Sotomayor Critiques Alabama Sentencing in Supreme Court Dissent

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury's 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the case, saying the Court should reconsider Alabama's death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury's recommendation for life came from Alabama, including some in which the vote for life was unanimous. She speculated that Alabama's elected judges may face political pressures to appear harsh in their use of the death penalty that unelected judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?," she wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." She cited instances in which judges used their death sentences as part of their electoral campaigns.

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Ohio Execution Stayed at 11th Hour to Consider Inmate Organ Donation

On November 13 Ohio Governor John Kasich stayed the execution of Ronald Phillips less than 24 hours before he was to be die by lethal injection in order to consider Phillips' request to donate a kidney to his mother. Kasich stated, “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen.” Medical experts will now have time to determine whether Phillips would be a suitable donor for his mother, who is on dialysis, and other implications of the donation can be considered. In 1995, Delaware death-row inmate Steven Shelton was allowed to donate a kidney to his mother. His death sentence was later reversed for other reasons. However, in Florida, Joseph Brown was not allowed to donate a kidney to his brother, who later died. Brown was freed from death row after being exonerated in 1987. Phillips also offered to donate his heart to his sister after he was executed, but donations of vital organs have not been allowed during U.S. executions because of ethical issues. Texas allows general prisoners to donate non-vital organs, but not those on death row.

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NEW VOICES: Conservative Judge Who Imposed Death Sentences Changes His Mind

As a Superior Court judge in Delaware, Norman Barron was referred to as “the hanging judge” because of his willingness to impose death sentences. In a recent op-ed for Delaware Online, the now-retired judge expressed how his views on the death penalty have changed: “I believe the application of the death penalty is quirky and capricious… it is impossible to justify why some murderers receive the death penalty while others, whose crimes are arguably worse in degree or savagery, do not.” He also discussed the costs of imposing the death penalty, the risks of executing an innocent defendant, and its failure to provide timely closure to victims’ families as reasons for his current opposition to the death penalty. “In Delaware," he concluded, "if a convicted murderer in a capital case does not receive a death sentence, he receives an automatic sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or any type of early release. Such a sentence ensures that the defendant is locked away in a state prison until he dies. There is nothing incompatible with this type of life sentence and being a law-and-order conservative on matters of crime and punishment, which I still consider myself to be. In this age of shrinking budgets and increased costs, the time has come, in my view, to adopt a more enlightened approach to criminal justice.” Read full op-ed below.

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RECENT LEGISLATION: Death Penalty Repeal Passes Delaware Senate; Defeated in Colorado

On March 26, Delaware's Senate passed (11-10) a bill to repeal the death penalty, after amending it to exclude current death row inmates. Those who testified in support of the repeal cited racial disparities, a lack of deterrent effect, and the high costs associated with capital punishment. The bill will now move on to the House of Representatives, which is expected to consider the measure in April. On the same day, Colorado’s House Judiciary Committee voted (6-4) against a repeal bill. Legislators heard nine hours of testimony regarding the bill, largely from supporters of the measure. Seventeen states have either considered legislation to repeal the death penalty this year or will likely consider it in the next session. Earlier in March, a bill to repeal the death penalty passed the Maryland General Assembly, and the governor has pledged to sign it into law, making Maryland the 18th state to do away with the death penalty.

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Delaware Legislature Considering Death Penalty Repeal Bill

On March 12, Delaware State Senator Karen Peterson introduced a bill to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with life without parole. “I don’t think the state should be in the business of killing people,” Peterson said. “It just is so bizarre to me that we would say to somebody that what you did was so horrible, that now we’re going to do it." Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, a Republican, is also backing the bill. The bill is retroactive, meaning that it would also replace the sentences of those on death row with life without parole. Supporters of the bill say that the death penalty is too costly and does not deter crime. Two police organizations oppose the bill, saying that the death penalty should be available for those who murder police officers. Governor Jack Markell has not taken a position, saying he has "an open mind" regarding death penalty repeal. Delaware has carried out 16 executions since reinstating the death penalty and has 17 people on death row.

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