Studies

"Death Row USA, Winter 2015" Shows More Than 12% Drop in U.S. Death Row in Last Decade

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA, which reports state-by-state information on death rows across the country, reflects a more than 12% decline in the size of death row nationwide. The Winter 2015 edition reports that 3,019 inmates were on America's death rows as of December 31, 2014, down 12.6% from the 3,455 men and women reported ten years earlier. The racial demographics of death row are now 43% white, 42% black, and 13% Latino/Latina. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (403), Texas (276), Alabama (198), and Pennsylvania (188). Of those jurisdictions with at least 10 people on death row, those with the highest proportions of racial minorities were Delaware (76%), Texas (72%), and Louisiana (71%).

Ohio Reports Highlight Decline in Death Sentences, Emphasize Recent Exonerations

Two recent reports from Ohio highlighted the decline in the use of capital punishment in that state. On March 30, the Ohio Attorney General's Office released its annual report on capital punishment. The Attorney General's report noted three new death sentences, one commutation, and one execution in Ohio in 2014, down from the state's peak of 17 death sentences in both 1995 and 1996.  It also reported that Ohio juries have imposed four or fewer death sentences in each of the last four years. On the same day, Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) issued a complementary report. In addition to the data from the Attorney General's report, OTSE emphasized the exonerations of Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu, and Wiley Bridgeman in 2014. The three former death row inmates were sentenced to death in 1975 based upon the coerced false eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy. The OSTE report also discussed changes to Ohio's lethal injection protocol in the wake of the botched execution of Dennis McGuire, which resulted in the postponement of all executions in Ohio until 2016. Finally, the report discussed the 56 reform recommendations released last year by the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio's Death Penalty, which include measures to reduce wrongful convictions, ban the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness, and reduce racial and geographic disparities in sentencing.

Amnesty International Reports Worldwide Decline in Executions

Executions around the world declined by 22% last year, according to Amnesty International's 2014 annual report on death sentences and executions.  The report -- released on April 1 -- indicates that an estimated 607 people were executed worldwide in 2014, compared to 778 in 2013.  The global totals do not include executions in China, where data on the death penalty is considered a state secret. On a regional level, Amnesty reported notable declines in Sub-Saharan Africa, where both the total number of executions and the number of countries carrying out executions dropped. The number of death sentences imposed worldwide increased compared to 2013, with 2,466 people sentenced to death. This increase was attributable to actions in Egypt and Nigeria, in which mass sentencings occurred and death sentences rose by more than 900. The total number of death sentences imposed in the rest of the world actually decreased compared to 2013. The United States was the only country in the Americas to carry out any executions, though the number of executions dropped to its lowest level in 20 years. The United States had the fifth most executions of any country, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. (Click image to enlarge.)

STUDIES: Most Likely Outcome of Death Sentence Is That It Will Be Reversed

A new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that the most likely outcome for a capital case once a death sentence has been imposed is that the defendant's conviction or sentence will be reversed on appeal. Execution is only the third most likely outcome. Of the 8,466 people sentenced to death from 1976-2013, 3,194 (38%) had their sentence or conviction overturned. 2,979 (35%) remained on death row at the time of the study. Fewer than 1 in 6 defendants - 1,359 (16%) - were executed. The rest died on death row of suicide or natural causes, had their sentence commuted, or were removed from death row for miscellaneous reasons. The study also notes that these rates vary dramatically from state to state, with states averaging about a 13% likelihood of executing a death sentence, and only one state - Virginia - executing more than half of those sentenced to death. "Regardless of one’s view of the death penalty in principle, these numbers raise questions about how the death penalty is applied in practice," the authors note. "The wide differences across states in the odds of carrying out a death sentence are potentially troubling from an equal protection standpoint." They conclude, "A system that ensures prolonged court time, automatic appeals for the convicted inmate – most of whom are eventually successful – and only a small chance of actual execution is a system built on false promises for everyone, and indeed one that seems to verge on torture." (Click image to enlarge)

Ohio Officials Say Death Penalty System Has Serious Flaws

Legislators in Ohio are seeking to enact death penalty reforms as the state grapples with problems in the application of capital punishment. Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican, and Sen. Sandra Williams, a Democrat, are working on four bills to address some of the reforms recommended by the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force last year. The bills would prevent the execution of defendants with serious mental impairments, establish a fund for indigent defense, require certification of crime labs and coroners, and prohibit convictions where the only evidence is testimony from a jailhouse informant. Since 2003, Ohio has removed 20 inmates from death row through exonerations, clemency, or sentence reductions because of intellectual disabilities. An additional 5 men who had once been on death row, but had their sentences reduced when capital punishment was struck down in the 1970s, were also exonerated and released. Ohio's executions are currently on hold until at least 2016 because of problems with lethal injection. In recent years, several Ohio officials who once supported capital punishment have spoken out against it. Among them is Paul Pfeifer (pictured), a senior justice on the Ohio Supreme Court and the legislative sponsor of the bill to reinstate Ohio's death penalty in 1981, who now says, "I really think it’s time to shake it up and have life in prison without the possibility of parole, to have that be the ultimate penalty available to juries. It is more of a death lottery instead of something that is evenly applied across the state. The correct thing to do is take it off the books."

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.

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