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Size of Death Row Continues to Decline

According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's quarterly report, Death Row U.S.A., the number of people on death rows around the country declined again as of July 1, 2005.  The latest count of inmates is 3,415, down from 3,452 as of April 1 and down considerably from the 3,692 inmates recorded on October 1, 2002.  About 54.5% of those on death row are members of racial minorities.  Pennsylvania (70%) and Texas (69%) had the largest percentage of minority defendants on death row.

Among the states with largest declines were Texas (-27), North Carolina (-5) and Alabama (-4).  Some of the declines are due to juvenile offenders being removed from death row in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons (2005).  Not all such juveniles have been taken off death row. 

 

NEW RESOURCE: A Study of Exonerations in the U.S.

Newly published research examining 340 exonerations in the United States between 1989 and 2003 found that a significant number of those who were wrongly convicted had been sentenced to death. Researchers note that this finding appears to reflect two patterns: capital defendants are more likely to be convicted in error, and false convictions are more likely to be detected when defendants are on death row.

The paper, authored by Professor Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School along with other assistants, reveals clear patterns associated with false convictions. The leading cause of wrongful convictions is perjury, including perjury by police officers, by jailhouse snitches, by the real killers, and by supposed participants and eyewitnesses to the crime who knew the innocent defedants in advance. The research revealed that false confessions, especially among vulnerable defendants such as juvenile offenders and those with mental retardation, also played a large role in murder convictions that led to exoneration. Almost all of the juvenile exonerees who falsely confessed were African American, and 90% of all exonerated juvenile defendants were African American or Hispanic.

Based on their review of these exonerations, the paper notes that "any plausible guess at the total number of miscarraiges of justice in American in the last fifteen years must run to the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, in felony cases alone."

 

National Conference of Chief Justices Criticizes Bill to Cut Death Penalty Appeals

The Conference of Chief Justices overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging Congress to not pass the proposed Streamlined Procedures Act, which is aimed at curtailing death penalty appeals. The resolution was passed by the Chief Justices from state courts around the country at their annual meeting in Charlestown, South Carolina. Only the chief justice of Texas' Supreme Court voted against the resolution, stating that he did not have enough time to review the document.
 

Murders in New York City Reach Historic Lows Without Use of the Death Penalty

Homicide figures for New York City show that the number of murders in 2005 may fall below 500, a figure that would be the fewest since 1961 and would bring the city's murder rate below the rate for the nation as a whole.  So far this year, random murders and murders committed during robberies and burglaries have also declined. Experts note that both declines appear to be largely attributable to a greater police presence, fewer guns, and the decrease in random violence in the city that came with the waning of the crack epidemic.

 

NEW VOICES: Justice Stevens Harshly Critical of the Death Penalty

Speaking at the American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Awards Dinner in Illinois, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that the death penalty has "serious flaws."  He recalled the late Justice Marshall in remarking how much the country has learned about the risks in death cases: "Since his retirement, with the benefit of DNA evidence, we have learned that a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously," Stevens said during the ceremony.  He added that Supreme Court cases have revealed that "a significant number of defen

 

DNA Testing Leads to the Exoneration of Another Prisoner In Case Involving Mistaken Eyewitness Testimony

In a case that sharply illustrates the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, Miami-Dade prosecutors plan to ask a state judge to vacate the convictions of Luis Diaz based on DNA evidence that was not available during his 1980 trial. Though he was shorter and lighter than the man that most witnesses described to police, Diaz was charged with rape 25 years ago after eight women identified him as their attacker. Following his trial, the judge said, "I've never seen a case where I was more convinced of a man's guilt." Two decades later, two of the victims came forward saying that Diaz had not been their attacker, and one of the women claimed she chose his picture from a photo spread only because police had pressured her to select one of nine photographs.

Only two DNA samples remained from the original trial. Both were from the same man and not from Diaz.  Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project that initiated the testing in Diaz's case, stated that about 75% of the exonerations since the advent of forensic DNA testing in 1989 have hinged on mistaken eyewitness identification.

Diaz said that he has spent much of his time in prison reading the Bible and that he hoped to get to know his grandchildren when he is released.

 

Expert Testimony Faults Death Penalty Deterrence Findings

In testimony before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary regarding proposed legislation to initiate a "foolproof" death penalty, Columbia Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan (pictured) analyzed recent studies that claimed that capital punishment deters murders.  He stated that the studies "fall apart under close scrutiny." Fagan noted that the studies are fraught with technical and conceptual errors, including inappropriate methods of statistical analysis, failures to consider all relevant factors that drive murder rates, missing data on k

 

Convictions Overturned In Pennsylvania and New Jersery through DNA Testing

Thomas Doswell of Pennsylvania and Larry Peterson of New Jersey recently had their convictions overturned as a direct result of DNA testing.  Each defendant had serverd 18 years in prison.  In Peterson's case, the prosecution had sought the death penalty but the jury could not agree and he was sentenced to life.  His case marked the first time a New Jersey court has overturned a conviction because of DNA evidence.  Both reversals stemmed from the work of attorneys at the Innocence Project of the Benjamin Cardoza School of Law in New York City.

Though he has consistently maintained his innocence, Doswell was convicted of the 1986 rape of a nursing home employee. After a request for DNA testing filed by the Innocence Project, a Common Pleas court judge ordered evidence from the crime scene tested and the results cleared Doswell of any involvement in the crime. He was released from prison following the state's withdrawal of charges. In 1999, Doswell had filed a motion with the court to allow DNA testing, but a judge ruled in favor of prosecutors who challenged the motion because it was filed three weeks too late. "Really, this could have been taken care of in 1999. . . . I don't see it as a victory. It's a major loss of 18 years that nobody can compensate; nobody can give back. This is a guy who got railroaded," said one of Doswell's attorneys, James DePasquale. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 30, 2005; Associated Press, Aug. 2, 2005).

 

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