Citing a backlash from his controversial statements about the death penalty, Dale Cox (pictured), the Interim District Attorney of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, announced on July 14 that he will not run for District Attorney this fall. Nearly half of the death sentences imposed in Louisiana in the last five years have come from Caddo Parish. Cox himself has prosecuted one third of the Louisiana cases that have resulted in death sentences since 2010. In March 2015, he told The Shreveport Times that he believed the state needs to "kill more people." In 2014, he wrote a memo regarding the case of Rodricus Crawford, saying that Crawford "deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies." Crawford was sentenced to death for allegedly killing his infant son, in spite of forensic evidence of sepsis in the boy's blood that suggested he had died from pneumonia. Cox told the New Yorker that he doesn't believe that the death penalty has a deterrent effect, but believes it is justified as a form of societal revenge: "Over time, I have come to the position that revenge is important for society as a whole. We have certain rules that you are expected to abide by, and when you don’t abide by them you have forfeited your right to live among us." In the wake of the national attention to Cox's comments, he announced that he would not seek election to the position of District Attorney. "I have come to believe that my position on the death penalty is a minority position among the members of this community and would continue to be a source of controversy," he said. "Our community needs healing and not more controversy." Historically, Caddo Parish had more lynchings than all but one other county in the South in the decades after the Civil War. From 2010 to 2014, it sentenced more people to death per capita than any other county in the United States.
In two separate guest columns for The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), four state legislators urged an end to the death penalty in Tennessee. State Representatives Steve McManus (top left) and Mark White (top right), both Republicans, called capital punishment, "a lousy return on our investment." Estimating that Tennessee's death penalty is similar in costs to North Carolina's $11 million-per-year system, they listed some alternative uses for death penalty funds. "270 patrol officers. 361 state troopers. 228 detectives and criminal investigators. 110 new school buses. 239 teachers. Compensation for 367 crime victims and their families." They go on to raise concerns about the accuracy of capital convictions in Tennessee, which has executed six inmates and exonerated three. "Six-and-three isn't bad if you're playing football. It's not very good if you're deciding life or death." On the other side of the aisle, Democratic State Sen. Lee Harris (bottom left) and State Rep. Johnnie Turner (bottom right) called the death penalty, "broken," giving four reasons for their opposition to capital punishment. "First, we should be investing in infrastructure, schools, police and emergency services, and public transportation, among others...Second, executing an innocent person is an unacceptable risk...Third, the death penalty affects innocent people in other ways, too...the evidence shows that some people, when faced with the prospect of death, will falsely admit to taking a life to save their own...Fourth, we could be doing more for victims' families." They conclude, "In the end, the death penalty is a needless source of ongoing contention, and it takes up too much of our valuable time and resources while we're trying to work through all the other problems our criminal justice system is facing."
A recent article in The Economist highlights continuing long-term international trends away from the death penalty. Since December, three countries - Fiji, Madagascar, and Suriname - have abolished the death penalty, increasing the number of abolitionist countries to above 100. In December, 117 countries voted to support a United Nations resolution for an international moratorium on executions. The article notes a few outlier countries, including the United States and China, in which executions persist and that there has been a rise in executions in portions of the Muslim world. In the U.S., however, death sentences were down and numerous metrics point to the decline of capital punishment. "Of the 31 states that still have the death penalty, half have executed no one since 2010...In 1994 80% of Americans said they endorsed the death penalty in principle. The Pew Research Centre reckons that fewer than 60% do so today—and notes that young Americans are less keen than their elders." Even in China, which carries out more executions than any other nation, the use of the death penalty is on the decline. "The number is a state secret but the Dui Hua Foundation, an American NGO, reckons there were about 2,400 [executions] in 2013, the last year it has been able to track. Campaigns against corruption and terrorism mean the fall may not have continued last year. But the long-term trend is steeply down. In 1983 24,000 people are thought to have been executed." (Click image to enlarge.)
A majority of Texas death row prisoners who voluntarily responded to a recent survey by the Texas Observer reported having experienced abuse or other trauma as children. The survey results are consistent with the findings of academic studies that have repeatedly documented high rates of childhood abuse among those sentenced to death. The Texas Observer survey found that 22 of the 41 death row prisoners who responded (54%) volunteered having experienced "violent or abusive" childhoods. An additional nine death row prisoners (22%) described their childhoods as having been “hard,” typically citing impoverished conditions and high-crime neighborhoods. Psychiatric research shows that childhood trauma affects developing brains in lasting ways. "The Cycle of Violence," published by the American Psychological Association, found 94% of the 43 inmates studied had been physically abused, 59% sexually abused, and 83% had witnessed violence in adolescence. “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality,” a 2013 study published in The (Kaiser) Permanente Journal, compared a group of 151 offenders with a sample of the general population, finding that "the offender group reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood as the control group." Drs. Mark Cunningham and Mark Vigen, who reviewed the findings of seven clinical studies of death row prisoners for the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law reported that the pathological family interactions experienced by capital murderers are consistent with an extensive body of research lnking the experience of abuse and neglect to later violence. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, founder and chairman emeritus of the Dart Center and a pioneer in the study of trauma, said that while "not all criminality is the product of childhood abuse[,] ... these early adverse situations reduce the resilience of human biology and they change us in very fundamental ways. Our brains are altered. And that’s what this research is bearing out.”
David Keaton, the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty (1973-present), died on July 3 at the age of 63. Keaton was convicted and sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based on a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. In 1973, the actual perpetrator was discovered because of new evidence, and Keaton was exonerated. In 2003, Keaton became a founding member of Witness To Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees who share their stories to educate the public about the death penalty. Kathy Spillman, director of programs and outreach at Witness To Innocence, said of Keaton, "His life was very difficult. He was sentenced to Death Row as a teenager. And like all exonorees, he struggled with issues related to being on Death Row and integrating back into a society that does not provide support for these men and women. [Yet], he was stoic and very gentle. He was a poet and a singer and whenever he got the chance, he participated in activities against the death penalty so that nobody else had to go through what he did." Since Keaton's exoneration in 1973, an additional 153 people have been exonerated from death row.
Highlighting the recent abolition of the death penalty in Nebraska and concerns about wrongful convictions, National Urban League President Marc H. Morial (pictured) called for an end to executions. In an op-ed for The Philadelphia Tribune, Morial cited declining public support for the death penalty: "56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, this from a high of almost 80 percent in the mid-90s," he said. He also emphasized the growing conservative opposition to the death penalty, which was critical in bringing about repeal in Nebraska. "There are many experts who contribute much of today’s sea change in attitudes towards capital punishment to the growing number of conservatives coming to the frontlines of the opposition movement to the death penalty, questioning its efficacy and fiscal soundness," Morial said. Finally, he pointed to the stories of those exonerated from death row, saying, "No matter where you may stand on the death penalty debate, where is the value in maintaining a system that could likely execute an innocent man or woman?" He concluded, "As long as questions of equity, fairness and fallibility persist, we must stop executions and give death row inmates every chance to prove their innocence."
A federal judge in Louisiana has delayed five executions until at least July 2016 as state officials struggle to determine how to conduct executions using lethal injection. Christopher Sepulvado, a death row inmate whose execution has been rescheduled several times over the last two years, is challenging the constitutionality of Louisiana's execution method. The Department of Corrections requested that a hearing related to Sepulvado's challenge be put on hold because, "it would be a waste of resources and time to litigate this matter at present," because of ongoing developments relating to the availability of lethal injection drugs. Louisiana does not currently have an execution protocol. Its last protocol, however, was the same as that used in Arizona's botched execution of Joseph Wood: a combination of hydromorphone and midazolam. The state allegedly lied to a hospital in order to obtain one of the drugs in 2014, telling a pharmacist that the drug was needed for "a medical patient," not an execution. The Department of Corrections' last known supply of the execution drugs has now expired.
Through the lens of a 1927 murder and the ensuing trials of three suspects, An Evil Day in Georgia examines the death penalty system in Prohibition-era Georgia. James Hugh Moss, a black man, and Clifford Thompson, a white man, both from Tennessee, were accused of the murder of store owner Coleman Osborn in rural north Georgia. Thought to be involved in the illegal interstate trade of alcohol, they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death on circumstantial evidence within a month of the murder. Thompson's wife, Eula Mae Elrod, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death the following year, but was released in 1936 after her case gained notoriety in the press. "Moss, Thompson, and Elrod...were almost classic examples of perceived social outsiders or rebels who ran afoul of a judicial system not designed to protect them but to weed them out and discourage others who might think about challenging the system," author Robert N. Smith says. "Moreover, all three trials were held in circumstances where local tensions ran so high that conviction was virtually assured." John Bessler, author of Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, said, "In An Evil Day in Georgia, author Robert Smith raises lingering questions about the guilt of two men—one white and one black—executed for a murder in the Deep South in the 1920s. . . . The telling of this story, one that played out in the Jim Crow era and the days of bootlegging and the Ku Klux Klan, exposes the death penalty’s imperfections even as it calls into question the veracity of a woman’s confession, later recanted, that once brought her within a stone’s throw of the state’s electric chair."
In a dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured), joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, provided a sweeping analysis of why he believes the death penalty in the United States may be unconstitutional and called for a "full briefing" on "whether the death penalty violates the Constitution." Justice Breyer wrote that "Nearly 40 years ago, this Court upheld the death penalty under statutes that, in the Court’s view, contained safeguards sufficient to ensure that the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily. . . . The circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty’s application have changed radically since then." Justice Breyer said "those changes, taken together with my own 20 years of experience on this Court, . . . lead me to believe that the death penalty, in and of itself, now likely constitutes a legally prohibited 'cruel and unusual punishmen[t].'” Citing DPIC's resources for many of the historical facts underlying his opinion, Justice Breyer catalogued what he described as "three fundamental constitutional defects" in the administration of the death penalty today that may make it cruel and unusual punishment.
Death row in Texas has shrunk from 460 men and women at its peak in 1999 to 260 today. The main reason for that drop, according to an article in The Texas Tribune, is the dramatic decline in death sentences imposed in the state. In 1999 alone, Texas sentenced 48 people to death. But in the first 6 months of 2015, no death sentences have been imposed in Texas. This development is unprecedented, according to the Texas Defender Service (TDS). “This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” said Kathryn Kase, director of TDS. Kase said that a major factor contributing to the decline in death sentences is Texas' adoption of life without parole in 2005. “Life without parole allows us to go back and reverse our mistakes,” Kase said. “We can be really safe in these cases.” In the decade since life without parole became a sentencing option, Texas has averaged about 10 death sentences per year. In the prior decade, an average of 34 people were sent to death row each year. The Tribune reports that "Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96." Three death penalty cases have been tried in Texas so far this year, and all three resulted in sentences of life without parole.