News

DPIC Releases 2007 Year End Report Noting Decline In Death Penalty

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its 13th annual Year End Report, noting that executions have dropped to a 13-year low as a de facto moratorium took hold in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s examination of lethal injection procedures. Death sentences have also dropped considerably in recent years.  DPIC projected 110 new death sentences in 2007 - the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a 60% drop since 1999. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 115 new inmates were received on death row in 2006.  In 1999, there 284 admitted to death row.

The report notes that the 42 executions this year occurred in only a few states, with 40 out of the 50 states in the U.S. not having any executions this year. Almost all (86%) of the executions in 2007 were in the South, and 62% of the executions took place in one state, Texas. Executions have declined 57% since 1999.

The report also cites a number of important new developments, including the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey this month.  Governor Corzine signed the abolition legislation on December 17, after commuting the death sentences of the 8 people on death row to life without parole sentences.  New York has also been removed from the list of death penalty states, bringing that total to 14 states.  Three exonerations of death row inmates occurred in 2007: one each in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  The report contains statements from a variety of law enforcement personnel, victims, editorial boards, and judges voicing serious concerns about the death penalty.
(Death Penalty Information Center, posted December 19, 2007). Read the 2007 Year End Report. See also articles about the report in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and CNN.com.


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ARBITRARINESS: In the Leading Execution State, Many Receive Probation for Murder

In a recent investigation published in The Dallas Morning News, researchers found that 120 defendants convicted of murder in Texas between 2000 and 2006 received only a sentence of probation. In Dallas County, twice as many convicted murderers were sentenced to probation as were sent to death row. Typically in these cases, a defendant pleads guilty to murder, receives probation, and, with good behavior, can have the murder charged wiped from his or her record.

The News began researching probation-for-murder sentences in 2006 after a white man from a “politically prominent family,” John Alexander Wood, received probation for the murder of an unarmed prostitute. Reporters examined government records and interviewed key people in the murder cases in order to obtain their data. Their research excluded capital murder and manslaughter cases.

Key findings of the News' research included:

  • The majority of the murderers in the study were minorities who killed other minorities, a pattern typical of murders overall in Dallas.
  • Many of the victims, like John Wood’s victim, were considered “unsympathetic,” especially in comparison to the defendant.
  • More than one third of the defendants in the study violated their probation with crimes other than murder and were subsequently sent to prison.

According to the News' sources, probation will not be a sentencing option for juries much longer. Under a recent Texas law, juries will not be able to sentence a defendant with probation if the murder occurred after September 1, 2007. Judges, however, will retain this power and prosecutors can continue to arrange plea bargains.

Texas leads the nation with 26 executions this year and 405 since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. Nationwide, probation accounted for 9% of the total murder sentences.

(“Unequal Justice: Murderers on Probation” by Brooks Egerton and Reese Dunklin, The Dallas Morning News).

See also Studies and Arbitrariness.


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China Reports Fewest Death Sentences in a Decade

China reported that the number of people sentenced to death in 2006 was the lowest in nearly a decade, and officials project that this trend will continue in 2007. According to a state media report, during the first five months of 2007, the number of death sentences handed out in cases of first instance dropped approximately 10% from the same time in 2006. The decline stems from a key legal reform requiring that all death sentences be approved by the Supreme People's Court, a change made in response to widespread concerns about wrongful convictions.

"Among the death penalty cases the Supreme People's Court reviewed from January to July, a relatively large proportion was not given approval. That is to say, executions would have been authorised (by provincial courts) if the final review power had not been taken back [by the Supreme Court]," Jiang Xingchang, vice president of the top court, told Outlook Weekly magazine.


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Arizona's Death Penalty Five Years After Supreme Court's Ring Decision

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Ring v. Arizona that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a jury trial included the determination of whether sufficient aggravating factors existed to make a defendant eligible for the death penalty. Now, five years later, the man at the center of this case - Timothy Ring - has been re-sentenced to life without parole.

Ring's case is among 27 Arizona death penalty cases affected by the Supreme Court's ruling and re-examinated by the Arizona Supreme Court. The Court has upheld only 2 of the 27 death sentences it has reviewed. Four defendants, including Ring, were allowed to stipulate to life sentences. One person pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received a 25-year sentence. Ten cases were sent back to trial, resulting in 5 death sentences and 5 life sentences. Another 10 cases are yet to be resolved.


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NEW RESOURCE: "Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity"

Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity is a new report by The Sentencing Project that examines the racial and ethnic dynamics of incarceration in the U.S. with tables by state and by race. The report notes that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of whites and Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double the rate of whites. One in nine (11.7%) African American males between the ages of 25 and 29 is currently incarcerated in a prison or jail.

The report extends the findings of previous analyses by incorporating jail populations in the overall incarceration rate and by assessing the impact of incarceration on the Hispanic community, representing an increasing share of the prison population. The report notes: "In 2005, Hispanics comprised 20% of the state and federal prison population, a rise of 43% since 1990. As a result of these trends, one of every six Hispanic males and one of every 45 Hispanic females born today can expect to go to prison in his or her lifetime. These rates are more than double those for non-Hispanic whites."

"Racial disparities in incarceration reflect a failure of social and economic interventions to address crime effectively and also indicate racial bias in the justice system," stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. "The broad variation in the use of incarceration nationally suggests that policy decisions can play a key role in determining the size and composition of the prison population."

("Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity," The Sentencing Project, July 2007). Read the report. See Studies and Race.


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Editorials - Life Without Parole

Instead of a New Means of Capital Punishment, the Legislature Should Get Rid of It

Days after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair was unconstitutional, a Lincoln Journal Star editorial urged the state to reconsider the death penalty:  "Instead of rushing to pass a new means of capital punishment, the Legislature should take this opportunity to finally get rid of the death penalty."   Nebraska was the only state to retain the electric chair as its sole means of execution. The paper noted that it was the right time to take a broader look at the death penalty.  "With the advent of more DNA testing, errors in sending people to death row were shown to be far more frequent than most people believed."  Hence, the paper concluded, "the time is ripe to abolish capital punishment in the state.”

The editorial noted that according to a poll by Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty, 51% of Nebraskans favor a repeal of the death penalty if it is replaced with a sentence of life without parole and restitution to the victim’s estate. Last year, a bill that would allow for life in prison or life in prison without the possibility of parole as a sentence for first-degree murder, introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers, failed by only one vote.  The last execution to take place in Nebraska occurred in 1997.

(“Abolish the death penalty in Nebraska,” Lincoln Journal Star, February 10, 2008). See Editorials.

Don't Expand Capital Punishment, Abolish It

In a recent editorial, the Concord Monitor advocated against expanding New Hampshire’s death penalty law to include multiple-murder offenses, as some lawmakers have proposed. Instead, they say, “the death penalty should be eliminated, not expanded.” The editorial cites problems in the death penalty process, such as wrongful convictions, high costs, and its arbitrariness, as reasons for abolition.

The Monitor also writes that the death penalty is counterproductive, noting, “It does nothing to deter people from committing murder, but it simultaneously sends the message that, under circumstances other than war or defense of oneself or another, it is permissible to kill another human being.” The paper continues, “Expanding the death penalty to apply to more offenses will not reduce the murder rate. Making killing a cultural taboo so heinous that society doesn't impose it on the worst of criminals, might.”

New Hampshire has not had an execution in almost 70 years.

(“Don't expand capital punishment, abolish it,” Concord Monitor, February 6, 2008). See Editorials.

Declining Support for Kentucky's Death Penalty

An editorial published by the Lexington Herald-Leader noted that support for Kentucky's death penalty has declined since the state resumed executions a decade ago. The paper stated that 68% of state residents questioned in a recent poll preferred a long prison sentence over execution for those convicted of murder. The Herald-Leader concluded that Kentuckians' growing unease about capital punishment is reflective of a broader national trend away from the death penalty and that the death penalty is often more a matter of chance than of justice. The editorial stated:

It's interesting that public support for the death penalty has declined in the almost 10 years since Kentucky resumed executions.  Most Kentuckians still say they support capital punishment. But given the choice of sentencing a convicted murderer to death or a long prison term, 68 percent say prison is the appropriate sentence.

Just 30 percent pick death, according to the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center.

In 1997, support was about equal for the death penalty and a long prison term, at just under 40 percent.

A number of explanations are possible for the shift in public opinion: Mistaken convictions revealed by DNA evidence. A disturbing number of innocent people who independent investigations have discovered on Death Row. (Illinois had so many that it put a moratorium on executions.) Bad press about lethal injection, which was supposed to be more humane.

Or maybe it's just a growing unease that deciding who lives and dies isn't a job that government does very well.

Some crimes are so heinous that death seems the only fitting punishment. But after watching the highly imperfect process of deciding who gets death and who doesn't, most Kentuckians are more comfortable putting a violent criminal away for a long time.

After all, someone who's mistakenly imprisoned can be set free.

Whatever the reasons, Kentucky seems to be part of a larger trend.

A Gallup Poll earlier this year found that 65 percent of Americans support the death penalty, down from 80 percent in 1994. Given the choice of life without parole as an alternative to execution, more chose life without parole (48 percent) than death (47 percent.)

The number of executions in 2006 was down, even in such bastions of capital punishment as Texas.

Kentucky has executed two people in the 30 years since the death penalty was reinstated, one in 1997 and the other in 1999.

So maybe capital punishment is doomed. The death penalty will become obsolete, at no political risk to anyone, as juries choose long prison terms over death sentences.

That probably would happen if juries in capital cases reflected public sentiment. But they often don't. Prosecutors use their selection options to empanel juries that are more pro-death penalty than the general public.

Under such circumstances, a sentence of death becomes even more a matter of chance than justice.

That puts more pressure on everyone in the system to get things right.

(Lexington Herald-Leader, January 3, 2007).

Society Should End this System...Put Murderers Away for Life

In a recent editorial, the Delaware News Journal concluded that the uncertainties and delays of the death penalty favor ending the system and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Such a system would better serve victims and their families, and bring swifter justice:

The latest argument over the death penalty centers on a seemingly simple question: Is the current method of execution cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution?

The Supreme Court eventually will answer, but not settle the question. Yet the debate is affecting states, including Delaware.
    . . .
No matter how the argument turns out, it is anything but simple. What, after all, does cruel and usual punishment mean?
    . . .

In the meantime, the families and friends of victims will suffer through every appeal and delay.

Society should end this system. Americans are too reluctant to eliminate or streamline appeals. For valid reasons, they are afraid of being hasty and killing an innocent man. On the hand, the long, costly process robs the death penalty of any deterrent effect.

Put murderers away for life. Take away any chance of parole or release.

Such a policy will never replace the lost victims or fully comfort their families. But it will keep them from having to relive murders with every appeal. And it will give respect to the idea of swift and sure justice.

(Delaware News Journal, July 28, 2006).

Newspaper Changes Its Position - 'Commonsense Finding is that Death Penalty Has Failed and Should be Abolished'

An editorial in the Asbury Park Press, a newspaper that formerly supported capital punishment, called on New Jersey policymakers to abandon the state's costly death penalty and replace it with the "sure and swift" sentence of life without parole. Stating that New Jersey has wasted millions of dollars on the death penalty, but has not carried out an execution since it was reinstated in1982, the editorial noted:

Can it really be 22 years since Robert O. Marshall cowardly hired hit men to shoot and kill his wife and the mother of his three children for insurance money? So he could continue an extramarital affair and carry on with his country club life? Sadly, it has been that long for the 66-year-old former Toms River insurance salesman.

Marshall was on death row for two decades before a court found his representation during the death penalty phase of his trial was lacking. The court overturned the death penalty and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that decision, leaving it up to the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office to decide whether to seek the death penalty again.

Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher said Friday his office struggled with the decision, but ultimately decided not to ask another jury to sentence Marshall to death because of the difficulty in mounting a case so long after the crime was committed and the likelihood that more appeals would take years to resolve at great public expense.

"This troublesome and distressing conclusion was made only after extensive consultation with the family of the victim, Maria Marshall," Kelaher said.

In March, we reluctantly called for another death penalty trial, with concern about the issues raised by Kelaher and the hope that Marshall would never be paroled. However, we understand the prosecutor's reasoning that going through another round of legal proceedings that would cost more millions over a decade or more is problematic. And we urge him in the strongest terms to follow through with his pledge to oppose parole of Marshall forever. He could be released in 2014.

Which again brings us to the issue of New Jersey's death penalty. Since its reinstitution in 1982, no cold-blooded murderer has been executed. Nearly 50 death sentences have been overturned by higher courts. For now, a yearlong moratorium on executions is in effect while a study commission looks at how New Jersey enforces its death penalty statute.

The commission should file its report now with the common-sense finding that New Jersey's death penalty is a failure and should be abolished in favor of life in prison without parole.

To be effective, justice must be sure and swift. New Jersey's death penalty statute is neither. It is such a drain on resources as to be counterproductive.

Think of the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on scum like Marshall. Multiply that by 50 or more. Life without chance of parole. That's a sentence whose execution can be sure and swift.

(Asbury Park Press, May 16, 2006) (emphasis added).

Life Without Parole is the Better Option for Wisconsin

A recent editorial in the La Crosse Tribune urged Wisconsin legislators to maintain the state's ban on capital punishment. The editorial discouraged the state from reinstating capital punishment because it does not deter crime and is often unfairly applied, stating that there is no need to bring back the death penalty because the state already has the sentence of life without parole. Legislators recently voted to hold a non-binding referendum on restoring the death penalty, though the two versions of the referendum bill have not been reconciled. The editorial stated:

Wisconsin used to have the death penalty. Before 1853. Before the botched hanging in 1851 of John McCaffary, who drowned his wife in a water trough.

I first wrote about the McCaffary hanging in 1991, when the Legislature was also considering enacting the death penalty. It’s quite a story.

On a summer day in 1851, Kenosha County officials set up a wooden gallows in an area large enough to accommodate about 2,000 spectators who showed up to watch the hanging.

A newspaper at that time said McCaffary’s body was “hoisted” into the air when he hit the end of the rope. He dangled there for about eight minutes. His heart was still beating. Doctors checked his pulse and then let him hang there for another 10 minutes, in front of all the spectators, before he finally died.

Public opinion changed pretty dramatically about capital punishment in Wisconsin after that. In 1853, the Legislature abolished it. Now many legislators want to bring it back.

Several weeks ago, the state Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 5, calling for an advisory referendum in November on the issue of capital punishment.

Late Thursday, the Assembly voted to put the death penalty referendum on the November ballot. It’s unclear whether that will happen, however, because the Assembly proposal was slightly different than the Senate version, and another Senate vote would be required.

State Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, who supports both the referendum and the death penalty itself (for particularly heinous crimes), said he expects the Senate to approve the issue later when it comes back to deal with some administrative issues.

Legislators have been trying for years to bring back the death penalty for Wisconsin.

In 1991, they sought the death penalty for serial killers. The question legislators want to ask voters this time is if they favor capital punishment for murders where there is a DNA match.

Public opinion surveys often show that most citizens favor the death penalty, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. One theory is that the death penalty deters murder.

Does it?

Louisiana has the death penalty and it also has the highest murder rate in the country, with 12.7 murders for every 100,000 people in 2004.

The murder rates in the death penalty states of Maryland, New Mexico and Mississippi are all above seven murders for every 100,000 people.

In Wisconsin, by contrast, the murder rate is 2.8. Iowa doesn’t have the death penalty, and its rate is 1.6. Texas, which executes the most people in the nation, has a 6.1 murder rate.

The New York Times, which has published editorials against capital punishment, did a study of homicide rates and death penalties in 2000, and concluded that murder rates rise and fall with little seeming relationship to whether states execute murderers.

The Times quoted Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, who said the death penalty is applied unfairly to minorities.

“It is rare that a wealthy white man gets executed, if it happens at all,” McCann said.

Officials who “have labored long in the criminal justice system know, supported by a variety of studies and extensive personal experience, that blacks get the harsher hand in criminal justice and particularly in capital punishment cases,” McCann wrote in 1996.

Public safety can be served by keeping our most dangerous criminals in prison without parole for the rest of their lives.

That way we don’t need to restore the death penalty in Wisconsin.

(La Crosse Tribune, May 9, 2006, by Richard Mial, opinion page editor).

North Carolina Law Results in Sharp Drop in Death Sentences

According to the North Carolina News & Record, death sentences in the state have significantly declined since the 2001 enactment of legislation that allows defendants to plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Juries are also returning fewer death sentences. The paper argues that the emergence of the life-without-parole alternative should result in a reconsideration of the sentences of those already on death row:

It's unfair to make one person serve more time in prison than another if both committed the same crime.

That idea drove a recent change in state law that encourages the parole commission to release more inmates who were locked up before sentencing guidelines changed in 1994. A prisoner serving 20 years for an offense that now requires only a 10-year penalty might deserve strong consideration for parole. It's a simple matter of fairness.

Too bad legislators didn't apply the same principle to inmates on death row. Since a 2001 change in the law, the number of death sentences imposed by North Carolina courts has fallen dramatically.

Under the new law, defendants can plead guilty to a charge of first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Many prosecutors agree to that outcome. It saves overworked district attorneys' staffs the time and expense of a trial, spares the state a lengthy appeals process and often relieves victims' families of the ordeal they endure when the facts of the crime are rehashed as the killer's execution approaches.

In addition, with public attitudes about capital punishment beginning to shift, many jurors are more comfortable voting for a life sentence rather than death as long as they know there's no possibility of parole.

The numbers tell the story: In 1999, 24 people were sent to North Carolina's death row; in 2000, 17; in 2001, 15. Then, after the new law went into effect, seven in 2002; six in 2003, four in 2004; and six so far this year.

Altogether, 156 of the 177 men and women on death row have been there since 2001 or earlier. Whether most North Carolinians still approve of the death penalty or not, North Carolina juries are slowly eliminating its use.

That invites an obvious conclusion: Death row is largely populated by inmates who, if tried again by today's legal standards, would not be sentenced to death. Yet many of them will be executed. The exceptions may win new trials for other legal reasons, be granted a commutation of sentence or perhaps die of natural causes.

These people on death row were left out when state legislators this year tried to insert a measure of fairness into the criminal-justice system. Lawmakers said to thousands of prisoners, "You shouldn't be held longer for your crime than you would be if you had committed the same offense after 1994." But to the inmates facing the most severe punishment, they said nothing.

Maybe it's not politically smart to give murderers a break. The question, however, isn't whether murderers should go free. Of course they shouldn't. But, if juries today are more inclined to sentence killers to life in prison without parole, it's only fair for legislators to consider the same leniency for those already on death row.

(News & Record, November 7, 2005; emphasis added).

USA Today Editorial Says Life Without Parole is "Fitting Replacement" for Death Penalty

In an editorial highlighting public support for the sentencing option of life without parole in death penalty cases and the need to take steps to protect against executing innocent people, USA Today recently stated that life without the possibility of parole is a "fitting replacement" for the death penalty. The editorial praised the historic enactment of a life without the possibility of parole statute in Texas and other recent activities around the nation that seek to address problems with capital punishment. It noted:

For the past half century, the nation has been locked — deadlocked might be a better word — in a bitter debate over the death penalty. But what if there is a middle ground?

With little fanfare, a compromise has been gaining favor more than a decade, drawing support as DNA evidence has exonerated inmates on death row. Last week, it reached a milestone. Texas, site of one in three executions, gave juries the option to sentence defendants in capital cases to life without parole rather than death.

All but one death-penalty state, New Mexico, now offers that choice, a marked change from the era when life sentences were a meaningless illusion. But why stop at making life without parole just an optional alternative to execution? It is a fitting replacement, assuring severe punishment for the worst of crimes but with a safety valve to protect those falsely accused or wrongly sentenced.

Evidence of the need pours in weekly now.

Five times in the past seven months, the Supreme Court has had to rein in state courts that mishandled death penalty cases. On Monday, the court ordered a new sentencing trial in a Pennsylvania case involving shoddy work by the lawyer for an accused murderer.

Last week, the court sent back cases from Texas and California that reeked of racial discrimination in jury selection. Earlier, the court ruled against Texas (again) and Missouri (twice) in cases of excluding relevant evidence, making defendants appear in shackles and executing juveniles.

Just last week at the state level:

    An Oklahoma appeals court ordered a new trial for a man sentenced to death in a 1982 murder on the basis of testimony from a police chemist who has since been fired for poor and unreliable lab work

    An Illinois man jailed for eight months and facing the death penalty in his daughter's death was released when a long-overdue DNA test finally came back — negative.

    A former North Carolina judge urged the state Legislature to impose a two-year moratorium on executions.

Against this backdrop, the rate of executions has dropped 40% from its onetime high.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the Supreme Court has tried to make clear that it is to be applied carefully and evenhandedly. Nevertheless, cases of incompetent lawyering, suppression of evidence, local prejudice and other affronts to justice keep appearing.

The result is evident in the numbers who narrowly escaped execution: While 972 people have been put to death since the 1970s, at least 119 have been taken off death row because of evidence they were wrongly convicted or sentenced.

According to a Gallup Poll in May, 74% of the public supports the death penalty, but backing for capital punishment drops to 56% when respondents are given the alternative of life without parole. Even in Texas, a Scripps-Howard poll last October found that while 75% supported the death penalty, 78% favored the option of life without parole.

Already, life without the death penalty is the norm in a growing number of states. In addition to the 12 that don't allow it, five others have had no executions in more than 30 years; six have used it only once in that time.

Abolishing the death penalty and using life without parole instead can't fix all the injustices exposed in courts across the nation. But at least no one would be executed as a result.

(USA Today, June 22, 2005)


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Life Without Parole News and Developments: 2006

Poll Reveals Kentuckians Strongly Prefer Lengthy Prison Sentences Over Death Penalty

New polling results released by the University of Kentucky Survey Center reveal that Kentuckians overwhelmingly choose alternatives over the death penalty as the most appropriate punishment for those convicted of aggravated murder. When asked to select the most appropriate sentencing option from choices currently available to Kentucky jurors serving in capital murder trials, 67% selected sentences other than the death penalty. The first choice among respondents was life without parole.

The poll found that while only 30.5% of those polled selected the death penalty, 36.2% chose life without parole, 10.3% selected life with the possibility of parole in 25 years, 5.6% selected life with the possibility of parole in 20 years, and 15.5% chose a 20-50 year prison terms.  Since 1997, support for alternatives to the death penalty in Kentucky has steadily increased from 38% in 1997 to over 67% this year.

("Abolition Now," Newsletter of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, December 2006). See Public Opinion, Life Without Parole, and DPIC's 2006 Year End Report (PDF).

NEW VOICES: Life Without Parole Offers Prosecutors, Jurors, and Victims an Acceptable Alternative to the Death Penalty

Prosecutors in Utah have stated that the sentencing option of life without parole has been very helpful in giving jurors and family members of victims a viable alternative to the death penalty.  Salt Lake County District Attorney David Yocom noted that life without parole is often a better option to present to jurors:  "It's a tool for juries as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys, too," Yocom said. "It's an alternative to avoid asking a jury of 12 people to make that decision," to impose the death penalty.

"I've talked to a lot of jurors in death-penalty cases, and the hardest thing you could ask a citizen to do is sit in judgment of life or death over an individual. It's a very difficult job to do," he added.

Robert Stott, another prosecutor with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, said the life-without-parole sentence is seen as just by many victims.  "What we found is that oftentimes what the families of victims want is to ensure the person not be able to commit the same kind of crime," Stott said.

He noted that many crime victims don't crave revenge, but simply want to make sure that there are no more victims and that the perpetrator never leaves prison. "I don't mean to speak for all of them, but I've dealt with many who find this satisfies their needs and desires," Stott said.

Utah has 22 prisoners serving life without parole and 9 inmates on death row.
(Deseret News, Nov. 13, 2006).  See Life Without Parole and Victims.

NEW VOICES: Former Death Row Warden Calls for Clemency on Eve of Execution

The former warden of the Virginia prison that houses the state's death row inmates has called for clemency for a man about to be executed on November 9.  Page True was warden of the Sussex I State Prison and knew death row inmate John Schmitt for over 4 years.  "The crime was just terrible," True said, "but there's a lot worse inmates that I've dealt with in my 36 years in prison systems than Mr. Schmitt." 

True, who described himself "as hardcore as they come," said there were many more inmates at the same prison serving life sentences and that "compared to some of them, [Schmitt is] a hell of a lot better inmate.  We have the security and internal control in prisons to handle a guy like Schmitt," True said.

"I just don't think he should be put to death," he said. "I don't want to diminish his conduct. It was terrible. Somebody died and families are suffering. . . . But this guy is no worse than most of those other guys in these prisons [with] life sentences, and that's my feeling."
(F. Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nov. 9, 2006).  See New Voices and Life Without Parole.

NEW VOICES: Chief Judge of Federal Court Questions the Death Penalty

Chief Judge William Wilkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit recently spoke about the death penalty to a gathering at the Charleston School of Law in South Carolina.  He commented that decision-makers will have to evaluate whether the punishment is worth its increasing financial costs.  But he also noted how difficult it is for a politician to speak openly about this issue: "I think politically, you're not going to find a candidate running on 'Let's do away with the death penalty,' " Wilkins said. "No one (in South Carolina) can be elected to statewide office who is opposed to the death penalty." 

Wilkins said other options should be explored that would save money and still preserve the imposition of justice.  One alternative he mentioned was ensuring life in prison for murderers but without the chance of parole. "Think about it, what would you prefer?" he asked the students: death or life confined in a cage?  He noted that the tens of millions of dollars spent on the death penalty could go to education or health care.  He described the imposition of the death penalty in the U.S. as "a hit or miss thing."
(Charleston Post & Courier, Sept. 15, 2006; Associated Press, Sept. 14, 2006).  See New Voices, Costs, and Life Without Parole.

EDITORIALS: "Society Should End this System...Put Murderers Away for Life"

In a recent editorial, the Delaware News Journal concluded that the uncertainties and delays of the death penalty favor ending the system and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Such a system would better serve victims and their families, and bring swifter justice:

The latest argument over the death penalty centers on a seemingly simple question: Is the current method of execution cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution?

The Supreme Court eventually will answer, but not settle the question. Yet the debate is affecting states, including Delaware.
. . .
No matter how the argument turns out, it is anything but simple. What, after all, does cruel and usual punishment mean?
. . .

In the meantime, the families and friends of victims will suffer through every appeal and delay.

Society should end this system. Americans are too reluctant to eliminate or streamline appeals. For valid reasons, they are afraid of being hasty and killing an innocent man. On the hand, the long, costly process robs the death penalty of any deterrent effect.

Put murderers away for life. Take away any chance of parole or release.

Such a policy will never replace the lost victims or fully comfort their families. But it will keep them from having to relive murders with every appeal. And it will give respect to the idea of swift and sure justice.

(Delaware News Journal, July 28, 2006).  See Editorials and Life Without Parole.

PUBLIC OPINION: Wisconsin Voters Favor Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

In a recent University of Wisconsin Badger Poll, more respondents favored a sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty. Only 45% supported capital punishment, while 50% favored life sentences. When asked about the death penalty in theory, without any alternative sentences mentioned, 55.6% of Wisconsinites polled favored capital punishment for "cases involving a person who is convicted of first degree intentional homicides, if the conviction is supported by DNA evidence." In a non-binding November referendum, voters will consider the reinstatement of the death penalty in the state. The Badger Poll questioned 508 persons and has a margin of error of +/-4%. (Badger Poll Release, July 17, 2006). See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.

PUBLIC OPINION: New Gallup Poll Reveals Growing Number of Americans Favors Life Without Parole

A May 2006 Gallup Poll examining American opinion about the death penalty found that when given a choice between the sentencing options of life without parole and the death penalty, only 47% of respondents chose capital punishment, the lowest percentage in two decades. Forty-eight percent favored life without parole for those convicted of murder. The poll also revealed that overall support for the death penalty remains low at 65%, down significantly from 1994 when 80% supported capital punishment.

When asked whether the death penalty deters murder, 64% of those polled stated that it does not;  only 34%  believe it does deter. This is a dramatic shift from the 1980s and early 1990s, when the majority of Americans still believed that the death penalty prevented murder.  63% of those polled believe that an innocent person has been executed in the past 5 years, an increase over previous results.

(Gallup News Service, June 1, 2006).  See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.


NEW VOICES: Newspaper Changes Its Position-'Commonsense Finding is that Death Penalty Has Failed and Should be Abolished'

An editorial in the Asbury Park Press, a newspaper that formerly supported capital punishment, called on New Jersey policymakers to abandon the state's costly death penalty and replace it with the "sure and swift" sentence of life without parole. Stating that New Jersey has wasted millions of dollars on the death penalty, but has not carried out an execution since it was reinstated in1982, the editorial noted:

Can it really be 22 years since Robert O. Marshall cowardly hired hit men to shoot and kill his wife and the mother of his three children for insurance money? So he could continue an extramarital affair and carry on with his country club life? Sadly, it has been that long for the 66-year-old former Toms River insurance salesman.

Marshall was on death row for two decades before a court found his representation during the death penalty phase of his trial was lacking. The court overturned the death penalty and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that decision, leaving it up to the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office to decide whether to seek the death penalty again.

Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher said Friday his office struggled with the decision, but ultimately decided not to ask another jury to sentence Marshall to death because of the difficulty in mounting a case so long after the crime was committed and the likelihood that more appeals would take years to resolve at great public expense.

"This troublesome and distressing conclusion was made only after extensive consultation with the family of the victim, Maria Marshall," Kelaher said.

In March, we reluctantly called for another death penalty trial, with concern about the issues raised by Kelaher and the hope that Marshall would never be paroled. However, we understand the prosecutor's reasoning that going through another round of legal proceedings that would cost more millions over a decade or more is problematic. And we urge him in the strongest terms to follow through with his pledge to oppose parole of Marshall forever. He could be released in 2014.

Which again brings us to the issue of New Jersey's death penalty. Since its reinstitution in 1982, no cold-blooded murderer has been executed. Nearly 50 death sentences have been overturned by higher courts. For now, a yearlong moratorium on executions is in effect while a study commission looks at how New Jersey enforces its death penalty statute.

The commission should file its report now with the common-sense finding that New Jersey's death penalty is a failure and should be abolished in favor of life in prison without parole.


To be effective, justice must be sure and swift. New Jersey's death penalty statute is neither. It is such a drain on resources as to be counterproductive.

Think of the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on scum like Marshall. Multiply that by 50 or more. Life without chance of parole. That's a sentence whose execution can be sure and swift.

(Asbury Park Press, May 16, 2006) (emphasis added). See Editorials, Costs, and Life Without Parole.

Washington Supreme Court Closely Divided on Rationality of State's Death Penalty

The Washington State Supreme Court recently came within one vote of effectively abolishing the state's death penalty when it ruled in the case of death row inmate Dayva Cross.  Cross is on death row for the murder of his wife and her two teenage daughters.  Attorneys for Cross had argued that their client should not be executed because killers who had committed worse crimes had been spared the death penalty. The 2003 case of Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, who received a life sentence in exchange for a detailed confession about killing 48 young women, was among the chief examples used by Cross' attorneys.

The court's 5-4 ruling upholding Cross' death sentence revealed a deep division about the future of the state's law. Writing for the majority, Justice Tom Chambers said the "moral question" of whether those on death row can be executed while a notorious serial killer is given life is best left to state lawmakers or the people of Washington.

A dissenting opinion authored by Justice Charles Johnson stated, "When Gary Ridgway, the worst mass murderer in this state's history, escapes the death penalty, serious flaws become apparent. The Ridgway case does not 'stand alone,' as characterized by the majority, but instead is symptomatic of a system where all mass murderers have, to date, escaped the death penalty. . . . The death penalty is like lightning, randomly striking some defendants and not others. Where the death penalty is not imposed on Gary Ridgway, Ben Ng and Kwan Fai Mak (the latter two convicted in Seattle's 1983 Wah Mee massacre), who represent the worst mass murders in Washington's history, on what basis do we determine on whom it is imposed? No rational explanation exists to explain why some individuals escape the penalty of death and others do not."

An editorial in the News Tribune echoed the dissenting justices' opinion, stating:

Since the 1960s, Washington has executed only 4 condemned murderers - and three of those sought death by refusing to appeal their sentences.

The rarity of executions speaks well of this state. But it has created a new grounds of appeal: that there is no logic or consistency in the way death penalties are handed down and carried out in Washington.
. . .
We're reluctant to argue for abolishing Washington's narrowly drawn death penalty, which reflects the will of the electorate. But Johnson's argument is hard to ignore in a state whose laws generally call for proportionate sentences for similar crimes.

With the likes of Ridgway, Ng and Mak living out their lives in prison, Dayva Cross’ execution - if it ever happens - may well be the legal equivalent of a capricious bolt of lightning.

(News Tribune, April 2, 2006 and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 31, 2006).  See Arbitrariness, Life Without Parole, Editorials, and New Voices.

OPINION POLLS: Majority of New Yorkers Reject the Death Penalty

Most New Yorkers would choose a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) over the death penalty for those convicted of murder.  In a recent poll published in Newsday, 53% of N.Y. adults said LWOP is the better penalty, whereas only 38% chose the death penalty, with 9% uncertain.  New York's death penalty was found unconstitutional by the state's highest court in 2004.  The legislature elected not to modify the statute. (Source: Blum and Weprin Associates / Newsday - Methodology: Telephone interviews with 1,457 New York adults, conducted from Feb. 26 to Mar. 5, 2006; Angus Reid Global Scan, March 11, 2006).Georgia Millionaire Receives Life Without ParoleA jury in Georgia elected to sentence James Sullivan to life without parole after finding him guilty of hiring a hitman to kill his wife in 1987.  "We thought that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was enough. We didn't want to be the judge about somebody else's life. We wanted God to be the judge," said juror Debra Klayman after the sentence was handed down. The jury had the option of the death penalty, life without parole, or life with parole. Klayman said that the jury decided at the start of its five hour deliberation that Sullivan would not get death.

Sullivan is a millonaire and a former fugitive on the FBI's most-wanted list who was captured in Thailand in 2002, four years after he was indicted on murder charges and 15 years after he payed a truck driver $25,000 to kill his wife. The murder took place on the same day that Sullivan and his wife were to attend a hearing to discuss property distribution in their divorce. (Associated Press, March 14, 2006).  See Life Without Parole and Arbitrariness.

Death Penalty Not Sought in Three High-Profile Cases

Prosecutors in Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware have all chosen to seek life sentences in three high-profile murder cases.  Among other concerns, they noted their wish to bring comfort to victims' families and to secure the public's longterm safety.  The prosecutors expressed confidence that not seeking the death penalty was the right choice in these cases.

Maryland prosecutors announced that they will not seek the death penalty for sniper John Allen Muhammad, who will go on trial in May. Muhammad is charged with killing six people in Maryland. Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said that he will seek a life sentence for Muhammad, noting: "We wanted to make sure the person who alledgedly committed these crimes never roams our streets again. Secondly, we wanted to provide an opportunity for the victims in this case to have their day in court," Gansler said. Nelson Rivera, whose wife was a sniper victim, said he understood the state's reasoning for not seeking the death penalty. He stated, "It's something that won't return anything to us, but justice is going to be served. I'm satisfied by the way the state of Maryland has handled this." Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight said that the state's decision would also decrease his department's expenses during the trial.  Muhammad was sentenced to death in Virginia for related crimes. (Washington Post, March 3, 2006).

On March 2 in New Jersey, nurse Charles Cullen received 11 consecutive life sentences for killing as many as 29 intensive-case patients with fatal injections. The life sentences are the result of a 2004 plea agreement Cullen made with New Jersey and Pennsylvania prosecutors. In the agreement, Cullen offered to provide information about his crimes and the names of his victims in exchange for the states' agreeing not to seek the death penalty.  Many of the victims' family members spoke at Cullen's sentencing.  David Agoada, whose mother Cullen tried to kill, said, "You can still do something good in your life.  Tell us, how did you do this?  How did you kill all these people?" (New York Times, March 3, 2006 and Press Release from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, May 19, 2004).

On the same day as Cullen's sentencing, Thomas Capano of Delaware was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his mistress more than a decade ago, a crime that drew national attention because Capano was a wealthy lawyer and political powerbroker. After the Delaware Supreme Court overturned Capano's original death sentence last month and ruled that the process used to arrive at it was unconstitutional, the state Attorney General's Office decided not to seek a new sentencing hearing and to not contest Capano's being sentenced to life without parole. "The death penalty was always a secondary issue," said Colm Connelly, one of the original prosecutors in the case.  Kathleen Fahey-Hosey, sister of Capano's victim, Anne Marie Fahey, said the family is satistifed with Capano's life without parole sentence. (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 3, 2006).

See Life Without Parole. See also, Victims and New Voices.

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.

High Profile Delaware Defendant Spared the Death Penalty

Delaware state prosecutors announced that they will not seek the death penalty for Thomas Capano, a former millionaire influential in state politics who was convicted of murdering Anne Marie Fahey.  Capano will instead face a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. "Every criminal case has a natural end. We have reached that point in this case. I am satisfied that justice is served by having Thomas Capano spend every day of the rest of his life in prison," said Deleware Attorney General Carl C. Danberg.

Last month, the Delaware Supreme Court upheld Capano's 1999 murder conviction, but overturned his death sentence because the jury was one vote short of unanimous when deciding if the murder was the result of substantial planning. The Delaware court held that the death sentence based on a non-unanimous finding violated the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring v. Arizona in 2002.  Danberg said a new death penalty sentencing hearing would be difficult because two key witnesses, Capano's brothers, who testified in 1999 did so in exchange for plea agreements with prosecutors. This time, Danberg said that prosecutors would have no leverage over the two men.

Fahey's family said they supported the state's decision to seek a life without parole sentence. "When Anne Marie was murdered, we maintained that the most important thing for us was that her murderer would be convicted and sent to prison. We are satisfied," they said.

(The News Journal, February 6, 2006). See Victims and Life Without Parole.


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Life Without Parole News and Developments: 2003

 For the First Time, No Death Sentences in Chicago in 2003


In the year since former Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision to grant clemency to all those awaiting execution in the state, no one has been sentenced to death in Cook County, which includes Chicago. This marks the first time since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977 that the county has not had a death sentence. Cook County has historically sent the highest annual number of defendants to death row. Although Illinois currently has a moratorium on executions in place, prosecutors are still able to seek the death penalty for defendants accused of capital crimes. (Chicago Tribune, January 2, 2004) See DPIC's 2003 Year End Report.

 Jurors Sentence Lee Malvo to Life Without Parole


Jurors in Virginia sentenced juvenile offender Lee Boyd Malvo to life in prison without parole after finding him guilty of murdering Linda Franklin, who was one of 10 victims killed during a series of shootings in October 2002. Malvo was 17 at the time of the crime. Attorney General John Ashcroft had cited Virginia's ability to impose "the ultimate sanction" in sending Malvo and his mentor, John Muhammad, to Virginia for prosecution. Virginia is one of only 21 states that allow the execution of those who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crime. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Virginia is one of only six states that have executed someone whose crime was committed as a juvenile. (Associated Press, December 23, 2003). See Juveniles.

New York Appeals Court Overturns Second Death Sentence


New York's highest court has overturned the death sentence of James F. Cahill, one of six men remaining on the state's death row. The Court found that the trial judge made errors in screening the jurors who convicted Cahill and sentenced him to death. In its 4-2 ruling, the Court also noted that prosecutors had not proven the "aggravating factors" required by New York's death penalty law. Cahill will now serve a sentence of life in prison. (New York Times, November 26, 2003)
Despite the fact that New York has spent tens of millions of dollars on death penalty prosecutions, both cases reviewed by the state's highest court have been reduced to life sentences. See Costs.

 Washington Judge States Death Penalty "No Longer Has Validity"


In a Seattle Times op-ed reflecting on the plea agreement for serial killer Gary Ridgway resulting in a life without parole sentence (read more), Washington State Superior Court Judge David A. Nichols stated that the "death penalty as a response to any criminal behavior no longer has validity and should be repealed, because it is impossible to administer with justice and fairness." He further noted:

"We are a nation of laws, ideally applied fairly and proportionally; but we have 50 different death-penalty laws, all of which have different criteria of application. Whether or not to charge or pursue the death penalty is left entirely up to elected prosecuting attorneys, who are often driven by political, social or financial constraints; or, as in this case, circumstances which cause the prosecutor to back down.
"Gross numbers of executions are being carried out in some states or regions of the country. An alarming number of convictions have been found to be wrong, and the death penalty is unfairly inflicted upon the poor, minorities and the under-represented.
"There is simply no way the death penalty statute can be administered fairly. There are too many variables and inconsistencies to allow any person interested in justice to support.
"With its repeal, we would stop its inequitable application, the unconscionable costs associated with its administration, and the endless appeals. There is perhaps a risk that by giving up the death penalty, we would surrender leverage we might have against a Gary Ridgway to reveal the details of what he did, but that is a small price to pay for getting rid of that part of the criminal code that mocks our notions of justice under the law.
"A life of incarceration with no hope of ever getting out may seem a small penalty to pay when applied to the worst of our wrongdoers, but the death penalty has no place in a sentencing scheme that strives for justice and fairness to all our citizens."

(Seattle Times, November 8, 2003) See New Voices.

Serial Killer Receives Life Sentence While 3,500 Others Face Execution


In a plea agreement reached with Washington state prosecutors, Gary Ridgway, a Seattle-area man who admitted to 48 murders since 1982, will serve a sentence of life in prison without parole. Prosecutors spared Ridgway from execution in exchange for his cooperation in leading police to the remains of still-missing victims. (Associated Press, November 5, 2003) The state's plea agreement raises questions of proportionality in sentencing when compared with the other inmates on the state's death row. The arbitrary and unpredictable application of capital punishment once led the U.S. Supreme Court to hold that the death penalty was unconstitutional in 1972. In Furman v. Georgia, one of the concurring Justices described receiving the death penalty as random as being "struck by lightning"--the facts of the crime carried little weight in predicting who would receive capital punishment.

25 Year-old Death Sentence Unanimously Reversed by Alabama Supreme Court


On October 3, 2003, the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously reversed Phillip Tomlin's death sentence and ordered him resentenced to life in prison without parole, marking the Court's first ruling to create a standard of review for judicial override in the state. Tomlin had been on death row for more than 25 years despite the fact that four juries have recommended that he receive a life sentence for his alleged role in a Mobile, Alabama, revenge killing. In each of those cases, the trial judge overrode the jury to impose a death sentence because Tomlin's co-defendant, John Daniels, was sent to death row. In its decision, the Court noted, "It would be inconsistent to hold that Daniels's sentence could properly be used to undermine the jury's recommendation of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole." The Court's opinion also noted an earlier Alabama Supreme Court ruling that concluded that even a 10-2 jury recommendation should be given strong consideration by the sentencing judge. Tomlin was represented by his pro-bono attorney, University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt. Mobile Register, October 4, 2003, and Attorney Press Release, October 7, 2003).

Federal Judge Declares Electrocution Unconstitutional and Ring v. Arizona to be Retroactive


In a decision vacating the death penalty for Nebraska death row inmate Charles Jess Palmer, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bataillon declared that electrocution is unconstitutional. Bataillon wrote, "In light of evidence and evolving standards of decency, the court would find that a death penalty sentence imposed on a defendant in a state that provides electrocution as its only method of execution is an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Nebraska is the only state that maintains electrocution as its sole method of execution. Bataillon's ruling also stated that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Ring v. Arizona - which held that it is unconstitutional to have a judge, rather than a jury, decide eligibility for a death sentence - is retroactive and applies to Palmer's case. The judge further decried the lengthy period of time Palmer has spent on death row. Palmer remains incarcerated with a sentence of life imprisonment. (Lincoln Journal Star, October 10, 2003) See Ring v. Arizona, and Methods of Execution.

Death Penalty Declines in Key Areas


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Pima County, Arizona have been the main jurisdictions in their respective states for death sentences in the past. Now they are sending considerably fewer people to death row or seeking the death penalty less. Philadelphia prosecutors have sought the death penalty 24 times since last September, but jurors from the city have not sent anyone to death row in more than a year. In fact, the city has only secured death sentences against 4 people since 2000. In the majority of cases where jurors have chosen not to send defendants to death row, they have imposed a sentence of life in prison without parole. Cathie Abookire, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, noted: "When someone wants to plead guilty to the crime of murder, and we know that life means life in Pennyslvania, then we are all for it. It gives the family some peace of mind, because it is over. There are not going to be 20 years of appeals." (Associated Press, October 3, 2003)
Similarly, the number of death sentences pursued in Pima County, Arizona has decreased by a third. "We've made a conscious effort to limit the death notices to the worst cases. We have a fuller discussion about can we - and should we - pursue death. It's a more thoughtful process," said prosecutor Rick Unklesbay. The policy shift was embraced by victim advocate Gail Leland, who stated, "I think the process and the options that we have now regarding sentencing have really been improved." (Associated Press, October 5, 2003).

Fewer Death Sentences Sought in New York


Eight years after the death penalty was reinstated in New York, the number of death sentences sought by prosecutors has sharply declined. According to the New York Capital Defender Office, the number of death penalty notices filed has dropped from a record-high 14 in 1998 to just two so far in 2003. Howard R. Relin, a long-time district attorney in Rochester and death penalty supporter, noted: "D.A.'s are being more and more careful in making that determination. There's a sense of realism that has set in to prosecutors around New York State, as a result of the jury verdicts we have seen throughout the state." Richard Brown, the Queens district attorney, added that prosecutors have come to understand that the suffering of murder victims' relatives is often prolonged in death penalty cases because of the years of legal warfare and that capital cases are a drain on prosecutors' time and budgets. He stated, "Particularly at a time of fiscal crisis, it is very difficult to justify taking experienced prosecutors away from handling other violent felonies." Death sentencing has also been declining in other states around the country. (New York Times, September 21, 2003)

Judge Imposes Life Sentence for Victims' Sake


Baltimore County Judge Dana M. Levitz recently sentenced a man convicted of murder to two life terms without parole, in part because of its possible effects on the victims' families. Levitz said, "The devastating effect that this unending litigation has on the innocent families of the victims is incalculable. By imposing a death sentence, I ensure that the victim's families will be subjected to many more years of appeals." Family members also noted that the decision gave them the peace of mind they have been searching for. A sister of the victim noted, "I'm pleased with the sentence because I think I might get some closure from this. I didn't want him out on the street anymore, but killing him wasn't the answer either." (Baltimore Sun, July 26, 2003). See Victims.

New York Times Magazine Examines Why Death Penalty Jurors Are Sparing Lives


A recent article by Alex Kotlowitz in the New York Times Magazine examined why jurors who affirmed their willingness to impose a death sentence are increasingly voting for life in capital cases. The article noted:

Over the past few years, detective work and advances in DNA technology have uncovered a frighteningly high number of wrongfully convicted, especially on death row. But there may be another, albeit quieter, revolution taking place, out of view, in jury rooms. The number of death sentences handed down has dropped precipitously, from a modern-day peak of 319 in 1996 to 229 in 2000, and then to 155 in 2001. And a study released just last month reported that in 15 of the last 16 federal capital trials, jurors chose life sentences over death.

There are a number of factors at work here. In early 2000, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, staggered by the number of wrongful convictions in his state, declared a moratorium on executions. It received a good deal of national press and undoubtedly made some prosecutors and jurors more cautious. (Last January, Ryan went beyond a moratorium; he pardoned four inmates and commuted the sentences of the other 167 on Illinois's death row.) Additionally, the murder rate has been in a steady decline, though that has been going on for some time.

There are two factors, however, that more than anything else may help explain the decline in death-penalty sentences. One is the increasing availability of life without parole as an option, which all but three death-penalty states now offer. In polls, three-fourths of Americans say they believe in the death penalty. But when asked whether they'd support capital punishment if life without parole was an option, the number is reduced to half.

The other contributor, perhaps tougher to measure, is a development over the last decade: an increasing number of defense attorneys have become more skilled and resourceful in persuading jurors that the lives of their clients are worth saving.

(New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2003). See Innocence.

Texas Fails to Pass Life Without Parole Bill


The Texas Senate recently rejected legislation to provide juries with the sentencing option of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Passage was opposed by some prosecutors who feared the sentencing option would discourage juries from giving death sentences. The bill was defeated despite the fact that 72% of Texans support the option of life without the possibility of parole. Texas, which leads the nation in executions, is one of only three death penalty states that does not allow life sentences without parole. (Houston Chronicle, April 23, 2003)

Orange County Juries Reject Death Verdicts in 2002


For the first time in a decade, juries in California's conservative Orange County did not send a single defendant to death row last year. While Orange County juries have a history of siding with prosecutors in death penalty cases, each of the four capital convictions sought in 2002 resulted in a deadlocked jury. In the past, despite its low crime rate, Orange County has sent 47 inmates to California's death row since the death penalty was reinstated. (Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2003).


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Life Without Parole News and Developments: 2004

Poll Finds Waning Support for Death Penalty


According to a recent poll conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, only 62% of respondents support capital punishment for persons convicted of murder, and Americans prefer the sentencing option of life without parole when given the choice. Overall support for capital punishment has fallen since Quinnipiac's poll in June 2004, when support registered 65%. Similar shifts in public opinion found growing support for life-without-parole sentences. In the December poll when respondents were given a choice, only 42% supported capital punishment while 46% supported life without parole. (Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, December 18, 2004). Other national polls have also noted a decrease in public support for the death penalty. The 62% support reported here is one of the lowest levels in recent years. See Public Opinion.


California's Record on Wrongful Convictions


A recent San Francisco magazine article entitled "Innocence Lost," examines California's record of wrongful convictions. The researchers report that the nation's largest criminal justice system has sent more innocent people to prison for longer terms than any other state. Among the exonerees are three from the state's death row and nearly 200 people who were serving either life or very long terms. The magazine notes that despite these numbers, state lawmakers have repeatedly passed up opportunities to put safeguards in place that could prevent such errors from happening in the future. Among other key finding's in the magazine's year-long review of wrongful convictions were the following:

  • Over the past 15 years, at least 200 California inmates have been freed after courts found they were unjustly convicted - nearly twice the number of exonerations as in the next two states (Illinois and Texas) combined.
  • California has been sentencing people to life at an alarming rate. More than 30,000 inmates are serving life terms, twice as many as in the entire European Union, which has a population 12 times larger. Approximately 17% of California inmates are lifers, compared to 9% of prisoners in the U.S. as a whole.
  • Some 63% of wrongful convictions in San Francisco's research sample of 30 cases involved serious police error or misconduct. Some 47% of wrongful convictions in the sample involved serious prosecutorial error or misconduct. More than 90% were upheld on direct appeal.
  • In a survey of 676 voters conducted for the magazine by David Binder Research, 69% believe lifers should have the same rights to free attorneys and levels of appeal as people facing execution. Of those polled, 61% also support adding safeguards to prevent wrongful life sentences and 78% favor firing police or prosecutors who break the rules to get a conviction. Currently, action is rarely ever taken against these individuals.
  • While DNA databases may be helpful in freeing some wrongly convicted individuals, only about 10% of criminal cases have any biological evidence - blood, semen, etc. - to test.
  • California's "three strikes" law has added approximately 7,500 people serving life terms to the state's prisons. It has pressured some innocent people to accept deals and plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit rather than risk the automatic life sentence of a third strike.

(San Francisco, November 2004) Read the article (pdf format). See Innocence.


Supreme Court to Hear Pennsylvania Death Penalty Case


The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear a death row appeal from a Pennsylvania man who maintains that jurors at his trial should have been told that they had the option of sentencing him to life without parole instead of the death penalty. According to the brief filed on behalf of Ronald Rompilla, the jury asked several questions during his trial about Rompilla's "future dangerousness," yet were never told that if sentenced to prison he would never be eligible for later release. The jury then sentenced him to death. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3d Circuit ruled that jurors did not have to be given a special instruction. Rompilla was convicted of murder during a 1988 robbery in Allentown.
Rompilla also alleges that his public defenders presented inadequate evidence of his mental retardation and traumatic upbringing.
Most death penalty states offer life without parole, but only Pennsylvania and South Carolina have routinely declined to tell jurors that a defendant will not be released if sent to prison, according to Rompilla's brief. (Rompilla v. Beard, 04-5462, Associated Press, Sept. 28, 2004). See Supreme Court.


New Resource: Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook


The Bureau of Justice Statistics' Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002 contains its latest catalog of data on crime, the administration of justice, and public attitudes toward criminal justice issues such as the death penalty. For example, a growing number of Americans support the sentence of life without parole over the death penalty. In 1985, a Gallup Poll found that 34% of those polled favored life in prison without parole. This latest edition of the Sourcebook shows that by 2001 the number of respondents favoring life without parole had climbed to 44% (and higher since then). The support for life without parole is even stronger among black respondents (73%), respondents holding college post-graduate degrees (62%), and those who identify themselves as Democrats (60%). The Sourcebook also revealed an increase in the number of Hispanic inmates on death row in the United States. With an increase recorded each year between 1996 and 2001, the population has grown from 8.8% to 11.2%. The Sourcebook is updated as new data becomes available and may be found online at https://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/. (Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002-(published 2003; contains some 2003 data; cost $9)). See Race and Resources.


New Voices: Time to Re-Think the Death Penalty


An op-ed in Oregon's Albany Democrat Herald called on the state to re-think its reliance on the death penalty:

20 years after voters in Oregon reinstated the death penalty, it is time to take a dispassionate look and conclude that it hasn't done much good.

In the general election of 1984, Oregon voters overwhelmingly called for the death penalty to be resumed. 2 initiatives were on the ballot that year. One, calling for capital punishment or mandatory life sentences for aggravated murder, passed by 893,818 to 296,988. A companion measure, exempting the death penalty from the provision in the state constitution against cruel and vindictive punishment, passed by 653,009 to 521,687.

One of the main arguments was that once killers were executed, we could be sure that they would never do any more harm.

The justification - prevention of additional killings - has not worked out in practice. For one thing, the death penalty does not apply to ordinary 1st-time murder convictions. For another, the judicial system has failed to live up to the intention expressed by the voters. For countless legal and procedural reasons, the system has so far failed to carry out the mandate of 1984. And the pace of murders in Oregon has been roughly the same since the 1970s - 100 or more a year.

The rate per 100,000 has declined as the population increased, perhaps because of Measure 11, which put people in prison for violent crimes well short of murder, rather than letting them off on probation.

There have been 2 executions since the death penalty went back on the books. In both cases, the condemned men refused to participate in appeals; they wanted to be executed. The system works when murderers want the state to help them end their incarceration. It does not work when the criminals refuse to consent to be put to death, which is most of the time.

29 men were on Oregon's death row as of last spring, some for as long as 16 years. One of those who had been there the longest, since 1988, had just had his conviction overturned for the third time, and his case was sent back to the trial court for another penalty phase.

Death penalty cases are more expensive and take longer than other murder cases. Typically the defendant gets 2 expert attorneys appointed for him rather than 1. And there are 2 trials in each case, one to determine guilt, the other to set the penalty.

Summing up: Executions have been all but non-existent. Even so, death penalty cases cost more. The existence of the penalty has not deterred murders. Lifelong prison terms have the same result as executions in keeping the public safe.

It's not that repeat murderers don't deserve the death penalty. They do. But the existence of the penalty in Oregon is not doing anything except to cause expense and delays. It's time to let it go.

We don't even need a constitutional change, which is unlikely anyway. All we need is prosecutors making up their mind to seek true-life sentences instead.

(Hasso Hering, Albany Democrat-Herald, August 29, 2004) (emphasis added). See Costs, Deterrence, and Editorials.



Life Sentences Given in Four States


Death sentences have declined across the country. The following four cases are recent illustrations of this trend:

  • In Cook County, Illinois, a judge sentenced Ronald Hinton to life without parole, citing abuse in the defendant's background and his remorse for the crimes. Hinton admitted to three murders. (Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2004).
  • In Butler County, Ohio, a three-judge panel sentenced Tom West to life without parole for a shooting spree at a trucking company in which two people were killed and three others wounded. Costs of the trial, the agreement of the victims' families, and the defendant's mental illness were cited as reasons for the plea agreement. (Cincinnati Enquirer, August 24, 2004).
  • In Crown Point, Indiana, Stephen Richards pleaded guilty and will be sentenced to life without parole for the shotgun slaying of two people over a sack of coins. Victims' family members agreed to the plea arrangement. (NWITimes.com, August 24, 2004 (Munster Times)).
  • In San Mateo, California, prosecutors announced that they would not seek the death penalty against Seti Scanlan despite Scanlan's begging the jury to sentence him to death. Prosecutors cited costs and the uncertainty of getting a death verdict. A victims' family member was quoted as agreeing with the decision. (See item, San Jose Mercury News, August 24, 2004).

See Sentencing, and Victims.


Prosecutors Offer a Variety of Reasons for Foregoing Death Penalty


The San Mateo County District Attorney's Office reflected on a number of factors in deciding to forego seeking a death sentence for Seti Christopher Scanlan, whose first trial ended in a mistrial after he took the stand and begged jurors to sentence him to death. Prosecutors are now seeking a sentence of life in prison for Scanlan after concluding that "it was not reasonably likely that we would get a jury that would deliver the death penalty." The case has already cost taxpayers more than half a million dollars and that number would have doubled if prosecutors had chosen to seek a capital conviction during the second trial. Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe noted that even if a jury were to sentence Scanlan to death, years of subsequent appeals would cost taxpayers millions more. The decision to seek life effectively ends the case against Scanlan, who has admitted to killing a Burlingame bank manager. He will be sentenced to seven life sentences and possibly another 90 years on September 20, 2004. David Martel, whose wife was murdered by Scanlan, concurred in the decision not to seek death: "Scanlan has one very dark future. He won't know what it's like to live in freedom. It's gone, and it should be," he said. (Mercury News, August 24, 2004). See Costs, Victims, and Life Without Parole.


Prosecutor Forgoes Costly Death Penalty Trial


In Alameda County, California, prosecutors announced that they will not seek the death penalty against Richard Dean Wilson because it is unlikely that a jury would return a death sentence. State authories say the decision to seek a life sentence for Wilson avoids a costly death penalty case and saves taxpayer dollars from financing a lengthy trial with an uncertain outcome. Wilson pleaded no contest to the murder of Angela Marie Bledsoe. Prosecutor Jim Anderson noted, "This was the best penalty phase mitigation I have ever seen. We thought...the likelihood of getting a death vote on this guy was small. The best we would have ever gotten was hung jury after hung jury." (Tri-Valley Herald, July 30, 2004) See Costs.


Texas DA Sees "Beginning of the End of the Death Penalty"


In Texas, Jefferson County District Attorney Tom Maness recently noted that the time-consuming and costly nature of capital punishment may lead to its demise. "I think this is the beginning of the end of the death penalty," said Maness after a Criminal District Court Judge recommended that the Court of Criminal Appeals commute the death sentence of Walter Bell to life in prison. On three occassions, Jefferson County spent countless hours of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute Bell, who is mentally retarded, a diagnosis that makes him ineligible for the death penalty according the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia. Maness added that if Texas juries had the option to sentence those convicted of murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole and the state were to abolish capital punishment, protest from the state's prosecutors would be little more than a grumble. "It's so difficult. It gets more difficult all of the time," said Maness of the time-consuming and stressful work associated with seeking death sentences. Texas is one of two states that has the death penalty and does not offer the alternative sentence of life without parole. (The Beaumont Enterprise, July 24, 2004) See New Voices.


Nichols' Sentencing Demonstrates Heavy Burden On Jurors


After deliberating for 20 hours over three days, the jurors who recently found Terry Nichols guilty of murder in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing expressed some of the anguish that choosing between life and death caused them. "It was tough. We had found it much easier to arrive at a guilty verdict, but the penalty phase was much harder," said juror Terry Zellmer. Cecil Reeder, a Korean War veteran who supported the death penalty for Nichols, said, "This shook me as deep as I've ever been shook in my life." Some of the jurors implied that Nichols' religious conversion in the years after the bombing and the fact that he was not in Oklahoma City on the day of the bombing may have contributed to 4 or 5 votes for life. The jury's split verdict leaves the sentencing for Nichols to the judge, who by law cannot impose a death sentence. Nichols is already serving a life without parole sentence on a federal conviction in the bombing. (Dallas Morning News, June 13, 2004)

Court Says New York's Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional


New York's highest court has ruled that a provision of the state's capital punishment statute violates the state constitution, a decision that appears to invalidate the sentences of all four men on New York's death row. In New York, if a jury deadlocks, the judge imposes a sentence of 20-25 years to life, giving the possibility of parole. In its 4-3 ruling, the Court of Appeals said that these sentencing rules might unconstitutionally coerce jurors into voting for a death sentence rather than risk a deadlock by holding out for life without parole. The Court advised the legislature to correct the sentencing problem if the state is to continue trying defendants on capital charges. (Associated Press, June 24, 2004) Read the DPIC Summary of the case.


Nichols' Sentencing Demonstrates Heavy Burden on Jurors


After deliberating for 20 hours over three days, the jurors who recently found Terry Nichols guilty of murder in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing expressed some of the anguish that choosing between life and death caused them. "It was tough. We had found it much easier to arrive at a guilty verdict, but the penalty phase was much harder," said juror Terry Zellmer. Cecil Reeder, a Korean War veteran who supported the death penalty for Nichols, said, "This shook me as deep as I've ever been shook in my life." Some of the jurors implied that Nichols' religious conversion in the years after the bombing and the fact that he was not in Oklahoma City on the day of the bombing may have contributed to 4 or 5 votes for life. The jury's split verdict leaves the sentencing for Nichols to the judge, who by law cannot impose a death sentence. Nichols is already serving a life without parole sentence on a federal conviction in the bombing. (Dallas Morning News, June 13, 2004)


Death Penalty Took Heavy Toll on Malvo Jurors


Although Virginia jurors in the trial of Lee Boyd Malvo maintained their camaraderie during the six weeks of trial and deliberations on whether he was guilty of capital murder in one of a series of sniper shootings, the group became sharply divided when weighing the question of whether to sentence the teen to death. The jury foreman and a second member of the jury revealed that a core group of four jurors did not believe Malvo's role in the murders warranted the death penalty. They stated that the debate between life and death destroyed the previously cordial atmosphere within the group. Juror Susan Schriever, who supported a death sentence in the case, stated, "I couldnÕt understand how people sat in the same trial and didnÕt feel the same way." Juror James Wolfcale, a Virginia Beach pastor who also favored the death penalty for Malvo, said that he was sorry to see the friendships among the jurors quickly break down during the sentencing phase. "I'm not sure I ever want to see them again," said Wolfcale of the jurors who supported a life sentence. Wolfcale said some of those who supported a life sentence argued that the punishment would be worse than a death sentence for the young defendant. (Washington Post, June 19, 2004) See Juvenile Death Penalty.

Gallup Poll Finds Decreased Support for Death Penalty When Compared with Life Sentence


A May 2004 Gallup Poll found that a growing number of Americans support a sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty for those convicted of murder. Gallup found that 46% of respondents favor life imprisonment over the death penalty, up from 44% in May 2003. During that same time frame, support for capital punishment as an alternative fell from 53% to 50%. The poll also revealed a growing skepticism that the death penalty deters crime, with 62% of those polled saying that it is not a deterrent. These percentages are a dramatic shift from the responses given to this same question in 1991, when 51% of Americans believed the death penalty deterred crime and only 41% believed it did not. Only 55% of those polled responded that they believed the death penalty is implemented fairly, down from 60% in 2003. When not offered an alternative sentence, 71% supported the death penalty and 26% opposed. The overall support is about the same as that reported in 2002, but down from the 80% support in 1994. (Gallup Poll News Service, June 2, 2004) Read the Gallup Press Release. See Public Opinion.

San Francisco Voters Back DA's Decision to Not Seek Death Sentence


Both city voters and the Bar Association of San Francisco have voiced support for San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris' decision to not seek the death penalty in the case against David Hill, who is accused of killing city police officer Isaac Espinoza. A recent poll found that 70% of respondents backed Harris' decision, while only 22% opposed the choice and 8% remained undecided. The poll also found that 65% of those surveyed gave Harris' overall performance as District Attorney favorable marks. Harris ran for office as an opponent of capital punishment. The San Francisco Bar Association also praised Harris' decision to seek a sentence of life without parole for Hill, and members voiced their support for keeping the trial within Harris' domain. The Association cautioned that all district attorneys could see their power of prosecutorial discretion eroded if California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer or federal prosecutors decide to take over the case in order to pursue a capital conviction. (San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 2004) See Public Opinion.

Another Federal Death Penalty Case Results in Life Sentence


After less than five hours of deliberation, jurors in a federal death penalty case in Maryland returned life sentences for two men convicted earlier of federal drug conspiracy charges and firearms violations. The federal case against Michael Taylor and Keon Moses was the first time since 1998 that U.S. prosecutors in Baltimore had sought a death sentence. The life sentences for Taylor and Keon continue a national trend identified last year by the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. In an August 2003 report, the Project noted that 20 of the 21 most recent federal death penalty cases had resulted in life sentences and that federal juries had voted for life in 38 of 43 capital cases since 2000. Taylor and Keon, both in their early 20s, were raised in one of Baltimore's most dangerous and notorious public housing complexes. Attorneys for the men presented evidence to jurors outlining their clients' troubling history of neglect and drug abuse. (Baltimore Sun, April 29, 2004) See Federal Death Penalty.

New Jersey Death Sentence Overturned After 18 Years


A federal court has ordered a new sentencing hearing for Robert Marshall after determining that his trial attorney failed to adequately represent him at his 1986 trial. In its ruling, the court noted: "This is not a case where, after reasonable investigation, Zeitz (the attorney) determined that it was tactically a better choice not to put on a mitigating case. Rather, it is a situation where Zeitz inadequately prepared for the penalty phase and put on no mitigating evidence because he had none to present." (Emphasis added). Marshall, who has been on death row for 18 years, must be resentenced and has been removed from New Jersey's death row. Additional problems with inadequate defense, the lethal injection process, and other concerns about the state's capital punishment system continue to surface. Celeste Fitzgerald, executive director of New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium, stated that Marshall's case is "another example of how the capital punishment system is broken, how it's impossible to write a set of rules to implement the death penalty in a way that ensures swift, fair and accurate justice." She added, "The death penalty hasn't worked in New Jersey. These cases go on and on - because a life is at stake and everyone agrees we need to be cautious. Many states don't have the death penalty, and I think it's time to follow that lead and implement a policy of life imprisonment without possibility of parole."
(The Star-Ledger, April 8, 2004) See Representation.

Death Penalty Often a Plea Bargaining Tool


An Associated Press analysis of the 334 capital indictments filed in Franklin County, Ohio, found that only 16 (5%) of the cases ended with a death sentence. Of those sentences, two have been reduced to life in prison without parole, one man died on the row, and two men were executed this year. Research shows that of the remaining Franklin County cases, 183 cases (55%) ended in plea agreements, and in 111 cases (33%) juries or three-judge panels convicted the offenders but did not sentence them to death. In 45 of those 111 cases, offenders were convicted of lesser charges, and in the remaining 44 cases that went to trial, the juries convicted the offenders of crimes that carried the death penalty but chose prison terms instead. According to Ohio State University Professor Doug Berman, the death penalty "remains a relatively rarely used sanction" in Ohio and to the average prosecutor "it's a mechanism that allows them to enter plea negotiations in a stronger position." According to prosecutor Ron O'Brien, a change in state law that guaranteed life without parole in capital cases has been a factor in plea negotiations. (Associated Press, April 6, 2004) See Life Without Parole.

Kansas Turns to Death Penalty Alternative to Save Money


A bill establishing the sentencing option of life without parole in capital cases has been sent to Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius for signature into law. The state legislature passed the bipartisan measure in an attempt to curb costs associated with the death penalty. A legislative audit released in December 2003 found that the average cost of a death penalty case in Kansas is $1.2 million. An advisory group of judges and attorneys who studied the stateÕs death penalty law last year concluded that a life-without-parole sentence could save the state between $400,000 and $500,000 per trial. Of the 38 states that have the death penalty, 35 have an alternative sentence of life without parole at least for some offenses. The exceptions are Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas. (Associated Press, April 1, 2004) See Costs.

Governor's Death Penalty Proposal Meets Opposition
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has proposed a constitutional amendment to reinstate the death penalty after nearly a century without it. The idea has been met with some firm resistance from state lawmakers, including criticism from Representative Keith Ellison, who noted, "The death penalty serves no legitimate purpose. It's applied unfairly, falling disproportionately on the poor, people of color and, in too many cases, on the innocent. It's also a budget buster, sapping resources from education, health care, and public safety." (Star Tribune, January 28, 2004) A January 2004 poll of Minnesota voters administered by the Star Tribune found that, when given a choice between life in prison without parole and the death penalty for convicted murderers, 46% of Minnesota respondents chose prison and only 44% chose the death penalty. (Star Tribune, January 29, 2004) See Public Opinion. Minnesota has consistently had one of the lowest murder rates in the country, about half of the national rate, and far below states like Texas that use the death penalty regularly. See Murder Rates by State.


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Life Without Parole News and Developments: 2005

NEW VOICES: New Jersey Prosecutor Calls for End to the Death Penalty

In a letter to acting New Jersey Govenor Richard J. Codey, Ocean County prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher called for an end to the death penalty in New Jersey because he feels the system is ineffective and fails to meet the needs of victims' families. Kelaher, who has been a prosecutor for 23 years, said that life without parole would be a more appropriate sentencing option for those convicted of first-degree murder. "The history of nonapplication of the law has been a cruel hoax on families of the victims and the citizens of this state. . . . Years of countless delays, continuous hearings and millions of dollars later, the condemned are invariable moved to the general prison population. The strain on prosecution budgets is enormous and the cost in human terms in incalculable," Kelaher wrote. Kelaher added that New Jersey law requires the automatic reveiw of death penalty convictions and that prosecutors must meet requirements that are virtually impossible. (The Press of Atlantic City, December 9, 2005) See New Voices, Life Without Parole, and Victims.

NEW VOICES: Judge Urges Public to Reconsider Death Penalty

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill recently announced that he is rethinking capital punishment because it is expensive, can be politically motivated, and risks innocent lives. Winmill, who freed death row exoneree Charles Fain in 2001 after DNA evidence proved his innocence, said that Fain's case and the very different experience of sentencing a guilty man to die for murder prompted him to rethink capital punishment. During a speech before the City Club of Boise, Winmill was joined by Fain as he urged Idahoans to reconsider the death penalty. Judge Winmill stated:

I think the death penalty is perhaps sought and imposed, at least historically, more often than it should be. I think we as judges, and we as citizens now in juries, need to be very thoughtful.
...
[The death penalty] requires each of us to critically think it through, consider the costs, consider the utility, consider whether we are simply getting carried away in this effort to promote law and order. And to think whether or not a life sentence without possibility of parole is an adequate punishment for far more of the murder cases than typically imposed.

Winmill added that public officials are "loathe to discuss the cost" of capital punishment, saying, "I frankly think there may be a fear of a firestorm of criticism of the actual cost of litigating if this is ever revealed publicly." During the speech, Winmill also noted that the death penalty does not deter violent crime and that the election of judges and prosecutors politicizes death penalty decisions. One reform he recommended was to create a statewide screening commission in Idaho to review cases and decide whether they meet a heightened standard for the death penalty, separating decisions from local politics.

(The Idaho Statesman, November 13, 2005). See New Voices. See also Costs, Deterrence, Innocence, and Life Without Parole.

North Carolina Law Results in Sharp Drop in Death Sentences

According to the North Carolina News & Record, death sentences in the state have significantly declined since the 2001 enactment of legislation that allows defendants to plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Juries are also returning fewer death sentences. The paper argues that the emergence of the life-without-parole alternative should result in a reconsideration of the sentences of those already on death row:

It's unfair to make one person serve more time in prison than another if both committed the same crime.

That idea drove a recent change in state law that encourages the parole commission to release more inmates who were locked up before sentencing guidelines changed in 1994. A prisoner serving 20 years for an offense that now requires only a 10-year penalty might deserve strong consideration for parole. It's a simple matter of fairness.

Too bad legislators didn't apply the same principle to inmates on death row. Since a 2001 change in the law, the number of death sentences imposed by North Carolina courts has fallen dramatically.

Under the new law, defendants can plead guilty to a charge of first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Many prosecutors agree to that outcome. It saves overworked district attorneys' staffs the time and expense of a trial, spares the state a lengthy appeals process and often relieves victims' families of the ordeal they endure when the facts of the crime are rehashed as the killer's execution approaches.

In addition, with public attitudes about capital punishment beginning to shift, many jurors are more comfortable voting for a life sentence rather than death as long as they know there's no possibility of parole.

The numbers tell the story: In 1999, 24 people were sent to North Carolina's death row; in 2000, 17; in 2001, 15. Then, after the new law went into effect, seven in 2002; six in 2003, four in 2004; and six so far this year.

Altogether, 156 of the 177 men and women on death row have been there since 2001 or earlier. Whether most North Carolinians still approve of the death penalty or not, North Carolina juries are slowly eliminating its use.

That invites an obvious conclusion: Death row is largely populated by inmates who, if tried again by today's legal standards, would not be sentenced to death. Yet many of them will be executed. The exceptions may win new trials for other legal reasons, be granted a commutation of sentence or perhaps die of natural causes.

These people on death row were left out when state legislators this year tried to insert a measure of fairness into the criminal-justice system. Lawmakers said to thousands of prisoners, "You shouldn't be held longer for your crime than you would be if you had committed the same offense after 1994." But to the inmates facing the most severe punishment, they said nothing.

Maybe it's not politically smart to give murderers a break. The question, however, isn't whether murderers should go free. Of course they shouldn't. But, if juries today are more inclined to sentence killers to life in prison without parole, it's only fair for legislators to consider the same leniency for those already on death row.

(News & Record, November 7, 2005; emphasis added). See Life Without Parole and Editorials.  

New York Times Series Examines Life Sentences

A new study by a team of researchers at the New York Times looks at the expanding use of life sentences in the American criminal justice system. The study, headed by Times reporter Adam Liptak, found that about 132,000 of the nation's prisoners, or almost 10%, are serving life sentences. Of those, 28% have life sentences with no chance of parole. This is a marked increase from a 1993 Times study that found 20% of all lifers had no chance of parole. Liptak also reported that about 9,700 people are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. Of these juvenile offenders, more than 20% have no chance of parole. The total number of prisoners serving life sentences has nearly doubled in the last decade and is outpacing the overall growth in the nation's prison population. Of those sentenced to life terms between 1988 and 2001, about one-third are serving time for crimes other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes.

(New York Times, October 2-3, 2005). See Life Without Parole and Sentencing.

Indiana Editorial Calls For End to "Costly" Death Penalty

An editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette stated that the death penalty is more expensive than life without parole and offers Indiana residents no measurable benefit for their tax dollars. The paper said that ending the death penalty and reallocating funds currently put toward capital punishment would improve programs such as victim's assistance, grassroots police programs, and social service agencies that work with at-risk youth. The Journal Gazette editorial noted:

The death penalty is not solely an issue of morality and justice. The state and counties face costs, which taxpayers finance. From the murder trial through execution, the death penalty is expensive. In fact, it costs taxpayers more to execute someone than it costs to incarcerate the same person for life without parole.

State legislators know this because the Legislative Service Agency issued fiscal-impact statements earlier this year for two death-penalty-related bills filed in the General Assembly. As the state is preparing to execute three men in the next two months, including former Allen County resident Joseph Corcoran, Hoosiers ought to ask: If it’s less expensive to lock a murderer away for life, why is the death penalty an acceptable option?

...

Let’s face it: The state doesn’t get much out of executions. The deterrence argument is dubious, as is the notion that it’s better for the public’s safety.

As for costs, the state and counties spend on average $741,000 over 16 years to execute a 30-year-old offender sentenced to murder, according to the Legislative Service Bureau. The figure includes jail costs, prosecutor’s and defender’s fees from murder trial through appeals, and execution costs.

It costs states and counties $622,000 to lock the same person up for life, estimated to be 47 years in prison. That includes appeals, which aren’t automatically triggered as they are in death penalty cases, as well as health care costs. It costs $506,000 to imprison someone sentenced to 65 years with a 50 % reduction for good behavior.

The money saved could be redistributed to the juvenile justice system, victim’s assistance, offender re-entry schemes, grassroots police programs and social service agencies that work with at-risk youth.

The money and resources saved by ending the death penalty would have a more profound effect to the greater good of Indiana than executing murderers.

Other than politics, why is the death penalty immune to Indiana’s budgetary woes?

(Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, June 22, 2005) See Costs, Life Without Parole, and Editorials.

USA Today Editorial Says Life Without Parole is "Fitting Replacement" for Death Penalty

In an editorial highlighting public support for the sentencing option of life without parole in death penalty cases and the need to take steps to protect against executing innocent people, USA Today recently stated that life without the possibility of parole is a "fitting replacement" for the death penalty. The editorial praised the historic enactment of a life without the possibility of parole statute in Texas and other recent activities around the nation that seek to address problems with capital punishment. It noted:

For the past half century, the nation has been locked — deadlocked might be a better word — in a bitter debate over the death penalty. But what if there is a middle ground?

With little fanfare, a compromise has been gaining favor more than a decade, drawing support as DNA evidence has exonerated inmates on death row. Last week, it reached a milestone. Texas, site of one in three executions, gave juries the option to sentence defendants in capital cases to life without parole rather than death.

All but one death-penalty state, New Mexico, now offers that choice, a marked change from the era when life sentences were a meaningless illusion. But why stop at making life without parole just an optional alternative to execution? It is a fitting replacement, assuring severe punishment for the worst of crimes but with a safety valve to protect those falsely accused or wrongly sentenced.

Evidence of the need pours in weekly now.

Five times in the past seven months, the Supreme Court has had to rein in state courts that mishandled death penalty cases. On Monday, the court ordered a new sentencing trial in a Pennsylvania case involving shoddy work by the lawyer for an accused murderer.

Last week, the court sent back cases from Texas and California that reeked of racial discrimination in jury selection. Earlier, the court ruled against Texas (again) and Missouri (twice) in cases of excluding relevant evidence, making defendants appear in shackles and executing juveniles.

Just last week at the state level:

•An Oklahoma appeals court ordered a new trial for a man sentenced to death in a 1982 murder on the basis of testimony from a police chemist who has since been fired for poor and unreliable lab work.

•An Illinois man jailed for eight months and facing the death penalty in his daughter's death was released when a long-overdue DNA test finally came back — negative.

•A former North Carolina judge urged the state Legislature to impose a two-year moratorium on executions.

Against this backdrop, the rate of executions has dropped 40% from its onetime high.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the Supreme Court has tried to make clear that it is to be applied carefully and evenhandedly. Nevertheless, cases of incompetent lawyering, suppression of evidence, local prejudice and other affronts to justice keep appearing.

The result is evident in the numbers who narrowly escaped execution: While 972 people have been put to death since the 1970s, at least 119 have been taken off death row because of evidence they were wrongly convicted or sentenced.

According to a Gallup Poll in May, 74% of the public supports the death penalty, but backing for capital punishment drops to 56% when respondents are given the alternative of life without parole. Even in Texas, a Scripps-Howard poll last October found that while 75% supported the death penalty, 78% favored the option of life without parole.

Already, life without the death penalty is the norm in a growing number of states. In addition to the 12 that don't allow it, five others have had no executions in more than 30 years; six have used it only once in that time.

Abolishing the death penalty and using life without parole instead can't fix all the injustices exposed in courts across the nation. But at least no one would be executed as a result. (USA Today, June 22, 2005)

See Life Without Parole and Innocence.

Texas Governor Signs Life Without Parole Bill Into Law

Texas Governor Rick Perry (pictured) has signed the bill that gives juries in death penalty cases the option of sentencing a defendant to life without the possibility of parole. “I believe this bill will improve our criminal justice system because it gives jurors a new option to protect the public with the certainty a convicted killer will never roam our streets again,” Perry said. The new law is not retroactive, and will apply only to those sentenced after September 1, 2005. (Governor's Office, Press Release, "Governor Perry Signs Life Without Parole Bill," June 17, 2005). Perry's action brings the total number of death penalty states with the sentencing option of life without parole to 37. New Mexico is the only death penalty state without this option. The Texas bill passed in both houses by substantial majorities and was strongly supported in opinion polls. See Life Without Parole.

India Moves Closer to Abandoning the Death Penalty

In a proposed amendment to its penal code, Indian leaders are seeking to implement a change that would end the nation's death penalty even "in the rarest of rare" cases. The amended Indian Penal Code would abolish the death penalty and replace it with a strict life without the possibility of parole measure. Currently, the nation's life sentence statute only requires imprisonment for 14 years. The decision to seek an official end to capital punishment fulfills a pledge made by the chairman of the Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System, Mr. Justice VS Malimath. The proposed amendment was crafted to reflect an "evolving consensus" within the nation. The proposal to abolish the death penalty and add a true life sentence seeks to serve the twin objectives of advancing human rights and preventing such criminals from coming out of prison. The Union Cabinet is expected to review the amended Indian Penal Code before it would likely be placed before Parliament for its approval and passage. (The Statesman, May 31, 2005). See International Death Penalty and Life Without Parole.

Texas Legislators Near Historic Passage of Life-Without-Parole Bill

By a vote of 104-37, members of the Texas House of Representatives tentatively approved the sentencing option of life-without-parole in death penalty cases, an historic action that puts the state closer to including a sentencing alternative offered in nearly every death penalty state. The House is expected to give final passage to the measure on May 25 and the Texas Senate, which passed similar legislation earlier this year, is expected to approve an amended measure before sending the bill to Governor Rick Perry for possible signature into law.

The new life-without-parole law would eliminate the current sentencing option of life with the possibility of parole in 40 years in death cases and replace it with the no-parole alternative. Senator Eddie Lucio, one of the chief sponsors of the legislation, commented: "I commend the House for its overwhelming acknowledgement that Texas juries deserve this option for the safety of society." Lucio's original bill gave jurors three choices-- death, life with parole, and life without parole--but the parole option was dropped. (Houston Chronicle, May 25, 2005). See Life Without Parole.

Support for the Death Penalty Drops Sharply in Leading Execution City

Public support for the death penalty has dropped sharply in Houston, Texas according to the 2005 Houston Area Survey conducted by Rice University. For many years Texas has led the country in executions, and Harris County (Houston) has led all Texas counties in sending inmates to death row and in executions. But most Houston residents would prefer the sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty for those who commit murder. Sixty-four percent chose life without parole, increasing from 57% who chose that option in 2003. Overall, support for the death penalty (with no alternative offered) dropped to 60% this year, down from 68% support in 1999, according to the survey. (See poll results, Houston Chronicle, May 6, 2005). See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.

PUBLIC OPINION: New Jersey Citizens Favor Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

In a dramatic shift from 1999, citizens in New Jersey now favor life without parole over the death penatly for those who commit murder. In a Rutgers University poll released on April 28, 47% of N.J. respondents preferred life without parole rather than the death penalty. In a similar poll six years ago, 44% of respondents chose the death penalty, while 37% supported life without parole.

Support for the death penalty declines even further if respondents are given the choice of life without parole plus restitution to the families of murder victims. In that case, less than 30% preferred the death penalty as the appropriate sentence.

“Much has changed since I voted to reinstate the death penalty twenty years ago,” said Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). “New technologies such as DNA and other evidence have shown that people can make terrible mistakes. It’s increasingly clear that the very real risk of executing an innocent person, not to mention the expense and effort of trying to get it right, has led New Jerseyans to turn away form the death penalty.”

 


Senator Robert Martin (R-Morris) agreed that new information is driving the trend away from support for capital punishment, “There is a growing recognition that the death penalty simply can’t work. It’s a complex system that arbitrarily selects defendants for death and creates more stress and appeals, even as it is plagued by serious error. Each new exoneration reminds us of the unacceptable possibility of wrongful execution. It’s no wonder that this poll shows people moving away from it.”

(Press Release, New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, April 28, 2005). See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.

 

 

Texas Senate Refuses to Give Jurors the Sentencing Option of Life Without Parole

Legislation that would allow those convicted of capital murder to be sentenced to life in prison without parole recently failed to win a key procedural vote in the Texas Senate, largely because of opposition from prosecutors and pro-death penalty organizations who said it would result in fewer death sentences. Although supported by a strong majority of the senators and the people of Texas, the bill needed a 2/3 majority in order to be debated. The Senate's failure to pass the bill means that Texas and New Mexico remain the only two death penalty states in the nation to not offer life without parole as an alternative sentencing option. Sen. Eddie Lucio, lead sponsor of the life without parole measure, noted that 78% of Texans support his proposal and commented, "The sentence of life without parole is not a novel, untested idea. It's the norm in our criminal justice system."

Supporters say Lucio's bill would be a tougher sentence for convicted murderers who are excluded from the death penalty, and it would offer another option to rural district attorneys who can't afford to hold a death penalty trial. Those opposed to the proposal, such as the Texas-based "Justice for All" group and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, say jurors would have been less likely to hand down a death sentence if they had the option of life in prison without parole. Lucio said he has not given up on the measure, but it is unlikely to pass this year. (Dallas Morning News and San Antonio Express-News, April 6, 2005). See Life Without Parole.

PUBLIC OPINION: Maryland Poll Finds Strong Support for Life Without Parole

A recent Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey of Maryland voters found that 63% believe that life without the possibility of parole is an acceptable substitute for the death penalty. Only 21% stated that they believe it is not an acceptable alternative to the death penalty, and 16% were not sure. The poll, sponsored by the Maryland Catholic Conference, revealed that among women, 66% believe the alternative sentence of life without parole is an acceptable substitute for capital punishment. Among black respondents, the number agreeing with the statement registered at 69%. In response to the more general question of whether voters support or oppose the death penalty itself, 56% said they support it, 35% oppose capital punishment, and 9% are unsure. The support is well below the comparable numbers nationally. The poll took place February 22-24, 2005, and included responses from 625 registered Maryland voters. (Maryland Poll Results, Maryland Catholic Conference, March 2005). See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.

Key Connecticut Committee Passes Death Penalty Repeal Bill

By a vote of 25-15, members of the Connecticut Judiciary Committee voted for legislation to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, an action that clears the way for the House to debate the measure. Supporters of the bill say that the state's death penalty is an unenforceable statute, a source of agony for families of murder victims, and a fiscal burden the state can no longer afford to bear. "We should not be debating spending $3 million or $4 million to kill one man when we should be spending that money on school books. We should choose to put our resources where we can grant life, not death," said state House Deputy Majority Leader Toni N. Walker during a three hour committee debate on the repeal measure. The Judiciary Committee's vote reflects a growing consensus in the Connecticut House and Senate that the repeal bill deserves a debate on the floor of the full legislative chamber. (New Haven Register, March 10, 2005). See Life Without Parole.

PUBLIC OPINION: N.Y. Times Poll Finds A Majority of New Yorkers Now Support Alternatives to the Death Penalty

A recent New York Times poll found that 56% of surveyed New York voters prefer a sentence of life in prison (either without parole or with the possibility of parole) over the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Only 34% said they supported the death penalty, a significant drop from the 48% who supported it in 1994, just prior to New York's reinstatement of capital punishment. This shift against the death penalty comes as state lawmakers are considering whether to abandon or try to fix New York's unconstitutional death penalty statute. (New York Times, February 15, 2005). See Public Opinion and Life Without Parole.

NEW VOICES: 'Connecticut's Death Penalty Hurts Victims'

Nancy Filiault, whose sister was murdered in 2000, testified that she opposes capital punishment because the legal process further traumatizes victims' families. At the conclusion of a Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation introduced to replace Connecticut's death penalty with a life-without-parole sentence, Filiault said that sitting through the capital trial of the man charged with the murder was "heinous, incredibly cruel, and traumatizing." The defendant, who confessed to the crime, was willing to plead guilty almost immediately if the state agreed to give him a sentence of life without parole. Prosecutors, however, insisted on seeking the death penalty, a decision that resulted in family members having to endure nearly four years of pre-trial preparations and weeks of trial. At the conclusion of the trial, the defendant received the same life-without-parole sentence he had originally requested. Filiault, who said she is struggling to find forgiveness for him, stated, "I am opposed to the death penalty, and I would like to see it abolished.... The judicial process does not work." (New Haven Advocate, February 10, 2005). See Victims, Life Without Parole, and New Voices.

Key New York Legislators Say Reinstatement of Death Penalty Unlikely

Key members of the New York Legislature who supported the death penalty when it was reinstated in 1995 have changed their positions and now favor letting the law expire. Joseph Lentol, Chair of the Codes Committee of the N.Y. Assembly, says he now supports life without parole instead of restoring the death penalty for which he voted in 1995. His announcement came at the conclusion of hearings into the issue. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stated that he will not be pressured into having the full Assembly vote on restoring capital punishment. "It clearly seems to be moving in a direction away from the death penalty in the last 10 years, now that you have life without parole gaining more acceptance. Maybe it just shouldn't be," Silver said referring to the death penalty.

Lentol predicted that the three committees sponsoring the series of five public hearings on the future of New York's death penalty would recommend sticking to life without parole. Judiciary Committee Chair Helene Weinstein, an Assembly member who supported capital punishment in the past, said: "My vote 10 years ago was 10 years ago. There's a lot of new information, important information, about DNA testing, about innocent people being convicted, and so on." Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, the third legislative leader of the hearings, strongly opposes capital punishment.

Their colleagues in Albany have also indicated a shift in support for capital punishment. "A moratorium on the death penalty, or doing nothing to restore it, seems the best way to go, because there's very little evidence the death penalty has helped New York these 10 years," said Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, who voted for the 1995 death penalty statute. Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, also a supporter of the 1995 law who now opposes it, added, "Look at what's happening over in Connecticut; it's a circus over there with all those delays in a death penalty case. Why do we need that?"

Since 1995, an estimated $175 million has been spent on death penalty cases with no executions. (New York Times, February 11, 2005) (emphasis added). See New Voices, Life Without Parole, Innocence, and Costs.

Growing Elderly Population on Death Row

A record 110 persons aged 60 and older were on death rows across the United States at the end of 2003, a number that is nearly triple the 39 death row seniors counted nine years ago by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, according to an article in USA Today. In many states, elderly prisoners who are not on death row are housed in geriatric facilities within prisons or they are placed in "end of life" programs, but these programs are not offered to seniors facing the death penalty. The condemned status of death row prisoners requires that they are segregated from the general population and housed in individual cells within special facilities.

"'Dead man walking' is one thing. 'Dead man being pushed along to the execution chamber in a wheelchair' has a different feel," commented Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has worked with older prisoners. He says that wardens do not relish the idea of executing those who are lame, deaf and infirmed. Though some seniors are on death row for crimes committed at an older age, many are there because capital appeals can stretch for decades.

LeRoy Nash (pictured) is an 89-year-old man on Arizona's death row and probably the oldest person on death row in the U.S. He suffers from heart disease, deafness and arthritis, conditions that usually keep him from taking advantage of the one hour of exercise time he is offered each day. Nash, who has been in prison for more than half of his 89 years, is appealing his death sentence in hopes of receiving a sentence of life without parole and returning to the general prison population. There, he could interact with others and participate in prison senior care programs. Nash's appeal has been before the U.S. District Court in Phoenix for four years without a ruling. His attorney, Thomas Phalen, observes, “The judges can read the files; they know when they're dealing with an old prisoner. It's hard not to conclude that they're hoping that natural causes will take an uncomfortable decision out of their hands.”

(USA Today, February 10, 2005). See Death Row.


Mentally Ill Woman Dies After 20 Years on Nevada's Death Row

Priscilla Ford, who suffered from a variety of mental illnesses and who was the lone woman on Nevada's death row for more than twenty years, died of apparent complications from emphysema on January 29, 2005. A prison spokesman said, "She had been quiet for so long. No one ever had any problems with her (in prison). I don't remember hearing about her violating any rules." Ford was sentenced to death row after she was convicted of killing 6 people and injuring 23 others by driving her car down a crowded Reno sidewalk on Thanksgiving Day 1980. Following the crime, a judge ordered that she receive mental health treatment so she would be competent to stand trial. Ford had been a gifted teacher until her mental illness emerged around 1970. During her 6-month trial, it was revealed that Ford had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with violent tendencies, but she would not stay on the medication that controlled her condition. She had been treated and released from seven different hospitals prior to her crime. Ford told people she was Christ, that she was the reincarnation of the founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and that she had God-like powers and would smite her enemies.

Washoe County Assistant District Attorney John Helzer said Ford's case and the subsequent appeals cost taxpayers a lot of money and unfairly caused victims' families to relive the tragedy. "That was such a sad case. It was such a tragedy for so many people," Helzer noted. Ford's death leaves 83 men on Nevada's death row. (Reno Gazette-Journal and Associated Press, January 30, 2005). See Women, Life Without Parole, and Mental Illness.

New Voices: Key New York Legislator Doubts Need For Death Penalty

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver voiced serious doubts about the necessity for capital punishment in light of its high cost and the alternative sentencing option of life without parole. Silver, who supported the death penalty in the past, said: "I have some doubt whether we need a death penalty.... We are spending tens of millions of dollars [that] may be better spent on educating children." He also remarked that the life-without-parole statute the state now has in place ensures that those convicted of murder can't go free. Last year, New York's Court of Appeals declared the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional. Any attempt to correct the unconstitutional provisions in the law would have to be considered and passed by the Assembly of which Silver is the Speaker. New York Senate Majority leader, Republican Joseph Bruno, has predicted that the Assembly will not pass a bill attempting to fix the statute. (Democrat and Chronicle, January 27, 2005). See Life Without Parole and Costs.


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