Oct. 15


Florida Supreme Court strikes down new death penalty law----High court says death sentence requires unanimous jury recommendation

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that jury recommendations to impose the death penalty must be unanimous, finding unconditional a law passed by the Florida Legislature earlier this year allowing the death penalty if the jury recommendation was at least 10-2.

The Legislature passed the new death penalty rules in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said Florida's death penalty system gave too much power to judges, not enough to juries.

"We conclude that juror unanimity in any recommended verdict resulting in a death sentence is required under the Eighth Amendment," the justices wrote in the much anticipated Hurst v. Florida opinion. "By requiring unanimity in a recommendation of death in order for death to be considered and imposed, Florida will achieve the important goal of bringing its capital sentencing laws into harmony with the direction of society reflected in all these states and with federal law."

The ruling states that existing cases where death sentences were imposed with less than a unanimous jury recommendation are not required to be commuted to life in prison. While awaiting the Supreme Court opinion, several death penalty appeals have already been filed, and many more may follow now that the ruling calls for unanimous recommendations.

(source: news4jax.com)


Florida court right to make it harder to kill people who kill

The process of sentencing criminals to die in Florida just received another level of difficulty. And that's as it should be.

On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state's revised death-penalty law is unconstitutional. It declared that when a jury recommends a sentence of death to a judge, jurors' decision must be unanimous and a judge does not have the final say. Taking the life of a felon is the ultimate penalty meted out by the state. It's a decision that should not be made by a jury that is in disagreement.

Justices also struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it. That one was the result of the Legislature's attempt to mollify the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this year struck down the state's law that let a judge overrule a non-unanimous jury recommendation and impose a death sentence. When lawmakers convened to address it, they tacked on the 10-of-12 provision.

The latest ruling basically said, Nope, not good enough, and now triggers the potential re-sentencing of hundreds of Florida inmates on death row.

This heightened requirement is fair, especially in a state that has seen the most exonerations of the wrongly convicted. But prosecutors opposed the unanimous-jury decision, saying that not even serial killer Ted Bundy received a one. However, a jury's job is figuring out the most just penalty, not making prosecutors' jobs easier.

Justices set them straight: "We conclude that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury mandates that under Florida's capital sentencing scheme, the jury - not the judge - must be the finder of every fact, and thus every element, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty," the court wrote in its 5-2 ruling.

Up to now, Florida was the only state among 31 remaining death-penalty states that allowed juries to render advisory verdicts involving both the presence and sufficiency of aggravating circumstances and also recommendations of death by a simple majority vote.

Unfortunately, the latest ruling is a legal Pandora's Box for the state. What happens now to the nearly 400 convicted killers on death row? Some say they now have the right to request a similar unanimity in their death sentencing.

That the courts had to step in highlights Florida's legislative inaction. In 2013, the Florida Bar's Board of Governors recommended that there be a comprehensive review of the state's death-penalty process by all branches of government. Lawmakers fiddled, inmate advocates burned. Nothing was done, and the courts were brought into the picture.

The state Supreme Court's ruling is the latest in a slow dismantling of the old way Florida has killed those who kill - from the lethal medical cocktail used to the basic guidelines followed. It began in January, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the state's death-penalty law that allowed a judge to overrule a jury verdict and impose a death sentence.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU in Miami, said the new procedures will reduce the number of death sentences.

But incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran told the Associated Press the ruling is the courts' ongoing effort to "subvert the will of the people."

We disagree. In death-penalty cases, the will of a unanimous jury is, indeed, the will of the people.

(source: Editorial Board, Miami Herald)


Florida Supreme Court: Florida's current death penalty is unconstitutional

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in a Pensacola murder case that in January prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to declare Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional. An attorney for murderer Timothy Hurst asked the state's high court to direct a trial judge to resentence the defendant to life in prison. Assistant State Attorney General Carine Mitz asked it to rule that despite the high court ruling, Hurst still should be put to death.

In a long-awaited decision, the Florida Supreme Court today ruled that the Florida Legislature fumbled a re-write of the state's death penalty statute earlier this year, meaning that Florida currently has no death penalty.

The court also ruled that Timothy Lee Hurst, the man whose death penalty prompted the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year to declare Florida's death penalty unconstitutional, must be given a new sentencing hearing.

The court was unequivocal on one overarching point: For Hurst or any defendant to be given the death penalty, all 12 jurors must recommend it.

Those 2 rulings, released at the same time this morning, were a blow not just to the Florida Legislature but also to Attorney General Pam Bondi, who had argued that the error identified by the U.S. Supreme Court was harmless.

Not immediately clear, though, is what will happen to other Florida death row inmates and to murderers given the death penalty under the new statute.

Some attorneys had urged the court to automatically convert all Florida death sentences to life in prison, but the court today said no to that.

Both of today's ruling were a consequence of one handed down on Jan. 12 by the U.S. Supreme Court. It ruled that Florida's death penalty was unconstitutional because it required a judge - not a jury - to decide whether a defendant should be put to death.

The case involved Timothy Lee Hurst, a Pensacola man convicted of murdering his boss at a Popeyes Fried Chicken restaurant in Pensacola in 1998 with a box cutter then putting her body in a freezer.

The state had argued that the error was harmless, but in that January ruling, Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote that the court disagreed but left it to the Florida Supreme Court to hash out who, if anyone, was harmed.

The Florida Supreme Court today answered that question, but only in part. The court ruled that Hurst was harmed, that his death sentence was invalid and that he should get a new sentencing hearing.

Not clear is what will happen in other death penalty cases.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott's office wrote in an email that his office was reviewing the ruling. That was the same message from the office of outgoing Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and his successor Joe Negron.

A spokesman for Bondi wrote the same thing, adding "In the meantime Florida juries must make unanimous decisions in capital cases as to the appropriateness of the death penalty."

The Florida Legislature rewrote the state's death penalty statute this spring, and on March 7, Gov. Rick Scott signed it.

But today, the Florida Supreme Court threw it out. That ruling came in a separate case, one involving Osceola County death row inmate Larry Darnell Perry.

"The Act ... is unconstitutional because it requires that only ten jurors recommend death as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, twelve-member jury," the court wrote. "Accordingly, it cannot be applied to pending prosecutions."

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor or Hurst in January, the state halted all executions.

The Legislature approved a 10-2 jury recommendation despite warnings that it would not withstand a constitutional challenge.

In May some of the state's most influential attorneys, including three former Florida Supreme Court judges, urged the Tallahassee high court to commute the sentences of all 390 people on death row to life in prison.

That did not happen today.

Before the Jan. 12 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida judges were free to imposed the death penalty if as few as 7 jurors recommended it.

In the Hurst case, jurors had voted 7-5 in favor of the death penalty.

(source: Orlando Sentinel)


ACLU Responds to Florida Supreme Court Ruling State's Death Sentencing Statute Unconstitutional

The Florida Supreme Court today ruled that the state's system of issuing death sentences is unconstitutional. The Florida Legislature passed a law earlier this year requiring a jury vote of at least 10-2 for a person to be sentenced to death, revising a previous statute that required only a bare majority of jurors to agree. The Court Friday ruled that the statute was unconstitutional, and that a death sentence in Florida must result from a unanimous jury decision.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the ACLU Capital Punishment Project filed amicus briefs urging the court to find the statute unconstitutional.

Responding to Friday's ruling, ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon stated:

"For years, we have warned the Florida legislature that unless they rewrote our state's broken death penalty statute, the courts would take the issue out of their hands. We require a unanimous jury in all other situations except death sentencing. A person should not be sentenced to death by a less than unanimous jury.

"Just as we said they would, the Florida Supreme Court has inserted some much-needed fairness in our death penalty process by declaring that anything short of a fully unanimous jury on every necessary issue is unconstitutional.

"Florida, with its non-unanimous jury requirement, has seen more death sentences reversed than any other state. Racial disparities, over-zealous prosecutors and a lack of resources for defense counsel continue to plague death penalty cases.

"We are heartened by the court's decision which should reduce both the number of death sentences, as well as the number of wrongful convictions that have plagued our state. But the unanimity issue was just one aspect of a crumbling death penalty system which is getting harder every day to justify.

"All defendants on Florida's death row whose cases are pending on direct appeal must now receive new sentencing hearings unless the State can prove its heavy burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the error in their cases would not have affected the jury verdicts in capital sentencing, a very difficult standard to overcome. The full impact of the decision remains to be seen as the Florida Supreme Court has yet to decide whether new rulings will apply retroactively to those defendants who cases were already decided on direct appeal. The question of retroactivity is pending in the Lambrix case, a case briefed but not yet decided by the Florida Supreme Court.

"The Florida legislature should not attempt any further small fixes of the unsalvageable death penalty. No one should have to die from the flaws in our judicial system - the racial bias, the extreme variation from county to county in the use of the death penalty, the definitions of intellectual disability that don't match science and medicine, and so many more.

"We see other states wrestling with the same problems and coming to the same conclusion: capital punishment must end."


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

(source: commondreams.org)


Advocates, officials react to Supreme Court's death penalty ruling

Friday morning, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty sentencing law, declaring that all death sentences should be decided by a unanimous jury.

"I am profoundly disappointed by today's Florida Supreme Court opinion that found a component of our death penalty law unconstitutional. ... Make no mistake, those impacted most by this miscarriage of justice are the families as they watch the perpetrators of some of the most heinous and vicious murders and tortures continue to live the days their loved one were denied," said Florida House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran in a statement. "This decision is indicative of a Court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result. That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state."

Spokespeople for Gov. Rick Scott Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and President-designate Joe Negron said they were reviewing the court's ruling.

So did Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. "We are reviewing the Florida Supreme Court ruling, but in the meantime Florida juries must make unanimous decisions in capital cases as to the appropriateness of the death penalty," said spokesman Whitney Ray in a statement.

Here's how advocates and elected officials responded in the hours following the court's ruling:

"It was a pretty simple question. We either found a compromise or nothing happened and doing nothing was not a reasonable outcome," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who also said he was not surprised by the court's ruling. "If we had done nothing then there would not have been a law that the Supreme Court of Florida could pass judgment on. Now we have direction and so we needed to act at the past session in order to end the delays in the death penalty system."

"I supported unanimous juries in the past and I think it's probably the right decision," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "This is just really a trend of what supreme courts have been doing around the country on this issue."

"We enforce the laws, the Legislature writes the laws and the Supreme Court interprets the laws," said Buddy Jacobs, general counsel of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which opposed unanimous juries. "So we will be talking and meeting on Monday to try to come up with some sort of road map of where we go from here based on this opinion." "For years, we have warned the Florida legislature that unless they rewrote our state's broken death penalty, the courts would take the issue out of their hands," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, in a statement. "Just as we warned the Florida Legislature that they would, the Florida Supreme Court has inserted some much-needed fairness in our death penalty process by declaring that anything short of a fully unanimous jury is unconstitutional."

"Today's opinions released by the Florida Supreme Court continue to reveal a broken, mistake-prone death penalty system that fails victims' families, the innocent, and taxpayers. It is time to end the use of Florida's failed death penalty government program," said Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, in a statement. "For more than a decade, prosecutors have known full well that Florida's death sentencing scheme was seriously flawed and could be unconstitutional, yet they downplayed concerns and advised against reforms. Victims' families were dragged through long, repetitive, and painful procedures, record numbers of innocent people were sentenced to death, and Florida taxpayers paid the enormous costs."

"Florida finally joins the rest of the states in requiring what everyone has known for a long time -- that at least, the imposition of the death penalty requires a unanimous verdict," said Miami defense lawyer Philip Reizenstein, who handles death cases. "What remains is for Florida to join the rest of the civilized world and end the death penalty."

"The Florida Supreme Court's ruling that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous is a long overdue recognition of the state's fatally flawed capital punishment regime," said Professor Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami School of Law in a statement circulated by the Fair Punishment Project. "The prosecutors who relentlessly pursued death sentences despite being repeatedly placed on notice that the state's death penalty regime was constitutionally defective should be held accountable for the emotional and financial costs they have imposed on victims' families and on taxpayers."

(source: Tampa Bay Times)


State will seek death penalty for 'pillowcase burglar'

The state is pursuing the death penalty against an Ocala man accused accused in a string of burglaries and at least one murder.

A grand jury indicted Darren Decker, 42, on 1 count of 1st-degree murder in late June. The charge stems from the death of Tamara Bedenbaugh, 57, who was found dead in her Northwest County Road 225-A home on Jan. 25.

Bedenbaugh seemed to be the victim of a home invasion. The Marion County Sheriff's Office reported at the time that her front door showed signs of forcible entry. It reported that jewelry, cash and a wallet were missing.

Assistant State Attorney Amy Berndt said the decision to pursue the death penalty reflects the violence of the crime.

The Sheriff's Office has not yet released the cause of death, according to Lauren Letellier, assistant public information officer. Berndt said the circumstances of the murder made it fit several of the legally specified "aggravating factors" needed to justify a death sentence.

Namely, Berndt said, the killing was "heinous, atrocious and cruel"; was committed for financial gain; and was committed during the commission of another felony - in this case, burglary.

The arrest of Decker and his longtime girlfriend, Jessica Baker, 44, came in April as the result of a multi-agency investigation into a months-long string of burglaries. Decker and Baker are accused of targeting homes throughout Alachua, Citrus, Levy, Marion and Sumter counties. Authorities dubbed the duo the "pillowcase burglars" in reference to their alleged habit of hauling off guns, jewelry and small electronics in a pillowcase taken from the targeted homes.

At least 1 arrest affidavit, filed in Alachua County, suggests Baker played a minor role in the scheme. She is not charged in Bedenbaugh's murder. Court records indicate she is not facing any burglary- and theft-related charges in Marion County.

Decker, on the hand, faces at least 28 burglary- and theft-related charges in Marion County alone. This includes 2 in the indictment pertaining to Bedenbaugh's murder.

Decker is not charged in a 2nd murder for which authorities named him a suspect at an April press conference. Don "Terry" Plumeri, 71, a well-known composer, was found dead in his home in Dunnellon on April 1.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office investigated that murder. Assistant State Attorney Peter Magrino said the State Attorney's Office continues to consider that case.

(source: Ocala Star Banner)


Man accused of fatally shooting Jefferson Parish deputy seeks change of venue

The man charged with fatally shooting Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office Deputy David F. Michel Jr. claims he cannot receive a fair trial in Jefferson.

Jerman Neveaux, 19, who faces a possible death penalty if convicted of fatally shooting Michel in June, asked a judge Friday to move his trial to another jurisdiction, citing the extensive news coverage that accompanied the deputy's shooting death.

Michel's death generated outrage and an outpouring of grief in the community.

Jefferson Sheriff Newell Normand described the killing as "cold-blooded murder."

"Even if jurors assure the trial court that they will try to be impartial, such anticipated protestations of impartiality cannot be taken at face value," defense attorney Martin Regan wrote in a court filing.

Neveaux on Friday pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and other charges. He's accused of fatally shooting Michel outside a Dunkin' Donuts shop in Harvey after the deputy tried to search him.

In an unusual move, Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick said Thursday that his office will seek the death penalty against Neveaux.

(source: The New Orleans Advocate)


Judge: Man incompetent to stand trial for killing officer

A man accused of fatally shooting an Indianapolis police officer 2 years ago has been found incompetent to stand trial.

A Marion County judge's Friday ruling means 27-year-old Major Davis won't stand trial until he is deemed able to understand proceedings and help with his own defense. Davis is accused of shooting and killing Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officer Perry Renn in 2014 during a gun battle. He is charged with murder and faces the death penalty if convicted.

Davis will be taken to a secure state facility after the judge issued a committed order to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration's Division of Mental Health and Addiction.

Davis has previously asked to represent himself in his case. His attorneys previously told the court Davis suffers from "paranoia and delusions."

(source: Associated Press)


First TV Ad Supports Kansas Supreme Court Rulings On School Funding And Death Penalty

Those who want to oust the justices don't like the tone of the ad at all. "We are extremely offended that Kansans for Fair Courts continue to lie about who gets to pick the justices," says Amy James with a group called Kansans for Justice.

James points out that any new justice would have to come through the merit selection process. A 9-member committee vets applicants and sends three names to the governor, who makes the final choice. "To call this a power grab is just not the case," James says.

The spot touches on school funding, saying the court "ruled Brownback's" plan unconstitutional. This is a reference to the block grant funding passed by the Legislature 2 years ago and that expires at the end of the current fiscal year. Brownback called for a repeal of the former formula in his 2015 State of the State address.

In Wichita, the hottest debate around retention concerns the death penalty. The high court overturned the death sentences of the Carr brothers who killed 5 people in 2000. The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty and the brothers are now on death row.

The ad ignores the Carr case but says, "They upheld the death penalty and kept us safe," over a head line that says the court upheld the death sentence for the man who killed the Greenwood County Sheriff in 2005.

But Kansans for Justice, which is a group made up of friends of family of the Carr brothers' victims, says the ad misrepresents the Greenwood County case. The Kansas Supreme court originally overturned the death sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that improper and sent the case back. The state justices, using the guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, then upheld the death sentence.

The justices overturned a string of death sentences in Kansas until recently. In addition to ultimately upholding the death sentence in the Greenwood County case, they also upheld the death sentence of serial killer John Robinson last November.

While the ad supports retaining all 5 justices on the ballot, Republicans have called for the ouster of only 4. Conservatives want to retain Justice Caleb Stegall, who previously worked for Brownback.

(source: KCUR news)


Candidates differ on state's death penalty situation

The death penalty and prison overcrowding were the hot topics at what may be the final debate for the two candidates in District 33 of the Nebraska Legislature.

Incumbent Les Seiler of Hastings voted to end the death penalty in Nebraska while challenger Steve Halloran of rural Adams County has been a staunch supporter of what he calls a major deterrent for crime.

While voters are set to decide on Nov. 8 if the state will maintain or discontinue the death penalty, the candidates talked about the details of the system during a debate Friday at Good Samaritan Village.

The debate was hosted by the Hastings Area League of Woman Voters in conjunction with the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce, Hastings Public Access Channel, Hastings Area Retired Teachers and YWCA of Adams County.

Halloran expressed frustration with the state's inability to execute anyone even when there is clear-cut proof of the person's guilt.

"That's the part that needs fixing," he said. "Texas has a very clear cleanup system of appeals, very limited time and number of appeals. Texas is perfectly capable of dealing with the drug protocol to accomplish the death penalty and the question of deterrent is an important one. I believe it's less of a deterrent if we only use it every 19 years."

Halloran said he would like to see absolute DNA proof as part of the criteria for sentencing someone to death. That way there would be clear evidence and no need for a dozen or more appeals.

Seiler said the question of ensuring the right person is put to death can be summed up in the case of the Beatrice 6. 6 innocent people were sent to prison for a 1985 rape and murder later tied by DNA to another man.

Additionally, he mentioned a man in Omaha whose DNA was supposedly found at a crime scene and he was found guilty. It was later determined the person testing the DNA planted the suspect's DNA and now that state employee is serving time in Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.

On the issue of the actual drugs used in lethal injection, Halloran said the drug protocol needs to be fixed as there are states like Texas that have the recipe and drugs and are able to perform executions.

"There's a plethora of drugs. We don't have to rely on 1 drug company to come up with the magic drug," Halloran said. "I know several veterinarians who can come up with a simple concoction and put a horse down in 30 seconds without pain. We're making a large thing about the drug protocol but that is something that is manageable by and controllable by the Legislature."

Seiler, who is currently serving his 5th year in the Legislature, explained that all the major drug companies in the United States refuse to sell those drugs to the state of Nebraska for executions.

On the issue of sentencing someone to death, Halloran said he believes it is a much greater deterrent than life without parole. Those people essentially have "nothing to lose," making them the perfect candidates to create prison violence and injure or kill officers because there's no punishment left.

"I wouldn't want my son or grandson to be a correctional facility guard under those circumstances because their lives are under threat all the time," Halloran said. "I think we need to give our law enforcement community more backing than we're giving them now."

In his closing statement, Seiler asked people to consider voting for him to allow him to continue his work as chairman of the judiciary committee, which is currently entrenched in addressing issues within the state's corrections system.

"I'm asking for your vote to send me back to that position to see if we can get this cleaned up," he said.

(source: Hastings Tribune)


Trial opens for man accused of stabbing estranged pregnant girlfriend to death

Eric Covington stabbed his estranged girlfriend, Sagittarius Gomez, more than 120 times over the course of an hour because he did not want her to be with another man, prosecutors said Friday during opening statements of his death penalty trial.

The 24-year-old was 7 months pregnant with their child.

"I didn't want to see my baby around no other n-----," Chief Deputy District Attorney Michelle Fleck said Covington told police.

Covington went on to describe the slaying "in cold-blooded, chilling detail," according to the prosecutor.

Neighbors testified that they heard loud noises and screams coming from Gomez's East Sahara Avenue apartment in the early morning hours of Nov. 6, 2010, but none called police.

Gomez's blood-covered body was found the next day after police, responding to a welfare check, broke open the front door of her apartment.

Fleck told jurors that "immediately it became abundantly obvious that 1 person was responsible for this grisly killing" and looked toward Covington, seated at the defense table.

Along with 1st-degree murder, Covington, now 33, faces 1 count each of manslaughter in the killing of an unborn child, burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon and robbery with a deadly weapon.

If convicted, he faces capital punishment. The trial is expected to last through next week.

Defense attorney Lisa Rasmussen asked jurors whether the killing reached the "requisite level of intent" that constitutes 1st-degree murder.

"We submit to you that it does not," she said, adding that prosecutors would not be able to prove burglary or robbery charges.

Rasmussen also said the killing did not constitute "torture or mutilation."

George Vance Hayes, who lived nearby at the Villas at Sunrise Mountain apartment complex, told jurors he heard a woman's "horrific, very loud scream," and he regretted not calling authorities.

Covington told police he went to the east valley apartment they once shared to discuss the state of their relationship. When the talk turned sour, Covington produced a knife and began to stab Gomez, 24, police said at the time.

After he decided the knife he brought "wasn't working," he took a butcher knife from a kitchen drawer and continued stabbing her, according to police.

Police later found Covington hiding at his parents' house in the northwest valley.

He had ditched a switchblade and his bloody clothes, the prosecutor said.

Covington, who had lived with Gomez before the slaying, had a history of domestic violence, police said at the time.

(source: Las Vegas Review-Journal)


Eliminate the death penalty in California

California voters should pass Proposition 62 and abolish the death penalty in the state. But at the very least, they should reject Proposition 66, which seeks to speed up the imposition of the death penalty and therefore increases the risk of executing innocent people. Because these 2 ballot measures are obviously incompatible, the one that gets the most votes will be implemented if both are approved by the voters. But my strong hope is that people will vote "yes" on Prop. 62 and "no" on Prop. 66.

The debate over the death penalty is not new. Yet, the overwhelming trend is toward abolishing it. Since 2000, 8 states have eliminated the death penalty. It now exists in 31 states, but it is rarely used. Only 7 states have carried out an execution in the past two years. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978 in California, more than 930 people have been sentenced to death row and just 13 people have been executed.

The U.S. is the only Western nation that still has the death penalty. In fact, an Amnesty International Report in 2014 documented that there are only nine countries in the world that still use the death penalty and the U.S. is in the company of nations like Iran, China, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and North Korea.

Why eliminate the death penalty? Some believe that it is wrong for the state to kill people. But why should someone who believes in the morality of capital punishment vote to pass Prop. 62? There is too great a risk of executing an innocent person. Any human system will make mistakes and the reality is that innocent people are wrongly convicted. Across the country, DNA and other new evidence have proven the innocence of more than 150 people after they were sentenced to death. In California, 66 people have had their murder convictions overturned because new evidence showed they were innocent.

Moreover, there is a greater likelihood of wrongful convictions in capital cases. As Justice Stephen Breyer has explained: "[T]he crimes at issue in capital cases are typically horrendous murders, and thus accompanied by intense community pressure on police, prosecutors, and jurors to secure a conviction. This pressure creates a greater likelihood of convicting the wrong person."

Also, the death penalty is administered in a racially discriminatory fashion. Many studies have documented that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites on the same factual record. For example, a study in Philadelphia found that African Americans were four times more likely than whites to receive a death sentence for similarly severe crimes, controlling for the prior criminal records of the defendants. Numerous studies have documented that individuals accused of murdering white victims, as opposed to black or other minority victims, are more likely to receive the death penalty. Over 20 years ago, Justice Harry Blackmun, explained that "[p]erhaps it should not be surprising that the biases and prejudices that infect society generally would influence the determination of who is sentenced to death."

Nor does the death penalty have any benefit in preventing crime. For every year between 2008 and 2013, the average homicide rate of states without the death penalty was significantly lower than those with capital punishment. A few years ago, the National Research Council (whose members are drawn from the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine) reviewed 30 years of empirical evidence and concluded that it failed to show that the death penalty had a deterrent effect.

Prop. 62 would replace the death penalty with life in prison with no possibility of parole. This actually would save the state a great deal of money. The state's independent Legislative Analyst confirmed Prop. 62 will save $150 million per year. A death row sentence costs 18 times more than life in prison.

The death penalty is so rarely carried out in California that its administration is arbitrary. The average delay between sentencing and execution in California is 25 years. A few years ago, Orange County federal court Judge Cormac Carney in a carefully reasoned and meticulously documented opinion explained: "Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death. As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary."

Why not just deal with this aspect of the problem by speeding up the imposition of the death penalty, as Prop. 66 seeks to do? It would have trial courts hear post-conviction proceedings and require that their proceedings be concluded within 5 years. Even if one believes in the death penalty and rejects Prop. 62, Prop. 66 is a terrible idea. It does not deal with the underlying causes of delay: the process of direct review by the Supreme Court, the lack of qualified attorneys to handle death penalty cases, the need for multiple levels of review. An initiative cannot create more lawyers able to competently handle death cases. Nor is faster better when it comes to handling death cases. Eliminating procedural protections exacerbates the likelihood of executing innocent people.

The time has come to eliminate the death penalty in California. Prop. 62 would do just that.

(source: Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the UC Irvine School of Law----Opinion, Orange County Register)


No on Proposition 66

If there is 1 thing opponents and proponents of the death penalty in California can agree, it is that the current death penalty system doesn't work. With one of the largest death rows in the world, California has over 740 people awaiting execution, few of whom are likely to be executed.

Most of this backlog has to do with the robust, if complex, system of appeals, part of which happens in state courts and also federal courts. Proposition 66, backed by the California District Attorneys Association, purports to expedite the death penalty by addressing the state appeals system.

To address the lack of trained lawyers available to represent those sentenced to death, the measure would expand the pool of available lawyers by requiring attorneys currently qualified to handle non-death penalty appeals cases to accept appointments to death row cases or be prohibited from handling appellate cases entirely.

Given the long, complicated nature of such cases, it is possible many lawyers will simply choose not to practice appellate cases. We also wonder if forcing attorneys without the background to take on death penalty cases makes much sense.

The measure also sets an arbitrary 5-year time-limit by which courts are supposed to decide a series of appeals. Expedience should not be the goal in a system that could potentially execute an innocent person. To date, more than 150 people nationwide have been exonerated from death row, including 3 in California.

That there are over 740 condemned inmates and no currently accepted execution procedure suggests the most we would achieve is a further burdening of the already strained court system with added caseloads, while spending millions in the process.

California has spent billions of dollars on the flawed death penalty system since 1978. Potentially unworkable tweaks to a failed system aren't what California needs.

The Editorial Board recommends a no vote on Proposition 66 on Nov. 8.

(source: Editorial Board, Press-Enterprise)

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