STUDIES: New Study Finds Death Penalty in California and Louisiana "Arbitrary and Discriminatory"

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) recently released findings on the use of the death penalty in California and Louisiana. The organizations concluded that the use of the death penalty in both states was arbitrary and discriminatory. The study also found that conditions on death row constituted cruel and inhumane treatment. The study recommended that California and Louisiana improve death row conditions by ending solitary confinement and providing visits with family members. The study concluded, “States must also ensure that all persons charged with a death-eligible offense have timely-appointed, competent, and experienced representation at all stages of a capital case, and that appointed counsel have adequate funding to carry out the tasks necessary to provide effective representation.”  Read full text of Executive Summary here.

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CONDITIONS ON DEATH ROW: Inmates File Lawsuit Over Extreme Death Row Conditions

On June 10, three inmates on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Public Safety and Corrections for “appalling and extreme conditions… as a result of extreme heat.” The inmates requested that jail officials address the unsafe conditions in the death row facility. According to the lawsuit, the conditions prisoners suffer each summer constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The heat index on death row reached 195 degrees Fahrenheit on several occasions during the summer of 2011, and was above 126 degrees on 85 days between May and August. The lawsuit describes cell bars that are hot to the touch and inmates sleeping on concrete floor because it is slightly cooler than beds. During summer months, the showers provide no relief as the water temperature sometimes exceeds 115 degrees. Nilay Vora, a lawyer involved in the case, said, “We don't expect prisons to be comfortable, but anyone who looked at these numbers or heard about the conditions would find them shocking, beyond what's conscionable.”

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Nation's Longest Serving Death Row Inmate Dies 40 Years After Conviction

Gary Alvord, a Florida inmate who spent more time on death row than any other inmate in the country, died on May 19 of natural causes. Alvord was 66 years old and had been sentenced to death for murder almost 40 years ago, on April 9, 1974. He suffered from schizophrenia and had no close family. Bill Sheppard, who represented Alvord for almost four decades, said, “Gary is a product of a sick system. He was a living example of why we should not have the death penalty.... I would love for the state of Florida to tell us how much money they wasted trying to kill a guy they couldn't kill. The death penalty is getting us nothing but broke.” In the time Alvord spent on death row, 75 other inmates were executed in Florida, many of whom spent half as long as he did on death row. Alvord faced execution at least twice, but his severe mental illness prevented the execution from being carried out. In 1984, he was sent to a state hospital to receive treatment for his psychiatric condition, but doctors refused to treat him, citing the ethical dilemma of making a patient well enough so he can be killed. Alvord’s final appeal expired in 1998.

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DEATH ROW: Reporter Describes Conditions on California's Death Row

Nancy Mullane, a reporter for KALW Radio in San Francisco, is one of the few reporters to visit California's death row at San Quentin Prison. In the block she visited, there were 500 inmates, in 4-by-10 foot cells, stacked five tiers high. The cells are about the size of a walk-in closet. Many of the inmates have been on death row for over 20 years. Inmates can shower every other day. One of the inmates she met with, Justin Helzer, had stabbed himself in both eyes. He later committed suicide. California has the largest death row in the country with 727 inmates. No one has been executed in 7 years. Listen to the full segment here.

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NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row USA" Winter 2013 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA showed a continuing decline in the number of people on death rows across the country. As of January 1, 2013, there were 3,125 inmates under a sentence of death, a decrease of 43 from a year ago. Over the last decade, the size of death row has dropped almost 16%, from 3,703 inmates in 2000 to 3,125 in 2013. California continued to have the largest death row population (727), followed by Florida (413), Texas (300), and Pennsylvania (202). Neither California nor Pennsylvania has carried out an execution in at least 7 years. In Texas, minorities constitute 71% of the death row population. The report also contains information on executions. Nearly 77% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution since 1976 were white, even though nationally, about 50% of murder victims are black.

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MULTIMEDIA: Animated Film Seeks to Capture Typical Death Row Story

A new animated film, The Last 40 Miles, will follow a death row inmate on his final journey from the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, to the death chamber in Huntsville. The film uses three forms of animation to tell the inmate's story, from his tragic childhood to the moment he is being escorted to the lethal injection chamber. The script was written by freelance journalist Alex Hannaford and is based on interviews he conducted with death row inmates for news stories. Hannaford described why he used the metaphor of the trip to the death chamber: "It struck me a long time ago that this was the last thing these men see as they're escorted from death row in Livingston to the death chamber at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. One of the last things they see is that big Texas sun rising over a vast lake. It's quite breathtaking." A trailer for the short film can be viewed here.

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