Number of Police Officers Killed by Gunfire is Lowest in 50 Years

The number of police officers killed by gunfire in 2008 dropped by 40% from 2007, down to its lowest level in more than 50 years, according to a report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.  The report attributed the decline to a new emphasis on officer safety training and equipment.   In addition to increased training, more officers are wearing body armor and using stun guns to protect themselves. The overall number of officers killed in the line of duty also declined in 2008.

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Executions Slowed in 2008, But Numbers May Increase in Coming Year

The Death Penalty Information Center's Year End Report for 2008 recorded 37 executions for the year that ends today.  That is a 12% drop from the 42 executions in 2007.  However, based on executions already scheduled for 2009, the coming year may see an increase.  There are 23 executions scheduled for the first five months of 2009, and more dates are likely to be added.  As was true in 2008, almost all the executions scheduled are in the south and about half (12 of 23) are in Texas.  Although the time between sentencing and execution has grown longer, the size of death row has remained relatively stable and many inmates are running out of appeals.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that the average time between sentencing and execution for those executed in 2007 (latest figures available) was 12.7 years, the longest for any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  The average time between sentencing and execution for all executions carried out since 1976 was about 10.5 years.  At the start of 2008, there were 3,309 people on death row, a decline of just over 1% from a year ago. BJS reported 115 death sentences in 2007, the lowest number for any year since 1976.  DPIC's projections indicate a similar number of death sentences  for 2008.

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NEW RESOURCES: Death Qualification and Prejudice

Research on death qualification--the selection of jurors who are qualified to serve on a capital case because they are willing to sentence someone to death--has revealed additional characteristics among such jurors.  Professor Brooke Butler of the University of South Florida in Sarasota has studied such jurors and published her results in the journal of Behavioral Sciences and the Law. Her study, “Death qualification and prejudice: the effect of implicit racism, sexism, and homophobia on capital defendants' right to due process,” surveyed 200 juror candidates from the 12th Circuit in Bradenton, Florida.  In addition to the questions that measured their support for the death penalty and their death-qualification status, she studied their attitudes towards women, gays, and people of other races.  The results indicated that as death penalty support increased, participants exhibited more negative attitudes towards women, homosexuals, and people of other races.

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Maryland Commission Recommends Abolition of Death Penalty in Final Report

The legislative commission established to examine the death penalty in Maryland has recommended abolition of the punishment by a vote of 13-9.  The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment released its final report on December 12, detailing the reasons for its recommendation.  "There is no good and sufficient reason to have the death penalty," Chairman Benjamin R. Civiletti said at a news conference. Regarding the commission's recommendation of repeal rather than reform, he said, "There are so many faults, so many flaws within the system that we could not imagine ... ways in which to cure it."

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Tennessee Death Penalty Committee Recommends Changes in Representation Standards

A legislative committee created to study the death penalty in Tennessee has recommended ways to ensure capital cases are handled fairly and effectively.  The committee approved a resolution that asks lawmakers to create a statewide authority whose duties would include identifying lawyers experienced in capital cases, raising the standard pay for such attorneys, and monitoring their caseloads.

Thomas Lee, a Tennessee attorney on the committee, said such an authority would help ensure that "trials are done right the first time."  The committee, created last year after the state legislature decided Tennessee’s death penalty system needed to be examined for fairness and accuracy, will present its findings to the Governor and lawmakers.

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STUDIES: Higher Murder Rates Related to Gun Laws

States with softer gun laws have higher rates of handgun killings, fatal shootings of police officers, and sales of weapons that were used in crimes in other states, according to a study due out in January 2009. The study’s 38-page report, underwritten by a group of over 300 mayors and obtained by the Washington Post, focused on tracking guns used in crimes back to the retailers that first sold them.

Based on an analysis of annual crime-gun data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the study found:


• The 10 states with the highest export rates of guns used in crimes had nearly 60 percent more gun homicides than the 10 states with the lowest rates. The high-export states also had nearly three times as many fatal shootings of police officers.

• 10 states supplied 57% of the guns that were used in crimes in other states in 2007.

• States requiring background checks for handgun sales at gun shows have an export rate nearly half the national average. None of the 10 highest export states requires the checks, according to the report.

• States requiring gun buyers to get a purchase permit have a lower export rate.
(C. Thompson, “Report Links State Gun Laws To Rates of Slayings, Trafficking,” Washington Post, December 5, 2008; source: Mayors Against Illegal Guns). See Deterrence and Studies.

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STUDIES: Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment

A new study published in the Houston Law Review, “Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment,” explores the relationship of race to death sentencing in Harris County (Houston), Texas. In the study, Prof. Scott Phillips of the University of Denver explores patterns involving the race of both victims and defendants, while controlling for other variables. Phillips concludes death sentences were more likely to be imposed in cases with white victims than in those with black victims, and that death sentences were more likely to be imposed on black defendants than on white defendants in the county.

With respect to the defendant bias, which has not appeared in some other race studies, Phillips found "The DA pursued death against black defendants and white defendants at the same rate, but controlling for confounders revealed the disparate treatment of black defendants. The apparent equal treatment is misleading because black defendants committed murders that were less “serious” along several dimensions. Despite the fact that the DA was considerably more likely to pursue death against black defendants, juries were slightly more likely to impose death against white defendants. Presumably, the jurors' behavior is a response to the DA's occasional overreaching against black defendants. The net effect is that juries attenuate, but do not eliminate, disparities between black and white defendants that originate in the DA's office."

(S. Phillips, “Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment,” 45 Houston Law Review 807 (2008)). See Studies, Law Reviews, and Race.

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STUDIES: Coping with Innocence After Death Row

Professsors Saundra Westervelt and Kimberly Cook of the University of North Carolina recently published a study entitled “Coping with Innocence After Death Row.” The study appeared in "Contexts" published by the American Sociological Association. The authors studied the lives of 18 innocent men and women exonerated from death row. The unique research uncovers the difficulty the exonerees have had in adapting to life outside of prison without the process of “delabeling,” or recognition of their innocence by society.

“Frequently, community members still see them as guilty criminals who ‘beat the system,’” noted the authors. One exoneree often found “child killer” written in the dirt on his truck, and neighbors told another exoneree’s children that their mother was “a babykiller.” The study explores the coping strategies and continued struggles of those who had been exonerated.

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STUDIES: Eyewitness Identification Procedure in Texas

A new study concerning criminal justice procedures in Texas has been released by the Justice Project. Their research found that only 12% of Texas law enforcement agencies have any written policies or guidelines for the conduct of photo or live lineup procedures. Furthermore, they discovered that the few existing written procedures are often vague and incomplete. Eighty-two percent of Texas’ 38 wrongful convictions exposed by DNA testing, which includes non-capital cases, were based largely or exclusively on incorrect eyewitness identifications.

Overall, the study found that most jurisdictions in Texas fail to implement widely endorsed best practices that have been proven to increase reliability of eyewitness testimony. Only 7% or less of all Texas departments have written policies in line with such endorsed best practices designed to minimize eyewitness error.

The Justice Project is a non-profit and non-partisan organization that works to improve the fairness and accuracy of the criminal justice system. The full research report may be found here.

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NEW VOICES: Former Texas Prosecutor Now Opposes Death Penalty as New Study is Released on Wrongful Convictions

A former Dallas County prosecutor has abandoned his longstanding support of the death penalty and is now opposed to capital punishment based on recent exonerations in Texas and elsewhere. James Fry, who prosecuted Charles Chatman--a man recently exonerated from prison in Dallas County--said he was “shaken to the core” by the high number of exonerations throughout the nation and by evidence of flawed eyewitness testimony. Formerly a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Fry pointed to the risk of mistakes: “I don’t think the system can prove who is guilty and who is innocent,” he said in a recent interview.

More evidence of such mistakes has been revealed in a recent study by the Dallas Morning News. The paper conducted an 8-month investigation into wrongful convictions (primarily non-death penalty cases) in Dallas County, prompted by numerous exonerations, including that of Michael Blair, who was freed from Texas' death row in 2008 . DNA testing led to capital murder charges against Blair being dismissed in late August, bringing the total number of people exonerated from death row since 1973 to 130.

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