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Sentencing News and Developments: 2006

DPIC RELEASES 2006 YEAR END REPORT NOTING DECLINE IN USE OF THE DEATH PENALTY

DPIC's 12th annual Year End Report was released on December 14 and reveals a broad decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S. based on a number of factors:  the public now favors life without parole over the death penalty; the number of executions has dropped to the fewest in a decade, in part because of challenges to the lethal injection process; and the annual number of death sentences is now at a 30-year low.  The report notes that various states have put a hold on all executions, while others are reviewing problems in the capital punishment system.  The report cites a number of new developments, including the challenges posed by the severe mental illness of many on death row, and quotes a series of law enforcement personnel, editorials, and public officials voicing serious concerns about the death penalty.
(Death Penalty Information Center, Dec. 14, 2006).  Read the 2006 Report.  Read the Press Release accompanying the report.  See Graphs and Links associated with issues in the Report.

 

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

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

California had the most death sentences (23) in 2005, followed by Florida (15), Texas (14) and Alabama (12).  Together these states accounted for half of those sentenced to death in 2005.  California had the largest number on death row (646) and Texas had the most executions (19) in 2005.
(U.S. Dept. of Justice, Capital Punishment, 2005 (pub. December 2006)).  See also DPIC's 2005 Year End ReportDPIC will be releasing its 2006 Year End Report by the end of this week, and it will have information on the death penalty in 2006.  See Sentencing.

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

Oscar Doster was found guilty earlier this year of capital murder in the course of a robbery in Alabama.  Doster claimed that his co-defendant actually committed the murder.  The jury unanimously recommended that Doster be sentenced to life without parole.  In Alabama, unlike most other death penalty states, the judge is allowed to override a jury's recommendation for life.  Typically in other states, even one juror's vote for a life sentence will prevent the court from imposing a death sentence.  Judge Ashley McKathan rejected the recommendation of all 12 jurors that Doster's life be spared.
(Andalusia Star News, Nov. 22, 2006).  See Arbitrariness and Sentencing.  See also DPIC's report, Blind Justice.

Texas Death Sentences Drop 65% in Past Ten Years

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

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

In Hunt County, District Attorney Duncan Thomas said that 14 people have been indicted for capital murder since July 2003, but all resulted in life sentences.  In most of those cases, Thomas decided not to seek the death penalty at the request of the victims' families.

"There may have been some of those cases where we might have obtained the death penalty, but the families wanted the certainty of a life sentence where there's no appeal," Thomas says.
(Texas Lawyer, Nov. 20, 2006).  See Sentencing.

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

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

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

The article notes that studies by the American Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have revealed that defedants' odds of receiving a death sentence depend more on their race, the quality of their legal representation, and where they are charged than on the specific facts of the case. In addition, the United States is finding itself among a shrinking list of nations around the world that continue to practice capital punishment.

(U.S. News & World Report, May 8, 2006).  Read DPIC's 2005 Year End Report. See Sentencing, Life Without Parole, Innocence, Public Opinion, International Death Penalty, and Recent Legislative Developments.

 

Alabama's Death Sentences Concentrated in One County

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

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

(Birmingham News, April 3, 2006).  See Arbitrariness and Sentencing.

 

SENTENCING: American Judicature Society Releases Death Sentence Numbers for 2005

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

CORRECTION: DPIC had earlier reported an unofficial count of 106 death sentences in 2005 based on its own research.  There was an error in the calculation for the first quarter of the year and it now appears that the correct count is that described above.  We regret any inconvenience.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

RESOURCES: "Death Row USA" Winter 2006 Report Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA shows an 8% decline in the country's death row population during the past 5 years, down from 3,652 in 2000 to 3,373 at the end of 2005. According to the report, California continues to have the nation's largest death row population (649), followed by Texas (409), Florida (388), Pennsylvania (231), and Ohio (196).

Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 45% white, 42% black, and 10% latino/latina. Of states with more than 10 people on death row, Texas (70%) and Pennsylvania (69%) continue to have the largest percentage of minorites on death row.  Eighty percent of the victims in the crimes that resulted in executions were white.

Death Row USA is released quarterly by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The report contains the latest death row population figures, execution statistics, and an overview of the most recent legal developments related to capital punishment.  These death row statistics may differ slightly from those compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics because of a difference in methodologies.

See Death Row USA, January 1, 2006. See also DPIC's Death Row.
 

Death Sentences Decline in California

The number of people sentenced to death each year in California has declined by nearly 40% since the 1990s.  According to the California Department of Corrections, on average, the state sent 35 people to death row each year during the 1990s. Since 2000, that number has declined to an average of 21 annually.  California has the largest death row in the country.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George attributed some of the decline to more selective charging by district attorneys and to the fact that juries may be "exercising some discretion about imposing the death penalty."  George Williamson, co-chair of the Capital Case Litigation Committee, agreed that a shift in juror attitudes has contributed to the steep decline in death sentences. "Jury attitudes have helped drive (the sentencing) number down. When we (pick juries), it's very clear that the number of people who have problems with the death penlaty has increased pretty significantly than what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s," Williamson said. (Sacramento Bee, February 18, 2006).  See New Voices, Sentencing and Life Without Parole. See also, DPIC's report on capital jurors, "Blind Justice."
 

NEW RESOURCE: Report Examines Three Decades of Georgia Death Penalty Cases

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council has published an analysis of death penalty cases in the state during the past 30 years.  The report was written by Michael Mears, Director of the Council.  The review examines the modern history of Georgia's death penalty, and provides data sorted in a number of ways, including by county, circuit, and defendant. It also provides the following summary of the dispositions of Georgia's death penalty cases:

 
DISPOSITION OF GEORGIA DEATH PENALTY CASES
July 1973 - July 2003
 
NUMBER OF CASES DISPOSITION
18 Acquittal
3 Dismissed
328 Death Sentence
23 Lesser Included Offense
222 Life Sentence with the Possibility of Parole
145 Life Sentence without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP)
1 Dead Docket
95 Pending Cases
835 GRAND TOTAL
Note: These figures are with respect to initial trials and do NOT reflect changes in dispositions resulting from retrials.

Data for this project was collected by the Multi-County Public Defender Office, which was created in 1992 by the Georgia General Assembly and the Georgia Supreme Court. The Multi-County Public Defender Office became the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender on January 1, 2005. (M. Mears, "Thirty Years Analysis of Death Penalty Cases in Georgia," (2005)).  See Resources and Sentencing.

 


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Sentencing News and Developments: 2003 - 2001
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.

 

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).

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)

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.

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).

Ohio Sentences Shifting from Death to Life Without Parole
Only 4% of defendants were sentenced to death in Ohio in 2000, the lowest percentage since records have been kept. The same year, 27% of those convicted of aggravated murder were sentenced to life without parole, the highest number ever. These numbers show a dramatic shift from 1998, when sentences for life and death were nearly even. Discussing the decline in the number of inmates entering death row, Reginald A. Wilkinson, director of the state prison system, said, "Usually we've been up in the double digits with 15, sometimes 17 a year. Now the numbers are way down. If it stays that way, it's a definite trend." (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 8/21/01)


 


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Sentencing News and Developments: 2004

Kansas Death Penalty Statute Ruled Unconstitutional
The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the state's 1994 death penalty law is unconstitutional because it contains a provision giving the state an advantage when jurors find the aggravating and mitigating factors presented at sentencing to be equal. In that circumstance, the current law states that the defendant must be sentenced to death. The Court ruled that such a provision does not allow the jury to express a reasoned moral response to the evidence, and the process does not comport with the human dignity required by the Eighth Amendment.
This jury instruction flaw was first identified by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2001, when it ruled that each of the four men on death row must be resentenced with revised jury instructions that corrected the problem. In this most recent ruling, the justices ruled that it was not proper for the court to fix the statute, but rather it was the role of the legislature. (No. 81,135, KANSAS v. MICHAEL LEE MARSH II, 2004) (See Associated Press, December 17, 2004). The Kansas ruling marks the second time in 2004 that a state's highest court has declared a death penalty statute unconstitutional. Earlier this year, New York's highest court delivered a similar ruling and declared that state's law unconstitutional due to a sentencing flaw. Lawmakers in NY are currently holding hearings on capital punishment to determine whether the death penalty should even be reinstated. See Syllabus of the Kansas Opinion.


Plea Bargains Underscore Arbitrary Death Penalty in Oregon
A series of murder cases in Oregon underscores the ineffectiveness of the state's capital punishment system according to both death penalty supporters and opponents. Jesse Lee Johnson was sentenced to death while two other men who committed equally or more brutal crimes plea bargained to lesser sentences. Johnson received a death sentence in large part because he maintained his innocence, while convicted murderers Ward Weaver and Edward Morris pleaded guilty in exchange for not receiving the death penalty. Weaver was found guilty of sexually assaulting and killing two Oregon City girls and Morris was convicted of murdering his wife and three children in the Tillamook State Forest. Opponents of capital punishment note that the sentences prove the state's death penalty is arbitrary and unfair, while supporters of capital punishment are unhappy that the system continues to lack consistency and is ineffective. "Oregon has shown for all to see, through the plea bargains of Edward Morris and Ward Weaver, that the administration of the death penalty in Oregon is now capricious. As such, the only responsible civil action at this point is for the citizens of Oregon to abandon the death penalty," recently wrote William Long, a Willamette Law School professor. Since voters reinstated the death penalty in Oregon, more than half of the men sentenced to death have had their sentences reversed on appeal. The state has carried out 2 executions and both were of men who chose to abandon their appeals. No executions are currently pending in the state, but 28 individuals remain on death row. (The Oregonian, September 24, 2004).


Federal Judge Vacates One of California's Oldest Death Sentences
A federal judge has overturned one of California's oldest death sentences based on his finding that the 1979 trial of Earl Lloyd Jackson was tainted by unreliable jailhouse informants and poor representation. "The special circumstance finding and the death sentences in this case rest on an evidentiary foundation constructed largely from the false testimony of two jailhouse informants," wrote U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie in his ruling. Rafeedie further found a "dereliction of duty" by prosecutors and Jackson's defense attorney, noting that prosecutors allowed two jailhouse informants to lie to the jury about favorable deals they received in exchange for their testimony, and that Jackson's attorney failed to put on any defense during the penalty phase of the trial. This is the 6th death sentence to be overturned in California this year, and more than 85 cases have been reversed by the state or federal courts since 1987. Jackson, who has been on California's death row longer than all but 3 of the more than 620 prisoners awaiting execution, remains in prison for the crime. (Knight Ridder Tribune, September 9, 2004) See Representation.


Broken System: Error Found in Three-Quarters of New Jersey Death Cases
Of the 63 death sentences handed down since New Jersey reinstated capital punishment in 1982, 47 have been overturned, including that of Robert Marshall, whose death sentence was reversed on April 8th by a federal court. Marshall had been on New Jersey's death row longer than any other inmate prior to the vacating of his sentence. New Jersey has not carried out an execution since bringing back the death penalty. It currently has 11 inmates on death row, and no executions are scheduled at this time. (Asbury Park Press, September 7, 2004) See Death Row; also see DPIC's Summary of Prof. Liebman's Report on the national "Broken System".


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, Life Without Parole, and Victims.



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 "itÕs 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.


Death Sentences Decline Dramatically in North Carolina
According to District Attorney Tom Keith, death sentences in North Carolina have dramatically declined because jurors are increasingly skeptical of the justice system. Last year, 6 people were sent to North Carolina's death row, far less than the 26 who were given death sentences in 1999. Keith, who is moving resources away from death penalty cases and to aggressively targeting gun criminals before they kill, believes that a number of high-profile wrongful convictions and DNA exonerations have contributed to the trend toward fewer death sentences. "We're losing the public-relations war. I'm not going to keep trying them and trying them and trying them because I'm in love with the death penalty. If we're wasting our time, we won't try them," Keith stated. "If this community doesn't want to convict people of capital murder, I'll listen to what the people say." Concerns about innocence and fairness have also spurred death penalty reforms in recent years, including a bill to ban the execution of those with mental retardation and legislation to provide prosecutors with the option to take guilty pleas in capital cases in exchange for life-without-parole sentences. (Associated Press, March 14, 2004) Four people have been exonerated from North Carolina's death row, including Alan Gell in February 2004. See Innocence. See DPIC's Year End Report.


Geography Influences California Death Penalty Policies
A recent investigation of California's death penalty by the Associated Press found that the geographic location of a crime plays a significant role in whether a defendant receives the death penalty. California has the nation's largest death row. A disproportionately high number of inmates are from places such as Kern, Riverside, and Shasta Counties, where prosecutors have voiced strong support for the death penalty and jurors have been more likely to support the sentence. On the other hand, in counties such as San Diego and San Francisco, prosecutors have been more reluctant to seek a death sentence. "I will never charge the death penalty," said newly elected San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris in her inauguration speech in January 2004. Harris and other district attorneys who are more cautious in seeking capital convictions note that concerns about innocence and unfairness have led to their reluctance to seek death. Former San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst notes, "I was very cautious about the use of the death penalty. I demanded a very high degree of proof of guilt and a very high degree of evidence that death was the appropriate sentence."
San Francisco, where jurors and prosecutors tend to be liberal, and Kern County, where conservatives hold sway, each have roughly 700,000 people. But San Francisco has just 1 person on death row, when statistically the norm is about 14. Kern County has 23 people awaiting execution, 10 more than the per capita norm. Riverside has the highest number of inmates per capita on death row, with 54. A statistically proportionate number would be slightly more than 30. The only county with more condemned inmates is Los Angeles, the state's most populated, with 193, 11 more than expected under the state's average ratio. (San Mateo Daily Journal, February 6, 2004) See California.

California Death Sentences Decline Sharply
In 2003, California juries sent 16 individuals to death row, the lowest number since 1985 and a dramatic decline from 1999's total of 42 new death sentences. Some believe the decline is evidence of prosecutors being more selective in seeking death convictions, as well as the public's skepticism about the capital punishment system. Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, noted, "I think that (incidences of wrongfully convicted death row inmates) has given increased vigor to the argument made by ideological as well as pragmatic opponents of the death penalty that the system is riddled with error. Juries are being more selective and prosecutors too, although a DA would never admit that." California has executed 10 individuals since it reinstated the death penalty. The scheduled execution of Kevin Cooper in February 2004 would be the state's first execution in two years. There are more than 600 people on the state's death row. (Press-Enterprise, January 26, 2004) See Death Sentences by State. See California.

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. See Life Without Parole. 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.

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.

 


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Sentencing News and Developments: 2005

DPIC Releases Year End Report

DPIC RELEASES YEAR END REPORT

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DEATH SENTENCING BY YEAR

New York's legislature refused to restore the death penalty after its statute was declared unconstitutional, leaving life without parole as the punishment for murder.

Texas became the 37th out of 38 death penalty states to adopt life without parole as a sentencing alternative in capital cases.

In the Supreme Court, further restrictions were placed on thedeath penalty as juveniles were exempted and the Court found race bias in jury selection and ineffectiveness of counsel ignored by lower courts.

Read the report.
Read DPIC's press release about the report.

 


The Death Penalty Information Center has released its annual report on the status of capital punishment in the U.S. at the end of 2005. The report notes a dramatic drop in death sentences to the lowest level in 30 years. The year showed an increasing reliance on the sentence of life-without-parole as an alternative to the death penalty.

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NEW RESOURCE: Sentencing Project Examines Relationship Between Incarceration and Crime

Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship, a new report by The Sentencing Project, examines the financial and social costs of incarceration, and evaluates the limited effectiveness it has on crime rates. The report notes that the number of people incarcerated in the United States has risen by more than 500% over the past three decades, up from 330,000 people in 1972 to 2.1 million people today. Though an increase in the number of offenders who are incarcerated has played a modest role in the nation's decreasing crime rate, the report notes that this policy is subject to decreasing effectiveness in the long-term. The Sentencing Project warns that increasing incarceration while ignoring more effective approaches to preventing crime will impose a heavy burden upon the courts, corrections systems, and communities, while providing a marginal impact on crime. The group recommends that policymakers further assess this problem and adopt more balanced crime control policies that provide resources for crime-prevention efforts such as programming, treatment, and community support.

The Sentencing Project is a national nonprofit organization that works for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting alternatives to incarceration, reforms in sentencing law and practice, and better use of community-based services and institutions. ("Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship," The Sentencing Project, 2005).  See The Sentencing Project's Web site. See also, Sentencing and Resources

NEW RESOURCE: Justice Department Releases "Capital Punishment, 2004" Report

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released its latest report on the status of the death penalty in the U.S., Capital Punishment, 2004, on November 13.  According to the report, the nation's death row population, executions, and the number of people given death sentences last year all declined. There were 3,315 people on state and federal death rows at the conclusion of 2004, 63 fewer than in 2003. Last year, 125 people were sentenced to death, the fewest since 1973. Twelve states executed 59 prisoners in 2004, six fewer than in 2003. Those executed had been under a sentence of death for an average of 11 years, which was one month longer than the period for inmates executed in 2003. Of those under a sentence of death in 2004, 56% were white, 42% were black, and 13% were Hispanic ("Hispanic" is counted as an ethnicity, rather than a race). (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment, 2004, November 13, 2005).  Read the report Capital Punishment, 2004. See also DPIC's 2004 Year End Report

This year, the nation will likely carry out the 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reinstated. For analysis and information about this upcoming event, read DPIC's Press Release.

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.

Arbitrariness: Prevalence of Plea Bargains in Death Penalty Cases

In its recent study of Ohio's death penalty, the Associated Press found that of the 1,936 capital indictments filed statewide from 1981-2002, about 50% ended in plea bargains. Of those cases, 131 people who pleaded guilty in exchange for escaping the death penalty were charged with killing multiple victims. By contrast, 196 of the 274 people who were sentenced to death row during the same 21-year time span were convicted of killing a single victim. The AP's Ohio findings were similar to figures from other states and the federal government. In New York, plea bargains were offered in 26 of the 54 cases between 1995 and 2003, and in California between 1977 and 1989, nearly 47% of the 2,866 capital cases were resolved without a trial, almost all because of plea bargains. At the federal level, 33% of death penalty cases have ended in plea bargains since 1998. (Associated Press, June 4, 2005).  See Arbitrariness. See also the full Ohio AP Study series:
 
Andrew Welsh-Huggins, "Death Penalty Unequal," Associated Press, May 7, 2005.

 


Kate Roberts, "Capital Cases Hard for Smaller Counties," Associated Press, May 8, 2005

 


John Seewer, "Two Killers; One Spared," Associated Press, May 9, 2005

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Death Sentences Decline in 2004

DEATH SENTENCES AT LOWEST LEVEL SINCE REINSTATEMENT OF DEATH PENALTY
sentences
Death Sentences by State: 2004, 2003, 1994

Year
2004
2003
1994
U.S. Total
125
144
304
Alabama
8
6
24
Arizona
7
9
10
Arkansas
2
0
8
California
11
19
22
Colorado
0
1
0
Connecticut
1
0
0
Delaware
2
2
0
Florida
8
11
39
Georgia
4
1
6
Idaho
0
1
0
Illinois
3
2
11
Indiana
0
1
2
Kansas
1
1
0
Kentucky
1
0
4
Louisiana
7
1
6
Maryland
1
0
0
Mississippi
2
3
5
Missouri
3
3
9
Montana
0
0
0
Nebraska
1
0
1
Nevada
1
4
8
N. Hampshire
0
0
0
New Jersey
1
0
3
New Mexico
0
0
1
New York
0
1
0
N. Carolina
3
6
27
Ohio
5
7
13
Oklahoma
6
9
12
Oregon
2
2
6
Pennsylvania
4
6
21
S. Carolina
3
5
7
S. Dakota
0
0
0
Tennessee
5
6
4
Texas
23
29
43
Utah
0
0
0
Virginia
2
6
10
Washington
0
0
2
Wyoming
1
0
0
Federal
7
2
0

Sources: 2004 - NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
2003-1977 - Bureau of Justice Statistics (note: BJS revised the total for 1994 to 314 sentences).
See also DPIC's Sentencing Page and DPIC's Press Release on latest numbers.
HELPFUL LINKS ON CURRENT CASES FROM DPIC

dot Federal Death Penalty Information - Zacarias Moussaoui

dot The Effect of Extensive Time on Death Row - Michael Ross

dot Military Death Penalty Information - Sgt. Hasan Akbar

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