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NEW VOICES: Head County Prosecutor Advocates Ending Death Penalty in Ohio

Julia Bates has been the lead prosecutor in Lucas County, Ohio, since 1997. Although committed to following the law, she also believes it is time to repeal capital punishment in the state. She said death penalty cases are “torturous” for those involved, including judges, jurors, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and victims’ families, who are subjected to years of appeals. "It just seems there ought to be a better way,” Mrs. Bates said. Capital cases have sharply declined in Lucas County and in the state over the last few years.  Only 9 individuals were indicted in the state for capital murder charges through July, compared to 159 indictments in 1983. There are no pending capital charges in all of Lucas County. One of the most significant factors contributing to this decline is the alternative sentence of life without parole, which became more available in 2005. Bates said her office is not avoiding death penalty prosecutions, but requires that "there should be no doubt about guilt. The guilt should be absolute. It should be unquestionable." A task force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court is considering changes to the death penalty law.


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VICTIMS: Families of Murder Victims Express Preference for Life Without Parole Sentence

Some of the families of those murdered in a multiple shooting in Seal Beach, California, in 2011 recently asked the District Attorney to not seek the death penalty against the defendant, Scott Dekraai. The families said the delays in pursuing such a case extended their agony and forced them to relive the incident. Instead they recommended a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Paul Wilson, whose wife was killed in the shootings, said, "We’d like to see a speedy, and just, way to go about this trial… This will end up consuming the rest of my life.” Another family member, Rooney Daschbach, spoke for his four siblings and said, “We requested that they accept the plea on the grounds that there’s no way he’d ever be executed. We don’t have an issue with the D.A.’s effort to obtain the most severe penalty but we just have an issue with the fact that the death penalty system is broken.” Dekraai is expected to begin trial nearly three years after the shootings.


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EDITORIALS: Wyoming Paper Recommends Life Sentences for Sake of Victims

Wyoming's Casper Star-Tribune recently pointed out why many families of murder victims favor life-without-parole sentences over the death penalty . "[I]t may be a surprise that many families of murder victims prefer the life without parole sentence, simply because it puts the killer away forever without the decades-long court appeals that can accompany a death sentence," the paper wrote. The editorial noted that there is only one person on the state's death row, and he is there for a crime committed 25 years ago. Attention to the case often focuses on the defendant rather than the victim. Read the editorial below.


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Death Penalty Now Rarely Used in Utah

An analysis of the death penalty in Utah shows how rarely it has been used in recent years. Prosecutors have sought it in only 7 cases in the last 5 years, and none has resulted in a death sentence. Utah has had only 1 execution in the past 13 years. Experts have offered several reasons for the declining use: the alternative sentence of life without parole is now avaialble; the appeal of a death sentence is costly and slow; and many victims' families wish to see a more timely end to the criminal case. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sam Gill said the death penalty should be used sparingly, and only with great consideration: "What you want is a prosecutor who struggles with the death penalty, because it's a decision to take somebody's life. It shouldn't be something we do arbitrarily. It's not something that we should be cavalier about. It is not something we should reach to with indiscretion." Prosecutors also said they consider the wishes of the victim's family when deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Mark Anderson, whose cousin was murdered, said he believed life without parole was an appropriate punishment in that case. "When you have a crime that's committed, you need to protect two entities. You need to protect the victim and the public in general, and in both of those situations justice was satisfied," Anderson said.


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Kansas May Consider Death Penalty Repeal in 2014

Legislators in Kansas have said they may debate the repeal of the death penalty in 2014. Senate Vice President Jeff King said a recent session on other criminal justice issues indicated a need for a broader discussion of sentences for murder. Senator David Haley, who supports repeal of the death penalty, said, “I believe now is the time for a discussion among those in the Legislature who consider religion a main part of their public service to decide whether it’s necessary for a barbaric and immoral law [to] remain on the books.” A senate bill to repeal capital punishment almost passed in 2010 with a 20-20 vote. Donna Schneweis, chair of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said, “What we are witnessing is there really is support across the political spectrum, including conservatives, libertarians. It’s not just moderates and liberals who are opposed." Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994, but has not had any executions since then.


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ARBITRARINESS: An Attorney's Story of Her Client's Death

Vicki Werneke is a federal public defender who represented Billy Slagle on Ohio's death row. She recently wrote about her frenzied work during the last weekend before Slagle's death on August 4. She noted that he was only 18 and highly intoxicated at the time of his crime. He had been remorseful ever since, trying to do some good with his life while on death row. Even the District Attorney of the county that prosecuted him supported a reprieve, making this a strong case for clemency. On the final weekend before his execution, new evidence emerged that Slagle had not been informed about an opportunity to plead guilty at his trial and avoid the death penalty. The current prosecutors agreed not to oppose a motion for a stay, but, as Werneke wrote, a tragedy occurred: "But then Sunday morning, the world shattered. I was in church with my dad and my phone kept vibrating in the middle of the sermon. I could tell I was getting phone calls, but didn’t look at my phone. As soon as I could find a discreet time to take a glance at my phone, I saw a text message from [our investigator] telling me that Billy’s sister called to tell us that he had hanged himself. He was gone." He didn't know of the new legal development. Werneke concluded, “Even in a case where there is no question of guilt, there remain serious questions about whether the death sentence was the appropriate punishment and the cat and mouse games played by those in power. Hope is a powerful thing and loss of hope can be deadly.”


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DEATH ROW: Ohio Inmate Found Hanged Days Before Scheduled Execution

On August 4, Ohio death row inmate Billy Slagle was found hanged in his prison cell, three days before he was scheduled to be executed. Slagle did not know that prosecutors had recently revealed that their office had been prepared to offer a plea deal to avoid a death sentence at the time of his trial 26 years ago. That deal was not conveyed to Slagle by his attorneys. This new information was part of a request for a stay of execution sent to the Ohio Supreme Court and unopposed by the prosecutor's office. Slagle apparently took his own life, not knowing of this development. Governor John Kasich declined to commute Slagle’s death sentence last month, despite the recommendation from prosecutor Tim McGinty, head of the office that prosecuted Slagle, that his sentence be reduced to life without parole.


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PUBLIC OPINION: Strong Majority of North Carolinians Prefer Life Without Parole Over the Death Penalty

NC Poll
Click to enlarge.

A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling indicated a strong majority of North Carolina residents prefer replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole (LWOP), as long as some conditions are imposed. According to the survey, 68% of respondents support replacing the death penalty with LWOP if the offender had to work and pay restitution to the victim’s family. Sixty-three percent (63%) support repealing the death penalty if the money saved was redirected to effective crime fighting tools. And more than half (55%) of the respondents supported ending the death penalty if the money saved was redirected to solving cold cases and assisting victims of crime. Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, noted the change occurring on this issue: “The days when the death penalty enjoyed near-universal support are clearly over," he said. "Across the country, poll after poll has shown that. These results show that people in North Carolina are willing to consider alternatives to capital punishment.” Read full results of the survey.


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Maryland Takes Crucial Step Towards Death Penalty Repeal

On February 21, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee of Maryland approved (6-5) a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In prior years, the effort to end capital punishment was often blocked in this committee. Senator Robert Zerkin was one legislator who changed his mind this year, "As heinous and awful as these individuals [on death row] are, I think it's time for our state not to be involved in the apparatus of executions," he said. The bill outlaws future death sentences and recommends that current death sentences be commuted by the governor to life without parole. There appear to be sufficient votes for repeal in the Senate and the House, and Governor Martin O’Malley has pledged to sign the bill. A final vote in the Senate is expected by Feb. 26. The bill garnered support from a coalition of murder victims’ families, communities of color, law enforcement officials, faith leaders, civil rights leaders, and other prominent individuals, including Kirk Bloodsworth--who was freed from the state’s death row--Vicki Schieber--a Maryland resident whose daughter was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998--Catholic Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, and Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP. The governor has pledged to use some of the money saved from not having the death penalty to support victims' services. If Maryland repeals the death penalty, it will become the sixth state to do so in the past six years. Other states considering repeal of the death penalty, include Montana, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon, and Delaware.


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