Tuesday, November 28, 2006

'I didn't want to be part of it anymore'

Former death row prison warden changes mind on death penalty

From the St. Petersburg Times:

Dennis O'Neill had been an assistant warden at Florida State Prison for two years and warden at Union Correctional Institution for 7 years, both death row prisons. He eventually left the correctional system and became an Episcopal priest. He was assigned back to the town of Starke, Florida, where death row inmates reside.

As a correctional officer, he had been involved in more than a dozen executions over 14 years, but now O'Neill opposes the death penalty. "For years, I told myself it was the law of the land, and went along with it," he says. "But several things really got to me: the arbitrary nature of who was executed. The fact that the person strapped in the chair or gurney often showed genuine, heartfelt change and was rarely the same person who committed the crime. And, my realization that antiseptic killing is as bad as raw and naked killing. "

"I didn't want to be a part of it anymore," he says. "I realized I wanted to be part of a healing, merciful world, not a punishing one." His congregation has also been moved by his new message.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Reviewing John Grisham

We've taken note of but yet to post a review of John Grisham's new nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.

Here's a good one, lifted from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Guilty until proven innocent ---- John Grisham goes all non-fiction in his latest miscarriage-of- justice tale

Accounts of wrongful convictions have earned Cook County a well-deserved bad reputation as a place where too many police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, forensic examiners and judges care more about clearing a case from the books than about justice. But miscarriages of justice occur all across the United States, including small cities not normally associated with corruption, such as Ada, Okla., where the wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz live in infamy.

The arrests of Williamson and Fritz never made sense to those outside the criminal justice system. It was almost as if everyone involved did not care about whether they had apprehended the actual perpetrators, and did not worry about whether the actual rapist/murderer might still be at liberty, destroying other victims.

For those who keep tabs on wrongful convictions across the nation, the Williamson/Fritz case is legendary, perhaps the most egregious instance ever of incompetence and dishonesty by police, forensic examiners, prosecutors and judges.

Despite previous publications about this particular miscarriage of justice, the wrongful murder convictions of the two men have not made them household names. Best-selling novelist John Grisham could change all that with his first nonfiction book about the Oklahoma case.

Debra Sue Carter, 21, worked at a bar. At the end of her shift, past midnight, she walked to her car. Witnesses saw her talking to a man who frequented the bar and who had earned a reputation as an unpleasant guy with a hot temper. Carter made it back to her apartment, either alone or with somebody else. A friend found Carter dead in the apartment about midday.

After 16 best-selling novels that have made Grisham a household name and a wealthy man, the author has decided that truth is stranger than fiction. Because of Grisham's fan base, The Innocent Man is quite likely to reach best-seller status, too. Deservedly so, in my opinion.

During early December 2004, Grisham noticed an obituary in the New YorkTimes under the headline "Ronald Williamson, Freed From Death Row, Dies at51." How had he missed the original reports about the 1982 rape/murder,the arrest of Williamson and Fritz five years later, the trials and appeals, the brutal imprisonment of the defendants, and finally the exoneration of both men after the state of Oklahoma came within five days of executing Williamson and placing Fritz in prison for the rest of his life?"

"Not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and layered as Ron's," Grisham said later. "And, as I would soon learn, the obituary barely scratched the surface. Within a few hours, I had talked to his sisters, Annette and Renee, and suddenly I had a book on my hands."

After researching the case, Grisham could not believe his good fortune as an author and his dismay as a lawyer who wanted to believe the best about the criminal justice system."

"With every visit and every conversation, the story took a differentturn," Grisham said. "I could have written 5,000 pages."

For all its strengths, the book barely mentions some factors. The most diehard advocates for the U.S. criminal justice system have mostly conceded that after decades of denial, wrongful convictions occur every year, in many of the 50 states, and frequently in the same local jurisdictions over and over because the same police officers and the same prosecutors refuse to learn from their mistakes.

4 years after Carter's murder, the lack of closure on the case -- there had been no arrests -- embarrassed the Ada police and the local prosecutor. There was an obvious suspect -- a man with motive, means and opportunity -- but, for unexplained reasons, the police never arrested him. Nor did they have any solid evidence on Williamson and Fritz. But, using Williamson's mental illness against him, police convinced the prosecutor that an alleged murderous dream Williamson had told them about constituted evidence, and that the dream pointed to Fritz as well.

Grisham's saga features a few heroes, including some open-minded, persistent lawyers, judges, private investigators and journalists.

It is not a feel-good book despite the exonerations of Williamson andFritz. It is an important book, however. Maybe with Grisham shouting out the causes and frequency of wrongful convictions, reform will occur in every jurisdiction, rather than only a few.

(source: Steve Weinberg is a free-lance investigative reporter who writes frequently about the criminal justice system; Chicago Sun-Times)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Witness to an execution

The following essay found it's way to my in box. The death penalty leaves in its wake a great many victims. There are, of course, the original victims -- murder victims' friends and family members. There are also friends and loved ones of the person being executed.

I do not know if Gregory Summers was innocent or not. I do know that he did not receive a fair trial. I also know that he had a large number of supporters who felt he was innocent.

This is a story of one supporter. It's a long story, much longer than things we usually put on this blog. But it is well worth the read.

He is dead.

Without looking at us, his eyes open and focused on the ceiling. Pronounced dead at sixteen minutes after nine in the evening.

In the morning we had a good visit, together with Caterina, Greg's best friend from
Italy and head of his Italian defense committee. Greg is cheerful. He tells how he spoke with Major Nelson when they brought him to the visitor's room, and how he asked her to explain the Warden’s decision to only allow two visitors for this final visit. A few minutes later the Major comes by and apologizes to Greg because the Warden had made a wrong decision. Also this visit we could have changed visitors, and thus my brother Ivo could have come too to visit Greg. So be it. I can’t call Ivo
and, even if he would be in the motelroom, it would cost him an hour to drive from Huntsville to Livingston and today we only have a four hour visit. Besides, Ivo now has the time to do a bunch of things that need to be done and he already said his goodbye words yesterday.

Halfway through the visit Greg's properties get brought into the visiting room: four
huge full bags. Yesterday we already took the three bags full with books with us. Greg explains what is in the bags. To lose the radio is what pains him most, it has been his most valuable and precious possession during the past sixteen years on
death row. If he gets a stay and will be brought back to the Polunsky Unit in
Livingston, he will lose everything because his stuff is not allowed to come back with him.

We take pictures and thank god they are okay. Something to be happy with
because you never can tell what the outcome will be with a Polaroid camera. But Mrs. Williams, the officer, does her best and even gets us so far that we smile. Greg is strong. Shows himself moderately optimistic because of the testimony of William Spaulding that was released yesterday. Spaulding has been a key witness in Greg's first trial, and in this testimony he admits that he was paid by the State of Texas, and lied about the answers Greg gave him to the questions the State had wanted
him to ask. Spaulding now admits that Greg never confessed to him that he
had asked Andrew Cantu to kill his adoptive parents. Also Spaulding’s lawyer
has released similar testimony.

According to one of her interns, Danalynn, Greg's lawyer, is supposed to come
at ten o’clock. But we wait in vain. We hate that, because we have so many
questions, but we expect that the reason for her not showing up is that she is really busy for Greg. There is someone else who comes by: the TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) chaplain, who wants to know whether we will come to the Hospitality House, where we are expected to be at three o’clock, to hear what the procedure will be and what we can expect during the execution. I tell him that we want to go back to our motel room directly after the explanation, so that we can take Greg's final phone call in our own room and with only the three of us.

As it is almost noon and thus time to say goodbye, I ask Greg to give my love to my mom and dad when he meets them in heaven. He does not hear me out, does not want to say farewell. To stay strong, we deny the possibility that he will be
executed. And thus we kiss the glass, tell him that we love him, and then two officers take us to the exit. Walking towards the door, we look back, in the hope that Greg has turned around for a final goodbye, but all we see is his back.

In the meantime a prisoner has put Gregs belongings on the path at the entrance of the Unit. Cat gets the car and we drag the incredibly heavy unwieldy bags to the car and into the trunk. A knot of officers is standing at the doors, sheltering from the pouring rain; they laugh and make jokes about the weather. None of them lifts a finger to help us.

As fast as possible we go back to the motel. There is so much to do till we are supposed to be at the Hospitality House. We have to buy clothes for Greg, who wants to be buried in a pink western shirt and black jeans. We have decided to wear the same clothes during the execution, and thus we also have to buy them for ourselves. We race from the Wal*Mart to Baskins, succeed only partly and will have to go back later. But first we have to run to the Hospitality House where we meet two chaplains: one who is gonna be with Greg in the death house all the time and who will be with him during the execution, and one for us. We will meet ‘ours’ at five o’clock at the TDCJ administrationbuilding. He will be with us till after the execution. We
listen to what lies ahead of us and after that we drive quickly back to the motel.

At ten to four the phone rings. Greg is on the line. We turn the speaker on so that all three of us can hear him and talk with him. All four of us act as if this is a very normal phone conversation. Greg tells Ivo to get the radio out of the bag and
explains him how we may use the radio in our own country. Then he wants me
to look for all the unused stamps so that I can give them to his lawyer. We joke and laugh. Laugh to not have to cry. God, how hard we try to stay strong! At a quarter past four Greg hangs up. Yesterday I spoke with Lovisa, the lady who wrote with Greg even before I started to write, but who hasn’t spoken with Greg for more than ten years now. She and I had contact now and then and that’s how she found out about the execution date, and Tuesday evening, when we had our special Shout Out show for Greg on the KDOL radio station in Livingston, she called in and spoke to him. Thank god I had her phone number, and thus now Greg can call her himself.
We are happy when Greg finally calls us again at a quarter to five. Ivo almost gives away that the three of us will be dressed in pink/black tonight, but I want it to be a surprise. (Because he never looked at us during the execution, he never has been able to see this. Darn, I wished we had told him!)

At five to five we have to say our final farewell, although Greg still shows himself
moderately optimistic and hopes for a stay. And thus I arrange for next Monday a two hour visit, before flying back home. Cat tells Greg that we have to run to be in time at the Wall’s Unit, for our meeting with the chaplain. What an incredible bullshit-situation: tell him that we have to run so that we will be in time for his execution!! Ever experienced a more bizarre situation?! We all stay strong, although for a moment there is a long silence at Greg's side at the end of our call. One more time we say that we love each other. Bye Greg, stay strong!

Immediately we have to go to the TDCJ administration building that’s opposite to the Wall’s Unit. The chaplain is already waiting for us. We enter the building,
walk through the hallway, to the left, then to the right, into a scanty canteen-like room. Four tables with four plastic chairs around each of them, two plastic benches in one corner, another one in an other. A constant droning noise of the ice machine, a machine with the usual junk food and one with soda’s. Glaring, cold fluorescent light. The waiting can start.

None of us says a word. A few moments later someone enters the room. It’s a
‘security’-man and he will go upstairs now and then to talk with the press and with someone with the DA's office who all will constantly be updated about the current situation. They are, we are not. There seem to be five motions filed with several Courts. That’s all we know. Outside we have seen a couple of people, waiting at the
‘demonstration-spot’, and some press-people. We are not particularly a ‘high
profile’-case.

At a quarter to six the chaplain tells us that apparently a lot of stuff is still going on, because ‘normally’ this would be the time for the officers to come in and to check us, before going to the other side of the street for the execution.

We are all three so tired, so extremely tired of all the tension and the emotions. We walk up and down, are allowed to walk in the hallway, and I am even allowed to go out of the building to see how many people are demonstrating. There are not a lot of them. The rain is still coming out in buckets.

Back inside. It’s half past six, then seven o’clock. The hopes for a stay are growing and I think of all the things we can do now to save Gregs life. So many people think it’s outrageous what happened to Greg. More than a thousand people have signed the petition. Finally the media are right on the ball. Now we must be able to get all
these people together to one huge mass of fighters! No longer we have to do it alone. Jimmy Carter has offered his help, president Prodi has asked for clemency, Susan Sarandon has signed the petition and so did Mike Farrell. With all these people we have to succeed!!

We close our eyes for a second. I even partly lie down on the bench, my head
on my jeansjacket, and doze off…

"MAARTJE!!!" From real far I hear Ivo call me. I open my eyes and look in the stone-cold faces of two officers, a man and a woman. It is half past eight. Within a split second I realize: gone are my dreams, gone are my plans. Officers in this room means that all motions are exhausted and denied. Means that the execution will
take place. The band around my breast squeezes, my heart beats like a madman. No God, no, please, NOOOO!!!!!!!! The female officer takes Cat and me to the bathroom. We are allowed to pee one more time, then she frisks us and checks us with the metal detector. Back to the room to pick up our passports and jackets. I realize that this is the end. The fight is over.

In the Hospitality House the chaplain had told us that a part of the media people would be with us in the witness room, and that they probably would write down everything we said or did during the execution and would possibly publish. Cat, Ivo and me have decided to say no word and to be strong, like Greg would have
wanted.

We hold each other's hands and walk to the elevator that brings us to another
floor. We exit the building, TDCJ-people in front of us, the chaplain and the security man behind us. We cross the street to the Wall’s Unit, wave in the dark to the people who are there outside, who are there for Greg and for us. Climb the stairs and arrive at the building. The door opens and we go into a room at our left. There are some five people standing, hanging, leaning against tables. Press- and TDCJ-people. For a
moment they are silent, curiously looking at us, but after a few moments they continue joking and talking. The guy in front of us, sitting with his fat American
ass on the edge of a table, writing pad in his hand, is tapping with his pen against the table, yawns, looks at his watch, as if he is thinking: "Hey, can’t we speed this up a bit, we are already almost three hours behind, I want to go home." We are standing there, refuse a chair, are silent. The waiting is long, but then I hear click-clacking from the corridor, and Michelle Lyon, the TDCJ-employee, enters the room: "They are ready."

We grab each other's hand and the three of us follow the officials. I feel as if we are taking part in a movie, but it’s definitely a horror-movie. The corridor is long, we turn a corner, and come into the visiting room. The room hardly differs from the one in the Wynne Unit where I always visit Norman and Jim. At the end of the room is a door that leads to a kind of small garden. At the end another door. Someone opens
it and let us go first. At a distance of only FIVE metres there is Greg! My breath stops short and I feel I start to hyperventilate. Apparently the effect of the Oxazepam has worn off. We walk the three steps to the window, press our hands firmly upon the glass. Without the glass we could have touched Greg. He lies there, we see him from the side, his head at our left, his feet at our right, his arms stretched out to the left and the right, like Jesus on the cross, a drip in both hands. Apparently they first have tried to find the veins at the inside of his elbow, for there is a bandage. Poor Greg. He always complained how damn hard it was to let them pull blood from those veins. At last they apparently have used the veins in his hands.
They are hidden in huge mitten, almost like boxing gloves. A sheet covers his body up till his neck. I look at his breast. He seems to be pretty calm, but how must he have felt during all the preparations for this killing, during the buckling up of the many belts, during the try to find a vein for the poison? Did he panic or was he
maybe actually relieved that it finally was gonna happen? We will never know. He stares at the ceiling, where a big spotlight shines on his face and here a microphone hangs till just above his mouth. The tears are oh so close. But we have to stay strong, not let ‘them’ see our grief. Greg can’t hear us, but we hear everything that is said inside. A door at the left opens and closes again. Apparently the sign that the killing can take place. The Warden, standing behind Gregs head, asks if Greg has a final statement. We hear him say ‘no.’ The TDCJ-chaplain has his hand on Gregs right ankle. The Warden nods. Greg faces death with his eyes open. No final look at us, no ‘goodbye’. We understand it. He is brave for us, we are brave for him. Hopefully the sodium thiopental will quickly do its job and make Greg slip away in a coma so that he won’t feel that the pancuronium bromide will let his lungs collapse. We see and hear that happen when the ‘breath-snore’ comes from his nose and mouth. They had warned us for it, but yet it gives us a shock. Now there certainly is no way back. Ivo, Cat and I huddle together, arms around each other's shoulders, the free hand upon the glass. We silently say farewell, and while the potassium chloride is going through his veins and stops his heart, we wish him a safe trip home. We cry, but very silently. What a dignity from Greg, and from us!

The doctor comes in. Looks into Gregs eyes, feels his neck, listens to his heart and pronounces Greg dead at 21:16. He puts the sheet over Gregs head. It is done. Prisoner # 999010 is dead, number 22 of this year. An innocent man has been ‘legally’ murdered.

We are requested to come with the officials. With our arms around each other we leave the room, go back the way to the waiting-canteen, pick up the rest of our stuff, give the chaplain a hand, and exit the building without looking at anyone and without saying a word. It is almost half past nine. We walk to the demonstration corner to thank any possible protesters. The spot is empty, everyone has gone. Oh well, who
would want to stand in the rain for four hours. Even the Texas weather is crying with us. Gosh, how lonesome we feel! No one from the lawyer’s office that helped Greg, no protesters. Only we three, all alone on an island. In the rain. No one to
comfort us, no one… just the three of us… two minutes after they’ve killed our Greg.

At ten o’clock we are welcomed at the Huntsville Funeral Home to say farewell to Greg. Here too we feel as if we are acting in a movie. Everything looks so much like in ‘Six Feet Under,’ the American series that takes place in a funeral home. We are
friendly welcomed and brought to the room where Greg is. We were prepared that we would see Greg the way they had brought him in from the death house. And that’s indeed the case. He lies on a kind of board, on a carry on wheels. The sheet up to his breast. His hands in the waistband to avoid that his arms would fall aside the carry. Thank god without the ‘boxing handgloves’. Enormous purple stains in his face and neck, especially at the right side because the doctor had turned his face to
the right to see ‘Death’ in Greg's eyes. His left eye a wee bit opened. A very vague smile around his lips, as if he has seen something just before dying that we were
unable to see. Hopefully it were his parents welcoming him in heaven.

For the first time in all these years we can touch him. For the first time a different human touch than the hands of an officer around his cuffed arms. For sixteen years he had to do without a loving touch. Now that he is dead, and will not know about it, now we, his friends, can touch him. He is still a bit warm. His hair is so soft, his skin rough. Here we can finally cry. We can stay as long as we want. We take some pictures to assure ourselves later that he is really dead. We stay for fifteen minutes, stroke his cheek, give a kiss on his forehead. Then we each say our personal goodbyes and go back to the motel. I call Connie, with whom I started this fight for Greg's life almost fourteen years ago, she is at the vigil in Holland. I record a message for my home front, take a pill and fall asleep crying, still unaware of the enormous bunch of phone calls we will have to make to Greg’s lawyer’s office that handled Greg's case, but from whom we will never hear again, who not even called us to hear how the execution went or how we were doing, and that now has given the full responsibility for the fulfillment of Greg's wishes to us; the many phone calls to Italy and the Italian consulate, the drives to Houston, the faxes, the e-mails, the visits to casket-stores and funeral homes that are waiting on us after the execution, and still unaware of everything that needs to be arranged for Greg's funeral in Italy.

On Monday morning, October 30, we say our final farewell to Greg. The next time
we will be together with him, will be in Cascine, some 15 kilometres from Pisa, where the mayor and Greg's correspondence friend, Maria, have offered Greg a last resting-place. A place where he is more than welcome, and far away from Texas, where they have never given him a fair trial and where they killed him for omething he didn’t do.

Goodbye my dearest Greg… sorry we didn’t succeed in proving your innocence
through a fair trial. The ‘system’ turned out to be too strong for us. Gosh, how we had hoped…

Friday, November 03, 2006

Not clear on the point, but thanks for stopping by!

Yesterday we posted an entry about the excellent two-part series in the Austin American Statesman that detailed Texas' broken death penalty appellate system. (Scroll down if you haven't seen our original post.)

Someone named "Anonymous" stopped by to comment. Because their comment seems to reflect the views of many death penalty supporters, we thought it fair to post here and respond to it:

Anonymous wrote:

No legal help? Not being a lawyer, I seem to remember reading about these little laws and rights designed to protect anyone in the legal justice system, we call them 'Miranda Rights' (Ernesto Miranda kidnapped and raped the 18 year old woman in that case BTW, which was later proved in the case retrial), we also call one of these laws the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (no self incrimination except us military types) and the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) as well as dozens of other like minded laws. Isn't the real question here who is willing to foot the bill for the overwhelming number of GUILTY death row offenders who tie up the legal system ad-nauseam to keep their worthless carcasses alive with appeals submissions. What isn't fair is not that they don't have adequate legal representation, it is that the victims of those who are on death row for a crime don't have the recourse to 'appeal' to the perpetrator to 'un'commit the horrible crime for which the criminal ended up on death row to begin with.

My response:

What is interesting is not so much what Anonymous says but what he doesn't say:

1. He completely ignores the entire Austin American-Statesman series and the issues it raises. No matter; you can read it here and decide for yourself.

2. He fails to acknowledge the more than 100 people who have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged during the habeas appellate process. Perhaps Anonymous does not care that innocent people are sent to death row because, after all, it would never happen to him?

3. He fails to acknowledge that innocent people have been executed. The list starts with Ruben Cantu, Carolos De Luna, Larry Griffin and Cameron Todd Cunningham. Those are the ones we know about.

We said it yesterday and it bears repeating: Habeas a complex, drawn-out process -- exonerations occur as a result of habeas appeals, and if you are innocent and have an incompetent habeas attorney then you will be executed. It's that simple.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

That creaking sound you hear....

...is the sound of Texas' death penalty system continuing to crumble at its very foundation.

This past weekend, my alma mater, the Austin American-Statesman, published an extremely well researched series by reporter Chuck Lindell. The series examined the abysmal state of Texas' death penalty appellate system.

Folks, this is arguably the most important death-penalty related journalism done in the United States this year. My friend and colleague Steve Hall calls it a "must read." It's not sexy stuff like the recent Chicago Tribune and Houston Chronicle articles suggesting that innocent people were executed. Rather, it's a very comprehensive and complex look at the sorry state of death penalty appeals in Texas. And remember: Death row exonerations do not miraculously happen. There's no Perry Mason moment when suddenly judges and prosecutors come to their senses and release innocent people. It's a complex, drawn-out process -- exonerations occur as a result of habeas appeals, and if you are innocent and have an incompetent habeas attorney then you will be executed. It's that simple.

I won't go into the whole series -- you can read it here. (Note: this takes a moment to download.)

But I do want to quote legal blogger Andrew Cohen, who posted a piece headlined, "Why the death penalty soon will be abolished." His piece concludes:

Either states like Texas will spend the time and money necessary to fix their problems or, ultimately, the Supreme Court will fix the problems for them. A generation ago, the Court simply declared unconstitutional the death penalty in America until states were willing and able to generate consistent standards for determining when a capital sentence was justifiied or not. It's not about to happen in the next few days, or months, or perhaps even years. But at the rate things are going, and with the mess in Texas being just a prominent tip of an iceberg that floats through states like Oklahoma and Florida as well, it is virtually a certainty that one day soon the Supreme Court will shut down the whole process again until things get fixed. And if and when that happens, death penalty proponents in Texas and elsewhere, the ones who allow men and women to be executed without getting decent legal help, will have no one to blame but themselves.