As the number of new death sentences being imposed nationwide fell to historic lows for a second year in a row, Alabama stood as an outlier in 2015, according to a new report issued Wednesday morning by the Death Penalty Information Center.
“We still saw six death sentences coming out of Alabama that would not be tolerated almost anywhere else in the country,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The center embargoed the release of the report until 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
Nationwide 49 death sentences were imposed this year, which is 33 percent less than the modern death penalty low set last year, Dunham said. The modern death penalty record started in the early 1970s after states adjusted their death penalty laws in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“But what we saw is that the same time the death penalty was in broad decline there were pockets in the country in which it was being disproportionately used,” Dunham said. “Most of the time it was due to practices rejected by almost every other state.”
Of the death sentences imposed this year, California’s 14, Florida’s nine, and Alabama’s six, accounted for more than half of the total for the nation, according to the report. Two death sentences were imposed in Mobile County and one each in Jefferson, Calhoun, Randolph, and Sumter counties.
Death Penalty Information Center 2015 Report
One practice in Alabama that was common in all six of the state’s death sentences – all were imposed without a unanimous recommendation from a jury, Dunham said.
Alabama is one of three states – Florida and Delaware are the other two – that allow judges to impose death sentences even if juries don’t reach unanimous recommendations on a sentence. A jury in Alabama can recommend death on a 10-2 vote. Alabama judges can override unanimous jury recommendations for life without parole sentences in favor of the death penalty.
Of Florida’s death sentences, seven of nine also involved non-unanimous juries, Dunham said. That means that the 13 total death sentences in Alabama and Florida were imposed in non-unanimous jury recommendations accounted for nearly 27 percent of the nationwide total, he said.
Alabama had four death sentences in 2014, according to the center’s report last year. That report did not indicate how many of those included non-unanimous jury recommendations.
In 2015 there have been 28 executions in six states nationwide, the fewest since 1991, according to the report.
Alabama has not had an execution since July 2013 as the state struggled to find new lethal injection drugs after drug companies began refusing to supply them to states. Once the state came up with a new three-drug cocktail state death row inmates filed lawsuits challenging the mixture as cruel and unusual punishment and unconstitutional.
But Alabama is gearing up to execute Alabama Death Row inmate Christopher Eugene Brooks on Jan. 21 for his conviction in the 1992 murder of Jo Deann Campbell in Homewood. Brooks is trying to get a stay of execution.
Beside issues with obtaining the drugs, other factors contributing to the decline nationwide were changes in policies, according to the report.
The governor of Pennsylvania joined governors in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado in declaring moratoria on executions in their states, and a new governor in Oregon agreed to continue the moratorium in that state, according to the report.
One thing Dunham believes the report shows is that the decline in executions and death sentences closely mirrors the overall decline in public support for the death penalty.
“The public is questioning the government’s ability to administer the death penalty accurately, competently, and in an even-handed manner,” Dunham said.
Helping feed the public perception of the death penalty is an increase in the exonerations of death row inmates, Dunham said. Since 1973 there have been 156 exonerations, or one for every nine people executed, he said.
Of the six death row inmates exonerated nationwide this year one, Anthony Ray Hinton, was on Alabama Death Row, Dunham said. Hinton was released in April after forensic re-testing could not connect a pistol to the deaths of two fast food managers in 1985.
Doubts about whether people who were executed were actually innocent have been popping up, particularly in Texas.
Dunham believes one Alabama death row inmate, Donnis Musgrove, who recently died while awaiting execution, was innocent. “Hinton was exonerated and in all likelihood an innocent man died on death row,” he said.
Nationwide two-thirds of all the death sentences came from a small number of counties that historically had disproportionately sentenced people to death, Dunham said. Mobile and Jefferson counties in Alabama are among that have disproportionately sentenced people to death, he said.
Key Findings of the report:
- There were 28 executions in six states, the fewest since 1991.
- There were 49 death sentences in 2015, 33 percent below the modern death penalty low set in 2014.
- 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 death row inmates, including one from Alabama, were exonerated of all charges in 2015.
The Death Penalty Information Center describes itself as a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with information and analysis on capital punishment.
Note: AL.com is participating in “The Next to Die” with The Marshall Project to track and provide information on scheduled executions
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