Studies

STUDIES: Death Row Inmates Pay the Price for Lawyers' Mistakes

In Part Two of its investigation into the federal review of state death penalty cases, Death by Deadline, The Marshall Project found that in almost every case where lawyers missed crtiical filing deadlines for federal appeals, the only person sanctioned was the death row prisoner. Often the inmate's entire federal review was forfeited. The report highlighted the disparity between the 17 federal judicial districts where government-funded attorneys carefully monitor capital cases to ensure deadlines are met, and the other 77 districts, where appeals lawyers are appointed by judges and receive little oversight. In Florida, which produced 37 of the 80 missed deadline cases, appeals lawyers are selected from a state registry that includes lawyers who have previously missed deadlines in several capital cases. U.S. District Court judge Timothy Corrigan chastised one attorney who filed after the cutoff in three separate cases, saying, "I would be remiss if I did not share my deep concern that in these cases our federal system of justice fell short in the very situation where the stakes could not be higher.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently commented on the strict deadlines in capital cases, saying, “When you’re talking about the state taking someone’s life, there has to be a great deal of flexibility within the system to deal with things like deadlines. If you rely on process to deny what could be a substantive claim, I worry about where that will lead us.”

STUDIES: Lawyers for Death Row Inmates Missed Critical Filing Deadlines in 80 Cases

An investigation by The Marshall Project showed that since Congress put strict time restrictions on federal appeals in 1996, lawyers for death row inmates missed the deadline at least 80 times, including 16 in which the prisoners have since been executed. The most recent of such cases occurred on Nov. 13, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida with no review in federal court. This final part of a death penalty appeal, also called habeas corpus, has been a lifesaver for inmates whose cases were marked with mistakes ignored by state courts. The Project's report, Death by Deadline, noted, "Some of the lawyers' mistakes can be traced to their misunderstandings of federal habeas law and the notoriously complex procedures that have grown up around it. Just as often, though, the errors have exposed the lack of care and resources that have long plagued the patchwork system by which indigent death-row prisoners are provided with legal help." One Alabama lawyer who missed the deadline was addicted to methamphetamine and was on probation for public intoxication. An attorney in Texas who filed too late had been reprimanded for misconduct, while another Texas lawyer had been put on probation twice by the state bar. Two weeks after being appointed in the death penalty case, he was put on probation again.

STUDIES: Murder Rate Highest in South; Northeast Has Sharpest Decline

REGION 2013 Murder Rate 2012 Murder Rate Mur
Northeast 3.5 3.8
West 4.0 4.2
Midwest 4.5 4.7
South 5.3 5.5
NATIONAL 4.5 4.7

 On November 10 the Justice Department released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2013. The report revealed an overall decline of 5.2% in the national murder rate. The Northeast had the lowest murder rate--3.5 murders per 100,000 people--and the sharpest decline from last year. The South again had the highest murder rate (5.3). The West had the second-lowest murder rate (4.0), followed by the Midwest (4.5). The states with the highest murder rates in the country were Louisiana (10.8) and Alabama (7.2). The states with the lowest rates were Iowa (1.4) and Hawaii (1.5). The Northeast has also had the fewest executions in the modern era, with 4, and none since 2005. The South has had the highest number of executions (1,132) since 1976. The average murder rate for states with the death penalty (4.4) was higher than the average rate for states without the death penalty (3.4).

STUDIES: The Effects of Judge vs. Jury Sentencing

Judge
(Click left image to enlarge). A new study by researchers at Cornell University examined the effects of Delaware's decision to transfer capital sentencing authority from the jury to the judge at trial. The study used data from capital cases between 1977 and 2007, during which time Delaware made the shift to judge sentencing--one of very few states to employ that procedure. According to the study, "Judges were significantly more likely to give a defendant the death sentence than were juries." During the era when Delaware relied on juries for sentencing, about 20% of capital cases resulted in death sentences. In the era when it relied solely on judges, 53% of the cases were given death sentences. Today, the state has a hybrid model in which a jury must unanimously find the existence of at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt to make a case death eligible. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation to the judge, which is given appropriate consideration.

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

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed a continuing decline in the size of the death row population. The new total of 3,035 represented a 13% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,471. The racial demographics of death row have been steady, with white inmates making up 43% of death row, black inmates composing 42%, and Latino inmates 13%. California continued to have the largest death row, with 745 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (198), and Pennsylvania (188). Arkansas, which last carried out an execution nearly nine years ago, had a 13% decrease in its death row population since last year. The report also contains information about executions. Since 1976, 10% (143) of those executed were defendants who gave up their appeals.

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.

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