EDITORIALS: "An Intolerable Burden of Proof"

An editorial in the New York Times criticized a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, upholding the heavy burden Georgia places on offenders with intellectual disabilities.  In order to be exempt from the death penalty, defendants must prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that they are mentally retarded.  The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2002 that such defendants cannot receive the death penalty, but the Court left the procedures for determining this status to the states.  According to the editorial, Georgia is the only state requiring this extremely difficult standard of proof.  They called on the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Georgia's law. The editorial concluded, “[W]hen the court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of the mentally retarded, it made plain that states cannot weaken that protection with an unfair procedural standard. In this and other ways, Georgia’s death penalty subverts the Constitution and is further evidence that capital punishment should be abolished.”  Read full editorial below.

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EDITORIALS: Calls for Florida to Revamp Its Untrustworthy Death Penalty System

The Orlando Sentinel in Florida recently called on the state to change the unusual way in which it arrives at death sentences, recommending instead unanimous jury decisions for a death sentence, the prevailing practice in the vast majority of states.  In June, a federal judge declared Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional because it only requires a simple majority to decide whether aggravating factors exist and to recommend a death sentence to the presiding judge.  In 2005, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero urged legislators to make a similar change and require a unanimous jury recommendation in capital sentencing.  The following year, a study conducted by the American Bar Association called for reforms in the state’s death penalty system which has had more exonerations than any other state, with 23 inmates released from death row since 1973.  The chair of the study, Professor Christopher Slobogin, concluded, “Much more needs to be done to ensure that Florida's death penalty system avoids executing the innocent.”  The Sentinel's editorial echoed that concern, “Florida can no longer shrug off travesties of justice that damn innocents such as Frank Lee Smith. After serving 14 years for a rape and murder, DNA testing proved his innocence. Redemption that came 11 months after he died behind bars. Florida simply can no longer accept a simple majority when lives hang in the balance.”  Read the full editorial below.

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EDITORIALS: Praise for Oregon Governor's Action Halting Executions

The Register Guard (Eugene, Oregon) praised Governor John Kitzhaber's recent announcement halting all executions, calling his conclusion that the "death penalty is morally wrong and unjustly administered" to be "right on both counts." In their editorial, the paper noted that the governor's actions are in line with other developments in the U.S. and internationally: "Kitzhaber’s announcement came as the tide is turning against the death penalty. Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn abolished it in a state that since 1977 had wrongly condemned at least 20 people to death. At least 16 states — and 133 countries — now reject the death penalty."  The editors encouraged Oregonians to engage in a "great debate" on the death penalty and seek a solution that "reflects Oregon's values."  See the full editorial below.

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EDITORIALS: Indiana's Death Penalty "Too Costly and Applied Unfairly"

In a recent editorial in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Journal Gazette, the paper welcomed the proposal by the state's Attorney General to reconsider the death penalty in light of its enormous costs.  At a Criminal Justice Summit held at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller asked state officials to look at the death penalty from a practical perspective. He cited a recent capital trial in Warrick County that cost $500,000 in defense attorney fees alone. “The costs can’t be borne by smaller counties," the paper quoted Zoeller as saying.   "[S]o if the crime occurs in a large county you might be charged with the death penalty, in a smaller county you’re not. That raises some significant questions about fairness.”  The paper noted that most of the high costs cannot be avoided: "[D]eath penalty cases demand the strictest set of protections and safeguards to make sure the conviction and sentence are correct and appropriate. New DNA evidence exonerating a killer can free a prisoner serving a life sentence; it can’t help someone who has been executed," and concluded, "The death penalty is too costly and applied too unfairly. Life without the possibility of parole is the appropriate penalty – and far less costly to taxpayers."  Read full editorial below.

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EDITORIALS: New York Times: "An Indefensible Punishment"

The lead editorial in the New York Times on September 26 called for an end to the death penalty because, the editors said, it cannot be made to comply with the U.S. Constitution.  The editoral reviewed the 35-year history since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and concluded, "The death penalty is grotesque and immoral and should be repealed."  The paper pointed to the recent case of Troy Davis, who was executed on September 21 in Georgia, and to the continuing arbitrariness in the way the death penalty is applied.  It also highlighted the ongoing problems of racial bias, the risk of executing the innocent, and the poor quality of representation in capital cases. The death penalty, they said, is driven by political misuse: "Politics ... permeates the death penalty, adding to chances of arbitrary administration. Most prosecutors in jurisdictions with the penalty are elected and control the decision to seek the punishment. Within the same state, differing politics from county to county have led to huge disparities in use of the penalty, when the crime rates and demographics were similar."  Citing statistics from DPIC's List of Exonerations, the editorial noted, "Under this horrifying system, 17 innocent people sentenced to death have been exonerated and released based on DNA evidence, and 112 other people based on other evidence. All but a few developed nations have abolished the death penalty," and concluded,  "It is time Americans acknowledged that the death penalty cannot be made to comply with the Constitution and is in every way indefensible."  Read full op-ed below.

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STUDIES: Significant Racial Disparities Found in Military Death Penalty

A soon-to-be-published study has found significant racial disparities in the U.S. military's death penalty. The study, which will be published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, found that minorities in the military are twice as likely to be sentenced to death as whites accused of similar crimes. The study examined all 105 potential capital cases since the military death penalty was reinstated in 1984.  Of the 16 death sentences handed down in that time, 10 were of minority defendants. The authors did not attribute the disparities to intentional bias: "There is no suggestion here that any participant in the military criminal justice system consciously and knowingly discriminated on the basis of the race of the accused or the victim," the authors said. "However, there is substantial evidence that many actors in the American criminal justice system are unconsciously influenced by the race of defendants and their victims." A New York Times editorial about the study noted how rarely death sentences are handed down in the military, that there have been no military executions since 1961, and that 8 out of 10 death sentences have been overturned. Six men are currently on the U.S. military's death row. The editorial concluded, "The de facto moratorium has not made the country or the military less secure. The evidence of persistent racial bias is further evidence that it is time for the military system to abolish the death penalty."

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EDITORIALS: Texas Inmate With IQ of 62 Faces Imminent Execution

A recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle highlights the case of Texas death-row inmate Milton Mathis, whose IQ of 62 places him well below the threshold for intellectual disability (formerly called "mental retardation"). Mr. Mathis faces execution on June 21, despite the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which banned the execution of inmates with intellectual disabilities. The Chronicle noted, "If put to death, Milton Mathis would have one of the lowest — if not the lowest - undisputed IQ scores of any Texas inmate sentenced to capital punishment since that ruling took effect."  Mathis' lawyers raised this issue in both his state and federal appeals, but the state court rejected the claim, and the federal court denied a stay, not realizing that doing so prevented further litigation in state court. The federal judge later realized her error, but at that point, she lacked jurisdiction to change the ruling. Andrea Keilen, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said, "What is really troubling is that in this case process has trumped substance. The evidence of mental retardation is compelling, overwhelming, and, because the state courts heard it, the federal courts have not allowed the evidence to be introduced." The Chronicle concluded: "In essence, barring federal intervention or the governor's clemency, Texas will unlawfully and unjustly execute a mentally retarded individual because of legal technicalities and the state's failure to weigh Mathis' clinical condition." Read full editorial below.

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EDITORIALS: Philadelphia Inquirer -- "Juries Know Better"

A recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer concludes the public is ready to scrap the death penalty in Pennsylvania, even if the legislature is not. According to the editorial, juries opted for the death penalty in just 3% of first-degree murder cases over the past four years:  “Pennsylvania juries clearly are more comfortable with the alternative sentence of life without parole, which assures that first-degree murder convicts will waste away behind bars.” The Inquirer cites several different reasons for what they called a "sea change" in attitudes toward capital punishment: “[M]oral qualms about government-sanctioned executions come into play for many jurors. There are also the widely documented instances of wrongful death sentences later being overturned, and data that suggest the penalty falls unfairly on poor and minority defendants who cannot afford to mount an effective defense.”  The editorial concludes that replacing the death penalty with life-without-parole sentences is the best choice: "New Jersey abolished capital punishment in 2007; now Pennsylvania should follow that example." Read full editorial below.

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EDITORIALS: Birmingham News Calls for Moratorium on Alabama's Death Penalty

A recent editorial in the Birmingham News called on Alabama lawmakers to pass legislation that would require a three-year moratorium on imposing death sentences and carrying out executions, giving the state time to address flaws in the death penalty system. The editorial outlined five reasons why legislators with various positions should be united in such an effort. The paper stated:

- Lawmakers who are pro-life should be concerned Alabama is among the nation's most gung-ho and careless states in putting people to death.

- Lawmakers who are fiscally conservative should be concerned that studies in other states have shown it's much less expensive to lock up killers for life than to put them to death. A newspaper report found Florida could save a whopping $51 million a year by sentencing killers to life without parole rather than death.

- Lawmakers who are troubled by racial disparities should be concerned the color of a defendant's or victim's skin plays a role in who gets executed.

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EDITORIALS: Illinois Death Penalty Repeal Called a "Victory for Justice"

An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times applauded Illinois Governor Pat Quinn for signing the bill abolishing the death penalty. The editors wrote, "We’ve learned that the system makes too many mistakes to entrust it with the ultimate power of capital punishment. We’ve learned that legal safeguards can be pushed aside when emotions are high after a heinous crime. We’ve learned that political ambition sometimes blinds those in power to the weaknesses of a case. We’ve learned that evidence can disappear or be misrepresented, that witnesses seeking special deals may lie, that juries may be swayed by emotion instead of facts."  For Gov. Quinn, the flaws in the system that can lead to a wrongful execution played the most powerful role in his decision. In a statement delivered immediately after the signing, he said, “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.” He continued, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”

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