Law Reviews

LAW REVIEW: Lethal Injection Secrecy and Due Process

A recent article by Prof. Eric Berger of the University of Nebraska College of Law argued that defendants facing execution have a fundamental right to know important information about the lethal injection drugs they will be given. Berger wrote, "Judicial recognition of this due process right would both protect Eighth Amendment values and also encourage states to make their execution procedures more transparent and less dangerous." After discussing the history of recent developments in lethal injection, the right to discover evidence under the Federal Rules of Procedure, and the need to be fully informed in order to demonstrate the cruelty of a method of execution, the article concluded: "By permitting states to execute inmates without disclosing key details about their lethal injection procedures, courts are not only denying inmates their Eighth Amendment due process rights but are also implicitly blessing states' secretive and often unprofessional administration of their most solemn task."

LAW REVIEWS: Disparities in Determinations of Intellectual Disability

A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.

Supreme Court Agrees to Review Oklahoma's Lethal Injections

On January 23 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed  to hear a challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection procedures, particularly its use of midazolam that was used in three botched executions in 2014. Four Oklahoma inmates asked the Court to review the state's procedures, but one of them, Charles Warner, was executed before the Court agreed to take the case. It is likely the other three defendants will be granted stays. When Warner was executed, Justice Sotomayor along with three other Justices, dissented from the denial of a stay, saying, "I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol...." The case will be argued in April and likely decided by the end of June. The questions presented by the petitioners appear below. Florida uses the same drugs as Oklahoma.

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."

STUDIES: 'Volunteers' for Execution

A new study by Prof. Meredith Martin Rountree of Northwestern University Law School examined the characteristics of Texas death row inmates who waived all or part of their normal appeals, thus hastening their execution. Referring to these inmates as "volunteers," she compared them with similarly-situated inmates who did not waive their appeals. She found that more volunteers experienced depression or had attempted suicide than non-volunteers. She also examined the role of "self-blame" in prisoners' decisions to move towards execution. Inmates who waived appeals were more likely "to have been previously convicted of a crime, to have been convicted of a crime against another person, to have been incarcerated, to have committed their capital offenses alone, and to have committed the capital offense with a gun." Prof. Rountree criticized the legal changes begun in the mid-1990s that have allowed inmates to waive appeals earlier in the process "when prisoners may be most vulnerable to desires to die." She noted "the State’s interest in fair and constitutional death sentences, something only ensured through adversarial testing of the conviction and sentence," and called for further research in this area.

LAW REVIEWS: The American Experiment with Capital Punishment

A recent law review article by Professors Carol and Jordan Steiker describes how the Supreme Court's attempt to closely regulate the death penalty has led instead to more unpredictability in its practice, especially with executions. Writing in the Southern California Law Review, the Steikers, of Harvard Law School and the University of Texas Law School respectively, note that, "[T]he shape of contemporary death penalty practice is in many respects less regular than the practice it replaced. ... Some death penalty jurisdictions execute a substantial percentage of those sentenced to death, whereas others carry out virtually no executions. Overall, we have largely replaced a lottery for death sentences with a lottery for executions, and the engine behind that change is regulation itself." As an example, the authors point to Texas and Virginia, which have been responsible for almost half (620) of the executions in the modern era. On the other hand, California and Pennsylvania, which have had more death sentences than Texas and Virginia, have carried out only 16 executions in the same time span. The Steikers conclude that the death penalty's arbitrariness may lead to its abolition: "regulation now appears to pose extraordinary problems for the continued retention of the death penalty."

ARBITRARINESS: Almost All Recently Executed Inmates Possessed Qualities Similar to Those Spared

Some defendants who commit murder are automatically excluded from the death penalty in the U.S., such as juveniles and the intellectually disabled. Others with similar deficits are regularly executed. A new study by Robert Smith (l.), Sophie Cull, and Zoe Robinson examined the mitigating evidence present in 100 recent cases resulting in execution, testing whether the offenders possessed qualities similar to those spared from execution. The authors found that "Nearly nine of every ten executed offenders possessed an intellectual impairment, had not yet reached their twenty-first birthday, suffered from a severe mental illness, or endured marked childhood trauma." In particular, "One-third of the last hundred executed offenders were burdened by intellectual disability, borderline intellectual functioning, or traumatic brain injury;" "More than one-third of executed offenders committed a capital crime before turning twenty-five—the age at which the brain fully matures;" and "Over half of the last one hundred executed offenders had been diagnosed with or displayed symptoms of a severe mental illness."

STUDIES: "Predicting Erroneous Convictions"

A new study published by Professors Jon Gould (l.) of American University and Richard Leo of the University of San Francisco, along with other researchers, examined factors that have contributed to wrongful convictions in criminal cases. The study compared cases in which "guilty" defendants were eventually exonerated to those in which defendants were not convicted in the first place. The researchers found a number of variables that separated wrongful convictions from so-called "near misses," including the criminal history of the defendant, withheld exculpatory evidence, errors with forensic evidence, and inadequate representation. With respect to the death penalty, the researchers found that states with higher use of the death penalty were more likely to produce wrongful convictions, even in cases that did not involve capital punishment. The authors offered a possible explanation for this effect, saying, "In a punitive legal culture, police and prosecutors may be more interested in obtaining a conviction at all costs (leading to greater Brady violations, etc.), and community pressure may encourage overly swift resolutions to cases involving serious crimes like rape and murder." The researchers recommended changes to the justice system to limit wrongful convictions, including better funding for indigent defense, earlier testing of forensic evidence, and subjecting forensic labs to peer review.