DPIC News

Supreme Court to Review Exclusion of Black Jurors in Georgia Capital Case

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Timothy Foster, an African-American defendant who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury after Georgia prosecutors had struck every black prospective juror in his case. On May 26, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in Foster v. Humphrey to determine whether the prosecution’s actions violated the Court’s 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, which banned the practice of dismissing potential jurors on the basis of race. Foster challenged the prosecution’s jury strikes as racially discriminatory at the time of jury selection, but the trial court permitted the strikes. Nineteen years after the trial, his lawyers obtained the prosecutors' notes from jury selection, which contained information that contradicted the “race-neutral” explanations for the strikes that the prosecution had offered at trial. 

Justice Stevens Says Death Penalty Unnecessary, Wasteful, and Creates Higher Risk of Error

In a discussion at the George Washington University School of Law, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said the death penalty creates a higher risk of error than other criminal cases and is unfair, unnecessary, and a "terrible waste" of resources. Using the Boston marathon bomber trial as an example, Justice Stevens said jury selection procedures in capital cases produce juries who are "not representative of the community." He said that, under these procedures, "most of the 75%" of Bostonians who opposed the death penalty "could be challenged for cause and do not make it" onto the jury.  "That’s one reason that the death penalty is much more unfair than we thought it was at the time back when we decided the three cases" that reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after the Court had previously ruled its application unconstitutional. Justice Stevens went on to say, "I had expected that the procedures would be more protective of the defendants in death cases than in ordinary criminal cases. And in several respects, ... they in fact are more pro-prosecution. And so the risk of error is larger in death cases than it is in other cases, and that certainly can’t be right." Finally, he compared the death penalty unfavorably to the alternative of life without parole: "it's really not necessary because life imprisonment without parole protects the public at least as well as execution does and so the justification for the death penalty is diminished. And I think if you make a cost-benefit analysis – the cost of the trials and all the rest – it is a terrible waste of society’s resources to have these capital trials that go on for so long and produce an awful lot of unfortunate results."

NEW VOICES: George Will Says "Capital Punishment is Withering Away"

Conservative commentator George Will has decribed capital punishment in America as "withering away." In his syndicated column in the Washington Post, Will outlines a conservative case against the death penalty, highlighting Nebraska's recent legislative vote to repeal capital punishment. Writing that "exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent," Will lists three primary reasons why he believes conservatives should oppose capital punishment: "First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program...Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated." Will recognizes that there is an urge to severely punish the worst crimes, saying, "Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality." However, he says, this satisfaction is "purchased with disproportionate social costs." America, he says, is exhibiting "a healthy squeamishness" about the death penalty "that should herald abolition."

BOOKS: "The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective"

The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective by Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, now in its Fifth Edition, is "widely regarded as the leading authority on the death penalty in its international context." The book explores the movement toward worldwide abolition of the death penalty, with an emphasis on international human right principles. It discusses issues including arbitrariness, innocence, and deterrence. Paul Craig, Professor of English Law at Oxford University, said of the fourth edition, "Its rigorous scholarship and the breadth of its coverage are hugely impressive features; its claim to 'worldwide' coverage is no idle boast. This can fairly lay claim to being the closest thing to a definitive source-book on this important subject."
 

NEW VOICES: Former Georgia Chief Justice and Conservative Republican Leader Oppose Death Penalty

Two prominent Georgians, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher (pictured, l.), and David J. Burge (pictured, r.), the Chairman of Georgia's 5th Congressional District Republican Party, have recently voiced their opposition to the death penalty. Justice Fletcher voted to uphold numerous death sentences during his 15 years on Georgia's highest court.  Since retiring from the Court in 2005, his views have changed.  “With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Justice Fletcher said. “There can be no doubt that actually innocent persons have been executed in this country,” Justice Fletcher said. He now believes that the death penalty is "morally indefensible" and "makes no business sense." Mr. Burge voiced similar concerns in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying that "Our government is not perfect, and when you give an imperfect state the power of life and death, innocent lives will inevitably be exposed to the fallibility of the system." He called the death penalty "plagued by frequent errors, inefficiency and waste." A lifelong conservative Republican, Burge stated that "Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program."

EDITORIALS: Restarting North Carolina Executions Would Be "Unjust"

A recent editorial in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) has criticized legislative efforts to restart North Carolina's death penalty as "retrogressive" and "macabre."  The editorial opposes a bill that would allow executions to resume in North Carolina by "expanding the list of medical personnel who can monitor executions." In 2007, the North Carolina Medical Board said that doctor participation in executions violates professional ethics, effectively blocking any doctors from participating in executions. The new law would allow physician assistants, nurses, and emergency medical technicians to oversee executions in place of a doctor. The editorial said, "The death penalty is unnecessary, unjust and irreversible. Its use now is only an act of vengeance against a few prisoners who happened to be convicted in death penalty states and whose lawyers failed to negotiate the many legal options that could have spared them." It goes on to criticize the arbitrariness of the death penalty: "The erratic application of the death penalty makes it unfair and its unfairness is dangerously compounded by its finality. Wrongly convicted people could be executed and likely have been." It concludes, "The state Senate should reject this bill and, if necessary, Gov. Pat McCrory should veto it. Lives, perhaps even innocent lives, will depend on it."

Death Sentences Fall Across Texas, Support Drops in County That Leads U.S. in Executions

Harris County (Houston), Texas, has executed more men and women than any other county in the United States, but a recent poll shows that a strong majority of its residents now support alternative sentences. A report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that only 28% of respondents in Harris County prefer the death penalty to life without parole as punishment for first-degree murder. The poll also found that overall support for the death penalty was at a 20-year low, with 56% saying they were in favor of capital punishment.  As public support for the death penalty has dropped, so have Harris County death sentences. The County handed down a combined 44 death sentences from 1994-1996, but sentenced only 5 people to death from 2012-2014. Death verdicts are also down statewide. According to a Dallas Morning News commentary, Texas imposed 11 death sentences in 2014, down from 39 in 1999.  No death sentences have been imposed in the state so far this year. (Click image to enlarge.)

DPIC Launches New Series: "50 Facts About the Death Penalty"

Today, DPIC is posting the first item in a new series: "50 Facts About the Death Penalty." Each weekday for the next 10 weeks, we will share a short but significant fact about capital punishment. These items, which have accompanying images, will cover topics including innocence, public opinion, deterrence, race, and more. This series is intended as a resource for anyone looking to learn more about the death penalty. Each of the individual 50 Facts is accompanied by a link to a source that provides more detailed information about that fact.  Watch for daily updates on DPIC's Twitter account and the 50 Facts page, as well as a weekly 50 Facts video on Facebook.

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Delaware Governor Announces Support for Death Penalty Repeal

Calling the death penalty "an instrument of imperfect justice," Governor Jack Markell (pictured) of Delaware announced on May 7 that he will sign the death penalty repeal bill under consideration in the state legislature if the bill reaches his desk.  The Delaware Senate passed repeal in April by a vote of 11-9. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a hearing soon. Markell had not previously taken a stance on abolishing the death penalty. Upon announcing his decision, he said, "This is not an easy issue. My thinking has changed and I just wanted to give it very careful consideration." The Governor cited recent exonerations and flawed testimony in capital cases as reasons why he believes repeal should pass. "I know this is a really difficult issue for members of the General Assembly," the governor said. "I hope that after considering the arguments as I have, they will reach the same conclusion that I have."  Recent studies of Delaware's death penalty have revealed significant racial disparities in capital sentencing in the state.  More than three-quarters of Delaware's death-row inmates are black or Latino.  No state with more than one death-sentenced defendant has a higher percentage of racial minorities on its death row.

Tennessee Supreme Court Contemplates Electric Chair Appeal on 25th Anniversary of Botched Florida Electrocution

The week of the 25th anniversary of Florida's gruesome botched electric chair execution of Jesse Tafero (pictured), the Tennessee Supreme Court began hearing a challenge to the administration of a state law that would resurrect the use of that State's electric chair if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. On May 6, 2015, the Tennessee justices heard argument on death-row inmates' right to know which method of execution will be used in their cases.  The Justices voiced concerns about the secrecy that the law allows to shield the execution process and the decision about which method to use. "How are the defendants supposed to know?" Justice Cornelia A. Clark asked, offering a hypothetical situation in which an inmate expects to be executed by lethal injection until he sees the electric chair set up in the execution chamber. Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith argued that execution by electric chair is "just not going to happen," but Chief Justice Sharon Lee said that the inmates' evidence regarding the unavailability of execution drugs suggests, "execution (by the electric chair) is very probable."  On May 4, 1990, witnesses to Tafero's execution reported that a problem with Florida's electric chair caused foot-high flames to shoot from Tafero's head. Current had to be applied three times because the first two shocks failed to kill him.

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