Monday, April 30, 2007

We got letters

Earlier this month we noted that the Dallas Morning News, reversing 100 years of support for capital punishment, came out strongly and solidly in favor of abolition.

At the same time that the newspaper published its courageous editorial, which you can read here, one member of the newspaper's editorial staff published a column urging that the death penalty be retained.

We expected a backlash against the newspaper's position. Strangely, a backlash does seem to have occurred -- but against the pro-death penalty columnist. Here's a representative sampling of letters to the editor the newspaper has received since printing the anti-death penalty editorial and the pro-death penalty column. Note that only one letter supports retention:

Call adds to hopeful signs
Re: "Death no more We cannot support a system that is both imperfect and irreversible," April 15 Editorials.

I applaud The Dallas Morning News. As the editorial points out, the death penalty is "both imperfect and irreversible," which has led to wrenching cases of innocent people being released from death row and the strong possibility that innocent men have been put to death.

Years of study have shown that the death penalty does little to deter crime and that defendants' likelihood of being sentenced to death depends heavily on whether they are rich or poor and the race of their victims.

Fortunately, there also have been signs of progress. Governors who oppose capital punishment have been elected in several states, including Virginia and Maryland. Executions in 2006 were at a 10-year low. And legislators have mounted serious efforts to abolish the death penalty in Maryland, Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico.

Those actions and your call to abolish the death penalty are signs that we are getting closer to a time when we can end capital punishment and restore some measure of fairness and integrity to our criminal justice system.
Sen. Russ Feingold,

One mistake is too many
Re: "Opposing a repeal Mike Hashimoto explains three reasons that Texas should continue capital punishment," April 15 Points.

I commend your editorial calling for the abolition of the death penalty.

It's a courageous stand.

I also commend Mike Hashimoto's column opposing your board's position. He makes a reasonable and articulate case for the death penalty, one that ultimately I am not persuaded by.

My primary reason for opposing the death penalty is expressed by the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: "Justice and truth are two such subtle points that our tools are too blunt to touch them accurately."

We know that we've executed innocent people. How many is too many? For me, the number is one.
Bill Holston,

2 reasons to keep death
2 important arguments against a death penalty moratorium have not been stated.

As we have seen in recent years, prison escapes do happen. Several escaped prisoners killed an Irving police officer.

Had they been executed, this courageous officer might still be alive.

Silly as it sounds, no one who has been executed has escaped and hurt an innocent person. Second, without the possibility of a death penalty, those who are serving life without parole would have no incentive to follow prison rules. Even if they kill a guard or fellow inmate, no further punishment could be applied.
Jim Brierton,

Death can't be taken back
Congratulations on the reversal of your death penalty position. I came to the same conclusion when the governor of Illinois placed a moratorium on executions, after more than a dozen people on death row were exonerated byDNA evidence.

We are now finding many people in Dallas County convicted of crimes but later proven innocent. The death penalty cannot be undone. As a citizen, I could not live with an innocent person being put to death in error.
Bill Armstrong,
(Blogger's note: As is demonstrated in the groundbreaking NCADP report, Innocent and Executed: Four Chapters in the Life of America's Death Penalty, we believe at least four innocent people have been executed since 1976: Larry Griffin of Missouri, and Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna and Cameron Todd Willingham, all of Texas.)

Leaving out some injustice
I applaud and join your call for a moratorium on the death penalty in Texas. If our system is about justice, let justice be done.

Murdering a murderer is illogical and immoral. Additionally, I must take issue with Mike Hashimoto's editorial.

He writes (in bold letters), "It's applied fairly, accurately and sparingly." He then spends the next nine paragraphs debunking the "death penalty opposition's myths."

Not once does he mention the most glaring and pervasive injustices, that poor people are much more likely to be executed. They are more likely tobe prosecuted, less likely to be offered a plea deal and more likely to lose their case because of inadequate representation.

He also leaves the reader with the impression that he believes no innocents have been executed. Can he be so naive?

Thank you for the courage of your editorial.
Randy Richardson,

Tired arguments in support
Mike Hashimoto thinks his excuses for supporting state killing are unique, but like the death penalty itself, they are old and tired.

The death penalty is not punishment, since the offender learns nothing from being murdered. Ignoring vast amounts of evidence, like Texas being one of the most dangerous states in the country to be a police officer, only sends the message he is not interested in the truth.

It comes as no surprise that he looks at only half the facts when it comes to racism and the death penalty. It is not just the race of the offender that matters but the race of the victim. The overwhelming majority of people on death row are there for killing white victims.

His conscience is clear, because he has drawn the line and stopped asking how the state murdering people for political gain is superior to any other excuse for killing someone.
Michael Lax,

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Easy like Sunday morning: news roundup

Amnesty International is reporting that executions are down dramatically globally:

The number of executions worldwide fell from 2,148 in 2005 to 1,591 in 2006, a drop of more than 25 percent, Amnesty International (AI) revealed today in its annual report on global death penalty statistics.

In 2006, 91 percent of all known executions took place in China, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and the United States. AI recorded more than 1,000 executions in China in 2006, but figures on the use of the death penalty are a state secret in China and the true number is believed to be as high as 8,000. Iran executed at least 177 people, Pakistan at least 82, Iraq and Sudan each at least 65, and the United States 53.

In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. In 2006, the Philippines became the latest country to join the 99 that have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Many more, including South Korea, stand on the brink of abolition.

In Africa, only six countries carried out executions in 2006. Belarus is the only country that continues to use the death penalty in Europe. The United States is the only country in the Americas to have carried out any executions since 2003.

"2006 gave us cause to be optimistic about the prospect ultimately of global abolition," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "Around the world and here at home, there have been increasingly vocal calls to end the death penalty, and lawmakers are finally listening.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down three death sentences from Texas with as many as 42 more to follow. From Associated Content:

The ruling 5-4 stated that the courts reviewing the cases failed to follow the guidance of the high court. Both the New Orleans based 5th circuit court and the Texas Court of Appeals incorrectly analyzed "whether faulty jury instructions prevented Texas jurors from considering migrating evidence that might have persuaded them to spare the men from execution," as reported by the Houston Chronicle, Washington Bureau. The three men involved were Jalil-Abdul-Kabir, Brent Brewer, and LaRoyce Smith.

Evidently instructions to the jurors to weigh migrating evidence about the defendant, such as low intelligence, mental illness, or childhood abuse, had not been used in Texas courts since 1991, but had been used in many current death row trials. It is estimated that between 50-70 death row cases will be affected by this ruling. Each case will be handled and reviewed, and some cases could eventually be thrown out and new sentencing trials ordered.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Washington Bureau, both The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and the 5th Circuit had been warned by The Supreme Court to follow guidelines especially in death row cases challenging jury instructions. Texas judges had begun using their own instructions such as telling jurors "if they thought there was any migrating evidence that warranted sparing the killers life, they could simply change one of their 'yes" answers to "no," meaning the defendant would receive the death sentence.

Texas is the leading state in executions, and has been know to be called "the killing state" by death row advocates. Twelve inmates have been executed so far this year and some of those cases are from the time era involved in this issue. Texas has passed their own version of "Jessica's Law" which includes the posable death sentence for sex predators who rape children under the age of 14 more than once.

The Tennessean this morning calls for Gov. Phil Bresden to continue the time out on executions:

As Gov. Phil Bredesen's moratorium on executions nears an end, there are indications that the state of Tennessee is not prepared to carry out the death penalty according to legal guidelines or constitutional guarantees.

Bredesen imposed a 90-day suspension in February, just as four inmates' executions were coming due. The governor pointed to a number of problems with the state's guidelines for putting people to death; among them, procedures that did not detail standard dosages for the three chemicals used during a lethal injection.

An analysis of executions in California and North Carolina released last week found that two of the three drugs used in lethal injection were not administered in those states in a way that reliably results in painless death. Some of the inmates died of suffocation and were conscious enough to realize it, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Such errors run afoul of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The problems found in California and North Carolina are remarkably similar to the concerns that led to a moratorium in Tennessee.

But that is only the beginning of Tennessee's problems, according to the American Bar Association. The organization issued a report on the state's death-penalty system last week, authored by seven Tennessee lawyers, which cited poor legal representation for the accused, crushing caseloads for the handful of good defense lawyers, and the likelihood that some death-penalty cases have been tainted by racial discrimination.

The ABA urged Bredesen to extend his moratorium and issued a set of recommendations with the report, including an independent commission to review innocence claims; an agency to train death-row defense lawyers; new instructions for juries to avoid confusion; and barring the death penalty for the mentally ill.

In Nebraska, the state is preparing to use -- perhaps for the last time in America -- the electric chair. AP reports:

The state's new method of electrocution _ a single, sustained jolt instead of several shorter ones _ could leave the condemned's heart beating well after the shock, backers and foes of the protocol say.

The macabre image of a strapped-down inmate, possibly brain dead but with a pulsating heart, could sharpen an already tense debate as Nebraska, the only state with the electric chair as its sole means of execution, prepares to put to death its first prisoner in a decade.

No one's sure the inmate's heart would continue to beat after the current stopped, but the possibility has caused a furor among capital punishment opponents since it was broached by the doctor who almost single-handedly revised Nebraska's execution protocol.

Carey Dean Moore is to die May 8 through an untested system of sending 2,450 volts through his body for 20 seconds.

Death penalty opponents are stepping up legal challenges to the execution, mainly on the grounds that the chair is cruel and unusual punishment. And the Legislature narrowly defeated a bill last month that would have repealed the death penalty.

Nebraska adopted the new protocol after a judge rejected the old one, which involved four jolts of current. The new rules call for a 15-minute wait after the jolt before checking inmates to see whether they are dead.

That wait is 'crucial to the determination of death if Nebraska is intent upon using heart sounds as the criteria of death,' Dr. Ronald Wright, who helped design the new policy, wrote in a 2002 report to state officials.

'The heart has a high probability of restarting following cessation of current' using the new method, he wrote.

In court depositions, Wright has said that a high-voltage shock would almost immediately cause brain death and has said the state's reluctance to use that as the standard for pronouncing death is unfortunate.

But there is 'absolutely no proof' that an initial high-voltage shock causes brain death, according to John Wikswo, a biomedical engineer who has studied executions by electrocution.

The uncertainty means an inmate could experience incredible pain while corrections officials wait to check if he is dead, opponents of the protocol say.

'What they're assuming is that if the initial shock doesn't kill the person immediately, the 15-minute wait will,' said Wikswo, of Vanderbilt University.

Meanwhile, problems with lethal injection persist. The California Aggie notes:

Cruel and unusual punishment may be the cause of death for those who are subject to lethal injections, as a recent study on prisoner execution showed that the current drug protocol could cause suffocation. On Apr. 24, researchers at the University of Miami Miller School Of Medicine reported their findings that lethal injections in the United States may lead to death by chemical asphyxiation.

According to researchers, the chemicals that are currently used to execute prisoners on death row subject offenders to a death that can be ruled as inhumane - as opposed to quick and painless. The three chemicals used in lethal injections include substances that induce anesthesia, paralysis and respiratory arrest, or stopping of the heart.

Teresa Zimmers, research assistant professor of surgery at the University of Miami and head author of the report, said in a press release that the drug combination in lethal injection executions does not hold any clinical precedence, was not sufficiently tested on lab animals before official use and has led to delayed executions - making it a possibly insufficient means for implementing the death penalty.

"We concluded that the original design of the lethal injection drug protocol itself is flawed," Zimmers said. "The drug protocol is based on little clinical and scientific data and contradicts clinical veterinary practice."

The study also indicates a problem with the delivery of the injections, citing that doctors and nurses do not perform the procedures, but rather volunteers with unreleased qualifications.

Similarly, the Boston Globe notes this morning:

Indeed, a new analysis of executions in California and North Carolina suggests the opposite. Published in PLoS Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal from the Public Library of Science, it indicates that the three-drug combination generally used in lethal injections can result in a painful process of asphyxiation, during which a prisoner may be conscious. That possibility is heightened when technicians bungle the procedure. The study strips away the medical veneer and offers strong evidence that lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Real medical procedures are developed over time, through extensive experimentation and human testing, and are carried out by skilled medical personnel. But doctors and nurses are prohibited from taking part in executions by the ethical norms of their professions. Under American Medical Association policy, a doctor cannot even be the first person to assess whether a prisoner is dead, because finding a heartbeat would lead to further injections of lethal agents.

Methods capable of causing near-instantaneous deaths, such as guillotines and firing squads, have been rejected as stomach-turning. The electric chair, a method conceived as a quick, mechanical alternative, has proved repulsive in practice, and the brutality of lethal injection is becoming ever clearer, too.

Tim Goodwin of Asia Death Penalty reports Japan hanged three people on Friday:
Japan hanged three men on Friday, bringing to seven the number of prisoners it has executed in the past four months.

The latest executions were reportedly carried out now to keep the country's death row population below 100.

Kosaku Nata , Yoshikatsu Oda and Masahiro Tanaka were hanged on 27 April in detention centres in Osaka, Fukuoka and Tokyo.

In an unusual step, the men were executed while Japan's parliament, the Diet, was in session. Executions in Japan are usually timed to avoid parliamentary debate or scrutiny.
Finally, a letter to the editor in New Jersey by James Abbott, Chief of Police West Orange, New Jersey, and also a member of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission.
I am writing to reinforce some important points made by me and three of my fellow members of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Forum on capital punishment on April 25.

The 13-member commission, which recommended replacing the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole, based its recommendation upon facts, careful study and much deliberation. 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.

Many victims' family members testified over the course of five public hearings. While most who testified opposed the death penalty, it is clear that victims' families have a variety of opinions about it. Their testimony helped change my mind. I had no idea how much they suffer facing years of capital appeals and reversals. Even in states that carry out executions, the process takes years and reversals are many.

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. A fair, accurate and effective capital punishment 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.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Phillip Workman: Deadly Silence

[I should have noted when we put this up on Friday that this is the first time that You Tube has been used -- to our knowledge -- for a death row clemency video. It is being posted now to encourage further such postings to You Tube & in solidarity with the clemency efforts on behalf of Mr. Workman. The NCADP's affiliate in Tennessee, TCASK, has more.]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Innocent and Executed

Today we launched the online version of Innocent and Executed: Four Chapters in the Life of America's Death Penalty. This report tells the story of four men -- Larry Griffin of Missouri and Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna and Cameron Todd Willingham, all of Texas -- who were executed despite being almost certainly if not demonstrably innocent. You can see the "micro site" we created here.

Many thanks to Josh Hilgart and Jason Zanon, friends and old colleagues of mine, for providing the technical assistance that allowed this to happen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday

Oh, we so have to blog this!

I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday
’cause you’re evil
And you lie
And if you should die
I may feel slightly sad
but I won’t cry

- the Smiths

AEDPA is 11 years old today. What is AEDPA, you ask? The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was passed in 1996 by Congressional Republicans and signed by President Bill Clinton, who was seeking re-election at the time. It greatly restricts death penalty appeals and forces federal courts to show extreme deference to state courts when reviewing state death penalty convictions. Many people believe that because of this law, innocent people have been executed in this country in the past decade.

[via Capital Defense Weekly, who got it from Criminal Appeal]

Now, on a somewhat related note, we have an, um, "missing person" report we have to file. It seems that habeas has gone missing.

On October 17, 2006, he went missing without a trace. Last seen in Washington, D.C., his current whereabouts are unknown. Where is he? We don't know. But if you want to help us find him, go here.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Tackling Alabama

Alabama has a conundrum. One execution is scheduled for next month and several more are in the works. Yet, a hearing is scheduled in October regarding the constitutionality of the state's refusal to release information about how it conducts executions. (In other states, we've only fully learned about botched executions after information about protocols was released. A number of states fall in this category -- Arkansas, Missouri, California, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and so on.)

Today, at the request of our Alabama affiliate, Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, we submitted this letter to the editor to The New York Times. Hopefully, they'll print it!

April 23, 2007

To the editor:

You recently noted that Alabama is the only state in the country where death row inmates facing executions are not provided lawyers by the state (“In Alabama, Execution Without Representation,” March 26)

Alabama now has another dubious claim: it is preparing to execute at least one person even while the state’s primary method of execution – lethal injection -- is being challenged in federal court. Aaron Jones has a May 3 execution date despite the fact that other inmates on Alabama’s death row face an October hearing which will decide whether the state’s refusal to say how it carries out executions violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Alabama’s peculiar recalcitrance comes as executions have been halted in nearly a dozen other states because of newly raised concerns over lethal injection protocols. The cruel irony is that if Alabama’s inmates are to prevail in their effort to force the state to reveal how it carries out executions – what dosages of drugs are used, how IVs are administered, whether members of its execution team even receive training in setting an IV – it will be too late for Jones. A federal judge ruled that he cannot challenge Alabama’s method of execution because he filed his challenge too late. When it comes to justice, that’s a rather perverse technicality.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sunday news round-up

Rounding it all up:

Monday will almost assuredly mark the 200th exoneration by DNA -- both capital & noncapital -- in the modern era:

Jerry Miller spent 25 years behind bars for a rape he has long maintained he didn’t commit. His fight to prove his innocence finally will pay off Monday when prosecutors, acting on new DNA tests that ruled out Miller as the attacker, will ask a judge to erase his conviction.

The expected exoneration on Monday will be the 200th in the nation based on DNA evidence, according to the nonprofit Innocence Project in New York. Miller talked about how he has rebuilt his life in an interview with the Chicago Tribune published in its Sunday editions.

Miller, 48, works two jobs and lives with a cousin in the south suburbs. Since his release on parole last year, he has relearned to drive and he used a cell phone for the first time.

He said he feels blessed that the DNA tests cleared him, calling the exoneration “the hand of God.”

“I am not angry. I am thankful and I feel proud of myself,” he told the newspaper. “I accomplished what I set out to do to show that they lied on me. … I made it. I’m not swept under the rug anymore.

“Prosecutors in Cook County agreed to the new DNA tests when approached by the Innocence Project last year, said John Gorman, a spokesman for the Cook County state’s attorney. He confirmed that the test, on a semen sample collected from the victim’s clothing, excluded Miller as the rapist.

“We’ll move to vacate” Miller’s conviction on Monday, Gorman told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Miller’s case involved a mistaken identification by two parking garage employees who rescued the rape victim from the trunk of her car after they saw a man flee from a car. Mistaken eyewitness identifications are involved in three out of four wrongful conviction, according to an analysis by the Innocence Project.

The DNA test for Miller did result in a cold hit in the DNA database of the real perpetrator.

[via Taking Down Words] Indiana’s solution to the lethal injection row in that state — double the amount of sedatives:

“State lawyers defending a legal challenge to Indiana’s execution process have disclosed that prison officials plan on doubling the amount of anesthetic administered during lethal injections.

“David Leon Woods, whose execution is set for May 4, is among three condemned inmates who claim in a federal lawsuit that the state Department of Correction’s execution protocol constitutes cruel and unusual punishment as it will not prevent inmates from feeling unnecessary pain.

“While the state attorney general’s office has denied that argument, the amount of sodium pentothal to be injected during executions is being increased from 2.5 grams to 5 grams, according to federal court records. Sodium pentothal is intended to make the inmate unconscious as the first of three chemicals given during an execution.

“Thomas Quigley, a deputy attorney general, disclosed the change last week during a telephone conference with federal Judge Richard L. Young and Linda Wagoner, an attorney for Woods.

“Woods has asked the judge to block his execution and his attorneys have asked state officials to explain why the dosage has been changed and whether they have evidence to back up its effectiveness.”

Press accounts note that an all white jury has decided not to kill Daphne VanderGeisen, a deaf, black lesbian woman convicted of the murder of an alleged rival. DQN notes:
“That’s probably one of the most difficult things I’ve, as a person, you never think you’re going to be the one that convicts someone of first-degree murder. Premeditated murder. You just don’t want to say that to another human being,” Van Zanten says.
“I think that brought her to a level that we had not seen before,” Dolan says. “And it brought more of a humanization to her rather than looking at her like some sort of a monster.”
But the jury’s job wasn’t done yet. They still had the penalty phase of the trial, which began with Darlene VanderGiesen’s parents sharing how their daughter’s murder affects them.
“I don’t think there was anyone in that courtroom who wasn’t brought to tears,” Kirkus says. “Listening to the VanderGiesens actually took a weight off the jury’s shoulders. The couple from Rock Valley seemed so genuine. So forgiving.”
“You didn’t feel any hatred. They just miss their daughter. And that helped us in deliberation. Because we weren’t trying to vindicate Darlene by punishing Daphne. Because we knew the VanderGiesens didn’t want that,” Frost-Elshami says.

“What John Q. Public thinks doesn’t matter that much to me,” Nelson says. “In the end, I wanted to make sure Darlene’s parents supported what we decided as well. They meant more to what I think than anybody.”

After about five hours the jurors unanimously decided Wright had a depraved mind when she killed VanderGiesen. That made the case eligible for the death penalty. It would have taken another unanimous vote for Wright to die. But seven of them chose life.

“In the end, we made the right choice,” Dolan says.

“And in the end, we were the 12 people that were looking at Daphne,” Frost-Elshami says. “We saw her mother.

We saw her history. We saw a lot about the person that we would have sentenced to death. And you can’t lose sight of the fact it’s a person.”

Still, it was largely important that, this time, the jury read Wright the verdict.

“I wish we could have tagged on a little part at the end of it saying that we showed mercy on Daphne that she didn’t show on Darlene,” Nelson says. “And I hope she realizes we didn’t have to do that.”

They didn’t have to, but in putting an end to the saga has affected so many, these jurors spared Daphne Wright’s life.

“We wanted the killing to stop,” Frost-Elshami says.

The jurors say they kept their votes in the death penalty phase anonymous. But two of them said from the beginning of deliberations that they wouldn’t switch their vote to death.

The Tennessee Dude at Amnesty International’s death penalty blog notes:

“If it were up to the state of Pennsylvania, I’d be dead today.”

yep, that’s what harold wilson and jay c. smith said together as they gathered at the liberty bell in philadelphia with other members of a small club they wish they failed to qualify for - wrongfully convicted human beings sent to death row for a crime they didn’t commit…and finally exonerated…

for smith it was a box of detective’s notebooks, found in the officer’s dusty attic, that showed there was evidence to question his guilt…for wilson there were 16 years at the philadelphia industrial correctional

[DPIC has more on the topic]

In brief I should also note:

  • James Filiaggi is a borderline volunteer. Borderline because he has apparently not wanted to aggressively fight to save his own life but has permitted some “appeals” of his underlying conviction and death sentence. ODPI notes Filiaggi is now try to join a lethal injection lawsuit just four days before his April 24 scheduled execution. All other recent Ohio execution dates save one have been effectively stayed in light of the lethal injection suit; the one remaining unstayed serious date is scheduled for the end of May — that of Christopher Newton. In advance of the scheduled execution of James Filagi, the Associate Press examines Ohio’s six volunteers to be executed.
  • Press accounts note that in Horn v. Mumia Abul Jamar the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office–which apparently represents Horn — has asked the Third Circuit to recuse itself because Abu-Jamal contends that city prosecutors routinely engaged in racial discrimination during jury selection at the time of the 1982 trial. Gov. Rendell was district attorney at that time & his wife, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, now sits on the federal appeals court. In a brief order the Third Circuit said that Judge Rendell and three other judges - Theodore A. McKee, D. Michael Fisher, and Richard L. Nygaard - are recused from the case - but not because of the district attorney’s request. There is an unusually strong Batson claim in play on appeal.
  • Colorado State “lawmakers killed a plan to slash the number of prosecutors in the state’s death-penalty unit on Wednesday, despite claims the money could be better used for a cold-case unit to pursue the 1,200 unsolved murders in Colorado. Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, said the state could save millions of dollars yearly that is spent prosecuting and defending death penalty cases. He said the money could be better spent catching criminals still walking the streets. Weissmann said only two people on death row in Colorado and it’s not worth having a four-member capital crimes unit. Weissmann tried to cut the number in half, but the House killed the bill (House Bill 1094).”
  • .Amnesty International has blasted Iraq’s death penalty scheme which has already earned that nation the distinction of being the fourth largest executioner in the world (and that isn’t even counting extra-judicial killings) for the last year.
  • Saudi Arabia executed two men from Chad on Friday for armed robbery and kidnapping, raising to at least 36 the number of people put to death in the Islamic kingdom this year.
  • Media sources note that Tanzania is beginning to review its position on outlawing the death penalty after being put under pressure from human rights watchdogs.
  • In a case that has arisen some ire over at the Weekly, 0n April 13, 2007, the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion denying David Lee Lewis -- who is purportedly mentally retarded -- because although counsel mailed to the court the petition within the period governed by the statute of limitations it was not docketed until one day after the period had run. Had counsel filed electronically or driven to the courthouse it would have been timely. In re Lewis, ___ F.3d ___, 2007 WL 1098434 (5th Cir. April 13, 2007).

Friday, April 20, 2007

Quote of the day

...comes from Matt Stoller, who blogs over at MyDD, who was recently seen wearing this on a T-shirt:

"Nobody cares about your blog!"

Now, Matt's blog attracts, oh, about 38,000 visitors a day, compared with this blog, which attracts -- let's see, where's that site meter -- 241 visitors a day. So Matt wasn't referring to this blog, which he undoubtedly is unaware of.

What I guess he was saying is that bloggers can be an ideologically driven, intense, cantankerous lot.


Nobody cares about your blog.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What is Harris County hiding?

Yes, we have been talking Texas a lot lately on this blog. Not so much because it's my home state and I love it. More so because Texas accounts for a death row of more than 400 people, and it also accounts for more than one-third of the nation's 1,070 executions since 1976.

Texas has executed mentally retarded people, severely mentally ill people and juvenile offenders. And Texas has executed innocent people (we'll be rolling out a web site on this topic soon. For now, I'll just reference NCADP's groundbreaking report, Innocent and Executed: Four Chapters in the Life of America's Death Penalty.

Today we are going to talk about Texas again. Because Texas has a little problem. They keep sending innocent people to prison. It's like a drug addiction. They can't stop. Again and again and again we read of exonerations out of Texas. I'm not talking about death row inmates (already they've their share of innocent people on death row -- both executed (Cameron Todd Willingham, Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna) and thankfully not executed (Randall Dale Adams, Clarence Brandley, Earnest Ray Willis....shall I go on? I could, you know.)

Recently, Dallas County elected a new district attorney. He believes in the death penalty. But he's a reformer. He doesn't believe in locking innocent people up, and he knows Texas has a problem. He knows Dallas County has a problem. Indeed: statistics reveal that 12 (about to be 13) men out of Dallas County have been sent to prison and then cleared by DNA evidence. That's more than any other county in the U.S.!

And Harris County? They send more people to prison than Dallas County (and more people to death row than any other county in the U.S.) Yet they have only had four DNA exonerations.

The difference? Sit down. Take a deep breath.

Dallas County preserves its evidence after conviction. Harris County destroys it. In Dallas County, thanks to this new reformist district attorney, evidence can be tested. Not so in Harris County.

There's this outstanding op-ed in the Houston Chronicle that addresses this shameful dichotomy. The op-ed is by Lisa Falkenberg. You can read the whole thing here, but I'm excerpting some snippets:

At least Dallas County gives 2nd chances

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

One look at James Curtis Giles on our front page with his cobalt blue suit, smiling, relieved eyes, his sister gripping his shoulder like a battle buddy returning from the field has me both thrilled and furious.

Thrilled because for the first time in a quarter-century, the world knows 53-year-old Giles is an innocent man, no longer the scum-of-the-earth sex offender convicted in the brutal gang rape of a pregnant 18-year-old.

Furious because he likely will be the 13th man proven by DNA testing to have been wrongly convicted in Dallas County. Thirteen. That's more DNA exonerations than any county in the nation. Harris County has had only four.

What's wrong with the justice system in Dallas? Is it really that much worse than ours?
Harris County had tainted evidence and sloppy record-keeping from a leaky police crime lab. Both counties have shared reputations for what critics call a "conviction-at all-costs" mentality.

And Harris, the so-called death penalty capital of the world, is a lot more populous.

So, assuming Harris has its fair share of bad lawyers, overzealous cops and mistaken eyewitnesses, why aren't we seeing the same parade of exonerations?

The main answer is simple: Dallas is a pack rat, keeping evidence dating back to the 1980s in catalogued freezers of a county-run lab; Harris County is not.

It's not that Dallas' policy was born of benevolent foresight: It likely was intended to aid prosecutors in fighting appeals.

But enter Craig Watkins, the new Democratic district attorney hell-bent on airing his Republican predecessors' sins and busting out the innocent, and you've got a recipe for long-awaited justice.

'Heads in the sand'

Harris County is a different story.

As we saw in the HPD crime lab debacle, precious evidence like bloody clothing and rape kits got rained on, used up in one test or misplaced. Even the evidence sent to other labs was routinely stored in crowded, dusty warehouses, where exhibits were periodically tossed to make room for more.

In 1997, the rape kit that exonerated Kevin Byrd narrowly escaped the trash bin. But a week after his pardon, court officials ordered 50 more rape kits destroyed.

Harris County's tossing tendencies are common and legal. Texas law requires evidence to be kept only until a convict is executed, dies or is paroled. Curtis Giles might still be a registered sex offender today if Dallas had followed that minimum standard; he was exonerated 14 years after his parole.

Evidence isn't the only obstacle to freeing Harris County's innocent. Critics point to a culture of denial at the office of District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who's often painted as the archetypal red meat Texas prosecutor.

"I think it's a matter of them burying their heads in the sand so they're not confronted with the possibility they made a mistake," David Dow, director of the University of Houston's Innocence Network, said of Rosenthal's office."They often don't even answer our letters anymore when we inquire about ...evidence."


Rosenthal should follow Watkins' example in Dallas: Throw open his doors to the innocence attorneys and allow them to test whatever evidence exists in disputed cases. He has nothing to lose, except his pride, but much to gain.For every innocent person in prison, there is a murderer or rapist who escaped justice.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The tipping point, part deux

Many of us who oppose the death penalty get -- shall we say -- some interesting mail. We're called a pretty broad (and often obscene) litany of names, and, it seems, there are always two constants. First, we're accused of standing up for violent murderers. And second, we're asked what if it were our loved one who was killed (never mind the fact that many of us have lost loved ones to violence).

Never mind. Sticks and stones.

But really. Some people from across the ocean may disagree with me on the point I am about to make, and some of my friends here who oppose life without parole may even disagree, but one truism exists. If we are to abolish the death penalty in the U.S., we will have to convince the U.S. public that we can be tough on crime and we can keep the public safe.

Yesterday we told you about the conservative Dallas Morning News, which reversed its 100-year editorial policy and called for abolition of the death penalty in Texas, which is, of course, the leading execution state.

The Dallas Morning News has published a follow-up editorial. With it, they are demonstrating how you can be anti-death penalty and tough on crime. Here's how it starts (if you want to read the whole thing, go here. If you want to read Sunday's historic editorial, simply scroll down to yesterday's entry or go here.)

Death No More: Life without parole should be new standard

He needs killing.

For too long, our state has abided by this bit of Texas folk wisdom. Those who would kill need killing.

Wealth, race and random luck play a role in determining whether a case ends in death. Politics and geography can mean the difference between life in prison or lethal injection.

State-sanctioned death, it seems, is arbitrary.

Some of the most infamous murderers of our time sit in prison while lesser offenders are sent to die.

The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, confessed to killing at least 48 women but struck a deal to spare his life.

Juries sentenced Terry Nichols, accessory to the Oklahoma City bombing, and Lee Boyd Malvo, the "D.C. sniper," to life in prison.

Eric Rudolph, who bombed an abortion clinic, and Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer, accepted plea agreements to avoid death sentences.

Our justice system has developed a dual standard, alternately meting out the death penalty and life in prison in comparable cases. In fact, some who conspire to commit the same crime are punished quite differently. Consider the teenage trio convicted in the murder-for-hire of Fort Worth socialite Caren Koslow.

Stepdaughter Kristi Koslow masterminded the gruesome killing and recruited her boyfriend and an acquaintance to carry out her plan. She was sentenced to life in prison. Brian Salter agreed to testify against his girlfriend in exchange for a life sentence. Jeffrey Dillingham exercised his right to a fair trial and was sentenced to die. Mr. Dillingham sought clemency, claiming a disparity of punishment. His request was denied, and he was executed in 2000.

We need a consistent standard.

But as long as capital punishment remains an option, it will be viewed as the ultimate goal, and prosecutors will face pressure to meet that goal.

Justice demands a punishment that is fair yet revocable, one that provides a sense of finality while allowing for the fallibility of the system.

Life without parole meets that bar.

It's harsh. It's just. And it's final without being irreversible.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Did someone say 'A Tipping Point?'

The thing about change in society is that once we finally become aware of that which is changing, the forces that caused the change in the first place are powerful, irrevocable and inevitable.

And so it is that Texas' most powerful newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, has reversed its position of more than 100 years and is now calling for abolition of the death penalty. This news comes as a welcome surprise. Here is their editorial:

Death no more: It's time to end capital punishment

Ernest Ray Willis set a fire that killed two women in Pecos County. So said Texas prosecutors who obtained a conviction in 1987 and sent Mr. Willis to death row. But it wasn't true.

Seventeen years later, a federal judge overturned the conviction, finding that prosecutors had drugged Mr. Willis with powerful anti-psychotic medication during his trial and then used his glazed appearance to characterize him as "cold-hearted." They also suppressed evidence and introduced neither physical proof nor eyewitnesses in the trial – and his court-appointed lawyers mounted a lousy defense. Besides, another death-row inmate confessed to the killings.

The state dropped all charges. Ernest Ray Willis emerged from prison a pauper. But he was lucky: He had his life. Not so Carlos De Luna, who was executed in1989 for the stabbing death of a single mother who worked at a gas station.

For years, another man with a history of violent crimes bragged that he had committed the crime. The case against Mr. De Luna, in many eyes, does not stand up to closer examination.
There are signs he was innocent. We don't know for sure, but we do know that if the state made a mistake, nothing can rectify it.

And that uncomfortable truth has led this editorial board to re-examine its century-old stance on the death penalty. This board has lost confidence that the state of Texas can guarantee that every inmate it executes is truly guilty of murder. We do not believe that any legal system devised by inherently flawed human beings can determine with moral certainty the guilt of every defendant convicted of murder.

That is why we believe the state of Texas should abandon the death penalty – because we cannot reconcile the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible.

Flaws in the capital criminal justice system have bothered troubled us for some time. We have editorialized in favor of clearer instructions to juries, better counsel for defendants, the overhaul of forensic labs and restrictions on the execution of certain classes of defendant. We have urged lawmakers to at least put in place a moratorium, as other states have, to closely examine the system.

And yet, despite tightening judicial restrictions and growing concern, the exonerations keep coming, and the doubts keep piling up without any reaction from Austin.

From our vantage point in Dallas County, the possibility of tragic, fatal error in the death chamber appears undeniable. We have seen a parade of 13 men walk out of the prison system after years – even decades – of imprisonment for crimes they didn't commit. Though not death penalty cases, these examples – including an exoneration just last week – reveal how shaky investigative techniques and reliance on eyewitnesses can derail the lives of the innocent.

The Tulia and the fake-drug scandals have also eroded public confidence in the justice system. These travesties illustrate how greed and bigotry can poison the process.

It's hard to believe that such pervasive human failings have never resulted in the death of an innocent man.

In 2001, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed."

Some death penalty supporters acknowledge that innocents may have been and may yet be executed, but they argue that serving the greater good is worth risking that unfortunate outcome. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argues that the Byzantine appeals process effectively sifts innocent convicts from the great mass of guilty, and killing the small number who fall through is a risk he's willing to live with. According to polls, most Texans are, too. But this editorial board is not.

Justice Scalia calls these innocents "an insignificant minimum." But that minimum is not insignificant to the unjustly convicted death-row inmate. It is not insignificant to his or her family. The jurist's verbiage marks a transgression against the Western moral tradition, which establishes both the value of the individual and the wrongness of making an innocent suffer for the supposed good of the whole. Shedding innocent blood has been a scandal since Cain slew Abel – a crime for which, the Bible says, God spared the murderer, who remained under harsh judgment.

This newspaper's death penalty position is based not on sympathy for vile murderers – who, many most agree, deserve to die for their crimes – but rather in the conviction that not even the just dispatch of 10, 100, or 1,000 of these wretches can remove the stain of innocent blood from our common moral fabric.

This is especially true given that our society can be adequately guarded from killers using bloodless means. In 2005, the Legislature gave juries the option of sentencing killers to life without parole.

The state holds in its hands the power of life and death. It is an awesome power, one that citizens of a democracy must approach in fear and trembling, and in full knowledge that the state's justice system, like everything humanity touches, is fated to fall short of perfection. If we are doomed to err in matters of life and death, it is far better to err on the side of caution. It is far better to err on the side of life. The state cannot impose death – an irrevocable sentence – with absolute certainty in all cases.Therefore the state should not impose it at all.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A discussion of innocence

We've been talking about innocence a lot lately. And it's a good discussion for us to have, because whether you support the death penalty or oppose it, we can all agree, every last one of us (well, except for you, Dudley!) that having innocent people on death row is a Bad Thing.

So when this AP story crossed my desk (hat tip Kurt in Pennsylvania and Scott in Ohio), I knew I had to blog it:

Ex-prosecutor, freed inmates call for end to Pa. death penalty

Twenty people who have been exonerated after spending a combined 150 years on death row are calling Friday for a moratorium on capital punishment in Pennsylvania.

More than a dozen other states have enacted bans or halted executions amid concerns about wrongful convictions, racial inequities, botched executions and other issues.

Nationally, 123 people have been freed from death row after being exonerated, including at least six in Pennsylvania, advocacy groups say. "I try to give people food for thought, that this is something that can take someone's life and liberty," said Ray Krone, 50, of Dover Township, who was cleared of murder through DNA after spending 10 years in prison, including three on Arizona's death row. "I learned about it the hard way, during many years of contemplation in my jail cell," he said.

Supporters of a ban, including Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, planned a Friday afternoon rally at the Liberty Bell organized by a group called Witness to Innocence.

The scheduled speakers include a former Texas prosecutor who now believes his office helped execute an innocent man and a once-condemned Philadelphia man, Harold Wilson, who was acquitted of a triple murder after a 2005 retrial.

"The death penalty is something that polarizes people right away," said Krone, who once supported capital punishment.

Then the postal worker was convicted not once, but twice, of killing a female bartender at a Phoenix lounge where he played darts. He was released in 2002, and later won a $4.4 million settlement for the decade he lost in prison.

Krone now works for Witness to Innocence, campaigning and helping others who suffered his fate adjust to life after prison.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Foreshadowing a Pulitzer?

Maybe, maybe not.

But the occasion for this headline is the fact that at 3 p.m. EST on Monday, this year's crop of Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. One of the finalists is reportedly the Chicago Tribune, presumably for the wonderful series the newspaper published last summer on the case of Carlos De Luna of Corpus Christi, Texas, who was executed despite what now is clear and convincing evidence of innocence.

(You can see the "unofficial" list of Pulitzer Prize finalists by going here. You can read more about the De Luna story by going here.)

But I digress.

I was inadvertently reminded that it's Pulitzer Prize season by a piece Gregory Mitchell wrote today about the Tribune's recent decision to reverse its editorial position and come out in favor of abolishing the death penalty. Mitchell is the editor of the trade publication Editor and Publisher.

He writes:

Chicago Tribune Comes Out Against Death Penalty -- And Few Protest

For several years now, the Chicago Tribune has published numerous articles-- many of them award-winning -- exposing the many faults in the administration of capital punishment in its home state and the nation. Some of them helped inspire a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois.

All the while, the paper's editorial page continued to support capital punishment. That changed 3 weeks ago with an editorial opposing the death penalty. Relatively few newspapers have gone that far and public opinion continues to back capital punishment -- although support drops when people are given the option of "life without parole."

Today, the Tribune's public editor, Timothy McNulty, reports that his paper's surprise editorial has drawn surprisingly little black from readers. Here is the 1st part of his column.

Individuals change their minds often, but a change of mind for a newspaper's editorial position, especially one that has stood since at least 1869, is far less common.

When the Tribune's editorial board came out in opposition to the death penalty three weeks ago, the newspaper might have expected a rise out of readers and politicians previously aligned with traditional thinking that favored capital punishment.

"The evidence of recent years argues that it is necessary to curb the government's power," the editorial declared, overturning its previous arguments. "It is time to abolish the death penalty."

There was barely a ripple, a few heartfelt letters to the editor, a few calls, and almost all accepting and welcoming the new attitude.

Abolition of the death penalty isn't on the political radar at the moment, and if any readers were surprised, they may have assumed the newspaper already opposed the death penalty. 8 years ago, reporters Maurice Possley, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong began detailing the abuses, and their reporting led then-Gov. George Ryan to impose a death-penalty moratoriumin 2000. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has maintained it since.

Tribune writers continue to lead on national stories about death-penalty abuses. Cornelia Grumman, an editorial writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for her series of editorials on the injustice of the death penalty. While here and in other states the same arguments are put forward by both sides of the debate, the Tribune's editorial board looked at them afresh, but also with the overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is not applied fairly and is too open to mistakes that cost innocent lives.

(source: Greg Mitchell ( is editor. He is co-author, with Robert Jay Lifton, of the book about capital punishment,"Who Owns Death?", published in 2000)

Monday, April 09, 2007

CNN's Anderson Cooper 360...

[UPDATE Part II: Transcript of the show is here.]


I am sure David will have more on Tuesday, until then I thought it might do well to update everyone on his early coverage.

Cameron Todd Willingham (Texas) was convicted of arson murder in 1992 and executed in 2004. He was convicted of murdering his three children in a 1991 house fire. An independent investigation, reported by the Chicago Tribune, found that prosecutors and arson investigators used arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances. In December 2004, a Chicago Tribune series on junk science concluded that Cameron Todd Willingham, executed earlier that year, had been convicted on the basis of discredited arson analysis. A recent report by the Innocence Project, conducted by a team of leading arson experts, supports the Tribune story.

Anderson Cooper’s 360, part of CNN’s prime time news coverage, looked Monday night at Cameron Todd Willingham and the question of whether Texas killed him for a crime that was never committed — not by him, not by anyone.

Report Randi Kaye writing at the 360 blog notes:

These new forensics are now used as the gold standard of arson investigation around the world. It may have come too late in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (the governor of Texas reviewed the new findings just 15 minutes before Willingham’s execution and chose to go ahead with it) but they could save hundreds of others behind bars for arson who claim they’re innocent. Problem is, the International Association of Arson Investigators, doesn’t see a need to reopen or revisit all of the arson convictions on the books.
[Earlier Post] scheduled tonight to air a piece on Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham, some readers will recall, was executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for deliberately setting his house on fire and causing the deaths of two of his children.

Forensic science that emerged after Willingham's conviction -- but before his execution -- strongly suggested that the fire was accidental, not deliberately set.

Willingham was one of four people featured in NCADP's groundbreaking report, Innocent and Executed: Four Chapters in the Life of America's Death Penalty.

If breaking news happens (you know, Iraq, Alberto Gonzales, Anna Nicole Smith, etc.) tonight's piece could get bumped. If that happens, we'll try to let you know about the make-up date.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Fellow Outliers: Japan & the United States

The Japan Times offers a fascinating look at how Japan's death penalty is implemented. "According to Amnesty International, 102 people -- 97 men and 5 women -- are now waiting to be hanged in one of Japan's seven execution chambers -- the largest number in over half a century."

After breakfast on Christmas Day, 2006, three Japanese pensioners and a middle-aged former taxi driver were given an hour to live. The men were told to clean their cells, say their prayers and write a will. Yoshio Fujinami, 75, scribbled a note to his supporters before he was taken to the gallows in the Tokyo Detention Center in a wheelchair.

"I cannot walk by myself, I am ill and yet you still kill such a person," he wrote. "I should be the last person executed."

Also struggling to walk, partially blind Yoshimitsu Akiyama, 77, had to be helped by prison guards to the execution chamber. Both men were still appealing their convictions for murder.. . .

All four were hanged with military precision at three different prisons within minutes of each other; blindfolded, handcuffed and bound at the ankles as a 3-cm-thick rope was slipped around their necks and tightened before a trapdoor opened beneath their feet.

The men had a collective age of 260, and some had waited a quarter of a century for the hangman's rope, fearful -- since the condemned in Japan are given no warning of their impending execution -- that every day would be their last. By the time families, friends, lawyers and supporters were told, their bodies were already growing cold in prison morgues. Relatives -- if the men had any, and if they cared -- were given 24 hours to pick up the corpses.

Buried towards the end of the story is the reality of the death penalty for both the States and Japan, media and perception drives the arguments for more death sentences rather than the facts:

"There has been a clear tendency since the year 2000 for a rise in the number of death sentences, a phenomenon related to the crime situation," says Makoto Teranaka of Amnesty International Japan.

"The Police Agency repeatedly emphasizes that serious crime is worsening, but the statistics don't show this. What is true is that the police have made more new crimes, such as stalking, and that media coverage has enormously expanded, so we have a kind of moral panic, with people talking about crime much more."

Teranaka sees the death penalty as a "symbolic" issue. "The government is using the image of rising crime to introduce its own methods to control the social order," he said -- adding that he fears that the number of executions will continue to rise as a result.

Both countries are:

bucking a worldwide abolitionist trend, with 128 countries having scrapped the death sentence, including the Philippines and Cambodia, and South Korea and Taiwan debating abolition. Moreover, support for state killings is increasing in Japan. A 2005 government poll found that, for the first time, the number of Japanese people in favor of the death penalty topped 80 percent -- a rise of over 23 percent since 1975. Just 6 percent wanted the system abolished.

Why is Japan swimming against the tide? Activists cite a lack of debate. "There is no discussion about this in the media," says Nobuto Hosaka, secretary-general of the Parliamentary League for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. "Even in the Diet, the death penalty is something of a taboo because most lawmakers know the abolitionist cause is unpopular. It has become a vicious circle: Politicians don't discuss it and the public doesn't hear the abolitionist case, so the politicians continue to avoid it."

Hosaka says the Christian lobby in most other countries, including in European states, the Philippines and South Korea, has been a major factor in moving those countries toward abolition, despite often strong public support for executions.

"Religious groups in Japan cooperate in the death penalty," he said.

The Asia Death Penalty blog has long piece updating the situation across the Sea of Japan (the East Sea) in China. ADP quotes Chinese officials as stating that "[o]ur country still cannot abolish the death penalty but should gradually reduce its application."

Friday, April 06, 2007

I read the news today, oh boy....

...and it seems yet another newspaper has come out in favor of abolishing the death penalty.

This editorial comes from the Carlisle Sentinel, in Pennsylvania:

The death penalty has served its time

The death penalty is useless.

Even those who believe in the death penalty should come to that conclusion after reading The Sentinel's package of stories Sunday. Those storie sshowed that after the considerable expense of sentencing people to die, those defendants spend another dozen years or so fighting with appeals, again to the public's great expense.

In Pennsylvania, a felon has to volunteer to die for the death penalty to work.

This has led to 221 residents on Pennsylvania's death row, the 4th-largest number in the nation. The one sure way and an option rarely chosen to get off death row is to jump on the gurney and stick out your arm for the injection. Another is to be released, which is more likely, considering the 6 inmates whose sentences have been overturned since 1982.

Death penalty supporters point to the victims and their families as they argue for the punishment. But what about the families? What about the lengthy trial that compounds the anguish of their loved one's awful death? What about the years of awaiting appeal court decisions? And perhaps most important, what about their feelings on the occasions the defendant was wrongfully convicted?

What is right for the families is dependable, quick justice.

The reflex is to peel off the layers of appeals available to defendants. But considering the number of defendants exonerated by DNA evidence andother means, we would consider that unwise. And as state Rep. Willl Gabigtold The Sentinel, "We haven't heard that the statute is preventing people from being executed."

So we are left with a grueling process that in the end only guarantees more suffering for victims' families and society at large as faith in the justice system erodes. Beyond the emotional reasoning for capital punishment, many argue the death penalty as a deterrent is too important to let go. As compelling an argument that might be, a look at the record pace of homicides in Pennsylvania's cities casts a shadow of doubt on that theory.

And doubt is what is developing about capital punishment in general. One of The Sentinel's stories Sunday pointed to a Gallup poll last year that found for the 1st time in decades a majority of Americans prefer prison without parole over the death penalty in cases of murder. Whether this opinion results from frustration with the system or revulsion at the punishment, we don't know. We do know the pendulum is swinging away from Pennsylvania's position on a law it cannot even execute.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Our Virginia affiliate weighs in

On Wednesday, Virginia state lawmakers will gather in Richmond for a "veto session." They will decide whether to override Gov. Tim Kaine's veto of five bills that would expand the death penalty.

Jack Payden-Travers, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the death penalty, weighed in with this published article.

Let the 'triggerman' veto stand

Did I miss something or did Jerry Kilgore win the election?

When you are No. 2 out of 38 death penalty states, can anyone really accuse you of not using the death penalty often enough? Unfortunately, that is what is happening in the 2007 General Assembly, where a majority of our state legislators have voted to expand the death penalty.

Fortunately, we have a governor who knows the truth and in his courageous veto of all 5 death penalty expansion bills, said "Virginia is already second in the nation in the number of executions we carry out."

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.

"Virginians made a choice not to expand the death penalty when we elected Tim Kaine over an opponent who had campaigned to do just that. In his last term as attorney general, Kilgore introduced the Death Penalty Enhancement Act, the cornerstone of which was the elimination of the "triggerman rule." It failed to pass in 2005. But two years later that is the very bill that Kaine just vetoed. Did I miss something or did Kilgore win the election?

On Wednesday, the General Assembly reconvenes to consider the governor's amendments and vetoes of legislation passed in the 2007 session. I know who I voted for as governor. I know that one of my reasons for doing so was that I did not want to see any further expansion of the death penalty in my state.

I hope that when the senators and delegates return to Richmond they will reconsider their initial votes to unwisely waste tax dollars on an increased number of capital trials.

Even proponents of the death penalty know that it is not a deterrent to murder. We are no safer after 98 executions than we were before.

Expanding death-eligible crimes and increasing capital indictments will only divert needed resources away from the citizens of Virginia, including victims' family members and law enforcement officers.

A vote to uphold the vetoes is not a vote against the death penalty. It is a vote to stop an unnecessary and expensive expansion of capital punishment in Virginia.

(source: Editorial, Roanoke News----Jack Payden-Travers. Payden-Travers, of Lynchburg, is director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sunday news round-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House version passed 119-25 on March 6.

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

Looking internationally:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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