PUBLIC OPINION: Poll Reveals Marylanders Prefer Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

A recent Washington Post opinion poll found that Marylanders prefer the sentence of life in prison over the death penalty. In the October 2007 poll of 1,103 Maryland adults, respondents were asked to choose between the sentence of life in prison without parole or the death penalty for the crime of murder: 52% said they favored life without parole and 43% supported capital punishment. Among black respondents, support for life without parole was even stronger, with 65% responding that they preferred the sentence of life in prison and only 29% choosing the death penalty.

According to the Washington Post, support for capital punishment in theory stands at 60%, but Marylanders hold nuanced views on the issue and are shifting away from the death penalty. Carla Hosford of Chevy Chase noted, "If we kill and they kill, who has learned anything?" In the coming year, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and others who oppose capital punishment are expected to continue efforts to abolish the death penalty in the state.

Last year, a national Washington Post-ABC News poll revealed a similar shift nationally. The poll found that Americans are almost evenly split when given the two sentencing options, with 50% favoring the death penalty and 46% preferring life without parole.

(Washington Post, October 26, 2007). See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.

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Victim's Family Members Seek Closure Through Life Sentence

Nearly two decades after the 1988 robbery and murder of James Scanlon, his family now says that a sentence of life without parole for his killer - Ronald Rompilla - will end years of emotional strain resulting from the death penalty and will help them to start the healing process. "It's time to start remembering my dad for the good person he was and not always affiliating it with Ronald Rompilla and the death penalty. ... (I)t was time. I didn't think going after it again would be good for us as a family. A life sentence is as much closure as we can hope for," said Timothy Scanlon, James' son.

Rompilla originally received a death sentence for the brutal crime, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated it in 2005, finding that his attorneys failed to properly research his history of childhood neglect, alcoholism, and mental retardation. In its 5-4 decision, the Court told prosecutors to either agree to a life term for Rompilla or convene a new sentencing hearing where a new jury could decide death or life. Scanlon's family made the final decision to seek a life sentence in exchange for Rompilla's agreement to waive all appeal rights in any court. "Basically it was our decision not to proceed with the death penalty again. ... (M)y family has been through this for 20 years. We didn't want to go through another appeals process for another 20 years," observed Timothy Scanlon, who voiced frustration with the death penalty appeals process and said he still supports the death penalty.

Rompilla received his life sentence plus consecutive 10- to 20-year sentences for robbery and burglary during a sentencing hearing on August 13. Stephen M. Van Natten, Lehigh County chief deputy district attorney, said the sentencing agreement was reached based on the Scanlon's family wishes.

(The Morning Call, August 14, 2007). See Victims and Life Without Parole.

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NEW VOICES: Former Alabama Prosecutor Questions Value of Capital Punishment

Billy Hill spent seven years as a district attorney in Shelby, Coosa, and Clay counties in Alabama, and has reconsidered his stance on capital punishment.  Mr. Hill says that he would welcome a moratorium on executions in Alabama while a study commission examines the state's death penalty to evaluate whether it is "a wise and humane use of our resources." Wrongful convictions, the arbitrary nature of capital punishment, poor representation, and the long-term suffering of victims' family members are among Hill's main concerns about current death penalty laws. He believes that life without parole is a better alternative for violent offenders.  Hill now works as a Shelby County public defender.

In his criticisms of Alabama's death penalty, Hill notes that two innocent men have already been freed from the state's death row and that many others continue to await their execution without the benefit of "top-flight representation." With regard to the arbitrary nature of the states' capital punishment statute, Hill observes, "Do you realize that if two people are arguing on a street corner and one of them pulls a gun and kills the other one, that is simple murder? But, take the same scenario and put one of them in a car, and it becomes a capital case. . . . [I]n 30 years of observing violent offenders, I find 3 factors present in almost all of them: some kind of childhood abuse, either physical or sexual; some type of chemical dependence, either alcohol or drugs; and neurological damage." Hill also believes that the death penalty fails to serve the needs of victims' family members because execution dates are often set and then canceled several times during repeated appeals. "It just never goes away for the victim's family," said Hill.

Noting that the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nation in the world to use the death penalty, Hill said that he believes that life without parole is the more appropriate sentence for violent offenders. "A lot of people do not realize that in Alabama life without parole means you are not leaving prison except with your toes turned up," he said. If the state insists on keeping capital punishment, Hill observes that lawmakers should be prepared to pay to high costs associated with creating a system that is more fair and accurate.

(The Birmingham News, July 30, 2007). See New Voices, Innocence, Victims, Costs, and Life Without Parole.

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Arizona's Death Penalty Five Years After Supreme Court's Ring Decision

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Ring v. Arizona that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a jury trial included the determination of whether sufficient aggravating factors existed to make a defendant eligible for the death penalty. Now, five years later, the man at the center of this case - Timothy Ring - has been re-sentenced to life without parole.

Ring's case is among 27 Arizona death penalty cases affected by the Supreme Court's ruling and re-examinated by the Arizona Supreme Court. The Court has upheld only 2 of the 27 death sentences it has reviewed. Four defendants, including Ring, were allowed to stipulate to life sentences. One person pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received a 25-year sentence. Ten cases were sent back to trial, resulting in 5 death sentences and 5 life sentences. Another 10 cases are yet to be resolved.

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Texas High Court Dismisses Woman's Death Sentence As Unsupported by the Evidence

In an important ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has thrown out the death sentence of Kenisha Berry, who was sentenced to death in 1998 for the murder of her infant son, Malachi. The 5-4 decision stated that Jefferson County prosecutors misstated the special issue presented to jurors regarding Berry's likelihood of being a future danger to society, one of the key questions Texas jurors consider when they are deliberating a death sentence. Berry's attorneys argued that there was insufficient evidence of future dangerousness because Berry, a former corrections officer and day care worker, had no previous criminal record and defense experts testified that she had a low risk of committing future acts of violence, especially within the confines of prison. The court's majority opinion, written by Judge Cheryl Johnson, agreed. 

Johnson wrote, "While the state quite certainly proved that (Berry) showed a pattern of keeping the children sired by one man and discarding the children sired by other men, it did not prove that any other stimulus led to a violent or dangerous act in any other context. . . . We rarely reverse a judgment on a claim of insufficient evidence to support a finding that the defendant will be a danger in the future, and we do not do so lightly. In this case, we understand the jury's decision in response to the death of one infant and the abandonment of another, even if that decision is not supported in law."

Berry was one of 10 women on the state's death row, and she will now serve a life term in prison for her crime. Texas has executed three women since it resumed executions in 1982. Next month, the state has scheduled the execution of Cathy Henderson, who was given the death penalty for the murder of an infant she was babysitting.

(Dallas Morning News, May 23, 2007). See Women.

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Nebraska's Death Penalty Repeal Bill Falls One Vote Short

A measure to repeal Nebraska's death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole fell one vote short of moving to the second of three stages in consideration by the unicameral legislature. It was the first time the full legislature had debated the death penalty in nearly two decades. The measure's defeat followed two days of debate about capital punishment, including whether decisions to impose the death penalty reflect social, economic or racial bias. In addition, some legislators criticized the state's death penalty as arbitrary in nature.

Legislators admitted that they wrestled with the issue as both a matter of public policy and conscience. Senator Brad Ashford, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that he found the punishment to be arbitrary because there are inmates serving life sentences in the state whose crimes were every bit as heinous as those committed by the people on Nebraska's death row. Senator Tom Carlson, who classified himself as "pro-life," said, "To be consistently pro-life, maybe I should oppose the death penalty." In the end, Carlson and Ashford were both among the 24 legislators who voted to advance the bill for more debate. Twenty-five legislators voted against advacement. The bill's sponsor, Senator Ernie Chambers, said he would try to win passage of a similar measure next year.

(Nebraska State Paper, March 20, 2007). See Recent Legislative Activity and Life Without Parole.

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Maryland Poll Shows Broad Support for Life Without Parole

According to a recent Maryland poll, a large majority of voters in the state support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. The poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc., found that 61% of those surveyed believe that the sentence of life without the possibility of parole is "an acceptable substitute for the death penalty." Only 27% of respondents disagreed. Support for life without parole in Maryland has jumped nearly 20 percentage points in less than a decade. Six years ago in a comparable poll, only 43% supported life without parole.

The poll was commissioned by the Maryland Catholic Conference, and it was released as Maryland legislators are considering a bill to replace the state's death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. The poll found that legislators who support the repeal measure will face no repercussions among voters. Of those polled, 71% said that they would either be more likely to support a legislator who voted for the ban (29%) or it would not impact their vote (42%).

"Clearly, the voters realize that the system needs to be reformed and they will support their legislators who decide it makes the most sense to end the death penalty," said Dick Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. The Conference noted that the polling results reflect a growing discomfort with the death penalty due to concerns about problems such as wrongful convictions.

(Maryland Catholic Conference Press Release, "Maryland Voters Support Life Without Parole as Replacement for the Death Penalty by More Than 2-to-1 Margin," February 28, 2007).

See Public Opinion, Life Without Parole, and Recent Legislative Activity.

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New Mexico House Approves Death Penalty Repeal Bill

The New Mexico House of Representatives has approved legislation that would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. Supporters of the measure say that it will save taxpayers an estimated $3 million a year, money they contend would be better spent on helping victims' families. They also note that capital punishment could result in an innocent person being executed, does not deter murder, and is unfairly administered in the state. "There are no rich people on death row," noted Rep. Gail Chasey (pictured), who sponsored the legislation.

Though prosecutors have sought the death penalty 207 times since 1979, the death penalty was imposed only 28 times. Nineteen of those sentences were overturned, five were commuted by former Governor Toney Anaya, one prisoner died on death row, one prisoner was executed, and two remain on death row.

The bill, which passed the House by a vote of 41-28, now goes to the Senate for consideration.

(Associated Press, February 12, 2007). See Recent Legislative Activity and Life Without Parole.

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PUBLIC OPINION: Poll Reveals Kansans Prefer Life Without Parole

A recent Kansas poll found that nearly two-thirds of respondents said they prefer a sentence of life in prison without parole in which the offenders would work in prison to pay restitution to the victims' families as an alternative to the death penalty. The poll also revealed that many Kansans think capital punishment is handed out unfairly. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they believe that some people are executed while others serve prison time for the same type of offense.

"There is not overwhelming support for the death penalty where there is an alternative available," said Ben Coats of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the organization that sponsored the statewide poll conducted by Jayhawk Consulting Services.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in Kansas in 1994, 10 people have been sentenced to death, but none have been executed. Of the ten death sentences, one was removed by the prosecutor's request, and two have been vacated by the Kansas Supreme Court.

(Lawrence Journal-World, February 13, 2007). See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole. View a video analyzing the poll results.

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Nebraska Repeal Bill Passes Unanimously in Committee

For the first time in nearly two decades, members of the Nebraska's unicameral legislature will have an opportunity to debate a bill that would repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole and an order of restitution. Members of the legislature's Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced the bill, noting that their colleagues in the full senate should have a chance to debate the measure. The bill's sponsor, Senator Ernie Chambers, introduced a similar measure in 1979 that won approval by the legislature, but was vetoed by then-Governor Charles Thorne.

During the Judiciary Committee's hearing on the bill, those testifying noted that capital punishment is more expensive than sentences of life without parole and urged passage of the measure because Nebraska's current death penalty does not adequately address the potential for racial bias and wrongful convictions in capital cases. University of Colorado sociology professor Michael Radelet testified that capital punishment does not deter murder and that public support for the death penalty is waning. Former Senator Loran Schmit told the committee that he was an outspoken supporter of the death penalty for many years before he was a member of the Legislature. He said he changed his mind when he learned of the disparities in sentencing for those who commit murder. Schmit added, "I also thought the death penalty would be a deterrent. I no longer believe that."

(Lincoln Star Journal, February 1, 2007).  See Recent Legislative Activity and Life Without Parole.

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