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Florida Holds Hearing On Capital Sentencing As Experts Urge Reform

Posted: January 28, 2016

In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero (pictured) and ABA Death Penalty Assessment Team member Mark Schlakman call on the Florida legislature to repair the constitutional violations in Florida's capital sentencing scheme. The U.S. Supreme Court found in Hurst v. Florida that the state's sentencing process violates the Sixth Amendment because a jury does not unanimously find the aggravating factors that justify a death sentence. Cantero and Schlakman urge the legislature to enact legislation to "require unanimity for findings of aggravators and recommendations of death." Such a measure has the support of the American Bar Association, which highlighted Florida's sentencing scheme as an area of "critical concern" in a 2006 report and passed a resolution in 2015 urging all states to adopt unanimity in capital sentencing. At a Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on January 27, public defenders, retired judges, and death penalty experts testified in favor of requiring jury unanimity in order to recommend a death sentence, saying that such a change would prevent further constitutional challenges. Florida prosecutors also testified, asking legislators to require unanimous findings of aggravating factors, and at least nine jurors to recommend a death sentence. Currently, Florida is one of just three states, along with Alabama and Delaware, that does not require a unanimous jury to impose a death sentence.

 

Missouri Likely to See Change After Historic High in Executions

Posted: January 27, 2016

A decline in executions is likely in Missouri after two years of unusually high numbers. In 2014, Missouri tied with Texas for the most executions in the U.S., and it was second to Texas in 2015. However, changing attitudes about the death penalty--similar to national shifts--are evident in Missouri's sentencing trends: no one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, and less than one person per year has been sentenced to death in the past seven years. Moreover, a bill with bi-partisan support has been introduced to repeal the death penalty. It passed the Senate General Laws committee in late January. An editorial in the Columbia Daily Tribune highlighted the political diversity in the legislative support for the measure. Among those who voted the bill out of committee were two Democrats and two Republicans. Sen. Paul Wieland cited his pro-life views as a reason for support, while Sen. Rob Schaaf said, as long as it is "not fairly applied...I'm going to be opposed to the death penalty."

 

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Repealing Death Penalty Grows in California

Posted: January 26, 2016

A recent survey of Californians conducted by The Field Poll found that voters are evenly split between wanting to speed up the execution process (48%) and supporting repeal of the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole (47%). Support for repeal has grown since 2014, when the question was last asked. At that time, 40% favored replacing the death penalty with life without parole and 52% supported speeding up the process. Californians may face a choice between the two options in November, as competing initiatives have been proposed. Republicans, whites, and voters over age 50 were more likely to support speeding up executions, while Democrats, Hispanics, blacks, and voters under 50 favored repealing the death penalty. "There continues to be a very strong movement away from support for the death penalty in California,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an organization that is supporting the initiative to repeal the death penalty. (click graphic to enlarge).

 

VICTIMS: Murder Victim's Daughter Says "Broken" Death Penalty Doesn't Bring Closure and is "A Waste"

Posted: January 25, 2016

Dawn Mancarella, whose mother, Joyce Masury, was murdered 20 years ago, called the death penalty "a waste of energy and money [that] doesn’t bring justice or closure." Sharing her views on the death penalty in a column for Connecticut's Register Citizen, Mancarella expressed support for the Connecticut Supreme Court's 2015 decision declaring the death penalty "incompatible with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut." "It’s disappointing to see that the court is re-visiting this decision," she wrote, "but I hope they will affirm the original decision and leave the death penalty behind us." Mancarella said that the death penalty forces victims' family members to "go through the pain of reliving their loved one’s murder over and over again, year after year" through the lengthy appellate process. This, she says, "is the opposite of justice and closure — even if the convicted offender is put to death in one, ten or twenty years, the anguish of losing your loved one never goes away and a state appointed execution doesn’t make you feel any better."  She contrasts the energy and money expended on the death penalty with the state's treatment of programs to help victims' families heal:  "it is beyond frustrating to see millions of dollars invested into a single capital case," she says, "while victims’ services are perpetually underfunded." She concludes, "It is time to give back our misplaced time and energy to the survivors of homicide for their healing and truly honoring their loved one."

 

NEW VOICES: Retired Colorado Corrections Officer Raises Questions of Deterrence, Innocence

Posted: January 22, 2016

In a recent op-ed for The Denver Post, retired corrections officer and military veteran Pete Lister offered a critique of the death penalty, saying it fails as a deterrent, risks executing innocent people, and costs more than life without parole. "Capital punishment has not, in a single state, proven to be a deterrent to capital crime." Lister said. "Society consists of human beings who make mistakes. There are those who are, occasionally, negligent, and some who are even dishonest or unethical. We are faced with the troubling fact that if we, as a society, err in a capital case, the sentence is irreversible." Drawing on his experience as a corrections officer, Lister compared capital punishment to life without parole, saying, "involuntary incarceration is not the life of Riley that some would have you believe" and asking whether "life in prison without the hope of parole" may "actually [be] worse than a death sentence." Discussing the risk or error, he said, "When we, society, wrongfully convict someone, whether through malfeasance or neglect, or whether the technology extant at time of trial was insufficient to prove innocence, then we, society, have a responsibility to release him, to publicly acknowledge the error, and allow that citizen to move past the horror that we, society, have inflicted. How do we do that after we've put him to death?" Lister also noted that the cost of capital punishment, which he said "far exceeds the cost of incarcerati[on] even for life, ... is more than simply financial. It's been argued that voting for execution takes a terrible emotional toll on jury members." He concludes with a question: "Whether you believe the death penalty is justifiable, if you were the one being accused of a murder you had not committed, where would you stand on this issue?"

 

Ten Years After Last Execution, California Still Far From Resuming Executions

Posted: January 21, 2016

On January 17, 2006, California executed Clarence Ray Allen, who was 76 years old, legally blind, diabetic, and used a wheelchair. He was the last person the state has executed. A decade later, California's death row population has increased by 100 to 746, making it the largest in the nation. The state has executed 13 prisoners in 40 years at an estimated cost of $4 billion, while more than 100 other prisoners have died on death row. Prisoners wait 11-15 years to be appointed counsel, and the entire appeal process routinely takes 20-25 years. In November 2015, California proposed a new, one-drug lethal injection protocol, but the protocol cannot be implemented until it goes through a public vetting process, which may take years, and then survives legal challenges. This November, California voters may be presented with two competing ballot measures - one that aims to shorten the time between conviction and execution by speeding up the appeal process and another that would abolish the death penalty. A prior referendum to abolish the death penalty failed 48% to 52% in 2012. Commentators close to the issue say California's death penalty isn't working. Jeanne Woodford, who worked at San Quentin for over 25 years and oversaw executions, said that many of those who were sentenced to death were young men, "the very people whose behavior changes over time." Donald Heller, who wrote the initiative that expanded California's death penalty in 1978, said he did so based upon two assumptions about the death penalty that have proven to be false: "The first was that it would deter murders. The second: I assumed defendants would have competent representation." He also voiced concerns about the potential execution of innocent people: "If you have an imperfect system taking someone's life, it's a little bit frightening." 

 

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses 3 Kansas Decisions Overturning Death Penalties

Posted: January 20, 2016

In an 8-1 decision in Kansas v. Carr, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the Kansas Supreme Court granting new sentencing hearings in three capital cases, restoring the death sentences of Jonathan Carr, Reginald Carr, Jr., and Sidney Gleason pending further appellate review. The Kansas Supreme Court had vacated the men's death sentences because the jury had not been informed, as required by the Kansas Supreme Court, that mitigating factors presented during the sentencing proceeding to spare a defendant's life do not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that such an instruction was not constitutionally required. "Jurors," he said, "will accord mercy if they deem it appropriate, and withhold mercy if they do not." He wrote that on the facts of these cases, there was little possibility that the jury was confused about its role in finding and giving effect to mitigating evidence. The Court also rejected an argument that the Carr brothers should have had separate sentencing proceedings, saying that even if any evidence against the brothers had been improperly admitted, it did not affect the fundamental fairness of their penalty trial. The lone dissenter in the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that the case should not have been reviewed, saying, "Kansas has not violated any federal constitutional right. If anything, the State has overprotected its citizens based on its interpretation of state and federal law." The decision leaves open the possibility that the Kansas courts could revisit these issues under state law.

 

Report Finds 74% of Florida Death Row Inmates Had Non-Unanimous Death Verdicts

Posted: January 19, 2016

Florida's death row would be three-quarters smaller if the state followed the practice of all but two other states and required that a jury unanimously agree that a death sentence can be imposed before a defendant can be sentenced to death. Alabama and Delaware also permit judges to impose death sentences following non-unanimous jury recommendations for death. After an 18-month investigation into the cases of Florida's 390 death-row prisoners, The Villages Daily Sun found that judges had imposed death sentences 287 times (74%) after jurors had split on whether to recommend death. The paper found that 43% of the state's death-row prisoners would have received life sentences if, as is required in Alabama, the state required a "supermajority" vote of jurors (10 or more) before the jury could recommend death. Florida's high rate of death sentencing has driven up the costs of housing the state's death row, which state officials have estimated at between $8.7 and $9.6 million annually. The state's sentencing scheme was recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida because its statute permitted the judge, rather than the jury, to determine whether the prosecution had proven "aggravating circumstances" that make a capital defendant eligible for a death sentence. Although Delaware, like Florida, allows a recommendation for death by a simple majority of the jury (7 out of 12), it first requires the jury to unanimously find the aggravating factors that justify a death sentence. Florida's next scheduled execution is that of Michael Ray Lambrix, set for February 11. The Florida Supreme Court has ordered briefing in Lambrix's case on how the Hurst decision affects his case and whether it should be applied retroactively to other cases. The Court has scheduled oral argument for February 2.

 

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Death Penalty

Posted: January 18, 2016

On Martin Luther King Day, DPIC looks at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's views on capital punishment. In a November 1957 article in Ebony, Dr. King was asked "Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?" He responded, "I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included.... Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."  Several months later, Alabama executed Jeremiah Reeves, a young black man who was 16 years old when he was charged with raping a white woman. Tried before an all-white jury, Reeves was convicted and sentenced to death. In April 1958, Dr. King stood on the state capitol steps during a prayer pilgrimage protesting what he called "a tragic and unsavory injustice." Dr. King said: "A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence." Later, in his sermon "Loving Your Enemies," Dr. King preached a philosophy that had no room for capital retribution: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."

 

Texas Prepares to Execute Richard Masterson While Autopsy Data Suggests Death Was Not Murder At All

Posted: January 15, 2016

As Texas readies itself to execute Richard Masterson (pictured), his lawyers have filed new pleadings questioning whether any murder occurred at all and are seeking a stay of execution based on what they say is "evidence of State fraud, misconduct, and his actual innocence." Masterson's filings challenge the forensic testimony presented by the prosecution in the case, the accuracy of instructions given to jurors, and the constitutionality of Texas' lethal injection secrecy law. Masterson is scheduled to be executed on January 20 for the death of Darrin Honeycutt, which medical examiner, Paul Shrode, testified had been caused by strangulation. His attorneys argue in a new federal court filing that prosecutors concealed evidence that their expert witness and attending medical examiner was unqualified to perform Mr. Honeycutt’s autopsy, botched the autopsy, falsified his credentials, and gave false testimony in this case and other capital murder trials. Two pathologists who examined autopsy data say that the Shrode was unqualified and incorrectly ruled Honeycutt's death a homicide, when it was most likely caused by a heart attack. In 2010, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland commuted the death sentence of Richard Nields based upon concerns about Dr. Shrode's assertion that the victim in that case had been strangled. Shrode was subsequently fired as chief medical examiner in El Paso County, Texas, after discrepancies were found in his resume and revelations were made about his unsupported testimony in the Ohio case.  

 

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