Thursday, May 31, 2007

New York Times weighs in on New Jersey death penalty debate

The New York Times recently had this to say about the goings-on in New Jersey:

A Barbaric Relic

It is amazing what legislators will resort to when they want to avoid taking a stand on a controversial matter, even when they know it is the right thing to do.

Exhibit A this month is the maneuvering the state Senate's top Democratic leaders engaged in to dodge a roll call vote on a bill to end New Jersey's death penalty.

The Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month cleared the measure for consideration by the full Senate, perhaps before the summer recess. Bu tsome Democratic leaders were alarmed that a vote to eliminate capital punishment might be construed as being soft on crime, so they surprised almost everyone by assigning the measure to the Senates budget committee.

And the budget committee, as one senator said, is where bills go to die.

The momentum to repeal capital punishment stems from a 13-member legislative committee's courageous recommendation last winter that NewJersey become the 1st state to abolish the death penalty since states began re-enacting it in the mid-1970s. The panel, which proposed replacing execution with life imprisonment without parole, included 2 prosecutors, a police chief, members of the clergy, and a man whose daughter was murdered in 2000.

Only one member, a former state senator who wrote the state's death penalty law, dissented. As the committee said at the time, capital punishment is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.

It is also a barbaric relic of an earlier day and, it should be noted, a poor deterrent to crime, and it deserves no role in a civilized society. By retaining a death penalty, a state places itself in the company of nations such as North Korea, Iran and China that are notorious for their inhumane treatment. With the use of DNA in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that capital punishment poses too great a risk of irreversible error.

In its report, the legislative committee said that ending the death penalty, which has not been enforced in New Jersey since 1963, would actually save money since the state would no longer have to go through expensive and drawn out litigation and appeals. It was that suggestion of a budgetary impact that gave Democratic leaders the excuse they were looking for to pass off and sidetrack the bill.

In the interest of simple forthrightness and a little courage we urge New Jersey's lawmakers to reconsider this dodge and allow the bill to be voted on by the full Senate.

(source: Opinion, New York Times)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Good snark

A good satirical piece to start the work week off right. This comes from the Onion, which, if you haven't heard of it, is all about SATIRE. (Hat tip, Abe Bonowitz.)

Supreme Court Reaches Landmark 'It Depends' Ruling

WASHINGTON, DC—In a landmark 8-1 decision, an uncharacteristically subdued Supreme Court ruled "it depends" in the case of Panetti v. Quarterman, leaving the issue of executing the mentally ill completely open-ended.

The entirely indeterminate ruling is a first for the high court.

The case, which challenged the extent to which the Eighth Amendment permits the execution of a mentally ill death row inmate who has a factual awareness of the reason for his punishment but does not comprehend its retributive nature, was described in Chief Justice John Roberts' majority opinion as being "way too tough to call."

"There were far too many variables to consider," Roberts wrote. "The death penalty is touchy enough without having to worry about how it relates to the mentally ill. This really seems like one of those things that should be decided on a case by case basis by the people involved, not by us."

The opinion further stated that the court was "intimidated" by the extreme pressure brought on by its eminent position, arguing that it would have been much easier for the justices to deliver a firm, definitive ruling had they not been "hyper-aware" that constitutional scholars, trial lawyers, and lower-court judges would study and discuss their decision for generations to come.

"If it were just us sitting around having a few beers and shooting the breeze, it would have been, like, yeah, sure, execute the mentally ill, they should have known what they had coming to them that far into the legal process," Justice Clarence Thomas said. "But we don't want to set some huge precedent or something. So how about this: How about if mentally ill people just stop killing people altogether? That would certainly make our jobs a whole lot easier."

A source close to one of the associate justices said the deliberations were marked not only by vacillation and ambivalence, but also by a sense of frustration.

"Now Brown v. Board of Education—that was a no-brainer," said Justice Stephen Breyer, referring to the landmark school-desegregation case. "I wish I could have been on the Supreme Court then. But now I have to decide whether or not a convicted killer who 'has a delusional belief as to why the state is executing him, and thus does not appreciate that his execution is intended to seek retribution for his capital crime' can be executed? Forget it."

"We're just nine justices—we don't have all the answers to all the country's legal problems," Breyer added.

The oral arguments by opposing attorneys Keith S. Hampton and Gena B. Bunn, though impressive, reportedly only made matters worse.

"Both attorneys were super smart and well prepared and made a lot of really good points," Justice Samuel Alito said. "When Mr. Hampton was presenting his case, I was thinking, 'Yeah, this is totally right,' and I was prepared to side with him. But then Ms. Bunn got up and sounded just as convincing, but argued the exact opposite point. It's like, who do you believe?"

Hundreds of "seriously legal-looking" documents such as amicus briefs and depositions from mental health experts only served to further confuse members of the high court.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who was sympathetic toward the respondent's position before the proceedings began, concluded that since everyone was tired, not thinking clearly, and "just wanted to get the whole thing over with," the "it depends" verdict was "probably the best, most thoughtful resolution at which [the Supreme Court] could have arrived."

Though members of Congress and the Bush administration have expressed concern with the court's unprecedented semi-decision, justices aren't ruling out the possibility of other types of indecisive rulings in the future, such as "can't be too sure," "you never know," and "not our place to say."

"A lot of these cases are really hard, and it's comforting to know that we now have a little wiggle room," said Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest and longest-serving current member of the high court. "Take Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. v. Federal Election Commission. Maybe issue ads should be able to run less than 60 days before a public official is up for reelection, if the issue is important enough. Maybe the official should be forced to comment on the matter so his constituents know where he stands. 'It depends' would work really well in that case."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the lone dissenting opinion, in which she stated that she knew the correct decision was either yes or no, but couldn't say which one it should be.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The death of innocence

One wonders what Texas legislators are thinking. We've seen case after case after case of wrongful convictions in Texas -- indeed, as the editorial below notes, 28 people have been exonerated through DNA testing or some other means and released from prison. That's more than 10 percent of the DNA exonerations that have occured nationally.

Yet the Texas Legislature, once again, has allowed a bill that would have created an Innocence Commission to die. This is something that both death penalty proponents and opponents should be able to agree on -- we need to find out why an inordinate number of innocent people are being sent to prison and for the sake of justice, for the sake of decency we need to do something about it.

Here the San Antonio Express-News weighs in:

Again, innocence panel, justice not state priority

Sadly, the Texas Legislature has failed for the third time to pass important legislation regarding the wrongfully convicted.

A bill authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis would have created a 9-member commission to review cases in which felons are exonerated through DNA testing or some other means.

There is ample need for such a commission.

So far in Texas, 28 men have been exonerated since 2001 through DNA testing. Nationwide, that number is 200.

Rep. Aaron Pea, chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, said the bill failed due to a lack of votes. 4 members, including Pea, voted for it and 2 voted against it. The bill needed 5 ayes to pass.

3 House committee members Barbara Mallory Caraway, Terri Hodge and Paul Moreno were absent during that vote.

All 3 have expressed support for the bill, and it's likely they would have voted in favor of it had the hearing been held in a timely fashion, according to the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Senfronia Thompson.

The committee has had the bill since April 24. It should not have languished as it did, and that is Pea's responsibility.

An innocence commission is imperative, particularly in a state like Texas, where the death penalty is supported and applied with fervor. If there are cases where prisoners have been wrongfully executed, shouldn't there be a commission tasked with determining how?

Serious questions have arisen, for example, in the case of Ruben Cantu, a San Antonio man who was executed in 1993. The key eyewitness, Juan Moreno, has recanted his testimony. There is speculation that he was pressured into fingering Cantu after claiming Cantu was not the burglar who shot him and murdered his companion.

If Cantu was innocent, it's too late for him. But it's not too late to learn how that case may have taken a wrong turn.

It's bad enough that people are serving years in prison or possibly being executed for crimes they did not commit.

That this state doesn't care enough to determine how or why is just as appalling.
(source: Editorial, San Antonio Express-News)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Another botched execution?

Back in the days of drawing and quartering, burning people at the stake, boiling them in water, hanging, firing squad, etc. etc., it generally did not take an hour and a half to kill a person.

And it goes without saying -- but we'll say it anyway, because that's what we do around here, we say things -- it shouldn't.

But now comes the State of Ohio, which took somewhere around an hour and a half this morning to execute Christopher Newton after executioners had trouble locating a suitable vein.

The botched execution -- Ohio's second in two years -- led the ACLU of Ohio to call for an immediate halt to executions.

“What is clear from today’s botched execution is that the State doesn’t know how to execute people without torturing them to death,” said ACLU of Ohio staff attorney Carrie Davis. “Clearly our execution procedures, even though revised after last year’s botched execution of Joseph Clark, still do not guarantee an execution is humane.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Revisiting the death of Angel Diaz

Lawyers for Ian Deco Lightbourne, who faces execution in Florida, are challenging the continued, mindless assertion by Florida state officials that the state's lethal injection protocol is flawless.

At issue in a recent court hearing is whether Angel Diaz -- executed last December -- suffered because the first drug was improperly administered. Florida officials -- all evidence notwithstanding -- deny that he did.

Now comes Diaz's spiritual advisor, who last week testified in open court for the first time about Diaz's execution and how it affected him.

Dale Recinella, a volunteer Department of Corrections lay minister, recalled an emotional phone call to his wife on his drive home and the images of a man who appeared to be struggling to live.
"I told her I had just watched a man be tortured to death," testified Recinella.

Diaz was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 13, 2006. His death took 34 minutes - twice as long as it usually takes. Authorities had to administer a second dose of the lethal drugs to kill him.

Recinella knew Diaz since 1998 and was asked to pray with him and console his family. But by the end of the execution, Recinella said he was in shock.

He said it seemed to be a "painful" death. Recinella recalled Diaz's torso arching up and down, his face grimacing. He gasped for air and there appeared to be much tension in his head and neck area.

"He looked at some points as he was trying to speak in a forcefully way ... to the staff and then he began to show signs of his body arching. His torso was arching and ... it seemed like it was an involuntary reaction,"the minister testified as he demonstrated Diaz's body movements and facial expressions.

(Source for the above: The (Florida) Ocala Star-Banner.)

Now: we've had some trolls lately (who apparently don't want to leave their names, but that's okay) and you can bet dollars to doughnuts that as soon as we post this, someone is going to write, "Oh, so what if they suffer a little bit?"

Well, so what indeed. One thing that opponents and proponents of the death penalty should be able to agree on is that when people are sentenced to death, they are not sentenced to gratuitous torture along the way. That's why we have an Eighth Amendment. That's why we have a U.S. Constitution. That's why we eliminated the rack, the whipping post, stocks and chains and other forms of medieval punishments. (Although actually, the state of Alabama tried to bring the stocks back a few years ago. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that they couldn't with Justice Thomas dissenting.)

Lethal injection offers up a conundrum. States can't seem to get it right without the involvement of medical professionals. And medical professionals won't participate because, well, their business is about saving lives, not taking them.

And so it goes.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Troy Anthony Davis: Innocent on death row?

As the trickle of wrongful convictions around the country becomes a torrent, we are reminded of the case of Troy Anthony Davis, who is nearing the end of his appeals in Georgia.

Amnesty International recently released a quite thorough report on Troy's case. Here's their summary (hat tip, Amnesty blog by way of Tennessee dude)

Troy Anthony Davis has been on death row in Georgia for more than 15 years for the murder of a police officer he maintains he did not commit. Given that all but three of the witnesses who testified against Troy Davis at his trial have since recanted or contradicted their testimony amidst allegations that some of it had been made under police duress, there are serious and as yet unanswered questions surrounding the reliability of his conviction and the state's conduct in obtaining it. As the case currently stands, the government's pursuit of the death penalty contravenes international safeguards which prohibit the execution of anyone whose guilt is not based on "clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts".(2)

Amnesty International does not know if Troy Davis is guilty or innocent of the crime for which he is facing execution. As an abolitionist organization, it opposes his death sentence either way. It nevertheless believes that this is one in a long line of cases in the USA that should give even ardent supporters of the death penalty pause for thought. For it provides further evidence of the danger, inherent in the death penalty, of irrevocable error. As the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court wrote in 1993, "It is an unalterable fact that our judicial system, like the human beings who administer it, is fallible."(3) Or as a US federal judge said in 2006, "The assessment of the death penalty, however well designed the system for doing so, remains a human endeavour with a consequent risk of error that may not be remediable."(4)

The case of Troy Davis is a reminder of the legal hurdles that death row inmates must overcome in the USA in order to obtain remedies in the appeal courts. In this regard, Amnesty International fears that Troy Davis' avenues for judicial relief have been all but closed off. In particular, he is caught in a trap set by US Congress a decade ago when it withdrew funding from post-conviction defender organizations in 1995 and passed the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996.

To read the entire report, click here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Breaking news out of New Jersey

Over the course of the past week or so, one or more trolls have been visiting this blog, making light of our efforts to abolish New Jersey's death penalty (and, in the process, leaving at least one racially offensive comment).

We tend not to censor such things. We tend to believe that "truth will out" and that the reader can reach his or her own conclusions regarding the many sides of this issue.

But the trolls, if they are still lurking about, should know about the breaking news out of New Jersey this morning.

Byron Halsey, who was wrongfully convicted in 1988 of the brutal murders of two children, is expected to walk out of a New Jersey courthouse a free man for the first time in two decades. DNA testing has shown that another man committed the sexual assault and murder of a 7-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy in Plainfield, NJ, and the Innocence Project joined with prosecutors in filing a motion to overturn the conviction. A judge is expected to grant the motion at a hearing this morning.

What's noteworthy about this case is that prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Halsey (the jury didn't go along with their wishes). This is the second exoneration in New Jersey where prosecutors sought death, a jury came back with life, and the person was later found to be innocent.

I've said it before but it's worth saying again: the death penalty is not NFL football. There is no "instant replay." There are no do-overs. Dead is dead. (Well, dead is dead in terms of our secular understanding of life and death.)

There are a number of good reasons to abolish the death penalty. The fact that "to err is human" is one of them. We keep sending innocent people to prison (and, more than 100 times since 1976, to death row.)

Enough, already. Enough.

You can read more about today's news over at the Innocent Project's blog.

[Note: In State v. Halsey, 329 N.J. Super. 553 (App. Div. 2000), the NJ Appellate Division DENIED Mr. Halsey access to DNA testing. His case's legal journey looks something like this: [1] an innocent man, whose trial counsel has a stellar reputation was convicted; [2] then the safety valve of direct appeal didn't work; [3] then the safety valve of postconviction relief didn't work; [4] then the safety valve of DNA testing was denied; [5] then by unpublished opinion was denied federal habeas corpus relief; and [6] then due to the miracle of the Innocence Project Mr. Halsey, rather than dying in prison, walks out of prison an innocent man.- k]

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pizza for everyone

In the hustle-bustle of last week (trips to Trenton, NJ and then to Pittsburgh) I somehow let this entirely blog-worthy item pass me by:

Executed man's last request honored - pizzas for everyone

(CNN) -- Hundreds of homeless people in Nashville, Tennessee, ate well Wednesday evening
-- all in the name of a man who the state put to death just hours earlier.

Philip Workman, 53, requested that his final meal be a vegetarian pizza donated to any homeless person located near Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.

He was executed there at 2 a.m. ET Wednesday.

But prison officials refused to honor his request, saying that they do not donate to charities.

That apparently upset a few people willing to pay for and deliver a lot of pies themselves.

Homeless shelters across Nashville were inundated with donated pizzas all Wednesday.

"I was like, 'Wow, Jesus!' " said Marvin Champion, an employee of Nashville's Rescue Mission, which provides overnight shelter, food and assistance to more than 800 homeless people a night.

"I used to be homeless, so I know how rough it gets. I seen some bad times -- not having enough food, the cupboards are bare. But we got pizza to feed enough people for awhile," Champion said.

"This really shows the people here that someone out there thought of them."

$1,200 worth of pies

Donna Spangler heard about Workman's request and immediately called her friends. They all pitched in for the $1,200 bill to buy 150 pizzas, which they sent to the Rescue Mission.

"Philip Workman was trying to do a good deed and no one would help him," said the 55-year-old who recruited a co-worker to help her make the massive delivery Wednesday evening.

"I knew my husband would have a heart attack -- I put some of it on the credit card. But I thought we'll find a way to pay for them later," she said. "I just felt like I had to do something positive."

Spangler wasn't the only person to place an order in Workman's name.

The president of the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals read a news story about the prison denying the inmate's last request and ordered 15 veggie pizzas sent to the Rescue Mission Wednesday morning.

"Workman's act was selfless, and kindness to all living beings is a virtue," said PETA President Ingrid Newkirk.

Not far away, 17 pizzas arrived at Nashville's Oasis Center, a shelter that helps about 260 teenagers in crisis. By 9 p.m. ET, more pizzas had arrived, said executive director Hal Cato.

"We talked to the kids and they understand what this is tied to and they know that this man [Workman] wanted to do something to point out the problems of homelessness."

When Workman robbed a Wendy's in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1981, he was a strung-out cocaine addict looking for a way to pay for his next high, he has said.

He was homeless at the time. Workman was convicted of shooting and killing Memphis Police Lt. Ronald Oliver during the robbery.

Many of the pizzas ordered in Workman's name were delivered anonymously, but the first 17 at Oasis Center came from a Minneapolis, Minnesota, radio station that devoted much of its morning show time talking about Workman's request.

"They were upset about it," said Cato.

He plans to call other homeless shelters in Nashville Thursday and share the pies. "They should be able to benefit from this, too," he said.

Cliff Tredway, the director of public relations for the Rescue Mission, said it's more than pizzas that helped that shelter.

"It's the story of a guy whose execution translated into a generous act," he said. "It's people donating to other people they don't know.

"It's about a group of people who society often writes off getting a pizza party today."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sunday news round-up

As happens most Sundays, a quick round-up of the news making headlines.

The news of the week is a death row exoneration in Oklahoma.
Curtis Edward McCarty,who was convicted twice and sentenced to death for the same murder in verdicts that were both thrown out based on evidence of his innocence and an extraordinary pattern of government misconduct, was released from prison this morning after a judge dismissed the indictment against him that would have led to a third trial. The prosecution said today that it will not appeal the decision – finally clearing McCarty after 21 years of wrongful incarceration, more than 16 of them on death row.

In 1986, McCarty was convicted of a 1982 murder in Oklahoma City and sentenced to die. Citing misconduct by the prosecutor and a police lab analyst, the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction, and McCarty was retried in 1989. He was again convicted and sentenced to death. In 1995, the appeals court upheld his conviction but threw out his death sentence; in 1996, he was sentenced to death again. In 2005, the Court of Criminal Appeals again overturned his conviction, citing the continued pattern of government misconduct – and new DNA tests showing that semen recovered from the victim did not come from McCarty.

“Every piece of evidence in this case, including evidence that was used improperly to secure convictions, now shows Curtis McCarty’s innocence,” said Colin Starger , the Innocence Project Staff Attorney on the case who argued the motion to dismiss the indictment in a three-hour hearing yesterday afternoon. “Semen recovered from the victim, material under the victim’s fingernails and a bloody print the perpetrator left on the victim’s body all come from someone other than Curtis McCarty.”

Robert H. Macy, who was the Oklahoma County District Attorney for 21 years, prosecuted McCarty in both of his trials. Macy sent 73 people to death row – more than any other prosecutor in the nation – and 20 of them have been executed. Macy has said publicly that he believes executing an innocent person is a sacrifice worth making in order to keep the death penalty in the United States . Macy committed misconduct in the manner that he prosecuted McCarty and presented the case to the jury. His misconduct was compounded when he relied on Joyce Gilchrist, a police lab analyst who falsified test results and hid or destroyed evidence in order to help secure McCarty’s convictions. Gilchrist was the lead forensic analyst in 23 cases that ended in death sentences (11 of the defendants in those cases have been executed)

“This is by far one of the worst cases of law enforcement misconduct in the history of the American criminal justice system,” said Barry Scheck , Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with
Cardozo School of Law. “Bob Macy has said that executing an innocent person is a risk worth taking – and he came very close to doing just that with Curtis McCarty.”

[NewsOK also has a page for continuing coverage of disgraced former police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, here. Gilchrist becomes the 124th person in America who was sentenced to death and to have later been exonerated. Death row exonerations have occurred in 25 states. The Death Penalty Information Center maintains a list of capital exonerations. Eight men have been exonerated and released from Texas death row. Additional coverage at Stand Down, DPIC, the Innocent Project & TalkLeft.]
Three US Newspapers Reverse Stand on the death penalty:

Three established U.S. newspapers, two of them among the 10 largest in the country, in three different states have in the past weeks abandoned their century-old support of the death penalty and become passionate advocates of a ban on state-sponsored killing.

The newspapers – the Chicago Tribune in Illinois, the smaller Sentinel in Pennsylvania and the Dallas Morning News in Texas – announced their change of heart in strongly-argued editorials following a series of investigative articles highlighting the flaws in the death penalty system in their states and country.

"I think in a word it's the issue of innocence that has brought about these editorials," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told IPS. "The weight of evidence in death penalty cases as seen and confirmed in DNA testing has made the death penalty too risky."

The Triangle, the college newspaper of Drexel University, asks in an editorial alreay getting much circulation, Why not a death penalty moratorium in Pennsylvania?

New Jersey is poised to become the latest state to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, following the recommendation of a special panel commissioned by the State Legislature. The panel's report points out what other studies have long-since concluded: capital punishment is expensive to taxpayers and ineffective as a deterrent to crime. It also notes that capital punishment appears to be "inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," which is a polite way of acknowledging that virtually every civilized nation in the world has abandoned it.

Governor Corzine supports a moratorium, as do the Democratic leaders of both houses of the Legislature. Nothing is a sure bet in these United States, especially when it comes to rational social policy, but it seems to have a good chance of being passed.

Not so in Pennsylvania. Governor Ed Rendell, finally flushed out on the issue by an NPR reporter, responded that a moratorium would not be appropriate in the Commonwealth because circumstances are "different."

I'll say they are. New Jersey, with a population more than two-thirds the size of Pennsylvania's and twice as diverse, has about a dozen prisoners on Death Row. Pennsylvania's Death Row is more than 220 strong. It's not because the murder rate in the Commonwealth is fifteen times higher than it is across the river. It's because Pennsylvania prosecutors, including former Philadelphia District Attorney Ed Rendell, are as zealous in seeking to extinguish souls as Victorian missionaries were to save them. The current District Attorney of Philadelphia, Lynne Abraham, whose jurisdiction has filled more than half the bunks on Pennsylvania's Death Row, once posed proudly on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as "America's Deadliest D. A.," as if she were J. Edgar Hoover with a Tommy gun.

The counterpart of scalp-hungry D.A.s are inexperienced and ill-funded defense lawyers, mostly court-appointed, who have few resources and little incentive to provide adequate representation for their clients. The Commonwealth does not even require them to practice criminal law. The exception to this is the Philadelphia Public Defenders' Office, which has a professional and committed staff and long years of experience. No Pennsylvanian represented by the Defenders' Office has ever received the death penalty. But, by scandalous agreement with the Pennsylvania bar (which has taken a stand against the death penalty, but does precious little about it), the Defenders' Office is limited to representing no more than 20 percent of capitally accused clients. The D.A.'s Association does not want to see anything even approaching a level playing field when it goes for death. The Pennsylvania bar does not wish to see private attorneys, qualified or not, cut out of the death business. And so, as the late Kurt Vonnegut would say, it goes.

Arguably the world's most high profile death row inmate faces a "pivotal hearing" in his case Thursday. The Philadelphia Inquirer writes:

On July 3, 1982, a Philadelphia jury took just four hours to sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death for murdering Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Abu-Jamal has remained alive through a series of appeals. His bid to escape the death penalty is now at a critical stage.

The case will be argued this week in the region's federal appeals court, and if Abu-Jamal loses, Philadelphia's most controversial death-row inmate will be in imminent peril of lethal injection.

"He realizes that death is just a few doors away," said his attorney, Robert R. Bryan, a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in death-penalty appeals.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia will hear legal argument on whether the death sentence should be upheld, or whether Abu-Jamal should get a new trial or a new sentencing hearing.

Bryan said that Abu-Jamal, now 53 and known as "Pops" to younger inmates, realizes that his life is on the line. "He and I are very realistic about what's at stake," said Bryan.

The Washington Post looks at Justice Kennedy's voting record on the death penalty & his broader record as a swing justice:

On the death penalty cases that have come before the court this year, for instance, the conservatives have consistently voted to uphold a state's imposition of capital punishment, while the liberals have sided with inmate complaints that their rights were violated.

"So Justice Kennedy is even more of an important swing vote than he was before," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

In two of the cases, Kennedy sided with conservatives; in three he voted with the liberals. There are four others pending.

"It's clearly going to be an important role he's playing," Dieter said. "People are speaking to him in their arguments."

The 5 to 4 decisions totaled 11 in the 2005-06 term, with Kennedy in the majority in eight of them. There already have been that many this year, indicating a divided court and Kennedy's role as the deciding vote. His two dissents -- involving sentencing rules in California and garbage-hauling in New York -- came in cases in which ideological divides played no role.

Press accounts report yet another case where death is off the table to obtain extradition

A Larnaca judge has allowed as evidence assurances from US prosecutors that a Lebanese doctor wanted for the murder of his wife will not face the death penalty if extradited to Ohio.

The decision was made this week despite Yazeed Essa’s defence team’s arguments that their client may be sentenced to death if convicted because prosecutors could amend the charge to one that carries the death penalty once he returned to the US.

Cyprus will not extradite anyone facing a possible death sentence.

Ten days ago, Essa’s defence objected to the submission of a second statement sent to local authorities by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, reaffirming he would not seek the death penalty against Essa if he was brought back to North America.

Judge Elias Georgiou rejected the defence’s objections and allowed the statement to be submitted as evidence. He said he would decide at a later stage on what significance to give the statement.

The court set May 30 for closing arguments. Mason expects a ruling on Essa’s extradition to be made then.

“We feel very good about our chances of prevailing in the extradition,” Mason told the Associated Press.

Yazeed Essa, 38, has been held at Nicosia’s Central Prison since his arrest at Larnaca airport last October.

The father of two had been on the run since he disappeared from his home in Gates Mills near Cleveland two years ago after he was indicted on aggravated murder charges in Cuyahoga County.

Authorities believe he duped his wife, Rosemarie, 38, into taking calcium tablets laced with cyanide, causing her to collapse and die in her car near their home in February 2005.

Friday, May 11, 2007

News from New Jersey

Yesterday the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Commiittee broadly voted to abolish the death penalty. Rather than providing my own spin or that of just one reporter I am borrowing from a few media outlets in and around New Jersey.

"Executions are rare in New Jersey, and throughout the Northeast, where four states are already among those without the death penalty. The state last put a criminal to death in 1963, and it imposed a moratorium on executions in late 2005, pending the outcome of a study." [Reuters] The reasons why is summed up by "'[f]ormer state attorney general and former State Supreme Court Judge Peter G. Verniero reiterated those findings in a Jan. 14 op-ed piece in The New York Times, writing: 'Despite the law on the books, this state has never really embraced capital punishment. We should acknowledge that reality and replace the death penalty with a punishment that is real.'" [C&E]

Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio noted "Punishment has to be swift and sure. That's not what we're getting," said DeFazio, who served on a commission that recommended replacing capital punishment with life without parole.

One reason for the New Jersey success is the broad support of victims families here in the Northeast & particularly New Jersey. As one victim's family member, Bill Piper of Pennington, "said it 'wreaked havoc' in his family, pitting him and his wife against relatives who wanted their mother's murderer to be capitally prosecuted. The family eventually reached an accord, he said, and the murderer was sentenced to life without parole under Pennsylvania law. 'Life without parole works,' Piper said. 'It allows grief to be private, which is what it should be.'" [Star-Ledger] "Despite this pain . . . I am not a victim anymore, because the finality of life without parole has allowed me to grieve more normally," Piper said. [Asbury Park Press] "I ask that we honor my mother's kindness by sparing others this trauma," he said. [ABC]

"More than 50 New Jersey survivors of murder victims have submitted a letter to the state Senate Judiciary Committee urging them to pass a bill that would replace the death penalty with life without parole. Among the senders is Eileen Bennett, of Mauricetown, whose stepdaughter, Wendy Bennett McCarter, 35, was shot and killed the morning of May 25, 2006 by her husband, Scott McCarter, who also killed their two children, Scotty, 12, and Melanie, 6, before shooting himself at their home on Nabb Avenue, Millville. The letter was submitted to the state Senate Judiciary Committee as it considers S-171, legislation that would replace the death penalty with life without parole. 'These 50 New Jersey citizens are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, husbands and wives, all of whom had their lives ripped apart by the horrible experience of losing a family member to murder,' Celeste Fitzgerald, program director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Wednesday. 'Some of them supported the death penalty when their loved one was killed; others opposed it.'" [Bridgeton News]

Political support for the bill & the 8-2 vote appeared strong. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), argued "[t]he death penalty cannot be fixed; the time has come to abolish it. All the safeguards in the world cannot ensure an innocent person cannot be executed." Sen. John Adler, D-Camden, the committee chairman, said the death penalty is no longer acceptable. "I don't want New Jersey to be responsible for death," he said. "I don't think that soothes our soul. I think it pains our soul." [ABC] Private accounts note the audience in attendance waslikewise overwhelmingly in favor of abolition.

A member of the commission New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, "West Orange Police Chief James Abbott, told the committee he voted to overturn the current law despite being for the death penalty prior to the commission. After hearing real life stories, Abbott said he learned 'what sounded good in theory was actually a complete failure in practice.'" [APP] "We have seen so many cases of innocent people being sent to death row, it's just not worth taking the chance." [Inquirer] It as a "cruel hoax" he noted. "It doesn't work in New Jersey. It hasn't worked in more than 30 years." [C&E]

What next? In a press release Senator Shirley K. Turner today welcomed Senate Judiciary Committee approval of her bill to end the use of the death penalty in New Jersey and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without parole, saying that, “The Legislature can not move quickly enough to get the death penalty ban on the Governor’s desk." "Hopefully, this bill will encourage us to move beyond the natural feelings of revenge we have when facing the murder of one of our own and allow us to focus more resources on providing relief and support to the families of the victims of these deplorable crimes,” said Senator Turner."

Ultimately passage is "a 50-50 proposition,” Senator Lesniak said in calculating the bill’s chances . . .. “If it does pass and become law, we will hopefully influence other states. [NYT]

Full audio of the judiciary committee hearing is available here. Click on listen and then skip to around 51 minutes in.

[Please forgive the crossposting at both here & CDW. The news, however, was so nice it had to be repeated twice.]

Monday, May 07, 2007

Join us in Trenton!

On Thursday, May 10, the NJ Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the Death Penalty Abolition Bill. If you can make it - be in Trenton (if only in spirit) on Thursday to show your support. The New Jersey Death Penalty Abolition bill is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee this Thursday at 10am in committee room 4 of the State House Annex in Trenton.

Please come and pack the room. It is vitally important that you attend the May 10 hearing to show support for abolition. You are encouraged to be in the hearing room by 9:30am. Be sure to bring identification for access to the statehouse. If you get lost just follow the people with the buttons. has more.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

News roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Journalism and the death penalty

There are a lot of highs and lows when it comes to the way journalists cover the death penalty in the U.S. We've seen some highs lately -- the outstanding reporting by the Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for instance, in uncovering cases where four inmates who were executed were almost certainly innocent.

And we've seen newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News and Birmingham News courageously re-examine -- and then abandon -- their longstanding support for capital punishment.

But the other side of the coin is that newspapers have not often been profiles in courage when it comes to examining flaws in the death penalty system. All too often, for instance, newspapers accept the conviction of a person as proof positive of that person's guilt.

I was reminded of this late last night when the following essay written by Dale Wisely suddenly popped up in my email box. Dale is a member of our Alabama affiliate, Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. (Slightly off-point, but Alabama this evening is scheduled to execute Aaron Jones, despite the fact that a lawsuit challenging the state's lethal injection protocol is pending.)

Is it time to revisit this journalistic practice?

By Dale Wisely

I recently read a newspaper story about a man on death row whose case I know well. To be fair, I am not certain about his guilt or innocence. I do not believe he got a fair trial and I do believe it is possible that he is innocent or, at least, that the particulars of his participation in the crime are unclear. I am completely convinced cases exist in which Americans have been convicted of crimes they did not commit.

I was not surprised by the language in the newspaper article that declared, flatly, that this man committed the crime of which he was convicted. I am no expert on journalism, but careful reading of newspapers and scrutiny of other news media make it clear what the common practice is. Until a person is convicted, most news outlets insert the term "alleged," and variations on that word, to refer to the crime and the accused. Once convicted, it is commonplace that news accounts shift to the declarative. John Doe murdered Jane Doe in 1999. Jane Doe was raped by John Doe.

I would not argue that in doing that journalists are acting contrary to established journalistic ethics. I would argue that journalists, in light of modern knowledge of the criminal justice system, ought to reevaluate the practice of treating a criminal conviction as an indicator of fact regarding a crime. I believe reasonable people, even those who tend to favor the death penalty, will refrain from saying that every person ever convicted of a crime indeed committed that crime. We now know, for example, that at least 123 people convicted of capital crimes in this country and sentenced to death have walked free from prison after evidence of their innocence emerged. To be fair, one cannot say with absolute conviction that every last one of those individuals were innocent. But it ought to be enough to convince reasonably open-minded people that error occurs in the system. Enough error that honest journalists, all committed to reporting the facts, ought to reconsider putting faith in the infallibility of a criminal conviction. A small adjustment would be required. Instead of declaring that a person committed a crime, journalists could report that he or she was convicted of the crime. That practice, already adopted by many, would not compromise the story and the journalist could know that she is reporting a fact.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Condemned: Coming to a theater (or a courthouse) near you

Soon this movie called The Condemned is going to be opening in theaters from coast to coast. The plot line is that some rich guy "buys" ten death row inmates from around the world. They are taken to an island where they have to fight each other, and the lone survivor gets to go free. The purpose of the sorry spectacle (is that a strong enough phrase?) is TV ratings.

A lot of people in the abolition community are already talking about this movie, and the level of disgust (is that a strong enough word?) is palpable.

Reading my email this morning, I see that an old colleague of mine, Sally Kohn, has blogged on this movie over at Huffington Post. You can read her entire blog here or see the excerpts below.

The Condemned Reflects Real Life: People Are Disposable

Later this month, The Condemned will open in movie theaters nationwide. In the film, a wealthy television mogul buys ten inmates from death rows around the world. He puts them on an island to kill each other, promising that the last person alive after 30 hours will be set free. The killings that ensue are then broadcast live on the internet, where the mogul hopes to draw a bigger audience than the Super Bowl.

Frightening thing is, in real life, he probably would. One woman who saw a preview of the film said her friend asked if she'd pay money to watch this happen in real life. She said she wouldn't and her friend replied, "You are crazy. I would probably miss work to watch this in real life." In her blog entry, the woman concluded: "I knew that everyone else in the theatre probably had the same mind set as him. Only confirming the movie's premonition --- streaming live internet deaths would probably bring in more viewers than American Idol on elimination night."


Yet the unintended brilliance of The Condemned may be that, in portraying a public hungry for live deaths, it holds up a mirror to real life. I fear many of us do think that those who have committed crimes, even violent crimes, are so worthless that it would be perfectly plausible to buy their lives for televised entertainment. They were going to die any way, right? Their lives were worthless. They were worthless.

This attitude on our couches easily translates to an attitude in our courthouses. Why should we spend money on public defenders? Why should we release sex offenders after they've served their sentences? We act as though these are the bad characters, irredeemable, as if God scripted them to be bad from the start.

Recently, in Avon Park, Florida, a six-year-old girl named Desre'e Watson threw a temper tantrum in her kindergarten classroom. The police were called and handcuffed the little girl --- around her upper arms because her wrists were too slight --- and hauled her down to the county jail, where they took mug shots and booked her. Because Desre'e had kicked a teacher (resulting in some redness around the teacher's shin), the police charged the little girl with a felony. When I worked on juvenile defenses cases in New York City, I saw lots of similar cases, like when a young boy got mad at his teacher and stormed out of the room, bumping into her on the way out. The teacher, claiming assault, called the police and the boy was put in jail. Not insignificantly, Desre'e and the boy in this example are both black.

Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, which represents people on death row, often says, "I believe each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done in life." But the school children described above were quickly presumed all bad, as worthless and disposable as the inmates in The Condemned. When they do something wrong, we're quick to forgive our family members and our friends. We would never lock up our own children or execute our own brothers and sisters. But when others do something -- anything -- wrong, we're quick to condemn. Particularly when those who do wrong are black or poor or both, our response isn't a helping hand and a second chance, but a prison cell or a hail of bullets or cuffs around the arms or execution.

What The Condemned illustrates is not its characters' inhumanity toward each other on film but our inhumanity toward each other in real life.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


That just about says it all. (Source: Amnesty International.)