DPIC's 12th annual Year End Report was released on December 14 and reveals a broad decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S. based on a number of factors:  the public now favors life without parole over the death penalty; the number of executions has dropped to the fewest in a decade, in part because of challenges to the lethal injection process; and the annual number of death sentences is now at a 30-year low.  The report notes that various states have put a hold on all executions, while others are reviewing problems in the capital punishment system.  The report cites a number of new developments, including the challenges posed by the severe mental illness of many on death row, and quotes a series of law enforcement personnel, editorials, and public officials voicing serious concerns about the death penalty.

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NEW RESOURCES: Bureau of Justice Statistics Releases Capital Punishment, 2005

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has just released the 2005 version of its annual report on the death penalty in the U.S. The report notes that both the number of death sentences and the size of death row were down for 2005, and that this represents a trend over the past 5 years. The report states that there were 60 executions in 2005, all by lethal injection, and that the time between sentencing and execution was longer in 2005 than in 2004.

California had the most death sentences (23) in 2005, followed by Florida (15), Texas (14) and Alabama (12). Together these states accounted for half of those sentenced to death in 2005. California had the largest number on death row (646) and Texas had the most executions (19) in 2005.

(U.S. Dept. of Justice, Capital Punishment, 2005 (pub. December 2006)). See also DPIC's 2005 Year End Report. DPIC will be releasing its 2006 Year End Report by the end of this week, and it will have information on the death penalty in 2006. See Sentencing.

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Unanimous Jury Votes for Life Sentence, but Alabama Judge Imposes Death

Oscar Doster was found guilty earlier this year of capital murder in the course of a robbery in Alabama.  Doster claimed that his co-defendant actually committed the murder.  The jury unanimously recommended that Doster be sentenced to life without parole.  In Alabama, unlike most other death penalty states, the judge is allowed to override a jury's recommendation for life.  Typically in other states, even one juror's vote for a life sentence will prevent the court from imposing a death sentence.  Judge Ashley McKathan rejected the recommendation of all 12 jurors that Doster's life be spared.

(Andalusia Star News, Nov. 22, 2006). 

See Arbitrariness and Sentencing

See also DPIC's report, Blind Justice.

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Texas Death Sentences Drop 65% in Past Ten Years

The annual number of death sentences in Texas has declined from 40 in fiscal year 1996 to 14 in 2006, a drop of 65%, according to the State Office of Court Administration.  Last year there were 15 new death sentences.  This decrease is in line with the national decline in death sentences, which dropped from about 300 per year in the 1990s to 125 in 2005.

The drop in Texas was particularly marked in Harris County (Houston), which produced the most death sentences of any county in Texas and the most cases leading to execution of any county in the country.  There were 16 death sentences from Harris County in fiscal 1996.  This fiscal year there were 3, the same number as in 2005.

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Mounting Evidence of the Declining Use of the Death Penalty in U.S.

The May 8th edition of U.S. News & World Report highlights the declining number of death sentences handed down each year in the U.S., the smaller number of executions, and the growing number of states that are re-evaluating capital punishment.  Public support for the death penalty has also decreased because of doubts about the accuracy and fairnes of capital punishment.

The article notes that New Jersey recently established a moratorium on executions and New York opted not to restore its death penalty.  A growing number of jurisdictions have temporarily halted executions due to ongoing concerns about the constitutionality of lethal injection.  "What's happening is reflective of a nation seemingly at odds with itself. A recent Gallup Poll shows that support for executions, though down from its peak, is still 64 percent. But it is also clear that many, including prosecutors and judges, are growing increasingly uneasy about imposing death -- agonizing not only over how and whom to kill but over whether those facing execution have a fair shot at proving their innocence. Courts with growing frequency are choosing life in prison as an alternative," the article states.

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Alabama's Death Sentences Concentrated in One County

Although death sentences have declined around the country, they have dramatically increased in Jefferson County, Alabama, since 1993 when state legislators expanded the death penalty to include drive-by shootings.  Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham, accounted for nearly 50% of the state's death sentences in 2005 and 2006.

According to federal data, Alabama is 23rd in population nationally but has the country's sixth largest death row and is one of the leading states in the nation in per capita death sentences. "There is no question in my mind, Alabama has one of the most expansive death penalty statutes in the country. . . . Alabama has 1/2 the population of Georgia, but routinely sentences 4 times more people to death," noted Bryan Stevenson (pictured), executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative. In Alabama, it only takes 10 jurors to recommend a death sentence. The state also allows judges to override juries when the majority calls for a lesser sentence, a fact that Stevenson said accounts for 20-25% of the death sentences in the state.

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SENTENCING: American Judicature Society Releases Death Sentence Numbers for 2005

The Capital Case Data Project of the American Judicature Society announced their count of 125 new death sentences in 2005, one less than in 2004.  In addition, AJS counted 14 death sentences imposed through new sentence proceedings after appellate reversals.  Those sentenced to death included 63 white defendants, 57 black defendants, and 15 Hispanics.  The largest number of death sentences were imposed in California (19) and Florida (16).  Texas had 14 death sentences, down considerably from 24 in 2004.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics will release their data on death sentences in 2005 later this year.  (BJS reported 125 new death sentences in 2004.)  (U.S. Newswire, Press Release, American Judicature Society, March 27, 2006).  For AJS summaries of all the cases, click here.

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NEW RESOURCE: "Death By Design" Examines Psychology Behind U.S. Death Penalty

In his new book, Death by Design: Capital Punishment as a Social Psychological System, Craig Haney argues that capital punishment, and particularly the events that lead to death sentencing itself, are maintained through a system that distances and disengages people from the true nature of the task. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, relies on his own research and that other of other scientists in approaching the question, "How can normal, moral people participate in a process designed to take the life of another?"

The book cites three key factors that skew the justice system to facilitate death sentences: a jury selection process that favors those who are more likely to support capital punishment and to convict defendants, complicated sentencing instructions that jurors do not understand, and cultural and media myths about crime. "The flaws that riddle the system combine and operate in tandem. They help enable people to participate in behavior--actions designed to take the life of another person--that many of them otherwise would reject or resist," Haney concludes.

In "Death by Design," Haney recommends a series of extensive reforms could improve the fairness of capital trials. His suggested changes include encouraging education about capital punishment and alternative sentences such as life without parole, working with journalists to provide a more accurate and balanced picture of the real caues of violence in society, strengthening the requirement that attorneys fully and completely investigate and present to jurors the social history of defendants during the sentencing process, and revising jury instructions to improve their understanding of mitigation.

(Oxford University Press, 2005) See Books and Sentencing. See also DPIC's report "Blind Justice: Juries Deciding Life and Death With Only Half the Truth."

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Pennsylvania Jurors Opting for Life Sentences

Lawyers and prosecutors in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania say that concerns about innocence and shifting public attitudes on the death penalty have caused jurors in the county to "lose their taste" for capital punishment. In each of the past 8 capital cases tried, jurors spared the life of the defendant.

"My personal belief is that the heydey of the death penalty is over," said Allegheny County attorney Caroline Roberto, former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The trend away from sentencing defendants to death is also evident in other Pennsylvania counties and in jurisdictions around the nation. Nationally, the number of annual death sentences handed down in the U.S. has plunged to its lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated. "We're seeing doubt from the guilt phase of the trial trickle over to the penalty phase. Jurors are realizing the death penalty doesn't accomplish anything because the public is protected by a life sentence," observed Butler County, Pennsylvania attorney David DeFazio. Experts have also cited concern about wrongful convictions as another reason for the sharp decline in death sentences. Art Patterson, a jury consultant for more than 20 years and vice president of the Pennsylvania-based legal consulting firm DecisionQuest, added, "Every day (jurors) hear news of the irrefutable evidence of people on death row or in prison somewhere being freed because they didn't belong there."

An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recorded the jury decisions in recent cases:

Jan. 21, 2006: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Alvin Starks, 32, of Sheraden, resulting in a life sentence for the fatal shooting of his ex-girlfriend, Andrea Umphrey.

Oct. 3, 2005: Michael Michalski, 23, of Shaler, pleads guilty to three counts of 1st-degree murder in exchange for a life sentence. He killed his ex-girlfriend, her sister and another man.

May 13, 2005: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Dion Horton, 27, of West Mifflin, after convicting him of killing his friend, Kenneth Sharp. He gets life in prison.

Feb. 18, 2005: A jury sentences Rodney Burton, 23, of North Braddock, to life in prison for the torture and killing of Dana Pliakas.

Jan. 24, 2005: Prosecutors decide not to seek the death penalty during a 2nd trial for Andre Crisswell, 31, of Lincoln-Lemington, and William George Thompson, 35, of Homewood. A jury had deadlocked on the pair's guilt in the fatal shootings of an 8-year-old girl, her father and a family friend.

April 26, 2004: Christopher Scott, 25, of Penn Hills, pleads guilty to killing 4 men in exchange for a life sentence.

March 4, 2004: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Carl Scott, 22, of Duquesne, resulting in a life sentence for the slayings of his mother and 2 men.

Dec. 5, 2003: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Charles Sadler, 30, of Turtle Creek, who killed his elderly neighbor and her caretaker.

(Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 27, 2006). See Sentencing, Life Without Parole, and Innocence.

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