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"Death Row USA, Winter 2015" Shows More Than 12% Drop in U.S. Death Row in Last Decade

Posted: April 13, 2015

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA, which reports state-by-state information on death rows across the country, reflects a more than 12% decline in the size of death row nationwide. The Winter 2015 edition reports that 3,019 inmates were on America's death rows as of December 31, 2014, down 12.6% from the 3,455 men and women reported ten years earlier. The racial demographics of death row are now 43% white, 42% black, and 13% Latino/Latina. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (403), Texas (276), Alabama (198), and Pennsylvania (188). Of those jurisdictions with at least 10 people on death row, those with the highest proportions of racial minorities were Delaware (76%), Texas (72%), and Louisiana (71%).

 

NEW VOICES: After 36 Executions, Former Virginia Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty

Posted: April 10, 2015

During his tenure as Attorney General of Virginia from 1998 to 2001, that state executed 36 people. Now Mark Earley opposes the death penalty. The former Attorney General recently discussed his change of opinion in an article for the University of Richmond Law Review. He wrote, “If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty.” He said, "Overseeing a legal system that put so many to death with such efficiency eroded me," but political concerns he had as Attorney General "walled off my doubts." Since leaving office, Early said he has "come to the conclusion that the death penalty is based on a false utopian premise. That false premise is that we have had, do have, and will have 100% accuracy in death penalty convictions and executions." He highlights two cases that raised significant concerns for him: the exoneration of Earl Washington, which took place during Earley's tenure as Attorney General, and the recent ruling vacating the conviction of George Stinney, who was executed in South Carolina in 1944 at the age of 14. Earley concludes, "I can no longer support the imposition of a penalty so final in nature, yet so fraught with failures."

 

Ohio Reports Highlight Decline in Death Sentences, Emphasize Recent Exonerations

Posted: April 9, 2015

Two recent reports from Ohio highlighted the decline in the use of capital punishment in that state. On March 30, the Ohio Attorney General's Office released its annual report on capital punishment. The Attorney General's report noted three new death sentences, one commutation, and one execution in Ohio in 2014, down from the state's peak of 17 death sentences in both 1995 and 1996.  It also reported that Ohio juries have imposed four or fewer death sentences in each of the last four years. On the same day, Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) issued a complementary report. In addition to the data from the Attorney General's report, OTSE emphasized the exonerations of Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu, and Wiley Bridgeman in 2014. The three former death row inmates were sentenced to death in 1975 based upon the coerced false eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy. The OSTE report also discussed changes to Ohio's lethal injection protocol in the wake of the botched execution of Dennis McGuire, which resulted in the postponement of all executions in Ohio until 2016. Finally, the report discussed the 56 reform recommendations released last year by the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio's Death Penalty, which include measures to reduce wrongful convictions, ban the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness, and reduce racial and geographic disparities in sentencing.

 

Dying Texas Death-Row Inmate - Possibly Innocent - Seeks Relief from His Conviction

Posted: April 8, 2015

Attorneys for Texas death row inmate Max Soffar, who is dying of liver cancer, continue to seek a reversal of his case, even though judicial action - if it comes - may be too late. Soffar maintains his innocence in the 1980 murders of three people during a bowling alley robbery. The sole evidence against Soffar is a confession he signed after three days of unrecorded interrogation that is inconsistent with the facts of the case and, he maintains, is false. The confession also does not match the account of the murders provided by a man who survived the shooting. No physical evidence links Soffar to the crime and Soffar has presented evidence that another man, a serial killer, was much more likely to have committed the murders. Governor Rick Perry rejected a clemency petition last year that sought to allow Soffar to spend his last days at home. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles said that Soffar isn't eligible for clemency because there is no warrant for his execution. Andrew Horne, one of Soffar's attorneys, said, "Justice is where there's a fair system that was followed and offered an outcome that was rational. To me, Max is an injustice because there was never a fair system, and the outcome was completely irrational."  

 

1 County, 2 Prosecutors Responsible for 3/4 of Recent Louisiana Death Sentences, Amid Charges of Prosecutorial Misconduct

Posted: April 7, 2015

Of the 12 death sentences handed down in Louisiana in the last 5 years, 8 have come from Caddo Parish. Caddo is also among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for 56% of people on death row. With a population of just 257,000, Caddo Parish has sent 16 people to death row, the second highest of any parish in Louisiana. Two prosecutors, one of whom is under investigation for prosecutorial misconduct, are responsible for 6 of the recent death sentences. Hugo Holland, who handled two cases that resulted in death sentences in the last five years, is being investigated by the Disciplinary Board of the state's bar association for failing to turn over evidence favorable to a defendant being tried for the murder of a prison guard. That defendant's death sentence was overturned in 2014. Prosecutor Dale Cox, who obtained four of Caddo's recent death sentences, has said he believes death row inmates spend too long awaiting execution, but waited 10 months to sign off on the release of Glenn Ford after evidence of Ford's innocence was uncovered. Ford was convicted in Caddo Parish and spent 30 years on death row before his exoneration. (Pictured: Caddo County Courthouse, 2010.)

 

California Seeks More Funds as Death Row Runs Out of Room

Posted: April 6, 2015

California's death row -- the largest in the country -- is expanding beyond the capacity of San Quentin State Prison to hold it. In response, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a $3.2 million expenditure to make about 100 new cells available to incarcerate death row inmates. California has not executed any death-row prisoner since 2006.  Court rulings have barred the state from using its lethal injection protocol and, last July, in the case of Jones v. Chappell, a federal district court declared the State's death penalty statute unconstitutional as a result of systemic delays in providing appellate review of death sentences. In the nine years since its last execution, California's death row has grown from 646 to 751 inmates. The death-row facilities at San Quentin, which can house 715 inmates, currently hold 708. The remaining inmates include 20 women housed in a separate facility and 23 inmates held elsewhere for court hearings, in long-term medical facilities, or in prisons in other states. Under the governor's new proposal, death row prisoners could be held in another housing unit at San Quentin, where cells have recently become available as the state releases low-level offenders under a measure approved by voters in 2014. Gov. Brown asked the legislature to approve the additional outlays to increase security and staff at the prison. State Senator Loni Hancock, head of the budget subcommittee that will consider Brown's proposal this month, said, "California is in a Catch-22 situation. We are required by the Courts to address prison overcrowding and we are required by law to provide certain minimum conditions for housing death penalty inmates. The Legislature can't avoid its responsibilities in these areas, even though the courts are currently considering the constitutionality of the death penalty, and I hope will agree to end it."

 

INNOCENCE: Anthony Ray Hinton Exonerated After 30 Years on Alabama's Death Row

Posted: April 3, 2015

Anthony Ray Hinton (pictured, l.) has been exonerated after spending nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row. He will be released on April 3. Hinton was convicted of the 1985 murders of two fast-food restaurant managers based upon the testimony of a state forensic examiner that the bullets in the two murders came from a gun found in Hinton's house. The prosecutor, who had a documented history of racial bias, said he could tell Hinton was guilty and "evil" just by looking at him. Hinton was arrested after a victim in a similar crime identified him in a photo lineup, even though Hinton had been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away when that crime was committed. Hinton's lawyer did not know the law and mistakenly believed that funding to hire a qualified firearms expert was not available.  Instead, he hired an expert he knew to be inadequate, and as a result failed to present any credible evidence to rebut the state's claim that the bullets were fired from Hinton's gun. In 2002, three top firearms examiners testified that the bullets could not be matched to Hinton's gun, and may not have come from the a single gun at all. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Hinton had been provided substandard representation and returned his case to the state courts for further proceedings.  Prosecutors decided not to retry him after the state's new experts said they could not link the bullets to Hinton's gun. Bryan Stevenson (pictured, r.), Hinton's lead attorney, said, “Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice. I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.” Hinton is the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1973, the second in 2015, and the sixth in Alabama.

 

NEW VOICES: Warden Says Death Penalty Imposes "Immeasurable Burden" on Correctional Officers

Posted: April 2, 2015

Former prison warden, Frank Thompson, has urged repeal of Delaware's death penalty.  In an op-ed for The News Journal of Delaware, the former warden, who has personally overseen two executions, describes "the immeasurable burden that th[e execution] process places on correctional officers" and the trauma experienced by correctional officers who must carry out executions. Thompson says, "Many of us who have taken part in this process live with nightmares, especially those of us who have participated in executions that did not go smoothly. Correctional officers who carry out execution can suffer from post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and depression." He explains that capital punishment does nothing to "increase the safety of prison staff or inmates." "Every warden in America knows the established protocols that effectively keep prisons safe for corrections staff and inmates," he says. "These include programs to treat inmates with alcohol and drug dependency or mental illnesses, appropriate inmate-to-staff ratios for the proper supervision of prisoners, adequate activities and work programs, and effective classification systems that provide guidance on how to properly house and program inmates...I am not aware of and have not heard of a single prison administrator who would trade any of these programs or resources in order to keep the death penalty." Thompson concludes by calling on the Delaware legislature to "repeal its death penalty and lead the way on smarter crime prevention policy by reinvesting the millions of dollars that the state currently spends on capital punishment into programs that will actually improve public safety." Read the full op-ed below.

 

Amnesty International Reports Worldwide Decline in Executions

Posted: April 1, 2015

Executions around the world declined by 22% last year, according to Amnesty International's 2014 annual report on death sentences and executions.  The report -- released on April 1 -- indicates that an estimated 607 people were executed worldwide in 2014, compared to 778 in 2013.  The global totals do not include executions in China, where data on the death penalty is considered a state secret. On a regional level, Amnesty reported notable declines in Sub-Saharan Africa, where both the total number of executions and the number of countries carrying out executions dropped. The number of death sentences imposed worldwide increased compared to 2013, with 2,466 people sentenced to death. This increase was attributable to actions in Egypt and Nigeria, in which mass sentencings occurred and death sentences rose by more than 900. The total number of death sentences imposed in the rest of the world actually decreased compared to 2013. The United States was the only country in the Americas to carry out any executions, though the number of executions dropped to its lowest level in 20 years. The United States had the fifth most executions of any country, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. (Click image to enlarge.)

 

American Pharmacists Association: Assisting Executions "Fundamentally Contrary to the Role of Pharmacists"

Posted: March 31, 2015

On March 30, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) adopted a resolution discouraging pharmacist participation in executions. The House of Delegates of the 62,000 member organization passed the policy, which states, "The American Pharmacists Association discourages pharmacist participation in executions on the basis that such activities are fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care." William Fassett, professor emeritus of pharmacotherapy at Washington State University, drafted the policy and said that the policy only became necessary in the last few years as major pharmaceutical companies have blocked the use of their products in executions and states have turned to pharmacies to obtain lethal injection drugs. Fassett said, “It’s never been legal in the U.S. to write a prescription to execute a person. The basic federal law is that a prescription is to be used for medical proposes in the context of an established patient-physician relationship." Thomas E. Menighan, Executive Vice President and CEO of the APhA, said, "Pharmacists are health care providers and pharmacist participation in executions conflicts with the profession’s role on the patient health care team. This new policy aligns APhA with the execution policies of other major health care associations including the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Board of Anesthesiology." The International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists adopted a similar resolution last week, stating, "While the pharmacy profession recognizes an individual practitioner’s right to determine whether to dispense a medication based upon his or her personal, ethical and religious beliefs, IACP discourages its members from participating in the preparation, dispensing, or distribution of compounded medications for use in legally authorized executions."

 

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