NEW VOICES: Arkansas Attorney General Says State Death Penalty "Completely Broken"

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel recently said the state’s death penalty system was “completely broken” and recommended it be abolished if the state's execution method isn't changed. McDaniel said, “It’s time for the policy makers of Arkansas to say, ‘Do we continue with a broken system and throwing money and resources at essentially pointless litigation, or do we modify the system?’ And there’s only really two modifications that I see available — it’s either abolish the death penalty or change the method of execution.” He added, “Frankly, I don’t think we are telling jurors the truth when we lead them to believe that they are sentencing someone to death when we really don’t have a viable system with which to execute someone.” In speaking to the Sheriffs Associaton, he criticized the state’s lethal injection protocol because there are no execution drugs available and because of the difficulty in getting physicians to participate in executions. Arkansas currently has 38 inmates on death row. The state's last execution was in 2005.

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Ohio Committee Recommends Narrowing of Crimes Eligible for Capital Punishment

An Ohio Supreme Court committee appointed to study the death penalty recently made recommendations on how the state’s capital punishment system can lessen the impact of racial bias. The committee recommended limiting the death penalty to fewer cases, focusing on those involving multiple victims, those involving victims under the age of 13, killings of police officers, and crimes committed to eliminate witnesses. The proposal attempts to remove the influence of race in capital cases by eliminating the death penalty for cases that involve a high degree of discretion in sentencing, such as murders that involve kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated burglary, or aggravated robbery. The recommendation was passed by the committee by a vote of 12-2, and will likely be considered during the 2014 legislative session. Death penalty statutes vary significantly among the states. California, which has the largest death row in the country, and Texas, the leading execution state, have broad statutes that allow almost any murder case to be tried as a capital case. New Hampshire and Kansas, however, have much narrower statutes. 

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RECENT LEGISLATION: Florida Lawyers Challenge New Law Accelerating Executions

On June 26, lawyers in Florida filed a lawsuit challenging the 2013 Timely Justice Act, a law signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier in June. The Act could accelerate executions by requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a Supreme Court review, provided the governor determines that the clemency process is complete. An execution must follow within 180 days. The lawsuit was filed by the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates during post-conviction proceedings, with more than 100 current death row inmates named as plaintiffs. The lawsuit claims that the new law is unconstitutional because it takes away the court’s powers and violates death penalty defendants’ rights to due process and equal protection. The suit stated, “The Act creates a rushed process for issuance of a likely flood of death warrants that will inundate the courts and abruptly cut off this Court’s exercise of judicial review in capital cases. If not addressed prior to its operation in practice, the process will have the unconstitutional and irreversible result of individuals being executed under a legislatively-determined judicial procedure in which violations of their constitutional rights go unresolved. Further, Florida history shows that diminished process can have tragic and irreversible consequences.” Florida leads the country in exonerations, with 24 inmates released from death row since 1973. The Timely Justice Act is scheduled to take effect on July 1.

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Oregon Supreme Court Affirms Governor's Halt to All Executions

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that Governor John Kitzhaber may delay the executions of the state's death row inmates during his term of office. In 2011, Kitzhaber instituted a moratorium on all executions in the state, saying, "I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor." That decision was challenged by death row inmate Gary Haugen, who had waived his appeals in order to speed up his execution. Haugen argued that the reprieve was invalid because he refused to accept it, but the Court rejected that argument, ruling that the governor's clemency power is not dependent on the inmate's acceptance and noting that the reprieve will come to an end when the governor leaves office. Kitzhaber has urged the state legislature to allow a statewide vote on the death penalty. Because Oregon's death penalty was instituted by popular vote, it can only be repealed by a ballot measure. Oregon has had 2 executions since the death penalty was reinstated, both involving inmates who waived their appeals.

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NEW VOICES: Former County GOP Chair Says Death Penalty Violates Conservative Values

Steve Monks, a former Durham County, North Carolina, GOP Chair, recently called for an end to the death penalty in the state. Earlier in June, legislators voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, which had allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias. Monks wrote in an op-ed in Plain Talk Politics that the most recent attempts to reform capital punishment in the state are strong indications that “the system will never work properly.” Monk encouraged conservative Republicans to reexamine the death penalty in light of the system’s additional costs compared to life without parole, the risks of wrongful executions, and its failure to bring closure to murder victims’ families. Monk concluded, “The time has come for conservatives here in North Carolina to ask ourselves if the death penalty really fits with our values. We all want a smaller, more efficient government that does not abuse its power, along with swift and sure justice… Let’s put an end to North Carolina’s seemingly endless death penalty debate by simply bringing our politics in line with our conservative principles – wasteful government programs that don’t work and go against our values should be ended.”  Read full op-ed below.

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LETHAL INJECTION: Federal Judge Requires Louisiana Officials to Reveal Details of Lethal Injection Protocol

On June 4, a federal magistrate ruled that the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections must reveal the details of the state's lethal injection protocol. The ruling rejected the argument that disclosing the protocol would raise “serious security concerns.” The ruling by Judge Stephen Riedlinger was on a motion related to the lawsuit filed by death row inmates Jessie Hoffman and Christopher Sepulvado, who contended that due process requires they be fully informed about the state’s execution process. Michael Rubenstein, defense attorney for Hoffman and Sepulvado, noted that, “Not only are lethal injection protocols widely available in other states, the courts have rejected the very argument that the Defendants seek to advance.” Texas and Mississippi, for example, have publicly disclosed their lethal injection protocols. In Texas, the protocol includes specific location of the inmate, the timing of the inmate’s transport to the location of the execution, and other information. The Department of Safety and Corrections now has 14 days to provide Hoffman and Sepulvado’s defense attorneys with the lethal injection protocol.

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RECENT LEGISLATION: North Carolina Legislators Vote to Repeal Racial Justice Act

On June 5, legislators in North Carolina voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, which had allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias. Since the law took effect in 2009, most of the inmates facing execution in North Carolina appealed their sentence under the law. In 2012, Marcus Robinson, who was the first defendant to receive a hearing under the RJA, was re-sentenced to life without parole due to evidence of racial bias in jury selection. Rep. Darren Jackson expressed his disappointment at the repeal: “[W]e voted for the RJA because we wanted the death penalty to be applied uniformly, without regard to race. Be it the perpetrator, the victim, or an individual juror, race should play no part in the process.”  Governor Pat McCrory has said he will sign the repeal bill.

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RECENT LEGISLATION: Maryland Death Penalty Will Not Face Referendum

Maryland’s death penalty repeal legislation will take effect as scheduled on October 1, 2013 after its opponents were unsuccessful in securing the number of signatures required to put the issue on the November 2014 ballot. Efforts to put Maryland’s death penalty to a statewide vote were led by Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger and a group called On May 31, the group announced that it only collected about 15,000 signatures, falling short of the 18,579 signatures required in order to proceed. If the group had met the initial deadline, they would have had until June 30th to collect more than 37,000 signatures from registered voters in order to place the referendum on the November 2014 ballot. "To be reaffirmed by the public, and know that justice is served, is wonderful," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who supported the repeal bill, "This is the most profound thing I will ever do." On May 2, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abandon capital punishment when Governor Martin O'Malley signed the repeal bill into law.

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Texas Enacts "Michael Morton Act" Intended to Reduce Wrongful Convictions

On May 16, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a bill known as the "Michael Morton Act" that will require prosecutors to open their files to defendants and keep records of the evidence they disclose. The Act is named for Michael Morton (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1987. He was exonerated in 2011 after DNA evidence revealed that someone else had murdered his wife. Morton's lawyers discovered that the original prosecutor had withheld evidence that could have proven Morton's innocence. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brady v. Maryland (1963) already requires prosecutors to hand over to defendants any evidence that is "material either to guilt or to punishment," but Texas' new law requires disclosure of all police reports and witness statements, regardless of whether the evidence is material to guilt or punishment. Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, said, "This is a great day for fairness in Texas. The Michael Morton Act will reduce wrongful convictions; it is something we can all be very proud of." Twelve inmates have been exonerated and freed from Texas' death row since 1973.

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Former Death Row Inmates Are Ambassadors of Change

A recent article in The Nation by David Love, the Director of Witness to Innocence, underscored the important role of people like Kirk Bloodsworth and Shujaa Graham (pictured), who were once on death row and now have been freed. These and many of the 140 other people who have been exonerated from death row have traveled the country, speaking to legislators, students, church groups, and the general public about the risks of executions. Bloodsworth's efforts in Maryland have received wide attention. Shujaa Graham, also a Maryland resident, was exonerated from death row in California after the state Supreme Court overturned his death sentence because the prosecutor had excluded African Americans from his jury. He was later acquitted in a re-trial. Both Bloodsworth and Graham recently attended the signing of the death-penalty repeal bill in Maryland.

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