Tuesday, November 30, 2004

To Give

Our little blog is suddenly experiencing a spike in traffic. So I want to try something again that I tried, with moderate success, last Wednesday.

NCADP's activist list just surpassed 9,000 people. Our annual budget is in the six digits.

We need your help. Think about it: We're the only fully-staffed national organization in the country that is specifically devoted to abolishing the death penalty. (There are many other wonderful anti-death penalty groups, but they are either local in nature or they are not fully staffed. These groups are our friends, our allies -- and they stronger we get, the stronger they will be. A rising tide floats all boats.)

Think about other leaders in other progressive movements. The Human Rights Campaign. The NAACP. The American Federation of Teachers. The Sierra Club. And so on. All of these groups have budgets that are in the millions and activist lists that are in the hundreds of thousands. Simply put, this is where we must go.

We can't realize our dreams with our current activist list and our current budget. We need more activists to sign up to be on our e@bolition list and to give us $25 or $50 or whatever you can give.

Join if you can. Give if you can. Thank you!

Newton update

Frances Newton has been moved from Gatesville to Huntsville, where they conduct the executions. Texas prison officials proceed as if executions are going to go on as scheduled until told otherwise; that is why Frances was moved despite the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles' vote to recommend a 120-day reprieve.

Meanwhile, it turns out that I'm going to be on the radio show "Fight Back!" which I discussed earlier. (If you want to tune in, go to www.kpft.org and click on "listen." It's on from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Texas time, 11 p.m. to midnight east coast time.) This is good, as I will be able to say hello to the folks on death row as well as to Frances' mom (and they're trying to get Frances a radio so that she can listen to the show).

Back later.

News flash

The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole has just voted to recommend a 120-day reprieve for Frances Newton. However, this recommendation must be accepted by Gov. Rick Perry or the execution will proceed as scheduled Wednesday, barring last-minute court intervention.

Tune in tonight to KPFT!


Frances Newton's mom, Iva Nelms, is going to be interviewed at 10 p.m. central standard time (that's 11 p.m. on the east coast, 9 p.m. Rocky Mountain time and 8 p.m. out in blue state land!)

The interview will air on KPFT, Paicifica's station in Houston, but because of the wonders of the Internet, you can listen to it from your computer. Simply go to www.kpft.org and click on "listen here" near the top of your computer screen.

The name of the show is "Fight Back!" It is co-hosted by Gloria Rubac, a leader in the trenches in the abolition movement in Harris County.

Frances Newton is scheduled to be executed shortly after 6 p.m. Texas time on Wednesday. Please stay tuned to this blog for updates and breaking news. To take action, go our web site.

After the interview, friends and relatives of people on death row in Texas will be able to call-in to say hello to their loved ones. If you have someone on death row, call 1-713-526-5738 between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. central standard time to participate.

KPFT is listened to by people on death row in Texas; Livingston, where death row is located, is within the station's listening range. I'm told that most people on death row in Texas know about "Fight Back!"

Monday, November 29, 2004

Thank you!

Right before Thanksgiving, we offered up a modest plea for help, both in taking action against next week's three scheduled executions and in helping NCADP financially. (See the post below if you are wondering what I am talking about!)

Over the holiday weekend, seven people responded to this admittedly modest appeal, visiting NCADP's donor site and giving a total of $325. And several dozen people signed up for NCADP's e@bolition email list.

Thank you. We need your help. We need your support. You have the power to abolish the death penalty. You really do.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Dec. 1, 2 and 3

Next week we have three really bad executions scheduled. (Well, you know, compared to the *nice* ones.)

On Wed., Dec. 1 Texas is scheduled to execute Frances Newton, despite a very strong innocence claim and classic ineffectiveness of counsel.

On Thursday, Dec. 2, Pennsylvania is scheduled to execute George Banks. He has no innocence claim -- he shot and killed 13 people, including five of his own children. He does have an exceptionally strong claim of severe mental illness, but that often does not stop executions.

On Friday, Dec. 3, North Carolina is scheduled to execute Charles Walker. He would be the first person executed in North Carolina (and also in the modern-day United States) where no body was ever found. He has an innocence claim as well as a mental retardation claim.

If you want to take action against these executions, go here. And if you think you might be able to donate to help NCADP with our continuing battles go here (and tell them the blog sent ya!)

Happy holidays, everyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

What do Iraq and Afghanistan have in common?

They are the only two countries to have recently restored the death penalty.

A handful of other countries (Lebanon, Chad, Indonesia and India) have allowed executions to resume after periods of moratorium.

And four countries -- Turkey, Bhutan, Samoa and Serbia-Montenegro -- have recently abolished the death penalty.

I learned all this from reading a statement put out by the 2nd World Congress Against the Death Penalty, which convened last month in Montreal. I understand that the 3rd World Congress will be held in Turkey -- a country that now leads the U.S. in human rights, at least in one regard.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Get ready, folks.

On Wednesday, Dec. 1, the state of Texas is scheduled to execute Frances Newton.

Folks, this one is gonna be big. It's gonna get a lot of attention, a lot of press and a lot of protests.

It's not just going to get a lot of attention and a lot of press and a lot of protests because Newton is a woman. Nor is it going to get a lot of attention and lot of press and a lot of protests because she is African American. (If anything, I think race might explain why it hasnt gotten hardly any attention so far.)

Rather, it is going to get a lot of attention and a lot of press and a lot of protests for one simple reason.

Newton may well be innocent.

Go to NCADP's web site to read a press release about this case. Also, shortly (within the next hour) we're going to have the entire 39-page clemency petition she has filed up on the web.

If you think I'm going out on a limb by using the word "innocent" in connection with Newton's name, please read the entire petition. I think you'll see what I mean.

And I think you'll agree with me on one thing. It's time to get mad. It's time to take action.

The Texas smack-down continues

The state of Texas was scheduled to execute Troy Kunkle Thursday just after 6 p.m. central standard time. That would be 7 p.m. my time here in the east, about the time ABC's World News Tonight wraps up.

But it was not to be.

At 6:40 p.m., 40 minutes after the execution could have begun, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 for a stay. Why? No one can say for sure, because of the way the Court operates.

However, Kunkle's lawyers had argued that the execution should be stopped in light of Monday's Supreme Court ruling that some capital murder defendants in Texas were not given enough of an opportunity to have jurors consider mitigating evidence.

The 5-4 vote is pretty significant. It means that we got Kennedy or O'Connor to join Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Stevens. I think it also could mean that the rate of executions in Texas may decline next year -- despite the fact that the state already has three executions scheduled for January alone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

There's a new blog in town

Actually, when I say "new," what I really mean is that I just found out about it. Grits For Breakfast covers criminal justice reform in Texas and its owner, Scott Henson, is a name I know from my college days.

Check it out!

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Lonely Abolitionist has totally redesigned her blog. (She also has been blogging like crazy, putting me to shame!) Lonely Abolitionist is now the most avant garde, cutting edge blog in the abolition movement! (Well, you know, among the three or four of us...)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A Texas-sized smackdown!

Some people might wonder why I write about Texas so much. It's not because Texas is my home state, although I guess that's part of the reason.

The more important reason is this: of the 943 people executed (as of this hour) since 1976 in the United States, 335 are from Texas. That's higher than the next six states combined.

Fortunately, there's some good news coming out of Texas these days. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a very unusual smackdown, served notice that it is going to be monitoring Texas' use of the death penalty very carefully. The Supreme Court, on a 7-2 vote (Scalia and Thomas dissenting) issued what is called a summary reversal. They outright reversed one death sentence and remanded another to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for further consideration.

Today there is an awful lot of coverage in the media explaining the Court's actions. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

From Jordan Steiker, law professor at the University of Texas at Austin:

Steiker said the justices' willingness to slap the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals without hearing arguments in the case "reflects a growing disenchantment and impatience" with the lower court's death penalty rulings.

"This is aimed at that court's recalcitrance," he said. "The high court is sending a clear message that even if it's not willing to hear a case, it's going to supervise the Court of Criminal Appeals' application of its decisions. ... It is saying the court is not only wrong, but it is so wrong that it requires our intervention and supervision."

From Rick Broughton, law professor at Texas Wesleyan University:

"If we had any doubt that the court was serious about these issues surrounding death penalty issues, it's pretty clear now. He added that the court's ruling sends a clear signal that "the court isn't going to tolerate anything short of a total overhaul of the [Texas] death sentencing instruction scheme."

And from the Supreme Court itself:

In their opinion in Smith's case, the justices said that despite several of their previous rulings, the Texas court failed to get the message that juries in capital murder cases should fully consider mitigating evidence.

"There is no question that a jury might well have considered petitioner's IQ scores and history of participation in special-education classes as a reason to impose a sentence more lenient than death," the court said in a 12-page opinion. The justices said the state court "erroneously relied on a test we never countenanced and now have unequivocally rejected."

Friday, November 12, 2004

Oh, are they supposed to be guilty before we execute them?

Courtesy of Steve Hall, we learn that a new Texas Poll is being released over the weekend. Among the findings:

“Do you think Texas has executed an innocent person?”

Yes: 70 percent.

“Do you support the death penalty?”

Yes: 75 percent.


Blogging from death row

Renee checked in from Athens the other day. She's helped a person on death row in Pennsylvania start a blog, which is cool. There aren't many entrees yet, but I'm glad to see it's up and running -- I hope more people do this sort of thing!

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The human touch

One of the wonderful things about working in the abolition movement is the terrific people one meets across the people. Real people, outside the Beltway, most of whom hold down real jobs and do their anti-death penalty work after hours.

One such person is Tim McDonald. I don't know much about Tim, except that he is, I believe, a university professor and he is active in Tennessee Coalition Against State Killing.

Tim has a friend on Texas' death row with whom he has been corresponding. He recently paid his friend a visit in person and dropped me this email:

Greg and I had a good visit - he is more encouraged now, although no one knows what to expect. Please keep him in mind and if you say prayers, please say one for him.

I saw the families visiting the young men who are scheduled for execution tonight and later this week in Texas - I always leave the visiting room angry over Greg and these other families - I wish the people who so easily sentence people do die could see their handiwork in the faces of these families...it would be justice for the judge and jury to see the pain they have caused these people.

No, I'm not going to Canada....Like I told the Baptist church I have belonged to for many years - one man said "if you don't like it, leave." I said, "No, those of us who know the truth and speak it will stay and cause you trouble."
Best regards,


Thursday, November 04, 2004

Second innocence case: Anthony Graves

To continue the post from below:

The second person on Texas death row whose name has been in the news lately and who presents a very strong and credible case for innocence is Anthony Graves.

The Houston Chronicle reports the following:

Juror regrets role in capital conviction ---- A new trial could be ordered if judge in Galveston finds evidence hidden

One of the jurors who convicted Texas death row inmate Anthony Graves of capital murder 10 years ago says now that he made a mistake that keeps him awake at night.

"I have lost a lot of sleep over my decision to convict Mr. Graves, and if I had to do (it) over again, I wouldn't do it," Jim Hahn stated in a sworn affidavit for the Texas Innocence Network last week.

In an interview this week from his home in Manvel, south of Houston, Hahn said, "I don't think they proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Graves, convicted in 1994 in the deaths of 6 family members in Somerville, is awaiting a decision by a Galveston judge on whether prosecutors hid evidence that could have persuaded jurors to acquit him. If the answer is yes, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Froeschner will order a new trial.

If the answer is no, Graves could be executed for the 1992 slaying of Bobbie Davis, 45, her 16-year-old daughter, Nicole, and Davis' four grandchildren, ages 4 to 9. They were shot and stabbed inside a house, which was burned to hide the crime.

Graves' attorneys, Jay Burnett and Roy Greenwood, said changes in the law prevent courts from considering new evidence.

At the federal level, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of
1996 limits those sentenced to death to a single appeal, even if new evidence is later discovered.

A state law adopted in 1995 imposes the same limit.

"You only get one bite at the apple," Burnett said.

Hahn, 56, said he and a female juror held out through a day and a half of deliberations, but he finally agreed to go along with a guilty verdict after concluding that the other jurors would never change their minds. The woman also later gave in.

Hahn said he believed then that Graves would get a new trial on appeal.

Hahn said the evidence was circumstantial, no murder weapon was found and that he had little confidence in testimony by a convicted killer and a man who claimed to have overheard an incriminating comment by Graves in jail.

Hahn said the memories of that trial came back after he saw a TV news broadcast about information indicating Graves' innocence in a two-year investigation by students from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
The students participate in the University of Houston Law Center's chapter of the Texas Innocence Network.

Hahn phoned journalism professor Nicole Casarez, adviser to the St. Thomas students, and she sent him an affidavit form that he signed Oct. 19.

Casarez said she has been looking for the other juror who Hahn said was reluctant to convict Graves.

Of the 6 women on the jury, Casarez has found 3, all of whom say they have no regrets about their verdict.

Hahn also was critical of Charles Sebesta, former district attorney for Burleson and Washington counties, who prosecuted Graves.

"I always believed that Graves was set up by (Sebesta) because the prosecutor needed someone to take a fall," Hahn wrote in his affidavit.

Sebesta told the Chronicle, "That's not unusual, to find a juror 10 years later that wants to recant for whatever reasons. That's something the courts will have to address."

Two more innocence cases

And both involve people on death row in Texas.

First we have the case of Max Soffar. The following story, reported by a Houston TV station, doesn't really do Soffar's case justice, but it does take you to the tip of the iceberg:

Max Soffar has spent the last 23 years on death row. His lawyers have spent a lot of that time in court - twice winning rulings for a new trial.

Those were both appealed - and one is still pending. Now Soffar's lawyers are telling prosecutors and the Houston Police Department there is evidence missing in his case.

Soffar told Eyewitness News, "I walked in and just confessed to a crime they no more had a suspect in than the man on the moon."

Max Soffar is a convicted killer who confessed to his crime decades ago and then days after recanted, saying the confessions were complete fabrications - that he wasn't there and neither was anyone he knew.

"C'mon, this whole thing is a lie," he said.

On July 13, 1980 4 young people were shot execution style in a robbery at the Windfern Lanes bowling alley off the Northwest Freeway. Three of them died.

Harris County Assistant District Attorney Lynn Hardaway said, "It was a horrific crime."

It captured headlines, but no suspects until League City police officers stopped Max Soffar - at that time a drug user and petty criminal - riding a stolen motorcycle. At first, Soffar tells us he thought he could trade information about the shooting - even if it was false - for leniency on the stolen motorcycle. He tells us he wanted to implicate a friend he was angry at and get reward money.

In an audio tape of the confession an officer asks, "Y'all parked at the doors?"

Soffar can be heard answering, "Yeah, and I heard them shots and I moved down. Then he came running. He came running out."

In that first confession, he told cops he was outside the bowling alley and that friend did the shooting. But after three days of interrogations without a lawyer, Max said he was coerced into saying he was inside, too, and that the friend shot 2 people, threw the gun across the room to him and Soffar shot 2 others.

Soffar's lawyer James Schropp explained, "They were all complete fiction."

For the last 12 years, Schropp has been Soffar's lawyer. Not only does he say the confessions are made up, but says Soffar didn't look like the shooter. As it was reported in 1980, the survivor couldn't positively identify Soffar in a lineup. Now Schropp says there is more - crucial evidence missing in the case.

"I think it's extremely important to the case," Schropp said.

In a letter this week to Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, Schropp demands a close look in the 280 boxes of recently discovered evidence for polygraph results and audiotapes of Soffar's statements. That's evidence the defense never had, that could help paint the picture of how the confession was made.

"There is no way you can tell me that a triple homicide, quadruple shooting has no evidence in those boxes," Soffar said.

For more information about Max Soffar, go here.