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Death Penalty Sentences Have Dropped Considerably in the 2000s

Compared to the 1990s, there has been a marked decline in death sentences in the U.S. since 2000. Every region of the country and every state that averaged one or more death sentences per year have seen a decline in the annual number of death sentences. The chart below compares the annual number of death sentences in each state in the 1990s with the 2000s. North Carolina, California, Florida, and Texas experienced the greatest declines in sentencing.  This issue and others are addressed in the Death Penalty Information Center’s Year End Report, released December 11, 2008.

 

 


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Jurors Find Difficulty with Prospect of Handing Down Death Sentences

Ohio’s Franklin County (Columbus) has been experiencing a steady decline in death penalty indictments and death sentences as jurors are increasingly choosing sentences of life in prison without parole and prosecutors are seeking fewer death sentences. In a recent capital case, the judge had a difficult time finding jurors who would likely follow state law and consider a death sentence. One prospective juror, a 36-year-old truck driver, explained that while he favors the death penalty, he would have a hard time handing down a death penalty verdict because, “It would haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Judge Stephen L. McIntosh excused him, along with 22 others from the 72-person jury pool, because of their attitudes about capital punishment. One prospective juror that remained in the pool, answered after many rounds of difficult questioning that she felt capable of following the state’s laws on capital punishment sentencing. Later, the judge’s bailiff found her crying in the jury room over her struggle with the issue. Judge McIntosh noted, “This isn’t easy. I think it would be difficult for me as well.”


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Changes in Federal Death Penalty Statistics

The number of federal death sentences has increased in the past seven years, while the number of state death sentences has declined. The size of the federal death row has tripled since 2000, while the number of people on state death rows has dropped. There has also been a marked increase in the number of people on the federal death row from states that do not have their own death penalty laws.

From 1994 to 2000, there were 17 federal death sentences. From 2001 to 2007, there were 36 federal death sentences, while the annual number of state death sentences declined about 60% during this time. There were 19 inmates on the federal death row in 2000; today there are 57 inmates. The latest person to receive a federal death sentence is Rejon Taylor. A federal jury in Tennessee voted to impose a death sentence on Oct. 21, 2008. The judge is required to follow the jury's verdict, but has not formally imposed the sentence. About 58% of the inmates on the federal death row are (like Taylor) members of minorities.


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Texas Jury Chooses Life Sentence In High Profile Case

In a potential death penalty case in Houston, Texas, a jury sentenced Juan Quintero to life without parole on May 20 for the murder of a police officer. One juror, Tiffany Moore, described her experience as very emotional, “I was torn up. I was crying. . . .I still feel we came to the right decision,” she said. “We could never bring Rodney back. I feel very sad for the family, losing a loved one.” Moore added that the sentencing phase was more difficult for the jury than the guilt-innocence decision, adding, “It was very tense…there was a lot of discussion.” Texas added the sentence of life without possibility of parole as an option for juries in September 2005. Over the past three years, the average annual number of death sentences was 13 (though life without parole may have only been an option in the more recent cases in which the crime was committed after the new law). The average number of death sentences in the prior decade was 34 per year.

(M. Tolson, "Quintero Sentence Baffling to Many," Houston Chronicle, www.chron.com, May 21, 2008).

See Sentencing. Death sentences have also been declining around the country, having dropped about 60% since 1999. The sentence of life without parole is available in 35 of the 36 states with the death penalty.


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DPIC Releases Interim Death Row Numbers

The Death Penalty Information Center has conducted a survey of death row populations as reported by the various state departments of correction in January/February 2008. From that survey, the current death row population across the country is 3,263. California continues to have the highest death row population with 669 inmates. Florida follows with 388, and Texas has 370 inmates. A state-by-state breakdown appears below.

Except for Illinois and the federal government, these numbers are the official totals from each state's prison system. The death row number for Illinois comes from the Supreme Court Unit of the Public Defender's Office in Springfield, while the federal number comes from the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel and the Federal Defender Organization.


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Sentencing News and Developments: 2007

DPIC RELEASES 2007 YEAR END REPORT NOTING DECLINE IN DEATH PENALTY USE

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.

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).

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.
(Reuters, September 3, 2007 and The Jurist, September 3, 2007). See International Death Penalty and Innocence. The decline in death sentences in China mirrors a similar trend in the U.S.  See DPIC's 2006 Year End Report.

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.

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Ring directly affected death sentences in five states: Arizona, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho. After the ruling was issued, Arizona rewrote its death penalty statute so that defendants may choose juries to not only determine aggravating factors but also to decide death sentences. Since then, juries have selected death sentences in 65% of the capital cases before them. Prior to Ring, Arizona judges imposed death sentences in about 20% of cases.  Ken Murray, an assistant federal public defender in Arizona, said that as attorneys gain more experience with the new rules, they will bring back more life sentences.
(Associated Press, July 18, 2007). See DPIC's Ring v. Arizona Web page and Life Without Parole.

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.

 


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NEW RESOURCES: Bureau of Justice Statistics Data on Capital Punishment in 2006

The Bureau of Justice Statistics typically releases an annual report entitled "Capital Punishment" containing tables and information on the death penalty for the previous year. Although BJS, which is part of the Department of Justice, did not publish a separate report for 2006, it did release information in tabular form that quantifies death penalty practice in the U.S. Information drawn from BJS's recent tables includes:

  • The number of people on death row declined from 3,245 in 2005 to 3,228 in 2006.
  • The number of people received under sentence of death in 2006 was 115, of whom 72 were white and 42 were black. The 115 death sentences was the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
  • The South had the greatest number of death sentences: 71 (62% of the U.S. total), followed by the West with 25, the Midwest with 10, and the Northeast with 4 (all in Pennsylvania). There were 5 federal death sentences.
  • There were 53 executions in the U.S. in 2006, including 44 (83%) in the South.
  • 11% of those on death row in 2006 were of Hispanic origin.
  • 51% of those on death row had not graduated from high school; only 9% had any college education.
  • 91.6% of those on death row had no prior homicide conviction.
  • The average time between sentencing and execution for all those executed since 1976 was 10.5 years.
  • The average time between sentencing and execution for all those executed in 2006 was 12.1 years.

(See Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment, 2006 - Statistical Tables, released Dec. 17, 2007). See also DPIC's 2007 Year End Report.


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