|On December 19, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." In 2013, executions declined, fewer states imposed death sentences, and the size of death row decreased compared to the previous year. The number of states with the death penalty also dropped, and public support for capital punishment registered a 40-year low. There were 39 executions in the U.S., marking only the second time in 19 years that there were less than 40. Just two states, Texas (16) and Florida (7), were responsible for 59% of the executions. The number of death sentences (80) remained near record lows, and several major death penalty states, inclucing Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, imposed no death sentences this year. Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”|
A new report from Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights collects the stories of families who have had a loved one murdered who was in law enforcement. The families discuss the pressure they faced to demand the death penalty as punishment, their efforts to prevent more violence, and their evolving views on the death penalty. Kathy Dillon, whose father was murdered in 1974 while on duty as a New York State Trooper, said, "[I]n the case of my father’s murder, the death penalty was in place in New York State, but it didn’t protect him that day." Neely Goen, whose father was a Kansas State Trooper who was killed in 1978, wrote about the toll the death penalty system takes on victims' families: "We already have been through enough. We deserve better than a system that forces us to go through long trials and endless appeals. The death penalty focuses an incredible amount of attention on the killers, which makes victims’ families relive the painful details of a murder over and over."
As an anesthesiologist, Dr. Joel Zivot applied some of the same drugs in operating rooms as are used in executions in the U.S. He admired their life-saving qualities for patients, but bridled at their use in taking lives. Writing recently in USA Today, he cautioned against this "poisonous" use of medicines, saying, "States may choose to execute their citizens, but when they employ lethal injection, they are not practicing medicine. They are usurping the tools and arts of the medical trade and propagating a fiction." Dr. Zivot is a professor of anesthesiology at Emory University School of Medicine. In his op-ed, he called for a halt to all use of anesthetics in executions: "From an ethical perspective, I cannot make the case that a medicine in short supply should preferentially be used to kill rather than to heal." Read the op-ed below.
In a letter to Texas officials, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged a review of the conviction of Edgar Arias Tamayo, a Mexican citizen scheduled to be executed in January 2014. Tamayo was not notified of his right to contact the Mexican Consulate, a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty that the U.S. has signed and ratified. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ordered the U.S. to review the convictions of Tamayo and 50 other Mexican citizens who had been sentenced to death without being notified of their rights under the Vienna Convention. No U.S. court has examined the consular issues in Tamayo's case. Kerry's letter warned that executing Tamayo could damage U.S.-Mexican relations and hinder the ability of U.S. officials to help American citizens detained abroad. “Our consular visits help ensure U.S. citizens detained overseas have access to food and appropriate medical care, if needed, as well as access to legal representation,” he said. Eduardo Medina Mora, the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, said, “[T]his issue has become and could continue to be a significant irritant in the relations between our two countries.”
Andrew Cohen, writing in The Atlantic, recently examined the evolution in thinking on the death penalty among Supreme Court Justices. Cohen noted that Justices John Paul Stevens (pictured), Lewis Powell, and Harry Blackmun all upheld new death-penalty statutes in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), thereby ushering in a return to capital punishment. All three, however, later said the death penalty under these statues was not being applied constitutionally. Justice Powell told his biographer, "I have come to think that capital punishment should be abolished." In a 1994 dissenting opinion, Justice Blackmun famously said, "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." Justice Stevens sharply criticized the death penalty because of problems in the areas of wrongful convictions, racial bias, jury selection, and prosecutorial power. Cohen also noted the evolution in Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's views on the death penalty. However, he found no Justices who went from opposing the death penalty to supporting it.
In an op-ed in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tennessean Drew Johnson evoked conservatives' intentions to "protect innocent life, promote financial responsibility and support government programs that really work" in criticizing the death penalty. Johnson, a Senior Fellow at Taxpayers Protection Alliance and founder of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, cited the many exonerations from death row as another reason to challenge capital punishment: "Life is too precious to rely on mistake-prone processes like the death penalty." He noted that the Tennessee Comptroller's Office's found capital trials to be 48% more expensive than life-without-parole trials. Finally, relying on the conservative value of limited government, he concluded, "My view of limited government is not giving the state the power to kill American citizens. There is nothing limited about that authority....It's time that conservative Tennesseans begin to look at the death penalty to consider whether it's consistent with our view of the role of government and decide if retribution and revenge is worth sacrificing our principles, freedoms and liberties." Read the full op-ed below.
In a new report released on December 3, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) called for police departments to adopt new guidelines to reduce the number of wrongful convictions. The chiefs' recommendations include reforms of lineup procedures, videotaping of witness interviews, and formalizing the review of innocence claims. The IACP worked with the Justice Department and the Innocence Project to identify ways to reduce potential sources of error and bias. Walter A. McNiel, police chief of Quincy, Florida, and past president of IACP, said, "At the end of the day, the goal is to reduce the number of persons who are wrongfully convicted. What we are trying to say in this report is, it’s worth it for all of us, particularly law enforcement, to continue to evaluate, slow down, and get the right person." The recommendations take into account research that has found eyewitness error in the majority of cases later overturned by DNA evidence. (Eyewitness error is also a leading cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases.)
A recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News highlighted the voices of prominent conservatives who now oppose capital punishment, including former Texas Congressman Ron Paul and conservative political leader Richard Viguerie. The paper noted the new partnership between the student-centered organization Young Americans for Liberty and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The editorial described why one Texas conservative, Pat Monks, a Republican precinct chairman in Harris County (Houston), changed his mind on the death penalty: "Ultimately .... [t]he impossibility of eradicating human error from the system hit home to him.... he came to see no deterrent value for a punishment that’s imposed unevenly at an intolerable expense to the public.” Read the full editorial below.
Julia Bates has been the lead prosecutor in Lucas County, Ohio, since 1997. Although committed to following the law, she also believes it is time to repeal capital punishment in the state. She said death penalty cases are “torturous” for those involved, including judges, jurors, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and victims’ families, who are subjected to years of appeals. "It just seems there ought to be a better way,” Mrs. Bates said. Capital cases have sharply declined in Lucas County and in the state over the last few years. Only 9 individuals were indicted in the state for capital murder charges through July, compared to 159 indictments in 1983. There are no pending capital charges in all of Lucas County. One of the most significant factors contributing to this decline is the alternative sentence of life without parole, which became more available in 2005. Bates said her office is not avoiding death penalty prosecutions, but requires that "there should be no doubt about guilt. The guilt should be absolute. It should be unquestionable." A task force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court is considering changes to the death penalty law.
Jeff Gerritt is the Deputy Editor of the Toledo Blade, a paper which has supported Ohio's death penalty for years. Disagreeing with the paper's Editor, Gerritt called for repeal of the death penalty in the state, noting the risk of executing the innocent, "Wrongly convicting anyone constitutes a horrible injustice, but executing the wrong person eliminates any chance of reversing the error. Nationwide, more than 140 people awaiting execution have been exonerated. Mistakes are far more likely in cases involving poor defendants, who usually don’t have adequate legal counsel." He also pointed to the racial unfairness of the death penalty: "In Ohio, for example, more than half of the death-sentenced defendants since 1981 have been African-Americans, even though African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the population. Eighteen African-Americans have been executed in Ohio under the 1981 law — 35 percent of the total." He concluded, "The evidence points to one verdict: Capital punishment should die in Ohio." Read the full op-ed below.