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Report: U.S. Death Sentences Decline in 2011

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its year-end report. In 2011, less than 100 fewer death sentences were imposed, the lowest number since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

The number of new death sentences imposed in 2011 stands at 78, a decline of about 75% since 1996, when 315 inmates were sentenced to death. This is the lowest number of death sentences in any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Texas, which had 48 new death sentences in 1999, had only 8 this year.

The number of U.S. executions also declined. "There were 43 executions in 13 states, a 56% decline since 1999, when there were 98."

34 states still authorize the death penalty. According to the 2011 Gallup Poll, only 61% of Americans now support the death penalty, compared to 80% in 1994.

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Ohio Gov. Commutes Death Sentence

Ohio Governor John Kasich has followed the recommendation of the Ohio Parole Board commuted the death sentence of Joseph Murphy to life without parole. The issue: "childhood growing up in West Virginia in which he was beaten, starved and sexually abused."

Joseph Murphy’s murder of Ruth Predmore was heinous and disturbing and he deserves—and continues to receive—severe punishment. Even though as a child and adolescent Murphy suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him, it does not excuse his crime. However, the Ohio Supreme Court split 4-3 on whether Murphy should receive the death penalty and the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, in his dissent against the death penalty in this case, said that 'in all of the death penalty cases I have reviewed, I know of no other case in which the defendant ... was as destined for disaster as was Joseph Murphy.'"

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Texas Ends Special "Last Meals" for Death Row Inmates

If only it were as easy to end the death penalty as it was for Texas to end last meals for those about to be executed.

Texas inmates who are set to be executed will no longer get their choice of last meals, after a prominent state senator voiced concern over a request from a man condemned for a notorious race killing.

...It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege," Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, wrote in a letter to Brad Livingston, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Livingston agreed and with one fell swoop of his pen, ended the practice. [More...]

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Distinguishing the Innocent Not an Easy Task

The ACLU tweeted last nightt:

In case it wasn't obvious: the only way to avoid executing the innocent is end the deathpenalty.

Back in 2009, I wrote this post about Justice Anton Scalia's view of the Troy Davis case, the presumption of innocence, which back in 1895 in a case called Coffin v. U.S, the Supreme Court called a "bedrock" of our criminal justice system, and on why those who "did it" may be just as at risk of a miscarriage of justice as those who are innocent. From the Coffin case: [More...]

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Flaws in Military Death Penalty Cases Exposed

McClatchy has a report today on the flaws in the military's death penalty system:

Of the 16 men sentenced to death since the military overhauled its system in 1984, 10 have been taken off death row. The military's appeals courts have overturned most of the sentences, not because of a change in heart about the death penalty or questions about the men's guilt, but because of mistakes made at every level of the military's judicial system.

Why?

The problems included defense attorneys who bungled representation, judges who didn't know how to properly instruct a jury and prosecutors who mishandled evidence....At almost every level - from trial to appeals - young, inexperienced lawyers routinely have been appointed to represent capital defendants.

McClatchy contrasts these cases with those of the 9/11 defendants: [More...]

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IL Govenor Signs Bill Abolishing Death Penalty

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has signed the bill abolishing the death penalty passed by the legislature in January. He also commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates now on death row to life in prison without parole. The law goes into effect July 1.

Illinois is now the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.

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Singapore's Mandatory Death Penalty: Yong Vui Kong

Yong Vui Kong is on death row in Singapore, arrested at age 18 for carrying 1.5 ounces of heroin. Singapore's law provides the death penalty for anyone caught with more than 15 grams of heroin (Kong had 47) and provides no exceptions.

His dedicated family (particularly his brother and sister) and his attorney Madasamy Ravi, a Singapore human rights lawyer and member of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, have done a herculean job so far of keeping the case in the courts. The end is now here, but he still could be saved.

Al Jazeera made the excellent video above telling the story, I hope you will all watch. [More...]

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Virginia: First Female Execution Since 1912

Teresa Lewis didn't pull the trigger. She confessed, pleaded guilty and cooperated with authorities. She has an IQ of 70, right on the border of mental retardation. She has no prior criminal record, and no prior history of violence. The triggermen in the murder got life without parole. Yet she's scheduled to die by lethal injection. She is the first female sentenced to death in Virginia since 1912.

John Grisham weighs in. A writer in the Sydney Morning Herald says Iran does not have a monopoly on barbarism and reminds the U.S. that humanity begins at home.

The execution is set for September 23. Save Teresa Lewis. More here.

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Sotomayor's First Criminal Opinion Disappoints

Supreme Court Justice Sonja Sotomayor's issued her first signed criminal opinion this morning in Wood v Allen, upholding the death penalty for a man with a borderline IQ. It affirms the 11th Circuit's denial of habeas relief, deferring to the Alabama Supreme Court's decision under AEDPA that defense counsel was not ineffective, because he made a "strategic decision" not to present evidence of the mental deficiencies.

Justice Stevens and Kenney dissented. (Opinion here.) [More...]

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"Effective Death Penalty Apeals Bill" Introduced in House

Recognizing the difficulty that death row inmates have in bringing innocence claims before the court, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) has introduced H.R. 3986, "The Effective Death Penalty Appeals Act." (Received by e-mail from Amnesty International USA , no link yet:)

When a person facing execution has strong evidence of his innocence, he should have ample opportunity to bring those claims back into a court of law. The law as it stands today is flawed in this respect. Rep. Johnson's bill would ensure that death row inmates have the opportunity to present newly discovered evidence of innocence.

Given that 139 people have been wrongfully convicted and sent to death row in the last three decades in the United States, it is especially important that lawmakers take a close look at the flaws in a system that irreversibly takes human life.

This bill would help inmates like Troy Davis, who due to AEDPA, came within hours of being executed because courts said he could not raise his factual innocence claim. In August, the Supreme Court ruled David should be allowed a new hearing to establish his innocence. Legislation is needed to help others in this situation. [More...]

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Death Penalty Opera To Premiere in Indianapolis

"Small Box", an opera about the death penalty, will play for one night only on Nov. 7th in Indianapolis.

The opera has a cast of eight -- six men and two women. Two of the men are prison officers assigned to the death row visiting room. The officer in charge is an older man, whose assistant is a new officer, still learning the ropes after two weeks on the job.

One inmate is a multiple murderer who, because of a judge's error, had his death sentence reduced to life in prison. He works as the unit's janitor.

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New Study: Ending Death Penalty Could Save States Millions

The Death Penalty Information Center released a new study today (pdf) showing that states could save millions by ending the death penalty. A poll of police chiefs across the country was released with the report, Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis (pdf).

[The poll] found that they ranked the death penalty last among their priorities for crime-fighting, do not believe the death penalty deters murder, and rate it as the least efficient use of limited taxpayer dollars.

From DPIC:

“With many states spending millions to retain the death penalty, while seldom or never carrying out an execution, the death penalty is turning into a very expensive form of life without parole. At a time of budget shortfalls, the death penalty cannot be exempt from reevaluation alongside other wasteful government programs that no longer make sense,” said Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center and the report’s author.

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The High Cost of the Death Penalty

The New York Times has an editorial today on the economic toll of the death penalty. Some stats it obtained from the Death Penalty Information Center:

According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole. North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.

Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life.

As to how the money could be better used: [More...]

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Dershowitz: Scalia's Death Penalty Remarks a "Betrayal" of Constitution and Church

Professor Alan Dershowitz, writing in the Daily Beast today calls Justice Antonin Scalia's remarks about the death penalty a betrayal of both the Constitution and the Catholic Church.

The Supreme Court justice’s shocking remarks about capital punishment are not just a distortion of the Constitution, says Alan Dershowitz, they’re also an outrage against his church.

My views on Scalia's remarks are here. To recap, Scalia wrote in his dissent in the Troy Davis case:

“This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.”

Alan makes this analogy: [More...]

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Senate Adds Expanded Death Penalty to Hate Crimes Bill


Two things I already knew: Sen. Jeff Sessions is a danger as the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate's Hate Crimes bill is ill-conceived legislation.

Things I now know: It's worse than I thought. The ACLU reports the Senate yesterday approved an Amendment by Jeff Sessions expanding the use of the death penalty for hate crimes. (Why not just life plus cancer as a penalty while he's at it?)

From the ACLU and then an action alert to get this removed.

The U.S. Senate yesterday passed an amendment extending the death penalty for certain hate crimes. The amendment, sponsored by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), was added to the hate crimes amendment to the Defense authorization bill that passed last Thursday. In a letter sent to Senators, the American Civil Liberties Union urged lawmakers to oppose this misguided and wrong expansion of the federal death penalty.

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