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NEW VOICES: "Alabama Juries, Not Judges, Should Decide Death Sentences"

O.H. Eaton Jr. (pictured), who served as a judge for many years in Florida, recently wrote an op-ed in the Birmingham News calling for an end to Alabama's law that allows judges to override juries' sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases. Eaton, who presided over numerous capital cases during his 24 years on the bench, said that his experience convinced him that the practive of judicial override is unfair. Citing a report recently published by the Equal Justice Initiative, Eaton noted that one-fifth of Alabama's death row inmates face execution even though their juries believed they should have been sentenced to life in prison. He wrote, "While consistency in sentencing is the argument most often heard in support of judicial override, the evidence indicates that allowing judges to ignore jury recommendations actually leads to less consistency in sentencing rather than more. Some judges are more likely to override than others. Some counties are generally more supportive of the death penalty than others. So, a death sentence ends up depending on geography and luck of the judicial draw rather than the facts of the case." Eaton suggested a short-term solution of imposing a rigorous legal standard for allowing judicial override, but ultimately he recommended that juries should make the sentencing decision. Read full op-ed below.


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NEW RESOURCES: Judges in Alabama Imposing Death Sentences by Overriding Juries

A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama exposes the practice of state judges imposing death sentences by overriding a jury's recommendation for life.  EJI's study found that judges in the state have overridden jury recommendations 107 times since 1976.  In 92% of the overrides, judges overruled life verdicts to impose a death sentence.  More than 20% of the defendants on Alabama's death row were sentenced through judge overrides.  These sentences contribute to the high per capita death sentencing and execution rates in Alabama compared to the rest of the country.  In Alabama, trial and appellate court judges are elected, often based on "tough on crime" platforms.  The study found that the proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated during election years.  For example, in 2008, 30% of new death sentences were imposed through judge override, compared to only 7% in 1997, a non-election year.  In Johnson v. Alabama--a case involving a judicial override--Justice Thurgood Marshall, wrote in dissent that "it approaches the most literal sense of the word 'arbitrary' to put one to death in the face of a contrary jury determination where it is accepted that the jury had indeed responsibly carried out its task."


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Federal Judge Finds Florida's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

On June 20, U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez declared Florida's death penalty unconstitutional because jurors are not required to make findings beyond a reasonable doubt on the aggravating factors that can increase a guilty defendant's sentence from life to death. The ruling mandates that defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to have all essential elements of proof in criminal cases found by a jury rather than by a judge.  Legal experts say the ruling could have an important impact on other death penalty cases in the state and may lead to stays of execution. In his ruling, Judge Martinez said that Florida's sentencing system violates the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Ring v. Arizona (2002), which allowed judges to make the final sentencing choice between death and life but requires that jurors first determine whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty. The ruling, which is subject to appeal, came in the case of Paul Evans, who may now get a new sentencing hearing. His murder conviction still stands.


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EDITORIALS: Philadelphia Inquirer -- "Juries Know Better"

A recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer concludes the public is ready to scrap the death penalty in Pennsylvania, even if the legislature is not. According to the editorial, juries opted for the death penalty in just 3% of first-degree murder cases over the past four years:  “Pennsylvania juries clearly are more comfortable with the alternative sentence of life without parole, which assures that first-degree murder convicts will waste away behind bars.” The Inquirer cites several different reasons for what they called a "sea change" in attitudes toward capital punishment: “[M]oral qualms about government-sanctioned executions come into play for many jurors. There are also the widely documented instances of wrongful death sentences later being overturned, and data that suggest the penalty falls unfairly on poor and minority defendants who cannot afford to mount an effective defense.”  The editorial concludes that replacing the death penalty with life-without-parole sentences is the best choice: "New Jersey abolished capital punishment in 2007; now Pennsylvania should follow that example." Read full editorial below.


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ARBITRARINESS: Pennsylvania's Death Penalty Mostly Means Life

A recent Philadelphia Inquirer study revealed that the death penalty is almost never handed down for homicides in Pennsylvania, and that executions are even more unlikely.  From a compilation of 1,975 homicide cases dating from 2007 to Feb. 3, 2011 provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, only 8 resulted in a death sentence.  Almost all cases ended with a sentence of life without parole, with guilty pleas, acquittals or dismissal of charges.  Of the almost 2,000 cases from 56 counties, 639 were judged to be 1st degree murders, eligible for the death penalty; 231 of those ended with life sentences.  Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999, and has executed 3 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.  All three waived their appeals. Those on death row spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in special units at 4 state prisons, some for as long as 27 years.  Over half of the 222 cases in which the death sentence was overturned were found to have ineffective representation.  


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The New Yorker Looks at the Decline in Texas Death Sentences

In the May 9 issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin examines the drop in death sentences in Texas and focuses particularly on the mitigation work being done by the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE) in Houston, headed by Danalynn Recer.  Toobin cites a number of possible reasons for the drop in death sentences in Texas, including "the increasing use of mitigation, a strategy that aims to tell the defendant’s life story." The article provides a number of examples where Recer's organization presented evidence from a defendant's background, such as childhood abuse or brain damage, and convinced a jury to choose a life sentence over the death penalty, even for the murder of a police officer. Recer summed up her work, "The idea was to improve the way capital trials were done in Texas, to start an office that would bring the best practices from other places and put them to work here....It is possible to persuade a jury to value someone's life."


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STUDIES: Misunderstandings by Jurors Undermines Constitutionality of Death Penalty

A new study by William Bowers and others published in the Criminal Law Bulletin revealed that most jurors in death penalty cases lack sufficient understanding of their duties, rendering the process unconstitutional by Supreme Court standards. The study showed that capital jurors often mistakenly believe that a death sentence is required by law, and fail to take primary responsibility for the defendant's punishment. The study suggested that jurors tend to believe death should be the punishment for heinous crimes and that death is needed as a deterrent and required by law. When the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in Gregg v. Geogia, it stated that improved jury instructions and court procedures would reduce the arbitrariness in capital sentencing. The report's findings suggest that after many years of experimentation these remedies have failed: "It appears that jurors cannot be successfully directed in making such an ominous decision by guidelines and procedures devised to insure a reasoned moral judgment free of arbitrariness. Being outraged by heinous killings and ambivalent about ordering someone killed, are 'normal' human reactions."


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