

In the general election of 1984, Oregon voters overwhelmingly called for the death penalty to be resumed. 2 initiatives were on the ballot that year. One, calling for capital punishment or mandatory life sentences for aggravated murder, passed by 893,818 to 296,988. A companion measure, exempting the death penalty from the provision in the state constitution against cruel and vindictive punishment, passed by 653,009 to 521,687.

One of the main arguments was that once killers were executed, we could be sure that they would never do any more harm.

The justification - prevention of additional killings - has not worked out in practice. For one thing, the death penalty does not apply to ordinary 1st-time murder convictions. For another, the judicial system has failed to live up to the intention expressed by the voters. For countless legal and procedural reasons, the system has so far failed to carry out the mandate of 1984. And the pace of murders in Oregon has been roughly the same since the 1970s - 100 or more a year.

The rate per 100,000 has declined as the population increased, perhaps because of Measure 11, which put people in prison for violent crimes well short of murder, rather than letting them off on probation.

There have been 2 executions since the death penalty went back on the books. In both cases, the condemned men refused to participate in appeals; they wanted to be executed. The system works when murderers want the state to help them end their incarceration. It does not work when the criminals refuse to consent to be put to death, which is most of the time.

29 men were on Oregon's death row as of last spring, some for as long as 16 years. One of those who had been there the longest, since 1988, had just had his conviction overturned for the third time, and his case was sent back to the trial court for another penalty phase.

Death penalty cases are more expensive and take longer than other murder cases. Typically the defendant gets 2 expert attorneys appointed for him rather than 1. And there are 2 trials in each case, one to determine guilt, the other to set the penalty.

Summing up: Executions have been all but non-existent. Even so, death penalty cases cost more. The existence of the penalty has not deterred murders. Lifelong prison terms have the same result as executions in keeping the public safe.

It's not that repeat murderers don't deserve the death penalty. They do. But the existence of the penalty in Oregon is not doing anything except to cause expense and delays. It's time to let it go.

We don't even need a constitutional change, which is unlikely anyway. All we need is prosecutors making up their mind to seek true-life sentences instead.

(Hasso Hering, Albany Democrat-Herald, August 29, 2004) (emphasis added). See Costs, Deterrence, and Editorials.

Life Sentences Given in Four States

Death sentences have declined across the country. The following four cases are recent illustrations of this trend:

  • In Cook County, Illinois, a judge sentenced Ronald Hinton to life without parole, citing abuse in the defendant's background and his remorse for the crimes. Hinton admitted to three murders. (Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2004).
  • In Butler County, Ohio, a three-judge panel sentenced Tom West to life without parole for a shooting spree at a trucking company in which two people were killed and three others wounded. Costs of the trial, the agreement of the victims' families, and the defendant's mental illness were cited as reasons for the plea agreement. (Cincinnati Enquirer, August 24, 2004).
  • In Crown Point, Indiana, Stephen Richards pleaded guilty and will be sentenced to life without parole for the shotgun slaying of two people over a sack of coins. Victims' family members agreed to the plea arrangement. (, August 24, 2004 (Munster Times)).
  • In San Mateo, California, prosecutors announced that they would not seek the death penalty against Seti Scanlan despite Scanlan's begging the jury to sentence him to death. Prosecutors cited costs and the uncertainty of getting a death verdict. A victims' family member was quoted as agreeing with the decision. (See item, San Jose Mercury News, August 24, 2004).

See Sentencing, and Victims.

Prosecutors Offer a Variety of Reasons for Foregoing Death Penalty

The San Mateo County District Attorney's Office reflected on a number of factors in deciding to forego seeking a death sentence for Seti Christopher Scanlan, whose first trial ended in a mistrial after he took the stand and begged jurors to sentence him to death. Prosecutors are now seeking a sentence of life in prison for Scanlan after concluding that "it was not reasonably likely that we would get a jury that would deliver the death penalty." The case has already cost taxpayers more than half a million dollars and that number would have doubled if prosecutors had chosen to seek a capital conviction during the second trial. Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe noted that even if a jury were to sentence Scanlan to death, years of subsequent appeals would cost taxpayers millions more. The decision to seek life effectively ends the case against Scanlan, who has admitted to killing a Burlingame bank manager. He will be sentenced to seven life sentences and possibly another 90 years on September 20, 2004. David Martel, whose wife was murdered by Scanlan, concurred in the decision not to seek death: "Scanlan has one very dark future. He won't know what it's like to live in freedom. It's gone, and it should be," he said. (Mercury News, August 24, 2004). See Costs, Victims, and Life Without Parole.

Prosecutor Forgoes Costly Death Penalty Trial

In Alameda County, California, prosecutors announced that they will not seek the death penalty against Richard Dean Wilson because it is unlikely that a jury would return a death sentence. State authories say the decision to seek a life sentence for Wilson avoids a costly death penalty case and saves taxpayer dollars from financing a lengthy trial with an uncertain outcome. Wilson pleaded no contest to the murder of Angela Marie Bledsoe. Prosecutor Jim Anderson noted, "This was the best penalty phase mitigation I have ever seen. We thought...the likelihood of getting a death vote on this guy was small. The best we would have ever gotten was hung jury after hung jury." (Tri-Valley Herald, July 30, 2004) See Costs.

Texas DA Sees "Beginning of the End of the Death Penalty"

In Texas, Jefferson County District Attorney Tom Maness recently noted that the time-consuming and costly nature of capital punishment may lead to its demise. "I think this is the beginning of the end of the death penalty," said Maness after a Criminal District Court Judge recommended that the Court of Criminal Appeals commute the death sentence of Walter Bell to life in prison. On three occassions, Jefferson County spent countless hours of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute Bell, who is mentally retarded, a diagnosis that makes him ineligible for the death penalty according the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia. Maness added that if Texas juries had the option to sentence those convicted of murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole and the state were to abolish capital punishment, protest from the state's prosecutors would be little more than a grumble. "It's so difficult. It gets more difficult all of the time," said Maness of the time-consuming and stressful work associated with seeking death sentences. Texas is one of two states that has the death penalty and does not offer the alternative sentence of life without parole. (The Beaumont Enterprise, July 24, 2004) See New Voices.

Nichols' Sentencing Demonstrates Heavy Burden On Jurors

After deliberating for 20 hours over three days, the jurors who recently found Terry Nichols guilty of murder in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing expressed some of the anguish that choosing between life and death caused them. "It was tough. We had found it much easier to arrive at a guilty verdict, but the penalty phase was much harder," said juror Terry Zellmer. Cecil Reeder, a Korean War veteran who supported the death penalty for Nichols, said, "This shook me as deep as I've ever been shook in my life." Some of the jurors implied that Nichols' religious conversion in the years after the bombing and the fact that he was not in Oklahoma City on the day of the bombing may have contributed to 4 or 5 votes for life. The jury's split verdict leaves the sentencing for Nichols to the judge, who by law cannot impose a death sentence. Nichols is already serving a life without parole sentence on a federal conviction in the bombing. (Dallas Morning News, June 13, 2004)

Court Says New York's Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional

New York's highest court has ruled that a provision of the state's capital punishment statute violates the state constitution, a decision that appears to invalidate the sentences of all four men on New York's death row. In New York, if a jury deadlocks, the judge imposes a sentence of 20-25 years to life, giving the possibility of parole. In its 4-3 ruling, the Court of Appeals said that these sentencing rules might unconstitutionally coerce jurors into voting for a death sentence rather than risk a deadlock by holding out for life without parole. The Court advised the legislature to correct the sentencing problem if the state is to continue trying defendants on capital charges. (Associated Press, June 24, 2004) Read the DPIC Summary of the case.

Nichols' Sentencing Demonstrates Heavy Burden on Jurors

After deliberating for 20 hours over three days, the jurors who recently found Terry Nichols guilty of murder in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing expressed some of the anguish that choosing between life and death caused them. "It was tough. We had found it much easier to arrive at a guilty verdict, but the penalty phase was much harder," said juror Terry Zellmer. Cecil Reeder, a Korean War veteran who supported the death penalty for Nichols, said, "This shook me as deep as I've ever been shook in my life." Some of the jurors implied that Nichols' religious conversion in the years after the bombing and the fact that he was not in Oklahoma City on the day of the bombing may have contributed to 4 or 5 votes for life. The jury's split verdict leaves the sentencing for Nichols to the judge, who by law cannot impose a death sentence. Nichols is already serving a life without parole sentence on a federal conviction in the bombing. (Dallas Morning News, June 13, 2004)

Death Penalty Took Heavy Toll on Malvo Jurors

Although Virginia jurors in the trial of Lee Boyd Malvo maintained their camaraderie during the six weeks of trial and deliberations on whether he was guilty of capital murder in one of a series of sniper shootings, the group became sharply divided when weighing the question of whether to sentence the teen to death. The jury foreman and a second member of the jury revealed that a core group of four jurors did not believe Malvo's role in the murders warranted the death penalty. They stated that the debate between life and death destroyed the previously cordial atmosphere within the group. Juror Susan Schriever, who supported a death sentence in the case, stated, "I couldnÕt understand how people sat in the same trial and didnÕt feel the same way." Juror James Wolfcale, a Virginia Beach pastor who also favored the death penalty for Malvo, said that he was sorry to see the friendships among the jurors quickly break down during the sentencing phase. "I'm not sure I ever want to see them again," said Wolfcale of the jurors who supported a life sentence. Wolfcale said some of those who supported a life sentence argued that the punishment would be worse than a death sentence for the young defendant. (Washington Post, June 19, 2004) See Juvenile Death Penalty.

Gallup Poll Finds Decreased Support for Death Penalty When Compared with Life Sentence

A May 2004 Gallup Poll found that a growing number of Americans support a sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty for those convicted of murder. Gallup found that 46% of respondents favor life imprisonment over the death penalty, up from 44% in May 2003. During that same time frame, support for capital punishment as an alternative fell from 53% to 50%. The poll also revealed a growing skepticism that the death penalty deters crime, with 62% of those polled saying that it is not a deterrent. These percentages are a dramatic shift from the responses given to this same question in 1991, when 51% of Americans believed the death penalty deterred crime and only 41% believed it did not. Only 55% of those polled responded that they believed the death penalty is implemented fairly, down from 60% in 2003. When not offered an alternative sentence, 71% supported the death penalty and 26% opposed. The overall support is about the same as that reported in 2002, but down from the 80% support in 1994. (Gallup Poll News Service, June 2, 2004) Read the Gallup Press Release. See Public Opinion.

San Francisco Voters Back DA's Decision to Not Seek Death Sentence

Both city voters and the Bar Association of San Francisco have voiced support for San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris' decision to not seek the death penalty in the case against David Hill, who is accused of killing city police officer Isaac Espinoza. A recent poll found that 70% of respondents backed Harris' decision, while only 22% opposed the choice and 8% remained undecided. The poll also found that 65% of those surveyed gave Harris' overall performance as District Attorney favorable marks. Harris ran for office as an opponent of capital punishment. The San Francisco Bar Association also praised Harris' decision to seek a sentence of life without parole for Hill, and members voiced their support for keeping the trial within Harris' domain. The Association cautioned that all district attorneys could see their power of prosecutorial discretion eroded if California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer or federal prosecutors decide to take over the case in order to pursue a capital conviction. (San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 2004) See Public Opinion.

Another Federal Death Penalty Case Results in Life Sentence

After less than five hours of deliberation, jurors in a federal death penalty case in Maryland returned life sentences for two men convicted earlier of federal drug conspiracy charges and firearms violations. The federal case against Michael Taylor and Keon Moses was the first time since 1998 that U.S. prosecutors in Baltimore had sought a death sentence. The life sentences for Taylor and Keon continue a national trend identified last year by the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. In an August 2003 report, the Project noted that 20 of the 21 most recent federal death penalty cases had resulted in life sentences and that federal juries had voted for life in 38 of 43 capital cases since 2000. Taylor and Keon, both in their early 20s, were raised in one of Baltimore's most dangerous and notorious public housing complexes. Attorneys for the men presented evidence to jurors outlining their clients' troubling history of neglect and drug abuse. (Baltimore Sun, April 29, 2004) See Federal Death Penalty.

New Jersey Death Sentence Overturned After 18 Years

A federal court has ordered a new sentencing hearing for Robert Marshall after determining that his trial attorney failed to adequately represent him at his 1986 trial. In its ruling, the court noted: "This is not a case where, after reasonable investigation, Zeitz (the attorney) determined that it was tactically a better choice not to put on a mitigating case. Rather, it is a situation where Zeitz inadequately prepared for the penalty phase and put on no mitigating evidence because he had none to present." (Emphasis added). Marshall, who has been on death row for 18 years, must be resentenced and has been removed from New Jersey's death row. Additional problems with inadequate defense, the lethal injection process, and other concerns about the state's capital punishment system continue to surface. Celeste Fitzgerald, executive director of New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium, stated that Marshall's case is "another example of how the capital punishment system is broken, how it's impossible to write a set of rules to implement the death penalty in a way that ensures swift, fair and accurate justice." She added, "The death penalty hasn't worked in New Jersey. These cases go on and on - because a life is at stake and everyone agrees we need to be cautious. Many states don't have the death penalty, and I think it's time to follow that lead and implement a policy of life imprisonment without possibility of parole."
(The Star-Ledger, April 8, 2004) See Representation.

Death Penalty Often a Plea Bargaining Tool

An Associated Press analysis of the 334 capital indictments filed in Franklin County, Ohio, found that only 16 (5%) of the cases ended with a death sentence. Of those sentences, two have been reduced to life in prison without parole, one man died on the row, and two men were executed this year. Research shows that of the remaining Franklin County cases, 183 cases (55%) ended in plea agreements, and in 111 cases (33%) juries or three-judge panels convicted the offenders but did not sentence them to death. In 45 of those 111 cases, offenders were convicted of lesser charges, and in the remaining 44 cases that went to trial, the juries convicted the offenders of crimes that carried the death penalty but chose prison terms instead. According to Ohio State University Professor Doug Berman, the death penalty "remains a relatively rarely used sanction" in Ohio and to the average prosecutor "it's a mechanism that allows them to enter plea negotiations in a stronger position." According to prosecutor Ron O'Brien, a change in state law that guaranteed life without parole in capital cases has been a factor in plea negotiations. (Associated Press, April 6, 2004) See Life Without Parole.

Kansas Turns to Death Penalty Alternative to Save Money

A bill establishing the sentencing option of life without parole in capital cases has been sent to Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius for signature into law. The state legislature passed the bipartisan measure in an attempt to curb costs associated with the death penalty. A legislative audit released in December 2003 found that the average cost of a death penalty case in Kansas is $1.2 million. An advisory group of judges and attorneys who studied the stateÕs death penalty law last year concluded that a life-without-parole sentence could save the state between $400,000 and $500,000 per trial. Of the 38 states that have the death penalty, 35 have an alternative sentence of life without parole at least for some offenses. The exceptions are Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas. (Associated Press, April 1, 2004) See Costs.

Governor's Death Penalty Proposal Meets Opposition
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has proposed a constitutional amendment to reinstate the death penalty after nearly a century without it. The idea has been met with some firm resistance from state lawmakers, including criticism from Representative Keith Ellison, who noted, "The death penalty serves no legitimate purpose. It's applied unfairly, falling disproportionately on the poor, people of color and, in too many cases, on the innocent. It's also a budget buster, sapping resources from education, health care, and public safety." (Star Tribune, January 28, 2004) A January 2004 poll of Minnesota voters administered by the Star Tribune found that, when given a choice between life in prison without parole and the death penalty for convicted murderers, 46% of Minnesota respondents chose prison and only 44% chose the death penalty. (Star Tribune, January 29, 2004) See Public Opinion. Minnesota has consistently had one of the lowest murder rates in the country, about half of the national rate, and far below states like Texas that use the death penalty regularly. See Murder Rates by State.