Law Reviews

LAW REVIEW: Stephen Bright on Race, Poverty, Arbitrariness and the Death Penalty

In an article for the University of Richmond Law Review, Stephen Bright (pictured), President and Senior Counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, describes the arbitrary factors that continue to influence the death penalty. Bright first describes the historical context that led the Supreme Court to strike down the death penalty in 1976. He draws comparisons between lynchings, which he says were "used to maintain racial control after the Civil War," and capital punishment, which in 1976 "was very much tied to race - the oppression of African Americans, carried out by this country's criminal courts." He then explains how this legacy of racial bias continues today, saying, "The race of the defendant and the race of the victim continue to influence the imposition of the death penalty. The courts remain the part of American society least affected by the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century." Bright also addresses bias against the poor, and those with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. He concludes, "What purpose is the primitive penalty of death serving in a modern society? When we look closely at the issues - race, poverty, arbitrariness, conviction of the innocent, mental illness, and intellectual disability - from both a moral and practical standpoint, it will not be long before we join South Africa and the rest of the civilized world in making permanent, absolute, and unequivocal the injunction: 'Thou shall not kill.'"

LAW REVIEW: "The American Death Penalty and the (In)Visibility of Race"

In a new article for the University of Chicago Law Review, Professors Carol S. Steiker (left) of the University of Texas School of Law and Jordan M. Steiker (right) of Harvard Law School examine the racial history of the American death penalty and what they describe as the U.S. Supreme Court's "deafening silence" on the subject of race and capital punishment. They assert that the story of the death penalty "cannot be told without detailed attention to race."  The Steikers' article recounts the role of race in the death penalty since the early days of the United States, including the vastly disproportionate use of capital punishment against free and enslaved blacks in the antebellum South and describes the racial and civil rights context in which the constitutional challenges to the death penalty in the 1960s and 1970s were pursued. The authors contrast the "salience of race" in American capital punishment law and practice through the civil rights era with the "relative invisibility [of race] in the judicial opinions issued in the foundational cases of the modern era."

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."

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