DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Death Penalty Use Continue
Death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty continued their historic declines in 2016, according to DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report," released on December 21. The 30 death sentences imposed this year are the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment in the U.S.—since the Supreme Court declared all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972—and declined 39% from 2015's already 40-year low. Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the fewest executions since 1991. Both death sentences and executions were increasingly geographically isolated. Two states—Georgia and Texas—accounted for 80% of executions, and more than half of all death sentences were imposed in just three states—California, Ohio, and Texas. Election results reflected America's deep divisions about the death penalty, as voters in three states decided to retain the death penalty or add it to the state constitution, while voters in five of the highest-use death penalty counties replaced prosecutors who strongly supported the death penalty with candidates who promised reform and reductions in capital prosecutions. Courts struck down practices in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oklahoma that had contributed to disproportionately high numbers of death sentences. “America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.” See DPIC's Press Release. Watch a short video summary of the report. (Click image to enlarge.)
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Texas Executions Drop to Lowest Level in 20 Years
Texas is poised to have the fewest number of executions in 20 years. As of October, the state has executed seven prisoners in 2016, with just one more execution scheduled this calendar year. The total would mark the fewest executions in the state in any year since 1996. In that year, three people were executed, as legal challenges to a new state law billed as speeding up appeals put most executions on hold. Fifteen execution dates for 11 people have been stayed or halted in Texas this year. Several of those, most notably the case of Jeffrey Wood, hinged on questions about "junk science" testimony. Wood's execution was stayed to permit review of claims that his death sentence was a product of false psychiatric testimony from James Grigson, who earned the nickname "Dr. Death" for his testimony in numerous capital cases claiming that defendants were certain to commit future acts of violence. Another Texas prisoner, Robert Roberson, was granted a stay to allow him to challenge now-debunked testimony that his daughter died of shaken baby syndrome, when several alternative, non-homicide explanations for her death better fit the evidence. At the same time as Texas courts have halted executions over questionable scientific testimony, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two Texas cases this term (Buck v. Davis and Moore v. Texas) that also involve scientifically-unsound mental health testimony that was used to obtain or defend death sentences. "Texas courts are now aware of the dangers associated with forensic sciences and are closely scrutinizing this evidence,” said Greg Gardner, an attorney for John Battaglia, who had an execution date set for December 7. Along with the drop in executions, Texas has also seen a dramatic decline in death sentences. Death sentences have declined steadily since 2005, as life without parole became available as a sentencing alternative in death penalty trials, but the past two years have seen even lower numbers. Just two people were sentenced to death in 2015, and Texas juries have handed down three death sentences so far this year. Experts say that changing public attitudes, falling murder rates, and better lawyering have also contributed to the decline. (Click to enlarge.)
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A Mid-Year Review: Halfway Through 2016, Execution Pace Remains at Historic Low
Six months into 2016, the pace of executions in the United States remains at the same level as the 24-year low set in 2015. Fourteen executions have been carried out so far this year in five states - Texas (6), Georgia (5), and one each in Alabama, Florida, and Missouri - while 23 other scheduled executions have been halted by stays or reprieves. States carried out 28 executions in 2015. Eight executions are currently scheduled for the second half of the year, with seven in Texas and one in Georgia. Death penalty cases in two states that have carried out executions this year - Alabama and Florida - as well as in Delaware, are in limbo as state courts decide the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida's death sentencing scheme. The Supreme Court also ruled in favor of death row prisoners in two other major cases this spring. The Court overturned the Georgia conviction of Timothy Foster because prosecutors unconstitutionally excluded blacks from the jury, and it directed state courts in Alabama and Mississippi to reconsider capital convictions in two other cases in which similar abuses have been alleged. The Court also ordered a new appeal for Terry Williams in Pennsylvania because of judicial bias in his earlier appeal. Executions also have been affected by the ongoing controversy concerning lethal injection. In May, Pfizer joined numerous other pharmaceutical companies in implementing sales and distribution restrictions to prevent states from using its products in executions. Two states - Louisiana and Arizona - have recently announced that they are unable to obtain lethal injection drugs and Arkansas' supply of the lethal injection drug midazolam expired on June 30.
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After Initial Botched Execution of Romell Broom, Ohio Supreme Court Gives Approval for State to Try Again
In a divided 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court on March 16 authorized the state to try for a second time to execute death row inmate Romell Broom (pictured, after the state's failed first attempt to execute him). The court majority held that a second execution attempt would not violate constitutional protections against twice placing a defendant in jeopardy of life, nor constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Ohio first tried to execute Broom on September 15, 2009, but the attempt was called off after two hours of unsuccessful efforts by executioners to establish a viable IV line. Despite attempting to insert the IV in 18 different sites on Broom's arms and legs, prison personnel failed to find a suitable vein, and in one case instead struck bone. Justice Judith Lanzinger, writing for the majority, said the event was not a failed execution because setting the IV line was only a "preliminary step" to an execution and the execution itself "commences when the lethal drug enters the IV line." The majority reasoned that "because the attempt did not proceed to the point of injection of a lethal drug into the IV line, jeopardy never attached." The court denied Broom an evidentiary hearing on his claim that a second execution attempt would constitute cruel and unsual punishment, assuming that prison personnel would this time adhere to the state's execution protocol. It wrote: "Strict compliance with the protocol will ensure that executions are carried out in a constitutional manner and can also prevent or reveal an inmate’s attempt to interfere with the execution process. We simply are unable to conclude that Broom has established that the state in carrying out a second attempt is likely to violate its protocol and cause severe pain." Justice Judith French dissented, saying, "The majority’s decision to deny Romell Broom an evidentiary hearing on his Eighth Amendment claim is wrong on the law, wrong on the facts, and inconsistent in its reasoning. If the state cannot explain why the Broom execution went wrong, then the state cannot guarantee that the outcome will be different next time." In a separate dissent, Justice William O'Neill wrote, "Any fair reading of the record of the first execution attempt shows that Broom was actually tortured the first time. Now we embark on the task of doing it again." Dr. Jon Groner, who examined Broom shortly after the 2009 botched execution, described the attempts at accessing Broom's veins as, "somewhere between malpractice and assault." Broom's attorneys said they intend to seek further review in other courts.
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STUDIES: Ohio Executions Reveal Vast Racial, Gender, and Geographic Inequities
"Ohio’s death penalty is plagued by vast inequities" grounded in race, gender, and geography, according to a new University of North Carolina study. UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner examined the 53 executions Ohio has conducted since resuming capital punishment in the 1970s. His study found "quite significant" racial, gender, and geographic disparities in Ohio's executions that, Baumgartner said, "undermine public confidence in the state’s ability to carry out the death penalty in a fair and impartial manner." The data showed that Ohio was 6 times more likely to execute a prisoner convicted of killing a white female victim than if the victim was a black male. Although 43% of Ohio murder victims are white, 65% of Ohio executions involved the murder of white victims. Similarly, while only 27% of Ohio murder victims are female, 52% of all executions involved cases with female victims. The study also discovered significant geographic disparities in Ohio executions. More that half of the state's executions were concentrated in just 4 counties, while more than 3/4 of Ohio counties have not produced any executions. Lake County had an execution rate that was 11 times the statewide average. Although the state's three most populous counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton) have similar murder rates, Hamilton's .60 executions per 100 homicides was more than double the rate in Cuyahoga and nearly 9 times that in Franklin. Sharon L. Davies, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, said that the "race or gender of a victim, and the county of the crime, should not influence who is sentenced to die" and urged "Ohio citizens and lawmakers[to] review the findings of this important research." (Click image to enlarge.)
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Missouri Likely to See Change After Historic High in Executions
A decline in executions is likely in Missouri after two years of unusually high numbers. In 2014, Missouri tied with Texas for the most executions in the U.S., and it was second to Texas in 2015. However, changing attitudes about the death penalty--similar to national shifts--are evident in Missouri's sentencing trends: no one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, and less than one person per year has been sentenced to death in the past seven years. Moreover, a bill with bi-partisan support has been introduced to repeal the death penalty. It passed the Senate General Laws committee in late January. An editorial in the Columbia Daily Tribune highlighted the political diversity in the legislative support for the measure. Among those who voted the bill out of committee were two Democrats and two Republicans. Sen. Paul Wieland cited his pro-life views as a reason for support, while Sen. Rob Schaaf said, as long as it is "not fairly applied...I'm going to be opposed to the death penalty."
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