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DEATH-ROW CENSUS: Number of Prisoners Facing Active Death Sentences in U.S. Drops Below 2,500

For the first time in more than a quarter century, fewer than 2,500 prisoners across the United States now face active death sentences. According to the latest Death Row USA national census by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), released in early September 2018, 2,743 people were on death rows in 32 states and the U.S. federal and military death rows on April 1, 2018. That total includes 249 people who were previously sentenced to death but face the possibility of a capital resentencing after a new trial or new sentencing hearing and prisoners whose capital convictions or death sentences have been reversed, but whose reversals are still subject to appeal by the state. 2,494 other prisoners face active death sentences. The Spring 2018 death-row census reflects that death row has declined by 100 from the 2,843 reported on death row as of April 1, 2017, and by 17% over the course of the last decade. The overall decline in the number of people on death rows across the country is greater than the number of executions in that period, meaning that more former death-row prisoners have been resentenced to life or less after overturning their death sentences, died from non-execution causes, or been exonerated than have been added to the row with new death sentences. California (740), Florida (354), and Texas (235) remain the nation’s largest death rows. Of the jurisdictions with at least 10 people on death row, those with the highest percentage of racial minorities are Texas, Louisiana, and Nebraska, each at 73%. The last time LDF recorded fewer than 2,500 prisoners facing active death sentences in the United States was in January 1993, when the Winter 1992 Death Row USA reported that 2,483 of the 2,676 men and women then on death row had active death sentences. 


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New DPIC Podcast: Researcher Discusses Implications of Link Between Economic Threats and Support for Death Penalty

In the latest episode of our Discussions with DPIC  podcast, Keelah Williams (pictured), assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York, joins DPIC executive director Robert Dunham to discuss the implications of new research on the death penalty and resource scarcity. “Resource scarcity” is a concept from evolutionary psychology that examines individual and social responses to environmental conditions in which resources are limited. “[E]cological variables can affect our behavior in really striking ways, and this often is happening at an unconscious level," Williams said. She and an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Arizona State University (where Williams earned her Ph.D. and J.D.) thought the concept provided “an exciting opportunity to see whether environmental factors might also play a role in how people think and feel about the death penalty.” Williams describes the team’s findings that countries with greater resource scarcity and income inequality are more likely to have a death penalty. The team discovered a similar phenomenon in the U.S., finding that “states with lower life expectancy and lower per capita income were more likely to have the death penalty, and ... this relationship wasn’t explained by other variables like how politically conservative the states were or state murder rates.” Williams also discusses two experimental studies the team conducted to assess the extent to which perceptions of economic scarcity or abundance affect individuals’ views of capital punishment. That research found that study participants who had been shown information and images of economic hardship tended to be more supportive of the death penalty than those of the same political ideology and socioeconomic status who had been given information and images about economic prosperity. She explains the results, saying, “If your resources are limited, then you have to be more choosy in how you invest them. So, in the context of punishment decisions, we think this means you become less willing to risk repeated offending, and more favorable towards punishments that eliminate the threat.” Although the team‘s research focused on resource scarcity, Williams says it also has relevance in explaining how race may affect views of capital punishment. “We think that people are trying to figure out what the potential future value is of the offender because that’s the information that helps them to evaluate the costs and benefits of getting rid of someone versus keeping them around.” Race, and “whether someone is in your ‘in-group’ or your ‘out-group,’” she says, “can play a role in these kinds of calculations.” This, she believes, may lead to harsher punishment of individuals perceived as belonging to the out-group and discretionary acts of leniency that favor individuals who are members of the in-group, and may cause individuals to feel more threatened when a member of their favored group is killed. Williams says that perhaps “the most interesting take-away from our study is that these features of our environment really can influence the way that we feel and the way that we behave, and can do so in ways we are not necessarily consciously aware are happening.” This raises problematic constitutional and policy questions about the arbitrariness of the death penalty’s application across the United States. “If these extraneous factors, like the state of the economy, are influencing people’s attitudes about something as important as how they feel about the death penalty and their willingness to impose death over life,” Williams says, “[t]hat’s something we, as a society, need to consider if we’re comfortable with.”


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Amnesty International Issues Report on the Death Penalty in Florida

A new report by Amnesty International says Florida's approach to redressing the nearly 400 unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences imposed in the state has deepened its status as an outlier on death-penalty issues by "add[ing] an extra layer of arbitrariness to [the state's] already discriminatory and error-prone capital justice system." The report, released on August 23, 2018, examines the impact of Florida's reponse to U.S. and Florida Supreme Court rulings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State that overturned the state’s capital sentencing statute. That response, Amnesty said, would permit the execution of more than 170 prisoners whom the state acknowledges were sentenced to death under unconstitutional sentencing procedures. Executing those prisoners, Amnesty wrote, will violate "well-established" international human rights law requiring that any person "convicted of a capital offence must benefit when a change of law following charge or conviction imposes a lighter penalty for that crime." In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a state practice that permitted judges to impose a death sentence despite the recommendations of one or more jurors that a life sentence should be imposed. However, the court then declined to enforce that ruling in cases that had completed direct appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court announced in Ring v. Arizona in June 2002 that capital defendants had a right to have a jury decide all facts that were necessary to impose the death penalty. The Amnesty International report described the Florida court's refusal to enforce the constitution in cases in which it acknowledged that constitutional violations had occurred as "fear of too much justice." "Finality won out over fairness when the Florida Supreme Court decided the Hurst retroactivity issue," the report said. The report highlights the cases of prisoners with serious mental illness, those with "actual or borderline intellectual disability," youthful offenders with backgrounds of severe deprivation and abuse who were condemned in unconstitutional sentencing trials, and the wrongful impact of race on sentencing decisions, and argues that Florida's refusal to review these cases is not only arbitrary, but also violates international human rights norms and the constitutional principle that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for "the worst of the worst" cases. The report also discusses Florida's long history of employing unconstitutional death-penalty practices that were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court. It spotlights the case of James Hitchcock, who was unconstitutionally sentenced to death four times for a crime he committed at age 20. The first three times, his death sentence was overturned, including a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Florida's statutory restriction on the mitigating evidence the sentencing judge and jury could consider. The fourth time, he was sentenced to death after a non-unanimous jury vote, but was denied review of that constitutional violation. "The death penalty is no way to impart justice," said Amnesty's Americas Director, Erika Guevara Rosas. "Florida and all other states where the death penalty is still in use must impose immediate moratoriums on executions until they can end this cruel practice once and for all." In the meantime, the report urges all officials to “ensure an end to the use of the death penalty against anyone with intellectual disability or mental disability,” “ensure that all capital case decision makers are made fully aware of the mitigating evidence surrounding youth and emotional and psychological immaturity,” and “facilitate a public education campaign to raise awareness across Florida of the costs, risks and flaws associated with the state’s death penalty.”


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New Study Finds Link Between Perception of Resource Scarcity and Support for Death Penalty

A new study by an interdisciplinary team of Arizona State University psychology researchers has found a link between the actual and perceived scarcity of resources and support for capital punishment. The study, currently in press but available online on August 10 in the science journal, Evolution and Human Behavior, discovered that countries with greater resource scarcity were more likely to have a death penalty, as were U.S. states with lower per capita income. Building on theories of human evolution and evidence of how humans evolved to deal effectively with different environments, the ASU research team of social psychologists, evolutionary psychologists, and legal scholars theorized that psychological factors related to the abundance or scarcity of resources could influence individual and social views of punishment. Keelah Williams, the lead author of the study who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York, said “[t]o understand why people feel the way they do about the death penalty, we looked beyond individual differences to features of the environment that might affect people’s punishment attitudes, sometimes in ways outside of their conscious awareness.” The researchers first looked to see whether they could find a relationship at the societal level between punishment and abundance or scarcity and, after finding that link, conducted two experiments to test that relationship at the individual level. They found that study participants who had been shown information and images of economic hardship tended to view the death penalty more favorably than those of the same political ideology and socioeconomic status who had been given information and images about economic prosperity. They next hypothesized that resource scarcity affects the death penalty by leading people to see offenders as posing greater risks to society and asked questions to see whether there was a relationship between scarcity, tolerance of recidivism, and the death penalty. They found that when they asked study participants their views on questions such as “Keeping convicted murderers alive is too great a risk for society to take” or “The death penalty is the only way to ensure a convicted murderer will not murder again” before asking them about the death penalty itself, respondents expressed greater support for capital punishment. Law professor Michael Saks, the senior author of the study, said the findings suggest that perceptions about economic security influence the way a group deals with individuals who threaten the safety of others in the group. Arizona State University’s Psychology Department Chair Steven Neuberg said the study findings "help support the view that aspects of contemporary psychology rest on a deep, evolved rationality. They also have more immediate, practical implications: The ability of scientific psychology to better understand the peripheral factors that shape beliefs about the death penalty may be, for some, the difference between life and death."


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NEW RESOURCES: Capital Punishment and the State of Criminal Justice 2018

The American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section has released its annual report on issues, trends, and significant changes in America's criminal justice system. The new publication, The State of Criminal Justice 2018, includes a chapter by Ronald J. Tabak, chair of the Death Penalty Committee of the ABA's Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, describing significant death penalty cases and capital punishment developments over the past year. Tabak reports that 2017 had the second lowest number of death sentences (39) imposed in the United States in four decades – trailing only the 31 death sentences imposed in 2016. Two-thirds of these death sentences were imposed in just five states (California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and Florida), with nearly one-third of those sentences emanating from just three counties (Riverside, California; Clark, Nevada; and Maricopa, Arizona). Quoting Duke University Law Professor Brandon Garrett, Tabak writes that “‘jurors are increasingly reluctant to impose [a death sentence]’… where effective defense counsel have presented evidence about defendants’ mental illness, childhood abuse, and other facts that some juries – but far from all – have viewed as mitigating.” The chapter notes that local voters in states including Alabama, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania have replaced prosecutors in counties known for their heavy use of the death penalty with new district attorneys who are “far more skeptical about seeking death sentences.” Tabak also notes that the number of executions in 2017 (23) was the second-lowest number since executions resumed in the U.S. in the late 1970s, and four states – Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and Alabama – accounted for 74% of all 2017 executions. After discussing issues raised by executions in 2017, such as Arkansas’s rush to execute eight prisoners in two weeks or particularly problematic lethal injections, Tabak highlights “geographic, racial, and economic disparities, and other arbitrary factors, in implementing capital punishment,” the growing movement to “preclude executions of people with mental illness in particular situations,” and other major legal and legislative developments that may affect death penalty litigation. Regarding the future of capital punishment, Tabak writes, “There is ever greater appreciation of serious problems with the death penalty’s implementation. Increasingly, the death penalty in practice has been attacked by people who have served in the judiciary or law enforcement, taken part in executions, written death penalty laws, or are politically conservative.” Ultimately, he concludes, “[O]ur society must decide whether to continue with a penalty implemented in ways that cannot survive any serious cost/benefit analysis.”


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New Podcast: Authors of Tennessee Death-Penalty Study Discuss Arbitrariness

The latest edition of Discussions with DPIC features H.E. Miller, Jr. and Bradley MacLean, co-authors of a recent study on the application of Tennessee's death penalty. Miller and MacLean describe the findings from their article, Tennessee's Death Penalty Lottery, in which they examined the factors that influence death-penalty decisions in the state. Based on their survey of thirty years of homicide cases, they found that whether a death sentence is imposed is influenced far less by the circumstances of the offense than by arbitrary factors such as geography, race, and the poor quality of defense representation. MacLean says, "It operates just like a lottery. There's no rationale, there's no rhyme or reason for why an infinitesimally small number of defendants are sentenced to death and even a much smaller number are actually executed, as compared to all the defendants who are convicted of first-degree murder." The authors collected data on more than 2,500 first-degree murder cases in Tennessee from 1977-2017, and found that about 3.5% of first-degree murder defendants have been sentenced to death and fewer than 0.3% have been executed. Those few who are selected for the death penalty, though, do not represent the worst of the worst, with about 90% of multiple-victim murders resulting in life sentences. "The bottom line is, the people who get the death penalty are the most vulnerable, not the ones who commit the worst crimes," MacLean said. In the podcast, the authors also discuss the litigation surrounding Tennessee's method of execution, saying, "If the state can't get their method of execution right, then how can we expect them to get anything else right about the system?" They conclude, "The whole point of our study was to look at whether we have properly addressed the problem of arbitrariness that the Supreme Court talked about in Furman [v. Georgia, which declared all U.S. death-penalty statutes unconstitutionally arbitrary in 1972]. Our conclusion is that our system is no less arbitrary, it is just as arbitrary, as the systems that existed before Furman was decided. ...That's why we believe that our system is clearly unconstitutional."


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STUDY: The Death Penalty in Tennessee is “a Cruel Lottery”

A new study of Tennessee's death penalty concludes that the state's capital-punishment system is "a cruel lottery" that is "riddled with arbitrariness." The study, published in the summer 2018 issue of the Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy, examined every first-degree murder case in Tennessee since 1977 to determine whether the state had redressed the arbitrariness that led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the nation's death-penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. In their article, Tennessee's Death Penalty Lottery, lawyers H.E. Miller, Jr., who conducted the study, and Bradley A. MacLean write that the odds "are close to nil" that a person who was supplied with a description of the 2,514 first-degree murder cases prosecuted in Tennessee in the last forty years could identify the 86 cases that have resulted in death sentences sustained on appeal or the six cases that have resulted in executions. The facts of the crime, they found, did not predict whether a death sentence would be imposed. Rather, the best indicators were arbitrary factors such as where the murder occurred, the race of the defendant, the quality of the defense, and the views of the prosecutors and judges assigned to the case. The study found that more Tennessee death sentences have been overturned in the courts — 106 — than have been sustained, and many of the sustained cases are still under post-conviction appeal. Moreover, the study found "a sharp decline" in death sentences imposed over the past twenty years. In the four-year period from July 1989 through June 1993, there were 282 first-degree murder cases in Tennessee, with 38 trials resulting in death sentences; from July 2009 through June 2013, 284 first-degree murder cases produced six death sentences. Tennessee has imposed only one new death sentence since 2013. The authors concluded that "[t]he death penalty system as it has operated in Tennessee over the past 40 years, and especially over the past ten years, is but a cruel lottery, entrenching the very problems that [the Supreme Court] sought to eradicate." The study was released shortly before Tennessee is scheduled to perform its first execution in nearly nine years. The state plans to execute Billy Ray Irick on August 9, 2018, using a three-drug protocol (midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride) that has been implicated in past botched executions in other states. More than 30 death-row prisoners are suing the state, arguing that the protocol violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Even Tennessee's own corrections staff has raised concerns about the plan. An unidentified state employee who was working to obtain lethal injection drugs wrote in an email to state officials: "Here is my concern with Midazolam. Being a benzodiazepine, it does not elicit strong analgesic effects. The subjects may be able to feel pain from the administration of the second and third drugs. Potassium chloride, especially." The state's plan to use compounded drugs has also drawn criticism, in part because drug-production by compounding pharmacies is not subject to the same regulatory oversight as drugs produced by major manufacturers. In a trial that began July 9, lawyers for the prisoners argued that medical evidence will show that Tennessee's three-drug combination is the equivalent of chemical waterboarding, being buried alive, or being exposed to liquid fire or sarin gas. Prosecutors have argued that to be unconstitutional, the state's execution method would have to amount to torture or be a gruesome practice such as disembowelment, beheading, or burning at the stake.


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STUDY: Tennessee Could Save $1.4 Million Annually Ending Death Penalty for Severe Mental Illness

Tennessee could save an estimated $1.4–1.89 million per year by adopting a ban on capital punishment for defendants with severe mental illness, according to a new report by the American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project. The report said a severe mental illness death-penalty exclusion “could result in cost savings [because] a subset of individuals who currently could face expensive capital prosecutions and decades of appeals would become ineligible” for capital prosecution. As a result, “their trials and appeals would be significantly truncated, while still resulting in guilty verdicts.” The study projected statewide costs based upon its review of the death-row population from Shelby County, Tennessee, the nation's 13th largest county death row, and the results of comprehensive cost studies from other jurisdictions. Based on the 67 death sentences imposed in Shelby County between 1977 and 2017, the study estimated that approximately 15% of death-row prisoners had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, which includes schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, or major depression. If the same percentage of death-sentenced prisoners across the state had severe mental illness, the study said, 28 prisoners would have been exempted from Tennessee’s death penalty since 1977. The report based its cost estimates on a 2008 Urban Institute cost study of Maryland’s death penalty—considered one of the most rigorous of the state death-penalty cost studies conducted across the country. That study found that death-penalty cases cost about $1.9 million more than non-capital murder cases. Using that estimate, the report said, eliminating the 28 capital prosecutions of severely mentally ill defendants would have saved Tennessee $54.8 million over the last 40 years, or an average of $1.4 million per year. Mental Health America estimates that 20% of death-row prisoners have serious mental illness, the report said, and using its estimate of the prevalence of severe mental illness, Tennessee’s average annual savings would be even higher, at $1.89 million. Because no data were available on capital prosecutions in which seriously mentally ill defendants were not sentenced to death, the report did not calculate the potential additional cost savings from decapitalizing those cases. Tennessee is one of several states considering a mental illness exemption from the death penalty, and was selected for the study because it provides detailed information on all first-degree murder cases since 1977. In 2017, former Tennessee Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody expressed his support for a mental illness exemption, saying, “[a]s a former Tennessee Attorney General, I understand how horrific these crimes are and how seriously we must take capital cases. ... But in light of our increased understanding of mental illness, I believe that for those with documented mental illness of the most severe form at the time of their crime, the maximum punishment should be life in prison without parole.”


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Report Finds Systemic Flaws, Recommends Major Reforms in Pennsylvania Death Penalty

Pennsylvania’s death-penalty system is seriously flawed and in need of major reform, according to a report released June 25, 2018, by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. The bipartisan task force and advisory committee—which consisted of legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police chiefs, judges, and victims’ advocates—began work in 2012 and examined 17 issues related to the Commonwealth’s death penalty. Their years-long examination of topics such as costs, bias, innocence, proportionality, mental illness and intellectual disability, quality of representation, and impact on victims' families resulted in numerous policy reform recommendations. Ultimately, however, the committee concluded that certain problems are intractable: “There is no way to put procedural safeguards in place that will guarantee with 100% certainty that the Commonwealth will not execute an innocent person,” the report states. To address disparities in the quality of capital representation, the report recommends creating a state-funded capital defender office, which would represent capital defendants both at trial and on appeal. It also recommended exempting people with serious mental illness from being sentenced to death and having the court determine in advance of trial whether a capitally-charged defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from the death penalty. State Senator Daylin Leach, who served on the current task force and has sponsored death-penalty repeal bills, said, “The report concludes that our death penalty system is very expensive and lacks a way to ensure that innocent people will not be executed. Further, too many people on death row are economically or intellectually disadvantaged. And finally, there is no substantial evidence that capital punishment actually deters violent crime.” Marc Bookman, a defense attorney and co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, said, “Many people will conclude that having a death penalty in Pennsylvania simply doesn't make sense for moral, practical, or financial reasons. For those who still think it's worthwhile to keep it in place, the study documents the extensive work necessary to satisfy the constitutional requirements of fairness and due process, while minimizing the chances of error.” Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association President John Adams attacked the report as “reflecting predetermined findings that restate the usual litany of opinions long-held by death penalty opponents and the majority of the commission’s members.” In a statement, he said: “Absent a broad perspective, intellectual honesty or a balanced approach to justice, the report will become nothing more than another political tool used in smear campaigns by those determined to dismantle the criminal justice system.” Governor Tom Wolf, who imposed a moratorium on executions in 2015, said he will review the report and its recommendations before taking action.


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STUDY: Local Mississippi Prosecutors Struck Black Jurors at More than Four Times the Rate of Whites

A new study shows that the Mississippi District Attorney's office that has prosecuted Curtis Flowers for capital murder six times—striking almost all black jurors in each trial—has disproportionately excluded African Americans from jury service for more than a quarter century. Reviewing the exercise of discretionary jury strikes in 225 trials between 1992 and 2017, American Public Media Reports discovered that during the tenure of Mississippi's Fifth Circuit Court District Attorney Doug Evans (pictured) prosecutors have exercised peremptory strikes to exclude African Americans from jury service at nearly 4½ times the rate at which they struck white jurors. APM Reports collected and analyzed data on more than 6,700 jurors called for jury service in the the Fifth District. Its study—which was reviewed before its release by a statistics expert and two law professors who had conducted prior jury-strike studies—found that Fifth District prosecutors struck 50 percent of all eligible black jurors compared to only 11 percent of eligible whites. Looking at potentially race-neutral factors raised during juror questioning, APM Reports found that prosecutors were still far more likley to strike black jurors than similarly situated white jurors (click here to enlarge graph). Controlling for these factors, the study found that the odds prosecutors would strike a black juror were six times greater than the odds that they would strike a white juror. APM Reports prepared the study in connection with its acclaimed podcast series In the Dark, which this season focuses on the Flowers case. Evans' office has been scrutinized for alleged race-related abuses of powers during the course of Flowers' six trials for the murder of four furniture store employees. Flowers has consistently professed his innocence. In his first three trials, Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death by all-white or nearly all-white juries. In each of these cases, the state Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ordered new trials. Just before the second trial, Flowers' parents' house burned down. Shortly afterwards, his mother was told of a threat made by a white resident that, "If they let that n----- go, another house is going to burn." Jurors deadlocked in Flowers' fourth and fifth trials, split along racial lines. All the white jurors voted for death in both of those trials. Only one black juror served on the sixth jury, and Flowers was sentenced to death in that trial. Although it is unconstitutional to exclude jurors from service based on race, the practice is ubiquitous in many jurisdictions that heavily use the death penalty. Over the course of 332 criminal trials in CaddoParish, Louisiana in the decade from 2003-2012, prosecutors struck black jurors at more than triple the rate of other jurors, approximately the same disproportionate rate at which black jurors were struck in 35 cases resulting in death sentences in South Carolina in the fifteen years between 1997-2012. In 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period in North Carolina, and in more than 300 capital trials over more than two decades in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, prosecutors struck black jurors twice as frequently as other jurors. Most recently, in Georgia, Johnny Gates, who was sentenced to death in Columbus, Georgia in 1977, has challenged his conviction with evidence that his prosecutors struck every black juror they could in the seven capital trials they prosecuted between 1976 and 1979, empaneling all-white juries in six of those cases. 


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