Saturday, March 31, 2007

Bruce Webster's execution date stayed (?)


Our guru on executions appears to be leaning towards calling this one stayed. The grounds seem to be lethal injection related but our sources are themselves unsure. Webster’s pen friends report he is also writing them telling them it has been stayed.

BoP still has a press release indicating there is a pending execution date. AP ran a story over the weekend indicating the date is still scheduled for later this month.

More info as things develop. I would note that this has to be the quietest stay in some time & those in the know are keeping a tight lip. Comments are open for those who know more.

For now we have pulled the execution dates here and at Capital Defense Weekly!


The International Justice Project has posted that the mid April execution date for Bruce Webster has been stayed. Note, however, the usual sources relied upon for execution date, such as the Death Penalty Information Center's Pending Execution data & Amnesty International, are still reporting it as a serious execution date. Anyone with germane information is invited to post in the comments

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Alberto Gonzales must go

NCADP today released the following op-ed:

Alberto Gonzales and the death penalty:
A time for candor. A time for fairness.

By Diann Rust-Tierney
Two years ago, as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced confirmation hearings, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty stressed that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer “must demonstrate the highest commitment to fairness, due process and equal protection under the law.”

We based our opposition to Gonzales’ confirmation on our belief that his track record on death penalty cases in Texas failed to meet this challenge. Time and again the legal analysis he provided to then-Gov. George W. Bush on the eve of executions failed to include any discussion of the most salient issues, including severe mental retardation and mental illness, abysmally poor legal representation and, in more than a handful of cases, even credible claims of innocence.

With the recent revelations that differences regarding the death penalty played a role in the dismissal of at least three U.S. attorneys, our fears, sadly, have been justified.

Then, as now, Mr. Gonzales placed Bush’s political agenda above honesty, integrity , and commitment to fairness. In Texas this took the form of cursory review – and then denial in every single case but one – of clemency applications as President Bush parlayed his “tough-on-crime” persona into a successful run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Today, Mr. Gonzales’ failed priorities have contributed to a politicized federal death penalty system instead of one based on fairness and integrity. Consider:

At least three U.S. attorneys – Paul Charlton of Arizona, Margaret Chiara of Michigan, and Kevin Ryan of California – were dismissed after clashing with the Justice Department over death penalty policy. Although the final decision has always rested with the U.S. Attorney General, a U.S. attorney’s recommendation that death should not be sought has traditionally been given great deference – until recently.

During the six years that President Bush has been in office (a span of time marked by Mr. Gonzales and his predecessor, former Attorney General John Ashcroft) the federal death penalty was sought 95 times, or about 16 times a year. That’s twice as often as the 55 times it was sought during the eight years of the Clinton Administration, roughly seven times a year.

Ominously, the Bush Department of Justice has sought the federal death penalty in states where voters, through their elected representatives, have rejected capital punishment. These jurisdictions include Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, and Vermont, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. (New York, a state without a functioning state death penalty, has a stunning 51 potential federal death penalty cases in the works.)

Perhaps the most telling statistic: The size of federal death row has tripled since Bush took office, while state death sentences and executions are down sharply from their historic highs in the late 1990s. Three federal death row inmates already have been executed under the Bush administration; another four federal death row inmates are nearing the end of their appeals.

What does it say that the federal death penalty under Gonzales is inconsistent with state trends, which show capital punishment is on the wane? It says, simply, that the Bush Administration has chosen to politicize the death penalty. That is wrong.

Both death penalty proponents and opponents agree on this: Fairness and integrity must be present at the highest levels of our criminal justice system, especially when a person’s life is in the balance. That is why, increasingly, groups such as murder victims’ family members, religious groups, and leaders in the law enforcement community are calling for fairness.

Mr. Gonzales promised fairness in 2005 when he faced confirmation hearings. He was not candid about his record on the death penalty then and he is not candid today. It is past time for General Gonzales to tender his resignation, for the President to nominate, and for the Senate to confirm an Attorney General who will “demonstrate the highest commitment to fairness, due process and equal protection under the law.”

Rust-Tierney is executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Quote of the day

Comes from the Chicago Tribune, which this past Sunday reversed more than a century of support for the death penalty and came out squarely in favor of opposition:

"The evidence of mistakes, the evidence of arbitrary decisions, the sobering knowledge that government can't provide certainty that the innocent will not be put to death all that prompts this call for an end to capital punishment," the Trib wrote. "It is time to stop killing in the peoples name."

Earlier this month, the Lincoln Journal Star, Nebraska's capital city newspaper, also reversed itself and came out for abolition. And it was only last year that Alabama's largest newspaper, the Birmingham News, did likewise.

Abolition. It's breaking out in all the unlikeliest places!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Kaine vetoes death penalty expansion -- show your support!

Yesterday Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a death penalty opponent who nonetheless has pledged to uphold Virginia's death penalty statute, vetoed legislative attempts to expand his state's death penalty. "Virginia is already second in the nation in the number of executions we carry out," Kaine said. "While the nature of the offenses targeted by this legislation are very serious, I do not believe that further expansion of the death penalty is necessary to protect human life or provide for public safety needs.

Our Virginia affiliate has blogged on how we can thank and support Kaine for his courageous act. Go here to see how you can help.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Easy like Sunday morning

As happens most Sunday mornings of late, a quick tour around the newspapers:

The Nation looks at the U.S. Attorney scandal & the death penalty:

But long before this controversy shed light on the political maneuvering between the White House and the Justice Department, two of the fired attorneys were engaged in a largely invisible internal struggle with the Justice Department over its aggressive pursuit of the death penalty.

Both Paul Charlton of Arizona and Margaret Chiara of Michigan have been criticized for failing to seek death sentences with sufficient gusto. Both US Attorneys were pressured to participate in an aggressive campaign begun by former Attorney General John Ashcroft and continued by Gonzales to extend the federal death penalty--particularly into jurisdictions without death-penalty statutes of their own.

The expansion of the federal death penalty is in many ways old news. Resurrected in 1988 and expanded by the 1994 Crime Bill, capital punishment was again encouraged by the Patriot Act. Shortly after taking office in 2001, Ashcroft amended a number of official US Attorney protocols for capital cases; among the most controversial was a new requirement that forced prosecutors to seek Attorney General approval in plea bargains that would spare a defendant's life. But it was only when Ashcroft began stepping into federal cases across the country, overriding federal prosecutors and forcing them to seek death sentences that people began to take notice.. . .

"Typically, the decision to seek the death penalty is made at the local level and then the Attorney General has the ultimate say," says Wayne McKenzie, a former prosecutor and program director at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. "The question here is: How much push is coming from main justice down to the individual US attorneys encouraging [death sentences]? As a US prosecutor, you have certain autonomy, but you also have a certain amount of oversight. There are certain mandates that come out of main justice."

New Hampshire papers are reporting the learning experience by the Courts going on their in its first capital prosecution in recent memory:

Lawyers for Michael Addison, the man accused of killing a Manchester police officer last fall, say execution by lethal injection or hanging is "cruel and unusual punishment," and they will challenge the state's death penalty statute on a number of fronts.

Addison's public defenders have asked the court for additional time to pursue nearly two dozen arguments against the state's death penalty and capital murder procedures, and the death penalty in general, according to several motions filed yesterday in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester. They've also asked that all pretrial hearings be held in public, on the record and in a courtroom outside of Manchester, where Addison would be shielded from photographers when he is shackled and dressed in a prison jumpsuit.

"The stakes could not be higher," Addison's attorneys wrote. "There is no other criminal case receiving greater media coverage. There is no other criminal case receiving more attention from the Manchester community.

"Under these circumstances, the repeated publication of images of Michael Addison in prison clothes, bound hand and foot, will serve as a 'constant reminder' and a 'continuing influence' which will undermine the presumption of innocence before the trial has even started.". . .

Addison's public defenders, Richard Guerriero, Donna Brown and David Rothstein, filed three motions yesterday, including one that asks for additional time to challenge Addison's capital murder indictment and the death penalty.

In an order issued earlier this month, Judge Kathleen McGuire instructed defense counsel to file indictment challenges by May 7 and motions concerning the death penalty by July 9. The defense team has asked that the deadlines be extended to October 26 and August 30, respectively, saying the team needs more time to provide Addison with the best defense.. . .

Addison's lawyers also argue that the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional because it denies Addison the right to choose whether a judge or jury will hear his case and determine his punishment. A defendant may prefer his case be heard in front of a judge if he thinks a jury would give in to emotion when making a decision. On the other hand, a defendant may prefer that a jury sentence him if he thinks jurors may have more sympathy and spare him death.

The instructions given to jurors deciding a death sentence are untried in New Hampshire - the law has changed since the state's last execution in 1939. Addison's lawyers argue that jurors are not offered a clear standard for deciding death and the state's law precludes jurors from considering certain elements and doubts that could lead them to choose life imprisonment instead of death.

You know the local public defender's office is going to be over worked when the Houston Chronicle calls your proseutor the "leader in seeking the death penalty"

Maricopa County, one of the nation's fastest-growing counties, now has an additional distinction: It is also a leader in seeking the death penalty.

During his two years in office, Andrew Thomas, the county attorney, has nearly doubled the number of times that the office has sought the death penalty, even though the number of first-degree murder cases prosecuted by the county has remained more or less the same for a decade.

A policy change that he enacted has contributed to a backlog of capital cases here that has crippled the county's public-defender system, left roughly a dozen murder defendants without representation, and prompted rancor and demoralization in the agencies that defend capital cases.

"Clearly the system is overwhelmed," said James Haas, the Maricopa County public defender. "There are not enough lawyers who are qualified to take these cases."

The Arizona Supreme Court has convened a task force to address the issue.

  • Press accounts note a legislator "will be reintroducing a bill to reinstate the death penalty in Wisconsin."
  • A day after the Legislature in Nebraska came one vote short of repealing that state's death penalty the state Supreme Court set a May date to use it on Carey Dean Moore.
  • In Georgia, the state House passed a bill making it a little easier to kill. House Bill 185 would allow a judge to decide the fate of a killer if one or two jurors reject the death penalty.
[For the last few weeks the Sunday morning roundup has been cross-posted here and at Captial Defense Weekly. From here on out, however, it will be only available at Abolish!]

Friday, March 23, 2007

Introducing: the bloggers

Abolish the Death Penalty is well into its third year -- actually, June marks our third birthday. And it occurred to me that, especially with the addition of a new blogger here at Abolish, it might be a good time for us to tell you exactly who we are.

I'll start with myself. My name's David and I'm the communications guy at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. We like to call ourselves the only fully staffed organization exclusively devoted to abolishing the death penalty. But the truth is, our strength is in our affiliate structure. We have affiliates in almost every state, some small, some large. We have national affiliates (some much, much larger than us, like the ACLU or Amnesty International). We have lots of religious affiliates -- all in all, we have just under 100 affiliate members.

As for me, in my former career, I was a newspaper reporter in Texas, which is how I got interested in this issue. (I won't go at length into my bio -- you can read it here.) My hobbies/interests include almost anything sports-related, checking out new places to eat in D.C. and, when I can steal the time, going on any sort of vacation outside of D.C.

I guess I'm the founder of this blog. Back when I launched, no one was reading it except maybe my ex-girlfriend, my sister and my sister's cat. That was over 100,000 visitors ago!

Next up I'd like to introduce Karl Keys. Karl is the technical guru behind the blog, to the extent that we are technical. Karl is a lawyer whose done death penalty appeals and other stuff. He began practicing law in the mid-90s. On his first day of admission to the bar he represented two death row inmates under active death warrant; sworn in to the bar in the morning he argued a stay of execution as lead counsel that afternoon. (What a welcome to the death penalty world!)

At this point in his offline career he has handled more than 1,000 felony cases and more than a few where the defendant was facing life or even death. Offline Karl is an avid hiker, poker-player, artie, foodie, Marine Gulf War vet, as well as a board member of both New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, both of whom are NCADP affiliates. He has been writing online for a decade on the death penalty & defense in criminal cases, including, for many years, reviews of every published capital case in the nation. He and his wife Celia are expecting their first child this fall.

Last -- but never least -- I'd like to introduce our newest blogger, who, like Karl, is someone I see only a few times a year but is someone I consider a good friend. He's Abraham J. Bonowitz and he brings the grassroots element to our blog. The first thing you should know about Abe is that he has the biggest dog I have ever seen in my life. The dog is named "Governor," Abe explains, because he wanted there to be at least one "governor" that listens to an abolitionist. I made the mistake of volunteering to look after this dog one day, while Abe was in town tending to some important business, and when I went to take him for a walk, well, he walked me.

Abe -- who can be reached at -- currently serves as Field Manager with New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. While serving in this position, he is on sabbatical from his role as director of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a national non-profit organization that promotes positive dialogue regarding capital punishment and invigorated tactical grassroots activism by the global death penalty abolition movement. Bonowitz gained first-hand knowledge of the death penalty by working in the death penalty section of the Ohio Public Defender Commission, with murder victims' family members, and with death row inmates. He appears briefly in the film Dead Man Walking and has worked closely on several projects with author and spiritual advisor Helen Prejean, CSJ.

Abe is a long-time activist with Amnesty International (AIUSA), including four years as a member of the Board of Directors of AIUSA, and he currently serves on the board of directors of Journey of Hope ...From Violence to Healing, Inc. as well as the board of directors of NCADP. In
2005, he received NCADP's annual Abolitionist of the Year Award.

Abe was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio and he currently lives in New Jersey with his wife Beth, their son Isaac, dogs Governor and Sir Lancelot, and Bucky Kat. Before he became an abolitionist and a daddy, he was an avid canoe and mountaineering enthusiast, but with all the abolition bills moving these days, he says it's been a while since he's gotten to pursue those hobbies!

So that's your Abolish the Death Penalty blogging committee. Keep coming back and we'll try to keep the blog interesting, compelling and vibrant!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Botched execution in Texas?

Still trying to get the details, but early reports are that Texas' execution last night of Charles Nealy was botched. More when we know it.

Update, 3:50 p.m.: So far, information on whether the execution was botched remains incomplete. We know it took 20 minutes of poking around to find a vein that was suitable. We do not know if there was a problem with the way the drugs were administered (well, beyond the fact that they were administered at all!)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Four states. Four close votes

Suddenly, repealing the death penalty is a hot topic

Public attitudes and times change—sometimes quickly. Legislatures follow, albeit slowly. In recent years and election cycles, something is profoundly different about the death penalty. Death penalty abolition is not the kiss of death for elected officials. Governors are publicly stating their support for getting rid of the death penalty (Corzine in New Jersey, O’Malley in Maryland) or, at very least, their principled opposition (Kaine in Virginia).

Death penalty opponents are pressing forward and gaining support in a wide variety of state legislatures. In the first three months of this year alone, bills to abolish the death penalty have received serious consideration in Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, and New Mexico – four states that do not have a whole lot in common culturally or geographically. And, against all conventional wisdom the votes are surprisingly close. In New Mexico, an abolition bill passed the House and died in a Senate committee earlier this month by one vote. In Montana, an abolition bill passed the Senate and died in a House committee earlier this month by one vote. In Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature, abolition died today – again, by one vote. And in Maryland, a similar measure last week died in a Senate committee by – you guessed it – one vote.

Other states that have considered or are considering abolition or moratorium legislation in 2007 include Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. And not one non-death penalty state is seriously considering reinstatement.

Meanwhile, executions are down (the 2006 execution rate was at a ten-year low and this year’s execution rate likely will be lower still, with almost a dozen states suspending executions because of controversy over lethal injection procedures). Death sentences are down sharply, and in December of last year, the Gallup Poll found – for the first time in modern history – that Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty (in some states, such as Maryland and New Jersey, by wide margins).

What are we to make of the close votes in so many states? First, we see that a sea change is occurring around policy-makers’ attitudes about the death penalty. A new conventional wisdom is forming in many states’ legislatures that the death penalty is completely broken. Death sentences are bankrupting local jurisdictions. More and more wrongfully convicted individuals are exonerated. Lethal injections go spectacularly and horrifically wrong. Opponents of the death penalty, lawmakers and advocates alike, are heartened by this increasing support and know that it’s only a short time until their legislatures decide to end it, not mend it.

This will not happen overnight, as the recent close votes show. Legislative momentum for reform tends to be slow and incremental – but at the end of the day, permanent. The question is not whether we will abolish the death penalty. The question is when. We are now on our way.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Changed Your Mind?

There's been a surge in members of the law enforcement community speaking out against the death penalty. I was tabling after Mass at a church in New Jersey last weekend when the man who had read the scripture during the service came to the table we had set up in the gathering area. He was friends with Ed, the parishioner who was helping out at the table. Ed introduced us and told me this man is a detective, and as it happens, a training officer at the county police academy. Perhaps I should not have been, but I was startled to notice under his suit jacket that he was packing his service firearm. I'd expect that, I suppose, but even in church? Anyway, Lt. Fred signed our letter to the local state legislators asking them to support the New Jersey bill to change the death penalty to life without parole. Then he told us what he says most cops know - the death penalty wastes tax payer dollars that could be better spent on prevention efforts and services for victims families. And he told us about jurors he had interviewed who had given life instead of death on the premise that life in prison is a far harsher punishment than an easy death. Hey, I'll take my abolitionists any way I can get them.

Last week in Maryland there was a press conference featuring law enforcement professionals calling for abolition of the death penalty. That same day the Philadelphia Inquirer printed the following letter from the Police Chief of West Orange, NJ:

Death-penalty recommendations based on facts

I am the chief of police of West Orange, N.J. I was one of 13 members of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission which recommended replacing the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole.

It was a recommendation based upon facts, careful study and much deliberation.

So I read with interest the March 2 commentary about the study by Sharon Hazard-Johnson.

I have great empathy for the writer, who lost her devoted parents to a horrific murder. She has every right to disagree with our recommendation. However, I feel compelled to reply to her assertions about how and why we arrived at our conclusion.

The makeup of the commission was both balanced and fair.

Sitting around me - a pro-death-penalty police chief - was a retired Supreme Court justice who had upheld capital punishment; two current county prosecutors, who had sought it; the father of a murder victim; a victims' advocate, and other dedicated citizens.

This was nothing if not a transparent examination by a credible and unbiased panel.

Pro-death-penalty advocates had every opportunity to express their views at several hearings, which were public and well-advertised.

Ms. Hazard-Johnson herself was the only witness to testify more than once. We considered her position so fully that she was cited in the commission's report.

I didn't go into the study thinking I would vote to end the death penalty, but with each hearing, it became clearer that New Jersey's death penalty isn't working and is actually doing far more harm than good.

I have no sympathy for killers. My sympathy is with the families of murder victims. It was those very family members who helped change my mind during the course of the hearings.

I had no idea how much families suffer, facing years of capital appeals and reversals. Even in states that carry out executions, the process takes years and reversals are many. And, in capital cases, there is more attention paid to the murderer and less to the victim.

I don't oppose the death penalty in theory. But I have learned that a fair, accurate and effective system doesn't exist.

It doesn't make sense to keep reaching for the impossible when the alternative of life in prison without parole both ensures public safety and puts victims' families first.

I stand by not only the commission's recommendation, but the open and fair process we used to reach it.

James P. Abbott
Chief of Police
West Orange Police Department
West Orange, N.J.


We abolitionists still have a tough job ahead of us, but it's getting easier....


2007 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break

[Texas Students Against the Death Penalty ran this on their blog earlier today, it was so good it had to be "borrowed" -- it seems Austin was the place to be.]
The 2007 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break sponsored by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Campus Progress, Texas Moratorium Network and several other organizations was a big success. Students received valuable training and experience in grassroots organizing, lobbying, preparing a direct action and media relations. During the week, students immediately put what they learned into action during activities such as the "Day of Innocence Rally" at the Texas capitol, when they visited members of the Texas Legislature and lobbied them on the need for a moratorium on executions. They also organized a protest in the heart of the SXSW music festival in downtown Austin during the Direct Action Day.

As a result of all their hard work throughout the week, the students generated hugely positive media coverage that helped educate the public on the issue of the death penalty. Scott Cob, president of Texas Moratorium Network compared the week's events to past struggles for social justice by saying, "this is an historical echo to what happened in the 1960s when people came down to the South during the Civil Rights Movement to help people register to vote, what they called freedom summers. This is very similar to what was going on back then, but here the issue is the death penalty."
Planning for the alternative spring break began last October. During the weeks leading up to the event, the students who organized the program had to solve various problems, such as finding replacements for a couple of speaker cancellations and finding cheap housing in Austin during the busy SXSW film and music festival. This year we had students coming from as far away as the UK, Mexico and Canada.
Austin was definitely the place to be during spring break 2007 for young people whose goals include becoming part of the next generation of human rights leaders. As one of the students said, "I could have gone to the beach and changed my state of mind for a week instead I came to Austin this week to change the world forever." During the spring break, students also had plenty of free time to enjoy Austin - the Live Music Capital of the World.
[more here, including pics]

Friday, March 16, 2007

Last Words from Death Row

Got an email from Norma Herrera last night. Hearing from her reminded me that I had meant to blog on her book, Last Words from Death Row, in which she recounts the story of her brother, Leo Herrera, who was executed despite profound doubts about his guilt.

Here's a description of the book:

In his final statement he said: "I am innocent, innocent, innocent. I am an
innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight." Norma Herrera’s
book documents court events and press coverage. She recounts the tribulations
she and her family suffered as they worked to free Leonel Herrera from his fate.
If all the court proceedings, including the Supreme Court’s decision prior to
Leo’s execution represent the visible tip of the death penalty iceberg, LAST
exposes the enormous human tragedy that resides below the surface. Her questions drive a powerful wedge between the legal process in capital cases and the truth. Why do the guilty go unpunished? When is innocence
not enough to free a convicted man? Does Truth not prevail in the American
Justice system? Who pays? We all do. Who is next?

To order the book online, go here.

To see a great you tube video about Leo Herrera, go here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Another sign of progress

Upon occasion I am invited to appear before high school and college students to debate the death penalty. I love these opportunities because the people sitting in the audience are going to be the ones deciding whether the death penalty is part of this country's future or not. They are the ones who are going to be serving as prosecutors and defense lawyers, running for the state legislature (where the future of the death penalty primarily will be decided), helping other people get elected or -- at the very least -- voting for candidates who will then vote on the death penalty.

It's going to be their decision. They need facts.

I've been invited to participate in four debates this year. But something funny happened on the way to the forum.

In three of the four instances, the sponsor of the debate called me up, apologetically, and said they had to cancel.


Because they couldn't find anyone in the Washington, D.C. area to represent the other side.

That's right. In the entire Washington, D.C. area (an area that, broadly defined, has just over 8 million people), they could not find an organizational spokesperson to represent the pro-death penalty side.

It is not, as I suspect, that groups that previously supported the death penalty have reversed position. Rather, I suspect that the usual suspects (Federalist Society, Washington Legal Foundation, some elements of Republican Party, etc.) just don't care about the issue anymore.

And that's fine. Because we do.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tuesday snark

Yesterday we blogged on the case of Jarvis Jay Masters, a death row inmate in California who may be innocent. We didn't say Masters was innocent, mind you. In fact, the smart reader could conclude this on their very own by the blog entry's headline:

Jarvis Jay Masters: Innocent on death row?

Now comes some blog named Seeking Justice, which has posted a thinly disguised attack on those of us who think, at the very least, that Masters' case is worth looking into.

Funny thing is, his blog begins with the words, 'The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.' --American Bar Association"


First Arab country to abolish death penalty

Morocco edges closer to abolishing death penalty
13 March 2007

A royal birth followed immediately by an amnesty for more than a dozen death-row prisoners, among others, is being interpreted in Morocco as a signal that the country is on the verge of making history in the Arab world by being the first to abolish the death penalty.

On February 28, the wife of King Mohammed VI, Princess Lalla Salma, gave birth to the ruling couple's first daughter, Princess Lalla Khadija. Immediately afterwards, Morocco's Minister of Justice, Mohamed Bouzouba, appeared on nationwide television announcing the biggest royal pardon yet for almost 9 000 prisoners, including 14 people sentenced to death.

Reading from an "official communiqué", the minister repeated several times that this amnesty included people on the death row. This was taken as a clear sign here that the king supported abolition of the death penalty.

The royal message to the Moroccan people was underlined by the minister's unusual appearance on television in traditional Moroccan attire. It was also a signal that the day of the formal abolition of the death penalty in Morocco is fast approaching.

The final decision to abolish the death penalty will be taken by the Moroccan Parliament. But the king, who appoints his prime minister and other key ministers, would have to give his support for such a crucial change to the state's existing constitutional and legal system.

At the Third World Congress against the Death Penalty in Paris last February, the head of Morocco's state-appointed consultative committee on human rights, Ben Zekri, confirmed there was a general consensus among MPs to end capital punishment.

The Moroccan press has speculated that a parliamentary vote will be taken on the issue in the current parliamentary session, which ends in June. A bill to abolish the death penalty has already been drawn up and put before the government. The king has also set up a special legal commission that is working on the task of removing capital punishment from the country's legal code. Since 1993, Morocco has operated a moratorium on the death penalty -- one of about 20 African countries that have not carried out executions for more than 10 years.

Opponents of the death penalty worldwide hope that Morocco's removal of the death penalty from its statute books will set an example to North African and Middle Eastern states. None of the 22 states in the region has yet abolished the death penalty. Saudi Arabia and Iran execute more than 100 every year.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Jarvis Jay Masters: Innocent on death row?

Now comes the case of Jarvis Jay Masters, who has been sitting on California's death row for some 22 years. The California Supreme Court has ordered state prosecutors to respond to appellate lawyers' claims that Masters is innocent of killing a prison guard.

This one has the feel of a high-profile exoneration in the works.

You can read more about the case here.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday morning roundup

An article entitled Death penalty ban could be a possibility in N.C. leads the news roundup:

Proponents of passing a two-year ban on capital punishment in North Carolina say they have a better chance this year of pushing through a death penalty moratorium then in any time in recent memory.As evidence, they point to several key factors which they say make the climate right in Raleigh for putting such a ban — albeit temporary — in place.

Among them is the election of moratorium proponent Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, as House speaker, last year’s exonerations of death row inmates Allen Gell and Darryl Hunt and the fight over the role of doctors administering a lethal injection.

Gell and Hunt were exonerated after DNA showed they had no connections to the crimes of which they were convicted. Hunt was imprisoned for 18 years and Gell for nine.

In January, the N.C. Medical Board issued a statement prohibiting doctors from assisting in executions, despite a state law that requires that a doctor be present at all executions.

“Right now we have a de facto moratorium, but the two-year suspension is still needed to study the death penalty in North Carolina,” Rep. Deborah Ross told a crowd of death penalty opponents last week in Raleigh.

The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, one of the key votes on whether Maryland will repeal its death penalty, could vote as early as this week on abolition.

The 11-member Senate committee has been waiting for word from Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick Republican whose vote could swing the outcome. Mooney, a conservative Roman Catholic, has struggled to decide whether he will support the measure, which replaces the death penalty with life without parole.

Mooney said yesterday that he just finished reading Kirk Bloodsworth’s book; Bloodsworth, a former death row inmate in Maryland, was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. He testified last month before the committee.

“It’s a really compelling story,” Mooney said of the book, Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA. “It makes me think if there’s 1,000 people on death row and one of them, just one of them, is innocent, is it worth having the death penalty for the other 999?”

The House Judiciary Committee is considering the same proposal. But lawmakers say the House panel is holding off on a vote until the Senate determines its course.

[more on Mr. Bloodworth recent work]

Death penalty for sex offenders may be hard sell notes a recent news analysis piece in Texas:

Rep. Debbie Riddle’s declaration that there’s a “one in a million” chance her bill expanding the death penalty for repeat child sex offenders is unconstitutional might be optimistic, according to legal scholars and death penalty experts who have reviewed the measure.

They point to previous rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court barring the death penalty for adult rape that does not end a life and banning its use for offenders who are mentally retarded or younger than 18 at the time of the crime.

“One could think rather confidently that this would not be upheld,” said Lino Graglia, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas known for his conservative views, citing precedent on the issue and recent decisions limiting the scope of the death penalty even for convicted killers.

Death penalty experts, moreover, note that of the five states allowing the death penalty for child rape, only one handed that sentence down. And it is the case of pedophile Patrick Kennedy, making its way through Louisiana state courts, that could render the issue moot before Texas ever sends a child rapist to death row.

Why is it so hard to get private bar defense attorneys to take death cases in California? One reason it costs money out of their pockets. [more here]

A seasoned death penalty attorney has agreed to help defend suspected Mexican drug cartel leader Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix who’s being tried in San Diego. The case could be San Diego’s first capital punishment case.. . .

Arizona attorney Larry Hammond initially said he would not participate in the case. He said the trial schedule was too aggressive. He said doing capital cases is a financial drain. Hammond says his salary drops $265 per hour on court appointed cases. However, three weeks ago, Hammond says he consulted his conscience and his colleagues and changed his mind.

Via the irrepressible Greg Worthen at PD Stuff, & from The East Valley (Arizona) Tribune:, it looks like Arizona is getting a new, I should note well respected, chief for its new capital post-conviction defender office:

If all death row inmates could have Marty Lieberman as their attorney, the ones claiming innocence might have a shot at freedom. During his 22 years as a criminal defense attorney, the Phoenician has gained a reputation for being a professional, yet dogged advocate for his clients.

Soon, many on death row will be able claim him as their own, thanks to a 2006 legislative action that established the state’s first Post-Capital Conviction Public Defender’s Office.

On March 1, Gov. Janet Napolitano nominated Lieberman to fill the new position. He and his staff will be responsible for representing anyone sentenced to death who can’t afford a lawyer in post-conviction relief proceedings. Pending Senate confirmation, he’ll serve a fouryear term.

The newly established office will handle questions outside a case’s direct appeal, Lieberman said, such as: Was the defendant’s trial lawyer effective? Is there new evidence that may warrant a new trial? Have new laws been passed that apply retroactively?

The new statute allows Lieberman to serve up to a year in the post before he is formally confirmed. The attorney said he hopes the Legislature will vote on his confirmation during its current session.

In legal circles, death row inmates are notorious for having subpar legal counsel. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a 2001 speech said she’d never seen a death penalty case in which the defendant was well-represented.

Many can’t afford good lawyers’ fees, and financiers aren’t exactly banging down their cell doors to help them.

But the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees counsel and requires that it be “reasonably effective.”

In creating the new public defender’s office, the state is strengthening the Constitution’s promise to its 124 death row inmates.

Lieberman pointed out that about eight prisoners on death row in Arizona lack representation altogether. His office will alleviate that.

Via Scott at Ohio Death Penalty Information, Jeffrey Rosen has this article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, entitled "The Brain on the Stand," providing a detailed overview of the profound impact rapidly-evolving developments in neuroscience may have on modern criminal law.

...The extent of that revolution is hotly debated, but the influence of what some call neurolaw is clearly growing. Neuroscientific evidence has persuaded jurors to sentence defendants to life imprisonment rather than to death; courts have also admitted brain-imaging evidence during criminal trials to support claims that defendants like John W. Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Reagan
, are insane. Carter Snead, a law professor at Notre Dame, drafted a staff working paper on the impact of neuroscientific evidence in criminal law for President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. The report concludes that neuroimaging evidence is of mixed reliability but “the large number of cases in which such evidence is presented is striking.”

...One important question raised by the Roper case [US Sup. Ct. case declaring unconstitutional the execution of minors] was the question of where to draw the line in considering neuroscience evidence as a legal mitigation or excuse. Should courts be in the business of deciding when to mitigate someone’s criminal responsibility because his brain functions improperly, whether because of age, in-born defects or trauma? As we learn more about criminals’ brains, will we have to redefine our most basic ideas of justice? ...

In an article missed when it first hit earlier this week, Dahlia Lithwick looks at a Court increasingly out of step on the death penalty.

[L]ast term Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion in a death-penalty case for the sole purpose of excoriating Justice David Souter, who had written in a dissent about exonerated innocents. Scalia’s opinion was a full-bore attack on the notion of innocent exonerees “paraded by various professors” and claimed, in effect, that even if those exonerated were not guilty enough to warrant the death penalty, they were still far from “innocent.” (How that made them candidates for the death penalty he did not explain.)

Oral argument this term has also revealed a subtle hardening on the part of some of the court’s conservatives. In one case, Roberts questioned the need for a trial judge to specifically guide jurors regarding mitigating evidence.

Somehow, just as the American people are beginning to consider the grave injustices pervading the capital system, several justices seem to be staking out strong personal positions on this front in the culture wars.

In his article, Chemerinsky suggests that justices who change course on the death penalty often do so only after decades on the bench. That might suggest that the two new justices will soften on capital punishment only in the far distant future. These justices also would insist that if the death penalty in this country needs fixing, the state legislatures should do it, which is already beginning to happen. But if for most Americans the time for stubborn certainty about the death penalty, at least as it’s currently practiced, seems to be over, a court that is more certain than ever of its fundamental fairness looks grievously out of step with an American public willing to recognize the dangers of injustice, error and doubt.

Another missed story from earlier in the week is in North Carolina where the Attorney General is suing the medical board over an ethics stance:

The state Department of Correction filed suit Tuesday against the North Carolina Medical Board over the board’s policy to discipline any physician who participates in an execution.

The board adopted the policy in January, contending that taking part in an execution would violate a doctor’s ethical code of conduct. Any physician who violated the policy would face suspension of his or her license.

State law requires that a licensed physician be present at all executions to ensure that the condemned inmate doesn’t suffer. But Central Prison Warden Marvin Polk stated in an affidavit that the new policy has made it impossible for prison officials to find a licensed physician to assist in executions.

In Montana hearings on the death penalty continue:

Capital punishment is so expensive, and applied so unfairly, that it should be banned in Montana, advocates of abolishing the death penalty told a legislative committee on Friday.

“It’s a crazy system. It’s broken and it’s costly, and it doesn’t work regardless of how you feel about the criminal, the crime and the retribution,” said Elizabeth Griffing, a former assistant attorney general who once supervised death penalty cases on appeal.

International outrage over Iraqi death sentences is mounting, this time for three women, some recent mothers, who were sentenced to death without counsel.

Although many details of their cases are unclear, the three women are all charged with activities related to the ongoing conflict in Iraq and are incarcerated in al-Kadhimiya Prison in northern Baghdad.

According to information collected by Amnesty International, Wassan Talib and Zayneb Fadhil were sentenced to death by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq on August 31, 2006, after being convicted of killing members of the Iraqi security forces in the Baghdad district of Hay al-Furat in 2005, charges that both deny. Zayneb Fadhil, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, has reportedly said that she was not in the country at the time of the incidents.

Liqa’ Qamar Muhammad was convicted of participating in a kidnapping in 2005 and sentenced to death on Feb. 6, 2006. Her husband was detained and charged with the same crime, according to Amnesty International. Muhammad has an infant daughter, who was born in prison and remains there with her.

The International Committee of the National Lawyers Guild, a network of lawyers in the United States, points out that the U.N. has passed a resolution against imposing the death penalty on new mothers.

The group called for the Iraqi government to repudiate the executions. “We have received information that these three were denied legal counsel,” the group said in a public statement. Denial of counsel violates international guarantees to a fair trial, the group said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva expressed similar concerns.

In other news, New Mexico killed its death penalty repeal bill — apparently wanting to wait until Gov. Richardson is out of presidential running. Newshounds has a fairly disturbing and yet moderately funny piece on a ”Fair & Balanced” Fox News commentator calling for a lynching. In Pennsylvania, Raymond Jones’ death sentence for the death of Louis Combs was overturned on ineffective assistance of counsel grounds by the trial court. Scripps News Service this week looked at jury selection in Florida. Morocco may be on the verge of abolition.

Finally a very large apology to the good folks at DePaul Law for not spilling more ink on their seminar on Atkins v. Virginia. I wanted to highlight it in last weekend’s roundup & email edition, but for well documented reasons, technical problems prevented it.

[original post modified to correct typos & add an additional story]

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The power of faith

In 2005 Cunny Antonio Pelaez killed Aniceto Armendariz with a shotgun blast. Pelaez killed Aniceto while drove he was driving with his wife on eastbound U.S. 40 from Park City to Heber in Utah. Aniceto’s vehicle rolled several times. Aniceto's widow, Alma Armendariz, miraculously survived. The couple were returning from a Spanish-language mass when he was shot.

Ms. Armendariz noted at sentencing:
How was it possible that they left me without a husband and my children without a father.. . . What could Aniceto have done that it cost him his life? Nothing could ever make me understand what. . . . We had the kind of life my husband always wanted his family to have. Suddenly, they destroyed this in an instant.
Those powerful words mixed with the facts of the Aniceto's senseless murder would often result in a death sentence. Int an act of undefinable, and yet very Catholic, compassion she asked that Pelaez be spared, in memory of her husband, a deacon in the Catholic Church who had taught on the sacredness of God's gift of life.
We are people of peace Taking the murderer's life does not erase Aniceto's death and will not bring him back to life. . . . We never requested the death penalty, but since no one has the right to take someone else's life, we do ask that he be punished with the maximum legal punishment. . . . He was a peacemaker, a mentor for many people, including those who ended his life, the murderers.
Patrick Parkinson of the Park City, Utah Record has the rest in a amazing piece. Be warned in advance, the piece is emotionally powerful.

More on this truly amazing story: here, here, & here.

[cross-posted at CDW]

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Chicago Tribune nominated for Pulitzer

The Chicago Tribune, which for years has done the best work in the country on the issue of the death penalty, has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its work on this subject.

We do not know yet what precisely the Tribune was nominated for. However, it could well be its three-part series, published last summer and blogged on here, here and here, on the execution of Carlos De Luna, a Texas man who was executed despite the fact that he was almost certainly if not demonstrably innocent.

Carlos De Luna's last words before he was executed:

"I want to say I hold no grudges. I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on death row to keep the faith and don’t give up."

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

When prosecutors lie

District attorneys, like most people, are honest and hard-working. But as is the case with any profession, there are bad apples out there.

Which brings us to Harris County, Texas, and tomorrow night's scheduled execution of Joseph Nichols.

In short:

Person A and Person B enter a deli in downtown Houston with intent to rob.

Person A shoots the clerk. Gets a death sentence. Is executed.

Person B is put on trial six months after person A. A death sentence is legally sought for Person B, based on Texas’ “triggerman” law, which allows accomplices to get the death penalty even if they were not the one who pulled the trigger.

The jury finds Person B guilty, but deadlocks on the sentencing. Mistrial declared. Prosecutor interviews some of the jurors at a local bar. They say they couldn’t go for death because Person B was not the shooter.

Based on this information, prosecutor retries the sentencing portion of the case, but this time argues that it was Person B and Person B alone who shot the victim.

Person B is scheduled for execution tomorrow. Here’s a column on the case:

Trial in error---Why Joseph Nichols' execution must be stopped;
The state's flip-flops on testimony have made a mockery of the system
Capital punishment is always a controversial issue. A fair trial should not be. Joseph Nichols' execution should be halted.

The murder of Claude Shaffer Jr. at Joseph's Delicatessen near downtown Houston on Oct. 13, 1980, was a heinous crime by any measure, but if Joseph Nichols is executed by the state as planned on Wednesday, it will also be a terrible injustice. Nichols has been on death row since 1982, convicted of firing the single bullet that killed Claude Shaffer.

At Nichols' trial, the state knew that Nichols did not shoot the single bullet that killed Claude Schaffer, because the state had previously tried and convicted Willie Ray Williams for firing the same single bullet. In January of 1981, Williams, who had confessed to shooting Shaffer, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death as the shooter. Williams has since been executed.

According to the trial transcripts, the state argued: "Willie Williams is the individual who killed Claude Schaffer. That's all there is to it. It is scientific. It is complete. It is final and it is evidence."

6 months after Williams' conviction, Joseph Nichols' 1st trial began. Nichols was tried as an accomplice under the law of parties, through which a person can be held criminally responsible for an offense committed by the conduct of another under certain circumstances. The jury found him guilty but hung in the punishment phase. After the trial, the prosecutor questioned some of the jurors at a local bar. They stated they were reluctant to impose the death penalty because, as the prosecutors had admitted, Nichols was not the shooter.

Six months later, in February 1982, Nichols' 2nd trial began. This time the state changed its story, and Nichols was tried as the shooter and not the accomplice. He was convicted and sentenced to death. In complete contradiction to the state's previous argument, the trial transcripts reveal that the state contended: "Willie Ray Williams could not have shot[Shaffer]. And I submit to you from this evidence [Nichols] fired the fatal bullet that killed the man in cold blood and he should answer for that."

The prosecution further argued: "You should think about justice when you think about this case. Is it fair and equal for Willie Williams to sit up there on death row when this man [Nichols] planned the whole thing and fired the fatal shot?"

It is an undisputed fact that a single shot killed Shaffer. For their convenience, Harris County prosecutors changed the facts from day to day and case to case, making a mockery of our justice system. This apparently doesn't matter to the state of Texas, as it refuses to give Nichols a new trial.

The state also suppressed evidence favorable to Nichols' defense. There were two witnesses to the crime, Cindy Johnson and Teresa Ishman. Johnson was the state's star witness because she testified to witnessing the entire murder. However, Ishman informed the police that Johnson "could nothave seen the fatal shot being fired, because she (Johnson) was hidden in the bathroom when the shooting started." The state suppressed the identity and location of Ishman from the defense so that she could not testify at the trial.

The state of Texas now claims her testimony would not have made a difference and does not matter. If the state doesn't think Ishman's testimony would have altered the outcome of the trial, one has to wonder why they hid her true identity and whereabouts from the defense and further, why they refuse to grant Nichols a new trial, one in which the jury hears both witnesses, instead of just one.

Joseph Nichols' court-appointed appellate attorney was shamefully negligent. After 2 years and being granted 11 extensions for filing an appellate brief, Nichols' attorney ignored the orders of the Texas Courtof Criminal Appeals. He was held in contempt, arrested and put in jail.

Nichols' appellate brief was written by his attorney while incarcerated. His attorney was so inept he was ultimately disbarred, but the damage to Nichols' case was done. The state doesn't think this matters either, even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees its citizens effective counsel.

Capital punishment is always a controversial issue, a fair trial shouldn'tbe. It is simply outrageous that Nichols' attorney was in jail while writing his trial brief. It is also fair to conclude that the judge who failed to replace Nichols' counsel had little regard for due process, much less a human life.

The state deliberately misled the jury by claiming 2 people fired the same bullet. That is simply dishonest. Finally, suppressing the identity of a witness whose testimony directly contradicts that of the only other witness is the ultimate corruption of justice.

According to the state of Texas, none of these issues matters. If a human life and the U.S. Constitution don't matter, what does? Joseph Nichols deserves a new trial. Nichols is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday.

Anyone who feels theseissues do matter should immediately contact the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor's office. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, only Gov. Rick Perry can stop this terrible injustice now.

(source: Guest editorial, Andrew Lubetkin, Houston Chronicle