Life Without Parole News and Developments: 2006

Poll Reveals Kentuckians Strongly Prefer Lengthy Prison Sentences Over Death Penalty

New polling results released by the University of Kentucky Survey Center reveal that Kentuckians overwhelmingly choose alternatives over the death penalty as the most appropriate punishment for those convicted of aggravated murder. When asked to select the most appropriate sentencing option from choices currently available to Kentucky jurors serving in capital murder trials, 67% selected sentences other than the death penalty. The first choice among respondents was life without parole.

The poll found that while only 30.5% of those polled selected the death penalty, 36.2% chose life without parole, 10.3% selected life with the possibility of parole in 25 years, 5.6% selected life with the possibility of parole in 20 years, and 15.5% chose a 20-50 year prison terms.  Since 1997, support for alternatives to the death penalty in Kentucky has steadily increased from 38% in 1997 to over 67% this year.

("Abolition Now," Newsletter of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, December 2006). See Public Opinion, Life Without Parole, and DPIC's 2006 Year End Report (PDF).

NEW VOICES: Life Without Parole Offers Prosecutors, Jurors, and Victims an Acceptable Alternative to the Death Penalty

Prosecutors in Utah have stated that the sentencing option of life without parole has been very helpful in giving jurors and family members of victims a viable alternative to the death penalty.  Salt Lake County District Attorney David Yocom noted that life without parole is often a better option to present to jurors:  "It's a tool for juries as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys, too," Yocom said. "It's an alternative to avoid asking a jury of 12 people to make that decision," to impose the death penalty.

"I've talked to a lot of jurors in death-penalty cases, and the hardest thing you could ask a citizen to do is sit in judgment of life or death over an individual. It's a very difficult job to do," he added.

Robert Stott, another prosecutor with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, said the life-without-parole sentence is seen as just by many victims.  "What we found is that oftentimes what the families of victims want is to ensure the person not be able to commit the same kind of crime," Stott said.

He noted that many crime victims don't crave revenge, but simply want to make sure that there are no more victims and that the perpetrator never leaves prison. "I don't mean to speak for all of them, but I've dealt with many who find this satisfies their needs and desires," Stott said.

Utah has 22 prisoners serving life without parole and 9 inmates on death row.
(Deseret News, Nov. 13, 2006).  See Life Without Parole and Victims.

NEW VOICES: Former Death Row Warden Calls for Clemency on Eve of Execution

The former warden of the Virginia prison that houses the state's death row inmates has called for clemency for a man about to be executed on November 9.  Page True was warden of the Sussex I State Prison and knew death row inmate John Schmitt for over 4 years.  "The crime was just terrible," True said, "but there's a lot worse inmates that I've dealt with in my 36 years in prison systems than Mr. Schmitt." 

True, who described himself "as hardcore as they come," said there were many more inmates at the same prison serving life sentences and that "compared to some of them, [Schmitt is] a hell of a lot better inmate.  We have the security and internal control in prisons to handle a guy like Schmitt," True said.

"I just don't think he should be put to death," he said. "I don't want to diminish his conduct. It was terrible. Somebody died and families are suffering. . . . But this guy is no worse than most of those other guys in these prisons [with] life sentences, and that's my feeling."
(F. Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nov. 9, 2006).  See New Voices and Life Without Parole.

NEW VOICES: Chief Judge of Federal Court Questions the Death Penalty

Chief Judge William Wilkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit recently spoke about the death penalty to a gathering at the Charleston School of Law in South Carolina.  He commented that decision-makers will have to evaluate whether the punishment is worth its increasing financial costs.  But he also noted how difficult it is for a politician to speak openly about this issue: "I think politically, you're not going to find a candidate running on 'Let's do away with the death penalty,' " Wilkins said. "No one (in South Carolina) can be elected to statewide office who is opposed to the death penalty." 

Wilkins said other options should be explored that would save money and still preserve the imposition of justice.  One alternative he mentioned was ensuring life in prison for murderers but without the chance of parole. "Think about it, what would you prefer?" he asked the students: death or life confined in a cage?  He noted that the tens of millions of dollars spent on the death penalty could go to education or health care.  He described the imposition of the death penalty in the U.S. as "a hit or miss thing."
(Charleston Post & Courier, Sept. 15, 2006; Associated Press, Sept. 14, 2006).  See New Voices, Costs, and Life Without Parole.

EDITORIALS: "Society Should End this System...Put Murderers Away for Life"

In a recent editorial, the Delaware News Journal concluded that the uncertainties and delays of the death penalty favor ending the system and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Such a system would better serve victims and their families, and bring swifter justice:

The latest argument over the death penalty centers on a seemingly simple question: Is the current method of execution cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution?

The Supreme Court eventually will answer, but not settle the question. Yet the debate is affecting states, including Delaware.
. . .
No matter how the argument turns out, it is anything but simple. What, after all, does cruel and usual punishment mean?
. . .

In the meantime, the families and friends of victims will suffer through every appeal and delay.

Society should end this system. Americans are too reluctant to eliminate or streamline appeals. For valid reasons, they are afraid of being hasty and killing an innocent man. On the hand, the long, costly process robs the death penalty of any deterrent effect.

Put murderers away for life. Take away any chance of parole or release.

Such a policy will never replace the lost victims or fully comfort their families. But it will keep them from having to relive murders with every appeal. And it will give respect to the idea of swift and sure justice.

(Delaware News Journal, July 28, 2006).  See Editorials and Life Without Parole.

PUBLIC OPINION: Wisconsin Voters Favor Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

In a recent University of Wisconsin Badger Poll, more respondents favored a sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty. Only 45% supported capital punishment, while 50% favored life sentences. When asked about the death penalty in theory, without any alternative sentences mentioned, 55.6% of Wisconsinites polled favored capital punishment for "cases involving a person who is convicted of first degree intentional homicides, if the conviction is supported by DNA evidence." In a non-binding November referendum, voters will consider the reinstatement of the death penalty in the state. The Badger Poll questioned 508 persons and has a margin of error of +/-4%. (Badger Poll Release, July 17, 2006). See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.

PUBLIC OPINION: New Gallup Poll Reveals Growing Number of Americans Favors Life Without Parole

A May 2006 Gallup Poll examining American opinion about the death penalty found that when given a choice between the sentencing options of life without parole and the death penalty, only 47% of respondents chose capital punishment, the lowest percentage in two decades. Forty-eight percent favored life without parole for those convicted of murder. The poll also revealed that overall support for the death penalty remains low at 65%, down significantly from 1994 when 80% supported capital punishment.

When asked whether the death penalty deters murder, 64% of those polled stated that it does not;  only 34%  believe it does deter. This is a dramatic shift from the 1980s and early 1990s, when the majority of Americans still believed that the death penalty prevented murder.  63% of those polled believe that an innocent person has been executed in the past 5 years, an increase over previous results.

(Gallup News Service, June 1, 2006).  See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.

NEW VOICES: Newspaper Changes Its Position-'Commonsense Finding is that Death Penalty Has Failed and Should be Abolished'

An editorial in the Asbury Park Press, a newspaper that formerly supported capital punishment, called on New Jersey policymakers to abandon the state's costly death penalty and replace it with the "sure and swift" sentence of life without parole. Stating that New Jersey has wasted millions of dollars on the death penalty, but has not carried out an execution since it was reinstated in1982, the editorial noted:

Can it really be 22 years since Robert O. Marshall cowardly hired hit men to shoot and kill his wife and the mother of his three children for insurance money? So he could continue an extramarital affair and carry on with his country club life? Sadly, it has been that long for the 66-year-old former Toms River insurance salesman.

Marshall was on death row for two decades before a court found his representation during the death penalty phase of his trial was lacking. The court overturned the death penalty and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that decision, leaving it up to the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office to decide whether to seek the death penalty again.

Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher said Friday his office struggled with the decision, but ultimately decided not to ask another jury to sentence Marshall to death because of the difficulty in mounting a case so long after the crime was committed and the likelihood that more appeals would take years to resolve at great public expense.

"This troublesome and distressing conclusion was made only after extensive consultation with the family of the victim, Maria Marshall," Kelaher said.

In March, we reluctantly called for another death penalty trial, with concern about the issues raised by Kelaher and the hope that Marshall would never be paroled. However, we understand the prosecutor's reasoning that going through another round of legal proceedings that would cost more millions over a decade or more is problematic. And we urge him in the strongest terms to follow through with his pledge to oppose parole of Marshall forever. He could be released in 2014.

Which again brings us to the issue of New Jersey's death penalty. Since its reinstitution in 1982, no cold-blooded murderer has been executed. Nearly 50 death sentences have been overturned by higher courts. For now, a yearlong moratorium on executions is in effect while a study commission looks at how New Jersey enforces its death penalty statute.

The commission should file its report now with the common-sense finding that New Jersey's death penalty is a failure and should be abolished in favor of life in prison without parole.

To be effective, justice must be sure and swift. New Jersey's death penalty statute is neither. It is such a drain on resources as to be counterproductive.

Think of the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on scum like Marshall. Multiply that by 50 or more. Life without chance of parole. That's a sentence whose execution can be sure and swift.

(Asbury Park Press, May 16, 2006) (emphasis added). See Editorials, Costs, and Life Without Parole.

Washington Supreme Court Closely Divided on Rationality of State's Death Penalty

The Washington State Supreme Court recently came within one vote of effectively abolishing the state's death penalty when it ruled in the case of death row inmate Dayva Cross.  Cross is on death row for the murder of his wife and her two teenage daughters.  Attorneys for Cross had argued that their client should not be executed because killers who had committed worse crimes had been spared the death penalty. The 2003 case of Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, who received a life sentence in exchange for a detailed confession about killing 48 young women, was among the chief examples used by Cross' attorneys.

The court's 5-4 ruling upholding Cross' death sentence revealed a deep division about the future of the state's law. Writing for the majority, Justice Tom Chambers said the "moral question" of whether those on death row can be executed while a notorious serial killer is given life is best left to state lawmakers or the people of Washington.

A dissenting opinion authored by Justice Charles Johnson stated, "When Gary Ridgway, the worst mass murderer in this state's history, escapes the death penalty, serious flaws become apparent. The Ridgway case does not 'stand alone,' as characterized by the majority, but instead is symptomatic of a system where all mass murderers have, to date, escaped the death penalty. . . . The death penalty is like lightning, randomly striking some defendants and not others. Where the death penalty is not imposed on Gary Ridgway, Ben Ng and Kwan Fai Mak (the latter two convicted in Seattle's 1983 Wah Mee massacre), who represent the worst mass murders in Washington's history, on what basis do we determine on whom it is imposed? No rational explanation exists to explain why some individuals escape the penalty of death and others do not."

An editorial in the News Tribune echoed the dissenting justices' opinion, stating:

Since the 1960s, Washington has executed only 4 condemned murderers - and three of those sought death by refusing to appeal their sentences.

The rarity of executions speaks well of this state. But it has created a new grounds of appeal: that there is no logic or consistency in the way death penalties are handed down and carried out in Washington.
. . .
We're reluctant to argue for abolishing Washington's narrowly drawn death penalty, which reflects the will of the electorate. But Johnson's argument is hard to ignore in a state whose laws generally call for proportionate sentences for similar crimes.

With the likes of Ridgway, Ng and Mak living out their lives in prison, Dayva Cross’ execution - if it ever happens - may well be the legal equivalent of a capricious bolt of lightning.

(News Tribune, April 2, 2006 and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 31, 2006).  See Arbitrariness, Life Without Parole, Editorials, and New Voices.

OPINION POLLS: Majority of New Yorkers Reject the Death Penalty

Most New Yorkers would choose a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) over the death penalty for those convicted of murder.  In a recent poll published in Newsday, 53% of N.Y. adults said LWOP is the better penalty, whereas only 38% chose the death penalty, with 9% uncertain.  New York's death penalty was found unconstitutional by the state's highest court in 2004.  The legislature elected not to modify the statute. (Source: Blum and Weprin Associates / Newsday - Methodology: Telephone interviews with 1,457 New York adults, conducted from Feb. 26 to Mar. 5, 2006; Angus Reid Global Scan, March 11, 2006).Georgia Millionaire Receives Life Without ParoleA jury in Georgia elected to sentence James Sullivan to life without parole after finding him guilty of hiring a hitman to kill his wife in 1987.  "We thought that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was enough. We didn't want to be the judge about somebody else's life. We wanted God to be the judge," said juror Debra Klayman after the sentence was handed down. The jury had the option of the death penalty, life without parole, or life with parole. Klayman said that the jury decided at the start of its five hour deliberation that Sullivan would not get death.

Sullivan is a millonaire and a former fugitive on the FBI's most-wanted list who was captured in Thailand in 2002, four years after he was indicted on murder charges and 15 years after he payed a truck driver $25,000 to kill his wife. The murder took place on the same day that Sullivan and his wife were to attend a hearing to discuss property distribution in their divorce. (Associated Press, March 14, 2006).  See Life Without Parole and Arbitrariness.

Death Penalty Not Sought in Three High-Profile Cases

Prosecutors in Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware have all chosen to seek life sentences in three high-profile murder cases.  Among other concerns, they noted their wish to bring comfort to victims' families and to secure the public's longterm safety.  The prosecutors expressed confidence that not seeking the death penalty was the right choice in these cases.

Maryland prosecutors announced that they will not seek the death penalty for sniper John Allen Muhammad, who will go on trial in May. Muhammad is charged with killing six people in Maryland. Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said that he will seek a life sentence for Muhammad, noting: "We wanted to make sure the person who alledgedly committed these crimes never roams our streets again. Secondly, we wanted to provide an opportunity for the victims in this case to have their day in court," Gansler said. Nelson Rivera, whose wife was a sniper victim, said he understood the state's reasoning for not seeking the death penalty. He stated, "It's something that won't return anything to us, but justice is going to be served. I'm satisfied by the way the state of Maryland has handled this." Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight said that the state's decision would also decrease his department's expenses during the trial.  Muhammad was sentenced to death in Virginia for related crimes. (Washington Post, March 3, 2006).

On March 2 in New Jersey, nurse Charles Cullen received 11 consecutive life sentences for killing as many as 29 intensive-case patients with fatal injections. The life sentences are the result of a 2004 plea agreement Cullen made with New Jersey and Pennsylvania prosecutors. In the agreement, Cullen offered to provide information about his crimes and the names of his victims in exchange for the states' agreeing not to seek the death penalty.  Many of the victims' family members spoke at Cullen's sentencing.  David Agoada, whose mother Cullen tried to kill, said, "You can still do something good in your life.  Tell us, how did you do this?  How did you kill all these people?" (New York Times, March 3, 2006 and Press Release from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, May 19, 2004).

On the same day as Cullen's sentencing, Thomas Capano of Delaware was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his mistress more than a decade ago, a crime that drew national attention because Capano was a wealthy lawyer and political powerbroker. After the Delaware Supreme Court overturned Capano's original death sentence last month and ruled that the process used to arrive at it was unconstitutional, the state Attorney General's Office decided not to seek a new sentencing hearing and to not contest Capano's being sentenced to life without parole. "The death penalty was always a secondary issue," said Colm Connelly, one of the original prosecutors in the case.  Kathleen Fahey-Hosey, sister of Capano's victim, Anne Marie Fahey, said the family is satistifed with Capano's life without parole sentence. (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 3, 2006).

See Life Without Parole. See also, Victims and New Voices.

Pennsylvania Jurors Opting for Life Sentences 

Lawyers and prosecutors in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania say that concerns about innocence and shifting public attitudes on the death penalty have caused jurors in the county to "lose their taste" for capital punishment. In each of the past 8 capital cases tried, jurors spared the life of the defendant.

"My personal belief is that the heydey of the death penalty is over," said Allegheny County attorney Caroline Roberto, former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The trend away from sentencing defendants to death is also evident in other Pennsylvania counties and in jurisdictions around the nation. Nationally, the number of annual death sentences handed down in the U.S. has plunged to its lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated. "We're seeing doubt from the guilt phase of the trial trickle over to the penalty phase. Jurors are realizing the death penalty doesn't accomplish anything because the public is protected by a life sentence," observed Butler County, Pennsylvania attorney David DeFazio. Experts have also cited concern about wrongful convictions as another reason for the sharp decline in death sentences. Art Patterson, a jury consultant for more than 20 years and vice president of the Pennsylvania-based legal consulting firm DecisionQuest, added, "Every day (jurors) hear news of the irrefutable evidence of people on death row or in prison somewhere being freed because they didn't belong there."

An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recorded the jury decisions in recent cases:

Jan. 21, 2006: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Alvin Starks, 32, of Sheraden, resulting in a life sentence for the fatal shooting of his ex-girlfriend, Andrea Umphrey.

Oct. 3, 2005: Michael Michalski, 23, of Shaler, pleads guilty to three counts of 1st-degree murder in exchange for a life sentence. He killed his ex-girlfriend, her sister and another man.

May 13, 2005: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Dion Horton, 27, of West Mifflin, after convicting him of killing his friend, Kenneth Sharp. He gets life in prison.

Feb. 18, 2005: A jury sentences Rodney Burton, 23, of North Braddock, to life in prison for the torture and killing of Dana Pliakas.

Jan. 24, 2005: Prosecutors decide not to seek the death penalty during a 2nd trial for Andre Crisswell, 31, of Lincoln-Lemington, and William George Thompson, 35, of Homewood. A jury had deadlocked on the pair's guilt in the fatal shootings of an 8-year-old girl, her father and a family friend.

April 26, 2004: Christopher Scott, 25, of Penn Hills, pleads guilty to killing 4 men in exchange for a life sentence.

March 4, 2004: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Carl Scott, 22, of Duquesne, resulting in a life sentence for the slayings of his mother and 2 men.

Dec. 5, 2003: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Charles Sadler, 30, of Turtle Creek, who killed his elderly neighbor and her caretaker.

(Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 27, 2006). See Sentencing, Life Without Parole, and Innocence.

High Profile Delaware Defendant Spared the Death Penalty

Delaware state prosecutors announced that they will not seek the death penalty for Thomas Capano, a former millionaire influential in state politics who was convicted of murdering Anne Marie Fahey.  Capano will instead face a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. "Every criminal case has a natural end. We have reached that point in this case. I am satisfied that justice is served by having Thomas Capano spend every day of the rest of his life in prison," said Deleware Attorney General Carl C. Danberg.

Last month, the Delaware Supreme Court upheld Capano's 1999 murder conviction, but overturned his death sentence because the jury was one vote short of unanimous when deciding if the murder was the result of substantial planning. The Delaware court held that the death sentence based on a non-unanimous finding violated the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring v. Arizona in 2002.  Danberg said a new death penalty sentencing hearing would be difficult because two key witnesses, Capano's brothers, who testified in 1999 did so in exchange for plea agreements with prosecutors. This time, Danberg said that prosecutors would have no leverage over the two men.

Fahey's family said they supported the state's decision to seek a life without parole sentence. "When Anne Marie was murdered, we maintained that the most important thing for us was that her murderer would be convicted and sent to prison. We are satisfied," they said.

(The News Journal, February 6, 2006). See Victims and Life Without Parole.