Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Even in the deep red South, death sentences are on the decline

Even in the deep red South, death sentences are on the decline


Twenty years ago, a brutal murder in a red state like Mississippi would likely guarantee a death sentence for a defendant. But as last week’s sentencing of Scotty Lakeith Street illustrates, juries in the South and across the country continue to shift away from capital punishment. In 1997, four people inMississippi were sentenced to death; last year, 2016, not one person was. Street was sentenced to life without parole for stabbing retired teacher Frankie Fairley to death in 2014. The jury in Street’s trial, faced with a choice between the death penalty or life in prison, couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict, and split 10–2.

Fairley’s murder was undeniably tragic — that much was not up for debate. But Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence’s recounting of the gruesome details wasn’t enough to convince all 12 members of the jury that Street deserved to die at the hands of the state.

Those that opted for life without parole may have been swayed by Street’s extensive history of mental illness. As reported by WLOXjurors heard testimony from his sister that Street had “been institutionalized so much, it’s beyond my count.” Street’s lawyers also presented testimony from a mental health provider who explained that Street suffered from schizophrenia and “needed to be in a group home with a caregiver.” Street was also reported to have displayed “bizarre behavior,” including “putting plastic bags on his head to keep his brain from leaking out and running naked in public with objects tied to his scrotum.”

This is far from the first time testimony about a defendant’s mental illness has informed a jury’s decision to oppose a capital sentence. In 2015, a Washington state jury chose a life sentence for James McEnroe, who was convicted after killing six members of his girlfriend’s family. Jurors who chose the life sentence pointed to his documented “mental health issues” as one of the reasons they chose to spare him from the death penalty. That same year, Colorado jurors sentenced James Holmes to life without parole, after her shot twelve people in an Aurora movie theater. A juror told the Denver Post that “the issue of mental illness was everything for the one [juror] who did not want to impose the death penalty.” Across the country, the mental illness of defendants has increasingly become reason not to impose the death penalty.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court bars the death penalty for those with intellectual disabilities, that legal definition is fairly narrow and does not bar the execution of many mentally ill people. A 2017 study from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that 43 percent of prisoners executed between 2000 and 2015 were diagnosed with mental illness at some point in their lives.

Mental illness aside, death sentences are on the decline across the country. Last year, 30 people were sentenced to death in the U.S., while in the mid-1990s, more than 300 people received capital sentences. That decline in popularity is reflected in Street’s case, as well as in other Mississippi capital cases. Though the death penalty’s legality remains alive and well, juries across the country are rejecting it.

Bronx prosecutor, detectives allegedly bullied witnesses to make case against Pedro Hernandez

Jessica Perez, mother of Pedro Hernandez; Sierra Ewert and Wade McMullen of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights; Pedro Hernandez
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

Bronx prosecutor, detectives allegedly bullied witnesses to make case against Pedro Hernandez


Damning new details have surfaced about a Bronx prosecutor and two investigators tied to the case of Pedro Hernandez, a 17-year-old accused of two non-fatal shootings that occurred in 2015. According to PIX11 News, Assistant District Attorney David Slott and detectives Daniel Brady and David Terrell pressured several witnesses to identify Hernandez as the gunman in both shootings, despite the witnesses’ insistence that the teenager was innocent.

On Tuesday, the New York City news station released a video in which Tyrese Revel, one of the shooting victims, states he was put in a holding cell after he refused to identify Hernandez as his shooter. Revel alleges Brady and Terrell issued threats of physical violence if he didn’t blame Hernandez — and Slott watched them do it. PIX11 News also released footage of a second witness, William Stevens, stating that Terrell and Brady bullied him as well. Stevens says he was forced to say Hernandez was responsible for the shooting of Shaun Nardoni.

“Terrell then got in my face and said if you don’t sign this we are going to take you somewhere and beat me up until I sign the photo array picking Pedro,” Stevens wrote in a statement posted by the news organization. “I kept saying the hole (sic) time I don’t know this kid. Terrel (sic) and Brady said if I don’t sign it you are not going home.”

According to Stevens’ lawyer, John Scola, the detectives’ behavior wasn’t isolated. Not only was Stevens coerced into identifying Hernandez, but he was assaulted and forced to falsely identify defendants in at least 30 other cases as well. “One to three times a week, they would take William Stevens from his bed… in handcuffs, drive him around in a patrol car and beat him until he would say that someone did the crime,” Scola said.

In spite of pressure from Slott, Terrell, and Brady, Revel adamantly denied Hernandez’ involvement. Charges related to his shooting have since been thrown out. But Hernandez is still facing charges for allegedly shooting Nardoni, even though Nardoni argues Hernandez was not involved. Stevens has also retracted his claim that Hernandez was responsible for Nardoni’s shooting, yet Bronx prosecutors are still using the false testimony to build their case.

At least nine witnesses deny the teenager’s role in the two shootings.

Hernandez insists that he is innocent. He declined a plea deal, and was subsequently detained at Rikers Island Correctional Facility for a year due to his inability to pay $250,000 bail. The teenager was ultimately released on July 27, after news of his case made national headlines and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights donated $105,000 toward bail. Had he not been bailed out by September, Hernandez would have lost a full academic scholarship for college. He completed high school behind bars — with honors.

More in Explainers

A Deal with the Devil: What It Truly Costs to Make a Plea Deal

A Deal with the Devil: What It Truly Costs to Make a Plea Deal


Imagine you’ve been charged with a crime and are sitting in jail awaiting your trial. Your bail is set to $5,000, leaving you with three options — if you’re rich and you pay the money up front, you can get out of jail and wait for your court date from the comfort of your home. If you’re poor and can’t afford the bail, you sit in jail and await your trial which could be months or even years away.

Then there’s the third option — take a plea deal.

A plea deal is an arrangement between the prosecutor and defendant to resolve a case without going to trial. Often, this means prosecutors have lightened caseloads and judges are better able to manage overcrowded courtrooms. It also gives defendants the opportunity to accept a less severe sentence for a less serious charge and avoid the costs that come with lengthy trials. But these so-called deals come with strings attached. A short Brave New Films video entitled “A Deal With the Devil” delves deeper into the system of plea deals:

For those sitting in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay their bail, the need for freedom grows more desperate with every passing day. In many cases, defendants who cannot afford to pay bail will be pressured into taking plea deals; instead of exercising their right to a fair trial, the defendants will accept the deal just to get out of prison or avoid the potential of a harsher sentence.

In A Deal with the Devil, Charles explains why he reluctantly took a plea deal instead of going to trial.

I think they make the bail steeper and steeper so you can’t bail out…they know most guys want to get out of there, they know it’s overcrowded, it’s diseased…so a lot of guys take plea deals.

Charles’ bail was set at $200,000, which is an incredibly steep price for most Americans. The bond alone could have cost Charles $20,000 — money he would never get back from a bail bondsman no matter the outcome of his case. In the face of that excessive amount of money, taking a plea deal can seem like the only possible option for defendants, especially when told by prosecutors that the alternative — a guilty ruling at trial — could result in even more devastating outcomes.

Criminal defense attorney Michael J. Curls advises his clients that a guilty plea remains on a person’s record and can follow people around for the rest of their lives. “Plea deals always come back to bite,” he explains. “You’re not going to get loans, can’t vote, you can’t even get on a game show with a felony.” In fact, people convicted of felonies commonly lose more than just voting rights or ability to borrow money — they can lose educational, parental, travel, housing, and employment rights as well.

Curls knows that money bail turns plea deals into a ‘deal with the devil’ in a system that disproportionately impacts low-income people, especially those in communities of color.

“[In the case that] a person has committed a crime and gets an opportunity to accept responsibility for that crime without going to trial, incurring more time and expense, and possibly being exposed to a harsher sentence, a plea deal can be a good thing,” explains Curls. “The problem is when a plea deal is a byproduct of someone just wanting to get out of jail… I can either stay in custody for another 4 months and fight the case with no guarantee that I’ll win, or I could get out in one month and try to get on with my life.”

For many people, the high cost of taking a plea deal is worth getting out of jail and going home, whether or not they are guilty. Because of the pressures put on a person by impossible bail amounts, plea deals can end up subverting a person’s right to a fair trial and presumption of innocence. It’s clear that the money bail system exacerbates this problem and only comprehensive reform at all levels of the criminal justice system can end this injustice.

To learn more about plea deals and how they affect vulnerable Americans, watch “A Deal with the Devil”[1] and share it with your friends.

(Are you an educator, activist, or organizer? Do you care deeply about social justice issues and education? Join Brave New Films’ movement to end money bail once and for all by visiting www.bravenewfilms.org/bail_trap to register for a free screening and education guide for your classroom, faith organization, or community!)


Mehak Anwar was born in Karachi, Pakistan, raised in the Pacific Northwest, and completed her undergraduate degree in Boston, Massachusetts where she studied journalism and feminist theory. She has published writing on intersectional feminism, LGBTQIA rights, food insecurity, gun control, institutionalized racism, and media representation of marginalized communities. Outside of her formal studies and published work, Mehak has spent time researching climate change and environmental justice, indigenous rights, mass incarceration, and public housing. In her free time, she can be found in a radical bookstore, hiking with a friend, or tending to her plants. Mehak is a 2017 Outreach fellow at Brave New Films. The views and opinions expressed in this article are hers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

More in Podcasts