Recent Legislative Activity

Missouri Likely to See Change After Historic High in Executions

A decline in executions is likely in Missouri after two years of unusually high numbers. In 2014, Missouri tied with Texas for the most executions in the U.S., and it was second to Texas in 2015. However, changing attitudes about the death penalty--similar to national shifts--are evident in Missouri's sentencing trends: no one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, and less than one person per year has been sentenced to death in the past seven years. Moreover, a bill with bi-partisan support has been introduced to repeal the death penalty. It passed the Senate General Laws committee in late January. An editorial in the Columbia Daily Tribune highlighted the political diversity in the legislative support for the measure. Among those who voted the bill out of committee were two Democrats and two Republicans. Sen. Paul Wieland cited his pro-life views as a reason for support, while Sen. Rob Schaaf said, as long as it is "not fairly applied...I'm going to be opposed to the death penalty."

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Repealing Death Penalty Grows in California

A recent survey of Californians conducted by The Field Poll found that voters are evenly split between wanting to speed up the execution process (48%) and supporting repeal of the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole (47%). Support for repeal has grown since 2014, when the question was last asked. At that time, 40% favored replacing the death penalty with life without parole and 52% supported speeding up the process. Californians may face a choice between the two options in November, as competing initiatives have been proposed. Republicans, whites, and voters over age 50 were more likely to support speeding up executions, while Democrats, Hispanics, blacks, and voters under 50 favored repealing the death penalty. "There continues to be a very strong movement away from support for the death penalty in California,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an organization that is supporting the initiative to repeal the death penalty. (click graphic to enlarge).

Connecticut Supreme Court Hears Prosecutors' Argument Seeking to Overturn Death Penalty Ban

On January 7, the Connecticut Supreme Court heard arguments in State of Connecticut v. Russell Peeler, in which state prosecutors are seeking to overturn the court's 4-3 decision last summer declaring Connecticut's death penalty unconstitutional.  The court ruled in August in State v. Santiago that Connecticut's prospective legislative repeal of the death penalty, in combination with "the state’s near total moratorium on carrying out executions over the past fifty-five years," established that "capital punishment has become incompatible with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut." If the court holds to that decision, the state's remaining death row prisoners would be resentenced to life without possibility of parole. One of the four justices who voted with the majority, Justice Flemming Norcott Jr., retired recently, changing the makeup of the court. Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who voted with the minority in the Santiago decision, worried that the appeal presents the possibility of a "slippery slope," saying, "Why shouldn't the court be concerned that every time there's a hotly contested 4-3 decision … that this isn't just going to become a numbers game, that the parties will then wait until somebody retires or leaves the court and raise the issue again?" Prosecutors argued that the court's decision, "eliminated the democratic process." Senior Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher, who argued on behalf of the death row inmates, said, "This is a unique decision and a unique problem far different than interpreting a statute, and the majority found that it was a fairly clear statement that the death penalty no longer comports with the standards of decency of Connecticut citizens as expressed through their elected representatives."

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Use of Death Penalty in 2015

On December 16, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report." The death penalty declined by virtually every measure in 2015. 28 people were executed, the fewest since 1991. Death sentences dropped 33% from last year's historic low, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. There have now been fewer death sentences imposed in the last decade than in the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1988; and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) accounted for 86% of all executions. For the first time since 1995, the number of people on death row fell below 3,000. Public support for the death penalty also dropped, and the 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for people convicted of murder. Six people were exonerated from death row this year, bringing the total number of exonerations since 1973 to 156. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director. See DPIC's Press ReleaseView a video summarizing the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

NEW VOICES: South Dakota Republican Legislator to Propose Death Penalty Repeal Bill

South Dakota state Senator Arthur Rusch (R-Vermillion, pictured), a former trial court judge who presided over a capital trial in which a defendant was sentenced to death, said he will be introducing legislation next year to repeal the state's death penalty. Rusch said he supports repeal because of the emotional toll of capital trials on juriors and because of the financial impact of capital punishment. As a former Lincoln County circuit court judge, Rusch presided over the 1997 trial of Donald Moeller, and saw firsthand the anguish jurors experienced when they sentenced Moeller to death. Because of that experience, he said, "I think I'm more knowledgeable about the emotional toll. It's really hard on people having to make that decision." On the issue of cost, he said, "I know there’s this reaction that keeping people in jail for many, many years is expensive, but it’s nowhere near as expensive as the court costs." Death penalty abolition bills have previously failed in committee in South Dakota, but Senator Bernie Hunhoff (D-Yankton) said that the support of Republicans like Rusch could change that and allow the state to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Nebraska. "You can see that gradual transformation in Nebraska, and you’re seeing that very same thing here," said Sen. Hunhoff, who has sponsored past repeal bills in South Dakota. South Dakota has three people on death row, and has executed three people since 1976.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Seeks Ban on Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill Defendants

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton (pictured) testified in state legislative hearings on October 14 that Ohio should ban use of the death penalty against defendants who suffer from serious mental illness when they commit a capital crime. Stratton, a Republican who was appointed to the court in 1996 and served, following reelection, until 2012, called the death penalty "inefficient, ineffective and a great burden on our society." Stratton said that the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities because of their reduced culpability.  She told the Ohio Senate Criminal Justice Committee that people with serious mental illnesses have similarly reduced culpability. "Do we as a society say we want to execute someone who has diminished capacity and mental Illness?" Stratton asked the committee. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Death Penalty issued 56 reform recommendations, including a ban on executing those with serious mental illness. Stratton said the bill would apply to defendants diagnosed with such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depressive and delusional disorders. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship and is also supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

California Law Aims to Reduce Prosecutorial Misconduct

California has enacted a new law giving judges greater authority to remove individual prosecutors - and in some instances entire prosecutorial offices - from cases if they willfully withhold evidence from the defense. Passage of the law was prompted by disclosure of systemic misuse of jailhouse informants by Orange County prosecuters, which led Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals (pictured) to bar the entire Orange County District Attorney's Office from participation in a death penalty case earlier this year. That misconduct included secretly using jailhouse informants to elicit confessions from suspects after they had invoked their right to counsel - a practice that has been declared unconstitutional - lying to the courts about the use of informants, and withholding potentially exculpatory evidence. In addition to providing judges expanded authority to remove offending prosecutors from cases, the new law requires judges to report such prosecutors to the state bar, which may take disciplinary action. While denying that there had been any "interntional bad faith withholding of evidence" by prosecutors in his office, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukus praised the statute, calling it "a good law." Jeff Thoma, the president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said, "The public deserves to have confidence that prosecutors are committed to playing by the rules instead of trying to win at all costs. I applaud the passage of AB1328 and it being signed into law. I believe this has the positive effect of insuring greater due process by reducing (discovery) violations and holding those accountable that do so in bad faith."

Death Row Exonerees Meet in Ohio, Call for Abolition of the Death Penalty

A group of death row exonerees, including Kwame Ajamu (pictured), held a press conference in Cleveland on October 9 in which they called for the end of the death penalty. Ajamu - the nation's 150th death-row exoneree - was freed from Ohio's death row in 2014 along with his brother, Wiley Bridgeman, and another man, Ricky Jackson. The three had been convicted 39 years earlier on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted, saying he had been pressured by police. "We hope that we can end this atrocity today. We hope that tomorrow's newspapers would say that there's no more death penalty.... If there's anything that I would beg for this country, for this world to listen to is the heartfelt cries and pleas of myself and fellow comrades who have been exonerated from death," Ajamu said. He was one of about 20 exonerees who appeared at the event, which was organized by Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row exonerees. State Representative Nickie Antonio, who has introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty, said, "The best reform is to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. It is time to execute justice, not to execute people."

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