Recent Legislative Activity

NEW VOICES: Bi-Partisan Bill Introduced to Abolish Washington's Death Penalty

Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray, all 9 members of the Seattle City Council, and City Attorney Pete Holmes signed a letter in support of a bi-partisan bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington. Tim Burgess (l.), the President of the City Council, is a former police officer and detective. The joint letter said: “There is no credible evidence showing that the death penalty deters homicide or makes our communities safer. Instead, pursuing capital punishment diverts precious resources from critical public safety programs, delays final resolution for victims’ families and has serious implications for racial and social equity.” Among the reasons given for abolition were the high cost of death penalty trials and the lengthy appeals required in death penalty cases. The nine inmates on Washington's death row have spent an average of 17 years awaiting execution. King County, where Seattle is located, has already spent $15 million on two capital trials currently underway and a third that has not yet begun, the letter said.

NEW VOICES: Kentucky Judge Calls for Legislation to End the Death Penalty

Speaking from the bench at a hearing in a Kentucky capital case, Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine said, "Something needs to be done legislatively in Kentucky and in every state in the U.S. I think the death penalty probably should not be a penalty, ever." Despite her personal views, Goodwine ruled that the death penalty could be sought against a man accused of participating in a murder, even though he did not shoot the victim. "As the law in Kentucky stands right now ... he's death-eligible as a conspirator in this case," Goodwine said. "That's the law as it stands right now. I, as a trial judge, have to follow that law whether I agree with it or not. If I had my druthers, there would be no death penalty in Kentucky." She added that she was frustrated with the time and expense of capital cases and the emotional toll they take on everyone involved. 

Maryland Governor Will Commute Sentences of Remaining Death Row Inmates

On December 31, 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley announced he will commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row to life without parole. O'Malley signed Maryland's death penalty repeal bill into law in 2013, but the repeal was not retroactive. In a statement, O'Malley said, "Recent appeals and the latest opinion on this matter by Maryland’s Attorney General have called into question the legality of carrying out earlier death sentences — sentences imposed prior to abolition. In fact, the Attorney General has opined that the carrying out of prior sentences is now illegal in the absence of an existing statute." Prior to announcing the commutations, O'Malley met with family members of the murder victims in the cases related to the four death row inmates. He called the "un-ending legal process" of the death penalty an "additional torment" on the families of murder victims. He said, "Gubernatorial inaction — at this point in the legal process — would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure."

NEW VOICES: Retired Police Captain Says Repealing Death Penalty Is "Smart on Crime"

Jim Davidsaver, a retired police captain with over 25 years experience in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department, recently advocated for repeal of the state's death penalty from a law enforcement perspective. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal-Star, Davidsaver said, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty doesn’t keep us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." He highlighted the financial tradeoff between the death penalty and other crime prevention measures: "The millions of dollars we’ve spent on the death penalty would have been much better invested in more police officers, additional resources or training for our current officers." He concluded, "The cheaper, more intelligent alternative for our state is life without the possibility of parole. Repealing the death penalty does not mean we are ‘soft’ on crime. It means we are smart on crime."

Proposed Ohio Lethal Injection Secrecy Bill May Be Unconstitutional

The Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would prevent the public and the courts from knowing the name of compounding pharmacies that produce lethal injection drugs for the state and the identity of medical personnel participating in executions. Critics of the bill say such interference with the courts and the First Amendment right to free speech would be unconstitutional. At a committee hearing, Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said, "This bill likely will prompt endless litigation – a precise situation you are trying to avoid." Similar secrecy laws in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Arizona, and Oklahoma are being challenged in court by media organizations. The non-partisan Legislative Service Commission also raised constitutional concerns about a provision of the bill that would void any contract if it had a clause prohibiting the sale of lethal injection drugs to the state, saying that could violate state and federal prohibitions against impairing contracts. Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman questioned whether the state should go to such lengths to preserve lethal injection: "If the only way we can preserve this method of execution is by making it more secret, that, to me, is something of a sign that we shouldn't be trying to preserve this method of execution."

EDITORIALS: Maryland Governor Should Commute Remaining Death Sentences

In a recent editorial, the Washington Post urged Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley to commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row, saying, "To carry out executions post-repeal would be both cruel, because the legislation underpinning the sentence has been scrapped, and unusual, because doing so would be historically unprecedented." Maryland is one of three states that have repealed the death penalty prospectively but still have inmates on death row. The others are Connecticut and New Mexico. O'Malley, who is leaving office in January, was a supporter of repeal. Maryland Attorney Douglas Gansler, who opposed repeal, recently said that carrying out an execution in Maryland is, "illegal and factually impossible." The editorial concluded, "In signing the abolition of capital punishment into law last year, [O'Malley] was unequivocal: 'It’s wasteful. It’s ineffective. It doesn’t work to reduce violent crime.' Having made the moral case for abolition so eloquently, he should have no trouble making the practical case for commutation to life without parole for the four remaining condemned men. And he should act without further delay." Read the editorial below.

Nebraska Attorney General Says Death Penalty in Limbo

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said executions in the state are unlikely to resume for at least another year because of the scarcity of lethal injection drugs. "Death row is sort of in limbo today," he said, adding that efforts to find alternative drugs have been diverted due to other state concerns. Nebraska's last execution was in 1997, by electrocution. The state's execution protocol calls for use of sodium thiopental, which is no longer being manufactured for the U.S. Earlier, the state had obtained sodium thiopental from a distributor in India, but the drug expired this year. The Department of Corrections would have to rewrite its protocol to allow for different drugs. State Sen. Ernie Chambers said he would work to prevent such changes: “I would fight tooth and nail... against what Bruning is talking about.” Bruning, who is leaving office in two months, said it will be up to the new governor and attorney general to decide “if and when” they want to address the state’s death penalty.

ARTICLES: Excluding Blacks from Death Penalty Juries Violates Rights As Citizens

An article in the most recent issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review examines the practice of excluding African-Americans from jury service, particularly in death penalty cases in North Carolina. In Bias in the Box, Dax-Devlon Ross notes, "Alongside the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury is an enduring pillar of our democracy....Nevertheless, there is perhaps no arena of public life where racial bias has been as broadly overlooked or casually tolerated as jury exclusion." Ross traces the history of civil rights litigation that secured blacks the right to participate in juries, but he also shows the continued use of strategies to remove them from service. In particular, the repeal of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act in 2013 removed an important protection of equality in jury service. Before the act was rescinded, a special court reduced the sentences of four death row inmates because of patterns of racial bias in jury selection. In one case, a prosecutor's notes described potential jurors as "blk wino - drugs" and as living in a "blk, high drug" neighborhood. Ross quotes a number of potential black jurors who wanted to serve in North Carolina but felt they were excluded because of their race.

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