NEW RESOURCES: Death Row USA Fall 2012 Report Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA showed a decrease of 43 inmates under sentence of death from January 1 to October 1, 2012. Over the last decade, the total population of state and federal death rows has decreased significantly, from 3,703 inmates in 2000 to 3,146 inmates as of October 2012. California continues to have the largest death row population (724), followed by Florida (411), Texas (304), Pennsylvania (204), and Alabama (202). Neither California nor Pennsylvania has carried out an execution in the past seven years. The report also contains information on executions. Nearly 77% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution since 1976 were white. However, nationally, about 50% of murder victims are black. The report also contains an overview of recent legal developments related to capital punishment.

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RESOURCES: Death Sentences in Texas Are Fewer and More Geographically Isolated

A new report on the death penalty in Texas found that death sentences have declined by more than 75% since 2002, and more than half of all new death sentences were imposed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area this year, while no new death sentences were imposed in Harris County (Houston) for the third time in five years. The report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2012: The Year in Review by the Texas Coalition to Abolish Death Penalty, stated there were 9 new death sentences in 2012, near the record low since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  According to TCADP, racial patterns continue to persist in the use of the death penalty: "Seven of the new death row inmates in 2012 are African-American, one is Hispanic, and one is a white female.  Over the last five years, nearly 75% of death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color – 46% African-American and 28% Hispanic.” Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service, remarked, “Although Texas is using the death penalty less, the state still uses it disproportionately on people of color. This is a recurring problem and Texas’ failure to fix it demonstrates how broken its capital punishment system is.”

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RACE: Three More Death Sentences Reduced in North Carolina Because of Bias in Jury Selection

On December 13, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks reduced the sentences of three death row inmates to life without parole after finding that race played a significant role in the selection of the juries in their cases. Applying North Carolina's revised Racial Justice Act, Judge Weeks relied partially on studies showing prosecutors struck qualified African-American jurors twice as often as other potential jurors, both in Cumberland County and statewide. He also relied on evidence presented earlier at a lengthy hearing showing that potential black jurors were often dismissed for reasons such as their reservations about the death penalty, criminal background, hardships, or employment, while white jurors with similar characteristics were selected. Evidence of racial bias was also shown in statements, notes, training materials, and testimony from the prosecutors. Evidence of trainings sponsored by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys showed prosecutors were trained in fabricating legally acceptable ways to exclude African Americans from juries. Judge Weeks, who had reduced the death sentence of another inmate earlier in the year, stated: "The court finds no joy in these conclusions. Indeed, the court cannot overstate the gravity and somber nature of its findings. Nor can the court overstate the harm to African-American citizens and to the integrity of the justice system that results from racially discriminatory jury selection practices." Kenneth Rose, one of the lawyers representing the defendants, said, “The evidence that our capital punishment system is infected by racial bias has become too great to deny.... We will not rest until we are assured that race plays no role in North Carolina’s death penalty.”

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BOOKS: "Race, Rape, and Injustice"

A new book, Race, Rape, and Injustice: Documenting and Challenging Death Penalty Cases in the Civil Rights Era, recounts the fascinating story of twenty-eight law students who traveled throughout the South in the 1960s to gather data about the use of capital punishment in rape cases. They found the death penalty was used almost exclusively against black defendants accused of raping white women. The book was largely written by Barrett Foerster, one of the students, and then completed after his death by Michael Meltsner, an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at the time of the study.  The results of the investigation were used in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court and played a role in Furman v. Georgia, the landmark case that held the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.  In the concluding chapter, Foerster wrote, "Racism does not disappear just because laws and legal procedures are changed.  Capital punishment, though less popular, less widespread, and less cited as a cure for crime, is still with us.  And with the exoneration of many innocent prisoners, its flaws are now even more obvious than before."

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COSTS: In Utah, Each Death Penalty Case Costs $1.6 Million Extra

According to Gary Syphus of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office in Utah, seeking the death penalty costs the state an additional $1.6 million per inmate from trial to execution compared to life-without-parole cases. Syphus offered this estimate to the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee of the Utah legislature on November 14. Republican state representative Steve Handy had asked for an examination of the state and local government costs associated with implementing the death penalty in Utah.  Although he has not proposed any legislation, Handy said that the comparative costs of life without parole and capital punishment should nevertheless be examined. Ralph Dellapiana, a defense attorney and the director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the cost estimate offered did not adequately capture the full expense incurred by the state, since it did not include costs such as those associated with cases in which the death penalty is sought but not ultimately imposed.

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FOREIGN NATIONALS: Reprieve Issues New Report on Foreign Nationals on Death Row In U.S.

A new report by Reprieve, a non-profit organization based in London that provides legal representation and humanitarian assistance to foreign nationals on death row in the U.S., found that many U.S. states were not in compliance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR).  This treaty, which the U.S. has signed and ratified, requires participating countries to give arrested individuals from other countries timely notice of their right to contact their consular officials.  In 95% of the U.S. death penalty cases involving foreign nationals reviewed by Reprieve, the requirements of the treaty had not been met. The report stated, “It is widely accepted that foreign nationals are at a significant disadvantage when confronted with the intricacies of the US criminal justice system - particularly when facing capital charges. They are likely to encounter various cultural and linguistic barriers that hamper their ability effectively to engage in the judicial process."  The report noted that none of the 37 death penalty states satisfactorily met their obligations under the VCCR, and even the federal government failed in 75% of their cases for which there was data.  The report concluded with a series of recommendations for other countries to follow to effect full U.S. implementation of this treaty.

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PUBLIC OPINION: American Values Survey Shows Even Split on Death Penalty, with More Catholics Opposed

According to the 2012 American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, Americans are now evenly divided on whether the death penalty or life without parole is the appropriate punishment for murder, while Catholics more strongly favor life sentences. The September survey found that 47% of respondents favored life without parole, while 46% opted for the death penalty.  The poll showed that life without parole was favored by Democrats (57%), African-Americans (64%), Hispanic-Americans (56%), and millennials (age 18 to 29) (55%). Support for the death penalty was stronger among Republicans (59%), Tea Party members (61%), and white Americans (53%).  Catholic respondents favored life without parole by a greater margin (52% to 41%) than the general population. Moreover, Catholics who attended church at least once a week were even more opposed to the death penalty (57% to 37% favoring life without parole) than those who attended less frequently.

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STUDIES: FBI Releases 2011 Crime Report Showing Drop in Murder Rates

On October 29, the U.S. Justice Department released the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2011, indicating that the national murder rate dropped 1.5% from 2010. This decline occurred at a time when the use of the death penalty is also decreasing nationally.  The Northeast region, which uses the death penalty the least, had the lowest murder rate of the 4 geographic regions, and saw a 6.4% further decrease in its murder rate in 2011, the largest decrease of any region.  By contrast, the South, which carries out more executions than any other region, had the highest murder rate. It saw a small decline from last year. The murder rate in the West remained about the same, while the rate in the Midwest increased slightly.  Four of the five states with the highest murder rates are death-penalty states, while four of the five states with the lowest murder rates are states without the death penalty. See table below.

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COSTS: New Investigation Says Florida Spending Over $1 Million per Death Row Inmate

A newspaper's investigation into the costs of the death penalty in Florida revealed the state is spending as much as $1 million per inmate just for incarceration and appellate costs. Trial costs would add substantially to the state's total.  Florida has over 400 inmates on death row.  For example, keeping J.B. Parker under the special security of death row for 29 years has cost taxpayers $688,000; his appeals cost $296,000, for a total of $984,000. The total for Alfonso Cave has been $1,059,750. Both men remain on death row. Those figures do not include salaries for judges, prosecutors and clerks handling the cases. Shortening the appeals carries the risk of mistake. Neal Dupree, head of one of the appellate offices for death row inmates noted, "People need to know that just because someone has been convicted does not mean they are guilty," he said.  Larry Spalding, who had been head of one of the appellate offices, added: "The most important thing we know about false convictions is that they happen and on a regular basis." Spalding said.  "(Appellate) attorneys ... are trying to exonerate the innocent, and to prevent a wrongful execution. They should be admired, not excoriated."  Florida has had more exonerations from death row (23) than any other state in the country.

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Challenges to Jury Selection Continue under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act

On October 2, Judge Gregory Weeks heard testimony regarding racial bias in jury selection, as three North Carolina death row inmates challenged their sentences under the state's Racial Justice Act.  Prof. Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State University provided statistical evidence of racial bias in the frequent rejection of African-American potential jurors from death penalty trials in the state.  According to O'Brien's study, qualified black jurors were twice as likely to be dismissed from serving in North Carolina death penalty cases as non-black jurors. Her study analyzed jury selection patterns under both the Racial Justice Act of 2009 and the more restrictive version that lawmakers passed in 2012, since there is dispute over which version of the law applies to the defendants. O'Brien found racial bias under both standards and in the cases of the individual defendants.  Earlier in 2012, Judge Weeks had reduced Marcus Robinson's death sentence to life because of racial bias found in his case.

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