The following editorial by Lincoln Caplan was published by the New York Times on January 7, 2012.
The Supreme Court has not banned capital punishment, as it should, but it has long held that the death penalty is unconstitutional if randomly imposed on a handful of people. An important new study based on capital cases in Connecticut provides powerful evidence that death sentences are haphazardly meted out, with virtually no connection to the heinousness of the crime.
A number of studies in the last three decades have shown that black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death if their victim is white rather than black. But defenders of capital punishment often respond to those studies by arguing that the “worst of the worst” are sentenced to death because their crimes are the most egregious.
The Connecticut study, conducted by John Donohue, a Stanford law professor, completely dispels this erroneous reasoning. It analyzed all murder cases in Connecticut over a 34-year period and found that inmates on death row are indistinguishable from equally violent offenders who escape that penalty. It shows that the process in Connecticut — similar to those in other death-penalty states — is utterly arbitrary and discriminatory.
From 1973, when Connecticut passed a death penalty law, to 2007, 4,686 murders were committed in the state. Of those, 205 were death-eligible cases (capital murders that include the killing of a police officer, murder for hire, murder-rape and murder committed during a kidnapping) that resulted in some kind of conviction, either through a plea bargain or conviction at trial. The arbitrariness started at the charging level: nearly a third of these death-eligible cases were not charged as capital offenses as they could have been, but as lesser crimes. Sixty-six defendants were convicted of capital murder, 29 went to a hearing for a death sentence, nine death sentences were sustained and one person was executed.
Why was this small group of defendants singled out for death? Did their crimes make them more deserving of execution than all the others?
To get answers, Professor Donohue designed an “egregiousness” ratings system to compare all 205 cases. It considered four factors: victim suffering (like duration of pain); victim characteristics (like age, vulnerability); defendant’s culpability (motive, intoxication or premeditation); and the number of victims. He enlisted students from two law schools to rate each case (based on fact summaries without revealing the case’s outcome or the race of the defendant or victim) on a scale from 1 to 3 (most egregious) for each of the four factors. The raters also gave each case an overall subjective assessment of egregiousness, from 1 (low) to 5 (high), to ensure that more general reactions could be captured.
The egregiousness scores for those charged with capital murder and those who were not were virtually identical; the nature of the crime bore almost no relationship to how the case came out. Among the 29 who had a death penalty hearing, there is no clear difference in the level of egregiousness for the 17 who got life without parole and the 12 sentenced to death (three eventually had their sentences vacated for various reasons). Among the 32 most awful cases on the four-factor egregiousness scale, only one resulted in a death sentence.
Rather than punish the worst criminals, the Connecticut system, Professor Donohue found, operates with “arbitrariness and discrimination.” The racial effect is very evident (minority defendants with white victims were far more likely to be sentenced to death than others), as is geographic disparity. In the city of Waterbury, a death-eligible killer was at least seven times as likely to be sentenced to death as in the rest of the state.
In 1972, the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia struck down state death-penalty laws that lacked guidelines on how the penalty should be applied. It found that with only 15 percent of death-eligible murder convictions in Georgia leading to a death sentence, imposition of the penalty was “freakishly” rare — and therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional. The rate in the Donohue study is far more extreme at 4.4 percent.
The court also said in Furman that a death-penalty system must have a “meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which it is imposed from the many cases in which it is not.” Clearly, Connecticut’s system fails this requirement. Because it’s a small state, Professor Donohue was able to conduct a comprehensive study of every capital murder case with a conviction. But Connecticut’s lessons also apply to bigger states, like California, Texas and Ohio, where prosecutors even in neighboring counties use drastically different factors to impose the death penalty.
In 2011, the number of new death sentences imposed in the United States fell by 25 percent to 78, the lowest number since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. This “freakishly” rare application — among the thousands of murder cases a year — is strong evidence that every state system is arbitrary and capricious. The death penalty in Connecticut is clearly unconstitutional, barbaric and should be abolished, as it should be everywhere.