A recent article in the Justice Quarterly by Professor James Acker (pictured) and Rose Bellandi of the University at Albany, New York, examined whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between recent reforms to prevent the execution of the innocent and the traditional goals of capital punishment. The authors studied recent changes to Maryland’s death penalty statute that were designed to reduce the risk of wrongful executions while trying to maintain the death penalty for the most heinous crimes. Maryland's law requires either biological evidence of guilt, a videotaped confession, or a video conclusively linking the defendant to a murder as a prerequisite to seeking a death sentence. The authors concluded that such a statute will not impose the death penalty on the worst offenders, but only on those whose cases contain certain evidence of guilt: “No one supports executing the innocent. Yet, many support executing those who are guilty of heinous crimes. How to guard against the former risk while advancing the latter objective evokes special challenges, if not paradoxes of sufficient magnitude that suggest that the twin goals defy reconciliation.” Acker and Bellandi further add that even these protections will not be infallible, and that the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment recommended abolition of the death penalty.
The Death Penalty Information Center has prepared a summary of North Carolina v. Robinson, the first ruling issued under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act. The opinion by Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks on April 22, 2012, reduced Marcus Robinson's (pictured) death sentence to life without parole. DPIC's summary highlights the statistical evidence of racial bias in eliminating potential black jurors that led the court to rule in Robinson's favor. The Court concluded "that Robinson has established that race was a significant factor in decisions of prosecutors to exercise peremptory strikes...from 1990 to 2010," and that the State's rebuttal was insufficient to rebut Robinson's case. Graphs and pertinent quotes in the summary emphasize key points from the ruling and from the Michigan State University study that formed the backbone of Robinson's evidence. See DPIC's summary of the ruling.
In the latest edition of the Death Penalty Information Center's podcasts, we interview attorney Jennifer Whitfield (pictured) of Covington & Burling, who worked to secure the release of former death row inmate Larry Smith in Alabama. Mr. Smith was sentenced to death in 1995 for a murder related to a robbery. His conviction hinged on a statement he made after 4 hours of interrogation. In violation of police guidelines, his interrogation was not recorded, and Mr. Smith later said his admission of involvement in the crime was coerced and influenced by threats made to prosecute his wife. No physical evidence or eyewitness account linked Mr. Smith to the murder, and a witness, who said Smith hatched a plan to rob the victim, was later implicated in planning the crime himself. In 2007, an Alabama Circuit Court ordered a retrial, and a plea deal was reached this year (April 6, 2012) that allowed Mr. Smith to be released after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery. The murder charges against him were dropped. In the podcast interview, Ms. Whitfield discusses the failures that led to Mr. Smith's conviction and how some of those problems, including inadequate representation and coerced confessions, affect the death penalty system at large. Listen to the podcast.
According to a review by the Associated Press, at least one county in Ohio appears to be using the death penalty as a way of obtaining plea bargains. For example, the chief Prosecutor of Cuyahoga County (Ohio), Bill Mason, originally announced his intent to seek the death penalty against six men who were indicted days after a drug-related slaying in suburban Cleveland. However, plea bargains were granted in all of the cases, and four of the men received probation and never even went to prison. The case cost Cuyahoga County taxpayers more than $120,000 because it originally involved capital punishment. From 2009 to 2011, Cuyahoga County indicted 135 defendants on charges that could have resulted in a death sentence. However, only two of those offenders were sent to death row. The rest either pleaded guilty, usually with the death penalty charges withdrawn, or were convicted but not sentenced to death. Joe Deters, a prosecutor in Hamilton County, Ohio, said, “To use the death penalty to force a plea bargain, I think it’s unethical to do that.” Ohio state public defender Tim Young agreed, saying that charging lesser offenses as death penalty cases "seems like a wildly dangerous use" of capital punishment. Across the state, most prosecutors are using the death penalty far more sparingly. Mason said he seeks the death penalty to "equally apply the law."
A recent editorial in the Lincoln Journal Star of Nebraska concluded that experience with inaccurate evidence from crime labs shows that the death penalty cannot be trusted in the taking of life. The paper called for the repeal of the death penalty based on a case in which the state's CSI director tampered with evidence in a murder case. Recently, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the conviction of former CSI chief David Kofoed for planting evidence in a double murder. Kofoed placed a speck of blood in a car belonging to a suspect, which resulted in two innocent men being held in jail for several months. The editorial said such crime-lab error has also been found elsewhere: “You will be - or should be - appalled at the number of times that crime labs turn out to be providing inaccurate and phony evidence. The problems crop up in New York, San Francisco, Houston and many points in between. Sometimes the problem is sloppiness. Sometimes technicians are manufacturing evidence deliberately. Sometimes the science itself turns out to be untrustworthy.” The editorial cited a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences that criticized some of the science behind crime lab testimony. The report found that, other than DNA technology, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source,” and that, “Substantive information and testimony based on faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people.” The editorial concluded, "The fallibility of the criminal justice system has been demonstrated again and again. Innocent people have been executed in the past and will be in the future," and thus people should "support repeal of the death penalty." Read full editorial below.
Al Jazeera recently released a video of an interview with former Oklahoma death-row inmate Michael Selsor (pictured). Selsor was the most recent person executed in the U.S. and probably the inmate who served the longest time between conviction and execution of anyone in U.S. history. He was first sentenced to death in 1976 for murder and was imprisoned over 36 years prior to his execution on May 1, 2012. Although his sentence was reduced to life when Oklahoma's death penalty was overturned in 1976, he was re-sentenced to death for the same crime in 1998. The interview was conducted in 2010 and was the only interview Selsor granted. When asked about the difference between the death penalty and life without parole, Selsor said, “The only difference between death and life without parole is one you kill me now, the other one you kill me later. There's not even a shred of hope. There's no need to even try to muster up a seed of hope because you're just gonna die of old age in here....With the death penalty sentence I'm entitled to more appeals - the government's gonna pay for it. I don't have to do it myself if I don't have the money for a lawyer which I don't have. Instead I'm relying on public defenders to do my appeals." Selsor was also asked about how he was handling his inevitable execution: “I'm not gonna beg 'em to spare my life. I'll try to keep my head up with a little bit of dignity, and I'm gonna be buried out on Periwood Hill.” See the video of the interview.
A new book published in electronic format, The Death Penalty Failed Experiment: From Gary Graham to Troy Davis in Context by Diann Rust-Tierney, examines the problem of arbitrariness in the death penalty since its reinstatement in 1976. Through an analysis of the cases of Gary Graham and Troy Davis, the author argues that race, wealth and geography play a more significant role in determining who faces capital punishment than the facts of the crime itself. Both defendants had significant claims of innocence; both were black defendants who were ultimately executed in the South; in both cases, the victim in the underlying murder was white. Graham was executed in Texas in 2000 and Davis was executed in Georgia in 2011. Rust-Tierney writes, “How do you administer the most severe punishment imaginable in a manner that is accurate, free from bias and demonstrably fair? Until we are all seen and treated as equal, we cannot afford to keep capital punishment.” Ms. Rust-Tierney is an attorney and Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Download a copy of the ebook here.
On April 20, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles reduced the death sentence of Daniel Greene (pictured) to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Board had stayed Greene's execution, which was set for April 19, in order to further consider his clemency petition. Greene's petition included letters from several members of the Taylor County community, where the murder occurred, urging the Board to spare Greene's life. Among the letters was one from a former correctional officer, Randy Foster, who called Greene "as fine a man as I have ever met in my life," and said, "He is not like anyone else on death row. Daniel Greene is the type of person you want for an inmate. He has never given me (or anyone else as far as I know) even the hint of a problem." In his own letter to the Board, Greene apologized for the pain he caused the victim's family and said, "I was on drugs at the time, but I took the drugs with my hands, and I take the responsibility. That choice to do drugs and what I did after were the worst mistakes of my life. I do not blame the drugs. I blame myself for everything." This was the second clemency granted nationally in 2012 and the eighth granted in Georgia since 1976.
A recent editorial in the New York Times called Connecticut's decision to repeal the death penalty part of "a growing movement against capital punishment." The editorial attributed the trend away from the death penalty to new research that shows "gross injustice in its application and enormous costs in continuing to impose it." The problem of arbitrariness recently came to light in Connecticut, where "a powerful, comprehensive study provided evidence that state death sentences are haphazardly meted out, with virtually no connection to the heinousness of the crime." The Times also cited racial bias, inadequate representation, and wrongful convictions as problems inherent to the death penalty, saying that "the system cannot be fixed. It is practically impossible to rid the legal process of biases driven by race, class and politics." Ultimately, the paper concluded, it would be better to abolish the death penalty entirely. Read the full editorial below.
Following the recent handing down of a death sentence in Philadelphia, the Executive Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation blamed the outcome on an inadequate indigent-defense system. Marc Bookman (pictured), writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, reviewed the case and found, "There isn't a single motion filed by the attorneys in defense of their client. Nor is there a request for a jury questionnaire, which is standard in most jurisdictions that regularly handle capital cases, or for a mitigation specialist to prepare a case against the death penalty. Indeed, the only motion in the record was handwritten by the defendant. Prison logs indicate that his lawyers visited him a total of three times." Bookman said that such ineffective representation is the norm in Philadelphia capital cases because of "grossly inadequate" pay for court-appointed lawyers. "In other words," he wrote, "if we're asking attorneys to work for next to nothing, we are likely to get next to nothing from them." Read the full op-ed below.