BOOKS: Robert Blecker's "The Death of Punishment"

Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School, has written a new book supporting capital punishment, The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst. Blecker urges readers to consider his retributivist argument for the death penalty: "We retributivists view punishment differently," he wrote. "We don't punish to prevent crime or remake criminals. We inflict pain--suffering, discomfort--to the degree they deserve to feel it." He would impose the death penalty not only on some murderers, but also on corporate leaders responsible for the death of innocent people. On the other hand, he would spare many among those now on death row because they are not the "worst of the worst." Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School called the book "an eloquent, unsparing, often counterintuitive, and sometimes painful meditation on why, whom, and how a decent society should decide to punish, and what those questions can teach us about universal truths of morality and justice."

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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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STUDIES: Human Rights Groups Examine Death Penalty in California and Louisiana

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights recently released an analysis of the death penalty in California and Louisiana. The report concluded that those states' application of capital punishment "violates U.S. obligations under international human rights law to prevent and prohibit discrimination and torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." Researchers conducted interviews with many of those involved in the legal system and examined data on charging, sentencing, and executions. They found that racial disparities in the death penalty in both states constituted discrimination. The report was particularly critical of death row conditions, saying, "[E]xtreme temperatures, lack of access to adequate medical and mental health care, overcrowding and extended periods of isolation, do not respect and promote human dignity...Such deplorable circumstances have been condemned by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture as constituting cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or, in certain circumstances, torture."

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NEW VOICES: Former Death Row Warden Opposed Death Penalty

Donald Cabana, the former warden of the Mississippi State Penitentiary who died recently, spent many years actively opposing the death penalty. Having supervised several executions, Cabana was particularly disturbed about one in which the inmate may have been innocent.  He said, "[H]owever we do it, in the name of justice, in the name of law and order, in the name of retribution, you ... do not have the right to ask me, or any prison official, to bloody my hands with an innocent person’s blood.” He spent many years speaking about his views on capital punishment in classrooms, public forums, and before state legislators. Cabana believed the death penalty is not a deterrent, is expensive to maintain, and is an inhumane form of punishment for those who face it and for those who have to carry it out. He noted, “There is a part of the warden that dies with his prisoner.”

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NEW DPIC REPORT: Only 2% of Counties Responsible for Majority of U.S. Death Penalty

On October 2 the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report, The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All. The report shows that, contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely used in the U.S., only a few jurisdictions employ capital punishment extensively. Only 2% of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only 2% of the counties are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences. The report also noted that aggressive use of the death penalty in relatively few counties produces enormous costs that are shifted to the entire state. “This peculiar exercise of discretion results in enormous expenses being passed on to taxpayers across the state. Moreover, the correlation between the high use of the death penalty and a high rate of error means that courts in these states will be occupied for years with costly appeals and retrials. Some states have recently chosen to opt out of this process, at great savings to their taxpayers.”  For a video about the report, infographics, and more information, visit

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NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row, USA" Spring 2013 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows a continuation of the downward trend in the overall death row population, though California (731 inmates)--the state with the largest death row--recorded an increase. The next leading states were Florida (412), Texas (298), Pennsylvania (198), and Alabama (197), all of which registered decreases on death row. The total population of 3,108 inmates as of April 1, 2013, represents a 12% decline from the same date 10 years ago, when there were 3,525 inmates on death row. Since the last report was released in January, death row populations in 11 states and the federal system have decreased. The report also contains racial breakdowns of death row, executions, and victims in cases that resulted in executions. The states with highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those with at least 10 inmates on death row.

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Repeated Execution Dates Called Psychological Torture

According to some experts, the process of repeatedly submitting a person to imminent execution is a form of psychological torture that should be banned. The Center for Constitutional Rights has said that “the intense strain of repeatedly coming within hours or days of execution” is torture. Citing the case of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia in 2011 after repeated execution dates and stays, the Center remarked, “Is there any significant difference between mock executions, long recognized as torture by the international community, and Mr. Davis’s last-minute brush with death ...?” Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School professor, said that the terror of imminent executions is more difficult for someone like Warren Hill, who is mentally retarded and has had a series of execution dates, also in Georgia. Grassian said, “People with mental retardation struggle with the ability to think abstractly. They have very powerful feelings but because they have fewer cognitive strengths they are less able to manage those feelings than others are.” Hill came within hours of execution four times. At one time, he ate his last meal and said his goodbyes before his execution was stayed, ninety minutes before the scheduled time. More recently, Hill was already sedated and strapped to the gurney when his execution was stopped with just minutes to spare.

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DEATH ROW: Ohio Inmate Found Hanged Days Before Scheduled Execution

On August 4, Ohio death row inmate Billy Slagle was found hanged in his prison cell, three days before he was scheduled to be executed. Slagle did not know that prosecutors had recently revealed that their office had been prepared to offer a plea deal to avoid a death sentence at the time of his trial 26 years ago. That deal was not conveyed to Slagle by his attorneys. This new information was part of a request for a stay of execution sent to the Ohio Supreme Court and unopposed by the prosecutor's office. Slagle apparently took his own life, not knowing of this development. Governor John Kasich declined to commute Slagle’s death sentence last month, despite the recommendation from prosecutor Tim McGinty, head of the office that prosecuted Slagle, that his sentence be reduced to life without parole.

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STUDIES: "A Death Before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row"

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, “A Death Before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row,” contains a survey of the conditions on death rows across the country and offers a comprehensive review of the serious implications of subjecting inmates to solitary confinement. The report reveals that most death row prisoners are housed in tiny cells, ranging from 36-100 square feet, roughly the size of an average bathroom; 93% of states lock up their death row prisoners for 22 or more hours a day. The report is accompanied by a video featuring Anthony Graves, who spent several years in solitary confinement on Texas’s death row before he was exonerated and released in 2010. Graves described solitary confinement as “like living in a dark hole.” He wrote, “I saw the people living on death row fall apart. One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard, and urinating on himself. I saw guys who dropped their appeals and elected to die because of the intolerable conditions. To sum it up, I saw a bunch of dead men walking because of the conditions that killed everything inside of them.”

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NEW RESOURCES: Bureau of Justice Statistics Reports Declining Use of Capital Punishment in 2011

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its annual review of the death penalty in the U.S., focusing on 2011. The report noted the continued decline in the use of the death penalty in recent years. In 2011, 80 new inmates were received under sentence of death, the lowest number since 1973, and a 27% decrease from the year before. Executions also declined to 43, compared with 46 in 2010. The average time between sentencing and execution in 2011 was 16.5 years, 20 months longer than for those executed in 2010. The number of people on death row in the U.S. dropped to 3,082, marking the eleventh consecutive year in which the size of death row decreased. Florida, California, Texas, and Arizona accounted for half of all inmates sentenced to death. The report noted that in 2011 Illinois became the latest state to abolish the death penalty.

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