NEW VOICES: Why Prosecutors in Texas, Pennsylvania Are Seeking Death Penalty Less Often
Prosecutors across the country are seeking the death penalty less frequently and in recent interviews two district attorneys, one from Texas and one from Pennsylvania, have given some of their reasons why. Randall County, Texas District Attorney James Farren (pictured) told KFDA-TV in Amarillo that his experience handling one particularly lengthy and costly capital case has changed how he will make decisions in future cases that are eligible for the death penalty. He said that his office has spent, "conservatively...at least $400,000" on the prosecution of Brittany Holberg, who has been on death row since 1998. Farren said the costs are too high for taxpayers and "I do not want to subject them to this kind of thing any longer." While he said he still supports the death penalty, Farren predicted that, in the near future, the U.S. Supreme Court "likely will decide society has evolved to the point that it’s no longer appropriate." In an interview with the Reading Eagle, John T. Adams, District Attorney of Berks County, Pennsylvania, says that he rarely seeks the death penalty and is "just as happy with a life sentence as I am a death sentence." If defendantants are sentenced to life without parole, Adams says, "[t]hey will not be a threat to our community ever again. And frankly, community safety is the utmost of my concerns." Adams adds, "I think you will find throughout Pennsylvania that we are seeking [the death penalty] less and less, and I think that's good."
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Despite Executions, Death Penalty is in Decline in the "New Georgia"
Although Georgia carried out 5 of the 28 executions in the U.S. in 2015, it imposed no new death sentences and a significantly changed legal landscape points to a "new Georgia" with the death penalty in decline. The Georgia legal publication, Daily Report, dubbed the decline in death sentences its "newsmaker of the year," and explored the reasons for the change. Jerry Word, the division director of the Georgia Capital Defender, said that with the Defender's early intervention initiative reaching out to prosecutors to present reasons to decapitalize a case, prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty in all 29 of the cases his office handled this year. The only capital case that went to trial with the death penalty as an option was a case in which the defendant represented himself, and the jury handed down life without parole. In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and only one of the last 71 capital cases the capital defender has handled has resulted in a death verdict. Several factors have created the new landscape and contributed to the reduction in death sentences. Word said these include the cost of death penalty trials and the efforts by defense counsel to present prosecutors with mitigating evidence early in the process. But, he said, "I think the LWOP [life without parole] is the really big one. We've had that for six years now, but we've really just started seeing the impact in the last few years." Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, agreed that life without parole had played a significant role: "I certainly think things changed dramatically when the Legislature gave us the life without parole option," he said. Similar factors have contributed to death penalty declines in historically active death penalty states like Texas and Virginia. Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said "Georgia is in step with the national trend of declining use of the death penalty. The continued marginalization of the death penalty is not surprising given growing concerns about its implementation, particularly with regard to the potential of an innocent person being executed and the prevalence of botched executions as states experiment with lethal injection drugs."
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Ohio Capital Murder Indictments Plummet 77% in Five Years
Capital murder indictments have plummeted and life sentences risen sharply in Ohio over the past five years, according to a report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The newspaper's examination of Ohio prison and other public records revealed that capital indictments in the state have dropped by 77% since 2010, mirroring national trends. Prosecutors are far more likely to seek a sentence of life without parole in cases in which they once would have pursued the death penalty. The paper also reports that the number of inmates sentenced to life without parole has skyrocketed by 92% since 2010. Among other factors, changes in District Attorneys, reduced public support for the death penalty, and consideration of costs and the impact of capital proceedings on the families of murder victims have led to fewer death penalty cases. The difference in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) is particularly striking: since prosecutor Timothy McGinty became district attorney in 2012, the office has sought death in fewer than 7% of eligible cases. Under McGinty's predecessor, Bill Mason, the office sought death in 78% of eligible cases. McGinty instituted an internal review committee to examine each death-eligible case and determine whether to seek a death sentence. He said, "In every case, I have to ask, 'Are we going to survive this?' We have to take a case to a judge and jury and then face 25 years of appeals. Is it fair to families of victims? Is it fair putting them through a quarter century of appeals?'' (Click image to enlarge.)
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POLL: Majority of Oklahomans Favor Replacing Death Penalty With Life Without Parole Plus Restitution
A majority of Oklahoma voters favor abolition of the death penalty if it is replaced with a sentence of life without parole plus restitution, according to a new poll commissioned by News 9/News on 6. The survey by the non-partisan SoonerPoll.com found that 52.4% of Oklahomans would support abolition of the death penalty if the state replaced its system of capital punishment with the alternative sanction of life without parole, plus a requirement that the inmates pay restitution to victims' families. Nearly a third of respondents (30.5%) said they would "strongly support" abolition if this alternative punishment option were offered. The gap between support for replacing the death penalty versus retaining it as is was more than 18 percentage points, with 34.0% of respondents saying they would oppose abolition. A poll commissioned by The Oklahoman in October that asked the general question whether Oklahomans supported or opposed the death penalty reported that 67% of Oklahomans expressed support for the death penalty, down from 74% support reported in a 2014 poll by the Tulsa World. The Oklahoman poll showed that, at the same time, half of Oklahomans favored a moratorium on the state's death penalty. “A lot of people are in support of the death penalty right now, because they were never given an alternative,” said Bill Shapard, founder of SoonerPoll.com. “Right now the death penalty is really the only alternative to those who have committed some of the worst crimes in our society. But yet, now we are given an alternative, people are open to that.” The results of the Oklahoma polls are consistent with national polls, which find that respondents say they support the death penalty in the abstract, but prefer life without parole over the death penalty when offered a choice between the two.
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Mentally Ill James Holmes Sentenced to Life in Prison in Aurora, CO Theater Shooting
On August 7, a jury in Aurora, Colorado, sentenced James Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2012 movie theater shooting that killed 12 people and injured dozens more. The jury said they could not reach a unanimous decision on Holmes' sentence, an outcome that results in a sentence of life without parole. After the trial, one juror said that the prosecution had not persuaded three of the jurors to impose a death sentence. The deliberations, she said, were very emotional, and at the time jurors agreed to stop deliberating, one juror was firmly committed to a life sentence, with two other holdouts still undecided. She said, "The issue of mental illness was everything for the one who did not want to impose the death penalty." [UPDATE: One of the jurors who voted for a life sentence says there was not a single holdout juror for life. Three voted for life, and the jury did not inquire further into the views of the other two after the indicated that her vote was firm.] Holmes had also offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, which would have removed the need for the six-month trial that cost Colorado taxpayers more than $5 million. After that plea offer was rejected, Holmes pleaded not guity by reason of insanity. All of the mental health experts agreed that Holmes would not have committed the killing but for his mental illness, but disagreed on whether he could appreciate the criminality of his conduct. The jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted him of all charges. Holmes' sentence highlights both the rarity of death sentences in Colorado and racial and geographic inequities in its imposition.
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Texas Death Row Continues to Shrink As No Death Sentences Imposed in First Half of 2015
Death row in Texas has shrunk from 460 men and women at its peak in 1999 to 260 today. The main reason for that drop, according to an article in The Texas Tribune, is the dramatic decline in death sentences imposed in the state. In 1999 alone, Texas sentenced 48 people to death. But in the first 6 months of 2015, no death sentences have been imposed in Texas. This development is unprecedented, according to the Texas Defender Service (TDS). “This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” said Kathryn Kase, director of TDS. Kase said that a major factor contributing to the decline in death sentences is Texas' adoption of life without parole in 2005. “Life without parole allows us to go back and reverse our mistakes,” Kase said. “We can be really safe in these cases.” In the decade since life without parole became a sentencing option, Texas has averaged about 10 death sentences per year. In the prior decade, an average of 34 people were sent to death row each year. The Tribune reports that "Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96." Three death penalty cases have been tried in Texas so far this year, and all three resulted in sentences of life without parole.
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Nebraska Legislature Passes Death Penalty Repeal
Nebraska's unicameral legislature passed a bill to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. On May 20, the bill passed its third and final round of debate on a 32-15 vote, receiving bipartisan support. Senator Al Davis said, "There are so many reasons why we need to eliminate the death penalty in Nebraska. It's fundamentally unfair, a terrible mistake and bad justice." Gov. Pete Ricketts has indicated that he will veto the bill, but a veto can be overridden with the support of 30 senators. The bill is prospective only, so if it becomes law, it will not affect the 11 inmates currently on Nebraska's death row. Nebraska has executed three prisoners, all by electrocution, since re-enacting the death penalty in the 1970s. Its last execution was in December 1997.
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