On January 12th, the United States Supreme court found Florida and Alabama’s capital sentencing procedures to be unconstitutional as they do not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to hand out a death sentence.
Florida and Alabama allow a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence to be overruled by an elected judge. This means that a judge can decide to impose the death penalty against a jury’s recommendation. In Florida, no judge has overruled a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence in 15 years. Alabama on the other hand, has had judges override juries’ recommendations of life sentences 101 times since 1976, including 26 times since the year 2000.
The Supreme Court found the capital sentencing design of Florida and Alabama to violate the Sixth Amendment which states that any fact that makes a person eligible for death must be determined by a jury, not a judge.
Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs corespondent, recently investigated why the death penalty is becoming less common in the United States in the story “Why has the death penalty grown increasingly rare?” So far in 2015 only 27 executions have occurred which is the lowest number in 25 years.
What she found is that many judges are not handing out death penalty sentences, too many cases of death row inmates are found to be flawed, and the resources for execution are not as readily available as people might think.
According to information from the Death Penalty Information Center, all the death penalties this year came from only 21 counties, which is less than 1% of the counties in the country.
Former attorney general of Virginia, conservative Republican Mark Earley, presided over 36 executions between 1998-2001. Having been a part of those executions and working as a part of the criminal justice system he no longer believes the death penalty is justified. He said: “We get it wrong sometimes, and in the death penalty, we just can’t get it wrong.” He is referring to the high number of 156 death penalty inmates who have been exonerated.
Totenberg also showed a side to the death penalty that is often left out: the drug companies. Drug companies don’t morally or economically want to be involved with the death penalty. This makes it difficult for states to actually get the drugs needed for lethal injection.
To read the full article “Why has the death penalty grown increasingly rare?” click here.
To visit the Death Penalty Information Center click here.
According the the Death Penalty Information Center’s recent report, “Death Sentences Drop in Three High-Use Counties As Prosecutors Change,” as of 2013, 56 percent of death sentences were given out in only 2 percent of U.S. counties. However, due to recent District Attorney changes in three counties that were included in that 2 percent, the number of annual death sentences is noticeably declining. The three counties highlighted in this report from DPIC are Harris County, Texas, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. Since the DA changes, Harris County went from 12 death sentences per year to just 1 per year. Oklahoma County went from more than 2 death sentences a year to only 3 in the past 6 years. And Philadelphia County went from more than 9 death sentences per year to only 3 in the past 5 years. The report stresses the impact that individual prosecutors have had in these “high-use” counties.
Watch the 2013 video, created by the DPIC, below explaining how 2 percent of counties produce the majority of death sentences in the U.S.
To read “Death Sentences Drop in Three High-Use Counties As Prosecutors Change” click here.
To read “Why Three Counties That Loved the Death Penalty Have Almost Stopped Pursuing It,” from the Marshall Project, click here.
To read the 2013 executive summary of the report “How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Cases at Enormous Cost to All” click here.