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Life Plea in Police Killing Highlights Turbulence Over Philadelphia Death-Penalty Reform

Two men charged with killing Philadelphia Police Sgt. Robert Wilson III have been sentenced to life without possibility of parole, plus an additional term of 50 to 100 years, as prosecutors in one of the nation’s largest death-penalty counties agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange for the defendants’ guilty pleas. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (pictured) appeared in court on June 25 to personally explain the rationale behind the plea deal that ensures brothers Carlton Hipps and Ramone Williams will spend the rest of their lives in jail. Krasner told the court that the mothers of Sgt. Wilson’s two young children “do not want the death penalty” and that the plea deal would “minimize the re-traumatization” that would occur if they were exposed to a capital trial and lengthy appeals. Krasner said “[t]he death penalty in Pennsylvania is not what people think it is. The reality is people are not executed in Pennsylvania. They die in custody on death row.” The plea deal drew highly publicized criticism from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police and other members of Wilson's family who wanted the death penalty to be pursued. It also provoked opposition from activists who said that Krasner’s use of the death penalty as leverage for the guilty pleas violated his campaign promise never to seek death sentences. The Philadelphia lodge of the FOP—who, along with former prosecutors who were fired from or left the DA’s office, have engaged in a prolonged public relations war against Krasner’s proposals for criminal-justice reform—called the plea deal “despicable.” On social media, it urged its members to attend the sentencing to “show support” for the Wilson family. Krasner said that the mothers of Wilson’s children had received threatening messages, which they believed were from the FOP, pressuring them to ask Krasner to seek the death penalty. Only family members who opposed the deal came to the court hearing. Krasner’s decision not to seek the death penalty comes in the wake of a twenty-year decline in Philadelphia’s use of capital punishment. The city imposed 99 death sentences in the 1990s, 21 in the first decade this century, and fewer than one every other year in the 2010s. Nearly 150 death sentences imposed in the city since the 1970s have been overturned, and there has been only a single execution. After highlighting the high cost of capital punishment, Krasner said, “A choice to waste money may be a choice to endanger police officers. And frankly, if you really want to get down to it, when did the death penalty prevent this outcome? The death penalty has not stopped it here. The death penalty has not stopped it in the past. And, every bit of scientific evidence indicates that it’s not going to stop it in the future.” A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of FBI murder data has shown that over the last three decades, police officers have been killed at a rate that is 1.37 times higher in states that currently have the death penalty than in states that have long abolished it.


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Public Health Experts Criticize Trump’s Proposal to Seek Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers

Saying “the ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty,” President Donald Trump (pictured) announced on March 19 that he will direct the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty against drug traffickers. The proposal, included as part of the administration’s plan to address an opioid epidemic that has resulted in as many as 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016 alone, drew immediate criticism from public-health and criminal-justice experts. “We can’t execute our way out of this epidemic,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. “To be talking about the death penalty sounds to me like a step backwards.” During the announcement, Trump acknowledged resistance to his death-penalty proposal, saying, “[m]aybe our country's not ready for that. It's possible, it’s possible that our country is not ready for that.” Since 1994, federal law has authorized the death penalty for “drug kingpins” who traffic in large quantities of drugs, even if no killing has occurred. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for crimes against individuals in which no one is killed, and no prior administration—Republican or Democratic—has used the drug kingpin provision to seek the death penalty. Experts said the opioid crisis should be dealt with as a public-health issue and that harsher penalties for drug dealers would not fix the problem. Instead, they said, the administration should focus on addiction treatment. “The reality is, most people who are selling drugs are suffering from opioid addiction, and they sell drugs to support their own habit,” Dr. Kolodny said. “When I start hearing about the death penalty, it just seems to me we’re going in the wrong direction.” Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia University, agreed, saying “[c]riminal justice can play a complementary role in addressing the opioid crisis, but relying on the criminal justice system to address public health problems has proven unwise, costly, ineffective and often counterproductive.” Legal experts said the constitutionality of death sentences for drug dealers would likely be the subject of extensive litigation. “The death penalty is uncertain as a constitutionally permissible punishment without that connection to an intentional killing,” said Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman. Hamilton County, Ohio, Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters, known for aggressively pursuing the death penalty, said “[t]o seek a death penalty case [simply for for drug trafficking] would be almost impossible. We'd have serious constitutional problems.” Former Harris County, Texas, homicide prosecutor Ted Wilson called the proposal “kind of over-the-top.” The death penalty for drug dealers "in my opinion just doesn’t fit,” he said. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) compared the President’s death-penalty proposal to past failed drug policies, saying, “We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic—we tried that and ended up with an even bigger addiction problem and the world’s largest prison population. The war on drugs didn’t work in the 80’s, and it won’t work now by reviving failed deterrence measures like the death penalty for drug dealers.  We must instead crack down on the over-production and over-prescribing of painkillers, and increase treatment for those suffering from addiction—both of which have bipartisan support in Congress." A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released March 8, found that harsher penal sanctions had no measurable impact on drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests. The data, Pew said, “reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.”


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Experience Shows No “Parade of Horribles” Following Abolition of the Death Penalty

States that have recently abolished the death penalty have not experienced the “parade of horribles”—including increased murder rates—predicted by death-penalty proponents, according to death-penalty experts who participated in a panel discussion at the 2017 American Bar Association national meeting in New York City. Instead, the panelists said, abolition appears to have created opportunities to move forward with other broader criminal justice reforms. The transcript of that panel presentation, Life After the Death Penalty: Implications for Retentionist States, which was posted by the ABA on January 3, features discussion of the political factors that contributed to repeal and research into the effects of death-penalty abolition in those states in which repeal has recently occurred. The panel discussion, jointly hosted by the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and the New York City Bar Association in August 2017, featured four speakers with backgrounds in death-penalty activism, reform, or research: Thomas P. Sullivan, Co-Chair of the 2000 Commission on Capital Punishment in Illinois; Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA; Celeste Fitzgerald,& former Director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The first three speakers described the circumstances that led to abolition in the six states that legislatively repealed or judicially abolished capital punishment between 2007 and 2014 and explained how abolition sponsors overcame opponents' arguments that, as Fitgerald characterized it, “abolition would bring about a 'parade of horribles.'” Silberstein summarized those worries, saying, “The death penalty proponents' arguments were all the traditional ones you would expect. They talked about the bloodbath that would come if there were no death penalty: murders would spike; the killings of police officers would spike; killings of corrections officers would spike.” Dunham discussed DPIC's research on three decades of murder rates in the U.S., which, he said, shows that abolition of the death penalty had no discernible effect on murder rates in general or murder rates of police and corrections officers killed in the line of duty. Dunham said that if the arguments advanced by death-penalty proponents were factually supported, murder rates in general and the rates at which police and corrections officers were killed should have risen after states abolished the death penalty, both in those states and in comparison to trends in other states. And, Dunham said, “if—as opponents of death-penalty abolition had argued—police officers were especially vulnerable without the death penalty and its repeal would lead to 'open season on police officers,' you'd expect to see not just an increase in the rate at which police officers were killed, but an increase in the number of murders of police officers as a percentage of all homicides.” None of this happened, he said. Instead, murders of law enforcement officers were much lower in the states that recently abolished the death penalty. “[T]he death penalty appears to make no measurable contribution to police safety,” Dunham said. The panelists also observed that repeal of capital punishment had created an opportunity for additional criminal justice reform. Sullivan noted that, prior to repeal, “[a] great deal of time, attention, and effort were spent on the few cases that involved the death penalty in Illinois, while little attention was given to the huge number of people who were convicted and incarcerated for crimes. All that time, attention, and money can now be shifted to reforming the entire Illinois criminal justice system. That would mean that there has been a double benefit from having abolished the death penalty in Illinois.” Silberstein said that in New York, abolition permitted “stakeholders who could not talk to each other in the same way when the death penalty was on the table because [of] differences over the death penalty” to discuss “how best to achieve the key goals of safety and healing [and] work on increasing funding and programs to reduce violence.”


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Conservative Voices Continue to Call for End of Death Penalty

From October 2016 to October 2017, support for capital punishment among those identifying themselves as Republicans fell by ten percetage points. Two op-eds published towards the end of the year illustrate the growing conservative opposition to the death penalty. Writing in The Seattle Times on December 27, Republican State Senator Mark Miloscia (pictured, l.) called for bipartisan efforts to repeal Washington's death-penalty statute. In a December 13 commentary in the Washington Times, conservative political strategist Richard Viguerie (pictured, r.) describes what he calls the "stunning" surge in Republican sponsorship of bills to end capital punishment. Setting forth moral and practical reasons for his support of Washington Senate Bill 5354, Miloscia writes that "[i]t is time to pass a strong, bipartisan repeal of the death penalty." Miloscia cites his Catholic pro-life beliefs as the primary reason for his opposition to capital punishment and highlights Pope Francis' calls for an end to the death penalty. He writes, "Given our modern prison system and ability to neutralize individuals as threats without killing them, it is never imperative to execute someone." But beyond religious beliefs alone, Miloscia sees "many practical reasons why conservatives of all faiths are rethinking the death penalty." Among them, he cites the high cost of capital punishment and the "ever-present risk of killing an innocent person," which he says are "even more unjustifiable" given the absence of any valid evidence that executions affect murder rates. Further, he writes, "many murder victims’ families oppose capital punishment because it’s little more than a long, re-traumatizing process that doesn’t give them the justice that they deserve." Miloscia sees a major shift underway in Republican thinking on the issue, paving a path for bipartisan repeal: "Republicans are turning against the death penalty, which means that opposition to capital punishment is no longer a partisan stance. As the death penalty slowly loses its supporting constituency, the punishment’s future becomes doubtful." Conservative leader Richard Viguerie also sees a dramatic change in how conservatives view the death penalty. Viguerie cites a 2017 report by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which found a surge in Republican sponsorship of death-penalty abolition bills that Viguerie says "has been gaining momentum." As part of this "massive shift," he writes, one-third of all sponsors of death-penalty repeal bills in 2016 were Republicans. Viguerie writes, "conservatives are recognizing that capital punishment is a broken government program that runs counter to conservatism’s foundational tenets of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government." He, too, points to religion, and Catholicism in particular, as a reason for conservative opposition, but says that the Tea Party movement—with its support of limited government—and the election of younger legislators who are statistically more likely to oppose the death penalty, has contributed to the change. He foresees a continuing decline in conservative support for the death penalty: "As state legislatures undergo their makeovers, the public turns against the death penalty, and political leaders voice their capital punishment concerns, we should expect to see even more from Republican officials. Republicans will likely continue to sponsor repeal bills with increasing frequency and reverse the flawed criminal justice policies once advocated by their ideological predecessors of the 1980s and 1990s."


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