California

California

NEW VOICES: "Life in Prison, With the Remote Possibility of Death"

Justin Wolfers, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently underscored the problems identified in a sweeping ruling holding California's death penalty unconstitutional. "Capital punishment," Wolfers said, "is not only rare, but it’s also an extraordinarily long and drawn-out process." For many offenders, "death row may actually be safer than life on the street." He compared the relatively few executions to the large number of people on death row: "A simple thought experiment makes the point: If a death sentence puts you at the back of the queue of 3,000 prisoners to be executed, and only 50 people are executed each year, then it would take you, on average, 60 years to reach the front of the line. Not surprisingly, many die of natural causes while waiting their turn." He concluded by quoting the federal judge in the California ruling that a death sentence is effectively a sentence of "life in prison, with the remote possibility of death."

Federal Judge in California Rules State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

In a sweeping ruling on July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney held that California's death penalty is so dysfunctional as to amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Vacating the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has been on death row for almost 20 years, Judge Carney said the punishment cannot serve the purposes of deterrence or retribution when it is administered to a tiny select few, decades after their sentencing: "Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional." Read the Court's Opinion.

California Building Psychiatric Hospital on Death Row

California announced plans to add a 40-bed psychatric hospital to its death row at San Quentin to treat deeply disturbed inmates in need of 24-hour care for mental illness. In 2013 a federal judge ordered the state to provide death-row inmates access to inpatient psychiatric treatment. Following court-ordered mental evaluations, the state identified 37 men with severe mental illnesses requiring full-time care. Attorney Michael Bien, who argued the case that prompted the action, said, "The reality is these guys are going to live in this place for a long time, and you need to see they get the care they need." California has the largest death row in the country (741 inmates) and has not had an execution since 2006 because of problems with its lethal injection protocol. Suicide among death row inmates was one of the reasons for the court review.

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."

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