In The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution, historian John Bessler reveals the profound influence that the Italian thinker, Cesare Beccaria, had on the constitutional founders of the United States, including George Washington and John Adams. Beccaria's bestselling book, On Crimes and Punishments, argued against torture and the death penalty, saying only punishments proven absolutely necessary should be used. Bessler shows that the death penalty was more controversial at the writing of the constitution than is often assumed today. America did abandon England's Bloody Code and eventually most corporal punishment, but still retains capital punishment. Julie Silverbrook, executive director of The Constitutional Sources Project, said of the book, "John Bessler masterfully and comprehensively traces how Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments deeply affected early American views on crime and the proportionality of punishments for crime. Just as John Adams gifted Beccaria’s treatise to his sons, John Bessler has gifted Beccaria to a new generation of Americans."
A new appeal filed on behalf of Mississippi death row inmate Eddie Howard, Jr. presented DNA evidence that calls into question bite-mark evidence used to convict him in 1992. At Howard's trial, Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who had testified as a forensic expert in numerous cases, said Howard's teeth matched bite marks found on the murder victim. The victim had been buried for three days and exhumed before West examined her. He said he found three bite marks that matched Howard "to a reasonable medical certainty," but presented no photographs or other evidence to support his testimony. According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people who were convicted of rape or murder based on alleged bite matches have been exonerated since 2000. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to reconsider Howard's case, saying, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” In 2010, the court granted DNA testing of the murder weapon and other items from the crime scene. That testing, which showed no link to Howard, is the basis for the new appeal.
On September 11, four news organizations filed suit in federal court challenging Pennsylvania's secrecy about the source of its lethal injection drugs as a violation of the first amendment rights of the media and the citizens of Pennsylvania. The suit was filed by the Guardian, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Philadelphia City Paper in advance of the execution of Hubert Michael, which had been scheduled for September 22, but has now been stayed because the state was not prepared to carry it out. Under a court order from 2012, the identity of the compounding pharmacy that provides the lethal injection drugs was kept secret. Information was released to Mr. Michael's lawyers, but not to the public or the media. “The information sought by our clients is central to the debate about capital punishment. If the drugs are not made properly, they will not work properly, and the public should be very concerned about that possibility given the gruesome executions we have heard about in other states,” said Mary Catherine Roper, the lawyer who is representing the newspapers. Media organizations have also filed similar suits in Missouri and Oklahoma over execution secrecy.
(Click to enlarge graph) A Field Poll of voters in California found that support for capital punishment has reached its lowest level since 1965. Only 56% of respondents said they favored keeping the death penalty, down from 69% in 2011. Support for the death penalty among Californians peaked in the mid-1980s at 83%. Some of the strongest opposition to keeping the death penalty came from voters under 30, African Americans, and Democrats. Daisy Vieyra, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Northern California, said support for capital punishment has declined because, "The public is becoming more aware of all the flaws that riddle the system." In 2012, a referendum to replace California's death penalty with life without parole almost passed, coming up short in a 52-48% vote.
The highly acclaimed resource on the death penalty -- "America's Experiment with Capital Punishment" -- has just been released in its Third Edition. This compendium of essays by experts covers the history, politics, and law of the death penalty, as well as related issues, such as innocence, intellectual disability, and race. DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, contributed a chapter on the costs of the death penalty. The editors encourage readers to grapple with the many questions surrounding capital punishment, saying, "Today, more than 40 years after the death penalty came to an abrupt but temporary halt with the Supreme Court's ruling in Furman v. Georgia (1972), a host of fundamental questions involving law, social policy, and essential justice remain unanswered about America's renewed commitment to capital punishment." This edition includes a particular focus on lethal injection and trends in the Supreme Court's interpretation of the nation's "evolving standards of decency."
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DPIC is constantly developing new resources and finding creative ways to reach the public with information and analysis on capital punishment. Last year, our Year End Report included infographics and a video, helping us reach new audiences online. Our timely materials on lethal injection allowed us to respond quickly after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April, resulting in hundreds of media outlets using our information. Our Innocence List, which tracks all death row exonerations, recently featured prominently in coverage of two exonerations in North Carolina. If you believe this work is important, please consider making a donation today. You can also choose to make a recurring, monthly donation by clicking "Make This Recurring" when you donate through PayPal. Thank you.
A new report from the National Institute of Justice examines ways to reduce and prevent errors, such as the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. The report proposes "sentinel event reviews" -- the examination of mistakes with a view of finding systemic problems. The report uses the death penalty exoneration of John Thompson in Louisiana to illustrate its goal: "In Connick [v. Thompson], the trial prosecutor withheld crime lab results from the defense, removed a blood sample from the evidence room, and failed to disclose that Thompson had been implicated by someone who had received a reward from the victim’s family. The conviction and death sentence were ultimately overturned on appeal, but no one learned anything from the Connick appellate opinions about the deeper, abiding issues in the case’s narrative, and those issues were left to surface again in future cases." The report includes analysis and recommendations from people involved in all facets of the criminal justice system, including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and academics.
A new study by Professors Cynthia Willis-Esqueda (pictured) of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and Russ K.E. Espinoza of California State University found that white jurors were more likely to recommend a death sentence for Latino defendants than for white defendants in California. Researchers gave case descriptions to 500 white and Latino people who had reported for jury duty in southern California, then asked them to choose a sentence of life without parole or death. The description was based on a real capital case, but each juror was given one of eight scenarios which altered the race and income level of the defendant and the amount of mitigating evidence. White jurors recommended a death sentence about half the time for Latino defendants who were poor, but only one-third of the time for poor white defendants. By comparison, Latino jurors recommended a death sentence only about one-quarter of the time, regardless of the ethnicity or socioeconomic class of the defendant.