Category: Capital Punishment


More Coverage on Factual Error in Child Rape Decision

There has been some interesting fall-out from the NY Times article I blogged about yesterday. DOJ has admitted that it erred in failing to file a brief in support of the Kentucky statute that proscribed the death penalty for child rape, and it has indicated that it may support a petition from the state of Louisiana to rehear the case. More coverage and commentary can be found in the New York Times, as well as at the Volokh Conspiracy and at Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy.

The Blackstone Ratio at the Supreme Court

My colleague David Feige makes the following observation about the role of the Blackstone Ratio in our criminal justice system:

[In Kansas v. Marsh, Scalia] concluded that “The rate at which innocent people are convicted of felonies is less than three-hundredths of 1 percent – .027 percent, to be exact”. Scalia sleeps well knowing our system works so brilliantly. The problem, of course is that .027 percent is a hoax, and . . . I [am] struck once again that a justice generally considered to be so bright could get something this important so fundamentally wrong. But one need only look at the study Scalia cites (by Joshua Marquis, a stalwart of the prosecutorial lobby) to understand the error of his ways.

Marquis came up with the number that Scalia adopted much like a toddler solving a problem in a kindergarten math workbook: He took the total number of exonerations, (north of 200 now) picked a gratuitous multiplier (10 purely for rhetorical purposes), and then divided by 15 million—the total number of convictions during the period of years he considered. . . . As I’ve previously pointed out, here’s why that’s a ludicrous methodology.

So how should one “do the math?” Another colleague of mine, Michael Risinger, was recently cited in Justice Stevens’ concurrence in Baze v. Rees for his work on the issue.

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Tex-ternalities and the China/Europe Spectrum

I’ve recently come across these three facts about Texas:

1) About 60% of US executions occur in Texas.

2) About 20% of children in Texas do not have health insurance–almost twice the national average.

3) Texas produces more greenhouse gas emissions than California and New York combined.

When I first saw these figures, I thought that Texas may be burdening the US with some “reputational externalities” abroad, manifest in books like Vernon God Little. The judges who awarded it the Booker Prize called it a “coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm but also our fascination with America.”

Some economic theories predict that these externalities will eventually be internalized. For example, there are many stories about a European condo-buying boom in New York; I haven’t seen as much on residential real estate purchases by overseas buyers in Texas. According to Anup Malani, “The value of a law [may] be judged [in part] by the extent to which it raises housing prices.” So perhaps more highly valued laws elsewhere in America will push up housing prices, comparatively enriching those property owners.

On the other hand, perhaps Texas’s policies are a bid to flatter China by imitation. Pollution in places like Shenzhen is a big problem (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). Executions are common. And China’s decisions about health care in the 1980s and 90s might warm many laissez-faire hearts: “From 1978 to 1999, the central government’s share of national health care spending fell from 32 percent to 15 percent [and] the central government drastically reduced its ability and commitment to redistribute health care resources from wealthy areas to poor areas.”

Looking at world trends, a modern-day Tocqueville might think that the US’s future lay in political development of either a Chinese or EU variety. Texas appears to be a red state in more ways than one.


Probation for Murder: Justice Served or Excessive Prosecutorial Discretion?

murder2.jpgA few days ago, I blogged about a series of articles in the Dallas Morning News about the many instances where murderers received probation in Texas. Over at Grits For Breakfast, Scott Henson has a provocative argument that probation isn’t always inappropriate for murder:

As I wrote in a “first impression” about the series, it’s possible to:

identify several recurring situations where murderers frequently received probation: a) Prosecutors had weak or circumstantial cases and the defendant may not have done it, b) the defendant was guilty via the “law of parties” but didn’t actually kill anyone themselves, c) the defendant was elderly, sick or incapacitated to the point where they were no longer a threat, and d) the victim was a worse person than the murderer and basically “needed killin’,” so juries sympathized and gave the defendant another chance.

While Dallas News columnist Gromer Jeffers identifies what’s wrong with reason A for granting probation in murder cases, who thinks reasons B, C, or D are not sometimes justified? Following Bennett’s lead, let’s think more closely about category D, in particular, the ones whose victims “needed killin’.” Consider the case of Synnissa Gabriel who murdered Hosia Abdallah, her estranged boyfriend:

She told police in 2005 that Mr. Abdallah had stalked her and vandalized her home, in violation of a protective order. Then she tracked him down and shot him several times.

Heath Hyde, who prosecuted the case, said he offered a deal because the victim had a long history of violence against women. That made it unlikely jurors would sentence his killer to prison, he said. Defense attorney Nancy Ohan described her client as “the classic case of the battered woman … there was a definite mental break.”

So a battered woman who continued to be stalked and harassed in violation of a protective order finally took matters into her own hands and gunned down her assailant. Why’d she get probation? Because prosecutors believed jurors would conclude the victim “needed killin'” – in other words, that justice had been served by the defendants’ actions. It may not be true under the law, but in the gray-area balancing act jurors do in their own minds while making life or death decisions, it’s true in point of fact.

In some other cases, defendants had possibly viable self-defense claims or otherwise could credibly portray themselves to a jury as protecting themselves. Not all the cases find a sympathetic killer and a much-scarier victim, but when they do, is it wrong for a jury to sympathize with the defendant?

Isn’t that what juries are about, letting members of the public come to their own conclusions about what constitutes justice?

Is this just the jury system at work? Or is it evidence that prosecutors have too much discretion? Even accepting Scott’s argument that juries are about letting the public come to its own conclusions about justice, the Synnissa Gabriel case didn’t involve the public making the decision — instead, the prosecutor decided. I’m not opining on the merits of Gabriel’s case, but I will note that I am sympathetic to the battered woman’s syndrome defense. That said, however, the immense power of the prosecutor in this case — to offer a plea for probation for what would ordinarily be a first degree murder — takes the matter out of the hands of juries and the courts, as well as sidesteps the criminal statutes that the state has passed through its elected officials. Plea bargaining is a necessary evil in the criminal justice system — without it the system would probably collapse — but it has gotten out of hand, giving prosecutors such an immense power and making the criminal justice system not one about statutes, or about courts, or about juries — it’s about prosecutors and their astounding discretion.

In the end, regardless of whether justice may have been served in Gabriel’s case with probation, it is the process that makes me very uneasy.

Photo credit: Falaschini


Bootstrapping Against Capital Punishment

Bootstrap_1.jpgWe’ve been fairly called out for giving insufficient attention to the ongoing quiet revolution in capital punishment law. It is true: our criminal law coverage is underdeveloped. My excuse – as usual – is incompetence. DP law presents a host of complicated doctrinal problems: sounding off at random to the latest development is dangerous. On the other hand, no one said blogging was supposed to be safe.

Today, Doug Berman comments on the NYT story on capital punishment costs. The story offers anecdotal evidence that the judiciary has responded to underfunded capital defense units by shutting down prosecutions. If the trend continues, “states unwilling to pay the huge costs of defending people charged in capital cases may be unable to conduct executions.” Doug sums up:

Consequently, states that do not adequately fund capital defense get sub-standard efforts that lead to more costs on the back end during appellate review. Indeed, as the posts below highlights, any capital punishment system is necessarily a very costly endeavor.

My cynical response to these observations starts with the observation that stringent judicial review of capital claims hinges largely on Justice Kennedy’s continued status as swing Justice. The executing States would move quickly to reduce capital defense guidelines given even subtle signals from the Court that ultimate merits review would be unavailing.

Moreover, it seems odd to me to claim that the death penalty is expensive and therefore inefficient when, of course, it is expensive primarily as the result of a self-conscious litigation strategy by folks like Steven Bright and Brian Stevenson. The death penalty doesn’t have to be expensive: abolitionists have made it so on purpose. By setting ever-higher standards for effective capital defense through litigation and by example, abolitionists have made death penalty prosecutions more difficult for states to swallow. Of course, abolitionists can have mixed motives: a standard that increases cost will also likely reduce wrongful conviction in any individual case. But it is odd that the article spent so little time examining the possibility that costs aren’t a byproduct of the search for innocence but instead a direct result of what we might think of a litigation strategy to impose a constitutional tax on capital prosecutions. The article says – without further explanation – that “Lawmakers say [a particular judge] and the defense lawyers are deliberately driving up the costs to make sure that the death penalty is too expensive for the state.” Well, no kidding!

Increasing costs is good strategy if your only goal is to prevent executions. But it is a bad strategy – as least when compared to the innocence project – at increasing public support for abolition. And it is a worse strategy if your concerns are more broadly directed. Legislatures will resent being bootstrapped out of their preferred sentencing means. And it is unlikely that the death penalty funds taken from indigent defense organizations by spiteful legislatures will ever be restored.

(Image source: Wikicommons)


The Department of Ill-Advised Job Titles

UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law has just announced the creation of a Lethal Injection Fellowship. I applaud the institutional commitment to this work – the fellow will create and manage a clearinghouse of information regarding lethal injection challenges – but the title is a bit ghoulish.

Or perhaps the discomforting title was strategic. It will certainly create some unusual interview chat as fellows go off to find their first post-fellowship position.

UPDATE: A spelling error has been corrected.

Death Not So Different?

Hugo Bedau’s classic book Death is Different commented on the qualitative difference between capital punishment and other penalties. But there appears to be a growing trend to blur the distinctivenss of crimes provoking the death penalty. Consider the following examples:

1) At least five states now authorize the death penalty for child rape.

2) China has sentenced a former drug regulator to death for corruption and bribery charges.

3) Doug Berman has noted that the logic of the hard-core cost/benefit approach of Sunstein and Vermeule may well justify the death penalty for drunk driving.

Even death penalty advocate Robert Blecker concedes that the penalty may have grown too expansive given the way felony murder expands its scope.

What are the cultural trends driving an expanding scope for executions? I can think of a couple offhand. First, at least in America, there is a growing sense that prison is a living hell for just about anyone in it, and there must be some way of isolating out the “worst of the worst” with an even more gruesome penalty.

Second, and far more speculatively, I wonder if secularization of society has anything to do with it–not just in the sense that churches have been eloquent voices for mercy and redemption, but in a fading social conviction that there is some “ultimate justice” done after death. Without such reassurance, it may make perfect sense to seek an “eye for eye,” a settling of accounts in the only reality that matters.


Roman Law and the Virtual Death Penalty

SPQR.jpgCriminal law is not really my area of interest, but some reading in Roman law has got me thinking about the death penalty. I’ve always found Roman history — particularlly the Republican period — very interesting and were I better at languages I would love to have been a classicist. Roman politics, especially in the late Republic, was a full contact sport as it were. Bribery, organized violence, assination, and — most importantly — criminal prosecution were an ordinary part of political hard ball.

If you read the texts of various Roman laws, particularlly very early legal texts like the Twelve Tables, it is awfully bloody minded stuff. (My favorite provision is the one that allows a debtor’s creditors to divide shares, meaning literally that they could dismember his body for non-payment of debts, presumeably on a pro rata basis.) In practice, however, the Romans were remarkably fastidious about killing one another. There was no system of incarceration, and generally speaking citizens were never executed. On the other hand, numerous Roman laws did call for the death penalty. In practice, however, someone sentenced to death was given several days before the sentence was carried out in which they could either kill themselves (this was a way of preserving the family estate) or go into exile. Indeed, by the late Republic the assumption was that a death sentence, particularlly for a political crime such as treason, was a de facto sentence of exile.

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The High Cost of Criminal Litigation

Doug Berman has a good post here (and here and here as well) on the costs of prosecuting capital cases. It appears there’s been a big flap in Atlanta over expenditures for the defense of Brian Nichols, the fellow charged with killing several people in a rampage at the Fulton County Courthouse. Berman quotes an Atlanta Journal story suggesting that the cost of prosecuting Nichols will exceed the cost of the defense. I would expect as much. Notwithstanding complaints about the cost of indigent defense, prosecution of serious and complex cases costs a ton. The difference is that defense costs are fairly transparent: they are either funneled entirely through the court (in the case of court appointed counsel, and subsequent requests by counsel for costs related to litigation) or through a public defender’s office (and perhaps the court as well.) It’s easy to figure out how much it costs to defend a Brian Nichols. As Doug and the Journal suggest, costs of prosecution are much less transparent – but pop up everywhere…in police department budgets (and often across multiple different law enforcement authorities), prison budgets, state forensic lab budgets, court administration budgets, and potentially elsewhere as prosecutors seek assistance with their case.

At the end of the day, I’m not particularly troubled that very serious cases cost a lot. I worked for a couple of years at a large NY firm. Clients routinely spent over a million dollars in fees in a $10 million dispute. It’s always struck me that, on balance, the decision to execute a person – or to send that person to prison for life – is just as important as guarding cash in the corporate till. To put it another way, I absolutely believe that Brian Nichols is as entitled to excellent counsel as was Phillip Morris (cigarettes) or Johns Manville (asbestos) or Dow Corning (breast implants). When students ask how I could represent criminals as a public defender (or as the query is usually phrased at cocktail parties, ‘how can you defend those scum?”), one of the best explanations in terms of both accuracy and resonance with skeptics is equity: do rich people and corporations really “deserve” better counsel than poor people?

By the way, if you don’t recall the Nichols case, it’s the one where the defendant ended his siege by arriving at the home of one Ashley Smith. At first, it appeared that she subdued him with her newly discovered wisdom from The Purpose Driven Life. Much as Rick Warren loved this narrative, reality turned out to be somewhat more complicated. Here’s how Wikipedia captures what happened:

Smith was held hostage for several hours in her own apartment, during which time Nichols requested marijuana, but Smith told him she only had “ice” (methamphetamine). In her book “Unlikely Angel: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Hostage Hero” Smith revealed that she “had been struggling with a methamphetamine addiction when she was taken hostage” and the last time she used meth “was 36 hours before Nichols held a gun to her and entered her home. Nichols wanted her to use the drug with him, but she refused.” Instead, she chose to read to him from the Bible and The Purpose Driven Life. She tried to convince Nichols to turn himself in by sharing with him how her husband “had died in her arms four years earlier after being stabbed during a brawl.” Smith also writes that she asked Nichols “if he wanted to see the danger of drugs and lifted up her tank top several inches to reveal a five-inch scar down the center of her torso — the aftermath of a car wreck caused by drug-induced psychosis…. When news of his crimes was reported on television, Nichols looked to the ceiling and asked the Lord to forgive him. In the morning Smith cooked breakfast for Nichols.


Geographical Disparity And The Death Penalty

As Doug Berman noted, St. Louis University Law School, along with Washington University in St. Louis, put on a truly engaing conference on the issue of prosecutorial discretion and the Missouri death penalty. The conference was built around a study by Barnes, Sloss and Thaman that showed, among other things, a notable disparity in charging of first degree murder, seeking of death, and imposition of death, between different Missouri counties.

This leads to an interesting question: is there something problematic about intra-state geographic disparity in sentencing? Criminal law practitioners have long been aware of county-by-county disparities in sentencing. For example, when I was public defender in Philadelphia, it was routinely the case that a person who stole a car (for a first offense) would get probation in the city. Take that same car from the suburbs, however, and the defendant would go to jail. The same held true for shoplifting: suburban communities with big malls (and big mall revenues) were considerably tougher on retail theft.

The reality is that communities inevitably judge crime in context. As one panelist noted, a two kilo cocaine bust looks a lot different in Miami than in a small community in the middle of Virginia. And the sentence will likely reflect the uniqueness of the offense. One of the benefits of sentencing guidelines – if this is indeed a benefit – is the flattening of sentencing differences within a state. But perhaps local communities should exert substantial control over sentencing. After all, the citizens of Oakland and and those in Orange County probably don’t agree about the proper sanction for, say, marijuana sales. When you level the field, urban communities – often home to unusally large numbers of minority defendants – may see sentences leveled up, not down. This is one of the pernicious aspects of federal sentencing guidelines. Vermnot defendants receive South Carolina sized sentences.

So what about the death penalty? Is geographic disparity with respect to the death penalty particularly noxious? Should there at least be statewide consistency for this sanction? I’m not sure. There are strong reasons to oppose use of capital punishment – first of which, it seems to me, is that the death penalty does disparately affect people based on race, class and disability (all of which are illegitimate bases for disparate treatment, in my mind. ) For me, however, local differences are a not-entirely-unfriendly aspect of our governmental system. So the main question becomes: does geographical disparity mask the unaccpetable sorts of difference based on race, class, or disability? (And I am most worried when the difference is inheres to the detriment of minorities groups; disparity that harms majority groups is at least slightly more likely to be managed through majoritarian process.) The Missouri study suggests that geography masks race; that is the question we should probably be asking.