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ARBITRARINESS: Getting a Death Sentence May Depend on the Budget of the County

Whether the death penalty will be sought in a murder may depend more on the budget of the county in which it is committed than on the severity of the crime, according to several prosecutors. A report by the Marshall Project found that the high costs of capital cases prevent some district attorneys from seeking the death penalty. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.” One capital case can bankrupt a county: “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County, Texas. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?” Prosecutors cited past cases in which counties had to drastically alter their budgets in order to pay for death penalty trials. In Jasper County, Texas, a county auditor said the budget shock of a death penalty case was as bad as a flood that destroyed roads and bridges. Seeking the death penalty in one case in Gray County, Texas, forced the county to raise taxes and suspend raises for employees. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole. When Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor Greg McPhillips decided not to seek the death penalty in a case he thought was particularly heinous, he pointed to costs as the reason: “The County Attorney’s Office wants to do their part in helping the County meet its fiscal responsibilities in this time of economic crisis not only in our County but across the nation,” he said.


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Pennsylvania Death Penalty Costs Estimated at $350 Million

In a series of articles analyzing Pennsylvania's death penalty, the Reading Eagle found that taxpayers have spent over $350 million on the death penalty over a period in which the state has carried out just three executions, all of inmates who dropped their appeals. Using data from a Maryland cost study, which concluded that death penalty cases cost $1.9 million more than similar cases in which the death penalty was not sought, the newspaper estimated that the cases of the 185 people on Pennsylvania's death row cost $351.5 million. The paper said the estimate was conservative because it did not include cases that were overturned, or cases where the prosecutor sought the death penalty but the jury returned another sentence. Pennsylvania legislators commissioned a cost study in 2011, but the report has not been issued. Senator Daylin Leach, one of the legislators who called for the state report, said he will reintroduce a bill to repeal the death penalty. Even supporters of the death penalty agreed that the costs are a problem: "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," said Berks County District Attorney John Adams. Judge Thomas Parisi, also of Berks County, said he believed there was an astronomical cost difference between the average death penalty case and a life-sentence case.


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LAW REVIEWS: The "Unreliability Principle" in Death Sentencing

A forthcoming article by University of Miami law professor Scott E. Sundby in the William & Mary Bill of Rights journal examines the "unreliability principle" established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons. The article defines the unreliability principle as, "if too great a risk exists that constitutionally protected mitigation cannot be properly comprehended and accounted for by the sentencer, the unreliability that is created means that the death penalty cannot be constitutionally applied." That is, certain classes of defendants can be exempt from the death penalty because juries cannot be relied upon to adequately assess the mitigating factors. This principle applied to both intellectually disabled defendants in Atkins and juvenile defendants in Roper. Sundby argues that the principle should be extended to mentally ill defendants as well. Six factors that the court considered in Atkins and Roper are identified, and subequently applied to defendants with mental illnesses. Among the factors identified are the defendant's impared ability to assist defense attorneys, the defendant's impaired ability to serve as a witness, and the defendant's distorted decision-making skills.


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INNOCENCE: Kwame Ajamu Officially Exonerated, Becomes 150th Death Row Exoneree

At a hearing on December 9, Kwame Ajamu (formerly Ronnie Bridgeman) was formally exonerated of the 1975 murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. Ajamu joins his brother, Wiley Bridgeman, and co-defendant, Ricky Jackson, on DPIC's Exoneration List, becoming the 150th death row exoneree since 1973. Ajamu, Bridgeman, and Jackson were convicted based on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who recently admitted that he never saw the killing. Ajamu's death sentence was reduced in 1978 when Ohio's death penalty statute was found unconstitutional. He was released from prison in 2003. Upon his exoneration, Ajamu said, "The important part is that we have been united while we are standing forward and upward and that we are not looking at each other in the graveyard," adding, "I feel vindicated. I feel free." The three men are expected to file for compensation for their many years of wrongful imprisonment. Cuyahoga County prosecutors said they will not object to efforts to obtain compensation, saying that the men were "victims of a terrible injustice."


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Duval County, Florida, Leader in Death Sentences

“Counties"(Click to enlarge) According to a report by the Christian Science Monitor, Duval County, Florida, has the highest per capita rate for inmates on death row of any U.S. county. Duval has sentenced one person to death for every 14,000 residents. It is among the 2% of counties in the U.S. reponsible for a majority of all inmates on death row as of 2013, as described in DPIC's report, The 2% Death Penalty. Duval County ranked 8th, with 60 inmates on death row. Duval has handed down 14 death sentences in the last 5 years. As a s state, Florida had the second highest number of death sentences in 2013, behind only California. Florida's unusual sentencing procedures, which allow a simple majority of the jury to recommend a death sentence, may explain some of Duval's high sentencing numbers, but experts also point to cultural factors. Seth Kotch, a historian from the University of North Carolina, said, "We know that the best predictor of execution is previous execution, which suggests that a courthouse or a county can get into a habit of doing things, and those habitual behaviors are informed by cultural cues about crime and punishment.”


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INNOCENCE: Prosecutors Drop Charges Against Former Death Row Inmates

UPDATE (11/24): A judge formally dropped the charges against Wiley Bridgeman (pictured), making him the 149th person exonerated from death row since 1973. Previously: Cuyahoga County, Ohio prosecutors have filed a motion to drop murder charges against Ricky Jackson and his co-defendants, Wiley Bridgeman and Kwame Ajamu (formerly known as Ronnie Bridgeman). The three men were convicted of murder in 1975 on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who has since recanted and said he did not witness the crime. All three were sentenced to death. Bridgeman once came within three weeks of execution, but his and Ajamu's death sentences were struck down when Ohio's death penalty was found unconstitutional in 1978. Ajamu had been released from prison in 2003, but Jackson and Bridgeman had spent 39 years in prison. Both were released after a judge officially dismissed their charges on November 21. When he was released, Jackson said, "The English language doesn’t even fit what I’m feeling. I’m on an emotional high. You sit in prison for so long and think about this day but when it actually comes you don’t know what you’re going to do, you just want to do something.” Judge Richard McMonagle, who dismissed the charges against Jackson, said, “Life is filled with small victories, and this is a big one.”


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INNOCENCE: Former Death Row Inmate to be Exonerated in Ohio After 39 Years

Former death row inmate Ricky Jackson will be formally exonerated on November 21 in Ohio, after spending 39 years in prison. A judge in Cleveland will dismiss all charges against Jackson, with the prosecution in agreement. Jackson is one of three men convicted of the 1975 murder of Harold Franks. The other two defendants, Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, were also sentenced to death and have filed a petition for a new trial, but that petition has not yet been resolved. Jackson's death sentence was vacated earlier, and the Bridgeman brothers' sentences were overturned when Ohio's death penalty was found unconstitutional in 1978. The men were convicted on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted his testimony, and who now has said he did not witness the crime at all. Several people confirmed the boy was on a school bus at the time of the crime. No other evidence linked the men to the murder. A gun and car seen at the crime scene were linked to a man who was arrested in 1978 for another murder, but he was never charged in Franks' murder. In dropping the charges against Jackson, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said, "The state is conceding the obvious." Ricky Jackson will be the 148th person exonerated from death row in the U.S. since 1973, the fifth in 2014, and the seventh in Ohio since 1973.


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EDITORIALS: Maryland Governor Should Commute Remaining Death Sentences

In a recent editorial, the Washington Post urged Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley to commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row, saying, "To carry out executions post-repeal would be both cruel, because the legislation underpinning the sentence has been scrapped, and unusual, because doing so would be historically unprecedented." Maryland is one of three states that have repealed the death penalty prospectively but still have inmates on death row. The others are Connecticut and New Mexico. O'Malley, who is leaving office in January, was a supporter of repeal. Maryland Attorney Douglas Gansler, who opposed repeal, recently said that carrying out an execution in Maryland is, "illegal and factually impossible." The editorial concluded, "In signing the abolition of capital punishment into law last year, [O'Malley] was unequivocal: 'It’s wasteful. It’s ineffective. It doesn’t work to reduce violent crime.' Having made the moral case for abolition so eloquently, he should have no trouble making the practical case for commutation to life without parole for the four remaining condemned men. And he should act without further delay." Read the editorial below.


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STUDIES: Death Row Inmates Pay the Price for Lawyers' Mistakes

In Part Two of its investigation into the federal review of state death penalty cases, Death by Deadline, The Marshall Project found that in almost every case where lawyers missed crtiical filing deadlines for federal appeals, the only person sanctioned was the death row prisoner. Often the inmate's entire federal review was forfeited. The report highlighted the disparity between the 17 federal judicial districts where government-funded attorneys carefully monitor capital cases to ensure deadlines are met, and the other 77 districts, where appeals lawyers are appointed by judges and receive little oversight. In Florida, which produced 37 of the 80 missed deadline cases, appeals lawyers are selected from a state registry that includes lawyers who have previously missed deadlines in several capital cases. U.S. District Court judge Timothy Corrigan chastised one attorney who filed after the cutoff in three separate cases, saying, "I would be remiss if I did not share my deep concern that in these cases our federal system of justice fell short in the very situation where the stakes could not be higher.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently commented on the strict deadlines in capital cases, saying, “When you’re talking about the state taking someone’s life, there has to be a great deal of flexibility within the system to deal with things like deadlines. If you rely on process to deny what could be a substantive claim, I worry about where that will lead us.”


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STUDIES: Lawyers for Death Row Inmates Missed Critical Filing Deadlines in 80 Cases

An investigation by The Marshall Project showed that since Congress put strict time restrictions on federal appeals in 1996, lawyers for death row inmates missed the deadline at least 80 times, including 16 in which the prisoners have since been executed. The most recent of such cases occurred on Nov. 13, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida with no review in federal court. This final part of a death penalty appeal, also called habeas corpus, has been a lifesaver for inmates whose cases were marked with mistakes ignored by state courts. The Project's report, Death by Deadline, noted, "Some of the lawyers' mistakes can be traced to their misunderstandings of federal habeas law and the notoriously complex procedures that have grown up around it. Just as often, though, the errors have exposed the lack of care and resources that have long plagued the patchwork system by which indigent death-row prisoners are provided with legal help." One Alabama lawyer who missed the deadline was addicted to methamphetamine and was on probation for public intoxication. An attorney in Texas who filed too late had been reprimanded for misconduct, while another Texas lawyer had been put on probation twice by the state bar. Two weeks after being appointed in the death penalty case, he was put on probation again.


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