Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Anyway, I mention this because the newspaper recently published a rather shocking editorial assailing author John Grisham and defending Ponotoc County (Oklahoma) District Attorney William Peterson, despite Peterson's wrongful prosecution of Ron Williamson for capital murder.
First, the editorial:
Closing the book
One side fits all for Grisham
BIG names make for big book sales, which is why a famous author's name is in larger type than the title on a book's cover.
No bigger name in American fiction exists than that of John Grisham. The novelist was the top-selling author of the 1990s, ahead of even Stephen King, with more than 60 million copies sold. So when Grisham's anti-capital punishment zeal needed a new outlet, his name was all that was needed when he turned from fiction and became a journalist.
Except that Grisham doesn't know the first thing about journalism, especially the part about getting the other side of a story.
Grisham's foray into nonfiction centers on Ada. His 2006 book "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” is less a piece of reporting than an anti-death penalty polemic. If a movie is made of the book, it will likely be even more so.
That was true of "Dead Man Walking,” which was designed to make us hate the death penalty but in fact showed how a killer's denial of guilt was renounced only because he was made to pay for his crime.
The "hero” of Grisham's story was innocent, although he was convicted of the 1982 rape and murder of Deborah Sue Carter. The book is mainly Ron Williamson's story, but he's not the only character. Another is Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson, who prosecuted Williamson and remains in office.
The side of the story that Grisham refused to tell was Peterson's. In an October 2006 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Joshua Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorneys Association, slammed Grisham's one-sided "reporting.” Peterson himself has started a Web site to tell the story Grisham ignored.
Peterson not only prosecuted Williamson but was among the voices calling for the DNA testing that would exonerate him (it wasn't available at the time of the trial). Marquis noted that the one-sidedness of Grisham's book "feeds the popular perception — nurtured by Hollywood and the news media — that death rows are teeming with wrongfully convicted men who just await DNA testing to set them free.”
Grisham also played loose with the facts. In mail exchanges, Peterson confronted the author over mistakes the prosecutor found in the first few pages of the book. Grisham's flippant reply was that mistakes are "in the nature of nonfiction.”
Yet the book is essentially about mistakes — the mistaken conviction, for starters. Given Grisham's attitude, how long would he last as a reporter at any of the major newspapers whose reviewers gushed over this book?
Here's a fact: No evidence exists that an execution in modern times has taken the life of an innocent man. [blogger's note: Obviously the editorial writer has never heard of Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna, Larry Griffith and Cameron Todd Willingham.] Williamson and a co-defendant were set free not despite the system, but because of it. Grisham should stick to fiction, no matter how stale and formulaic his work has become [blogger's note: Oh, really? So the 123 (at least) death row exonerees should be thankful of the wonderful experience they had in awaiting execution for a crime they did not commit? What unadulterated balderdash. Idiots. Dolts. Fools.}
Anyway, a number of people in Oklahoma have read Grisham's book -- and a number of these people are upset, not with Grisham, but rather with the Ponotoc County district attorney for his wrongful prosecution. Here are a couple of their letters in response to the Daily Oklahoman's slanted editorial:
Grisham's book notes DA's failures
Regarding "Closing the book: One side fits all for Grisham” (Our Views, Feb. 18): John Grisham's "The Innocent Man” represents much more than an "anti-capital punishment zeal.” It's the true and documented history of how one man, Ponotoc County District Attorney William Peterson, used his office to take away the freedom of four Oklahomans.
Peterson manipulated the legal system, as Grisham reports, in such a way as to place these four men behind bars — two of them on death row. We have no way of knowing how many more have suffered from Peterson's actions.
Peterson's job is one that requires a serious study of each case brought to him, so justice is properly administered. Grisham's book points out all of Peterson's failures. It also details how a federal judge agreed when he criticized Peterson while overturning the Williamson conviction. Grisham's book should be required reading for all in Peterson's district. No doubt it could be the basis for removing him at the next election.
Bob Huckaby, Oklahoma City
In spite of the system
Regarding "Closing the book: One side fits all for Grisham” (Our Views, Feb. 18): I applaud your efforts to support and defend our system of justice in this state. Your take on the situation leaves me shaking my head, however. I read the book and I'm still a proponent of the death penalty as a just punishment. However, I don't support prosecuting and convicting innocent men and women with shaky, indirect, circumstantial evidence.
My degree is not in journalism, so I can't speak to the merits or motives of John Grisham. I disagree, though, with trying to justify someone spending years on death row and being a mere five days away from lethal injection by saying "he was set free ... because of the system.” No. He was set free in spite of the system. Grisham's book documents (and, I agree, rather loosely), not one but three men and possibly five men who were wrongly convicted and released after years in Oklahoma's most harsh prison setting.
I don't believe "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” should be considered as being etched in stone, but my state prosecuted, convicted and then almost killed several innocent men. Zeal is a good thing in law enforcement; railroading is not.
Wade Crews, El Reno
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Leading off the news are developments this week in Connecticut. The issue of the geographic arbitrariness in the use of the death penalty threatens to shut down that state's death penalty regime. As the Courant notes:
Five of the state's top prosecutors - who usually ask the questions in court - were forced to answer them on the witness stand Friday as defense lawyers for a convicted murderer mounted a challenge to the constitutionality of the state's death penalty.
Compelled to testify by the state Supreme Court, the prosecutors appeared in Superior Court in Hartford to answer questions about how they decide whether to seek the death penalty. Seven more top prosecutors are scheduled to testify next month.. . .
Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane and state's attorneys from four judicial districts all said they rely on the death penalty law - which spells out crimes for which the death penalty can be sought and factors that must be considered - plus the code of prosecutors' ethics.
Questioned by Ronald Gold, one of Campbell's lawyers, all five said their offices had no written standards or guidelines.
Campbell was convicted by a Superior Court jury in Hartford in 2004 of capital felony, murder and other charges in the killings of LaTaysha Logan and Desiree Privette and the wounding of Privette's aunt, Carolyn Privette, in Hartford.
Capital felony carries only two penalties - death or life in prison. The jury deadlocked when considering whether Campbell should be executed, and Judge Edward J. Mullarkey declared a mistrial in the penalty phase. A new jury will decide Campbell's penalty.
The only state's attorney not subpoenaed to testify was Hartford's James Thomas, whose office is prosecuting Campbell.
In Georgia the issue for some lawmakers is the death penalty on the cheap. Since a real defense costs real money, some state legislators appear to want to short-change indigent defense to solve a short-term budgetary problem. From the Savannah Morning News:
A Senate committee on Friday approved a package of bills that would change how the state's public defender system operates. Legislative leaders are frustrated about the program's money problems.The vote comes a day after the Fulton County judge overseeing the death-penalty trial for accused courthouse murderer Brian Nichols suspended the proceedings for a month because of the funding shortfall facing the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which administers the statewide indigent defense system.
The council's officials have asked lawmakers for $9.5 million in the state's midyear budget adjustment, saying they were promised the money to keep from running dry before the new budget year kicks in July 1.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Preston Smith, R-Rome, has been highly critical of the council's request - and what some lawmakers consider lax control over how the money is spent - and sponsored some of the bills that cleared his committee Friday.. . .
Smith also criticized the $1.2 million price tag so far for Nichols' defense that includes 4,000 hours of billed legal work and four attorneys working on the case.
The committee approved six bills dealing with the public defender council, which was set up three years ago to address concerns that Georgia was not providing enough funding to meet the U.S. Constitution guarantee of legal assistance for every defendant.. . .
Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, questioned [some of the proposed bills' attempt to[ politicize the process since public defenders can represent offenders in heinous crimes that local voters would prefer not to see defended - especially with their tax money.
"My concern is you put an elected official in a position to publicly attack a public defender, who's already doing a job that's already disdained by the community," he said.
In Florida the preliminary results of the lethal injection review committee have been released. From the NYT:
Death row inmates' consciousness should be monitored throughout executions and those administering lethal injections need additional training, according to a panel's preliminary recommendations released Saturday.The 11-member panel was assembled to review the state's death penalty procedures after a botched execution in December took twice as long as normal and required a rare second dose of deadly chemicals. Some witnesses said convicted killer Angel Nieves Diaz appeared to be in pain, and then-Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all executions.
Diaz's executioner testified that he hadn't received training in seven years, which most panelists acknowledged wasn't adequate.
But not all members of the commission agreed with the preliminary recommendations.
Dr. David Varlotta, an anesthesiologist, said executioners require advanced medical training, but an individual with such qualifications would be breaching their own profession's ethical code.
''The state doesn't require teachers and lawyers to perform tasks that are unethical,'' he said.
But Rodney Doss, director of victim services for the state Attorney General's Office, countered: ''Individuals who served as executioners when Florida had the electric chair as a means of executions didn't necessarily have to be electricians.''
From the St. Petersburg Times:
Perhaps most significantly, the panel will recommend that an execution team member check inmates to ensure they are unconscious from the first drug, a powerful sedative. The execution can continue only if the inmate is unconscious.
The team also must assure that the IV in the inmate's arm has not been compromised.
Experts told the panel over the last few weeks that needles in Diaz's arms likely tore through the veins.. . .
Other recommendations made by the panel include:
- That the execution team train and rehearse more with all members present. Testimony revealed that the executioner did not rehearse with the rest of the team and hadn't received any training in seven years.
- That two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents witness the execution, one from where the executioners are hidden and one from the witness room. The agents also should take notes.
- That the warden be in charge of the execution. Testimony revealed that though the warden said he was in charge, he deferred to medical staff and was not told of steps taken when Diaz's execution started to go wrong.
- That if one vein breaks, the execution team should start on another vein but return to the beginning of the drug cycle. During the Diaz execution, the team went to a second vein, but skipped the sedative, leaving Diaz potentially vulnerable to the suffocating effects of the second drug and an excruciating burning sensation from the third drug.
- At least one member of the execution team should speak the inmate's first language. None of the team members spoke Spanish, Diaz's native language.
Also in the news
- Bucking national trends, the Utah state legislature has sent to that state's governor a bill that anyone convicted of murder in the death of a child younger than 14 would be eligible for the death penalty. [more here]
- In Kentucky a Fayette County Circuit judge has granted a request by Thomas Clyde Bowling to do DNA test on a jacket, hat and thermos that were gathered after a 1990 homicide. This is the second time this year a Kentucky death row inmate has won the right to conduct DNA testing. [more here]*
- In California this week a spate of articles relating to a deal reached over the secrecy of the deliberative process of new execution protocol there, including articles from the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, and the Sacramento Bee.
- The Houston Chronicle is looking at the case of Joseph Nichols and the question of whether it is fair for a nontriggerman to be executed, or, in the words of the story "2 shouldn't die over one bullet."
- Human Rights Watch notes that earlier this week Saudi Arabia purportedly violated international law when it ordered the beheadings earlier this week of four Sri Lankan robbers -- none of whom had lawyers at their trial or sentencing -- and then left their headless bodies on public display in the capital of Riyadh.
- Finally, and off topic, Cass Sunstein has an interesting piece in the Washington Post on wikis and how they "demonstrate society's unstoppable movement toward shared production of information, as diverse groups of people in multiple fields pool their knowledge and draw from each other's resources."
*Note that I have previously represented this individual.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Reacting to the ongoing controversy over lethal injection execution protocols, Blecker says the lethal injection process has become "too medicalized."
"We should never put to death those we rightly hate any way that resembles a hospice death scene of those we love," Blecker said.
What would Jesus say?
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Proponents of efforts to repeal Maryland's death penalty were out in full force today, first with a press conference that featured a number of death row exonorees, freed from their fate after evidence of their innocence emerged.
Then came legislative hearings before both House and Senate committees. Our side got a big boost when Gov. Martin O'Malley surprised a number of folks by showing up to testify in favor of the repeal legislation.
Lots of links to take you to. First, go here to see the Washington Post's blog entry on today's events (you can even leave a comment if you like -- I just did!)
Second, go here to read the Washington Post's spot news coverage on Gov. O'Malley's testimony.
Third, go here to read Gov. O'Malley's op-ed in today's Washington Post opposing the death penalty.
What a day. What a day. Good job to Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, Equal Justice USA and all the others who worked hard to make today such a resounding success.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Now we're back, courtesy of the New York Times, which reports that a commission member by the name of state Senator Victor Crist has a novel approach for making sure lethal injection executions do not go awry.
Crist said the inmate’s IV line should be checked after the administration of each drug to make sure it was properly inserted, and that the inmate should be “thumped or shaken” to make sure he was unconscious after receiving anesthesia.
“Doggone it, go out there and thump on them, shake the body to make sure they are out,” Senator Crist said. “If the first drug is administered properly, then regardless of what else is pumped into his system he will never know it.”
Well, doggone it indeed.
Florida: Number One in sunny beaches, number one in orange juice and number one in...botched executions
We at Abolish the Death Penalty would like to comment on the absurdity of a government body struggling to arrive at the "best" way to kill someone, but we for once are rendered speechless. Instead, we'll let the following two editorials do our talking for us:
The state can't execute
Florida pays an executioner $150. On the street, that amount wouldn't buy a very professional killing. It's no different when the state pays.
Testifying a week ago in Tampa before a special panel, the executioner who botched the Dec. 13 lethal injection of Angel Nieves Diaz said, "I have no medical training or qualifications." That would explain why needles that were supposed to go into Diaz's veins instead went into his soft tissue.
The poison thus took far longer to be absorbed. The death that was supposed to take about 15 minutes took twice that time. There were chemical burns on both of Diaz's arms.
This is where people might ask, How long did it take for the topless-bar manager Diaz murdered in 1979 to die? The question is understandable but irrelevant. Like the other 37 states that allow capital punishment, Florida can't subject any condemned inmate - no matter how heinous the
crime - to cruel and unusual punishment. Anything less than a quick, clinical death violates that constitutional standard.
After the Diaz execution, Gov. Bush convened this panel to examine Florida's method of lethal injection. Florida is not alone. Ten other states are reviewing their lethal injection procedures because of problems. This panel could recommend changes to the Legislature before the
March session. For now, all executions are on hold.
Florida already had to start offering lethal injection after a botched electrocution in 1997. Using physicians might improve the lethal injection system, but doctors' groups don't want their members participating. The ideal - but politically unattractive, to some legislators - way out would be to end capital punishment. After all, there are 374 inmates on death row, and no one in Tallahassee seriously believes that all of them - or even most of them - will be executed. Also, in the 13 years since Florida has had a guaranteed sentence of life without parole, juries have been
less likely to recommend a death sentence.
The panel meets again Monday, trying to determine if a man who can't testify felt pain. Maybe the members can keep a straight face.
(source: Editorial, Palm Beach Post)
Florida death work
Presuming to sanitize the grotesque, dehumanizing work of the executioner
is a politically driven exercise in futility.
Was Angel Diaz's grotesque execution, simply, good enough for government work?
The official fantasy that lethal injection is a clean, painless, "human" method by which the state may end life was certainly exploded in December, when Diaz hung on for more than 20 minutes, gasping like a fish, and ultimately requiring a second dose of lethal chemicals, before he was
finally "put down."
In the political "post-mortum" that has unfolded since former Gov. Jeb Bush suspended executions and appointed a special commission to find out what went wrong, it has been learned that the official state executioner was badly trained, and that the official state "medical professional" did not even remain in the chamber for the duration of the death work. The
needles injected into Diaz went right through his veins and deposited a foot-long chemical "blister" in the tissue of his arms.
"They did exactly the wrong thing," Columbia University anesthesiologist Mark Heath said this week of the manner in which the three-drug "cocktail" was administered to Diaz. Apparently, even veterinarians won't use the state's "humane" process to put down animals.
We're not sure what's more astonishing about this past week's commission proceedings: That the state carries out its most somber duty - the taking of human life - in such haphazard and sloppy fashion? Or that this fact-finding exercise is intended to arrive at a new, improved and
sanitized death ritual.
What will the commission recommend: That the official executioner be better trained? That the official medical professional stay in the death chamber until the "patient's" heart stops beating? That veterinarians be enlisted to ensure a proper putting down?
The absurdity of these proceedings would be laughable if the consequences were not so deadly serious. A central dilemma facing the state is that the official executioner really ought to be the medical professional. But a true medical professional, bound by the Hippocratic oath to "do no harm," would not perform a procedure intended, after all, to harm, not to cure.
There is no "humane" way to kill. Execution, whether delivered by electricity, chemical or the rope, is a debasing act that dehumanizes the state and, by extension, all of its citizens. The notion that, somehow, a flawless, painless, "humane" procedure will lessen the debasement is as
grotesque as the clumsy performance that unfolded in Angel Diaz's death chamber.
(source: Editorial, Gainesville Sun)
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Three articles from around the US today can best be summed up by the title above "playing the death lottery." Be forewarned the first story
The Dothan Eagle has the story of a capital murder case in Alabama where the "victim" may have been a stillborn child and where the autopsy is inconclusive as to the cause of death.
David Brown believes his stepdaughter, Shakira Thomas.
He believes what she told him on a warm July day in 2005, that scared and nervous, the 19-year-old girl walked into the bathroom at her residence and gave birth to a baby girl. She told him the baby died naturally moments later, and out of fright and confusion, she put the baby in a garbage bag and placed it in the woods behind their home.
District Attorney Doug Valeska believes what Thomas told investigators. After Brown found the baby and called police, Thomas was interrogated and told police she birthed the baby in the bathroom toilet and left it there around five minutes. She told police she could hear the baby crying, that it was alive. She told the police she didn't want the baby, that she picked the girl up out of the toilet and held it close to her and heard the baby cry and felt it kick until the baby stopped breathing, then put the baby in a garbage bag and placed it in the woods behind their home.
A grand jury indicted Thomas for capital murder. Her trial is scheduled for later this year.
Brown believes his stepdaughter, still scared and confused, told the investigators what they wanted to hear so she could go home. He believes she was coerced by police and made the story up about the baby being alive.
Valeska believes Thomas made up the story about the baby dying naturally in order to avoid punishment.
Brown cites an autopsy report that lists the cause of death as undetermined, and that there was no indication of external injuries. He also cites the age of the baby, believed to be between 24 and 30 weeks. He and Thomas' attorneys, Tom Brantley and Billy Joe Sheffield, believe Thomas has been overcharged. Brown said the only legitimate charge his stepdaughter should face is desecration of a corpse.
"My daughter is not a murderer and the facts will speak for it," Brown said.
The Roanoke Times looks at the death lottery in Virginia:
A death sentence last week shows how the decision is full of variables, experts say.
8 months pregnant, Tammy Lynn Baker died from the blast of a pipe bomb rigged outside her Louisa apartment by a boyfriend who didn't want to pay child support. The killer was sentenced to life in prison.
Hiding in a closet after his parents were shot to death at their Tazewell County home, 14-year-old Bobby Hopewell suffered the same fate. The killer was sentenced to life in prison.
Serving time in a maximum-security prison in Lee County, Robert Sandoval was strangled by his cellmate after the two criminals bickered over one eating the other's breakfast. But this time, the killer was sentenced to death.
A jury's decision last week to condemn Carlos Caro for the prison killing of Sandoval marked the 1st time federal prosecutors in the Western District of Virginia obtained a death sentence since Congress reinstated capital punishment for some federal crimes nearly 2 decades ago.
Perhaps the chief reason I am a criminal defense lawyer is the hatred of the word "kafkaeque." When I saw this story in the Austin American Statesman with that word in you could almost bet the story would end up here. Kerry Max Cook sums up his ordeal on death row that it was "as Kafkaesque as it could ever get in America. A man was railroaded here."
Beginning in the summer of 1977, when Linda Jo Edwards was found raped, murdered and mutilated in her Tyler apartment, Smith County fought hard to kill Kerry Max Cook for the deed.
Tried, convicted, sentenced to die and sent to the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Cook was raped shortly after his arrival and made a sexual slave, a commodity to be traded like cigarettes in the death house economy. Over more than 2 decades he endured 3 trials, appeals that raised his hopes and dashed them again, brutal assaults and suicide attempts, the last of which, in August 1991, included nearly severing his penis. He dipped a finger in his own blood to scrawl a final message on the wall of his cell: "I was an innocent man." The organ was reattached and Cook recovered.
Over and over, his lawyers argued that Cook had gotten a raw deal, railroaded to death row by prosecutors and police. Finally, the appeals court agreed with them and ordered a new trial, his fourth. At the 11th hour, prosecutors offered a deal, and Cook walked out of the Bastrop County Courthouse a free man.
That was 8 years ago. But to borrow from Faulkner, the past is never in the past for Kerry Max Cook.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Abolishing death penalty would be grave mistake
With the violent crime rate increasing, such flawed legislation would only encourage criminals to continue committing violent crimes that under normal circumstances warrant and deserve the death penalty.
I resent paying taxes to support the life of a criminal in a state penitentiary who would have deserved the death penalty.
I urge the legislature not to pass such bad and flawed legislation and keep the death penalty on the books to discourage violent crime.
But wait, you say. Why is a blog titled Abolish the Death Penalty publishing a letter to the editor that is, oh, say, 180 degrees counter to our mission?
Because these letters came in to the same newspaper in response:
Readers: Studies show death penalty does not deter crime
Al Eisner confused the facts surrounding death penalty repeal in Maryland ("Abolishing death penalty would be grave mistake," Feb. 7 letter).
All serious studies of the death penalty have shown overwhelming evidencethat it does not deter violent crime. Regions with the most executions have the highest murder rates and those with the fewest executions have the lowest murder rates.
As for cost, a death sentence almost always costs more than a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
For these and other reasons, I agree with Gov. Martin OMalley's position that Maryland's death penalty is ineffective and our limited resources are better spent on proven crime prevention policies.
I am proud that we have a governor who is willing to be a leader working for good government through the repeal of the death penalty.
The risk of convicting an innocent person is too great a cost to maintain Maryland's ineffective death penalty.
Since 1973, 120 innocent men and women have walked off of our nation's death rows after evidence revealed that they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit.
And mistakes have happened in Maryland. Kirk Bloodsworth was twice tried and wrongly convicted for the rape and murder of Dawn Hamilton. He was sentenced to die and spent nearly a decade behind bars before DNA testing exonerated him in 1993. And there have been other similar cases in Maryland where individuals were convicted of crimes and later exonerated, like Anthony Gray and Bernard Webster.
It costs much more to prosecute a death penalty case, which can drag on for years.
We have the option of life without parole, which will alleviate all the current procedural problems.
For these and other reasons, I support Maryland's lawmakers who are working to repeal our ineffective death penalty.
I have no statistics to support or refute Al Eisners conclusion that eliminating the death penalty would be a bad idea or that keeping it on the books would discourage violent crime.
I do, however, have a question: Would Mr. Eisner, or any other death penalty supporter, be willing to personally look someone in their eyes as they take that person's life? Then their position supporting the death penalty would be stronger.
I assume that The Gazette published Al Eisner's letter to bait a response from the readership, since his points are so blatantly and stereotypically incorrect (yet common among those who believe that killing people who kill people shows that killing people is wrong).
Anyone with a basic level of knowledge regarding the issue of the death penalty knows these 2 simple facts:
Capital punishment has never been shown to be a deterrent to violent crime. It has no effect on crime rates.
It actually costs more to put someone to death than to keep them in prison for life.
The facts do not support Al Eisners assertion that the death penalty will "discourage violent crime," and that its removal will "encourage criminals to continue committing violent crimes."
The murder rate in states that do not have the death penalty is no higher than those that do have it. A 1962 United Nations report concluded that "All the information available appears to confirm that such a removal [of the death penalty] has, in fact, never been followed by a notable rise in the incidence of the crime no longer punishable by death."
In 1987, immediately after Louisiana executed 8 people in 8 1/2 weeks, the murder rate in New Orleans increased by 16.39 %. The death penalty might be a deterrent for rational people like you and me, who actually think about the consequences for their actions.
It never made sense to me that we as a so-called "Nation under God" would imitate the behaviors of violent criminals and stoop to their level and likewise commit murder.
Friday, February 09, 2007
Courtesy of today's Washington Post, here's where Barack Obama stands on the death penalty. In a nutshell: He's pro-death penalty but he is also pro-let's not execute the wrong guy:
Five years later, Obama waded into a complex capital-punishment debate after a number of exonerations persuaded then-Gov. George Ryan (R) to empty death row.
Obama wrote in his recent memoir that he thinks the death penalty "does little to deter crime." But he supports capital punishment in cases "so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment."
In proposing changes, Obama met repeatedly with officials and advocates on all sides. He nudged and cajoled colleagues fearful of being branded soft on crime, as well as death-penalty opponents worried that any reform would weaken efforts to abolish capital punishment.
Obama's signature effort was a push for mandatory taping of interrogations and confessions. It was opposed by prosecutors, police organizations and Ryan's successor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who said it would impede investigators.
Working under the belief that no innocent defendant should end up on death row an no guilty one should go free, Obama helped get the bill approved by the Senate on a 58 to 0 vote. When Blagojevich reversed his position and signed it, Illinois became the first state to require taping by statute.
"Obviously, we didn't agree all the time, but he would always take suggestions when they were logical, and he was willing to listen to our point of view. And he offered his opinions in a lawyerly way," said Carl Hawkinson, the retired Republican chairman o the Judiciary Committee. "When he spoke on the floor of the Senate, he spoke out of conviction. You knew that, whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him."
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
First, when you lose a family member to violence, you'll never fill that empty chair at the dining room table. Such a loss cannot be replaced, cannot be "closed."
Second, when murder victims' family members are interviewed after executions, we frequently see comments such as "It was too easy" and "he didn't suffer enough."
The other day, I was pleasantly surprised to find in my mail box a letter from Dale Wisely. Dale is from Alabama and is active in Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, our Alabama affiliate. Dale wanted to address the issue of "closure."
This is what he wrote:
I recently gave a talk to a group of young adults at a Catholic church near my home in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a good evening. The audience was attentive, engaged and I think more sympathetic to the anti-death penalty cause than I expected.
During the Q&A someone said, "I don't know...I just think that the death penalty may be the victims' families' only chance for closure."
i expected the question and was prepared. I even had a couple of PowerPoint slides. I am writing about what I shared with the audience.
I'm not going to use names here because I don't want this to be construed as in any way critical of the family involved in the incident I'm about to recount.
A man was executed last year in Alabama. He was convicted of a very brutal murder of an elderly woman. Here's a portion of the Birmingham News account of his last moments. (I've redacted it a bit so as not to use names.)
"I just want to say I'm so very sorry for hurting you like this," (the inmate) said as he lay strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber. "I know this has been a long time coming. If I could go back in time and change it, I most certainly would. I hope this brings you closure and someday you can find forgiveness for me."
"There was no closure for us," (one of the victim's daughters) said after the execution. "The only person there that got closure was him. We have to live with what he did for the rest of our lives."
(She) contrasted (the inmate's) manner of death with her mother's. "It was very soft," she said. "It was very white. It was very sterile. It was just as sweet as you would want to die. No pain, no nothing."
This man chose, in the last minute or two of his life, to try to take responsibility, apologize, and ask forgiveness. He wanted his death to bring closure. The victim's daughter responded with what I read as bitterness. Maybe I would, too, if I were in that situation.
He attempts to do the right thing at the end of his life and the response is bitterness, not closure. If he had failed to address the victims' family, I believe the result would have been bitterness, not closure. If he had proclaimed his innocence, or had made an excuse, I believe the family would not have experienced closure--they would have been angry. I hope that, in time, the family will get closure. But I wouldn't be surprised if they don't.
As is almost true in these cases, a horrendous, vile crime had occurred. But, executions do not bring closure to families. They snuff out a life. The aftermath of the crime continues. Death is piled upon death.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
One person who knew Molly better than I did is my friend Steve Hall, who runs Stand Down Texas. Today Steve blogged on Molly.
With Steve's permission -- and because I want as many people to see this as possible -- I am reproducing Steve's blog entry in full:
An Empty Pair of Big Boots - UPDATED
Texas is a bit less flamboyant tonight. Columnist, author, and salon host Molly Ivins died earlier today after a long bout with breast cancer and a horrific regime of chemotherapy this past year. Molly was outraged by many things, occasionally Texas's use of the death penalty. I've known Molly since 1975 when she was co-editor of the Texas Observer and we covered that year's session of the Texas Legislature.
"We covered," -- well, I was just starting out in journalism, and she was already an established character and a respected journalist.
Molly knew how to put on the big Texas act, with an extra dollop of twang. She knew how to be angry in a critical and constructive way, but best of all she knew how to have fun and laugh out loud enjoying living life among a community of friends.
I heard her tell the story several times when asked how tough it was carrying on as a progressive in Texas. Molly referenced asking a death penalty attorney what the reward was in her work; often scorned by others for representing clients who were usually executed. "The reward," the attorney answered, "is in the relationship with my colleagues doing this work. They are the best, most dedicated people I've known, and I feel honored to be a part of this community. That's the reward."
And I believe that sense of kindred spirit of community was a reason Molly often kept glancing at what was happening with the death penalty in Texas. It was an interest beyond simply reporting the injustices of a broken criminal justice system.
She leaves behind many friends, with many happy memories of times well spent, and now, a void. Adios, amiga. Happy trails.
The Austin American-Statesman has this. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Molly's home for years, has an editorial and several OpEds on Thursday's opinion section.