Friday, October 29, 2004

Texas governor refuses to recognize U.N. day

There goes my home state again...

Perry snubs United Nations Day
Associated Press

AUSTIN - Republican Gov. Rick Perry refused to honor United Nations Day, even as President Bush signed a U.N. proclamation, because doing so would be inconsistent with the governor's views, his spokeswoman said.

In his proclamation, Bush had urged governors to "honor the observance of United Nations Day," which was celebrated Sunday around the world to commemorate the date the organization was founded in 1945.

"It was a conscious decision to not issue the proclamation out of concern over the lack of support the U.N. has shown for United States efforts to bring freedom and democracy to the world," Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said.

To read the whole story, go here.

In our name

On the Abolish listserv, I stumbled across this interesting morsel from a newspaper editor in Houston:

In thy name----Bulletin of a life taken

About once a fortnight, I receive on my computer screen a bulletin from The Associated Press that another Texas death row inmate has been executed. The news bulletins arrive about 6:30 p.m., just as I'm starting to think of finishing up and going home.

The death notices dampen any happy anticipation of the evening, yet I don't resent them. Any time a life is taken in my name and in the name of every Texas citizen, I want to know. I wonder how many citizens would take the same principled satisfaction in capital punishment if someone called them up or sent them an e-mail in the instant following every execution.

On Tuesday the bulletin came late, not until 8:04 p.m. Dominique Green, the 18th person Texas has executed this year, was put to death for a murder that took place 12 years ago. Green went to his death denying he was the triggerman.

Around midday Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas granted Green a reprieve after his attorneys asked for time to make sure no evidence relevant to Green's case was to be found in 280 boxes of misplaced and mishandled evidence discovered in August at the Houston Police Department.
The reprieve caused a short delay in Green's execution, but was quickly overturned by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Some supporters of capital punishment argue that executions are necessary to give "closure" to the family of the murder victim. In Green's case, the victim's family objected to the execution of a man who might be innocent of murder and who apparently had found on death row redemption for a short, misspent life.

A Harris County prosecutor said of the family's concern for Green's humanity, "Legally, it doesn't mean anything." Shouldn't it?

Some people who defend executions say the killer didn't offer his victim mercy, so society should show no mercy. They don't explain why society's behavior should depressingly ape that of a conscienceless killer.

(source: Opinion, Houston Chronicle, JAMES HOWARD GIBBONS, interim editor)

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Kerry AND Bush oppose the juvenile death penalty???

If I had blinked, I would have missed it. But this comes to me via Abe Bonowitz, via Death Penalty Information Center:

In a forum hosted by the New Voters Project, U.S. Presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry expressed their views on executing juvenile offenders. "Federal law prohibits execution of those under 18 when the offense was committed, and I see no reason to change that statute," said President Bush. Senator John Kerry stated, "I do not think that executing minors is good policy." (Knight-Ridder, October 17, 2004). On October 13th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Roper v. Simmons, a case that will determine whether the execution of juvenile offenders is constitutional

It is perhaps noteworthy that Texas leads the nation in juvenile offender executions in the modern era and in the number of juvenile offenders on death row.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Green executed

As I feared, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the stay of execution issued by the U.S. District Court. Then the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the Fifth Circuit.

Green was executed earlier this evening. His last words:

"There was a lot of people that got me to this point and I can't thank them all," he said, speaking in a barely audible voice. "But thank you for your love and support. They have allowed me to do a lot more than I could have on my own. ... I have overcame a lot. I am not angry but I am disappointed that I was denied justice. But I am happy that I was afforded you all as family and friends," he said looking at five friends.

"I love you all. Please just keep the struggle oing. ... I am just sorry and I am not as strong as I thought I was going to be. But I guess it only hurts for a little while. You are all my family. Please keep my memory alive."

Dominique, we will keep the struggle going. And we will keep your memory alive. This I promise you.

Dominique Green update

A U.S. District Court has stayed the execution of Dominique Green, scheduled for 6 p.m. Central Standard Time today.

However, the state of Texas is appealing to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which I think may life the stay. Either way, this is heading for the U.S. Supreme Court and it could be a long night, folks.

What's the point?

The state of Texas is scheduled to carry out yet another execution this evening. This will be their fifth this month. In this case, the person scheduled for execution is Dominique Green, who was convicted of shooting and killing a man during a robbery. There are questions relating to Green's actual guilt.

Also, the son and the spouse of the victim have urged that Green be spared. This leads me to wonder, why exactly are we executing Green?

Here's what the son has to say:

"Texas is going to put a righteous person to die like an animal, putting him on a table, strapping him up, putting those needles in his arms, putting him to sleep," Lastrapes-Luckett, 22, said Monday after a rare visit on death row between a victim's relative and a condemned inmate.

"We're not dogs. We're human beings just like everybody else. He's a human being, just like me, just like you."

To read the whole story, go here. (This link may only work today.)

Monday, October 25, 2004

Why elections matter

More on the case of Paul House, the guy in Tennessee who could face execution soon, despite the fact that he is almost certainly innocent.

As the following column notes, House lost his appeal before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on an 8-7 vote. Incredibly -- okay, perhaps not so incredibly -- the 8 justices who voted against him were appointed by Republican presidents (including four by the current Bush). And the seven justices who voted in his favor were appointed by Democrats.

Here's the column:

Next time Ralph Nader says there's no difference in the 2 parties, somebody ought to introduce him to Paul House. Unless, it's too late.

The presidential race can be a life-and-death matter, and I'm not talking about Iraq.

I'm talking about imposing the death penalty even when there's a reasonable doubt about guilt, which would only seem to go against the very foundation of the vaunted American system of justice.

Execution in defiance of evidence was recently favored by Republican-nominated judges on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati. It was opposed by Democratic-nominated appeals judges sitting in that circuit.

Since the Republican nominees outnumbered the Democratic ones by 8-to-7, a Tennessee death row inmate - this Paul House - appears on his way to lethal injection.

The appeals court vote to kill him was precisely that, 8-to-7. And it was precisely on party lines.

House stands convicted of a murder accompanied by a rape - rape providing the compounding factor by which a jury gave him capital punishment in 1986. The evidence of rape, the supposed covering up of which was the motive of the murder, was semen. DNA evidence impossible then but undisputed now shows the semen to have been that of the victim's hard-drinking husband, not House.

Absent evidence of a rape, there is now the absence of a compounding factor permitting the death penalty.

There might still be a case of simple murder, not capital murder. But new witnesses have come forward to say the victim's husband had a history of drunken abuse of the victim. 2 witnesses now say the husband told them he killed his wife when he was drunk. One says the husband asked for help with an alibi.

House was seen coming out of the woman's house cleaning his hands. He was a known drug user. The jury was told the semen matched his blood type.

The 8-judge majority nominated by Republican presidents, 4 by the current one, ruled that the new evidence and allegations were insufficient to change the verdict or even compel a new trial. That the DNA was not House's does not specifically contradict testimony that House lured the woman from her home, the prevailing Republican jurists said. The new witnesses are suspect in that they are only coming forward now, the Republican judges said.

6 of the 7 Democratic-nominated judges said the new evidence meant the state had lost its motive, its theory and any aggravating circumstance.
These 6 said the new witnesses were credible. They said House should be freed forthwith.

The 7th Democratic nominee, Judge Ronald Lee Gillman, advanced the seemingly most logical course, which was to grant House a new trial.

But because Republican presidents had nominated one more appeals court judge than Democratic presidents, and because Republican judges apparently want to stand by law enforcement and oblige the political popularity of the death penalty, a man in Tennessee will die soon unless the U.S.
Supreme Court saves him, which is unlikely, or multiple sclerosis gets him first.

Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University, put the matter in perspective when he was interviewed by The New York Times. "In any rational legal universe, there is now at least reasonable doubt about the man's guilt," Freedman said.

So, if you prefer imposing the death penalty in spite of reasonable doubt, there's a voting option available to you Nov. 2. And there's another option if you like the idea of not killing a man when there's a reasonable doubt about his guilt.

That sounds oversimplified, unless you look to the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

(source: John Brummett, Column, Pahrump Valley Times -- Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president; Oct. 22)

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Stop me if I sound like a broken record...

...but there is yet another innocent guy on death row. I've written about him before, but his case is so utterly compelling, he is certainly worth another posting.

His name is Paul House and he is in Tennessee. His appeals are running out.

The other day, a columnist for the Daily Tennessean had this to say:

Before Wednesday, I had never met House but wrote a column in this space last Sunday saying he was still on death row despite the fact that 6 of the 15 judges on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said House is not guilty of Carolyn Muncey's murder and should be freed immediately. A seventh judge on the court of appeals said in a dissenting opinion that House should at least have a new trial.

"I would like to be set free, but I would accept a new trial," House told me as he sat in a wheelchair in a visiting room in Riverbend's infirmary.

House suffers from multiple sclerosis and cannot walk on his own. His attorney, federal public defender Stephen M. Kissinger of Knoxville, has said he is afraid House won't live long enough to see his case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"They have found so much stuff over the years that makes you wonder what are all those Republicans on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals thinking about," House added. He was referring to the fact that the 8 judges on the Sixth Circuit who voted to uphold his death penalty were all appointed by Republican presidents.

Since House's conviction in 1986 for Muncey's 1985 murder, which he was accused of committing during an attempted rape, DNA has shown that the semen evidence used to help convict House was really that of her husband, Hubert Muncey. The physical evidence of blood tying House to Carolyn Muncey's murder has also been rebutted.

To read the whole piece, go here.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Harris County, USA

People in the anti-death penalty movement know that Harris County, Texas, sends a disproportionate number of people to death row. In fact, were it a state by itself, Harris County would rank second (behind Texas but ahead of Virginia) in the number of people it has sent to death row.

So it was with much interest that I read the following editorial, which is an endorsement for the guy who is running against Harris County District Attorney Chuch Rosenthal. Please keep in mind that this blog cannot and will not endorse candidates for political office. (It's NCADP's blog, after all, and NCADP cannot tell people who to vote for because of our tax status.)

We are allowed, however, to talk about politicians and their record on the death penalty. And Chuch Rosenthal was the person who decided to seek a death sentence for Andrea Pia Yates, the woman who was convicted in the drowning deaths of her children after suffering from post-partum psychosis.

Here's the editorial:

Houston Chroncile Endorsement

The Chronicle urges voters to elect Reginald McKamie to bring a renewed sense of justice to the Harris County chief prosecutor's office Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

The Chronicle recommends voters support Reginald McKamie, the Democratic nominee in the race for Harris County district attorney, to bring new leadership to the office.

An attorney in private practice representing clients in civil and criminal matters, McKamie vows to return sorely lacking fairness to an office obsessed with securing convictions rather than seeing that justice is done.
McKamie is well-versed in the county's widespread criminal justice problems and wishes to restore people's trust in the office by ensuring that only the guilty are convicted.

McKamie supports the death penalty, but he is troubled by the furious rate at which Harris County sends inmates to death row. Of Texas' death row inmates, 161 out of 451 were convicted in Harris County. "Yet we are no safer than citizens in Dallas or Austin," McKamie contends.

He points to District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal's pursuit of the death penalty for Andrea Yates, the mentally ill mother who drowned her five children, as an example of overzealous prosecution. McKamie says he favors a moratorium on executions until problems with the Houston Police Department crime lab and mishandled evidence are resolved.

McKamie supports establishnment of a sentence of life without parole.
Rosenthal, the incumbent, says he opposes this option to the death penalty because it would produce hopeless inmates who are more difficult to manage.
It's a weak argument for not allowing a jury to show mercy or to avoid the risk of irreversible error.

Accused felons deserve a defense as vigorous as the prosecution they face.
McKamie says Harris County should establish a public defender system in which lawyers on both sides have matched resources to secure expert witnesses, independent investigators and outside forensic testing. By contrast, Rosenthal asserts that a public defender office would create "a new administrative bureaucracy" — just like the one he heads. What works well for the prosecution ought to work well for the defense.

McKamie says he wants to send drug addicts into treatment to ease prison crowding so that space remains for housing violent predators. A 1986 graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, McKamie also has an undergraduate degree from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and a master's from the University of Southern California. He is a 30-year naval reservist.

Rosenthal had been a prosecutor 22 years when he was elected district attorney in 2000. Despite his experience, Rosenthal was blindsided by the HPD crime lab scandal that uncovered problematic evidence testing, unqualified lab technicians who gave questionable trial testimony, and lost and mislabeled evidence.

Those problems cast doubt on thousands of prosecutions and the integrity of criminal justice here. Yet, Rosenthal refuses to stand aside to allow the sort of independent investigation needed to restore faith in the system.

In his first campaign, Rosenthal ran on the platform that he would run the district attorney's office as John B. Holmes Jr. had in his two-decade-long tenure, a period during which this county emerged as America's death penalty capital. Rosenthal apparently believes maintaining Holmes' legacy means stubbornly clinging to a doctrine of never admitting mistakes.

The residents of this county should cast a vote for McKamie and signal the need for change.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Innocent on Tennessee Death Row

Just got back from a trip to the West Coast and now our annual conference is upon us. It's tough sometimes to keep up with this blogging! (But hey, I asked for this blog!)

Over the weekend, the following editorial ran in the New York Times:

An Inexplicable Vote for Death

Paul Gregory House was convicted of murdering a neighbor in 1985, before the era of DNA typing. The Tennessee jury that found him guilty was told that the semen found on the body of the neighbor, Carolyn Muncey, matched his blood type. The jury, citing the fact that Mrs. Muncey had been raped, said Mr. House should be sentenced to death.

It's hard to believe that the jurors would have come to that conclusion if they had known that the semen's DNA matched that of Mrs. Muncey's husband, Hubert, not the defendant. A 15-judge United States Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati that heard a request to reopen the case knew that. Yet the judges recently voted, 8 to 7, that Mr. House should neither be freed nor given a new trial. They were not swayed by six witnesses implicating Mr. Muncey. Two said Mr. Muncey had told them he had killed his wife while he was drunk.

That eight judges would condemn a man to be executed under these circumstances is shocking. What's worse is that the judges divided along partisan lines. The eight judges appointed by a Republican president voted to keep Mr. House on the road to the death penalty.
Six judges appointed by a Democrat wanted to free him, and the seventh called for a new trial. It's hard to dismiss the thought that the Republicans voted as a show of support for capital punishment, not on the merits of the case.

For Mr. House, the next stop is the Supreme Court. For the rest of us, his case should serve as a reminder that when we elect a president, we are also deciding the makeup of our courts.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

And then there were 117

...people exonerated from death row, that is. The latest comes (surprise!) out of Texas. Ernest Willis spent 17 years for, in the words of the Associated Press, "a crime that may have never even occurred:"

Death-Row Inmate Freed After 17 Years


HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - Ernest Willis walked out of prison a free man Wednesday after 17 years on death row for a crime that may have never even occurred.

Willis was convicted of setting a 1986 fire that killed two sleeping women in Iraan, about 230 miles west of San Antonio. But Ori White, district attorney in Pecos County since 1997, dropped the murder case Tuesday, saying there were strong indications the fire was an accident.

White said even if a crime was committed, he did not believe Willis was involved.

Willis, 59, bounded down the prison steps and into the arms of his wife, Verilyn, on their fourth wedding anniversary. It was the first time they touched.

"I don't really even know what to say," Willis said. "I know it's been too long coming. I'm just lost for words."

Changing hearts and minds

My friend Celeste up in New Jersey sent this wonderful essay to me. It was great timing on Celeste's part because yesterday I had someone tell me that we death penalty opponents don't care about crime victims. Fact is, many death penalty opponents are crime victims.

Changing Hearts and Minds in N.J. Prisons

By Eddie Hicks, Galloway, New Jersey, and Lorry Post, Cape May, New Jersey

We are men. One white, one African-American; one a lawyer, the other a fire fighter - different in many ways. But we share a bond that transcends all differences. We each lost a precious daughter to murder.

Coincidentally, each of us felt compelled to honor his daughter's memory and, somehow, lighten the pain we feel every day.

We both chose to join the struggle against capital punishment, because we knew our daughters wouldn't want anyone killed in their names. They believed, as we do, that every life is sacred, and we are confident they would encourage us in this work.

We became active members of three anti-death penalty organizations: New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NJADP), Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). And then, we became volunteers for Focus on the Victim, a program overseen by the New Jersey Division of Corrections, Office of Victim Services.

Focus on the Victim volunteers are survivors of violent crime and the loved ones of murder victims. We visit state prisons to talk with violent offenders who volunteered for sensitivity training. The objectives are to help us express our loss and pain, and to help offenders recognize and repent the harm they inflicted on victims and their loved ones. So far, we have spoken at seven New Jersey prisons and a Boot Camp for young offenders.

We explain to inmates that the victim of their crime was not the only one they hurt. We describe the deep pain and anguish family members and others endure. We lay out before them the many lives that they changed forever, because of one senseless act. We implore them to think before they act in the future, whether behind bars or on the outside.

At least 80 percent of the offenders we meet demonstrate that they are
profoundly affected by confronting the suffering of those they have harmed. After we speak, their many questions and comments suggest true concern. These offenders are amazed that we oppose the death penalty, despite our loss. Many say they have children and would want revenge. But they seem hugely affected by listening to our views on foregoing violence in return for violence. We tell them our daughters deserve better memorials than two more murders in their names.

We can only pray that, when they reenter society, these men remember the depth of the suffering they caused and the price they paid, when they are tempted to react violently.

Like most volunteers, we get as much as we give, and we highly recommend Focus on the Victim to other survivors. We can testify that working for Amnesty International, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and Focus on the Victim makes our grief bearable, gives purpose to our lives, and honors our daughters.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Back from Virginia

This past weekend I attended the annual conference of Virginians Against the Death Penalty. While I was there, I got to hang out with a guy named Alan Gell, who was the 113th person freed from death row after newly discovered evidence of innocence. This was maybe the sixth or seventh death row exonoree I've had the pleasure of meeting; and I really can't imagine any of them committing any crime, much less murder.

Alan was freed by the state of North Carolina after it was discovered that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense -- evidence that would have completely cleared him and prevented him from spending nearly ten years in prison, half of which was on death row.

Here's what one newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal, had to say about Alan's case:

Wronged Again

It's hard to blame Alan Gell for his reaction to the news last week that
the 2 former prosecutors who withheld evidence that could have cleared him
of a 1995 murder got only a slap on the wrist for their actions.

"Here I am again with the system letting me down," Gell said last week.

Indeed. Gell got sucked into a case that underscores much of what's wrong
with this state's criminal-justice system, a case that reaches all the way
to the governor's office. Earnest efforts at reforming the system are too
often outweighed by lip service to the idea, as happened when the N.C.
State Bar took up the case of David Hoke and Debra Graves, 2 former
prosecutors with the state attorney general's office.

A 3-member panel of the bar ruled that Hoke and Graves violated three
ethical standards by withholding witness statements and a tape recording
in which the state's star witness said she had to "make up a story" for
officers investigating the shotgun slaying in Bertie County of which Gell
was convicted. Hoke and Graves also failed during Gell's 1998 trial to
turn over eight witness statements indicating the slaying occurred while
Gell was in jail for an unrelated crime, and told the trial judge they had
handed over all such witness statements, according to The Associated

Yet all the panel gave Hoke and Graves was a reprimand. The panel could
have stripped them of their law licenses, but instead said that the former
prosecutors made an unintentional mistake.

"It was an honest mistake on our part," Hoke said in testimony read at the
bar hearing. "Nobody is more sorry about that than Debra and I."

That "mistake" cost Gell nine years in prison, including half of that time
on death row. Finally, he won a second trial, and was quickly acquitted
this past winter. The whole time, Hoke and Graves did nothing to help him,
nor have they ever personally apologized to him, so it's hard to take
Hoke's expression of remorse seriously.

Hoke and Graves said in their state bar filing that they hadn't read
Gell's complete file, but relied on an SBI investigator to tell them what
was in the file, according to the News & Observer of Raleigh. Their boss
at the time, Gov. Mike Easley, said in March that he wasn't familiar with
the details of the case. While he wasn't directly involved in the case,
the buck stopped with him as the attorney general. He should apologize to
Gell in the name of the state and as the supervisor for Hoke and Graves.
He should also encourage widespread reform of the system, the kind of work
the N.C. Actual Innocence Commission is already doing.

Graves is now an assistant federal public defender. Hoke is the No. 2
administrator in the state court system. Roy Cooper, the current attorney
general, rightly called on North Carolina prosecutors to share all
1st-degree murder-case files with defense attorneys after prosecutors
under him lost in Gell's second trial. A new state law that takes effect
today requires prosecutors to share their entire files with defense
attorneys before felony trials, a welcome 1st step in what should be a
long process of criminal-justice reform.

These days, Gell travels the state, lobbying against the death penalty and
pushing for criminal-justice reform. Unfortunately, he's still got a long
fight ahead of him.