News and Updates

5 Things You Should Know About the History of the Death Penalty

Debates about the death penalty are as old as the nation itself.

By: Stephen John Hartnett
Monday, April 15, 2013
On March 15, 2013 Maryland became the sixth state in the U.S. to either abolish the death penalty or to impose a moratorium upon its use, joining Illinois (2001), New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), and Connecticut (2012). Bills to abolish the death penalty have either been introduced or will be introduced this year in a number of states, including Alabama, California, Florida, Colorado, and others.

The tide is clearly turning against state-sanctioned killing in the name of the law. What many Americans do not know is that debates about the death penalty are as old as the nation itself. What follows are five facts that every American should know about capital punishment and its history in the U.S.

Is Life Without Parole Any Better Than the Death Penalty?

Maryland is poised to be the 18th state to abolish capital punishment, in favor of lifetime imprisonment.

Credit: Jay Baker/MCGovpics
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley speaks at a January press conference about ending the death penalty. A bill that would abolish the practice in Maryland awaits his signature.
By: Rebecca Burns
In These Times
Friday, March 22, 2013

Maryland has executed only five inmates since 1976, and in March the state legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty entirely. Of the 32 states that still have the measure on their books, 13 have not carried out any executions in the past five years. This gradual retreat from capital punishment is celebrated by activists who note that U.S. use of the death penalty, long abandoned by the rest of the developed world, places it in the company of human rights abusers such as Bahrain and North Korea.

Maryland set to become 18th state to ban death penalty

Credit: Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP Photo
By: Kailani Koenig-Muenster
Friday, March 15, 2013

Maryland is set to become the 18th state in the nation to ban the death penalty. A week after the state Senate approved legislation repealing capital punishment and replacing it with life in prison without parole, the House of Delegates passed the bill Friday by a vote of 82-56.

The news serves as a victory for Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has been trying to repeal the state’s death penalty for years. He urged the passage of a bill to abolish the death penalty back in 2009, but the measure ultimately failed.

“Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole. What’s more, there is no way to reverse a mistake if an innocent person is put to death,” O’Malley said in a statement Friday.

Attorneys and Scholars Raise Questions About Constitutionality of Colorado Death Penalty

Credit: Image: Scot Langley
By: Scot Kersgaard
The Colorado Independent
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Colorado’s death penalty is not only massively expensive, critics say it is also unconstitutional because it is so randomly sought.

A study released last year by DU Law Professors Justin Marceau and Sam Kamin showed that from 1999 to 2010, 92 percent of 544 Colorado murders had at least one of the aggravating factors that need to be present for a defendant to be eligible for death, yet the death penalty was sought in only five of those cases — less than 1 percent.

Racism, Torture and Impunity in Chicago

Credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, stands behind police superintendent Gary McCarthy as they join Chicago area mayors in voicing their support for stricter gun laws during a news conference at City Hall Thursday, December 20, 2012, in Chicago.
By: Flint Taylor
The Nation
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Chicago, Black History Month is a time when some of us reflect on one of our poorest-kept secrets, an ongoing injustice born of brutal, systemic racism, which has spread over a generation and whose stain is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city. 

Why Police Lie Under Oath

By: Michelle Alexander
The New York Times
Saturday, February 2, 2013

THOUSANDS of people plead guilty to crimes every year in the United States because they know that the odds of a jury’s believing their word over a police officer’s are slim to none. As a juror, whom are you likely to believe: the alleged criminal in an orange jumpsuit or two well-groomed police officers in uniforms who just swore to God they’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but? As one of my colleagues recently put it, “Everyone knows you have to be crazy to accuse the police of lying.”

But are police officers necessarily more trustworthy than alleged criminals? I think not. Not just because the police have a special inclination toward confabulation, but because, disturbingly, they have an incentive to lie. In this era of mass incarceration, the police shouldn’t be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so.

Happy Birthday, Montell!

Montell and his mother, Gloria
By: Ken Richardson
Monday, January 28, 2013

On January 25, Montell Johnson had his 47th birthday celebration at University Church in Chicago.  About 30 friends of Montell, and his mother, Gloria Johnson, gathered to celebrate another year of freedom for Montell; and vowed to continue the fight to ensure no mother has to endure what Gloria Johnson endured. 

Montell had spent 15 years behind bars; he was diagnosed with chronic-progressive multiple sclerosis in 2001, when he was on Illinois' death row.  In 2003, George Ryan, then the governor of Illinois, commuted his sentence to forty-years.  In 2008, former governor Rod Blagojevich pardoned Montell based on the severity of his illness.  Neither of these things would have happened with constant public and legal pressure, and the determination of his mother, Gloria Johnson. 

Death, Life Without Parole, and Legislating Extreme Punishment

Credit: J.M. Giordano
Maryland's death chamber cell at the prison hospital in Baltimore
By: Michael Corbin
Saturday, January 19, 2013

 Maryland lawmakers have a real chance this legislative session to vote to abolish the state’s death penalty. This makes it an opportune time to examine the growing body of research and reflection on America’s increasing use of sentences of “life without parole”(LWOP) and their relationship to the broad national trend toward capital punishment abolition.

Police Torture and the Death Penalty in Illinois: Ten Years Later

By: Flint Taylor
The Nation
Friday, January 11, 2013

On January 11, 2003, the world watched as Illinois Governor George Ryan, days before leaving office, granted clemencies to all 163 men and women on death row in his state, reducing their sentences to life without parole. The previous day he had pardoned four death row prisoners—Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange and Stanley Howard—all of whom had been tortured into giving false confessions by police officers working under notorious Chicago police commander Jon Burge.

NYPD's controversial 'Stop and Frisk' policy ruled unconstitutional

Reverend Al Sharpton and marchers participated in silent march in opposition to the NYPD's stop and frisk tactics.
By: Kerry Wills, Robert Gearty, and Stephen Rex Brown
New York Daily News
Tuesday, January 8, 2013

 A Manhattan Federal Court judge has ordered police stop making trespass stops outside private residential buildings immediately. The tactic was decried by some as infringing on civil liberties. 

A key part of the NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” tactic has been ruled unconstitutional.