Studies

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."

NEW VOICES: Former Prosecutors Call for Repeal of Kentucky's Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, three former Kentucky prosecutors advocated for repeal of the death penalty. Citing the findings of a study by the American Bar Association on Kentucky's law, Joseph P. Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider said, "[T]he death penalty is broken beyond repair in Kentucky." Among the report's findings were a reversal rate of 60% in death penalty cases, a lack of standards for eyewitness identification and interrogations, and public defender caseloads that far exceed the national average, despite pay that is 31% lower than surrounding states. A poll taken around the time of the report found 62% of Kentucky voters in support of a moratorium on executions. The former prosecutors recommended repeal: "Without question, this is a difficult issue, and efforts to 'fix' the death penalty in Kentucky will be costly and time-consuming. But there is one approach that is simpler and less expensive: Abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole for convicted offenders....Replacing [the death penalty] with life without parole is the best approach for our state — removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed, saving limited tax dollars, protecting public safety and providing certainty and justice to the families of victims." Read the op-ed below.

ARBITRARINESS: Getting a Death Sentence May Depend on the Budget of the County

Whether the death penalty will be sought in a murder may depend more on the budget of the county in which it is committed than on the severity of the crime, according to several prosecutors. A report by the Marshall Project found that the high costs of capital cases prevent some district attorneys from seeking the death penalty. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.” One capital case can bankrupt a county: “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County, Texas. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?” Prosecutors cited past cases in which counties had to drastically alter their budgets in order to pay for death penalty trials. In Jasper County, Texas, a county auditor said the budget shock of a death penalty case was as bad as a flood that destroyed roads and bridges. Seeking the death penalty in one case in Gray County, Texas, forced the county to raise taxes and suspend raises for employees. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole. When Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor Greg McPhillips decided not to seek the death penalty in a case he thought was particularly heinous, he pointed to costs as the reason: “The County Attorney’s Office wants to do their part in helping the County meet its fiscal responsibilities in this time of economic crisis not only in our County but across the nation,” he said.

Pennsylvania Death Penalty Costs Estimated at $350 Million

In a series of articles analyzing Pennsylvania's death penalty, the Reading Eagle found that taxpayers have spent over $350 million on the death penalty over a period in which the state has carried out just three executions, all of inmates who dropped their appeals. Using data from a Maryland cost study, which concluded that death penalty cases cost $1.9 million more than similar cases in which the death penalty was not sought, the newspaper estimated that the cases of the 185 people on Pennsylvania's death row cost $351.5 million. The paper said the estimate was conservative because it did not include cases that were overturned, or cases where the prosecutor sought the death penalty but the jury returned another sentence. Pennsylvania legislators commissioned a cost study in 2011, but the report has not been issued. Senator Daylin Leach, one of the legislators who called for the state report, said he will reintroduce a bill to repeal the death penalty. Even supporters of the death penalty agreed that the costs are a problem: "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," said Berks County District Attorney John Adams. Judge Thomas Parisi, also of Berks County, said he believed there was an astronomical cost difference between the average death penalty case and a life-sentence case.

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