Sentencing

STUDIES: Amnesty Reports Executions Occurred in Only 11% of Countries Worldwide in 2013

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Amnesty International recently released its annual report on capital punishment around the world, noting, "Developments in the worldwide use of the death penalty in 2013 confirmed that its application is confined to a small minority of countries." As illustrated in the chart at left, over the past decade there has been an increase in the number of countries abolishing the death penalty and a decrease in countries carrying out executions. Because executions in China remain a state secret, Amnesty was not able to determine the number of executions worldwide. Of the known executions, almost 80% occurred in just three countries: Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Twenty-two countries recorded executions last year. No executions were carried out in Europe or Central Asia. The United States remained the only country in the Americas to carry out executions and had the fifth most executions of any country in the world. (Information from Syria and Egypt could not be confirmed.)

COSTS: Idaho Study Finds Death Penalty Cases Are Rare, Lengthy, & Costly

A new, but limited, study of the costs of the death penalty in Idaho found that capital cases are more costly and take much more time to resolve than non-capital cases. One measure of death-penalty costs was reflected in the time spent by attorneys handling appeals. The State Appellate Public Defenders office spent about 44 times more time on a typical death penalty appeal than on a life sentence appeal (almost 8,000 hours per capital defendant compared to about 180 hours per non-death penalty defendant). Capital cases with trials took 20.5 months to reach a conclusion while non-capital cases with trials took 13.5 months. The study was commissioned by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee and performed by the Office of Performance Evaluations.The study also noted how infrequently the death penalty was applied in Idaho: of the 251 defendants who were charged with first-degree murder since 1998, the death penalty was sought against 55 (22%) of them, and just 7 were sentenced to death. More than half of the 40 people sentenced to death since 1977 have received lesser sentences after their death sentences were overturned.

STUDIES: Jurors in Washington State More Likely to Impose Death on Black Defendants

According to a recent study by Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, jurors in Washington are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. The disparity in sentencing occurred despite the fact that prosecutors were slightly more likely to seek the death penalty against white defendants. Nicholas Brown, general counsel to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, said, "It's positive to see that prosecutors aren't unfairly considering race in making decisions about when to seek capital punishment. At the same time, it brings up a lot of unfortunate implications about juries." The study examined 285 cases in which defendants were convicted of aggravated murder. The cases were analyzed for factors that might influence sentencing, including the number of victims, the prior criminal record of the defendant, and the number of aggravating factors alleged by the prosecutor. Gov. Inslee recently placed a moratorium on executions, citing the unequal application of the death penalty as one of his reasons for halting executions.

NEW RESOURCES: Information About Death Sentences in 2013

DPIC recently added a new webpage concerning death sentences in 2013. This resource includes the name, race, and county of sentencing for each of the 80 defendants sentenced to death last year, as well as the names of the leading states and counties. The number of new death sentences handed down was equal to the second lowest number since 1976. By race, 40% of those sentenced to death were white, 39% were black, 19% were Latino, and 2.5% were of other races. California led the country with 24 death sentences, followed by Florida, with 15. Fifteen states handed down at least one death sentence, and the federal government and the U.S. Military each imposed one death sentence.  Less than 2% of all U.S. counties (53 counties) produced all of the death sentences in 2013. Two southern California counties, Los Angeles and Riverside, had the most death sentences, with 7 and 6, respectively.

FROM DPIC: Extensive News Coverage of Year End Report

National and local media have focused significant attention on DPIC's recent 2013 Year End Report. Coverage has included pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, CNN, on the wires of the Associated Press and Reuters, and in hundreds of other articles and editorials. Papers highlighted the main theme of the report, which showed a continuing decline in the use of the death penalty around the country. The New York Times quoted DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, as commenting that “A societal shift is underway.” The Associated Press quoted Dieter saying, "I think the decline begins with the revelations about mistakes in capital cases - that innocent people could get the penalty and almost be executed has shocked the public to the point where death sentences are harder to obtain."

DPIC Releases 2013 Report, Showing Marked Decline in Death Penalty Use

On December 19, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." In 2013, executions declined, fewer states imposed death sentences, and the size of death row decreased compared to the previous year. The number of states with the death penalty also dropped, and public support for capital punishment registered a 40-year low. There were 39 executions in the U.S., marking only the second time in 19 years that there were less than 40. Just two states, Texas (16) and Florida (7), were responsible for 59% of the executions. The number of death sentences (80) remained near record lows, and several major death penalty states, inclucing Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, imposed no death sentences this year. Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

Sotomayor Critiques Alabama Sentencing in Supreme Court Dissent

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury's 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the case, saying the Court should reconsider Alabama's death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury's recommendation for life came from Alabama, including some in which the vote for life was unanimous. She speculated that Alabama's elected judges may face political pressures to appear harsh in their use of the death penalty that unelected judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?," she wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." She cited instances in which judges used their death sentences as part of their electoral campaigns.

What the Media Is Saying About DPIC's "The 2% Death Penalty"

2%Since DPIC released its new report, The 2% Death Penalty, on October 2, both national and international media have been reporting on its findings. The Washington Post noted, "Two percent of the counties in the country were responsible for [most] 685 of 1,320 executions from 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, to 2012." The Los Angeles Times, quoted DPIC's Executive Director, "'The death penalty is not as American or as widespread as people might assume. It is clustered in a few counties,' said Richard Dieter, the group's executive director." Similar stories have appeared in CBS News, The Guardian (London), U.S. News & World Report, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Columbus Dispatch, The National Journal, and many other outlets. Many stories echoed Stateline's emphasis on the burden that all taxpayers share because of the actions of a few counties: "After a death sentence is handed down, states are on the hook for paying for the prosecution and sometimes defense, as well as housing the inmate. Those costs are borne by the entire state, not just the counties that impose the death sentence." (Click on image to enlarge).

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