Studies

New Study Explores "Systemic Deficiencies" in High-Use Death Penalty Counties

As states and counties across the United States are using the death penalty with decreasing frequency, a new report issued by the Fair Punishment Project on August 23 explores the outlier practices of 16 U.S. counties that are bucking the national trend and disproportionally pursuing capital punishment. These jurisdictions, representing one-half of one percent of all U.S. counties or county equivalents, are the only locales in the United States to have imposed five or more death sentences since 2010. Six of the counties are in Alabama and Florida, the only two states that still permit non-unanimous death verdicts. Five are located in highly-populated Southern California counties that have been the focus of repeated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The others include Caddo (LA), Clark (NV), Dallas (TX), Harris (TX) and Maricopa (AZ), all of which have been criticized for systemic inequities in their administration of the death penalty. Part one of the report examines the "systemic deficiencies" that contribute to the high number of death sentences in these counties and provides detailed analysis of the circumstances in 8 of the counties (a second part of the study, examining the remaining 8 counties, will be released in September). The report finds that these counties frequently share at least three types of structural failings: "a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion." The study found that these in turn "regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities." 

STUDIES: Nebraska's Death Penalty Costs $14.6 Million Per Year

A new study of Nebraska's death penalty found that the state spends $14.6 million per year to maintain its capital punishment system. The study, The Economic Impact of the Death Penalty on the State of Nebraska: A Taxpayer Burden?, also estimates that each death penalty prosecution cost Nebraska's taxpayers about $1.5 million more than a life without parole prosecution. At a press conference announcing the study, principal investigator Dr. Ernest Goss—an economics professor at Creighton University and founder of the conservative think tank, Goss & Associates—presented the findings as a strong economic argument in favor of retaining Nebraska's recent repeal of the death penalty. Nebraska voters will decide in November whether to keep the repeal bill, which was passed by the legislature in May 2015 over the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts, or overturn the legislature's decision and reinstate the death penalty. "If economics is your major factor, you should vote to retain," Dr. Goss said. He explained that conducting the study had altered his own views on capital punishment, which he supported before he learned about the economic costs. 1,842 homicides were committed in Nebraska between 1973 and 2014, with prosecutors seeking death 119 times and obtaining 33 death sentences. Of those sentenced to death, the study found that 13 had their sentences reduced, six died in prison, three were executed, one sentence was vacated, and ten are still appealing their sentences. Examining costs on a national level, the study said that death penalty states spend about 3.54% of overall state budgets on criminal justice, while states without the death penalty spend about 2.93%. On average, the death penalty costs a state $23.2 million more per year than alternative sentences. The study was commissioned by the organization Retain a Just Nebraska, which supports retaining the Nebraska legislature's repeal of the state's death penalty. (Click image to enlarge.)

Report: Proposal Billed as Speeding Up California Executions Would Actually Be Costly, Time-Consuming

An initiative on the California ballot this November billed by its supporters as a reform alternative to abolishing the state's death penalty will cost the state tens of millions of dollars to implement, according to an analysis by the Alarcón Advocacy Center at Loyola Law School, and "will not speed up executions." The report, California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives, predicts that Proposition 66 (The Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016), would "cost millions more than the [state's] already expensive death penalty system" and "will only make matters worse by creating more delays and further clogging the state’s over-burdened court system," adding "layers of appeals to a system already facing an insurmountable backlog of decades of death penalty appeals waiting to be decided." The report states that provisions in Prop 66 to exempt lethal injection protocols from public oversight "will certainly be subject to litigation ... on constitutional and other grounds, should Prop 66 pass, adding yet more delays to death penalty cases." The report criticizes Prop 66 as "fail[ing] to make the constitutional changes required to deliver the results it promises" and concludes that "its proposals are so convoluted that they are likely to create many new problems that will not only complicate the administration of the death penalty system, but will also impact and harm the rest of California’s legal system." The report contrasts Prop 66 with an opposing ballot initiative, Proposition 62 (The Justice That Works Act of 2016), which would abolish the death penalty in favor of life without parole. According to the state Legislative Analyst, Prop 66 will cost "tens of millions of dollars per year," while Prop 62 would save California taxpayers $150 million per year. The authors of the Loyola report, Paula Mitchell, executive director of the Alarcón Advocacy Center, and Nancy Haydt, a board member of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, summarize the issues before the voters as follows: "The proponents of both Prop 62 and Prop 66 agree that California’s death penalty system is dysfunctional, exorbitantly expensive, and failing to achieve its purpose. Prop 62 responds to this failed system by replacing it entirely, adapting the existing regime of life imprisonment without parole to cover all persons who are convicted of murder with special circumstances. Prop 66 responds to this failure with a sweeping array of convoluted proposed 'fixes.' Our detailed analysis reveals that most of these changes will actually make the death penalty system worse, and will result in its problems negatively impacting the rest of the legal system in California."

40 Years After Key Supreme Court Decision, Constitutional and Practical Problems Plague Death Penalty

The execution of John Conner on July 15 ended a two-month period without executions in the United States, the longest such period in the country since 2007-2008. A range of state-specific issues have contributed to this stoppage, including questions about the constitutionality of state death penalty practices, problems relating to lethal injection drugs and state execution protocols, and the fallout from botched executions. In an article for The American Prospect, Professor Frank Baumgartner outlines research showing that the death penalty, as applied today, remains error-prone, racially biased, and arbitrarily applied. Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia allowed executions to resume, Baumgartner argues, the death penalty continues to fall short of meeting the constitutional requirements set forth by the Court. Baumgartner highlights studies that have found that the approximately one percent of death-eligible homicides that have resulted in executions are not necessarily the worst crimes, but rather, the crimes that happened to occur in jurisdictions that are prone to using the death penalty or that involved a white victim. As Chris Geidner explains in BuzzFeed, only three states - Georgia, Missouri, and Texas - have carried out any executions since January because other states are grappling with legal challenges to their sentencing procedures and lethal injection protocols, inability to obtain lethal injection drugs, or sometimes a combination of several issues. Challenges to the constitutionality of death penalty practices in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware—where non-unanimous jury recommendations for death have accounted for more than 20% of the nation's death sentences—have brought executions to a halt in those states and statutes in Nebraska and Montana may also face constitutional challenges for the role judges play in imposing death sentences in those states. The fallout from botched executions have halted executions in Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma. And gubernatorial moratoria and a variety of lethal injection issues have also contributed to the drop in executions. Geidner calls the situation "unprecedented," and predicts that the number of executions in the second half of 2016 will be even lower than the 14 carried out in the first half.

Court Hearing Under Way on Constitutionality of Federal Death Penalty

A court hearing is under way in the capital trial of Donald Fell in a Vermont federal district court challenging the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. This week, death penalty experts testified for the defense about systemic problems Fell's lawyers say may render the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Fell was sentenced to death in 2006, but was granted a new trial because of juror misconduct. The hearing began on July 11 and is scheduled to continue until July 22. Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, who is presiding over the hearing and is set to preside over Fell's second trial in 2017, said the hearing will, "create a rich, factual record for higher courts with broader authority to rule on the big questions." On Monday, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, discussed research on the effects of solitary confinement, the conditions under which Fell has been held on death row. "According to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, anything greater than 15 days is inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment," Haney said. On Tuesday, Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, testified about the decline of the death penalty both in use and in public opinion, saying, "Attitudes toward the death penalty have changed more rapidly than any other social issue other than gay marriage." Radelet testified that research has disclosed no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or affects overall murder rates. He also emphasized the prevalence and causes of the 156 wrongful capital convictions as a major problem with capital punishment. “Last year six people were released, most having served 25 years. In 2014, seven were released from death row as innocent. One had been in for 30 years," he said. "The number one cause of error is prejudicial prosecutorial testimony. Prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, fraudulent forensics.”

ABA Criminal Justice Report Covers Key Death Penalty Trends

In a chapter from the recently released American Bar Association publication, The State of Criminal Justice 2016, Ronald J. Tabak, chair of the Death Penalty Committee of the ABA's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, describes significant trends and recent cases related to capital punishment. Tabak highlights the ongoing declines in death sentences and executions across the United States, as well as the increasing concentration of the death penalty in a small number of jurisdictions. The chapter details the lethal injection controversies that have slowed executions in many states and halted them in others. It also includes sections on key Supreme Court cases, particularly Glossip v. Gross, and on innocence, emphasizing recent exonerations. Tabak concludes with a prediction: "As more and more people recognize that our capital punishment system is inconsistent with both conservative and liberal principles, and with common sense, the opportunity for its abolition throughout the United States will arrive."

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Fair Punishment Project Issues Report on Deadliest Prosecutors

A new report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that a small number of overzealous prosecutors with high rates of misconduct have a hugely disproportionate impact on the death penalty in the United States. The report, "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty," shows that, by themselves, these prosecutors are responsible for more than 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 15% of the entire U.S. death row population today. Exploring what it calls "the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing," the report details the effects of Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas. Britt, Macy, and Myers personally prosecuted a combined 131 cases that resulted in death sentences, while Abraham and Holmes oversaw offices that the report says imposed 108 and 201 death sentences, respectively. They also disproportionately sent innocent people to death row, prosecuting 1 out of 20 of the nation's death-row exonerees. The report found similar patterns involving these prosecutors, including high rates of prosecutorial misconduct, statements and actions that revealed a win-at-all-costs mentality, and a sharp decrease in death sentences once they and their proteges left office. Britt, Macy, and Myers were found to have committed misconduct in one-third to 46% of the death penalty cases they prosecuted. Prosecutors in Abraham's and Holmes' offices were found to have engaged in misconduct, including racially-biased jury selection and failures to disclose favorable evidence. Of the five prosecutors profiled in the report, only Myers—who is not seeking re-election—is still in office. After the other four prosecutors left office, the number of death sentences has declined significantly. Robeson County has imposed two death sentences in the last 10 years, Oklahoma County and Philadelphia County have each imposed three in six years, and Harris County dropped from an average of 12 death sentences a year during Holmes' last decade as prosecutor to one a year since 2008.

Amnesty International Reports Concentrated Spikes in Executions Amidst Continuing Trend Towards Global Death Penalty Abolition

Amnesty International reported that worldwide executions spiked by 54% to at least 1,634—a 25-year high—in 2015, even as the number of countries abolishing the death penalty reached record levels. In its annual report on global developments in capital punishment, released on April 6, Amnesty said that the bulk of recorded executions were concentrated in just three outlier countries—Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. These countries accounted for 89% of all recorded executions. (Amnesty did not set a figure for executions in China, where data on capital punishment is considered a state secret. The report estimates that China executes "in the thousands" of prisoners each year and conducted more executions than any other country in 2015.) Pakistan conducted the highest number of executions (326) ever recorded in that country, as it resumed executions after a six-year moratorium, and Egypt and Somalia had significant increases in executions, although both executed fewer prisoners than did the United States. At the same time, 2015 saw the largest number of countries abolishing the death penalty in more than a decade, as four more countries (Republic of Congo, Fiji, Madagascar, and Suriname) officially ended the practice. The total number of abolitionist countries rose to 102, with 140 countries having either abolished the death penalty altogether or not carried out any executions in more than a decade. The United States ranked fifth in the number of executions carried out last year, with executions also concentrated in a few high-use jurisdictions—just three states carried out 86% of executions, reflecting the same patterns seen globally in the use of the death penalty. The report emphasized the outlier status of the few nations that continue to perform executions, saying, "Today the majority of the world’s countries are fully abolitionist, and dozens more have not implemented death sentences for more than a decade, or have given clear indications that they are moving towards full abolition. The starkly opposing developments that mark 2015 underscore the extent to which the countries that use the death penalty are becoming the isolated minority." (Click image to enlarge.) 

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