Recent Jury Trials in Dallas Highlight Death Penalty Decline Across Texas
From 2007 to 2013, Dallas sentenced twelve capitally charged defendants to death—more than any other county in Texas—and Dallas ranks second nationally, behind only Harris County (Houston), in the number it has executed since 1972. But the county has not imposed any new death sentences since then, and the recent life sentences in the capital trials of Justin Smith and Erbie Bowser highlight a statewide trend away from the death penalty. Smith was charged with killing three and injuring two others in a drug-house robbery; Bowser, with killing four women and injuring four children in what has been described as "a two-city rampage." After hearing evidence of Bowser's prison adjustment after being medicated for mental illness, his jury split on whether he posed a future threat to society and he was sentenced to life without parole. When Smith's jury told the court it was split on whether he had proven mitigating circumstances, he agreed to accept a plea deal to life. Such outcomes are becoming more common in Texas. About half (7 of 15) of the death penalty trials in the state since 2015 have resulted in life sentences. The fact that prosecutors have taken death penalty cases to trial just 15 times in two-and-a-half years is itself a significant change. A combination of factors, including declining public support for capital punishment, the availability of a life-without-parole sentencing option, the high cost of death penalty trials, and concerns about innocence, have led prosecutors to seek death sentences less often. Former Montague County District Attorney Tim Cole said his views on the issue have shifted: "It is time for the death penalty to go away. My primary concern with it is we don't seem to get it perfectly.... The execution of one innocent person isn't worth it to me." He said he believes the option of life without parole has also contributed to the declining number of death sentences by giving prosecutors and jurors a severe alternative punishment. Paul Johnson, an attorney for Justin Smith, agreed: "[Jurors] know that if they don't give them death, they're going to die in prison anyway. Why put someone to death when you can give them life without parole?" In an editorial, The Dallas Morning News wrote, "[e]vidence continues to mount that this system is too ripe for mistakes." The newspaper lauded the state's progress in reducing death sentences, and pointed to recent legislation as further evidence of capital punishment's decline. A death penalty repeal bill was given public hearings this session, and legislators have passed and sent to the governor reforms aimed at reducing wrongful convictions. Under the new bill, "Police would be required to record interrogations, and prosecutors would have to provide jurors more information about testimony from so-called prison snitches. Stricter protocols also would be in place for eyewitness identification." (Click image to enlarge.)
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EDITORIALS: Seattle Times Urges End to Washington's "Zombie" Death Penalty
"The death penalty in Washington is like a zombie, not alive or dead, yet continuing to eat its way through precious resources in the criminal-justice system," The Seattle Times editorial board declared on May 21, urging the state legislature to end capital punishment. Washington currently has a moratorium on executions, imposed by Governor Jay Inslee in 2014, leading the Times to declare the practice "effectively dead." But because death sentences can still be imposed, and appeals continue for the eight men on death row, capital punishment is "still alive on the books." The editorial says this "limbo...gives no peace to victims’ families." It also leaves prosecutors to decide whether to continue seeking the death penalty, which they have done less often in recent years, "perhaps influenced by the legal uncertainty, the apparent reluctance of some juries and the extra $1 million or more that a death-penalty sentence adds to a murder case." The editorial calls the death penalty, "overly expensive, ineffective and immoral," joining current and former Attorneys General in asking the legislature to take up a repeal bill. The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee has agreed to hold a hearing on an abolition bill if the House takes action first. Attorney General Bob Ferguson believes a House vote may uncover hidden support for repeal: “You don’t know that reaction if you don’t take a vote,” he said. The Seattle Times agrees: "The public wants bold leadership on important issues. A path to repeal is through the Legislature, either this year or next — if they have the courage to act."
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EDITORIALS: Colorado Newspapers Support Bill to Repeal Death Penalty
As Colorado's Senate Judiciary Committee considers SB 95—a bill that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole—the editorial boards of The Denver Post and The Durango Herald have urged the legislature to end capital punishment in the state. Colorado's death penalty system "is broken beyond repair and needs to be repealed," wrote The Denver Post. Repeal, it said, "would save the state millions in both the prosecution and defense of murderers and an untold number of judicial man hours that have so infrequently resulted in death." The Post editorial also highlighted the unwillingness of Colorado juries to impose death sentences, noting that the highly-publicized capital cases of James Holmes and Dexter Lewis both resulted in life sentences. The Durango Herald editorial board also called for repeal, agreeing with the arguments advanced by Republican legislators in the neighboring mountain states of Utah and Nevada that the death penalty "is a failed public policy, is a waste of taxpayer dollars, the risk of executing innocent people is too high and it causes unnecessary harm to victims’ families." The Herald editorial also emphasized the high cost of capital punishment—quoting estimates by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado "that the average death penalty trial costs $3.5 million, compared to $150,000 for a trial for life without parole"—and that Colorado has had only one execution in 50 years. In 2013, citing arbitrariness and unfairness in the application of the state's death penalty, Governor John W. Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to Nathan Dunlop, one of three men on Colorado's death row. A 2015 study published in the University of Denver Law Review subsequently showed that prosecutorial decisions to seek the death penalty in Colorado "depend to an alarming extent on the race and geographic location of the defendant." All of Colorado's death-row prisoners are African-American men from the municipality of Aurora. SB 95 would apply prospectively to future crimes, but would not affect the cases of the prisoners currently on death row. [UPDATE: After holding hearings on SB 95, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 to defeat the bill. The vote effectively ends death penalty repeal efforts in the state for the 2017 legislative session.]
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EDITORIALS: New York Times Hails Prosecutors' Changing Views on Death Penalty
In a February 6 editorial, The New York TImes hails the reform efforts of the "new generation" of state and local prosecutors who are working to change the United States' criminal justice system, and especially the use of the death penalty. The Times highlights the comments of two newly elected local prosecutors, Beth McCann, the new prosecutor in Denver, Colorado, and Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Harris County, Texas. McCann has said her office will not seek the death penalty because she does not think "that the state should be in the business of killing people." Ogg has pledged that there will be “very few death penalty prosecutions" during her tenure as district attorney. The Times also notes the leadership of state elected officials, pointing to Washington state, where current Democratic Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, and his Republican predecessor, Rob McKenna, are jointly supporting a death penalty repeal bill. "Prosecutors aren’t just seeking fewer death sentences; they’re openly turning against the practice, even in places where it has traditionally been favored," the editorial states, citing the historically low number of death sentences in 2016. Emphasizing the influence of these state and local officials, it calls the role of prosecutor, "one of the most powerful yet least understood jobs in the justice system." Their role is especially critical as national leaders present a "distorted ... reality of crime in America" in support of a "law and order" agenda, the Times says. "In these circumstances, the best chance for continued reform lies with state and local prosecutors who are open to rethinking how they do their enormously influential jobs."
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