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ARTICLES: Excluding Blacks from Death Penalty Juries Violates Rights As Citizens

An article in the most recent issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review examines the practice of excluding African-Americans from jury service, particularly in death penalty cases in North Carolina. In Bias in the Box, Dax-Devlon Ross notes, "Alongside the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury is an enduring pillar of our democracy....Nevertheless, there is perhaps no arena of public life where racial bias has been as broadly overlooked or casually tolerated as jury exclusion." Ross traces the history of civil rights litigation that secured blacks the right to participate in juries, but he also shows the continued use of strategies to remove them from service. In particular, the repeal of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act in 2013 removed an important protection of equality in jury service. Before the act was rescinded, a special court reduced the sentences of four death row inmates because of patterns of racial bias in jury selection. In one case, a prosecutor's notes described potential jurors as "blk wino - drugs" and as living in a "blk, high drug" neighborhood. Ross quotes a number of potential black jurors who wanted to serve in North Carolina but felt they were excluded because of their race.


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The Angolite Features Louisiana's Death Row Exonerees

An article in the latest edition of The Angolite, a magazine published by prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, tells the stories of the ten men who have been exonerated from death row in that state. The piece prominently features Glenn Ford, the state's most recent inmate to be freed. Ford spent 30 years on death row before being released in 2014. Among the other cases described is that of John Thompson, who was freed after it was revealed that prosecutors intentionally withheld evidence from his attorneys. A jury awarded Thompson $14 million in damages, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision, saying the prosecutor's office could not be held accountable for not training their staff based on this single violation of the law. After describing all ten cases in which the wrongfully convicted men spent a total of 120 years on death row, the article concludes, "These are symptoms of a criminal justice system in dire need of repair....These are dangers of the ultimate punishment that can never be taken back, even if down the road innocence is proven." 


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China Rethinking the Death Penalty

According to a recent op-ed about China in the New York Times, the world leader in executions is having second thoughts about the death penalty. Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the annual number of executions in China dropped by half from 2007 to 2011, as more offenders were given "suspended death sentences," which are generally reduced to life sentences. According to a 2008 poll in three provinces, public support for the death penalty is about the same in China (58%) as in the United States (60%), but China carries out an estimated 3,000 executions per year, many more than the U.S. (The U.S. ranks 5th in the world in the number of executions.) There is concern in China about the uneven application of the death penalty: 69% of respondents in the poll said they believed that poor offenders were more likely to be executed than rich ones, and 60% said they thought innocent people could be wrongfully convicted. China's Supreme People's Court recently overturned the death sentence of a woman who killed her husband after suffering years of domestic abuse, perhaps signaling a broader trend toward less use of capital punishment.


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A Turn-Around in Texas's Use of Death Penalty

A recent op-ed by Jordan Steiker, endowed professor of law and Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas, highlighted the declining use of the death penalty in that state. AlthoughTexas leads the nation in executions, death sentences and executions per year have dropped sharply since the 1990s. Prof. Steiker wrote, "In 1999, Texas juries returned an astounding 48 death sentences. Since 2008, however, Texas has annually sent fewer than 10 defendants to death row.  Executions in Texas have declined as well, from a high of 40 in 2000 to fewer than 20 since 2010." While describing the "perfect storm" of conditions that led to Texas's high use of capital punishment in the past, the op-ed also noted changes that have led to less death-penalty use, such as the creation of a statewide defender's office to represent death-sentenced inmates in state post-conviction and the broader disclosure of evidence to the accused. Prosecutors have increasingly accepted plea agreements to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, saving taxpayer dollars that would have been spent on expensive capital trials and appeals.


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Two Defendants from the Same Case Illustrate Inequities in Florida's Death Penalty

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Marc Bookman compared the path through the justice system of two co-defendants sentenced to death in Florida after committing murder in 1977. Beauford White was electrocuted in 1987, despite his trial jury voting 12-0 for a life sentence. The trial judge overrode that recommendation and imposed death. White's co-defendant, John Ferguson, lived for another 26 years before being executed in 2013. His jury voted 12-0 for death. The foreman of White's jury later said, "We voted for life because we did not see a shred of evidence indicating that White himself actually took part in the killing." Two dissenting U.S. Supreme Court Justices called White's execution "inexcusable." Ferguson, on the other hand, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia by seven different doctors before the murder that sent him to death row, but courts eventually found him competent enough to be executed. The cases illustrate the wide disparities in the application of the death penalty.


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