Court Hearing Under Way on Constitutionality of Federal Death Penalty

A court hearing is under way in the capital trial of Donald Fell in a Vermont federal district court challenging the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. This week, death penalty experts testified for the defense about systemic problems Fell's lawyers say may render the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Fell was sentenced to death in 2006, but was granted a new trial because of juror misconduct. The hearing began on July 11 and is scheduled to continue until July 22. Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, who is presiding over the hearing and is set to preside over Fell's second trial in 2017, said the hearing will, "create a rich, factual record for higher courts with broader authority to rule on the big questions." On Monday, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, discussed research on the effects of solitary confinement, the conditions under which Fell has been held on death row. "According to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, anything greater than 15 days is inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment," Haney said. On Tuesday, Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, testified about the decline of the death penalty both in use and in public opinion, saying, "Attitudes toward the death penalty have changed more rapidly than any other social issue other than gay marriage." Radelet testified that research has disclosed no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or affects overall murder rates. He also emphasized the prevalence and causes of the 156 wrongful capital convictions as a major problem with capital punishment. “Last year six people were released, most having served 25 years. In 2014, seven were released from death row as innocent. One had been in for 30 years," he said. "The number one cause of error is prejudicial prosecutorial testimony. Prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, fraudulent forensics.”

NEW VOICES: Retired Colorado Corrections Officer Raises Questions of Deterrence, Innocence

In a recent op-ed for The Denver Post, retired corrections officer and military veteran Pete Lister offered a critique of the death penalty, saying it fails as a deterrent, risks executing innocent people, and costs more than life without parole. "Capital punishment has not, in a single state, proven to be a deterrent to capital crime." Lister said. "Society consists of human beings who make mistakes. There are those who are, occasionally, negligent, and some who are even dishonest or unethical. We are faced with the troubling fact that if we, as a society, err in a capital case, the sentence is irreversible." Drawing on his experience as a corrections officer, Lister compared capital punishment to life without parole, saying, "involuntary incarceration is not the life of Riley that some would have you believe" and asking whether "life in prison without the hope of parole" may "actually [be] worse than a death sentence." Discussing the risk or error, he said, "When we, society, wrongfully convict someone, whether through malfeasance or neglect, or whether the technology extant at time of trial was insufficient to prove innocence, then we, society, have a responsibility to release him, to publicly acknowledge the error, and allow that citizen to move past the horror that we, society, have inflicted. How do we do that after we've put him to death?" Lister also noted that the cost of capital punishment, which he said "far exceeds the cost of incarcerati[on] even for life, ... is more than simply financial. It's been argued that voting for execution takes a terrible emotional toll on jury members." He concludes with a question: "Whether you believe the death penalty is justifiable, if you were the one being accused of a murder you had not committed, where would you stand on this issue?"

STUDIES: FBI Crime Report Shows Murder Rates Remain Higher in Death Penalty States

The U.S. Department of Justice released its annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2014, reporting no change in the national murder rate since 2013. In the Northeast, the region with the fewest executions, the murder rate declined 5.7%, from 3.5 to 3.3 per 100,000 population. The murder rate was 1.7 times higher in the South, which carries out the most executions of any region. That region saw a 3.4% increase in the homicide rate, and its 5.5 murders per 100,00 population remained the highest rate of any region. Murder rates in the West and Midwest declined by 3.8% and 5.4%, respectively. A DPIC analysis of weighted murder rates found that death penalty jurisdictions continue to have a higher murder rate than non-death penalty jurisdictions (including Washington, D.C.): 4.7 per 100,000 compared to 3.8 per 100,000. Ten of the eleven states with the highest murder rates have the death penalty, while six of the eight lowest do not.

Stanford Law Professor Debunks Myth That The Death Penalty Deters Murder

In an op-ed for Newsweek, Stanford Law Professor John Donohue argues that there is "not the slightest credible statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the rate of homicide" and presents data to show that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Comparisons between neighboring jurisdictions show no effect of capital punishment: "Whether one compares the similar movements of homicide in Canada and the U.S., when only the latter restored the death penalty, or in American states that have abolished it versus those that retain it, or in Hong Kong and Singapore (the first abolishing the death penalty in the mid-1990s, and the second greatly increasing its usage at the same), there is no detectable effect of capital punishment on crime." He cites a 2012 study by the National Academy of Sciences, which, "concluded that there was no credible evidence that the death penalty deters homicides." He also appeals to the psychology of crime and punishment: "Since murderers typically expose themselves to far greater immediate risks, the likelihood is incredibly remote that some small chance of execution many years after committing a crime will influence the behavior of a sociopathic deviant who would otherwise be willing to kill if his only penalty were life imprisonment." Donohue argues that a more effective way of reducing murders "is to take the resources that would otherwise be wasted in operating a death penalty regime and use them on strategies that are known to reduce crime," such as improved policing. Donohue concludes, "With zero evidence that the death penalty provides any tangible benefits and very clear indications of its monetary, human and social costs, this is one program about which there can be little debate that its costs undeniably outweigh any possible benefits."

National Polls Show Historic Declines in Support for Death Penalty

“Counties"(Click image to enlarge) Polls released this week by Pew Research Center and CBS News show that public support for the death penalty has declined to near historic lows. Both polls reported that 56% of Americans support the death penalty. That is the lowest level of support ever recorded by the CBS News poll, and near the lowest level reported by Pew in the last 40 years. The Pew poll examined levels of support by political party and found that the decline in support for the death penalty is particularly striking among Democrats, with just 40% saying they support it now, compared to 71% who did in 1996. While 63% viewed the death penalty as a morally justified punishment for murder, most (71%), said there is some risk of executing innocent people, and 61% said they do not believe it deters serious crimes. Support for the death penalty is lowest among racial minorities (34% of blacks and 45% of Hispanics support it), women (49%), and Catholics (53%).  Large drops in support for the death penalty between 2011 and 2015 were reported among liberal Democrats (11 percentage points), women (10 points), those under age 30 (8 points), and conservative Republicans (7 points).

NEW VOICES: Warden Says Death Penalty Imposes "Immeasurable Burden" on Correctional Officers

Former prison warden, Frank Thompson, has urged repeal of Delaware's death penalty.  In an op-ed for The News Journal of Delaware, the former warden, who has personally overseen two executions, describes "the immeasurable burden that th[e execution] process places on correctional officers" and the trauma experienced by correctional officers who must carry out executions. Thompson says, "Many of us who have taken part in this process live with nightmares, especially those of us who have participated in executions that did not go smoothly. Correctional officers who carry out execution can suffer from post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and depression." He explains that capital punishment does nothing to "increase the safety of prison staff or inmates." "Every warden in America knows the established protocols that effectively keep prisons safe for corrections staff and inmates," he says. "These include programs to treat inmates with alcohol and drug dependency or mental illnesses, appropriate inmate-to-staff ratios for the proper supervision of prisoners, adequate activities and work programs, and effective classification systems that provide guidance on how to properly house and program inmates...I am not aware of and have not heard of a single prison administrator who would trade any of these programs or resources in order to keep the death penalty." Thompson concludes by calling on the Delaware legislature to "repeal its death penalty and lead the way on smarter crime prevention policy by reinvesting the millions of dollars that the state currently spends on capital punishment into programs that will actually improve public safety." Read the full op-ed below.

STUDIES: Death Penalty Had No Effect on Reducing Crime

A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice examined several possible explanations for the dramatic drop in crime in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s. Among the theories studied was use of the death penalty, which the report found had no effect on the decline in crime. The authors explained, "Empirically, capital punishment is too infrequent to have a measureable effect on the crime drop. Criminologically, the existence and use of the death penalty may not even create the deterrent effect on potential offenders that lawmakers hoped when enacting such laws." The authors noted criminals do not consider the consequences of their actions, particularly when the consequence is rarely applied, as in the case of the death penalty. "Much psychological and sociological research suggests that many criminal acts are crimes of passion or committed in a heated moment based only on immediate circumstances, and thus potential offenders may not consider or weigh longer-term possibilities of punishment and capture, including the possibility of capital punishment." They concluded, "In line with the past research, the Brennan Center’s empirical analysis finds that there is no evidence that executions had an effect on crime in the 1990s or 2000s." Ultimately, they attributed drop in crime to various social changes and policing tactics, with increased incarceration having no effect in the 2000s and only minimal effect on property crime in the 1990s.

FBI Reports Continued Decline in Police Officers Killed

On November 24, the FBI released a report on law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2013. Twenty-seven (27) officers were killed in "felonious acts," a 45% drop compared to 2012, when 49 officers were killed, and a 53% decline since 2004. Most (15) of the 27 officers killed were in the South, with Texas having the highest number of any state (6). Six officers were killed in the West, four in the Midwest, and only two in the Northeast. California had the second highest number, with 5. In 26 out of the 27 incidents, officers were killed by firearms. Forty-nine (49) other officers died as a result of accidents.