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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How the Death Penalty Might Be Ended in California

In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, death penalty scholar Franklin Zimring suggested that the close (52-48%) vote in November on California’s Proposition 34 to end capital punishment means the repeal effort is far from over. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote, “For decades, it has been assumed that the death penalty was the third rail of California politics …. Measured against that reputation, the narrowly divided electorate on Prop. 34 is quite a surprise." He suggested two traditional ways--other than another referendum--that capital punishment might be abolished. One way involves a finding by the courts that California's law is unconstitutional: "A federal court has been considering whether the current California laundry list of aggravating circumstances is too promiscuous to meet minimum constitutional standards. If this current grab bag is struck down, the California Legislature then would have to consider whether and how to write a new death penalty statute. After courts struck down state statutes in New York and Massachusetts, the legislatures of each state decided the best course was no death penalty." A second alternative would be for the governor to declare a moratorium on executions, followed at a later time by complete abolition. Zimring concluded, “Whatever the endgame for state execution in California, the saga of 2012's Prop. 34 will have been an important step toward an outcome that now looks inevitable on the near horizon.” Read full op-ed below.

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MULTIMEDIA: Nebraska Debate on the Death Penalty

On November 28, the University of Nebraska hosted a dialogue on the death penalty with J. Kirk Brown (left), Nebraska's Solicitor General, and Professor Michael Radelet (right) of the University of Colorado. Mr. Kirk was the state's counsel of record for all of its executions since 1978. Prof. Radelet is a well-known death penalty expert, researcher, and the author of several works on innocence and the death penalty. The discussion was titled: “The Death Penalty: Justice, Retribution and Dollars” and explored whether the state should continue or abandon its death penalty.  A video of the dialogue is available at this link.  Since 1978, Nebraska has carried out three executions, but none since 1997.  There are 11 inmates on the state's death row.  Learn more about Nebraska's death penalty here.

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INTERNATIONAL: Roman Colosseum Lit to Mark Connecticut's Abolition of Death Penalty

On November 29, the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, was illuminated in honor of Connecticut's repeal of the death penalty in April of this year. The event featured former death row inmate Shujaa Graham of California and George Kain of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. Five states in the past five years have abolished the death penalty: Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York. The program also commemorated the 10th World Day of Cities Against the Death Penalty, sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a faith-based organization focusing on conflict resolution and interfaith dialoge. See a slide slow of pictures from participating cities at this link.

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EDITORIALS: "Oregon's Life-or-Death Vote"

A recent editorial in The Oregonian, one of the state's major newspapers, endorsed a bill in the upcoming legislative session that could result in the repeal of the death penalty. The bill, to be introduced by Rep. Mitch Greenlick, would begin the process of amending the state's constitution through a referendum as early as November 2014. The editors wrote, "5 states -- New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and New Mexico -- have abandoned the death penalty in recent years. Advances in DNA testing, combined with dogged advocacy work, have startled the public into realizing that dozens of innocent people have been wrongly sentenced to die based on faulty evidence and poor legal defense. Oregon has grown more liberal since its last vote on capital punishment about three decades ago, and it's possible to picture Oregon joining the ranks of the abolitionists." Read full editorial below.  

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RECENT LEGISLATIVE ACTIVITY: Bill Introduced in Texas Aims to Restrict Informant Testimony in Death Penalty Cases

Texas Representative Harold Dutton recently filed a bill that would prevent prosecutors in death penalty cases from using testimony from informants or from alleged accomplices of the defendant if the testimony was obtained in exchange for leniency, immunity or other special provisions. If passed, the bill would make Texas among the first states to ban such testimony. Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola of Los Angeles Law School, said, “The use of criminal informants is a massive source of error in our most serious cases…. Criminal informants have strong incentives to lie and very few disincentives to lie, because criminal informants are almost never punished.” Anthony Graves, the most recent death row inmate to be exonerated in Texas, was condemned primarily because of the testimony of an alleged accomplice, who later admitted to committing the crime alone.

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With Death Penalty Stalled, Maryland May Again Consider Abolition

When Maryland's legislature again convenes in January, it is likely to consider a bill to repeal the death penalty. Governor Martin O'Malley (pictured) has sponsored such legislation in the past and may do so again. O'Malley has called the death penalty "inherently unjust" and said resources spent on capital punishment could be better used elsewhere. Maryland has not carried out an execution or had a new death sentence since 2005. Executions are currently on hold because the state's lethal injection procedures are unsettled. A number of states have switched to a one-drug method, but that would require legislative changes in Maryland's death penalty law. It is not clear that there are sufficient votes for such a change. Regardless of the governor's actions, a repeal bill will be put before the legislature. Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said, “I think there’s a lot of momentum for [repeal]. If it’s going to happen while O’Malley’s still governor, this will be the year to do it.”

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NEW VOICES: Growing Coalition Supports Repeal of New Hampshire Death Penalty

New Hampshire State Representative Renny Cushing (pictured), whose father and brother-in-law were murdered, is one of many members of the state's legislature who supports repeal of the death penalty. "Everyone is moving away from the death penalty. It’s clear New Hampshire isn’t in love with the death penalty. We haven’t executed anyone since 1939," Cushing said. New Hampshire's only death row inmate currently has an appeal before the state Supreme Court. A death penalty abolition bill passed the New Hampshire House in 2009, but was vetoed by the Governor. Governor-elect Maggie Hassan said she opposed expanding the death penalty and is expected to sign a repeal bill if it passes the legislature. Past efforts to end the death penalty in New Hampshire have crossed party lines. Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt sponsored a repeal bill in 2000 and has taken preliminary measures to abolish the death penalty this year. "New Hampshire’s a really strong libertarian state. There is a strong element in the state that doesn’t trust the government to collect taxes and plow roads," Cushing said. "And it certainly doesn’t want to give the government the power to kill people."

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California Retains Death Penalty by Narrow Margin

On November 6, 2012, California’s Proposition 34, an initiative to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole, was narrowly defeated by a vote of 53% to 47%. Although the result means the death penalty will continue in the state, the percent of voters supporting repeal represents a dramatic shift away from capital punishment. The referendum, which indicated just more than half of voters are in favor of keeping the death penalty, follows a broader trend of diminishing public support for the punishment. By contrast, the 1978 ballot initiative that enacted California’s death penalty statute passed with the support of 71% of the voters. California’s use of the death penalty has declined in recent years. Death sentences in California dropped from 40 in 1981 to 10 in 2011. California has not carried out an execution since 2006.  Among the leading proponents of Proposition 34 were Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin Prison, Gil Garcetti, the former District Attorney of Los Angeles County, and Donald Heller, a former prosecutor who drafted the 1978 death penalty initiative.

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NEW VOICES: Bill O'Reilly Joins Conservative Voices Supporting Repeal of California Death Penalty

Conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly (pictured) of Fox News recently endorsed California's Proposition 34, the ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. O'Reilly joined many conservative supporters of the measure, including Ron Briggs, who led the campaign to reinstate California's death penalty in 1978. In an op-ed about O'Reilly's endorsement, Briggs discussed the conservative argument for repeal, calling the death penalty "a fiscal disaster" and raising concerns about innocence and the effects on victims' families. He explained why the death penalty has cost California $4 billion and said the death penalty system is "light years away from the conservative mantra of 'smaller, smarter, simpler' government." He urged conservatives to support the alternative of life without parole, saying, "Life in prison without parole keeps our families safe and provides legal finality for victims. It also holds criminals accountable by making them work and pay restitution to the victims’ compensation instead of enjoying super star status on death row." Read full op-ed below.

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