An editorial in the Miami Herald called on Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) to veto a bill recently passed by the legislature requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after state Supreme Court review, with the execution taking place within 180 days after that. The editorial listed several death row inmates who were exonerated after spending more than 10 years on death row, and noted, “All of them might have been executed if the legislation that's heading to the governor's desk had been the law.” The paper urged Gov. Scott to block the legislation and wait for a committee appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to study the state’s judicial system to release its findings. The editorial concluded, “If the point is to reduce the stay on death row to less than a decade, it's the wrong focus. The real problem is sloppy justice, cases where evidence is hidden, for instance, and current state rules that allow judges to impose the death penalty without even a unanimous jury vote.” Read the Editorial below.
Two bills under consideration in Texas aim to address issues in the state’s death penalty. House Bill 2458 would allow defendants to appeal their death sentences if they can prove that race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty. Statistical evidence of bias can be used to support such a claim. Similar bills, referred to as the Racial Justice Act, have been considered in other states. Testimony in favor of the bill mentioned the case of Duane Buck, an African American who was sentenced to death after a psychologist testifed that Buck would likely be a future danger to society because of his race. On April 17, the Texas Senate unanimously passed SB 1292, a bill that requires the state to collect and test all DNA evidence prior to a trial in which the defendant could receive the death penalty. The bill now heads to the House.
George F. Will, conservative commentator of the Washington Post, recently drew a lesson about the death penalty from the documentary The Central Park Five, which airs on PBS on Tuesday, April 16. Will wrote, “[T]his recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes.” The Central Park Five tells the story of five juvenile defendants (four African Americans and one Hispanic) who were convicted of the 1989 rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park, New York, despite the absence of DNA evidence linking them to the crime. Four of the five gave confessions, which they later said were the result of police intimidation. All were sentenced to prison. In 2002, after a recommendation from the Manhattan District Attoreny, their convictions were vacated.
On April 4, the Alabama House of Representatives voted 103-0 in favor of a bill to posthumously pardon the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of two white women in 1931. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 29-0, and Gov. Robert Bentley has indicated he will sign it. All but one of the group were sentenced to death by all-white juries with virtually no legal representation. The military had to protect them from angry mobs. They lingered on death row for years. Eventually, after several arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court on the right to counsel and proper selection of juries, all of them were freed without execution. Through the years of appeals, one of the women who accused the group of rape recanted and said the claim was a lie. Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said, "Their lives were ruined by the convictions. By doing this, it sends a very positive message nationally and internationally that this is a different state than we were many years ago." The last of the group of defendants died in 1989. (photo: Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA).
Virginia’s death row population has significantly decreased from a peak of 57 inmates in 1995 to 8 presently. Only two inmates have been added to death row in nearly five years. David Bruck (pictured), director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University School of Law, remarked, "The process has largely ground to a halt. That is a huge development." He suggested the decline in death sentences is due to a greater acceptance of alternative punishments and the realization that mistakes can be made in capital convictions. Bruck said the DNA-based exoneration and freeing of Earl Washington, Jr., who was once nine days from execution, raised public awareness of the death penalty’s fallibility. Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, agreed: “One of the strongest arguments against capital punishment is that we have an imperfect system which will always be imperfect. We're going to make mistakes, and the death penalty is an irrevocable punishment.”
One For Ten is a new collection of documentary films telling the stories of innocent people who were on death row in the U.S. The first film of the series is on Ray Krone, one of the 142 people who have been exonerated and freed from death row since 1973. Krone was released from Arizona’s death row in 2002 after DNA testing showed he did not commit the murder for which he was sentenced to death 10 years earlier. Krone was convicted based largely on circumstantial evidence and bite-mark evidence, alleging his teeth matched marks on the victim. The film is narrated by Danny Glover. All the films will be free and may be shared under a Creative Commons license.
Jerry Givens spent 17 years as the correctional officer in charge of Virginia’s electrocutions. During his tenure, he carried out 62 executions. He now strongly opposes the death penalty. The thought that he might execute an innocent person was a major factor in his change of heart. “The only thing I can do is pray to God to forgive me if I did,” Givens said. “But I do know this — I will never do it again.” The pending execution of Earl Washington, Jr. had a significant impact on Givens. Washington, with an IQ of 69, confessed to the 1982 rape and murder of a woman in Culpeper, Virginia. Many years later, DNA tests provided compelling evidence that Washington was not the killer, and he was eventually pardoned. Givens remarked, “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row.” The risk of executing an innocent person is also eroding public confidence in capital punishment. Virginia has changed from a state that had 13 executions in one year to having only 1 execution in two years, and less than 1 death sentence per year in the last five.
A recent editorial in the Great Falls Tribune in Montana outlined some of the key problems with the death penalty as the state legislature considers its repeal. The editors expressed concerns about the risks of mistake with executions: “There is no way to take back an execution. That reason alone provides good cause to eliminate the death penalty in Montana.” The paper also noted that victims' families wait for decades for executions to be carried out, with the defendants receiving most of the attention: "[D]uring the long periods before their executions, these men received regular publicity and notoriety for their crimes. If they had been simply locked up for life without possibility of parole, people could have forgotten about them." The editorial concluded, “Our bottom line is that it’s risky to execute people when they might not be guilty. In addition, the cost and trauma of court cases that drag on for years is not worth the satisfaction some people receive from the finality of executions. We simply cannot afford to spend millions of dollars each on future death penalty cases.” Read the editorial below.
A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was the first death row inmate in the country to be exonerated by DNA testing. Bloodsworth, a former Marine, was sentenced to death in 1984 for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl outside of Baltimore, Maryland. After DNA evidence led to his exoneration and release in 1993, Bloodsworth began working against capital punishment and for justice reform. “If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody,” he told the reporter. He is now the advocacy director for Witness to Innocence, an organization of exonerated death row inmates who support each other and work to repeal capital punishment. Bloodsworth has returned to Maryland as it considers a bill to end the death penalty. Advocates for repeal cite the declining use of the death penalty as evidence that capital punishment is losing support across the country (see NYT charts using DPIC data). Death sentences have dropped to the lowest levels since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Five states since 2007 have done away with the death penalty.
On January 30, a Texas judge stayed the execution of Larry Swearingen, scheduled for February 27. Swearingen's lawyers argued more time was required to complete DNA testing agreed to by the prosecution, which they believe will prove his innocence. This is the fourth such delay he has received. Five forensic experts have concluded that the decomposition of the victim’s body shows she was killed while Swearingen was in jail on unrelated charges, thereby pointing to his innocence. The attorneys are also asking for additional DNA testing. In 2011, changes to the state’s DNA-testing law allowed new testing for evidence not previously analyzed and for evidence that was tested but can now be re-examined with newer technology. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, who is representing Swearingen, said, ”The Texas Legislature has made it clear that DNA testing should be allowed when there is a possibility it could help prove innocence, and the testing Mr. Swearingen is seeking could shed light on many unanswered questions in this case.”