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STUDIES: Racial and Geographic Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty

A new study published in the Washington Law Review addresses the racial and geographical disparities in the implementation of the federal death penalty. The study, conducted by G. Ben Cohen, Counsel for the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, and Robert J. Smith, Counsel for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, concludes that the disparities in the federal death penalty may exist because federal cases do not use a county-level jury pool but instead employ a wider pool from the federal-district level, resulting in the dilution of minority representation in the jury pool. According to the authors, “Capital verdicts become separated from the moral judgments of the community when [there are] fewer minority group members in the jury pool.” They proposed utilizing a county-level jury pool as is done in state cases: “If federal capital juries come from the county where the offense occurred, then prosecutors are left to determine whether to seek the death penalty based on the relative federal interest in the crime (and not the prosecutorial interest to secure a death sentence by any means possible). This solution is also more democratic—the citizens most impacted by the effects of high crime, overly aggressive policing, or poor public policy are the decision-makers responsible for redressing those harms.”


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NEW RESOURCES: Hispanics and the Death Penalty

According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Hispanics represent a larger proportion of those on death row than in the past.  Hispanics constituted almost 20% of the new admissions to death row in 2009 (18 new inmates).  Half of the new Hispanic death row inmates were from California, bringing their total to 157 Hispanic inmates, the most in the country.  Hispanics now represent 13.5% of the U.S. death row population.  In 2000, they made up 11% of death row.  Of the executions carried out in 2009, 13% (7 out of 52, correcting earlier number) were of Hispanic inmates.  All of the executions of Hispanics occurred in the South.  In federal statistics, Hispanics are counted as an ethnic group, rather than as a racial group.


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NEW RESOURCES: Symposium in Vermont on Capital Punishment

On February 11, 2011, a symposium will be held at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton to explore current issues in capital punishment. Entitled New Perspectives on Capital Punishment, the symposium will address the death penalty from the point of view of scholars, litigators, and educators. The goal of the symposium is to contribute to the vital discourse concerning capital punishment and its human rights implications. It will feature Hugo Adam Bedau, a prominent death penalty scholar.  Other speakers include nationally recognized death penalty litigators Mark Olive and Sean O'Brien, lethal injection expert Deborah Denno, constitutional scholar Eric Freedman, acclaimed sociologist Michael Radelet, and international law attorney Sandra Babcock. The symposium will address topics such as Applied Theory and Litigation Strategies and International Law and Capital Punishment.


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Former Governors, Judges, and Prosecutors Urge Continuation of Texas Hearing

On December 22, attorneys for John Green filed a brief with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals asking that a pre-trial hearing concerning the constitutionality of the state's death penalty be allowed to continue.  An amicus brief in support of continuing the hearing was also filed by former governors, legislators, former judges and prosecutors, victim family members and freed death row inmates, all of whom shared a concern over the risk of wrongful executions in Texas. The brief stated, "[U]nless Texas addresses the proven causes of wrongful convictions, including eyewitness misidentification, faulty forensics, unreliable informant evidence, among other documented factors, the state runs the grave risk of executing an innocent person.” The signatories included: three former governors, including Gov. Mark White (TX), Gov. Parris Glendening (MD) and Gov. Joe Kernan (IN); former Dallas Assistant District Attorney James A. Fry; legislators, including Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis; and death row exonerees including Anthony Graves, who was freed from Texas’ death row in October after new evidence proved his innocence.


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DPIC Releases 2010 Year End Report

On December 21, the Death Penalty Information Center released its latest report, “The Death Penalty in 2010: Year End Report,” on statistics and trends in capital punishment in the past year.  The report noted there was a 12% decrease in executions in 2010 compared to 2009 and a more than 50% drop compared to 1999. DPIC projected that the number of new death sentences will be 114 for 2010, near last year’s number of 112, which was the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Death sentences declined in all four regions of the country over the past ten years, with a 50 percent decrease nationwide when the current decade is compared to the 1990s.  Only 12 states carried out executions in 2010, mostly in the South, and only seven states carried out more than one execution. Texas led the country with 17 executions, but that was a significant drop from last year.  The number of new death sentences in Texas this year was 8, a dramatic decline from 1999 when 48 people were sentenced to death.  Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 82% of the executions have been in the South. California has not had an execution in almost 5 years, and the same is true for North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and many other states that rarely carry out the death penalty.  “Whether it’s concerns about the high costs of the death penalty at a time when budgets are being slashed, the risks of executing the innocent, unfairness, or other reasons, the nation continued to move away from the death penalty in 2010,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the report’s author.


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New Hampshire Study Commission Report on the Death Penalty

On Dec. 1, 2010, the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission released its report to the governor.  The majority (12-10) report recommended neither the abolition nor the expansion of the death penalty.  The report did find that there is an added cost for the death penalty as compared to a life without parole sentence: "There is a significant difference in the cost of prosecution and incarceration of a first degree murder case where the penalty is life without parole as compared with the cost of a death penalty case from prosecution to execution. The Commission members believe that the greater cost associated with capital murder cases is essential to guarantee a vigorous defense, a thorough investigation and prosecution of the case, and careful adjudication of the case." Read the full report here.


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NEW RESOURCES: ACLU Report Finds Severe Deficiencies in Capital Representation and Appeals

According to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) entitled, "Slamming the Courthouse Doors: Denial of Access to Justice and Remedy in America," many states severely restrict access to justice for capital defendants and limit the availability of remedies to correct errors. The problem of inadequate counsel continues to pervade death penalty systems across the country:  “Few states provide adequate funds to compensate lawyers for their work or to investigate cases properly. In addition to inadequate funding, the majority of death-penalty states lack adequate competency standards. Many states require only minimal training and experience for attorneys handling death penalty cases, and in some cases capital defense attorneys fail to meet the minimum guidelines for capital defense set by the American Bar Association (ABA),” according to the ACLU.  The report also states that the absence of a right to counsel in post-conviction appeals leaves capital defendants with few options to address serious errors during their trial.  Read full report here.


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EDITORIALS: New Hampshire's Concord Monitor Says "Abolish the Death Penalty"

Following the release of the report from the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty, New Hampshire's Concord Monitor called for an end to capital punishment in the state. The Commission concluded a year of public hearings and careful study and chose by a 12-10 vote to recommend neither expanding nor abolishing the death penalty. However, the Monitor pointed out that the evidence presented to the commission was primarily in favor of repealing the death penalty. One of the many arguments against the death penalty considered by the Commission was its arbitrary nature. Outcomes of capital cases depend on the makeup of capital juries, the resources available to the defendant, and the potentially unequal skills of prosecutors and defense lawyers.  The editorial noted that former attorney general Phillip McLaughlin recalled a case in which he charged the wrong man with murder and another in which an investigator failed to share evidence that might have proved that someone else committed the crime. He voted to repeal the law.  The editorial concluded: "States are not infallible. A life wrongly taken by the state cannot be returned. But an innocent person serving life without parole can be freed. New Hampshire should join the states and the many nations that have progressed beyond capital punishment."  Read the full editorial below.


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NEW RESOURCES: Costs of Representation in Federal Death Penalty Cases

A recent report to the Committee on Defender Services of the Judicial Conference of the United States by Jon Gould and Lisa Greenman provided an update on the costs of representation in federal death penalty cases.  The report examined all cases in which the federal death penalty was authorized by the U.S. Attorney General between 1998 and 2004.  The authors found that "The median cost of a case in which the Attorney General authorized seeking the death penalty was nearly eight times greater than the cost of a case that was eligible for capital prosecution but in which the death penalty was not authorized."  (emphasis added). The report found that the median cost for defense representation in a death case that went to trial was $465,602, including $101,592 for experts.  If the authorized case was settled by a plea, the median cost was $200,933, still far greater than the median cost of a death-eligible case in which the death penalty was not sought-- $44,809.  In other words, it is the seeking of the death penalty that considerably raises the costs, even if the case results in a plea bargain and no trial.  These figures do not include prosecution and judicial costs .


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NEW RESOURCES: Congressional Quarterly Publishes Death Penalty Review

Kenneth Jost of Congressional Quarterly has prepared a comprehensive review of the death penalty in the U.S. for the recent edition of the CQ Researcher.  The overview looks at death penalty trends in the past 10 years, public opinion, and arguments for and against repealing the death penalty.  Jost quotes many experts, including DPIC's Executive Director concerning the recent direction of capital punishment in the U.S. "'The decline in the use of the death penalty is the continuing story,' says Richard Dieter, the [Death Penalty Information] center's Executive Director.  'Death sentences, executions, the number of states that have the death penalty, and the size of the population on death row have all declined in the last decade.' The Center's statistics bear out Dieter's claims," Jost writes.  The report is accompanied by charts and graphs illustrating important trends, and contains a bibliography, chronology, and places to go for more information.  The significance of the innocence issue, including the large number of exonerations from death row in recent years, is highlighted in the review.  The volume concludes with a debate on whether the death penalty deserves to be retained between DPIC's Richard Dieter and Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.


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