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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NEW VOICES: Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Ready to Close Door on New Mexico's Death Penalty

In March of this year, New Mexico repealed the death penalty, becoming the fifteenth state to abolish the practice. The law, however, is not retroactive, and does not affect two inmates currently on death row as well as any defendant sentenced to death for crimes committed before the law was to take effect in July 2009. One of the legislators who voted to end the death penalty, partly because of its high costs, was Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, who also voted to repeal the death penalty in 2007.  Arnold-Jones recently said she “would consider commuting sentences of the two men on death row and any others who may join them.” She continued, “[T]he biggest reason that I couldn't sustain the death penalty any longer is it's not working. It is fraught with so many issues, so much cost and it bogs down our system. It's just not working.“  

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Gov. Perdue Signs North Carolina's Racial Justice Act--NAACP Commends Passage

Governor Beverly Purdue of North Carolina signed the state's Racial Justice Act into law on August 11, concluding a long period of legislative action surrounding this death penalty statute.  Gov. Purdue said in a news release, "I have always been a supporter of death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly.  The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals – the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”  The law allows pre-trial defendants and death-row inmates to challenge racial bias in the death penalty system through the use of statistical studies.  Prosecutors would then have the opportunity to rebut the claim that the statistical disparities indicate racial bias.  If proven, a judge could overturn the death sentence or prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

The state conference of the NAACP issued a statement, commending the sponsors of the bill and the governor.  They cautioned, "This law does not assure racial justice, but it can help bring it about. The law is one of the most powerful legitimate weapons we can use to rid our state of the criminal justice practice of racial bias.  It does not address the roots of the problem – stereotypes, fear and even racism – but it is a start."

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Racial Justice Act passes in North Carolina

On August 5, the North Carolina senate passed a bill allowing pre-trial defendants and death-row inmates to challenge the death penalty process through the use of statistical studies. The Racial Justice Act allows a defendant facing a capital trial or an inmate sentenced to death to use evidence showing a pattern of racial disparity as a way of challenging racial injustice in the death penalty.  Prosecutors would then have the opportunity to rebut the claim that the statistical disparities indicate racial bias.  If proven, a judge could overturn the death sentence or prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) (pictured), the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said,  “[The law] is critically needed to correct any type of conduct that might be impermissible when it comes to the imposition of the death penalty.”  The House had passed the Racial Justice Act earlier.  Governor Beverly Purdue is expected to sign the bill into law.  

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Murders Drop in New Jersey Following Moratorium and Abolition of Death Penalty

The number of murders in New Jersey declined 24% in the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period last year.  Murders declined in 2008, the year after the state abolished the death penalty, marking the first time since 1999 that New Jersey has seen a drop in murders for two consecutive years.  Murders dropped 11% in 2007, the year following a state-imposed moratorium on executions, which was instituted in 2006. Governor Jon Corzine, who signed the bill abolishing the death penalty, was encouraged by the statistics and attributed the decline to aggressive crime-fighting measures: "The release of these crime report statistics shows that we are winning important battles in the war against violent criminals and gangs," said the Governor. "Thanks to the efforts of Attorney General Milgram and the New Jersey law enforcement community, county task forces, police departments, and partner agencies, more than  4,200 offenders have been arrested for crimes including murder, assault with a firearm, armed robbery, and gun and drug trafficking. We know more work remains.  Even one act of violence against a New Jersey citizen is one too many."

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RACE: Research Experts Say Racial Bias Still Exists in Death Penalty

Renowned researchers David Baldus, Professor of Law at the University of Iowa, and George Woodworth, a fellow of the American Statistical Association, recently wrote about the ongoing problem of racial disparities in capital cases.  Professors Baldus and Woodworth were responsible for the acclaimed study on race and the death penalty in Georgia that was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 in McCleskey v. Kemp.  In response to claims that North Carolina does not need to pass the Racial Justice Act, the researchers pointed to "several studies, including one done at UNC-Chapel Hill several years ago, that found that a defendant's odds of getting the death penalty in North Carolina increased by 3.5 times if the victim is white."  They wrote further: "Our published review of all studies completed up to 2003 reaches the same conclusion. No one who has read the research literature could claim that white-victim cases more frequently result in death sentences because they are more heinous and aggravated than black-victim cases. Studies that provide the strongest evidence that those who murder whites are substantially more likely to receive death sentences than those who murder blacks use well-accepted statistical tools to filter out the effects of these various non-racial factors."  Their entire op-ed may be read below:

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RECENT LEGISLATION: Texas to Open First Capital Defense Office for Death Penalty Appeals

Following recently passed legislation, Texas will open an office with nine attorneys to manage post-conviction appeals in death penalty cases.  In the past, appointed attorneys sometimes missed filing deadlines or filed inadequate briefs, thereby jeopardizing their clients' cases.  The Office of Capital Writs will be funded by redirecting money already in the state budget: $500,000 formerly used to pay private attorneys for appeals and $494,520 from the state's Fair Defense account.  The office will oversee the part of the appeals process known as state habeas corpus where constitutional issues outside the trial can be raised.  This important phase can address issues such as new evidence of innocence, prosecutorial misconduct, and inadequate representation.  Eventually, this office will handle most state habeas appeals, which currently number about 10 a year.  "I think that everyone agrees (death row inmates) deserve one fair shot at presenting their issues," said Andrea Marsh, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. "We saw too many cases where poor state habeas representation forced people to lose appeals."

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Senator Kennedy Raises Concerns About Expansion of Federal Death Penalty

In response to an amendment to the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act that would add the death penalty as a punishment for certain offenses under the Act, Senator Edward Kennedy (MA) entered a statement into the Congressional Record highlighting some of the risks of the death penalty.  An excerpt of his statement appears below:

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, Senator SESSIONS has introduced an amendment that would create two new death penalty eligible offenses for crimes under the Matthew Shepard Act. I stand firmly in opposition to any new legislation that would radically expand the use of the death penalty, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to oppose the Sessions amendment because it adds another new death penalty to the Federal Criminal Code. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s, the Death Penalty Information Center has reported that 135 people have been released from death row in the United States because of innocence—approximately one exoneration for every nine executions.

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Racial Justice Act Passed In North Carolina House and Senate

On July 15, the House of Representatives of North Carolina voted 61-53 to pass the Racial Justice Act. A similar bill already passed the state senate, though that bill contained an amendment to bypass some objections to the state's execution process.  The new law, if finally approved, would allow judges to consider whether racial bias played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty.  "This is a fairness bill," said Rep. Larry Womble, the Forsyth Democrat who helped champion the bill. "If we're going to kill people, we must be as fair and objective as we can. This allows one more chance for justice to be blind. ... It's not a get-out-of-jail free card for anybody."




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Ohio's New Lethal Injection Procedures Include 'Pinching Inmate' to Test for Consciousness

The first execution under Ohio’s new lethal injection procedure was conducted on June 3.  Questions about the effectiveness of the first of the three drugs used, as well as recent botched executions, have brought Ohio’s procedures under scrutiny. The new procedures include a procedure for the warden to pinch the inmate to make sure the first drug works before administering the second, which has been described as excrutiatingly painful . "The warden will call their name, shake their shoulder a bit and give the upper arm a pinch just to see if he responds," explained Chief Legal Counsel for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Greg Trout. "An unconscious person shouldn't respond. If there is no response, we assume the offender is unconscious." Prior to the procedure update, prison officials had trouble inserting shunts to carry the drugs during the execution of two inmates, Christopher Newton in 2007 and Joseph Clark in 2006. Newton’s procedure lasted so long he was given a break to use the restroom; Clark cried out during his execution that the injection “isn’t working.”  Ohio defense lawyer Jeffrey Gamso doubts the effectiveness of the new rules. "They are still using three drugs. There is no reason to use three drugs," said Gamso, the former legal director for the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union. "Here is what we know about three drugs: two of them serve no purpose in getting the guy dead ... Our expert and the state's expert have said using three drugs increases the risk of causing excruciating pain. So this new policy, it's nibbling around the edges."

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