The New Hampshire House of Representatives has scheduled a vote on repealing the death penalty for March 12. The bill, HB 1170, would replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole for future offenses. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House Criminal Justice and Public Works Committee in February by a vote of 14-3, including supportive votes from several legislators who had previously opposed repeal. Six other states in the past six years have ended the death penalty. Rep. Renny Cushing, the sponsor of the bill, said "The death penalty does not protect public safety, it does not shield our police officers, it does not meet the needs of many families of murder victims, it is not consistent with the values we hear from our religious leaders...those who commit first-degree murder will spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance for parole." A death penalty repeal bill passed the legislature in 2000, but was vetoed by the governor. The current governor, Maggie Hassan, opposes the death penalty. New Hampshire has not had an execution since 1939 and has only one person on death row.
Edward Montour, the defendant accused of killing correctional officer Eric Autobee (pictured) in a Colorado prison, agreed to plead guilty on March 6 to first degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. Autobee's family had opposed the prosecution's decision to seek the death penalty for Montour, standing in witness in front of the courthouse during jury selection, and asking the judge to allow them to testify at the trial. Montour pled guilty to the crime in 2003 and was sentenced to death by a judge, but his conviction was overturned when an appellate court ruled the jury needed to be involved in sentencing to death. At his second trial, Montour initially pled not guilty by reason of insanity, arguing that he was wrongfully convicted of the crime that first put him in prison, and that his mental illness had gotten worse in prison. Montour was serving a life sentence for killing his 11-week-old daughter, though evidence recently emerged indicating she might have died from an accident.
The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013. The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517. The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197). In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time. The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.
David Floyd, a Republican state representative in Kentucky, recently introduced a bill to repeal the state's death penalty, arguing that the law was incompatible with conservative values. Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Floyd said his religious views initially caused him to oppose the death penalty, but he made a broader pragmatic case for repeal from a conservative perspective. He pointed to values such as respect for life, limiting government power, and cutting wasteful spending, as reasons to support abolition. He said, "Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust." He concluded, "Conservatives must work with people across the political spectrum to expose the many deficiencies of Kentucky’s system of capital punishment. And then we must repeal it." Read the op-ed below.
New evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham suggests Texas may have executed an innocent man in 2004. The key evidence presented against Willingham at trial was from an arson "expert," who said the fire that killed Willingham's children was intentionally set. That evidence has since been discredited by a series of other experts who concluded the evidence did not support arson. Now attorneys for the Innocence Project have uncovered a prosecutor's note implying that a jailhouse informant--who testified Willingham admitted to the crime--was given preferential treatment in exchange for his testimony. The note indicated charges against the informant should be reduced "based on coop in Willingham." Prosecutors had explicitly denied that a deal had been made with the witness. Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, called the new evidence a "smoking pistol," and added, “We’re reaching out to the principals to see if there is an innocent explanation for this. I don’t see one.”
On February 24, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered an Alabama court to reconsider the case of Anthony Hinton, who has maintained his innocence since he was sentenced to death 28 years ago. Mr. Hinton's lawyer wrongly believed that he could spend only $1,000 on a firearms expert during the trial, and as a result, hired a witness whom he knew was unqualified, and who the Court said was "badly discredited" by the prosecution. Hinton's appellate lawyers later claimed that his trial lawyer's mistake constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. During Hinton's appeals, three experts testified that they could not conclude Hinton's gun had fired the bullets used in the crime, essentially rebutting the prosecutor's primary evidence. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, who has represented Hinton since 1999, said, "There’s dramatic evidence that he’s been wrongly convicted and no one can credibly assert that a capital defendant can get the assistance he needs for $1000." The Court returned the case to Alabama's courts to determine whether the trial's lawyer error preudiced the outcome of the case.
In an op-ed in the Seattle Times, two former Washington state corrections officials voiced their support of Gov. Jay Inslee's decision to put executions on hold. Dick Morgan (pictured, L), a former Director of Prisons, and Eldon Vail (pictured, R), former Secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, wrote about their participation in the state's 5 executions, saying, "We have witnessed visibly shaken staff carry out a questionable law that condones killing inmates who have been captured, locked behind bars and long since ceased being a threat to the public." They agreed with the governor that the death penalty is too costly and applied unfairly, and added, "Ultimately, the death penalty is not about whether a given person deserves to live or die — it's about whether government should be making that call." In an opposing op-ed, former Kitsap County deputy prosecutor Brian Moran highlighted the heinous crimes committed by death row inmates and Washington's use of proportionality review, which he said ensures that death sentences are proportional and fair.
In a dissent from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit allowing Missouri's execution of Michael Taylor on February 26, three judges sharply criticized the secrecy of Missouri's lethal injection protocol as a violation of Taylor's right to due process. The dissenters would have stayed the execution to allow Taylor to obtain information about the source of the execution drugs:
- "Because Taylor seeks to determine whether the drug to be used in his execution will result in pain or in a lingering death, it bears repeating the importance of the identities of the pharmacists, laboratories, and drug suppliers in determining whether Missouri's execution of death row inmates is constitutional."
- "[F]rom the absolute dearth of information Missouri has disclosed to this court, the 'pharmacy' on which Missouri relies could be nothing more than a high school chemistry class."
- "If through lack of experience or lack of time to do adequate testing, the pharmacy has manufactured something which is quite painful, Taylor's constitutional rights would be violated."
- "Missouri has a storied history of ignoring death row inmates' constitutional rights to federal review of their executions. I once again fear Missouri elevates the ends over the means in its rush to execute Taylor."