SENTENCING: No Death Sentences in North Carolina for the First Time Since 1977

No new death sentneces were imposed in North Carolina in 2012, marking the first time since 1977 that this has occurred. The state had a record-low of four capital trials in 2012. Thomas Maher, executive director of North Carolina’s Indigent Defense Services, said, “In some ways, it’s a milestone. In other ways, it’s part of a trend.” In 2000, juries in the state presided at 57 capital trials, ultimately yielding 18 death sentences. In 2011, there were 12 capital trials resulting in 3 death sentences. North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006. This declining use of the death penalty is in line with a broader national trend. In 2011, there were 78 new death sentences in the U.S., a 75% drop from 1996, when 315 individuals were sentenced to death. It was the first time since 1976 that the country produced fewer than 100 death sentences in a single year.

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California Retains Death Penalty by Narrow Margin

On November 6, 2012, California’s Proposition 34, an initiative to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole, was narrowly defeated by a vote of 53% to 47%. Although the result means the death penalty will continue in the state, the percent of voters supporting repeal represents a dramatic shift away from capital punishment. The referendum, which indicated just more than half of voters are in favor of keeping the death penalty, follows a broader trend of diminishing public support for the punishment. By contrast, the 1978 ballot initiative that enacted California’s death penalty statute passed with the support of 71% of the voters. California’s use of the death penalty has declined in recent years. Death sentences in California dropped from 40 in 1981 to 10 in 2011. California has not carried out an execution since 2006.  Among the leading proponents of Proposition 34 were Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin Prison, Gil Garcetti, the former District Attorney of Los Angeles County, and Donald Heller, a former prosecutor who drafted the 1978 death penalty initiative.

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RESOURCES: New Study Examines Effect of Death Penalty on Plea Bargaining

Sherod ThaxtonA recent study by Sherod Thaxton (pictured) of the University of Chicago Law School examined the effect of the threat of the death penalty on plea bargaining. Using statistical analysis of charging and sentencing data in Georgia between 1993 and 2000, Thaxton found that the possibility of a death sentence increased the likelihood of a plea bargain: "deterring two out of every ten death noticed defendants from pursuing a trial." However, the lower number of trials does not offset the high costs of the death penalty, he found. "The empirical findings in this article suggest that the threat of the death penalty has a substantial causal effect on the likelihood that a defendant accepts a plea agreement. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the effect is clearly insufficient to offset the substantial administrative and financial costs arising from the occasional capital defendant taking her chances at trial." In many cases, the author said, significant pre-trial costs are incurred even before a plea agreement is reached.  The study, Leveraging Death, will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

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U.S. MILITARY: Latest Sentence Reversal Follows Trend of Rarely Using Death Penalty

The U.S. Military has not carried out an execution of a service member for 50 years. Of the 11 military death sentences that have completed direct appeal, 9 (82%) have been reversed.  On August 22, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the death sentence of former Lance Corporal Kenneth G. Parker, the only Marine on the military's death row. The court also overturned one of Parker’s two murder convictions after finding that his guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  Judge J.A. Maksym, while condemning Parker's actions, said, “We have upset aspects of this verdict and will set aside the death penalty due to numerous and substantive procedural and legal failures at trial.”  Parker is now facing a life sentence without parole at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Parker's co-defendant, Wade Walker, had also been sentenced to death but had his sentence reduced to life earlier.  Since 1984, 11 out of 16 military death sentences have been overturned. The last military execution occurred in 1961.

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Use of the Death Penalty in California Declines in Key Counties

Use of the death penalty in California has declined in recent years. There have been no executions in six years, and the number of death sentences in 2011 dropped sharply from previous years.  District Attorney Mark Peterson of Contra Costa County said his office tries to be smart on crime rather than automatically seeking death. "People here want us to be tough on crime, but they want us to be smart on crime," he said. "Even though we might personally believe a defendant deserves the death penalty, it doesn't do us any good to take a hard stance if the community isn't going to support it.  The statistics bear out that the number of death penalty cases have gone down over the years," Peterson said. "It's been almost two years without a death verdict and for the ninth largest county in the state, I think that says a lot.  For the vast majority of eligible cases, we don't seek the death penalty," he said. A recent Field Poll found that while support for the death penalty in California continues, there is also a growing tendency of voters to favor life in prison without parole over capital punishment. Elisabeth Semel, professor of law at Berkeley Law School, explained that public opinion can influence the decision of prosecutors. She said, "Prosecutors are increasingly willing to use the punishment of life without the possibility of parole and recognize that it is more acceptable to the general public. The decreasing popularity of the death penalty ... has an influence in the decision." Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, agreed: "The whole tenor in both the criminal justice system and in the community has changed in regard to the death penalty," she said. "Prosecutors realize, in the end, it might not be worth it." 

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MULTIMEDIA: Interview with Michael Selsor-Served Longest Time Between Conviction and Execution

Al Jazeera recently released a video of an interview with former Oklahoma death-row inmate Michael Selsor (pictured). Selsor was the most recent person executed in the U.S. and probably the inmate who served the longest time between conviction and execution of anyone in U.S. history.  He was first sentenced to death in 1976 for murder and was imprisoned over 36 years prior to his execution on May 1, 2012.  Although his sentence was reduced to life when Oklahoma's death penalty was overturned in 1976, he was re-sentenced to death for the same crime in 1998.  The interview was conducted in 2010 and was the only interview Selsor granted. When asked about the difference between the death penalty and life without parole, Selsor said, “The only difference between death and life without parole is one you kill me now, the other one you kill me later. There's not even a shred of hope. There's no need to even try to muster up a seed of hope because you're just gonna die of old age in here....With the death penalty sentence I'm entitled to more appeals - the government's gonna pay for it. I don't have to do it myself if I don't have the money for a lawyer which I don't have. Instead I'm relying on public defenders to do my appeals."  Selsor was also asked about how he was handling his inevitable execution: “I'm not gonna beg 'em to spare my life. I'll try to keep my head up with a little bit of dignity, and I'm gonna be buried out on Periwood Hill.”   See the video of the interview.

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NEW VOICES: South Carolina Officials Point to Costs and Uncertainty for Death Penalty's Decline

Use of the death penalty has decreased in South Carolina, and some state officials are pointing to the high costs and uncertainty of capital punishment as reasons for this decline. The state has had only one execution in the past three years, and the size of death row has declined almost 30% since 2005.  No one was sentenced to death in 2011.  Prosecutor David Pascoe initially planned to seek the death penalty for a mother who killed her two children, but later changed his mind, with cost being one factor:  "Once you file for the death penalty, the clock gets moving and the money, the taxpayers start paying for that trial," he said.  Representative Tommy Pope (pictured), a state legislator and former prosecutor who sought the death penalty for Susan Smith in a similar murder, now would tell victims' families to consider agreeing to a life-without-parole sentence instead of the death penalty.  Life without parole was adopted by the state in 1995.  It "allow[s] them a measure of closure that three retrials in a death penalty case never would," Pope said. 

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CLEMENCY: Georgia Board Commutes Death Sentence of 'Model Prisoner'

On April 20, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles reduced the death sentence of Daniel Greene (pictured) to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Board had stayed Greene's execution, which was set for April 19, in order to further consider his clemency petition. Greene's petition included letters from several members of the Taylor County community, where the murder occurred, urging the Board to spare Greene's life. Among the letters was one from a former correctional officer, Randy Foster, who called Greene "as fine a man as I have ever met in my life," and said, "He is not like anyone else on death row. Daniel Greene is the type of person you want for an inmate. He has never given me (or anyone else as far as I know) even the hint of a problem." In his own letter to the Board, Greene apologized for the pain he caused the victim's family and said, "I was on drugs at the time, but I took the drugs with my hands, and I take the responsibility. That choice to do drugs and what I did after were the worst mistakes of my life. I do not blame the drugs. I blame myself for everything." This was the second clemency granted nationally in 2012 and the eighth granted in Georgia since 1976.

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NEW VOICES: Creators of California's Death Penalty Law Now Call for Life Without Parole

Donald Heller (pictured), who wrote California's death penalty law, and Ron Briggs, who led the campaign to reinstate the law in 1978, are now advocating for replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. Both now say that the law did not have the result they intended. “At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Briggs said. But the costs of the death penalty system has led him to reconsider his stance: "I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’" Donald Heller, a former prosecutor, called California's death penalty system a "colossal failure," also mentioning its high costs, “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it — and now I think there’s very little or zero benefit — is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose." Both men are supporting a November ballot initiative that would replace death sentences with life without parole and use the money saved to solve cold cases. California has not carried out an execution in six years, and has about 720 inmates on death row.

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Connecticut Senate Poised to Vote on Death Penalty Repeal

The Connecticut Senate is expected to vote as early as Wednesday (April 4) on a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. The bill, which would only affect future sentencing, passed the Judiciary Committee on March 21 and needs at least 18 votes to pass in the Senate. If it passes the Senate, it is considered likely to pass the House, and Governor Dannel Malloy has pledged to sign the bill into law. A similar bill passed the General Assembly in 2009, but was vetoed by then-Governor Jodi Rell. Murder victims’ families and friends are among the strongest supporters of the repeal. A letter signed by 179 Connecticut murder victims’ families stated, “Our direct experiences with the criminal justice system and struggling with grief have led us all to the same conclusion: Connecticut’s death penalty fails victims’ families.... In Connecticut, the death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims’ families frustrated and angry after years of fighting the legal system. And as the state hangs onto this broken system, it wastes millions of dollars that could go toward much needed victims’ services.” If Connecticut repeals the death penalty, it will become the 5th state to do so in the past 5 years. Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York have all abandoned the death penalty in recent years. Other states are also considering repeal of the death penalty, including California, where 800,000 signatures have been gathered to place the issue on the ballot in November.

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