The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania is running a series of articles examining the state's death penalty in anticipation of a comprehensive report on the death penalty commissioned by the state legislature. Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999, and all three of its executions in the modern era were inmates who waived their appeals. Incoming Governor Tom Wolf has said he may hold off on allowing executions until the state addresses questions of fairness in the application of the death penalty. Incoming state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor recently raised concerns about defense funding, saying, "If we want the death penalty, the state must provide resources to provide competent defense counsel for indigent defendants. That's the disconnect we have right now." State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who sponsored the resolution calling for a study of the death penalty, called the study "historic," saying, "We shouldn't run away from facts regardless of what our opinions are." Sen. Daylin Leach intends to re-introduce a bill to repeal the death penalty this year.
UPDATE: Brannan was denied clemency by Georgia on Jan.12. Andrew Brannan, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on January 13. His execution would be the first of 2015. Brannan's attorneys are asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency because Brannan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. A police video from the crime scene illustrated Brannan's erratic behavior. Joe Loveland, one of Brannan's attorneys, said, "There was a direct connection between his service in Vietnam and the violence that he was exposed to there and the ultimate events that occurred here. The basic question really is, should a 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran with no prior criminal record and who was 100 percent disabled under the DA standards, both with PTSD and bipolar disorder, at the time of the murder of the deputy sheriff--should that person be executed?"
DPIC's 2014 Year End Report was featured in numerous editorials since its release on December 18, including:
"Thirty-five people were put to death in 2014, the fewest in 20 years, according to a report last month by the Death Penalty Information Center....[W]hile the death penalty may be increasingly infrequent, it is all too often a brutal end to a brutal life....The people executed in recent years were not the 'worst of the worst' — as many death-penalty advocates like to imagine — but those who were too poor, mentally ill or disabled to avoid it."
"According to a year-end count from the Death Penalty Information Center, the country sentenced 72 people to death this year, the fewest number in 40 years, down from a high of 315 in 1996....All states should end the death penalty within their borders. The risk of executing the innocent, evidenced by the seven men who were exonerated this year, is unacceptable. The financial cost of administering death penalty systems is also too high. Either consideration overwhelms arguments about the punishment’s usefulness as a crime deterrent."
"[Last year, only 35 inmates were put to death, according to an annual study by the Death Penalty Information Center....voters are coming to realize capital punishment isn’t applied only to those truly guilty of the most heinous crimes. In fact, all too many of those sentenced to die turned out to be innocent."
"[T]he annual report about all of this from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that Missouri, Texas and Florida accounted for 80 percent of the executions in 2014....Reasonable alternatives to the death penalty exist, including, in some cases, life in prison without parole. These alternatives, which are much less expensive to operate, would prevent the execution of some people who aren’t guilty of the crimes they’re convicted of committing."
"[T]he Death Penalty Information Center says in its annual report, 35 people have been executed in the United States — down from 98 just 15 years ago....Capital punishment is not going to disappear from this country anytime soon. But the more experience Americans have with it, the less they like it."
"In 2014, U.S. executions fell to a 20-year low — and botched executions in Ohio and other states were partly responsible. ...the Death Penalty Information Center reports. ...As states continue to experiment with lethal drug cocktails, Ohioans need to know whether executions here can proceed properly. Sadly, the administration is making that practically impossible."
In a recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, three former Kentucky prosecutors advocated for repeal of the death penalty. Citing the findings of a study by the American Bar Association on Kentucky's law, Joseph P. Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider said, "[T]he death penalty is broken beyond repair in Kentucky." Among the report's findings were a reversal rate of 60% in death penalty cases, a lack of standards for eyewitness identification and interrogations, and public defender caseloads that far exceed the national average, despite pay that is 31% lower than surrounding states. A poll taken around the time of the report found 62% of Kentucky voters in support of a moratorium on executions. The former prosecutors recommended repeal: "Without question, this is a difficult issue, and efforts to 'fix' the death penalty in Kentucky will be costly and time-consuming. But there is one approach that is simpler and less expensive: Abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole for convicted offenders....Replacing [the death penalty] with life without parole is the best approach for our state — removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed, saving limited tax dollars, protecting public safety and providing certainty and justice to the families of victims." Read the op-ed below.
On December 31, 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley announced he will commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row to life without parole. O'Malley signed Maryland's death penalty repeal bill into law in 2013, but the repeal was not retroactive. In a statement, O'Malley said, "Recent appeals and the latest opinion on this matter by Maryland’s Attorney General have called into question the legality of carrying out earlier death sentences — sentences imposed prior to abolition. In fact, the Attorney General has opined that the carrying out of prior sentences is now illegal in the absence of an existing statute." Prior to announcing the commutations, O'Malley met with family members of the murder victims in the cases related to the four death row inmates. He called the "un-ending legal process" of the death penalty an "additional torment" on the families of murder victims. He said, "Gubernatorial inaction — at this point in the legal process — would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure."
On December 19, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual statistical report on capital punishment in the United States, with information for 2013. It noted a continuing decline in the death row population and the number of executions. Highlights of the report include:
- The death row population dropped to 2,979 inmates as of 12/31/13, with 60% held in just 5 states (California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Alabama).
- 2013 was the 13th consecutive year in which the population of death row decreased.
- Only 52.2% of death row inmates completed high school. 13.1% have less than an 8th grade education, and 24.8% have a 9th-11th grade education.
- 14.4% of death row inmates are Hispanic.
- The average time from sentencing to execution of those executed in 2013 was 186 months, or 15.5 years.
- 16% of people sentenced to death since 1973 have been executed. 6% died by causes other than execution. 38% were removed from death row because a court overturned their conviction, sentence, or the capital statute under which they were sentenced. 4.6% had their sentences commuted.
For information about the death penalty in 2014, see DPIC's Year End Report.
On December 18, the United Nations voted to adopt a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty, with an eye toward abolition. A record high 117 countries voted in favor of the resolution. The United States was one of just 38 nations that opposed it, and 34 nations abstained. Two years ago, a similar resolution passed with 111 "yes" votes. This year's resolution also urged those countries that still carry out executions not to execute juveniles, pregnant women, or people with intellectual disabilities. Though the United States continues to vote against a moratorium resolution, use of capital punishment has declined significantly here, as it has abroad. In 2014, the U.S. had its lowest number of executions in 20 years, and the lowest number of death sentences in 40 years. When the UN was founded in 1945, only 8 of the 51 member nations had abolished the death penalty. Today, 95 of the 193 member nations have officially abolished the death penalty, and an additional 42 have abolished it in practice.
The parents of James Holmes recently explained that their son is severely mentally ill and asked he be spared the death penalty. Holmes is accused of killing numerous people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Robert and Arlene Holmes said they were aware of the great harm their son caused, noting, "We are always praying for everyone in Aurora. We wish that July 20, 2012, never happened." They also recognized the sentiments among some that their son be executed: "We have read postings on the Internet that have likened him to a monster. He is not a monster. He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness." They hoped he would either be allowed to plead guilty and receive a life without parole sentence, or be found not guilty by reason of insanity, so "he could go to an institution that provides treatment for the mentally ill for the remainder of his life."