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.
Two Puerto Rican defendants were given life sentences by the same jury that had convicted them of murder in the course of an armored truck robbery that occurred in 2002. Puerto Rico has not used the death penalty for almost 80 years and forbids the practice in its constitution. However, the U.S. federal death penalty applies to the Commonwealth.
Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila said that the jury acted in accordance with Puerto Rican tradition, which "loathes and is against the death penalty." Federal prosecutors said the federal death penalty should apply because the defendants, Hernando Medina Villegas and Lorenzo Catalan Roman, interefered with interstate commerce. Puerto Rico has not had an execution since 1927.
In a dramatic shift from 1999, citizens in New Jersey now favor life without parole over the death penatly for those who commit murder. In a Rutgers University poll released on April 28, 47% of N.J. respondents preferred life without parole rather than the death penalty. In a similar poll six years ago, 44% of respondents chose the death penalty, while 37% supported life without parole.
Results from DNA testing may soon lead to the exoneration of Larry Peterson in New Jersey. He would become the first person in the state to be cleared of a homicide through DNA evidence. Peterson was convicted of a rape and murder that occurred in 1987. For the past 10 years, Peterson tried to have DNA evidence from his case tested. At his original trial in which he faced the possibility of a death sentence, the prosecution maintained that hairs from the crime scene belonged to Peterson. He was convicted and given a life sentence. DNA testing has now shown that the hairs belonged to the victim, and that semen from the crime scene belong to another male. Peterson's lawyers from the Innocence Project have filed a motion to have his conviction overturned.
A 15-member military jury sentenced Sgt. Hasan Akbar to death for killing 2 U.S. military officers in Kuwait in 2003 during the opening days of the Iraq invasion. At his sentencing, Akbar said, "I want to apologize for the attack that occurred. I felt that my life was in jeopardy, and I had no other options. I also want to ask you for forgiveness." He is the first American since the Vietnam era to be prosecuted for murdering a fellow soldier in wartime. (N.Y. Times, April 29, 2005 (AP)).
No one has been executed under the military's death penalty since 1961. There are 7 other soldiers facing possible execution, including two who have had their death sentences reversed on appeal. Seven of the eight (87%) soldiers now on death row are members of racial minorities.