A diverse and bipartisan group of more than 150 prominent North Carolinians have urged the General Assembly to pass a measure that would halt executions for two years while a study commission examines the state's capital punishment system. A letter to the state's top political leaders urging passage of the moratorium bill was signed by the group, which included nine former North Carolina Supreme Court Justices, former prosecutors, elected officials, religious leaders, business leaders, murder victims' family members, and noted North Carolina authors.
A new study from the Texas Defender Service calls for substantial changes in the way Texas handles capital murder cases. The report recommends that Texas implement a series of reforms, including uniform investigation procedures, a life-without-parole sentencing option, and a statewide public defender's office.
Drawing from recommendations made by the blue-ribbon Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment that was established to address wrongful convictions in that state, the Texas Defender report notes, "Texas has executed 340 people in the modern death penalty era, 28 times the number executed by Illinois, yet its nine exonerations lag far behind those of Illinois. Texas is at unacceptable risk for wrongful conviction and execution, an especially troubling fact given its status as the undisputed leader in executions among the 38 states with the death penalty."
The report, "Minimizing Risk, A Blueprint for Death Penalty Reform in Texas," was sent to Texas Governor Rick Perry's Criminal Justice Advisory Council, which was created this year to recommend changes that could improve the state's criminal justice system.
A new research paper by Wayne A. Logan of the William Mitchell College of Law examines the constitutional, ethical and legal issues raised by victim impact evidence. In his article, "Victims, Survivors and the Decisions to Seek and Impose Death," Logan notes that the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1991 decision in Payne v. Tennessee opened the door for survivors of murder victims to testify about the social, emotional, and economic losses resulting from the murder of their loved one. Since this ruling, such testimony has been broadly used throughout the nation and can often be a major factor considered by jurors in capital punishment trials.
Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr. of the Supreme Court of Connecticut dissented from the Court's refusal to stay the execution of Michael Ross, the first person to be executed in New England in over 40 years:
This case illustrates, however, the sheer irrationality of the capital punishment system because this defendant's election to forgo further appeals or collateral relief, a decision that in any other context would lend some economy to the proceedings, has in fact spawned seemingly endless litigation over his fate.
An independent audit of Virginia's central crime laboratory initiated by the present governor found that the lab had botched DNA tests in the death penalty case of Earl Washington (pictured). The finding prompted Gov. Mark Warner to order a review of 150 other criminal cases and the development of procedures to insulate the lab from outside political pressures.
The audit was conducted by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. It found that the Virginia lab's internal review process was flawed, and it raised concerns that lab workers had felt pressured to produce quick and conclusive results in the Washington case, even when the evidence was unclear. Washington had been sentenced to death for a 1982 murder and rape. His death sentence was commuted in 1994 after DNA tests first threw doubt on his guilt. He was eventually granted an absolute pardon in 2000 and freed from prison. Tests commissioned by defense lawyers in 2004 have implicated another suspect, who is in prison in an unrelated rape case. The audit concluded that the state lab improperly excluded this suspect as the source of DNA found on the victim.
In the course of its research, DPIC collects relevant death penalty articles that have appeared in print and on media Web sites. Our collection certainly does not contain all such articles, nor do we claim that it represents the "best" articles. It is only a representative sample of the extensive coverage given to capital punishment in print in a particular year. For those interested in examining this coverage, we have prepared an index of the articles from
Public support for the death penalty has dropped sharply in Houston, Texas according to the 2005 Houston Area Survey conducted by Rice University. For many years Texas has led the country in executions, and Harris County (Houston) has led all Texas counties in sending inmates to death row and in executions. But most Houston residents would prefer the sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty for those who commit murder.
In a comprehensive study covering 20 years and thousands of capital cases in Ohio, the Associated Press found that the death penalty has been applied in an uneven and often arbitrary fashion. Among the conclusions of the study that analyzed 1,936 indictments reported to the Ohio Supreme Court by counties with capital cases from October 1981 through 2002 were:
Chief Justice Pascal Calogero of the Louisiana Supreme Court called upon the state legislature to provide adequate funding for indigent defendants in his State of the Judiciary address. The court had earlier ruled that judges may halt prosecutions in cases where funds have not been made available for an adequate defense. The Justice concluded:
During 25 years on Texas' death row, Cesar Fierro's mental health has deteriorated to the extent that his attorney hardly recognizes him. Since being sentenced to death in 1980, his mother has died, his brother has died, his wife divorced him and his daughter stopped visiting him. Gradually, he refused to even speak with his lawyers.
"He wouldn't come out of his cell for months at a time unless he was forcibly extracted," says David Dow, a constitutional law professor at the University of Houston Law Center and director of its Texas Innocence Network. "He refused to shower and there were feces on his cell wall. It was very disturbing . . . ."
Dow said that when Fierro was sent to death row in 1980, he was a soft-spoken, slightly overweight man in his mid-20s who was highly respectful of his lawyers and the process, which he felt would set him free.
"When I saw him last year, he had long, stringy hair and a strong wind could have blown him over," says Dow. Even when told of some good news from the courts, Fierro raged and rambled incoherently, banging the phone against the glass partition of the visiting room.
Fierro's case is one among about 50 similar cases in which the International Court of Justice recently ruled that the convictions and death sentences of Mexican nationals should be given further review in U.S. courts. President Bush has ordered the courts in Texas and elsewhere to comply with the World Court's ruling, but Texas authorities have said Bush lacks the proper authority. The issue of the effect of the World Court's ruling is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.