Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sunday news round-up

The Sunday roundup begins with a background piece on one of the leading death penalty lawyers in America, John Blume, who now, in addition to litigating, teaches at Cornell Law School.

Yesterday, Blume spoke about this most recent case, the controversial death penalty and the “abolitionist” movement against it, in Myron TaylorHall. Blume emphasized he has witnessed injustices in his experience with death penalty cases. In a recent case, a black man from South Carolina was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a white woman. As his initial defense lawyer had never tried a felony case before, much less one involving capital punishment, his argument was based on the pretense that his client was a large, black man and could not have possibly raped a woman without vaginal tearing. The lawyer failed to account for the fact that his client was mentally retarded, uneducated and had grown up in dire poverty. “Often, the only really experienced lawyer in the courtroom is the prosecutor, and for the defense, it’s amateur hour,” Blume said.

The death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, and, since then, 114 people on death row have been exonerated. According to Blume, even without the cost of appeals, these capital cases cost states 10 to 30 times more than “life without parole cases,” and, with the adoption of “life without parole” sentencing in most states, American support for the death penalty is dropping.

“We’re seeing bills we wouldn’t have imagined 5 or 10 years ago,” he said, referring to the changing attitudes about capital punishment in the U.S.

He cited the governors of Maryland and Virginia, both fairly conservative states, as abolitionists. Other conservative states, such as Nebraska, Montana and New Mexico, have also, according to Blume, introduced legislation that opposes the death penalty, and although it has not passed, he sees it as a positive step.

“There is some synergy to it. I believe that if it happens in one or two places and people see that the world didn’t end and that we don’t need this unyielding racist club to sentence people to death, then things could change. I think at some point, the U.S. will join the rest of the democratic nations in the world,” he said.

In a revelation that federal judges who have signed off on lethal injection aren't likely to find palatable, North Carolina apparently violated court order to carry out executions. From the Wilmington Star News:

U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard allowed the August execution of Samuel R. Flippen to proceed only after he was satisfied that the state Department of Correction planned to have a doctor and a nurse ensure the convicted child killer was fully unconscious before being killed.

"This shows the courts and the public and the North Carolina Legislature cannot trust the North Carolina Department of Correction to follow the law and follow court orders in carrying out executions," said Flippen's attorney, Thomas Loflin. "You now cannot accept that they say it was done properly."

Loflin said he is considering filing a wrongful death suit against the state. Other attorneys with clients on the state's death row said Friday they were also examining ways to challenge the state after learning about a 218-page deposition given by Marvin Polk, the warden at the prison in Raleigh where North Carolina puts inmates to death.

[Online ODPI -- Ohio Death Penalty Information and an excellent source for breaking news -- has more, as well as continuing coverage of the US Attorney firings.]

The Waco Tribune-Herald has a well balanced piece on Texas's proposed Jessica's Law & the problem that it may well mean:

No one wants to say — at least not out loud — that they oppose laws making it tougher on child rapists.

And with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst championing a legislative package known as “Jessica’s Law,” it was a safe bet state lawmakers would get in line to fast-track the proposed legislation, which includes the death penalty for repeat sexual offenders and minimum 25-year prison terms for others.

But prosecutors and others who regularly deal with sexual predators and the shattered lives they leave behind voice concerns the proposed legislation could have unintended consequences, such as a chilling effect on victims whose testimonies could result in the execution of a family member or a mandatory long prison term.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted March 13 to send two versions of the bill to the full Senate. But the panel’s chairman, Houston Democrat John Whitmire, has said a lot of work remains on the measure, which continues to be a priority for Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry.

The House version passed 119-25 on March 6.

[Online Stand Down - Texas & Steve Hall have been following the story closely and remains the go to source for the latest developments in Austin.]

Looking internationally:

The vast region of Central Asia is moving closer to becoming death-penalty-free and hopes are high that legislation banning all executions will be adopted in all countries in the near future. But other human rights challenges remain.

"There's a lot of expectation in the air. We've seen some very positive steps in the last couple of years," Maria Luisa Bascur, regional project director based in Brussels with the International Helsinki Federation of Human Rights, told IPS. "I think in a couple of years the region will be death penalty free. And we are pressing for that."

The resource-rich, strategically important region is comprised of five countries which gained independence after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Their combined population is around 61 million.

Kazakhstan, the size of Western Europe, has vast untapped oil reserves. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are rich in minerals and potential hydroelectric energy. Uzbekistan has big natural gas reserves and is also the world's third largest exporter of cotton. Turkmenistan has large gas reserves.

"Only Uzbekistan is still executing people," Bascur said, adding that Turkmenistan had already abolished the death penalty in 1999. "We estimate from our sources that Uzbekistan is executing about 100 people a year. There are no reports from there because it's a state secret. The president (Islam Karimov) actually signed a decree in 2005 saying he would abolish the death penalty in 2008."

But a spokesperson from Amnesty International, campaigning for a death-penalty-free zone in the region, told IPS that "secrecy remains an issue in all the countries".

[International Press Service, from which the above article is drawn, has been focusing on the death penalty internationally, among other topics]

The Sentinel, a local newspaper in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, has a great overview of the realities of the death penalty in the Keystone state, and in many ways, the nation. Taking just one case it provides a good primer on of what is wrong as a matter of procedure with the death penalty there - including the appellate review process, DNA, eyewitnesses, and, something unique to Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court's Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System released a 550-page report that recommended Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature order a moratorium until courts can ensure the death penalty is administered fairly. The graphic for the story is one of the best visuals I have seen in sometime.

The Los Angeles Times this week made national a story that has been the lead regional story in the southeast for some time now, the potential collapse of Georgia's capital defense & public defense funding.

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