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2018 Midterm Elections: Governors in Moratorium States Re-Elected, Controversial California D.A. Ousted

The results of the November 6, 2018 mid-term elections reflected America's deeply divided views on capital punishment, as voters elected governors who pledged not to resume executions in the three states with death-penalty moratoriums, defeated an incumbent who tried to bring back capital punishment in a non-death-penalty state (click on graphic to enlarge), and re-elected governors who had vetoed legislation abolishing capital punishment in two other states. Continuing a national trend, voters in Orange County, California ousted their scandal-plagued top prosecutor, marking the ninth time since 2015 that local voters have replaced prosecutors in jurisdictions with the nation's largest county death rows.

In the three states with Governor-imposed death-penalty moratoriums, candidates who said they would continue execution bans or work to eliminate the state’s death penalty won easily. Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania who imposed the state’s moratorium on executions in 2015, was re-elected by with 57.6% of the vote. His challenger, Scott Wagner, who had promised to resume executions and had advocated a mandatory death penalty for school shootings, trailed badly with 40.8% of the vote. Oregon's incumbent Democratic governor Kate Brown, who continued the state’s death-penalty moratorium instituted in 2011 by then-governor John Kitzhaber, won re-election in a six candidate field with 49.4% of the vote, five percentage points higher than her Republican challenger Knute Buehler. In Colorado, Democratic congressman Jared Polis, who campaigned on the repeal of the state’s death penalty, won the governorship with 51.6% of the vote, outpacing Republican state treasurer Walker Stapleton, who received 44.7% of the vote. Democrats also took control of both houses of the Colorado legislature, increasing the likelihood that legislation to abolish the death penalty will be considered in the upcoming legislative session. Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner suffered an overwhelming election defeat at the hands of venture-capitalist J.B. Pritzker. Trailing badly in the polls, Rauner tried in May 2018 to condition passage of gun control legislation on reinstatement of the state’s death penalty. Pritzker outpolled Rauner by 54.0% to 39.3%.

On the other hand, two governors who prevented death-penalty repeal bills from going into effect in their states also won re-election. Nebraska's Republican Governor Pete Ricketts, who vetoed a bipartisan bill to abolish the state's death penalty in 2015 and then, after the legislature overrode his veto, personally bankrolled a successful state-wide referendum in 2016 to block the repeal, cruised to re-election with 59.4% of the vote. New Hampshire Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who vetoed the state’s death-penalty repeal bill in March 2018, won re-election with 52.4% of the vote. In Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis won the governorship against Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum, who had pledged, if elected, to suspend executions in Florida until he was sure the death-penalty system was nondiscriminatorily applied.

Local voters in Orange County replaced District Attorney Tony Rackauckas with a political rival, county supervisor Todd Spitzer. Rackauckas has been embroiled in a scandal involving the secret use of prison informants to obtain or manufacture confessions from suspects and then stonewalling investigation of the multi-decade illegal practice.  As of January 2013, Orange County had the seventh largest death row of any county in the U.S., and since then, it has imposed the fourth most death sentences of any county. 


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POLL: Washington State Voters Overwhelmingly Prefer Life Sentences to Death Penalty

A new poll of likely voters in Washington State shows that Washingtonians are nearly 3 times more likely to prefer some form of a life sentence to the death penalty as punishment for defendants convicted of murder. The poll, commissioned by the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI), was conducted by Public Policy Polling and released on July 12, 2018. It found that 69% of likely voters in the state preferred some version of a life sentence as punishment for people convicted of murder, as compared to 24% who said they preferred the death penalty. In a statement describing the poll results, NPI said "not a single subsample within the survey favored the death penalty… not even Donald Trump voters. ... What this tells us is that there is broad agreement across the ideological spectrum for getting rid of the practice of putting convicted murders to death." The poll asked respondents: "Of the following list of choices, which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: life in prison with NO possibility of parole, life in prison with NO possibility of parole and a requirement to work in prison and pay restitution to the victims, life in prison with a possibility of parole after at least forty years, or the death penalty?" The most preferred option was life in prison without parole, plus restitution, which 46% of all respondents supported. An additional 10% preferred life without possibility of parole, while 13% favored life in prison with parole eligibility after at least forty years. 8% said they were not sure. Every political demographic preferred some version of a life sentence over the death penalty: 82% of respondents who identified themselves as Democrats favored one of the life options, as did 63% of Independents or supporters of a minor party, and 54% of Republicans. 48% of respondents who said they voted for Donald Trump preferred one of the life-sentencing alternatives, as compared with 46% who preferred the death penalty. In 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on executions, saying that "[t]he use of the death penalty in [Washington] state is unequally applied." A bipartisan bill to abolish the death penalty passed the state senate and was approved in the House Judiciary Committee in 2017, but House Speaker Frank Chopp, a Democrat, did not bring the bill to a vote in the full House before the legislature adjourned. "Five Republicans stood with us in the Senate," said Reuven Carlyle, a Democratic senator from Seattle, "but the House leadership was still unwilling to bring it to the floor." Washington's Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who along with his Republican predecessor Rob McKenna have urged legislators to repeal the state's capital-punishment statute, said he was "not shocked by the numbers." He said the public mood about the death penalty has "been changing quickly" and "we need additional legislators to help out. ... This poll will further signal to them that not only is this the right thing to do, to abolish the death penalty law in Washington state, but is precisely what the people of Washington state want and expect their legislature to do." (Click graphic to enlarge.) Washington juries have not imposed any new death sentences in more than five years and the state last carried out an execution in 2010.


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Kentucky Legislature Conducts Hearing on the Commonwealth's Death Penalty

A joint committee of the Kentucky legislature conducted a hearing on July 6, 2018 on the Commonwealth's rarely used death penalty, including a presentation by supporters and opponents of a bill to abolish capital punishment. The General Assembly's Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary took testimony from prosecutors, defense attorneys, correctional officials, and legislators on issues ranging from costs and arbitrariness to the length of the appeal process. Though Kentucky currently has 31 prisoners on death row, and prosecutors across the Commonwealth have filed 52 notices of intent to seek a death sentence, only three people have been executed since 1976. The last execution took place in 2008, and only one death sentence has been imposed in the last five years. Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville), one of the sponsors of a House bill to abolish the death penalty, told the committee, "Kentucky should get out of the business of killing its citizens – period." Criticizing capital punishment based on his pro-life and small government views, Nemes noted that more than 150 people have been exonerated since the 1970s after having been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S., and 49 out of the 97 death sentences imposed in Kentucky have already been overturned. "We don’t believe the government can adequately fill potholes," Nemes said. "And if we don’t believe the government can do that perfectly, then why should we give it the power to do that which is irreversible?" Senate Minority Leader Ray S. Jones (D-Pikeville) said that infrequent executions erode whatever deterrent effect the death penalty might have. Instead, he said, the death penalty creates a "false hope of closure." Rep. John Blanton (R-Salyersville), a retired Kentucky State Police officer and an execution proponent, responded, “[t]he problem is not the death sentence, the problem is the length of time we allow these people to look for everything under the sun." "Let's speed up the process," he said. The Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy estimates the cost of the death penalty to Kentucky taxpayers at about $10 million per year. Executions have been on hold in the Commonwealth since 2010, when a state judge placed an injuction halting all executions while courts reviewed the lethal injection protocol. Andrew English, general counsel for the Justice Cabinet, said the Department of Corrections has attempted to "rewrite the regulations to achieve conformity with the court rulings," but that "[t]here’s an ever-evolving change in the landscape when it comes to federal and state courts, with the death penalty." Kentucky, like other states, has encountered problems with determining what drugs are appropriate and available for use in executions.


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Governor Vetoes New Hampshire Death-Penalty Repeal Bill

New Hampshire Governor Christopher Sununu (pictured) has vetoed a bill that would have abolished the state's death penalty. Surrounded by law enforcement officers as he vetoed the bill on June 21, 2018, Sununu said, “[w]hile I very much respect the arguments made by proponents of this bill, I stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community and advocates for justice in opposing it. New Hampshire does not take the death penalty lightly and we only use it sparingly.” New Hampshire has only one person on death row, Michael Addison, who was sentenced to death for killing police officer Michael Briggs. No one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939. The death-penalty repeal bill, which applied only to future cases, passed the state Senate by a 14-10 vote in March, and passed the House by a 223-116 vote in April. It received bipartisan support in both legislative houses. While Sununu invoked the views of crime victims and law enforcement in opposition to repeal, Rep. Renny Cushing, a repeal supporter whose father was murdered, said not all crime victims agree. “Many murder victim family members in our state paid a very painful, harsh price for the right to tell Gov. Sununu that we don't want killing in our name. The reality is that the death penalty does not do the one thing we wish it would do: bring our loved ones back.” When the repeal bill passed, Rep. Richard O’Leary, a former deputy police chief in Manchester, said he voted for the bill because “I don’t believe we have the right under any circumstances, except immediate self-defense, to take a life. Once the criminal has been subdued, arrested, segregated from society and rendered defenseless, I cannot see where the state has any compelling interest in executing him. It’s simply wrong.” This is the third time since 2000 that New Hampshire has come close to abolishing capital punishment. In 2000, Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a repeal bill that had passed both houses of the legislature, and in 2014, a bill passed the House and garnered the support of Governor Maggie Hassan, but failed on a tie vote in the Senate. A DPIC study of 29 years of FBI homicide data found no discernible relationship between state murder trends and the presence or absence of the death penalty, and provided evidence that the death penalty has not made police officers or the public safer. The study found that murder rates in general and murders of police officers are consistently higher in states that have the death penalty and that police officers were killed at a rate 1.37 times higher in current death-penalty states than in states that had long abolished capital punishment. All six states in New England have murder rates well below the national average. Five New England states are among the ten safest states in the country for police officers. However, in New Hampshire—the only New England state with the death penalty—officers are killed at a rate higher than the national average.


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Legislature Lets Illinois Governor's Death Penalty Reinstatement Proposal Die

An attempt by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (pictured) to reinstate Illinois' death penalty by attaching it as an "amendatory veto" to proposed gun-control legislation has failed. Rather than accede to a plan that would condition stricter gun regulation upon reintroducing the death penalty for murders of police officers and any murder with more than a single victim, the state legislature rewrote the gun-control measure the governor had amended, dropping any mention of capital punishment. In May, Gov. Rauner used an amendatory veto—a power some governors are granted that permits them to amend legislation in lieu of an outright veto—to add death-penalty reinstatement to a bill that created a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases. The governor's provisions would have created a new crime of "death penalty murder," potentially applicable whenever a police officer or more than one person was killed, subject to a "proof beyond all doubt." Rauner touted his changes, which also included additional gun control measures, as a comprehensive public-safety policy, but critics called it political grandstanding and state prosecutors objected to its adoption through the veto process without meaningful review and consideration. In a letter to the state House Judiciary-Criminal Committee, John Milhiser, the association's President, wrote: "there is no consensus of opinion on support for the death penalty" among Illinois prosecutors, but they agreed that the proposal "involves constitutional and legal concerns that cannot be evaluated in the brief time thus far allotted." Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, the gun-control bill's sponsor, said the governor had not consulted him about possible changes and had "hijacked my bill and put politics ahead of policy." The state house held a brief hearing on the bill on May 21, but did not act on it within the 15-day state constitutional window prescribed for consenting to an amendatory veto. On May 31, 2018, the final day of the legislative session, the legislature passed a clean version of the 72-hour waiting period bill, with no mention of the death-penalty proposal. Governor Rauner has 60 days from passage to take action on that bill.


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Illinois Governor Uses Gun-Control Veto to Attempt to Re-Enact Death Penalty

lllinois Governor Bruce Rauner has conditionally vetoed a gun-control initiative unless the legislature agrees to reinstate capital punishment in the state. Exercising an amendatory veto—a power some governors are granted that permits them to amend legislation in lieu of an outright veto—Rauner called for making the killing of a police officer or any murder in which more than one person was killed a new crime of "death penalty murder." In a May 14, 2018 news conference at the Illinois State Police forensic laboratory in Chicago, Rauner said "individuals who commit mass murder, individuals who choose to murder a law enforcement officer, they deserve to have their life taken." He attached his death-penalty plan and several other gun-control amendments to a bill that would have established a 72-hour waiting period for the purchase of assault rifles in Illinois. Legislative leaders and major Illinois newspapers blasted the action as diversionary political gamesmanship by a weakened governor facing a difficult re-election campaign, and said the death-penalty plan had little chance of enactment. Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, the gun-control bill's sponsor, said the governor had not consulted him about possible changes and had "hijacked my bill and put politics ahead of policy." Senate President John Cullerton said: “The death penalty should never be used as a political tool to advance one’s agenda. Doing so is in large part why we had so many problems and overturned convictions. That’s why we had bipartisan support to abolish capital punishment.” Thomas Sullivan, the co-chair of Commission on Capital Punishment in Illinois appointed by Republican Gov. George Ryan, said Rauner's plan was a “lousy idea.” He called the death penalty expensive and time-consuming, and said, "It doesn’t reduce crime." The Chicago Tribune editorial board characterized Rauner's amendatory veto as "cynical" and a "death penalty ploy" that the paper said was intended "to re-establish [Rauner's] bona fides with disgruntled conservative Republicans." A Chicago Sun-Times editorial said the governor knew he was "load[ing] up the bill with so many major new provisions that there is no way" the state legislature would approve it, enabling Rauner to claim he "didn’t technically kill the cooling off period ... without strictly telling a lie." In 2000, after a series of death-row exonerations, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois and appointed the commission, and in 2003 commuted the sentences of everyone on the state's death row. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill to abolish the state's death penalty in 2011. The Tribune editorial said: "The death penalty issue in Illinois was examined and debated for years in light of notorious incidents of wrongly convicted defendants sent to death row. In Illinois, the legitimate sentiment of many that certain heinous criminals should be put to death was weighed against the risk of errors, and the decision was made to end capital punishment. ... [N]othing has changed to make Rauner’s [May 14] announcement worthy of consideration."


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Pressed on Execution Practices, Nebraska Obstructs Release of Information

As legislators and the media have pressed Nebraska for information on its secretive execution practices, the executive branch has responded—the state's leading newspapers say—with obfuscation and with a lawsuit that has created a state constitutional crisis. After adopting a new execution policy that the Lincoln Journal Star reported "was written in a single draft without input from the governor, attorney general, Corrections director, outside experts or other state officials," the state Department of Correctional Services has drawn harsh criticism and multiple lawsuits for refusing to disclose information about its execution process to lawmakers, the media, advocacy groups, and prisoners. And after the state legislature issued a subpoena that would require Director Scott Frakes (pictured) to testify about the Department's latest efforts to obtain execution drugs and to respond to allegations that it has not complied with federal drug laws on the handling of controlled substances, state Attorney General Doug Peterson sued the legislature to block Frakes from testifying. The Department's most recent refusals to release information—after having lost $54,400 in taxpayer money in a failed attempt to illegally import execution drugs from India—prompted lawsuits from legal advocacy groups, lawmakers, and prisoners demanding protocol transparency. Senator Ernie Chambers, a long-time opponent of capital punishment, filed a formal complaint with the legislature's Executive Board alleging, among other things, that the state's execution protocol violates federal requirements for handling controlled substances and that its refusal to provide information on the lethal-injection drugs violates the Nebraska Public Records Act. In an editorial, the Omaha World-Herald wrote: "The Nebraska news media and members of the Legislature have raised legitimate questions on that score. They’ve asked the state Department of Correctional Services for information involving its purchase of death penalty drugs and its planned procedure for carrying out an execution, to ensure the applicable laws and procedures were all followed. So far, the department has refused to provide answers. Its message, instead, has been: Just trust us. That’s not good enough." A Journal Star editorial criticized executive branch officials for "hypocritically refus[ing]" to subject themselves to public scrutiny. "We don’t know where the state obtained its lethal injection drugs," the editors wrote."We don’t know how the four-drug cocktail was tested. All we have ... is Corrections’ word that they were done in accordance with the law. Given the state’s costly failed attempts to illegally buy execution drugs overseas, that alone is not good enough." The editorial board said accountability means more than just punishing those convicted of murder. "Accountability must also extend to the state officials responsible for implementing and carrying out capital punishment. ... Before Nebraska can hold convicted killers accountable, it first must do so for itself – something it’s shown more interest in obfuscating than pursuing." The Omaha World-Herald encapsulated the issue as follows: "Is the state following the law in all respects regarding the death penalty, or isn’t it? State officials should stop trying to sidestep this central issue. For the sake of the public interest and respect for the law, they need to answer that question in full."


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New Hampshire Legislature Passes Death-Penalty Repeal Bill, But More Votes Needed to Override Threatened Veto

The New Hampshire state legislature has voted to repeal the state’s death penalty, but proponents of the bill currently lack the votes necessary to overcome a threatened gubernatorial veto. On April 26, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted 223-116 to pass Senate Bill 593, with 145 Democrats, 77 Republicans, and one Libertarian supporting repeal. The state senate previously approved the measure 14-10 on March 15, with support from eight Democrats and six Republicans. “What you’ve seen this year is an expression of bipartisan support for repeal,” said State Rep. Renny Cushing, a co-sponsor of the bill and a leading anti-death penalty advocate. “New Hampshire is ready to abolish the death penalty.” Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, has said he will veto the bill. In a statement issued in February and repeated after the vote, Sununu said he “stand[s] with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community, and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty.” Characterizing “strengthen[ing] laws for crime victims and their families” as a “top priority” of his administration, Sununu said repeal “sends us in exactly the wrong direction ... There is no doubt that the most heinous crimes warrant the death penalty.” Rep. Richard O’Leary, a former deputy police chief in Manchester, said he voted for the bill because “I don’t believe we have the right under any circumstances, except immediate self-defense, to take a life. Once the criminal has been subdued, arrested, segregated from society and rendered defenseless, I cannot see where the state has any compelling interest in executing him. It’s simply wrong,” he said. Cushing, who has lost both his father and his brother-in-law to murder in unrelated incidents, said the bill’s supporters ‘‘are very close” to getting the votes necessary to override the anticipated veto. ‘‘New Hampshire values civil liberties, it values human rights,” Cushing said. “New Hampshire can live without the death penalty.” New Hampshire has come close to abolishing capital punishment several times. Both houses of the legislature voted to repeal the death penalty in 2000, but Governor Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, vetoed the bill. The state House also passed a repeal bill in 2014, which Gov. Maggie Hassan said she would sign. But the bill failed on a tie vote of 12-12 in the state senate.


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Attempts Both to Repeal and to Restore Death-Penalty Statutes Fail in Legislatures Across the Country

In Washington and Utah, bipartisan or Republican-led efforts at death-penalty repeal fell short, a month after death-penalty proponents abandoned efforts to reinstate capital punishment in New Mexico and Iowa. In Washington, a bipartisan push to replace the death penalty with life without possibility of release was introduced at the request of Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson with the support of his Republican predecessor Rob McKenna, Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, a Republican from the state's largest county. With key votes from five Republican senatorsSB 6052 passed the state senate on February 15 by a vote of 26-22 and was favorably reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, but the Democratic leadership in the House did not schedule it for a vote before the legislative session ended. Ferguson said he was “deeply disappointed” by the bill’s failure, but said his disappointment was “tempered somewhat by the historic progress the bill made this year” and his belief that the state has moved closer to abolishing capital punishment. The Utah death-penalty repeal effort was led by Republican legislators, and the state’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert had said he would consider signing the bill. In 2016, a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart passed the state senate and a house committee, but was not voted on by the full House before the legislative session ended. This year, Republican Rep. Gage Froerer sponsored HB 379, and won the support of Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes. But on March 2, after the bill had passed the House Judiciary Committee, Froerer pulled it from consideration because he believed the bill would lose a close vote in the House. “I was hopeful that Utah would be one of the first red states to take this, because the trend obviously is to do away with the death penalty,” Froerer said. “I’m convinced whether it’s next year or five or 10 years from now the death penalty will go away.” The failure of the abolition bills came on the heels of death-penalty proponents’ abandonment of efforts to restore capital punishment in New Mexico and Iowa. After passing the New Mexico House last legislative session, a bill to bring back the death penalty was tabled in committee on February 2. It was the fifth failed attempt by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to reinstate the practice, which was abolished under Gov. Bill Richardson in 2009. On February 13, the sponsor of Iowa’s Senate Study Bill 3134—Republican Sen. Brad Zaun, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee—announced that he did not have enough votes to move forward with the bill in 2018 and would be “putting it to rest.” Proponents of Iowa's house bill had previously withdrawn it from consideration when a key Republican supporter changed his mind after researching the bill. Rep. Steven Holt said “conceptually and morally” he believes the death penalty is sometimes appropriate, but “[s]tatistics show, without a doubt, that those of lesser means are more likely to receive the death penalty than are those with greater assets and ability to hire the best attorney.” Holt said, “I support the death penalty in theory," but “practically, I arrived at a different conclusion than I expected. ... I have great issues with its practical and fair application.”


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Washington State Senate Passes Death Penalty Abolition Bill

A bipartisan bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington passed the state Senate on February 14 on a 26-22 vote. SB 6052 now moves to the House of Representatives, where the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee has said it will be given a hearing. "Today, the Washington State Senate took an historic, bipartisan vote, passing Attorney General-requested legislation to eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole," said incumbent Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson. He, his Republican predecessor Rob McKenna, and Governor Jay Inslee had asked the legislature to take up the measure. The bill also received support from Republican King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg, and five Republican senators voted for its passage. During an emotional debate on the floor of the senate, Sen. Mark Miloscia (R - Federal Way) told lawmakers, "all people deserve to live." Miloscia, who is one of the bill's co-sponsors, said, "I'm here to ask for mercy, literally for the worst among us." Sen. Maureen Walsh (R - Walla Walla), another sponsor of the bill, said "We spend a lot of money, our tax money, appealing these decisions, and we have done this for many, many years. I have no sympathy for people that kill people, that's not why I'm doing this. I'm doing this maybe because I feel like it's somewhat our responsibility as legislators to vet these issues here in this forum, in this venue." A third co-sponsor, Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D - Seattle), raised ongoing concerns about the risk of executing innocent defendants. "You cannot read a front page story about DNA mistakes that has someone in jail for 35 years and not be jolted to the core," he said. "That has transformed the public's view of this issue." Governor Inslee, who imposed a moratorium on executions in 2014, described the vote as reflecting “an increasing recognition of the public that this is not an effective and certainly an unequal administration of justice and is no longer acceptable in the state of Washington.” "I hope Washington joins the growing number of states that are choosing to end the death penalty," he said. Before the final vote, Senators voted down two amendments that would have narrowed the death penalty, but not eliminated it, and a third amendment that would have put the issue to voters in a public initiative. Ferguson called on the House to join the Senate in passing the measure. The bill, he said, provided the House "the opportunity to abolish our broken death penalty."


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