AMERICAN VALUES SURVEY: Majority of Americans Prefer Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

A majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty, according to the 2015 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. The poll of 2,695 Americans found that 52% preferred life without parole, while 47% preferred the death penalty. The poll found that respondents' views on capital punishment tracked their views about racial justice and differed greatly by race. 53% of all Americans agreed with the statement, "A black person is more likely than a white person to receive the death penalty for the same crime," while 45% disagreed. But 82% of blacks and 59% of Hispanics agreed with the statement, while fewer than half (45%) of whites agreed. Only 37% of those who saw racial disparities in the application of the death penalty supported capital punishment, while the death penalty drew support from 59% of those who disagreed that blacks were more likely than whites to receive death sentences. White Americans' views on this question differed greatly by social class, with 54% of college-educated whites saying blacks were more likely than whites to receive the death penalty and 58% of white working-class Americans saying this was not the case. Views about the perceived fairness of the death penalty also split sharply along partisan lines. 64% of Republicans disagreed with the statement on racial disparities, as compared to 28% of Democrats. Independents were evenly divided. Overall, about two-thirds (65%) of Democrats said they preferred life without parole, while 67% of Republicans said they preferred the death penalty.  

Caddo Parish Elects First Black District Attorney As Spotlight Shines on Death Penalty and Jury Selection Controversies

Caddo Parish, Louisiana, known nationally for its aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, has elected its first black District Attorney. In a November 21 runoff election conducted against the backdrop of controversial remarks about the death penalty by the current DA and a threatened civil rights lawsuit over systemic racial discrimination by Caddo Parish prosecutors in jury selection, former judge James E. Stewart, Sr. defeated current Caddo Parish prosecutor Dhu Thompson, 55% to 45%. Ten days before the election, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center announced that it intends to sue Caddo Parish over the District Attorney's office's practice of striking black citizens from juries at three times the rate of other jurors. James Craig, co-director of the New Orleans-based non-profit law center, called the racially-biased jury strikes "a blight on our criminal justice system." A recent study by the human rights group Reprieve Australia had revealed that Caddo prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors but only 15% of other jurors. (Click image to enlarge.) The study showed that Thompson's exercise of juror challenges was even more racially disproportionate, striking more than half of all prospective black jurors but fewer than 1 in 6 of all other jurors. Craig said that the announcement of the suit was not intended to influence the election: "This is not a problem of one person. This is a culture that needs to be acknowledged and changed...In the absence of concrete, specific changes in the office’s culture and approach to jury selection, this practice will continue under the administration of either of the two final candidates for district attorney. For this reason, no matter who prevails in the special election this month, the MacArthur Justice Center will proceed with the federal civil rights lawsuit that we are preparing to file." The suit is seeking an injunction to block practices that result in under-representation of blacks on juries. In his election-night victory remarks, Stewart pledged "to bring professionalism and ethics back to the district attorney’s office." 

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Georgia Jury Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Foster v. Chatman on November 2. Timothy Foster, an intellectually limited black teenager charged with killing an elderly white woman, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 by an all-white jury after Georgia prosecutors struck every black member of the jury pool. Foster argued that prosecutors impermissibly exercised their strikes on the basis of race, in violation of the Court's 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, to keep African Americans off his jury. Press reports described the Court as having "signaled support" for Foster during the course of the argument, with at least six justices indicating that black jurors had been "improperly singled out and kept off the jury." Justice Elena Kagan called the case as clear a violation of the Court's prohibition against racially discriminatory jury selection "as a court is ever going to see." The prosecution's notes of jury selection, obtained through an open records request nearly 20 years after Foster's trial, showed that prosecutors had highlighted in green the names of every black juror, included all 5 black jurors on the top of a list of 6 "definite no's," and ranked black jurors against one another "in case it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors." In an op-ed in the New York Times, former deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry D. Thompson said prosecutors "routinely ignore" Batson and exclude black jurors for any number of ostensibly "race neutral" reasons. This is problematic, he says, "because interracial juries make fewer factual errors, deliberate longer and consider a wider variety of perspectives than all-white juries." Studies in nine southern death penalty states have documented "rampant" race discimination in jury selection, Thompson writes. However, "Mr. Foster’s case offers a rare instance of extraordinary and well-documented misconduct." Thompson concludes that "A judicial system that allows for obviously discriminatory jury selection is intolerable. If the court cannot establish discrimination in this case, then the lofty language of Batson rings hollow." 

Former Judge: Pennsylvania Moratorium is "Appropriate" and "Reasonable"

Robert Cindrich, a former U.S. District Judge and U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, recently wrote an op-ed for the Harrisburg Patriot-News calling Governor Tom Wolf's moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania "appropriate" and "reasonable." Expressing concerns about "multiple, serious problems with the death penalty" in Pennsylvania, Judge Cindrich says Governor Wolf "was absolutely correct" that no executions should take place until the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee and Task Force on Capital Punishment completes its study of the state's death penalty and makes recommendations for reform. In particular, Cindrich is "highly concerned about the fairness of [Pennsylvania's] capital punishment system." He points to "the reversals of most death sentences, the poor compensation of public defenders in capital cases, and the racial bias in Pennsylvania's imposition of death sentences" as areas all "in dire need of improvement." More than half of the 400 death sentences imposed in Pennsylvania have been reversed "due to serious flaws or misconduct at trial," he says, which indicates "that far too many individuals received unfair and unwarranted sentences of death."

STUDIES: Louisiana Study Reports Stark Death-Penalty Disparities Linked to Race and Gender of Victims

A new study by Professor Frank Baumgartner of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Tim Lyman, a Documentation Specialist in New Orleans, reports stark disparities in Louisiana death sentences and executions depending upon the race and gender of the homicide victim. The study - to be published in the Loyola University of New Orleans Journal of Public Interest Law - finds that defendants accused of killing white victims are nearly twice as likely to be sentenced to death and nearly four times as likely to be executed than defendants accused of killing black victims. The disparities are even greater when both race and gender are compared. Defendants accused of killing white women are sentenced to death at nearly 12 times the rate of defendants accused of killing black men (56.94 vs. 4.88 death sentences per 1,000 homicides), and executed at a rate that is 48 times higher (11.52 vs. 0.24 executions per 1,000 homicides). The authors find that both the race and gender of victims affect sentencing outcomes in murder cases, but that death sentencing and execution rates are higher in cases involving white victims, irrespective or gender, and in cases involving female victims, irrespective of race. 72% of murder victims in Louisiana since 1976 have been black, but just 33% of death sentence have involved black victims. Cases involving black male victims had the lowest rate of death sentences and executions per homicide of any class of victim. 12,693 black males have been murdered in Louisiana since 1976 (61% of murder victims), with only 3 executions (0.02% of these murders; 8% of Louisiana executions). (Click image to enlarge)

Federal Court Rejects Duane Buck Racial Bias Appeal

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected an appeal in the case of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, who argued that his trial was tainted by ineffective representation and racial bias when Buck’s own mental health expert testified that he could be a future danger to society because he is black. Dr. Walter Quijano, a clinical psychologist, testified in the sentencing phase of Buck's case on the issue of future dangerousness. The prosecutor asked Quijano, "You have determined that the sex factor, that a male is more violent than a female because that's just the way it is, and the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons, is that correct?" Quijano answered, "Yes." Buck, who is black, was sentenced to death. Buck's case was one of six capital cases identified in 2000 as tainted by Quijano's testimony. The other five have had new sentencing hearings, but Buck has not. Buck presented 11 arguments in his appeal, but the court said, "Jurists of reason would not debate that Buck has failed to show extraordinary circumstances justifying relief." Attorneys for Buck said, "This decision can only deepen the growing skepticism of the fairness of the criminal justice system. No competent capital defense attorney would invite the sentencing jury to make a life-or-death decision based on racial fears and stereotypes and no court should enforce a judgment in which race was explicitly proffered as the basis for a death sentence."

STUDIES: Racial Bias in Jury Selection

A new study of trials in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, revealed that potential jurors who were black were much more likely to be struck from juries than non-blacks. The results were consistent with findings from Alabama, North Carolina, and other parts of Louisiana, highlighting an issue that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. In Caddo Parish, an area known for its many death sentences, prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors, but only 15% of other jurors, according to the study by Reprieve Australia. The racial composition of the juries appeared to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the cases. The study found that no defendants were acquitted by juries with 2 or fewer black jurors, but 19% were acquitted when 5 or more jurors were black. In an Alabama study, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove 82% of eligible black potential jurors from trials in which the death penalty was imposed. A study of death penalty cases in North Carolina found that prosecutors struck 53% of black potential jurors but only 26% of others. (Click image to enlarge.)

Mentally Ill James Holmes Sentenced to Life in Prison in Aurora, CO Theater Shooting

On August 7, a jury in Aurora, Colorado, sentenced James Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2012 movie theater shooting that killed 12 people and injured dozens more. The jury said they could not reach a unanimous decision on Holmes' sentence, an outcome that results in a sentence of life without parole. After the trial, one juror said that the prosecution had not persuaded three of the jurors to impose a death sentence. The deliberations, she said, were very emotional, and at the time jurors agreed to stop deliberating, one juror was firmly committed to a life sentence, with two other holdouts still undecided. She said, "The issue of mental illness was everything for the one who did not want to impose the death penalty." [UPDATE: One of the jurors who voted for a life sentence says there was not a single holdout juror for life. Three voted for life, and the jury did not inquire further into the views of the other two after the indicated that her vote was firm.] Holmes had also offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, which would have removed the need for the six-month trial that cost Colorado taxpayers more than $5 million. After that plea offer was rejected, Holmes pleaded not guity by reason of insanity. All of the mental health experts agreed that Holmes would not have committed the killing but for his mental illness, but disagreed on whether he could appreciate the criminality of his conduct. The jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted him of all charges. Holmes' sentence highlights both the rarity of death sentences in Colorado and racial and geographic inequities in its imposition.