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Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.


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Florida Death-Row Population Drops to 12-Year Low As Jury Unanimity Ruling Takes Effect

The number of prisoners on Florida's death row is now lower than it was on June 30, 2005, as the pace of death sentencing slows and courts reverse the unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences by which numerous capital defendants had been condemned. Applying the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 ruling in Hurst v. Florida and subsequent Florida Supreme Court decisions in Hurst v. State and Perry v. State, state courts declared unconstitutional Florida's practice of permitting trial judges to impose death sentences after sentencing juries had not reached a unanimous agreement that death was the appropriate punishment. As a result, death sentences have been vacated in nearly 100 cases, and additional cases are working their way through Florida's court system. So far this year, 15 people have been removed from Florida's death row, and a 16th died after having his death sentence vacated under Hurst, while being transfered to a court hearing. The declining population on death row is not being replaced with new death sentences; the state's last death sentence was handed down in June 2016 and more than 3/4ths of death sentences imposed in the previous five years had involved non-unanimous jury votes for death. As a result, the number of prisoners housed on Florida's death row has fallen from 383 at the beginning of 2017, to 367—slightly lower than the 369 people who were on death row in 2005. Even more prisoners are expected to be removed from death row, as many of those whose death sentences have been invalidated are resentenced to life. (The Department of Corrections death-row roster only removes a prisoner from its list if the prisoner dies, receives clemency, is exonerated, or is resentenced to something other than death.) A DPIC review of Florida capital cases indicates that, through July 13, Florida courts have issued decisions involving Hurst in at least 119 cases. Those decisions have resulted in the vacation of 99 death sentences. To date, the counties most affected by the Hurst rulings have been: Duval (15 sentences); Orange (9 sentences); and Broward (9 sentences). In Duval County, 14 of the 15 death sentences reviewed (93.33%) have been vacated; in Orange County, all 9 death sentences reviewed have been vacated; and in Broward county, 7 of the 9 death sentences reviewed (77.78%) have been vacated. DPIC, in conjunction with researcher and professor Michael Radelet, has also identified at least 149 prisoners who are expected to obtain relief under the Florida court's current interpretation of Hurst, and is tracking what happens to those cases on resentencing. Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan said the resentencing hearings will present difficulties for the state's legal system: “That’s not an easy thing to go back and dig up all of this evidence and especially to dig up all the witnesses,” for a new sentencing hearing. “We have been very, very negligent in the state of Florida in handling these types of cases,” he said.


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New Statistical Brief from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Documents U.S. Death Penalty Decline

The nation's death rows are shrinking more rapidly than new defendants are being sentenced to death, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical brief, "Capital Punishment, 2014–2015." The statistical brief, which analyzes information on those under sentence of death in the United States as of December 31, 2014 and December 31, 2015, documents a continuing decline in executions, new death sentences, and death row populations across the U.S. 2015 marked the fifteenth consecutive annual decrease in the number of prisoners under sentence of death in the U.S. According to BJS, 69 prisoners were admitted to state or federal death rows in 2014 and 49 were admitted in 2015. (DPIC uses a slightly different counting method that reported 73 death sentences imposed in 2014.) The data also indicates that the decline in the size of death row is attributable to factors other than execution. According to BJS, 75 prisoners were removed from death row in 2014 by means other than execution, such as exoneration, the reversal of a conviction or death sentence, commutation, or death by other causes, as compared with 35 who were executed. In 2015, 82 prisoners were taken off death row by means other than execution, while 28 death-row prisoners were executed. Over the two-year period covered by the data, 39 more prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution than were admitted as a result of new death sentences. The gap between removals from death row and new admissions is expected to widen even further in 2016 and 2017 as a result of record-low death-sentencing rates and prisoners being removed from death row due to death-penalty statutes having been declared unconstitutional in Florida, Delaware, and Connecticut. BJS reports that 2,881 prisoners remained under sentence of death in 33 states and the federal system at the end of 2015. (Click image to enlarge.)


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Study: Texas' 'Harsh and Inhumane' Death-Row Conditions Amount to 'Torture'

The conditions in which prisoners on Texas' death row are confined are "harsh and inhumane," violate international human rights norms, and amount to "a severe and relentless act of torture," according to a new study by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. The study, "Designed to Break You," collected accounts from former death-row prisoners who had been exonerated or who had received lesser sentences after their death sentences had been overturned. Their stories revealed numerous problems with death-row conditions, including, "mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient religious services." Every prisoner on death row spends about 23 hours a day in an 8-by-12 foot cell for the duration of their time on death row. "This prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health," the study reports, "exacerbating existing mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time." Ariel Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic, said, "Any person who is kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 days starts to suffer mental and psychological effects that cannot be reversed, and that fits the definition of torture." The report concludes that Texas death-row "conditions fall woefully behind international standards for confinement" and offers 13 recommendations to bring conditions in line with international norms. The recommendations include using solitary confinement only as a punitive measure of last resort and banning it altogether for prisoners with mental illness or intellectual disability. The report also recommends that death-row prisoners be permitted contact visits with their lawyers, family, and friends and that they "have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities."


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Federal Appeals Court Bars Automatic Solitary Confinement for Former Death Row Prisoners

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on February 9 declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement after courts had overturned their death sentences. Saying that, “Scientific research and evolving jurisprudence has made the harms of solitary confinement clear,” the unanimous three-judge panel ruled that prisoners whose death sentences have been overturned have a constitutionally protected interest against being held in solitary confinement, unless the state could show, after an individualized assessment, that such custody was necessary for security and safety reasons. Shawn Walker and Craig Williams, the former death row prisoners who brought the suit, had spent 14 and 22 years, respectively, in solitary confinement on death row before courts vacated their death sentences. Then each was kept on death row without a death sentence for the six additional years it took to conduct the resentencing proceedings in their cases. In barring continued treatment of inmates like Walker and Williams as death-row prisoners without any demonstrated security need to do so, former Chief Circuit Judge Theodore McKee warned that "Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty. Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row." According to a July 2015 DPIC analysis of Pennsylvania death row, 115 former death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences had been overturned in post-conviction proceedings had been resentenced to life or less, or acquitted. Most had been kept in death-row solitary confinement without active death sentences before being resentenced or exonerated.


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