Studies

STUDIES: Death Penalty Had No Effect on Reducing Crime

A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice examined several possible explanations for the dramatic drop in crime in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s. Among the theories studied was use of the death penalty, which the report found had no effect on the decline in crime. The authors explained, "Empirically, capital punishment is too infrequent to have a measureable effect on the crime drop. Criminologically, the existence and use of the death penalty may not even create the deterrent effect on potential offenders that lawmakers hoped when enacting such laws." The authors noted criminals do not consider the consequences of their actions, particularly when the consequence is rarely applied, as in the case of the death penalty. "Much psychological and sociological research suggests that many criminal acts are crimes of passion or committed in a heated moment based only on immediate circumstances, and thus potential offenders may not consider or weigh longer-term possibilities of punishment and capture, including the possibility of capital punishment." They concluded, "In line with the past research, the Brennan Center’s empirical analysis finds that there is no evidence that executions had an effect on crime in the 1990s or 2000s." Ultimately, they attributed drop in crime to various social changes and policing tactics, with increased incarceration having no effect in the 2000s and only minimal effect on property crime in the 1990s.

STUDIES: Lynchings in America Related to Racial Bias in Death Penalty

A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Alabama has documented more lynchings in American history than previously reported, particularly of African Americans in the South, and has drawn parallels between this practice and the modern death penalty. According to EJI, the report--titled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror --"makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation." The report draws connections between lynchings and abuses in the criminal justice system that persist today: "[L]ynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era." (emphasis added). A New York Times editorial about the report made a similar point: "The researchers argue, for example, that lynching declined as a mechanism of social control as the Southern states shifted to a capital punishment strategy, in which blacks began more frequently to be executed after expedited trials. The legacy of lynching was apparent in that public executions were still being used to mollify mobs in the 1930s even after such executions were legally banned."

LAW REVIEWS: Disparities in Determinations of Intellectual Disability

A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.

STUDIES: Death Penalty Overwhelmingly Used for White-Victim Cases

According to a new study principally authored by Prof. Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina, the death penalty is far more likely to be used if the underlying murder victim was white rather than black. The study examined every U.S. execution from 1976-2013 and found, "The single most reliable predictor of whether a defendant in the United States will be executed is the race of the victim....Capital punishment is very rarely used where the victim is a Black male, despite the fact that this is the category most likely to be the victim of homicide." Of the 534 white defendants executed for the murder of a single victim, only nine involved the murder of a black male victim. Although blacks make up about 47% of all murder victims, they make up only 17% of victims in cases resulting in an execution. The authors concluded, "In [the death penalty's] modern history as in its use in previous eras, racial bias in its application is consistently high. In addition to the threat to the equal protection of the law that these numbers suggest, such overwhelming evidence of differential treatment erodes public support for the judicial system."

Neuroscience Research Indicates Susceptibility to Influence in Younger Defendants

A growing body of research into adolescent brain development indicates that the brains of even those over the age of 18 continue to physically change in ways related to culpability for criminal offenses. The Supreme Court referred to such scientific evidence regarding those under the age of 18 when it struck down the death penalty for juveniles in 2005 (Roper v. Simmons) and when it recently limited life without parole sentences for juveniles. According to Laurence Steinberg (pictured), a professor of psychology at Temple University, the brain continues a process called myelination into a person's twenties. That process affects planning ahead, weighing risks and rewards, and making complex decisions. This research may yield mitigating evidence for younger defendants, including accused Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Steinberg's research shows that someone like Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time of the bombing, may not have the same understanding of his actions as an older adult would. Young adults are particularly susceptible to the influence of peers. “What we know is that this is an age when people are hypersensitive to what other people think of them. It’s also an age when people are trying to figure out who they are, and one way is by identifying with a group. There probably are similarities between the dynamics here and dynamics of antisocial or delinquent gangs. Older, more powerful young adults persuading younger adolescents to do their bidding for them,” Steinberg said. 

COSTS: Washington's Death Penalty Is Costing Taxpayers Millions

A Seattle University study examining the costs of the death penalty in Washington found that each death penalty case cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million, versus $2.01 million). Defense costs were about three times as high in death penalty cases and prosecution costs were as much as four times higher than for non-death penalty cases. Criminal Justice Professor Peter Collins, the lead author of the study, said, “What this provides is evidence of the costs of death-penalty cases, empirical evidence. We went into it [the study] wanting to remain objective. This is purely about the economics; whether or not it’s worth the investment is up to the public, the voters of Washington and the people we elected.” (Although Washington's death penalty was reinstated in 1981, the study examined cases from 1997 onwards. Using only cases in the study, the gross bill to taxpayers for the death penalty will be about $120 million. Washington has carried out five executions since reinstatement, implying a cost of $24 million per execution. In three of those five cases, the inmate waived parts of his appeals, thus reducing costs.)

RESOURCES: New Series Examines Pennsylvania Death Penalty

The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania is running a series of articles examining the state's death penalty in anticipation of a comprehensive report on the death penalty commissioned by the state legislature. Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999, and all three of its executions in the modern era were inmates who waived their appeals. Incoming Governor Tom Wolf has said he may hold off on allowing executions until the state addresses questions of fairness in the application of the death penalty. Incoming state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor recently raised concerns about defense funding, saying, "If we want the death penalty, the state must provide resources to provide competent defense counsel for indigent defendants. That's the disconnect we have right now." State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who sponsored the resolution calling for a study of the death penalty, called the study "historic," saying, "We shouldn't run away from facts regardless of what our opinions are." Sen. Daylin Leach intends to re-introduce a bill to repeal the death penalty this year.

EDITORIALS: Newspapers Around the Country Echoed Themes in DPIC's Year End Report

DPIC's 2014 Year End Report was featured in numerous editorials since its release on December 18, including:

"Thirty-five people were put to death in 2014, the fewest in 20 years, according to a report last month by the Death Penalty Information Center....[W]hile the death penalty may be increasingly infrequent, it is all too often a brutal end to a brutal life....The people executed in recent years were not the 'worst of the worst' — as many death-penalty advocates like to imagine — but those who were too poor, mentally ill or disabled to avoid it."

"According to a year-end count from the Death Penalty Information Center, the country sentenced 72 people to death this year, the fewest number in 40 years, down from a high of 315 in 1996....All states should end the death penalty within their borders. The risk of executing the innocent, evidenced by the seven men who were exonerated this year, is unacceptable. The financial cost of administering death penalty systems is also too high. Either consideration overwhelms arguments about the punishment’s usefulness as a crime deterrent."

"[Last year, only 35 inmates were put to death, according to an annual study by the Death Penalty Information Center....voters are coming to realize capital punishment isn’t applied only to those truly guilty of the most heinous crimes. In fact, all too many of those sentenced to die turned out to be innocent."

"[T]he annual report about all of this from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that Missouri, Texas and Florida accounted for 80 percent of the executions in 2014....Reasonable alternatives to the death penalty exist, including, in some cases, life in prison without parole. These alternatives, which are much less expensive to operate, would prevent the execution of some people who aren’t guilty of the crimes they’re convicted of committing."

"[T]he Death Penalty Information Center says in its annual report, 35 people have been executed in the United States — down from 98 just 15 years ago....Capital punishment is not going to disappear from this country anytime soon. But the more experience Americans have with it, the less they like it."

"In 2014, U.S. executions fell to a 20-year low — and botched executions in Ohio and other states were partly responsible. ...the Death Penalty Information Center reports. ...As states continue to experiment with lethal drug cocktails, Ohioans need to know whether executions here can proceed properly. Sadly, the administration is making that practically impossible."

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