government: Constitution-based federal republic; strong democratic tradition
state of civil and political rights: Free
constitution: 17 September 1787, in force since 4 March 1789
legal system: federal court system based on English common law; each state has its own unique legal system, of which all but one (Louisiana, which is still influenced by the Napoleonic Code) is based on English common law;
legislative system: bicameral Congress (Senate and House of Representatives)
judicial system: Supreme Court (nine justices; nominated by the president and confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate; appointed to serve for life); United States Courts of Appeal; United States District Courts; State and County Courts
religion: Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4%
death row: 3,108 (as of April 1, 2013)
year of last executions: 0-0-0
death sentences: 0
international treaties on human rights and the death penalty:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Convention on the Rights of the Child (signed only)
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
American Convention on Human Rights (signed only)
Statute of the International Criminal Court (which excludes the death penalty) (only signed)
The United States, by an administrative point of view, are composed of 50 States and 3 jurisdictions (District of Columbia, Federal Government and Military Administration).
To date, the death penalty no longer exists in 19 of the 50 U.S. States and the District of Columbia, better known as the nation’s capital city Washington D.C. The most recent death penalty abolition took place in Nebraska in May 2015.
The death penalty is still in effect in 31 States and in 2 jurisdictions (Federal Government and Military Administration).
Amongst the jurisdictions with the death penalty though, 11 haven’t carried out executions at least for 10 years, 2 for at least 9 years, and 5 for at least 5 years. As a matter of fact, only 15 jurisdictions have carried out executions in the last 5 years.
In 2015, there were 28 executions carried out in only 6 States, compared to 35 executions in 2014, carried out in 7 States.
In 2015 there were 49 new death sentences, imposed in only 14 States and by the Federal Government (only 1 death sentence). In 2014 the death sentences had been 73.
The number of inmates on death row also decreased. As of 1 January 2016, there were 2,943 inmates under a sentence of death, a decrease of 76 from 1 January 2015.
Problems with executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma, states’ inability to obtain lethal injection drugs, exonerations of people who were wrongly convicted, the availability of prison terms of life without parole and the cost of capital trials and the appeals process, are main factors in the persistent decline of executions and death sentences.
Twenty-eight executions took place in only 6 of the 31 States with the death penalty in 2015: Texas (13); Missouri (6); Georgia (5); Florida (2); Oklahoma (1) and Virginia (1).
In 2016, as of 30 June, there were 14 executions in 5 States: Texas (6); Georgia (5); Alabama (1); Florida (1) and Missouri (1).
The 28 executions in 2015 represent the lowest number in 25 years (since 1991). Also the fact that only 6 States have carried out executions is a record, equalling the lowest number since 1988.
Since death penalty was reintroduced in 1976 up to 30 June 2016, 1,436 executions have been carried out in the USA. Compared to population, the states that carry out more executions are, in order, Oklahoma, Texas, Delaware, Virginia and Missouri.
Since 1976, three States have executed only “volunteers”, i.e. death row inmates who voluntarily asked to hasten the execution process: Pennsylvania executed 3 people, Oregon 2, and Connecticut 1. As a whole, since 1976, 144 inmates have been executed as “volunteers”, 10% of all executed.
All executions in 2015 were carried out by lethal injection. And all have involved men, except for one carried out on 30 September in Georgia.
The average age of those executed in 2015 is 47 years. The average time between sentencing and execution of those put to death in 2015 was 17.6 years.
As for race, 11 of those executed in 2015 were White, 10 Black, and 7 Latino. The 28 executed in 2015 had been convicted of 43 murders: the victims were 26 White, 11 Black, and 6 Latino.
Besides the executions, death sentences are also constantly decreasing. That is for the minor propensity of juries to hand down the maximum penalty and for always more widespread tendency of prosecutors to “content” themselves with minor sentences in exchange for shorter and more secure trials.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were 49 new death sentences in 2015 (24 less than in 2014), equalling the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The highest number was in 1996, when 315 death sentences were handed out. This is the fifth year in a row that new sentences remain below 100.
Death sentences, like executions, were largely clustered in a few States. A big part of the sentences (60%) were handed down in only 3 States: California (14), Florida (9) and Alabama (6). Alabama is the state that, in proportion to its population, has issued the most death sentences. Texas, that for many years has leaded the number of executions, in 2015 issued only 2 death sentences, the lowest number of all times. The maximum was 48, in 1999.
The number of people on death row continued to decline. According to figures from NAACP-LDF “Death Row USA”, as of 1 January 2016, there were 2,943 inmates on death rows across the country, a decrease of 76 compared to 1 January 2015. This is the first time since Spring of 1995 that the number of inmates decreases under 3.000. At the time the death row population was growing after the Furman v. Georgia sentence of 1972 that had struck down the death penalty, and the Gregg v. Georgia sentence of 1976 that had brought it back.
The total population on death row has decreased every year since 2001. In 2000, 3,670 inmates were under a sentence of death.
California continued to have the largest death row population (743), followed by Florida (396), Texas (263), Alabama (196), and Pennsylvania (180). However, California has not carried out an execution in at least 10 years.
The racial demographics of death row nationwide are 42.5% white, 41.6% black, 13% Latin-American, 1.7% Asian, and 1% Native American.
Overall, 57% of inmates on death row belong to racial minorities. The non-Hispanic whites make up 64% of the population, whites 16% Hispanics, blacks, 12.6%, Asian 4.8%, and other minorities, including the native Indians, make up the remaining 2, 6%. Although non-Hispanic whites constitute 64% of the population, almost 57% of inmates on death row belong to minorities.
Divided by gender, there are 55 women (1.8%) and 2,888 men (98.2%) on the United States’ death rows.
Abolitions and “de facto” moratoriums
To date, the death penalty no longer exists in 19 of the 50 U.S. States and 1 jurisdiction (District of Columbia) [In brackets the year of abolition]: Alaska (1957), Connecticut (2012), Hawaii (1957), Illinois (2011), Iowa (1965), Maine (1887), Maryland (2013), Massachusetts (1984), Michigan (1846), Minnesota (1911), Nebraska (2015), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), New York (2007), North Dakota (1973), Rhode Island (1984), Vermont (1964), West Virginia (1965), Wisconsin (1853), and District of Columbia (1981).
The abolition in Nebraska was challenged by referendum. Currently the abolitionist law is suspended, and will be put on the November 2016 ballot.
In four other States – Washington, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Oregon – the Governors granted a stay of executions and essentially put executions on hold because of concerns about the death penalty system.
In August 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court said it would be unconstitutional to keep on death row the 11 people who had been convicted before the state, in 2012, abolished the death penalty, thus opening the way for a series of individual commutations.
In Ohio, Governor John Kasich has postponed all executions to at least 2016 as a result of the practical and procedural problems related to the supply of lethal drugs. Immediately after, the Attorney General announced that the State will not carry out executions not even in 2016.
Of the 33 jurisdictions where the death penalty is still in effect, 11 have not carried out an execution in more than ten years (hence, we can consider that they are implementing a “de facto moratorium”): Arkansas (last execution in 2005), California (2006), Colorado (1997), Kansas (1965), Nevada (2006), New Hampshire (1939), Oregon (1997), Pennsylvania (1999), Wyoming (1992), U.S. Federal Government (2003), and U.S. Military (1961).
Two states have not carried out executions for little less than 10 years, Montana (August 2006, and North Carolina (August 2006). Five other States have not had an execution in over 5 years: Kentucky (2008), Louisiana (2010), South Carolina (2011), Utah (2010), and Washington (2010).
During 2015 and the first six months of 2016, there were many legislative proposals concerning the death penalty, some towards abolition, others to create stricter norms regarding its application and others to facilitate its application. Many of these bills were short-lived, blocked in the preliminary phases of the legislative review process.
It must be recalled that the United States Parliaments focus legislative action early in the year, and each state has a deadline by which the new laws are to go, otherwise they should be presented in the following year. These are the bills that have passed at least the early stages of discussion.
On 23 February 2015, a bill to end Montana’s death penalty stalled with a tied vote in the House. The bill, sponsored by Republican David Moore, would have replaced the death penalty with life in prison without parole. The House voted 50-50, defeating it.
In Delaware, on 28 January 2016, the House rejected 23-16 a bill (SB 40) that would have abolished the death penalty.
In Missouri, on 28 January 2016, an abolitionist bill has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 4-3, with the favourable vote of two Republican senators and two Democrats. On 13 May 2016, the bill was placed in the so-called “informal calendar”, which means that the measure this year will not go ahead.
In New Hampshire, on 3 March 2016, the Senate rejected 12-12 a bill that would have abolished the death penalty, but agreed to discuss one that would establish a moratorium in light to develop a method to prevent miscarriages of justice. New Hampshire is the only New England state to still have the death penalty. The last execution was in 1939, and currently there is only one detainee on death row. In the Senate, a tie vote is tantamount to a defeat. Again in New Hampshire, on 10 March, the House rejected by a vote by acclamation the HB 1522 bill that would have extended the death penalty to “terrorist crimes with more than one victim and the murders committed while the victim exercises its civil rights, like voting, attending school, or else.”
In Utah, on 3 March 2016, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected 2-5 bill HB 136 that would have added the aggravating circumstance of “human trafficking” to those for which the death penalty can be pursued. The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on February 2 (6-3), and the full House on 12 February (44-28).
On 7 March 2016, Florida Governor Rick Scott, Republican, has ratified the law HB 7101. The new law amends the state capital law that was declared unconstitutional on 12 January 2016 by the Supreme Court of the United States. The new law provides that juries can now issue a guilty verdict 10-2 (before, it was 7-5), and that the decision of the jury is binding on the court. In 28 of the 31 states that use the death penalty, unanimity is required to issue a death sentence. The exceptions are Florida, Alabama and Delaware.
In Alabama, on 7 April 2016, Senators have voted 20-6 to establish an “Innocence Inquiry Commission” to review some capital convictions. Under the narrowly tailored-bill, the panel would review new evidence in death row cases that hadn’t previously been heard by a court. Republican Sen. Dick Brewbaker, the bill’s sponsor, said he supports the death penalty, but the state should make sure people are guilty. The legislation. At the end of the 2016 legislative session, the bill was shelved with the formula “Updated Sine Die”.
In Ohio, on 12 April 2016, the House approved 83-11 a bill (HB 57) that would expand the list of aggravated circumstances under which murders committed “purposely and with prior calculation and design” are classified as aggravated murders. The law, sent to the Senate, has not continued its path.
In Virginia, on 24 April 2016, HB 815 went into effect. The new law permits the Virginia Department of Corrections to specially contract with a compounding pharmacy to produce lethal injection drugs and make the identity of the pharmacy a state secret. The Governor substituted his secrecy proposal in place of the legislature’s plan to use the electric chair to execute prisoners if lethal injection drugs were deemed unavailable. Senate concurred in Governor’s recommendation 22-16. House concurred in Governor’s recommendation 59-40.
In Mississippi, on 3 May 2016, the Governor has ratified SB 2237 that increases the secrecy around executions. The bill had passed the Senate 39-12 and the House 103-13.
Methods of Execution
All U.S. States and the Federal Government use lethal injection as their primary method of execution. The U.S. Military provides lethal injection as the sole method of execution.
Some states provide a second, if any, method that can be, depending on the states, the gas chamber, the firing squad or hanging.
Some States use a three-drug protocol, others use a two-drug process, and some a single-drug method for executions.
The three-drug protocol uses an anaesthetic, followed by a muscle relaxant to paralyze the inmate and potassium chloride to stop the inmate’s heart. The two-drug protocol uses a sedative as the first element and a lethal dose of a painkiller as the second drug. The one-drug protocol uses a lethal dose of an anaesthetic.
The work of several key human-rights groups focusing on the pharmaceutical industry that produces drugs used for lethal injection has made the acquisition of appropriate pharmaceuticals difficult for U.S. prison authorities. This has, in recent years, brought about numerous changes in lethal injection protocols as prison authorities attempt to work around the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to collaborate in providing drugs traditionally used in the lethal injection process.
In an effort to thwart advocacy campaigns by anti-death penalty organisations that utilize freedom of information laws and the media to convince the drug’s makers to cut off the supply, some States have also passed laws to provide a cloak of secrecy around the names of suppliers.
In some States the “old methods” are still available upon request by the condemned and generally only for crimes committed before the adoption of lethal injection.
The electric chair is still available in 8 States: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The gas chamber is still available in 5 States: Arizona, California, Missouri, Oklahoma ((as of 17 April 2015, nitrogen gas chamber would be employed if either lethal injection drugs are unavailable or if lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional), and Wyoming. The firing squad is available in 3 States: Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah. Hanging is available in 3 States: Delaware, New Hampshire and Washington.
On 23 March 2015, the Governor of Utah, Gary Herbert (R), signed the bill to designate the firing squad as the state’s backup execution method. The bill would allow firing squad executions in the absence of lethal injection drugs.
On 17 April 2015, the Governor Oklahoma, Mary Fallin (R), ratified legislation which legalizes execution by nitrogen hypoxia. Under the new law, lethal injection would remain the state’s first choice for executions and the nitrogen gas chamber would be employed as a secondary method should lethal injection drugs become unavailable, or in the event the state’s protocol is deemed unconstitutional. There are no reports of nitrogen gas ever being used to execute humans, and critics say that one concern is that the method is untested. Some states even ban its use to put animals to sleep. But supporters of the new law maintain nitrogen-induced hypoxia is a humane and painless method of execution that requires no medical expertise to perform.
In Mississippi, on 3 May 2016, the Governor has ratified SB 2237 that allows the prison administration to use the firing squad if lethal injection becomes either too expensive or impossible to implement.
Of the 1,436 executions carried out in the USA since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1977 and until 30 June 2016, 1,261 were carried out by lethal injection, 158 on the electric chair, 11 in the gas chamber, 3 by hanging and 3 by shooting.
The Supreme Court
In more recent years, the Supreme Court of the United States has made “milestone” decisions, on one side, prohibiting the execution of minors (2005) and the mentally disabled (2002) and, on the other, confirming the constitutionality of lethal injection (2008).
As is known, the judges of the Supreme Court are appointed “for life”, and then, because of the very slow replacement of the judges, the guidelines of the Court change very gradually. But some sentences in 2015 and the first months of 2016 have shaken the capital systems of individual states.
The first major ruling was a defeat for the abolitionist front, but for the first time in many years, this defeat was by a narrow margin.
On 29 June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection and, in particular, the use of Midazolam, the drug used in recent botched lethal injections in the United States. The Supreme Court held (5-4) in Glossip v. Gross that Oklahoma inmates “failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the use of Midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment,” which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Three inmates on Oklahoma’s death row had challenged the state’s use of Midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug protocol, saying that it “fails to render a person insensate to pain.” In a narrow decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court deferred to a District Court ruling upholding the use of Midazolam. Justice Alito said that, in order to prevail, the inmates would have had to identify a “known and available alternative method,” that has a lower risk of pain. In a sweeping dissenting opinion raising deep concerns about the death penalty itself, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said, “I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.... Today’s administration of the death penalty involves three fundamental constitutional defects: (1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose. Perhaps as a result, (4) most places within the United States have abandoned its use.”
This ruling drew comments that perhaps the Court is ready to face not only the individual aspects of the laws of individual states, but the constitutionality of the death penalty itself. In the following months, however, the Supreme Court seems to have deliberately kept away from that perspective. Some commentators believe that this is due to the fact that at present, after the death of one of the 9 members, Antonin Scalia, was waiting to be confirmed by the Senate the appointment of a new judge, which according to the President Obama should be Merrick Garland. The position of Garland on the death penalty, however, is known: his opinion is that the question of constitutionality has been addressed and resolved in 1976 with the Gregg v. Georgia (which declared the constitutionality of the death penalty), and since then the constitutional parameters have not changed. As of 15 July 2016, the Senate had not held a hearing or vote on the nomination.
But if the Court does not seem willing to tackle the root node, however, it has questioned several hundred death sentences in Florida, Alabama and Delaware.
On 12 January 2016, the Court declared unconstitutional the capital law of Florida, with repercussions on other two states, Alabama and Delaware, which have very similar laws. Addressing the case Hurst v. Florida, the Court declared the law unconstitutional to the extent that the judge has more power in the jury deciding a death sentence. By an 8-1 vote, the court overturned the death sentence of Timothy Hurst, and simultaneously declared unconstitutional the greatest power that has the judge with respect to the jury in deciding the sentence. The vote of the jury in almost all states is tantamount to a death sentence, because the judge has the duty to respect it. In three states instead, Florida, Alabama and Delaware, the court is not obliged by law to follow the vote of the jury.
According to the Supreme Court, this violates the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the accused’s right to be tried by a “jury of peers”, as if a member of the bench (in this case the judge) has a greater power than the other members, the jury is clearly not composed of “equals.”
The Hurst v Florida judgment, beyond the “technicality” on the role of the judge, does not explicitly address the real crux of the matter, namely the fact that Florida, Alabama and Delaware are the only three states that allow the issuance of death sentences without a unanimous vote. Many observers believe that the Supreme Court has made a compromise choice, leaving decisions to local courts and parliaments.
After this ruling, Alabama and Florida have modified their laws, tying the judge to respect the majority vote. In Delaware instead, the Parliament has not acted, and a judge has blocked all capital proceedings.
Despite the new laws, the Supreme Court again dealt a blow to the capital system of the three states: on 2 May 2016, it overturned the death sentence of Bart Johnson (the case is Bart W. v. Alabama) because it was issued pursuant to a law which has since been declared unconstitutional. On 31 May, the Supreme Court reiterated its position, cancelling the sentence of Corey Wimbley (the case is Wimbley v. Alabama). It seems clear at this point that all death sentences in recent decades in Florida, Alabama and Delaware, states that have more than 600 people on death row, could be questioned.
Exonerations and Commutations
“Exoneree” is a technical term that, in the U.S. justice system, indicates an individual convicted in the first degree but absolved on appeal. As is well noted, appeals in the United States are not one-time, unrepeatable events, but can be presented every time the defence feels that it has discovered new elements relevant to exonerating the condemned. It is not rare that certain “appeals” can be presented 20 years or more after initial sentencing. In some cases, the “exonerees” are obviously innocent (in cases where DNA evidence proves the guilt of someone else, for instance), in other cases, there is dismissal on appeal for “lack of evidence” or because, after so many years from the actual crime, the Public Prosecutor no longer has credible witnesses to testify.
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) keeps a list of these “exonerees”, according to which, since 1973 up to 31 May 2016, there have been 156 exonerations in 26 different States. According to “The Innocence List”, the average time between sentencing and the recognition of one’s innocence is 11.3 years. In 20 cases, proof of innocence was thanks to new DNA testing.
According to the criteria set by the DPIC, in 2015 six former death row inmates were exonerated in 6 States.
According to a comparable study published on 3 February 2016 by the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE is a project initiated in 2012 by the University of Michigan and North-western University), 5 more people should be added to the list of the exonerated from death row in 2015. the NRE uses standards which are slightly different from those used by the DPIC.
In 2016, to 30 June, there have been no exonerees.
On 23 March 2015, all charges against Debra Jean Milke were dismissed – 25 years after she was convicted and sentenced to die for the brutal murder of her four-year-old son. Milke was released from jail in 2013 after 22 years on Arizona’s death row, but still faced the possibility of a retrial and remained free on bail with an electronic monitoring bracelet. Milke’s conviction was based almost entirely on a police detective’s claims that she had confessed to him that she plotted to killed her son Christopher. The confession was never recorded and it was later revealed that the detective had a history of lying under oath and violating the rights of suspects.
On 3 April 2015, Anthony Ray Hinton was released after spending nearly 30 years on Alabama’s death row. Hinton was convicted of the 1985 murders of two fast-food restaurant managers based upon the testimony of a state forensic examiner that the bullets in the two murders came from a gun found in Hinton’s house. The prosecutor, who had a documented history of racial bias, said he could tell Hinton was guilty and “evil” just by looking at him. Hinton was arrested after a victim in a similar crime identified him in a photo line-up, even though Hinton had been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away when that crime was committed. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Hinton had been provided substandard representation and returned his case to the state courts for further proceedings. Prosecutors decided not to retry him after the state’s new experts said they could not link the bullets to Hinton’s gun.
On 21 April 2015, in Mississippi, Oktibbeha County District Attorney Forrest Allgood announced that he would drop charges against death row inmate Willie Manning. In February 2015, the Mississippi Supreme court granted Manning a new trial, saying that key evidence was withheld. A witness testified that he saw Manning enter the victims’ apartment, but police records that were withheld from the defence show the apartment from which he claimed to have seen Manning was vacant at the time, and records from the apartment complex did not list the witness as a tenant. The witness later recanted his testimony, saying he feared he would be charged with the crime if he didn’t testify.
In Texas, on 8 June 2015, Alfred Dewayne Brown left jail after he was declared a free man. Brown, 33, Black, had spent more than a dozen years behind bars, 10 of them sitting on death row. A Harris County jury sentenced Brown to death on October 25, 2005 for a robbery that ended with the fatal shooting of 2 persons on the morning of April 5, 2003. Two years ago, District Attorney’s Office agreed that he deserved a new trial because evidence that could have helped his defence was withheld. Then, on 5 November 2014, the Texas court of criminal appeals overturned Brown’s conviction. The decision to overturn Brown’s conviction hinged on evidence of a phone call. Defence lawyers searched for 6 years for records of a call Brown said he made on the morning of the murder. A record of the call was eventually found when a homicide detective was cleaning out his garage last year. The find was not only potentially exonerating, but also a violation of a guiding principle of prosecutorial conduct, called a “Brady” violation. The Brady case precedent requires prosecutors to turn over evidence to defence attorneys. District Attorney Devon Anderson said she was dismissing the case, that she didn’t have enough evidence for a new trial. Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg, whose coverage of the case helped her win a Pulitzer Prize in 2015, was waiting outside the Harris County Jail in Houston, together with Brown’s siblings.
On 8 June 2015, the Georgia Superior Court granted the prosecution’s motion to dismiss all charges against Lawrence William Lee, after he had spent more than 27 years in prison, including more than 20 on death row, for a triple murder during a home robbery. In May 2008, the state Superior Court granted Lee a new trial, finding that the prosecution affirmatively misrepresented to the defence and the court that it had no exculpatory evidence in its files, while concealing evidence that contradicted the testimony or undermined the credibility of every one of its key witnesses. It also presented evidence and argument it knew to be false, while concealing evidence that linked two other suspects to the murders.
In Florida, on 12 October 2015, Derral Hodgkins walked out of prison. Hodgkins, 56, is the beneficiary of a Florida Supreme Court decision in June that overturned his conviction for first-degree murder, finding that a jury had insufficient evidence to hold him responsible for the 2006 stabbing death of his former girlfriend. The woman was found dead in her apartment. Hodgkins’ skin was found under her fingernails, but investigators didn’t find a weapon or other evidence that placed Hodgkins at the scene. The court said the skin found raises suspicion, but it wasn’t enough to convict Hodgkins. The 2 dated years earlier and Hodgkins said they remained close. He told investigators they had sex about three days before the murder and Lodge dug her nails into his back during the act.
In Washington State, on 7 September 2015, a news has reopened the debate on the inherent injustice of the death penalty. The Department of Correction of that state announced that in view of good behaviour, Gary Ridgway would be brought out of isolation after 11 years. Ridgway, 66, White, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for 48 murders of women and girls. Dubbed by the press “the murderess of Green River”, from the place where one of his victims was found, was arrested in 2001 after DNA evidence pointed to him in the murders of three women, who were all discovered by a passer-by. He entered an unprecedented plea where he wouldn’t receive the death penalty if he confessed to the murders. He was initially convicted of 48 separate murders. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ridgway is believed to have murdered at least 71 women. His court statements later reported that he had killed so many, he lost count. The case of Ridgway is often cited by opponents of the death penalty, as one of the worst criminals in US history has managed to avoid the death penalty only for the fact of having well-hidden the bodies.
Death penalty aside, the Obama administration, since the election of the first term, has often referred to the need for reforms to mitigate the harshness of the judicial and prison systems in the nation.
On 3 June 2016, President Barack Obama issued 42 commutations, adding to a historic total. All told, Obama has now issued 348 commutations — more than the amount issued by the past seven presidents combined. Of his 348 career commutations, 130 were in prison for life. Nearly all had been sentenced for non-violent drug offenses, with the vast majority convicted for the distribution of crack cocaine.
Obama has long maintained that it is necessary to reform the system of “mandatory minimum sentences”, introduced in the federal system by President Clinton. The “mandatory minimum sentence” does not give the court the power to independently assess the seriousness of a crime or to contextualize it, using any mitigating, but binds him to issue, for example, a mandatory sentence of 30 years or life imprisonment if the accused is arrested three times for drug dealing. A law reform has long been under discussion in the Congress, but progresses very slowly and with difficulty.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said that she was “confident that there will be many more commutations in the months to come.” Some say the Obama administration’s commutations pale in comparison to the approximately 14,000 granted in a single year by former President Gerald Ford. He commuted the sentences of anyone who had deserted or dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. On 13 July 2015, on the occasion of another block of 46 commutations, Obama, speaking before the cameras, remembered that harsh federal laws in too many instances, lead non-violent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison, facing disproportionately long sentences.
The Cost of the Death Penalty
Besides the consideration of misplaced justice, which has been the subject of political debate in recent years, questions of the “cost of the death penalty” are coming to the fore.
As is well known, in the United States the various courts have very precise budgets, which must be accounted for to the last cent. If prosecutors wish to try cases involving the death sentence they must provide more evidence, more lab results, more testimony and the State must provide the accused with better legal counsel. This all has its costs, which increase in successive phases of the legal process, because those who risk death have a right to increased free legal assistance, lab analysis to contrast that of the Prosecution (at cost to the State), and to hire expert witnesses (also at cost to the State) and to present a series of appeals and recourses that are not available to those who risk imprisonment. This means that when prosecutors begin death penalty cases, they start a process which drains funds from the State, and that, often, because of these expenses, there are fewer funds for other activities.
In many interviews with politicians and in bills presented in numerous States, the problems related to the “cost of the death penalty” came under focus with consideration of an alternative: giving up on capital punishment, which usually involves people for which there is already ample proof for conviction and using the money saved to solve cases where criminals have yet to be identified.
In debates pro or against the abolition, it is often raised the suspicion that capital trials are for the benefit of few prosecutors who seek visibility, often in order to facilitate political careers, while the high costs end up falling on the entire community.
On 7 January 2015, the Seattle University released the results of a seven-month study into the costs of the death penalty in Washington State and found death penalty cases cost a million dollars more than similar cases where capital punishment is not sought. The study quantifies extra death penalty cost of 147 aggravated first-degree murder cases filed in Washington State since 1997.
On 22 June 2015, it was published in North Carolina a study conducted by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation who tried to calculate the cost of 56 trials in which, since 1989, the prosecution asked for the death penalty, not getting it. The study, “The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Prosecutions Capital in North Carolina”, examines both the financial and human costs, and the loss of credibility for the institutions when prosecutors have pursued the death penalty, despite the weakness of the case, resulting in acquittals or dismissals.
In Ohio, on 1 April 2016, Attorney General Mike DeWine issued a report on capital punishment in his state. Only 1 person was condemned to die last year. A total of 324 death sentences have been handed down under the state’s 1981 law. The report reflects a continued drop in death sentences in Ohio as prosecutors file fewer cases and juries choose the option of life without parole. It also comes at a time when Ohio doesn’t have any lethal drugs. No executions are scheduled this year. The report says 53 inmates have been executed since 1999. 19 have had their sentences reduced to prison time and 27 have died before execution. Ohio has 142 active death penalty cases. Currently, if the state wanted to perform an execution, the state is not in possession of the necessary lethal drugs. In its report DeWine has not explicitly addressed the chapter of the “costs”, but the blatant disproportion between the cases prosecuted as a capital offense and executions actually carried out is inscribed in the national average.
In Louisiana, a study published on 28 April 2016 calculated than less than 12 % of death sentences end up in executions. The report “Louisiana Death Sentenced Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015” examined each of the 241 death sentences handed down in Louisiana over the past 30 years. Just 28 of those sentenced to death – less than 12 % – have been executed. Meanwhile, 127 of the death verdicts, more than 1/2 the total, have been reversed, meaning that either a new trial was ordered or the death sentence was rescinded. That number includes 9 exonerations.
In Utah, on 15 June 2016, it was published a report, commissioned by Parliament and compiled by a state agency. It is estimated that each sentenced to death costs the taxpayer 1.66 million dollars more than a life sentence without parole.
But, in addition to studies which analyse the situation in individual countries, they were also published data on the overall situation of the United States.
In an article published on 17 March 2015, the Washington Post summed up the costs of the death penalty: only 16% of people sentenced to death has been executed. From 1973 to 2013, 8,466 sentences of death were handed down by U.S. courts, and 1,359 individuals were executed – only 16 %; 3,194 sentences were overturned on appeal; 2,979 remain on death row as of 31 December 2013; 1,359 were executed; 509 died on death row from suicide or natural causes; 392 had their sentence commuted by the governor to life in prison; 33 had some other outcome or a miscellaneous reason for being removed from death row. States differ greatly in the degree to which they carry out their legal promise of death. The state that has the highest percentage of correspondence between sentences and executions is Virginia, with 72%. It issued 152 death sentences and has made 110 executions. No other state reaches 50%, Texas approaches 50%, South Dakota approaches 45%, Missouri does not arrive at 40%. The 5th state in order of percentage is Oklahoma, that does not arrive at 30%. Three states have issued more than 1,000 sentences in Texas (1075), Florida (1040) and California (1013). Of these convictions, Texas has executed 508, Florida 81, and California13. Regardless of one’s view of the death penalty in principle, these numbers raise questions about how the death penalty is applied in practice. The wide differences across states in the odds of carrying out a death sentence are potentially troubling from an equal protection standpoint. In fact, a federal judge recently ruled that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional because it is in fact a penalty of “life in prison with the remote possibility of death.” (16 July 2014). Ultimately, the American system of capital punishment arguably creates unnecessary suffering for both those defendants sentenced to death and the surviving family members of the victims of the crimes for which the defendants were convicted. The system is built on false promises, and indeed seems to verge on torture.
As for indirect costs, an online magazine, murderdata.org, published in May 2015 a clear overall picture: each year in the United States at least 5,000 murders are not solved. From 1980 to 2012 are at least 211,000 murders unsolved (for “solution” it is meant an arrest followed by a trial, not necessarily by a conviction, or when a suspect is identified but cannot be arrested, for example because it is dead). The last official figures on 2013 estimates that 14,103 murders were committed in the United States, and 8,614, have been solved, 61%. The not-resolved cases are 39%. Murderdata.org is based on official statistics provided by the FBI (Uniform Crime Reports), but has integrated the official data with other data to estimate the existence of at least 21,000 murders not counted by the FBI from 1980 to 2012. The “not counted murders” came out from an extensive press review, and obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests.
This story has to do with the death penalty too. As is known, the main abolitionist initiatives in recent years proposed to save funds from capital trials and to allocate them to solving cold cases. Taking a cue from Murderdata Data, NPR (National Public Radio, an independent non-profit organization that includes more than 900 US radio stations) interviewed several experts, asking possible explanations of the high rate of unsolved cases. In Canada for example (according to official data of the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics) in 2013 occurred 503 murders, and they were resolved on 75%. Canada has a population of 35 million inhabitants, compared with 318 million in the USA. Canada does not have the death penalty, and has a much lower murder rate to the US, and a higher rate of solved cases. This is explained by economic and human resources better used.
If, as calculated by Murder Data, unresolved cases are more than 5,000 a year, it is clear that this setting acquires argumentative weight. In recent years the United States has executed 40 inmates a year on average. Does it make sense to keep a huge structure that drains enormous resources to punish 40 murderers, if 5000 are left free?
The Stance of the “Executioner” … and the Victims’ Families
The effects of the death penalty on those who carry it out were clearly described by those who have worked for years on death row.
On 13 April 2015, three retired death-row prison officials described the effect that carrying out executions has had on them. Frank Thompson, who served as a warden in Oregon and Arkansas, said he believed in capital punishment until he thought “about those flaws in the back of my mind that I knew existed with capital punishment. It’s being administered against the poor; it lacks proof that it deters anything.” Jerry Givens, who oversaw 62 executions in Virginia, raised similar concerns, “I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row...You have two types of people on death row: the guilty and the innocent. And when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row.” Rev. Carroll Pickett was a chaplain on Texas’s death row for 15 years and during 95 executions. He commented, “Standing by the gurney almost 100 times, and watching innocent men killed, watching repentant men killed, and seeing the pain among families and men and my employee friends, cannot leave my memories.”
On 8 April 2015, in Virginia, Mark Earley, a former Virginia Attorney General who in his career has ordered 36 executions, explained his change of opinion in an article for the University of Richmond Law Review. He wrote, “If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty.” He said, “Overseeing a legal system that put so many to death with such efficiency eroded me,” but political concerns he had as Attorney General “walled off my doubts.” Since leaving office, Early said he has “come to the conclusion that the death penalty is based on a false utopian premise. That false premise is that we have had, do have, and will have 100% accuracy in death penalty convictions and executions.”
In Ohio, on 24 February 2016, two former Ohio prison bosses who watched dozens of men executed have joined a national group which is “strongly concerned about the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty in America.” Terry Collins and Reginald Wilkinson, both former directors of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, are part Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty. The Washington, D.C.-based group is a coalition of law enforcement, prosecutors and prison officials. Not all members of the coalition are opposed to capital punishment, but all share the conclusion that the system is “ineffective, expensive and makes mistakes.” Collins, who oversaw 33 executions is also a member of Ohioans Against Executions. He recently published a report in which he wrote: “The death penalty is a defective mechanism that is not worth it to adjust.”
Perhaps, the most unexpected stance on the death penalty came from the family members of victims, who have had a very important role to get the recent abolition of capital punishment in Connecticut,New Jersey, New Mexico, Maryland and Nebraska.
On 4 March 2015, family members of murder victims shared their support for a bill to end capital punishment in Nebraska. Miriam Thimm Kelle, whose brother James Thimm was tortured and murdered by Michael Ryan in 1985, said the Nebraska death penalty sentences family members of murder victims to their own life of purgatory. Instead of focusing their energy on grieving and moving forward with their lives, they track the appeals and publicity of killers and are forced to seek justice for decades. Ryan died of cancer this year after 30 years in prison. Elle Hansen of Lincoln, who lost three loved ones to murder, said arbitrary distinctions are drawn in Nebraska courts between which killers get the death penalty and which cases do not rise to that level. “I want to share the pain and outrage I feel when I hear politicians say that we need the death penalty for the worst of the worst,” Hansen said. “This is an absurd notion. “I guarantee you; each of our losses is the worst of the worst.” Kelle was interviewed again on 27 May 2015, when the Parliament has given the final vote on the abolition of the death penalty in Nebraska. She was in fact among the people who cheered from the gallery. “We did it. I can’t believe it. They had me on pins and needles, but we did it.” “Just tears of joy. First time on this issue that we’ve had tears of joy,” she said. But her work is not over. “We don’t want anyone to be considered evil. We want behavioural health for young people and small children so that everyone can be productive.”
On 19 March 2015, in Pennsylvania, Mamie Norwood reiterated her opposition to the execution of Terrance Williams. “Stop trying to execute Terry Williams.” Mamie Norwood, 78, Black, is the widow of Amos Norwood, the man Williams was convicted of murdering in 1984. On 13 February 2015, Governor Tom Wolf had suspended the execution of Williams. Against the decision of the governor, District Attorney Seth Williams has appealed to the Supreme Court, and a Republican congressman, Mike Vereb, called for a motion condemning the governor’s “excessive use of power.” Both in their public statements said that the decision of the governor is disrespectful to the families of victims, and causes them more pain. Ms. Norwood said instead that she had never spoken with either the prosecutor or the deputy, and she does not like that they speak on her behalf. “I am shocked and upset that you and other politicians are using me and saying things that are not true. You are the ones now causing me unnecessary heartache...I am an elderly African American woman and I am disheartened that I and my feelings and wishes would be ignored and then misrepresented by politicians who claim to speak for me.”
In April 2015, in Pennsylvania, during the penalty phase in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing trial, some of the survivors and the families of victims who died have asked that convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life be spared. Bill and Denise Richard, the parents of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed at the 2013 Boston Marathon, asked the government to take the death penalty off the table because it would mean endless appeals and delay their ability to move on. Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, a newly married couple who both lost legs during the 2013 bombings, said: “We must overcome the impulse for vengeance.” Jennifer Lemmerman, the sister of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was killed in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing, said Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison. “Whenever someone speaks out against the death penalty, they are challenged to imagine how they would feel if someone they love were killed. I’ve been given that horrible perspective and I can say that my position has only strengthened,” Lemmerman wrote. She went on to say, “I also can’t imagine that killing in response to killing would ever bring me peace or justice ... I choose to remember Sean for the light that he brought. No more darkness.”
On 3 May 2015, still in Pennsylvania, Bryon and Darla Dickson, parents of a policeman killed on duty, have publicly expressed forgiveness to the man charged with the murder. They did it during a religious service dedicated to the policemen of the community. The Dickson thanked the colleagues of the son who participated in the manhunt lasting six weeks to capture Eric Frein, 31, white, accused of killing their son, Bryon Dickson II, and seriously wounding another policeman. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. During their intervention the Dickson said forgiveness has helped them move on and avoid becoming bitter. “It doesn’t do you any good to hate somebody for whatever they have done to you, because all it does is eat you up. And in the end, what does it do for you? Absolutely nothing.” Darla Dickson said she was inspired to Christ: “As he forgave his murderers, we must forgive our son’s murderer.”
On 18 May 2015, the Daily Mail published the story of a victim’s son who has changed his mind about the death penalty. Clifford O’Sullivan was just six when he appeared in a California court at the trial of his mother’s killer, Mark Scott Thornton, who has spent the past 20 years sitting on death row. O’Sullivan gave a stirring sentencing testimony during which he asked for the “bad man” to be killed. Now 26, O’Sullivan has changed his mind and no longer believes that the death penalty is the right punishment for Thornton. O’Sullivan’s change of heart comes partly from his own experience of just how damaging the death penalty system is to victims’ families.
In Connecticut, on 21 January 2016, Dawn Mancarella, whose mother, Joyce Masury, was murdered 20 years ago, called the death penalty “a waste of energy and money that doesn’t bring justice or closure.” Mancarella had already testified in Parliament against the death penalty in 2012, the year of abolition, and in January 2015 she issued a written statement in which she reiterated her position. The testimony was attached to the court documents relating to the case in which the State Supreme Court discussed the fate of the 11 persons on death row at the time of abolition. Mancarella said that the death penalty forces victims’ family members to “go through the pain of reliving their loved one’s murder over and over again, year after year” through the lengthy appellate process. This, she says, “is the opposite of justice and closure — even if the convicted offender is put to death in one, ten or twenty years, the anguish of losing your loved one never goes away and a state appointed execution doesn’t make you feel any better.” She contrasts the energy and money expended on the death penalty with the state’s treatment of programs to help victims’ families heal: “it is beyond frustrating to see millions of dollars invested into a single capital case,” she says, “while victims’ services are perpetually underfunded.” She concludes, “It is time to give back our misplaced time and energy to the survivors of homicide for their healing and truly honouring their loved one.”
In Florida, on 19 February 2016, Darlene Farah reiterated her request that the murderess of her daughter is not sentenced to death. Mrs. Farah is the mother of Shelby Farah, 20, killed during a robbery at a store in 2013. In the trial that began in March 2016 against James Xavier Rhodes, 24, Duval County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty over the objections of Ms. Farah’s family. After unsuccessful attempts to persuade prosecutor Angela Corey to non-capitally resolve the case, Darlene Farah publicly expressed her views in a recent column in TIME. Farah said, “I do not want my family to go through the years of trials and appeals that come with death-penalty cases.” Instead, she wants her family to be able to, “celebrate Shelby’s life, honour her memory and begin the lengthy healing process.” Darlene Farah says her daughter would not have wanted the death penalty to be sought on her behalf, and “more killing in no way honours my daughter’s memory or provides solace to my family.”
The Relationship between Crime and Punishment
In November 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice released its annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2014, reporting no change in the national murder rate since 2013. The massive collection of data and statistics is maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). “Crime in the United States 2015”, with data updated to 2014, is compiled by assembling the data of more than 18,000 bodies of local and national police, and covers about 318 million people, including 3.5 million of Puerto Rico.
The report shows that the homicide rate in the US remains the same as last year: 4.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The first survey, in 1993, gave a percentage of 9.5. As the total number, murder (except manslaughter) in 2014 were 14,249. Over the last 5 years the murders have fallen by 3.2%, and 14.9% over the past 10 years. One cannot but note that the reduction in homicides occurred as in the nation executions are lowering: Executions were down 23% over the last five years, and 41% in the last 10 of 41%.
To the 14,249 murders, they must be added the so-called “justifiable homicides”, i.e. those committed by police in carrying out their functions, or by individuals for what is considered self-defence. Police in 2014 killed 444 people. Private citizens have killed, respecting the law, 277 people. The figure of the killings by police has been challenged in recent months by some online databases compiled by volunteers (including “Fatal Encounters” and “Killed by Police”). They estimate that police victims are about 1,100 per year. The FBI acknowledges the incompleteness of its data, explained by the fact that the local police have no obligation to provide any updates regarding this type of “crime.”
Breaking down the data by region and using the classic division of the United States (Northeast, Midwest, South and West), the Northeast region, which uses the death penalty the least, had the lowest murder rate of the 4 geographic regions: 3.3 per 100,000 inhabitants (0.2 less than in 2013). By contrast, the South, which carries out, on average, more executions in the United States, had the highest murder rate: 5.5 (up from 5.3 in 2013). This fact is interpreted by many as proof that the death penalty has no impact as a deterrent, given that where it is not in effect, there are actually less homicides compared to where it is used heavily and with certain ostentation.
According to official data contained in the report “Prisoners in 2014” (NCJ 248955), as of 31 December 2014, in US federal and state prisons were held 1,561,500 people. According to another official report (Correctional Populations in The United States, 2014) other 744,000 people would be held in local prisons [as is well known, the United States will use two different terms: Prison is the state or federal prison, Jail is the local prison], 3.9 million subject to periodic inspections (probation), and more than 850,000 people on parole. The total number of people who are called “under the supervision of adult correctional systems” is 6,851,000. The prison population is made up to 7% by women. 131,000 prisoners from 30 states and the Federal Circuit are held in privately operated prisons. The total number of prisoners is decreasing by about 1% a year from 2007 to date. Both these reports are prepared by the BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics), a federal agency.
In recent years, opinion polls show a basic ambivalence: when given a simple “yes” or “no” to whether one supports the death penalty, the answer “yes” maintains favour, and its decline, year by year, is slow. Instead, when opinion polls include a question offering life imprisonment without parole, things change drastically.
On 1 June 2015, it was released the Quinnipiac University poll, according to which 48% prefer life imprisonment, and 43% prefer death.
On 4 June 2015, it was released the Gallup poll, according to which 45% prefer life imprisonment, and 50% death.
On 4 June 2015, it was also released the ABC News/Washington Post poll, according to which 52% are pro-life imprisonment, and 42% pro-death.
The Quinnipiac survey is more accurate because it has a sample of 1,700 respondents, while the other two have 1,000.
On 15 October 2015, it was published the update of the traditional Gallup poll on the death penalty. Those who favour death penalty have Decreased by 2%, and those who oppose it are at the highest level for 43 years. According to Gallup, 61% are in favour of the death penalty, while last year they were 63%. The lowest percentage of favourable was reached in 2013, with 60%, the highest in 1994, with 80%. Gallup carried out the survey regularly from 1937, and in the autumn version does not put the question whether they prefer life without parole or death. The LWP is inserted into the spring version. In the last years, when it has been offered the choice between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole, the two percentages are in balance. The traditional trend is confirmed, namely that the percentage of those against is higher amongst racial minorities (55% of blacks is against it, while 68% of white is favourable).
According to a Public Religion Research Institute study published in November 2015, 52% of Americans prefer life imprisonment without parole, against 47% who prefer the death penalty. The survey, titled “American Values Survey”, was conducted on a sample of 2,695 people. Analysing the data, the most remarkable thing is perhaps the division by race. Blacks and Hispanics are generally suspicious of the administration of justice, which they consider undermined by forms of racial and social discrimination.
On 19 December 2016, the United States voted against the Resolution on a Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty at the UN General Assembly.