Life Without Parole Laws in States That Recently Repealed the Death Penalty

Since 2007, 8 states have abolished the death penalty; all utilize sentences of life without parole (LWOP). Those states have taken a variety of approaches in amending their laws regarding crimes that were death eligible. The chart below compares how the states address sentencing in those cases.

Notes: New Mexico, Connecticut, and Maryland abolished the death penalty prospectively but still had inmates on death row. Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley commuted the sentences of the remaining death-row prisoners to life without parole. The Connecticut Supreme Court declared the post-repeal application of the state’s death penalty to the prisoners remaining on its death row to violate the state constitution, and as each case came before the Court directed the lower courts to resentence the prisoners to life without parole.

Suggested changes are welcome. Information on life-sentencing procedures, except Delaware and Washington, based on DPIC’s questions to state litigators (as of September 2013). Delaware and Washington information based on DPIC research.

(Yr. of Abolition)
Is there a separate offense punishable by LWOP? Is LWOP mandatory upon conviction of this offense? If not, what criteria determine who gets LWOP? Are special trial procedures used? Is a jury involved in determing an LWOP sentence? Does it have to be unanimous?
Yes, LWOP is the only sentencing option for “murder with special circumstances,” which used to be the death-eligible crime, “capital felony.” Yes N/A No No, it is automatic if a defendant is convicted of murder with special circumstances.
Only the capital sentencing portion of the Delaware homicide statute was declared unconstitutional. The alternative sentence remains “imprisonment for the remainder of his natural life without benefit of parole or any other reduction.” With the invalidation of the state’s capital sentencing provisions, LWOP is the only sentencing option for capital murder. N/A No No. A life sentence is now automatic if a defendant is convicted of capital murder
LWOP is a sentencing option for first degree murder. Not all 1st degree murders are eligible for LWOP. When applicable, LWOP is either discretionary or mandatory depending on the relevant aggravating factors. In cases where it is discretionary, the alternative is a prison term of 20 to 100 years. Certain statutory aggravating factors or a finding that the murder “was accompanied by exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior, indicative of wanton cruelty.” When seeking LWOP (other than based on a prior conviction), the Illinois “Apprendi fix” statute applies, 725 ILCS 5/111-3(c-5). Yes, a jury must be unanimous in a sentencing decision for LWOP.
Yes, “capital murder” still exists by statute, and is punishable with a maximum sentence of LWOP. No, LWOP is considered an “enhanced” sentence. The decision to seek LWOP over life with parole is up to the prosecutor. No No, sentencing is by a judge.
New Jersey
Yes, crimes that were previously death-eligible are now punishable my a maximum sentence of LWOP. No LWOP is imposed if the prosecutor proves certain aggravating circumstances beyond a resonable doubt. Unless the defendant waives jury trial, the jury must find the aggrvating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, either as part of the trial in chief or in a separate hearing. As with the death penalty, the only aggravating factor that has to be proven in a bifurcated proceeding is prior murder. Others would have to be proven in a second proceeding if they are not already elements of the crimes that defendant is tried for in what used to be called the “guilt phase.” Yes, a jury determines the sentence and must unanimously find the aggravating factors were proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
New Mexico
Yes, crimes that were previously death-eligible are now punishable by a maximum sentence of LWOP. If a jury finds the alleged aggravating circumstance, LWOP is imposed. Otherwise, the defendant receives a sentence of life in prison with a possibility of parole after 30 years. Statutory aggravating factors must be found in order to receive a sentence of LWOP. No A jury must unanimously find that the alleged aggravating factor was present in order for a defendant to receive LWOP.
New York
Yes, aggravated murder of a police officer is punishable only by
LWOP. For first-degree murder, LWOP or life with parole may be imposed.
LWOP is mandatory for defendants convicted of aggravated murder of a
police officer. In first-degree murder cases, LWOP is a sentencing
A judge has discretion in determining the sentence for first-degree murder.NoA jury decides only guilt or innocence, and must be unanimous. Sentencing is by a judge.
Washington (2018)Only the capital sentencing portion of the Washington’s homicide statute
was declared unconstitutional. The sentence for aggravated first-degree murder is LWOP.
Yes N/ANo