A new book by Prof. Jeffrey Kirchmeier of the City University of New York examines the recent history of race and the death penalty in the U.S. The book uses the story of a Georgia death row inmate named Warren McCleskey, whose challenge to the state's death penalty went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1987 the Court held (5-4) that his statistical evidence showing that Georgia's system of capital punishment was applied in a racially disproportionate way was insufficient to overturn his death sentence. McCleskey was eventually executed. The book connects this individual case to the broader issue of racial bias in the American death penalty. Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said of the book,"No legal decision in the last half of the 20th century characterized America's continuing failure to confront its history of racial inequality more than the McCleskey decision. Jeff Kirchmeier's welcomed and insightful book brings much needed context and perspective to this critically important issue. Compelling and thoughtful, this book is a must read for those trying to understand America's death penalty and its sordid relationship to our failure to overcome three centuries of racial injustice."
(Click to enlarge)Trial preparations in the death penalty prosecution of James Holmes in Colorado have already cost the state about $5.5 million, and the trial and likely appeals will add significantly more. Holmes is accused of the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora. Most of the costs - $4.5 million - have come from the salaries of personnel working on the case, including the prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judge, investigators, and victims' advocates. Additional court security for hearings in the case has cost $463,000. Experts hired by the prosecution have been paid $220,000, and the defense team has likely spent a similar amount. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He offered to waive his right to a trial in exchange for receiving a sentence of life without parole. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper called off a recently scheduled execution, describing the death penalty system as flawed and inequitable, essentially putting all executions on hold. (Image by Yahoo News, click image to enlarge.)
Even as executions have declined in the U.S., those being carried out often illustrate serious problems that have plagued the death penalty for many years. Of the six executions January, two (in Florida and Oklahoma) involved a lethal injection protocol that is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia executed Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Warren Hill, an inmate who was found intellectually disabled by state doctors, but who failed to meet the state's highly unusual standard of proving his disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Texas executed Robert Ladd, an inmate with an IQ of 67. Texas courts have devised their own largely unscientific criteria for determining intellectual disabilty. That leaves Arnold Prieto, also executed in Texas. He was offered a plea bargain and probably would have been spared if he had testified against his co-defendants. Of those involved in the brutal crime, only Prieto received the death penalty.
A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.
In light of the three botched executions that took place in 2014, the Washington Post published an editorial urging states not to drop "a veil of secrecy over executions." In particular, the editorial board opposes a proposed law in Virginia, which, "would make practically everything about executions in Virginia a state secret — even the building in which they take place. " "It’s hard to see the compelling need for that kind of blatant censorship, which in other states has been challenged by death row inmates, civil liberties groups and media outlets as an infringement on the First Amendment," the editorial said. "Depriving the public of information on the dark side of capital punishment, and impoverishing the public debate, will not make botched executions any more palatable." It calls such laws constitutionally suspect, adding, "The fact that such mishaps might arouse public disgust does not justify granting anonymity to drug companies that enter into government contracts. If it did, states might conclude that any unpleasant news, and the resulting inconvenient public reaction, would occasion suspending the First Amendment." Read the editorial below.
Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray, all 9 members of the Seattle City Council, and City Attorney Pete Holmes signed a letter in support of a bi-partisan bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington. Tim Burgess (l.), the President of the City Council, is a former police officer and detective. The joint letter said: “There is no credible evidence showing that the death penalty deters homicide or makes our communities safer. Instead, pursuing capital punishment diverts precious resources from critical public safety programs, delays final resolution for victims’ families and has serious implications for racial and social equity.” Among the reasons given for abolition were the high cost of death penalty trials and the lengthy appeals required in death penalty cases. The nine inmates on Washington's death row have spent an average of 17 years awaiting execution. King County, where Seattle is located, has already spent $15 million on two capital trials currently underway and a third that has not yet begun, the letter said.
According to a new study principally authored by Prof. Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina, the death penalty is far more likely to be used if the underlying murder victim was white rather than black. The study examined every U.S. execution from 1976-2013 and found, "The single most reliable predictor of whether a defendant in the United States will be executed is the race of the victim....Capital punishment is very rarely used where the victim is a Black male, despite the fact that this is the category most likely to be the victim of homicide." Of the 534 white defendants executed for the murder of a single victim, only nine involved the murder of a black male victim. Although blacks make up about 47% of all murder victims, they make up only 17% of victims in cases resulting in an execution. The authors concluded, "In [the death penalty's] modern history as in its use in previous eras, racial bias in its application is consistently high. In addition to the threat to the equal protection of the law that these numbers suggest, such overwhelming evidence of differential treatment erodes public support for the judicial system."
In a discussion at the University of Florida Law School, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that recent research reveals that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man in 1989. Stevens said, "Within the last year, Jim Liebman, who's a professor at the Columbia Law School and was a former law clerk of mine, has written a book...called The Wrong Carlos...He has demonstrated, I think, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a Texas case in which they executed the wrong defendant, and that the person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished. And I think it's a sufficient argument against the death penalty...that society should not take the risk that that might happen again, because it's intolerable to think that our government, for really not very powerful reasons, runs the risk of executing innocent people." Prof. Liebman's research showed that Carlos DeLuna's case involved faulty eyewitness testimony and police failure to investigate an alternative suspect.