DPIC News

Sentence Reversal, Exoneration, and Natural Death More Likely Than Execution For Pennsylvania Death Row Inmates

(Click on image to enlarge). According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, Pennsylvania is less likely to execute a death row inmate than any other state that has carried out any executions.  A Reading Eagle analysis of BJS data from 1973 through 2013 shows that the Commonwealth has executed fewer than 1% of all death-sentenced defendants since 1973, with execution the least likely of 5 possible outcomes for people sentenced to die. Nationally, 16% of those sentenced to death have been executed. The most likely outcome for defendants sentenced to death in Pennsylvania is that their conviction or death sentence will be reversed, as is also the case nationally. However, in Pennsylvania exoneration and death by natural causes or suicide are also more common than execution. Since 1994, when death sentences peaked in Pennsylvania, the average number of removals from death row per year has doubled. The Reading Eagle reports that homicides across the state fell to a ten-year low in 2013, a period in which Pennsylvania carried out no executions. Three years ago, the Pennsylvania state legislature ordered a task force to study the state's problems in applying capital punishment, including costs, fairness in sentencing, and quality of representation. That report is expected later this year. Governor Tom Wolf has halted all executions in the state at least until the report is issued and problems are addressed.  Recent polls indicate that a majority of Pennsylvanian's now favor some form of a life sentence over the death penalty.

FBI Acknowledges Flawed Forensic Testimony Affected At Least 32 Death Penalty Cases

(Click on image to enlarge). The Federal Bureau of Investigation has formally acknowledged that examiners from the FBI Laboratory's microscopic hair comparison unit for decades provided flawed forensic testimony purportedly matching crime scene hair evidence to the hair of defendants charged with those crimes.  As part of an ongoing review of inaccurate forensic evidence, the FBI admitted that, In the 268 trials examined so far, its forensic experts systematically overstated the certainty of matches between crime scene hair evidence and defendants' hair.  That flawed testimony favored prosecutors more than 95% of the time.  The FBI admitted providing inaccurate expert testimony in 32 capital trials in which defendants were sentenced to death, including 10 cases from Florida and 5 each from Pennsylvania and Texas.  9 of the defendants -- including all 5 from Texas -- have since been executed. Studies have shown that inaccurate forensic evidence is frequently present in innocence cases -- and improper hair comparison testimony may already have contributed to at least one wrongful execution.  Senator Richard Blumenthal, a former prosecutor, said, “These findings are appalling and chilling in their indictment of our criminal justice system, not only for potentially innocent defendants who have been wrongly imprisoned and even executed, but for prosecutors who have relied on fabricated and false evidence despite their intentions to faithfully enforce the law.”

National Polls Show Historic Declines in Support for Death Penalty

Polls released this week by Pew Research Center and CBS News show that public support for the death penalty has declined to near historic lows. Both polls reported that 56% of Americans support the death penalty. That is the lowest level of support ever recorded by the CBS News poll, and near the lowest level reported by Pew in the last 40 years. The Pew poll examined levels of support by political party and found that the decline in support for the death penalty is particularly striking among Democrats, with just 40% saying they support it now, compared to 71% who did in 1996. While 63% viewed the death penalty as a morally justified punishment for murder, most (71%), said there is some risk of executing innocent people, and 61% said they do not believe it deters serious crimes. Support for the death penalty is lowest among racial minorities (34% of blacks and 45% of Hispanics support it), women (49%), and Catholics (53%).  Large drops in support for the death penalty between 2011 and 2015 were reported among liberal Democrats (11 percentage points), women (10 points), those under age 30 (8 points), and conservative Republicans (7 points).

Tennessee Supreme Court Suspends Executions

On April 10, the Tennessee Supreme Court canceled the execution dates for all four Tennessee death-row inmates currently under death warrant, and returned their cases to the lower courts to address the inmates' challenges to the state's lethal injection procedures. The executions had been scheduled for October 2015 through March 2016. Tennessee has not carried out an execution since 2009, but the state announced in 2013 that it would switch from a three-drug lethal injection protocol to a one-drug protocol using pentobarbital. Because of difficulties obtaining lethal injection drugs, Tennessee also passed a law in 2014 permitting the use of the electric chair if lethal injection drugs are not available. A group of inmates are currently challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee's lethal injection protocol as constituting cruel and unusual punishment, and the inmates have also challenged the State's use of the electric chair.  The Tennessee Supreme Court is expected to decide soon if it will review the inmates' challenges to the electric chair.

VICTIMS' FAMILIES PERSPECTIVES: Families of Massachusetts Murder Victims Speak Out on Penalty for Tsarnaev

UPDATE:   "Family members of two Massachusetts murder victims, including the police officer who was killed by the Tsarnaevs, have spoken out concerning their views on the sentence they believe should be imposed on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing. Now Bill and Denise Richards, parents of 8-year-old Martin Richards, the youngest victim killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, have added their voices and called on federal prosecutors to drop the death penalty in exchange for termination of all appeals in the case.  In a statement in the Boston Globe, the Richards write:  "the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day. As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours. The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.

EDITORIALS: New York Times Sees "Alarming" Link Between Official Misconduct and Death Penalty Mistakes

In an editorial on April 13, the New York Times described the death penalty as "cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime" and called it "so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use."  The Times described how prosecutorial misconduct and an "all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs" played a substantial role in the convictions of many of the 152 innocent men and women who have been exonerated after beingly wrongly sent to death row and had contributed to the execution of at least two death-row inmates who almost certainly were innocent. "Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress," the editorial said. "But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases." The Times noted that "In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role."  Read full editorial below.

"Death Row USA, Winter 2015" Shows More Than 12% Drop in U.S. Death Row in Last Decade

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA, which reports state-by-state information on death rows across the country, reflects a more than 12% decline in the size of death row nationwide. The Winter 2015 edition reports that 3,019 inmates were on America's death rows as of December 31, 2014, down 12.6% from the 3,455 men and women reported ten years earlier. The racial demographics of death row are now 43% white, 42% black, and 13% Latino/Latina. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (403), Texas (276), Alabama (198), and Pennsylvania (188). Of those jurisdictions with at least 10 people on death row, those with the highest proportions of racial minorities were Delaware (76%), Texas (72%), and Louisiana (71%).

NEW VOICES: After 36 Executions, Former Virginia Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty

During his tenure as Attorney General of Virginia from 1998 to 2001, that state executed 36 people. Now Mark Earley opposes the death penalty. The former Attorney General recently discussed his change of opinion in an article for the University of Richmond Law Review. He wrote, “If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty.” He said, "Overseeing a legal system that put so many to death with such efficiency eroded me," but political concerns he had as Attorney General "walled off my doubts." Since leaving office, Early said he has "come to the conclusion that the death penalty is based on a false utopian premise. That false premise is that we have had, do have, and will have 100% accuracy in death penalty convictions and executions." He highlights two cases that raised significant concerns for him: the exoneration of Earl Washington, which took place during Earley's tenure as Attorney General, and the recent ruling vacating the conviction of George Stinney, who was executed in South Carolina in 1944 at the age of 14. Earley concludes, "I can no longer support the imposition of a penalty so final in nature, yet so fraught with failures."

Ohio Reports Highlight Decline in Death Sentences, Emphasize Recent Exonerations

Two recent reports from Ohio highlighted the decline in the use of capital punishment in that state. On March 30, the Ohio Attorney General's Office released its annual report on capital punishment. The Attorney General's report noted three new death sentences, one commutation, and one execution in Ohio in 2014, down from the state's peak of 17 death sentences in both 1995 and 1996.  It also reported that Ohio juries have imposed four or fewer death sentences in each of the last four years. On the same day, Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) issued a complementary report. In addition to the data from the Attorney General's report, OTSE emphasized the exonerations of Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu, and Wiley Bridgeman in 2014. The three former death row inmates were sentenced to death in 1975 based upon the coerced false eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy. The OSTE report also discussed changes to Ohio's lethal injection protocol in the wake of the botched execution of Dennis McGuire, which resulted in the postponement of all executions in Ohio until 2016. Finally, the report discussed the 56 reform recommendations released last year by the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio's Death Penalty, which include measures to reduce wrongful convictions, ban the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness, and reduce racial and geographic disparities in sentencing.

Dying Texas Death-Row Inmate - Possibly Innocent - Seeks Relief from His Conviction

Attorneys for Texas death row inmate Max Soffar, who is dying of liver cancer, continue to seek a reversal of his case, even though judicial action - if it comes - may be too late. Soffar maintains his innocence in the 1980 murders of three people during a bowling alley robbery. The sole evidence against Soffar is a confession he signed after three days of unrecorded interrogation that is inconsistent with the facts of the case and, he maintains, is false. The confession also does not match the account of the murders provided by a man who survived the shooting. No physical evidence links Soffar to the crime and Soffar has presented evidence that another man, a serial killer, was much more likely to have committed the murders. Governor Rick Perry rejected a clemency petition last year that sought to allow Soffar to spend his last days at home. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles said that Soffar isn't eligible for clemency because there is no warrant for his execution. Andrew Horne, one of Soffar's attorneys, said, "Justice is where there's a fair system that was followed and offered an outcome that was rational. To me, Max is an injustice because there was never a fair system, and the outcome was completely irrational."  

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