Friday, December 30, 2005

A big shout-out to Alberta Phillips!

Recently there have been a small but growing number of mainstream newspaper columnists in Texas who have been writing about problems with the death penalty. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News each have columnists who have been at the forefront of this trend (not as much the Dallas Morning News, although they have made progress.)

One must include in this courageous group my alma mater, the Austin American-Statesman and, in particular, Alberta Phillips, a principled and courageous columnist. Recently this letter to the editor in the American-Statesman mentioned Alberta's work:

We must fix injustices

Thank you to columnists Alberta Phillips (Dec. 14, "His name is Ruben M. Cantu, he was framed, and we killed him") and Leonard Pitts (Dec. 4, "DidTexas kill an innocent in our name?") for keeping the possible wrongful execution of Ruben Cantu front and center.

When the system is so broken, all of us, regardless of our views on the
death penalty, should demand change. While we go about our business these holidays, the victims of the 1984 crime, now possibly also including Cantu, have no such option. All of us deserve better from our justice system.


Thursday, December 29, 2005

Pennsylvania blogs

There's been a lot of attention lately about the case of Ruben Cantu, the person who was executed in Texas in 1993 and is now believed by an increasing number of people to have been innocent. More recently, many bloggers, conservative, libertarian and progressive alike, who have been blogging about Cory Maye, on death row in Mississippi.

It is important to remember that there are people with strong innocence claims all across the country. Just off the top of my head, I think of Max Soffar of Texas, Anthony Graves of Texas, Justin Wolfe of Virginia and Troy Davis of Georgia.

Now comes the Central Pensylvania Abolitionist to remind us of the case of Walter Ogrod, who languishes away on Pennsylvania's death row despite a formidable argument that he is innocent:

Walter Ogrod: Innocent and sentenced to death
I recently received correspondence from Walter Ogrod, a prisoner on Pennsylvania's death row. Walter sent me a copy of a two-part Philadelphia City Paper series on his case from June, 2004, so last night I sat down and read the articles. Although we abolitionists certainly know that there are more innocent people on death row, it's still stunning to read the individual stories.

You can read all the dirty details in the articles, but here's the basic
breakdown. Walter was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for the 1988
murder of a four-year-old girl in his NE Philly neighborhood. No physical
evidence linked him to the crime. A witness who spoke with the killer (not
knowing at the time that he was the killer) described someone 5-8 inches shorter
than Walter and with different color hair.

Walter was convicted in part by a confession he claimed was coerced out of
him by two Philadelphia detectives. He visited the police station after working
an all-night shift and had been awake a total of 30 hours when he made this
so-called confession.

At trial, the defense shot holes in the case. Walter was seconds away from
walking away a free man from this nightmare, but one juror blurted out, "I
disagree," as the jury foreman was reading the "not guilty" verdict. The judge
declared a mistrial, and in the interim between the mistrial and the retrial, a
jailhouse snitch emerged to weave a tall tale about Walter's connection to the

You can read all the horrifying details here:
Snitch Work Part 1
Snitch Work Part 2

What we're fighting for

The Washington Post on a consistent basis likes to remind its readers of its opposition to the death penalty. It was therefore gratifying, although hardly surprising, to see this editorial in today's paper. We reprint it in its entirety:

Thursday, December 29, 2005 Page A22
Taking Innocent Life

EARLIER THIS month, the state of North Carolina executed
Kenneth Boyd -- who became the 1,000th person put to death in the United States since the Supreme Court permitted executions to resume in 1976. The 1,001st, Shawn Paul Humphries, was put to death in South Carolina hours later. The 1,002nd, Wesley Baker, followed in Maryland the next week, the 1,003rd in California and the 1,004th in Mississippi. At this rate, the next thousand will not take anything like three decades.

And that, in all likelihood, means that an innocent person will be executed relatively quickly. While these five men were not innocent, it is exceedingly improbable that all of their fellow inmates were rightly convicted. The faster the death chambers do their work, the sooner an innocent person will be put to death.

The latest probably erroneous execution to come to light is that of Ruben Cantu, who was executed more than a decade ago in Texas for a brutal robbery-murder that took place in 1984, when he was 17. Recently, the Houston Chronicle published a remarkable series revealing that the lone eyewitness, who was shot multiple times during
the incident but who survived to testify against Mr. Cantu, has recanted. The evidence against Mr. Cantu was limited to the testimony of this man, Juan Moreno. Likewise, Mr. Cantu's co-defendant now says that he and another teenager committed the robbery.

David Garza, who served a sentence for his role, now says that "Ruben Cantu had nothing to do with the murder. . . . I should know."

This isn't the first time serious questions of innocence have arisen after an execution. Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was also executed in Texas. The case against him for burning down his home and thereby killing his children was, the paper reported, "based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances." More recently, prosecutors in St. Louis reopened the case of Larry Griffin, whom the state of Missouri executed in 1995; they are no longer convinced that the state convicted the right person.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) reportedly may order the retesting of
physical evidence in the case of Roger Keith Coleman, who went to his death in 1992 proclaiming that "an innocent man is going to be murdered tonight."

It is certainly possible, in any of these cases, that the evidence of
innocence is chimerical and that the conviction was correct. But in the long run a society that insists upon an irrevocable punishment guarantees injustice.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

2005: A year of extraordinary change

For several years now, we've seen evidence that the death penalty is, simply put, going to wither away on the vine. It very well may be that the death penalty will not go away in dramatic fashion, one day, one month, one year, but rather will simply be used less and less frequently until it is no more -- maybe a historical relic that is kept on the books on some states, but is rarely, if ever, applied.

And when the history of the death penalty is written, 2005 will be seen as a year in which this withering process picked up steam. We base this on a number of statistics and developments (hat tip to Death Penalty Information Center for pointing these out in their year-end report.)


  • The number of death sentences handed down in 2005 is estimated to be 96 -- down 60 percent since the late 1990s and the fewest number of sentences in one year since executions were allowed to resume in 1976.

  • New York refused to reinstate the death penalty and New Jersey took an important step toward, in effect, abolishing it.

  • Texas became the 37th out of 38 death penalty states to adopt the sentencing option of life without parole.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the juvenile death penalty, in effect commuting the sentences of 71 people to life without parole or, in some cases, very lengthy prison terms of at least 35 years.

  • The majority of states with the death penalty did not carry out a single execution.

  • The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a bill to abolish the death penalty, although it died in the Senate. Massachusetts resoundingly rejected the governor's call to reinstate the death penalty.

  • A very conservative newspaper in Alabama, the Birmingham news, announced that “after decades of supporting the death penalty, the editorial board no longer can do so” based on practical and ethical reasons.

  • In Texas, the Houston Chronicle published a two-part investigative series strongly suggesting that Texas executed an innocent man named Ruben Cantu in 1993, under the watch of then-Gov. Ann Richards.

What's on tap for 2006? Who knows -- but we are on the right side of history.

And thanks to the wonders of the Internet, all of this is being archived. It's weird and a little bit humbling to understand that the very things we work on day to day -- who knows, maybe even excerpts from this blog -- will one day be housed in a museum for people to inspect and reflect upon.

Happy New Year, to one and all.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The blog will return. We promise.

As our most loyal readers have noticed, the blog has taken a bit of a break for the holidays.

We'll be back soon, we promise. The blog needs its rest. And so do we!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

40,000 and counting!

Sometime in the wee hours last night, our little blog received its 40,000th visitor!

I know that's not much compared with some of the giants out there like dailykos and others, but for a single-issue blog on the death penalty, it ain't too shabby.

Keep coming back and we'll keep updating as we look ahead to a busy 2006!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Federal execution update

The blog run by our Tennessee affiliate has posted some interesting facts, figures and comments on race and the federal death penalty. Rather than repeat, why not pay them a visit?

Best Times. Worst Times.

One thing about this movement: It's execution after execution after execution and then something great will happen. A bill passes, a person's innocence is proven. A breakthrough occurs in the way the mainstream media frames the issue.

Or, the opposite.

Lately we've been on a roll. A Libertarian blogger breaks a story about Cory Maye, wrongfully convicted and on Mississippi's death row. The New Jersey Senate passes a moratorium bill on a strong 30 to 6 bipartisan vote. The National Journal does a feature story on blogging against the death penalty.

And then this:

Within the past few days we've learned that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has set three execution dates in one week. Richard Tipton is scheduled to be executed on May 8, Cory Johnson on May 10, and James H. Roane, Jr., on May 12.

Of the 1,003 executions that have taken place in the past 29 years or so, 1,000 have been carried out by the states and three by the federal government. So in a period of five days, the number of executions carried out by the feds will double, from three to six.

Once, back in the 1960s I think, there was this southern governor (I wish I could remember his name -- can anyone help me out here?) who, for no particular reason, granted clemency to this guy whose execution was hours away. To my knowledge, the guy didn't have an innocence argument or some factor that made his case stand out.

When the governor was asked why he did what he did, he reportedly said, "I just didn't feel like killin' anyone today."

That's kind of how I felt when I heard about three federal dates in one week.

Is it just me, or does this holiday season have a decidedly non-holiday feel to it?

I don't know. Maybe it is because I just sort of cancelled my Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Breakthrough: death penalty debate permeates the blogosphere!

National Journal blogger Daniel Glover has written an interesting post about people blogging about the death penalty, particularly in light of the Stanley Tookie Williams and Cory Maye cases. He takes note of groups that are blogging on the death penalty, including Amnesty International, Campaign to End the Death Penalty and NCADP. He also notes some of the NCADP affiliates that have launched their own blogs. I'm putting his entire post here because I think it represents a breakthrough -- this is the first story that has been written like this:

December 19, 2005
A Tale Of Two Killers

Cory Maye of Mississippi and Stanley "Tookie" Williams of California had two very different pasts before they landed on death row -- Williams in 1981 and Maye in 2004.
Maye had no criminal record before killing a policeman who had burst into his home without a warrant. Williams, on the other hand, was a founder of the infamous Crips street gang, convicted of killing four people in two crimes.

But now the two have one more thing besides their criminal sentences in common: Each has become a focal point of renewed debate about capital punishment -- a debate being driven in large part by bloggers.

Blogging about the death penalty, and particularly against it, is not a new idea. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has been at it for 18 months, and Amnesty International launched Death Penalty Blog in July. Some state affiliates of NCADP, including those in Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee, also publish blogs.

After the national branch in October discussed Internet activism at its annual conference, NCADP blogger David Elliot posted three entries on blogging about the death penalty. "To me, it's about encouraging each other, building community, exchanging ideas, sharing what works and what doesn't," he wrote. "Taking new messages and trying them out for a spin. Doing new things."

Blogs with broader content also cover the death penalty periodically, especially when it is in the mainstream media mix. But until last month, as the nation neared its 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, the topic had not reached critical mass in the blogosphere.

Then came Tookie Williams and Cory Maye.

Williams rose to celebrity status first. "While in jail, he became an anti-gang activist, wrote children's books and was nominated by a member of the Swiss Parliament for the Nobel Prize," TalkLeft noted last month in encouraging its readers to sign a petition urging clemency for Williams.

His story spurred numerous sympathetic appeals from bloggers, as well as outrage at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., for refusing clemency.

But the facts of Williams' life before prison, plus his repeated denials of committing the murders for which he was convicted, only served to heighten the longstanding divide over the death penalty. Abolitionists and the law-and-order crowd highlighted each other's excesses.

Firmly in the law-and-order group, Michelle Malkin posted several entries under "The Tookie Files." Both she and Patterico of Patterico's Pontifications emphasized the fate of Williams' victims: Albert Owens, Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Ye-Chen Lin.

"Tonight should be about honoring their memory and bringing justice for their deaths," Patterico wrote before Williams was executed Tuesday.

Even bloggers who oppose the death penalty, including both conservative Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters and liberal Duncan Black of Eschaton, had qualms about rallying around Williams.

Quite the opposite is true with Maye. His case is the subject of a blog swarm encompassing both the left and the right.

While Black said he "can't quite see how Stanley Williams is really the poster child for the cause" against capital punishment, he endorsed the conservative-led fight for Maye. "Every now and then," he said, "the wingnutosphere finds a cause which actually has merit. ... The case of Cory Maye is indeed a travesty."

Radley Balko of The Agitator first told Maye's story to the blogosphere Dec. 7, as the debate over Williams' death sentence was reaching its climax. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit gave the story a larger audience the next day, and Balko later created a Cory Maye page.

Balko even provided a roundup of views from people who believe the Maye verdict is just -- including one whom Balko said "casts some rather nasty aspersions on me."

"Radley's done a good deal of follow-up on this case," Kieran Healy wrote at Out of the Crooked Timber, "and so far nothing he's turned up suggests that Maye is anything other than the victim of an appalling travesty of justice."

On the left, Angelica of Battlepanda is leading the call to arms, as well as taking the roll of the libertarian, Republican and Democratic blogs engaged on Maye's behalf. "When the Instapundit and I both agree that something is wack," she said, "you can be sure that it is indeed very, very wack."

The mainstream media still have ignored Maye's plight -- perhaps a case of death-penalty burnout from covering Williams. Yet the case has captured the interest of bloggers as far away as South Africa, where Laurence Caromba of Commentary noted, "If Maye manages to get off death row, Balko will share a great deal of the responsibility."

Mark Kleiman concluded much the same at The Huffington Post, albeit with a more pessimistic spin: "This case is an interesting test of the power of the blogosphere. ... Unless bloggers can somehow attract the attention of mainstream media outlets, or of the politicians whose statements the mainstream media will treat as news ... then the story is going to die, and so, probably, is Cory Maye."

The blog swarm has the potential to reach beyond Maye himself, though. It might shape public opinion about the death penalty in general, which as James Joyner noted at Outside the Beltway, already has shown signs of changing.

"Capital punishment is rather obviously allowed by the Constitution," he said. "It still has overwhelming public support, as seen in poll after poll and election after election. Those same polls, though, show a growing concern about the way the system works. It may well be that, 20 years or so from now, a majority will oppose state-sanctioned executions."

However American views of the death penalty evolve, blogs are sure to be a factor in that intellectual shift. And bloggers' musings over the execution of Tookie Williams and the death sentence of Cory Maye could prove to be the catalyst for that shift.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

holiday gift giving can still count...

yeah, i know, many of you have shut down the organizing and/or activism until say 1/3/06 or so...

and i know that a lot of you wonder about the rote commercialism of it all ... what's christmas, channukah, kwanzaa, _____________ all about, really...

well it's not too late to make your activism count ... you CAN ask people close to you to forgo the underwear, the tie, the blouse, the gameboy (okay - that IS a dated reference - what are you gonna do - execute me???) ...

so ask friends to donate $$$ to NCADP, CUADP, EJUSA or even TCASK in your name ... it's easy...

safe travels, peace out, and happy holidays...


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Another History in the Making Day

NJ Senate votes to impose a legislative moratorium. Here is what happened today
The New Jersey State Senate today approved S-709, legislation calling for an immediate moratorium on all executions in New Jersey and creating a new study commission which will examine the flaws in the State's current death penalty system. Should S-709 become law, New Jersey would become the first State to legislatively impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

"By its action today, the Senate has signaled its deep concern with the State's current death penalty system and sent a clear message that the death penalty just does not work," said Celeste Fitzgerald, Director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a statewide organization that advocates replacing the death penalty with life without parole.

"This vote underscores what a growing number of New Jerseyans have come to realize; the death penalty risks executing the innocent, is unfairly applied, fails victims' families and law enforcement, and wastes millions of taxpayer dollars," said Fitzgerald.

As required by S-709, the new study commission shall be composed of 13 members and will submit its findings by November 15, 2006. It will examine critical issues such as racial and geographic bias, cost and whether alternatives exist that will both ensure public safety and address the needs of victims' families.

New Jersey's action comes amidst a growing chorus of concern about the death penalty across the country. Cases of have been re-opened in Missouri and Texas because of evidence that those states may have executed innocent men. A Virginia death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole after DNA evidence was destroyed in the case. And voices including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the editorial board of Alabama's largest newspaper, and the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention have recently expressed concerns about capital punishment.

New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NJADP) is a statewide grassroots organization with over 10,000 members that since 1999 has campaigned for an end to the death penalty in New Jersey. It is the core group of more than 200 New Jersey organizations, representing interests such as labor, justice, education, business, human rights, and virtually every religious denomination in the state.

For more information, see
For those who don't know Celeste Fitzgerald who is quoted above she is truly a saint. She has this incredible ability to express the most complex of thoughts and messages in the simplest of terms. She can make friends out of any enemy. She can get people to move mountains just by speaking about their ability to make the impossible seem possible. It should also be noted that Fitzgerald & NJADP also did an incredible job at reaching out beyond the traditional anti-death penalty alliances. They succeeded in mobilzing groups ranging from social progressives, murder victims'family members, criminal justice reform groups, conservative Catholics, the prolife movement and the exonerated. In short, wow!!!!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

History in the making? The blogosphere breaks a possible innocent-on-death-row story

Something pretty interesting -- no, fascinating; no, possibly historic -- is going on out there in BlogLand.

It apparently started over the weekend when Radley Balko of the libertarian blog The Agitator blogged on the case of Cory Maye, who is on death row in Mississippi for killing a police officer. You can read Randy's original blog entry here.

Now all of a sudden blogs all over the place are picking up on the piece and it even has entered "mainstream" blogland with mentions in The Hotline and CBS News' blog. (We at Abolish the Death Penalty missed it, what with all the publicity around the Stanley Tookie Williams case.)

Here's sort of a running account of how this story has crept up:

Cory Maye: "An Interesting Test Of The Power Of The Blogosphere."

While the fate of Stanley “Tookie” Williams drew plenty of attention in the in the mainstream media, many in the blogosphere – on the right and the left - have been lamenting the lack of similar attention to the death penalty case of Cory Maye. Maye is on death row for killing a police officer. Radley Balko of the libertarian blog The Agitator was first to blog about Maye, and those who have followed seem to agree that Maye is the victim of overzealous police and racial bias and doesn’t deserve the death penalty. Balko offers a detailed summary of his findings in the case and sums it up as such:

Cops mistakenly break down the door of a sleeping man, late at night, as part of drug raid. Turns out, the man wasn't named in the warrant, and wasn't a suspect. The man, frigthened [sic] for himself and his 18-month old daughter, fires at an intruder who jumps into his bedroom after the door's been kicked in. Turns out that the man, who is black, has killed the white son of the town's police chief. He's later convicted and sentenced to death by a white jury. The man has no criminal record, and police rather tellingly changed their story about drugs
(rather, traces of drugs) in his possession at the time of the raid.

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit says the case “sounds like a total miscarriage of justice”: If the facts are as [Balko] reports, this guy never should have been charged -- and he should have had a lawsuit (though those, unreasonably, are usually losers) against the police for breaking down the wrong door. The cop who was shot was the police chief's son. And there's a racial angle, too.

Obsidian Wings, who notes that “I don't have any moral qualms about the death penalty as a concept,” adds: If it is true that Maye was mistakenly thought to be a drug dealer and he reacted as many innocent citizens might to an intruder, he ought not be executed. Maye is not the kind of killer that I have in mind when I argue in defense of the death penalty.

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly’s Political Animal, who is “not opposed to the death penalty” writes: Regardless of whether or not there's more here than meets the eye, there's not much doubt that Maye doesn't deserve to die. It's yet another example of how capriciously the death penalty is applied in the United States, and Maye's case is an almost perfect demonstration of the intersection of race, lousy representation, and likely police misconduct that are so often the hallmarks of capital cases.

The Volokh Conspiracy chides the mainstream media: The MSM hasn't
paid any attention to this story, but it should. And I hope the ississippi
Supreme Court will be paying lots of attention, too.

And amid much talk of the influence of bloggers and citizen journalism, Mark Kleiman at Huffington Post chimes in about what this latest crusade might reveal: This case is an interesting test of the power of the blogosphere. Though the apparent injustice is two years old, it seems to have attracted exactly zero attention in the mainstream media, at least according to a Google News search for "Cory Maye."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Regarding Stanley Tookie

There's not a whole lot of new or original things I can say about this morning's execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. But there is something I picked up off a listserv I'm on that I wanted to share. Unfortunately, I do not know the author of this, so I cannot attribute -- if anyone knows who wrote this, drop me a line, okay?

Though the Williams case has been much in the news, one group has been
noticeably silent. Conservative evangelical Christians and their much-touted
"Culture of Life" have said hardly a word about him. There might be great debate
at whether life begins at conception or several weeks after but there is
absolutely no debate whatsoever that life ends after 50 ccs of potassium
chloride are injected into your veins, stopping your heart.

The Vatican, at least, is consistently pro-life, both anti-abortion and
anti-capital punishment. Some right-wing American Evangelicals, however, like to
torture the crystal clear teachings of the New Testament to somehow make it all
right for the state to kill. I guess they skip over passages like this:

Matthew 5:38-41 -- You have heard it was said, "An eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone
strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue
you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go
one mile, go also the 2nd mile.

Luke 6:27, 37 -- Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless
those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.... Do not judge, and you will
not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you
will be forgiven.

W.W.J.D.? You don't even have to ask.

Where are you, Lt. Gov. Steele?

This editorial ran in today's Washington Post:

A Tardy Look at Executions

When Maryland put Wesley E. Baker to death last week, it highlighted just
about all the disparities that afflict its use of capital punishment. Mr.Baker
was an African American man who killed a white person in Baltimore County.
Blacks who kill whites are substantially more likely to receive the death
penalty in Maryland than are whites who kill blacks, and Baltimore County
prosecutors are dramatically more likely to seek it than are their counterparts

While Mr. Baker committed a horrible crime, his execution nonetheless poses
the question of whether the justice system would have demanded his life had he
or his victim looked different or had the crime taken place somewhere else. Such
disparities used to bother Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) -- and presumably
still do. Mr. Steele, now running for U.S. senator, opposes the death penalty.
Nearly three years ago, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) lifted his
predecessor's moratorium on executions -- disregarding aUniversity of Maryland
study that clarified just how unevenly the state's death penalty is applied --
Mr. Steele expressed concern.

Mr. Ehrlich asked him to study the issue further and make recommendations.
Yet even as Maryland has resumed executions, Mr. Steele's long-awaited study has
not materialized. While he has reportedly met with people to discuss the
subject, there has been no formal task force -- something the governor's office
says neither Mr. Ehrlich nor Mr. Steele ever envisioned. A spokesman for the
governor, Henry P. Fawell, says Mr. Steele has met with a variety of interested
parties and expects to make his much-delayed recommendations in the first few
months of the new year.

Maryland's use of the death penalty is relatively rare. Yet partly because
it is used so infrequently, its disparities can become particularly pronounced.
Reserving the death penalty for the worst of the worst is better than profligate
executions. But capital punishment cannot be reserved for black killers of white
people in Baltimore County.

As an opponent of capital punishment in an administration that has
dismissed such concerns, there is undoubtedly a limit to Mr. Steele's influence.
Yet burying the issue for 3 years is not a sign of political courage.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The declining death penalty

With the end of the year approaching, we will soon begin to see a number of news articles about the number of death sentences continuing to decline. Here's a good example of what has happened in just one state, courtesy of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation:

(death sentences handed down per year:)

1994: 28
1995: 34
1996: 26
1997: 22
1998: 21
1999: 26
2000: 18
2001: 14
2002: 7
2003: 6
2004: 4
2005: 6**As of Nov. 29, 2005

Sunday, December 11, 2005

some days i think i know sisyphus...

hell, i'll be the first to admit that i'm a little rough around the edges so to speak - i mean not a day goes by when i don't say to myself, "you really need to go through anti-oppression training again ...and again...and again..."

having said that i'm generally a pretty upbeat kinda guy ... i mean i joke around a LOT even if i'm not very funny - people, g_d bless them, often give me brownie points for trying...

but today - well s__t, what do you say when your local newspaper, with an avowed abolition editorial position (mind you, it is gannett owned), runs not one but two (TWO!!!), op-ed pieces saying kill tookie williams, as news stories...

now as an organizer i have plenty of work to do ... i mean i'm here in the office on sunday, i was here yesterday, well you get the pic...but now, on monday i have to drop my work schedule and go down to the newspaper and ask the news editor whassup homey??? this can't be allowed to pass unchallenged - i don't care if they run kill tookie op-ed pieces (it is after all a relatively free country) but put them in the g__ _____d opinion page! is that asking too much of a "reputable" daily newspaper in a decent sized city???

so yes, on days like this i feel for and understand something about how sisyphus might have felt ... we're going to abolish this abominable, unreliable, and barbaric public policy but jeeeez, i wish i didn't have to micro-manage the content of a mainstream abolitionist newspaper...

thank you for listening to my rant ... i now return to my regularly scheduled organizing tasks...


Friday, December 09, 2005

Tennessee: The Volunteer State

My home state of Texas has lots in common with Tennessee. Both major universities, the University of Texas and Tennessee University, have orange and white as their school colors. Both have good college football teams. Both have very strong women's basketball programs (historically, Tennessee's is probably strongest, followed perhaps by Connecticut, followed perhaps by the Texas Lady Longhorns. Yes. They're really called the Lady Longhorns.)

As a state, Texas was even founded with the help of settlers from Tennessee, although I must point out that many of the immigrants were outlaws. (Not so much Davy Crockett, although he was a member of Congress before he moved to Texas and died at the be the judge.)

Anyway, lest one wonders what this has to do with the death penalty: NCADP's Tennessee affiliate, Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killings, a month or so ago launched its own blog. And an interesting blog it is: unlike every single one of the anti-death penalty blogs that are out there (about six to a dozen, depending on if you count the ones that don't update), TCASK's blog focuses primarily on organizing. How do you organize against the death penalty in a largely rural, southern state? What are the challenges and how do you overcome them? This is not just story-telling at its finest; it's also a useful roadmap to use as we travel down the highway toward abolition.

You see, some people who oppose the death penalty look at the political situation, throw their arms up in the air and say, "We can't possibly do this."

The truth, of course, is that we can and we will. But we need roadmaps. We need to figure out how to successfully lobby. We need to alter the very psychology of our movement and to realize that winning is not only possible, it is inevitable -- if we do the heavy lifting and intensive organizing that needs to be done.

When all is said and done and the history of the abolition movement is written, I hope people will recall that seeds of our success were planted in Tennessee.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

From the front lines to the intervaneous lines

As many people know, the U.S. recently witnessed its 1,000th execution since the 1970s. Kenneth Lee Boyd, a Vietnam veteran, was executed by the state of North Carolina.

A long time ago, at least it seems that way, the 56th execution since the mid-1970s took place in the state of Florida. That person's name was David Funchess.

Michael Mello, a law professor at the University of Vermont Law School and a former death penalty appellate lawyer in Florida, writes movingly about that time:

Capital punishment in our time has always reminded me of the Vietnam war.
"Certain blood for uncertain reasons," as Tim O'Brien wrote of his war. The only measure of success was the body count. No front lines, and no rear areas. No epic battles, only a series of brutal firefights against a largely invisible enemy. No lasting victories. Only casualties.

At 2 a.m. this morning, a Vietnam veteran became the 1,000th person executed in the U.S. since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Kenneth Lee Boyd had served as bulldozer operator in Vietnam, where he was shot at by snipers daily. Boyd's execution gave me flashbacks.

Nearly two decades ago, I had the honor of serving as counsel for David Funchess, the first Vietnam veteran executed in America. David was execution number 56. There is a mordantly appropriate symmetry here. We are now, again, engaged in an unpopular war against an unconventional enemy.

Through David's case I first learned about a new illness called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). David had it bad. At the time of David's capital murder trial in the mid-1970s, virtually no one had ever heard of PTSD. By the time David was scheduled to die, in spring 1986, much more was known about PTSD. We tried to tell that to the courts. The courts refused to listen, telling us we should have raised PTSD at the time of David's trial.

David Funchess was a war hero. For his service in combat in Vietnam he received the Purple Heart, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal (with device). The Vietnam War also destroyed David Funchess.

To read the entire column -- and this one's a must-read, folks -- go here.

We're still seeing a lot of veterans on death row -- Mississippi has a World War II veteran scheduled for execution later this month, incredibly enough. We see lots of Vietnam veterans and some veterans from Gulf War I. Now I wonder how long it will be before we start seeing Gulf War II veterans arriving on death row to await execution.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Innocents Assistance Fund, update

I'm pleased to announce that through your kind donations the Innocents Assistance Fund has raised $725 to date for William Nieves' family to help with various bills resulting from Will's illness and death. For those unfamiliar with the need for the fund, Will was convicted, sentenced to death and exonerated but then died shortly after having his name cleared. He never received conpensation for being wrongly condemned to death. The unexpected cost of dying so young hit Will's family hard, both emotionally and financially.

At the beginning of last week, the first check was sent to his mother. We are hopeful that we will have reason to send another. If you want to help (or help again), make a check payable to "Innocents Assistance Fund" and send it to:
Innocents Assistance Fund
c/o Central Pennsylvanians to Abolish the Death Penalty
315 Peffer Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102
The initial goal of $1,000 is close! The Innocents Assistance Fund is a project of CPADP, and all donations are tax deductible. [Hattip to Andy & crew at the CPADP blog ]

The new 'acceptable risk' argument

There's a new argument beginning to circulate among folks we call retentionists -- i.e., those who want to maintain the death penalty system. This new argument sometimes concedes that innocent people inevitably will be executed and sometimes it does not. What it does do, however, is maintain that the potential (or even actual) execution of an innocent person constitutes acceptable risk.

Look at this letter to the editor, which appeared in a Missouri newspaper:

Executions save innocent lives

As the president of Throw Away the Key, the group referenced in your Nov. 28 editorial opposing the death penalty for killers, I would like to explain some of the reasons 64 percent of Americans disagree with you.

In the time that the U.S. has executed 1,000 killers, 600,000 innocent men, women and children have been murdered in cold blood. During that same time, murderers serving life sentences have killed numerous prison guards and fellow prisoners, and some have even escaped and murdered innocent people in our communities.

I dispute your claim that an innocent person among those was 1,000 executed; what about the fact that every year, police accidentally shoot and kill innocent Americans in the fight against crime? Do you support disarming our police forces to save those lives? Of course not, because those guns in police hands save more lives than they accidentally and wrongfully take. It is the same with the death penalty.

You may wish Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Carlie
Brucia's cruel killer could be kept in jail watching cable TV, listening to
their favorite music and playing touch football in the prison courtyard, but the vast majority of Americans are glad that McVeigh was executed and that Joseph Smith is headed in that direction.
Michael Paranzino
Kensington, Md.
The author is president of Throw Away the Key.

There's an awful lot I could say in response. For example, I could point out that polls occasionally show that 64 percent of Americans want to invade Canada. Or that various polls show a majority of Americans think Iraq was behind the awful events of 9/11.

Or I could say that the 600,000 murder rate cited takes us back at least 40 years; on average, since we resumed executions, 15,000 Americans fall victim to murder each year, a rate that is lower than Paranzino would have us believe.

I could talk about the reality of life on death row, at least the ones I am familiar with, mostly in the south. I could talk about how there is no cable TV where I have visited, you don't get to listen to your favorite music and there certainly isn't touch football.

But actually, in the letter I sent in response, I touched upon Paranzino's inference -- however slight -- that executing the innocent is simply a risk we'll have to bear. Here's my response:

Dec. 6, 2005

To the editor:

Michael Paranzino (“Executions save innocent lives,” News-Leader, Dec. 6) implies that the possibility of executing an innocent person under our death penalty system
constitutes acceptable risk. We could not disagree more.

We can argue about how many innocent people have been sent away to await execution, only later freed after having been found to be innocent. We can even argue whether innocent people have been executed in the past quarter century – and if so, how many.

What we cannot and must not do as a democracy is concede that the occasional execution of an innocent person is an acceptable risk in order to maintain the death penalty. This is a system of democracy; of due process and of all of the laws and values that noble tradition entails. Executing the innocent, regardless of the circumstances, violates that tradition.

Just ask the family of Ruben Cantu of Texas or Larry Griffin of Missouri. These two individuals were executed by the states of Texas and Missouri, respectively. Only now is evidence beginning to emerge that they were, in fact, innocent.

David Elliot
Communications Director
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Washington, D.C.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Claiming victory

Friday in North Carolina in the name of retribution and justice the Tarheel state will kill. Keneth Boyd is set to be killed by lethal injection at 2:00am (0700 GMT) on Friday. In so killing, the 1000th execution of the modern era will take place, with numbers 1001 and 1002 to follow quickly behind it.

As the wires note, statistics show a 50 percent decline in the number of death sentences since the late 1990s, and a 40 percent drop in executions since they peaked at 98 in 1999. Private forecast and discussions among friends both in the defense bar and the abolitionist movement predicted that year that by 2005 we could well be in the 150-250 execution a year range, meaning thathad those predictions proven true we now be closer 2ooo than 1000. There were just 59 executions last year.

One reason is the incredibly hard work of people like John Blume, Tim Ford, John Gibbons, Kevin McNally, Dick Burr, Liz Semel, Eric Freedman, Steven Hawkins, Diann Rust-Tierney, Ron Tabak, Rick Halpein and more names than time permits.

In the last 32 years, 122 death row inmates have been exonerated and released. The Innocence Project and the work of Scheck & Neufeld, and all those that they have inspired has substantially eroded public confidence that our criminal justice system is good enough to kill.

Poll numbers and the ballot box regularly indicate a continuing erosion of the support for state killing that saw its high water mark in early 90s.

The tide has turned. This is not the 2000th execution that so many had feared just a few short years ago, but merely the 1000th atrocity. Each time the state kills it is a historical tragedy as executioners, domestically and globally, are going the way of the dodo. The question now appears not when we reach 1000, or maybe even 2000, but when does this country abolish state killing the same way it abolished slavery, child labor and debtors' prisons.

a little too close to home...

sometimes moments occur in this work that shake one out of work-a-day mindset and make the point that the death penalty is different and we're not baking bagels or selling houses when we go to work ...

recently a friend of mine in the movement sent me an e-mail that read (edited to protect identities):
"I started opening my mail - that I have ignored a bit ... I have a letter from
_________ ... I send 2 envelopes when I write .. one to reply back to me
and one for .. whatever .. family .. a trade etc ... _________ sends
one back - since __________ won't be needing it .."

_____________ was executed recently, caught up in the countdown - just another number to many ... it was an epiphanic moment ... sometimes we are so caught up in the policy oriented side of the work we get blindsided by the deep humanity of it all ...

i'm out of the message box ... i'm diving back in ... cya