What's New

Arbitrariness: Prevalence of Plea Bargains in Death Penalty Cases

Posted: June 6, 2005

In its recent study of Ohio's death penalty, the Associated Press found that of the 1,936 capital indictments filed statewide from 1981-2002, about 50% ended in plea bargains. Of those cases, 131 people who pleaded guilty in exchange for escaping the death penalty were charged with killing multiple victims. By contrast, 196 of the 274 people who were sentenced to death row during the same 21-year time span were convicted of killing a single victim. The AP's Ohio findings were similar to figures from other states and the federal government.


Death Row Inmates Present Scholarship to Future Police Officer

Posted: June 2, 2005

Death row inmates from around the country will present a $5,000 college scholarship to Zach Osborne, the brother of a 4-year-old murder victim, who plans to attend East Carolina University to pursue a career in law enforcement. The scholarship is an annual award given by those on death row who participate in the publication of "Compassion," a newsletter that provides a forum for communication between convicted offenders and murder victims' families. Each year, a murder victim's family member is chosen to receive the funds based on the results of an essay competition. In his essay, Osborne wrote, "Natalie's death has haunted my family since the day she was found. . . . Through realizing this dream (of becoming a law enforcement officer), I would play a key role in preventing situations like this from ever happening again." Dennis Skillicorn, who is on Missouri's death row and serves as current editor of "Compassion," stated that the scholarship "gives every one of us - regardless of our living conditions - an opportunity to restore some of what we've torn down." Osborne will receive his scholarship during a 10 a.m. press conference hosted by the Greensboro Police Department on June 7.


Independent Investigation Reports Houston Crime Lab Faked Test Results

Posted: June 2, 2005

A recent investigation led by a former Justice Department official reported that analysts at the Houston Crime Lab fabricated findings in at least four drug cases, including one in which a scientist failed to conduct testing before issuing conclusions to support police suspicions - an illegal practice known as "drylabbing." The report contains some of the most serious allegations made yet against the Houston Crime Lab and is the first to criticize the lab's largest division, controlled substances, which tests substances suspected of being drugs and performs about 75% of the Houston Police Department's forensics work.  This is the fifth area of crime lab disciplines where errors have been exposed — including DNA, toxicology, ballistics and the blood-typing science of serology.

The investigation into the lab is being headed by Michael Bromwich, a former U.S. Justice Department official.  He found that the "drylabbing" reports were issued by two analysts between 1998 and 2000. One of the analysts, who has since resigned, once fabricated conclusions that sent an innocent man to prison for four years for rape.  In a later instance of misconduct, he used results from a colleague's testing in his own case file. The second analyst, who still works at the lab, identified tablets as a controlled substance without performing tests and later falsified data to support incorrect conclusions. In each of the four cases, the analysts' supervisors caught the misrepresentations before the evidence was introduced in court, but the two employees responsible for the "drylabbing" results were punished with no more than a four-day suspension.


India Moves Closer to Abandoning the Death Penalty

Posted: June 1, 2005

In a proposed amendment to its penal code, Indian leaders are seeking to implement a change that would end the nation's death penalty even "in the rarest of rare" cases. The amended Indian Penal Code would abolish the death penalty and replace it with a strict life without the possibility of parole measure. Currently, the nation's life sentence statute only requires imprisonment for 14 years. The decision to seek an official end to capital punishment fulfills a pledge made by the chairman of the Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System, Mr. Justice VS Malimath.


Supreme Court Agrees To Review Constitutionality of Kansas Death Penalty Law

Posted: May 31, 2005

On May 31, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider the constitutionality of Kansas' death penalty law. The current statute requires that a death sentence be imposed when a jury finds that the aggravating and mitigating circumstances surrounding the crime have equal weight (i.e., a tie results in death). When reviewing Michael Marsh's death sentence in 2004, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state's statute was unconstitutional, holding that the above process did not comport with the fundamental respect for humanity underlying the Eighth Amendment. Upon petition of the State of Kansas, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the Kansas decision. Additionally, the Supreme Court will consider two questions related to the Court's jurisdiction over the case. The case is Kansas v. Marsh, No. 04-1170.


North Carolina House Nears Vote on Moratorium Legislation

Posted: May 27, 2005
The North Carolina House of Representatives will soon vote on a two-year moratorium on executions in the state while the death penalty is studied.  A moratorium bill passed the full Senate in 2003, but had been previously blocked from coming to a vote in the House.

NEW MULTIMEDIA RESOURCE: “The Empty Chair: Death Penalty Yes or No”

Posted: May 26, 2005

The Empty Chair: Death Penalty Yes or No is a documentary film produced and directed by Jacqui Lofaro and Victor Teich that tells the stories of four families confronting the loss of loved ones and voicing different perspectives on the death penalty. The movie also features Sister Helen Prejean, an author and spiritual advisor to those condemned to die, and Donald Cabana (pictured), a former death row warden in Mississippi.

Among the family members featured in the film are Renny Cushing, whose father was murdered; Suse and Peter Lowenstein, whose son was killed by a terrorist plane-bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland; Sue Norton, who chose to forgive the man who murdered her step-parents; and Susan Gove Ramunda, a tireless advocate for capital punishment whose daughter was murdered. Each of these family members retraces the crime that took their loved one, the trial that followed, and their personal response to the punishment that was given to the person convicted of the murder.


Texas Legislators Near Historic Passage of Life-Without-Parole Bill

Posted: May 25, 2005

By a vote of 104-37, members of the Texas House of Representatives tentatively approved the sentencing option of life-without-parole in death penalty cases, an historic action that puts the state closer to including a sentencing alternative offered in nearly every death penalty state. The House is expected to give final passage to the measure on May 25 and the Texas Senate, which passed similar legislation earlier this year, is expected to approve an amended measure before sending the bill to Governor Rick Perry for possible signature into law.


Amnesty International's Human Rights Report Notes Decline in Countries with Death Penalty

Posted: May 25, 2005

In its annual report on human rights around the world, Amnesty International noted the abolition of the death penalty in five nations in 2004. Last year, Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal and Turkey joined a growing list of countries that have abandoned capital punishment for all crimes. The report stated that such changes are positive signs, noting: "Global activism is a dynamic and growing force. It is also the best hope of achieving freedom and justice for all humanity." The report covers 149 countries and highlights important human rights developments and abuses. 


New Resource: A Look at the Death Penalty in Japan

Posted: May 24, 2005

The May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine includes an article on the death penalty in Japan by Charles Lane, Supreme Court reporter for The Washington Post.  Lane notes that Japan's death penalty is shrouded in secrecy and culminates in executions outside of all public view.  He provides readers with a rare look inside this system and compares that country's policies with U.S. practices and international trends.

The article, "A View to a Kill," notes that although death sentences are slightly on the rise in Japan, it carries out only about two executions a year, far fewer than the 59 people executed in the U.S. in 2004.   Japanese prisoners awaiting execution do not know the date of their execution, and the only witnesses to their hangings are representatives of the prosecutor's office.