Studies

Amnesty International Reports Concentrated Spikes in Executions Amidst Continuing Trend Towards Global Death Penalty Abolition

Amnesty International reported that worldwide executions spiked by 54% to at least 1,634—a 25-year high—in 2015, even as the number of countries abolishing the death penalty reached record levels. In its annual report on global developments in capital punishment, released on April 6, Amnesty said that the bulk of recorded executions were concentrated in just three outlier countries—Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. These countries accounted for 89% of all recorded executions. (Amnesty did not set a figure for executions in China, where data on capital punishment is considered a state secret. The report estimates that China executes "in the thousands" of prisoners each year and conducted more executions than any other country in 2015.) Pakistan conducted the highest number of executions (326) ever recorded in that country, as it resumed executions after a six-year moratorium, and Egypt and Somalia had significant increases in executions, although both executed fewer prisoners than did the United States. At the same time, 2015 saw the largest number of countries abolishing the death penalty in more than a decade, as four more countries (Republic of Congo, Fiji, Madagascar, and Suriname) officially ended the practice. The total number of abolitionist countries rose to 102, with 140 countries having either abolished the death penalty altogether or not carried out any executions in more than a decade. The United States ranked fifth in the number of executions carried out last year, with executions also concentrated in a few high-use jurisdictions—just three states carried out 86% of executions, reflecting the same patterns seen globally in the use of the death penalty. The report emphasized the outlier status of the few nations that continue to perform executions, saying, "Today the majority of the world’s countries are fully abolitionist, and dozens more have not implemented death sentences for more than a decade, or have given clear indications that they are moving towards full abolition. The starkly opposing developments that mark 2015 underscore the extent to which the countries that use the death penalty are becoming the isolated minority." (Click image to enlarge.) 

Volunteer Death Penalty Review Commission to Examine Oklahoma's Death Penalty

A group of prominent Oklahomans have announced the creation of a 12-member Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the state's death penalty. The all-volunteer commission will be led by three co-chairs, former Governor Brad Henry (pictured), retired Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Reta Strubhar, and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Andy Lester. The commission intends "to conduct extensive research on [Oklahoma's] entire death penalty process, beginning with an arrest that could lead to an execution,” Henry said in a statement. Its other nine members include Oklahoma attorneys, law professors, and victims' advocates, and a former Oklahoma Speaker of the House who, Henry says, hold "differing views and perspectives on capital punishment." Henry granted clemency three of the times it was sought during his eight years as Governor. In an interview with Fox25, he called his role in executions "a very, very sobering thing to have to do." He said the commission has "no agenda.... What we've agreed to is the system should be fair and it should be just." Executions in Oklahoma are currently on hold pending an investigation into the 2015 execution of Charles Warner and near-execution of Richard Glossip, in which the state violated its own lethal injection protocol by obtaining an unauthorized execution drug. In 2014, Clayton Lockett died 40 minutes into a botched execution by the state. Henry said, "We hope that Oklahoma can set a positive example in this area for the rest of the country and that's important because obviously Oklahoma's been in the news quite a bit lately for some of the problems that have occurred in the execution process." The commission expects to issue a report early in 2017. 

EDITORIALS: Kentucky Newspaper Reverses Position on the Death Penalty

The Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky's second-largest newspaper, announced it was ending its long-held support for the death penalty, and now believes the state legislature should abolish capital punishment. Describing its previous position as "keep it but fix it," the editors stated, "we must now concede that the death penalty is not going to be fixed and, in fact, probably cannot be fixed at any defensible cost to taxpayers." Citing the 2011 American Bar Association assessment of Kentucky's death penalty, the Herald-Leader said the system was "rife with injustices and the potential for error." Among the reasons cited in the paper's editorial for the changing its position was the negative effects of the death penalty on victims' families and correctional officers. It quoted Dr. Allen Ault, who oversaw executions in Georgia, and who said, "I do not know one [correctional officer] who has not experienced a negative impact," noting an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

STUDIES: Ohio Executions Reveal Vast Racial, Gender, and Geographic Inequities

"Ohio’s death penalty is plagued by vast inequities" grounded in race, gender, and geography, according to a new University of North Carolina study. UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner examined the 53 executions Ohio has conducted since resuming capital punishment in the 1970s. His study found "quite significant" racial, gender, and geographic disparities in Ohio's executions that, Baumgartner said, "undermine public confidence in the state’s ability to carry out the death penalty in a fair and impartial manner." The data showed that Ohio was 6 times more likely to execute a prisoner convicted of killing a white female victim than if the victim was a black male. Although 43% of Ohio murder victims are white, 65% of Ohio executions involved the murder of white victims. Similarly, while only 27% of Ohio murder victims are female, 52% of all executions involved cases with female victims. The study also discovered significant geographic disparities in Ohio executions. More that half of the state's executions were concentrated in just 4 counties, while more than 3/4 of Ohio counties have not produced any executions. Lake County had an execution rate that was 11 times the statewide average. Although the state's three most populous counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton) have similar murder rates, Hamilton's .60 executions per 100 homicides was more than double the rate in Cuyahoga and nearly 9 times that in Franklin. Sharon L. Davies, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, said that the "race or gender of a victim, and the county of the crime, should not influence who is sentenced to die" and urged "Ohio citizens and lawmakers[to] review the findings of this important research." (Click image to enlarge.)

Study Finds Disparities in Race, Gender, and Geography in Florida Executions

Florida executions are plagued by stark racial, gender, and geographic disparities, according to a new University of North Carolina study, with executions 6.5 times more likely for murders of white female victims than for murders of black males. (See graph, left. Click to enlarge.). UNC Chapel Hill Professor Frank Baumgartner examined data from the 89 executions conducted in Florida between 1976 - when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Florida's use of the death penalty - and 2014. Baumgartner found that executions occurred disproportionately in cases involving white victims and victims who were female. While 56% of all Florida homicide victims during that period were white, 72% of all executions involved white victims. Similarly, 26% of all murder victims were female, but 43% of executions involved female victims. 71% of the black defendants executed in Florida had been convicted of murdering white victims. On the other hand, no white person had been executed in Florida for killing a black victim. Baumgartner also found that the state's use of the death penalty was geographically concentrated, with just 6 of Florida's 67 counties accounting for more than half of all executions. More than half of Florida's counties (36) have not produced any executions, and homicide rates were 31% lower in those counties. The study concludes that "factors such as the victims’ race and gender, as well as the county in which the offender was convicted, inappropriately influence who is executed in Florida....These disparities are not measured by a few percentage points of difference. Rather, they differ by orders of magnitude, clearly demonstrating that vast inequities characterize the implementation of capital punishment in Florida."

STUDIES: Electoral Pressures Influence Judges' Decisions in Capital Cases

"[E]lectoral pressures influence judges' decisions in capital cases," according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. That report, How Judicial Elections Impact Criminal Cases, surveyed numerous empirical studies that had reviewed the effects of judicial elections on outcomes in criminal cases. The vast majority of criminal defendants - including capital defendants - face elected judges at trial and on appeal. According to the report, 87% of state judges face election, and 94% of felony convictions are tried in state courts. The report found that "the pressures of upcoming re-election and retention campaigns make judges more punitive toward defendants in criminal cases" in general, but that these pressures also produced identifiable effects in death penalty cases. First, electoral pressures affected trial judges in capital cases. "In Alabama, with its unique system of judicial override, trial judges are more likely to impose death over jury verdicts of life imprisonment during election years," the report said. The report also found that "appellate judges facing re-election are more inclined to affirm death sentences, and less inclined to dissent from orders affirming them." Referencing a recent Reuters study, the report said states with elected supreme court justices had substantially lower rates of reversing death sentences on appeal than states with appointed justices. Justices who ran against other candidates for office were the least likely to vote to reverse a death sentence (11%), and those who faced retention elections reversed only 15% of the time. Justices who were appointed were comparatively more likely to vote to reverse death sentences (26%). The report concludes, "Empirical studies across states, court level, and method of election find that proximity to re-election makes judges more punitive — more likely to impose longer sentences, affirm death sentences, and even override life sentences to impose death. Without reform, terms of incarceration and executions will continue to be determined, in part, by the decision-maker’s proximity to re-election."

STUDIES: Explaining Virginia's Disappearing Death Penalty

A new study by University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett (pictured) shows a dramatic decline in the death penalty in Virginia over the last decade. Virginia has carried out the third highest number of executions since the 1970s and historically has executed a higher percentage of its death-row prisoners than any other state. However, Garrett said there are now fewer than two capital sentencing trials per year and Virginia juries have not imposed any new death sentences since 2011. Reviewing Virginia capital proceedings from 2005 to 2014, Garrett found that "[a]lmost all capital cases are now plea bargained," with only 21 proceeding to a capital sentencing hearing. Juries imposed life sentences in more than half of those cases. Garrett found troubling trends in the evidence used in capital cases, which relied frequently on forms of evidence that have been found to be unreliable or susceptible to abuse, such as unrecorded confessions to police, informant testitmony, or eyewitness identifications. He also found significant geographic disparities in death penalty verdicts. “The ‘new’ Virginia death penalty is almost never imposed and when it is, a death sentence is so freakish that it raises the constitutional concerns with arbitrariness under the Eighth Amendment that U.S. Supreme Court justices have long expressed,” Garrett said. “Virginia may be a bellwether for the future of the American death penalty.” The study also compared sentencing proceedings in the past decade with 20 capital trials from 1996 to 2004 to try to explain the drop in death sentences. Garrett concluded that improved representation - both leading to pleas and in performance at trial - was the primary factor in the decline.   

STUDIES: Louisiana Study Reports Stark Death-Penalty Disparities Linked to Race and Gender of Victims

A new study by Professor Frank Baumgartner of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Tim Lyman, a Documentation Specialist in New Orleans, reports stark disparities in Louisiana death sentences and executions depending upon the race and gender of the homicide victim. The study - to be published in the Loyola University of New Orleans Journal of Public Interest Law - finds that defendants accused of killing white victims are nearly twice as likely to be sentenced to death and nearly four times as likely to be executed than defendants accused of killing black victims. The disparities are even greater when both race and gender are compared. Defendants accused of killing white women are sentenced to death at nearly 12 times the rate of defendants accused of killing black men (56.94 vs. 4.88 death sentences per 1,000 homicides), and executed at a rate that is 48 times higher (11.52 vs. 0.24 executions per 1,000 homicides). The authors find that both the race and gender of victims affect sentencing outcomes in murder cases, but that death sentencing and execution rates are higher in cases involving white victims, irrespective or gender, and in cases involving female victims, irrespective of race. 72% of murder victims in Louisiana since 1976 have been black, but just 33% of death sentence have involved black victims. Cases involving black male victims had the lowest rate of death sentences and executions per homicide of any class of victim. 12,693 black males have been murdered in Louisiana since 1976 (61% of murder victims), with only 3 executions (0.02% of these murders; 8% of Louisiana executions). (Click image to enlarge)

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