The death penalty & Troy Anthony Davis

Stephen Bright, President and Senior Counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, on the death penalty in decline (via TalkLeft):

Although public opinion polls continue to show support for the death penalty, imposition of the death penalty is down by more than 50% over 10 years. In the late 1990s, around 280-300 people were being sentenced to death a year. In the last 5 years, it’s been around 125 to 150 a year. No one has noticed this. But it is significant that a country this large with as many homicides as we have is sentencing so few people to death each year. A lot of prosecutors are no longer seeking it or are seeking it very infrequently. And juries are more reluctant to impose it. Both prosecutors and juries have the alternative of life imprisonment without parole, which many states did not have until fairly recently. […]

14 states do not have the death penalty. Of the 36 that have it, 12 have 10 or less people on death row (7 have 5 or less – that includes New Hampshire which has none – it has not sentenced anyone to death since 1976). Six of those 36 states have had only 1 execution in the last 32 years and New Hampshire and Kansas have not had any. The death penalty is at best serving only a symbolic value in these states. South Dakota has had one execution in 66 years (it has another one scheduled). A punishment that is carried out only once in 66 years is not serving much of a purpose. But, as New Jersey found, the costs are enormous.

Earlier this month my home state of Georgia — where 106 (pdf) prisoners sit on death row — became the first to resume executions since the Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection could be constitutional in Baze v. Rees (pdf).

In another case that could bring notoriety to Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis sits on death row despite the recantations of seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him, despite the fact that no murder weapon was ever found and no physical evidence linked him to the crime, and despite the fact that he has maintained his innocence throughout.

Atlanta’s Creative Loafing updates his case:

Legally, a witness’s original testimony carries far more weight than any revelation that might come later. Even if someone were to go to the authorities and say that he, and not the convicted murderer, actually pulled the trigger, it’s difficult to get the court to consider new testimony. […]

There is one more hope, though. In Georgia, the Board of Pardons and Parole has the authority to commute Davis’ sentence. And the board has indicated a willingness to do so. According to an order issued in July: “The members of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles will not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”

The board already has heard from five of the trial witnesses and, according to Davis’ sister, is interested in hearing from more.

Ewart is optimistic about the Board of Pardons and Parole, which cannot commute a death sentence until an execution date has been set. That likely will happen in October.

  • Tully

    You just listed the ONE reasons I am not an avid death penalty proponent. POLICE, JUDGES, AND JURIES MAKE MISTAKES. Once a prisoner is executed, there’s no do-over, and “Oops! Sorry!” just doesn’t quite cut it.

  • Slamfu

    I’m for keeping the death penalty around in cases of people so dangerous not even locking them up curbs their threat to society. Crime bosses are one example, those that can reach out from prison and have people killed or intimidated and run drug operations. Basically the heads of any gangs, Aryan Nation, MS13, Mexican Mafia, etc…

  • dudleysharp

    Why the reduction in death sentences?
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    The evidence supports that the reduction is caused by:
    — the dramatic reduction in murders/capital murders
    — prosecutorial frustration
    —-SCOTUS decisions

    1. Murders are down nearly 40%. While death sentences are down around 60%, from their all time high, There very well may have been around a 60% reduction in capital murders, since the all time high of death sentences.  I have heard from a number of prosecutors that they have seen a dramatic reduction in the type of crimes that they would consider death eligible. 
    This is the obvious reason for the large reduction in death sentences.
    Career criminals, including career juvenile criminals, are being incarcerated much longer, and earlier, thereby curtailing their activities, including committing capital murders.
    All categories of crime have been reduced. Because capital murders are a special type of crime, primarily murders accompanied by secondary crimes, such as robbery and rape, it is even more likely that capital murders have been reduced even more than murders.
    2. a) SCOTUS decisions.  Ring required a re writing of statutes in many death penalty states, causing a substantial reduction. the Atkins and Simmons decisions, exempting the mentally retarded and those under 18 when they committed the murder, respectively, have both had a reduction effect, as well.
    This is an additional factual reason for a reduction in death sentences.
    NOTE: There can be anywhere from a 1-3 year lag time between the murders and the death sentences given.  
            b) Executions go up and down, a bit every year. Executions are dependent on court rulings, some of which effect more cases than others, such as those in 2a, as well as the national challenges to lethal injection, which have been quite active for some time, now.
    3.  Many prosecutors now know that appellate judges in their jurisdictions won’t allow executions. Some of those prosecutors have become much more reluctant to seek death. I would call that realistic frustration with agenda driven judges  — such as Federal Judge Rakoff — – not prosecutors deciding to be more selective on their own.
    This, likely, has caused some small reduction in death sentences sought.
    Of course, most prosecutors have always been very selective in pursuing death penalty cases.

    Some false or speculative reasons for the reduction in death sentences.
    —  Anti death penalty folks state that all those “innocents freed” from death row have caused prosecutors to be more wary in pursuing the death penalty.  This is a false claim.
    To the contrary, virtually all death penalty prosecutors now know that 70-83% of those anti death penalty  “innocence” claims are false and that juries are 99.7% accurate in convicting the actually guilty in death penalty cases and that the 0.3% actually innocent  are released because of post conviction review.
    That will give prosecutors more confidence in prosecuting these cases, not less.

    —  Some prosecutors believe the “CSI effect” is responsible for a reduction in death sentences, because jurors are now demanding  more scientific support for death sentences.
    There is no evidence for this, that I know of. 
     —    Some speculate that the crime lab disasters have caused jurors to be more distrustful of lab results and prosecutors and that may explain some of the reduction. I can’t say that hasn’t happened, but I can’t find evidentiary support for it either.
    During this period of alleged distrust, a May, 2005 Gallup polling shows an increase in support for the death penalty  — to 74% — and a majority believe that we don’t impose the death penalty often enough.  This 74% support is within the margin of error of the all time high for support.
    An October 2005 Gallup poll showed 64% support – a 10% drop –  even though there had been no major death penalty news to warrant the drop. A January 2005 poll found 85% of Connecticut citizens supported the execution of serial rapist murderer Michael Ross.
    Historically, I am told, jurors give less than death in 2/3rds of death penalty trials. Is there any evidence that jurors are now even less likely to find for a death sentence? Not that I know of. 

    What of the reduction in executions? It is 1) the normal ebb and flow of cases, plus 2) SCOTUS cases, plus 3) crime lab problems 4) the lethal injection challenges.
    Blind speculation is unnecessary. There are logical, factual reasons for the reduction in death sentences.

    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    email [email protected], phone 713-622-5491
    Houston, Texas

    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

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