On February 18, the Montana House Judiciary Committee voted (11-10) to advance HB 370, a bill to replace the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without parole. The same committee had rejected similar bills several times in recent years. The bill will now move to the full House. Republican bill sponsor Rep. David Moore (pictured) said he thought the bill had a decent chance of passing in the House. Rep. Clayton Fiscus, one of two Republican members of the Judiciary Committee who supported the bill, said, "Our death penalty is a joke." He cited the high cost of capital trials and concerns about executing an innocent person as reasons for supporting abolition. Rep. Bruce Meyers, the other Republican who voted to advance the bill, said he was religiously opposed to capital punishment: “That was part of my conscience, the way I was raised. Native Americans view all life as being sacred.” All 9 Democratic members of the committee also voted in favor of the bill.
Jeanne Bishop has written a new book about her life and spiritual journey after her sister was murdered in Illinois in 1990. Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister's Killer tells Bishop's personal story of grief, loss, and of her eventual efforts to confront and reconcile with her sister's killer. She also addresses larger issues of capital punishment, life sentences for juvenile offenders, and restorative justice. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan said of the book, "When I commuted the death sentences of everyone on Illinois's death row, I expressed the hope that we could open our hearts and provide something for victims' families other than the hope of revenge. I quoted Abraham Lincoln: 'I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.' Jeanne Bishop's compelling book tells the story of how devotion to her faith took her face-to-face with her sister's killer .... She reminds us of a core truth: that our criminal justice system cannot be just without mercy."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that all executions be put on hold while the Supreme Court is considering Glossip v. Gross, a case involving Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. Speaking for himself, rather than the administration, at a press luncheon on February 17, Holder said, "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate." Holder has previously criticized state secrecy in lethal injections, but voiced broader concerns about executing the innocent in his remarks: “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong. But there's always the possibility that mistakes will be made...There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” Holder said that the Department of Justice's review of the death penalty, which President Obama ordered after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, is still underway, and is unlikely to be finished before Holder steps down as Attorney General.
Attorneys for Rodney Reed, a death row inmate in Texas, have filed a petition in a county court with new evidence supporting an alternate theory of the crime that led to Reed's conviction. Reed is scheduled to be executed on March 5 for the murder of Stacy Stites. The petition included affidavits from three forensic experts who contend Stites died much earlier than police originally said, and that her body was stored for several hours in a different location than where it was found. They also said that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that Stites had been sexually assaulted. Attorneys for Reed said Stites was likely killed by her fiance, a former police officer who is now in prison for the abduction and rape of a young woman while on duty. Affidavits from two of Stites' coworkers state she would "deliberately hide" from her fiance because “she was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and … didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out.” Reed previously sought DNA testing of Stites' shirt and the belt used to strangle her, but that request was denied by the Bastrop County District Court.
A recent article by Prof. Eric Berger of the University of Nebraska College of Law argued that defendants facing execution have a fundamental right to know important information about the lethal injection drugs they will be given. Berger wrote, "Judicial recognition of this due process right would both protect Eighth Amendment values and also encourage states to make their execution procedures more transparent and less dangerous." After discussing the history of recent developments in lethal injection, the right to discover evidence under the Federal Rules of Procedure, and the need to be fully informed in order to demonstrate the cruelty of a method of execution, the article concluded: "By permitting states to execute inmates without disclosing key details about their lethal injection procedures, courts are not only denying inmates their Eighth Amendment due process rights but are also implicitly blessing states' secretive and often unprofessional administration of their most solemn task."
On February 13 Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania announced a moratorium on all executions in the state. He said no executions will take place at least until he has "received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established under Senate Resolution 6 of 2011, and there is an opportunity to address all concerns satisfactorily." The legislature commissioned the report in 2011. In his statement, Governor Wolf said, "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania." Terrance Williams, whose execution was scheduled for March 4, has been granted a reprieve. Governor Wolf joins the governors of Oregon, Washington, and Colorado in placing a hold on executions because of concerns about the death penalty system. In addition, 18 states have abolished the death penalty.
A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Alabama has documented more lynchings in American history than previously reported, particularly of African Americans in the South, and has drawn parallels between this practice and the modern death penalty. According to EJI, the report--titled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror --"makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation." The report draws connections between lynchings and abuses in the criminal justice system that persist today: "[L]ynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era." (emphasis added). A New York Times editorial about the report made a similar point: "The researchers argue, for example, that lynching declined as a mechanism of social control as the Southern states shifted to a capital punishment strategy, in which blacks began more frequently to be executed after expedited trials. The legacy of lynching was apparent in that public executions were still being used to mollify mobs in the 1930s even after such executions were legally banned."
On February 9, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association unanimously passed two resolutions calling for unanimous juries in capital sentencing and greater transparency in lethal injection procedures. Resolution 108A stated: "Before a court can impose a sentence of death, a jury must unanimously recommend or vote to impose that sentence," and, "The jury in such cases must also unanimously agree on the existence of any fact that is a prerequisite for eligibility for the death penalty and on the specific aggravating factors that have each been proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Currently, some states, including Florida, Alabama, and Delaware, allow a jury to recommend a death sentence without unanimity. Resolution 108B called for all death penalty jurisdictions "to promulgate execution protocols in an open and transparent manner and require public review and comment prior to final adoption of any execution protocol, and require disclosure to the public by all relevant agencies of all relevant information regarding execution procedures." As lethal injection drug restrictions have caused states to seek out new sources of drugs, many states have adopted secrecy policies surrounding their lethal injection process.
A new Rasmussen poll found that 57% of American adults support the death penalty, down from 63% in the organization's polls dating from 2009. The poll found 26% of respondents opposed the death penalty, with 17% undecided. Respondents were also asked whether they favored the death penalty for James Holmes if he is convicted of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Just 55% said they believed Holmes should be sentenced to death, compared to 66% who held that view immediately after the shooting in 2012. Twenty percent were undecided. Rasmussen found that Americans were less supportive of executing a defendant who is mentally ill, an issue in Holmes's case. Respondents also had concerns about wrongful convictions, and were split on whether the death penalty deterred crime.
A new book, Examining Wrongful Convictions: Stepping Back, Moving Forward, explores the causes and related issues behind the many wrongful convictions in the U.S. Compiled and edited by four criminal justice professors from the State University of New York, the text draws from U.S. and international sources. Prof. Dan Simon of the University of Southern California said, ''This book offers the most comprehensive and insightful treatment of wrongful convictions to date," noting that it delves into topics such as the wars on drugs and crime, the culture of punitiveness, and racial animus, as they relate to mistakes in the justice system. The editors note that, "[The] essential premise of this book is that much of value can be learned by 'stepping back' from the traditional focus on the direct or immediate causes and consequences of wrongful convictions," with the hope of moving forward by "probing for the root causes of miscarriages of justice."