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Twenty years ago, frustrated by what they perceived to be the slow pace of capital punishment, Colorado legislators adopted a law to "fix" their death penalty by speeding up appeals. Proponents and opponents of the state's death penalty agree on one thing: the law hasn't worked. As The Denver Post reports, the state law intended to streamline the death penalty appeals process by imposing a two-year deadline for decision and consolidating direct appeals and post-conviction appeals into a "unitary" system of review has failed. Colorado's two death row prisoners affected by the law have spent more than seven years at the first step in the appeals process, with no ruling on their cases in sight. The 1997 law changed the order of death penalty appeals, putting the lengthier post-conviction appeal (involving new evidence and claims of ineffective representation or prosecutorial misconduct) first, before the direct appeal (which involves only issues that were raised by defense counsel at the time of trial). Once the trial court rules on the post-conviction appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court would review and resolve both appeals together, in a single "unitary" appeal proceeding. But while the law originally allowed "no extensions of time of any kind" in post-conviction appeals, a 2010 Colorado Supreme Court ruling allowed extensions to be granted under "extraordinary circumstances" necessary to protect a defendant's procedural rights. Death row inmates Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens both received extensions. Seven years later, Owens' case has had an extensive evidentiary hearing, but the appeal may have to be redone because the state supreme court fired the judge presiding over the case just before he was expected to issue his ruling. Ray's post-conviction hearings have not yet begun. Christopher Decker, a Denver defense attorney, voiced concerns about whether a fast appeals system would adequately protect defendants' constitutional rights: “If they just speed up the process and strip everyone of due process, we’ll have a very fast outcome that will be worth nothing. It won’t stand up to constitutional review.” Jeanne Adkins, the former state representative who sponsored the 1997 bill to speed up appeals, said, "I’m almost to the point where I would say, ‘Let’s do away with it and save the taxpayers the money.'" Expressing frustration with the death penalty system, she says “[t]he death penalty has become so politicized, truthfully, in the last decade or so in Colorado that I really think that a lot of what the legislature tried to do may actually be pretty pointless now.”
On July 19, the newly constituted Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously voted to uphold a trial court's order granting a new trial to Philadelphia death row prisoner, Christopher Williams. The court determined that Williams' trial and appellate counsel had been ineffective by failing to investigate and present expert forensic testimony on blood flow and gunshot wounds that would have demonstrated that the version of the murders presented by the prosecution's lead witness was incompatible with the physical evidence. The court also ruled that the trial judge had improperly prevented defense lawyers from cross-examining the state's expert witnesses on key matters. The case was the first time the new court was faced with a lower court judgment granting a capital defendant a new trial. A survey of Pennsylvania capital post-conviction appeals by the Death Penalty Information Center, updated through July 25, 2016, found that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued orders affirming or denying post-conviction requests for new trials by capital defendants 257 times since the Commonwealth enacted its current death penalty statute in 1978. This decision was only the third time in this period that the court had ordered or affirmed the grant of a new trial. By contrast, the court had previously voted more than 99% of the time to uphold capital convictions. It had overturned 12 of the last 13 lower court rulings it had considered since April 2006 that had granted death-row prisoners new trials. The sole exception had been the case of Ronald Champney, in which the court split 3-3, with one vacancy on the court caused by the conviction of a justice for public corruption. The tie vote upheld the decision of the trial court in that case.
Defendant Seeks Supreme Court Review of Prosecutorial Ghostwriting, A Widespread Practice in Capital CasesPosted: July 26, 2016
Doyle Lee Hamm (pictured), an Alabama death row prisoner, has asked the United States Supreme Court to consider his case after Alabama's state and federal appellate courts upheld an order in which the trial court rejected his appeal by adopting word-for-word an 89-page order written by the state attorney general's office. In a process The Marshall Project's Andrew Cohen described as "a sham," the court dismissed Hamm's appeal one business day after receiving the prosecution's proposed order, without so much as removing the word "proposed" from the title of the order. In 1987, Hamm's jury had taken only 45 minutes to sentence him to death after his lawyer presented a 19-minute case for life that involved just two witnesses—Hamm’s sister and a bailiff. Twelve years later, Hamm’s post-conviction lawyers argued that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel in that penalty hearing and presented the court with extensive mitigating evidence that his trial lawyer had never investigated. This evidence included a childhood diagnosis of borderline mental retardation, school records reflecting Hamm's intellectual deficits, and evidence of seizures, head injuries, and drug and alcohol abuse. Cohen reports that the jury never heard that Hamm was "a barely literate, brain-damaged man with little impulse control, someone who might have been perceived as having diminished criminal responsibility." Yet the attorney general's proposed order, signed by the judge, rejected this evidence as merely "cumulative" of the sparse case for life that had been presented at trial. Cohen reports that the practice of judges adopting opinions or orders written by prosecutors, often without making any substantive changes or even correcting typos, is surprisingly widespread in capital cases. In addition to Alabama, similar "ghostwritten" orders have been documented in states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. In one Ohio case, a judge was sanctioned for violating the judicial code of conduct and an inmate's death sentence was vacated after the judge drafted an opinion with prosecutors, but in Hamm's case and many others, opinions written by prosecutors and signed by judges have been upheld in state courts and considered reasonable determinations of fact to which courts must defer in later federal proceedings challenging the constitutionality of capital convictions and death sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court has requested that it be provided the full record of Hamm's case and is scheduled to confer about the case on September 26. It could issue an order as early as October 3, the first Monday of its Fall Term, on whether it will hear Hamm's appeal.
As support for the death penalty has waxed and waned over the years, the views of the major U.S. political parties, as reflected in their national convention platforms, has changed. To track those changes, DPIC has created a new resource presenting the Democratic and Republican party platform positions on crime and the death penalty from 1960 to 2016. With the most recent views of both the Republican and Democratic parties expressed in their 2016 platforms, the new page now reflects changing views on the death penalty throughout the modern era of capital punishment, as well as in the decade leading up to the Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia striking down death penalty laws across the country. This year, the Republican party platform "condemn[s]" the U.S. Supreme Court for what the platform calls the "erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment." The draft of the Democratic party convention, expected to be adopted July 25, calls for abolition of the death penalty, which it says "has no place in the United States of America." To provide context for the changing platforms, the page provides public opinion data on the death penalty from Gallup polling since 1960, and opinion by party affiliation since Gallup first began providing that information in 1988. Alongside that data, it includes an Index of Death Penalty Public Opinion developed by Professor Frank Baumgartner at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. (Click image to enlarge.)
Arkansas Court Puts Lethal Injection Ruling on Hold, Blocking Executions Pending U.S. Supreme Court ReviewPosted: July 22, 2016
On July 21, a divided Arkansas Supreme Court voted 4-3 to deny a request by state death row prisoners to reconsider its recent decision upholding Arkansas' lethal injection protocol and secrecy law, but in another 4-3 vote, the court issued an order staying the mandate, delaying the decision from taking effect until the U.S. Supreme Court has an opportunity to consider an appeal. The stay order prevents the state from setting new execution dates before the U.S. Supreme Court acts on the prisoners' appeal. The same three Arkansas justices who dissented from the court's initial lethal injection decision in June would have granted the rehearing requested by the death row prisoners. However, Arkansas Chief Justice Howard Brill joined the three dissenting justices in staying the ruling pending action by the U.S. Supreme Court on the lethal injection decision. Eight inmates have completed their standard appeals, and Governor Asa Hutchinson had indicated that he intended to set execution dates for those inmates as soon as possible. Executions were previously in doubt because the state's supply of the drug vecuronium bromide, used as a paralytic agent in the state's three-drug execution protocol, had expired. But Arkansas recently announced that it was able to obtain a new supply of the drug from an unnamed source. The state's supply of potassium chloride, the final drug used in executions to stop the prisoner's heart, expires on January 1, 2017. Because of the timeline for petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, it is unlikely that Arkansas will be able to resume executions before its supply of that drug expires.
EDITORIAL: San Jose Mercury News Endorses Death Penalty Repeal, Says Competing Measure Would Magnify InequityPosted: July 21, 2016
Weighing in on California's competing death penalty ballot initiatives, the San Jose Mercury News editorial board urged voters to support repeal of capital punishment and reject a proposal to speed up executions. The editorial called California's death penalty system, "a failure on every level," noting that the state has spent $4 billion to carry out just 13 executions and the $150 million annual savings the independent Legislative Analysts Office says death penalty abolition would achieve could be better spent "on education, on rehabilitating young offenders or on catching more murderers, rapists and other violent criminals." The editorial also addresses the misperception that the death penalty deters crime: "District attorneys throughout the state argue that the death penalty is a tool to condemn society's most vicious criminals. But this claim flies in the face of actual evidence: For every year between 2008-2013, the average homicide rate of states without the death penalty was significantly lower than those with capital punishment." After describing the racially- and geographically-biased application of the death penalty in California, the editorial argues that Proposition 66, which proposes to speed up executions, "would actually magnify the inequity and sometimes outright injustice in the death penalty's application" by reducing the opportunities to catch mistakes. "In the United States, for every 10 prisoners who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one person on death row has been set free." Speeding up executions, the editorial says, "is the opposite of what nations concerned with actual justice would do."
A recent article in The Economist examines the state of capital punishment in Louisiana and the state's striking decline in the use of the death penalty. In 1987, its peak year for executions, Louisiana executed eight prisoners. Since 2002, the state has had just one execution. This decline "is far more precipitous than in neighboring states like Mississippi and Alabama," which the article says have each executed more than 10 people since 2010. The reasons for Louisiana's reduction in executions are similar to those behind declines in other states across the nation. Louisiana's nine exonerations of prisoners wrongly sent to death row under the state's current death penalty statute brought attention to problems of prosecutorial misconduct and the risk of executing innocent people. Studies have demonstrated serious racial bias in the state's use of capital punishment: defendants convicted of killing white victims are more than 10 times as likely to be executed than those convicted of killing black victims. The courts reverse death sentences imposed in Louisiana at rates that are "extremely high" as compared to other states. And the high cost of death penalty cases has made district attorneys more hesitant to seek a death sentence, especially since Louisiana sets an unusually low bar for obtaining a sentence of life without parole. While a death sentence requires two unanimous jury votes (one for guilt and another for a death sentence), a life without parole sentence can be imposed when only 10 jurors agree that the defendant is guilty. As a result of all these factors, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country has not performed an execution in more than 6 years.
James Willie "Bo" Cochran, who spent 19 years on Alabama's death row for a killing he did not commit, has died at age 73. His lawyer, Richard Jaffe, said that Mr. Cochran and his case "are reasons why the death penalty does not work. He did not kill anyone, was wrongfully convicted and found innocent because he had lawyers that took up his cause." Mr. Cochran, who is black, was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store clerk. His jury, which was composed of 11 white and one black jurors, had been told that the victim had followed Cochran out of the store after a robbery and that, after police had arrived on the scene, Cochran shot the clerk, leaving his body under a trailer in a nearby mobile home. There were no eyewitnesses to the actual murder. Cochran was arrested nearby with a gun that had not been fired. Cochran won a new trial after proving that prosecutors unconstitutionally removed black jurors from his case on the basis of race. He presented testimony from former prosecutors that the DA's office had a pattern of striking black jurors, had a philosophy that prospective black jurors "were anti-police, anti-establishment and should not be left on juries, if at all possible,” and that race was a factor in these strikes, "particularly where you had a white victim and a black defendant․" On retrial, Cochran was acquitted after presenting evidence that the victim had been accidentally shot by two officers responding to the robbery, who then panicked and moved the body under the trailer, where it was discovered by other officers. After Cochran's acquittal, he and Jaffe made frequent appearances to talk about the case. Jaffe described Cochran as "never bitter, always grateful." He called Cochran's life "a story of redemption and forgiveness," exemplifying the lesson that "We can be forgiving, no matter what happens to us. He truly touched a lot of lives. We loved Bo. He'll be missed."
40 Years After Key Supreme Court Decision, Constitutional and Practical Problems Plague Death PenaltyPosted: July 18, 2016
The execution of John Conner on July 15 ended a two-month period without executions in the United States, the longest such period in the country since 2007-2008. A range of state-specific issues have contributed to this stoppage, including questions about the constitutionality of state death penalty practices, problems relating to lethal injection drugs and state execution protocols, and the fallout from botched executions. In an article for The American Prospect, Professor Frank Baumgartner outlines research showing that the death penalty, as applied today, remains error-prone, racially biased, and arbitrarily applied. Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia allowed executions to resume, Baumgartner argues, the death penalty continues to fall short of meeting the constitutional requirements set forth by the Court. Baumgartner highlights studies that have found that the approximately one percent of death-eligible homicides that have resulted in executions are not necessarily the worst crimes, but rather, the crimes that happened to occur in jurisdictions that are prone to using the death penalty or that involved a white victim. As Chris Geidner explains in BuzzFeed, only three states - Georgia, Missouri, and Texas - have carried out any executions since January because other states are grappling with legal challenges to their sentencing procedures and lethal injection protocols, inability to obtain lethal injection drugs, or sometimes a combination of several issues. Challenges to the constitutionality of death penalty practices in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware—where non-unanimous jury recommendations for death have accounted for more than 20% of the nation's death sentences—have brought executions to a halt in those states and statutes in Nebraska and Montana may also face constitutional challenges for the role judges play in imposing death sentences in those states. The fallout from botched executions have halted executions in Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma. And gubernatorial moratoria and a variety of lethal injection issues have also contributed to the drop in executions. Geidner calls the situation "unprecedented," and predicts that the number of executions in the second half of 2016 will be even lower than the 14 carried out in the first half.
A court hearing is under way in the capital trial of Donald Fell in a Vermont federal district court challenging the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. This week, death penalty experts testified for the defense about systemic problems Fell's lawyers say may render the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Fell was sentenced to death in 2006, but was granted a new trial because of juror misconduct. The hearing began on July 11 and is scheduled to continue until July 22. Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, who is presiding over the hearing and is set to preside over Fell's second trial in 2017, said the hearing will, "create a rich, factual record for higher courts with broader authority to rule on the big questions." On Monday, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, discussed research on the effects of solitary confinement, the conditions under which Fell has been held on death row. "According to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, anything greater than 15 days is inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment," Haney said. On Tuesday, Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, testified about the decline of the death penalty both in use and in public opinion, saying, "Attitudes toward the death penalty have changed more rapidly than any other social issue other than gay marriage." Radelet testified that research has disclosed no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or affects overall murder rates. He also emphasized the prevalence and causes of the 156 wrongful capital convictions as a major problem with capital punishment. “Last year six people were released, most having served 25 years. In 2014, seven were released from death row as innocent. One had been in for 30 years," he said. "The number one cause of error is prejudicial prosecutorial testimony. Prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, fraudulent forensics.”