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Study urges review of state’s death penalty system

2nd May 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

A new study published by the Southern University Law Center revealed serious flaws with the Louisiana death penalty system, with reversals four times more likely than an execution since capital punishment was reinstated in the state in 1976.

University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner and New Orleans documentation specialist Tim Lyman conducted the study, which will appear in volume seven of The Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty.

“The results of this research should prompt an immediate review of Louisiana’s death penalty system given the extremely high error rate and the troubling role of race in the system,” Lyman said.

From 1976 to August 2015, juries handed down death sentences for 241 crimes, almost all murders. From 1976 to 2011, the FBI reported 20,942 criminal homicides in Louisiana. The numbers mean the death penalty has been imposed in approximately one percent of homicides. But executions have only been carried out in roughly ten percent of these, for a total of a tenth of a percent of all murders.

Of 241 death penalty cases, 155 (64%) have been resolved.

Resolved means the appeals are over and the inmate has either been executed or released from death row.

Of those 155, 82 percent have been reversed.

Just 28 cases (18 percent) resulted in an execution.

Fifty reversals took place between 2001 and August 2015, with another three occurring after that time period.

According to the study, 6 percent of the resolved cases, about one in 15, resulted in an exoneration, where the accused has been freed from death row because of a wrongful conviction.

It concludes that one exoneration occurs for every three executions and in the 21st century, there have been more exonerations than executions.

“If a plane were to fall out of the sky one out of every 15 trips, that would be considered a completely unacceptable failure rate,” Baumgartner said. “Louisiana’s death penalty is plagued by inaccuracies, costly mistakes, and racial and geographic unfairness. The error-rate is much higher than the national average.”

Several statistics point to racial unfairness in the administration of the death sentence. No white person has been executed in Louisiana for a crime against an African-American since 1752. Killers of whites are more than six times likely to receive a death sentence than murderers of African Americans, and 14 times more likely to be executed. In cases where the offender is an African-American male and the victim is a white female, the death sentence rate is 30 times higher than cases where both the offender and victim are African-American males.

But there is no one-size-fits-all reason why the sentences are often reversed. 38 reversals were due to judicial error (e.g. a judge giving improper instructions to a jury or failing to sustain a justifiable objection). 25 were due to prosecutorial misconduct (e.g. a prosecutor withholding evidence from the defense team). 20 were deemed to be constitutionally excessive (e.g. a defendant was later found to be mentally incompetent). 20 were due to ineffective assistance of counsel, 14 were due to a settlement with the court to reduce the sentence, and 10 were due to a general review (e.g. the court discovered problems with evidence or records).

Baumgartner acknowledges that the crimes committed in these cases are typically horrifying and the suffering of the victims is painful to contemplate. But it’s the terrible nature of the murders that often makes prosecutors, judges, or police officers commit errors that eventually result in reversal.

“The emotions are so high that people cut corners,” Baumgartner said. “Once we’ve demonized them (the accused) enough, it’s hard to be concerned about their constitutional rights.”

Of the 28 executions in Louisiana, 25 occurred between 1977 and 1988 for crimes committed between 1977 and 1984. Only two executions have been carried out in Louisiana since 2001 and one was voluntary (the most recent execution, in 2010). The busiest period for executions was June 1987-June 1988 when 11 people were sent to the electric chair, with 8 in the summer of 1987 alone.

In an era where politicians scramble to curb government spending and reduce the state’s deficit, Baumgartner and Lyman believe the death penalty is exceedingly costly to maintain.

“Can we afford this? What are we getting out of this?” Lyman asked.

Baumgartner believes that regardless of whether or not a person is morally opposed to capital punishment, the current system is flawed, unwieldy and expensive considering the amount of reversals that occur.

“We really have to confront the death penalty as how it exists, not how we wish it would exist,” Baumgartner said.

Both Baumgartner and Lyman believe Louisiana’s death penalty cases are unfair to everyone involved.

“Nobody wins with this system – the taxpayers don’t win, the victims’ families don’t win, and the inmates don’t win,” Baumgartner said.

This article originally published in the May 2, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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