NEW RESOURCES: Bureau of Justice Statistics Releases "Capital Punishment, 2010"
On December 20, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual set of statistical tables on the death penalty in the United States, covering information for 2010. Hightlights from the report include:
-The average time spent on death row for those executed in 2010 was longer than for any previous year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The average time between sentencing and execution for those executed in 2010 was 14.8 years.
-During 2010, 119 inmates were removed from death row: 53 had their sentences or convictions overturned or were granted commutations; 20 died by means other than execution; and 46 (38%) were executed.
-At the close of 2010, there were 388 Hispanics on death row, accounting for 12% of the nation's death row population. -Four states (California, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania) accounted for more than 50% of all inmates on death row.
-Of the 7,879 inmates sentenced to death between 1977 and 2010, 16% have been executed. Six percent (6%) died by causes other than execution, and 39% eventually received other dispositions.

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NEW VOICES: Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justices Call for Halt to Executions

Two former Supreme Court Justices in Kentucky and the President of the American Bar Association called for a suspension of executions in the state until its death penalty system is reformed.  Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Justices stated, "The list of problematic cases is staggering, and review of the system is deeply troubling. Fairness, impartiality and effectiveness of counsel have been undermined by serious flaws that reveal systemic problems in administration of the death penalty in the commonwealth." Citing findings from a recent study conducted by the ABA, former Justices James Keller (pictured) and Martin Johnstone, along with William Robinson, President of the ABA, noted that since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, 50 of the 78 people who have been sentenced to death have had their sentence or conviction overturned due to misconduct or serious errors that occurred during their trial. The writers said, “In Kentucky, we cannot be certain that our death penalty system is fair and accurate. Our Death Penalty Assessment Team of lawyers, judges, bar leaders and legal experts conducted an exhaustive, two-year review of the death penalty system and identified a host of problems at various stages of the capital process, many of which increase the risk of executing the innocent. The problems affect not only those possibly facing execution, but also victims of crime.” Read full op-ed below.

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DPIC's Year End Report: Death Sentences Plunge to Historic Lows

On December 15, the Death Penalty Information Center released its latest report, The Death Penalty in 2011: Year End Report,” on statistics and trends in capital punishment in the past year.  The report noted that new death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011, marking the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 that the country has produced less than 100 death sentences in a year.  It represents a 75% decline since 1996, when there were 315 new death sentences.  California, which has the country's largest death row, saw its death sentences drop by more than half this year - 10 compared with 29 in 2010.  Only 13 states carried out executions in 2011, 74% of which were in the South.  Only 8 states carried out more than one execution.  Texas led the country with 13 executions, but that number represents a 46% decrease from 2009, when there were 24 executions.  “This year, the use of the death penalty continued to decline by almost every measure," said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the report’s author.  "Executions, death sentences, public support, the number of states with the death penalty all dropped from previous years.  Whether it’s concerns about unfairness, executing the innocent, the high costs of the death penalty, or the general feeling that the government just can’t get it right, Americans moved further away from capital punishment in 2011.”

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STUDIES: American Bar Association Releases Assessement of Kentucky's Death Penalty

On December 7, the American Bar Association released a report assessing Kentucky's system of capital punishment and calling for a halt to executions in the state.  The report was prepared by the Kentucky Assessment Team on the Death Penalty, which included law professors, former state supreme court justices, and practicing attorneys.  The two-year study recommended that the state temporarily suspend executions until serious issues of fairness and accuracy are addressed.  The review reported that courts have found an error rate of more than 60 percent in the trials of those who had been sentenced to death.  The review also found that at least 10 of the 78 defendants sentenced to death were represented by attorneys who were subsequently disbarred. Among the problems identified by the Assessment Team were the absence of statewide standards governing the qualifications and training for attorneys in capital cases, and uniform standards on eyewitness identifications and interrogations.  Many of Kentucky's largest law enforcement agencies do not fully adhere to best practices to guard against false eyewitness identifications and false confessions, two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions nationwide.  Linda Ewald, a law professor at the University of Louisville who co-chaired the assessment team, said, “We came in to this with no real idea of what we would find.  But at the close of our two-year deliberations, we were left with no option but to recommend that the Commonwealth halt executions until the problems we identified are remedied. This report is really about the administration of justice in Kentucky.”

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STUDIES: Virginia Leads the Country in Death Sentences Resulting in Executions

According to a recent study by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia executes the highest proportion of people sentenced to death of any state in the country. Of the 149 death sentences handed down through 2010, 108 have resulted in an execution, a rate of about 72 percent.  Virginia is second to Texas in the total number of executions carried out since 1976, but Texas has executed less than half of those sentenced to death.  In many states, less than 1 in 10 death sentences have resulted in an execution.  Inmates in Virginia also spend the shortest time on death row prior to execution--on average, just 7.1 years--compared to a national average of just over 14 years for those executed in 2009.  From the mid-1970s to 1995, just 18% of Virginia death cases were reversed by appeals courts. Nationally, 68% of death cases were reversed in the same time period.  According to Richard J. Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, "almost from the beginning, Virginia has basically tried to expedite the process of state post-conviction review and reduce the kinds of claims that can be raised in state courts." As a result, most of the post-conviction review occurs in federal court, particularly the 4th Circuit, which Bonnie described as "reluctant to set aside death sentences." 

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STUDIES: Eyewitness Identification Comes Under Supreme Court and Scientific Scrutiny

The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered Perry v. New Hampshire, a case questioning the validity of eyewitness testimony when the identification was made under unreliable circumstances.  At the same time, years of scientific study on the accuracy of human memory are pointing to the need for reform in the use of eyewitness evidence in criminal cases.  Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor at Columbia University, whose experiments on memory were reported in the journal Cognitive Psychology, noted, “Memory is weak in eyewitness situations because it’s overloaded.  An event happens so fast, and when the police question you, you probably weren’t concentrating on the details they’re asking about.”  About 75% of DNA-based exonerations have come in cases where eyewitnesses have made mistakes.  Scientists suggest that witness testimony should be viewed more like trace evidence, with the same fragility and vulnerability to contamination.  Strong emotions felt by victims of a crime is one such possible area of contamination. Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, found that the accuracy of lineups improves when the possible suspects are presented to witnesses in sequence, rather than all at once, as in the traditional lineup. The downfall of side-by-side lineups, Dr. Wells said, is that “if the real perpetrator is not in there, there is still someone who looks more like him than the others.” The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently promulgated new rules for dealing with the problems of eyewitness identification.

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RACE: Supporters Re-Affirm Importance of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act in Face of Prosecutors' Challenges

Leaders from North Carolina's civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, and from the defense bar have re-affirmed the need for the state's Racial Justice Act, which was passed in 2009.  The Act allows death row inmates to challenge their death sentences using data from statistical studies of racial bias within the state.  The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys is attempting to have the law repealed because they say it threatens the entire death penalty system.  Tye Hunter from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation said that some of the academic studies being used under the Act show clear patterns of racial bias in the state’s capital punishment system, including exclusion of qualified jurors on the basis of race.  Moreover, he noted,  "We hadn't had an execution for three years before the Racial Justice Act was even passed. So the moratorium on the death penalty, I think, has to do with other issues.”  Two Racial Justice Act cases are currently underway in state courts, though one is currently on hold.  In the active case, prosecutors have repeatedly sought continuances and have unsuccessfully tried to have the assigned Superior Court judge, Greg Weeks, an African-American, removed from the case. 

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DPIC RESOURCES: New Innocence Database

The Death Penalty Information Center is pleased to announce that our List of Those Exonerated from Death Row (1973-Present) is now available in a searchable, database format through our new Innocence Database.  This resource allows users to search through the list of those freed from death row after their convictions were dismissed by name, year of exoneration, state from which they were released, the inmate’s race, and whether DNA evidence factored into their release.  Lists of cases can also be sorted by each category.  The database includes cases such as that of Kirk Bloodsworth (pictured), who was exonerated in Maryland in 1993 after being sentenced to death in 1984.  He was the first death row inmate to be exonerated through DNA evidence.  To read the conditions for a case to be included in this list, click DPIC’s criteria.  Please contact us with any comments or questions regarding this new resource.

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STUDIES: "What's Messing with Texas Death Sentences?"

A recent study by David McCord, Professor of Law at Drake University Law School, titled What's Messing with Texas Death Sentences?, found five significant causes for the recent decline in death sentences in Texas.  McCord sought to explain a 65% drop in Texas death sentences from their peak five-year period of 1992-1996 (when there was an annual average of 40 death sentences) to the recent five-year period of 2005-2009 (when only 14 death sentences were handed down on average each year).  The study pointed to numerous developments in Texas that have likely contributed to this decline, including changes in the legal landscape and changes on the county level.  McCord cited the advent of life-wthout-parole sentences in Texas as the strongest legal factor in reducing death sentences, and the political changes in Harris County (Houston) as a significant contributor on the county level.

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INNOCENCE: Texas Forensic Science Commission Closes Case of Possible Innocence

The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently closed its inquiry into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured), who was executed in Texas in 2004. The Commission was told by the Texas Attorney General that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the Willingham case.  Hence, in its final report on October 28 on the matter, it declined to issue any finding regarding allegations of negligence or misconduct by the City of Corsicana or the Texas State Fire Marshal in the Willingham matter.  The Commission, however, acknowledged that outdated science regarding arsons played a role in Willingham’s 1991 murder conviction.  Willingham was convicted of setting the fire that killed his three daughters.  Since then, modern fire experts have determined that none of the more than 20 arson indicators identified by the standards of arson science in 1991 are reliable evidence of intentional fire.  Experts say that the cause of fire should have been "undetermined."  Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project in New York, said,  "The world should now know that the evidence relied upon to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham for the fire that killed his daughters was based on scientifically invalid and unreliable evidence.”  The Commission’s final report also included a commitment from the state fire marshal’s office to review old arson rulings to determine whether convictions were based on the now-debunked science."

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