CLEMENCY: Gov. Strickland Commutes Kevin Keith's Sentence to Life Without Parole

On September 2, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (pictured) granted clemency to Kevin Keith, commuting his death sentence to life without parole. Keith, who was convicted of killing three people, has always maintained his innocence, and some evidence pointed to another suspect. Gov. Strickland’s commutation statement addressed his concerns regarding Keith’s case: “Mr. Keith’s conviction relied upon the linking of certain eyewitness testimony with certain forensic evidence about which important questions have been raised. I also find the absence of a full investigation of other credible suspects troubling.” The governor acknowledged that Keith might well be guilty and that the Ohio Parole Board had recommended against clemency, but he could not allow an execution with the doubts that persisted.  The governor left open the possibility that future developments might require additional relief for Mr. Keith.  Attorneys for Keith applauded Gov. Strickland’s actions, but said they will continue to petition for a new trial to address newly discovered evidence, evidence withheld by the State, and new science behind eyewitness identification, all of which, they claim, point to Mr. Keith's innocence.

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EDITORIALS: “The last man to die”

A recent editorial in the Greensboro, NC, News & Record indicated that capital punishment may be "on its last legs" in North Carolina. "In practice," the editorial stated, "the death penalty nearly is eradicated. It is complicated, costly and no longer trusted."  According to the paper, use of the death penalty has been in steady decline. In 1999, 25 defendants were sentenced to death and another 16 were added the following year. In 2009, there were only two new death sentences in the state and only two so far in 2010. Juries and prosecutors have gravitated more to sentences of life without parole. There has been a hold on executions in the state because of challenges to the lethal injection protocols and because of concerns about the arbitrary implementation of the punishment. The last execution was in 2006.  Some inmates are on death row for less heinous crimes than those committed by people who received life sentences. The editorial concluded, “Locking someone up for the rest of his natural life - often 50 years or more - not only protects the public, it allows for errors to be discovered and corrected. Execution does not.”  Read full editorial below.

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EDITORIALS: Life Sentence Plea Helps California Victim's Family Move On

Recently, a California man pled guilty to the 2006 murder of Highway Patrolman Earl Scott.  The defendant, Columbus Allen Jr., whose pre-trial proceedings took more than four years, will now spend the rest of his life in prison, having waived his appeals. The Stanislaus County district attorney originally sought the death penalty against Allen, but there were no guarantees that verdict would have been reached. Additionally, when the death penalty is imposed in California, years of appeals often follow, and it is not unusual for convicted murderers to outlive the family members of the murder victims. An editorial in the Modesto Bee noted that the plea will save the county over $1 million in additional expenses that would have been spent in a capital trial. Moreover, the paper noted, the emphasis can now be put on the victim, rather than on the pepetrator: "In recent years, it has seemed that Earl Scott was the forgotten victim and all the attention was on Allen, who went through multiple defense attorneys. Every time the trial was about to proceed, there would be another motion causing a delay. It was frustrating, even for those who value the process over a rush to justice. . . .[Now] Earl Scott . . . will be remembered - by his family and friends, of course, but also by his colleagues in law enforcement and by our community."  Read full editorial below.

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PUBLIC OPINION: California Poll Shows Increase in Support for Life Without Parole

A recent poll conducted in California showed that support for life without parole for first-degree murder has increased among registered voters since 2000. When asked which sentence they preferred for a first-degree murderer, 42% of registered voters said they preferred life without parole and 41% said they preferred the death penalty. In 2000, when voters were asked the same question, 37% chose life without parole while 44% chose the death penalty. Some commentators say that the increased support for life without parole and decreased support for the death penalty is very telling. Stefanie Faucher, associate director of Death Penalty Focus, said "I think they reflect a growing preference for life without parole as an alternative. It is more cost-effective, is carried out more quickly and doesn't drag victims through years of appeals." The Field Poll revealed that 70% of California’s registered voters support the death penalty, but Faucher says that figure represents support for the death penalty “in the abstract” and is less revealing than people’s views on what punishment they prefer.

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PUBLIC OPINION: Majority of Illinois Voters Supports Alternatives to the Death Penalty

A recent poll conducted by Lake Research Partners found that a majority of Illinois registered voters prefer an alternative sentence to the death penalty for those who commit murder. The pollsters surveyed voters in April, and found that 43% believed that the penalty for murder should be life with no possibility of parole and a requirement to make restitution to the victim’s family. Another 18% felt that the penalty for murder should be life in prison with no possibility of parole. Only 32% responded that the penalty for murder should be death. The poll also found only 39% of registered voters even know that Illinois has the death penalty. Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, attributed this to a declining murder rate and a declining use of the death penalty in the state. There has not been an execution in Illinois since 2000, when then Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in the state. Between 1977, when capital punishment was reinstated in Illinois, and the moratorium in 2000, Illinois freed 13 men from death row and put 12 to death.

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EDITORIALS: "Forget the Death Penalty"

On June 24, the Democrat Herald (Oregon) featured an editorial about Randy Lee Guzek, who was recently sentenced to death for the fourth time for murders committed in 1987. The Oregon Supreme Court overturned his three previous death sentences on various grounds. The editorial questioned whether such a death penalty process made any sense.  "If the procedures are so difficult that Oregon trial courts cannot get them right in three tries, maybe there is something wrong with the procedures and the system."  In 26 years, Oregon has executed two defendants, both of whom waived their appeals.  The paper concluded, "The appellate courts are telling the people something: Forget the death penalty; it's not gonna happen. And if it ever does happen, it will be many, many years after the crime. By that time, it will be easy to argue that the man facing execution is not the same bad character who, decades before, took someone's life. So why kill him now?"  The editorial posed life without parole as an alternative to death penalty in Oregon, saying " Unless we want to keep making a mockery of the death penalty law by refusing to carry it out, Oregon would be better off if prosecutors just asked for life without parole instead." Read full editorial below.

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EDITORIALS: Murder Victim's Family Helps Case Settle with Life Sentence

When the student body president of the University of North Carolina, Eve Marie Carson, was murdered in 2008, both the state and the federal government initiated death penalty prosecutions against one of the defendants.  However, many of Ms. Carson's family and friends were convinced that she opposed the death penalty and would not want it sought in her case.  Family members were influential in the recent decision by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to accept a plea of guilty from defendant Demario Atwater in exchange for a sentence of life without parole in the federal case.  North Carolina prosecutors followed suit and accepted a similar deal.  A recent editorial in the Charlotte News & Observer noted that the family said the outcome "honors Eve's love of life and all people."  The editorial concluded: "A desire for revenge, an eye for an eye, would have been entirely understandable. Somehow, the Carsons managed to resist it in the name of their daughter. For their courage in even facing this day, they deserve the admiration of all. Their daughter was a very special person. The same may be said of those who raised her."   Read full text of article below.

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Prosecutor Views on the Decline in Death Sentences

Robert Stott, a veteran prosecutor in the Salt Lake County (Utah) District Attorney's Office, recently commented on why death sentences have declined.  "What I have found," he said, "is that since the statute was changed to offer life without the possibility of parole, it's more difficult to get the death penalty. Jurors realize that instead of having to make that terrible decision (voting for the death penalty), they can vote to put someone in prison and ensure that defendant is no longer a harm to society. It makes it easier for them to return a verdict of life without the possibility of parole."  Stott said in the past 24 years, only two death penalty sentences have been returned by Salt Lake County juries.  He said death penalty cases are the toughest cases to take on:  "We have to prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt."  Public outrage at horrific crimes sometimes fades away as jurors struggle with the weight of ending another human life.

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Oklahoma Governor Grants Clemency

Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry granted clemency to Richard Tandy Smith, who was originally sentenced to death for a 1986 shooting during an alleged drug deal. Earlier this year, the Pardon and Parole Board approved a clemency recommendation for Smith and forwarded it to the governor for approval. Governor Henry said, "This was a very difficult decision and one that I did not take lightly. I am always reluctant to intervene in a capital case, and I am very respectful of a jury's verdict, the prosecutors who tried the case and the victim's family who suffered because of the crime. However, after reviewing all of the evidence and hearing from both prosecutors and defense attorneys, I decided the Pardon and Parole Board made a proper recommendation to provide clemency and commute the death sentence. As a result, Richard Smith will be punished by serving the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole."

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PUBLIC OPINION: Maryland Voters Prefer Life Without Parole Over the Death Penalty

A recent poll by the Washington Post revealed more Marylanders prefer a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole over the death penalty for someone convicted of murder– by 49% to 40%. Maryland has had a de facto moratorium on executions since 2006, after the state's highest court ruled that procedures for lethal injections had not been properly adopted. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley sponsored legislation to abolish the death penalty, and a state commission in 2008 recommended that the legislature repeal capital punishment, but the eventual measure was amended to sharply restrict the death penalty instead.  The last execution in Maryland was carried out in 2005.

In general, Marylanders support the death penalty when not presented with an alternative sentence by a margin of 60% to 32%.  The poll revealed racial and gender divisions on the issue. Whites are far more likely than blacks to favor capital punishment (70% to 43%), and more men than women support the death penalty (66% to 54%).

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