PUBLIC OPINION: New Poll Shows Dramatic Jump in Support of Repealing California's Death Penalty

A new Los Angeles Times poll of registered voters in California showed a dramatic increase in support of Proposition 34, a ballot measure that would replace the death penalty with life without parole, saving the state tens of millions of dollars annually. The survey, conducted October 15-21, showed more respondents supporting repeal of the death penalty (45%) than those wanting to keep it (42%) when they were given information about the measure's financial impact and effect on prisoners. Eleven percent were undecided.  These results were an exact reversal of the Times earlier poll that showed more voters opposing the Proposition. Both this poll and the earlier poll also asked voters about Proposition 34 without including its financial impact.  Although slightly more respondents opposed repeal with this shorter question, the gap between opponents and supporters shrunk from 13% in September, to a statistical tie in October (45% to 42%). The margin of error for the poll was 2.9%.  The most recent poll was taken before a flurry of TV ads in support of Proposition 34 began running in the state.  According to California's legislative analyst, passage of Proposition 34 would save the state $130 million per year. Although California has the largest death row in the country, it has not carried out an execution in almost 7 years, and has executed 13 inmates since 1978.

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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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LETHAL INJECTION: Manufacturer of Proposed Execution Drug Blocks Its Use

The main supplier to the U.S. of a drug proposed for lethal injections has announced it will not allow the drug to be sold for executions. Fresenius Kabi USA, a German-based company with offices in Illinois, issued a statement forbidding the sale of propofol to correctional institutions for death penalty use. Earlier in 2012, Missouri announced it intended to switch to propofol as the sole drug in its lethal injection protocol, becoming the first state to do so. Fresenius Kabi officials reacted with a statement: “Fresenius Kabi objects to the use of its products in any manner that is not in full accordance with the medical indications for which they have been approved by health authorities. Consequently, the company does not accept orders for propofol from any departments of correction in the United States. Nor will it do so." Missouri, like most states with the death penalty, had been using sodium thiopental as the first drug in a three-drug protocol. Supplies of the drug expired or ran out, forcing states to seek alternatives. Some states replaced sodium thiopental with pentobarbital, but supplies of that drug have also dwindled after its manufacturer announced it will restrict the drug's sale for similar reasons. Read full statement from Fresenius Kabi.

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STUDIES: Reasons Behind the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Illinois

A new report by Rob Warden (pictured), Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, explores the conditions that led to the end of Illinois's death penalty in 2011. Warden says abolition came about because of a series of fortuitous circumstances, but also because of the work of countless attorneys, academics, journalists and activists who took advantage of these developments. The cavalcade of exonerations from death row, including the high-profile release of Anthony Porter, who was freed through the work of journalism students, underscored the flaws in the death penalty. Police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct caused an erosion of public confidence in the death penalty system. Finally, the report of the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee, finding that the state could have saved $200 million if it ended the death penalty in 2000, greatly impacted the movement for repeal. Warden noted that what happened in Illinois carried over to other states and said he believes, “The future of the movement [to end the death penalty] hinges on how the arguments that carried the day in Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Connecticut resonate in the thirty-three states where death penalties remain in force but have fallen increasingly into disuse.”  The report is published in the Journal of Law and Inequality.

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NEW VOICES: Conservatives Seek to Repeal the Death Penalty in Montana

In Montana, a conservative political group is calling for an end to the death penalty after a recent court ruling held the state’s execution protocol unconstitutional. Former Republican state Senator Roy Brown said, “Conservatives dislike waste and inefficiency. That is why we should cast a critical eye when the state is involved with the business of executing people…. When it takes over 20 years and hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars for extra legal fees and court costs, it is obvious that the process is full of waste and inefficiency.” Steve Dogiakos, a member of Montana Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, said the court ruling “shines a bright light on the ineffectiveness and inefficiencies associated with capital punishment.” Republican Representative Christy Clark (pictured) plans to sponsor a bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole. She said, “It is time for conservatives to do what they do best and insist that a wasteful inefficient government program gets off the books. Small government and the death penalty don't go together. We should not trust the state to get this right.”

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TIME ON DEATH ROW: After 34 Years, California's First Death Case Continues

Douglas Stankewitz, a Native American, was the first person sent to California's death row after capital punishment was reinstated in 1978. Thirty-four years later, he remains there as his appeals continue.  His conviction was overturned in 1982 because he had not received a mental competency hearing, despite findings by court-appointed doctors that he was mentally unstable and brain-damaged as a result of childhood abuse. His second trial is now being appealed on the grounds that his court-appointed attorney was ineffective. Stankewitz maintains that, although he was involved in a crime when the victim was killed, he did not commit the murder.  Voters in California will be considering a referendum to repeal the death penalty in November. Supporters of the initiative say the death penalty is costing the state $184 million a year in legal costs, and life sentences would reduce the costs to just $11.5 million.  Also, taxpayers would save $65 million a year in prison expenditures because each death row inmate costs $90,000 per year in extra security and services. Opponents of the referendum say that the high costs are driven by needless appeals.  California has 728 inmates on death row.  Since 1978, it has carried out 13 executions, and 3 men have been exonerated.  Many more on the row have died of natural causes.

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BOOKS: "The Death of the American Death Penalty"

A new book by Larry Koch, Colin Wark and John Galliher discusses the status of the death penalty in the U.S. in light of recent legislative activity and court decisions. In The Death of the American Death Penalty, the authors examine the impact of factors such as economic conditions, public sentiment, the role of elites, the media, and population diversity on the death penalty debate. The book highlights the recent abolition decisions in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois, and the surprising decline of the death penalty even in the deep South. James R. Acker, Distinguished Teaching Professor in Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, said, “Support for capital punishment in this country, as measured by the laws authorizing it, prosecutors’ enthusiasm for seeking it, jury verdicts that dispatch it, and executioners’ final deliverance, has eroded rapidly in recent years. A decade after the publication of its predecessor and carrying on in that volume’s fine tradition, The Death of the American Death Penalty provides detailed explanations—the where, how, and why—of these dramatic developments in death penalty laws and practices.”

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EDITORIALS: "We're wasting money on a process that accomplishes little"

A recent editorial in the Paradise Post of California called the state's death penalty a "charade" and recommended that it be ended.  The editorial cited figures released by the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, which found that repealing the death penalty would "save state and counties about $100 million annually in murder trials, death penalty appeals and corrections in the first few years, growing to about $130 million annually thereafter." The editorial also emphasized that since the death penalty law was enacted in California in 1978, 900 individuals have been sentenced to death, but only 14 (actually 13) have been executed, while 83 have died on death row and 75 have had their sentences reduced. Even assuming that executions resumed at their prior pace, the paper said it would take 906 years to execute just those presently on death row. The editorial concluded, "[W]e're wasting money on a process that accomplishes little. Knowing that there's a far better chance of an inmate dying in prison than via the death penalty, why continue the charade?" Read full editorial below.

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NEW VOICES: Growing Concerns in Utah About High Cost of the Death Penalty

Legislators and other officials in Utah are expressing concerns about the high costs of the death penalty and its lack of deterrent effect. Speaking before the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, Republican State Representative Steve Handy (pictured) said, “In today’s world, the death penalty is so infrequently used that I don’t believe it is any kind of a deterrent."  The Davis County prosecutor, Troy Rawlings, a proponent of the death penalty, nevertheless agreed that replacing the death penalty with life without parole "would remove some of the significant complications of cases and expedite them, as well as save money." According to legislative fiscal analyst Gary R. Syphus, it costs county governments $460,000 annually to defend and prosecute a capital murder case. The Law Enforcement Committee has ranked the death penalty the number one policy issue to study this year, and a committee at the University of Utah is also researching the costs of death penalty cases in the state. 

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NEW VOICES: Former California Justice Now Says Death Penalty Is Broken Beyond Repair

Carlos Moreno, who served as a Justice on California's Supreme Court for nearly a decade and upheld more than 200 death sentences, now supports a ballot measure to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole because the system is broken and unlikely to be fixed. Justice Moreno said that as long as capital defendants are "entitled to a fair trial and decent legal representation, there’s no way the system can accomplish its stated goals — punishment and deterrence for the criminals, justice for their victims – in a timely manner without money that the state is either unable or unwilling to spend."  He added, “I would think that we could fix the system, make it more efficient and actually faster, but I just don’t see that coming anywhere in the future. In California the people may be willing to support the death penalty in principle but they’re not willing to fund it.”  According to a 2011 study co-authored by federal Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Alarcon, the death penalty in California costs taxpayers about $184 million per year.  Justice Moreno concluded, “[T]here’s no chance California’s death penalty can ever be fixed. The millions wasted on this broken system would be much better spent keeping teachers, police and firefighters on their jobs.”

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