STUDIES: Researchers Find "No Empirical Support" for Deterrence Theory

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas recently published a study on whether executions deter homicides using state panel date and employing well-known econometric procedures for panel analysis. The authors found "no empirical support for the argument that the existence or application of the death penalty deters prospective offenders from committing homicide."  The study was published in the journal of Criminology and Public Policy and authored by Tomislav V. Kovandzic, Lynne M. Vieraitis and Denise Paquette Boots, all professors of criminology.  The study concluded, "In sum, our finding of no deterrent effect of the DP (death penalty) on homicide suggests the risk of execution does not enhance the level of deterrence. Therefore, we conclude that although policy makers and the public may continue to support the use of the death penalty based on retribution, religious grounds, or other justifications, defending its use based on deterrence is inconsistent with our findings. At a minimum, policy makers should refrain from justifying its use by claiming that it is a deterrent to homicide and explore less costly, more effective ways of addressing crime."

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STUDIES: Death Penalty Costs North Carolina Nearly $11 Million a Year

A recent study published by a Duke University economist revealed North Carolina could save $11 million annually if it dropped the death penalty. Philip J. Cook, a professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, calculated the extra state costs of the death penalty during fiscal years 2005 and 2006.  He calculated over $21 million worth of expenses that would have been saved if the death penalty had been repealed. The total included extra defense costs for capital cases in the trial phase, extra payments to jurors, post-conviction costs, resentencing hearings, and the extra costs to the prison system. This conservative estimate did not include resources that would have been freed up in the Office of the Appellate Defender and the North Carolina Supreme Court, the extra time spent by prosecutors in capital cases, and the costs to taxpayers for federal appeals.  Cook concluded that costs are not the only concern, but relevant to the discussion of whether the death penalty should be retained, "The bottom line is that the death penalty is a financial burden on the state and a resource-absorbing burden on the trial courts. That conclusion is relevant to the debate over whether preserving the death penalty is in the public interest…." He also commented, "It's not an ideal use of resources to have so much time devoted to such a small number of cases if your goal is to reduce crime rates."

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STUDIES: Innocence Network Exonerations 2009

Twenty-seven people were exonerated and released from prison this year, including some who had been on death row, according to a new report from The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people.  The 27 exonerees served a combined 421 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.  The exonerations occurred through the work of the Innocence Project Network, which consists of 54 organizations, including 45 in the U.S.  The Innocence Project concentrates on wrongful convictions and uses DNA testing, while also promoting reform of the criminal justice system.  (Click on the thumbnail to access full text of the report.)  The most recent person exonerated was James Bain, who was imprisoned for 35 years before DNA testing revealed that someone else had committed the crime that led to his conviction.



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New Hampshire Commission Studies Cost of the Death Penalty

On December 4, the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty held a hearing in Concord to examine the cost of the death penaty in the state. The twenty-two member Commission, led by retired Judge Walter Murphy, has been charged with considering several issues, including whether the death penalty is a deterrent, if it is arbitrarily applied, and if it covers the appropriate crimes.  The Commission is considering alternatives to capital punishment and the related question of whether the state spends more on a death penalty case than on a first-degree homicide case resulting in a life sentence.  The state spent more than $5.3 million on two capital cases last year, and has not had an execution since 1939.  Deputy Attorney General Orville Fitch told the committee that his office spent $1.6 million while prosecuting Michael Addison, who was ultimately sentenced to death. The state spent an additional $1.2 million for the public defender who represented Addison, a large sum when compared to the $70,000-$100,000 it costs to defend a typical first-degree case. Fitch also testified that his office spent $2.4 million prosecuting another defendant in a murder-for-hire case, in which a life sentence was returned.

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STUDIES: A Review of the Florida Death Penalty

Photo of Christopher SloboginChristopher Slobogin, Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, has written an evaluation of Florida's death penalty to be published in a forthcoming edition of the Elon University Law Review.  The evaluation is based on a study by an assessment team sponsored by the American Bar Association. Florida is one of the leading states in sentencing people to death, but it also has the most death row exonerations of any state in the country.  Florida was chosen by the ABA to be one of eight death penalty states reviewed under its Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project. The purpose of this project was to allow states to identity and eliminate flaws in their death penalty system. The Florida Assessment Team was led by Prof. Slobogin and was instructed to investigate the following aspects of death penalty administration: "police investigation procedures; the use of DNA evidence; crime laboratories and medical examiners; prosecutorial discretion; defense services; jury instructions; the judicial role; the direct appeal process; state post-conviction and federal habeas proceedings; clemency proceedings; the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities; and the treatment of people with mental illness and mental retardation."

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NEW VOICES: Kentucky Public Defenders Call for Moratorium on Executions

On November 23, Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan and Louisville Metro Chief Public Defender Dan Goyette called on the governor and the state's Attorney General to stay all executions until an assessment team formed by the American Bar Association can objectively review the state's death penalty. Monahan and Goyette wrote letters asking Attorney General Jack Conway not to request any further execution warrants and asking Governor Steven Beshear not to sign execution warrants until the ABA Assessment Team has concluded its study and issued a final report.

“There are serious and disturbing questions about the convictions of a number of inmates facing execution, particularly in those cases that were tried years ago by unqualified lawyers lacking adequate resources,” Dan Goyette said. “We should not proceed with executions until this independent evaluation is completed and we are assured that due process has been fully and properly provided in each and every case. To do otherwise would cast significant doubt on the fairness and propriety of imposing the ultimate punishment. We all have a fundamental responsibility to avoid at all costs the possibility of making an unjust and irreversible mistake.”

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Death Sentences Declining in Texas

Death sentences have dropped significantly over the last few years in Texas according to a study by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The number of death sentences is at a 35-year low as prosecutors have pushed for fewer death sentences and juries have become less willing to impose them. Since 2005, defendants may receive a sentence of life without parole instead of the death penalty. Before this change, the only alternative to the death penalty in Texas was a life sentence with eligiblity for parole after 40 years, or even less in earlier years. Since the introduction of life without parole, death sentences in Texas have dropped 40 percent compared with the four years prior. Texas had 13 death sentences in 2008, and 9 so far this year. Ten years ago, Texas sentenced 47 defendants to death.

"With life without parole being a viable option now, [juries] feel a lot more comfortable that that person is not going to be let out back into society," said Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon. "We are probably waiving the death penalty more times than we used to because we’re trying to forecast the outcome of the case. . . .It doesn’t translate to dollar bills. It translates into uses of limited resources."

Other reason offered for the decline indeath sentences were the number of wrongful convictions and the costs of prosecuting death sentences.  State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, the author of the life-without-parole law, said "It isn't life without parole that has weakened the death penalty.  It is a growing lack of belief that our system is fair." Reports of exonerations have appeared regularly in the past few years, and jurors may have become more worried about sending an innocent person to death row. A poll from Rasmussen Reports revealed that 73% of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that some people may be executed who were innocent.  In addition, higher costs of pursuing the death penalty have become a concern in the midst of the economic recession. Pursuing life without parole is a cheaper alternative, saving the state millions in legal costs as cases are settled expeditiously.

In Harris County (Houston), which has sent more people to death row than most states, death sentences have dropped nearly 70 % over the last 4 years. "In many more cases, we are opting not to seek the death penalty because life without parole means the person convicted will not get out of prison and that makes us feel much better that the public will be protected from such a person," said Maria McAnulty, the county's trial bureau chief.

(A. Batheja, "Death sentences have dropped sharply after life without parole became possible," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 15, 2009).  See also Life Without Parole and Sentencing.

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The Death Penalty in the State of Washington

The Walla-Walla Union Bulletin is focusing on the state's death penalty in a 4-part series entitled, "Executing Justice." The series examines issues such as the costs of the death penalty, arbitrariness, and the appeals process. Washington currently has eight men on death row, and has not had an execution since 2001. In almost 30 years, there has been only one non-consensual execution.  Four defendants have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1981, but three of the four defendants waived their appeals.  The paper cites a Washington State Bar Association report noting that of the 270 convictions for aggravated murder since 1981, the death penalty was sought 79 times, resulting in 30 death sentences. The majority of those cases were overturned on appeal, and most of those reversals resulted in life without parole sentences.  The Bar Association estimates that a death penalty case costs $754,000 more than other murder cases, not including the $100,000 associated with preparing for an execution.

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STUDIES: Disparate Administration of the Military Death Penalty

A recent study of the military death penalty by Professor David Baldus revealed disparities depending on whether the victim in the underlying crime was also a member of the military or was a civilian.  The paper was co-authored by Professors Catherine Grosso and George Woodworth and will be published by the Michigan Journal of Law Reform.  The authors note that despite a 1984 executive order that "defined death eligible murder in the armed forces principally in terms of civilian murder modeled after state law systems," the military death penalty has been implemented in such a way that shows a large disparity between military murder and civilian murder. The study concluded that soldiers who are accused of civilian murder were less likely to face a capital court martial, to receive a capital conviction, and to be sentenced to death than soldiers who were accused of a military murder (murder of a commissioned or non-commissioned officer). "In this process," the report said, "the military death penalty has come to be used almost exclusively as a disciplinary vehicle to protect the authority and effectiveness of military command."

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NEW RESOURCES: The Status of the Death Penalty in Countries Comprising the European Security Area

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the world's largest regional security organization comprised of 56 States including the U.S., recently published a 2009 Background Paper on The  Death Penalty in the  OSCE Area.  It was prepared by the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and updates the 2008 background paper of the same title.  The 2009 paper highlights the changes in status of the death penalty in participating OSCE states.  Of the 56 countries, only the U.S. and Belarus retain an active death penalty.  The Russian Federation and Tajikistan retain the death penalty but are not carrying out executions.  The full text of the paper can be found in English and Russian on ODIHR's publication page.




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