AMERICA HAS GROWN DEEPLY SKEPTICAL OF THE DEATH PENALTY
There is a growing national consensus that the death penalty should be replaced with a sentence of life without parole. An increasing number of states and jurisdictions have abandoned the death penalty altogether, and 2017 brought the second lowest number of executions in a quarter century and the second fewest new death sentences in modern history. Public opinion polling reveals steady declinesin support for the death penalty, and a clear preferenceamong Americans for life imprisonment over the death penalty.
JURISDICTIONS HAVE ABANDONED THE DEATH PENALTY
Thirty-four jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, the federal government and the U.S. Military, have either formerly eliminated the death penalty or have carried out one or fewer executions per decade over the last 50 years. Eleven states haven’t carried out an execution in approximately a decade or more.(Source)
STATES ARE CHOOSING LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE
Seven states have formally replaced the death penalty with life without parole in the past decade, and more than a dozen others have attempted it in recent years (Source).
GOVERNORS HAVE HALTED EXECUTIONS
The Governors of Oregon, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Colorado have vowed not to perform an execution while systemic flaws persist. (Source)
RECORD LOW DEATH SENTENCES
In 2017, juries imposed the second lowest number of death sentences in the modern era. Today executions are also at record lows. (Source)
“I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.”
-JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER
THE DEATH PENALTY SERVES NO LEGITIMATE PUNISHMENT OBJECTIVE
Many of the people that the United States continues to execute have mental illnesses, intellectual impairments, and a history of debilitating childhood trauma. Executions have been scheduled and carried out against a number of individuals despite serious doubts about their guilt. By replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole, we could ensure that the people who commit the most serious crimes receive sufficiently serious punishment, while avoiding the execution of innocent people and those with crippling mental disabilities. There is no reliable body of evidence that suggests that the death penalty offers any deterrent benefit beyond what can be achieved with a sentence of life in prison without parole.
NOT A PROVEN DETERRENT
The National Academy of Sciences concluded that existing research on deterrence “is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases or has no effect on homicide rates.” (Source)
EXECESSIVE AND IMMORAL
The Eighth Amendment requires the death penalty be limited to the most aggravated offenses committed by the most culpable offenders. The Supreme Court has found that juveniles and the intellectually disabled who commit homicide offenses, though deserving of severe punishment, are not culpable enough to warrant the death penalty. The broader principle that these decisions embrace is that executing people with serious functional impairments crosses a moral line, and is considered to be excessive punishment. America regularly executes people with intellectual disabilities, severe mental illness, and a history of extreme trauma and abuse, or a combination of these impairments. Texas executed Andrew Brannan who was a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, diagnosed with both PTSD and bipolar disorder. His symptoms included depression, hypomania, flashbacks, recurrent anxiety, and paranoia. His “total occupation and social impairment” led the Department of Veterans Affairs to categorize him as 100 percent disabled. (Source)
RACIALLY BIASED RETRIBUTION
There is a long, sordid history involving race, retribution, and the death penalty. Progressive southern elected officials and other scholars in the 1920s justified the death penalty on the grounds that white citizens would demand more lynching if the death penalty ceased to exist (Source). Today, the death penalty is more frequently used when the victim is White than when the victim is Black, demonstrating that sentencing may still be fueled by racial bias (Source). In some states, like Louisiana, no White person has ever been executed for the killing of a Black man (Source).
NO POSSIBILITY OF REDEMPTION
While many prisoners undergo significant transformation while incarcerated, the death penalty leaves no room for people to prove they are capable of redemption. Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner, a women whom fellow inmates called “the poster child for redemption.” Gissendaner gave guidance and comfort to despondent prisoners, some of whom were released and are now social workers and teachers. She completed a certificate in theological studies at Emory University from prison. (Source)
Many victims’ family members and even prison guards have shared that the death penalty system produces a significant amount of collateral damage. Long delays, and the burden of carrying out executions in a humane manner, inflicts pain and suffering on those people who are in close proximity to the system.
OF THE 23 PEOPLE EXECUTED IN 2017, 87% WERE MENTALLY ILL, DISABLED, EXPERIENCED EXTREME CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND ABUSE, OR WERE UNDER THE AGE OF 21 AT THE TIME OF THE CRIME.
AMERICA EXECUTES THE SEVERELY MENTALLY IMPAIRED AND THOSE WITH QUESTIONABLE GUILT
The greatest injustice of the death penalty is the reality that innocent people have been sentenced to death and some have even been executed. A 2014 study published in the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 4.1 percent of the people currently on death row would eventually be exonerated if their executions were delayed indefinitely. (Source)
America has wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death more than 150 men and women, and a few have even been executed. (Source)
HIGH RISK OF ERROR
People with intellectual impairments, brain damage, and severe mental illness are more likely to falsely confess, less able to aid in their own defense, and often make less compelling witnesses. Moreover, the persistent problem of ineffective legal representation means that evidence of their mental disabilities is often not adequately investigated and presented to the prosecution and jury. Even when the evidence is presented, unlike an IQ score or chronological age, there is no way to quantify the impairment that accompanies a traumatic brain injury or a diagnosis of schizophrenia. A person with these conditions will often be equally or more functionally impaired than the typical teenager or intellectually disabled person. (Source)
Nationwide, in the five year period from 2013-2017, only nine counties imposed five or more death sentences.
A HANDFUL OF COUNTIES ACCOUNT FOR THE VAST MAJORITY OF DEATH SENTENCES
Only a handful of outlier counties still impose the death penalty. Just nine counties out of 3,143 nationwide produced five or more new death sentences between 2013 and 2017. The nine counties are: Los Angeles (CA), Riverside (CA), Orange (CA), Kern (CA), Maricopa (AZ), Clark (NV), Harris (TX), Oklahoma (OK), and Mobile (AL). These counties are frequently defined by overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, racism, and wrongful or questionable convictions.
Recent declines in death sentencing have narrowed the list of counties averaging one death sentence per year. (Source)
CADDO PARISH, LOUISIANA
Caddo Parish, which was the second biggest producer of lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950, was one of the highest per capita producers of death sentences until 2015. Despite the fact that almost half the population in Caddo Parish is Black, Caddo prosecutors are three times as likely to remove prospective Black jurors as white jurors in criminal trials. One prosecutor, Dale Cox, is responsible for a third of the death sentences in Louisiana since 2010. When asked about the wisdom of the death penalty given the 2014 exoneration of Glenn Ford, wrongfully incarcerated for three decades, Cox said: “I think we need to kill more people.”
Cox successfully pursued a death sentence for Brandy Holmes, a women named after her mom’s favorite drink, who attempted suicide as a child after she was raped. Brandy has organic brain damage, PTSD and, major depression. She currently sits on Louisiana’s death row.
Duval County, Florida, is the second highest producer of death sentences per capita. Angela Corey, the elected state’s attorney, has earned a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor. The previous district attorney had fired Corey from the office for unprofessional conduct. Corey’s office has secured roughly one quarter of Florida’s death sentences, though it holds only five percent of the state’s population. She once said the death penalty, “isn’t about deterring future crimes,” but rather “administering justice in the face of particularly wicked murders.” Her record certainly reflects her penchant for retribution.
Corey drew national attention when she transferred Cristian Fernandez, then a 12-year-old boy, from the juvenile system to adult court, where he faced up to a life sentence for the murder of his two-year old half brother. She did so despite his young age and persistent sexual and physical abuse that Cristian endured as a child. Twelve-year old Cristian was held in solitary confinement pretrial. Corey named Bernie de la Rionda her second in command. De la Rionda wants to “bring firing squads back,” noting that “bullets are cheap.”
MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA
Prosecutor Jeannette Gallagher, along with two of her colleagues, is responsible for more than a third of the capital cases that the Arizona Supreme Court reviewed between 2007 and 2013. The court has found misconduct in three of her cases, labeling her behavior as “inappropriate,” “very troubling”, and “entirely unprofessional.” Gallagher obtained a death sentence against a 21-year-old man with a low IQ score who suffered childhood sexual abuse, was addicted to drugs and alcohol at a young age, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She also sent a veteran with paranoid schizophrenia to death row. (Source)
Some death row prisoners in Maricopa County were also represented by bad lawyers. One such lawyer, Nathaniel Carr, has been admonished by the court for violating the rules of criminal procedure and his “willful misconduct.” Carr once commented that his client with an IQ of 72 looked “like a killer and not a retard.” Carr failed to introduce evidence of his client’s intellectual disability at trial.
ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
In 2015, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals recused the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office from a capital trial because of extensive misconduct. Among the issues that have come to light is the widespread misuse of jailhouse informants (Source). Recently,three dozen former prosecutors, legal scholars, and organizationscalled on the Department of Justice to investigate the office.