NEW PODCAST: The Race Study that Convinced the Court to Declare Washington’s Death Penalty Unconstitutional
In October 2018, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s death penalty, finding that it had been “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” In reaching its decision in State v. Gregory, the court relied upon a study of twenty-five years of Washington State capital prosecutions that demonstrated that Washington juries were 4.5 times more likely to impose a death sentence on a black defendant than on a white defendant in a similar case. The authors of that study, Dr. Katherine Beckett (pictured, left) and Dr. Heather Evans (pictured, right), join DPIC’s Managing Director Anne Holsinger in the latest episode of our podcast, Discussions with DPIC, to discuss their research and its impact on the court’s decision to strike down the state’s death penalty. Beckett and Evans describe the factors they examined at various stages of capital sentencing, the major results of their study, and the role social science research plays in policymaking.
One of the most dramatic findings of the Washington study was that racial bias was rampant in the state’s capital sentencing outcomes even though there was no statistical evidence of racial discrimination in prosecutorial decisions on whether to seek the death penalty. “The research literature has identified a number of factors that contribute to bias in decision-making outcomes by juries,” Beckett explained. “We know, for example, that implicit bias is pervasive and affects perception and decision-making. … The death-qualification process is also a contributing factor, so we know that people who are in favor of the death penalty are more likely to exhibit implicit and possibly explicit bias. By excluding people who don’t feel comfortable or are philosophically opposed to the death penalty, we amplify the implicit bias that exists in the general population.” They noted that “substantial changes” would have to be made to the process of jury selection in capital cases in order to reduce the effects of implicit bias.
Although their study profoundly influenced capital litigation in Washington, Beckett and Evans said the information that allowed them to prove discrimination in sentencing may not be available in some other states. Under Washington’s death-penalty statute, the state supreme court was required to conduct proportionality review to determine whether a sentence was disproportionate to others imposed in similar circumstances. As a result, the state courts kept thorough records of the facts of murder convictions that are not necessarily available in other states. The researchers also noted that because the Washington Supreme Court decision was ultimately based on state constitutional law, other state courts might reach a different conclusion even if defendants could show similar patterns of bias in their state sentencing practices. With those caveats, Beckett and Evans believe that courts in other death-penalty states could benefit from similar studies. They noted that the Washington Supreme Court engaged “thoughtfully” and “deeply” with their research and found it heartening that “facts and evidence and rigorous research could be included in a deliberation of how to achieve more equity in the criminal justice system.”
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Study Reports More Than Three-Fold Drop in Pursuit of Death Penalty by Pennsylvania Prosecutors
A new study of fourteen years of Pennsylvania murder convictions has documented a sharp decline in county prosecutors’ use of capital punishment across the Commonwealth. After examining the court files of 4,184 murder convictions from 2004 to 2017, the Allentown Morning Call found that Pennsylvania prosecutors sought the death penalty at more than triple the rate (3.3) at the start of the study period than they did fourteen years later — a drop of more than 70%. In 2004, the paper reported, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 123 of 309 (39.8%) murder cases that ultimately resulted in a conviction. In 2017, they sought it in 33 of 271 cases (12.2%). While there were some year-to-year fluctuations in death-penalty usage over the 14-year period, the pattern showed a clear long-term downward trend. Though most (59) of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had at least one capital prosecution, the change was largely driven by the steep decline in the pursuit of the death penalty in Philadelphia. The city, which had 88 prisoners on its death row in January 2013 — the third highest of any city or county in the country — dropped from seeking death in more than half of all murder convictions (69 out of 134) in 2004 to 15% of the cases (16 out of 106) in 2017. The Morning Call reported that of the more than 1,100 case files of capital prosecutions it reviewed, 56 resulted in death sentences during the study period. The rest ended in plea bargains or sentences other than death.
The decline in capital prosecutions accompanies a twenty-year hiatus in executions in Pennsylvania during which the state and federal courts have overturned nearly 200 Pennsylvania capital convictions or death sentences, and a drop in public support for the death penalty. A 2015 poll by Public Policy Polling reported that 54% of Pennsylvania respondents said they preferred some form of life sentence as the punishment for murder, as compared to 42% who said they preferred the death penalty. Death sentences have also plummeted by nearly 90%. According to statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the state imposed an average of 15.8 death sentences per year in the five-year period from 1989-1993. But by 2004-2008, the average had fallen to 5.2 death sentences per year, and it dropped to only 1.8 death sentences per year from 2014-2018.
Prosecutors “are scrutinizing these decisions much more than ever before,” said Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams, former president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. “All of us are very cognizant of the fact that there’s a lot that we as prosecutors are asked to do as far as seeking the death penalty.” Marc Bookman, co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, which advises lawyers who are handling death-penalty trials, said, “Mostly it is just a recognition that it is a failed public policy. We’re seeing it more and more coming from elected officials, saying it is a failed public policy.” Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions in 2015, and said he intends to extend that moratorium until the legislature addresses problems identified by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. “He looks forward to working with the General Assembly on their plans to address the report and its recommendations for legislative changes, all of which he believes should be debated and considered,” the governor’s spokesperson said in a statement.
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Wake County, North Carolina Imposes First Death Sentence in More Than a Decade
For the first time in more than a decade, a jury in Wake County, North Carolina has sentenced a defendant to death. On March 4, 2019, a capital sentencing jury voted to impose the death penalty upon Seaga Edward Gillard, convicted of the double murder of a pregnant prostitute and her boyfriend, who was assisting her in her business. It was the county’s tenth death-penalty trial since 2008, but juries had rejected a death sentence in each of the previous nine cases. Prosecutors portrayed the Caribbean-born Gillard as a man who preyed on sex workers and told the jury that the case was about securing “maximum justice.”
The sentence bucks a trend in North Carolina, where the use of the death penalty has declined significantly over the last decade. Just 14 death sentences have been imposed in the state from 2009-2018 – more than a 90% decline off the peak of 241 death sentences imposed from 1991-2000 – and North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006. However, Wake County has continued to be an outlier in the state. The ten Wake County prisoners on North Carolina's death row at the end of 2012 placed the county among the 2% of counties that accounted for 56% of all prisoners on U.S. death rows. Gretchen Engel, executive director of North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation criticized the prosecution as wasteful and discriminatory. “Since taking over as Wake district attorney, Lorrin Freeman has pursued the death penalty more than any other prosecutor in North Carolina, costing taxpayers millions of dollars,” Engel said. “That is a poor investment, even in this case.”
Wake County has had four capital trials since Freeman’s election in 2014, with another capital case in jury selection. Eight of the ten prisoners on the county’s death row are Black, one is Latino, and just one is white, and eight of the ten defendants tried capitally since 2008 have been Black. “All it shows is that, if you try ten death penalty cases in a row and exclude from the jury all the people who oppose the death penalty, you can find a jury that will sentence a person to death despite the death penalty's documented unfairness,” Engel said. Although Engel said Gillard committed a serious crime for which he should be punished, she questioned whether his crime was “the worst of the worst.” In March 2016, Wake County jurors sentenced Nathan Holden to life for the double-murder of his ex-wife's parents and attempted murder of his ex-wife. In January 2018, in a crime Freeman had called “everybody’s worst nightmare,” a jury also sentenced Donovan Jevonte Richardson to two life sentences for a home break-in that ended in a double murder. “Wake County jurors have refused to impose the death penalty in other double homicide cases and even in a case in which the defendant was convicted of murdering five people,” Engel said. “All today's verdict shows is what we already knew: That the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily, and disproportionately on black men.”
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Georgia Approaches Five Years With No Death Sentences
For the first time since Georgia brought back the death penalty in 1973, the state will go five years without imposing any death sentences. No jury has handed down a death sentence since March 2014 and, with no capital trials scheduled for February or March, the state is nearly certain to reach the 5-year milestone. The decline in death sentencing is even more dramatic in light of the fact that, prior to 2015, Georgia had never gone two consecutive years without a death sentence. Experts attribute the decline primarily to two factors: improved death-penalty representation and the availability of life without parole.
Georgia’s Office of the Capital Defender — a statewide death-penalty public defender office — represents nearly everyone facing the death penalty in the state. The capital defender has reduced the number of death sentences by thoroughly investigating the life and mental health histories of its clients and working with prosecutors before trials even begin to reach non-capital dispositions. In December 2015, Jerry Word, who heads the state defender office, credited those efforts with preempting numerous capital trials. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2019 that the capital defender’s office “has become real good at identifying mitigating factors for a defendant and talking about that with prosecutors long before lines are drawn in the sand. This has made a real difference, and you save the resources and the time required of a death-penalty case and the victims don’t have to go through the years-long process.” In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and, by the end of 2015, that case had been the only one of the preceding 71 cases handled by the capital defender that had resulted in a death verdict. Since 2015, the capital defender has closed 69 death-penalty cases, of which just five went to trial and none resulted in a death sentence.
Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said that the availability of life without parole as a sentencing option also has fundamentally changed the way potentially capital cases are tried and the verdicts juries reach. Prior to 2009, life without parole was not an option in Georgia unless prosecutors actually sought the death penalty. Now, prosecutors may seek life without parole without capitally prosecuting a defendant. Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said, “[t]he majority of prosecutors around the state are now convinced that a life-without-parole sentence actually means what it says. It’s made a huge difference.” As a result, prosecutors now file notices to seek death much less often. In 2005, Georgia prosecutors filed 40 notices of intent to seek the death penalty. By 2011, that number had dropped to 26, and in 2017, it was just three.
The decline in death sentences paints a sharp contrast between the way cases were handled in the past and how they are handled today. According to Steve Bright, former director and president of the Georgia-based Southern Center for Human Rights, the people on Georgia’s death row did not commit worse crimes than today’s defendants, they simply faced a worse system. The state has executed 19 prisoners since a jury last imposed a death sentence in the state, in cases criticized as out of step with current practices and emblematic of systemic problems with the state’s death penalty. “Those are people who were sentenced to death some time ago often with lawyers who were not qualified to try a death-penalty case,” Bright said, describing Georgia’s death-row prisoners. “They are also people who would not be sentenced to death today.”
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Missouri Supreme Court Hears Case on ‘Hung Jury’ Death Sentences
The Missouri Supreme Court may soon rule on the constitutionality of the state’s practice of having the trial judge determine whether a capital defendant should live or die if the sentencing jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Death-row prisoner Marvin Rice (pictured) was sentenced to death by the trial judge in August 2017, even though 11 of the 12 jurors in his case voted for a life sentence. His appeal, which the state court heard on January 23, 2019, argues that the portion of Missouri’s death-penalty statute that gives the trial judge exclusive sentencing authority in the event of a hung sentencing jury violates his “constitutionally protected rights to due process, a trial by jury, and to a unanimous jury verdict.”
At the time of the offense, Rice – a former deputy sheriff and disabled Army veteran – was suffering from a major depressive disorder that had been worsened by the effects of a pituitary gland tumor. Court documents indicated that he had been diagnosed with 12 various medical and psychiatric conditions for which he had been taking 17 different medications. Eleven jurors were persuaded by this and other mitigating evidence that Rice’s life should be spared, but a single hold-out juror for death hung the jury. Trial judge Kelly Wayne Parker then disregarded the jury’s vote and sentenced Rice to death.
Rice’s appeal also challenges the constitutionality of Missouri’s capital punishment statute on the grounds that virtually any homicide now qualifies as a capital offense. This, he argues, violates the constitutional requirement that the death penalty be limited to a narrow class of the worst-of-the-worst killings. He also seeks a new trial based upon police and prosecutorial misconduct in his case. Police, he says, unconstitutionally continued to interrogate him while he was hospitalized for gunshot wounds sustained during his arrest, even after he had said he did not want to answer their questions. He also argues that the prosecutor repeatedly violated his constitutional right to remain silent, improperly commenting on both his decision not to testify at trial and his refusal to answer police questions after having been given his Miranda warnings. Rice’s lawyer, Craig Johnston told the state justices: “This court has repeatedly held that where an objection is made and overruled as happened here, a direct reference to the defendant’s failure to testify will invariably result in a new trial.”
Only Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to impose a death sentence following a jury deadlock in the sentencing phase of a capital trial. Alabama also allows a judge to impose a death sentence following a non-unanimous jury sentencing vote, but only if at least ten jurors vote for death. No jury in Missouri has imposed a death sentence since 2013, but judges sentenced Rice and Craig Wood to death after juries could not reach a unanimous sentencing decision. Wood was sentenced to death in 2018 after his jury voted 10-2 for a death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the constitutionality of Missouri’s hung jury sentencing practice. However, in 2016, the Court struck down Florida’s death sentencing statute saying its provision requiring the judge, rather than a jury, to find facts necessary to impose a death sentence violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
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