Studies

STUDIES: "Untrustworthy" Faces Increase Likelihood of Death Sentence

Two new studies suggest that a defendant's facial appearance predicts whether he is sentenced to life or to death, regardless of actual guilt or innocence. A study of Florida inmates published in the July 15 edition of Psychological Science finds that the perceived degree of trustworthiness of a defendant's face predicted which of the two sentences a defendant who has been convicted of murder ultimately received. A follow-up study also showed that the link between perceived untrustworthiness and the death penalty persisted even when study participants viewed innocent people who had been exonerated after having originally been sentenced to death. Researchers John Paul Wilson (pictured, l.) and Nicholas Rule (pictured, r.) of the University of Toronto showed participants photos of Florida inmates who had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced either to life without parole or death. Participants rated the trustworthiness of each face, without knowing that the person pictured had been convicted of any crime. The inmates who had been sentenced to death had faces that the raters perceived to be less trustworthy than the faces of those who had been sentenced to life. The less trustworthy a face was rated, the more likely it was that the inmate had been sentenced to death. "Here, we’ve shown that facial biases unfortunately leak into what should be the most reflective and careful decision that juries and judges can make — whether to execute someone," Wilson and Rule said. A follow-up study included the faces of individuals who had been convicted and later exonerated. Even among the exonerees, lower trustworthiness ratings correlated with higher likelihood of a death sentence. "This finding shows that these effects aren’t just due to more odious criminals advertising their malice through their faces but, rather, suggests that these really are biases that might mislead people independent of any potential kernels of truth," the authors explained.

Childhood Trauma Prevalent Among Death Row Inmates

A majority of Texas death row prisoners who voluntarily responded to a recent survey by the Texas Observer reported having experienced abuse or other trauma as children. The survey results are consistent with the findings of academic studies that have repeatedly documented high rates of childhood abuse among those sentenced to death. The Texas Observer survey found that 22 of the 41 death row prisoners who responded (54%) volunteered having experienced "violent or abusive" childhoods. An additional nine death row prisoners (22%) described their childhoods as having been “hard,” typically citing impoverished conditions and high-crime neighborhoods. Psychiatric research shows that childhood trauma affects developing brains in lasting ways. "The Cycle of Violence," published by the American Psychological Association, found 94% of the 43 inmates studied had been physically abused, 59% sexually abused, and 83% had witnessed violence in adolescence. “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality,” a 2013 study published in The (Kaiser) Permanente Journal, compared a group of 151 offenders with a sample of the general population, finding that "the offender group reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood as the control group." Drs. Mark Cunningham and Mark Vigen, who reviewed the findings of seven clinical studies of death row prisoners for the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law reported that the pathological family interactions experienced by capital murderers are consistent with an extensive body of research lnking the experience of abuse and neglect to later violence. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, founder and chairman emeritus of the Dart Center and a pioneer in the study of trauma, said that while "not all criminality is the product of childhood abuse[,] ... these early adverse situations reduce the resilience of human biology and they change us in very fundamental ways. Our brains are altered. And that’s what this research is bearing out.”

STUDY: "The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina"

A new study by North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Litigation examines the financial and human costs of cases in which, "prosecutors sought the death penalty despite a clear lack of evidence, resulting in acquittal or dismissal of charges." The report found 56 such cases in North Carolina since 1989, in which innocent people spent a total of 112 years spent in jail, with $2.4 million spent in defense costs alone in these weak death penalty cases. The authors compare these cases to those in which people were wrongfully convicted and sent to death row, saying, "We found cases in which state actors hid exculpatory evidence, relied on junk science, and pressured witnesses to implicate suspects. In several cases, there was no physical evidence and charges were based solely on the testimony of highly unreliable witnesses, such as jail inmates, co-defendants who were given lighter sentences in return for cooperation, and paid informants. Reliance on such witnesses was a factor in more than 60 percent of the cases we studied." In addition to the clear-cut time and financial costs, the study also describes the effects of wrongful prosecutions on the defendants: "In addition to leaving many in financial ruin, the state does not even do these exonorees the favor of clearing their criminal histories. They must request a court order to expunge their criminal records, an expensive and lengthy process. Those who were already living at the margins of society often struggled to find jobs, and some fell into homelessness after they were released from jail." The authors conclude by contrasting the intended use of the death penalty with their findings: "A punishment as serious as execution should be pursued only in the most ironclad cases: those with the strongest evidence of guilt and in which the circumstances of the crime make the defendant more culpable than most—the 'worst of the worst.' Yet, the reality is entirely different. This report uncovers a system in which the threat of execution is used in the majority of cases, regardless of the strength of the evidence."

"Death Row, USA Spring 2015" Illustrates Continuing Decline of Death Penalty

The Spring 2015 update to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's publication, Death Row, USA, reports that 3,002 men and women were on death rows across the United States as of April 1, 2015. This reflects a continuing decline in the size of death row, down 13% since Spring 2005, when 3,452 people were on America's death rows. Several states saw significant drops in their death row populations over that period while carrying out few or no executions: Pennsylvania dropped from 230 to 184 (no executions), North Carolina fell from 197 to 157 (9 executions), and Idaho declined by half, from 22 to 11 (2 executions). The nation's largest death row states are: California (746), Florida (401), Texas (271), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania. The racial demographics of death row nationwide are 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino/a, and 2% other races. Only 54 death row inmates (1.8%) are female. The most racially concentrated death rows are Delaware (76% racial minorities); Texas (72%), Louisiana (71%), California (66%), and Pennsylvania (65%).

"Death Row USA, Winter 2015" Shows More Than 12% Drop in U.S. Death Row in Last Decade

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA, which reports state-by-state information on death rows across the country, reflects a more than 12% decline in the size of death row nationwide. The Winter 2015 edition reports that 3,019 inmates were on America's death rows as of December 31, 2014, down 12.6% from the 3,455 men and women reported ten years earlier. The racial demographics of death row are now 43% white, 42% black, and 13% Latino/Latina. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (403), Texas (276), Alabama (198), and Pennsylvania (188). Of those jurisdictions with at least 10 people on death row, those with the highest proportions of racial minorities were Delaware (76%), Texas (72%), and Louisiana (71%).

Ohio Reports Highlight Decline in Death Sentences, Emphasize Recent Exonerations

Two recent reports from Ohio highlighted the decline in the use of capital punishment in that state. On March 30, the Ohio Attorney General's Office released its annual report on capital punishment. The Attorney General's report noted three new death sentences, one commutation, and one execution in Ohio in 2014, down from the state's peak of 17 death sentences in both 1995 and 1996.  It also reported that Ohio juries have imposed four or fewer death sentences in each of the last four years. On the same day, Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) issued a complementary report. In addition to the data from the Attorney General's report, OTSE emphasized the exonerations of Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu, and Wiley Bridgeman in 2014. The three former death row inmates were sentenced to death in 1975 based upon the coerced false eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy. The OSTE report also discussed changes to Ohio's lethal injection protocol in the wake of the botched execution of Dennis McGuire, which resulted in the postponement of all executions in Ohio until 2016. Finally, the report discussed the 56 reform recommendations released last year by the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio's Death Penalty, which include measures to reduce wrongful convictions, ban the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness, and reduce racial and geographic disparities in sentencing.

Amnesty International Reports Worldwide Decline in Executions

Executions around the world declined by 22% last year, according to Amnesty International's 2014 annual report on death sentences and executions.  The report -- released on April 1 -- indicates that an estimated 607 people were executed worldwide in 2014, compared to 778 in 2013.  The global totals do not include executions in China, where data on the death penalty is considered a state secret. On a regional level, Amnesty reported notable declines in Sub-Saharan Africa, where both the total number of executions and the number of countries carrying out executions dropped. The number of death sentences imposed worldwide increased compared to 2013, with 2,466 people sentenced to death. This increase was attributable to actions in Egypt and Nigeria, in which mass sentencings occurred and death sentences rose by more than 900. The total number of death sentences imposed in the rest of the world actually decreased compared to 2013. The United States was the only country in the Americas to carry out any executions, though the number of executions dropped to its lowest level in 20 years. The United States had the fifth most executions of any country, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. (Click image to enlarge.)

STUDIES: Most Likely Outcome of Death Sentence Is That It Will Be Reversed

A new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that the most likely outcome for a capital case once a death sentence has been imposed is that the defendant's conviction or sentence will be reversed on appeal. Execution is only the third most likely outcome. Of the 8,466 people sentenced to death from 1976-2013, 3,194 (38%) had their sentence or conviction overturned. 2,979 (35%) remained on death row at the time of the study. Fewer than 1 in 6 defendants - 1,359 (16%) - were executed. The rest died on death row of suicide or natural causes, had their sentence commuted, or were removed from death row for miscellaneous reasons. The study also notes that these rates vary dramatically from state to state, with states averaging about a 13% likelihood of executing a death sentence, and only one state - Virginia - executing more than half of those sentenced to death. "Regardless of one’s view of the death penalty in principle, these numbers raise questions about how the death penalty is applied in practice," the authors note. "The wide differences across states in the odds of carrying out a death sentence are potentially troubling from an equal protection standpoint." They conclude, "A system that ensures prolonged court time, automatic appeals for the convicted inmate – most of whom are eventually successful – and only a small chance of actual execution is a system built on false promises for everyone, and indeed one that seems to verge on torture." (Click image to enlarge)

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