Terence Inch, a former police commissioner in Hellam Township, Pennsylvania, recently wrote in support of Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on executions and pointed to the mistakes that can happen in high-profile crimes: "In the aftermath of a brutal homicide, particularly one involving multiple victims or children, there is enormous pressure on law enforcement to solve the case and to solve it quickly...In the rush to solve these high profile cases it is easy to make mistakes, or to ignore evidence that points away from the 'person of interest.'" He pointed to the numerous exonerations of death row inmates, including six in Pennsylvania, as evidence of the risks in capital prosecutions: "Mistakes happen too often, as evidenced by the fact that 150 men and women in the United States have been convicted and sent to death row - only to be released when conclusive evidence of their wrongful conviction emerged." He also noted the high cost of capital punishment in the state: "Pennsylvania has spent upwards of $350 million dollars on a death penalty system that has produced just three executions since 1999. All three of those executions involved men who voluntarily gave up their appeals. The system is obviously broken."
Midland County, Texas, District Attorney Teresa Clingman (pictured) recently accepted a sentence of life without parole rather than seeking the death penalty for Dan Higgins, a man who pled guilty to killing a Midland County Sheriff's Deputy. Clingman's decision was part of a larger trend of prosecutors choosing life without parole even for the most serious crimes. West Texas A&M criminology professor and former prison warden Keith Price said, "Capital death has so many requirements -- it's so expensive. Capital death: the convicted dies in prison by lethal injection. Capital life: the convicted dies in prison whenever his natural life is over. From an incapacitation standpoint, the DA has accomplished the same thing. That particular person will never see the Texas public again." As a result of similar decisions by other prosecutors, and juries preferring life without parole more often, death sentences in the U.S. have declined by about 75% since their peak in the mid-1990s. Clingman cited a request from the deputy's widow not to seek the death penalty, saying, "The reasoning is because we can't punish him any more than we're already punishing him. It saves the victim in that case from having to go through a trial. [The victim's widow] also took into consideration that Mr. Higgins will now spend his time in general population rather than on death row in a single cell by himself for the rest of his life." Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter supported the prosecutor's decision, saying, "I think saving the county money, saving the heartache for the families involved is the best solution for this particular case. The Midland County's Sheriff's Office not only lost a brother and a friend, this county lost a great employee. Only time right now can help settle the feelings right now."
The execution of Kelly Gissendaner was postponed just hours before it was scheduled to take place on March 2, after correctional officials in Georgia became concerned that the lethal injection chemicals appeared cloudy. "The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed," the Department of Corrections said in a statement. Georgia is one of several states that have turned to compounding pharmacies for lethal injection drugs after large pharmaceutical companies blocked the use of their products in executions. A state secrecy law shields the identity of the drug preparer. Gissendaner's lawyers had filed appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the lack of transparency could allow the use of drugs that were unreliable. Georgia has not yet announced a new execution date. Gissendaner's execution was previously moved from February 25 to March 2 due to a winter storm.
A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice examined several possible explanations for the dramatic drop in crime in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s. Among the theories studied was use of the death penalty, which the report found had no effect on the decline in crime. The authors explained, "Empirically, capital punishment is too infrequent to have a measureable effect on the crime drop. Criminologically, the existence and use of the death penalty may not even create the deterrent effect on potential offenders that lawmakers hoped when enacting such laws." The authors noted criminals do not consider the consequences of their actions, particularly when the consequence is rarely applied, as in the case of the death penalty. "Much psychological and sociological research suggests that many criminal acts are crimes of passion or committed in a heated moment based only on immediate circumstances, and thus potential offenders may not consider or weigh longer-term possibilities of punishment and capture, including the possibility of capital punishment." They concluded, "In line with the past research, the Brennan Center’s empirical analysis finds that there is no evidence that executions had an effect on crime in the 1990s or 2000s." Ultimately, they attributed drop in crime to various social changes and policing tactics, with increased incarceration having no effect in the 2000s and only minimal effect on property crime in the 1990s.
Several state legislatures have recently taken action on bills related to capital punishment. In Arkansas, a bill to abolish the death penalty passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a voice vote. Bill sponsor Sen. David Burnett, a former prosecutor and judge who both sought and imposed the death penalty, said, "It's no longer a deterrent. It's a punishment that's actually broken. It doesn't work. And it costs a huge amount of money to try and prosecute those cases." Arkansas last carried out an execution in 2005. A similar bill in Montana was approved by a House committee with bipartisan support, but failed on a tied vote (50-50) in the full House. Before the vote, repeal supporter Rep. Mitch Tropila said, “This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives. It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history." Montana's last execution took place in 2006. Virginia legislators rejected a bill to shield information related to lethal injection as state secrets. The House of Delegates voted 56-42 against the bill, which would have exempted “all information relating to the execution process,” including the source of execution drugs and the buildings and equipment used for executions, from open records laws. Del. Scott A. Surovell commented, "Anytime somebody in the government wants to restrict information about what the government is going to do, I think we need to ask some really difficult questions and get some straight answers before we grant them that right.”
Cynthia Portaro, whose son, Michael (pictured), was killed in 2011, stood before a Nevada courtroom on February 23 and asked prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty for the man convicted of her son's murder. Prosecutors agreed to the request and said they would ask the judge to sentence Brandon Hill to life without parole. Portaro said, “I personally didn’t want to see another person die. I got what I wanted — an apology from Brandon. I felt a sense of relief that there is no hatred, animosity, anger.” Joseph Abood, Hill's defense attorney, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. ... I’m just happy that the healing for everybody can start today. … He’s matured a lot since this killing, and I’m glad he’s finally able to recognize that he made a grave error and to know that he needs to apologize.” In the years since her son's death, Portaro has started a support group to help others through the loss of loved ones. “I just help other families through trauma, give them hope, give them tools, guidance, comfort, love, support, knowing that if they can see me being able to do it, they can do it, too,” Portaro said. “It helps me to help others."
UPDATE: Gissendaner's execution has been rescheduled to Monday, March 2, due to a winter storm forecast to hit Georgia. Previously: On February 25 the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on the state's death row. Gissendaner was convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband, but did not carry out the killing herself. At Gissendaner's clemency hearing, 21 people testified in favor of a reduction in sentence, including two of Gissendaner's children, several prison volunteers, and members of the clergy. Gissendaner's daughter, Kayla, said, "My father’s death was extremely painful for many people, but I’ve recently concluded that in many ways I was the person who was most impacted by his murder. The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can’t fathom losing another parent.” The man who committed the murder pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Gissendaner's attorney advised her not to take the same deal, saying that he thought a jury would not sentence her to death, "because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug." Unless an appeals court halts the execution, Gissendaner will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years.
Mike Farrell, actor and human rights leader, argued in an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the case of Anthony Apanovitch in Ohio demonstrates several significant problems with the death penalty. Apanovitch was recently granted a new trial, 30 years after he was convicted. Evidence in Apanovitch's case was withheld from his defense, and a DNA test was not performed until decades after the trial. "[W]hen the state seeks the penalty of death -- the one punishment that is irreversible," Farrell wrote, "there is a need for certainty that is at odds with the outrage of the public and the pressure on prosecutors." When a DNA test was eventually performed, it excluded Apanovitch, leading a judge to acquit Apanovitch on one count of rape, dismiss another rape charge against him, remove a specification from the murder charge, and order a new trial on the remaining murder and burglary charges. Farrell, who has been involved in the case for decades, emphasized how the uncertainty of the case effected the victim's family: "For 30 years, the Flynn family has lived with nearly unendurable pain while those in charge of our system have struggled to justify killing Anthony Apanovitch." He concluded, "It is too soon, even after 30 years, to call this case resolved. But it is not too soon to say that the death penalty system is a failure. In fact, it is long past time for us to declare that the death penalty does not serve the interests of society, the interests of victims, or the interests of justice."
In her first press conference since taking office on February 18, Oregon Governor Kate Brown said she will continue the moratorium on executions that former Governor John Kitzhaber imposed in 2011. "There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said. "Until that discussion, I will be upholding the moratorium imposed by Gov. Kitzhaber." When the former governor announced the moratorium, he also called for a statewide discussion about capital punishment, saying, "I am calling on the legislature to bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session and encourage all Oregonians to engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves. I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values." Oregon has carried out only two executions since 1976, and none since 1997. There are currently 36 people on Oregon's death row.
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.