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Counties with Large Death Rows Often Correlates With Prosecutorial Misconduct

Radley Balko, writing in the Huffington Post, has examined more closely some of the counties identified in DPIC's recent report, The 2% Death Penalty, as using the death penalty the most. Balko found that many of those high-use counties have a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and other problems. For example, Philadelphia County has sent more inmates to death row than any other county in Pennsylvania. However, a study of criminal cases overturned in the state because of prosecutorial misconduct found over 60% of the cases came from Philadelphia. Duval County, Florida, has the largest per capita death row in the nation, but recently elected a head public defender who ran on a platform of cutting funding to public defense and billing indigent defendants who are acquitted. In the California counties of Santa Clara and Riverside, courts had to review thousands of cases due to prosecutors' failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, including fraud by a crime lab technician. In some instances, this misconduct hid the actual innocence of the defendant, such as that of Ray Krone in Maricopa County, Arizona, who was sentenced to death after prosecutors withheld crucial evidence.


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POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Federal Judge Throws Out Pennsylvania Conviction As 'Grave Miscarriage of Justice'

A federal judge in Pennsylvania overturned the conviction of a death row inmate, stating he was "sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit." U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody found errors in all facets of the case, noting that "Improper police work characterized nearly the entirety of the investigation." She described the prosecution as "a grave miscarriage of justice," and criticized the defense for failing to adequately investigate the evidence. The presentation of evidence in the penalty phase of the trial took only about 3 hours. The defendant, James Dennis, has been on death row for over 20 years, having been convicted of the 1991 murder of a high school student. No forensic evidence linked him to the crime, police ignored other leads, and prosecutors failed to hand over evidence to the defense. Evidence corroborating Dennis's alibi - that he was riding a bus far from the crime scene at the time of the murder - was lost by the prosecution. In 2011, the governor signed his death warrant, but the execution was stayed.


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False Confessions and Threats of the Death Penalty

A recent article in The Atlantic by Marc Bookman (pictured) shows how threats of the death penalty can contribute to false confessions. The piece recounts a Pennsylvania murder case in which two defendants, Russell Weinberger and Felix Rodriguez, admitted to a murder they did not commit, leading to their imprisonment for over 21 years. Rodriguez described his interrogation: "First they showed me pictures of the dead guy. I started to cry. I said I didn't do that. That's when they slapped me on the back of my head, said 'They gonna put you in the electric chair.' So I signed the statement. I knew it might be bad, but I didn't know what to do. I'd never been in real trouble before. I signed the statement 'cause they said I could go home."  Weinberger, who was intellectually disabled with an IQ between 60 and 65, at first denied involvement in the murder, but later submitted a confession after Rodriquez implicated him in the crime. Weinberger was offered a lesser sentence if he agreed to testify against Rodriguez. Twenty years later in March 2001, a prison inmate named Anthony Sylvanus (represented by Mr. Bookman) admitted to committing 5 similar murders, including the one Weinberger and Rodriguez had confessed to. Sylvanus revealed facts that only the true perpetrator was likely to know. Rodriguez and Weinberger were eventually allowed to plead nolo contendere and were released from prison after serving 21 years.


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ARBITRARINESS: Pennsylvania's Costly and Broken Death Penalty System

The theory of the death penalty is that prosecutors select offenders who have committed aggravated murder and obtain death sentences for the most heinous offenders through a scrupulous trial with full due process. The reality in Pennsylvania is radically different. Hundreds of inmates have been sentenced to death, but of the cases that have completed the appeals process, 100% have been overturned, mostly because of errors in the conviction or sentencing stages. (Three inmates were executed, but they waived their appeals; the rest of those sentenced to death remain on death row, continuing their appeals.) Moreover, when these cases are submitted for re-trial, presumably with the errors corrected, almost all (95%) receive a sentence less than death (and some are freed completely). These statistics, collected by Robert Dunham, Adjunct Professor at Villanova Law School, reveal a capital-case selection process that is seriously flawed and a trial process that is rampant with error. From a cost perspective, this is extremely wasteful: every death sentence is a result of an expensive trial and appeal; nevertheless, almost all of these cases ultimately result in a life sentence after even more proceedings. Eleven percent (11%) of the cases requiring a re-sentencing were resolved as less than first-degree murder.


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