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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

USA: Death Penalty Use in 2015 Declines Sharply

Use of and support for the death penalty continued its steady decline in the United States in 2015
Use of and support for the death penalty continued its
steady decline in the United States in 2015
By all measures, use of and support for the death penalty continued its steady decline in the United States in 2015. The number of new death sentences imposed in the U.S. fell sharply from already historic lows, executions dropped to their lowest levels in 24 years, and public opinion polls revealed that a majority of Americans preferred life without parole to the death penalty. Opposition to capital punishment polled higher than any time since 1972.

The numbers also pointed to the increasing geographic isolation of the death penalty and its disproportionate overuse by a handful of jurisdictions. Fewer states and counties imposed death sentences, and 93% of executions were concentrated in just 4 states. 16% of all the new death sentences imposed in the country came from a single California county and — while nearly every state requires juries to unanimously agree to a death sentence — more than a quarter of the nation’s new death sentences were imposed by judges in two states after juries did not unanimously agree on death.

Nearly two-thirds of the new death sentences in the U.S. in 2015 were imposed in the same 2% of American counties that have disproportionately accounted for more than half of all U.S. death sentences in the past.

The national trend towards abolition of the death penalty in law or practice continued:

Nebraska legislatively abolished the death penalty; the Connecticut Supreme Court declared  its death penalty unconstitutional; and Pennsylvania joined three other states in imposing gubernatorial moratoria on executions. For the first time in a generation, there were fewer than 3,000 men and women on death rows nationwide.

Six more men and women were exonerated from death row. And as two Justices of the Supreme Court issued an historic opinion inviting systemic constitutional challenges to the death penalty in America, numerous additional states put executions on hold because of problems in obtaining execution drugs or in administering their execution protocols.

NEW DEATH SENTENCES

New death sentences in the United States have fallen to historic lows. With less than two weeks remaining in 2015, and few cases pending, 14 states and the federal government have imposed 49 new death sentences. This was a 33% decline from the 73 death sentences imposed in 2014 — itself already a 40-year low.

The number of new death sentences imposed in the U.S. in 2015 was the fewest in any single year since 1973, when states began enacting new capital sentencing statutes in response to the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia declaring all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional. New death sentences were 84% below the 315 death sentences imposed during the peak death-sentencing year of 1996.

Even as the use of the death penalty declined, its most dangerous flaw remained apparent. Six death row prisoners were exonerated of all charges this year, one each in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Since 1973, a total of 156 inmates have been exonerated and freed from death row.

The number of people on death row dropped below 3,000 for the first time since 1995, according to the latest survey by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

At least 70 death row prisoners with execution dates in 2015 received stays, reprieves, or commutations, 2.5 times the number who were executed.

In addition, there is an ongoing risk that judicial review is inadequate to protect capital defendants with serious intellectual disabilities or crippling mental illness.

DPIC’s report states: “The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst crimes and the worst of the worst offenders. However, … [t]wo-thirds of the 28 people executed in 2015 exhibited symptoms of severe mental illness, intellectual disability, the debilitating effects of extreme trauma and abuse, or some combination of the three.”

KEY FINDINGS OF THE REPORT
  • There were 28 executions in 6 states, the fewest since 1991.
  • There were 49 death sentences in 2015, 33% below the modern death penalty low set last year.
  • New death sentences in the past decade are lower than in the decade preceding the Supreme Court’s invalidation of capital punishment in 1972.
  • Six more former death row inmates were exonerated of all charges.

Click here to read (and/or download) the full report (pdf)

Source: Death Penalty Information Center, The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report, December 2015





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