Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Updating Capital Defense Weekly

The transition over at Capital Defense Weekly seems complete. Karl has taken his baby from a web site to a fully-fledged blog. The result? The abolition movement now has the electronic version of a daily newspaper to keep tabs on daily legal developments -- and other breaking death penalty-related news.

It's an impressive effort and Karl seems particularly diligent about updating every work day and often also on weekends. Check it out here.

Just a thought.

Picked this up from the web site of our Arizona affiliate:

The Marquis de Lafayette, speaking to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1830, years after witnessing the excesses of the French Revolution, said, "I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me."

Since executions were allowed to resume in this country in 1976, 119 people have been freed from death row and released from prison after new evidence of their innocence emerged.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The governor did it!

This just off the Associated Press wire:

Governor Commutes Death Sentence for Arthur Baird

Associated Press August 29, 2005

Baird says forces manipulated his hands to commit the murders, something his advocates say is proof that he was mentally ill.

Although the parole board voted 3-1 to recommend that Daniels deny clemency, some members struggled with the complex claims of mental illness.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled last week that Baird was competent to be executed.

This is the one, Governor

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette over the weekend published the following editorial regarding the pending execution of Arthur Baird, who is severely mentally ill. Baird is scheduled for execution early Wednesday in Indiana:

Clemency for Baird

This is the one, governor.

It's been an unprecedented year for Indiana executions - 5 since Gov. Mitch Daniels took office in January. He has expressed his concern about the death penalty. But if Daniels didnt think there was sufficient reasons to stop the previous four executions, surely the sentence involving a man whom a well-respected Indiana University psychiatrist deemed "grossly psychotic and delusional" is the one that most demands clemency. Commuting his sentence to life in prison without parole would be a merciful act.

Arthur Baird II, 59, of Darlington, is scheduled to die Wednesday for the 1985 murders of his parents, Arthur and Kathryn Baird. He was also sentenced to 60 years in prison for killing his pregnant wife, Nadine. The Indiana Parole Board voted 3-1 Wednesday to deny clemency, but Daniels doesnt have to abide by its ruling.

Baird is mentally ill, incapable of preparing to die. Indiana gains nothing from his death.

Dr. Philip Coons, a professor emeritus at Indiana University School of Medicine specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders, terms Bairds murderous eruption "the perfect storm."

Baird, Coons said, had been sexually molested as a child and developed mental illnesses that included delusions and obsessive-compulsive disorder. At the time of the murders, he was under stress, heard voices and felt possessed.

Police said Baird confessed, telling them he'd gone "berserk." He also said he was going to get $1 million from the federal government for solving the national debt. He was in debt himself and had been laid off from a factory job.

Coons' analysis gives us a reason for Bairds horrific actions, but it does not excuse the crime. No, Coons' analysis should lead Hoosiers to one question: What is the value in putting a mentally ill man to death?

Even the "justice for the family" defense often used by death penalty supporters doesn't work here. LaQuita Anglin, Nadine Bairds sister, said Bairds parents would not want him to die. Neither would she. "He is no harm to anyone in prison," she told the board.

Daniels should also consider the words of Robert Elmore, a juror who voted to convict Baird: "I think if there had been life without parole," he told the board, "I think we would have chosen that." The state did not offer that sentence until 1994, several years after Baird's trial.

So, a noted professor, a family member and a juror have compelling reasons why they think Baird deserves life in prison rather than death.

This is the one, governor.

Friday, August 26, 2005

September executions

September is shaping up to be a month in which a number of "bad" execution dates are scheduled. ( opposed to the "nice" ones. Of course, we believe that every execution date is bad!)

What I mean is this:

Two dates have been set involving people with very credible claims of innocence. They are Frances Newton, who is scheduled for execution Sept. 14 in Texas, and John Spirko, who is scheduled for execution Sept. 20 in Ohio. For more information about these cases, please see and

In addition, Michael Lynn Riley, scheduled for execution in Texas Sept. 22, has an unusually strong claim of mental retardation. Next week, we'll have an alert up on NCADP's web site talking about his case.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Outspoken in Alabama

We've blogged before on Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Alabama-based group and NCADP affiliate.

Recently an Alabama newspaper published a great feature story on the group's leader, tireless Esther Brown, one of the leaders in the trenches of the abolition movement. Here's a snippet:

Lanett woman battles against death penalty
Opelika-Auburn News

Esther Brown has always been an outspoken woman.

After all, being outspoken for a cause is a trait that seems to run in her family.

Born in 1933 in Berlin, Germany, Brown spent her childhood years watching Adolf Hitler’s regime come to power and the onset of World War II.

Brown’s mother was German and her father British.

Mistreatment of Jews became a common sight for her during those days in Berlin, but even as a pupil in grade school, she spoke out against the Nazi regime to the point that school officials sent notes home with her when she was 10-years-old, asking her parents to keep her quiet or face possible arrest themselves.

But speaking up for what was right was something Brown says she felt she had to do, even as a child.

"I learned very early on that just because you’re in power, doesn’t mean you’re right," Brown said.

To read the entire piece go here.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Striking news out of Dallas County, Texas

The Dallas Morning News curretly is publishing a comprehensive, and vitally important, series of stories that proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the practice of striking prospective jurors on the basis of race continues unabated.

The series is far to long to post here. However, here is the opening snippet:

A process of juror elimination----Dallas prosecutors say they don't discriminate, but analysis shows they are more likely to reject black jurors.

Racial discrimination was once so raw in Dallas County that a black college president who tried to serve on a jury was flung headfirst down the courthouse steps while sheriff's deputies watched.

The all-white jury - that enduring image of Jim Crow justice - is a fading sight around the Frank Crowley Courts Building. But while times, laws and leaders have changed, race still matters.

Prosecutors excluded eligible blacks from juries at more than twice the rate they rejected eligible whites, The Dallas Morning News found. In fact, being black was the most important personal trait affecting which jurors prosecutors rejected, according to the newspaper's statistical analysis. Jurors' attitudes toward criminal justice issues also played an important role, but even when blacks and whites answered key questions the same way, blacks were rejected at higher rates.

District Attorney Bill Hill denied that his prosecutors exclude, or strike, jurors on the basis of race.

"The statistics may show we strike more blacks, but it's not because they're black," he said. "It's because for one reason or another, they [prosecutors] don't think they are going to be fair and impartial."

The series began Sunday and continues through Tuesday. To read the whole thing, and to play an interactive game involving jury selection, go here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

How much is a good lawyer worth?

There's something fairly amazing (in a bad way) going on with Alabama's death penalty. Rather than try and explain it, I'll just let you read this editorial, which appeared in today's Birmingham News:

No defense for indigent cases

What would it be worth to you to have a good lawyer if you were charged with a heinous crime and were facing the death penalty? Would any amount be too much? Probably not.

But few of us can afford a money-is-no-object defense. As taxpayers, there's a limit, too, in what we can afford to spend collectively for court-appointed lawyers who represent poor people in criminal cases.

Even so, what's happening in Alabama is ridiculous.

Lawyers who represent poor defendants are paid the lowly sum of $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $60 an hour for in-court work. That's a fraction of what lawyers earn when defendants hire them. But until recently, the court-appointed lawyers were at least able to supplement the indigent rates by getting payments (on average, $29 an hour) to cover overhead expenses such as rent, insurance and office staff.

The overhead pay ended in February when Attorney General Troy King issued an opinion saying state law banned the practice.

Criminal defense lawyers warned that cut in pay would dry up the pool of those willing to take court-appointed cases, particularly complicated ones like those involving the death penalty. The warnings have been, unfortunately, borne out.

Lawyers across the state have withdrawn from capital cases. Among them was William Pfeifer, who had represented one of the defendants in a robbery-murder case in Mobile that captured more attention than most; the victim was allegedly killed for being a homosexual.

"Counsel is not financially able to subsidize the state of Alabama in its efforts to execute persons charged with capital offenses, nor as a matter of conscience is he willing to do so," Pfeifer wrote in his motion withdrawing from the case.

Concerned, the Senate passed a measure this summer to restore the overhead pay. But the legislation didn't have enough support in the House of Representatives to come up for a vote, thanks, in part, to opposition from the Christian Coalition of Alabama. "In our view, it was not good stewardship at the time," said the coalition's president, John Giles.

And here we thought the Christian Coalition was against gambling. While the group opposes gambling with money, it apparently doesn't mind gambling with the lives of poor defendants - at least not enough to let the state spend as much as $28 million over 2 years to pay indigent lawyers a decent wage.

People in Alabama ought to be outraged. If they can't work up a tear for the defense lawyers or the poor defendants, Alabamians should at least be concerned for themselves and for victims' families. Paying for a second-rate defense may seem like a good idea, but it ends up costing more over the long haul, with retrials that drain more resources and place an undue strain on the families of victims and defendants alike. In addition, a shortage of lawyers in these cases will only make the wheels of justice grind more slowly.

It's not only wrong for Alabama to shortchange indigent defendants; it's dumb. The overhead pay needs to be restored. The sooner, the better.

And then there were 121

There's been a pretty significant development on the death penalty front today. The Death Penalty Information Center has discovered two older cases of exonerations, bringing the total number of people freed from death row, and prison, after evidence emerged of their innocence to 121 in the past quarter century.

DPIC writes:

The Death Penalty Information Center recently became aware of two older capital cases in which the defendants had been sentenced to death but were later acquitted at re-trial. We have added Christopher McCrimmon of Arizona and Larry Fisher of Mississippi to our innocence list, bringing the total number of people released from death row on the basis of innocence to 121 since 1973. McCrimmon is the eighth person to be exonerated from Arizona’s death row, and Fisher is the second death row exoneree from Mississippi.

To read more about these cases, go here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"This case called out for mercy"

Many -- if not most -- questionable death sentences do not divide evenly or neatly between "guilty" and "not guilty."

Rather, there is often a third category: guilty, but with extenuating circumstances. Or, sometimes, there is flat-out self-defense.

Which leads us to the state of Georgia:

Maid pardoned 60 years after execution

The only woman ever executed in Georgia's electric chair is being granted a posthumous pardon, 60 years after the black maid was put to death for killing a white man she claimed held her in slavery and threatened her life.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has decided to pardon Lena Baker and plans to present a proclamation to her descendants at its August 30 meeting in Atlanta, board spokeswoman Scheree Lipscomb said Monday.

The board did not find Baker innocent of the crime, Lipscomb said. Members instead found the decision to deny her clemency in 1945 "was a grievous error, as this case called out for mercy," Lipscomb said.

Baker was sentenced to die following a 1-day trial before an all-white, all-male jury in Georgia.

"I believe she's somewhere around God's throne and can look down and smile," said Baker's grandnephew, Roosevelt Curry, who has led the family's effort to clear her name.

During her 1-day trial, Baker testified that E.B. Knight, a man she had been hired to care for, held her against her will in a grist mill and threatened to shoot her if she tried to leave. She said she grabbed Knight's gun and shot him when he raised a metal bar to strike her.

After Baker's execution in 1945, Baker's body was buried in an unmarked grave behind a small church where she had been a choir member. In the late 1990s, the congregation marked the grave with a cement slab.

Baker supporters have been gathering at her grave every year since 2001 to mark the date of her execution, and Curry, along with a few dozen surviving family members, hosted a Mother's Day ceremony at the graveside in 2003, the same year he requested the pardon.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Stevens on the death penalty

U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was recently in the news for remarks he made regarding the administration of the death penalty in the U.S. While the Associated Press and other news outlets carried excerpts of his remarks, no one quoted him entirely and in context. Here's what he had to say:

Thurgood's rejection of the death penalty rested on principles that would be controlling even if error never infected the criminal process. Since his retirement, with the benefit of DNA evidence, we have learned that a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously. That evidence is profoundly significant - not only because of its relevance to the debate about the wisdom of continuing to administer capital punishment, but also because it indicates that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice. Many thoughtful people have quickly concluded that inadequate legal representation explains those errors. It is true, as many have pointed out and as our cases reveal, that a significant number of defendants in capital cases have not been provided with fully competent legal representation at trial. That, however, is by no means the only defect in the system. Indeed, some of the best lawyers in the country have spent countless uncompensated hours in capital litigation, not only in post-conviction and appellate work, but also at the trial level. The profession can be justly proud of their work. My review of many trial records during recent years has, however, persuaded me that there are other features of death penalty litigation that create special risks of unfairness.

In many of these cases the outrageously brutal facts cry out for retribution. In close cases it must be extremely difficult for jurors to resolve doubts in favor of permitting a possible perpetrator of a heinous crime to go free. Gruesome facts pose a danger that emotion will play a larger role in the decisional process than dispassionate analysis.

Two aspects of the process of selecting juries in capital cases are troublesome. In case after case many days are spent conducting voir dire examinations in which prosecutors engage in prolonged questioning to determine whether the venire person has moral or religious scruples that would impair her ability to impose the death penalty. Preoccupation with that issue creates an atmosphere in which jurors are likely to assume that their primary task is to determine the penalty for a presumptively guilty defendant. More significantly, because the prosecutor can challenge jurors with qualms about the death penalty, the process creates a risk that a fair cross-section of the community will not be represented on the jury.

Two aspects of the sentencing process tip the scales in favor of death. The fact that most of the judges who preside and often make the final life-or-death decision must stand for re-election creates a subtle bias in favor of death. Moreover, the admissibility of victim impact evidence that sheds absolutely no light on either the issue of guilt or innocence, or the moral culpability of the defendant, serves no purpose other than to encourage jurors to decide in favor of death rather than life on the basis of their emotions rather than their reason.

The Supreme Court and the death penalty

The Sentencing Law and Policy blog has a collection of interesting posts regarding the future of the death penalty at the Supreme Court level. The primary question, in my mind, is this: Will the Court continue a recent trend of exerting due diligence over the fairness of death sentences? Or will the Court continue a longer, more historic trend of granting significant deference to the states, even in the face of unfairness or of error?

Of course, if it heads in the first direction, there will be fewer executions. If it heads in the second, there will be more executions.

Sentencing Law and Policy writes:

On this issue, like many others, Judge Roberts has a stealth quality. It will be interesting to see if death penalty issues — or other sentencing issues for that matter — play a significant role in Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings next month.

He's linked to several previous posts regarding death penalty jurisprudence and the Supreme Court. To skim through the posts, go here.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Executed for being gay?

Amnesty International today is blogging about protests that are taking place in five cities around the world -- London, Dublin, Paris, San Francisco and Montpelier in France. The protests are in response to the recent execution of two teenage boys in Iran. To read more go here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

'History is the memory of democracy'

It has been said that the death penalty needs to be relegated to the dustbin of history. The following interesting development would seem to be a step in that direction -- a new archive dedicated to studying the history of the death penalty in the U.S.

Papers shed light on dark fate

UAlbany opens archive that chronicles the history of capital punishment in U.S.

ALBANY -- Since colonial times, 20,000 people have been executed in this country.
For the first time, though, an archive of documents chronicling the ultimate punishment is now available to historians and others.

More than 1 million items are contained in the National Death Penalty Archive, which opened Tuesday at the University at Albany. The school's M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives will house the documents.

"There is no other repository in the country, or even the world, to our knowledge, that is dedicated to the history of capital punishment in America," said James Acker, a UAlbany criminal justice professor who is co-director of the school's Capital Punishment Research Initiative, which organized the archive.

Some of the works are academic, others long-forgotten transcripts and newsletters. But many of the materials are rich personal exchanges: an audio history of 1,200 interviews that Northeastern University professor William Bowers conducted with jurors who sat on death penalty cases, for instance, or correspondence from Alvin Ford, a cop killer who plunged into schizophrenia and died on death row before he could be executed.

"Please sign my death warrant," Ford wrote by hand to Florida Gov. Bob Martinez in a 1989 letter. "I'm dropping all my appeals."

Ford's case led the U.S. Supreme Court to bar states from executing the insane.

"The reason that this is important is, history is the memory of democracy," said UAlbany President Kermit Hall, in opening the archive, which fills hundreds of boxes. Hall is a legal historian.

He said that the growing use of technology to exonerate suspects -- or convicts -- is changing the nature of how capital punishment is used.

Acker agreed. "This seems to be a potentially very important time of change in capital punishment in this country," he said. "Many, many questions are being raised."

About two-thirds of the documents in the archive argue against the death penalty, Acker said. But he said the goal is to present an objective history, regardless.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Blogging Ideopolis

There's a powerful new blog (well, relatively new; it launched earlier this year) run by the Moving Ideas Network, of which NCADP is a proud member. It's called Ideopolis and it bills itself as a "breeding ground for progressive politics and action. I've added it to my fave progressive blogs on the left hand side of this page. (Um, I think this is called my "blogroll.")

Check it out here.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Did Missouri do it twice?

A few weeks ago we were talking about the case of Larry Griffith, who was executed in Missouri in 1995. A district attorney in St. Louis has re-opened the Griffith case after an extensive NAACP investigation turned up evidence of Griffith's wrongful conviction.

Now the media is sniffing around another case in which a Missouri man was executed for a crime he might not have committed:

Missouri death sentence case gets another look
If innocence of executed man is proven, case would set a precedent

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS - Many death row inmates proclaim their innocence, but Roy “Hog” Roberts, a big man, loud and profane, was adamant. He was so adamant that in the waning days before his 1999 execution for the murder of a prison guard, he demanded a polygraph test.

Attorney Bruce Livingston looked at the results and walked into Roberts’ small gray cell at Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center and told him the news: He passed. The test indicated Roberts was telling the truth when he said he did not hold down guard Tom Jackson while other inmates stabbed him.

Tears rolled down the big man’s cheeks. His voice grew unusually quiet. “When do I get out of here?” he asked.

Livingston remembers the heartbreak of explaining that the polygraph was of no real value unless it swayed the governor. It didn’t. A few days later, Roberts was put to death.

Back in the spotlight
Roberts’ case is back in the spotlight amid heightened scrutiny of the death penalty in Missouri — and a new investigation in a separate case into whether the state executed an innocent man.

In 2000, the anti-death penalty group Equal Justice USA released a national report citing 16 potential cases of wrongful executions. Both Missouri cases are among them.

“I think if I had to list all 16 I would put him (Roberts) first,” said Claudia Whitman, who wrote the report. “There was really nothing there to convict him.”

There has never been a known case of an innocent person being executed in the United States, and those on both sides agree such a determination would create unprecedented concerns about the death penalty.

To read the whole story, go here.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Presidential Award for Stanley Williams

A person on California's death row -- who could receive an execution date as early as this fall -- has received the President's Call to Service Award for demonstrating "the outstanding character of America."

Here's the story:

Death row inmate gets service award
Crips co-founder Stanley 'Tookie' Williams praised for his work as an anti-gang activist
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO - Convicted murderer Stanley ''Tookie'' Williams has received an award for his good deeds on death row, complete with a letter from President Bush praising the notorious gang founder for demonstrating ''the outstanding character of America.''

Williams, co-founder of the notorious Crips street gang, has been an anti-gang activist during his many years on death row at San Quentin State Prison, where he was sent after being convicted in 1981 for killing four people. He's authored 10 books, mostly warning young people to stay away from gangs.

The President's Call to Service Award arrived as Williams, 53, continues his final fight for clemency. His case is now being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

More than 267,000 people have received the award, which costs $1 and includes a certificate of achievement and commendation letters from the president and former Sens. Bob Dole and John Glenn, honorary co-chairs of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation.

Sandy Scott, a spokesman for the council, said in an e-mail that the awards are approved by nominating organizations, not the council.

Williams was nominated for the award by William A. Harrison of West Monroe, La., a minister with The Old Catholic Orthodox Church.

''People can be redeemed. It doesn't matter where you come from,'' Harrison said. ''You may be on death row, but to be able to lend something that people can say, 'This has inspired me to change my life.'''

Barbara Becnel, Williams' spokeswoman and co-author, said she believes he is the first death row inmate to receive the service award created in 2003 to honor Americans who inspire volunteerism.

One of Williams' books, 1998's ''Life in Prison,'' led to the Internet Project for Street Peace, an afterschool violence prevention program.

Becnel said Williams has received tens of thousands of e-mails -- many from young gang members who said his life story helped them turn their lives around.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Blogging along

Today I had the good fortune to attend a seminar entitled Reflections of a Blogger, put on by the New Politics Institute and hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. Guest speakers were Markos Moulitsas, who runs, and Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's campaign for president. Dean, of course, was the first presidential candidate to make a significant attempt at capturing the energy and support of the progressive blogging community.

This blog, Abolish the Death Penalty, receives a tiny amount of traffic compared to some blogs that are out there. Daily Kos, for example, gets some 650,000 visitors a day. By comparison, on a "hot" day, this little blog may get 140 to 150 visitors -- but our average is more like 60 to 75.

Still, we anti-death penalty blogs have to stick together to build traffic. As a form of media, blogging is different from, say, newspapers or TV stations in that blogs do not compete with one another. Rather, they actually increase traffic to each other through links.

Let me explain: If you decide to buy a Sunday newspaper, you may choose the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times or whatever. But you probably won't purchase more than one. If you choose to view an evening newscast, you may choose CBS or ABC or NBC. But you will probably not record another newscast while you watch one so that you can watch the other one later.

In contrast, if you are interested in the death penalty and, say, come to this page, you very well might click on one of the other anti-death penalty blogs (they're on the left side of this page) and go check out what other folks are blogging about. In this way, we complement each other by sending traffic to each other's sites.

That said, here's a quick rundown of what's out there (and hopefully someone will email me if I've left anyone out.)

Against Death Rows. This blog is maintained by a woman from Germany named Britta. It tells the story of life on Florida's death row through the eyes of one person who lives there. This blog took a hiatus earlier this summer, but now I see Britta is back posting.

Amnesty International's Death Penalty Blog. This blog was just launched. It's mainly a collection of news stories. What AI offers that other blogs don't, however, is an international perspective.

Capitol Defense Weekly. My friend Karl and I still aren't sure if this qualifies as a blog -- but if you follow the legal ins and outs of the death penalty, Capitol Defense Weekly is an indispensible read. As the name suggests, it is updated weekly with a full report of that week's important court rulings.

Central Pennsylvania Abolitionist. As the name implies, a blog dedicated to the death penalty debate in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania one day is going to be one of our key states.

Fight for Bobby.
This blog has been abandoned, evidently on the advice of Robert Fratta's lawyers. Fratta lives on Texas' death row.

Joe D'Ambrosio: Innocent on Ohio's Death Row. The name says it all. This blog appears to be updated somewhat frequently.

Lonely Abolitionist. Work lately has forced Lonely Abolitionist to take a brief hiatus, although sometimes she still blogs. Sad, becauase this is my favorite death penalty blog and it really helps when I can steal her stuff!

Meet Vernon. Life, and questions asked and answered, through the perspective of a person on Maryland's death row.

Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. The blog of Alabama's leading anti-death penalty group. Updated frequently.

Sister Helen Prejean's blog. Sad to say, this hasn't been updated since early this year. Sad, because this one has the potential to be the best anti-death penalty blog out there. Check out the bells and whistles!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Debating habeas appeals

Over at the Legal Affairs Debate Club, Ted Frank from the American Enterprise Institute and Druck Bruck from the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse are debating the proposed Streamlined Procedures Act and the underlying importance (or lack thereof, depending upon one's perspective) of habeas appeals.

Here's an excerpt from Bruck's remarks:

In 1968, when Richard Nixon first turned "law and order" into a staple of American political campaigning, there were about 200,000 prisoners in this country. Now, many tough-on-crime election campaigns later, there are 2 million, and we're locking up a higher percentage of our own citizens than any other nation on earth. Life imprisonment without parole, a rare punishment for most of our history, is now commonplace (and not just for murderers). And we're completely alone among all the western industrial democracies in our retention of the death penalty.

Any system that punishes so many people so severely is going to make serious mistakes. The state courts are supposed to catch and correct most of these mistakes. But most state judges have to run for re-election. Wrongly-convicted or wrongly-sentenced prison and death row inmates are not exactly a formidable voting bloc, while people who don't like soft-on-crime judges are. Add to the mix the fallibility of all government functionaries—including police, prosecutors, and courts—and the fact that most criminal defendants have to rely on underpaid and overworked court-appointed lawyers, and we should be able to see that we've assembled the ingredients for a lot of injustice: it's only tolerable because for all of us who aren't in prison, what's out of sight is out of mind.

To follow the ongoing debate, go here.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Minister of mercy

This interesting piece was published recently in the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune:

Elkhart resident answers her calling and prays with those on death row

Tribune Staff Writer

ELKHART -- The mornings of executions are the roughest.

"On those mornings, I get up early to pray," the Rev. Wanda Callahan says. "I say something like, 'Jesus, God, help me. Don't let me fall apart.' "

Callahan has been ministering to men on death row for more than 30 years and has witnessed five executions, four in Florida and one in Indiana.

It never gets easier.

Kevin A. Conner, who was executed last week for killing three people in Indianapolis in 1988, didn't want any last-minute appeals or clemency from Gov. Mitch Daniels. He was the fourth person executed by the state so far this year; as many as eight might be executed by the end of the year.

Callahan takes the deaths personally.

"I remember the morning Scott Johnson was killed," she said. Gregory Scott Johnson was executed in May for the murder of Ruby Hutslar at Hutslar's Anderson, Ind., home."I was not his minister, but I talked with men who knew him, so I, too, felt like I knew him. On the morning of his execution, I just fell apart.

"My son James came in and found me a mess. I remember the words he said to me, 'Mom, don't cry. You can't save them all.'

"But I would if I could."

She knows many people don't identify with her quest.

"People ask me all the time," she says, 'Why do you even care about these murderers?'

"I tell people to go back to the Gospel. Look at Jesus. He cared about everyone and hung out with all kinds of people. If we call ourselves Jesus' disciples, we too have to keep ministering to so-called throwaways of today. And who is more thrown away in our society than the inmates on death row?"

To read the whole story go here.