DPIC News

BOOKS - CONSTITUTION DAY: "The Birth of American Law"

In The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution, historian John Bessler reveals the profound influence that the Italian thinker, Cesare Beccaria, had on the constitutional founders of the United States, including George Washington and John Adams. Beccaria's bestselling book, On Crimes and Punishments, argued against torture and the death penalty, saying only punishments proven absolutely necessary should be used. Bessler shows that the death penalty was more controversial at the writing of the constitution than is often assumed today. America did abandon England's Bloody Code and eventually most corporal punishment, but still retains capital punishment. Julie Silverbrook, executive director of The Constitutional Sources Project, said of the book, "John Bessler masterfully and comprehensively traces how Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments deeply affected early American views on crime and the proportionality of punishments for crime. Just as John Adams gifted Beccaria’s treatise to his sons, John Bessler has gifted Beccaria to a new generation of Americans."

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Mississippi Inmate Challenges Bite-Mark Evidence

A new appeal filed on behalf of Mississippi death row inmate Eddie Howard, Jr. presented DNA evidence that calls into question bite-mark evidence used to convict him in 1992. At Howard's trial, Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who had testified as a forensic expert in numerous cases, said Howard's teeth matched bite marks found on the murder victim. The victim had been buried for three days and exhumed before West examined her. He said he found three bite marks that matched Howard "to a reasonable medical certainty," but presented no photographs or other evidence to support his testimony. According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people who were convicted of rape or murder based on alleged bite matches have been exonerated since 2000. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to reconsider Howard's case, saying, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” In 2010, the court granted DNA testing of the murder weapon and other items from the crime scene. That testing, which showed no link to Howard, is the basis for the new appeal.

Newspapers Sue Pennsylvania for Information on Lethal Injections

On September 11, four news organizations filed suit in federal court challenging Pennsylvania's secrecy about the source of its lethal injection drugs as a violation of the first amendment rights of the media and the citizens of Pennsylvania. The suit was filed by the Guardian, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Philadelphia City Paper in advance of the execution of Hubert Michael, which had been scheduled for September 22, but has now been stayed because the state was not prepared to carry it out. Under a court order from 2012, the identity of the compounding pharmacy that provides the lethal injection drugs was kept secret. Information was released to Mr. Michael's lawyers, but not to the public or the media. “The information sought by our clients is central to the debate about capital punishment. If the drugs are not made properly, they will not work properly, and the public should be very concerned about that possibility given the gruesome executions we have heard about in other states,” said Mary Catherine Roper, the lawyer who is representing the newspapers. Media organizations have also filed similar suits in Missouri and Oklahoma over execution secrecy.

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty in California Lowest in 50 Years

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(Click to enlarge graph) A Field Poll of voters in California found that support for capital punishment has reached its lowest level since 1965. Only 56% of respondents said they favored keeping the death penalty, down from 69% in 2011. Support for the death penalty among Californians peaked in the mid-1980s at 83%. Some of the strongest opposition to keeping the death penalty came from voters under 30, African Americans, and Democrats. Daisy Vieyra, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Northern California, said support for capital punishment has declined because, "The public is becoming more aware of all the flaws that riddle the system." In 2012, a referendum to replace California's death penalty with life without parole almost passed, coming up short in a 52-48% vote.

 

BOOKS: "America's Experiment with Capital Punishment"

The highly acclaimed resource on the death penalty -- "America's Experiment with Capital Punishment" -- has just been released in its Third Edition. This compendium of essays by experts covers the history, politics, and law of the death penalty, as well as related issues, such as innocence, intellectual disability, and race. DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, contributed a chapter on the costs of the death penalty. The editors encourage readers to grapple with the many questions surrounding capital punishment, saying, "Today, more than 40 years after the death penalty came to an abrupt but temporary halt with the Supreme Court's ruling in Furman v. Georgia (1972), a host of fundamental questions involving law, social policy, and essential justice remain unanswered about America's renewed commitment to capital punishment." This edition includes a particular focus on lethal injection and trends in the Supreme Court's interpretation of the nation's "evolving standards of decency."

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A Special Request from DPIC

Today, along with our news update, we are making a special request of our readers. Please take a moment to consider the value of the information we provide, and make a donation to support DPIC’s work. By contributing, you help us expand our efforts to provide the most up-to-date information on capital punishment and produce innovative resources for journalists, educators, legal professionals, and others. News stories citing our information appear in the media on a daily basis and in every part of the country. Our website already reaches millions of visitors a year, and your contribution can help us inform even more people about the death penalty.

DPIC is constantly developing new resources and finding creative ways to reach the public with information and analysis on capital punishment. Last year, our Year End Report included infographics and a video, helping us reach new audiences online. Our timely materials on lethal injection allowed us to respond quickly after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April, resulting in hundreds of media outlets using our information. Our Innocence List, which tracks all death row exonerations, recently featured prominently in coverage of two exonerations in North Carolina. If you believe this work is important, please consider making a donation today. You can also choose to make a recurring, monthly donation by clicking "Make This Recurring" when you donate through PayPal. Thank you.

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Department of Justice Releases Special Report, "Mending Justice"

A new report from the National Institute of Justice examines ways to reduce and prevent errors, such as the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. The report proposes "sentinel event reviews" -- the examination of mistakes with a view of finding systemic problems. The report uses the death penalty exoneration of John Thompson in Louisiana to illustrate its goal: "In Connick [v. Thompson], the trial prosecutor withheld crime lab results from the defense, removed a blood sample from the evidence room, and failed to disclose that Thompson had been implicated by someone who had received a reward from the victim’s family. The conviction and death sentence were ultimately overturned on appeal, but no one learned anything from the Connick appellate opinions about the deeper, abiding issues in the case’s narrative, and those issues were left to surface again in future cases." The report includes analysis and recommendations from people involved in all facets of the criminal justice system, including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and academics.

STUDIES: White Jurors More Likely to Recommend Death Sentences for Latino Defendants

A new study by Professors Cynthia Willis-Esqueda (pictured) of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and Russ K.E. Espinoza of California State University found that white jurors were more likely to recommend a death sentence for Latino defendants than for white defendants in California. Researchers gave case descriptions to 500 white and Latino people who had reported for jury duty in southern California, then asked them to choose a sentence of life without parole or death. The description was based on a real capital case, but each juror was given one of eight scenarios which altered the race and income level of the defendant and the amount of mitigating evidence. White jurors recommended a death sentence about half the time for Latino defendants who were poor, but only one-third of the time for poor white defendants. By comparison, Latino jurors recommended a death sentence only about one-quarter of the time, regardless of the ethnicity or socioeconomic class of the defendant.

INNOCENCE: Attorney for Freed Death Row Prisoner Calls Case a "Tragedy"

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Kenneth Rose, an attorney for the recently freed Henry McCollum, expressed his frustrations with the death-penalty system that allowed such mistakes to happen in the first place: "I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light. As I lie awake at night, mulling over the maddening details of this case, I wonder: How many more Henry McCollums are still imprisoned, waiting for help that will never come?" He described the hardships McCollum experienced on death row, including seeing other inmates being executed. "He became so distraught during executions that he had to be put in isolation so he wouldn’t hurt himself," Rose said. McCollum only saw his family on rare occasions when they could make the long drive from New Jersey to North Carolina, and both his mother and grandmother died while he was imprisoned. Read the op-ed below.

Missouri Inmates Were Given Controversial Drug Before Executions

An investigation by St. Louis Public Radio has revealed that Missouri has been administering Midazolam to inmates prior to their execution since November 2013. Midazolam is a sedative that was used in all three of this year's most seriously botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Missouri officials had testified earlier that the state had not used Midazolam in executions and did not plan to use it. New documents, however, show that the drug was given to inmates as a sedative before the execution began, without the presence of witnesses. George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said the sedative could be given before an execution at the request of the inmate, the state, or the execution team. In two cases, inmates were given both Midazolam and valium in quantities that one medical expert, Dr. Karen Sibert, said would make it difficult to arouse the prisoner, and would tend to cause someone, "to be so deeply asleep that your airway might obstruct." Cheryl Pilate, an attorney who has represented several death row inmates in Missouri, said, "It’s very disturbing that Midazolam hasn’t been disclosed. State law requires drugs in protocol to be disclosed. There may be a serious violation of state law going on." Noting that in at least one instance Midazolam was administered about 10 minutes before the execution witnesses were ushered in, she added, "The public is denied the opportunity to witness an execution through the press."

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