Sept. 20


Confusion could affect death penalty vote

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will soon launch a multi-media effort to inform voters about potentially confusing language on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

Bob Evnen, an attorney and co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, told a gathering of the Sarpy County Pachyderm Club Thursday that voters wishing to retain the death penalty must mark the "repeal" oval on the ballot. The confusion arises because voters will be asked whether they wish to retain or repeal the Nebraska Legislature's 2015 decision to abolish capital punishment.

A vote to "retain," he said, will confirm the Legislature's decision to abolish.

A vote to "repeal" will undo that vote and reinstate the death penalty.

Evnen told the gathering of Sarpy County Republicans he is confident voters will overrule the Legislature.

Surveys continue to show that Nebraskans support the death penalty by a 2 to 1 margin, he said.

Evnen made his comments in the meeting room of the Shadow Lake Hy-Vee where he described capital punishment as a moral and practical good.

"Capital punishment is an act of moral accountability for the most heinous crimes committed by the most depraved killers," he said.

"We don't do it very much in our state. We sentence people to death only in a very limited number of cases, a limited number of crimes, and that is as it should be. But that doesn't mean you get rid of it."

Evnen said it is difficult to end up on Nebraska's death row, and outlined the brutal nature of murders committed by those who have landed there.

He dismissed concerns about wrongful conviction, asserting that death penalty opponents must reach back to the 19th century to find a Nebraska death row inmate who might credibly be considered innocent of a capital crime.

Nebraska's death penalty law requires a complex weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, he said, which means only the most heinous crimes are likely to be eligible.

Law enforcement officials are overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty, Evnen said, in part because they believe capital punishment exercises a deterrent effect on criminals who understand that murdering a police officer could result in a death sentence.

He also dismissed concerns about the cost of keeping the death penalty.

He said studies showing high costs, such as a recent study by Creighton University economics professor Ernie Goss, are not credible and fail to show the other side of the ledger.

The Goss study, which showed the death penalty costing Nebraska taxpayers $14 million a year, was a composite of statistics from other states, Evnen said, and bears no relation to actual costs in Nebraska.

He said the study also failed to account for cost savings incurred when expensive trials are avoided after suspects plead guilty to 1st-degree murder in exchange for a promise that prosecutors will not seek the death penalty.

(source: Papillion Times)


Sentenced to die? Depends on the county in California

As California voters weigh 2 ballot measures this fall to either abolish the death penalty or institute changes that aim to expedite what can be a decades-long process, they do so against the backdrop of its rapid decline across the state and an increasing disparity in where capital punishment is actually employed.

Since 2011, California has imposed the death penalty 78 times, including 5 so far this year. That's down from 112 in the 5 prior years, between 2006 and 2010 .

A Bee analysis of death row records shows that the verdicts come from just 14 of California's 58 counties, compared to 25 between 2006 and 2010. Only 8 counties have issued more than one death sentence since 2011.

In many counties, prosecutors now so rarely seek the death penalty that the policy is effectively in disuse.

The list includes some major population centers like Santa Clara County, a liberal stronghold with more than 1.9 million residents, where a jury last sentenced someone to die in 2010. The 4 counties with the highest homicide rate in recent years - Monterey, San Joaquin, Merced and Tulare - are a politically diverse bunch on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley that have not sent anyone to death row in at least 7 years.

The 2nd-most populous county in California last imposed the death penalty 6 years ago.

Encompassing about 3.3 million people, San Diego County is also the biggest in the state with no death sentences since 2011. It's an unexpected turn for the traditionally moderate area with a Republican district attorney, which in the 5 prior years accounted for 5 new death row inmates.

Public Defender Henry Coker takes pride in that fact. Since assuming the role in 2009, he said he has been particularly aggressive about pursuing resolutions to death penalty cases before they go to trial.

Though he would have once saved the best arguments for the jury, Coker said he now puts on emphasis on engaging the district attorney's office from the 1st day of the case. That can involve hundreds of hours spent researching mitigating factors and convincing prosecutors that the death penalty is not warranted.

"People don't just wake up in the morning and commit these horrific crimes. That must be studied," he said. "The people who commit these crimes generally come with a history that explains why they are where they are."

Coker credited District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis for being personally involved in every case and taking a holistic approach to capital punishment. But while the number of sentences has fallen dramatically over the past decade, Dumanis, a supporter of the death penalty and the November initiative that aims to expedite the process, said her approach has not changed since she took office in 2003.

"Each case present its own unique facts," she said. "We're not backing away in any shape or form."

Though no one in California has been executed in more than a decade because of legal challenges to the lethal injection cocktail, other counties continue to pursue death sentences at some of the highest rates in the country.

Since 2011, almost 85 % of death sentences in the state - 66 new death row inmates - have come from 5 neighboring counties in Southern California. Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, Kern and San Bernardino counties represent about 48 % of the state population and 49 % of homicides during that time.

Critics say the geographic disparity in sentencing is another consequence of the arbitrariness of the death penalty, which is susceptible to the impulses of local prosecutors who decide when to pursue capital punishment.

Ana Zamora, a criminal justice policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who is managing the campaign against the death penalty speed-up measure, compared it to research that has found nonwhite defendants are more likely to receive death sentences, particularly if their victim is white.

"It's very concerning that your likelihood of being sentenced to death in California has everything to do with the color of your skin and the county that you committed your crime in," she said. "It's unfair."

But supporters of capital punishment counter that local control is a strength, not a weakness, of the system.

"Criminal justice policy should as much as possible reflect the community, because it's a personal thing," Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin said. "If they don't have a say in how justice is carried out, then they begin to lose faith."

The country as a whole is seeing patterns similar to those in California as support for the death penalty declines among the public and the legal community.

A Gallup poll last October found 61 % of Americans in support of the death penalty and 37 % opposed, the closest responses have been on that question in 43 years. In 2015, there were 49 death sentences nationwide, the lowest number since the U.S. Supreme Court required states to overhaul their sentencing statutes in 1972 and down from a record of 315 in 1996. The number is projected to be even fewer this year.

With 20 states already having abolished the death penalty, those verdicts are also coming from fewer places. Only 16 counties in the entire country imposed 5 or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, according to a recent report by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School. 5 of those were Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, Kern and San Bernardino.

"It could be that they're out of step with America," said Rob Smith, a senior research fellow at Harvard Law School who directs the Fair Punishment Project. He compared Southern California to a "new Deep South" for the death penalty, as even many conservative states hit the brakes on capital punishment.

In 2015, Riverside County imposed 8 death sentences, while Los Angeles County imposed 3 - more than the entire state of Texas. Juries in Georgia have not sentenced anyone to die since June 2014, though executions are being carried out at a record clip.

In 2015, Los Angeles County imposed more death sentences than the entire state of Texas.

"It suggests that the death penalty is an excessive punishment," he said. "If it were serving a purpose, it would be used more regularly."

Many California prosecutors do seem more cautious now about pursuing the death penalty. Since 2011, the 9 counties of the San Francisco Bay Area have collectively sent only 3 people to death row. That's down from 12 in the prior 5 years.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Michael Rosen said that, since taking office in 2011, he has only looked closely at capital punishment in 10 homicide cases with aggravating factors. He has sought the death penalty in 2, involving the kidnapping and murder of a 15-year-old girl on her way to school and the rape and killing of a baby. Both trials are still pending.

"Matters of race and class play a significant in who is arrested, who is prosecuted, who is punished and for how long," Rosen said. "It gives me pause in being too cavalier about applying the death penalty and encourages humility and self-restraint."

Deciding when a crime crosses that line can be an exhaustive procedure - involving presentations from senior prosecutors on how strong their case is, discussions with the family about their wishes and even hearing arguments from the defense on why a death sentence is not warranted - before Rosen ultimately makes the final decision. Other district attorneys described a similar process.

"Seeking the death penalty is not just an academic exercise," Rosen said. "I want to be able to explain my decision to seek death or not to seek death in a way that people in my county will understand."

Prosecutors often talk about their work as a reflection of the will of the community - and the geographic disparity of sentencing loosely tracks public opinion in California. 7 of the 9 Bay Area counties were among the minority to support an unsuccessful 2012 initiative to abolish the death penalty, while in 4 of the 5 Southern California counties with the highest number of death sentences, more than 60 % of voters rejected the measure.

But those connections only extend so far. Los Angeles County approved the 2012 initiative with nearly 55 % of the vote; since then, it has sent 18 more inmates to death row. San Diego County rejected the measure by nearly same the margin.

"Criminal justice policy should as much as possible reflect the community, because it's a personal thing."----Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin

The disconnect fuels criticisms that the California death penalty is too reliant on the personalities of individual district attorneys, who are elected and face political ramifications for their decisions. It also inspires suggestions on how capital punishment might be improved: leave the decision up to the state attorney general, rather than county prosecutors, for a more uniform approach, or reduce the aggravating factors that can be used to seek the death penalty, a list of dozens that includes killing a police officer or committing murder from a motor vehicle.

Steven L. Harmon, public defender for Riverside County, attributed its status as a state and national leader in death penalty sentencing to a history of abuse by prosecutors. Since 2011, Riverside juries have imposed 24 sentences, 2 fewer than Los Angeles, which has four times the population and seven times as many murders.

"The people in Riverside are not death-hungry," Harmon said. "But if other jurors in other counties were given all of the chances that Riverside County jurors were given...I think the numbers would be higher as well."

Even that may be changing. So far this year, Riverside has sent only 1 inmate to death row.

Hestrin, the new district attorney, said he is "a little more restrictive" when it comes to the death penalty than his predecessors. Though he supports the November initiative to expedite executions, he also believes they should be rare, "both because of what's right and also because of the cost."

When he took over in 2015, Hestrin conducted a standard review of the office's 22 pending death penalty cases and chose not to continue with seven of them. During his 1st year, he said, he instituted changes to their deliberative process, like inviting the defense attorneys to make a presentation before bringing charges, and chose to seek death in only 4 of 11 cases they considered.

It reflects perhaps a conventional wisdom mounting in the legal community after decades of battle over capital punishment. Hestrin personally tried 7 cases in his career, which he called "excruciating for the victim's families and everyone involved."

"I understand the difficulties of trying these cases, both legally and personally. It is a very trying thing," he said. "You're going to come face-to-face with the defendant's humanity."



California bishops support death penalty repeal, prison rehabilitation ballot propositions

California's bishops recommend 2 yes votes and a no vote on 3 of the 18 California propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot. They have taken no official position on the remaining propositions but offer analysis at

Proposition 62: Repeal of the Death Penalty

Proposes a repeal of the state death penalty and replaces the maximum punishment for murder with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

*California bishops support Prop. 62 (vote YES): "All life is sacred - innocent or flawed - just as Jesus Christ taught us and demonstrated repeatedly throughout His ministry."

Proposition 66: Death Penalty Procedures Initiative

Proposes amending state law in an attempt to speed up the judicial review of death penalty cases.

*California bishops oppose Prop. 66 (vote NO): "The search for a fair and humane execution process and protocol has failed for decades.Any rush to streamline that process will inevitably result in the execution of more innocent people."

Proposition 57: Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act

Proposes parole consideration for nonviolent felons. Authorizes sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior, and education. Juvenile court judge, not prosecutors, will decide whether juvenile will be prosecuted as adult.

*California bishops support Prop. 57 (vote YES): "A Catholic approach leads us to encourage models of restorative justice that seek to address crime in terms of the harm done to victims and communities, not simply as a violation of law."

(source: Catholic San Francisco)


Closed hearing in Charleston church shooting continues

A closed hearing on suppressing evidence in Dylann Roof's federal trial in the Charleston church shootings is resuming.

Roof's defense attorneys want some evidence kept out of his November trial stemming from the fatal shootings of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in June of last year.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel earlier overruled objections from media attorneys opposed to closing the hearing saying keeping it open could compromise Roof's right to a fair trial. That hearing continues Tuesday.

The 22-year-old Roof faces hate crimes and other federal charges in the death-penalty case. Preliminary jury screening begins next week in the case.

The judge has said 3,000 jurors will be summoned to the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston.

(source: Associated Press)

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