SENTENCING: Foreman in Arias Trial Says Death Sentencing Deliberations are Unfair to Jurors

William Zervakos, jury foreman for the Jodi Arias trial, recently shared the challenges of being a part of a capital jury. Zervakos described jury deliberations in Arias's case as a “brutal no-win situation” that was “unfair.” He said that the deliberations were full of tears as each juror considered whether they should sentence Jodi Arias to death or life in prison. He said, “We're not lawyers. We can't interpret the law. We're mere mortals. And I will tell you I've never felt more mere as a mortal than I felt for the last five months.” On May 8, the jury convicted Arias of first-degree murder but they could not reach a decision on her sentence after 13 hours of deliberations. The judge was forced to declare a mistrial of the penalty phase and dismissed the jury. If the prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty again, jury selection could take several months given the difficulty of finding jurors who would be impartial in a case that has garnered significant media attention. A retrial date has been tentatively set for July 18.

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ARBITRARINESS: Death Penalty Does Not Fall on Worst Offenders

In cases with multiple defendants, the "worst" offender does not always receive the worst punishment. For example, in Arizona, Patrick Bearup (pictured) was the only one among four co-defendants to receive the death penalty, even though he was not directly involved in killing the victim. The other three defendants, one of whom instigated the offense, another of whom beat the victim with a baseball bat, and a third who shot the victim, were able to secure plea bargains, avoiding trial. Two of them are likely to be released within 15 years. According to Dale Baich of the federal public defender's office in Arizona, of the six inmates executed there in 2012, four were equally or less culpable than their co-defendants, and 3 of those 4 co-defendants have already been released. A judge who reveiwed Bearup's case, criticized the prosecutor for pursuing the death penalty against a man who “even under the state’s theory, did not cause the physical death” of the  victim. The judge nevertheless upheld the death sentence. In another Arizona county, the prosecutor announced the county could only afford one death penalty case at a time, thereby ending a capital prosecution in an egregious murder, while pursuing it in a comparable case. Christopher Dupont, a lawyer in Arizona said, “Do people who commit equally heinous crimes get the same results? The answer is unquestionably no. It’s a total mystery who is going to face the death penalty and who is not.”

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NEW RESOURCES: State Graphs Showing the Decline in Death Sentences

Since the 1990s, almost every death penalty state has experienced a dramatic decline in its annual number of death sentences. DPIC has prepared a series of graphs illustrating this trend in each state: State Death Sentences by Year. This page contains graphs showing the annual number of new sentences in each state between 1994 and 2012. These same graphs can be found individually on each state's State Information page. Nationally, there was a 75% decrease in new death sentences between 1994 and 2012. Using the same years of comparison, death sentences in Texas and Virginia (the two leading states in executions since 1976) have shown a similar decline.  Between 1994 and 2012, Texas death sentences declined by 79%; Virginia death sentences dropped to 0 in 2012, a 100% decline from 1994, when there were 10. In the same time period, Alabama sentences dropped 75%, Florida-44%, Oklahoma-92%, and California-41%.

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SENTENCING: Virginia's Use of the Death Penalty Sharply Declines

Virginia’s death row population has significantly decreased from a peak of 57 inmates in 1995 to 8 presently. Only two inmates have been added to death row in nearly five years. David Bruck (pictured), director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University School of Law, remarked, "The process has largely ground to a halt. That is a huge development." He suggested the decline in death sentences is due to a greater acceptance of alternative punishments and the realization that mistakes can be made in capital convictions. Bruck said the DNA-based exoneration and freeing of Earl Washington, Jr., who was once nine days from execution, raised public awareness of the death penalty’s fallibility. Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, agreed: “One of the strongest arguments against capital punishment is that we have an imperfect system which will always be imperfect. We're going to make mistakes, and the death penalty is an irrevocable punishment.”

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ARBITRARINESS: Pennsylvania's Costly and Broken Death Penalty System

The theory of the death penalty is that prosecutors select offenders who have committed aggravated murder and obtain death sentences for the most heinous offenders through a scrupulous trial with full due process. The reality in Pennsylvania is radically different. Hundreds of inmates have been sentenced to death, but of the cases that have completed the appeals process, 100% have been overturned, mostly because of errors in the conviction or sentencing stages. (Three inmates were executed, but they waived their appeals; the rest of those sentenced to death remain on death row, continuing their appeals.) Moreover, when these cases are submitted for re-trial, presumably with the errors corrected, almost all (95%) receive a sentence less than death (and some are freed completely). These statistics, collected by Robert Dunham, Adjunct Professor at Villanova Law School, reveal a capital-case selection process that is seriously flawed and a trial process that is rampant with error. From a cost perspective, this is extremely wasteful: every death sentence is a result of an expensive trial and appeal; nevertheless, almost all of these cases ultimately result in a life sentence after even more proceedings. Eleven percent (11%) of the cases requiring a re-sentencing were resolved as less than first-degree murder.

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NEW RESOURCES: New Death Sentencing Information for 2012
Sentences 2012
Click to enlarge.
(graphic: 50 other counties produced 1 death sentence each)

The Death Penalty Information Center is pleased to offer a new resource page on death sentences in 2012. Seventy-eight (78) people were sentenced to death in 2012, the second lowest number of sentences since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Of those sentenced, 3 were women; 49% were black; 40% were white. Four states (FL, CA, TX, and PA) were responsible for 65% of the death sentences, and only 9 counties produced over a third of the death sentences in the country. Information is provided on the name, race, state, and county for each defendant. A downloadable spreadsheet enables sorting by each of these categories. Click here for our Death Sentences in 2012 page.

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DPIC'S YEAR END REPORT: What the Media Are Saying

DPIC's 2012 Year End Report received extensive media coverage in the U.S. and internationally. Coverage included pieces by the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times, CNN, and hundreds of other outlets. National broadcast outlets such as NPR, MSNBC, and CBS Radio also ran pieces. Many papers editorialized about the themes highlighted in the Report, including the continuing decline in the use of the death penalty around the country, the geographic clustering of sentences and executions in just a few states, and reasons why people are changing their minds about capital punishment. An editorial in the Virginian-Pilot said state statistics from the report indicated the death penalty had reached a "turning point" and called for ending it: "Multiple studies have shown the death penalty does not reduce crime. The money could be better spent preventing crime and solving unsolved cases." The Amarillo Globe News  in Texas raised concerns about costs; the Anniston Star in Alabama called the death penalty "barbaric;" and the New York Times said it "should be abolished." An editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram encouraged Texans to reconsider the death penalty, noting, “At a time when much of the nation is rethinking the issue of capital punishment, it's worth Texans considering whether continuing to be first on the death penalty is something to brag about… Debate about the death penalty - its legal, moral, fiscal and practical considerations - should go on, especially considering the flaws that continue to be exposed in the justice system."

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