Thursday, April 28, 2005

No death penalty in New Jersey?

Some good news today: A new poll just released in New Jersey says people in that state pretty strongly favor life without parole over the death penalty:

Nearly half of all New Jersey residents prefer life in prison without the possibility of parole as the penalty for murder, with only one third choosing capital punishment, according to a new public opinion survey by the Bloustein Center for Survey Research at Rutgers University. The poll, released today by New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NJADP), indicates a continuing erosion of public support for the death penalty in the Garden State. Just six years ago, New Jerseyans preferred the death penalty to life in prison without parole by 44% to 37%. Today, 47% of New Jersey citizens prefer life in prison with no chance of parole.

Support for the death penalty declines even further – to less than 30% - when respondents are given the choice between the death penalty and life without parole, plus payment of restitution to the families of murder victims.

Significantly, the survey also revealed that almost all New Jerseyans believe that innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder, and that, when they consider the high cost of prosecuting death penalty cases, 66% of respondents prefer that the money instead be spent on crime prevention or services for victims’ families.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

It's just a thought...

John 10:10:

The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have [it] more abundantly.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

U.S. brings democracy, equal rights to Afghanistan!

Or not:


A Muslim woman has been stoned-to-death for adultery, police said on Sunday, the first such incident in Afghanistan since the Taliban's ouster from power.

Amina, a 29 year-old married woman, was publicly stoned-to-death on the basis of a district court's decision on Thursday in Argo district to the west of Faizabad, the provincial capital of Badakhshan, police said.

"She has been stoned-to-death," provincial police chief, General Shah Jahan Noori, confirmed to Reuters, adding a team has been sent to the area to investigate the incident further.

Adultery is forbidden in the Muslim country and under Islamic sharia law the penalty can range from flogging to stoning-to-death.

The practice became common during the rule of hardline Taliban who controlled most of Afghanistan till late 2001 when they were ousted from power by US-led forces.

A witness, Mujibur Rahman, told Reuters that Amina was dragged out of her parent's house by local officials and her husband stoned her to death while the man whom Amina had sex with was flogged 100 times, and was then freed.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A woman walking, part 2

Last week we told you about Lisa Thomas, a 52-year-old African American woman who is walking from her home town in Alabama all the way to Washington, D.C. to protest hunger and to protest the death penalty. The journey is 925 miles.

From Project Hope in Alabama, we learn that Lisa has made it to Charlotte, North Carolina. It's cold there, but it looks like she had some sleeping bags donated.

To follow Lisa's journey, go to Project Hope's blog here. When you get there, scroll down a little bit and you will see a wonderful press release People of Faith Against the Death Penalty did to publicize her trip through North Carolina.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Mob justice

I have long maintained that one of the primary reasons why we still have the death penalty in the United States is because of the way the media covers (and fails to cover) crime, murders, executions and the failings of the criminal justice system.

Some people have drawn a connection between the modern-day death penalty and the era of lynchings that occurred in the early 20th century. And it is certainly true that when Congress acted to outlaw lynchings, the execution rate in this country skyrocketed, particularly in the Deep South.

One thing that is beyond argument is this: During that era, the media was responsible for creating an atmosphere that not only tolerated but actually encouraged lynchings to take place.

As evidence, I offer this excerpt from a wonderful column that appeared in today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The column examined the media's complicity in a spate of lynchings that took place in east Texas in 1908 and 1909:

After surrounding the jail, part of the mob went to the home of Jailer Paul Broadnax and called him out on the pretense of having more prisoners connected with the trouble. When he got into the crowd they took him in charge, took keys from him, left a guard with him so that he could not give the alarm, went to the jail and took their prisoners. ... The mob tied these six negroes by the hands and neck and led them to the place of execution. The keys of the jail were left on the steps of the jail."

Although the reporter called Hemphill a "peaceable little city," just a year earlier, The News had published a story with the headline "NEGROES MUST GO. -- Worthless Blacks to Be Driven Out of Sabine County."

With a Beaumont dateline, the story said, "A well-known citizen of Sabine Valley who was in the city today states that the movement to chase negroes out of Sabine County is sincere and positive on the part of the white people. There will be no violent action, but the people have given ample and certain notice that all transient negroes must leave the towns of Browndell and Brookeland. There are no negroes in Bronson and Hemphill, and the people in the other places are determined to rid themselves of the worthless blacks."

The News summed up its story of the 1908 lynchings with a conciliatory tone for the crowd and explained why it was necessary for the mob to take the action it did.

"There was no taking away of relics or souvenirs, no drinking or carousing connected with the lynching of the negroes last night," the report said. "The men went there determined and accomplished their purpose. The 6 negroes were cut down today and buried at the expense of the county.

"From all reports, those who attacked the jail last night were among the best citizens of the county. Sabine is one of the oldest settled counties of the State.

To read the entire column, and I highly recommend that you do, go here.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Last week we blogged about a new study that has just been published in The Lancet, Great Britain's leading medical journal. Studying the post-mortem toxicology reports of 49 executed people in the states of Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, researchers were able to determine that the blood level concentration of sodium thiopental -- the drug that is supposed to render you unconscious while the other, poisonous drugs are administered -- were too low.

In other words: There is the distinct possibility that in some cases, people being executed may be awake and conscious while a paralyzing agent is administered. This would leave them unable to cry out or react in any way when the third drug is given -- a drug that would cause an agonizing burning sensation.

Supporters of the death penalty might say, "So what? After what they did, what's a little suffering?"

But in what amounts to a journalistic breakthrough, the Houston Chronicle today explained the "so what" in an editorial. Here is an excerpt:

Not surprisingly, death penalty supporters were unimpressed with the findings. Andy Kahan, the crime victims advocate under Mayor Bill White and the two previous Houston mayors, asserted that, "Lethal injection represents the most humane possible means of punishing a brutal, heinous murderer."

But, as the study's authors pointed out, there is too little data to conclude that the procedure is painless. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told the researchers they don't have autopsy or toxicology reports for executed inmates or information about how it created the protocol it uses for injections. They said medical technicians who administered the drugs in their sample population had no training in anesthesia, and no post-execution reviews were conducted.

It's one thing to believe that lethal injection is painless, but it's quite another to accept a degree of pain, a sentiment Kahan made clear in his next breath: "Whether or not it is painful, one thing is for sure, it is certainly less painful than the excruciating and horrific death that the victim suffered at the hand of the defendant."

Kahan's defense of the state on grounds that it acts less viciously than the murderer should not keep Texans from ensuring a humane procedure. Texas executions are supposed to be about justice and deterrence, not revenge. Also, in order to keep to the lawful side of the U.S. Constitution, executions may not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

To read the entire editorial, go here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A woman walks

Today, at this moment, a woman is walking. She is walking against hunger. She is walking against the death penalty. She started in Newton, Alabama. That was about 400 miles ago. A few days ago, she was in Atlanta. By tomorrow evening, she should be in North Carolina.

Walking. Walking against hunger. Walking against the death penalty.

Her name is Lisa Thomas. She is one brave woman.

Esther Brown of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty out of Alabama is following Lisa with her blog. Go here to check out this remarkable journey. Also, be sure and click back to the March archives of Esther's blog to see pictures of Lisa on her amazing adventure.

Monday, April 18, 2005

All out for the 12th Annual Fast and Vigil!

It's still approximately 72 days until Starvin' for Justice 2005: The 12th Annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty.

But it's never too soon for people to think about whether they might want to directly participate in this year's event or figure out a way to otherwise support it.

The annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty is held on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court each year from midnight June 29 to midnight June 2. June 29 is the anniversary of the seminal 1972 ruling Furman v. Georgia, which temporarily struck down death penalty statutes in the United States. July 2 is the anniversary of the sadder 1976 ruling Gregg v. Georgia, which allowed executions to resume.

I recently asked Abe Bonowitz, who helps organize the event, to share with me his thoughts on why the fast and vigil is important. He ignited my imagination by invoking the phrase "Abolition University" to describe the educational value of the event. This year, there will be additional teach-ins, more speaking opportunities, maybe some other manifestations of our abolition work such as music, spoken word performances, etc.

Abe wrote the following to me in an email:

The Fast & Vigil furthers the cause of abolition by enhancing the skills and education of grassroots activists who are doing the work every day in whatever way they can, wherever they happen to be, and by educating the public via the mass media, and to a lesser but equally important degree, those who encounter us in person.

Some of what the event provides:

1. Inspiration, training and education to activists working on the issue.
2. Public education to those who encounter it directly and via the media.
3. Symbolic presence at the heart of the issue, coupled with an opportunity for personal sacrifice and re-dedication by individual participants.
4. An annual opportunity for camaraderie among participants.

I personally see all four goals as important and useful, and I have ranked them in order of their strategic value. This is why I have been instituting the evening "teach-ins," which this year will be more rounded to provide information, inspiration and training, over and above that which one gets just by being a full-time participant. The whole thing functions as a sort of "Abolition University." This year the speakers will be recorded, audio, if not video, and the talks will be made available on the web, for whatever that is worth, and also deposited in the archives for future reference.

Last year, this blog had just launched when the 11th Annual Fast and Vigil occurred. We "covered" the event live, to the degree that resources would allow. Although our plans have not solidified yet and much depends on resources (i.e., interns!), in some shape or form we will be covering the event live again. In the meantime, the vigil has its own website. Go here for more information!

In memory: Marla Ruzicka

Courtesy of my friend Jason and his colleagues at Democracy In Action, we learned this morning of the passing of Marla Ruzicka.

Marla died over the weekend in Iraq. She was on her way to visit a child who had been injured during the war when she became the victim of a bombing.

To read about her work, please go here.

Friday, April 15, 2005

An absolute must-read

There are a lot of really smart lawyers out there doing anti-death penalty work. There are the big names, like Steven Bright or Bryan Stevenson or the legendary Tony Amsterdam. There are names that one day will be big, like Jim Marcus. There are names that aren't big but they should be, like my friend and sometimes blog advisor, Karl Keys.

But I have to say that my favorite lawyer out there has got to be David Dow. Dow wears three hats. He represents a number of people on Texas death row. He is a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center. And he heads up the Texas Innocence Network.

Now Dow wears a fourth hat. He has published a brilliant and amazing book, maybe the most important book published in recent years. It's called Executed on a Technicality: Lethal Injustice on America's Death Row.

Here's a brief description:

When David Dow took his first capital case, he supported the death penalty. He changed his position as the men on death row became real people to him, as he came to witness the profound injustices they endured: from coerced confessions to disconcertingly incompetent lawyers; from racist juries and backward judges to a highly arbitrary death penalty system.

Dow’s eye-opening book is captivating because he allows the men, and their cases, to speak for themselves. For instance, one inmate’s lawyer literally slept through his trial; another inmate was executed because the jury never heard from two eyewitnesses who swore he was no the murderer; and yet another inmate was allowed to represent himself at trial despite the fact that his mental imbalance, which included attempts to issue a subpoena to Jesus Christ, was evident.

To read more about the book, to purchase it or even to read the entire first chapter, go here. Folks, I somehow lucked into an advance copy and I can tell you that this book is simply amazing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Today's news

This is usually a "no-spin zone," meaning we don't post press releases on this blog. Today, for the first time, due to the gravity and complicated nature of this issue, I am making an exception.

This is from NCADP:


April 13, 2005 – The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty today expressed concern over a medical journal report that suggests that in a significant number of cases, condemned prisoners are likely conscious as lethal drugs stop their heart and lungs from functioning.

Today a prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, published an article authored by three U.S. anesthesiologists and one lawyer. The article suggested that some people may be awake and able to feel pain during the execution process, despite the administration of sodium thiopental, which is designed to render a person unconscious while two other drugs are given.

The authors studied toxicology reports from 49 executed inmates – seven in Arizona, eight in Georgia, 11 in North Carolina and 23 in South Carolina. They found that 43 out of the 49 inmates had post-mortem blood thiopental levels below that required for surgery. And 21 inmates had levels consistent with awareness. “Thus,” the authors concluded, “lethal injection anesthesia methodology is flawed and some inmates might have experienced awareness and suffering during execution.”

Diann Rust-Tierney, NCADP executive director, said the report “adds to a growing list of concerns about how the death penalty really works.”

“This report suggests that in a disturbing number of cases, states may be violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment by slowly suffocating prisoners while they are awake,” Rust-Tierney said. “Clearly we need to take a closer look at this issue. No lethal injection executions should take place if there is a possibility that we are engaging in death by the torture of suffocation.”

In most states, lethal injection executions consist of administration of three drugs. First, sodium thiopental is administered to render the prisoner unconscious. Then, pancuronium bromide is administered to cause paralysis. Finally, potassium chloride is given to stop the heart, thus causing death. “Without anesthesia,” the authors write, “the condemned person would experience asphyxiation, a severe burning sensation, massive muscle cramping and finally cardiac arrest. Thus anesthesia is necessary both to mitigate the suffering of the condemned and to preserve public opinion that lethal injection is a near-painless death.”

The article was authored by Leonidas G. Koniaris, Teresa A. Zimmers and David A. Lubarsky of the University of Miami School of Medicine and Virginia attorney Jonathan P. Sheldon.

NOTE TO EDITORS, REPORTERS AND PRODUCERS: To obtain a copy of the report please email David Elliot at or call 202-543-9577.

To read a University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine press release on the report, please go here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

AI gathering in Austin

While we're on the subject of blogs, I stumbled across this write-up of last weekend's Amnesty International gathering in Austin. The item comes from what I gather to be a relatively new blog, Faith-Based Politics.

The weekend sounds like it was nice, especially the Friday rally that was sponsored by Amnesty International and our Texas affiliate, the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Interesting new blog

Courtesy of Grits for Breakfast, we learned this morning of an interesting new blog. Injustice Anywhere was just launched by a public defender down in my home state of Texas. As she describes her blog:

Inspired by the late, great Johnnie Cochran's saying that, "An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," a Texas public defender rants and raves about criminal justice issues in her great state and country (and whatever else she wants).

This is a worthy endeavor.

Watch this space tomorrow...

...for some interesting news and a new development regarding lethal injection as a means of execution.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Jotaka in Geneva

My colleague, Jotaka Eaddy, is currently in Geneva doing lobbying/organizing work during the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Many in the U.S. are not aware of the work of the U.N. Commission's work. They meet for five weeks every spring to discuss and debate human rights issues around the world, including the death penalty. Last year, in part because of Jotaka's work, they passed a resolution strengthening their opposition to the juvenile death penalty.

Here's an excerpt from a recent email Jotaka sent about her experience:

Working in the UN is absolutely amazing. It is like lobbying Congress but on a much larger scale because you are lobbying entire countries. I try not to let it intimidate me....I have been very successful in lobbying for language that prohibits the death penalty for people with mental illness in the new Convention (Treaty) that is being drafted in the UN. I’ve met with many governmental delegations that are now going to lobby on behalf of us!! There is much follow up work to be done at the UN in New York. But I am certain that if we are successful this will have a major impact on any Supreme Court Case dealing with this issue in the next three to five years.


I have to pinch myself sometimes when I stop and think about what I am doing. Never in a million years did I think that I would be working to advance and working with countries to offer language to UN treaties. I am truly blessed to be so young and working on a serious level to advance international human rights policy. The UN is also a great place to meet many wonderful activists from all over the world. I am so amazed at the work that many people are doing to defend human rights. There are nearly 2,000 governmental delegates, UN Staff and experts, and NGO lobbyists here so you can imagine the networking going on. It is also very moving to meet other people that have spent their whole lives fighting on issues that are either the same or very common to the struggles that we have in the U.S., yet there they are in other parts of the world. Sadly you soon realize over here that racism, discrimination, sexism, homophobia and other human rights violations have no borders. I do hope that we as advocates quickly realize that our efforts should have no borders as well.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Blog input, Part 3

Recently we invited NCADP members and supporters to send in their stories about the death penalty. Previously, we heard from one woman in Washington State and another woman in New York.

Today we hear from a man from New Zealand, who is befriending a person on death row in Georgia as well as that person’s mother. Here is his story, split into three parts for the sake of our readers:

The Story of William David Riley, as told by Brian Bowler of New Zealand.
Trolling through the Internet one evening I came across an ad asking for “someone prepared to write to a lonely man on Death Row.” My first reaction was to hurry past, which I did. I told myself that you would write to someone, build up some sort of relationship, and then suddenly it is all going to end, and you will know the reason why, and you won’t sleep for days. Then a little voice inside me kept saying, “If you feel like this, how do you think the man is feeling?” The little voice wouldn't leave me alone and eventually I retraced my steps and sent off an e-mail. The ad was placed by a lady I assumed to be a social worker or some such. I was very surprised to receive a reply from the mother of the prisoner.

She turned out to be a splendid lady, absolutely committed to her son and unshakably convinced of his innocence. We exchanged a few e-mails and then I sent off my first letter to her son, ordinary post, no e-mail allowed in the prison. I stayed in touch with his mother and felt drawn to this lady who had dedicated her life to trying to save her son. I said to her, “I want to stand by you while you go through your struggle, how ever long it takes, whatever the pain, whatever the outcome.” At this stage I had no opinion of my own of the guilt or innocence of her son, and strangely it didn't seem to matter.

Eventually she told me the story of her son’s case. He was a 32-year-old married man with three children. He was estranged from his wife who had unquestioningly signed over full custody of the children to him. Clearly she was confident in his ability to raise them.

Part 2: the story of William David Riley

As told by Brian Bowler of New Zealand:

At approximately 10:45 a.m. on Aug. 18, 2000, a fire broke out in a trailer at Pine Valley Mobile Home park. The trailer was rented by Bill who lived there with his girlfriend and the three children, Ashley aged 6, William aged 5 and Samantha aged three. A friend of Bill's was also living there and sleeping on a couch. All three adults escaped, all three children died.

Neighbors reported that during the fire Bill seemed unemotional, cold and dry. In reality he was in shock, traumatized and incapable of reacting. Not thinking logically and in a frenzy he began banging on the trailer walls and yelling to his children. His car was parked close to the trailer and fearing that it might explode and add to the danger he moved it away. He threw a piece of timber though one of the windows. All this was irrational, but Bill was not in a rational frame of mind.

You may very well think that given the same circumstances you would have reacted differently, but in the grip of shock the mind can freeze.

Neighbors reported that there were arguments prior to the fire between Bill and his girlfriend, and this is not an issue. Bill was having serious financial hardship and with the girlfriend not helping to economize it led to disagreements. The alleged threats to kill the children have to take into account the circumstances in which they were made, the tone of voice etc. Saying that he would see them dead before he would let the Department of Family and Children Service take them, can be construed not so much as a threat to kill them but an indication of how much he cared for them.

The expressed intention to burn the trailer rather than face eviction, even if taken seriously, does not imply an intention to burn the children. In truth the statement was a throw away remark intended to mean nothing more than that he would resist attempts to evict him.

Part 3: The story of William David Riler

As told by Brian Bowler of New Zealand:

Still in shock he is questioned by the police who tell him that they have hard evidence of arson and that if he will confess they will help him. Eventually he breaks down and makes a false statement. It is the false statement that ensures his conviction. During this time he is accorded neither the customary phone call nor is he provided with legal assistance. He is put on trial and it takes the jury 42 minutes to convict him. He is sentenced to death by lethal injection and is currently on Death Row in a Georgia State prison. He has had one appeal denied and is allowed a further ten. It can be noted that the Fire Marshal found no evidence of arson and I understand that a report to this effect is in existence. There are a number of public interest issues at stake here:

(1) Why was he not allowed a phone call?
(2) Why was he not provided with legal assistance?
(3) Was the Fire Marshal's report produced in evidence during the court proceedings?
(4) Is there no protection under the Fifth Amendment or any other act from confessions obtained in this manner?
(5) Has Bill had a fair trial?
(6) Has justice been served?

In the meantime Bill's mother and I have initiated a letter-writing campaign to see if we can elicit any assistance. We have written to the defence attorneys, the State Governor, The State Attorney General, President Bush, The American Bar Association and ten university Law Faculties to se whether they will review the case as an exercise for students. We will try anything how ever tenuous the promise of help may be. If anyone can suggest any further avenues that we might explore I would be indebted to hear from them.

Brian Bowler

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Another new blog in town!

Folks: Last week we wrote about what at the time was a first: A blog dedicated specifically to a person on death row. That blog was launched by a woman named Ginny Simmons, who I think is with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. It is dedicated to Vernon Evans, who is on Maryland's death row. You can see her blog and "meet Vernon Evans" by going here.

Now we have another blog dedicated to another death row inmate. This is dedicated to Robert Fratta, a wrongfully convicted person on Texas' death row. I do not know who launched this blog, although I see she is from New York State.

To see this new blog, go here.

Input for the blog, part one

We recently invited NCADP members to send us any blog-worthy material they have with the promise that we would post it. Here's a great message we received from Nina in Washington state:

Hi, I have been writing to several men on death row, in Arizona and in Montana. I started doing "Prison Ministry" shortly after seeing "Dead Man Walking," then I had the pleasure of going to a seminar given in Seattle by Sister Helen PreJean. Back in 1992, I started writing to two brothers, on Death Row in AZ. They are still there and are doing as well as can be expected. Roger and Robert Murray were convicted of murder back in 1991 in Kingman, AZ on their way home from a trip to Las Vagas, NV. I don't judge anyone for their offenses, simply because I wasn't there. Robert Murray has written a book, a couple years old now, called, "Life on Death Row." It can be found in bookstores or on ~ it is a very good read!
He is now busy writing his biography, which should be great!
Thank you for reading this and God bless!
In peace,
Nina Hall

Input for the blog, part two

And we received this message, from Megan Clifford in Rochester, New York. Please write Megan if you can help her out!


I am a former Jesuit Volunteer who was matched up with Robert Simon Jr. (Mississippi death row) in 1996 for a ministry-type of correspondance. I have written to him ever since. Robert asked me awhile back to contact his attorney so that I could have information on his case. He was anxious about exhausting his appeals and was requesting I make funeral arrangements. I am sure this is premature but would like some information. He signed a release and also sent letter to his attorney requesting that he give me permission to talk about his case. Being that I live in New York and the prision reads all the letters Robert sends me I have a hard time getting access to news about his case. Can you post this on the blog to see if anyone can help me. I have some friends who are attorneys who are interested in helping me review his case if I can get access to some information. I can be reached at

Thank you-

Megan Clifford

Rochester NY

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Jeb Bush, the Pope and Glen Ocha

Earlier today Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said this:

"I have a duty to carry out the law, and in this case I actually was prepared to delay the execution out of courtesy for and respect for the pope's passing," Bush told reporters Tuesday in Tallahassee. "But I also have a duty to have sympathy for the victims, and so we checked with the victims, and they were already prepared and ready to be at the execution and to be there so they could have closure, and I decided to carry it out. It was a grotesque crime."

And then the Florida Conference of Bishops said this:

"The Catholic Bishops of Florida appeal to Governor Bush to commute the death sentence of Glen Ocha, scheduled for execution on April 5. The feelings of despair that have led Mr. Ocha to request execution will rob him of the possibility of redemption and forgiveness for his crime.

"We mourn for the family of his victim, Carol Skjerva, but killing Mr. Ocha will not compensate for their loss but only diminish respect for all life in all circumstances. Pope John Paul II, during his 1999 visit to St. Louis, stated "the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.

"The alternative sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole protects society from harm and punishes individuals for their transgressions. We believe a national decrease in executions shows there is dwindling support for the death penalty since society can otherwise be protected from those who have harmed others.

"Governor Bush, we ask that you stay Glen Ocha's execution and commute his sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole."
And then Abe Bonowitz of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said this:

"Instead of honoring Pope John Paul II, Governor Bush has today chosen to mock him. The Pope has been outspoken about the value of all life, and repeatedly called for an end to the use of the death penalty.

"Governor Bush, a convert to Catholicism, has clearly demonstrated that he's willing to inject his religion and personal beliefs into his politics. He has pushed through unconstitutional legislation to try to codify his beliefs on the sanctity of life. Governor Bush's claim that he is only carrying out the law when he executes prisoners simply reeks of hypocrisy. As Terry Schiavo is mourned this evening, Glen
Ocha gets his wish: Suicide-by-Governor."

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Pope and Darrell Mease

My friend Jason reminds me of an incident that occurred in 1999 in the state of Missouri. Darrell Mease was out of appeals, certifiably guilty and headed for execution. As coincidence (or providence) would have it, his execution date was scheduled for the very same day that Pope John Paul II was to visit St. Louis during one of his several trips to the U.S.

The Pope called on then-Gov. Mel Carnahan to spare Mease and the governor complied. It is the only pure case of mercy I can recall in the "modern" era -- i.e., clemency coming without questions of guilt, severe mental illness and so on.

Curious, I dug up a review of a book that was written about this episode. Here are some pertinent paragraphs:

Almost Midnight: An American Story of Murder and Redemption is, in a sense, Mease's biography, and its singular achievement is to present Mease's story's full arc, allowing readers to understand how his story, like most other stories of death row prisoners, confounds the public's assumptions about these prisoners. He is, to paraphrase Sr. Helen Prejean, more than the worst thing he's done. Cuneo is at his best evoking the Ozark mountain culture in Missouri where Mease was raised. It's a curious combination of Pentecostal religious fervor and a backwoods way of life in which young men learn to shoot a gun at an early age, become profoundly suspicious of the law and are drawn to moonshining and cockfighting. While he was drawn to the Ozarks' outlaw culture, Mease, many believed, seemed destined to become a preacher.

Things changed, according to the author, after Mease's tour in Vietnam in 1967 when he became seriously involved with drinking and drugs. When he returned home, an increasingly paranoid and resentful Mease told a friend, "You know the Marines spent thousands of dollars teaching me to kill, and I still haven't killed anyone." Two marriages failed. When Mease began using crank methamphetamine in 1987, it prompted the radical, disturbing change in him that led him down the road to death row.


While on death row, Mease experienced a religious conversion that Cuneo and others believe was sincere. Mease became convinced God was his lawyer, and that he would be spared execution and eventually released from prison. A devout Pentecostal, Mease possessed core anti-Catholic prejudices. The pope was the last person Mease wanted to save him.

That's what happened, however, when Missouri serendipitously scheduled Mease's execution on the same day as a papal visit to St. Louis. A staunch death penalty proponent, Gov. Mel Carnahan was nonetheless embarrassed by the execution's timing and believed he had to pardon Mease when the pope pleaded personally at a papal Mass, "Governor, will you please have mercy on Mr. Mease?"

This extraordinary, unprecedented moment proved evanescent to death penalty opponents who hoped the pardon would slow the pace of executions in Missouri. There were six executions there in the six months after the pardon, and the pope's next plea for mercy from Rome was routinely dismissed.

Death row phenomenon

When we sentence people to death, we sentence them to just that -- death. We do not sentence them to be tortured while awaiting death.

So how are we to react when many -- no, most -- people under sentence of death spend more than a decade waiting for their sentence to be carried out? Some people argue that we should have a shortened appeals process. But shorten the process and you will surely increase the number of mistakes we are making. And in our democracy, complete with rights of due process and the unshakeable belief that we must not incarcerate innocent people, much less execute them, one mistake is too many.

I mention this because the Death Penalty Information Center has just published a fascinating research paper that examines this topic. The paper begins:

The length of time prisoners spend on death row in the United States before their executions has recently emerged as a topic of interest in the debate about the death penalty. The discussion has been spurred by the scheduled execution of Michael Ross, a Connecticut inmate who has been on death row for 17 years, and by the writings of two Supreme Court Justices who have urged the Court to consider this issue.

Death row inmates in the U.S. typically spend over a decade awaiting execution. Some prisoners have been on death row for well over 20 years.

During this time, they are generally isolated from other prisoners, excluded from prison educational and employment programs, and sharply restricted in terms of visitation and exercise, spending as much as 23 hours a day alone in their cells.

This raises the question of whether death row prisoners are receiving two distinct punishments: the death sentence itself, and the years of living in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement – a severe form of punishment that may be used only for very limited periods for general-population prisoners.

Moreover, unlike general-population prisoners, even in solitary confinement, death-row inmates live in a state of constant uncertainty over when they will be executed. For some death row inmates, this isolation and anxiety results in a sharp deterioration in their mental status.

It concludes:

The length of time that U.S. inmates spend on death row has gotten increasingly longer in recent years, and raises questions about the constitutionality of this added punishment. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed this issue, it has been cited as a serious concern by death penalty experts in the U.S. and by courts outside the U.S. Shortening the time on death row would be difficult without either a significant allocation of new resources or a risky curtailment of necessary reviews.

To read the entire report, go here.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Gearing up for the 12th Annual Fast and Vigil

Plans are developing for the 1th Annual Fast and Vigil, which will take place in front of the U.S. Supreme Court June 29 through July 2. June 29 is the anniversary of the 1972 Furman v. Georgia U.S. Supreme Court decision, which struck down existing death penalty statutes. July 2 is the anniversary of the 1976 Gregg vs. Georgia decision, which allowed executions to resume.

To learn more about the Fast and Vigil, go here.