NEW VOICES: Why Prosecutors in Texas, Pennsylvania Are Seeking Death Penalty Less Often
Prosecutors across the country are seeking the death penalty less frequently and in recent interviews two district attorneys, one from Texas and one from Pennsylvania, have given some of their reasons why. Randall County, Texas District Attorney James Farren (pictured) told KFDA-TV in Amarillo that his experience handling one particularly lengthy and costly capital case has changed how he will make decisions in future cases that are eligible for the death penalty. He said that his office has spent, "conservatively...at least $400,000" on the prosecution of Brittany Holberg, who has been on death row since 1998. Farren said the costs are too high for taxpayers and "I do not want to subject them to this kind of thing any longer." While he said he still supports the death penalty, Farren predicted that, in the near future, the U.S. Supreme Court "likely will decide society has evolved to the point that it’s no longer appropriate." In an interview with the Reading Eagle, John T. Adams, District Attorney of Berks County, Pennsylvania, says that he rarely seeks the death penalty and is "just as happy with a life sentence as I am a death sentence." If defendantants are sentenced to life without parole, Adams says, "[t]hey will not be a threat to our community ever again. And frankly, community safety is the utmost of my concerns." Adams adds, "I think you will find throughout Pennsylvania that we are seeking [the death penalty] less and less, and I think that's good."
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NEW VOICES: South Dakota Republican Legislator to Propose Death Penalty Repeal Bill
South Dakota state Senator Arthur Rusch (R-Vermillion, pictured), a former trial court judge who presided over a capital trial in which a defendant was sentenced to death, said he will be introducing legislation next year to repeal the state's death penalty. Rusch said he supports repeal because of the emotional toll of capital trials on juriors and because of the financial impact of capital punishment. As a former Lincoln County circuit court judge, Rusch presided over the 1997 trial of Donald Moeller, and saw firsthand the anguish jurors experienced when they sentenced Moeller to death. Because of that experience, he said, "I think I'm more knowledgeable about the emotional toll. It's really hard on people having to make that decision." On the issue of cost, he said, "I know there’s this reaction that keeping people in jail for many, many years is expensive, but it’s nowhere near as expensive as the court costs." Death penalty abolition bills have previously failed in committee in South Dakota, but Senator Bernie Hunhoff (D-Yankton) said that the support of Republicans like Rusch could change that and allow the state to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Nebraska. "You can see that gradual transformation in Nebraska, and you’re seeing that very same thing here," said Sen. Hunhoff, who has sponsored past repeal bills in South Dakota. South Dakota has three people on death row, and has executed three people since 1976.
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U.S. on Track for Fewest Executions, New Death Sentences in a Generation
Both executions and new death sentences in the United States are on pace for significant declines to their lowest levels in a generation, Reuters reports. With 25 executions conducted so far this year, and only two more scheduled, the United States could have its lowest number of executions since 1991, significantly below the peak of 98 executions in 1999. Only 8 states have carried out executions in the last two years, down from a high of 20, also in 1999. New death sentences, which peaked at 315 in 1996, declined to 73 last year, and that number is expected to drop even further this year. The slowdowns in executions and new death sentences are just two of several indicators that the U.S. is moving away from capital punishment. Reuters reports that these changes come from a combination of factors, including the high cost of death penalty cases, the recent problems surrounding lethal injection, and improved capital representation in high-use states. Texas and Virginia, two of the death penalty states that historically have been the most aggressive in carrying out executions, stand out as examples of the punishment's declining use. Both states have implemented major reforms in indigent defense in recent years, producing dramatic changes in the death penalty landscape. In Texas, which had 48 death sentences in 1999, juries have handed down only three death sentences so far this year. Virginia, which has executed the highest percentage of death row inmates of any state, is on track to have no death sentences for the fourth consecutive year.
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Mentally Ill James Holmes Sentenced to Life in Prison in Aurora, CO Theater Shooting
On August 7, a jury in Aurora, Colorado, sentenced James Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2012 movie theater shooting that killed 12 people and injured dozens more. The jury said they could not reach a unanimous decision on Holmes' sentence, an outcome that results in a sentence of life without parole. After the trial, one juror said that the prosecution had not persuaded three of the jurors to impose a death sentence. The deliberations, she said, were very emotional, and at the time jurors agreed to stop deliberating, one juror was firmly committed to a life sentence, with two other holdouts still undecided. She said, "The issue of mental illness was everything for the one who did not want to impose the death penalty." [UPDATE: One of the jurors who voted for a life sentence says there was not a single holdout juror for life. Three voted for life, and the jury did not inquire further into the views of the other two after the indicated that her vote was firm.] Holmes had also offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, which would have removed the need for the six-month trial that cost Colorado taxpayers more than $5 million. After that plea offer was rejected, Holmes pleaded not guity by reason of insanity. All of the mental health experts agreed that Holmes would not have committed the killing but for his mental illness, but disagreed on whether he could appreciate the criminality of his conduct. The jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted him of all charges. Holmes' sentence highlights both the rarity of death sentences in Colorado and racial and geographic inequities in its imposition.
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After Prior Jury's Life Verdict, Washington Prosecutors Drop Death Penalty in "One of the Worst Crimes We've Ever Had"
King County (Washington) Prosecutor Dan Satterberg (pictured) announced that his office will no longer seek the death penalty against Michele Anderson after a jury returned a life sentence for her co-defendant, Joseph McEnroe. McEnroe and Anderson were charged with killing six members of Anderson's family in 2007 in what Satterberg called "one of the worse crimes we've ever had in King County." Satterberg explained his decision in a news conference on July 29, saying, "To proceed with the death penalty against defendant Anderson, in light of the sentence imposed [on] defendant McEnroe, would not be in the interest of justice." Pam Mantle, the mother of one of the victims, said she was relieved by the decision. “It’s been devastating for all of our friends and family,” said Mantle. “We’re all just worn out from the whole thing. It’s almost eight years.“ Less than one week ago, on July 23, after a highly publicized six-month trial, a King County jury sentenced a mentally ill defendant, Christopher Monfort, to a life sentence in the killing of a Seattle police officer. Anderson has spent time in a state mental institution during her pretrial incarceration, portending extensive presentation of mental health evidence if the death penalty was pursued in her case. Seeking the death penalty against Anderson, McEnroe, and Monfort has cost King County taxpayers more than $15 million in defense costs alone. A recent Seattle University study found that cases where the death penalty is sought cost an additional $1 million, on average, compared to non-death penalty cases.
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Citing High Cost of Death Penalty Appeals, California Prosecutor Agrees to Reduce Prisoner's Sentence to Life Without Parole
Citing the high cost of death penalty appeals and difficulty obtaining custody of an out-of-state prisoner, the Kern County, California District Attorney's office has agreed to reduce the 1989 death sentence imposed upon Clarence Ray (pictured) to a sentence of life without parole. Ray's lawyers had filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of his California conviction and death sentence. The parties reached agreement that Ray's death sentence would be reversed in exchange for his giving up the remainder of his appeals. Prosecutors said that fighting the petition for a reduced sentence would have cost the District Attorney's office more than $100,000. They also indicated that they faced substantial obstacles in obtaining custody of Ray. Ray had confessed to the California murder while in prison in Michigan, where he is serving a life sentence for a separate crime. California prosecutors said that because Ray first had to serve that sentence, he would not be turned over to California authorities until he died. They said that officials in Michigan - which has not had the death penalty since 1847 - had intimated that Michigan would not release custody of inmates to states in which they face execution. A California Superior Court judge last week approved the deal and resentenced Ray to life without possibility of parole.
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CNN Legal Analyst Calls "Sanity of the Death Penalty” Into Question
Philip Holloway, a CNN legal analyst who has been both a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, says in a recent op-ed that "it is hard not to question the rationality -- indeed the sanity" of the death penalty. Holloway says "there are several practical reasons why the death penalty just doesn't make sense any longer, if it ever really did in the first place," and outlines five reasons why he believes the United States should reconsider capital punishment. First, he says that life without parole is actually a harsher punishment than the death penalty, citing the harsh conditions of maximum-security prisons on the state and federal level. Second, Holloway points to the ongoing trial of James Holmes in Colorado as one instance of the excessive cost of the death penalty. The Holmes trial is expected to cost about $3.5 million, compared to an average of $150,000 in cases without the death penalty. Third, he notes the toll of capital cases on victims' families: "family members and loved ones of murder victims often find themselves entangled in the justice system for a very long time" because of lengthy appeals after a death sentence is handed down. His fourth point is the uneven application of the death penalty, which he says is the result of prosecutorial discretion in whether to seek a death sentence. Finally, Holloway says, "Despite safeguards, innocent people do wind up on death row." He mentions the 154 people exonerated from death row, highlighting last year's exoneration of Henry McCollum, who spent 30 years on death row before being cleared by DNA evidence. "Our criminal justice system -- and those caught up in it, including the families of victims -- would be the biggest beneficiaries should we choose to end capital punishment in the United States," he concludes.
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NEW VOICES: Republican and Democratic Legislators Critique Tennessee's Death Penalty
In two separate guest columns for The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), four state legislators urged an end to the death penalty in Tennessee. State Representatives Steve McManus (top left) and Mark White (top right), both Republicans, called capital punishment, "a lousy return on our investment." Estimating that Tennessee's death penalty is similar in costs to North Carolina's $11 million-per-year system, they listed some alternative uses for death penalty funds. "270 patrol officers. 361 state troopers. 228 detectives and criminal investigators. 110 new school buses. 239 teachers. Compensation for 367 crime victims and their families." They go on to raise concerns about the accuracy of capital convictions in Tennessee, which has executed six inmates and exonerated three. "Six-and-three isn't bad if you're playing football. It's not very good if you're deciding life or death." On the other side of the aisle, Democratic State Sen. Lee Harris (bottom left) and State Rep. Johnnie Turner (bottom right) called the death penalty, "broken," giving four reasons for their opposition to capital punishment. "First, we should be investing in infrastructure, schools, police and emergency services, and public transportation, among others...Second, executing an innocent person is an unacceptable risk...Third, the death penalty affects innocent people in other ways, too...the evidence shows that some people, when faced with the prospect of death, will falsely admit to taking a life to save their own...Fourth, we could be doing more for victims' families." They conclude, "In the end, the death penalty is a needless source of ongoing contention, and it takes up too much of our valuable time and resources while we're trying to work through all the other problems our criminal justice system is facing."
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STUDY: "The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina"
A new study by North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Litigation examines the financial and human costs of cases in which, "prosecutors sought the death penalty despite a clear lack of evidence, resulting in acquittal or dismissal of charges." The report found 56 such cases in North Carolina since 1989, in which innocent people spent a total of 112 years spent in jail, with $2.4 million spent in defense costs alone in these weak death penalty cases. The authors compare these cases to those in which people were wrongfully convicted and sent to death row, saying, "We found cases in which state actors hid exculpatory evidence, relied on junk science, and pressured witnesses to implicate suspects. In several cases, there was no physical evidence and charges were based solely on the testimony of highly unreliable witnesses, such as jail inmates, co-defendants who were given lighter sentences in return for cooperation, and paid informants. Reliance on such witnesses was a factor in more than 60 percent of the cases we studied." In addition to the clear-cut time and financial costs, the study also describes the effects of wrongful prosecutions on the defendants: "In addition to leaving many in financial ruin, the state does not even do these exonorees the favor of clearing their criminal histories. They must request a court order to expunge their criminal records, an expensive and lengthy process. Those who were already living at the margins of society often struggled to find jobs, and some fell into homelessness after they were released from jail." The authors conclude by contrasting the intended use of the death penalty with their findings: "A punishment as serious as execution should be pursued only in the most ironclad cases: those with the strongest evidence of guilt and in which the circumstances of the crime make the defendant more culpable than most—the 'worst of the worst.' Yet, the reality is entirely different. This report uncovers a system in which the threat of execution is used in the majority of cases, regardless of the strength of the evidence."
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NEW VOICES: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Urges Abolition of Death Penalty
In his column for TIME Magazine, basketball hall of famer, author, and filmmaker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broadly explores the state of the death penalty In the United States and concludes that life without parole is the better option for American society. Stating that "[t]he primary purpose of the death penalty is to protect the innocent," Abdul-Jabar notes that there is a significant difference between the death penalty's goal in theory and its application in practice. "While it’s true that the death penalty may protect us from the few individuals it does execute," he says, "it does not come without a significant financial and social price tag that may put us all at an even greater risk." Abdul-Jabbar points to the death penalty's financial cost, the risk of executing the innocent, and racial and economic disparities in its application. Financially, he says, "[t]his isn’t a matter of morality versus dollars. It’s about the morality of saving the most lives with what we have to spend. Money instead could be going to trauma centers, hospital personnel, police, and firefighters, and education...The question every concerned taxpayer needs to ask is whether or not we should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on executing prisoners when life without parole keeps the public just as safe but at a fraction of the cost." His column discusses the "high probability that we execute innocent people," citing the more than 140 people exonerated from death row and a recent study indicating that 4% of people sentenced to death may be innocent. Abdul-Jabbar also describes racial bias in capital sentencing, and the problem of inadequate representation, saying, "[t]his lack of fair application is why some opponents of the death penalty consider it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment." He concludes, "we can’t let our passion for revenge override our communities’ best interest...With something as irrevocable as death, we can’t have one system of justice for the privileged few and another for the rest of the country. That, more than anything, diminishes the sanctity of human life."
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