PUBLIC OPINION: Gallup Poll Reports Lowest Support for Death Penalty in Nearly 40 Years

Recent polls conducted by Gallup and CNN indicate Americans' support for the death penalty is continuing to decline.  According to Gallup's 2011 poll, the percentage of Americans approving the death penalty as a punishment for murder dropped to its lowest level in 39 years.  Only 61% supported capital punishment in theory, down from 64% last year and from 80% support in 1994. This is the lowest level of support since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia voided death penalty statutes across the country.  Opposition to the death penalty (35%) in this recent poll reached a 39-year high. The Gallup poll also showed an increase from last year in those who believe the death penalty is applied too often or unfairly.  Support for the death penalty dropped compared to last year among both Republicans and Democrats.  This year, among Democrats (or those leaning that way) more opposed the death penalty than supported it, a reverse from a year ago.  A recent CNN poll (conducted by ORC International) showed that when given a choice of sentences between life in prison without parole or the death penalty for the crime of murder, more Americans (50%) would opt for the life sentence than for death (48%). Seven years ago, the majority (56%) chose the death penalty over the life-without parole sentence. In CNN's recent poll, the number of Americans who believe that at least one person in the past five years has been executed for a crime that he or she did not commit increased to 72%.

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PUBLIC OPINION: New Poll Shows California Voters Support Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

The recent Field Poll conducted in California indicated that more voters now prefer life without the possibility of parole instead of the death penalty for convicted murderers. For the first time since the poll began asking the question over a decade ago, more voters (48%) say they would prefer that someone convicted of first-degree murder be sentenced to life without parole than the death penalty (40%). Eleven years ago, only 37% of respondents favored the life sentence and 44% preferred the death penalty, a 15 point change in the spread. Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said that voters are far more skeptical of the death penalty now than they were twenty years ago: "There has been a change in attitude," he said. "Twenty-two years ago, the death penalty side argument prevailed by a large majority - now voters are divided in their opinions on many statements, including the cost of death versus life in prison, does a life sentence actually guarantee they will stay in prison, whether innocent people are executed, and their views of how it is administered to the ethnic population."  A recent study in California found that maintaining the death penalty costs taxpayers $184 million a year more than if the state's condemned killers were kept in prison for life.

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CLEMENCY: Ohio Death Row Inmate Granted Clemency, Citing 'Brutally Abusive Upbringing'

On September 26, Ohio Governor John Kasich (pictured) granted clemency to Joseph Murphy, commuting his death sentence to life without parole, citing the defendant's horrific childhood. Murphy was scheduled for execution on October 18. The Ohio Parole Board had unanimously recommended sparing Murphy's life, citing evidence from Murphy's childhood that indicated he was beaten, starved and sexually abused.  The Parole Board also cited a 1992 Ohio Supreme Court decision in which late Justice Moyer said he knew of no other case in which a defendant "was as destined for disaster as was Joseph Murphy."  Governor Kasich issued the following statement regarding the clemency: "Joseph Murphy’s murder of Ruth Predmore was heinous and disturbing and he deserves—and continues to receive—severe punishment. Even though as a child and adolescent Murphy suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him, it does not excuse his crime.... After examining this case in detail with counsel I agree with Chief Justice Moyer, the National Association of Mental Illness and the Parole Board’s unanimous 8-0 decision that considering Joseph Murphy’s brutally abusive upbringing and the relatively young age at which he committed this terrible crime, the death penalty is not appropriate in this case. Thus, I have commuted his sentence to life in prison with no chance for parole."

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NEW VOICES: Author of California Death Penalty Says "It is time to undo it"

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Daily News, Don Heller (pictured), a Republican, former prosecutor, and the author of the 1978 ballot initiative that reinstated California's death penalty, voiced his support for replacing the death penalty with life without parole. "It makes no sense to prop up such a failed system," he wrote.  He urged California voters to support a new ballot initiative that would abolish the state's death penalty, citing the system's "staggering" costs and the risk of executing the innocent. In discussing the failures of the initiative he authored over 30 years ago, he said, "I never contemplated the staggering cost of implementing the death penalty: more than $4 billion to date and approximately $185 million projected per year in ongoing costs." He said he also did not think about the chance that an innocent person could be executed: "I am convinced that at least one innocent person may have been executed under the current death penalty law. It was not my intent nor do I believe that of the voters who overwhelmingly enacted the death penalty law in 1978. We did not consider that horrific possibility." Heller emphasized that he is not "soft on crime," but that "life without parole protects public safety better than a death sentence." Additionally, he said the money spent on the death penalty could be better used elsewhere, as California cuts funding for police officers and prosecutors. "Paradoxically, the cost of capital punishment takes away funds that could be used to enhance public safety." Read full op-ed below.

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CLEMENCY: Ohio Governor Commutes Death Sentence Because of Doubts About Defendant's Role

On June 8, Ohio Governor John Kasich (pictured) granted clemency to Shawn Hawkins, commuting his death sentence to life without parole because of doubts about his role in a double murder. Hawkins was scheduled for execution on June 14. In May, the Ohio Parole Board unanimously recommended to spare Hawkins’ life, citing conflicting statements by the sole eyewitness and possible involvement of other individuals who had not been fully investigated. Republicans Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio Secretary of State and 2006 gubernatorial candidate, former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, and state Sen. Bill Seitz all wrote letters to Gov. John Kasich or to the Parole Board on behalf of Hawkins.  Sen. Seitz stated, "[T]here is no reason to end Mr. Hawkins' life on something so utterly flimsy as mishandled and inconclusive fingerprints and the testimony of a witness with every motive to lie. . . ."  Hawkins is the first death row inmate to receive clemency from Governor Kasich since he took office in January, and the seventh to be spared since Ohio resumed executions in 1999.

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NEW VOICES: Current and Former California Law Enforcement Officials Question Future of Death Penalty

Current and former law enforcement officials in California recently discussed their views on the future of the death penalty during a conference in San Francisco. Jeanne Woodford (pictured left), former Warden of San Quentin prison, said that the time has come to end executions in the United States:  "I have had the opportunity to view this issue from every point of view. I absolutely am passionate about the position that it's time to end the death penalty in the United States." She recommended life in prison without possibility of parole as an alternative to the death penalty, saying that it "is a real sentence," but one that "gives inmates opportunity to change, to work, to give back to state, and to make restitution to the victims' families." George Gascon (pictured right), San Francisco's District Attorney, said the death penalty "is an imperfect tool." He cited the possibility of wrongful convictions, the high costs of executions, and the lack of closure for victims' families.

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NEW VOICES: Victim's Family Asks Ohio Board to Spare Inmate's Life

The family of a man who was killed in Ohio recently petitioned the parole board to commute the death sentence of the defendant in the murder. Peter Mah, son of Chong Hoon Mah, who was killed by Johnnie Baston (pictured) during a robbery in 1994, told the Ohio Parole Board, "I was opposed to Mr. Baston receiving a death sentence at the time of his trial… [and] my family and I are opposed to Mr. Baston being executed." During the trial, the family had filed affidavits saying that they preferred to see Baston spend his entire life in prison, but that sentencing option was not available at the time. The Board makes a recommendation regarding clemency to the governor, who makes the final decision.  Baston's attorneys have compared his case to that of Jeffrey Hill of Ohio, whose death sentence was commuted to life without parole by former Governor Ted Strickland. In Hill's case, the parole board cited the wishes of the victim's family opposing execution. Baston's attorneys have also presented evidence that he was abused as a child by his birth family. 

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NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Corrections Chief Calls for End of Death Penalty

Terry Collins, former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, recently urged the state to replace capital punishment with life in prison without parole.  In an op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch, Collins said he personally observed the execution of 33 men from 2001 to 2010, and questioned whether it was the right thing to do all 33 times: “Had all the reviews and appeals got this case right? Did the process make certain, absolutely, there was no mistake or error? I wondered that because I had previously walked people out of prison who were found not guilty after years of incarceration. What if we got it wrong for those we executed?” Collins also addresses the high costs of the death penalty, both fiscally and those borne by victims’ families. He said, “An increasing number of families ask the state not to pursue the death penalty so that they are not faced with the painful task of attending appeals hearings, and so they can achieve closure. Life imprisonment without parole offers justice that is swift, certain, effectively severe and perhaps more sensitive to the needs of healing victims' families.” Collins also noted that death sentences have drastically reduced since life without the possibility of parole became an option in Ohio, adding “Many in our society have deemed this alternative to be a reasonable measure and a way to keep Ohio communities safe, something every member of the law-enforcement community values. We can have confidence knowing that when necessary, we can safely incarcerate offenders for life.” Read full op-ed below.

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CLEMENCY: Governors in Missouri and Tennessee Grant Clemency to Inmates Facing Imminent Execution

On consecutive days, Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri and Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee granted clemencies to death row inmates facing imminent execution in their respective states. In Missouri, Gov. Nixon commuted the death sentence of Richard Clay, who was scheduled for execution on January 12. In Tennessee, Gov. Bredesen granted clemency to Edward Jerome Harbison, thus averting his execution on February 15. Both inmates now face life in prison without parole. Clay and his supporters maintained that he was innocent of a 1994 murder-for-hire murder.  In a statement released by the governor's office, Nixon said that Clay's "involvement in this crime is clear," but chose to exercise his executive authority after “having looked at this matter in its entirety and after significant thought and counsel.” In Tennessee, Harbison was charged with a murder that occurred in 1983. He initially confessed to the crime but later claimed he was coerced after authorities threatened to arrest his girlfriend and put her children into foster care. Of the commutation, Gov. Bredesen said, "It's obviously a heinous crime, but when I compare it to others I don't think it rose to the level of a death penalty crime."  Gov. Nixon was elected in 2008, having served as Attorney General while Clay was being prosecuted.  Gov. Bredesen is leaving office.

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