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As of 2015, there are 31 states with the death penalty, plus the federal government and the military. Nebraska was the most recent state to abolish the death penalty. And it was the first traditionally conservative state to do so. Before that, Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013, Connecticut in 2012, and New Mexico in 2009. These states, however, did not make the law retroactive. So, there are still inmates awaiting execution in New Mexico and Connecticut, even though those states no longer sentence people to death. Notably, the state of Michigan has been without the death penalty for the longest. It was abolished in 1846 and never reinstated. California and Florida have the largest death row populations. As of the middle of 2015, the most recent execution in Florida was in January 2015. California, however, has not executed anyone since 2006. One of the last persons executed in California was Stanley Tookie Williams, who had helped start that the street gang, the Crips.
In 1979, Tookie participated in a couple of robberies that left four people dead. While on death row, Williams became an anti-violence advocate, writing anti-gang and anti-violence children’s books. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He was executed in 2005 after nearly 25 years on death row. Since California has not executed anyone since 2006, the California voters took up a ballot in 2012 to repeal the death penalty based on the high cost that the state was spending for not having executed anyone. By a narrow margin, 52% to 48%, the residents of California voted to keep the death penalty. However, the state has yet to execute anyone since then. So, what are the people on death row like? They’re generally middle-aged. The average age is 47. But there is a growing population over the age of 60. On arrest, they were about 28 years old and most of them are single. Only a minority of people on death row are married, and about half have never finished high school. Most people on death row have a prior conviction, but it’s not usually for another homicide. Only 9% had a prior homicide conviction when they were sentenced. Most people on death row have been there for a long time. Recall, Tookie Williams was on California’s death row for 25 years before his execution.
On average, a condemned inmate spends about 15 and 1/2 years on death row before execution. And this time has been increasing since even a few decades ago, when the average time between conviction and execution in 1993 was nine years. The nation’s longest-serving inmate on death row, who served 40 years, was Gary Albert in Florida. He had spent more time on death row than any other inmate in the country, but he died of natural causes in May of 2013. He was 66 years old and had been sentenced to death in 1974. Death penalty experts doubt, however, that he would have ever been executed. He suffered from schizophrenia. More recently, on June 3, 2015, Texas executed Lester Bower, Jr, who had been on death row for 31 years before he was executed. He was 67 years old when he died and the oldest inmate on death row. By far, the vast majority of people on death row are men.
Of the people currently on death row, about 43% are white and a nearly percentage are black. The representation of Latinos on death row has been growing and is approximately 13%. Now let’s talk about the death penalty in Florida, specifically. There about 400 men and women on death row in Florida, more than any other state except California. All but four of these people are men, and most of the people on death row are white. There have been 90 executions in Florida since Greg versus Georgia reinstated the death penalty in 1976. This represents about 8% of all the people who have been sentenced to death in the state. Most of these executions occurred for crimes that were committed in Miami Dade County. Most executions in Florida are lethal injection, although the state has used electrocution in the past. More on that in a future module.
One aspect of Florida’s death row that sets it aside from most states is that a judge, and not the jury, makes the final sentencing decision. In all but three states in the United States, the jury decides whether a defendant should be sentenced to life or death. And the jurors must agree unanimously on that decision. In Florida, though, the jury only provides a recommended sentence to the judge, and then the judge will make the final decision of life or death. Further, in Florida, that recommendation does not have to be unanimous. People in Florida have been sentenced to death on 8 to 4, 9 to 3, 10 to 2 recommendations. Whereas, in most other states, because these are not unanimous votes, the defendant would have been sentenced to life. The ability of a judge to make the decision is called judicial override, because the judge can override or change the jury’s recommendation.
Clemency is an appeal, usually to the governor or a clemency board, for mercy. When a death row inmate asks for clemency, he or she is simply asking for mercy so that the governor or the board of clemency to spare his life. The inmate is not released, but their sentence is converted to life without parole. Clemency can be granted for any reason, though it is usually because there may be evidence that the defendant might not be guilty. In Florida, there have only been six clemencies ever granted, and none in the modern era of the death penalty. This is in contrast to other states. Texas has issued two clemencies. Ohio has issued 18. And in 2000, the former Republican governor of Illinois, George Ryan, granted clemency to every inmate on death row. At the time that he did this, Illinois had executed 13 inmates, but released 12 for being innocent. And this did not sit well with the conservative governor.
There have been 25 innocent men released from death row in Florida. Well, 24 released, and one who died on death row before DNA evidence showed he did not do it. That man, Frank Lee Smith, was sentenced to die in 1984, and spent 14 years wrongfully on death row before he died of cancer. He was cleared of the crime 11 months after his death. The DNA also showed who did commit the crime for which Frank had been convicted. Eddie Lee Mosley, a serial killer who continued to kill between 8 and 16 women before he was caught in 1988. Mosley’s DNA was linked to at least one other wrongfully convicted man on death row in Florida. There have been more innocent people released from death row in Florida than in any other state. Also in Florida, in June, 2013, Governor Rick Scott signed the Timely Justice Act of 2013. The law is designed to overhaul and speed up the capital punishment process. It creates tighter time frames for a person sentenced to death to make appeals in post-conviction motions, and imposes reporting requirements on case progress.
It is up to the governor of each state to issue a date of execution for the inmates on death row. Some governors do not issue any death certificates, and no one is executed during their tenure. As of July, 2015, Florida governors, Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, have issued death certificates for more death row inmates than any other Florida governor, although Jerry Correll’s upcoming execution would put Scott at the top of the list, and he still has another 3 and 1/2 years in office. As of mid-2015, there have been just over 1,400 executions in the United States since 1976. The majority of these executions take place in Texas and Oklahoma, although Virginia is close. Texas and Oklahoma alone account for about half of all executions in the United States. Earlier decades in the US history saw a greater number of executions.
There were more executions in the 1930s than in any other decade in US history. You can see the period where Furman versus Georgia was introduced, and then in 1976, as executions slowly picked up again. There were seven executions in Florida. All executions throughout this country used lethal injection in 2014, although you can see different one-, two-, or three-drug combinations. Lethal injection is a current controversy surrounding the death penalty in the US today. And the different combinations represent states’ efforts to replace the traditional three-drug combination when one of the key drugs was no longer manufactured. Most executions occur in the south. Few occur in the West and the Northeast. Again, Texas and Oklahoma account for a large portion of all executions in the United States. The vast majority of executions are lethal injection, although the electric chair, the gas chamber, hanging, and the firing squad have all been used since 1976.
Rarely, historically, the US also used burning at the stake, pressing, and drawing and quartering as execution methods in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. When you look back at all executions since the US became a country, hanging is the most common technique. Now let’s talk about people who have been executed in the United States. Of the people who have been executed, 98.9% were men. And just over half of all executed persons were white, and 34% were black. Before 1976, 56% of those executed for murder were black. And when we look at executions for rape, which was outlawed in 1977, 98% of those executed were black men, for the rape of a white woman. Back to the modern era, the victims in death penalty cases were pretty evenly split by sex. 49% of the victims were female, and 51% were males. But a disproportionate number of victims were white. This means that if you kill a white person in the United States, you are more likely to be executed than people who kill victims of any other race. This is disproportionate because whites account for only half of all murder victims in the United States, but account for 77% of the victims of executed defendants. Race still plays a role in who is executed in this country.
Before Furman versus Georgia, black defendants were much more likely to be sentenced to death and executed than whites. And this played a key role in the Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily halt the death penalty. And since then, we still see evidence of a racial disparity, but one that is tied to white victims more than black defendants. That is, a defendant is more likely to be executed for murder if the victim is white, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the defendant. This trend holds up across states. A defendant is more likely to be executed if the murder victim is white, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the defendant. In Florida, 20% percent of the executions have been for a black person killing a white person. 57% have been for a white person killing another white person.
Only a minority of cases of people who have been executed in Florida were for black victims. But why does this matter? And why is this considered disproportionate? This is considered disproportionate because it is out of sync with what really happens in murders in the United States. Whites are substantially less likely to be a victim of homicide, even when you control for the size differences in the population. In the US, the risk of homicide victimization is much greater for blacks. The victimization rate for black Americans is 28 per 100,000. This is six times higher than the rate for whites, which is only 4.5 white murder victims per 100,000 white Americans. This accounts for population differences, remember, since blacks only account for 12% of the population. This is considered disproportionate, again, because most of the murders that occur in this country are intraracial. This means that they occur within the same racial or ethnic categories.
Most murders in the US are between people of the same race or ethnicity a black-on-black offender or a white-on-white offender. In only a few cases in the United States is there a black or white offender on someone of a different race or ethnicity. And we can break this relationship down by other racial groups, although there are few non-black or non-white defendants. Again, you can quickly see that cases with white victims are much more likely to result in an execution than cases with victims of another race. Because most murders occur between people of the same race or ethnicity, this explains why the majority of people executed since 1976 have also been white, because they were much more likely to have killed a white victim
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