Sentencing

Death Sentences Fall Across Texas, Support Drops in County That Leads U.S. in Executions

Harris County (Houston), Texas, has executed more men and women than any other county in the United States, but a recent poll shows that a strong majority of its residents now support alternative sentences. A report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that only 28% of respondents in Harris County prefer the death penalty to life without parole as punishment for first-degree murder. The poll also found that overall support for the death penalty was at a 20-year low, with 56% saying they were in favor of capital punishment.  As public support for the death penalty has dropped, so have Harris County death sentences. The County handed down a combined 44 death sentences from 1994-1996, but sentenced only 5 people to death from 2012-2014. Death verdicts are also down statewide. According to a Dallas Morning News commentary, Texas imposed 11 death sentences in 2014, down from 39 in 1999.  No death sentences have been imposed in the state so far this year. (Click image to enlarge.)

Representation Improves, Death Sentences Dramatically Drop in Virginia

The number of people sentenced to death in Virginia has plummeted from 40 in the years 1998-2005 to only 6 from 2006 through April 2015. A recent study suggests that improvements in capital representation in the state may have played a significant role in that dramatic change. In 2004, Virginia established four regional capital defender offices, which are completely devoted to handling death penalty cases. The year before the defender offices opened, Virginia juries imposed 6 death sentences, but have not imposed more than 2 in any year since.  This mirrors the experience in other jurisdictions in which defendants have been represented by institutional capital defenders. In addition to better outcomes at trial, "[a] capable and vigorous defense no doubt accounts — at least in part — for the increased willingness of prosecutors to resolve capital cases short of death," University of Virginia law professor John G. Douglass said in his study.

Supreme Court to Review Florida's Death Penalty Scheme

On March 9, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurst v. Florida, a challenge to the state's unusual sentencing procedure. In a prior ruling, Ring v. Arizona (2002), the Court held that the question of whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty is entitled to a jury deteremination. Unlike almost every other state where unanimous juries are required for death eligibility and a death sentence, Florida only requires the jury to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge, who then makes the final decision on the existence of aggravating factors and the actual sentence. Timothy Hurst was sentenced to death by a judge, following a 7-5 recommendation for death by the jury. The jury's recommendation did not make clear which aggravating factors made him eligible for the death penalty or whether they found any aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida could affect pending cases and other inmates on the state's death row.

Texas Case Illustrates Trend Away From Death Penalty

Midland County, Texas, District Attorney Teresa Clingman (pictured) recently accepted a sentence of life without parole rather than seeking the death penalty for Dan Higgins, a man who pled guilty to killing a Midland County Sheriff's Deputy. Clingman's decision was part of a larger trend of prosecutors choosing life without parole even for the most serious crimes. West Texas A&M criminology professor and former prison warden Keith Price said, "Capital death has so many requirements -- it's so expensive. Capital death: the convicted dies in prison by lethal injection. Capital life: the convicted dies in prison whenever his natural life is over. From an incapacitation standpoint, the DA has accomplished the same thing. That particular person will never see the Texas public again." As a result of similar decisions by other prosecutors, and juries preferring life without parole more often, death sentences in the U.S. have declined by about 75% since their peak in the mid-1990s. Clingman cited a request from the deputy's widow not to seek the death penalty, saying, "The reasoning is because we can't punish him any more than we're already punishing him. It saves the victim in that case from having to go through a trial. [The victim's widow] also took into consideration that Mr. Higgins will now spend his time in general population rather than on death row in a single cell by himself for the rest of his life." Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter supported the prosecutor's decision, saying, "I think saving the county money, saving the heartache for the families involved is the best solution for this particular case. The Midland County's Sheriff's Office not only lost a brother and a friend, this county lost a great employee. Only time right now can help settle the feelings right now."

Duval County, Florida, Leader in Death Sentences

“Counties"(Click to enlarge) According to a report by the Christian Science Monitor, Duval County, Florida, has the highest per capita rate for inmates on death row of any U.S. county. Duval has sentenced one person to death for every 14,000 residents. It is among the 2% of counties in the U.S. reponsible for a majority of all inmates on death row as of 2013, as described in DPIC's report, The 2% Death Penalty. Duval County ranked 8th, with 60 inmates on death row. Duval has handed down 14 death sentences in the last 5 years. As a s state, Florida had the second highest number of death sentences in 2013, behind only California. Florida's unusual sentencing procedures, which allow a simple majority of the jury to recommend a death sentence, may explain some of Duval's high sentencing numbers, but experts also point to cultural factors. Seth Kotch, a historian from the University of North Carolina, said, "We know that the best predictor of execution is previous execution, which suggests that a courthouse or a county can get into a habit of doing things, and those habitual behaviors are informed by cultural cues about crime and punishment.”

STUDIES: The Effects of Judge vs. Jury Sentencing

Judge
(Click left image to enlarge). A new study by researchers at Cornell University examined the effects of Delaware's decision to transfer capital sentencing authority from the jury to the judge at trial. The study used data from capital cases between 1977 and 2007, during which time Delaware made the shift to judge sentencing--one of very few states to employ that procedure. According to the study, "Judges were significantly more likely to give a defendant the death sentence than were juries." During the era when Delaware relied on juries for sentencing, about 20% of capital cases resulted in death sentences. In the era when it relied solely on judges, 53% of the cases were given death sentences. Today, the state has a hybrid model in which a jury must unanimously find the existence of at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt to make a case death eligible. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation to the judge, which is given appropriate consideration.

Pennsylvania Has 90% Reversal Rate for Death Penalty Cases Completing Appeals

On September 24, Pennsylvania reached a new milestone with the 250th death-sentence reversal since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. The state has imposed approximately 412 death sentences since reinstatement. Only three prisoners were executed, and all three waived at least part of their appeals. There have been no executions in Pennsylvania for 15 years. Over 60% of all death sentences imposed in the state have been overturned by state or federal courts; 190 prisoners remain on death row, and many of those are likely to have their cases reversed, too. If the pool of sentences is restricted to those that have completed all of their ordinary appeals, the state reversal rate has been over 90%. Michelle Tharp was the latest person to have her sentence overturned. Pennsylvania has sent seven women to death row; all but one have had their cases reversed.

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.

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