New Civic and Religious Coalition Challenges Exclusion from Jury Service

A new coalition of religious and civic organizations is seeking to stop the exclusion of individuals who express moral or religious opposition to the death penalty from serving on capital juries. I Want to Serve is a new organization based in Louisiana that "oppose[s] the government’s intrusion on one’s right to express religious beliefs on capital juries." The group notes that the process of excluding jurors who oppose the death penalty from capital cases--known as death qualification--eliminates a large proportion of the otherwise-qualified jurors. The coalition points to research finding death-qualified juries to be demographically skewed, more prone to conviction, and more likely to make factual errors than non-death-qualified juries.  In its statement, the group objects to people being denied a fundamental right of citizenship because of their religious beliefs: "Jury service is a fundamental right of citizens and empowers us to keep a check on state power. . . .The voice of all those who do not think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment are removed from that determination."  

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DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

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NEW VOICES: The "Death Penalty's Unlikely Opponents"

A recent CNN perspective examined the views of those they called "the most unlikely opponents of the death penalty, people who lost loved ones to unspeakable violence yet believe executing the killer will do nothing for family members or society."  For example, Ross Byrd, the son of James Byrd, Jr., who was dragged to his death behind a truck in Texas by Lawrence Brewer, nevertheless objected to Brewer's execution, saying "You can't fight murder with murder."  In Mississippi, the mother and siblings of James Anderson asked for his killer's life to be spared. In a letter to the district attorney, Barbara Anderson Young, Anderson's sister, cited the family's faith as one of the reasons why they opposed capital punishment. And Charisse Coleman, whose brother Russell (both pictured) was shot in a liquor store in Shreveport, Louisiana, pointed to the fallibility of the system: "The criminal justice [system]," she said, "is created by and conducted by humans.  As long as we're capable of making mistakes, we shouldn't be deciding who lives and dies."  Her views did not stem from sympathy for the defendant: "My opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with Bobby Lee Hampton," she said. "He's a bad dude. He's never going to be a good dude. If I got a call that said Bobby Lee Hampton dropped dead in his cell last night, I don't think it would create a ripple in my pond. . . [but] I will [not] let Bobby Lee Hampton make me a victim, too, by taking me down that road of bitterness and revenge."

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NEW RESOURCES: 2011 DEATH ROW USA Report Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's "Death Row USA" showed a slight increase of 9 inmates in the death row population in the United States between October 1, 2010 and January 1, 2011. However, death row is still significantly smaller now (3,251 inmates) than in 2000 (3,682 inmates). The size of death row also declined overall in 2010.  The size of death row is affected by the number of death sentences and the number of executions. Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 44% white, 42% black, and 12% Latino/Latina. Texas, Louisiana, and Connecticut had death rows consisting of 70% minority defendants.  California continues to have the largest death row population (721), followed by Florida (398), Texas (321), Pennsylvania (219), and Alabama (206). California and Pennsylvania have not carried out an executiion in over five years.  The report contains the latest death row population figures, execution statistics, and an overview of recent legal developments related to capital punishment.

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NEW RESOURCES: Prison Magazine, The Angolite, Examines the Death Penalty in 2010

A recent edition of The Angolite, the nation's largest prison news magazine, contains an article detailing national death penalty trends and developments.  The piece highlights the emergence of several prominent conservatives who have voiced concerns with the current death penalty system, including Montana State Senator Roy Brown and conservative activist Richard Viguerie.  The article is authored by John Corley and provides an in-depth look at the ongoing controversy about lethal injection procedures around the country, the high costs of maintaining the death penalty system, and the risks of wrongful executions. The Angolite is an award-winning bi-monthly prison news magazine produced by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

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Update on Lethal Injection Issue

In a clear national trend, seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina) have used pentobarbital instead of sodium thiopental in their executions in 2011. The most recent such execution was that of Donald Beaty in Arizona on May 25, following a temporary stay as the state made a sudden switch to the new drug.  Ohio is the only one of the seven states to use pentobarbital as the sole drug in its lethal-injection process.  At least five states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina) that acquired sodium thiopental through an overseas source have had the drug seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  In addition, Arizona was instructed by the DEA not to use its foreign sodium thiopental just prior to the May 25 execution. Arkansas and California also have supplies of sodium thiopental originally obtained from a supplier in Great Britain.  In Nebraska, questions about its supply of sodium thiopental--obtained from a company in India--has postponed the execution of Carey Dean Moore.  South Dakota's sodium thiopental was also reportedly obtained from India.  Other states like Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia have indicated they intend to switch to pentobarbital in future executions.

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Confederate Flag Outside Louisiana Courthouse Evokes Claims of Bias

A black defendant facing execution in Louisiana for the killing of a white firefighter is challenging the fairness of his trial because a Confederate flag was flying outside the Caddo Parish courthouse in Shreveport, Louisiana, during the proceedings.  Felton Dorsey’s legal team recently argued before the Louisiana Supreme Court that the presence of the flag had an impact on jury selection and on Dorsey’s conviction. Carl Staples, a prospective black juror, was struck from the case by prosecutors after he complained about the Confederate flag. Staples told the court that the flag "is a symbol of one of the most…heinous crimes ever committed.”  He explained, "When I was screened for the jury, it welled up inside of me and I expressed my feelings."  The flag has flown in front of the courthouse since 1951.  Dorsey has maintained his innocence and also argued prosecutors used unreliable accomplice testimony and improperly removed most of the prospective black jurors from the case. He was convicted by a jury that consisted of 11 white individuals and one African American.

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NEW RESOURCES: Most Recent DEATH ROW USA Report Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's "Death Row USA" shows that the number of people on the death row in the United States is continuing to slowly decline, falling to 3,260 as of April 1, 2010. In 2000, there were 3,682 inmates on death row.  Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 44% white, 41% black, and 12% Latino/Latina. California continues to have the largest death row population (702), followed by Florida (398) and Texas (333). Pennsylvania (222) and Alabama (204) complete the list of the states with the five largest death rows in the country. Of those jurisdictions with more than 10 inmates on death row, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas have the largest percentage of minorities on death row--each has 69%.

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OP-ED: "The Prosecution Rests, but I Can't"

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by John Thompson (pictured, right) describes his anguish after being wrongly convicted, sentenced to death, and most recently denied financial compensation in Louisiana.  He spent 18 years in prison, including 14 on death row, because prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence that could have led to his acquittal.  Thompson wrote, “The prosecutors involved in my two cases, from the office of the Orleans Parish district attorney, Harry Connick Sr., helped to cover up 10 separate pieces of evidence. And most of them are still able to practice law today.” He continued, “I don’t care about the money. I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued.” 

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Supreme Court Erases Award for Exonerated Death Row Inmate

On March 29, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed (5-4) a judgment of $14 million against the District Attorney's Office of New Orleans for withholding evidence in the case of John Thompson.  Thompson had been convicted and sentenced to death but was later exonerated after the withheld evidence, casting serious doubt about his guilt, was revealed through the work of a private investigator. Thompson spent 18 years in prison including 14 years on death row, and faced imminent execution several times.  He sued the D.A.'s office for violation of his constitutional rights.  However, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, held that Thompson did not prove that the entire district attorney’s office was responsible for the individual prosecutors' negligence. "[T]he only issue before us is whether [D.A.] Connick, as the policymaker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train the attorneys under his authority," Thomas wrote.  The Court held that a district attorney’s office cannot be held responsible for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single violation of the standards requiring them to turn over to the defense any evidence that would cast doubts on the defendant’s guilt or sentence. (Brady v. Maryland).

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