Washington Post Calls for an End to Capital Punishment in Maryland
A recent editorial in the Washington Post cited trends and statistics from DPIC's 2008 Year End Report in calling for an end to the death penalty in Maryland. The paper urged Maryland lawmakers to "heed the march of history" and noted that use of the death penalty is declining around the country: "According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that studies capital punishment, executions nationwide reached a 14-year low in 2008, with only 37 executions carried out, compared with 42 in 2007. A full 95 percent of these executions took place in Southern states, with Texas once again earning the dubious distinction as leader of the pack, with 18 executions -- or nearly 50 percent of all executions in the country." The editorial also cited recent findings from the bipartisan Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, noting that it found “clear cut evidence that capital punishment in the state neither deters crime nor provides a sense of closure for victims’ families.”
Click here to read the full editorial.
(Editorial, "A relic in maryland," Washington Post, January 1, 2009). See Editorials, Innocence, and Recent Legislative Activity.
A Penalty of the Past
The News & Record of North Carolina recently featured an editorial encouraging the state’s legislature and governor to abolish the death penalty. The editorial noted the controversies that have surrounded the use of capital punishment in the state, including disagreement about lethal injections and the inconsistent way the penalty has been applied. The declining number of death sentences and the extensive time needed before an execution can take place led the paper to conclude the state “should do away with the death penalty and convert the sentence of every condemned prisoner to life without parole." The paper noted that many of the people who are on the state's death row would probably not be given a death sentence today because of changing attitudes and higher standards of representation. Abolition, the editors said, "will put an end to death-sentence appeals, eliminate inconsistencies, ease the medical conflict, and bring the law into line with the way the courts apply it in almost every case.”
Click here to read the full editorial.
("Editorial: A penalty of the past," The News & Record, January 4, 2008). See Editorials.
Texas Editorial Backs Death Penalty Reforms
An editorial in the Austin-American Statesman praised the recommendations of the governor's advisory council on criminal justice, especially in regard to changes needed in the death penalty system. Excerpts from the editorial appear below:
Affordable steps to justice in Texas
Nobody can blame the public for becoming increasingly skeptical about the Texas criminal justice system in light of the steady stream of folks who have been released from prison because they were innocent.
We certainly believe that the criminal justice system most often punishes the guilty. But in too many cases, it has been hard to determine whether a defendant was truly guilty or simply too poor to hire a competent lawyer. The Texas justice system doesn't inspire confidence when it defends sleeping lawyers as well as shoddy ones and sends people to prison on false or shaky evidence.
Reasonable people can disagree about the severity and effectiveness of punishment — including the death penalty — handed out by the courts. But everyone wants to get convictions right. That's why we welcome recommendations released last week by the governor's advisory council on criminal justice. The council's recommendations would emphasize fairness without compromising toughness.
Several proposals rightly focus on expanding the use of DNA testing during trials and after convictions. Forensic testing now is limited because trial judges are reluctant to order DNA testing without specific statutory authority. We agree with the governor's council that judges should have that authority. In cases with DNA evidence, there is a sure way to know if the accused or convicted is guilty. That makes sense. We have the technology, we should use it.
. . .
We're glad the council didn't ignore the quality of legal representation for poor defendants — especially those accused of capital murder. Under the current system, defendants who are too poor to hire their own lawyers are appointed ones by the courts. Hampered by a lack of standards and money, the court-appointed lawyers system has largely failed to provide poor defendants with experienced, and in many cases, competent lawyers. We've witnessed cases in which court-appointed lawyers failed to do the basics — interview witnesses, check alibis, obtain DNA testing or conducted investigations.
The state has made improvements in the court-appointed lawyers system. But we agree with the council that Texas might need a totally different system to provide legal representation for poor defendants in capital murder cases. The council recommended further study on using state money to establish a network of public defenders offices.
. . .
The system can be fair and still be tough. A system that is tough but unfair gambles its credibility.
(Austin-American Statesman, Editorial, February 15, 2006).
EDITORIAL: Alabama's Death Penalty Representation System in Disarray
The Birmingham News sharply criticized Alabama's system of representation in death penalty cases, saying that the public should be outraged. A lack of even minimal resources and pay has caused attorneys to withdraw from cases and to decline representation to indigent defendants. The paper wrote that this shortage of attorneys could result in more trial errors and longer appeals, putting an undue strain on victims' families and the entire system of justice. The editorial stated:
What would it be worth to you to have a good lawyer if you were charged with a heinous crime and were facing the death penalty? Would any amount be too much? Probably not.
But few of us can afford a money-is-no-object defense. As taxpayers, there's a limit, too, in what we can afford to spend collectively for court-appointed lawyers who represent poor people in criminal cases.
Even so, what's happening in Alabama is ridiculous.
Lawyers who represent poor defendants are paid the lowly sum of $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $60 an hour for in-court work. That's a fraction of what lawyers earn when defendants hire them. But until recently, the court-appointed lawyers were at least able to supplement the indigent rates by getting payments (on average, $29 an hour) to cover overhead expenses such as rent, insurance and office staff.
The overhead pay ended in February when Attorney General Troy King issued an opinion saying state law banned the practice.
Criminal defense lawyers warned that cut in pay would dry up the pool of those willing to take court-appointed cases, particularly complicated ones like those involving the death penalty. The warnings have been, unfortunately, borne out.
Lawyers across the state have withdrawn from capital cases. Among them was William Pfeifer, who had represented one of the defendants in a robbery-murder case in Mobile that captured more attention than most; the victim was allegedly killed for being a homosexual.
"Counsel is not financially able to subsidize the state of Alabama in its efforts to execute persons charged with capital offenses, nor as a matter of conscience is he willing to do so," Pfeifer wrote in his motion withdrawing from the case.
Concerned, the Senate passed a measure this summer to restore the overhead pay. But the legislation didn't have enough support in the House of Representatives to come up for a vote, thanks, in part, to opposition from the Christian Coalition of Alabama. "In our view, it was not good stewardship at the time," said the coalition's president, John Giles.
And here we thought the Christian Coalition was against gambling. While the group opposes gambling with money, it apparently doesn't mind gambling with the lives of poor defendants - at least not enough to let the state spend as much as $28 million over 2 years to pay indigent lawyers a decent wage.
People in Alabama ought to be outraged. If they can't work up a tear for the defense lawyers or the poor defendants, Alabamians should at least be concerned for themselves and for victims' families. Paying for a second-rate defense may seem like a good idea, but it ends up costing more over the long haul, with retrials that drain more resources and place an undue strain on the families of victims and defendants alike. In addition, a shortage of lawyers in these cases will only make the wheels of justice grind more slowly.
It's not only wrong for Alabama to shortchange indigent defendants; it's dumb. The overhead pay needs to be restored. The sooner, the better.
(Birmingham News, August 17, 2005).
Editorials Note Growing Unease With Death Penalty
Editorials in papers around the country have noted that many Americans are rethinking the death penalty because it is deeply flawed. Among the recent editorial observations were the following:
New Jersey's Star-Ledger
Fewer people are being given the death penalty in the United States, according to the Justice Department, which says such sentences are at a 30-year low. Last year, the number of people who were sentenced to die totaled 144.
While these numbers are heartening in that they reflect a decrease in executions, they ought to cause states to rethink the wisdom and fairness of the death penalty altogether.
. . .
Getting sentenced to death has become just what the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark 1972 Furman vs. Georgia ruling, said it should not be -- a punishment so "wantonly and so freakishly imposed" that it is like getting struck by lightening.
. . .
Whatever one's moral views on the death penalty, there are compelling reasons to consider getting rid of it.
Cost is one. It takes from $2.3 million to $3.2 million to bring a death prosecution in New Jersey.
Human error is another reason. In recent years, more than 100 death-row inmates nationwide have been exonerated, mostly using DNA evidence.
The question is whether anybody is willing to kill this badly broken system. (Star Ledger Editorial, November 20, 2004).
Florida's Daytona Beach News-Journal
Over the past 10 years, Americans have been forced to face reality: Death penalty laws are deeply flawed.
More than 100 death row inhabitants have been freed after their convictions were overturned, many of them exonerated by DNA evidence that conclusively proves their innocence. Years, sometimes decades, pass between conviction and execution. And executions gruesomely botched have many recoiling in horror.
. . .
Why are Americans turning away from this vestige of frontier justice? One possible explanation is the growing international pressure on the United States as the last industrialized nation to so enthusiastically apply the death penalty. But a more likely theory hits closer to home. The continuing spate of stories about inequities in the way the death penalty in administered has forced many to consider whether the notion of retributive justice is itself fundamentally flawed.
The myth that capital punishment is a deterrent has been exploded. Death penalty proponents argue that over the past 10 years, the number of executions increased while murder rates have decreased. But that's true in states that don't have the death penalty -- and on average, their murder rates are dropping faster than they are in the states that still execute, the Death Penalty Information Center reports.
The other likely contributer is the number of death sentences overturned, a statistic that throws the permanent, irrevocable nature of the death penalty into sharp focus. As DNA evidence has freed increasing numbers of inmates, the number of Americans who say they favor the death penalty has remained fairly stable -- but the number of Americans who say they oppose the death penalty has steadily increased. While 60 to 70% of Americans say they approve of the death penalty, the number drops to about half when they are asked to choose between death and life in prison without parole.
This growing uneasiness about the death penalty is already bearing fruit. Last month, President Bush signed the Justice For All Act, which (among other things) provides more hope to inmates awaiting DNA tests that could prove their innocence. The act does not go far enough -- it limits access to other scientific tests, for example -- but it will provide $25 million to states over the next five years to conduct post-conviction DNA tests.
Yet too many death penalty inmates are still tried, convicted and sentenced in states that deny them adequate legal representation. Without a competent lawyer at trial, the accused lose much of their ability to appeal wrongful convictions.
. . .
A better solution -- the right solution -- is to recognize the death penalty for what it is -- inefficient, ineffective, expensive, slow, unjust and morally reprehensible -- and abolish it now, rather than wait for it to wither away.
(Daytona Beach News-Journal Editorial, November 17, 2004).
Colorado's Denver Post
It's probably too early to call it a radical change, but there's a flicker of hope that American society is coming to think of capital punishment as a cruel anachronism. . . .[A] new report has found that the number of death verdicts hit a 27-year low last year. Possible factors include the exoneration of about 100 death-row inmates and the fact that jurors now have the option of imposing life without parole in 47 states.
. . .
Despite support in public-opinion surveys, jurors seem less enthusiastic about capital punishment. "I'm not surprised at the reluctance on the part of American juries to impose the death penalty," said U.S. District Judge John Kane, who speculated that some death-penalty jurors may hesitate because of news reports and television shows about errors in death-penalty cases.
. . .
Over time, the Supreme Court has narrowed application of the death penalty, banning execution of the mentally retarded, for example. Early this year, the court agreed to re-examine execution of defendants who were juveniles when their crimes were committed.
The Post has opposed capital punishment since 1965. Perhaps growing antipathy for actually imposing the death penalty will someday lead the court to conclude that it has truly become a "cruel and unusual punishment" and ban it altogether.
(Denver Post Editorial, November 21, 2004).
Dallas Morning News Calls for Passage of Death Penalty Moratorium Bill
In an editorial following the Supreme Court's decision to hear the appeal of Delma Banks, a Texas death row inmate who claims prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective defense counsel denied him a fair trial, the Dallas Morning News voiced its support for a bill that would halt executions in the state:
The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed this week to hear another Texas death penalty case should get Austin off the dime. The court's consideration of inmate Delma Banks Jr.'s appeal indicates questions still surround the state's death penalty. The state now awaits a ruling. But Texas legislators shouldn't sit back. They should address the death penalty themselves. Lawmakers should start with approving a moratorium. No more executions until experts have reviewed every case, top to bottom. A moratorium will allow prosecutors, defenders and others to ensure Texas' death penalty works properly. That is humane and conservative.
(Dallas Morning News, April 24, 2003)
From the New York Times
Neither the states nor the courts are providing adequate protection against awful miscarriages of justice. In Texas, the nation's leader in executions, courts have upheld death sentences in cases where defense lawyers slept during big portions of the trial. Lately, Congress and the Supreme Court have exacerbated the danger of mistaken executions by curtailing appeal and habeas corpus rights. They have also ignored the festering problem of inadequate legal representation that caused the American Bar Association to call for a death penalty moratorium three years ago. Even death penalty supporters have to be troubled by a system shown to have a high risk of executing the innocent.
(New York Times, 2/19/00)
From the Christian Science Monitor
When it comes to capital punishment, many people think first of Texas. But among large states, Virginia executes the largest number of criminals per resident. The two states together accounted for almost half of executions in the United States last year. The reason for Virginia's high rate: The Old Dominion's disturbing system of assembly-line justice in capital cases. While in most states the average time between sentencing and execution is nine years, in Virginia, it's less than five....The state's primary method of speeding up executions is to limit appeals...Analysts cited by The Washington Post say that more than most states, Virginia limits defense attorneys' ability to claim on appeal that errors were committed during trial. In addition, the state's legal aid system for poor defendants is mediocre and underfunded. The Post reports that Virginia pays less to court-appointed attorneys than virtually any other state.
(Christian Science Monitor, 4/19/99)