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.
Cohen further quoted Justice Blackmun reasons for eventually voting against the death penalty: "The problem is that the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution."
(A. Cohen, "Why Don't Supreme Court Justices Ever Change Their Minds in Favor of the Death Penalty?," The Atlantic, December 10, 2013). See U.S. Supreme Court and New Voices.Tweet
Former Gov. Bill Richardson Issues Human Rights Day Statement on International Decline of Death Penalty
December 10 is Human Rights Day, the 65th anniversary of the United Nations' adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To mark this anniversary, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (pictured) joined Federico Mayor, President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, in drawing attention to the steady decline internationally in the use of the death penalty. As governor, Richardson had signed New Mexico's death-penalty repeal bill in 2009. In an op-ed in the Global Post, Richardson and Mayor noted that, in the late 1970s, only 16 countries had completely abolished the death penalty. Today, 150 countries are abolitionist in law or in practice. In 2012, 111 countries supported a UN resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions. The authors stated that countries have ended capital punishment "because experience and evidence demonstrate that the death penalty is cruel, irrevocable and a violation of the right to life. It damages and poisons society by endorsing violence, and by causing injustice and suffering. It has no particular deterrent effect on violent crime, and in fact abolitionist nations often have lower murder rates than those that still execute." Read the full op-ed below.Global trend to end death penalty is accelerating dramatically
Federico Mayor and Bill Richardson
Commentary: China, Iran, North Korea and the US are among the world’s most prolific executioners. Which nation will be the last, lonely outpost of state killing?
GENEVA — Which country will be the last to abolish the death penalty?
Not so long ago, posing such a question would have seemed overly optimistic at best, and naïve at worst. But as we mark Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 — the 65th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — we do so knowing that the global outlook is shifting rapidly. The tide has turned irreversibly in the long battle against the death penalty, an inherently cruel and deeply flawed punishment that has done incalculable damage to countless individual lives and whole societies.
The global trend toward abolition has accelerated dramatically in recent years. As recently as the late 1970s, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Yet today, according to the UN, some 150 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.
As understanding has grown that capital punishment is an abhorrence unworthy of a civilized society, government after government — from all major regions, cultures and religions — has rejected it.
They have done so because experience and evidence demonstrate that the death penalty is cruel, irrevocable and a violation of the right to life. It damages and poisons society by endorsing violence, and by causing injustice and suffering. It has no particular deterrent effect on violent crime, and in fact abolitionist nations often have lower murder rates than those that still execute.
Not only have most individual governments concluded that the death penalty is wrong. Increasingly the world’s community of nations is sending a clear, collective and powerful political message that there is no place for capital punishment in humanity’s future.
In December 2012, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly and decisively for a global moratorium on the death penalty. This was the fourth such vote since 2007; on every occasion the number of nations supporting a moratorium has risen.
This latest UN call was supported by a record 111 countries, with Central African Republic, Niger, South Sudan and Tunisia all voting in favor for the first time. Meanwhile, several nations — including Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia — moved from a negative vote to abstention.
Such categorical, undeniable and remarkable progress explains why we at the International Commission against the Death Penalty — an independent body opposed to capital punishment in all cases, led by a group of high-profile commissioners from across the world – are convinced that capital punishment is steadily, inexorably moving toward the history books.
At the same time, we know there can be no complacency. Recent executions or resumptions of death sentences after de facto moratoriums in countries such as India, Indonesia, Kuwait and Nigeria have all caused international concern.
A major stumbling block is the behavior of a small group of hard-core executing states. The world’s most prolific executioners are China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the US and Yemen.
The inclusion of the United States in this list is regrettable, yet there are grounds for hope. Across the US, numbers of executions and death sentences are declining as courts impose life imprisonment instead, while public support for capital punishment has dwindled to its lowest levels in nearly four decades. Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York have abolished the practice in recent years, while Oregon imposed a moratorium on executions.
Legislation repealing Maryland’s death penalty came into effect on October 1, following a vote by the House of Delegates in March and Governor Martin O’Malley’s subsequent signing of the decision into law. With the stroke of a pen, Maryland became the 18th state, and the sixth in as many years, to become abolitionist.
Meanwhile, other states such as Colorado, Delaware, Oregon and New Hampshire are moving closer to abolition.
Former President Jimmy Carter’s call ilast month for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty — and for the US Supreme Court to reintroduce the ban on capital punishment it had imposed between 1972 and 1976 — is most welcome.
Globally, it is clearer than ever that abolition is politically right and politically possible. Any objective assessment shows that full global abolition would be a true victory for humanity. Fortunately, the question now is no longer one of “if” but one of “when.”
Increasingly, it will also be a question of “who”: Which nation will be the last, lonely outpost of state killing? Which will be the last to cross the threshold to a modern, civilized system of justice by finally abolishing this cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment?
Every executing state still has the choice and the opportunity not to be burdened with such an unenviable legacy. As we shine a spotlight on this ultimate abuse of human rights today, the message is clear: With political courage, every nation could immediately suspend use of the death penalty as a step toward full abolition.
The writers are members of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, an independent body of politically influential people supported by a diverse group of 16 governments. Bill Richardson is former Governor of New Mexico, US. Federico Mayor is President of ICDP and former Director General, UNESCO and former Minister of Education and Science of Spain.
(B. Richardson and F. Mayor, "Global trend to end death penalty is accelerating dramatically," Global Post, December 10, 2013). See International and Recent Legislation.Tweet
Timothy Johnson was acquitted of murder charges and released from prison in Georgia on December 5, twenty-nine years after being charged with a murder and robbery at a convenience store. Johnson had originally pled guilty to the crimes in exchange for the prosecution's agreement not to seek the death penalty. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2006 because he was not properly informed of his constitutional protection against self-incrimination and his right to confront witnesses against him. The jury deliberated for only about an hour before rendering the acquittal. His family greeted him upon his release. “My heart is overwhelmed for him,” said his uncle, Willie Wilson. “I’m just elated.”
(B. Purser, "After 29 years in jail, Timothy Johnson is free," Macon Telegraph, December 6, 2013). See Innocence and Arbitrariness. The case illustrates the danger of using the death penalty as a plea-bargaining incentive. Defendants sometimes plead guilty to a crime they did not commit in order to avoid the possibility of a death sentence.Tweet
When South Africa's Constitutional Court was created under then-President Nelson Mandela, its first act was to abolish the death penalty. Justice Arthur Chaskalson, President of the Court, announced its unanimous decision on June 7, 1995, stating, "Everyone, including the most abominable of human beings, has a right to life, and capital punishment is therefore unconstitutional....Retribution cannot be accorded the same weight under our Constitution as the right to life and dignity. It has not been shown that the death sentence would be materially more effective to deter or prevent murder than the alternative sentence of life imprisonment would be." Under apartheid, the death penalty had been applied much more often to blacks than to whites. Mandela, himself, faced the possibility of a death sentence in his 1962 trial for incitement.
At the time of the Constitutional Court's decision, the African National Congress applauded the death-penalty ruling, saying, "never, never and never again must citizens of our country be subjected to the barbaric practice of capital punishment."
(H. French, "South Africa's Supreme Court Abolishes Death Penalty," New York Times, June 7, 1995; photo: South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za; DPIC posted Dec. 6, 2013). See History of the Death Penalty and International.
Jerry Martin (pictured, r.) was executed in Texas on December 3 for killing a correctional officer during an escape attempt in 2007. Meanwhile, John Falk (l.), who also participated in the escape and was reportedly driving the car that struck and killed the officer, has not even been convicted six years after the crime. Falk's original trial was declared a mistrial due to problems with the jury instructions, and it is possilbe another trial will not be allowed. (He remains incarcerated for life on his original charge.) Martin waived his appeals and said he had tried to escape from prison out of a sense of hopelessness.
The author of the article in the Texas Monthly about the two defendants said such different outcomes "is testament to a much broader truth about the death penalty in Texas: whether or not an execution takes place is the product of a dizzying array of factors. It depends on what county you’re from, who the DA is there, who is appointed as the defense attorney, and how each tiny legal technicality is analyzed up and down a chain of appeals courts."Tweet
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.Drew Johnson: Capital punishment inconsistent with conservative views
by Drew Johnson
Conservatives from all levels of government are fighting to protect innocent life, promote financial responsibility and support government programs that really work. After all, that's what conservatism is all about. That's why conservatives such as myself, Tennessee state Rep. Steve McManus, R-Cordova, and national leaders like Brent Bozell, Jay Sekulow and Ron Paul have all begun to publicly question capital punishment.
National support for the death penalty is at an all-time low. Our neighbor to the east, North Carolina, supported repealing the death penalty by 68 percent in a recent poll.
Earlier this month, Reginald Griffin of Missouri became the 143rd person to be wrongfully convicted and released from death row since 1973. How many others were not so fortunate and were wrongly executed? We may never know, but if conservatives continue to fight for innocent life, then we shouldn't support a program that is proven to be wrong time and time again when lives hang in the balance.
Life is too precious to rely on mistake-prone processes like the death penalty.
Unfortunately, we live in an era when running annual deficits and accumulating enormous public debt is commonplace. While Tennessee is run far better than the federal government, the death penalty is still a financial drain on Volunteer State taxpayers. The state Comptroller's Office found that capital trials are 48 percent more expensive than trials with life without parole as the punishment.
That doesn't even begin to cover the decades-long appeals process, housing inmates on death row and legal fees that make the death penalty several times more expensive than comparable cases with the punishment of life without the possibility of release.
We continue to pay the tab for this program because we are told that it deters crime and protects the public, but many studies prove there is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime any better than life without parole. If it did deter crime, then shouldn't the state that uses it the most, Texas, have the lowest murder rates in the nation? It doesn't.
My view of limited government is not giving the state the power to kill American citizens. There is nothing limited about that authority.
Our government is encroaching upon every aspect of our lives and assuming all kinds of power. If the government can't figure out how to run the healthcare.gov website, then why do people think the government can operate the death penalty program?
The truth is that government is not perfect, far from it, and the death penalty runs a dangerously high probability of killing innocent people, siphons billions of dollars from the public and gives the government power it cannot be trusted to carry out fairly.
To make matters worse, the state of Tennessee has decided to make its death penalty drug confidential. The public is not allowed to know what the drug is or where it was procured. It doesn't make sense that the state government would conceal this information unless it has something to hide.
Conservatives believe in transparency in government, not secrets from the public, which this clearly is.
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.
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East Tennessee resident Drew Johnson is a Senior Fellow at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and the founder of the Beacon Center of Tennessee.
(D. Johnson, "Drew Johnson: Capital punishment inconsistent with conservative views," Knoxville News-Sentinel, December 1, 2013). See New Voices.Tweet
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.)
(S. Hsu, "Police chiefs lead effort to prevent wrongful convictions by altering investigative practices," Washington Post, December 2, 2013). See Innocence and New Voices. Since 1973, 143 defendants have been exonerated and freed from death row.Tweet
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.Editorial: Conservatives vs. the death penalty
Published: 29 November 2013 05:05 PM Updated: 30 November 2013 12:08 PM
Opposition to the death penalty is not just the province of the political left.
This year has seen the emergence of a new national group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which has been assembling a network of like-minded activists since its debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March in National Harbor, Md. This month, the conservative group announced a partnership with a Ron Paul-inspired, campus-centered organization, the Young Americans for Liberty.
The driving principles are capital punishment’s incompatibility with the conservative ideals of restraining government, protecting life and maintaining fiscal responsibility.
The political right has teamed up with the left to push “smart on crime” reforms in sentencing and incarceration, among other issues. From the standpoint of this newspaper and our opposition to the death penalty, that same political axis could be key to making further inroads as more states consider joining the 18 that have already abolished the practice.
Texas, it is clear, is a stronghold of death-penalty support. A University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll this fall showed 74 percent of Texans in favor — about 14 points above national support expressed to a similar death-penalty question in a Gallup Poll last month.
The Texas poll showed that about 13 percent of the registered voters who opposed the death penalty identified themselves as conservatives.
One such Texan is criminal defense attorney Pat Monks of Houston, a Republican precinct chairman in Harris County. Monks said he once was a fervent supporter of capital punishment, a position that hardened after a friend was murdered. He said he would attend social justice seminars to press his point, once even heckling noted capital punishment opponent Sister Helen Prejean, who came to speak.
Ultimately, Monks said, the futility of seeking justice through the death chamber hit home to him. The impossibility of eradicating human error from the system hit home to him.
Monks said he came to see no deterrent value for a punishment that’s imposed unevenly at an intolerable expense to the public. Monks asserts that a more suitable punishment is sending a killer to a “4-by-8 cell, 23 hours a day for the rest of his life.”
Monks joined the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; he says he’s one of three conservative board members. This year, he was asked to help staff the booth that the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty set up at the Maryland CPAC convention.
It was a surprise, Monks said, to see how many conservative activists at the convention stopped by to discuss the death penalty. “People would come up and say, ‘Man, I’m with you on that.’”
That’s not where most Texans are, not by a long shot. Most hold the same pro-death-penalty position Monks once held. We hope more will do the inquiry he did and have that same transformation.
Supporters of new conservative group
“I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism. So I am pleased with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty’s efforts to form a coalition of libertarians and conservatives to work to end capital punishment.”
Ron Paul, former Texas member of Congress and Republican presidential candidate
“I’m opposed to the death penalty not because I think it’s unconstitutional per se — although I think it’s been applied in ways that are unconstitutional — but it really is a moral view, and that is that the taking of life is not the way to handle even the most significant of crimes. Who amongst anyone is not above redemption?”
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the religious-liberty advocates American Center for Law and Justice
“Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life.”
Richard Viguerie, direct-mail mogul and major funder of conservative causes
SOURCES: Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty; Religion News Service; SojournersTweet
The Death Penalty Information Center was recently added to the Giving Library, a website that connects donors to nonprofit organizations through online videos. In DPIC's video, Executive Director Richard Dieter describes DPIC's mission of educating the public about capital punishment, saying, "We believe that a well-informed, balanced discussion on the death penalty is essential to address the problems of this system." The video also highlights DPIC's essential role as a source for the media and emphasizes our broad range of resources, including our two educational curricula. On December 3, also known as #GivingTuesday, Giving Library is kicking off its "Share to Give" campaign. Visitors to the website who sign up for a "Library Card" can share videos about their favorite organizations on Facebook or Twitter. The Giving Library will donate $5 to the organization for each time their video is shared. Beginning on December 3, you can support DPIC's work by visiting our Giving Library profile and sharing our video on your Facebook or Twitter accounts.
(Posted by DPIC, November 27, 2013.) See Donate.Tweet
Radley Balko, writing in the Huffington Post, has examined more closely some of the counties identified in DPIC's recent report, The 2% Death Penalty, as using the death penalty the most. Balko found that many of those high-use counties have a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and other problems. For example, Philadelphia County has sent more inmates to death row than any other county in Pennsylvania. However, a study of criminal cases overturned in the state because of prosecutorial misconduct found over 60% of the cases came from Philadelphia. Duval County, Florida, has the largest per capita death row in the nation, but recently elected a head public defender who ran on a platform of cutting funding to public defense and billing indigent defendants who are acquitted. In the California counties of Santa Clara and Riverside, courts had to review thousands of cases due to prosecutors' failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, including fraud by a crime lab technician. In some instances, this misconduct hid the actual innocence of the defendant, such as that of Ray Krone in Maricopa County, Arizona, who was sentenced to death after prosecutors withheld crucial evidence.
(R. Balko, "Counties That Send The Most People To Death Row Show A Questionable Commitment to Justice," Huffington Post, November 25, 2013). See Arbitrariness and Innocence. See DPIC's Report, The 2% Death Penalty.Tweet
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.Tweet
On November 21, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to posthumously pardon Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson, three of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," a group of black teenagers who were charged in 1931 of raping two white women. Eight of the nine defendants, including the three who were recently pardoned, were originally sentenced to death. The racial injustice of the case sparked protests and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one because the defendants did not receive adequate counsel and the other because no blacks were allowed to serve as jurors during the trials. The three who were recently exonerated were the last of the group who had not already been pardoned or had charges against them dropped. Legislation passed in Alabama earlier this year allowed the Board to grant posthumous pardons in cases involving racial or social injustice. The pardon and parole board's assistant executive director, Eddie Cook, said, "Today, we were able to undo a black eye that has been held over Alabama for many years." Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley said, “The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice.”
("Scottsboro Boys Get Posthumous Pardon in 1931 Ala. Rape Case," Reuters; N.Y. Times, November 21, 2013). See Race and Innocence.Tweet
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.Ohio should kill capital punishment
By Jeff Gerritt
Deputy Blade Editor
Capital punishment has been part of Ohio’s justice system since statehood in 1803, and The Blade’s editorial page has a tradition of supporting it. It’s a tradition I oppose, even as its deputy editor.
I couldn’t persuade Publisher and Editor-in-Chief John Robinson Block, who sincerely supports capital punishment, to change The Blade’s long-standing position. But I can argue, as an individual, that Ohio should follow the lead of six other states that have, in as many years, abolished this costly, impractical, inhumane, and unjust practice.
Ohio has executed more than 390 convicted murderers. Executions have continued since the early 1800s, except between 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, and 1981, when Ohio lawmakers enacted the current capital punishment statute.
Even so, the state can offer no rational defense for it.
Some people argue, without evidence, that capital punishment deters heinous crimes. In fact, according to FBI crime statistics, murder rates in death-penalty states are significantly higher than those in states without the death penalty, and they have been for decades.
Nor does the deterrence argument make sense. Does anyone really believe that the difference between execution and life in prison would deter any murder, whether committed in passionate heat or cold-blooded calculation?
Another popular argument for the death penalty — one I saw again in The Blade’s Readers’ Forum last week — is that it saves taxpayers the expense of incarceration. In Ohio, it’s about $25,000 a year.
But the legal expenses of prosecuting death-penalty cases and fighting appeals are far higher. Prisoners often remain on death row for decades, while they exhaust a constitutional appeals process that can tap taxpayers $10 million per case.
A recent study in Colorado, published in the University of Denver Criminal Law review, found that capital proceedings require six times as many days in court as do life-without-parole cases. On average, death-penalty cases take almost four years longer to complete.
In California, a 2008 report by the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimated that the death penalty costs the state at least $137 million a year. Just confining a death-row inmate costs $90,000 a year more than holding a maximum-security prisoner. Another study, completed in 2011 and updated last year, concluded that the death penalty had cost California more than $4 billion since 1978, including $1.7 billion in legal expenses for state and federal appeals.
Small wonder a conservative Republican commentator in North Carolina called the death penalty “the very epitome of a wasteful government program.”
More troubling is the possibility of executing the innocent. In the 1990s, DNA technology proved that innocent people have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to death. 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.
Even before DNA technology became prevalent, a study conducted by the Stanford Law Review documented two dozen cases in 1987 of persons sentenced to death that later had been released because of doubts concerning guilt.
Conservatives, especially, don’t trust government to do anything. Why would they want to give it power over life and death?
Mandatory life sentences — the alternative penalty in the 18 states that have abolished capital punishment — negate any public safety arguments for the death penalty. In fact, some people have argued against capital punishment solely because they believe life in prison inflicts more suffering.
Finally, the death penalty is criminally inequitable, disproportionately affecting African-Americans and other people of color. 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.
Nationwide, African-Americans who kill whites are far more likely to get the death penalty than those who kill African-Americans.
Sentencing reforms cannot remedy deep-seated biases in the criminal justice system. They affect the quality of defendants’ legal counsel, police patrolling, arrest procedures, jury panels, and judges.
In truth, retribution is the only solid argument for capital punishment. It has driven the death penalty for more than 4,000 years, starting with stoning.
No doubt, the thirst for vengeance is almost universal. Victims of a brutal crime may feel it most of all.
In moments of anger or rage, I’ve wanted to kill or hurt people too, but checking emotions is part of living in a civil society.
Reason and redemption are also part of the human condition. Society, and the laws that uphold it, shouldn’t codify and cultivate people’s most atavistic impulses.
If anything, state-sponsored executions exacerbate violence and diminish respect for life. It’s as much about what it does to us as to the condemned.
Nationwide, capital punishment is becoming increasingly unusual, as defined by the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual standard. Last year, the nation carried out 43 executions — including three in Ohio — compared to 85 in 2000 and 98 in 1999, reports the Death Penalty Information Center. Most of the U.S. death-penalty cases have come from only 2 percent of the nation’s counties, many of them in Texas and California, another sign that death sentences are inequitable and arbitrary.
Former death-penalty supporter Edwin J. Peterson, who served as chief justice of Oregon’s Supreme Court, called the death penalty “dysfunctional, expensive, unworkable, and unfair.”
Former President Jimmy Carter last week became another voice calling for the end of the death penalty, saying governments too often impose it on the poor, minorities, and those with diminished capacities.
Ohio first used public hangings to execute convicted murderers, switching to the electric chair in 1897. In 2001, under the administration of Gov. Bob Taft, the state retired the electric chair. Since then, Ohio has relied on lethal injections.
Now, a nationwide shortage of lethal drugs has triggered another national debate on the death penalty. The evidence points to one verdict: Capital punishment should die in Ohio.Tweet
In a 6-3 decision on November 20, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied a request from death row inmate Duane Buck for a new sentencing hearing, despite the fact that racially prejudicial statements had been made during his trial. While the jury was being asked to consider if Buck would be a future danger to society, a psychologist testified that African Americans commit a disproportionate number of criminal offenses. Buck's case was one of seven identified in 2000 by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn in which testimony linking race to future dangerousness was impermissibly used. The other six defendants received new sentencing hearings, but Buck did not because his case was still in the early stages of appeal. Three judges dissented, writing, "The record in this case reveals a chronicle of inadequate representation at every stage of the proceedings, the integrity of which is further called into question by the admission of racist and inflammatory testimony from an expert witness at the punishment stage." Buck's attorneys said they will appeal: "We will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the important due process and equal protection issues at stake in Mr. Buck’s case, and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will intervene to right this unequivocal wrong," they said.
(M. Graczyk, "Split Texas court rejects condemned man's appeal," Associated Press, November 20, 2013). See Arbitrariness and Race. Read the dissenting opinion, Ex parte Duane Edward Buck, No. WR-57,004-03; read the Press Release from Duane Buck's attorneys (Nov. 20, 2013).Tweet
Legal challenges to new lethal injection procedures have delayed executions in Florida and Missouri this week. Similar challenges halted executions in Georgia in July. On November 18, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a hearing on the state's new execution protocol and stayed the execution of Askari Muhammad, who had been scheduled for execution on December 3. The hearing will examine "the efficacy of midazolam hydrochloride as an anesthetic in the amount prescribed by Florida's protocol." Florida is the first state to use midazolam in executions, having carried out two executions using this drug in combination with 2 other drugs. In Missouri, a federal judge stayed the execution of Joseph Franklin on November 19, calling the state's execution protocol, "a frustratingly moving target." She said that the Department of Corrections "has not provided any information about the certification, inspection history, infraction history, or other aspects of the compounding pharmacy or of the person compounding the drug." The stay was lifted hours later by a higher court, and Franklin was executed on November 20, though other challenges to the execution process continue. Earlier this year, a Georgia Superior Court judge stayed the execution of Warren Hill, questioning the constitutionality of the law that classified information on execution drugs as "confidential state secrets."
("Court lifts stay of execution of serial killer in Mo.," Associated Press, November 20, 2013; B. Cotterell, "Florida death row inmate wins stay, hearing on new execution drug," Reuters, November 18, 2013). See Lethal injection.Tweet
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury's 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the case, saying the Court should reconsider Alabama's death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury's recommendation for life came from Alabama, including some in which the vote for life was unanimous. She speculated that Alabama's elected judges may face political pressures to appear harsh in their use of the death penalty that unelected judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?," she wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." She cited instances in which judges used their death sentences as part of their electoral campaigns.
A recent New York Times editorial commented on the case. The paper noted that 90% of Alabama's judicial overrides impose death where a jury recommended life, with only 10% imposing life over a jury's recommendation for death. "The death penalty should have no legitimate mooring at all in modern American society, and it certainly should not be imposed by a judge who is worried about keeping his job," the editorial said.
(R. Barnes, "Sotomayor questions Alabama death-penalty process," Washington Post, November 18, 2013; Editorial, "Death Meted Out by Politicians in Robes," New York Times, November 18, 2013). See U.S. Supreme Court. Read the full dissent.Tweet
After concerns were raised that Missouri's proposed use of the anesthetic propofol in executions could endanger the supply of that drug for use in surgeries, Governor Jay Nixon ordered the Department of Corrections to revise the state's lethal injection protocol. Experts say that the new protocol, which hides the source of the pentobarbital that will now be used in executions, could result in substandard drugs being used to execute prisoners. The state plans to use a compounding pharmacy to produce the drug, but and inspection of compounding pharmacies by the Missouri Board of Pharmacy found about 1 in 5 drugs did not meet their standards. Randy Juhl, the former dean of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Pharmacy, questioned whether the statute that regulates compounding pharmacies even allows them to legally provide drugs for an execution, since it requires that a prescription be "issued for a legitimate medical purpose." John Simon, a constitutional lawyer representing death row inmate Joseph Paul Franklin, said he is concerned that the drug could cause Franklin "a lengthy, excruciating death." "Criminal penalties aren’t intended to drag us down to the level of the worst offenders," Simon said. Franklin is scheduled to be executed on November 20.
(C. McDaniel and V. LaCapra, "Mo. Moving Forward With Executions, Despite Secrecy Over Drug Supply," KWMU-FM, November 14, 2013.) See Lethal Injection.Tweet
Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School, has written a new book supporting capital punishment, The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst. Blecker urges readers to consider his retributivist argument for the death penalty: "We retributivists view punishment differently," he wrote. "We don't punish to prevent crime or remake criminals. We inflict pain--suffering, discomfort--to the degree they deserve to feel it." He would impose the death penalty not only on some murderers, but also on corporate leaders responsible for the death of innocent people. On the other hand, he would spare many among those now on death row because they are not the "worst of the worst." Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School called the book "an eloquent, unsparing, often counterintuitive, and sometimes painful meditation on why, whom, and how a decent society should decide to punish, and what those questions can teach us about universal truths of morality and justice."
(R. Blecker, "The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst," Palgrave MacMillan (2013); DPIC posted Nov. 15, 2013). See Books and Death Row.
On November 13 Ohio Governor John Kasich stayed the execution of Ronald Phillips less than 24 hours before he was to be die by lethal injection in order to consider Phillips' request to donate a kidney to his mother. Kasich stated, “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen.” Medical experts will now have time to determine whether Phillips would be a suitable donor for his mother, who is on dialysis, and other implications of the donation can be considered. In 1995, Delaware death-row inmate Steven Shelton was allowed to donate a kidney to his mother. His death sentence was later reversed for other reasons. However, in Florida, Joseph Brown was not allowed to donate a kidney to his brother, who later died. Brown was freed from death row after being exonerated in 1987. Phillips also offered to donate his heart to his sister after he was executed, but donations of vital organs have not been allowed during U.S. executions because of ethical issues. Texas allows general prisoners to donate non-vital organs, but not those on death row.
Phillips' execution has been rescheduled for July 2, 2014. He was to be executed on November 14 using a drug combination never tried before in the U.S.
(J. Smyth, "Ohio governor delays execution, says inmate request to donate organs is 'uncharted territory,'" Associated Press, November 13, 2014; DPIC research). See Clemency and Death Row.Tweet
The Concord Monitor of New Hampshire called for repeal of the state's death penalty in a recent editorial. The paper contrasted the case of Michael Addison, the state's only death row inmate, to that of John Brooks, who was convicted of hiring three hitmen to kill a handyman, whom Brooks believed had stolen from him. Brooks received a sentence of life without parole. The Monitor noted, "Brooks was rich and white; Addison was poor and black.... Addison’s victim had the full force of New Hampshire law enforcement watching every twist and turn of the case; Brooks’s victim was little known and quickly forgotten. Different lawyers, different juries, different cases. But it’s difficult not to step back and wonder about the fairness of it all." Addison's death sentence was recently upheld by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The editorial concluded by calling for repeal legislation in 2014, saying, "New Hampshire hasn’t used its death penalty in more than 70 years. We will be a better, fairer, more humane state without it." Read the full editorial below.Editorial: It’s time to repeal the death penalty
It is to the significant credit of the prosecutors in the capital murder case against Michael Addison that their arguments withstood numerous strong arguments from defense attorneys before the New Hampshire Supreme Court. It is to the significant credit of the lower court judge that the process was deemed fair.
But it is to the extreme detriment of New Hampshire as a whole that Addison is now one step closer to death. This week’s ruling should strengthen the resolve of those working to overturn the state’s death penalty statute, to keep New Hampshire government from ever again playing executioner in our name.
Addison is the man who shot a Manchester police officer to death in 2006. His victim, Michael Briggs, was a 35-year-old father of two from Concord. The shooting followed a weeklong crime spree, after which then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte called Addison a “cold-blooded, coldhearted, remorseless killer” who deserved the death penalty for his crime. Addison’s lawyers said he fired the gun in a panic, that his actions were reckless but not purposeful. The jury sided with the state, and Addison was eventually sentenced to die, making him the only person on the state’s death row, in a state that hadn’t executed a soul since 1939.
About the same time, in a different courtroom, a different New Hampshire jury was weighing the case of John Brooks, a millionaire businessman accused of hiring three men to kill a handyman who Brooks believed had stolen from him. Brooks, like Addison, was convicted of capital murder, but his jury rejected the death penalty and sentenced him to life in prison instead.
Brooks was rich and white; Addison was poor and black. Brooks plotted his victim’s murder deliberately; Addison shot Briggs as he fled. Addison’s victim had the full force of New Hampshire law enforcement watching every twist and turn of the case; Brooks’s victim was little known and quickly forgotten. Different lawyers, different juries, different cases. But it’s difficult not to step back and wonder about the fairness of it all. In a state where the capital murder statute is rarely used, it’s hard to imagine two more starkly different outcomes.
The Addison case isn’t over – not by far. The state Supreme Court still must decide whether Addison’s death sentence was excessive or disproportionate compared with the penalties imposed in similar cases. Should the state win, there will no doubt be federal appeals that will take years to resolve.
In the meantime, state lawmakers should take advantage of the new opportunity granted them by a governor who, for the first time in the modern era, opposes the death penalty. They should repeal the capital punishment statute in 2014, knowing full well that the sentence meted out to Brooks – life in prison without parole – is justice enough for even the most remorseless killers. New Hampshire hasn’t used its death penalty in more than 70 years. We will be a better, fairer, more humane state without it.Tweet