RECENT LEGISLATION: Texas Legislature Examining Problems of Innocence and Racial Bias

Two bills under consideration in Texas aim to address issues in the state’s death penalty. House Bill 2458 would allow defendants to appeal their death sentences if they can prove that race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty. Statistical evidence of bias can be used to support such a claim. Similar bills, referred to as the Racial Justice Act, have been considered in other states. Testimony in favor of the bill mentioned the case of Duane Buck, an African American who was sentenced to death after a psychologist testifed that Buck would likely be a future danger to society because of his race. On April 17, the Texas Senate unanimously passed SB 1292, a bill that requires the state to collect and test all DNA evidence prior to a trial in which the defendant could receive the death penalty. The bill now heads to the House.

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INNOCENCE: Alabama Lawmakers Unanimously Vote to Pardon Scottsboro Boys

On April 4, the Alabama House of Representatives voted 103-0 in favor of a bill to posthumously pardon the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of two white women in 1931. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 29-0, and Gov. Robert Bentley has indicated he will sign it. All but one of the group were sentenced to death by all-white juries with virtually no legal representation. The military had to protect them from angry mobs. They lingered on death row for years. Eventually, after several arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court on the right to counsel and proper selection of juries, all of them were freed without execution. Through the years of appeals, one of the women who accused the group of rape recanted and said the claim was a lie. Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said, "Their lives were ruined by the convictions. By doing this, it sends a very positive message nationally and internationally that this is a different state than we were many years ago." The last of the group of defendants died in 1989. (photo: Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA).

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MULTIMEDIA: Bill Moyers Addresses Inequities in the Death Penalty

On March 29-31, “Moyers & Company,” hosted by Bill Moyers, will be exploring how the poor and minorities fare under our justice system, and the death penalty in particular. In "And Justice for Some," Moyers interviews Martin Clancy and Tim O’Brien, the authors of the forthcoming Murder at the Supreme Court, and speaks with attorney and legal scholar Bryan Stevenson about the system’s failings and struggles at the crossroads of race, class and justice. “Moyers & Company” airs throughout the country every weekend.

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RACE: New Study Shows Racial Bias in Seeking the Death Penalty in Harris County

A new study regarding the use of the death penalty in Harris County, Texas, was released in conjunction with the filing of an appeal by Harris County death row inmate, Duane Buck. The research was conducted by Professor Raymond Paternoster of the University of Maryland, who examined over 500 murder cases in the county. The study found that, in cases with circumstances similar to Buck’s and during the time in which he was tried, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office sought the death penalty 3.5 times more often when the defendant was African-American than when the defendant was white. When the cases were submitted to Harris County (Houston) juries, the net result was a greater proportion of African-American defendants ended with death sentences than white defendants. Buck's case is also controversial because an expert witness testified at Buck's trial that he was more likely to pose a future danger to society because he is African American, and hence more likely to commit violence. Read full study.

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MULTIMEDIA: Prof. John Bessler Takes Listeners on an Historical Journey Exploring Arbitrariness in the Death Penalty

DPIC is proud to present its latest podcast, featuring award-winning author John Bessler discussing the historical roots of the death penalty and the current problem of arbitrariness in its application. Bessler is a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders' Eighth Amendment. Prof. Bessler shares his expertise on the surprising resistance to capital punishment among some of the nation's founders and explores major Supreme Court decisions on this issue. He explains why the death penalty is open to constitutional challenge because its application is influenced by race, geography, and quality of representation. Click here to listen to the podcast or download it for future use. 

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MENTAL ILLNESS: Texas Inmate Gouges Out Eyes, Remains on Death Row

Texas death-row inmate Andre Thomas has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and auditory hallucinations drove him to gouge out both of his eyes. Nevertheless, prosecutors still believe he should be executed. In a revealing recent essay in Mother Jones magazine, author Marc Bookman described in vivid detail Thomas's family history of mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence going back at least two generations.  A brief excerpt from the article epitomized Thomas's delusions:  "On July 14, 2008, Andre managed to procure something sharp and slash a seven-centimeter gash in his throat, requiring eight stitches. He insisted that he was the cause of all the problems in the world, and that if he killed himself all the problems would stop. The next day, he reported that he had been reading his Bible and got confused because he wasn't sure if it was the voices or his own thoughts that were telling him to kill himself. During a psychiatric assessment one week later, he explained that 'The government is conspiring to read my mind. That's why I ripped out my right eye. That's the righteous side. They can't hear my thoughts no more. I cut my throat. Gotta shed a little blood to save the world.'" In the three weeks before he killed his wife and two children, police were asked to apprehend him and bring him to a mental hospital on two separate occasions.  After Thomas removed his second eye, he was moved to a facility for mentally ill prisoners, but the state continues to pursue his execution.

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STUDIES: Racial Bias in Houston's Use of Death Penalty

In a new study in Harris County (Houston), Texas, criminologist Scott Phillips found significant racial and gender disparities in the application of the death penalty under former District Attorney Charles Rosenthal. Prof. Phillips of the University of Denver examined homicides from 2001 to 2008 and found that death sentences were imposed on behalf of white victims at 2.5 times the rate one would expect if the system were race neutral. Furthermore, death sentences were imposed on behalf of white-female victims at 5 times the rate one would expect if the system were blind to race and gender. Phillips noted that these disparities were particularly troubling because Rosenthal was forced from office in a scandal involving racial improprieties in the workplace. In a previous study, Prof. Phillips also found racial disparities in the application of the death penalty under the previous Harris County D.A., Johnny Holmes, during the latter part of his term (1992-99).

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UPCOMING EXECUTION: Lawyers Request Reprieve Because of Racial Bias in Dallas County

Lawyers for Kimberly McCarthy, who is to be executed on January 29, have petitioned Texas Governor Rick Perry for a 30-day reprieve because of evidence of racial bias in the county in which she was tried. The District Attorney for Dallas County, Craig Watkins, has already called for passage of a Racial Justice Act to address the bias he has found. Attorneys for McCarthy cited several studies pointing to racial disparity in the application of the death penalty: Dallas County is about 22% black, yet 42% of those executed or awaiting execution from the County are black. Ms. McCarthy is black and her victim was white, like 68% of the victims in the County's cases. Her attorneys wrote, “These statistics and their import are reflected in the case of Kimberly McCarthy, an African-American woman, who was sentenced to death for the murder of an elderly white woman." Evidence also exists of bias in jury selection, both historically and in her case: "Of the thirteen jurors seated [in McCarthy’s case], all were white except one.” Although the governor cannot grant clemency to McCarthy because the Pardons Board voted against her, he can issue a 30-day reprieve for further investigation. [UPDATE: State District Judge Larry Mitchell stayed McCarthy's execution.  Her execution was initially rescheduled for April 3, 2013 and she was executed on June26, 2013.]

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NEW RESOURCES: View DPIC's Latest Infographics as a Slide Show

CA InfographicThe Death Penalty Information Center has introduced a new series of graphs and quotes from prominent individuals, emphasizing various death penalty issues. These infographics have been displayed on Facebook and other outlets in the past few months. We are now offering them serially in a slide show on DPIC's website. The graphics can be individually downloaded for use in various mediums. The slide show is available at this link. The infographics are grouped under a range of topics such as Costs, Race, and Innocence, with more information on each topic available on DPIC's site. You can also find this collection of infographics on Facebook (click on any "photo" and it will enlarge, and you can scroll through the entire series) and on Pinterest. New infographics will be added in the coming months.

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LAW REVIEWS: The Enduring Significance of Studies Showing Racial Bias in the Death Penalty

Professor Samuel R. Gross (pictured) of the University of Michigan Law School has published an article in the Iowa Law Review examining the historical importance of a series of studies showing racial bias in the death penalty. The issue of race was brought to a head by the Supreme Court's consideration of McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987. McCleskey focused on a statistical examination of Georgia death sentences conducted by David Baldus. Though the study found compelling and statistically significant evidence of racial bias in sentencing, the Court held (5-4) this evidence insufficient to overturn Warren McCleskey's death sentence. Prof. Gross argues that, despite the Court's negative holding, the Justices were convinced that racial bias existed in the death penalty. "Even on the Supreme Court that sent Warren McCleskey to his death, even among the Justices who most strongly support the death penalty, nobody has tried to deny that racial 'sympathies and antipathies' decide who lives and who dies. No Justice said otherwise in McCleskey and none have denied it since." Gross concludes that Baldus' legacy was in "forc[ing] reluctant judges to face up to facts they would have preferred to ignore." Prof. Baldus of the University of Iowa died in 2011.

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