Death sentences are the highest form of punishment given for a crime, and if an inmate is sentenced to death, they can hope for it to be commuted. Each state has different rules and regulations for commuting a death sentence. In this blog post, we will discuss how commutation works and what factors go into deciding whether or not an inmate’s sentence can be commuted.
What does it mean to Commute a Death Sentence?
To commute a sentence or commutation is a “form of clemency that reduces the punishment for a crime” [Source]. A commuted sentence replaces the original sentence which the court would have given. A person or board with pardoning powers has the authority to commute sentences, and commutation is seen as a form of pardoning a person.
As a result, commuting a death sentence means removing the penalty and replacing it with life imprisonment or other suitable punishment.
Can a Governor commute a Death Sentence?
Under certain laws, “Only the President may commute federal sentences; in most states, only the governor can commute a sentence” [Source]. The power of clemency is given to an executive branch of government. A governor is part of this branch to commute a death sentence. In India, the Supreme gave a ruling in 2021 which allows governors to pardon prisoners, including death row ones [Source].
Commutation is defined as a form of clemency that reduces the punishment for a crime [Source] and can be seen as part of the “pardoning power.” It is done by a person with pardoning powers, such as the president and governor. Commuted sentences are usually rolled out to prisoners who are well behaved or have served a long time behind bars. In some cases, a commuted sentence is given after a harsh court sentence, after consideration of one’s age like the elderly people, looking at someone’s health, or when a judge refuses to acknowledge that one has spent enough time locked up. Commutation can be actioned with or without a prisoner’s consent.
Commuted sentences can only be revoked if obtained fraudulently or based on false and fraudulent statements.
How long does a Commutation take?
According to various regulations, a commutation application takes six months to process [Source]. The application must be complete to be processed. If the application is not completed, it is returned to the inmate and attorney. After the application is granted, then commutation can be done.
Clemency is the “process by which a governor, president, or administrative board may reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon” [Source], and “clemencies have been granted in death-penalty cases for a variety of reasons.” According to this definition, clemency falls under the bracket of pardoning one for a crime. The power of clemency is vested in the executive branch of the government.
The Death Penalty Information Center keeps a record of all clemencies done in the state related to the death penalty.
Who can Grant Clemency?
The president, governors, and other top officials have the power to grant pardons if it’s discovered that clemency is required and all the necessary documentation has been submitted.
A clemency hearing is a “formal hearing in which inmates and former inmates can petition the highest authority, like a state governor or the president, to have certain rights be restored or have their sentence moved to time served” [Source]. The governor can grant clemency at the state level, and only the president can grant clemency on a petition at the federal level.
The inmate or former convict, attorney, character witnesses if necessary, hearing panel, and governor are all eligible to appear at a clemency hearing.
What is a Death Sentence?
A death sentence, also known as capital punishment, is a “state-sanctioned practice of killing a person as a punishment for a crime” [Source]. Punishment of death is the highest form of punishment in the judicial system, and individuals given such punishment are put on ‘death row.
The pros and cons of the Death Sentence
The pros of the death sentence include eliminating sympathy for the criminal [Source] because they would have committed inhumane acts. The death sentence is applauded for being a deterrent measure against violent crimes. Only capital punishment can be appropriate for horrific crimes such as first-degree murders or serial killers. Also, there is zero chance to escape the death sentence, and it “provides respectful outcome to a convicted individual” and gives the victims’ relatives some closure knowing that the perpetrator is no longer living.
But the downside of receiving a death sentence is that it eliminates any hope for rehabilitation. It does not solve the causes of criminality in society or even addresses the problem of crime. Also, the courts are known for giving wrong rulings at times and can overturn, but if a person is given a death sentence, then innocent lives may be put at risk. Considering crime levels in the world shows that capital punishment is not deterring crime. It also supports the archaic lifestyle, which states ‘a tooth for a tooth’ and stamps out efforts to discuss and forgive.
How to Appeal a Death Sentence
Appealing a death sentence involves a legal process, and those sentenced to the death penalty or appellant have a right to appeal. Certain laws require that the sentence and verdict be appealed separately. Steps to be followed by the legal team in appealing include “post-trial motions for acquittal, asking for a reduction in the sentence, motions for a mistrial, and requesting a new trial” [Source]. If these steps fail, a direct appeal has to be actioned, which targets the sentence; neither a new trial nor evidence may be included.
A direct appeal targets the highest court from which someone can seek an appeal [Source]. The hearing panel of judges can review the case and determine if the sentence is befitting or not. The state or federal courts do the reviewing. There is also State Post-Conviction whereby a defendant can file a petition with the original trial judge, then proceed to intermediate courts, and finally to the highest court.
‘Federal Habeas Corpus’ is also used to appeal capital punishment. It allows defendants to raise issues outside the trial record. A petition is sent to US District Court, and a judge can dismiss or grant it. Permission to further appeal to the US Court of Appeals is granted by the US District Court or the Court of Appeals. The Supreme is the last resort for defendants appealing their death sentence. If they fail at the Supreme Court, they have to wait for an Executive Clemency by a governor, president, or administrative board.