Church of the Brethren
DRSP logo 200 DEATH ROW SUPPORT PROJECT
Rachel Gross, Director
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Liberty Mills, IN 46946
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DRSP News, Issue 10, February 2017

By Tara Collum

It is a time of optimism and hope of the possibility of the abolition of the American death penalty. In 2016, setbacks tempered that hope. Some troubling initiatives were voted in during the recent presidential election. The outlook isn't entirely bleak, and there is some good news that will hopefully lead to change and reform in the future.

There is a continued downward trend in executions and death penalty sentencing. In 2016 there were 18 executions. This is down from the previous year of 28. At its peak in 1999 there were 98 executions. Last year 49 people were sentenced compared with 82 in 2012.

Along with the above reduced numbers, national death penalty support was at its lowest in 50 years, with polls showing 40 percent of the nation against it.

Setbacks

  • Oklahoma voters enshrined the death penalty in their constitution, protecting it from courts who rule the punishment cruel or unusual.
  • Nebraska voted to reinstate the death penalty after it had earlier been repealed.
  • California voted against repealing the death penalty, and instead voted to speed up the execution process. Of the 2900 prisoners currently on death row, 750 are in California.

Good News

  • Prosecutors in Florida, Texas, and Alabama responsible for excessive death penalty use were defeated in favour of candidates with reform platforms.
  • Oregon and Washington re-elected governors who have halted elections. Washington Governor Jay Inslee promised in 2014 that as long as he holds office there will be no executions in his state.
    Oregon Governor Kate Brown is extending the death penalty moratorium put into place by her predecessor in 2011.
  • Newly elected Hillsborough County State Attorney of Florida Andrew Warren pledged to establish a unit to uncover wrongful convictions and to seek the death penalty less often.
  • Harris County (Texas) District Attorney Kim Ogg was elected on a platform of criminal justice reform. Her county led the nation in executions (second only to Los Angeles county); Ogg is critical of the death penalty and has promised fewer executions under her administration.
  • Charles Todd Henderson, the new District Attorney of Jefferson County, Alabama, does not support the death penalty and promised "to bring about real criminal justice reform."

Overzealous prosecution is a troubling factor in both the death penalty and the problematic mass incarceration rate. The change in administration is promising news as Hillsborough, Harris and Jefferson Counties are amongst the 2% of counties responsible for the majority of death row prisoners.

Promising News

  • Florida’s Supreme Court ruled the state death penalty law unconstitutional. There is also controversy over the state allowing non-unanimous jury sentencing. The result of how the ruling will affect Florida’s death row is pending, but could bring about resentencing in dozens of cases.
  • Drug company Pfizer announced in May that it will not allow its drugs to be used in lethal injections, the primary form of execution in 31 states.

With widespread criticism of the soaring prison population in popular books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, and the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a positive national dialogue about prison reform, and a more critical viewpoint of the justice system, and of racial bias and prejudice amongst the police and within the court system.

National media attention has had a positive impact on individual cases. This year Rodricus Crawford had his death penalty case overturned, and is waiting to see if there will be a retrial. The young father was convicted of murdering his son, despite evidence of several experts that the child died of pneumonia. The prosecutor in the case, Dale Cox (of a tiny Louisiana parish of a quarter of a million whose office sent 16 prisoners to death row), after nationwide media scrutiny, including pieces in the New Yorker, decided not to run for re-election, and now no longer works for the DA's office.

Bryan Stevenson says of the death penalty, "The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, do we deserve to kill?"

Rachel Gross, Director
Dina Milito, Follow-up Coordinator
Lois Good, Mailing and Filing Guru
Tara Collum, Writer

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