Studies

STUDIES: "Predicting Erroneous Convictions"

A new study published by Professors Jon Gould (l.) of American University and Richard Leo of the University of San Francisco, along with other researchers, examined factors that have contributed to wrongful convictions in criminal cases. The study compared cases in which "guilty" defendants were eventually exonerated to those in which defendants were not convicted in the first place. The researchers found a number of variables that separated wrongful convictions from so-called "near misses," including the criminal history of the defendant, withheld exculpatory evidence, errors with forensic evidence, and inadequate representation. With respect to the death penalty, the researchers found that states with higher use of the death penalty were more likely to produce wrongful convictions, even in cases that did not involve capital punishment. The authors offered a possible explanation for this effect, saying, "In a punitive legal culture, police and prosecutors may be more interested in obtaining a conviction at all costs (leading to greater Brady violations, etc.), and community pressure may encourage overly swift resolutions to cases involving serious crimes like rape and murder." The researchers recommended changes to the justice system to limit wrongful convictions, including better funding for indigent defense, earlier testing of forensic evidence, and subjecting forensic labs to peer review.

Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:

► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.

See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.

STUDIES: Murder of Female Victims More Likely to Result in Death Sentence

A recent study by researchers at Cornell Law School found that the gender of the murder victim may influence whether a defendant receives the death penalty. Using data from 1976 to 2007 in Delaware, the study found that in cases with female victims, 47.1% resulted in death sentences, while in those involving male victims, only 32.3% were sentenced to death. The researchers looked at a number of factors other than the victim's gender that might have affected sentencing decisions, including the heinousness of the crime, whether there was a sexual element to the murder, and the relationship between defendant and victim. The study found that some of the gender effect in sentencing could be explained by factors other than just the gender of the victim. Crimes involving sexual violence were more likely to result in a death sentence, as were crimes in which the victim and defendant knew one another, and victims of both of those types of crimes are more likely to be women.

STUDIES: How Often Are Death Row Inmates Spared Because of Insanity?

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of inmates who were insane. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger warned that the majority decision "offers an invitation to those who have nothing to lose...to advance entirely spurious claims of insanity." A new study has examined cases since 1986 in which death row inmates filed claims of mental incompetence and found that the deluge of spurious claims has not materialized. Of the 1,307 people the study considered "Ford-eligible," that is, those whose cases reached the point at which a Ford claim could be filed, only 6.6% (86) filed claims of incompetency. Of the cases decided on the merits, 22% of the Ford claims were successful, a high success rate when compared to other post-conviction claims in capital cases, implying non-frivolous claims were being filed. A large majority (62.6%) of inmates whose claims of insanity were decided in court had a well-documented history of mental illness, showing that raising an insanity claim was legitimate, even in many of the unsuccessful cases.

COSTS: Kansas Study Examines High Cost of Death Penalty Cases

Defending a death penalty case costs about four times as much as defending a case where the death penalty is not sought, according to a new study by the Kansas Judicial Council. Examining 34 potential death-penalty cases from 2004-2011, the study found that defense costs for death penalty trials averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought. Costs incurred by the trial court showed a similar disparity: $72,530 for cases with the death penalty; $21,554 for those without. Even in cases that ended in a guilty plea and did not go to trial, cases where the death penalty was sought incurred about twice the costs for both defense ($130,595 v. $64,711) and courts ($16,263 v. $7,384), compared to cases where death was not sought. The time spent on death cases was also much higher. Jury trials averaged 40.13 days in cases where the death penalty was being sought, but only 16.79 days when it was not an option. Justices of the Kansas Supreme Court assigned to write opinions estimated they spent 20 times more hours on death penalty appeals than on non-death appeals. The Department of Corrections said housing prisoners on death row cost more than twice as much per year ($49,380) as for prisoners in the general population ($24,690). 

STUDIES: Use of Death Penalty Declining in Ohio

Two recent reports released in Ohio show a decline in the use of the death penalty, with one of the reports raising concerns about the fairness of the system. The number of death-penalty cases filed in Ohio in 2013 was the lowest number in over 30 years. The number of capital indictments was down 28% from 2012 and 63% from 2011, according to a report from Ohioans to Stop Executions, "The Death Lottery: How Race and Geography Determine Who Goes to Ohio's Death Row." Ohio had 4 death sentences in 2013, compared to 24 in 1985. The report noted concerns about arbitrary application of the death penalty, even as the number of cases decreased: "While Ohio’s overall use of the death penalty is slowing, it has become clearer ... that the race of the victim and location of the crime are the most accurate predictors of death sentences," the report stated. Almost 40% of all capital indictments in Ohio come from just one county (Cuyahoga), which represents just 11% of the state's population. Nearly 77% of the executions in the state involved cases where the murder victim was white, despite the fact that generally 66% of murder victims in Ohio are people of color. A report from Ohio's Attorney General Office, "Capital Crimes Annual Report," indicated that 52 inmates have been executed since 1981, while 126 death-row inmates had their sentences reduced or died of natural causes.

Pew Poll Finds Opposition to Death Penalty Among Racial and Ethnic Minorities


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Further analysis of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that support for the death penalty was significantly lower among some racial and ethnic minorities than for the general population. More Hispanics oppose the death penalty (50%) than support it (40%), and the same is true of African Americans, with only about a third (36%) favoring capital punishment and a majority (55%) opposing it. Democrats are about evenly split, with 45% in favor and 47% opposed, while 71% of Republicans support it. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics were among those most in opposition to capital punishment (58% and 54% opposed, respectively). Support was lower among younger Americans; for those in the age group 18-29, only 51% supported the death penalty. Overall, 55% of Americans in the poll supported the death penalty, the lowest level since Pew began polling on this question in 1996. Pew said greater public awareness of wrongful convictions and lower crime rates may be partly responsible for the declining support of capital punishment. 

STUDIES: Amnesty Reports Executions Occurred in Only 11% of Countries Worldwide in 2013

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Amnesty International recently released its annual report on capital punishment around the world, noting, "Developments in the worldwide use of the death penalty in 2013 confirmed that its application is confined to a small minority of countries." As illustrated in the chart at left, over the past decade there has been an increase in the number of countries abolishing the death penalty and a decrease in countries carrying out executions. Because executions in China remain a state secret, Amnesty was not able to determine the number of executions worldwide. Of the known executions, almost 80% occurred in just three countries: Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Twenty-two countries recorded executions last year. No executions were carried out in Europe or Central Asia. The United States remained the only country in the Americas to carry out executions and had the fifth most executions of any country in the world. (Information from Syria and Egypt could not be confirmed.)

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