NEW RESOURCES: Latest "Death Row, USA" Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013. The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517. The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197). In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time. The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.

NEW RESOURCES: Information About Death Sentences in 2013

DPIC recently added a new webpage concerning death sentences in 2013. This resource includes the name, race, and county of sentencing for each of the 80 defendants sentenced to death last year, as well as the names of the leading states and counties. The number of new death sentences handed down was equal to the second lowest number since 1976. By race, 40% of those sentenced to death were white, 39% were black, 19% were Latino, and 2.5% were of other races. California led the country with 24 death sentences, followed by Florida, with 15. Fifteen states handed down at least one death sentence, and the federal government and the U.S. Military each imposed one death sentence.  Less than 2% of all U.S. counties (53 counties) produced all of the death sentences in 2013. Two southern California counties, Los Angeles and Riverside, had the most death sentences, with 7 and 6, respectively.

NEW VOICES: Former California Chief Justice Questions Arbitrariness in Death Sentencing

Ronald George is a former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, who regularly upheld death sentences. However, in his recent book, Chief: The Quest for Justice in California, he questioned the geographical disparities in the application of the death penalty in the state. In his chapter, "Reforming the Judicial System," he wrote, "You could have the exact same crime, let's say a straightforward street robbery homicide, result in the seeking of the death penalty in one part of the state and not in the other, among various defendants with similar past histories and records. This, to me, raises some troubling issues. I'm not saying I find this necessarily rises to the level of a constitutional infirmity, but it may raise policy concerns about the manner in which the death penalty is administered in California." Similar disparities were highlighted in DPIC's recent report, "The 2% Death Penalty," which noted that, in 2009, only 3 counties in California were responsible for 83% of the death sentences, and almost all sentences (96.6%) came from just 6 of the state's 58 counties.

Counties with Large Death Rows Often Correlates With Prosecutorial Misconduct

Radley Balko, writing in the Huffington Post, has examined more closely some of the counties identified in DPIC's recent report, The 2% Death Penalty, as using the death penalty the most. Balko found that many of those high-use counties have a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and other problems. For example, Philadelphia County has sent more inmates to death row than any other county in Pennsylvania. However, a study of criminal cases overturned in the state because of prosecutorial misconduct found over 60% of the cases came from Philadelphia. Duval County, Florida, has the largest per capita death row in the nation, but recently elected a head public defender who ran on a platform of cutting funding to public defense and billing indigent defendants who are acquitted. In the California counties of Santa Clara and Riverside, courts had to review thousands of cases due to prosecutors' failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, including fraud by a crime lab technician. In some instances, this misconduct hid the actual innocence of the defendant, such as that of Ray Krone in Maricopa County, Arizona, who was sentenced to death after prosecutors withheld crucial evidence.

STUDIES: Human Rights Groups Examine Death Penalty in California and Louisiana

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights recently released an analysis of the death penalty in California and Louisiana. The report concluded that those states' application of capital punishment "violates U.S. obligations under international human rights law to prevent and prohibit discrimination and torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." Researchers conducted interviews with many of those involved in the legal system and examined data on charging, sentencing, and executions. They found that racial disparities in the death penalty in both states constituted discrimination. The report was particularly critical of death row conditions, saying, "[E]xtreme temperatures, lack of access to adequate medical and mental health care, overcrowding and extended periods of isolation, do not respect and promote human dignity...Such deplorable circumstances have been condemned by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture as constituting cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or, in certain circumstances, torture."

VICTIMS: Families of Murder Victims Express Preference for Life Without Parole Sentence

Some of the families of those murdered in a multiple shooting in Seal Beach, California, in 2011 recently asked the District Attorney to not seek the death penalty against the defendant, Scott Dekraai. The families said the delays in pursuing such a case extended their agony and forced them to relive the incident. Instead they recommended a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Paul Wilson, whose wife was killed in the shootings, said, "We’d like to see a speedy, and just, way to go about this trial… This will end up consuming the rest of my life.” Another family member, Rooney Daschbach, spoke for his four siblings and said, “We requested that they accept the plea on the grounds that there’s no way he’d ever be executed. We don’t have an issue with the D.A.’s effort to obtain the most severe penalty but we just have an issue with the fact that the death penalty system is broken.” Dekraai is expected to begin trial nearly three years after the shootings.

Californians Moving Away From Death Penalty Support

In a recent op-ed, the co-author of a key study on the viability of California's death penalty analyzed the recent dramatic shift in public opinion on capital punishment in the state. According to Paula Mitchell, adjunct professor at Loyola of Los Angeles Law School, decades of polling showed about two-thirds of Californians supported the death penalty, but the 2012 referendum to repeal the law lost by just 4 percentage points (52%-48%). Moreover, in counties that used the death penalty the most, support for the death penalty was even lower. In Los Angeles County, which has more people on death row than any other American county, 54.5% of voters favored repeal. In Alameda County, ninth among all counties in death row inmates, 62.5% of the votes cast were for repeal. Mitchell said that this drop in support was due to several factors. California's death penalty, she said, "is expensive and structurally broken—probably beyond repair." She also pointed to unfairness in the system, particularly along racial lines: "In addition to concerns over the exorbitant costs associated with capital punishment and the potential for wrongful convictions—issues that were well publicized during the campaign to repeal last year—there are also ever-present concerns over the uneven application of death penalty." African Americans make up over 36% of California's death row, even though they constitute only 6% of the state population. Read full op-ed below.

VICTIMS: District Attorney Pursues Death Penalty Despite Wishes of Murder Victims’ Families

The mothers of two teenagers who were killed in California are pleading with the District Attorney to refrain from seeking the death penalty against the man accused of the crimes. Leah Sherzer said her daughter Bodhi (pictured) was an adherent of the teachings of Gandhi, who advocated non-violence. She said "Bodhi believed that the death penalty was wrong and that she would not want her case to be tried as a death penalty case." Pam Thompson, the mother of the other teenager killed at the same time, said her son did not believe in capital punishment and neither does she. She said it does not allow families any real closure. Nevertheless, the D.A. is persisting in seeking a death sentence. Sherzer responded, “I feel about as powerless as you can get...This is not Bodhi’s wish. I can’t sit back and let her be silent on this... Bodhi stuck to her guns throughout her life. She’s dead, but she’s not silent on this. I am speaking for her.”