Sentencing News and Developments: 2007


The Death Penalty Information Center has released its 13th annual Year End Report, noting that executions have dropped to a 13-year low as a de facto moratorium took hold in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s examination of lethal injection procedures. Death sentences have also dropped considerably in recent years.  DPIC projected 110 new death sentences in 2007 - the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a 60% drop since 1999. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 115 new inmates were received on death row in 2006.  In 1999, there 284 admitted to death row.

The report notes that the 42 executions this year occurred in only a few states, with 40 out of the 50 states in the U.S. not having any executions this year. Almost all (86%) of the executions in 2007 were in the South, and 62% of the executions took place in one state, Texas. Executions have declined 57% since 1999.

The report also cites a number of important new developments, including the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey this month.  Governor Corzine signed the abolition legislation on December 17, after commuting the death sentences of the 8 people on death row to life without parole sentences.  New York has also been removed from the list of death penalty states, bringing that total to 14 states.  Three exonerations of death row inmates occurred in 2007: one each in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  The report contains statements from a variety of law enforcement personnel, victims, editorial boards, and judges voicing serious concerns about the death penalty.
(Death Penalty Information Center, posted December 19, 2007). Read the 2007 Year End Report. See also articles about the report in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and

ARBITRARINESS: In the Leading Execution State, Many Receive Probation for Murder

In a recent investigation published in The Dallas Morning News, researchers found that 120 defendants convicted of murder in Texas between 2000 and 2006 received only a sentence of probation. In Dallas County, twice as many convicted murderers were sentenced to probation as were sent to death row. Typically in these cases, a defendant pleads guilty to murder, receives probation, and, with good behavior, can have the murder charged wiped from his or her record.

The News began researching probation-for-murder sentences in 2006 after a white man from a “politically prominent family,” John Alexander Wood, received probation for the murder of an unarmed prostitute. Reporters examined government records and interviewed key people in the murder cases in order to obtain their data. Their research excluded capital murder and manslaughter cases.

Key findings of the News' research included:
  • The majority of the murderers in the study were minorities who killed other minorities, a pattern typical of murders overall in Dallas.
  • Many of the victims, like John Wood’s victim, were considered “unsympathetic,” especially in comparison to the defendant.
  • More than one third of the defendants in the study violated their probation with crimes other than murder and were subsequently sent to prison.
According to the News' sources, probation will not be a sentencing option for juries much longer. Under a recent Texas law, juries will not be able to sentence a defendant with probation if the murder occurred after September 1, 2007. Judges, however, will retain this power and prosecutors can continue to arrange plea bargains.

Texas leads the nation with 26 executions this year and 405 since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. Nationwide, probation accounted for 9% of the total murder sentences.
(“Unequal Justice: Murderers on Probation” by Brooks Egerton and Reese Dunklin, The Dallas Morning News).

China Reports Fewest Death Sentences in a Decade

China reported that the number of people sentenced to death in 2006 was the lowest in nearly a decade, and officials project that this trend will continue in 2007. According to a state media report, during the first five months of 2007, the number of death sentences handed out in cases of first instance dropped approximately 10% from the same time in 2006. The decline stems from a key legal reform requiring that all death sentences be approved by the Supreme People's Court, a change made in response to widespread concerns about wrongful convictions.

"Among the death penalty cases the Supreme People's Court reviewed from January to July, a relatively large proportion was not given approval. That is to say, executions would have been authorised (by provincial courts) if the final review power had not been taken back [by the Supreme Court]," Jiang Xingchang, vice president of the top court, told Outlook Weekly magazine.
(Reuters, September 3, 2007 and The Jurist, September 3, 2007). See International Death Penalty and Innocence. The decline in death sentences in China mirrors a similar trend in the U.S.  See DPIC's 2006 Year End Report.

Arizona's Death Penalty Five Years After Supreme Court's Ring Decision

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Ring v. Arizona that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a jury trial included the determination of whether sufficient aggravating factors existed to make a defendant eligible for the death penalty. Now, five years later, the man at the center of this case - Timothy Ring - has been re-sentenced to life without parole.

Ring's case is among 27 Arizona death penalty cases affected by the Supreme Court's ruling and re-examinated by the Arizona Supreme Court. The Court has upheld only 2 of the 27 death sentences it has reviewed. Four defendants, including Ring, were allowed to stipulate to life sentences. One person pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received a 25-year sentence. Ten cases were sent back to trial, resulting in 5 death sentences and 5 life sentences. Another 10 cases are yet to be resolved.

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Ring directly affected death sentences in five states: Arizona, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho. After the ruling was issued, Arizona rewrote its death penalty statute so that defendants may choose juries to not only determine aggravating factors but also to decide death sentences. Since then, juries have selected death sentences in 65% of the capital cases before them. Prior to Ring, Arizona judges imposed death sentences in about 20% of cases.  Ken Murray, an assistant federal public defender in Arizona, said that as attorneys gain more experience with the new rules, they will bring back more life sentences.
(Associated Press, July 18, 2007). See DPIC's Ring v. Arizona Web page and Life Without Parole.

NEW RESOURCE: "Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity"

Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity is a new report by The Sentencing Project that examines the racial and ethnic dynamics of incarceration in the U.S. with tables by state and by race. The report notes that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of whites and Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double the rate of whites. One in nine (11.7%) African American males between the ages of 25 and 29 is currently incarcerated in a prison or jail.

The report extends the findings of previous analyses by incorporating jail populations in the overall incarceration rate and by assessing the impact of incarceration on the Hispanic community, representing an increasing share of the prison population. The report notes: "In 2005, Hispanics comprised 20% of the state and federal prison population, a rise of 43% since 1990. As a result of these trends, one of every six Hispanic males and one of every 45 Hispanic females born today can expect to go to prison in his or her lifetime. These rates are more than double those for non-Hispanic whites."

"Racial disparities in incarceration reflect a failure of social and economic interventions to address crime effectively and also indicate racial bias in the justice system," stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. "The broad variation in the use of incarceration nationally suggests that policy decisions can play a key role in determining the size and composition of the prison population."

("Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity," The Sentencing Project, July 2007). Read the report.