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Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.


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Florida Supreme Court Upholds Removal of Prosecutor From Death-Eligible Cases

The Florida Supreme Court has upheld Governor Rick Scott’s (pictured, left) removal of Orange and Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured, right) as prosecutor in more than two dozen murder cases because of her official policy not to seek to seek the death penalty. Over two dissents, the seven-member Court held that Scott had acted “well within the bounds of the Governor’s broad authority” when he replaced Ayala with Lake County State Attorney and death-penalty proponent Brad King in cases that could be eligible for the death penalty under Florida law. On March 16, Ayala—the first African American elected as a Florida state attorney—announced that her office would not pursue the death penalty in any homicide cases, saying the use of capital punishment was “not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice." That day, Governor Scott issued an executive order removing her from the case of Markeith Loyd, charged in the killing of an Orlando police officer, and appointing King to prosecute the case. He has since issued executive orders removing Ayala and appointing King in at least 26 other murder cases. Against a backdrop of racial discrimination, Ayala—supported by the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and a group of lawyers, legal experts, and retired judges—argued that Scott’s action was a power grab that threatened the autonomy of locally elected prosecutors to exercise their discretion in charging and sentencing practices. The court flatly rejected that argument, saying that “adopting a blanket policy against the imposition of the death penalty is in effect refusing to exercise discretion and tantamount to a functional veto” of Florida’s death-penalty law. The two women on the court, Justice Barbara Pariente, joined by Justice Peggy A. Quince, dissented. Justice Pariente wrote: “This case is about the independence of duly elected State Attorneys to make lawful decisions within their respective jurisdictions as to sentencing and allocation of their offices’ resources, free from interference by a Governor who disagrees with their decisions.” Ayala’s decision “not seek a sentence that produces years of appeals and endless constitutional challenges and implicates decades of significant jurisprudential developments,” she wrote “was well within the scheme created by the Legislature and within the scope of decisions State Attorneys make every day on how to allocate their offices’ limited resources.” Governor Scott hailed the decision as “a great victory.” Shortly afterwards, Ayala issued a statement saying she respects the ruling and announcing the formation of a death penalty review panel that will evaluate first-degree murder cases and recommend whether to seek the death penalty. “With implementation of this Panel,” the statement said, “it is my expectation that going forward all first-degree murder cases that occur in my jurisdiction will remain in my office and be evaluated and prosecuted accordingly."


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Florida Denies Relief to Prisoner Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death, in Decision that Could Affect More Than 75 Cases

In a decision that could have broad impact on the state's death row, the Florida Supreme Court on August 10 upheld the death sentence imposed on James Hitchcock, despite his having been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. In a 6-1 ruling, the court said it would not enforce its 2016 ruling in Hurst v. State—which declared unconstitutional any death sentence imposed after one or more sentencing jurors had voted that a life sentence was the appropriate punishment—in cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002. That date is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona that a capital defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to have the jury determine all facts necessary for the state to impose a death penalty. But the Florida courts did not apply Ring to death-penalty cases in the state until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death-penalty statute in 2016. At that time, in Hurst v. Florida, Justice Sonia Sotomayor reiterating that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." When Hurst's case returned to the Florida Supreme Court later that year, the state court ruled that non-unanimous jury verdicts were unconstitutional. However, the court then ruled in an appeal brought by Mark Asay—scheduled to be executed August 24—that it would not apply Hurst to cases that pre-dated Ring. Hitchcock and other Florida death-row prisoners pressed a number of other constitutional arguments, including that death sentences imposed after non-unanimous jury votes are unreliable, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that the court's bright-line cutoff for enforcing Hurst was unconstitutionally arbitrary, violating due rocess and the right to equal protection of the law. The Hitchcock court declined to consider those arguments, dismissing them as "nothing more than arguments that Hurst v. State should be applied retroactively to [Hitchcock's] sentence." Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases. Justice Barbara J. Pariente dissented, writing, "[r]eliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable." She noted that Hitchcock, who was twenty years old at the time of his crime, has had four different unconstitutional death sentences since he was first tried in 1977, with the U.S. Supreme Court twice overturning the death penalty in his case. She further noted that four Florida Supreme Court justices had written that his death sentence was disproportionate and that he should be resentenced to life. “To deny Hitchcock relief when other similarly situated defendants have been granted relief amounts to a denial of due process,” she wrote.


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Oklahoma Prisoners Argue State's Application of the Death Penalty Is Racially Biased, Unconstitutional

Newly available evidence shows that Oklahoma's death penalty unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of race, according to petitions filed by lawyers seeking to overturn the death sentences imposed on two African-American defendants, Julius Darius Jones (pictured) and Tremane Wood. Jones—a high school athlete and honor student who did not fit the description of the shooter and who has continuously maintained his innocence—and Wood were convicted and sentenced to death for killing white male victims in separate cases. Both men's claims are based on data from a study of race and the death penalty that was released as part of the April 2017 report of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission showing that, for the period 1990-2012, Oklahoma defendants convicted of killing white victims were more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing victims of color. For cases like Jones's and Wood's that involved only white male victims, defendants were nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to death. The study also showed that defendants of color were nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to death if convicted of killing a white victim than a victim of color and nearly twice as likely as a white defendant to be condemned for killing a white victim. Jones's petition argues that his death sentence violates the state and federal constitutions because he "faced a greater risk of execution by the mere happenstance that the victim who he was accused and convicted of killing was white.” Both Jones and Wood were capitally charged in Oklahoma County, one of the 2% of American counties responsible for more than half of all prisoners on the nation's death rows. 54 men and women were sent to death row during the 21-year administration of District Attorney “Cowboy” Bob Macy, who retired in 2001. The judge who presided over Wood's trial has made openly racist remarks, saying in 2011 that Mexicans are “nothing but filthy animals.”  Jones was sentenced to death by a nearly all-white jury, following what his current lawyers describe as “pervasive and highly racialized pre-trial media coverage” and “racialized remarks made by prosecutors and at least one juror” during his trial. Jones has also filed a motion with the Oklahoma County court seeking DNA testing on a red bandana that an eyewitness said the shooter was wearing over his face at the time of the murder. His lawyers say the bandana may contain DNA evidence that would identify the shooter and exonerate Jones.


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Florida Death-Row Population Drops to 12-Year Low As Jury Unanimity Ruling Takes Effect

The number of prisoners on Florida's death row is now lower than it was on June 30, 2005, as the pace of death sentencing slows and courts reverse the unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences by which numerous capital defendants had been condemned. Applying the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 ruling in Hurst v. Florida and subsequent Florida Supreme Court decisions in Hurst v. State and Perry v. State, state courts declared unconstitutional Florida's practice of permitting trial judges to impose death sentences after sentencing juries had not reached a unanimous agreement that death was the appropriate punishment. As a result, death sentences have been vacated in nearly 100 cases, and additional cases are working their way through Florida's court system. So far this year, 15 people have been removed from Florida's death row, and a 16th died after having his death sentence vacated under Hurst, while being transfered to a court hearing. The declining population on death row is not being replaced with new death sentences; the state's last death sentence was handed down in June 2016 and more than 3/4ths of death sentences imposed in the previous five years had involved non-unanimous jury votes for death. As a result, the number of prisoners housed on Florida's death row has fallen from 383 at the beginning of 2017, to 367—slightly lower than the 369 people who were on death row in 2005. Even more prisoners are expected to be removed from death row, as many of those whose death sentences have been invalidated are resentenced to life. (The Department of Corrections death-row roster only removes a prisoner from its list if the prisoner dies, receives clemency, is exonerated, or is resentenced to something other than death.) A DPIC review of Florida capital cases indicates that, through July 13, Florida courts have issued decisions involving Hurst in at least 119 cases. Those decisions have resulted in the vacation of 99 death sentences. To date, the counties most affected by the Hurst rulings have been: Duval (15 sentences); Orange (9 sentences); and Broward (9 sentences). In Duval County, 14 of the 15 death sentences reviewed (93.33%) have been vacated; in Orange County, all 9 death sentences reviewed have been vacated; and in Broward county, 7 of the 9 death sentences reviewed (77.78%) have been vacated. DPIC, in conjunction with researcher and professor Michael Radelet, has also identified at least 149 prisoners who are expected to obtain relief under the Florida court's current interpretation of Hurst, and is tracking what happens to those cases on resentencing. Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan said the resentencing hearings will present difficulties for the state's legal system: “That’s not an easy thing to go back and dig up all of this evidence and especially to dig up all the witnesses,” for a new sentencing hearing. “We have been very, very negligent in the state of Florida in handling these types of cases,” he said.


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Resentencing of Intellectually Disabled Prisoner Highlights Death Penalty Decline in South Carolina and Nationwide

In 1989, William Henry Bell, Jr. was convicted of murdering an elementary school principal. Nearly 30 years later, South Carolina's Free Times reports that the reversal of his death sentence because of intellectual disability provides evidence of the death penalty's continuing decline in the state and across the country. At the time of the murder, Bell maintained that he was innocent, but after four days in jail, he confessed to the murder. Prior appeals—including one alleging a pattern of racially discriminatory charging practices in interracial crimes involving black defendants and white victims—failed for 25 years, until a trial judge in November 2016 determined that Bell was ineligible for capital punishment because he had Intellectual Disability. In May 2017, the state attorney general's office decided it lacked grounds to appeal the court's decision, leaving Bell to face resentencing with a maximum penalty of life without parole. Emily Paavola, one of Bell's attorneys, said the case fits into a larger narrative of South Carolina's declining use of capital punishment. “It is increasingly hard to justify retaining the death penalty in South Carolina. Prosecutors rarely seek it, juries more rarely impose it, and even when the rare individual is sentenced to death, the odds are that the defendant will not be executed. We can no longer afford the financial and social costs of such a broken system,” she wrote. The last execution in South Carolina took place in 2011, and since that time only one person has been sentenced to death in the state. Similar declines have occurred nationwide, with death sentences and executions both dropping sharply in recent years. Fewer people were sentenced to death in 2016 than in any year since states began re-enacting the death penalty in 1973, and executions in 2016 were at their lowest level in 25 years. 


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Recent Jury Trials in Dallas Highlight Death Penalty Decline Across Texas

From 2007 to 2013, Dallas sentenced twelve capitally charged defendants to death—more than any other county in Texas—and Dallas ranks second nationally, behind only Harris County (Houston), in the number it has executed since 1972. But the county has not imposed any new death sentences since then, and the recent life sentences in the capital trials of Justin Smith and Erbie Bowser highlight a statewide trend away from the death penalty. Smith was charged with killing three and injuring two others in a drug-house robbery; Bowser, with killing four women and injuring four children in what has been described as "a two-city rampage." After hearing evidence of Bowser's prison adjustment after being medicated for mental illness, his jury split on whether he posed a future threat to society and he was sentenced to life without parole. When Smith's jury told the court it was split on whether he had proven mitigating circumstances, he agreed to accept a plea deal to life. Such outcomes are becoming more common in Texas. About half (7 of 15) of the death penalty trials in the state since 2015 have resulted in life sentences. The fact that prosecutors have taken death penalty cases to trial just 15 times in two-and-a-half years is itself a significant change. A combination of factors, including declining public support for capital punishment, the availability of a life-without-parole sentencing option, the high cost of death penalty trials, and concerns about innocence, have led prosecutors to seek death sentences less often. Former Montague County District Attorney Tim Cole said his views on the issue have shifted: "It is time for the death penalty to go away. My primary concern with it is we don't seem to get it perfectly.... The execution of one innocent person isn't worth it to me." He said he believes the option of life without parole has also contributed to the declining number of death sentences by giving prosecutors and jurors a severe alternative punishment. Paul Johnson, an attorney for Justin Smith, agreed: "[Jurors] know that if they don't give them death, they're going to die in prison anyway. Why put someone to death when you can give them life without parole?" In an editorial, The Dallas Morning News wrote, "[e]vidence continues to mount that this system is too ripe for mistakes." The newspaper lauded the state's progress in reducing death sentences, and pointed to recent legislation as further evidence of capital punishment's decline. A death penalty repeal bill was given public hearings this session, and legislators have passed and sent to the governor reforms aimed at reducing wrongful convictions. Under the new bill, "Police would be required to record interrogations, and prosecutors would have to provide jurors more information about testimony from so-called prison snitches. Stricter protocols also would be in place for eyewitness identification." (Click image to enlarge.)


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U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand Florida Decision Barring Death Sentences Based on Non-Unanimous Jury Votes

On May 22, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Florida's petition for a writ of certiorari in Florida v. Hurst, refusing to disturb a decision of the Florida Supreme Court that had declared it unconstitutional for judges to impose death sentences after one or more jurors in the case had voted for life. The ruling effectively ends Florida prosecutors' efforts to reverse the state court ruling—which could overturn approximately 200 death sentences in the state—requiring that capital sentencing juries unanimously recommend death before the trial judge may impose a death sentence. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had asked the high court to consider the Florida decision, arguing that the state court's "expansive reading" of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida was erroneous. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing scheme, saying, "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." The Florida legislature rewrote the law to require that juries unanimously find at least one aggravating factor, making a case eligible for a death sentence, and raising the threshold for a jury recommendation of a death sentence from a simple 7-5 majority to at least 10 of the 12 jurors. The Florida Supreme Court held in October 2016 that the new law violated both the state and federal constitutions because it did not require jury unanimity before the court could impose a death sentence. Most of the 386 prisoners currently on Florida's death row were sentenced to death in violation of Hurst. However, the state court has ruled that it will not apply its decision to cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that the Sixth Amendment gives capital defendants the right to have a jury find all facts that are necessary to impose the death penalty in their case. The Florida Supreme Court has already ordered more than a dozen new sentencing hearings in cases involving non-unanimous jury recommendations for death, and local prosecutors are faced with the prospect of a flood of expensive retrials in cases in which one or more jurors have already rejected the death penalty. Dave Davis, who represented Hurst, said “'[p]rosecutors are going to have to decide is it worth the effort to try to get death again. They're going to have to examine their evidence … and decide what the likelihood is that they're going to get 12 jurors to decide death.”


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New Statistical Brief from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Documents U.S. Death Penalty Decline

The nation's death rows are shrinking more rapidly than new defendants are being sentenced to death, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical brief, "Capital Punishment, 2014–2015." The statistical brief, which analyzes information on those under sentence of death in the United States as of December 31, 2014 and December 31, 2015, documents a continuing decline in executions, new death sentences, and death row populations across the U.S. 2015 marked the fifteenth consecutive annual decrease in the number of prisoners under sentence of death in the U.S. According to BJS, 69 prisoners were admitted to state or federal death rows in 2014 and 49 were admitted in 2015. (DPIC uses a slightly different counting method that reported 73 death sentences imposed in 2014.) The data also indicates that the decline in the size of death row is attributable to factors other than execution. According to BJS, 75 prisoners were removed from death row in 2014 by means other than execution, such as exoneration, the reversal of a conviction or death sentence, commutation, or death by other causes, as compared with 35 who were executed. In 2015, 82 prisoners were taken off death row by means other than execution, while 28 death-row prisoners were executed. Over the two-year period covered by the data, 39 more prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution than were admitted as a result of new death sentences. The gap between removals from death row and new admissions is expected to widen even further in 2016 and 2017 as a result of record-low death-sentencing rates and prisoners being removed from death row due to death-penalty statutes having been declared unconstitutional in Florida, Delaware, and Connecticut. BJS reports that 2,881 prisoners remained under sentence of death in 33 states and the federal system at the end of 2015. (Click image to enlarge.)


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Alabama Legislature Votes to End Judicial Override

The Alabama legislature has approved and sent to the Governor a bill that would bring to an end the practice of permitting trial judges to impose death sentences over a capital sentencing jury's recommendation that the defendant be sentenced to life. Alabama is the only state in the U.S. that currently permits judicial override. The legislature acted in response to mounting court challenges to Alabama's death penalty statute. On April 4, the state House of Representatives voted 78-19 to pass a bill prohibiting trial judges from overriding the sentencing recommendations of juries in death penalty cases. Governor Robert Bentley has indicated that he intends to sign the legislation. Two versions of the proposal had advanced in the state legislature. A bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) that would eliminate judicial override but retain Alabama's practice of allowing death sentences if ten or more jurors voted for death, passed the Senate 30-1 on February 23. A House bill by Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) that would have abolished judicial override and required a unanimous jury vote for death had passed the House Judiciary Committee on February 16. Rep. England agreed to substitute the Senate version of the bill, which then overwhelmingly passed the House. The bill "places the death penalty back in the proper perspective," England said. "It puts it ... where in my opinion the Constitution intends it to be: in the hands of juries." Although Alabama is no longer an outlier on judicial override, it remains the only state in the country to permit a death sentence to be imposed based upon a non-unanimous jury vote. According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), judicial override has historically been employed to impose death sentences when a jury recommended life, rather than as a safeguard against unjust jury votes for death. In 101 of the 112 cases in which Alabama judges have overriden capital jury sentencing recommendations, they have imposed the death penalty over a jury recommendation of life. The EJI study also found that the use of judicial override has been influenced by political concerns, with sentencing overrides disproportionately rising in election years. Bryan Stevenson, founder of EJI, said, "Override undermines the role of jurors, who sometimes deliberate for hours to make the right decisions in these cases on behalf of the community. Alabama has had one of the highest death-sentencing rates in the country largely because we add to death row so many people juries do not believe should be executed."


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