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FROM DPIC: Extensive News Coverage of Year End Report

National and local media have focused significant attention on DPIC's recent 2013 Year End Report. Coverage has included pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, CNN, on the wires of the Associated Press and Reuters, and in hundreds of other articles and editorials. Papers highlighted the main theme of the report, which showed a continuing decline in the use of the death penalty around the country. The New York Times quoted DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, as commenting that “A societal shift is underway.” The Associated Press quoted Dieter saying, "I think the decline begins with the revelations about mistakes in capital cases - that innocent people could get the penalty and almost be executed has shocked the public to the point where death sentences are harder to obtain."


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DPIC Releases 2013 Report, Showing Marked Decline in Death Penalty Use

On December 19, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." In 2013, executions declined, fewer states imposed death sentences, and the size of death row decreased compared to the previous year. The number of states with the death penalty also dropped, and public support for capital punishment registered a 40-year low. There were 39 executions in the U.S., marking only the second time in 19 years that there were less than 40. Just two states, Texas (16) and Florida (7), were responsible for 59% of the executions. The number of death sentences (80) remained near record lows, and several major death penalty states, inclucing Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, imposed no death sentences this year. Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

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Sotomayor Critiques Alabama Sentencing in Supreme Court Dissent

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury's 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the case, saying the Court should reconsider Alabama's death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury's recommendation for life came from Alabama, including some in which the vote for life was unanimous. She speculated that Alabama's elected judges may face political pressures to appear harsh in their use of the death penalty that unelected judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?," she wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." She cited instances in which judges used their death sentences as part of their electoral campaigns.


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What the Media Is Saying About DPIC's "The 2% Death Penalty"

2%Since DPIC released its new report, The 2% Death Penalty, on October 2, both national and international media have been reporting on its findings. The Washington Post noted, "Two percent of the counties in the country were responsible for [most] 685 of 1,320 executions from 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, to 2012." The Los Angeles Times, quoted DPIC's Executive Director, "'The death penalty is not as American or as widespread as people might assume. It is clustered in a few counties,' said Richard Dieter, the group's executive director." Similar stories have appeared in CBS News, The Guardian (London), U.S. News & World Report, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Columbus Dispatch, The National Journal, and many other outlets. Many stories echoed Stateline's emphasis on the burden that all taxpayers share because of the actions of a few counties: "After a death sentence is handed down, states are on the hook for paying for the prosecution and sometimes defense, as well as housing the inmate. Those costs are borne by the entire state, not just the counties that impose the death sentence." (Click on image to enlarge).


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NEW DPIC REPORT: Only 2% of Counties Responsible for Majority of U.S. Death Penalty

On October 2 the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report, The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All. The report shows that, contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely used in the U.S., only a few jurisdictions employ capital punishment extensively. Only 2% of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only 2% of the counties are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences. The report also noted that aggressive use of the death penalty in relatively few counties produces enormous costs that are shifted to the entire state. “This peculiar exercise of discretion results in enormous expenses being passed on to taxpayers across the state. Moreover, the correlation between the high use of the death penalty and a high rate of error means that courts in these states will be occupied for years with costly appeals and retrials. Some states have recently chosen to opt out of this process, at great savings to their taxpayers.”  For a video about the report, infographics, and more information, visit deathpenaltyinfo.org/twopercent.


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Death Penalty Now Rarely Used in Utah

An analysis of the death penalty in Utah shows how rarely it has been used in recent years. Prosecutors have sought it in only 7 cases in the last 5 years, and none has resulted in a death sentence. Utah has had only 1 execution in the past 13 years. Experts have offered several reasons for the declining use: the alternative sentence of life without parole is now avaialble; the appeal of a death sentence is costly and slow; and many victims' families wish to see a more timely end to the criminal case. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sam Gill said the death penalty should be used sparingly, and only with great consideration: "What you want is a prosecutor who struggles with the death penalty, because it's a decision to take somebody's life. It shouldn't be something we do arbitrarily. It's not something that we should be cavalier about. It is not something we should reach to with indiscretion." Prosecutors also said they consider the wishes of the victim's family when deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Mark Anderson, whose cousin was murdered, said he believed life without parole was an appropriate punishment in that case. "When you have a crime that's committed, you need to protect two entities. You need to protect the victim and the public in general, and in both of those situations justice was satisfied," Anderson said.


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Ohio Panel Recommends Banning Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill

On September 26, the Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty voted 15-2 to recommend a ban on death sentences for people with severe mental illness. The  panel of legal experts was created by the Ohio Supreme Court and the Ohio State Bar Association and includes judges, attorneys, and legislators. Their proposal will be submitted with other recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly in 2014. Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio, said his organization has been advocating for such a ban since 1999, when the state resumed executions after 36 years with the lethal injection of an inmate with a lifelong history of severe mental illness--Wilford Berry. “We knew this man was severely mentally disabled,” Russell said. “It is inhumane to execute someone like that.” Panel member Judge Kathleen Keough said the exclusion was “a matter of common decency,” and defendants with mental illness should be considered similar to juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities, who are already excluded from the death penalty.


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INTERNATIONAL: New Report on the Death Penalty in Malaysia

A new report by the London-based Death Penalty Project explores the use of mandatory death sentencing in Malaysia. In the U.S., the Supreme Court barred the use of mandatory death sentences in 1976, holding that judges and juries needed to consider the individual differences among defendants, out of respect for human diginity. (Woodson v. North Carolina, and other opinions). DPP's report found that the number of executions carried out in Malaysia has declined in the last decade even though there have been no major changes in law or reforms in the system. As part of the research, a poll was conducted to discern the public's support for mandatory death sentences. The poll found little public opposition to abolishing the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and firearms offenses, though 56% of respondents still supported a mandatory death sentence for murder.  Read full text of the report.


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NEW RESOURCES: Bureau of Justice Statistics Reports Declining Use of Capital Punishment in 2011

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its annual review of the death penalty in the U.S., focusing on 2011. The report noted the continued decline in the use of the death penalty in recent years. In 2011, 80 new inmates were received under sentence of death, the lowest number since 1973, and a 27% decrease from the year before. Executions also declined to 43, compared with 46 in 2010. The average time between sentencing and execution in 2011 was 16.5 years, 20 months longer than for those executed in 2010. The number of people on death row in the U.S. dropped to 3,082, marking the eleventh consecutive year in which the size of death row decreased. Florida, California, Texas, and Arizona accounted for half of all inmates sentenced to death. The report noted that in 2011 Illinois became the latest state to abolish the death penalty.


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Ohio Committee Makes Preliminary Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

A committee empaneled by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court made three preliminary recommendations at its June meeting for reforming the state's death penalty. The panel, which consists of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and academic experts, voted to recommend a reduction in the scope of crimes eligible for the death penalty, the creation of a statewide panel to decide on seeking a death sentence, and the enactment of a Racial Justice Act. The restriction of capital crimes would limit the death penalty to only those cases that involved the murder of multiple victims, a child under 13, or a police officer, or a murder committed to escape detention or eliminate a witness. The statewide review panel would consist of former prosecutors, who would examine potential capital cases to determine whether local prosecutors could bring capital charges. A Racial Justice Act would allow death row inmates to use statistical studies to support claims of racial bias in state courts. While the proposals received a majority vote from the committee, not all members supported them and some opponents were absent from the meeting. A final report is due by the end of the year.


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