What's New

NEW RESOURCES: Amnesty International's Report on Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

Posted: February 3, 2006

A new report issued by Amnesty International found that at least 10% of the first 1,000 people executed in the United States since 1977 were severely mentall ill. The report noted that the National Association of Mental Health estimates that between five and 10% of the 3,400 people on death row around the country are mentally ill. Amnesty said that states are failing to address serious mental health issues before crimes occur.


ABA Assessment Report Calls for Georgia Death Penalty Moratorium

Posted: February 2, 2006
A new report by the American Bar Association Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project found that Georgia's death penalty fails to meet 43 ABA standards for improving the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty.

NEW VOICES: Legislator Who Pushed for Faster Executions Now Has Changed His Mind

Posted: February 1, 2006

Pennsylvania State Representative Michael McGeehan, a tough-on-crime lawmaker from Philadelphia, who earlier had pushed for expedited executions, now regrets that stance.  He is sponsoring legislation that would compensate those who have been wrongly convicted. McGeehan's bill, which would also immediately expunge a wrongly convicted person's criminal record, was prompted by his outrage at the number of people who have been wrongly convicted and released from prison.


NEW VOICES: California Judge Seeks Clemency for Man He Sentenced to Death

Posted: January 31, 2006

More than two decades after Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath condemned Michael Morales to die, McGrath is asking California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency because the conviction was likely based on false testimony from a jailhouse informant. Morales is scheduled to be executed on February 21. McGrath's letter was included in a clemency petition filed by Morales' attorneys, David Senior and Kenneth W. Starr, dean of Pepperdine Law School and a former federal judge.


NEW RESOURCE: Researchers Retest the Deterrence Studies

Posted: January 26, 2006

A new edition of the Stanford Law Review contains an article entitled Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate.  The article examines and performs comparison tests on recent studies that have claimed a deterrent effect to the death penalty.  Authors John J. Donohue of Yale Law School and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania state their goal and conclusions:

(O)ur aim in this Article is to provide a thorough assessment of the statistical evidence on this important public policy issue and to understand better the conflicting evidence.
Our estimates suggest not just “reasonable doubt” about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty.
We are led to conclude that there exists profound uncertainty about the deterrent (or antideterrent) effect of the death penalty; the data tell us that capital punishment is not a major influence on homicide rates, but beyond this, they do not speak clearly. Further, we suspect that our conclusion that econometric studies are highly uncertain about the effects of the death penalty will persist for the foreseeable future.
Aggregating over all of our estimates, it is entirely unclear even whether the preponderance of evidence suggests that the death penalty causes more or less murder.


NEW VOICES: Former Ambassador to France Addresses Impact of Death Penalty on Foreign Relations

Posted: January 26, 2006

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Felix G. Rohatyn (pictured), the U.S. Ambassador to France from 1997 to 2001, noted that during his tenure "no single issue was viewed with as much hostility as our support for the death penalty." Rohatyn urged the U.S. to consider the impact of maintaining capital punishment on our relations with our allies, and he stated that consideration of international trends is appropriate when cases are reviewed by the Supreme Court. Rohatyn wrote:


U.S. Supreme Court Stays Florida Lethal Injection

Posted: January 25, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Clarence Hill in Florida just minutes before his execution was to take place on January 24.  The next day, the Court made the stay permanent until they could hear Hill's challenge to the lethal injection procedures in Florida.  Hill raised a civil rights claim (section 1983) stating that the chemicals used in lethal injection could inflict severe and unnecessary pain.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rejected his use of the civil rights law and required that his claim be considered as part of his regular (habeas corpus) death penalty appeal.  They then rejected the claim.

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted certiorari and has ordered that briefings be completed by April 17.  In an earlier case, Nelson v. Campbell (2004), challenging parts of the lethal injection procedures in Alabama, the Court allowed the inmate to proceed with his civil rights claim. 

The two questions the Court agreed to hear are:

"1. Whether a complaint brought under 42 USC Sec. 1983 by a death-sentenced state prisoner, who seeks to stay his execution in order to pursue a challenge to the chemicals utilized for carrying out the execution, is properly recharacterized as a habeas corpus petition under 28 USC Sec. 2254?

"2. Whether, under this Court's decision in Nelson, a challenge to a particular protocol the State plans to use during the execution process constitutes a cognizable claim under 42 USC Sec. 1983?"

The case is Hill v. Crosby, No. 05-8794. (See Associated Press; Lyle Denniston on SCOTUSBLOG, Jan. 25, 2006).  See also Methods of Execution and Supreme Court.


NEW VOICES: Victim's Family Urges Life For Florida Man

Posted: January 25, 2006

After more than two decades of working to spare the life of Florida death row inmate James Floyd, the family of the woman he murdered has succeeded in getting prosecutors to reduce Floyd's sentence to life in prison for the murder of Annie Bar Anderson.

"I did not want him to die, and I didn't want his family to suffer the murder of their father or their brother or their son. What good is anger and hatred," said Elizabeth Blair, who took up the family's effort to spare Floyd's life after Annie Anderson's daughter, Angie, died several years ago. Twenty-two years ago, Angie Anderson had begged a judge to not condemn her mother's killer to death, noting, "Mother believed and I believe that we must be instruments of the peace of God, which includes justice and mercy. This young man must be punished, but give him life, a chance to become somebody, a chance to change." Despite Angie Anderson's request, the judge sentenced Floyd to die.


BOOKS: "Truth Be Told: Life Lessons from Death Row"

Posted: January 24, 2006

Truth Be Told: Life Lessons From Death Row features correspondence between Agnes Vadas and Richard Nields, who is on death row in Ohio. The book contains letters exchanged between the two over six years. They discuss a wide range of topics, including life on death row, how they have coped with challenges in life, and the lessons they have learned from hardship. Agnes Vadas is a musician and human rights activist from Washington.  (AuthorHouse, 2005).  See Books.


NEW SOURCE: Scientific American Looks at Flaws in the Death Penalty

Posted: January 23, 2006

Philip Yam is the News Editor of Scientific American Magazine.  He recently posted an item on the magazine's Web site about the death penalty.  Some excerpts from the posting, entitled "Science versus the Death Penalty," are below:

The U.S. remains the only developed Western nation to permit executions despite serious flaws in the system. No need for any pacificist proclivity or liberal leaning to see that--just look at the science.

First, there's DNA evidence. Although it cannot prove guilt beyond all doubt--who can forget O.J. Simpson?--it can definitively prove innocence. The first DNA exoneration occurred in 1989, and since then many on death row have been set free because of it--the Death Penalty Information Center counts 122 exonerations since 1973. It showed that too many convictions resulted from sloppy or overzealous police work and prosecution, or incompetent defense attorneys. It helped convince then Republican governor George Ryan of Illinois in 2003 to declare the death penalty "arbitrary and capricious" and to commute the sentences of all 157 inmates on the state's death row.

But DNA isn't the only contribution from science to this issue. Thanks to psychology studies, we know that the human brain can, with rather disturbing ease, create false memories. (See, for instance, a news story on the topic in the December 2005 issue of Scientific American Mind, or the feature article "Creating False Memories," by Eiizabeth Loftus in the September 1997 Scientific American.) We know that witness testimony can be unreliable, even when it comes from upstanding citizens and not just from co-defendants or jailhouse snitches who have been promised sweet deals. We know that some personality types are more likely to yield to the pressures to confess--and that these people do so just to please their interrogators or to avoid harsh treatment.

Most states are now recognizing the weaknesses of the death penalty. The number of capital sentences have dropped from a peak in the early to mid-1990s of a bit more than 300 per year to about 100 in 2005, according to data compiled in the December 17 issue of the Economist.
. . .
Science has shown that our death penalty system is deeply flawed. Now the U.S. public needs to see those flaws.