What's New

New and Timely Resources from DPIC

DPIC recently published a new page that presents execution data for each state and each year since 1976. This allows users to more easily see execution trends in states over time. We have also recently posted updated state data from "Death Row, USA." As of October 1, 2013, there were 3,088 inmates on death row, continuing the decline in death row population since 2000. As developments surrounding lethal injection continue to emerge, users can find current information on our State-by-State Lethal Injection page. Finally, information on legislative action on capital punishment, such as the upcoming vote on repealing the death penalty in New Hampshire, can be found on our Recent Legislation page.

 

Perils of State Secrecy Surrounding Lethal Injections

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, attorneys Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno argued that the veil of secrecy that many states have placed over their execution process violates defendants' constitutional rights and "deprives the public of informed debate." The authors provided numerous examples where inmates executed with drugs from compounding pharmacies or with novel mixes of new drugs exhibited signs of consciousness and suffering. However, inmates whose executions are rapidly approaching are unable to mount a credible challenge to the drugs that will be used because legislatures or wardens have labeled the sources as state secrets. The attorneys concluded, "The Eighth Amendment requires that the ultimate punishment our society can impose and the means by which it is carried out are subject to the highest level of scrutiny. If prison officials conceal crucial information from judges, lawyers and the public, we have only their word that the drugs will cause death in a manner that complies with the Constitution. Clearly, we can’t leave that to trust."

 

North Carolina Supreme Court to Hear Racial Justice Act Cases

On April 14, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear appeals in the cases of the four inmates whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act. North Carolina passed the Act in 2009, allowing death row inmates to use statistical studies to show that racial bias affected their trials. The first four cases were heard in 2012. The evidence presented at hearings for defendants Marcus Robinson (l.), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters included testimony that prosecutors made racially charged notes during jury selection and participated in a training seminar where they were taught how to get around laws that banned striking jurors on the basis of race. Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks reduced the sentences of all four inmates to life. In one ruling, Weeks said he found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” The Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013, but claims made prior to repeal are still pending. The state brought the current appeal before the state Supreme Court in an attempt to have the death sentences of all four inmates reinstated.

 

Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:

► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.

See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.

 

STUDIES: Murder of Female Victims More Likely to Result in Death Sentence

A recent study by researchers at Cornell Law School found that the gender of the murder victim may influence whether a defendant receives the death penalty. Using data from 1976 to 2007 in Delaware, the study found that in cases with female victims, 47.1% resulted in death sentences, while in those involving male victims, only 32.3% were sentenced to death. The researchers looked at a number of factors other than the victim's gender that might have affected sentencing decisions, including the heinousness of the crime, whether there was a sexual element to the murder, and the relationship between defendant and victim. The study found that some of the gender effect in sentencing could be explained by factors other than just the gender of the victim. Crimes involving sexual violence were more likely to result in a death sentence, as were crimes in which the victim and defendant knew one another, and victims of both of those types of crimes are more likely to be women.

 

STUDIES: How Often Are Death Row Inmates Spared Because of Insanity?

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of inmates who were insane. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger warned that the majority decision "offers an invitation to those who have nothing to lose...to advance entirely spurious claims of insanity." A new study has examined cases since 1986 in which death row inmates filed claims of mental incompetence and found that the deluge of spurious claims has not materialized. Of the 1,307 people the study considered "Ford-eligible," that is, those whose cases reached the point at which a Ford claim could be filed, only 6.6% (86) filed claims of incompetency. Of the cases decided on the merits, 22% of the Ford claims were successful, a high success rate when compared to other post-conviction claims in capital cases, implying non-frivolous claims were being filed. A large majority (62.6%) of inmates whose claims of insanity were decided in court had a well-documented history of mental illness, showing that raising an insanity claim was legitimate, even in many of the unsuccessful cases.

 

COSTS: Kansas Study Examines High Cost of Death Penalty Cases

Defending a death penalty case costs about four times as much as defending a case where the death penalty is not sought, according to a new study by the Kansas Judicial Council. Examining 34 potential death-penalty cases from 2004-2011, the study found that defense costs for death penalty trials averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought. Costs incurred by the trial court showed a similar disparity: $72,530 for cases with the death penalty; $21,554 for those without. Even in cases that ended in a guilty plea and did not go to trial, cases where the death penalty was sought incurred about twice the costs for both defense ($130,595 v. $64,711) and courts ($16,263 v. $7,384), compared to cases where death was not sought. The time spent on death cases was also much higher. Jury trials averaged 40.13 days in cases where the death penalty was being sought, but only 16.79 days when it was not an option. Justices of the Kansas Supreme Court assigned to write opinions estimated they spent 20 times more hours on death penalty appeals than on non-death appeals. The Department of Corrections said housing prisoners on death row cost more than twice as much per year ($49,380) as for prisoners in the general population ($24,690). 

 

Perspectives on Representing Death Row Inmates

Ken Rose has represented people condemned to death in the south for 30 years and recently described his experience with this "flawed system:" "The system reflects our biases and blind spots," he said. "Just like us, it is susceptible to error and prejudice and, sometimes, an indiscriminate desire for revenge. Like our country, it favors the privileged and takes the heaviest toll on the poor and mentally ill." As an example, Rose told the story of one of his clients, Leo Edwards, whose gas-chamber execution he witnessed in Mississippi in 1989. Edwards, who was black, was prosecuted by a district attorney who said he tried to "get rid of as many" black jurors as possible, and testified that he used that tactic in Edwards' trial, resulting in an all-white jury. The timing of Edwards' case prevented him from receiving a new trial: "This clear racial bias was never addressed because Leo’s case was too far along by 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards for reviewing claims of race discrimination in jury selection," he said. Rose noted that some improvements have been made, but "Racial bias still taints trials. Defendants are still chosen for death arbitrarily. Those sentenced to die are still overwhelmingly poor and mentally ill. Judges and lawyers, including myself, still make mistakes. Innocent people are still imprisoned."  Read the op-ed below.

 

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