DPIC's 2009 Year End Report Released

The Death Penalty Information Center released the “The Death Penalty in 2009: Year End Report” on December 18, noting that the country is expected to finish 2009 with the fewest death sentences since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Eleven states considered abolishing the death penalty this year, a significant increase in legislative activity from previous years, as the high costs and lack of measurable benefits associated with this punishment troubled lawmakers.

“The annual number of death sentences in the U.S. has dropped for seven straight years and is 60% less than in the 1990s,” said Richard Dieter, the report’s author and DPIC’s executive director. “In the last two years, three states have abolished capital punishment and a growing number of states are asking whether it's worth keeping.  This entire decade has been marked by a declining use of the death penalty."  There were 106 death sentences in 2009 compared with a high of 328 in 1994.

New Mexico became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty, and 9 men who were sentenced to death were exonerated in 2009, the second highest number of exonerations since the death penalty was reinstated.  The total number of exonerations since 1973 has now reached 139.

(Read “The Death Penalty in 2009: Year End Report” here, Dec. 18, 2009.  DPIC's press release may be read here.  See also previous DPIC Reports.

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Death Sentences Have Become Rare in Virginia

Virginia has not had a death verdict from a jury since March 2008, the longest stretch of time without a death verdict since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.  Nationally, there has also been a decline in death sentences:  according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 115 death sentences in 2007, 65% less than the 326 that were handed down in 1995. In Virginia, part of this decline might be attributed to a change in state law made effective in 1995 that eliminated the possibility of parole with a life sentence.  Scott Sunby, professor of law at Washington and Lee University, said he believes that this decline can also be attributed to the rising cost of winning death sentences, more effective defense lawyers, and a dwindling public desire for capital punishment. (There are currently 14 prisoners on Virginia's death row; in 1995 there were 55 inmates on the row.  Virginia is second to Texas in the number of executions carried out since 1976.)

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Death Sentences Declining in Texas

Death sentences have dropped significantly over the last few years in Texas according to a study by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The number of death sentences is at a 35-year low as prosecutors have pushed for fewer death sentences and juries have become less willing to impose them. Since 2005, defendants may receive a sentence of life without parole instead of the death penalty. Before this change, the only alternative to the death penalty in Texas was a life sentence with eligiblity for parole after 40 years, or even less in earlier years. Since the introduction of life without parole, death sentences in Texas have dropped 40 percent compared with the four years prior. Texas had 13 death sentences in 2008, and 9 so far this year. Ten years ago, Texas sentenced 47 defendants to death.

"With life without parole being a viable option now, [juries] feel a lot more comfortable that that person is not going to be let out back into society," said Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon. "We are probably waiving the death penalty more times than we used to because we’re trying to forecast the outcome of the case. . . .It doesn’t translate to dollar bills. It translates into uses of limited resources."

Other reason offered for the decline indeath sentences were the number of wrongful convictions and the costs of prosecuting death sentences.  State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, the author of the life-without-parole law, said "It isn't life without parole that has weakened the death penalty.  It is a growing lack of belief that our system is fair." Reports of exonerations have appeared regularly in the past few years, and jurors may have become more worried about sending an innocent person to death row. A poll from Rasmussen Reports revealed that 73% of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that some people may be executed who were innocent.  In addition, higher costs of pursuing the death penalty have become a concern in the midst of the economic recession. Pursuing life without parole is a cheaper alternative, saving the state millions in legal costs as cases are settled expeditiously.

In Harris County (Houston), which has sent more people to death row than most states, death sentences have dropped nearly 70 % over the last 4 years. "In many more cases, we are opting not to seek the death penalty because life without parole means the person convicted will not get out of prison and that makes us feel much better that the public will be protected from such a person," said Maria McAnulty, the county's trial bureau chief.

(A. Batheja, "Death sentences have dropped sharply after life without parole became possible," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 15, 2009).  See also Life Without Parole and Sentencing.

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Court Pressure in Arizona Leads to Settlements in Death Cases

A growing backlog of death penalty cases and delays in starting trials in Arizona’s Maricopa County has forced Superior Court judges to apply pressure on both sides by refusing to postpone trial dates and demanding that attorneys discuss settlements. The backlog came as a result of County Attorney Andrew Thomas’s aggressive pursuit of death sentences in more than 120 cases since taking office in 2005. The number of death penalty defendants grew faster than the courts could handle them. Over 100 death penalty defendants are still awaiting trial in Maricopa County, most of whom are beyond the 18-month time period in which they are supposed to be tried.  “I think firm trial dates settle cases,” said Presiding Criminal Judge Gary Donahoe.  The pressure is apparently working. This year, Thomas has allowed 27 defendants who faced the death penalty to plead to life sentences or less – nearly twice as many as last year, and eight times as many as in the year Thomas first took office. There is a schedule to try to settle more than 20 cases before the end of 2009. Thomas has also filed fewer notices of intent to seek the death penalty.

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Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in One Case Costs Georgia More Than $3 Million

There never was any question that Brian Nichols was guilty of the courthouse shooting of a judge and three other victims in 2005.  He had offered to plead guilty if the death penalty was not pursued, but the state insisted on a full death penalty trial that ended up being the most expensive capital case in Georgia's history.  In 2008, the case concluded with Nichols being sentenced to life without parole.  Recently, the defense costs were revealed to be more than $3 million, with the state paying $2.3 million, and Fulton County paying about $625,000.  The costs of the prosecution and other trial-related expenses have not been revealed, though state officials estimated it cost an additional $300,000 for state-supplied staff and other expenses.

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Death Sentences Decline in Key Louisiana Jurisdiction

Jefferson Parish near New Orleans has sent 28 people to death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1975, many of them under the current District Attorney, Paul Connick Jr., who took office in 1997.  But no one has been sentenced to death in that parish in the past 5 years and prosecutors haven't even tried a capital case in the past 4 years, despite a number of high-profile murders.  This decrease in death sentencing is not unique to Louisiana.  "The trend in these numbers, as across the country, reflects the emerging view that life without parole is an incredibly serious punishment and that juries, prosecutors, the public and family members of victims are increasingly preferring the certainty of a life sentence over the confusion and delays, multiple retrials and high error rates that are inherent in capital cases," said Jelpi Picou, executive director of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans.  The last execution resulting from a case from Jefferson Parish was in 1993 and half of those sentenced from the parish have had their death sentences reversed.

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ARBITRARINESS: A Death Penalty Prosecution Instead Settles with a Short Sentence After Misconduct is Revealed

A prosecutor’s misconduct related to a Kentucky capital murder case led the state to accept a plea bargain with the defendant in which he now faces a sentence of 10 years with the possibility of immediate parole.  Officials say Assistant Commonweath Attorney Ruth Lerner compromised the death penalty prosecution against Cory Gibson by cutting a deal with a witness against Gibson.  Lerner had not disclosed a deal made with the witness in a separate robbery case in exchange for his testimony against Gibson.  Lerner’s boss, David Stengel, announced Lerner’s resignation, adding she would have been fired if she had not resigned. "This was a capital murder case," Stengel said at a press conference. "We just can't do this kind of work in a capital murder case."  Before the capital trial, prosecutors were instructed not to make any deals with the witnesses in Gibson's case.  Lerner had insisted no deal was made until a video surfaced showing her informing a judge of the deal reached in the witness’ case.  Stengel apologized to the family of the victim for the resulting 10-year sentence, saying “I’m sorry.”

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Indiana Prosecutors Say "We're running out of death row inmates," Citing High Costs of Death Penalty

Indiana is sentencing fewer people to death and executing at its slowest pace in 15 years.  It has gone two years without an execution for the first time since the mid-1990’s. "We're running out of death row inmates," said Clark County Prosecutor Steven Stewart, who maintains a pro-death penalty Web site.  Prosecutors attribute the decline to time and money issues, part of a national trend that has prompted several states to move towards abolishing the death penalty.  Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco said he has more reservations about seeking the death penalty than he did 15 years ago due to the rising costs. "There's more than a few small counties that have filed death penalty cases who after they've gone through it for a while have just thrown up their hands and have said, 'I give."'  While most officials expect executions to resume, Indiana defense attorney Alan Freedman finds the two-year absence of executions to be a sign of things to come, saying, "The death penalty in Indiana will become an oddity."

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NEW RESOURCES: Death Row U.S.A. Winter 2009 Released

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has released the latest Death Row U.S.A. report, covering death penalty statistics through January 1, 2009.  The total number of death row inmates decreased from 3,309 a year earlier to 3,297.  The states with the largest number of death row inmates were California with 678, Florida with 402, and Texas with 358.  The states (with 10 or more inmates) with the highest percent of minorities on death row were Texas at 70%, Connecticut at 70%, and Pennsylvania with 69%.  The complete Death Row U.S.A. report may be found here.

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Arbitrariness in Nebraska

By the numbers in Nebraska:

205 Nebraska murder cases have been eligible for the death penalty since 1973.

31 of those resulted in death sentences.

3 resulted in executions.

4 death-row occupants died in prison.

10 men now sit on death row. Death sentence was overturned in the rest.

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