Sunday, May 06, 2007

News roundup

As happens every Sunday morning (ok, as we try to make happen every Sunday morning of late), a wrap-up of some of the more interesting news of the weekend & week. My apologies in advance as the post is a tad longer than hoped:

The Tennessean's Dwight Lewis begs today "Governor, please continue the timeout in executions."

What's the rush, Gov. Bredesen? What's the rush?

That's the thought that ran through my mind when the governor's office announced this past week that he was lifting a 90-day moratorium on executions, paving the way for convicted murderer Philip Workman to be put to death early Wednesday morning.

It was wrong: The governor should have continued the moratorium. And a federal judge here seemed to agree with that Friday afternoon when he issued a temporary restraining order, saying more time is needed to examine the defense claims that "the new execution protocol exposes (Workman) to a foreseeable and likely unnecessary risk'' of pain and suffering prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

To ensure "no cloud hangs over the state's actions in the future,'' Bredesen declared in February that he was halting all executions in the state for 90 days "to fix'' the state's death penalty procedures. He said he wanted the Department of Correction to come up with new written protocols on how to put the condemned to death by injection and the electric chair.

In New Jersey
A Senate committee is slated Thursday to consider replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole.

The initiative stems from a January report from a special commission appointed by the Legislature. The panel determined New Jersey's death penalty costs taxpayers more than paying for prisoners to serve life terms and concluded there was no evidence the death penalty deters people from committing murders.

"There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," the report said.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has this editorial, entitled "Raising the quality of justice."

When the state of Ohio put James Fili aggi to death last month, at least there was no doubt that he had killed his former wife, Lisa, in 1994. He never denied it; his defense was

based on his mental state, not an alibi. Finally, Filiaggi seemed resigned to paying the ultimate price.

But others on death row, in Ohio and throughout the country, maintain their innocence to the bitter end. Most are doubtless lying, perhaps even to themselves. But a society that imposes capital punishment - a sentence this editorial board has long opposed - must always ask: What if this person is innocent? Could there be a greater miscarriage of justice than the state taking a life in error?

Those questions seem especially relevant now. Last month, an Illinois judge wiped out the conviction of Jerry Miller, an Army veteran who spent 25 years behind bars for a rape that new DNA evidence proved he did not commit. Miller's was the 200th conviction overturned using DNA since 1989, according to the Innocence Project. Those exonerations come from 31 states. Six were in Ohio. Fourteen of them rescued men from death rows. A quarter overturned cases in which the defendant had confessed. Sixty percent of the wrongly convicted defendants were black, like Miller, or Latino. [via ODPI]

Malawi's Constitutional Court last week "pronounced mandatory death sentence as unconstitutional, inhumane and a degradation to human dignity."

“We hold and declare that Section 210 of the Penal Code is invalid to the extent of mandatory death penalty...The declaration does not outlaw the death penalty but the mandatory death sentence following a murder offence,” said Justice Elton Singini as he read out a judgement reached at unanimously with justices Frank Kapanda and Maclean Kamwambi.

Section 210 of the penal code states that “Any person convicted of murder shall be sentenced to death.”

The judges observed that the mandatory death penalty violates an individual’s right that protects one from inhuman treatment or punishment and denies them a right to fair trial.

“Section 19 sub section two provides that in any judicial proceedings or during penalty enforcement, respect of human dignity shall be guaranteed,” said Singini.

Her further argued that the provision violates the Constitution which guarantees fair trial.

“The mandatory death penalty prohibits courts from determining any other sentence but death. It denies the convict a right to have the sentence reviewed by a higher tribunal,” said Singini, arguing this violates the constitutional provision of Section 41 sub section 2, which says any person shall have access to any court of law or any other tribunal with jurisdiction for final settlement of legal issues.

Speaking after the ruling, one of the lawyers representing the applicants, Gift Mwakhwawa, said the ruling meant there would no longer be “automatic” death penalties as has been the case in the past.

“The judges will now have to consider the nature of the offence and the circumstances under which the offender committed the offence,” said Mwakhwawa.

Another lawyer, who represented the applicants, Noel Chalamanda, said the ruling was a great judgement that would see a change in the way murder cases are handled in the country.

“It’s champagne time! This is a landmark judgement. I am at loss of words. This ruling will have a huge impact on murder case, especially for poor people,” said a visibly excited Chalamanda.

Malawi Human Rights Commission, which was a friend of the court in the matter, said it was happy with the ruling.

IPS looks at young attorneys & the impact they are having on the death penalty:

Youthful idealism and perseverance are helping to win the day against the U.S. conservative establishment and its huge law enforcement resources in the life and death legal struggle to halt execution by lethal injection -- and with that the final end to the death penalty in the country.

"Young, low-paid attorneys are involved. They are very dedicated," Deborah Denno, professor of law at Fordham University and an expert on death penalty issues, told IPS. They were a "big force" for change.

The lawyers -- some fresh out of university -- were helping to successfully convince one court after another that death by lethal injection might not actually be as painless as everyone supposed. That possibility raised the question whether a sentence to death by lethal injection was legal.. . .

"It's a huge responsibility," David Barron, a public defender in the state of Kentucky, told IPS. "I wanted to be a death penalty lawyer after leaving law school. I did have the opportunity to do other things. It's worthwhile to help others and do things for people who need it the most."

In Kentucky, lawyers like Barron have established a nationwide reputation for challenging execution by lethal injection. In 2004 they succeeded in bringing a halt to all executions in their state as judges considered their arguments. This halt stands today.

"That group really did an excellent job," Denno said. Their experience was passed on to other lawyers representing inmates facing death by lethal injection in other states. The internet made possible a sharing of information on a national scale that could not have been possible a decade ago, Denno said.

Bernard Harcourt of the University of Chicago Law School is guest blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy this week. He has been discussing institutionalization and homicide rates in the United States from 1934 to 2001.

Here’s another example from the death penalty deterrence debates. The fact is that none of the existing extensive research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment has included mental hospitalization within an aggregated institutionalization rate. Instead, all the studies use prison rates only to get at a measure of incapacitation.

My study includes, as a control variable in the regressions, the execution rate for each state over the period 1934 to 2001. So we can get some idea of what happens when you use aggregated institutionalization rather than the prison rate. The results are interesting: in my fourth model (Model 4 of Table III.1 at page 33), the execution rate is positively related to homicide and statistically significant at .05, suggesting that, controlling for aggregated institutionalization, there may be evidence of a brutalization effect from executions: more executions, more homicide. The statistical significance does not withstand the introduction of demographic and urban variables, and in my most complete model (Model 6 same page) the coefficient is positive but unreliable.

Much has been written recently about the deterrent effects of capital punishment. John Donohue and Justin Wolfers have reviewed the recent studies, including state-level panel data analyses, and conclude that “none of these approaches suggested that the death penalty has large effects on the murder date” (page 841). When I include mental hospitalization, my findings are consistent with these conclusions, but in the process they undermine a lot of other research.

Practically all our criminology has failed to connect the prison to the asylum. For instance, Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman, in their account of crime trends in the introduction to The Crime Drop in America — generally perceived as an authoritative compilation — never address aggregated institutionalization. With regard to the sharp increase in crime in the 1960s, Blumstein and Wallman hit on all the usual suspects — the baby-boom generation, political legitimacy, economics — and include later the usual explanations for the 1990s crime drop — changing drug use patterns, decreased gun violence, New York-style policing, the federal COPS program, and increased incarceration. Notably absent in all of this, though, is the relationship between mental health and prison populations.

[via Stand Down - Texas] The Monday edition of Texas Lawyer has, "Task Force Recommends Creating Texas Capital Habeas Writs Office."

A bill working its way through the Texas Legislature tracks key recommendations made by a State Bar of Texas task force that studied the quality of representation provided to death-row inmates in habeas corpus proceedings.

In its April 27 report to the State Bar board of directors, the Task Force on Habeas Counsel Training and Qualifications, appointed by Bar President Martha Dickie in October 2006, recommended the establishment of a state public defender office to represent individuals seeking habeas relief in Texas death penalty cases.

F.R. "Buck" Files Jr., the task force's co-chairman, says the 12-member panel worked with state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on S.B. 1655, which would establish a new system to assist indigents facing a death sentence in filing habeas writ applications.

The bill, sponsored by Ellis and state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, would create the State Office of Capital Writs to provide representation for indigents in Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 11.071 habeas proceedings. The bill also would create a five-member Capital Writs Committee made up of lawyers and judges appointed by the Bar president. That committee would recommend candidates to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which would appoint a director to head the office.

The Senate passed the bill on April 16. State Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, sponsors the bill in the House and passed it in the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, on April 30.

Ellis says the bill begins the process of fixing flaws in the state's habeas system for capital cases.

"It creates a pool of talented professionals to handle these death penalty appeals," Ellis says of the bill. "It's a start."

The Bar task force reported that death-row inmates are not receiving consistently competent representation in the state's appointment system. Under current law, district courts appoint lawyers to represent indigents in capital habeas cases from a list of eligible lawyers maintained by the CCA.

[We recognize many readers at Abolish! are looking for additional information on the death penalty that isn't provided here. Steve Hall's blog at Stand Down Texas is an excellent starting point for developments in Texas.]

This story comes from the Sharjah in the U.A.E. and gives a good introduction to the capital appellate process there:

The Appeal Court in Sharjah is reviewing the death sentence against a man who allegedly murdered his business partner using a pen knife.

The Sharjah Sharia Court of First Instance had sentenced A.Sh, a Ukrainian, to death for murdering his Syrian business partner using a pen knife.

The parents of the Syrian victim have refused to accept the Dh500,000 blood money and are asking for the death penalty against the accused.

The Appeal Court in Sharjah approached the first time the victim's family, who are living in Syria, through the Sharia court in Syria asking them if they would accept the blood money from the Ukrainian suspect to be divided between his two small children Dani and Dina.

A.Sh offered the family any amount of money in order to pardon him but they are refusing his offer.

[Due to formatting problems an earlier version of this post had to be substantially edited as it was crashing the site with a bad "embed" script.]