When he recently signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn noted a “grave danger” that the innocent could be executed. This past March, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in Skinner v. Switzer, to expand the right to access DNA testing that could potentially prove a defendants innocence. Last week the New York Times published a firsthand account by John Thompson, an innocent man who came within hours of his own execution. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a $14 million jury award compensating him for the years he spent in prison. Public opinion surrounding the death penalty has been shaped, in recent years, by the possibility of innocents being executed. And DNA exonerations continue to regularly occur, although with little rigorous assessment of what went wrong.
Category: death penalty
The only thing sustaining Jim Rocap III in the last few days, he said Tuesday, was the classic Winston Churchill admonition: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”
Rocap, partner at Steptoe & Johnson in D.C. has represented Virginia death row inmate Teresa Lewis since 2004. But this week the final avenues of appeal were closing, one by one. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell refused to grant clemency twice, and late Tuesday the Supreme Court denied Lewis a stay of execution by a 7-2 vote and rejected Rocap’s petition for certiorari. Barring any unforeseen development, she will be executed Thursday night at 9 at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, the first woman put to death in nearly a century by Virginia.
“We are deeply disappointed,” Rocap said in a statement after the Court action was announced. “A good and decent person is about to lose her life because of a system that is badly broken.”
Earlier on Tuesday Rocap sounded optimistic, having filed with the Court a petition offering two seemingly plausible arguments for habeas relief: one, based on Apprendi v. New Jersey claiming a jury, not a judge should have decided if she should be sentenced to death, and the other a Strickland v. Washington claim about the trial lawyer’s failure to rebut aggravating factors raised during her sentencing.
“This was not an innocence case, but it is as good an example as you can find of someone who should not be put to death,” said Rocap. “Teresa is a poster child for why the death penalty process is broken.”
When a Wake County jury decided late last month to spare the life of a man that prosecutors described as a “monster” and “cold-blooded serial killer,” death penalty opponents quietly hugged one another.
Samuel J. Cooper, 33, whom defense attorneys had portrayed as mentally scarred from years of physical and emotional abuse, would not join the 157 inmates on North Carolina’s death row. The killer, convicted by the same jury of five first-degree murders, would spend the rest of his life in prison without possibility of parole.
The sentence was a sign of changing times in North Carolina, one of 35 states where capital punishment is allowed – but used less and less frequently.
“You look at that case as a prosecutor and say, “If you can’t get the death penalty in that case, gee, what case are you going to get the death penalty in?”" said Jim Woodall, the district attorney in Orange and Chatham counties who also serves as president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. “More and more, the climate is against trying capital cases; therefore, you have to have almost a perfect trial for it to be upheld.”
A national physicians organization has quietly decided to revoke the certification of any member who participates in executing a prisoner by lethal injection.
The mandate from the American Board of Anesthesiologists reflects its leaders’ belief that “we are healers, not executioners,” board secretary Mark A. Rockoff said. Although the American Medical Association has long opposed doctor involvement, the anesthesiologists’ group is the first to say it will harshly penalize a health-care worker for abetting lethal injections. The loss of certification would prevent an anesthesiologist from working in most hospitals.
Something is afoot in America’s most “law-and-order” state. The number of people sent to death row is declining.
On Sept. 21, 2006, Juan Quintero, an undocumented Mexican national, was arrested after a routine traffic stop in Houston. The arresting officer, Rodney Johnson, frisked and cuffed Quintero, who was driving without a license, before placing him in the back seat of his patrol car. But Johnson missed the gun that Quintero had hidden on him. Moments later, as Johnson sat in the front seat writing up a report, Quintero fired seven times, killing the officer.
Johnson’s murder shocked Houston. But what happened afterwards may have been just as startling. Juries in Harris County (where Houston is located) were once notable for handing down death sentences. They stood out even in Texas, long a pro-death penalty state. During the 1990s the county sent more than a dozen convicted felons a year to death row—a larger number than some states—and currently accounts for more than a third of the inmates on Texas’ death row (106 of 332).
Nevertheless, Quintero received a life sentence following his trial in May 2008. Even his gruesome attack on a police officer did not alter the change of heart that has apparently transformed Houston from what anti-capital punishment advocates once dubbed the “capital of capital punishment” into a death-penalty-free zone.
It has, in fact, been more than two years since any Harris County jury has imposed a death sentence. The Quintero case, says Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) was a graphic demonstration that Texas is no longer ”so reliant on the death penalty.”
Statistics bear that out. Last year, the number of new death sentences handed down in Texas dropped to nine, the lowest number since the state revived the death penalty in 1976, and down from nearly 30 in 2003. That’s a remarkable contrast to the peak years in the late 1990s, when as many as 48 people a year would be sent to death row, according to the TCADP’s annual report on the state of Texas’ death penalty.
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The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has about one-quarter of its prisoners. As you noted, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over 2.4 million persons are in state or federal prisons and jails – a rate of 751 out of every 100,000. Another 5 million are under some sort of correctional supervision such as probation or parole (PEW 2008). The US remains the last of the post-industrial so-called First World nations that still retains the death penalty, and we use it often. Nearly 3,500 inmates await execution in 35 states and at the federal level. It was not until the early 21st century that the US abolished capital punishment for juveniles and those with IQs below 70.
During the past 40 years there has been a dramatic escalation in the US prison population – a ten-fold increase since 1970. Between 1987 and 2007 alone, the prison population nearly tripled. The rate of incarceration for women escalated at an even more dramatic pace. The increased rate of incarceration can be traced almost exclusively to the War on Drugs and the rise of lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes and other non-violent felonies.
A similarly repressive trend has emerged in the juvenile justice system. The juvenile justice system has shifted sharply from its original stated goals of rehabilitation and therapy, into a “second-class criminal court that provides youth with neither therapy or justice” (Feld 2007). Throughout the 1990s, the federal government and nearly all states enacted a series of legislation that criminalized a host of “gang-related activities.” This lowered the age at which juveniles could be referred to adult court, widened the net of juvenile justice, and made it easier, and even mandatory in some cases, to try juveniles as adults.
Recently scholars, educators and activists have raised concerns about the growing connection between schools and the prison industrial complex. The growing pattern of tracking students out of educational institutions, primarily via “zero tolerance” policies, and tracking them directly and/or indirectly into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems is variously referred to as the “school to prison pipeline,” the “schoolhouse to jailhouse track,” or as younger and younger students are targeted, the “cradle to prison track” (NAACP 2005; Advancement Project 2006; Children’s Defense Fund 2007). In part, the school to prison pipeline is a consequence of schools which criminalize minor disciplinary infractions via zero tolerance policies, have a police presence at the school, and rely on suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions.
Prisons. In 2008, there were 1.3 million sentenced pris- oners under the jurisdiction of states. An estimated 22% (301,331) of all prisoners were convicted of nonserious, nonsexual offenses.
The national average cost to incarcerate an offender for one year was $28,648. Collectively, states spent $39 billion in 2006 on state corrections, which includes prisons, parole, and juvenile justice.
Jails. In 2008, the average daily population of jails was 776,573. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 37% (288,109) of these were convicted. Of convicted jail inmates, 39% (112,362) were nonserious, nonsexual offenders. In 2006, the national average cost to house an offender in jail was $27,237 per year. Collectively, states spent $21 billion on local corrections, which includes jail and probation.
Cost savings of alternatives. In 2008, states spent $12.9 billion to incarcerate 80% (330,954) of nonserious, nonsexual offenders in prisons and jails. Alternatives are estimated to cost $3.2 billion. A total cost savings of at least $9.7 billion can be expected with implementation of alternatives.
Last fall, the American Law Institute, which created the intellectual framework for the modern capital justice system almost 50 years ago, pronounced its project a failure and walked away from it.
There were other important death penalty developments last year: the number of death sentences continued to fall, Ohio switched to a single chemical for lethal injections and New Mexico repealed its death penalty entirely. But not one of them was as significant as the institute’s move, which represents a tectonic shift in legal theory.
“The A.L.I. is important on a lot of topics,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “They were absolutely singular on this topic” — capital punishment — “because they were the only intellectually respectable support for the death penalty system in the United States.”
We’re Texas and we’re famously tough on crime. So how come we still have so much of it?
Numbers from recent years show Texas near the top in adults on probation or parole, prisoners in state correctional institutions, inmates under 18 in state prisons and (here's the punch line) crimes per capita.
Somehow, somewhere, we have been doing something wrong. And that adds up to an unsatisfactory return on what will be a $10.8 billion investment in public safety and criminal justice in the state’s 2010-2011 budget.
That’s almost 10 percent of state tax dollars. By comparison, 6.7 percent goes to business and economic development and 1.2 percent goes to natural resources.
The reality is that crime stats, more than being a measure of our success in fighting crime, are a measure of our failure in so many other areas.
If the state stopped trying to execute killers, it would free up $11 million a year, according to a study by a Duke University economist published this month.
There is little return on the dollars spent on seeking the death penalty, says Philip Cook, an economist at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Of the 1,034 people charged with murder in North Carolina in 2005 and 2006, prosecutors initially sought the death penalty against about a quarter of them. Only 11, though, were sentenced to death for their crimes.
“The idea that the state could spend so much money on someone they think is completely undeserving is very interesting,” Cook said. “I have to believe that there are some people that would find this cost issue irritating.”