In a recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, three former Kentucky prosecutors advocated for repeal of the death penalty. Citing the findings of a study by the American Bar Association on Kentucky's law, Joseph P. Gutmann (pictured), Stephen Ryan, and J. Stewart Schneider said, "[T]he death penalty is broken beyond repair in Kentucky." Among the report's findings were a reversal rate of 60% in death penalty cases, a lack of standards for eyewitness identification and interrogations, and public defender caseloads that far exceed the national average, despite pay that is 31% lower than surrounding states. A poll taken around the time of the report found 62% of Kentucky voters in support of a moratorium on executions. The former prosecutors recommended repeal: "Without question, this is a difficult issue, and efforts to 'fix' the death penalty in Kentucky will be costly and time-consuming. But there is one approach that is simpler and less expensive: Abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole for convicted offenders....Replacing [the death penalty] with life without parole is the best approach for our state — removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed, saving limited tax dollars, protecting public safety and providing certainty and justice to the families of victims." Read the op-ed below.
On December 31, 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley announced he will commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row to life without parole. O'Malley signed Maryland's death penalty repeal bill into law in 2013, but the repeal was not retroactive. In a statement, O'Malley said, "Recent appeals and the latest opinion on this matter by Maryland’s Attorney General have called into question the legality of carrying out earlier death sentences — sentences imposed prior to abolition. In fact, the Attorney General has opined that the carrying out of prior sentences is now illegal in the absence of an existing statute." Prior to announcing the commutations, O'Malley met with family members of the murder victims in the cases related to the four death row inmates. He called the "un-ending legal process" of the death penalty an "additional torment" on the families of murder victims. He said, "Gubernatorial inaction — at this point in the legal process — would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure."
On December 19, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual statistical report on capital punishment in the United States, with information for 2013. It noted a continuing decline in the death row population and the number of executions. Highlights of the report include:
- The death row population dropped to 2,979 inmates as of 12/31/13, with 60% held in just 5 states (California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Alabama).
- 2013 was the 13th consecutive year in which the population of death row decreased.
- Only 52.2% of death row inmates completed high school. 13.1% have less than an 8th grade education, and 24.8% have a 9th-11th grade education.
- 14.4% of death row inmates are Hispanic.
- The average time from sentencing to execution of those executed in 2013 was 186 months, or 15.5 years.
- 16% of people sentenced to death since 1973 have been executed. 6% died by causes other than execution. 38% were removed from death row because a court overturned their conviction, sentence, or the capital statute under which they were sentenced. 4.6% had their sentences commuted.
For information about the death penalty in 2014, see DPIC's Year End Report.
On December 18, the United Nations voted to adopt a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty, with an eye toward abolition. A record high 117 countries voted in favor of the resolution. The United States was one of just 38 nations that opposed it, and 34 nations abstained. Two years ago, a similar resolution passed with 111 "yes" votes. This year's resolution also urged those countries that still carry out executions not to execute juveniles, pregnant women, or people with intellectual disabilities. Though the United States continues to vote against a moratorium resolution, use of capital punishment has declined significantly here, as it has abroad. In 2014, the U.S. had its lowest number of executions in 20 years, and the lowest number of death sentences in 40 years. When the UN was founded in 1945, only 8 of the 51 member nations had abolished the death penalty. Today, 95 of the 193 member nations have officially abolished the death penalty, and an additional 42 have abolished it in practice.
The parents of James Holmes recently explained that their son is severely mentally ill and asked he be spared the death penalty. Holmes is accused of killing numerous people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Robert and Arlene Holmes said they were aware of the great harm their son caused, noting, "We are always praying for everyone in Aurora. We wish that July 20, 2012, never happened." They also recognized the sentiments among some that their son be executed: "We have read postings on the Internet that have likened him to a monster. He is not a monster. He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness." They hoped he would either be allowed to plead guilty and receive a life without parole sentence, or be found not guilty by reason of insanity, so "he could go to an institution that provides treatment for the mentally ill for the remainder of his life."
On December 16, a South Carolina judge vacated the conviction of George Stinney, Jr., the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the last century. Judge Carmen Mullen wrote: “I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case.” Stinney, a black, 14-year-old boy, was convicted by an all-white jury of killing two young white girls. Police said Stinney confessed to the crime, but no confession was ever produced. His sister said in an affidavit in 2009 that she was with Stinney on the day of the murders and he could not have committed them, but she was not called to testify at his trial. The Stinney family was forced to leave town because of danger of violence. His trial lasted just 3 hours, and the jury deliberated for only ten minutes before finding him guilty. He was sentenced to die by electrocution. His attorneys did not file an appeal, and he was put to death less than three months after the offense.
Whether the death penalty will be sought in a murder may depend more on the budget of the county in which it is committed than on the severity of the crime, according to several prosecutors. A report by the Marshall Project found that the high costs of capital cases prevent some district attorneys from seeking the death penalty. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.” One capital case can bankrupt a county: “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County, Texas. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?” Prosecutors cited past cases in which counties had to drastically alter their budgets in order to pay for death penalty trials. In Jasper County, Texas, a county auditor said the budget shock of a death penalty case was as bad as a flood that destroyed roads and bridges. Seeking the death penalty in one case in Gray County, Texas, forced the county to raise taxes and suspend raises for employees. The defendant was sentenced to life without parole. When Mohave County, Arizona, prosecutor Greg McPhillips decided not to seek the death penalty in a case he thought was particularly heinous, he pointed to costs as the reason: “The County Attorney’s Office wants to do their part in helping the County meet its fiscal responsibilities in this time of economic crisis not only in our County but across the nation,” he said.
On December 18, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2014: Year End Report." In 2014, 35 people were executed, the fewest in 20 years. Death sentences dropped to their lowest level in the modern era of the death penalty, with 72 people sentenced to death, the smallest number in 40 years. Just seven states carried out executions, and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Florida) accounted for 80% of the executions. The number of states carrying out executions was the lowest in 25 years. Seven people were exonerated from death row this year, including three men in Ohio, who were cleared of all charges 39 years after their convictions, the longest time among all death row exonerees. There have now been 150 people exonerated from death row since 1973. “The relevancy of the death penalty in our criminal justice system is seriously in question when 43 out of our 50 states do not apply the ultimate sanction,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The U.S. will likely continue with some executions in the years ahead, but the rationale for such sporadic use is far from clear.” See DPIC's Press Release. View a video summarizing the report.
In a series of articles analyzing Pennsylvania's death penalty, the Reading Eagle found that taxpayers have spent over $350 million on the death penalty over a period in which the state has carried out just three executions, all of inmates who dropped their appeals. Using data from a Maryland cost study, which concluded that death penalty cases cost $1.9 million more than similar cases in which the death penalty was not sought, the newspaper estimated that the cases of the 185 people on Pennsylvania's death row cost $351.5 million. The paper said the estimate was conservative because it did not include cases that were overturned, or cases where the prosecutor sought the death penalty but the jury returned another sentence. Pennsylvania legislators commissioned a cost study in 2011, but the report has not been issued. Senator Daylin Leach, one of the legislators who called for the state report, said he will reintroduce a bill to repeal the death penalty. Even supporters of the death penalty agreed that the costs are a problem: "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," said Berks County District Attorney John Adams. Judge Thomas Parisi, also of Berks County, said he believed there was an astronomical cost difference between the average death penalty case and a life-sentence case.
On December 11 District Judge Darlene Byrne ruled that the source of Texas' lethal injection drugs is a matter of public record, and the state should release the information. Texas has been obtaining pentobarbital from an unnamed compounding pharmacy. The decision resulted from a suit filed earlier this year on behalf of death row inmates, two of whom have since been executed. Texas had been open about the source of its execution drugs until May, when Attorney General Greg Abbott decided that releasing the identity of the drug supplier could be a safety risk. Maurie Levin, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said, "This is about the drugs, but it's also about open government." Similar suits have been filed in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Ohio, where drug suppliers are also shielded by secrecy policies. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to appeal the decision.