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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In Expanding Dispute Over Death Penalty, Florida Governor Orders Replacement of Local Prosecutor in 21 Murder Cases
Florida Governor Rick Scott issued a series of executive orders on April 3 removing locally elected 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 21 first-degree murder cases and replacing her with 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. The removal comes two weeks after Ayala announced a policy that her office would not pursue the death penalty in murder prosecutions. The cases include a number of potential capital resentencings resulting from the Florida Supreme Court's 2016 decision declaring non-unanimous death sentences to be unconstitutional. Ayala, a Democrat whose district encompasses Orange and Osceola Counties in and around Orlando, said on March 16 that, after conducting "an evidence-based review" of the issue, she had concluded that seeking the death penalty was not cost-effective and "is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice." Ayala is the only African-American elected prosecutor in Florida. Gov. Scott previously removed her from the high-profile trial of Markeith Loyd, a defendant accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer, also appointing King to handle that case. That decision prompted opposition from the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and the victim's parents. Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa called Scott's action in the 21 cases a "gross abuse of his power." Louis Virelli, a law professor at Stetson University, warned that Gov. Scott's actions set a dangerous precedent, saying, "this opens the door for governors of all political parties to cherry-pick cases away from prosecutors." Ayala has hired Roy L. Austin, Jr., a former civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, to challenge Scott's authority to issue the executive orders. Ayala's spokesperson, Eryka Washington, said Scott had not notified the State Attorney that he was issuing the executive orders and that Ayala first learned of the orders from the media. “Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position that the Governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system,” Washington said. Orange and Osceola Counties imposed a total of one death sentence from 2012-2016. Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumpter Counties—the predominantly Republican counties that make up the judicial circuit in which State Attorney King was elected—imposed six death sentences during that period.
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Florida Legislature Passes Bill Eliminating Non-Unanimous Jury Recommendations for Death Penalty
A Florida bill that would require the jury to make a unanimous recommendation for death before a judge may impose a death sentence will head to Governor Rick Scott for final approval, after both houses of the Florida legislature passed it by overwhelming margins. Senate Bill 280 passed unanimously (37-0) on March 9, and the corresponding House Bill 527 passed by a 112-3 vote on March 10. If signed by the governor, the bill will bring Florida into compliance with the Florida Supreme Court's rulings in Hurst v. State and Perry v. State in 2016. Hurst struck down Florida's prior capital sentencing statute, which had allowed judges to impose the death penalty if a majority of jurors recommended death or to override a jury's recommendation of life. Perry struck down an amended version of the statute, which had permitted judges to impose a death sentence if 10 or more jurors recommended death. The Florida Supreme Court also ruled that the unanimity requirement would apply to death-row prisoners whose direct appeals had been decided after the United States Supreme Court's June 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona, which held that capital defendants had a right to a jury determination of all facts necessary to impose the death penalty. That decision is expected to overturn approximately 200 death sentences, while permitting a similar number of prisoners whose direct appeals had already been completed to be executed despite constitutional violations in their cases. Until recently, three states—Florida, Alabama, and Delaware—permitted judges to impose death sentences on the basis of non-unanimous jury recommendations for death. Non-unanimous cases accounted for more than 20% of all death sentences in the U.S. from 2010-2015 and disproportionately contributed to death-row exonerations. In 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down its state's death penalty statute, holding that death sentences based upon non-unanimous jury recommendations for death were unconstitutional. The change to Florida's law would leave Alabama as the only remaining state in which a judge may impose a death sentence based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation.
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Jury in Wake County, North Carolina Returns 8th Consecutive Life Verdict in a Capital Trial
A Wake County, North Carolina jury voted to spare Nathan Holden's life on March 3, marking the eighth consecutive capital sentencing trial in the county in which juries had opted to sentence a defendant to life without parole instead of the death penalty. No jury in Wake County has imposed a death sentence since 2007. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty against Holden for murdering his ex-wife's parents and attempting to kill her. The jury convicted Holden of two counts of first-degree murder but, after being presented evidence of 39 mitigating circumstances—including that he suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as a result of chronic childhood abuse—jurors chose to sentence him to life. Although the ten Wake County prisoners on North Carolina's death row placed the county among the 2% of counties that accounted for 56% of all prisoners on U.S. death rows as of 2013, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said after jurors returned the sixth consecutive life sentence in February 2016 that it might be time to rethink whether to pursue the death penalty in future cases. Wake County's experience has been typical of North Carolina, and the nation as a whole. The state has averaged fewer than two death sentences per year since 2011, with no new death sentences in 2012 and 2015. In 2016, only one of the five capital trials in the state resulted in a death sentence. By contrast, the state sent between 20 to 30 people per year to death row in the 1990s. The United States has seen a similar drop in death sentences, imposing a total of only 30 new death sentences last year, down from a peak of 315 in 1996 (see graph, click to enlarge). North Carolina's last execution was in 2006.
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Florida Supreme Court Allows Death Penalty Prosecutions to Proceed
In a retreat from one of its prior decisions, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on February 20 that prosecutors could move forward with death penalty trials under Florida's constitutionally flawed capital sentencing statute, provided the trial court specifically instructs the sentencing jurors that they must unanimously find all facts that could make a defendant eligible for the death penalty and that they must unanimously recommend death before the trial judge may impose a death sentence. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty law in Hurst v. Florida because the trial judge, rather than the jury, was responsible for finding critical facts necessary to impose a death sentence. In response to that decision, the Florida legislature amended the state's capital sentencing statute to require juries to unanimously find at least one aggravating circumstance, but allowed the trial judge to impose a death sentence if at least 10 of 12 jurors recommended death. In October 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Perry v. State that this new sentencing statute violated the state and federal constitutions because it unconstitutionally permitted the judge to impose death despite a nonunanimous sentencing recommendation by the jury. At that time, the court declared that the sentencing law "cannot be applied to pending prosecutions." The latest ruling, in the cases of Patrick Albert Evans v. State of Florida and Juan Rosario v. State of Florida, reverses that decision. Legislators have proposed bills to revise the law and bring it in line with the court's October ruling. The latest decision allows death penalty cases to proceed even before such legislation is passed, but courts will only be allowed to impose a death sentence if the jury first unanimously agrees that it is the appropriate sentence.
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Capital Sentencing Reform Bills Advance in Florida, Alabama
Legislative committees in Florida and Alabama have voted to advance bills that would reform capital sentencing procedures in those states that have been the subject of extensive constitutional challenges. In Florida, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee by a vote of 6-0 approved a bill that would require a jury to unanimously recommend a death sentence before the trial judge could sentence a defendant to death. The bill would bring Florida's sentencing procedure in line with a Florida Supreme Court ruling that had declared unconstitutional death sentences that were imposed after one or more jurors had recommended a life sentence. In Alabama, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to end Alabama's practice of judicial override. Alabama is currently the only state that allows judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence and impose a death sentence. Senator Dick Brewbaker (R - Montgomery), who sponsored the bill, raised concerns about political pressure on elected judges. A majority of overrides in the last 10 years happened in election years. “I’m not saying anyone has any evil intent,” Brewbaker said. “I’m not arguing about constitutionality, but there’s no way to take politics out of politics. It’s like taking the wet out of the water. It can’t be done.” According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative, judges have used their override power to impose death sentences over jury recommendations for life 101 times, but overrode jury recommendations for death and imposed life sentences just 11 times. The U.S. Supreme Court has remanded four death penalty cases to Alabama's courts for a determination of the constitutionality of the state's sentencing practices—including judicial override. The Alabama courts have upheld the practice, and in December 2016, Alabama executed Ronald Smith despite a 7-5 jury recommendation that he be sentenced to life.
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STUDIES: At Least 201 Florida Death Row Prisoners May Be Eligible for Resentencing, 134 Had Non-Unanimous Juries
A new study reports that at least 201 Florida death row prisoners—including at least 134 whom judges sentenced to death after juries had returned non-unanimous sentencing recommendations—may be eligible for resentencing hearings as a result of recent rulings by the United States and Florida Supreme Courts declaring the state's death sentencing practices unconstitutional. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's statute in Hurst v. Florida, ruling that it unconstitutionally denied defendants the right to have juries decide whether the prosecution had proven key facts necessary to impose the death penalty. Later in the year, in Hurst v. State, the Florida Supreme Court also struck down the statute for permitting judges to impose death sentences without a unanimous jury recommendation for death. In a pair of rulings issued in December 2016, Asay v. State and Mosley v. State, the court applied that decision to any defendant whose death sentence was finalized after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Ring v. Arizona, in 2002. The authors of the study, Michael Radelet (pictured), a sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and G. Ben Cohen, a capital litigator in New Orleans, Louisiana, caution that the 134 non-unanimous post-Ring death verdicts that they have identified "are not the only cases that may require resentencing, as defendants may have different claims arising from other constitutional deficiencies in the Florida statutes." Their study shows that ten counties account for nearly 60% of Florida's death row, more than 60% of those sentenced to death since Ring, and 62% of the known non-unanimous verdicts and will most heavily bear the cost of resentencing these defendants. The counties with the largest numbers of affected prisoners are also among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of people on death row nationwide. Duval County has 31 defendants who may be eligible for resentencing, of whom at least 26 had a non-unanimous jury. The same is true of 11 of 12 affected defendants from Miami-Dade County, 8 of 12 from Broward County, and 7 of 11 from Seminole County. The authors point out that the constitutional failures of Florida's statute have been evident for many years, and that earlier acknowledgement of these problems could have saved the state from the costly resentencing hearings it now faces: "The significant cost of resentencing all of these individuals under a constitutional scheme was very predictable at the time of Ring in 2002, and was also foreseen by at least some experts who examined the post-Furman statute that was enacted in 1972." They conclude that "In 2017, the Florida legislature will need to make changes in the Florida death penalty statute that were predictable when the statute was first passed in 1972, and inevitable when the U.S. Supreme Court released Ring v. Arizona in 2002. Finally, they will need to acknowledge that Ring has rung."
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