Recent Legislative Activity

Former Tennessee Attorney General Supports Mental Illness Exemption

In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, former Tennessee Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody (pictured) has expressed his support for a bill that would exempt people with serious mental illness from the death penalty. Cody, who later served as a member of the American Bar Association's Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Team, said that "as society's understanding of mental illness improves every day," it is "surprising that people with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, can still be subject to the death penalty in Tennessee." In his op-ed, Cody describes how cases with seriously mentally ill defendants differ from other capital cases: "In 2007, an ABA study committee, of which I was a member, conducted a comprehensive assessment of Tennessee’s death penalty laws and found that 'mental illness can affect every stage of a capital trial' and that 'when the judge, prosecutor and jurors are misinformed about the nature of mental illness and its relevance to the defendant’s culpability, tragic consequences often follow for the defendant.'" He also draws on his experience as the state's top prosecutor, saying, "As a former Tennessee Attorney General, I understand how horrific these crimes are and how seriously we must take capital cases. ...But in light of our increased understanding of mental illness, I believe that for those with documented mental illness of the most severe form at the time of their crime, the maximum punishment should be life in prison without parole." Tennessee is one of at least seven states in which legislators have introduced bills that would exempt those with severe mental illness from the death penalty. Numerous legal and mental health organizations, including the American Bar Association, American Psychiatric Association, and National Alliance on Mental Illness, support excluding defendants with serious mental illness from the death penalty.

EDITORIALS: Colorado Newspapers Support Bill to Repeal Death Penalty

As Colorado's Senate Judiciary Committee considers SB 95—a bill that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole—the editorial boards of The Denver Post and The Durango Herald have urged the legislature to end capital punishment in the state. Colorado's death penalty system "is broken beyond repair and needs to be repealed," wrote The Denver Post​​. Repeal, it said, "would save the state millions in both the prosecution and defense of murderers and an untold number of judicial man hours that have so infrequently resulted in death." The Post editorial also highlighted the unwillingness of Colorado juries to impose death sentences, noting that the highly-publicized capital cases of James Holmes and Dexter Lewis both resulted in life sentences. The Durango Herald editorial board also called for repeal, agreeing with the arguments advanced by Republican legislators in the neighboring mountain states of Utah and Nevada that the death penalty "is a failed public policy, is a waste of taxpayer dollars, the risk of executing innocent people is too high and it causes unnecessary harm to victims’ families." The Herald editorial also emphasized the high cost of capital punishment—quoting estimates by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado "that the average death penalty trial costs $3.5 million, compared to $150,000 for a trial for life without parole"—and that Colorado has had only one execution in 50 years. In 2013, citing arbitrariness and unfairness in the application of the state's death penalty, Governor John W. Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to Nathan Dunlop, one of three men on Colorado's death row.  A 2015 study published in the University of Denver Law Review subsequently showed that prosecutorial decisions to seek the death penalty in Colorado "depend[] to an alarming extent on the race and geographic location of the defendant." All of Colorado's death-row prisoners are African-American men from the municipality of Aurora. SB 95 would apply prospectively to future crimes, but would not affect the cases of the prisoners currently on death row. [UPDATE: After holding hearings on SB 95, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 to defeat the bill. The vote effectively ends death penalty repeal efforts in the state for the 2017 legislative session.] 

Capital Sentencing Reform Bills Advance in Florida, Alabama

Legislative committees in Florida and Alabama have voted to advance bills that would reform capital sentencing procedures in those states that have been the subject of extensive constitutional challenges. In Florida, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee by a vote of 6-0 approved a bill that would require a jury to unanimously recommend a death sentence before the trial judge could sentence a defendant to death. The bill would bring Florida's sentencing procedure in line with a Florida Supreme Court ruling that had declared unconstitutional death sentences that were imposed after one or more jurors had recommended a life sentence. In Alabama, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to end Alabama's practice of judicial override. Alabama is currently the only state that allows judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence and impose a death sentence. Senator Dick Brewbaker (R - Montgomery), who sponsored the bill, raised concerns about political pressure on elected judges. A majority of overrides in the last 10 years happened in election years. “I’m not saying anyone has any evil intent,” Brewbaker said. “I’m not arguing about constitutionality, but there’s no way to take politics out of politics. It’s like taking the wet out of the water. It can’t be done.” According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative, judges have used their override power to impose death sentences over jury recommendations for life 101 times, but overrode jury recommendations for death and imposed life sentences just 11 times. The U.S. Supreme Court has remanded four death penalty cases to Alabama's courts for a determination of the constitutionality of the state's sentencing practices—including judicial override. The Alabama courts have upheld the practice, and in December 2016, Alabama executed Ronald Smith despite a 7-5 jury recommendation that he be sentenced to life.

At Least Seven States Introduce Legislation Banning Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness

Bills to exempt individuals with severe mental illness from facing the death penalty are expected in at least seven states in 2017. Legislators in Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia have either introduced such legislation or announced that they plan to. Six of the seven states have sponsorship from Republican legislators, indicating bipartisan support for the measures. The author of Indiana's bill, Sen. James Merritt (pictured, R-Indianapolis), says he supports the death penalty but draws a “bright line of distinction” around executing people with severe mental illness. There are some variations in the bills, but each creates a process in which a determination is made—usually by a judge—whether the defendant qualifies for the exemption. Some bills define serious mental illness by particular diagnoses, others by behavioral impairments in functioning. Qualifying diagnoses under the exemption typically included Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury. Defendants found to be suffering from severe mental illness would not be exempted from criminal responsibility, but would be subject to a maximum sentence of life without parole. Numerous mental health organizations have called for an exemption to the death penalty for individuals with severe mental illness. The measures have the support of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), and state-level coalitions of mental health advocates. In December 2016, the American Bar Association held a national summit and issued a white paper in support of a severe mental illness exemption. Several religious leaders also have spoken out in favor of the exemption. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, wrote an op-ed for The Virginian-Pilot in late January saying, "Their conditions affect many aspects of the legal process, impacting their appearance in court, the jury’s perception of ticks or socially inappropriate interactions, the defendant’s presentation of facts, and even their own admission of guilt. Indeed, studies have shown that defendants with severe mental illness are more likely to give a false confession. ...As a faith leader, I am compelled to advocate for compassionate and fair laws such as this." Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, called the bill "prudent and just."

With Bipartisan Sponsors, Washington Attorney General, Governor Propose Bill to Abolish State's Death Penalty

With the support of a bipartisan group of state officials and legislators, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (pictured) and Governor Jay Inslee have proposed legislation to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. At a news conference announcing the bill, Ferguson, a Democrat, was joined by former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, in calling for abolition. The bill will be sponsored by Republican Senator Mark Miloscia and Democratic Representative Tina Orwall. “Legislatures are acting on this important issue with up-and-down votes,” Ferguson said during the news conference. “And it’s time for Washington, the state Legislature here, to take that vote.” The state's death penalty, he said, "isn’t working anymore. It is time to move on.” Governor Inslee said the evidence about the death penalty "is absolutely clear. ... Death-penalty sentences are unequally applied in the state of Washington, they are frequently overturned and they are always costly.” Inslee, who imposed a moratorium on executions in 2014 and issued a reprieve to Clark Richard Elmore on December 29, 2016, said, “I could not in good conscience allow executions to continue under my watch as governor under these conditions.” Washington juries have imposed few death sentence in recent years, and two high-profile murder cases ended in life sentences. In response, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys called for a voter referendum on the issue. A 2015 Seattle University study examining the costs of the death penalty in the state found that each death penalty prosecution cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case in which the death penalty was not sought. Despite bipartisan support, the future of the abolition bill is uncertain. A 2015 repeal bill, also sponsored by Miloscia, never received a committee hearing.

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Death Penalty Use Continue

Death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty continued their historic declines in 2016, according to DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report," released on December 21. The 30 death sentences imposed this year are the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment in the U.S.—since the Supreme Court declared all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972—and declined 39% from 2015's already 40-year low. Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the fewest executions since 1991. Both death sentences and executions were increasingly geographically isolated. Two states—Georgia and Texas—accounted for 80% of executions, and more than half of all death sentences were imposed in just three states—California, Ohio, and Texas. Election results reflected America's deep divisions about the death penalty, as voters in three states decided to retain the death penalty or add it to the state constitution, while voters in five of the highest-use death penalty counties replaced prosecutors who strongly supported the death penalty with candidates who promised reform and reductions in capital prosecutions. Courts struck down practices in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oklahoma that had contributed to disproportionately high numbers of death sentences. “America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.” See DPIC's Press Release. Watch a short video summary of the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

Former California Officials File Taxpayer's Suit Against Proposition 66

California death penalty opponents filed a taxpayer suit on November 9 to block Proposition 66—the ballot initiative promoted as speeding up the state's execution process—from going into effect. The suit was filed by former El Dorado County supervisor Ron Briggs (pictured)—who co-authored the measure to reinstate California's death penalty in 1978—and former California Attorney General John van de Camp. California voters narrowly approved Proposition 66, which was written by prosecutors, by a vote of 50.9%-49.1%. The proposition makes a number of changes to state death penalty appeals procedures, including 5-year time limits for the state Supreme Court to rule on appeals, shortening filing deadlines, transferring the initial consideration of death penalty appeals from the appellate courts to the trial courts, and requiring lawyers to take on death penalty appeals if they wish to keep court appointments for other criminal appeals. The lawsuit argues that these measures would “impair the courts’ exercise of discretion, as well as the courts’ ability to act in fairness to the litigants before them” and raises concerns that death row inmates will be assigned lawyers “who do not currently meet the qualification standards.” Briggs was particularly critical of a new provision that requires initial appeals to be heard by the trial court: "What 66 is saying is we are going to keep the case in the lower court, and those same eyes that convicted the defendant are going to review the appeal. We believe that infringes on the constitution and is flat out not fair." The lawsuit challenges Proposition 66 on three separate legal grounds. It argues that the proposition "illegally interferes with the jurisdiction of California's state courts" by revoking the authority conferred by the state constitution for California's appellate courts to hear capital habeas corpus cases and violates the state constitution's separation of powers by "materially impair[ing]" the courts' power to resolve capital appeals. It also argues that Proposition 66 violated the state constitutional requirement that "an initiative measure may not embrace more than one subject." In addition to the expressed purpose of "death penalty reform," Proposition 66 included provisions for victim compensation, changes in the state's Administrative Procedures Act governing the adoption of administrative regulations, and disbanding the unpaid Board of Directors that governs the state's institutional capital defender organization.

Voters Oust Prosecutors in Outlier Death Penalty Counties, Retain Governors Who Halted Executions

Prosecutors in three counties known for their outlier practices on the death penalty were defeated by challengers running on reform platforms, while voters in Oregon and Washington re-elected governors who acted to halt executions. In Hillsborough County, Florida, Democrat Andrew Warren defeated Republican incumbent Mark Ober (pictured, l.). Warren pledged to seek the death penalty less often and establish a unit to uncover wrongful convictions. In Harris County, Texas, incumbent Devon Anderson (pictured, r.) was defeated by Democratic challenger Kim Ogg. Ogg ran on a platform of broad criminal justice reform and had received support from the Black Lives Matter movement. Harris County leads the nation in executions and is second only to Los Angeles in the number of people on its death row. Ogg had said that the death penalty had created "a terrible image for our city and our county" and pledged that, "[u]nder an Ogg admninistration, you will see very few death penalty prosecutions." Brandon Falls, District Attorney of Jefferson County, Alabama, lost his seat to Charles Todd Henderson, who does not support the death penalty and said he plans to “bring about real criminal justice reform.” Hillsborough, Harris, and Jefferson all rank among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of death row inmates in the U.S., and were among the 16 most prolific death sentencing counties in the U.S. between 2010-2015. “People are scrutinizing their local criminal justice systems, and people are realizing how much power state attorneys have, and they are seeing elections as a way to change those results,” Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, said. In gubernatorial elections, voters re-elected governors who had halted executions in their states. Washington voters re-elected Governor Jay Inslee, who imposed a death penalty moratorium, and Oregon voters gave a full term to Governor Kate Brown, who had extended her predecessor's moratorium and pledged to keep the moratorium in effect if elected. In North Carolina, voters defeated incumbent Governor Pat McCrory, who had supported efforts to repeal the state's Racial Justice Act. 

Pages