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Experts Call for Exclusion from Death Penalty for Veterans with PTSD

Some legal and psychiatric experts have concluded that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder should be ineligible for execution. In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, mental health experts Drs. Hal Wortzel and David Arciniegas wrote, “The tragedy of the wounded combat veteran who faces execution by the nation he has served seems to be an avoidable one, and we, as a society, should take action to ensure that it does not happen.” A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation estimated that about 300,000 of the 1.64 million military members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan had post-traumatic stress disorder. The study also found that only 53% of those with such a diagnosis had received treatment in the previous 12 months. In 2008, the New York Times reported 121 cases in which veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with killings. In Texas, an Iraq veteran named John Thuesen is on death row for shooting his girlfriend and her brother in 2009. Thuesen suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and his attorneys have argued he would have received a life sentence if the jury had been fully informed of his illness.


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FROM DPIC: Extensive News Coverage of Year End Report

National and local media have focused significant attention on DPIC's recent 2013 Year End Report. Coverage has included pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, CNN, on the wires of the Associated Press and Reuters, and in hundreds of other articles and editorials. Papers highlighted the main theme of the report, which showed a continuing decline in the use of the death penalty around the country. The New York Times quoted DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, as commenting that “A societal shift is underway.” The Associated Press quoted Dieter saying, "I think the decline begins with the revelations about mistakes in capital cases - that innocent people could get the penalty and almost be executed has shocked the public to the point where death sentences are harder to obtain."


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DPIC Releases 2013 Report, Showing Marked Decline in Death Penalty Use

On December 19, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." In 2013, executions declined, fewer states imposed death sentences, and the size of death row decreased compared to the previous year. The number of states with the death penalty also dropped, and public support for capital punishment registered a 40-year low. There were 39 executions in the U.S., marking only the second time in 19 years that there were less than 40. Just two states, Texas (16) and Florida (7), were responsible for 59% of the executions. The number of death sentences (80) remained near record lows, and several major death penalty states, inclucing Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, imposed no death sentences this year. Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

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Stories From Families of Murdered Law Enforcement Officers

A new report from Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights collects the stories of families who have had a loved one murdered who was in law enforcement. The families discuss the pressure they faced to demand the death penalty as punishment, their efforts to prevent more violence, and their evolving views on the death penalty. Kathy Dillon, whose father was murdered in 1974 while on duty as a New York State Trooper, said, "[I]n the case of my father’s murder, the death penalty was in place in New York State, but it didn’t protect him that day." Neely Goen, whose father was a Kansas State Trooper who was killed in 1978, wrote about the toll the death penalty system takes on victims' families: "We already have been through enough. We deserve better than a system that forces us to go through long trials and endless appeals. The death penalty focuses an incredible amount of attention on the killers, which makes victims’ families relive the painful details of a murder over and over." 


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NEW VOICES: Police Chiefs Join Innocence Project for Criminal Investigation Reforms

In a new report released on December 3, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) called for police departments to adopt new guidelines to reduce the number of wrongful convictions. The chiefs' recommendations include reforms of lineup procedures, videotaping of witness interviews, and formalizing the review of innocence claims. The IACP worked with the Justice Department and the Innocence Project to identify ways to reduce potential sources of error and bias. Walter A. McNiel, police chief of Quincy, Florida, and past president of IACP, said, "At the end of the day, the goal is to reduce the number of persons who are wrongfully convicted. What we are trying to say in this report is, it’s worth it for all of us, particularly law enforcement, to continue to evaluate, slow down, and get the right person." The recommendations take into account research that has found eyewitness error in the majority of cases later overturned by DNA evidence. (Eyewitness error is also a leading cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases.)


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Counties with Large Death Rows Often Correlates With Prosecutorial Misconduct

Radley Balko, writing in the Huffington Post, has examined more closely some of the counties identified in DPIC's recent report, The 2% Death Penalty, as using the death penalty the most. Balko found that many of those high-use counties have a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and other problems. For example, Philadelphia County has sent more inmates to death row than any other county in Pennsylvania. However, a study of criminal cases overturned in the state because of prosecutorial misconduct found over 60% of the cases came from Philadelphia. Duval County, Florida, has the largest per capita death row in the nation, but recently elected a head public defender who ran on a platform of cutting funding to public defense and billing indigent defendants who are acquitted. In the California counties of Santa Clara and Riverside, courts had to review thousands of cases due to prosecutors' failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, including fraud by a crime lab technician. In some instances, this misconduct hid the actual innocence of the defendant, such as that of Ray Krone in Maricopa County, Arizona, who was sentenced to death after prosecutors withheld crucial evidence.


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LETHAL INJECTION: New Execution Practices Raising Medical Concerns

Medical experts are concerned that untried lethal injection procedures in some states could cause prolonged, painful deaths. Ohio will try a procedure never used before in an execution on November 14 when it plans to inject a combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. According to Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine, a hydromorphone overdose can cause painful side effects, including an extreme burning sensation, seizures, hallucination, panic attacks, vomiting, and muscle pain. He said, "You're basically relying on the toxic side effects to kill people while guessing at what levels that occurs." Groner added, if the hydromorphone IV is set poorly, "it would be absorbed under the skin, subcutaneously, very slowly, and that death could be extremely prolonged…It may be painful, and it may take forever." Doctors also raised concerns about Missouri's planned use of pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. Compounding pharmacies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and drugs from one such pharmacy caused a deadly outbreak of fungal meningitis in 2012. David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School, said that contaminated pentobarbital could cause a sensation similar to rubbing an open wound with sandpaper. Florida was the first state to use midazolam, although it employed different secondary drugs than Ohio. In an October 15 execution, the inmate appeared to remain conscious longer than usual and made movements after losing consciousness.


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STUDIES: Human Rights Groups Examine Death Penalty in California and Louisiana

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights recently released an analysis of the death penalty in California and Louisiana. The report concluded that those states' application of capital punishment "violates U.S. obligations under international human rights law to prevent and prohibit discrimination and torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." Researchers conducted interviews with many of those involved in the legal system and examined data on charging, sentencing, and executions. They found that racial disparities in the death penalty in both states constituted discrimination. The report was particularly critical of death row conditions, saying, "[E]xtreme temperatures, lack of access to adequate medical and mental health care, overcrowding and extended periods of isolation, do not respect and promote human dignity...Such deplorable circumstances have been condemned by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture as constituting cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or, in certain circumstances, torture."


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PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty At Its Lowest in 40 Years
Poll
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 A recent Gallup poll found the lowest level of support for the death penalty in America since 1972. Gallup's October poll measured Americans' abstract support at 60%, a 20-percentage point decline from 1994, when 80% of respondents were in favor of the death penalty for those convicted of murder. Support for the death penalty differed sharply among those who identified themselves with a political party: 81% of Republicans supported the death penalty, while only 47% of Democrats and 60% of Independents favored it. However, support among all three groups has dropped in the last 25 years, with the Democrats’ support declining 28 percentage points since its peak in 1994. This poll measured the public’s support for capital punishment in theory, without any comparison to other punishments. When Gallup and other polls have offered respondents a choice of the proper punishment for murder - the death penalty or life in prison without parole - respondents are about evenly split, with less than 50% supporting the death penalty. Gallup's release noted that the decline in support may be linked to the issue of innocence, "The current era of lower support may be tied to death penalty moratoriums in several states beginning around 2000 after several death-row inmates were later proven innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted." In the past 10 years, the percentage of Americans who believe the death penalty is applied fairly has dropped from 60% to 52%.


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STUDIES: Prosecutorial Misconduct in Death Penalty Cases

In a four-part series on the conduct of prosecutors in capital cases, The Arizona Republic examined allegations by appellate attorneys that prosecutorial misconduct occurred in nearly half of the state’s capital cases since 2002. The study found that nearly half of the allegations were validated by the Arizona Supreme Court, though only two death sentences were vacated. The paper found there were seldom consequences to prosecutors for misconduct. Of all the allegations, only two resulted in prosecutors being punished: one was disbarred, the other suspended from legal practice. According to the Republic’s examination, six different prosecutors who were named "Prosecutor of the Year" since 1990 were later found to have engaged in misconduct or inappropriate behavior during capital trials. Misconduct played a key role in a death sentence and conviction that were recently overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Debra Milke, who had spent nearly 24 years in custody, was recently freed because the state failed to turn over important records to the defense. She may face a re-trial. The court underscored the important role of prosecutors in ensuring a fair trial: “(T)he Constitution requires a fair trial, and one essential element of fairness is the prosecution's obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence.” In another instance of prosecutorial misconduct, Ray Krone's conviction in Arizona was overturned in 1995 and he was eventually exonerated in 2002. (pictured l., receiving an award in 2013 from Kirk Bloodsworth of Witness to Innocence).


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