Studies

Pennsylvania Has 90% Reversal Rate for Death Penalty Cases Completing Appeals

On September 24, Pennsylvania reached a new milestone with the 250th death-sentence reversal since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. The state has imposed approximately 412 death sentences since reinstatement. Only three prisoners were executed, and all three waived at least part of their appeals. There have been no executions in Pennsylvania for 15 years. Over 60% of all death sentences imposed in the state have been overturned by state or federal courts; 190 prisoners remain on death row, and many of those are likely to have their cases reversed, too. If the pool of sentences is restricted to those that have completed all of their ordinary appeals, the state reversal rate has been over 90%. Michelle Tharp was the latest person to have her sentence overturned. Pennsylvania has sent seven women to death row; all but one have had their cases reversed.

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.

NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row, USA" Spring 2014 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed an ongoing decline in the size of the death row population. The number of prisoners on death row decreased from 3,070 on January 1, 2014, to 3,054 on April 1. The new total represented a 12% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,487. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania (194). The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (72%), among states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races. Only 1.9% of death row prisoners were female.

Department of Justice Releases Special Report, "Mending Justice"

A new report from the National Institute of Justice examines ways to reduce and prevent errors, such as the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. The report proposes "sentinel event reviews" -- the examination of mistakes with a view of finding systemic problems. The report uses the death penalty exoneration of John Thompson in Louisiana to illustrate its goal: "In Connick [v. Thompson], the trial prosecutor withheld crime lab results from the defense, removed a blood sample from the evidence room, and failed to disclose that Thompson had been implicated by someone who had received a reward from the victim’s family. The conviction and death sentence were ultimately overturned on appeal, but no one learned anything from the Connick appellate opinions about the deeper, abiding issues in the case’s narrative, and those issues were left to surface again in future cases." The report includes analysis and recommendations from people involved in all facets of the criminal justice system, including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and academics.

STUDIES: White Jurors More Likely to Recommend Death Sentences for Latino Defendants

A new study by Professors Cynthia Willis-Esqueda (pictured) of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and Russ K.E. Espinoza of California State University found that white jurors were more likely to recommend a death sentence for Latino defendants than for white defendants in California. Researchers gave case descriptions to 500 white and Latino people who had reported for jury duty in southern California, then asked them to choose a sentence of life without parole or death. The description was based on a real capital case, but each juror was given one of eight scenarios which altered the race and income level of the defendant and the amount of mitigating evidence. White jurors recommended a death sentence about half the time for Latino defendants who were poor, but only one-third of the time for poor white defendants. By comparison, Latino jurors recommended a death sentence only about one-quarter of the time, regardless of the ethnicity or socioeconomic class of the defendant.

STUDIES: Innocence and the Death Penalty Around the World

A new report from The Death Penalty Project, "The Inevitability of Error," examines the risk of wrongful convictions in capital prosecutions through case studies from around the world. The report analyzes recent innocence cases in Japan, the U.S., Taiwan, and Sierra Leone, as well as older cases from the United Kingdom that encouraged abolition efforts there. Among the cases included are those of Iwao Hakamada, who was released after 47 years on death row in Japan, and Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the U.S. exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. The study recommends improvements to investigative and appellate procedures, but concludes, "This may, in theory, decrease the likelihood of wrongful convictions, but it will never eliminate it altogether....There is no perfect justice system - error is inevitable. Wherever the death penalty is imposed, there is always a risk that innocent people will be convicted and executed."

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."

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