What's New

STUDIES: Racial Bias in Jury Selection

Posted: August 18, 2015

A new study of trials in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, revealed that potential jurors who were black were much more likely to be struck from juries than non-blacks. The results were consistent with findings from Alabama, North Carolina, and other parts of Louisiana, highlighting an issue that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. In Caddo Parish, an area known for its many death sentences, prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors, but only 15% of other jurors, according to the study by Reprieve Australia. The racial composition of the juries appeared to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the cases. The study found that no defendants were acquitted by juries with 2 or fewer black jurors, but 19% were acquitted when 5 or more jurors were black. In an Alabama study, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove 82% of eligible black potential jurors from trials in which the death penalty was imposed. A study of death penalty cases in North Carolina found that prosecutors struck 53% of black potential jurors but only 26% of others. (Click image to enlarge.)


DPIC Series, "50 Facts About the Death Penalty," Now Complete

Posted: August 17, 2015

DPIC's complete set of 50 facts about the death penalty is now available. The 50 facts provide an excellent introduction to a variety of death penalty topics, including costs, deterrence, race, innocence, and more. Each fact is presented in graphical form, with links to further information available on our 50 Facts page. The series is also available on Facebook and Twitter, and we encourage readers to share and retweet items they found particularly interesting or surprising. 


EDITORIALS: North Carolina Newspapers Critique Execution Secrecy Law

Posted: August 14, 2015

On August 6, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a law that removed the requirement that a physician be present at executions and shrouded in secrecy many elements of the lethal injection process, including the specific drugs to be used and the suppliers of those drugs. By eliminating the physician-participation requirement, the law attempted to remove a legal hurdle that has halted executions in North Carolina since 2006. Two major state newspapers sharply criticized the new law, calling it, "macabre" and "an ugly spectacle." The Fayetteville Observer said, "We need thoughtful discussion of the issue and whether we're imposing a fair sentence or simply seeking revenge for a terrible crime. What we don't need is a General Assembly slicing away at reasonable public understanding of the state's execution protocols, instead choosing to wrap it all in secrecy." The News & Observer (Raleigh) called the law "a horribly misguided idea," citing the "gruesome outcomes" of experimental lethal injection protocols in other states. The editorial concluded, "Rather than put executions on a fast track, North Carolina should abandon them altogether."


Connecticut Supreme Court Finds Death Penalty Violates State Constitution

Posted: August 13, 2015

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled on August 13 that the death penalty violates the state constitution. In the 4-3 decision, the Court said that, because of the prospective repeal of the death penalty in 2012 and "the state’s near total moratorium on carrying out executions over the past fifty-five years, capital punishment has become incompatible with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut." As a result, the Court said, it "now violates the state constitutional prohibition against excessive and disproportionate punishments." The Court also stated that "the death penalty now fails to satisfy any legitimate penological purpose and is unconstitutionally excessive on that basis as well." The state's prospective repeal had left 11 men on death row, but the ruling replaces their sentences with life without parole. The Court concluded, "In prospectively abolishing the death penalty, the legislature did not simply express the will of the people that it no longer makes sense to maintain the costly and unsatisfying charade of a capital punishment scheme in which no one ever receives the ultimate punishment. Public Act 12-5 also held a mirror up to Connecticut’s long, troubled history with capital punishment: the steady replacement by more progressive forms of punishment; the increasing inability to achieve legitimate penological purposes; the freakishness with which the sentence of death is imposed; the rarity with which it is carried out; and the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic biases that likely are inherent in any discretionary death penalty system. Because such a system fails to comport with our abiding freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, we hold that capital punishment, as currently applied, violates the constitution of Connecticut."


"Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man" Premieres

Posted: August 13, 2015

A new film, "Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man," premieres on August 13. The movie, described as a "documentary memoir," tells the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, an innocent man sentenced to death in Maryland who became the first death row prisoner in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Bloodsworth was convicted and sent to death row in 1985 for the sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old girl. He won a new trial as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, but was convicted again and this time sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 1993 by newly available DNA testing. After his exoneration, Bloodsworth became active in efforts to reform the criminal justice system and his case became symbolic of the innocence movement and the risks of wrongfully convicting and executing the innocent. In 2004, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Kirk Noble Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Program, which gives states grants for post-conviction DNA testing. As a result of his experiences, Bloodsworth became a strong opponent of the death penalty and was instrumental in Maryland's 2013 repeal of the death penalty. That legislative battleground provides the backdrop for the film's exploration of the events leading to his exoneration.The film's first preview screening is in Baltimore, Maryland. A second preview screening will take place in Boise, Idaho on September 25, and the film will be released soon after.


Death Sentences Drop in Three High-Use Counties As Prosecutors Change

Posted: August 12, 2015

Changes in who is District Attorney have caused a dramatic decline in death sentences in 3 counties that historically have produced a disproportionate number of death sentences in the United States, according to a story from The Marshall Project. Harris County (Houston), Texas, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania were all among the 2% of counties that accounted for 56% of inmates on death row as of 2013, but the resignations or retirements of their long-time District Attorneys have been followed by significant drops in the number of new death sentences. In Harris County, DA Johnny Holmes secured an average of 12 death sentences a year from 1992 to 2000. His immediate successor obtained about 6 death sentences a year, and DAs elected since 2008 have averaged about 1 death sentence per year. Similarly, Oklahoma County saw about 2.5 death sentences a year under long-time DA Robert Macy, but has handed down just 3 sentences since 2009. In both Harris and Oklahoma counties, exonerations shook public confidence in the justice system, also contributing to the drop in death sentences. An FBI review of an Oklahoma police chemist who worked closely with Macy uncovered deliberately falsified DNA tests and withheld evidence, which defense attorney Doug Parr said made people, "more skeptical of death penalty prosecutions." In Philadelphia, DA Lynne Abraham obtained an average of 9.5 death sentences per year in the 1990s. According to the article, the picture began to change in response to budget shortfalls and criticisms about racial disparities in death sentences. In 2009, Philadelphia elected a new DA, Seth Williams, who, the article says, promised to improve relations with minorities. In the last 5 years, Philadelphia has had only 3 death sentences. (Click image to enlarge.)


False and Contaminated Confessions Prevalent in Death Row Exonerations

Posted: August 11, 2015

A report by University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett describes the effects of false confessions in cases in which DNA evidence later led to an exoneration. Garrett reports that half of the 20 death row inmates who were exonerated by DNA testing had falsely confessed to the crime. He uses the recent exonerations of intellectually disabled defendants Leon Brown and Henry McCollum in North Carolina to illustrate the problem: "The police claimed that Brown and McCollum had each separately told them in gruesome detail how the victim had been raped and murdered, including how she was asphyxiated by her own panties: we now know that they were innocent and their confession statements were contaminated – meaning that police must have actually told the brothers each of those facts during the interrogation." Examining a data set of both capital and non-capital DNA exonerations, Garrett found that 65 of 69 false confessions were contaminated. In 19 of those cases, the defendants were convicted despite DNA testing that cleared them at the time of trial. In the case of Damon Thibodeaux, police did not conduct DNA tests that would have proved his innocence after securing a false confession after 9 hours of interrogation. In addition, 10 of the capital DNA exonerations featured false testimony from prison informants or snitches that that the defendant had confessed to them. Garrett concludes, "Interrogations themselves can be improved through safeguards such as videotaping. But the death penalty itself cannot be made foolproof – and indeed, high-profile murder investigations may be even more prone to tragic errors." 


Mentally Ill James Holmes Sentenced to Life in Prison in Aurora, CO Theater Shooting

Posted: August 10, 2015

On August 7, a jury in Aurora, Colorado, sentenced James Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2012 movie theater shooting that killed 12 people and injured dozens more. The jury said they could not reach a unanimous decision on Holmes' sentence, an outcome that results in a sentence of life without parole. After the trial, one juror said that the prosecution had not persuaded three of the jurors to impose a death sentence. The deliberations, she said, were very emotional, and at the time jurors agreed to stop deliberating, one juror was firmly committed to a life sentence, with two other holdouts still undecided. She said, "The issue of mental illness was everything for the one who did not want to impose the death penalty." [UPDATE: One of the jurors who voted for a life sentence says there was not a single holdout juror for life. Three voted for life, and the jury did not inquire further into the views of the other two after the indicated that her vote was firm.] Holmes had also offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, which would have removed the need for the six-month trial that cost Colorado taxpayers more than $5 million. After that plea offer was rejected, Holmes pleaded not guity by reason of insanity. All of the mental health experts agreed that Holmes would not have committed the killing but for his mental illness, but disagreed on whether he could appreciate the criminality of his conduct. The jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted him of all charges. Holmes' sentence highlights both the rarity of death sentences in Colorado and racial and geographic inequities in its imposition.


125 Years Ago, First Execution Using Electric Chair Was Botched

Posted: August 7, 2015

On August 6, 1890, New York executed William Kemmler. It was the first time ever a state used the electric chair to carry out an execution. Proponents of electrocution - including Thomas Edison - touted the new method as quick, effective, painless, and humane: the same arguments later used by legislators to support lethal injection and execution by nitrogen gas. In May 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Kemmler's challenge that the electric chair was cruel and unusual punishment. "Punishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death," the Court wrote. But it said the New York legislature in enacting the electric chair statute had intended "to devise a more humane method" of execution and "presume[d] that the legislature was possessed of the facts upon which it took action." The execution proceeded. According to the Buffalo News, Kemmler - who was intellectually disabled - asked corrections officers: "Don't let them experiment on me more than they ought to." After an initial 17-second administration of high-voltage electric current, a doctor declared Kemmler dead. Then Kemmler let out a deep groan and witnesses reportedly screamed "Turn on the current!" Reports of the execution say that "After 2 minutes the execution chamber filled with the smell of burning flesh. 2 of the witnesses fainted. Several others were overcome with severe attacks of nausea." Newspapers called the execution a "historic bungle" and "disgusting, sickening and inhuman." States have carried out 158 executions by electric chair since 1973. 10 were botched. Virginia was the most recent state to use the electric chair, executing Robert Gleason in January 2013.   


Ex-Prosecutors Ask Supreme Court to Overturn Georgia Death Sentence for Race Discrimination in Jury Selection

Posted: August 6, 2015


Eight former state and federal prosecutors have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Timothy Foster's death sentence because Georgia prosecutors discriminatorily used their discretionary strikes during jury selection in his case "to ensure that a black defendant accused of a crime against a white victim would face an all-white jury." In their "amici curiae" (friends-of-the-court) brief in Foster v. Chatman, the former prosecutors said that "race discrimination persists in jury selection" nearly three decades after the Supreme Court prohibited the racially discriminatory use of jury strikes in Batson v. Kentucky. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse argues that Batson hasn't worked in combatting discrimination. "[B]lacks are still being excluded from juries at disproportionate rates, especially when the defendant is black and the crime victim is white." Greenhouse writes, "Prosecutors have learned to game the system by providing explanations" for striking black jurors that "judges who appear all too eager to be persuaded" accept as race-neutral. Greenhouse describes Foster's case as "unusually compelling" because "the prosecutor's notes from the jury selection" - which, among other things, identified each black prospective juror with the letter “B,” assigned each a number, and highlighted their names in green ink - provide "a road map of discrimination." She says the case should "jump-start a public conversation" on eliminating discretionary jury strikes altogether. The former prosecutors conclude, "If this Court does not find purposeful discrimination on the facts of this case, then it will render Batson meaningless."