Death Penalty

Top elected justices are twice as likely to affirm death penalty in election years, 3-state study finds

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Politics is apparently affecting the fate of people caught up in the criminal justice system, according to a study by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Elected state supreme court justices in Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio affirm twice as many death sentences during an election year than in any other year, according to the report, Lethal Election: How the U.S. Electoral Process Increases the Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty.

The study looked at all 110 death-penalty cases in the three states from January 2013 to the end of December 2022. Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio were chosen because they are known as “purple” or “swing” states, and similar numbers of defendants there have sentenced to death and executed in the modern era. At least one justice on the top court in the three states is up for election in every even-numbered year.

In cases considering whether to affirm a death sentence, courts in the three states ruled in favor of the state 81% of the time in election years and only 70.8% of the time in nonelection years.

The report also found that 56.2% of clemency grants in death-penalty cases were made by governors who were not running for reelection. The percentage increased to 63.4% when the governor was the sole decision-maker and not running for reelection.

The report examined 146 cases in which governors granted clemency in death-penalty cases from 1977 through 2023. A mass clemency grant in Illinois wasn’t included in the data.

“The U.S. electoral process inserts many elements of unpredictability and unfairness into death-penalty cases,” said Robin M. Maher, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in a July 1 press release. “A life-or-death decision should not depend on whether an appeal or clemency petition is heard in an election year, nor should a defendant’s fate rest on who donated money to an official’s campaign fund.”

The United States is the only country in the world to elect local prosecutors and one of the few countries that elects judges, according to the report. Nearly 90% of state judges are elected in this country, according to the report.

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