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NEW RESOURCES: Connecticut Study Reveals Arbitrariness in Death Cases

Professor John Donohue of Yale University's School of Law recently conducted a study of death sentences in Connecticut and found that seeking the death penalty often correlated with the race of the victim and the defendant, and not necessarily with the severity of the crimes, as the law requires. "There was basically no rational system to explain who got the death penalty," Donohue said. "It really is about as random a process as you can possibly construct."

After reviewing 207 murder cases dating back to the early 1970s that were eligible for death penalty prosecution, the study found:

  • Black defendants receive death sentences at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims were white.
  • Killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes time to decide the charges.
  • Minorities who kill whites receive death sentences at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities.

The study is being used in a suit brought by death row inmates in the state challenging the constitutionality of the way the death penalty is being applied. The state has contested the findings of the study.  Read the study in full here.

(DAVE COLLINS, "Yale study: racial bias, randomness mar Conn. death penalty cases," Associated Press, December 12, 2007).

See Arbitrariness and Studies.


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NEW RESOURCES: Native Americans and the Death Penalty David Baker has written a thorough and insightful analysis of how the death penalty in the U.S. has been used against Native Americans. In "American Indian Executions in Historical Context," Baker places the execution of Native Americans within the history of colonialism, slavery and the conquering of indigenous tribes in early America. The article traces these developments to the current era, about which the author concludes:
The trend in American Indian executions during the present historical period of self determination shows a significant increase in Indian executions during the 1990s. The 15 American Indian executions since 1973, in many cases, accent the problems endemic to contemporary capital punishment schemes—increasing rates of voluntary executions, botched executions, racist prosecutorial discretion, and ineffective capital defense counsel. In these cases, all the victims were white and the American Indian defendants largely suffered from severe alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness. In most cases, defendants came from predictable backgrounds of abject poverty, alcoholic and abusive parents, and violent family histories.
David Baker is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Riverside Community College in California. He has also collected a comprehensive list of all executions of Native Americans in U.S. history.
(20 Criminal Justice Studies 315–373 (No. 4, December 2007)). Read the article. See Race.

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2007: DPIC's Year End Report

U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Alabama execution scheduled for night of Jan. 31.

Watch the Independent Film Channel's piece on the U.S. Supreme Court case regarding lethal injection, Baze v. Rees. The video also includes a discussion of death penalty trends with DPIC's Richard Dieter and an interview with former Texas death row chaplain Carroll Pickett.

2007: DPIC's Year End Report

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE 2007 REPORT

Executions
for the year: 42 - lowest in 13 years
% Executions in Texas: 62%
% Executions in South: 86%

Death sentences: 110 projected - lowest in 30 years
Exonerations: 3 - in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina
Commutations: 11 - including 1 in Texas and 8 in New Jersey
New States without the death penalty: New Jersey and New York - bringing total to 14 states

National moratorium on executions effectively in place as Supreme Court considers lethal injection protocols.

New Voices:
“I've lived through the state's process of trying to kill [a murderer], and I can say without hesitation that it is not worth the anguish that it puts survivors through.” - Jim O'Brien of New Jersey, whose daughter was murdered in 1982

"[W]e believe the state of Texas should abandon the death penalty – because we cannot reconcile the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible. - Editorial, The Dallas Morning News

Read the 2007 Year End Report, released Dec. 18, 2007.


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DPIC Releases 2007 Year End Report Noting Decline In Death Penalty

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its 13th annual Year End Report, noting that executions have dropped to a 13-year low as a de facto moratorium took hold in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s examination of lethal injection procedures. Death sentences have also dropped considerably in recent years.  DPIC projected 110 new death sentences in 2007 - the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a 60% drop since 1999. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 115 new inmates were received on death row in 2006.  In 1999, there 284 admitted to death row.

The report notes that the 42 executions this year occurred in only a few states, with 40 out of the 50 states in the U.S. not having any executions this year. Almost all (86%) of the executions in 2007 were in the South, and 62% of the executions took place in one state, Texas. Executions have declined 57% since 1999.

The report also cites a number of important new developments, including the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey this month.  Governor Corzine signed the abolition legislation on December 17, after commuting the death sentences of the 8 people on death row to life without parole sentences.  New York has also been removed from the list of death penalty states, bringing that total to 14 states.  Three exonerations of death row inmates occurred in 2007: one each in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  The report contains statements from a variety of law enforcement personnel, victims, editorial boards, and judges voicing serious concerns about the death penalty.
(Death Penalty Information Center, posted December 19, 2007). Read the 2007 Year End Report. See also articles about the report in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and CNN.com.


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NEW RESOURCES: Recommendations for Avoiding Wrongful Convictions

The Justice Project recently released two policy reviews that provide suggestions for preventing wrongful convictions in criminal trials. Using research and data from past exonerations, the new reports, Expanded Discovery in Criminal Cases and Jailhouse Snitch Testimony, point to the places and situations in the criminal justice system where a wrongful conviction can be easily prevented.

Expanded Discovery in Criminal Cases stresses the importance of full evidentiary discovery in criminal cases. “Discovery” refers to how the prosecution must disclose all non-privileged information that is relevant in the criminal case before it goes to trial. The Justice Project notes, “All other aspects of our constitutional system, such as due process and assistance of counsel, depend on complete discovery.” Amongst other solutions, they recommend that uniform, mandatory, and enforced discovery laws be put in place to prevent wrongful convictions.

Jailhouse Snitch Testimony highlights the prevalence of this form of questionable evidence in trials. Jailhouse snitch testimony refers to an inmate testifying against another for his or her own personal gain (e.g., reduced time in prison in exchange for the testimony). It is often used despite being unreliable. According to the report, “A 2005 study of 111 death row exonerees found that 51 were wrongly sentenced to death in part due to testimony of witnesses with incentive to lie.” The Justice Project calls upon prosecutors to raise the standards for admissibility of jailhouse informant evidence at trial, including finding outside corroboration for the informant’s testimony and providing instructions to the jury that alert them to the reliability issues presented by snitch testimony.


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NEW RESOURCE: Handbook on Sentencing in Capital Cases Around the World

The Death Penalty Project, an international organization that provides free legal representation for individuals facing the death penalty in the Caribbean and Africa, recently published A Guide to Sentencing in Capital Cases. The guide provides judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys with information and sample appeals to help them navigate the sentencing phase in cases where a mandatory death sentence for a specific crime was abolished, leaving the former death row inmate to be resentenced.

In the past few years, countries such as Uganda and Malawi have ruled that mandatory death penalty sentences are unconstitutional, leaving the death penalty up to the discretion of the courts. Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia are also considering similar challenges to their mandatory death sentence policies. The Death Penalty Project’s guide helps court officials to better understand these new procedural issues and how aggravating and mitigating circumstance are applied in these cases.


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New York City Homicide Rate Drops to Lowest Point in 40 Years

If current trends continue, New York City will likely have fewer than 500 homicides this year, the lowest number in a 12-month period since reliable NYC Police Department statistics became available in 1963. As of November 18, 2007, the police department logged 428 killings, the majority of which were committed by friends or acquaintances or were drug or gang-related. In fact, only 35 homicides this year were committed by strangers to the victims, a number described as "microscopic" in a city of 8.2 million.

Thomas Reppetto, a police historian, noted: "Not only has the N.Y.P.D. reduced murder, by nearly 80%, but it has changed the pattern of homicides." In 1990, New York recorded its highest number of murders at 2,245, with many of the victims being killed by strangers. Of the 412 murders this year, many assailants and victims had previous arrests for narcotics. Overall, crime rates in New York City are down 6.47%.


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INNOCENCE: Study Looks at Life After Exoneration for Those Freed Through DNA

The New York Times investigated the post-exoneration lives of the 206 former inmates who were wrongfully convicted and released through DNA evidence. Fifty-three of the cases involved murder convictions, and more than 25% of those wrongfully convicted had given a false confession or incriminating statement. Working from a list provided by the Innocence Project, the Times gathered information on 137 of the 206 exonerees and were able to interview 115 of those. They found that most DNA-exonerees have “struggled to keep jobs, pay for health care, rebuild family ties and shed the psychological effects of years of questionable or wrongful imprisonment.” Lack of adequate financial compensation only exacerbates the hardships after release.

Compensation for wrongful incarceration varies by state. Of the cases the Times investigated, nearly 40% received no compensation for their time in prison, almost half received at least $50,000 for each year in prison, and the remainder were convicted in states that offer no compensation for wrongful imprisonment. The average time spent in prison for a wrongful conviction was 12 years. Many had to wait almost 2 years before receiving compensation, and even then, they received less government services than paroled prisoners. One exoneree stated, “It’s ridiculous. They have programs for drug dealers who get out of prison. They have programs for people who really do commit crimes. People get out and go in halfway houses and have all kinds of support. There are housing programs for them, job placement for them. But for the innocent, they have nothing.”

After spending 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Jeffrey Mark Deskovic was exonerated by DNA evidence and released from prison in New York. Deskovic was convicted of the 1989 rape and murder of fellow high school student. He was 17 at the time. Now 34, he is trying to get back on his feet – a difficult process with little governmental support, according to the Times.


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NEW RESOURCES: Flaws in Recent Deterrence Studies

In a recent article in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Dr. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University describes numerous serious errors in recent deterrence studies, including improper statistical analyses and missing data and variables that are necessary to give a full picture of the criminal justice system. Fagan writes, “There is no reliable, scientifically sound evidence that [shows that executions] can exert a deterrent effect…. These flaws and omissions in a body of scientific evidence render it unreliable as a basis for law or policy that generate life-and-death decisions. To accept it uncritically invites errors that have the most severe human costs.”

Since the landmark Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, dozens of studies have been performed to determine whether future murderers are deterred by the death penalty. In the past five years, Fagan writes, a “new wave” of studies has emerged, claiming that each execution prevents 3-32 murders, depending on the study. Some of these studies tie pardons, commutations, exonerations, and even irrational murders of passion to increases in murder rates.


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INNOCENCE: Criminal Convictions in Question after FBI Bullet Evidence Discredited

An investigation by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes has cast doubt on at least 250 criminal cases in which the defendant was convicted based on FBI bullet-lead test evidence. Since the early 1960s, the FBI has used a technique called comparative bullet-lead analysis on an estimated 2,500 cases, many of which were homicide cases prosecuted at state and local levels. Comparative bullet-lead analysis, based on the assumption that all bullets in one batch will be chemically similar, examines the chemical compositions of bullets to determine if crime-scene bullets match bullets in a suspect’s possession. FBI labs have since concluded that all bullets in a single batch are not always chemically matched “because subtle chemical changes occurred throughout the manufacturing process.”

FBI concerns over comparative bullet-lead analysis were first documented in 1991, and a study by two former FBI lab technicians challenging the technique was completed in 2001. In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences also rejected comparative bullet-lead analysis, stating “that decades of FBI statements to jurors linking a particular bullet to those found in a suspect's gun or cartridge box were so overstated that such testimony should be considered ‘misleading under federal rules of evidence.’” A year later, FBI lab director Dwight Adams recommended to FBI Director Muehller that the Bureau abandon the comparative technique and discourage prosecutors from using it in future trials.

Adams believes that the government has an obligation to review cases in which the technique was used and to notify courts of any convictions that could have been erroneously based on the technique. "It troubles me that anyone would be in prison for any reason that wasn't justified. And that's why these reviews should be done in order to determine whether or not our testimony led to the conviction of a wrongly accused individual," Adams said to the Post. "I don't believe there's anything that we should be hiding."

The Post and 60 Minutes conducted a nationwide investigation, researching court files and holding interviews with dozens of lawyers and scientific experts. Their research yielded at least 250 cases in which evidence from comparative bullet-lead analysis was introduced. More than a dozen of these convictions have been reversed or are now being challenged as to whether innocent people were sent to prison.

The FBI has said it would conduct a national review of these cases and create a system where future scientific testimony can be monitored.

(“FBI Forensic Test Full of Holes” by John Solomon, The Washington Post). Read the series here.

See also Arbitrariness and Innocence.


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