Poll Finds Tepid Support for Death Penalty as State Sets Execution Date

As Maryland Circuit Court Judge Steven I. Platt signed a death warrant scheduling the execution of Heath W. Burch for the week of December 6, a Potomac Inc. poll of state residents revealed that only 53% support capital punishment. Burch has been on death row since 1996 and would be the first person since 1953 to be executed for a crime committed in Prince George’s County. Experts predict that his execution would be met with resistance from county residents, 50% of whom oppose capital punishment according to the Potomac Inc. poll. Judge Platt also granted Burch a 30-day stay of execution to provide his attorneys with time to file an appeal that they state will be based on a University of Maryland study that showed death sentences are imposed more often when the victims are white. Burch, a black man, was convicted of murdering an elderly white couple. Earlier in 2004, Maryland carried out the execution of Steven Oken, the first person to be executed by the state since 1998. (The Washington Post, October 22, 2004) See Public Opinion.

California Bar Association Urges Death Penalty Moratorium

A group of 450 attorneys participating in the Conference of Delegates of the California Bar Association has urged a moratorium on the death penalty in California until the state reviews whether capital punishment laws are enforced fairly and uniformly. “If you make a mistake, it’s not like you can go back and correct a mistake because the person is dead,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers, supporter of the measure and a member of the Bar Association that represents prosecutors, criminal defenders and civil attorneys from dozens of bar groups throughout the state. The group called on California lawmakers and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to impose a two-year moratorium on executions and to create an independent committee focusing on race, the reliability of convictions and whether the condemned had adequate legal representation. It also requested an inquiry into the financial cost of capital punishment and whether capital punishment is imposed too often. Executions are rare in California even though it has the nation’s largest death row of 640 inmates. One reason for the delay is that more than a quarter of those on California’s death row have not been given a lawyer for their first and mandatory appeal to the state’s Supreme Court. The state has carried out 10 executions since the death penalty resumed in 1976. (Associated Press, October 17, 2004) See Representation, Costs, and Innocence.

More Blacks Deprived of Vote Because of Felony Convictions

A new report by The Sentencing Project, “The Vanishing Black Electorate: Felony Disenfranchisement in Atlanta, Georgia,” examines the racial effects of depriving citizens of voting rights because of criminal convictions. The report reveals sharp disparities in voting eligibility by race and neighborhood. Among the report’s key findings are the following:

One out of every seven African American males in Atlanta is disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction;

One-third of the black male disenfranchisement rate in Georgia is a result of drug offense convictions;

Black males in Atlanta are registered to vote at an 11% lower rate than other demographic groups, but more than two-thirds of this differential is a result of high rate of disenfranchisement.

The report also contains a series of recommendations for change in criminal justice policy and disenfranchisement practices that would close the racial gap in voter registration and result in greater electoral participation. (“The Vanishing Black Electorate: Felony Disenfranchisement in Atlanta, Georgia,” The Sentencing Project, September 2004; Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2004) In many cases, disenfranchisement can also affect jury composition in capital cases. See Resources.

BJS Report Finds Murder Rate Unchanged

In the latest National Crime Victimization Survey, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the U.S. murder rate for 2003 was about 5.6 per 100,000 persons, unchanged from 2001 and 2002. Of the victims of murder, approximately 49% were white and 49% were black. (DPIC note: While the report found that the race of victims is evenly split nationally, victims in death penalty cases are mostly white (about 81%)). In murder cases, 76% of the offenders were known to the victim, and 24% of offenders were strangers. Firearms were used in 71% of murders and homicides were mostly intraracial (victim and offender of same race). The most cited circumstance leading to murder was an argument (28%). Read the full report. (Bureau of Justice Statistics Criminal Victimization, 2003, (September 2004)). Even though the 2001-2003 murder rate remained steady, death sentences continued their five-year decline in 2003. See Deterrence.

New Resource: DePaul University’s Race to Execution Symposium

Presentations at DePaul University’s symposium on Race and the Death Penalty were recently published in the university’s Law Review. National experts examined statistical evidence and attitudes regarding race discrimination in the capital punishment system. A keynote address was delivered by Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, and former Governor George Ryan gave the closing remarks.

New Resource: Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook

The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002 contains its latest catalog of data on crime, the administration of justice, and public attitudes toward criminal justice issues such as the death penalty. For example, a growing number of Americans support the sentence of life without parole over the death penalty. In 1985, a Gallup Poll found that 34% of those polled favored life in prison without parole. This latest edition of the Sourcebook shows that by 2001 the number of respondents favoring life without parole had climbed to 44% (and higher since then). The support for life without parole is even stronger among black respondents (73%), respondents holding college post-graduate degrees (62%), and those who identify themselves as Democrats (60%). The Sourcebook also revealed an increase in the number of Hispanic inmates on death row in the United States. With an increase recorded each year between 1996 and 2001, the population has grown from 8.8% to 11.2%. The Sourcebook is updated as new data becomes available and may be found online at https://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/. (Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002-(published 2003; contains some 2003 data; cost $9)). See Life Without Parole and Resources.

New Resource: Law Review Examines Race and the Death Penalty

The Summer 2004 DePaul Law Review contains presentations and articles from the University’s two-day “Race to Execution” Symposium, an event that featured remarks and presentations from some of the nation’s most renowned death penalty experts. This law review examines the role that race has historically had and continues to play in our nation’s death penalty debate. Among the articles are presentations examining the racial bias in capital sentencing, how implicit racial attitudes of capital litigators impact trials, race and the federal death penalty, and the politics associated with this problem. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan, human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, researcher David Baldus, and federal death penalty attorney Kevin McNally are among those featured in the compilation. (53 DePaul Law Review 1401 (2004))

New Resource: Juror’s Stories of Death

In his new book “Jurors’ Stories of Death: How America’s Death Penalty Invests in Inequality,” author Benjamin Fleury-Steiner draws on real-life accounts of white and black jurors in capital trials to discuss the effect of race on the sentencing process. Through his survey of the jurors’ experiences, he reveals that race is often a factor in sentencing and that the U.S. justice system can foster an “us versus them” mentality among jurors serving in capital trials. Fleury-Steiner finds that the the jurors, who frequently view themselves as more law abiding and moral than the individual on trial, can have difficulty looking beyond that mindset as they examine complex mitigating evidence in determining the fate of often marginalized defendants. The book concludes that ending the death penalty is a crucial step toward eliminating the racism and classism that currently taints social relations in the U.S. Noted death penalty attorney Bryan Stevenson of Alabama remarked, “This illuminating and insightful examination of jury deliberations makes a terrific contribution to the study of capital punishment. Fleury-Steiner’s synthesis of sociological, legal and theoretical concepts with vivid juror narratives and statistical data, thoughtfully animates and details how race and class consciousness continue to shape America’s death penalty.” (University of Michigan Press, 2004).

Judge Accused of Assisting Prosecution in Capital Cases

The California Supreme Court is asking the state’s attorney general’s office to explain why Fred Freeman’s death sentence should not be reversed on allegations that a now-deceased Superior Court Judge colluded with prosecutors to ensure a capital conviction by eliminating potential Jewish jurors. The Supreme Court issued the show cause order after Freeman’s attorneys filed a claim stating that Freeman was denied a fair trial because Judge Stanley Golde allegedly told prosecutors to keep Jews off the jury because they would never vote to send someone to the gas chamber. Prosecutor John Quatman took Golde’s advice and later acknowledged in a declaration that it was also “standard practice” at the time of Freeman’s trial to exclude black women from death penalty juries. At the time of his death in 1998, Golde was believed to have handed down more death sentences that any other judge in his county and possibly the state. (New York Lawyer, July 30, 2004).

Federal Court Blocks Texas Death Sentence Over Racially Charged Testimony

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has blocked a Texas District Attorney’s final attempt to restore the death sentence of Victor Hugo Saldano, who was removed from Texas’s death row in 2000 because of the use of racially charged testimony at his trial. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that former Texas Attorney General John Cornyn was right to dismiss Saldano’s death sentence because it was based on state testimony encouraging racial bias. During the penalty phase of Saldano’s 1996 trial, psychologist Walter Quijano told the jury that Saldano’s ethnicity could be a factor in whether he posed a future danger to society, citing the over-representation of blacks and Hispanics in the prison system. The jury then returned a death sentence for Saldano. Following the trial, Cornyn said that the testimony about Saldano’s ethnicity should not have been allowed, and he asserted his authority to remove him from death row. This is also the stance of current Attorney General Greg Abbott. “Because the use of race in Saldano’s sentencing seriously undermined the fairness, integrity or public reputation of the judicial process, Texas confesses error and agrees that Saldano is entitled to a new sentencing hearing,” wrote Cornyn to the Supreme Court as it considered the case. The case prompted Texas lawmakers to ban the use of racially charged testimony. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had upheld the death sentence and the Collin County District Attorney tried to challenge Cornyn’s actions in federal court. (Houston Chronicle, March 25, 2004)

Study of Potential Death-Qualified Jurors Reveals Bias

In the latest edition of the journal Deviant Behavior, sociologist Robert Young of the University of Texas has reported that death penalty supporters, such as those who are qualified to sit on juries in capital cases, were about a third more likely to have prejudiced views of blacks. Young’s evaluation of polling data also revealed that death penalty supporters are more likely to convict the defendant. When polled, they were nearly twice as likely to say it was worse to let the guilty go free than to convict an innocent defendant. “By allowing juries in capital cases to be stacked in favor of conviction, the courts have created a system in which certain defendants - especially those of African American descent - in essence must prove their innocence beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Young, who analyzed data from the 1990 to 1996 General Social Survey - a leading barometer of social trends in the U.S. He notes that those two findings reinforce each other and make death penalty juries more conviction prone, particularly when the defendant is black. (Washington Post, March 21, 2004)

Death Penalty Study Examines Sentencing Rates, Executions, Race Statistics
The authors of a new study published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies (J. Blume, T. Eisenberg, & M. Wells, “Explaining Death Row’s Population and Racial Composition,” Vol. I, Issue 1, March 2004, at 165) concluded that Texas’ reputation as the leading death penalty state in the U.S. is attributable more to its high number of executions and the large number of murders in the state, rather than to its sentencing rate. Despite leading the country by far in terms of number of executions, Texas is about average in death sentences when compared to its number of murders. Nevada and Oklahoma are the leading states with the most death sentences per 1,000 murders. With respect to race, the study found that the race of the victim in the underlying murder is crucial in deciding who is sentenced to death. Across a spectrum of states, a black person who murdered a white victim is two and a half times as likely to be sentenced to death than a white who murdered a white victim. (New York Times, February 14, 2004). Read the Study (PDF). See Executions.

Court Finds Racial Bias in Pennsylvania Jury Selection

Arnold Holloway, a Pennsylvania death row inmate who was convicted 18 years ago, was granted a new trial after a federal appeals court found that prosecutors improperly excluded blacks from the jury. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said that an assistant district attorney in Holloway’s case used 11 of his 12 peremptory strikes during jury selection to eliminate blacks. “The pattern here was certainly strong enough to suggest an intention of keeping blacks off the jury,” said Circuit Judge Robert Cowen. Philadelphia prosecutors’ jury-selection practices came under closer scrutiny in 1997 when a heated campaign for the city’s district attorney’s office resulted in the public release of a secret training video instructing rookie prosecutors to keep poor blacks off juries because they were less likely to convict. Since that time, there has been a string of at least five death row inmates granted new trials because of evidence that Philadelphia prosecutors used race bias in selecting jurors. (Associated Press, January 23, 2004) See DPIC’s Report: The Death Penalty in Black and White.