Sentencing

Alabama Stands Alone in Judges Imposing Death When Juries Say Life

Alabama is the only state that in which judges regularly impose death sentences even after a jury recommends a life sentence. Death row inmate Courtney Lockhart has asked the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider his sentence imposed as a result of this unique process. Lockhart was convicted of capital murder in 2010. The jury unanimously found that his post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from his military service in Iraq, was sufficiently mitigating to recommend a sentence of life without parole. However, the presiding judge overrode this recommendation and sentenced Lockhart to death. In Alabama, one-fifth of death row inmates were sentenced to death over a jury's recommendation for life. A study by the Equal Justice Initiative found that "the proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years." Some elected judges touted their death penalty records in campaign ads. The practice of judicial override has contributed to Alabama having one of the highest per-capita death sentencing rates in the country. Bryan Stevenson (pictured), executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said he hoped that Lockhart's case will allow the Alabama Supreme Court to "reevaluate the propriety of judicial override." Delaware and Florida technically also allow judicial override, but neither state has had a judge use it in over 15 years.

A Turn-Around in Texas's Use of Death Penalty

A recent op-ed by Jordan Steiker, endowed professor of law and Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas, highlighted the declining use of the death penalty in that state. AlthoughTexas leads the nation in executions, death sentences and executions per year have dropped sharply since the 1990s. Prof. Steiker wrote, "In 1999, Texas juries returned an astounding 48 death sentences. Since 2008, however, Texas has annually sent fewer than 10 defendants to death row.  Executions in Texas have declined as well, from a high of 40 in 2000 to fewer than 20 since 2010." While describing the "perfect storm" of conditions that led to Texas's high use of capital punishment in the past, the op-ed also noted changes that have led to less death-penalty use, such as the creation of a statewide defender's office to represent death-sentenced inmates in state post-conviction and the broader disclosure of evidence to the accused. Prosecutors have increasingly accepted plea agreements to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, saving taxpayer dollars that would have been spent on expensive capital trials and appeals.

Missouri Juror Describes Pressure to Vote for Death

UPDATE: Winfield's execution was stayed on June 12 because of state interference with the clemency process. EARLIER: John Winfield is scheduled to be executed in Missouri on June 18 despite an affidavit submitted by one of the jurors at his trial stating she was pressured to switch her sentencing vote from life in prison to death. Kimberly Turner, who served on Winfield's jury in 1998, recently described the jury's initial deliberations: "Another juror and I had voted for life without the possibility of parole. That was my vote. In my heart, that has always been my vote." In Missouri, a jury recommendation for death must be unanimous; if just one juror votes for a life sentence, the defendant is sentenced to life. When the jury told the court they were unable to reach a unanimous sentencing verdict, they were told to continue deliberating. "Even though I had voted for life without parole," Turner said, "when an officer of the Court told me to keep deliberating, I thought that I had to. It was Friday afternoon and the other jurors were tired of being sequestered and wanted to go home. They were pressuring me and the other life vote to change our votes to death...As the afternoon went on, the other jurors wore me down. I had not wanted to keep deliberating, but after the order to continue, I did not know how long I was supposed to keep defending my vote for life...So I changed my vote to death. It is a decision that has haunted me."

NEW RESOURCES: BJS Releases "Capital Punishment, 2012"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently issued a new report, "Capital Punishment, 2012," analyzing the use of the death penalty in that year and revealing overall trends since the death penalty was reinstated. The report noted that 2012 was "the twelfth consecutive year in which the number of inmates under sentence of death decreased." Among the statistics not reported elsewhere, BJS noted that the time between sentencing and execution in 2012 was 15.8 years. The average time for all executions since 1976 was 11.3 years. The average age of those on death row at the end of 2012 was 46. About 90% of those on death row went no further than high school in their education. About one-third of those on death row had no prior felony convictions.

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.

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