Sentencing News and Developments: 2003 - 2001

For the First Time, No Death Sentences in Chicago in 2003
In the year since former Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision to grant clemency to all those awaiting execution in the state, no one has been sentenced to death in Cook County, which includes Chicago. This marks the first time since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977 that the county has not had a death sentence. Cook County has historically sent the highest annual number of defendants to death row. Although Illinois currently has a moratorium on executions in place, prosecutors are still able to seek the death penalty for defendants accused of capital crimes. (Chicago Tribune, January 2, 2004) See DPIC's 2003 Year End Report.


Serial Killer Receives Life Sentence While 3,500 Others Face Execution
In a plea agreement reached with Washington state prosecutors, Gary Ridgway, a Seattle-area man who admitted to 48 murders since 1982, will serve a sentence of life in prison without parole. Prosecutors spared Ridgway from execution in exchange for his cooperation in leading police to the remains of still-missing victims. (Associated Press, November 5, 2003) The state's plea agreement raises questions of proportionality in sentencing when compared with the other inmates on the state's death row. The arbitrary and unpredictable application of capital punishment once led the U.S. Supreme Court to hold that the death penalty was unconstitutional in 1972. In Furman v. Georgia, one of the concurring Justices described receiving the death penalty as random as being "struck by lightning"--the facts of the crime carried little weight in predicting who would receive capital punishment.

25 Year-old Death Sentence Unanimously Reversed by Alabama Supreme Court
On October 3, 2003, the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously reversed Phillip Tomlin's death sentence and ordered him resentenced to life in prison without parole, marking the Court's first ruling to create a standard of review for judicial override in the state. Tomlin had been on death row for more than 25 years despite the fact that four juries have recommended that he receive a life sentence for his alleged role in a Mobile, Alabama, revenge killing. In each of those cases, the trial judge overrode the jury to impose a death sentence because Tomlin's co-defendant, John Daniels, was sent to death row. In its decision, the Court noted, "It would be inconsistent to hold that Daniels's sentence could properly be used to undermine the jury's recommendation of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole." The Court's opinion also noted an earlier Alabama Supreme Court ruling that concluded that even a 10-2 jury recommendation should be given strong consideration by the sentencing judge. Tomlin was represented by his pro-bono attorney, University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt. Mobile Register, October 4, 2003, and Attorney Press Release, October 7, 2003).

Death Penalty Declines in Key Areas
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Pima County, Arizona have been the main jurisdictions in their respective states for death sentences in the past. Now they are sending considerably fewer people to death row or seeking the death penalty less. Philadelphia prosecutors have sought the death penalty 24 times since last September, but jurors from the city have not sent anyone to death row in more than a year. In fact, the city has only secured death sentences against 4 people since 2000. In the majority of cases where jurors have chosen not to send defendants to death row, they have imposed a sentence of life in prison without parole. Cathie Abookire, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, noted: "When someone wants to plead guilty to the crime of murder, and we know that life means life in Pennyslvania, then we are all for it. It gives the family some peace of mind, because it is over. There are not going to be 20 years of appeals." (Associated Press, October 3, 2003)
Similarly, the number of death sentences pursued in Pima County, Arizona has decreased by a third. "We've made a conscious effort to limit the death notices to the worst cases. We have a fuller discussion about can we - and should we - pursue death. It's a more thoughtful process," said prosecutor Rick Unklesbay. The policy shift was embraced by victim advocate Gail Leland, who stated, "I think the process and the options that we have now regarding sentencing have really been improved." (Associated Press, October 5, 2003).

Fewer Death Sentences Sought in New York
Eight years after the death penalty was reinstated in New York, the number of death sentences sought by prosecutors has sharply declined. According to the New York Capital Defender Office, the number of death penalty notices filed has dropped from a record-high 14 in 1998 to just two so far in 2003. Howard R. Relin, a long-time district attorney in Rochester and death penalty supporter, noted: "D.A.'s are being more and more careful in making that determination. There's a sense of realism that has set in to prosecutors around New York State, as a result of the jury verdicts we have seen throughout the state." Richard Brown, the Queens district attorney, added that prosecutors have come to understand that the suffering of murder victims' relatives is often prolonged in death penalty cases because of the years of legal warfare and that capital cases are a drain on prosecutors' time and budgets. He stated, "Particularly at a time of fiscal crisis, it is very difficult to justify taking experienced prosecutors away from handling other violent felonies." Death sentencing has also been declining in other states around the country. (New York Times, September 21, 2003)

New York Times Magazine Examines Why Death Penalty Jurors Are Sparing Lives
A recent article by Alex Kotlowitz in the New York Times Magazine examined why jurors who affirmed their willingness to impose a death sentence are increasingly voting for life in capital cases. The article noted:

Over the past few years, detective work and advances in DNA technology have uncovered a frighteningly high number of wrongfully convicted, especially on death row. But there may be another, albeit quieter, revolution taking place, out of view, in jury rooms. The number of death sentences handed down has dropped precipitously, from a modern-day peak of 319 in 1996 to 229 in 2000, and then to 155 in 2001. And a study released just last month reported that in 15 of the last 16 federal capital trials, jurors chose life sentences over death.

There are a number of factors at work here. In early 2000, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, staggered by the number of wrongful convictions in his state, declared a moratorium on executions. It received a good deal of national press and undoubtedly made some prosecutors and jurors more cautious. (Last January, Ryan went beyond a moratorium; he pardoned four inmates and commuted the sentences of the other 167 on Illinois's death row.) Additionally, the murder rate has been in a steady decline, though that has been going on for some time.

There are two factors, however, that more than anything else may help explain the decline in death-penalty sentences. One is the increasing availability of life without parole as an option, which all but three death-penalty states now offer. In polls, three-fourths of Americans say they believe in the death penalty. But when asked whether they'd support capital punishment if life without parole was an option, the number is reduced to half.

The other contributor, perhaps tougher to measure, is a development over the last decade: an increasing number of defense attorneys have become more skilled and resourceful in persuading jurors that the lives of their clients are worth saving.

(New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2003). See Innocence.

Orange County Juries Reject Death Verdicts in 2002
For the first time in a decade, juries in California's conservative Orange County did not send a single defendant to death row last year. While Orange County juries have a history of siding with prosecutors in death penalty cases, each of the four capital convictions sought in 2002 resulted in a deadlocked jury. In the past, despite its low crime rate, Orange County has sent 47 inmates to California's death row since the death penalty was reinstated. (Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2003).

Ohio Sentences Shifting from Death to Life Without Parole
Only 4% of defendants were sentenced to death in Ohio in 2000, the lowest percentage since records have been kept. The same year, 27% of those convicted of aggravated murder were sentenced to life without parole, the highest number ever. These numbers show a dramatic shift from 1998, when sentences for life and death were nearly even. Discussing the decline in the number of inmates entering death row, Reginald A. Wilkinson, director of the state prison system, said, "Usually we've been up in the double digits with 15, sometimes 17 a year. Now the numbers are way down. If it stays that way, it's a definite trend." (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 8/21/01)