Studies

Report Finds High Levels of Misconduct in Four Top Death Sentencing Counties

Four counties that rank among the most aggressive users of capital punishment in the United States have prolonged patterns of prosecutorial misconduct, according to a new report by the Harvard-based Fair Punishment Project. The report, "The Recidivists: Four Prosecutors Who Repeatedly Violate the Constitution," examined state appellate court decisions in California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Tennessee from 2010-2015, and found that prosecutors in Orange County, CAOrleans Parish, LASt. Louis City, MO; and Shelby County, TN—all of which currently face allegations of significant misconduct—ranked among the most prolific perpetrators of misconduct in their respective states. Orange and Shelby counties ranked 7th and 13th among the 2% of counties responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners in the U.S. as of January 2013, each having more individuals on their death rows than 99.5% of all counties in the country. In the midst of a scandal on an illegal, multi-decade practice of placing informants next to targeted prisoners to attempt to extract confessions from them, Orange County imposed more death sentences from 2010-2015 than all but five other U.S. counties. St. Louis City ranked 10th in executions from 1976-2012, and Orleans Parish has long been known for its prosecutors' failures to disclose exculpatory evidence to capital defendants, including three cases that have been the subjects of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The statewide misconduct rankings produced by the Fair Punishment Project show that these counties are outliers not only in their heavy use of the death penalty, but also in their patterns of prosecutorial misconduct. Among the types of misconduct found by appellate courts were withholding exculpatory evidence, improper arguments at trial, and hiding deals and favorable treatment offered to informants in exchange for their testimony. In one case from St. Louis, prosecutors: suppressed evidence in the death-penalty trial of Reginald Clemons that would have supported Clemons' claim that he confessed only after having been beaten by police; never disclosed the existence of a rape kit that could have identified the perpetrator; and presented testimony in a co-defendant's trial that another person had committed acts attributed to Clemons at his trial. Longtime prosecutor Nels Moss, Jr. also advised police officers to omit certain observations that were initially included in their reports. Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death, but was awarded a new trial—scheduled for 2018—because of this misconduct.

Equal Justice Initiative Report on Lynchings Outside the Deep South Suggests Links to Capital Punishment

Lynching has long been regarded as a regional phenomenon, but in an updated edition of its landmark 2015 report "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror," the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has now documented more than 300 lynchings of African Americans in states outside the Deep South. "Racial terror lynching was a national problem," said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson (pictured). More than six million African American migrants fled "as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South," but the racial terror often followed them. "Hundreds of lynchings took place outside the American South," he said. The original EJI lynching report documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states, and described the historical link between lynching and the modern-day death penalty. The new edition tracks lynchings in eight states in the Midwest and Upper South: Oklahoma (76), Missouri (60), Illinois (56), West Virginia (35), Maryland (28), Kansas (19), Indiana (18), and Ohio (15). The pattern of lynchings suggests a continuing link to modern capital punishment: Oklahoma and Missouri rank second and fifth in the number of executions in the U.S. in the last fifty years and have executed far more prisoners than any other states outside the Deep South. Working with Google, EJI has created an interactive website providing audio, video, and maps to tell the stories of the victims of racial terror and illuminate the geographic patterns of lynching. “These lynchings were intentionally barbaric, torturous, gruesome,” Stevenson said, and often whole communities actively participated in the public spectacle. "Our collective failure to acknowledge this history has created a contemporary political culture that doesn't adequately value the victimization of people of color today," he said. In an interview with The Washington Post, Stevenson explained how the legacy of lynching affects today's criminal justice system, and the death penalty in particular. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld capital punishment in 1976, Justice Potter Stewart justified capital punishment as an advance from "self-help, vigilante justice, and lynch law." “They started trying people inside." Stevenson said, "and they had the same kind of unreliable verdicts and the same kind of death sentencing and the same kind of abuse of people of color in the courtroom that existed outside the courthouse during the lynching era."

STUDY: Juries Have Never Found Anyone Intellectually Disabled Under Georgia's Insurmountable Standard of Proof

No death penalty jury has ever found a defendant charged with intentional murder to be ineligible for the death penalty under Georgia's intellectual disability law, according to a new empirical study published in Georgia State University Law Review. The study, by Georgia State Law Professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas, examined 30 years of jury verdicts under the state's Guilty But Mentally Retarded statute, which has the most onerous standard in the nation for proving intellectual disability. “Georgia is an outlier," Lucas says. It is the only state to require a capital defendant to prove his or her intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, and the only state to require that this determination be made at the same time that the jury is considering the defendant's guilt. “This study provides, for the first time, an accounting of how Georgia defendants have been unable to overcome the very high burden of establishing intellectual disability before a jury at the guilt phase of a capital trial—a finding that," Lucas says, "has never occurred in a case of intentional murder.” In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that defendants with intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—cannot be executed. The ruling, however, left states with discretion in establishing procedures for determining which defendants have intellectual disability. Some states responded by adopting practices that made it more difficult to prove intellectual disability. In two recent cases, Hall v. Florida (2014) and Moore v. Texas (2017), the Supreme Court struck down other outlier intellectual disability standards that deviated from accepted clinical definitions of intellectual disability. It has never ruled on Georgia's standard of proof. To illustrate the effect of Georgia's outlier practice, Lucas explores the case of Warren Hill (pictured), whom Georgia executed in 2015 even though every mental health expert who had evaluated Hill agreed he had intellectual disability. A state court judge found that Hill had proven his intellectual disability by a "preponderance of the evidence" (more likely than not), the standard employed in nearly every death penalty state. However, the state courts ruled that Hill had not proven his intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the use of that standard, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the cae, and Hill was executed. Lucas concludes, "The absence of a single jury finding of intellectual disability in an intentional murder death penalty case in the nearly three decades of the statutory exemption, and the absence of a single jury finding of intellectual disability in any murder case post-Atkins, leaves little question that Georgia’s statute has failed to protect those with intellectual disability from execution as promised, and as required by the U.S. Constitution and Georgia constitution."

New Statistical Brief from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Documents U.S. Death Penalty Decline

The nation's death rows are shrinking more rapidly than new defendants are being sentenced to death, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical brief, "Capital Punishment, 2014–2015." The statistical brief, which analyzes information on those under sentence of death in the United States as of December 31, 2014 and December 31, 2015, documents a continuing decline in executions, new death sentences, and death row populations across the U.S. 2015 marked the fifteenth consecutive annual decrease in the number of prisoners under sentence of death in the U.S. According to BJS, 69 prisoners were admitted to state or federal death rows in 2014 and 49 were admitted in 2015. (DPIC uses a slightly different counting method that reported 73 death sentences imposed in 2014.) The data also indicates that the decline in the size of death row is attributable to factors other than execution. According to BJS, 75 prisoners were removed from death row in 2014 by means other than execution, such as exoneration, the reversal of a conviction or death sentence, commutation, or death by other causes, as compared with 35 who were executed. In 2015, 82 prisoners were taken off death row by means other than execution, while 28 death-row prisoners were executed. Over the two-year period covered by the data, 39 more prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution than were admitted as a result of new death sentences. The gap between removals from death row and new admissions is expected to widen even further in 2016 and 2017 as a result of record-low death-sentencing rates and prisoners being removed from death row due to death-penalty statutes having been declared unconstitutional in Florida, Delaware, and Connecticut. BJS reports that 2,881 prisoners remained under sentence of death in 33 states and the federal system at the end of 2015. (Click image to enlarge.)

Study: Texas' 'Harsh and Inhumane' Death-Row Conditions Amount to 'Torture'

The conditions in which prisoners on Texas' death row are confined are "harsh and inhumane," violate international human rights norms, and amount to "a severe and relentless act of torture," according to a new study by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. The study, "Designed to Break You," collected accounts from former death-row prisoners who had been exonerated or who had received lesser sentences after their death sentences had been overturned. Their stories revealed numerous problems with death-row conditions, including, "mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient religious services." Every prisoner on death row spends about 23 hours a day in an 8-by-12 foot cell for the duration of their time on death row. "This prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health," the study reports, "exacerbating existing mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time." Ariel Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic, said, "Any person who is kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 days starts to suffer mental and psychological effects that cannot be reversed, and that fits the definition of torture." The report concludes that Texas death-row "conditions fall woefully behind international standards for confinement" and offers 13 recommendations to bring conditions in line with international norms. The recommendations include using solitary confinement only as a punitive measure of last resort and banning it altogether for prisoners with mental illness or intellectual disability. The report also recommends that death-row prisoners be permitted contact visits with their lawyers, family, and friends and that they "have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities."

Bipartisan Oklahoma Report Recommends Moratorium on Executions Pending 'Significant Reforms'

After spending more than a year studying Oklahoma's capital punishment practices, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission has unanimously recommended that the state extend its current moratorium on executions "until significant reforms are accomplished." The bipartisan commission issued its report on April 25, 2017, reaching what it characterized as "disturbing" findings that "led Commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death." The report contains recommendations for more than 40 reforms to virtually all areas of Oklahoma's death penalty system. Oklahoma has not carried out an execution since January 15, 2015, when the state used an unauthorized drug to execute Charles Warner. On October 16, 2015, lawyers for the state agreed to a federal court order barring executions until at least five months after a new execution protocol is in place. Warner's execution also prompted a grand jury investigation, which, like the Commission report, was highly critical of Oklahoma's capital punishment system. The Commission, whose eleven members included former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry, Judge Reta M. Stubhar of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, attorneys, law professors, mental health professionals, and others, examined the death penalty process from arrest to execution. The report states, "Commission members agreed that, at a minimum, those who are sentenced to death should receive this sentence only after a fair and impartial process that ensures they deserve the ultimate penalty of death. ... Unfortunately, a review of the evidence demonstrates that the death penalty, even in Oklahoma, has not always been imposed and carried out fairly, consistently, and humanely, as required by the federal and state constitutions. These shortcomings have severe consequences for the accused and their families, for victims and their families, and for all citizens of Oklahoma." In particular, the Commission raised concerns about wrongful convictions, focusing 10 recommendations on the issue of "innocence protection." Other recommendations dealt with forensic practices, training of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges, determinations of death eligibility, the clemency process, and the execution protocol.

STUDIES: 21st-Century Executions Disproportionately Involve Defendants With Mental Illness

A new study of the case records of the men and women executed in the United States between 2000 and 2015 has found that 21st-century executions disproportionately involve prisoners diagnosed with mental illness and who have experienced traumatic child abuse. In The Washington Post's data feature, Monkey Cage, Professor Frank Baumgartner and Betsy Neill of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill write that "[m]ost Americans oppose the death penalty for the mentally ill. But our research suggests that the death penalty actually targets those who have mental illnesses." The authors' examination of case files found that 43% of the executed prisoners had received a mental illness diagnosis at some point in their lives, more than double the 18% of people in the general population who have ever been diagnosed with any mental illness. 4% of Americans have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Personality disorders and depression were the most commonly diagnosed illnesses among those executed, but executed death-row prisoners also had significantly higher rates of such serious disorders as schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. Evidence of mental illness—and depression in particular—was especially prevalent among those prisoners who waived their appeals and "volunteered" for execution. 63% of volunteers had a mental illness diagnosis, compared to 39% of others who were executed. More than one-quarter (26%) of volunteers had been diagnosed with depression, 37% had documented suididal tendencies, and nearly one-third (32%) had attempted suicide, leading the authors to suggest, "If suicidal tendencies are evidence of mental illness, then death penalty states actively assist suicide." Rates of childhood trauma—a risk factor for mental illness—were also dramatically higher among executed prisoners than among the general public. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates about 10% of U.S. children are abused or neglected, but nearly 40% of executed prisoners had been abused. The study found that executed death row prisoners were 13 times more likely than U.S. children as a whole to have been sexually abused, 13 times more likely to have been physically abused, and twice as likely to have been neglected by their caregivers. According to the authors, "The CDC and independent researchers have repeatedly found that childhood trauma’s long-term effects include higher likelihoods of disrupted neuro-development, cognitive impairment, mental illness, and becoming the perpetrator or victim of violence." (Click image to enlarge.) 

STUDIES: Rarity of Executions Makes California Jurors Less Likely to Impose Death Sentences

A study published in The Yale Law Journal provides new evidence that, as public opinion continues to shift away from the death penalty, juries empaneled in capital cases may become even less representative of the community and even more prone to convict. The studyconducted by Professors Brandon Garrett (University of Virginia), Daniel Krauss (Claremont-McKenna College), and Nicholas Scurich (University of California Irvine)—found that with increased public opposition to the death penalty, more prospective jurors may be excluded from serving on capital juries because of their views against the death penalty. The researchers surveyed people reporting for jury duty in Orange County, California about their views on the death penalty itself and on the impact of the rarity of executions in California. Orange County is one of the ten most prolific death-sentencing counties in the United States and was one of just 16 U.S. counties that imposed five or more death sentences from 2010 to 2015. But despite those facts, about one-third (32%) of those surveyed said they would automatically vote for life without parole in the sentencing phase of a death penalty case. This view would make them excludable from a capital jury in a process known as death qualification, a result that the authors said, "raises new constitutional questions concerning [death qualification's] effect on the ability to secure a fair cross-section of the community in the jury venire." The researchers also found that nearly one in four jurors (24%) said that, as a result of their concerns about the death penalty, they would "refuse to vote for murder in the first degree merely to avoid reaching the death penalty issue." These so-called "nullifiers" would also be excludable from the jury, producing a jury that would be more prone than the overall population to find the defendant guilty. But at the same time that death qualification "excludes far higher percentages of the population than ever before," the researchers found that it "also has become an even less predictable prosecution tool, because even many stated death penalty proponents now harbor serious doubts about the death penalty." Finally, researchers asked the jurors whether the fact that California has not carried out an execution since 2006 would make them more likely or less likely to impose a death sentence. 67% of those surveyed said it made them less likely to vote for death. The authors urge further research into jury attitudes about the death penalty and conclude, "These findings have implications for how we should think about punishment as well as the Eighth Amendment in the area of the death penalty, but also far more broadly. Perhaps unusual punishments appear cruel or unsupported due to their rarity in practice."

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