New Voices

NEW VOICES: Judge Calls Ohio Death Penalty Costs 'Astronomical'

County Judge Michael P. Donnelly, a member of Ohio's Death Penalty Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, recently called the costs of capital trials "astronomical." He went on to say that a county's budget may be a factor in decisions to seek the death penalty: “[W]ith 88 different prosecutors who have complete discretion on whether to pursue it or not, and you have to draw the inference that, in some counties, it’s not pursued because it’s just not economically feasible.” For example, Summit County is facing a 15% overrun of its court indigent defense budget because of five cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty this year. The most recent capital trial cost the county $102,715, lasted nearly two months, and ended in a sentence of life without parole. Court officials said an aggravated murder case without death penalty charges typically costs $15,000 to $20,000 and lasts only two weeks. The judge added, “There’s no way you can look at the way [the death penalty is] applied in Ohio and draw the conclusion that it’s fair, or that it’s accomplishing what it purports to do — and that is, deliver the most severe punishment to the worst of the worst. It’s just not taking place.”

NEW VOICES: Former FBI Director Says People Were Executed Based Partly on Faulty Agency Testimony

William Sessions, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently pointed to cases of defendants who were executed based in part on faulty hair and fiber analysis in calling for changes in the use of forensic evidence. In an op-ed in the Washington Times, Sessions told the story of Benjamin Boyle, who was executed in Texas in 1997. His conviction was based on testing conducted by an FBI crime lab that an official review later determined to be unreliable and "scientifically unsupportable." Neither state officials nor Boyle's attorneys were notified of the task force's findings before his execution. In two other cases, inmates were also executed despite findings that their cases were tainted by unreliable forensic testimony from the FBI. Sessions said, "I have no idea whether Boyle was innocent, but clearly, he was executed despite great doubts about his conviction. Such uncertainty is unacceptable, especially in a justice system that still allows the death penalty."

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty and Calls for Reform

Jim Petro served as Ohio's Attorney General and presided over 18 executions. However, he abandoned his support for capital punishment after seeing the risks of wrongful executions: "Our justice system is based on the decision-making of human beings, and human beings are fallible. We make mistakes and our judgments are influenced by biases and imperfect motivations. Implementing the death penalty makes our errors permanent and impossible to remedy." Recently, he called on the Ohio legislature to adopt the reforms recommended by a Task Force appointed by the state Supreme Court, saying, "Without action the death penalty system will continue to be an expensive, unfairly applied, and risk-filled process that has no place in today's criminal justice system." He asked the legislature to require the recording of interrogations, certification of crime labs, and guidelines for prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

Sen. Leahy Cites North Carolina Exonerations in Calling for Legislaton

In a recent speech in the U.S. Senate calling for the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) spoke about the recent exonerations of two men in North Carolina, citing the importance of DNA testing in their release from prison after 30 years: "The dozens of exonerations made possible by the Justice for All Act are testament enough to its value," Leahy said, "Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown are just the latest examples. The injustice they survived – and the fact that North Carolina nearly executed an innocent man–should dispel any doubt that this legislation is urgently needed." The Act was first passed in 2004 and has provided important assistance to states and local governments in using DNA evidence to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. The reauthorization is sponsored by Leahy and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The testing in the North Carolina case was funded by the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program, a portion of the Justice for All Act named for the first man exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Read Leahy's statement below.

NEW VOICES: Al Sharpton Debates the Death Penalty at Yale

Baptist minister and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton spoke in opposition to the death penalty in a recent debate at the Yale Political Union. Sharpton noted the dispropotion of blacks who are to sentenced to death compared to whites. He also raised concerns about the risk of executing the innocent, pointing out that many inmates have been exonerated from death row. He said the lower murder rates in states that do not have the death penalty indicate the death penalty does not deter murder. “We are not preventing anything, and we are not providing justice,” he concluded. “We cannot answer murder with murder.” Student representatives from a variety of political groups offered arguments both in favor of and opposed to the death penalty.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Originally Sentenced to Death, Brothers May Now Be Cleared in North Carolina

UPDATE: Both defendants freed after judge overturns convictions. EARLIER: Henry McCollum (l.) and Leon Brown (r.), two brothers who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1984, may soon be freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when they confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Both men are intellectually disabled - McCollum has an IQ in the 60s and Brown has scored as low as 49 on IQ tests. McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence since their trial, saying they were unaware they were signing a confession. “I’d never been under such pressure, people yelling and screaming at me,” McCollum said of his interrogation. “I was scared, and was just trying to get out of that police station and go home.” In 2010, Brown, who is now serving a life sentence for rape after his murder conviction was thrown out, contacted the Innocence Commission about his case. The Commission found DNA evidence near the crime scene belonging to another man, Roscoe Artis, who was sentenced to death for a crime similar to the one for which McCollum and Brown were sentenced to death. (Artis' sentence was later reduced to life.) On September 2, defense attorneys for Brown and McCollum will present the evidence and ask a Robeson County judge to free both men. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who is not opposing the request, said, “The whole case rests on the confessions, and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.”

VICTIMS: Troubling Aspects of the Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, a victim's family member in Missouri described her mixed feelings about the death penalty and the executions that have occurred there. Laura Friedman wrote, "Death penalty supporters talk of closure. That may work as a matter of process — execution rids the state and the justice system of any further involvement — but it is much more complicated for families of victims. Each envelope from the Department of Corrections, each anniversary when the crime is recounted in the paper, every discussion about the death penalty on TV — those are reopenings, not closings." Friedman said many aspects of the death penalty were disturbing: "I am troubled by the number of minorities on death row (more than half), by the preponderance of whites among their victims (about 80 percent, even though blacks and whites are victims in roughly equal numbers). I am troubled by the evidence that juries and judges make unconscionable mistakes (144 death-row inmates exonerated since 1973). And I am troubled by the pretense of execution as a medical procedure: As drug makers and medical personnel back away from participating in lethal injections, states are experimenting on condemned men with untested drug combinations and inadequately trained personnel while concealing the source, skills and methods used." She concluded with the uncertain hope that the process "will finally bring an end to killing in our lives."

Constitutionality of California's Death Penalty to be Reviewed in Higher Court

On July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney (pictured) held that the delays and arbitrariness of California's death penalty system rendered it  unconstitutional. Judge Carney vacated the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has spent nearly 20 years on death row. On August 21, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced the state will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Below are excerpts from Judge Carney's ruling:

  • The Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment by the state. Although reasonable people may debate whether the death penalty offends that proscription, no rational person can question that the execution of an individual carries with it the solemn obligation of the government to ensure that the punishment is not arbitrarily imposed and that it furthers the interests of society. 
  • Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.

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