Studies

40 Years After Key Supreme Court Decision, Constitutional and Practical Problems Plague Death Penalty

The execution of John Conner on July 15 ended a two-month period without executions in the United States, the longest such period in the country since 2007-2008. A range of state-specific issues have contributed to this stoppage, including questions about the constitutionality of state death penalty practices, problems relating to lethal injection drugs and state execution protocols, and the fallout from botched executions. In an article for The American Prospect, Professor Frank Baumgartner outlines research showing that the death penalty, as applied today, remains error-prone, racially biased, and arbitrarily applied. Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia allowed executions to resume, Baumgartner argues, the death penalty continues to fall short of meeting the constitutional requirements set forth by the Court. Baumgartner highlights studies that have found that the approximately one percent of death-eligible homicides that have resulted in executions are not necessarily the worst crimes, but rather, the crimes that happened to occur in jurisdictions that are prone to using the death penalty or that involved a white victim. As Chris Geidner explains in BuzzFeed, only three states - Georgia, Missouri, and Texas - have carried out any executions since January because other states are grappling with legal challenges to their sentencing procedures and lethal injection protocols, inability to obtain lethal injection drugs, or sometimes a combination of several issues. Challenges to the constitutionality of death penalty practices in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware—where non-unanimous jury recommendations for death have accounted for more than 20% of the nation's death sentences—have brought executions to a halt in those states and statutes in Nebraska and Montana may also face constitutional challenges for the role judges play in imposing death sentences in those states. The fallout from botched executions have halted executions in Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma. And gubernatorial moratoria and a variety of lethal injection issues have also contributed to the drop in executions. Geidner calls the situation "unprecedented," and predicts that the number of executions in the second half of 2016 will be even lower than the 14 carried out in the first half.

Court Hearing Under Way on Constitutionality of Federal Death Penalty

A court hearing is under way in the capital trial of Donald Fell in a Vermont federal district court challenging the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. This week, death penalty experts testified for the defense about systemic problems Fell's lawyers say may render the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Fell was sentenced to death in 2006, but was granted a new trial because of juror misconduct. The hearing began on July 11 and is scheduled to continue until July 22. Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, who is presiding over the hearing and is set to preside over Fell's second trial in 2017, said the hearing will, "create a rich, factual record for higher courts with broader authority to rule on the big questions." On Monday, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, discussed research on the effects of solitary confinement, the conditions under which Fell has been held on death row. "According to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, anything greater than 15 days is inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment," Haney said. On Tuesday, Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, testified about the decline of the death penalty both in use and in public opinion, saying, "Attitudes toward the death penalty have changed more rapidly than any other social issue other than gay marriage." Radelet testified that research has disclosed no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or affects overall murder rates. He also emphasized the prevalence and causes of the 156 wrongful capital convictions as a major problem with capital punishment. “Last year six people were released, most having served 25 years. In 2014, seven were released from death row as innocent. One had been in for 30 years," he said. "The number one cause of error is prejudicial prosecutorial testimony. Prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, fraudulent forensics.”

ABA Criminal Justice Report Covers Key Death Penalty Trends

In a chapter from the recently released American Bar Association publication, The State of Criminal Justice 2016, Ronald J. Tabak, chair of the Death Penalty Committee of the ABA's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, describes significant trends and recent cases related to capital punishment. Tabak highlights the ongoing declines in death sentences and executions across the United States, as well as the increasing concentration of the death penalty in a small number of jurisdictions. The chapter details the lethal injection controversies that have slowed executions in many states and halted them in others. It also includes sections on key Supreme Court cases, particularly Glossip v. Gross, and on innocence, emphasizing recent exonerations. Tabak concludes with a prediction: "As more and more people recognize that our capital punishment system is inconsistent with both conservative and liberal principles, and with common sense, the opportunity for its abolition throughout the United States will arrive."

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Fair Punishment Project Issues Report on Deadliest Prosecutors

A new report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that a small number of overzealous prosecutors with high rates of misconduct have a hugely disproportionate impact on the death penalty in the United States. The report, "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty," shows that, by themselves, these prosecutors are responsible for more than 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 15% of the entire U.S. death row population today. Exploring what it calls "the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing," the report details the effects of Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas. Britt, Macy, and Myers personally prosecuted a combined 131 cases that resulted in death sentences, while Abraham and Holmes oversaw offices that the report says imposed 108 and 201 death sentences, respectively. They also disproportionately sent innocent people to death row, prosecuting 1 out of 20 of the nation's death-row exonerees. The report found similar patterns involving these prosecutors, including high rates of prosecutorial misconduct, statements and actions that revealed a win-at-all-costs mentality, and a sharp decrease in death sentences once they and their proteges left office. Britt, Macy, and Myers were found to have committed misconduct in one-third to 46% of the death penalty cases they prosecuted. Prosecutors in Abraham's and Holmes' offices were found to have engaged in misconduct, including racially-biased jury selection and failures to disclose favorable evidence. Of the five prosecutors profiled in the report, only Myers—who is not seeking re-election—is still in office. After the other four prosecutors left office, the number of death sentences has declined significantly. Robeson County has imposed two death sentences in the last 10 years, Oklahoma County and Philadelphia County have each imposed three in six years, and Harris County dropped from an average of 12 death sentences a year during Holmes' last decade as prosecutor to one a year since 2008.

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.)

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