Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Executing the mentally ill

"I’ve got one thing to say, get your Warden off this gurney and shut up. I am from the island of Barbados. I am the Warden of this unit. People are seeing you do this."
--Final statement of Monty Delk, mentally ill man executed in Texas on 28 February 2002

Ricky Rector had shot himself in the head prior to his arrest. The bullet wound and subsequent surgery resulted in the loss of a large section of the front of his brain. As his execution approached, the death watch log maintained by prison personnel at the Cummins Unit in Varner revealed an inmate displaying clear signs that he was seriously mentally disabled. The log’s entry for 21 January 1992, for example, described Ricky Rector as "dancing in his cell.... Howling and barking while sitting on his bunk.... Walking back and forth in the Quiet Cell snapping his fingers on his right hand and began noises with his voice like a dog." Whether or not to proceed with his execution, a journalist later wrote, "became a test in Arkansas of the lengths to which a society would pursue the old urge to expiate one killing by performing another – and a test of the state’s highest temporal authority, the governor, who alone could stop it."

"Some people did get access to come into my brain against every law and make odvious scrabble word games and show me horrible gouls lunging at my face like every dam second of every dam day and knight now for 2 years…It’s torture. I can’t sleep hallucinating with all of these voices I hear. Medical help needed right away!"
--Thomas Provenzano, grievance form, 1 August 1995, death row Florida. Provenzano was executed in 2000.

"Mr Panetti holds a Kafkaesque belief that the State of Texas, in league with demonic forces, wants to execute him to prevent him from preaching God’s word. His belief is genuine. His belief is not grounded in reality. His belief is the product of his delusions brought on by severe mental illness… Although he appears to have a factual awareness of the State’s professed reason for his impending execution, the nature of his mental illness causes him to misperceive the logical connection between his murder of his parents-in-law and his penalty of death. He does not have a rational understanding of the reason for his execution."
--From a brief written by Panetti's post-conviction attorney. Panetti, who faced execution last year, remains on death row pending final appeals.

What do all these cases have in common? They are examples of people sent to death row (and, in the first three cases, later executed) despite the fact that they suffered from severe mental illness.

Today Amnesty International released a report dealing with this topic. The report suggests that about 10 percent of the 1,000-plus people who have been executed over the course of the past quarter century were severely mentally ill.

Culpability is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system. If I, God forbid, get into a car, back out of the driveway and run over a child, that is a very different crime from, say, deliberately and premeditatively committing a murder. Part of culpability goes to mindset. Neither a mentally ill person nor a mentally retarded person can be held to the same standard of culpability as one who is not mentally ill nor mentally retarded.

Is that so very difficult to understand? Then why are we still executing people who are severely mentally ill?

To read Amnesty International's report, go here. Way to go, guys!

In memory: Coretta Scott King, 1928-2006

"I have always opposed the death penalty. Although both my husband and my mother-in-law were murdered, I refuse to accept the cynical notion that their killer deserves the death penalty."

-- Coretta Scott King

Monday, January 30, 2006

Deep thoughts from San Antonio

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in San Antonio. I have lots of stuff to blog on from this conference. But first, I’m going to give quite a bit of space to David Dow, one of the smartest lawyers among those who represent people on death row.

For those of you who follow this blog very closely, I've written about Dow several times in the past. He is author of the book "Executed on a Technicality: Lethal Injustice on America's Death Row." If you have not read this book -- and, c'mon, I know 99 percent of you have not -- please, please, please go here and purchase it right now -- your life might well change.

Dow is a distinguished professor at the University of Houston Law Center. He also is head of the Texas Innocence Project and has represented a number of people on Texas’ death row during their final legal appeals. Last weekend, Dow gave the keynote address at the TCADP awards banquet. It was entitled, “Is Mercy the Enemy of Justice?”

You can read the entire speech by going here and I hope that you will. Meanwhile, although excerpting the speech almost seems unfair, I do it out of necessity. (This is a “web log” after all!) In brief, Dow makes two points that every abolitionist should consider. I leave David to his words:

The title of my talk this afternoon is “Is Mercy the Enemy of Justice?” I mean, by asking this question, to be exploring the issue of whether someone who opposes the execution of an admitted murderer is showing mercy at the expense of doing justice.

You can probably guess that my answer to this question will be “no,” but the mere fact that we can ask it signals something important, I think. Death penalty opponents are often accused by death penalty supporters as being indifferent to the
victims of murder and their loved ones, of preferring mercy for the murderer to
justice for the murdered. Is this a legitimate claim?

If we hope to see the end of capital punishment in America, we must be able to answer this charge persuasively. I do not doubt that we will prevail, but I would
prefer that the day come sooner, rather than later. What I would like to do this afternoon, therefore, is to propose two tactics that the abolitionist movement should embrace in order to hasten the day that we no longer execute.


Number 1: Do not attempt to appropriate the mantle of innocence.

If the death penalty is immoral, as I believe it is, either in theory or in practice, it has nothing to do with the issue of innocence.

Of the execution victims I have mentioned today, only three – Williams in California and Graham and Newton in Texas – protested their innocence. Like any death penalty lawyer, I have clients about whose guilt I harbor grave doubts. And, again like any lawyer who has clients she believes to be innocent, I do what I can to show that they are not guilty. But we do not want to have a contest with a death penalty
supporter over whose list of innocent victims is longer, because we lose that
contest seven days a week.

Only a fraction of the residents of death row are innocent, but the victim of a murder is always innocent. Clay Peterson, who was killed by my client Johnny Joe Martinez, was innocent and should not have died when he did. The same is true of Ed Thompson, who was killed by my client Carl Johnson, and DPS Trooper Bill Davidson, who was killed by my client Ronald Howard. Earlier in my talk and now, I am telling you who they are. These innocent victims of murder are not my enemy, and they are not our antagonist. We alienate their loved ones when we do not know
their names.

A murderer and a murder victim – my typical client and his victim – are both human beings, but they have not acted in morally equivalent fashion. Someone who does not murder, I believe, is morally superior to someone who does. My clients know this, too, and many have told me so. I do not think my clients should be executed, but those of them that have committed murder are not morally equal to their innocent victims. By representing death row inmates, I am not saying that they are.

In saying this, I think I am saying what many in the abolitionist community already say, and so I am not proposing a radical idea. What I am suggesting is that this truth be loudly acknowledged. I think this truth was embraced in Helen Prejean’s first
book, Dead Man Walking, and even more so in the film adaptation of the book. But in recent years, the abolitionist movement has, for tactical reasons, begun calling attention to innocent people on death row, and to innocent people who might have been executed.

There has undoubtedly been some political value in this emphasis. But most people on death row are not innocent, and the excessive attention that this issue has received has crowded out the moral question of whether the state ought to kill. It has crowded out the fact that we have a system that favors the rich over the poor, and the white over the black and brown. It has crowded out the fact that constitutional violations mar virtually every case. The excessive focus on innocence has allowed some people to say that if we can just tweak the system to protect against error, then the machinery of death will have been repaired.

Executing someone who is innocent is wrong, but it is no more wrong that executing someone because of his skin color or the thickness of his wallet or the mistakes of his lawyers. I believe that we as a community have not succeeded in making that point.

Now I want to turn to a second suggestion: We must do a better job of explaining that opposing an execution is not remotely tantamount to forgiving a murder.

In May 2002, several weeks before my client Johnny Martinez was executed, he sat down with the mother of the young man he killed, a woman named Lana Norris, and he apologized to her. Ms. Norris asked him questions that had been festering inside her for years, and she later wrote to Governor Perry and the mostly feckless members of the Board of Pardons and Parole and begged for his life to be spared. She told them that she did not want his mother to have to go through what she had gone through. She did not want another mother to suffer the loss of a son. By a vote of 18 to 7, they ignored her, and Martinez died as his siblings watched.

When I see family members of murder victims in the courtroom or on the street, or when I debate death penalty supporters, the one question I am asked, more than all
other questions combined, is what I would want to happen to the murderer if the
victim was my mother or father, my brother or friend, my wife or my son. I say the same thing every time I am asked: I do not know what I would want if my loved one were killed. I do not know if I would be like my friends Renny Cushing and Robert Hoelscher and oppose the execution anyway. I do not know what I would want because I might, confronted with the loss of a loved one, feel the pull of vengeance more than the pull of mercy. If I were to lose a loved one, I might be indifferent to mercy. Someone who loses a loved one to murder has a right to feel the tug of vengeance. But the state, and our law, has no such entitlement.

In his essay entitled Justice and Mercy, the philosopher Ahad Ha’am says that the
difference between justice and mercy is that “Justice regards only the character of the deed, and judges the doer accordingly; Mercy considers first the character of the doer at the moment of the deed, and judges the deed accordingly.”

The Constitution does not use the word “mercy.” It does, however, prohibit punishments that are cruel and unusual. Both the religious and secular authorities upon which this nation’s laws are based lead to only one conclusion: that indifference to mercy is unconstitutionally cruel, and morally unsound.

In modern law and morality, the character of the wrongdoer is supposed to matter.
But we have deviated far from this ideal. Karla Faye Tucker’s character did not matter, nor did that of James Allridge, nor did that of Frances Newton, nor did that of Johnny Martinez, nor did that if Stanley Williams, nor did that of the any of more than 1,000 men and women we as a nation have put to death. How has this state of affairs come to be?

The answer, I think, is that we have permitted the concept of “mercy” to become
confused with indifference to murder; we have allowed our critics to conclude
that because we believe in mercy, that we also believe in moral equivalence.

We must correct that message. Mercy does not mean that society forgives the murder, and it is not our prerogative to forgive someone who murders another. That privilege belongs to people like Lana Norris, to the murder victim’s loved ones, not to us.

We are unfaithful to law when we cease to recoil at murder, when we neglect to condemn this horrible act. We are just as unfaithful when, in reacting to this worst of all crimes, we purge our law of mercy.

* * * * *

I will close with this thought. In her wonderful book Gilead, Marilyn Robinson says that remembering and forgiving can be contrary things.[iii] She is right. They can be. It can seem that by sparing the life of a murderer, we are forgetting the murder
victim. It can seem that we are trivializing the murder. But it is not always so; it is not necessarily so. We can remember the horror of a murder, and also think that the murderer should be spared. Our job as abolitionists is to show why that is true and how it can be.

As a lawyer who represents death row inmates, it is not my prerogative, to forgive them for what they have done. I have seen the facts and the photos of many bloody crime scenes. I know that murders range from the heinous and cruel to the indescribably detestable and vile. There are no ordinary murders. Every murder ends a human life and leaves others in tatters. Abolitionists must acknowledge that truth, and I want the victims of my clients to know that I believe it, too.

We must say as a community that we know that murder is wrong; and we must say,
simultaneously and just as loudly, that our death penalty regime is unjust, and that it is wrong for us, for our nation and our state, to kill.


Friday, January 27, 2006

Vernon Evans blogs

Both the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post carried stories today about Vernon Evans' blog. Vernon is on Maryland's death row and is scheduled to be executed the week of Feb. 6.

You can read the stories here and here.

One peculiarity, if that is the correct word: Vernon would be the first blogger ever executed.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Dead to the world

The following appeared in today's New York Times. When conservatives holler and scream about how "judicial activists" allow themselves to be influenced by what people in other countries think, this is good fodder to offer back at them:

By FELIX G. ROHATYN Op-Ed Contributor
NY Times January 26, 2006

DURING my four years as the American ambassador to France, I discovered that no single issue was viewed with as much hostility as our support for the death penalty. Outlawed by every member of the European Union, the death penalty was, and is, viewed in Europe as a throwback to the Middle Ages. When we require European support on security issues — Iran's nuclear program; the war in Iraq; North Korea's bomb; relations with China and Russia; the Middle East peace process — our job is made more difficult by the intensity of popular opposition in Europe to our policy.

Several years ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke to the senior staff of our embassy in Paris on this issue to help them explain our position to a very hostile French audience. I was agreeably surprised when he indicated his belief that sooner or later, we would have to take into account the views of Europeans in determining what constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."

Last March, the Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders, concluding that the death penalty for minors is indeed cruel and unusual punishment. "Our determination," Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority decision, "finds confirmation in the stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty."

While, unsurprisingly, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, it is notable that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor agreed with Justice Kennedy that international trends affect the meaning of "cruel and unusual punishment." Justices Scalia and Thomas, on the other hand, took the majority to task for taking "guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislators."

This attitude, reflecting a narrow and parochial view of the issue, is also found in Judge Samuel Alito's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his nomination to the Supreme Court: "I don't think it appropriate or useful to look to foreign law in interpreting the provisions of our Constitution. I think the framers would be stunned by the idea that the Bill of Rights is to be interpreted by taking a poll of countries of the world."

To the contrary, globalization has made it not only "appropriate or useful" but vital to look at foreign laws. It is in our interest to be aware of their impact whether they concern antitrust, food safety or the death penalty. Contempt for the laws of our allies is a major factor in our increasing isolation in the world; our present posture in Iraq reflects that reality. That is why is it is deeply troubling that the next member of the Supreme Court will most likely share Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas's point of view.

The Supreme Court is our most respected institution. Whether it is conservative or liberal is important; but it is even more important that it be enlightened. It must show understanding, if not respect, for other peoples' beliefs and laws, and occasionally be willing to support reasonable changes. Our Constitution, itself, was an extension of Enlightenment ideas that were incubated on the Continent. It certainly did not spring up in a vacuum, but was affected by strains of political thinking in Europe.

"That our understanding of the Constitution does change from time to time has been settled since John Marshall breathed life into its text," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote last year, concurring with Justice Kennedy. Taking the views of 450 million Europeans into account is not a sign of weakness on our part, nor is it a commitment to change our views. It is simply recognition that the laws of our most important allies, our biggest foreign investors, foreign employers, foreign customers and trading partners are worthy of our attention. That is a sign of enlighten ment.

Felix G. Rohatyn was the United States ambassador to France from 1997 to 2001.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Breaking news

The U.S. Supreme Court this afternoon agreed to hear arguments in the death penalty case of Clarence Hill of Florida. Hill has contested the constitutionality of lethal injection.

HOWEVER…it is important to note that the Supreme Court is not considering the constitutionality of lethal injection per se. Rather, it is considering a) whether Hill may pursue his claim and b) whether his claim is covered by federal civil rights law.

If Hill prevails on one of those two points, he gets to proceed with the claim itself.

A good place to go to read about this stuff is Scotusblog.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The media on military executions

Lots of calls today. We were on NPR's "Morning Edition" this morning. Journalists from Spain and the Netherlands called this afternoon. And ABC's Nightline called, but I think the producer cooled on the story when I explained that we do not factually know that military executions are about to take place.

For clarification's sake: Some in the media are interpreting the new guidelines and the Reuters story as somehow saying that military executions are about to take place. Although we have no idea what the military is up to, there is currently no indication that this is so. Meanwhile we do have three federal (non-military) executions scheduled for May 8, May 10 and May 12.

We did make it onto the websites of the Washington Post and ABCNews.com. (The Post culled us from their print edition.)

To listen to the NPR piece from this morning, go here.

[Clarification: I wanted to clarify that to my knowledge, and I have been tracking every publicly capital case opinion for the last 8 years for Capital Defense Weekly, there is no reason to believe that an execution is likely in a military death penalty case in the near term. Every death sentenced person eligible for the military death penalty still has not gone through federal habeas corpus review, however, several have nearly completed their rounds of military appellate review. While it is possible that these regulations are designed for the military tribunals for those at Guantanamo Bay or another detainee facility, the regulations appear to be routine updating of protocol and procedures. - karl]

Monday, January 23, 2006

More on possible U.S. military executions

On Friday we blogged about recent changes made to the protocol governing U.S. Military executions. We still do not know if the newly released protocol means the U.S. Military is about to execute the first servicemember since 1961.

However, Reuters today moved this story on its national wire.

Friday, January 20, 2006

U.S. military executions soon?

The U.S. military just released new guidelines regarding its execution protocol.

For the most part, the procedures are a bunch of gobbledy-gook. But this one line caught my eye. According to a summary of the changes, the new policy “allows other locations to be used for executions.”

(Previously, military executions took place in Leavenworth, Kansas, which is where military death row is located.)

I am wondering if they have Guantanamo Bay in mind or perhaps other places not on U.S. soil.

FYI, two people on military death row are believed to have exhausted their appeals.

You can see the new report by going here:


Interesting thought

Can't say I totally agree with the following letter to the editor, which appeared in today's Lima (Ohio) News. But it's an interesting perspective:

New way to use death penalty
Recent executions and their associated problems have caused me to
reconsider the question of capital punishment. As a Christian, I cannot deny
government has the right to impose the death penalty on society’s worst
offenders. The scriptural references, even in the New Testament, are too
numerous to ignore.

Still, recent overturns in capital and extended sentence cases have made it
evident that something is lacking in our judicial process; as usual, the Bible
has the answer for us.

What should society do when we determine a prisoner has been wrongly
convicted through contrived evidence or when we find pertinent evidence that
would have freed an individual has been swept under the rug by a prosecutor
whose main interest is advancing his career rather than seeing to the
administration of social justice? The answer can be found in Deuteronomy,
Chapter 19. There we are told, in cases such as these, the offender should
receive the very same sentence he sought to have imposed upon the innocent man:
“And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth
for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

This single provision would go a great distance toward eliminating such
miscarriages of justice and restoring some sense of equity to our failing
judicial system. It wouldn’t fix all of the problems we’re experiencing, but
accountability is certainly a fine place to start.
MARK WELLER, Wapakoneta

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Quote of the day

Today's quote of the day comes from the spokesman for California's prison system, explaining what would have happened if Clarence Ray Allen had suffered a heart attack before he was executed early Tuesday morning. Hat tip to both Tennessee Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's blog and to Ginny Sloan over at the Constitution Project for pointing this out.

From the Associated Press:

"Having suffered a heart attack back in September, Allen had asked prison authorities to let him die if he went into cardiac arrest before his execution, a request prison officials said they would not honor."

"'At no point are we not going to value the sanctity of life,' said prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon. 'We would resuscitate him,' then execute him."

Say what?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Death penalty and Innocence

Death penalty supporters had a fairly sanguine reaction to news of DNA results proving Roger Coleman's guilt. They broadly interpreted the results as proving that the system works -- as if at least 122 people haven't been released from death row after wrongful convictions, as if there is no possibility whatsoever that an innocent person has been executed. By way of rebuttal we offer the following two pieces.

First, an editorial from today's Washington Post:
Closure on Mr. Coleman
Tuesday, January 17, 2006;

MARK R. WARNER's decision in his final days as Virginia's governor to order the retesting of evidence in the case of Roger Keith Coleman has put an important controversy to rest. Mr. Coleman, executed in 1992 for a rape and murder more than a decade earlier, was shown to be guilty as charged. Mr. Coleman persuaded a great many people of his innocence. Even for those, like us, who were not convinced by his claims, his case was among the more disturbing capital cases to go to execution in the modern era of the death penalty. Thanks to Mr. Warner, those concerned that Virginia might have executed an innocent man now know that the commonwealth carried out the death sentence of a murderer -- and a very clever liar.

The decision of whether to allow post-conviction testing is often characterized -- as it was in Mr. Coleman's case -- as a conflict between certainty and the "finality" of convictions upheld by the criminal justice system. As the Coleman case shows, however, the conflict is often fictitious. When a state has locked up -- or in this case put to death -- the right man, it has nothing to fear from the truth. Where a conviction is not solid, finality is not a virtue.

The final proof of Mr. Coleman's guilt is being cited by supporters of the death penalty as evidence that there is nothing wrong with the system. They are wrong. The outcome merely shows that in a single case in which the evidence was thin and the appellate process cut dangerously short by procedural errors, no harm was done in the end. That's reassuring. But it hardly means the death penalty poses no threat to innocents. Mr. Coleman was not innocent. Others facing death no doubt are.
The second piece (which for space reasons I'm excerpting here) is from a web site called www.postrockcountry.com.
We don't think that capital punishment is really about punishment orpreventing crime. We aren't sure exactly what it is about, but we think perhaps, judging from the reaction of the pro- death penalty supporters to the Virginia case, revenge may be the motivation.

The president of Throw Away The Key, Michael Paranzino had harsh remarks about the DNA results and was hardly magnanimous in victory. He also, in our humble opinion, demonstrates one of the problems with the application of the death penalty - gross over generalization.

Paranzio said: "Stop the presses: it turns out that rapists and killers are also liars. Roger Keith Coleman, like every killer on death row, professed his innocence until the very moment he took his last breath. The only problem was, prominent liberals fell for Coleman's lies hook, line and sinker. New DNA tests released today show that the likelihood that the DNA found in the victim was not Coleman's would be 1 in 19 million. In short, Coleman was a killer. Everyone who said otherwise was dead wrong."

As they almost always do, they (The Jury)looked past the defense lies and well-funded pro-killer activist groups to do justice in this case. Thanks to this jury, a rapist-killer is no longer a threat to the women of Virginia. But this case is an important reminder that the pro-killer forces are powerful and relentless."

"But the fact remains, every killer executed since the American death penalty was restored in 1976 has indeed been a cold-blooded killer.

"The next time a death penalty opponent insists that some killer on death row is innocent, remember that's also what they told us about Roger Keith Coleman. Thug huggers have every right to claim innocence for every cold-blooded killer out there, and we have every right to ignore them. Death penalty opponents have long overreached, but this time they got caught. This is a watershed moment that will further weaken their efforts to protect killers from facing justice."

There you have it, 2 sides to the issue. Not exactly. The DNA testing proved guilt and showed that the State Of Virginia did not execute an innocent man when it executed Roger Coleman, it did not demonstrate in any meaningful way that execution was the proper penalty. The testing did demonstrate that in that particular case the individual executed was guilty of the crime. It did not, by any extension of logic, prove that any other verdict in any other case is accurate. It did, once again, demonstrate the high cost of the death penalty. Eleven years of litigation before the execution, 14 more years after. We spend alot of money executing people. Every study shows we spend way more to exercise capital punishment than life imprisonment. There is a moral argument. Thursday's issue did not address the morality of executing anyone, guilty or innocent. How high is the cost on ethical grounds? How high would it have been if the results had turned out differently on Thursday? Will the world be a better place for us all when we wake up Tuesday morning, after an old man has been put to death?

We doubt if anyone will notice a difference.

Friday, January 13, 2006


John Irving once wrote that "a sense of humor is essential."

So here goes.

Someone posted this blog comment out in the blogosphere in response to the Roger Coleman news:

I consider myself part of the anti-death penalty crowd, but this reminds me
of the perhaps apocryphal story of a Missouri governor visiting the
penitentiary in the late 1800s. Asking prisoners about their stories, he was
beseiged with innocent men seeking pardons. Finally one guy, however, admitted
that he had done his crime and was looking forward to finishing the time he had
to pay for his mistake. The governor ordered the guilty man freed. "I don't want
this criminal in here corrupting all of these innocent men," he explained.

One more statement on Coleman test results

From James C. McCloskey, Executive Director of Centurion Ministries:

"With Governor Warner’s announcement, it has been established once and for all, with absolute scientific certainty through unimpeachable DNA testing, that the semen found in Wanda McCoy belongs to Roger Coleman. This means that Roger Coleman is the killer of Wanda McCoy. We now know that Roger’s proclamations of innocence, even as he sat strapped in the electric chair moments before his death, were false.

"We, who seek the truth, must live or die by the sword of DNA. Through my efforts, spanning from 1988 until the day of Roger’s execution on May 20 1992, Centurion Ministries conducted an exhaustive reinvestigation of Roger’s conviction. Up until the Centre of Forensic Sciences issued the most recent DNA results, I had always believed in Roger’s complete innocence. In my view, he had no motive, means, or opportunity to do this crime. I now know that I was wrong. Indeed, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

"Those of us who seek the truth in criminal justice cases must never be afraid of finding it. If there is a means to discover the truth, we must never shrink or shy away from using it in our search. We must never stop the hard effort to touch the factual bottom of any case. The Truth can be very elusive, and even illusory. Our search for facts can delude us into thinking that what we have found is gold, only to discover that it is in fact fool’s gold. But once the gold of absolute truth is revealed, we must embrace it, and be thankful that we have finally uncovered it.

"Believing in Roger’s innocence and even promising him on the night of his execution that I would do all in my power to one day prove his innocence, I have spent the last six years persistently pushing for the post execution DNA testing that was just completed. Even though the results are far different that I expected, and even though this particular truth feels like a kick in the stomach, I do not regret that this effort has at last brought finality to all who have had an interest in this matter. In Socrates’ Apology, he said that, “in doing anything, we ought only consider if, in our doing, we are doing right or wrong. ”This arduous journey was an honest and diligent search for the truth that I believe has served the public interest.

"The search for the truth in establishing Roger Coleman’s innocence or guilt is finally over. The controversy that has surrounded the Coleman case for the last 25 years has now been put to rest, at least as far as I am concerned. I’d like to thank Virginia Governor Mark Warner for authorizing the DNA testing to proceed. Without his intervention, the complete truth would never have been revealed.

"I also want to thank Paul Enzinna, Esq. of the law firm Baker Botts in Washington, DC for partnering with me in our six-year effort to get the DNA testing done.

"I trust that all those with the power and authority to do so throughout the nation will follow in Governor Warner’s footsteps – to have the courage and vision to preserve all the biological evidence and allow post conviction and even post execution DNA and other forensic testing to go forward so that the absolute truth may be known to all. No one should fear the truth. As Governor Warner did, let the DNA chips fall where they may. Only then, can real justice be done."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

More on Roger Coleman

Below is a statement from The Innocence Project on the DNA testing establishing Coleman's guilt:

DNA Results in Coleman Case Finally Reveal the Truth in One Case -- but Don’t Answer Serious Doubts about the Fairness of the Criminal Justice System, Innocence Project Says

‘Today we got just one answer. We need the certainty in every case that we now have in Roger Keith Coleman’s case,’ says Peter Neufeld

(New York; January 12, 2006) – Today, Virginia Governor Mark Warner’s office announced that DNA testing proves that Roger Keith Coleman committed the rape and murder for which he was executed in 1992. The Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted people and helps reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice, released the following statement today from Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project:

“Today, we commend Virginia Governor Mark Warner for his commitment to learning the truth, once and for all, in the Coleman case. Just as he was the first governor to recently order blanket testing of old non-capital cases, as soon as two men were exonerated following testing of the first batch of 30, he is the first and only governor to order posthumous testing in a capital case.

“For the sake of victims, the wrongly accused, law enforcement officials and the public at large, our criminal justice system must be based on finding the truth. DNA testing can provide certainty in many cases because it can confirm guilt, demonstrate innocence or help identify the true perpetrator. We call on governors in every other state to immediately catalog and test evidence in cases of people with claims of innocence who have been executed, so that we can have the certainty in every case that we now have in Roger Keith Coleman’s case.

“In the last three decades, 1,004 people have been executed in the United States, and there is critical DNA evidence in many of those cases that has never been tested. While nobody can say with certainty how many of these cases there are, nobody honestly doubts their existence or the seriousness of the questions they raise. Today we got just one answer, and one man can not speak for the correctness of the verdicts in a thousand other capital cases. Given the extraordinary number of post-conviction exonerations and the thousands more cleared by DNA testing while awaiting trial, questions and doubts about the fairness of our justice system are pervasive. Nobody can be satisfied about the correctness of one thousand based on the correctness of one.”

Since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, 172 people have been exonerated based on DNA evidence. Of those, 14 spent time on death row – including some who were within hours of being executed. For more on the Innocence Project, affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, go to www.innocenceproject.org.

Roger Coleman's DNA results

By now, many people visiting this blog have heard the news: DNA testing confirms the guilt of Roger Keith Coleman of Virginia.

With Gov. Warner’s decision to order testing, a precedent has been set. Regardless of this outcome, more DNA testing in more death penalty cases – involving both those who currently sit on death row awaiting execution and, where possible, those who have been executed – is something we should all strive for, whether one favors or opposes the death penalty. Those of us who work in this area -- who know the death penalty system inside and out -- strongly suspect that innocent people in this country have been executed in what is known as the “modern” era. And we know that innocent people currently sit on death row. At the very least, we know that at least 122 people have been released from death row because they were wrongfully convicted, and some of these exonerees were released due to DNA testing.

The decision to test was a victory for many. It was a victory for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which NCADP is proud to call an affiliate, and which campaigned tirelessly for the tests to be done. It was a victory for the family of Wanda McCoy, which deserved to be absolutely certain of the guilt of the convicted person. And I think it was a victory for all of us who believe that we must always strive to engage in truth-finding.

Below is a statement from Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

DNA Testing Sets Precedent

"We are thankful to Gov. Warner for his continuing efforts to advance the cause of justice through the application of the latest scientific advances in DNA technology. His order to test the existent DNA in the case of a man who was executed in 1992, has set a precedent. Had he not done so, no resolution of the persistent question of Mr. Coleman’s guilt or innocence could have been achieved. In cases where issues of possible innocence are unresolved that future scientific developments could lead to resolution it is vital that the evidence be preserved. Virginia’s precedent of the posthumous testing of existent DNA evidence underscores the necessity of the retention of such biological exhibits so that further developments in the testing of DNA evidence can be used to clear up questions of possible innocence of executed individuals. It is now incumbent upon the Commonwealth to enact statutes that require the post-execution preservation of such testable evidence.

"In the vast majority of cases in which DNA is not available or part of the case it is especially critical that the original trial be as fair, complete, and vigorous as possible. In this case we finally can close a chapter with certainty, but in so many cases in which DNA testing is unavailable that certainty can never be attained. And, in too many cases, lingering doubt about the guilt of the executed remains. "

Houston crime lab scandal

[Update: USA Today reports that the "FBI is reviewing the cases of all state and federal prisoners scheduled for execution to determine whether bureau fingerprint examiners made errors that led to death sentences." More as the story develops]

Even as we await word on the DNA test results in the case of Roger Keith Coleman, who went to his death proclaiming his innocence, the lid is being blown off of the ongoing Houston crime lab scandal. The Houston Chronicle is now reporting that the laboratory conducted flawed DNA testing in the cases of at least three individuals -- and possibly a fourth -- who are now on Texas death row awaiting execution.

To read the latest, go here.

FYI, three of the Texas inmates' names are Franklin Dewayne Alix, Juan Carlos Alvarez, and Gilmar Alex Guevara. I do not know the fourth person's name.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Talk about wrongful convictions

From yesterday's edition of Iran Focus:

Iran to hang teenage girl attacked by rapists

An Iranian court has sentenced a teenage rape victim to death by hanging after she weepingly confessed that she had unintentionally killed a man who had tried to rape both her and her niece.

The state-run daily Etemaad reported on Saturday that 18-year-old Nazanin confessed to stabbing 1 of 3 men who had attacked the pair along with their boyfriends while they were spending some time in a park west of the Iranian capital in March 2005.

Nazanin, who was 17 years old at the time of the incident, said that after the three men started to throw stones at them, the 2 girls' boyfriends quickly escaped on their motorbikes leaving the pair helpless.

She described how the three men pushed her and her 16-year-old niece Somayeh onto the ground and tried to rape them, and said that she took out a knife from her pocket and stabbed one of the men in the hand.

As the girls tried to escape, the men once again attacked them, and at this point, Nazanin said, she stabbed one of the men in the chest. The teenage girl, however, broke down in tears in court as she explained that she had no intention of killing the man but was merely defending herself and her younger niece from rape, the report said.

The court, however, issued on Tuesday a sentence for Nazanin to be hanged to death. Last week, a court in the city of Rasht, northern Iran, sentenced Delara Darabi to death by hanging. Darabi has denied the charges.

In August 2004, Iran's Islamic penal system sentenced a 16-year-old girl, Atefeh Rajabi, to death after a sham trial, in which she was accused of committing "acts incompatible with chastity."

The teenage victim had no access to a lawyer at any stage and efforts by her family to retain one were to no avail. Atefeh personally defended herself and told the religious judge that he should punish those who force women into adultery, not the victims. She was eventually hanged in public in the northern town of Neka.

Monday, January 09, 2006

NJ Moratorium Moves Closer

I spent the day Monday sitting in the New Jersey General Assembly watching it vote on bill after bill. Shortly after the very last bit of sunlight disappeared from view on the east bank of the Delaware River in Trenton our bill, the DP study and moratorium bill came up. The final vote was almost anticlimatic. Before anyone realized the vote hit the 40 votes needed to carry the bill, then 50, and finally 55 voting yes, 21 voting no, with two abstentions. Approximately 40% of the republicans in the chamber appear to have joined in the yes vote which is why it ended up moving and passing. Congrats to all those who helped make this happen.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The innocence argument: A tipping point in 2006?

For at least the past five years and maybe a little longer, the death penalty debate, in part, has been dominated by news of the number of wrongfully convicted people who have been sentenced to death. That number stands at at least 122. You can see one list of people who were wrongfully convicted here.

Now the debate appears to be shifting in a fundamental way. People are no longer content to just discuss wrongful convictions. The debate has moved to the question of whether we have executed people who were innocent.

It's timely to bring this up in light of Gov. Warner's decision to order DNA testing in the case of Roger Keith Coleman. We honestly don't know what the tests will show.

But Coleman is the tip of the iceberg. Don't forget these cases -- click on the links if you want more info:

In Missouri, a local prosecutor is looking into whether Larry Griffin was wrongfully executed in 1995.

In Texas, back in December 2004, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative piece about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed earlier that year.

Also in Texas, the case of Ruben Cantu remains in the news. He was executed in 1993 under the watch of Democratic Gov. Ann Richards. The Houston Chronicle strongly suggested he was innocent of the crime for which he was put to death.

Of course, some in the abolition movement have long had their own lists of people they think were executed despite innocence. Of the four cases I've mentioned today, two were very much on people's radar screens -- Coleman and Griffin. But Willingham and Cantu weren't, which makes one wonder how many other wrongful convictions are out there.

Equal Justice USA, a project of the Quixote Center, documented 16 cases where people were executed despite of possible or probable innocence. You can see there report here. (When you go to the link, look to the left for a list of cases, organized state by state.) Full disclosure: The Quixote Center is an affiliate of NCADP and the report was authored by Claudia Whitman, an NCADP board member.

Shout out to Marc Masferrer

Stumbled across a familiar name the other day. Well, truth be told, actually he stumbled across this blog. His name is Marc Masferrer and he runs a blog that is refreshing in its candor and direct writing style. It's called Uncommon Sense.

Marc is a former reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald, which was owned by the same company that owned the paper I used to work for, the Austin American-Statesman. He now works for a newspaper in Florida.

Marc's blog has a special section on the death penalty. You can access it here.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Roger Coleman DNA to be tested

It's official! Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia has ordered that DNA evidence in the case of Roger Keith Coleman, who was executed more than a decade ago, be tested. Here is a statement on this development from Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty:

"Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty applauds GovernorWarner's decision to test the DNA in the Roger Keith Coleman case. His action is an example of justice triumphing over easy politics.

Ordering this test was the only fair thing to do. Justice demands, and families deserve, certainty. We need to know that theperson punished for the crime actually committed that crime. This is especially important when it comes to the death penalty, because our mistakes cannot be corrected.

We have recently learned that Texas may have executed an innocent man. Missouri is reopening the case of an executed man believed to be innocent. An innocent man died of a heart attack on Florida's death row, and more than 120 people who spent time on death row have been freed because they were wrongfully convicted.

Regardless of the outcome of the test, Virginia has now set a precedent for the posthumous testing of existent DNA evidence and the retention of such biological exhibits so that further developments in the testing of DNA evidence can be used to resolve questions of possible innocence of executed individuals.

We join with the families of the Wanda McCoy and of Roger Coleman in praying that an innocent man was not executed for a crime he could not have committed. The only way to ensure that no innocent person dies is to impose a moratorium until the questions that surround the death penalty can be addressed."


The blog What is Liberalism has some interesting graphics and comments about the Cory Maye situation. (Look back in December if you are visiting here for the first time -- Maye is a wrongfully convicted person on Mississippi's death row.)

This story is all over the blogosphere but still has not penetrated the MSM (mainstream media). We've got to keep talking about it and keep blogging on it until it does.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Abolitionist seeks Texas House seat

NCADP is a 501 (c) 3 organization, which means we cannot take positions in partisan elections. We follow this rule closely. Especially in this day and age of Jack Abramhoff et al, it is more important than ever to play by the rules.

As a 501 (c) 3 organization, however, NCADP is certainly allowed to engage in public education about political candidates and their positions on the death penalty. It is well within the rules, therefore, to tell you that there is an abolitionist candidate running for the Texas House of Representatives out of northeast Texas. His name is Patrick Franklin and today we received the following email message from him:

I am a candidate for the Texas State Legislature. I am campaigning to increase
vocal opposition to capital punishment in my state.As you know, Texas is
responsible for a disproportional share of all modern executions. Recently, we
have learned that at least one man executed by the state, Ruben Cantu, is likely
innocent of the charges for which he was convicted.Now the case of Marvin Lee
Wilson is before us, a mentally handicapped inmate who will soon be executed
despite the Supreme Court Ruling in Atkins v. Virginia which holds such
executions to be unconstitutional. The reason we are still executing him? His
lawyer missed a deadline.

I'm tired of letting this happen in my own state without saying anything about it, and that is why I am running as a Democrat for the State Legislature. I am unopposed in my primary, so I will be facing the Republican Incumbent in November.

The purpose of my campaign is to raise the profile of the anti-death penalty movement in my own community, which is very conservative. I will need the help of others in the abolitionist movement to gain early momentum in this race.
I hope that your organization can help in some capacity. I assume that you are a non-partisan group and can not take positions in elections. I would hope, however, that you could help by putting me in touch with activists in Texas who could help my cause.

Any thoughts you might have on other ways you may be of assistance to me would be appreciated as well.

My blog is located at:

If you have questions for me or about me, contact my campaign:

Patrick Franklin, Candidate, TX House, District 7
(903) 806-4096

Quote of the day

...comes from Zen and the Art of Obsession (this is the second day in a row I'm quoting from a pro-death penalty blog. But we take good material wherever we can find it!)

“No man treats a motor car as foolishly as he treats another human being. When the car will not go, he does not attribute its annoying behavior to sin, he does not say, 'You are a wicked motorcar, and I shall not give you any more petrol until you go.' He attempts to find out what is wrong and set it right. “

--Bertrand Russell.

Zen and the Art of Obsession adds this postscript:

"Instead of always killing the problem I think most of our time and money would be better spent if we tried to fix it."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

In the matter of Roger Keith Coleman

Suddenly this blog has been getting lots of email relating to the Roger Keith Coleman case. We're not sure why -- in fact we're a bit perplexed by it, since we haven't mentioned the Coleman case lately, although it was in a Washington Post editorial that we posted last week.

But we at Abolish the Death Penalty are always game to debate the death penalty any time, any where. So bring it on! Should Coleman's DNA be tested?

One of the most comprehensive posts authored lately comes from The Original Musings. An excerpt about the case:

That connect-the-dot evidence discounted tangible, physical evidence that
pointed to Coleman's innocence. There were also actual live witnesses who saw
and talked to Coleman right before and after the time of the murder, which
happened right after he'd just gotten off work at the coal mine. His time card.
His employer. The prosecution's own time frame was virtually impossible --
Coleman had something like an eleven minute window of opportunity to not only
run the distance and commit the crime, he also had to get back to his vehicle
and clean himself of any traces of blood or injury, not to mention the removal
of mud and water from his foot travel to and from the scene of the crime which
would have required him to wade across Slate Creek. And then he had to behave
normally, and not be out of breath, excited, uneasy or in any other way
demonstrate concern or worry about anything. And he had to heal really quickly
-- because Wanda fought her attacker.

To read the whole post -- it's long but well worth it -- go here.

And Original Musings, I might add, is a supporter of the death penalty.