Race

STUDIES: Arbitrariness in Connecticut Death Sentences

A newly published study by Professor John Donohue of Stanford Law School found that arbitrary factors, including race and geography, significantly affected death sentencing decisions in Connecticut. While controlling for a variety of factors related to the severity of the crime, the study's abstract indicated that "[M]inority defendants who kill white victims are capitally charged at substantially higher rates than minority defendants who kill minorities, [and] that geography influences both capital charging and sentencing decisions . . . ." For example, the abstract noted, "Considering the most common type of death-eligible murder – a multiple victim homicide – a white on white murder of average egregiousness outside [the city of] Waterbury has a .57 percent chance of being sentenced to death, while a minority committing the identical crime on white victims in Waterbury would face a 91.2 percent likelihood." The second defendant is 160 times more likely to be sentenced to death than the first. The study concluded, "[I]n part because of the strong racial, geographic, and gender influences on capital outcomes in Connecticut, the state’s death penalty system has not been successful at limiting the death penalty within the class of death-eligible crimes to the worst of the worst offenders or establishing that there is a principled basis for distinguishing the few death-eligible defendants that will be sentenced to death in Connecticut from the many who will not."

NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row USA" Winter 2014 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA showed a continuing decline in the number of people on death rows across the country. As of January 1, 2014, there were 3,070 inmates on death row, a decrease of 55 from one year earlier. California continued to have the largest death row, with 742 inmates. Since 2000, the national death row population has decreased by 16%. Texas, which had the second largest death row in 2000, has seen a 39% drop, from 455 to 278. California has had an increase of 29%, from 576 to 742, making it an outlier as the overall death row numbers have dropped. Over 76% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution since 1976 were white, even though nationally, about 50% of murder victims are black. Since 1976, 273 black defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 20 white defendants have been executed for the murder of a black victim.

STUDIES: Raising the Minimum Age for Death Sentences

The theory of the modern death penalty is that it is to be reserved for the "worst of the worst" offenders. In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court determined (Roper v. Simmons) that those under age 18 at the time of their crime were less culpable than older defendants and should be excluded from the possibility of execution. However, a recent paper by Hollis Whitson (l.) argued that scientific research on older adolescents implied that the Court's analysis should also apply to those under 21. Whitson cited neuroscience research showing, "that older adolescents (including 18-20 year-olds) differ from adults in ways that both diminish their culpability and impair the reliability of the sentencing process." Moreover, youths under 21 are treated as minors by numerous state and federal statutes, including liquor laws, inheritance laws, and eligibility for commercial drivers' licenses. Another problem highlighted in the paper is that minority youth suffer from the application of this punishment more than white youths. From 2000 to 2014, 60% of those executed for crimes committed by 18-20 year-olds were racial minorities, while only 40% were white. For defendants aged 21 and older, the reverse was true: 40% of those executed were minorities, while 60% were white.

Support for Death Penalty Declines in Houston, Texas, As Population Diversifies

SUPPORT AMONG HOUSTON RESIDENTS FOR ALTERNATIVES TO DEATH PENALTY

A recent survey by the Kinder Institute of Houston, Texas, found that more than two-thirds (69%) of area residents preferred alternative sentences over the death penalty, and that number is growing as the population becomes more diverse. The survey asked whether persons convicted of first-degree murder should receive a death sentence, life in prison without parole, or life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Only 28% of respondents chose the death penalty. Life without parole was the most popular option, receiving 39% support, while life with the possibility of parole was second with 29%. Just four years ago, combined support for alternative sentences was only 54%. The Kinder report noted that in the past three decades the Houston area has been transformed "into the most ethnically and culturally diverse large metropolitan region in the nation." Whites now constitute a minority in every age demographic except those 65 and older. This growing diversity may be a factor in changing attitudes about the death penalty, as public opinion polls consistently show lower support for the death penalty among blacks and Latinos than among whites. In the past, Harris County (Houston) had produced more executions than any other U.S. county, but in recent years there has been a dramatic decline in death sentences.

President Obama Orders Review of Death Penalty

President Obama has ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to review the application of the death penalty in the U.S. following the failed execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. The President noted concerns about innocence and racial bias: “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence. And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.” The Department of Justice was already reviewing federal execution protocols. Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said, “At the president’s direction, the department will expand this review to include a survey of state-level protocols and related policy issues.” The President called the events in Oklahoma, in which the inmate regained consciousness and apprarently suffered before dying of a heart attack, "deeply disturbing."

REPRESENTATION: Georgia Inmate With Drunk Lawyer Facing Execution

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles will soon consider the clemency petition of Robert Holsey describing a near complete failure in the judicial process that sent him to death row in 1997. As Marc Bookman described in the latest edition of Mother Jones, Holsey was assigned a lawyer, Andy Prince, who consumed a quart of vodka every night of the trial. While preparing Holsey's case, he was arrested in an incident after pointing a gun at a black neighbor and using a racial slur. Despite charges of assault, disorderly conduct, and public drunkenness stemming from the racially-charged crime, he was allowed to stay on as defense attorney for a black defendant facing charges of murdering a white police officer. Prince failed to communicate with his co-counsel, Brenda Trammell, who had never tried a capital case, leaving her to perform a complex cross-examination with little time to prepare. She also gave the case's closing argument after almost no notice. Prince failed to present mitigating evidence regarding Holsey's intellectual disabilities and the severe abuse he suffered as a child. A juror from Holsey's trial later said in an affidavit that he would have spared Holsey's life had he heard such evidence. However, state and federal appeals courts have held that, even without the failings of the defense team, the outcome would probably have been the same.

North Carolina Supreme Court to Hear Racial Justice Act Cases

On April 14, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear appeals in the cases of the four inmates whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act. North Carolina passed the Act in 2009, allowing death row inmates to use statistical studies to show that racial bias affected their trials. The first four cases were heard in 2012. The evidence presented at hearings for defendants Marcus Robinson (l.), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters included testimony that prosecutors made racially charged notes during jury selection and participated in a training seminar where they were taught how to get around laws that banned striking jurors on the basis of race. Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks reduced the sentences of all four inmates to life. In one ruling, Weeks said he found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” The Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013, but claims made prior to repeal are still pending. The state brought the current appeal before the state Supreme Court in an attempt to have the death sentences of all four inmates reinstated.

Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:

► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.

See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.

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