Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

Why Californians Kept the Death Penalty

Holding cell next to San Quentin prison's brand new death chamber.
Holding cell next to San Quentin prison's brand new death chamber.
Even as California displayed its progressive streak across much of the ballot on Tuesday, one issue notably bucked the trend.

Asked whether the death penalty should be abolished, voters said no by a solid margin.

“To be honest with you, it was a surprise,” said Terry McCaffrey of California People of Faith, a group that lobbied for abolition.

A Field Poll in late October gave supporters of the repeal, known as Proposition 62, cautious optimism as just 45 percent of likely voters said they were opposed.

That prediction, it turned out, was nowhere near the percentage of “no” votes on Tuesday: 54.

California has only carried out 13 executions since the 1970s, but it has nearly 750 prisoners on death row, more than any other state. The debate over the repeal campaign often centered on the billions of dollars that the state has spent on capital punishment in recent decades.

Michael Hestrin, the district attorney of Riverside County, who opposed Proposition 62, said Californians have consistently favored keeping the death penalty. He cited an earlier failed repeal proposition in 2012.

“It’s very easy to paint California as a very progressive state, but on certain issues they lean law and order,” he said.

While eight states have ended capital punishment since 2000, all of them did so through elected officials and courts.

In California, death penalty opponents convinced that public opinion had shifted their way were searching for answers. Some contended that a dueling capital punishment measure on the ballot may have confused voters. (Proposition 66, which promised to streamline the death row appeals process, still remained undecided).

Sharon Dolovich, a U.C.L.A. law professor whose research has focused on prisons and punishment, said she wondered whether the country’s anxious political mood could have had a role.

“It’s a scary time,” she said. “When people are scared, that fear can manifest as a punitive impulse.”

Source: The New York Times, Mike PcPhate, November 11, 2016

Prop. 66 to speed up death-row appeals

San Quentin Prison's death chamber
San Quentin Prison's death chamber
Inmates sentenced in Kings County could return to local courts

Some death row inmates sentenced in Kings County may soon return to local courts following the passage of Proposition 66, which seeks to reduce delays in the state’s death penalty process.

About 51 percent of voters approved Proposition 66, which requires the state court officials to expand the number of attorneys who can represent death-row inmates. Once an attorney is appointed, inmates and courts will have five years to review any appeals challenging a death sentence.

Proposition 62, which would have repealed the death penalty, failed with nearly 54 percent of Californians opposing it.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California has 750 inmates on death row. Seven of those inmates were sentenced in Kings County, with the oldest sentence dating back more than 20 years.

Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes said: “We’re going to give these people due process. It’s not very fair that we’re sitting here 20 years later and they’re still filing petitions.”

The death penalty can only apply to convictions of first-degree murder with special circumstances, such as killing for financial gain, torturing the victim, lying in wait or committing more than one murder.

Kings County’s oldest death-row inmate is Clifton Perry, who was sentenced to death in July 1996. Perry and his accomplice, Leon Noble, were found guilty of first-degree murder and second-degree robbery for killing Saeed Nasser during a July 1995 armed robbery of Nasser’s Hanford convenience store. Noble was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Perry was sentenced to death on July 26, 1996, and the California Supreme Court affirmed his sentence in 2006. He remains housed at San Quentin State Prison with a petition for “habeas corpus” pending with the State Supreme Court.

Fagundes said prisoners file the petition if they believe they are being held in custody illegally. Defendants use the petitions to inform the courts that their attorney was ineffective or that they would not have been sentenced to death if the jury had been aware of additional information.

Prop. 66 requires habeas corpus petitions to be heard in the trial court where the person was sentenced.

Fagundes said he was not sure how many death row inmates from Kings County would be brought back to Kings County for further proceedings.

Jeff Lewis, court executive officer for the Kings County Superior Court, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

According to the state’s official analysis for Prop. 66, 930 people have been sentenced to death in California since the current death penalty law was enacted in 1978. Only 15 have been executed, while 103 have died prior to execution.

California currently executes condemned inmates by lethal injection. However, no inmates have been executed since 2006 due to legal issues surrounding that method. Prop. 66 also requires inmates to file challenges to the method of execution in the court where they were sentenced.

If an inmate successfully challenges the method, the trial court would have to order a valid method of execution.

Source: The Sentinel, Mike Eiman, November 11, 2016

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