New and Timely Resources from DPIC
DPIC recently published a new page that presents execution data for each state and each year since 1976. This allows users to more easily see execution trends in states over time. We have also recently posted updated state data from "Death Row, USA." As of October 1, 2013, there were 3,088 inmates on death row, continuing the decline in death row population since 2000. As developments surrounding lethal injection continue to emerge, users can find current information on our State-by-State Lethal Injection page. Finally, information on legislative action on capital punishment, such as the upcoming vote on repealing the death penalty in New Hampshire, can be found on our Recent Legislation page.
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Perils of State Secrecy Surrounding Lethal Injections
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, attorneys Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno argued that the veil of secrecy that many states have placed over their execution process violates defendants' constitutional rights and "deprives the public of informed debate." The authors provided numerous examples where inmates executed with drugs from compounding pharmacies or with novel mixes of new drugs exhibited signs of consciousness and suffering. However, inmates whose executions are rapidly approaching are unable to mount a credible challenge to the drugs that will be used because legislatures or wardens have labeled the sources as state secrets. The attorneys concluded, "The Eighth Amendment requires that the ultimate punishment our society can impose and the means by which it is carried out are subject to the highest level of scrutiny. If prison officials conceal crucial information from judges, lawyers and the public, we have only their word that the drugs will cause death in a manner that complies with the Constitution. Clearly, we can’t leave that to trust."
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North Carolina Supreme Court to Hear Racial Justice Act Cases
On April 14, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear appeals in the cases of the four inmates whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act. North Carolina passed the Act in 2009, allowing death row inmates to use statistical studies to show that racial bias affected their trials. The first four cases were heard in 2012. The evidence presented at hearings for defendants Marcus Robinson (l.), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters included testimony that prosecutors made racially charged notes during jury selection and participated in a training seminar where they were taught how to get around laws that banned striking jurors on the basis of race. Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks reduced the sentences of all four inmates to life. In one ruling, Weeks said he found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” The Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013, but claims made prior to repeal are still pending. The state brought the current appeal before the state Supreme Court in an attempt to have the death sentences of all four inmates reinstated.
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Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform
► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:
► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.
See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.
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NEW VOICES: Former New Hampshire Justices Support Death Penalty Repeal
Two former justices of the New Hampshire Supreme Court recently voiced their support for repealing the death penalty. In an op-ed, Joseph Nadeau (l.) and John Broderick (r.) emphasized the death penalty's lack of deterrent effect, saying, "New Hampshire has not executed anyone for three quarters of a century. Yet, it registered the second lowest murder rate in the nation every year of this century." Murder rates were higher in heavy-use death penalty states, they noted. The former justices said the decision to seek the death penalty is often "random" and "easily influenced by public opinion, political pressure and media attention." They justices said the sentence of life without parole is an appropriate alternative, protecting society and punishing the offender. They concluded: "Abolishing the death penalty will not compromise public safety, but it may replace rage with reason, retribution with self-respect, and enrich the character of our people as a whole." Read the op-ed below.
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COSTS: Idaho Study Finds Death Penalty Cases Are Rare, Lengthy, & Costly
A new, but limited, study of the costs of the death penalty in Idaho found that capital cases are more costly and take much more time to resolve than non-capital cases. One measure of death-penalty costs was reflected in the time spent by attorneys handling appeals. The State Appellate Public Defenders office spent about 44 times more time on a typical death penalty appeal than on a life sentence appeal (almost 8,000 hours per capital defendant compared to about 180 hours per non-death penalty defendant). Capital cases with trials took 20.5 months to reach a conclusion while non-capital cases with trials took 13.5 months. The study was commissioned by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee and performed by the Office of Performance Evaluations.The study also noted how infrequently the death penalty was applied in Idaho: of the 251 defendants who were charged with first-degree murder since 1998, the death penalty was sought against 55 (22%) of them, and just 7 were sentenced to death. More than half of the 40 people sentenced to death since 1977 have received lesser sentences after their death sentences were overturned.
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Should State Executions Proceed Under a Veil of Secrecy?
In his Sidebar column in the N.Y. Times, Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak recently discussed the concerns about states denying death row inmates information about how they will be executed. Liptak highlighted the recent execution of Michael Taylor in Missouri, where the state has made the pharmacy providing the drugs for lethal injection part of its "execution team," thus obscuring any failings the pharmacy may have. This secretive approach drew criticism from a minority of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and a dissent from three Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have granted Taylor a stay of execution to consider his due process rights to information about the state's method for killing him. As Liptak said, "[I]t is hard to see how death row inmates can argue that a given method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment if they are barred from knowing what the method is." Though Taylor was executed, other death row inmates are raising similar claims that may come before the Supreme Court.
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New Hampshire House About to Vote on Death Penalty Repeal
[UPDATE: The repeal bill passed the House 225-104 on March 12. On April 17, the Senate voted 12-12 and then tabled the bill.] The New Hampshire House of Representatives has scheduled a vote on repealing the death penalty for March 12. The bill, HB 1170, would replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole for future offenses. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House Criminal Justice and Public Works Committee in February by a vote of 14-3, including supportive votes from several legislators who had previously opposed repeal. Six other states in the past six years have ended the death penalty. Rep. Renny Cushing, the sponsor of the bill, said "The death penalty does not protect public safety, it does not shield our police officers, it does not meet the needs of many families of murder victims, it is not consistent with the values we hear from our religious leaders...those who commit first-degree murder will spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance for parole." A death penalty repeal bill passed the legislature in 2000, but was vetoed by the governor. The current governor, Maggie Hassan, opposes the death penalty. New Hampshire has not had an execution since 1939 and has only one person on death row.
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NEW VOICES: The Conservative Case for Death Penalty Repeal in Kentucky
David Floyd, a Republican state representative in Kentucky, recently introduced a bill to repeal the state's death penalty, arguing that the law was incompatible with conservative values. Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Floyd said his religious views initially caused him to oppose the death penalty, but he made a broader pragmatic case for repeal from a conservative perspective. He pointed to values such as respect for life, limiting government power, and cutting wasteful spending, as reasons to support abolition. He said, "Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust." He concluded, "Conservatives must work with people across the political spectrum to expose the many deficiencies of Kentucky’s system of capital punishment. And then we must repeal it." Read the op-ed below.
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NEW VOICES: Key New Hampshire Legislators Change Views, Voting for Death Penalty Repeal
As a key New Hampshire committee voted overwhelmingly (14-3) to repeal the death penalty, a number of legislators explained why they had changed their minds on this issue. Criminal Justice Committee Chair Laura Pantelakos (pictured) said racial inequities in the system led her to change her vote, citing different outcomes in recent cases for a black and a white defendant. Pantelakos, who has a grandson about to become a police officer, asked, “Why is a police officer’s life more valuable than an engineer’s?” Rep. Dennis Fields said he was swayed by the families of murder victims who testified they did not want another life taken in their names. He added, “I do not want to take another life; I’m not God.” House Majority Leader Stephen Shurtleff, a 30-year veteran in law enforcement, also changed his mind, saying, “I would like to think with age comes wisdom. So today I will be voting for repeal.” He added after the vote, “It really is a barbaric practice and the time is now to put it aside, and I think to give somebody life imprisonment so they can think every day about what they’ve done is more of a punishment than ending their life.” Republican Represenative Robbie Parsons, who voted to expand the death penalty in the past, ultimately found the inequities in the system unacceptable and also voted for repeal. Rep. Renny Cushing, the sponsor of the bill, said, “I view them now as the voice of experience, and how our thinking has changed in New Hampshire and the rest of the country.” The bill will move to the House, where it is given a good chance of passage.
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