What's New

30 Years After His Death Sentence, Exoneree Derrick Jamison Fights for Those Still on Death Row

Posted: October 27, 2015

Derrick Jamison was exonerated from death row in Ohio on October 25, 2005, 20 years to the day after he was sentenced to death in Hamilton County (Cincinnati). On the 30th anniversary of his sentencing and the 10th anniversary of his release, a Salon profile describes the work Jamison now does to educate people about the risks of wrongful conviction. Jamison (pictured in front of Chillicothe Correctional Institution, the home of Ohio's death row) was sentenced to death during the period in which Ohio capital prosecutions were at their peak. Between 1981 and 1992, Hamilton County handed down 26 death sentences, more than 18 death penalty states did during the same period. Jamison did not fit the eyewitness descriptions of the men who committed the murder, and police withheld evidence that a key witness had identified two other men as the perpetrators. In exchange for a reduced sentence, a man who had been charged as an accomplice in the killing falsely testified that Jamison had committed the murder. Jamison faced six execution dates, and on one occasion came within 90 minutes of execution before being granted a stay. He has received no restitution or financial support for his 20 years of wrongful imprisonment, 17 of which he spent on death row. In the decade since his exoneration, Jamison has traveled the world telling his story, from his wrongful conviction to the six stays of execution. He says, "I'll fight 'til my knuckles bleed for others on death row."


President Obama Calls Death Penalty "Deeply Troubling"

Posted: October 26, 2015

In an interview with Bill Keller of The Marshall Project, President Obama said the administration of the death penalty is "deeply troubling," and questioned the manner in which capital punishment is applied in the United States. While the President said that he is not opposed to capital punishment "in theory," he expressed concern about issues including racial bias, wrongful convictions, and botched executions. "We know, statistically, that there's a racial bias that has been built into the death penalty," the President said. "We know that it is hugely inefficient, it takes a long time. We know that there were people who've been on death row that have been freed because, later on, it's been proven that they were innocent. We know that, in the application of the death penalty, we've had recent cases in which, by any standard, it has not been swift and painless, but rather, gruesome and clumsy. And all of this, I think, has led me to express some very significant reservations." President Obama said that these reservations had led him to direct the Department of Justice to "take a hard look" at the death penalty, and that "at a time when we're ... thinking about how to make the system more fair, more just," an examination of the death penalty should be included as part of efforts to bring about broader federal criminal justice reform. 


Arizona, Texas Attempted to Import Illegal Lethal Injection Drugs Linked to Indian Supplier with Troubling History

Posted: October 23, 2015

Arizona and Texas attempted to import lethal injection drugs in violation of federal law, but the shipments were halted by U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials in late July, according to reports by The Arizona Republic and Buzzfeed. The Republic reports that the Arizona Department of Corrections paid $27,000 for sodium thiopental for use in executions, but the shipment was halted at the Phoenix airport by U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials. BuzzFeed reports that on the same date, the FDA halted a second shipment of sodium thipoental from the same shipper at the Houston airport. This second shipment was bound for the Texas prisons. Though Arizona had redacted the seller's name and information from the documents obtained by The Republic, the offer of sale is identical to an offer sent to Nebraska from Harris Pharma, a drug supplier in India. Sodium thiopental was widely used as the first drug in executions until the sole U.S. manufacturer halted production in 2011 over concerns about the product's use in executions. Chris Harris, the owner of Harris Pharma, has sold execution drugs to Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota, and approached the Idaho Department of Corrections, though that sale fell through. A BuzzFeed investigation found that the office in which Harris claims to manufacture the drugs is not equipped to make drugs, raising the question of where the drugs are actually being produced. Earlier this year, Nebraska paid Harris $54,400 for execution drugs that Federal Express refused to bring into the country because they lacked import approval from the FDA.


New Position of National Association of Evangelicals Shows Cracks in Death Penalty Support

Posted: October 22, 2015

Recognizing that "a growing number of evangelicals now call" for a shift away from the death penalty, the National Association of Evangelicals - an umbrella group for congregations representing millions of evangelical Christians in the United States - has backed away from its prior strong support for capital punishment. A newly adopted NAE resolution states, "Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation. We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought." The resolution says "Nonpartisan studies of the death penalty have identified systemic problems in the United States" and expresses concerns about "the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations." Previously, the NAE had been entirely supportive of the death penalty. Shane Claiborne, an evangelical Christian author and activist, called the NAE's change, "a big deal," saying, "For evangelicals, one of the core tenets of our faith is that no one is beyond redemption. The death penalty raises one of the most fundamental questions for evangelicals: Do we have the right to rob someone of the possibility of redemption?" According to a Pew Research Center poll from March 2015, white evangelical Protestants were more supportive of the death penalty than any other group, with 71% in favor, although support had dropped 6 percentage points since 2011. 


STUDIES: Explaining Virginia's Disappearing Death Penalty

Posted: October 21, 2015

A new study by University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett (pictured) shows a dramatic decline in the death penalty in Virginia over the last decade. Virginia has carried out the third highest number of executions since the 1970s and historically has executed a higher percentage of its death-row prisoners than any other state. However, Garrett said there are now fewer than two capital sentencing trials per year and Virginia juries have not imposed any new death sentences since 2011. Reviewing Virginia capital proceedings from 2005 to 2014, Garrett found that "[a]lmost all capital cases are now plea bargained," with only 21 proceeding to a capital sentencing hearing. Juries imposed life sentences in more than half of those cases. Garrett found troubling trends in the evidence used in capital cases, which relied frequently on forms of evidence that have been found to be unreliable or susceptible to abuse, such as unrecorded confessions to police, informant testitmony, or eyewitness identifications. He also found significant geographic disparities in death penalty verdicts. “The ‘new’ Virginia death penalty is almost never imposed and when it is, a death sentence is so freakish that it raises the constitutional concerns with arbitrariness under the Eighth Amendment that U.S. Supreme Court justices have long expressed,” Garrett said. “Virginia may be a bellwether for the future of the American death penalty.” The study also compared sentencing proceedings in the past decade with 20 capital trials from 1996 to 2004 to try to explain the drop in death sentences. Garrett concluded that improved representation - both leading to pleas and in performance at trial - was the primary factor in the decline.   


Ohio Postpones Executions Due to Lack of Lethal Injection Drugs

Posted: October 20, 2015

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced on October 19 that the state was postponing all executions until at least 2017 because it has been unable to obtain the lethal injection drugs necessary to carry them out. Governor John Kasich issued warrants of reprieve rescheduling the executions of 11 death-row prisoners with execution dates in 2016 and a 12th with a January 2017 execution date. Ohio rescheduled the executions for dates in 2017 through 2019. The Department issued a statement explaining that "over the past few years it has become exceedingly difficult to secure [execution] drugs because of severe supply and distribution restrictions." Ohio passed a secrecy law to shield the identity of any lethal injection drug provider. However, the Columbus Dispatch recently reported that the law did not work because Ohio pharmacies, bound by the Hippocratic oath or fearing adverse reactions from their customers, did not want to be involved in executions. Ohio also has been unable to obtain lethal injection drugs from abroad. In June, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration warned the state that importation of execution drugs would violate federal law. The state has sent a letter to the FDA arguing that it should be able to legally import sodium thiopental for executions. Ohio's last execution was the botched execution of Dennis McGuire on January 16, 2014, using an experimental two-drug protocol of midazolam and hydromorphone. Witnesses reported that McGuire gasped, snorted, and struggled throughout the execution, taking 25 minutes to die. After that execution, Ohio announced that it would shift to a one-drug protocol of either pentobarbital or sodium thiopental. 


Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Seeks Ban on Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill Defendants

Posted: October 19, 2015

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton (pictured) testified in state legislative hearings on October 14 that Ohio should ban use of the death penalty against defendants who suffer from serious mental illness when they commit a capital crime. Stratton, a Republican who was appointed to the court in 1996 and served, following reelection, until 2012, called the death penalty "inefficient, ineffective and a great burden on our society." Stratton said that the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities because of their reduced culpability.  She told the Ohio Senate Criminal Justice Committee that people with serious mental illnesses have similarly reduced culpability. "Do we as a society say we want to execute someone who has diminished capacity and mental Illness?" Stratton asked the committee. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Death Penalty issued 56 reform recommendations, including a ban on executing those with serious mental illness. Stratton said the bill would apply to defendants diagnosed with such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depressive and delusional disorders. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship and is also supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


Gallup Poll: Support for Death Penalty Declines 2%, Opposition Reaches Highest Level in 43 Years

Posted: October 16, 2015

Support for the death penalty in the United States dropped by two percentage points over the last year and opposition rose to its highest levels since before the Supreme Court declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972, according to the 2015 annual Gallup Poll on the death penalty. Gallup reports that 61% of Americans say they favor the death penalty, down from 63% last year and near the 40-year low of 60% support recorded in 2013. Support was 19 points below the 80% who told Gallup in 1994 that they supported capital punishment. 37% said they opposed the death penalty, the most in 43 years and 21 points above levels reported in the mid-1990s. Death penalty support was lower and opposition higher among racial minorities than among whites. A majority of African Americans (55%) oppose the death penalty, while 68% of whites say they support it. The poll results are consistent with other signs of declining support for the death penalty: seven states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, and death sentences are at their lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated. Even with historic lows in death sentencing, the poll reports the highest percentage of Americans to say the death penalty is imposed too often (27%) since Gallup first posed that question in 2001. The 40% who said the death penalty is not imposed enough was tied for the lowest percentage to say so since May of 2001. (Click image to enlarge.)


California Law Aims to Reduce Prosecutorial Misconduct

Posted: October 15, 2015

California has enacted a new law giving judges greater authority to remove individual prosecutors - and in some instances entire prosecutorial offices - from cases if they willfully withhold evidence from the defense. Passage of the law was prompted by disclosure of systemic misuse of jailhouse informants by Orange County prosecuters, which led Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals (pictured) to bar the entire Orange County District Attorney's Office from participation in a death penalty case earlier this year. That misconduct included secretly using jailhouse informants to elicit confessions from suspects after they had invoked their right to counsel - a practice that has been declared unconstitutional - lying to the courts about the use of informants, and withholding potentially exculpatory evidence. In addition to providing judges expanded authority to remove offending prosecutors from cases, the new law requires judges to report such prosecutors to the state bar, which may take disciplinary action. While denying that there had been any "interntional bad faith withholding of evidence" by prosecutors in his office, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukus praised the statute, calling it "a good law." Jeff Thoma, the president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said, "The public deserves to have confidence that prosecutors are committed to playing by the rules instead of trying to win at all costs. I applaud the passage of AB1328 and it being signed into law. I believe this has the positive effect of insuring greater due process by reducing (discovery) violations and holding those accountable that do so in bad faith."


Death Row Exonerees Meet in Ohio, Call for Abolition of the Death Penalty

Posted: October 14, 2015

A group of death row exonerees, including Kwame Ajamu (pictured), held a press conference in Cleveland on October 9 in which they called for the end of the death penalty. Ajamu - the nation's 150th death-row exoneree - was freed from Ohio's death row in 2014 along with his brother, Wiley Bridgeman, and another man, Ricky Jackson. The three had been convicted 39 years earlier on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted, saying he had been pressured by police. "We hope that we can end this atrocity today. We hope that tomorrow's newspapers would say that there's no more death penalty.... If there's anything that I would beg for this country, for this world to listen to is the heartfelt cries and pleas of myself and fellow comrades who have been exonerated from death," Ajamu said. He was one of about 20 exonerees who appeared at the event, which was organized by Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row exonerees. State Representative Nickie Antonio, who has introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty, said, "The best reform is to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. It is time to execute justice, not to execute people."