Arbitrariness

Study Finds Disparities in Race, Gender, and Geography in Florida Executions

Florida executions are plagued by stark racial, gender, and geographic disparities, according to a new University of North Carolina study, with executions 6.5 times more likely for murders of white female victims than for murders of black males. (See graph, left. Click to enlarge.). UNC Chapel Hill Professor Frank Baumgartner examined data from the 89 executions conducted in Florida between 1976 - when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Florida's use of the death penalty - and 2014. Baumgartner found that executions occurred disproportionately in cases involving white victims and victims who were female. While 56% of all Florida homicide victims during that period were white, 72% of all executions involved white victims. Similarly, 26% of all murder victims were female, but 43% of executions involved female victims. 71% of the black defendants executed in Florida had been convicted of murdering white victims. On the other hand, no white person had been executed in Florida for killing a black victim. Baumgartner also found that the state's use of the death penalty was geographically concentrated, with just 6 of Florida's 67 counties accounting for more than half of all executions. More than half of Florida's counties (36) have not produced any executions, and homicide rates were 31% lower in those counties. The study concludes that "factors such as the victims’ race and gender, as well as the county in which the offender was convicted, inappropriately influence who is executed in Florida....These disparities are not measured by a few percentage points of difference. Rather, they differ by orders of magnitude, clearly demonstrating that vast inequities characterize the implementation of capital punishment in Florida."

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida's Death Sentencing Scheme

In an 8-1 decision in Hurst v. Florida released on January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida's capital sentencing scheme in violation of the 6th Amendment, which guarantees the right to trial by jury. "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the opinion of the Court. The jury and judge in Hurst's case followed Florida's statutory sentencing procedure, which requires only an "advisory sentence" from a jury. Florida does not require the jury to specify the factual basis of its sentencing recommendation. The sentencing judge must give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation, but only the judge ever provides written reasons why a case is eligible for a death sentence. The Court based its decision largely on Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 decision in which it struck down Arizona's sentencing scheme because a judge, rather than a jury, determined the facts necessary to impose a death sentence. While Florida's procedure adds the advisory recommendation that Arizona's lacked, the Court found the distinction, "immaterial." "As with Timothy Ring, the maximum punishment Timothy Hurst could have received without any judge-made findings was life in prison without parole. As with Ring, a judge increased Hurst’s authorized punishment based on her own factfinding. In light of Ring, we hold that Hurst’s sentence violates the Sixth Amendment." 

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."

Harvard Law Professor Chronicles 'The Death Penalty's Last Stand'

In a recent article in Slate, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, the executive director of the university's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, says "the death penalty is collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and cruelty." He emphasizes the increasing isolation of capital punishment to a few outlier jurisdictions, particularly highlighting Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Caddo Parish received national attention when, shortly after the exoneration of Glenn Ford, who was wrongfully convicted and spent 30 years on death row, District Attorney Dale Cox said the state should "kill more people." Ogletree described the legacy of racial violence and intimidation in the parish, including that Caddo Parish, which has been responsible for 8 of Louisiana's 12 death sentences since 2010, was "the site of more lynchings of black men than all but one other county In America." Until 2011, a Confederate flag flew atop a monument to the Confederacy outside the entrance to the parish courthouse in Shreveport where jurors reported for duty. In 2015, a study (click image to enlarge) found that Caddo prosecutors struck prospective black jurors at triple the rate of other jurors. Ogletree spotlighted a number of questionable death sentences imposed on Caddo defendants who may have been innocent and framed, were intellectually disabled or mentally ill teenagers, or who suffered from serious brain damage and mental illness, and who were provided systemically deficient representation. "Caddo offers us a microcosm of what remains of the death penalty in America today," Ogletree says. 33 jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than 9 years. Just six states performed executions in 2015, and three-quarters of the people who were executed last year raised serious questions about mental health or innocence. Death sentences were at a record low (49), and 14, he said, came from two states - Alabama and Florida - that allow non-unanimous jury recommendations of death. Ogletree concludes, "The death penalty in America today is the death penalty of Caddo Parish—a cruel relic of a bygone and more barbarous era. We don’t need it, and I welcome its demise."

EDITORIALS: Newspapers Stress Findings from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report

Several newspapers across the country featured themes from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report in editorials and opinion pieces at the end of December:

"Once broadly accepted, capital punishment is increasingly a fringe practice. A handful of states conduct nearly all executions. Four — Texas, Missouri, Georgia and Florida — carried out 93 percent of them in 2015. Sixty-three percent of new death sentences came from a mere 2 percent of U.S. counties, a group with a history of disproportionately using the death penalty.Bad policy encourages this sort of excess: Three states — Alabama, Delaware and Florida — do not require juries to be unanimous when recommending a death sentence. A quarter of new sentences came from split juries in these states."

"Not only did executions drop in 2015, but the number of people sentenced to death also hit an historic low, the center said. That could be due to a growing skepticism by jurors of a system susceptible to manipulation through coerced testimony or other misconduct...— or there could be some other reason for a decline in convictions on capital punishment charges...What is clear is that there's no correcting an execution if later evidence shows the prosecution was wrong...Abolition is the direction of the future, and the U.S. should join."

"[T]he fact that new death sentences were at an all-time low in Texas this year is reason to applaud...Texas’ declines mirror numbers across the nation. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report, death sentences dropped 33 percent from 2014, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1998...Confidence in the system’s integrity is waning. It should only follow that support for the death penalty follows suit."
 
 
"In 2015, in fact, otherwise proudly liberal California led the nation in death sentences with 14, even as the national number dropped to 49, the fewest since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of California’s death sentences, eight were in Riverside County (including five of the eight Latinos sentenced to death nationwide), plus three in Los Angeles and one in Orange...If we’re going to have the death penalty, shouldn’t it be at least somewhat consistent across the state?"

"As Florida becomes more isolated in its administration of the death penalty, the state is getting deserved scrutiny for problems with the practice. A year-end report from the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center found just three states — Alabama, California and Florida — accounted for more than half of the nation’s new death sentences in 2015. More than a quarter of this year’s death sentences were imposed by Florida and Alabama after non-unanimous jury recommendations of death — a practice allowed in just those two states and Delaware. ...As Florida officials have pushed to speed up the pace of executions, the Death Penalty Information Center found the rest of the country is heading in the opposite direction. A dozen states haven’t executed anyone in at least nine years, while 18 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty altogether. ... As most other states move away from the death penalty, it is long past time for Florida to follow their lead."

"A Reading Eagle investigation in October found nearly one in five Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to death the past decade were represented by attorneys disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. And the majority of these disciplined attorneys had been found by Pennsylvania courts to be ineffective in at least one capital case. More than 150 inmates sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated since 1973, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Sooner or later an innocent person will be executed, if it hasn't happened already...It is time to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania." (This editorial announced the end of the Eagle's prior position supporting the death penalty under limited circumstances.)

Missouri Juror Who Voted for Death Says New Evidence Would Have Changed Sentencing Decision

In 1997, a St. Louis County, Missouri jury unanimously voted to sentence David Barnett to death. Eighteen years later, after learning horrific details of the physical and sexual abuse to which Barnett had been subjected as a small child, Andrew Dazey - the jury foreman in Barnett's trial - says "[t]here’s no way” he would have voted for death. At trial, Barnett's lawyer presented some evidence of his client's abuse, mental illness, and suicide attempts. However, he failed to present at least 11 available mitigation witnesses who could have provided critical additional mitigating evidence, including evidence that Barnett's mother had abused alcohol and diet pills while she was pregnant with him, wanted to abandon the newborn at the hospital, and repeatedly gave Barnett away - once to a suicidal, drug addicted prostitute and other times to a violent alcoholic man who permitted the child to be sexually abused, physically assaulted, and forced to drink dishwashing liquid, among other horrors. When U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber overturned Barnett's death sentence in August, he wrote that, with the new evidence presented on appeal, "at least one juror would have determined the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death in Mr. Barnett’s case." Juror interviews by the St. Louis Post-Disatch suggest that he was right. Dazey told the paper, "David should not be on death row." Dazey believes that “had a fraction of this information been available” at trial, a majority of jurors would have voted differently. "I have never read where there was so much rejection in one life...If this wasn’t a case I was involved in, I would have thought it was a fiction novel. Everybody failed to recognize what was going on here."  

Delaware Supreme Court Overturns Third Death Sentence in Two Years Due to Prosecutorial Misconduct

For the third time in two years, the Delaware Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of a death row inmate because his trial was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. On December 14, the court ordered a retrial for Chauncey Starling, who was convicted in 2003 of killing two people in a Wilmington barber shop, in part because prosecutors had failed to disclose that they had dropped charges against a key witness for violating his parole. Instead, prosecutors informed defense counsel that those charges were still pending. Earlier this year, the court overturned the conviction of Isaiah McCoy because of misconduct by a deputy attorney general, who was later suspended from practicing law as a result of seven ethical violations in the case. In 2014, Jermaine Wright was granted a new trial because prosecutors and police withheld exculpatory evidence about possible alternate suspects in a case in which no forensic or eyewitness evidence linked Wright to the crime. No physical evidence linked Starling to the barbershop murders, as well. The court ruled that the misconduct, in combination with two prejudicial failures by defense counse, had denied Starling a fair trial. The court wrote, "Like all citizens, [Starling] is entitled to a fair trial that adheres to the procedural requirements with effective representation. Because those procedural requirements were not met, and counsel defending him was ineffective, we are compelled to reverse and remand for a new trial and proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion." 

Report: 75% of 2015 Executions Raised Serious Concerns About Mental Health or Innocence

Three quarters of American executions in 2015 involved cases of "crippling disabilities and uncertain guilt," according to a report by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University. Saying that the 2015 executions revealed "a broken capital punishment system," the report found that, "[o]f the 28 people executed [in 2015], 75% were mentally impaired or disabled, experienced extreme childhood trauma or abuse, or were of questionable guilt." It said seven people who were executed suffered from serious intellectual impairment or brain injury, including Warren Hill, who even the state's doctors agreed had intellectual disability, and Cecil Clayton, who lost 20% of his prefrontal cortex as a result of a sawmill accident. An additional seven suffered from serious mental illnesses. One, Andrew Brannan, was a decorated war veteran whom the Veterans Administration had classified as 100% disabled as a result of combat-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder from his service in Vietnam. The report identified five more cases in which the executed prisoners had experienced extreme childhood trauma and abuse, and another two - Lester Bower and Brian Keith Terrell - in which it said the executed men "were potentially innocent." The report also highlighted developments described in DPIC's Year End Report, including the increasing isolation of death penalty use to a small number of jurisdictions. "Only a handful of outlier counties still impose the death penalty," the report said, and an examination of practices in those counties often "reveals themes of overzealous prosecutors who often bend the rules, poorly performing defense lawyers, and a legacy of racial bias." As a result, "these outlier counties tend to [also have] an unacceptable history of convicting the innocent and individuals with crippling mental impairments." (Click image to enlarge.)

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