NEW RESOURCES: Bureau of Justice Statistics Releases "Capital Punishment, 2010"
On December 20, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual set of statistical tables on the death penalty in the United States, covering information for 2010. Hightlights from the report include:
-The average time spent on death row for those executed in 2010 was longer than for any previous year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The average time between sentencing and execution for those executed in 2010 was 14.8 years.
-During 2010, 119 inmates were removed from death row: 53 had their sentences or convictions overturned or were granted commutations; 20 died by means other than execution; and 46 (38%) were executed.
-At the close of 2010, there were 388 Hispanics on death row, accounting for 12% of the nation's death row population. -Four states (California, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania) accounted for more than 50% of all inmates on death row.
-Of the 7,879 inmates sentenced to death between 1977 and 2010, 16% have been executed. Six percent (6%) died by causes other than execution, and 39% eventually received other dispositions.

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DPIC's Year End Report: Death Sentences Plunge to Historic Lows

On December 15, the Death Penalty Information Center released its latest report, The Death Penalty in 2011: Year End Report,” on statistics and trends in capital punishment in the past year.  The report noted that new death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011, marking the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 that the country has produced less than 100 death sentences in a year.  It represents a 75% decline since 1996, when there were 315 new death sentences.  California, which has the country's largest death row, saw its death sentences drop by more than half this year - 10 compared with 29 in 2010.  Only 13 states carried out executions in 2011, 74% of which were in the South.  Only 8 states carried out more than one execution.  Texas led the country with 13 executions, but that number represents a 46% decrease from 2009, when there were 24 executions.  “This year, the use of the death penalty continued to decline by almost every measure," said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the report’s author.  "Executions, death sentences, public support, the number of states with the death penalty all dropped from previous years.  Whether it’s concerns about unfairness, executing the innocent, the high costs of the death penalty, or the general feeling that the government just can’t get it right, Americans moved further away from capital punishment in 2011.”

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STUDIES: Virginia Leads the Country in Death Sentences Resulting in Executions

According to a recent study by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia executes the highest proportion of people sentenced to death of any state in the country. Of the 149 death sentences handed down through 2010, 108 have resulted in an execution, a rate of about 72 percent.  Virginia is second to Texas in the total number of executions carried out since 1976, but Texas has executed less than half of those sentenced to death.  In many states, less than 1 in 10 death sentences have resulted in an execution.  Inmates in Virginia also spend the shortest time on death row prior to execution--on average, just 7.1 years--compared to a national average of just over 14 years for those executed in 2009.  From the mid-1970s to 1995, just 18% of Virginia death cases were reversed by appeals courts. Nationally, 68% of death cases were reversed in the same time period.  According to Richard J. Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, "almost from the beginning, Virginia has basically tried to expedite the process of state post-conviction review and reduce the kinds of claims that can be raised in state courts." As a result, most of the post-conviction review occurs in federal court, particularly the 4th Circuit, which Bonnie described as "reluctant to set aside death sentences." 

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EDITORIALS: Calls for Florida to Revamp Its Untrustworthy Death Penalty System

The Orlando Sentinel in Florida recently called on the state to change the unusual way in which it arrives at death sentences, recommending instead unanimous jury decisions for a death sentence, the prevailing practice in the vast majority of states.  In June, a federal judge declared Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional because it only requires a simple majority to decide whether aggravating factors exist and to recommend a death sentence to the presiding judge.  In 2005, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero urged legislators to make a similar change and require a unanimous jury recommendation in capital sentencing.  The following year, a study conducted by the American Bar Association called for reforms in the state’s death penalty system which has had more exonerations than any other state, with 23 inmates released from death row since 1973.  The chair of the study, Professor Christopher Slobogin, concluded, “Much more needs to be done to ensure that Florida's death penalty system avoids executing the innocent.”  The Sentinel's editorial echoed that concern, “Florida can no longer shrug off travesties of justice that damn innocents such as Frank Lee Smith. After serving 14 years for a rape and murder, DNA testing proved his innocence. Redemption that came 11 months after he died behind bars. Florida simply can no longer accept a simple majority when lives hang in the balance.”  Read the full editorial below.

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STUDIES: "What's Messing with Texas Death Sentences?"

A recent study by David McCord, Professor of Law at Drake University Law School, titled What's Messing with Texas Death Sentences?, found five significant causes for the recent decline in death sentences in Texas.  McCord sought to explain a 65% drop in Texas death sentences from their peak five-year period of 1992-1996 (when there was an annual average of 40 death sentences) to the recent five-year period of 2005-2009 (when only 14 death sentences were handed down on average each year).  The study pointed to numerous developments in Texas that have likely contributed to this decline, including changes in the legal landscape and changes on the county level.  McCord cited the advent of life-wthout-parole sentences in Texas as the strongest legal factor in reducing death sentences, and the political changes in Harris County (Houston) as a significant contributor on the county level.

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STUDIES: "Geography of the Death Penalty and its Ramifications"

A new study by Professor Robert J. Smith of the DePaul University College of Law examines the imposition of death sentences by counties in the U.S.  The author, who is also part of The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard, found that only a relatively few counties impose a large percentage of death sentences, while a large majority of jurisdictions have abandoned the use of capital punishment.  Prof. Smith's study found that death sentences that resulted in executions between 2004-2009 were handed down in less than 1% of counties in the United States.  He noted in the abstract to the study, "There is nothing to suggest that the murders committed in those active death-sentencing counties are more heinous than murders committed in other counties. Nor is there evidence to suggest that the offenders in those counties are more incorrigible than those who commit crimes in other counties."  The skewed geography of the death penalty might lead to challenges to the constitutionality of the practice under the Eighth Amendment, which bars the arbitrary application of a punishment.  The study, titled "The Georgraphy of the Death Penalty and its Ramifications," will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Boston University Law Review.

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High Percentage of U.S. Military Death Sentences Overturned

Of the 16 death sentences that have been imposed since the U.S. military made significant changes to its death penalty system in 1984, 10 have been overturned and all the defendants were resentenced to life.  There have been no executions, and the 6 remaining cases are still under appeal.  Military appellate courts overturned the sentences because of mistakes made at many levels of the military's judicial system, including inadequate defense representation, prosecutorial misconduct, and improper jury instructions.  Some observers attribute these widespread errors to an outdated system that has not enacted institutional changes to match current death penalty representation standards in civilian courts. Young, inexperienced lawyers are regularly assigned to represent capital defendants.  David Bruck, a veteran defense lawyer and director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, said, "If you have a system where . . . where the lawyers are always trying their first capital case, you're going to guarantee the same kinds of mistakes . . . are going to be made over and over again."  A 2009 law requires the military to appoint qualified attorneys for terrorism suspects, but no such requirement exists for average service members who face criminal charges.  Military officials interpret its 80% death sentence reversal rate not as an indicator of the need for reform but as a natural part of the natural appeals process.

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NEW RESOURCES: States Ranked by Executions Per Death Sentence

DPIC has updated its Executions Per Death Death Sentence page to reflect data through 2010.  This page lists states in order of the percentage of death sentences resulting in an execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  If every death sentence resulted in an execution, the state would be at 100%, or a rate of 1.00.  Using this ratio of executions per death sentence, the first five states are Virginia (.725), Texas (.498), Utah (.368), Missouri (.347), and Delaware (.311).  Of those states that have carried out at least one execution, the five states with the lowest rate of execution are Pennsylvania (.008), California (.015), Idaho (.025), Oregon (.028), and Tennessee (.035).  Four states with the death penalty during this time period had no executions: Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York.  The latter two have abandoned the death penalty.  Nationally, about 15% of death sentences have resulted in an execution (a rate of .150).  Another measure of state execution rates is executions per capita (population).  Under this standard, Oklahoma and Texas are the leading states.

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STUDIES: Significant Racial Disparities Found in Military Death Penalty

A soon-to-be-published study has found significant racial disparities in the U.S. military's death penalty. The study, which will be published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, found that minorities in the military are twice as likely to be sentenced to death as whites accused of similar crimes. The study examined all 105 potential capital cases since the military death penalty was reinstated in 1984.  Of the 16 death sentences handed down in that time, 10 were of minority defendants. The authors did not attribute the disparities to intentional bias: "There is no suggestion here that any participant in the military criminal justice system consciously and knowingly discriminated on the basis of the race of the accused or the victim," the authors said. "However, there is substantial evidence that many actors in the American criminal justice system are unconsciously influenced by the race of defendants and their victims." A New York Times editorial about the study noted how rarely death sentences are handed down in the military, that there have been no military executions since 1961, and that 8 out of 10 death sentences have been overturned. Six men are currently on the U.S. military's death row. The editorial concluded, "The de facto moratorium has not made the country or the military less secure. The evidence of persistent racial bias is further evidence that it is time for the military system to abolish the death penalty."

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First Federal Death Sentence in Non-Death Penalty State Overturned

On August 3 the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the federal death sentence of Marvin Gabrion, who was convicted of a 1997 murder in a National Forest in Michigan.  Gabrion was the first defendant in the country to receive the federal death penalty for a crime committed in a non-death penalty state since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.  All three members of the judicial panel upheld Gabriion's murder conviction, but two judges called for another sentencing trial because Gabrion's defense team was barred from telling jurors that he would not have faced the death penalty if he had been prosecuted in state court because Michigan does not allow capital punishment. The court held that such information could have served as a mitigating factor, perhaps convincing some jurors not to vote for death.  In deciding Gabrion's direct appeal, the court wrote, "The case was not brought to serve a special national interest like treason or terrorism different from the normal state interest in punishing murder. The jury should be given the opportunity to consider whether one or more of them would choose a life sentence rather than the death penalty when the same jury considering the same defendant's proper punishment for the same crime but prosecuted in Michigan state court could not impose the death penalty."  The federal government had jurisdiction over the crime because the victim's body was found in a portion of a lake in Manistee National Forest that is federal property.  Gabrion was the first person to receive a death sentence in Michigan since 1937.

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