The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row USA showed a decrease of 43 inmates under sentence of death from January 1 to October 1, 2012. Over the last decade, the total population of state and federal death rows has decreased significantly, from 3,703 inmates in 2000 to 3,146 inmates as of October 2012. California continues to have the largest death row population (724), followed by Florida (411), Texas (304), Pennsylvania (204), and Alabama (202). Neither California nor Pennsylvania has carried out an execution in the past seven years. The report also contains information on executions. Nearly 77% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution since 1976 were white. However, nationally, about 50% of murder victims are black. The report also contains an overview of recent legal developments related to capital punishment.
On December 6, Bobby Tarver, who had spent 30 years on Alabama's death row, finally had his death sentence reduced to life without parole by a state judge because of his intellectual disability. Tarver was Mobile County's longest-serving death row inmate, having been convicted in 1982 of murdering a taxi cab driver. Last September, a federal judge overruled state court opinions and held that Tarver could not be executed because of his mental retardation, thus concluding a years-long legal battle about Tarver’s mental capacity. The final ruling came ten years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that it was unconstitutional to execute defendants with mental retardation.
On October 23, the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, told a UN General Assembly human rights committee that countries around the world are increasingly viewing capital punishment as a form of torture because of the severe mental and physical pain it inflicts on those sentenced to death. Mendez told the committee, “States need to re-examine their procedures under international law because the ability of states to impose and carry out the death penalty is diminishing as these practices are increasingly viewed to constitute torture.” Mendez urged all countries to consider repealing capital punishment because it is “cumbersome and expensive and you’re never sure you’re doing it in the right way.” Mendez also spoke about the “death row phenomenon," that is, conditions on death row that cause severe mental anguish and physical suffering. He said such deprivations include anxiety due to the threat of imminent execution, extended solitary confinement, and poor prison conditions.
Survivor on Death Row, a new e-book co-authored by death row inmate Romell Broom and Clare Nonhebel, tells the story of Ohio's botched attempt to execute Broom by lethal injection in 2009. In September of that year, Broom was readied for execution and placed on the gurney, but the procedure was terminated after corrections officials spent over two hours attempting to find a suitable vein for the lethal injection. Broom was removed from the death chamber and has remained on death row ever since. In the book, Broom discusses his troubled childhood and his life of over 25 years on death row, including his repeated requests for new DNA testing and a new legal team. Broom has always maintained his innocence. Jon Snow, a reporter for Channel 4 News in England, called the book "A horrifying story embracing all the evils of the death penalty. Bad forensics, dodgy DNA, awful lawyers, render this a must-read.”
A recent article by Professors Brian D. Shannon (pictured) of Texas Tech and Victor R. Scarano of the University of Houston examines the ethical implications of forcibly medicating mentally incompetent death-row inmates in order to prepare them for execution. According to the authors, this issue, particulary in Texas, pits "the ethical duties of the medical and legal professions in opposition and casts a shadow over the legitimate and appropriate intentions and professional responsibilities of physicians and lawyers." While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mentally incompetent prisoners cannot be executed, only lower courts have ruled on the question of forcing death row inmates to take medication with the purpose of rendering them competent for execution. The article concludes with a legislative recommendation that would solve the ethical dilemma of forcible medication: "[U]pon a determination by the trial court that the defendant is incompetent to be executed (and following any appeal), the court should vacate the death sentence and substitute a life sentence without the possibility of parole," thus allowing psychiatrists to "proceed to treat the symptoms of the inmate’s serious mental illness, without the ethical concern that such treatment could lead to the inmate’s execution."
Douglas Stankewitz, a Native American, was the first person sent to California's death row after capital punishment was reinstated in 1978. Thirty-four years later, he remains there as his appeals continue. His conviction was overturned in 1982 because he had not received a mental competency hearing, despite findings by court-appointed doctors that he was mentally unstable and brain-damaged as a result of childhood abuse. His second trial is now being appealed on the grounds that his court-appointed attorney was ineffective. Stankewitz maintains that, although he was involved in a crime when the victim was killed, he did not commit the murder. Voters in California will be considering a referendum to repeal the death penalty in November. Supporters of the initiative say the death penalty is costing the state $184 million a year in legal costs, and life sentences would reduce the costs to just $11.5 million. Also, taxpayers would save $65 million a year in prison expenditures because each death row inmate costs $90,000 per year in extra security and services. Opponents of the referendum say that the high costs are driven by needless appeals. California has 728 inmates on death row. Since 1978, it has carried out 13 executions, and 3 men have been exonerated. Many more on the row have died of natural causes.
A recent article in the Brooklyn Law Review argues that executing long-serving, elderly death row inmates should be deemed unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment. In A Modest Proposal: The Aged of Death Row Should Be Deemed Too Old to Execute, Professor Elizabeth Rapaport (pictured) of the University of New Mexico School of Law maintains that harsh death row conditions, along with the fragility of the growing number of elderly inmates due to the aging process, result in excess suffering that should render their execution a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Rapaport states, “The long delays between pronouncement of sentence and execution, and the considerable uncertainty about whether any condemned man or woman will be executed in our system of capital punishment, have given rise to a new form of cruelty unknown to our ancestors. Delay is not aberrant but normal. It cannot be purged from the system without doing unacceptable violence to constitutionally mandated due process.”
A new book by Professors Saundra Westervelt and Kimberly Cook looks at the lives of eighteen people who had been wrongfully sentenced to death and who were later freed from death row. In Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity, the authors focus on three central areas affecting those who had to begin a new life after leaving years of severe confinement: the seeming invisibility of these individuals after their release; the complicity of the justice system in allowing that invisibility; and the need for each of them to confront their personal trauma. C. Ronald Huff, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, noted, “The authors skillfully conduct a journey inside the minds of exonerees, allowing readers to see the world from their unique perspectives.”
On August 1, Delma Banks Jr., one of the longest serving inmates in Texas death-penalty history, received a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2024 under a plea agreement with prosecutors. Banks was convicted by an all-white jury of a 1980 murder, but there were no witnesses to the killing and no physical evidence linking Banks to it. The prosecution’s case relied largely on the testimony of two informants, both admitted drug users. In 1999, almost 20 years after the trial, Banks’ lawyers discovered a transcript showing that one of the informants' testimony had been extensively rehearsed and coached and the other had been paid. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Banks’ death sentence because prosecutors had suppressed crucial evidence and allowed the informants to testify falsely. A new sentencing hearing was scheduled for October before the plea agreement was struck. Bowie County District Attorney Jerry Rochelle said that the decision was influenced by the victim's family wanting the case to end. Rochelle said, “They were ready for some closure. After 32 years of dealing with the offense, the death of their son, the original trial, the appeals and the prospect of a new trial, they were ready for it to end.” George Kendall, attorney for Delma Banks, said, “After 32 years, the State has decided to no longer seek the death penalty in this case. We hope the resolution of this case will bring closure to all concerned.”
Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, recently delivered the keynote address at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Open Door Community in Atlanta. Mr. Stevenson discussed how defending those on death row often takes a personal toll on those engaged in this work, even to the point of feeling "broken." But, he added, "I’ve learned some very basic things, being a broken person. I’ve learned that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. I believe that if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar; if somebody takes something, they’re not just a thief; even if somebody kills someone, they’re not just a killer. And because of this, I believe that we have this need, this mission, this calling, to embrace them and to recognize this 'something else.'” Read full text of Stevenson’s remarks here.