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DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Death Penalty Use Continue

Death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty continued their historic declines in 2016, according to DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report," released on December 21. The 30 death sentences imposed this year are the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment in the U.S.—since the Supreme Court declared all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972—and declined 39% from 2015's already 40-year low. Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the fewest executions since 1991. Both death sentences and executions were increasingly geographically isolated. Two states—Georgia and Texas—accounted for 80% of executions, and more than half of all death sentences were imposed in just three states—California, Ohio, and Texas. Election results reflected America's deep divisions about the death penalty, as voters in three states decided to retain the death penalty or add it to the state constitution, while voters in five of the highest-use death penalty counties replaced prosecutors who strongly supported the death penalty with candidates who promised reform and reductions in capital prosecutions. Courts struck down practices in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oklahoma that had contributed to disproportionately high numbers of death sentences. “America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.” See DPIC's Press Release. Watch a short video summary of the report. (Click image to enlarge.)


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Directed to Reconsider its Death Penalty Statute, Alabama Appeals Court Upholds Constitutionality of 3 Death Sentences

Directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its rulings upholding the death sentences imposed upon four Alabama defendants, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed three of the death sentences on December 16.  The state court ruled that the death sentences imposed upon Ronnie Kirksey, Corey Wimbley, and Ryan Gerald Russell do not violate the Supreme Court's January 16, 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. It has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of the death sentence imposed on Bart Johnson in the fourth case. In Hurst, the Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” In that case, the Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing law, ruling that it unconstitutionally reserved for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. In late January, three Justices noted in connection with a decision denying a stay of execution to Alabama death-row prisoner Christopher Brooks that Hurst had overruled the decisions upon which the Court had relied in previously upholding Alabama's judge-sentencing statute. The Court later vacated the Alabama court's decisions upholding the four death sentences, sending them back to the Alabama courts for reconsideration in light of the Hurst decision. In August and October, the Delaware and Florida Supreme Courts ruled that other portions of their statutes that permitted judges to override jury recommendations of a life sentence or impose death sentences after a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation violated Hurst, leaving Alabama as the only state that continues to allow either practice. In issuing its opinions, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals distinguished its law from the Florida statute the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst, saying that as part of the decision finding a defendant guilty of capital murder, Alabama juries already unanimously find facts that prove a penalty-phase aggravating circumstance and make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Without addressing the rulings of the Delaware and Florida state courts, the court of appeals upheld Alabama's provisions allowing non-unanimous juries to recommend a death sentence and permitting judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence. The state court said that the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances is not a finding of fact, so Hurst does not apply to the jury's sentencing recommendation or the sentence ultimately imposed by the judge. It also noted that in Kirksey's and Russell's cases, the sentencing juries had unanimously recommended death.


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Delaware Supreme Court Decision Paves Way to Clear State's Death Row

On December 15, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. State that death-row prisoner Derrick Powell will get the benefit of its August 2016 decision in Rauf v. State declaring Delaware's death sentencing statute unconstitutional. The court directed that Powell be resentenced to life without parole, in a ruling that also paves the way for resentencing Delaware's twelve other death row prisoners to life. The court's holding is based upon a legal principle called retroactivity. When the court decided Rauf, it determined that Delaware's capital sentencing statute violated due process and the Sixth Amendment in part because it did not require that the jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt all facts legally necessary to impose a death sentence. Applying Delaware law, the court held that Rauf was a type of legal ruling that should apply to all capital cases in which juries did not make such a finding because Rauf had announced a "new watershed procedural rule for capital proceedings that contributed to the reliability of the fact-finding process." The court explained that, prior to Rauf, Delaware capital defendants had been sentenced to death using a "preponderance of the evidence standard" in which the death penalty could be imposed if the prosecution proved that aggravating circumstances justifying the death penalty even slightly outweighed mitigating factors that could justify sparing the defendant's life. That burden of proof, the court said, was materially lower than if juries were required rule out the death penalty if any juror had reasonable doubt as to whether the aggravating evidence outweighed mitigation. In Powell's case, his jury, applying the lesser preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, voted 7-to-5 that aggravating factors outweighed mitigating factors and recommended a death sentence. Under the court's ruling, Powell's death sentence was automatically converted to a sentence of life without the possiblity of "probation or parole or any other reduction."  The Delaware Attorney General's office did not appeal the court's ruling in Rauf, which was based solely on the federal constitution, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because the Powell retroactivity decision is based on Delaware state law, it does not raise federal constitutional questions and would not be subject to review by the federal courts.


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Alabama to Execute Ronald Smith Despite Jury's Vote For Life Sentence

Alabama is set to execute Ronald Smith on December 8, although the sentencing jury in his case recommended that he be sentenced to life. Under a practice that is no longer permitted in any other state, Smith's judge overrode the jury's sentencing recommendation and imposed a death sentence. As his execution approaches, Smith has filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme challenging the constitutionality of Alabama's law. He argues it violates both his right to have a jury determination of all facts that are a prerequisite to imposing the death penalty, and a national consensus against judicial disregard of jury capital sentencing verdicts. Smith's petition notes that "Alabama is the only state that allows a judge to sentence a defendant to death when the jury has recommended a sentence of life." His lawyers also have petitioned Governor Robert Bentley for clemency, quoting a juror who said, "It was very painful to make such a difficult decision, only to have the judge disregard it." A recent report by the Brennan Center on Justice found that "electoral pressures influence judges' decisions in capital cases," including Alabama's practice of judicial override, which accounts for one-fifth of Alabama's death row.  Earlier this year, state courts in Florida and Delaware--the only other states that had permitted judicial override--struck down sentencing statutes that permitted judges to impose death sentences in the face of jury recommendations for life or non-unanimous recommendations for death. These decisions grew out of the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 ruling in Hurst v. Florida that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Smith's attorneys argue that Alabama's judicial override practice violates Hurst. Alabama's attorney general disagrees, arguing that the Alabama statute is different from Florida's because it requires the jury to find the existence of an aggravating factor making the defendant eligible for death. Smith's lawyers also argue that "[t]his life-and-death decision is being made by judges facing intense electoral pressure," rendering such overrides unconstitutionally arbitrary. Smith was never able to obtain review of these issues in federal court because his attorney made an error in paying a filing fee. Though his claims were filed by the deadline, his lawyer, who was on probation for public intoxication at the time, assumed he did not have to pay a filing fee of $154 because his client was indigent. In addition to his judicial override challenge, Smith is also part of a group of death row inmates challenging Alabama's new lethal injection protocol, which would use midazolam, a drug involved in several botched executions over the last few years.


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Florida Supreme Court Orders Re-Sentencing, Suggesting Hurst May Affect Many Florida Cases

On November 23, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death sentence imposed by a judge on Richard Franklin after his jury split 9-3 in recommending he receive the death penalty for a 2012 murder. "In light of the non-unanimous jury recommendation to impose a death sentence," the court found that the death sentence violated Franklin's right to have a unanimous jury determination of all facts necessary to impose a death penalty and that the violation could not be excused as harmless. The court ordered that Franklin be given a new sentencing hearing. Although the court did not rule on any case other than Franklin's, the decision suggests that the court will order new sentencing hearings in at least several dozen cases involving prisoners whose non-unanimous death sentence were still pending on direct appeal at the time of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida in January 2016. In Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death sentencing scheme because key sentencing facts were determined by a judge, rather than a jury. In October, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted that decision as requiring that the jury unanimously recommend the death penalty before the trial judge could impose capital punishment. The Florida Supreme Court's description of Franklin's claim as a "Ring-Hurst claim" further suggests that the court may order new sentencing hearings for approximately 170 death row prisoners whose sentences became final since Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring that a jury, rather than a judge, determine the existence of aggravating facts making a defendant eligible for the death penalty. The court has yet to rule on whether it will apply the constitutional protections recognized in Hurst to all death row prisoners, irrespective of their sentencing date, which could require resentencing of up to 290 people. Earlier, the court upheld judge-imposed death sentences when the defendant waived his right to a jury or the sentence followed a unanimous jury recommendation for death. According to retired Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead, "Tragically, in the 13 years since Ring, some 47 persons have been executed in Florida under an unconstitutional statute. Had the U.S. Supreme Court accepted review of a Florida case soon after Ring, those executions may arguably not have occurred – at least not until further review for harmless error, waiver or some other possible argument by the state was first evaluated."


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OUTLIER COUNTIES: Los Angeles County Has Nation's Largest—And Still Expanding—Death Row

Los Angeles County, California is the home of the nation's largest death row, one that statistics show continues to rapidly grow. In January 2013, Los Angeles was responsible for more death row prisoners than any other county in the United States, and it has ranked as one of the two most prolific counties in imposing new death sentences each year since. The 31 death sentences imposed in the county between 2010 and 2015 are more than any other U.S. county imposed during that period and the four death sentences it has imposed so far in 2016 are more than have been imposed in any other county. According to the Fair Punishment Project report, "Too Broken to Fix," the Los Angeles death sentences exhibit serious racial disparities: 94% of the 31 death sentences imposed between 2010 and 2015 were directed at defendants of color. Although African Americans commit fewer than one-third of all Los Angeles County homicides, they comprised 42% of those condemned to death in this period. 45% of the new death sentences were imposed on Latino defendants, 6% against Asian Americans or Asian Pacific Islanders. Only two death sentences were imposed on White defendants during this period. Not surprisingly, a 2014 study found that White jurors in southern California were significantly more likely to recommend death sentences for Latino defendants than White defendants, especially when only weak mitigating evidence was presented. But that is precisely what the evidence suggests occurs in many Los Angeles County capital cases. The Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office, which handles half of all capital cases in the county, assigns its most experienced attorneys to death penalty cases and its clients are rarely sentenced to death. Of the 30 Los Angeles County death penalty appeals decided by the California Supreme Court between 2006 and 2015, just one defendant was represented by the public defender's office and three clients of the Alternate Public Defender, which takes about 20% of cases, were sentenced to death. However, court appointed attorneys—who handle the remaining 30% of capital defendants—accounted for 26 death verdicts, or 87% of the death sentences imposed in the county. While the public defenders presented one week's worth of mitigating evidence in the one case in which their client was sentenced to death, private attorneys averaged just 2.4 days of mitigation on their cases in the same period, including a number of cases in which they presented less than a day of mitigating evidence. Two Former Los Angeles County District Attorneys, Gil Garcetti and John Van de Camp, have changed their views on the death penalty and spoken out about the risk of executing innocent people, the high cost of capital punishment, and the emotional toll on victims' families. (Click map to enlarge.)


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OUTLIER COUNTIES: Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts Highlight Systemic Flaws in Pinellas County, Florida Death Penalty

Pinellas County, Florida ranks among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death rows across the United States and among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all executions conducted in this country since 1977. The five death sentences imposed in Pinellas between 2010 and 2015 also place it, along with three other Florida counties, among the 16 U.S. counties with the highest number of new death sentences in the country. One major reason for Pinellas' status is the high number of death sentences it has imposed after juries returned non-unanimous sentencing recommendations, an outlier practice that the Florida Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional. All six of the Pinellas death sentences the Florida Supreme Court reviewed on direct appeal from 2006-2015 involved non-unanimous juries. Only two of those cases garnered the 10 juror votes in favor of death that would have permitted a death verdict to be imposed under 2016 amendments to Florida law that attempted to address another constitutional flaw in the statute. The non-unanimity provisions facilitated the extremely harsh use of the death penalty by Pinellas' prosecutors against defendants with significant mental health problems. Five of these 6 death sentences were directed at defendants with serious mental illness, brain damage, or intellectual impairment; and one was directed as an emotionally disturbed defendant who -- at only few months past 18 years old at the time of the offense -- was barely constitutionally eligible for the death penalty. According to a report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project, none of the other 15 outlier counties who have produced the most death sentences in the U.S. since 2010 imposed it so disproportionately against mentally impaired defendants. This prosecutorial overreaching occurred against a backdrop of racial bias and bad defense lawyering. In the cases mentioned above, every defense attorney presented a day or less of mitigating evidence at trial. The trial judge sentenced Richard Todd Robard to death after a 7-5 jury vote; a 6-6 vote would have spared his life. But Robard's lawyer, Richard Watts, decided not to present evidence of his client's brain damage and mental health problems because he didn't think the jury would be swayed by "brain abnormalities." Amid other evidence of racially imbalanced law enforcement practices in the county, 60% of the defendants sentenced to death since 2010 were black and 67% of the victims in cases in which the death penalty was returned were white.


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Supreme Court Stays Execution of Tommy Arthur in Alabama

The U.S. Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Tommy Arthur, who was scheduled to be executed in Alabama at 6:00 p.m. Central Time on November 3. Around 10:30 p.m. Eastern, the Court first issued a temporary stay of execution through Circuit Justice Clarence Thomas "pending further order" of the Court. Anticipating a second ruling by the Court, Alabama continued preparations for the execution. Then, just before midnight in Washington, the Court issued a full stay to permit it to consider a petition for writ of certiorari Arthur had filed earlier in the day. Arthur's lawyers had filed two stay applications and petitions for writs of certiorari. One petition sought review of the Alabama Supreme Court's summary dismissal of his challenge to the constitutionality of Alabama's death penalty statute under the Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. Hurst struck down Florida's death penalty statute because it required a judge, rather than a jury, to find critical facts that were a prerequisite to imposing the death penalty, and Arthur had argued that Alabama's statute suffered from the same defect. The other petition sought review of the denial of Arthur's lethal-injection challenge by a divided 2-1 panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. In its opinion, that court had ruled that Arthur had not met the burden imposed by the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross of showing that an alternative method of execution was available to Alabama because the firing squad -- his proposed alternative -- was not "readily available" under Alabama law. The dissent wrote: "By misreading an Alabama statute, the Majority creates a conflict between the claim and state law. The Majority then resolves that faux conflict in favor of state law, taking the unprecedented step of ascribing to states the power to legislatively foreclose constitutional relief. These missteps nullify countless prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right to a humane execution." The Supreme Court granted Mr. Arthur's stay application in the lethal-injection case. Four Justices voted to stay the execution, with Chief Justice Roberts providing the fifth vote "as a courtesy." Justices Thomas and Alito dissented. Without the time constraints imposed by the death warrant, the Justices can now consider whether to grant review in the case. This was the seventh time Mr. Arthur's execution has been stayed.


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Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down State's Capital Sentencing Statute, Requires Jury Unanimity Before Imposing Death

The Florida Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional the state’s practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. In two rulings issued October 14 the court held that juries must unanimously find all facts necessary to impose a death sentence, including the existence of any aggravating factor relied upon as a reason to impose the death penalty, whether the aggravating factors in and of themselves provide sufficient grounds for imposing the death penalty, and whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances (reasons for life) presented by the defense. In the first case, Timothy Lee Hurst v. State of Florida, the court vacated Hurst's death sentence imposed and remanded his case for a new sentencing hearing. The second decision, Larry Darnell Perry v. State of Florida, struck down the Florida legislature's March 2016 revision of the state’s capital sentencing statute because it does not require a unanimous jury recommendation of death before the trial judge can consider imposing a death sentence. Hurst is the same defendant whose appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, resulting in an 8-1 decision declaring that the state's prior capital sentencing statute violated the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial by reserving for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to find the facts that could lead to a death sentence. The Court specifically held that the statute impermissibly denied Hurst a jury finding of aggravating circumstances that could make him eligible for the death penalty. In response to the Court's decision, the Florida legislature amended the statute to require juries to unanimously find at least one aggravating circumstance, but allowed the jury to recommend a death sentence if at least 10 of 12 jurors agreed. The court’s decision in Hurst made clear that the statute violated Florida state constitutional provisions requiring unanimous jury verdicts, as well as federal constitutional law. In Perry, the court struck down the amended death penalty law, saying the statute "cannot be applied constitutionally to pending prosecutions because the Act does not require unanimity in the jury’s final recommendation as to whether the defendant should be sentenced to death." While the decision in Hurst says that defendants sentenced to death under the unconstitutional sentencing procedures are not entitled to have their sentences automatically reduced to life in prison, it leaves unclear exactly what will happen in the cases of the approximately 400 people on the state's death row.


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U.S. Supreme Court Denies Review of Arizona Case That Could Overturn 25 Death Sentences

In a decision that could affect an estimated 25 Arizona death penalty cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has denied Arizona's request to review a federal appeals court decision declaring unconstitutional an evidentiary rule that limited the types of mitigating evidence capital defendants could present in their cases. The ruling in Ryan v. McKinney let stand a 6-5 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in December 2015 that had reversed James McKinney's 1993 death sentence because the state's so-called "causal nexus" rule unconstitutionally excluded evidence about McKinney's abusive childhood and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Court's ruling could have implications for many of the prisoners on Arizona's death row. The causal nexus rule, which required that mitigating evidence be directly linked to the crime before it could be considered as grounds to spare a defendant's life, had been place in Arizona from the late 1980s until 2005. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Lockett v. Ohio that states could not bar defendants from presenting mitigating evidence relating to their character, background, or record or the circumstances of the case as reasons to impose a life sentence. Four years later, in Eddings v. Oklahoma, it held that states could not require that evidence excuse the murder before it could be considered mitigating. Then, in 2004, in Tennard v. Dretke, it reiterated that any requirement that mitigating evidence have a direct causal link to the offense violated the Eighth Amendment. By denying review, the Supreme Court paved the way for other prisoners whose sentencing was affected by the causal nexus rule to challenge their death sentences. In a dissent to the Ninth Circuit decision, Judge Carlos Bea wrote that the majority decision, "calls into question every single death sentence imposed in Arizona between 1989 and 2005." McKinney's case will return to state court within 120 days for further proceedings, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. His re-sentencing must now be done by a jury because the U.S. Supreme Court 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona ended the state's practice of judges imposing death sentences.


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