Friday, June 29, 2007

Troy Anthony Davis

...has now received an execution date. The state of Georgia plans to execute him between July 17 and July 24. He is entitled to receive a clemency hearing before that time.

Please scroll down to learn what you can do to prevent the execution of a person many of us strongly believe to be innocent.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Change is up to us

Today Abolish the Death Penalty is pleased to introduce guest blogger Elizabeth Beck, who recently authored In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families.

Some excerpts from Elizabeth’s fine book:

“As he was being led away he said ‘They are ready to kill me and I am ready to go now. I don’t want any of you crying.’ Oh I held my tears until I got around the corner and then I nearly passed out.”
--An aunt of an executed man

“They just took him out and left us standing there. She [my wife] has been unable to put a marker on in the grave yet…My wife’s whole personality has changed so much so that her daughter said that when her brother was executed ‘I lost my mother as well.’”
--A father of an executed man

Each time an execution is announced “We relive the whole thing. Every one of those memories comes tumbling back. You know that someone else is suffering just like you suffered.”
--A daughter of an executed man

Today Elizabeth writes about the case of Troy Anthony Davis:

Martina Correia and her mother Virginia Davis fear that their worse nightmare
will come true. The execution of Troy Anthony Davis, their brother and son respectively, is likely to occur before the season ends. Troy has been on Georgia’s death row for more than 15 years, his conviction largely based on witness testimony. At the time of this writing, all but two of the nine witnesses who testified against Troy have recanted or contradicted their testimony and admitted that their initial statements convicting Troy were made under police duress.

I have been with family members when their fathers, sons, and brothers were executed. I have seen their families and lives unravel, and I know that a death sentence affects so much more than the accused.

Troy’s sister Martina is a wiry African American woman who is proud of her military service, and her years helping deliver babies as an Ob-Gyn nurse. Martina, however, is no longer employed. Rather, her boundless energy is being depleted as she fights Troy’s execution and her own battle against breast cancer. An average day for Martina involves hours on the phone and computer getting the word out about Troy, which can include supporting international petitions, contacting leaders in human rights organizations and clergy, as well as pitching stories to media outlets.
And, it is against this backdrop that she is seeking to raise her son with love and support, and buoy her mother, Virginia, whose fear of the execution of her son have brought Virginia into a debilitating depression.

Virginia explained that when Troy was first arrested, “I was really deeply depressed. I would lay in my bed and I would pray awhile and cry awhile…It was just like I got arrested.” Years later as more and more evidence came out about Troy’s innocence, Virginia’s depression lifted, and she even began to smile again, believing that the court would never kill an innocent man.

Until recently things looked up for Troy. His case was picked up by a high-profile law firm, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran several articles discussing the emergence of the new evidence. Martina’s work was paying off as it seemed Troy may have been on the road which could lead to exoneration. Additionally, her cancer was in remission.

After interviewing many family members whose loved ones were on death row, including the Davis/Carreia family, for our book, In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families, with a stunning forward by
Steve Earle (Oxford University Press), I remain haunted by a young man whom I
call Dray. When I first met Dray he communicated with his father regularly was in high school with a bright future and hope of an athletic scholarship. His accomplishment carried a lot of pride, for him and his father, as he did it against a backdrop drop of difficult neighborhoods where many residents engaged in drug and gang activity and where a number of his peers ended up in juvenile detention. However, after his father approached execution there was a spiral: Dray stopped playing sports and dropped out of school. His future far less bright.

Martina hopes for a very different outcome. She hopes that the international
organizing to stop Troy’s execution will save Troy, and if not she explains:
“I look at my son who is 13 now and he keeps repeating the same question,
‘Why do we kill innocent people, why do they want to kill my Uncle Troy?’
I have never had an answer for him that I thought was even close to being good,
but today I sat him down and I said if for any reason it comes to that, ‘Maybe
Uncle Troy is to be the catalyst of change.’

And that, my friends, is up to us.

Covering Troy -- or not.

When news broke yesterday that Troy Anthony Davis was denied cert by the U.S. Supreme Court, many of Troy’s supporters stepped it up a notch. Amnesty International put out a press release (which you can read here). Folks on Facebook and MySpace swung into action. (For Facebook users, you can see Rachel Sadler’s posting here.)

Unfortunately, the mainstream media could hardly be bothered with the story. After all, didn't Paris Hilton get out of the slammer last night? (and going on Larry King Live tomorrow, I might add. It would be nice if Larry King demonstrated the same interest in an innocent person who is about to face an execution date.)

Where is the Associated Press? The New York Times? The Washington Post? Where are the TV networks? The daily newspaper did do a tiny story, but barely mentioned the evidence supporting Troy’s innocence.

It’s not that the mainstream media doesn’t know about Troy’s case. They know. We’ve told them. Unfortunately, to them, it’s just not a priority.

Whether one agrees or disagrees on the utility and morality of capital punishment, we should all be able to agree that a country that executes innocent people occupies an entirely different – and even scary – moral ground than a country that executes only the truly guilty. And while my organization opposes the death penalty in every circumstance, we are truly concerned when society seems to simply stop caring about guilt and innocence.

Not all hope is not lost. An aggressive executive clemency campaign is being waged. Some progressive media outlets are sniffing around the story. And, of course, we have an army of supporters on Facebook and MySpace who are ready, willing and able to act.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Justice for Mr. Nifong -- and others

This letter to the editor appeared in today's Washington Post:

While I don't disagree with the disbarment of Durham County (N.C.) District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, as reported in the June 17 news article "Prosecutor in Duke Case Gives Up His Law License," I wonder whether he would have faced the same public outcry had the students he prosecuted been poor, black and from, say, North Carolina A&T rather than being wealthy and from Duke University.

The news is full of examples of poor or black defendants who are convicted, only to have those convictions overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct similar to Mr. Nifong's, such as the withholding of exculpatory evidence. Yet rarely do we hear of the prosecutors in those cases facing disciplinary action for their clear misconduct.

I wonder how much media coverage would have been given to three young black men who had been falsely charged with the rape of a stripper. I wonder where the high moral dudgeon exhibited by our pundits and politicians is when we discover that black men who have sat on death row for 10 years or longer are freed when the misconduct of their prosecutors is revealed.

Let us hope that the next time one of these cases is adjudicated, the prosecutor gets the same justice that Michael Nifong got.


Thursday, June 21, 2007


Today the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to meet behind closed doors to "conference" the case of Troy Anthony Davis. It is my understanding that there are four things that could happen:

1. The Court could agree to formally review the case, thus accepting "cert."

2. The Court could deny cert, thus rejecting Troy's appeal, a move that likely would result in Troy's receiving an execution date soon.

3. The Court could kick the case back to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for further review (this seems unlikely.)

4. The Court could set the case for conference the following week. (This happens upon occasion if the Court is deeply divided or if one or more justices need more time to review the case.)

We MIGHT learn the Court's decision Friday afternoon, or it could be Monday morning at the latest.

If the Court denies cert, which unfortunately (and unfairly) seems the most likely outcome, then we go full steam ahead with our clemency campaign. Here's a copy of an action alert NCADP sent to our 21,000 supporters:

Dear Friends,

In recent weeks, we've been working to get the word out about Troy Davis, a Georgia man on death row, using the traditional media, blogs, radio stations, and of course, Facebook. Now, we're taking the first big step to reach out to the people who will ultimately decide Troy's fate.

Right now, we're starting up a letter writing campaign to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. If Troy's last appeal is denied in the Supreme Court (unfortunately, a likely outcome), the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles will be making the last call on whether Troy Davis lives or dies. They have the power to pardon him, or to commute his sentence from death to life.

So, here's how it works:

1) Go to this site:

2) Copy and paste the letter into a Word document. Print it out on your personal/school/company letterhead if possible.

3) Sign at the bottom of the page, and print your name and mailing address under the signature to give your letter more weight.

4) Send your letter to:
Amnesty International
730 Peachtree St.
Suite 1060
Atlanta, GA 30308
Attn: L. Moye

Or, fax it to 404-876-2276

Amnesty International will be collecting all the letters and delivering them to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.

So that's all you need to do!

If you have time, feel free to handwrite the letter or to write one in your own words.

And the most critical thing to increase the impact: tell ten friends about this campaign, and ask them to write too!

Thank you for all you do.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

45,000 and counting

That's the number of war veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq and have sought treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And, if anything, that number is a substantial underestimate of returning veterans with PTSD, because many will not report their symptoms or seek treatment for fear of stigmatization.

On Sunday and Monday, the Washington Post published a lengthy and comprehensive report on the quality of treatment these veterans are getting -- or, in many cases, not getting. You can read part one of the series here and part two here.

This is a single-issue blog. Our issue is the death penalty. We don't talk about any other issue besides the death penalty -- hence the name of the blog. Duh.

But this issue is about the death penalty.

We have already executed a number of Vietnam veterans as well as veterans of the first Gulf War. (Indeed, two of the three inmates executed by the federal government have been veterans -- one of Vietnam, the other of the first Gulf War.)

Veterans returning with untreated PTSD, in many cases, commit suicide. In many cases, they pose a threat to themselves or others. Left untreated, some will lash out.

And some, invariably, will end up on America's death rows. And the sad thing is, it is all so damn preventable.

The Washington Post notes:

By this spring, the number of vets from Afghanistan and Iraq who had sought help for post-traumatic stress would fill four Army divisions, some 45,000 in all.

They occupy every rank, uniform and corner of the country. People such as
Army Lt. Sylvia Blackwood, who was admitted to a locked-down psychiatric ward in
Washington after trying to hide her distress for a year and a half; and Army
Pfc. Joshua Calloway, who spent eight months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and left barely changed from when he arrived from Iraq in handcuffs; and retired Marine Lance Cpl. Jim Roberts, who struggles to keep his sanity in suburban New York with the help of once-a-week therapy and a medicine cabinet full of prescription drugs; and the scores of Marines in California who were denied treatment for PTSD because the head psychiatrist on their base thought the diagnosis was overused.

They represent the first wave in what experts say is a coming deluge.

As many as one-quarter of all soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq are
psychologically wounded, according to a recent American Psychological Association report. Twenty percent of the soldiers in Iraq screened positive for anxiety, depression and acute stress, an Army study found.

It gets worse:

For the past 2 1/2 years, the counseling center at the Marine Corps Air
Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., was a difficult place for Marines seeking help for post-traumatic stress. Navy Cmdr. Louis Valbracht, head of mental health at the center's outpatient hospital, often refused to accept counselors' views that some Marines who were drinking heavily or using drugs had PTSD, according to three counselors and another staff member who worked with him.

"Valbracht didn't believe in it. He'd say there's no such thing as PTSD,"
said David Roman, who was a substance abuse counselor at Twentynine Palms until he quit six months ago.

"We were all appalled," said Mary Jo Thornton, another counselor who left last year. A third counselor estimated that perhaps half of the 3,000 Marines he has counseled in the past five years showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress. "They would change the diagnosis right in front of you, put a line through it," said the counselor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works there.

"I want to see my Marines being taken care of," said Roman, who is now a substance-abuse counselor at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C.

In an interview, Valbracht denied he ever told counselors that PTSD does not exist. But he did say "it is overused" as a diagnosis these days, just as "everyone on the East Coast now has a bipolar disorder." He
said this "devalues the severity of someone who actually has PTSD," adding: "Nowadays it's like you have a hangnail. Someone comes in and says 'I have PTSD,' " and counselors want to give them that diagnosis without specific symptoms.

Valbracht, an aerospace medicine specialist, reviewed and
signed off on cases at the counseling center. He said some counselors diagnosed Marines with PTSD before determining whether the
symptoms persisted for 30 days, the military recommendation. Valbracht often talked to the counselors about his father, a Marine on Iwo Jima who overcame the stress of that battle and wrote an
article called "They Even Laughed on Iwo." Counselors found it outdated and offensive. Valbracht said it showed the resilience of the mind.

We have two choices in front of us. We can provide the counseling and help
these veterans need and deserve. Or we can simply start building more prisons.
Because unless something is done, we're going to need them.

Bring it.

Thanks to some cross-pollination with sites on Facebook and MySpace, 55 people, as of this writing, have stopped by and left messages of support for Troy Davis (see below.) That's an incredible number, given that the typical blog post might yield a total of one or two comments -- certainly not 55!

Keep it coming, folks. Bring it. And we'll be back shortly with more information on what you can do to prevent the execution of Troy Anthony Davis.

In this country we still have the power to make a difference. Never forget that.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Is Antonin Scalia coming to Georgia?

We’ve all been led to believe that there are mechanisms in place to prevent miscarriages of justice, like an innocent man being executed.

We’re familiar with the “CSI Syndrome,” the fanciful theory that new DNA technology prevents such miscarriages from occurring. We know about the 200 people who have been freed from prison because of such technology – including 15 from death row. We’ve read the investigative reports from Texas and Missouri, which indicate that at least four innocent people have been executed. And when we hear the number 124, we know that’s the number of people released from death row after new evidence of innocence emerged.

However, despite these facts, figures and the tremendously popular hit television shows, we still have people like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who cling to the notion that an innocent person has never been executed in our country. It was Scalia himself who famously said last year that if an innocent person were executed, that person’s name would be “shouted from the rooftops.”

How could Scalia be so wrong? And has he now taken up residence in Georgia?

The truth is that recent polls reveal a large majority of people believe an innocent person has been executed. And soon – very soon – it could happen in Georgia.

Troy Anthony Davis is sitting on death row. His life is in the balance for a crime many believe he didn’t commit. Davis’ case is a classic example of “CSI Syndrome;” no physical evidence links him to the murder: no hair, no fibers, no blood, not even a murder weapon was found. The appellate courts, yet another mechanism designed to prevent wrongful convictions, are of no help, thanks to a federal law passed in 1996 that prevents federal courts from reviewing new claims of innocence.

Next Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court will consider Davis’ case one last time. After that, an execution date could be set next month.

The state of Georgia is basing its decision to put Troy Anthony Davis to death on eyewitness testimony — the only evidence used to convict him. Of the nine eyewitnesses that implicated Davis, all but three have recanted. In all incidences, these eyewitnesses have given disturbing reasons for implicating Davis in the first place, such as police intimidation and coercion. One witness was persuaded to sign a police statement implicating Troy Anthony Davis despite the fact that he could not read.

No DNA, no physical evidence, no murder weapon, and a lack of reliable eyewitness testimony have not been enough to lead Georgia back from the brink of making a colossal error. With Troy’s life in the balance, the Scalia mindset harshly moves forward. Most disturbingly, this execution is being carried out in our name.

Troy’s fate now lies in the hand of Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles—which has the sole power to grant him clemency. Regardless of your personal feelings on capital punishment, we can all agree that the state of Georgia should do everything in its power to prevent the execution of an innocent man. We need it “shouted from the rooftops” that there are problems with this case and that Georgia must not execute a person when such pervasive doubt about guilt exists.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The saga of Larry Peterson

"Kill them all," death penalty proponents like to say. "Let them fry."

Try telling that to Larry Peterson. The state of New Jersey once sought death for Larry. A jury disagreed, but did find him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.

That was, oh, about 18 or so years ago. Today, after new DNA testing, Larry Peterson is a free man -- and a living, walking testament as to why the death penalty is a seriously flawed, mistake-ridden public policy.

Over the past two days, National Public Radio has taken a look at Larry's case.

Their story begins:

Larry Peterson spent more than 17 years in prison for murder and rape before DNA testing led a judge to overturn his conviction.

The legal victory ended one phase of Peterson's life. But it also marked the beginning of a new battle: Even though the state agrees that Peterson is no longer guilty of the crime, the burden now falls on him to prove that he is innocent of the charges, which he must do in order to receive compensation for the years he spent in prison.

"My life has not always been an honorable life," the 56-year-old New Jersey man says. "[B]ut I have never been a murderer, never been a rapist."

For the past two years, Robert Siegel has followed Peterson's long and difficult journey from incarceration to vindication. This is the story of Peterson's efforts to rebuild his life, and of his continuing fight to seek redress for the years he lost in prison. It also seeks to show how Peterson's exoneration has affected the family of the victim of the crime that originally put him behind bars.

You can read part one of the NPR series here.

And part two is here.

Kill them all? Let them fry? Well, maybe not.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

New execution date set in Georgia

John Washington Hightower is scheduled to be executed June 26 in Georgia. If executed it would be the first execution in Georgia in nearly two years. Hightower was convicted of the July 12, 1987, slayings of Dorothy Hightower, Evelyn Reaves and Sandra Reaves.

At trial his prosecutor used 6 of his 7 peremptories to strike blacks from the jury. His trial prosecutor historically used 90% of his strikes to remove people of color from juries in the capital cases he had tried and previously had written memos on striking blacks from juries.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


For some reason, this reminds me of that old Ramones song from the late '70s, I Wanna Be Sedated:

Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go
I wanna be sedated
Nothin' to do and no where to go-o-oh
I wanna be sedated
Just get me to the airport put me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry before I go insane...

Seriously, though: The state of Oklahoma is proceding with plans to execute this guy whose lung cancer has spread to his brain and beyond. From the Associated Press:

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The state parole board refused Tuesday to block the
execution of a death row inmate who is dying of cancer.

Jimmy Dale Bland is to be executed June 26 for the Nov. 14, 1996, murder of
62-year-old Doyle Windle Rains 11 years ago.

He is "on the verge of death" with advanced lung cancer that has spread to
his brain and his hip bone despite radiation and chemotherapy, defense attorney
David Autry told the five-member Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

Even if the 49-year-old man were not executed, doctors have said he has as
little as six months to live, Autry said.

The board voted 5-0 to deny clemency. Bland chose not to address the board
via videoconference from his cell at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in
McAlester and did not speak to board investigators before Tuesday's

"He feels at this point that all hope is lost," Autry said.

He said Bland's death sentence should be commuted out of "simple decency
and mercy for a person who is terminally ill and is going to die

Assistant Attorney General Seth Branham said Bland's medical condition was
not grounds for clemency, and that Bland forfeited his right to die of natural
causes when he shot the victim in the back of the head.

"Cancer doesn't change what happened at that trial," Branham

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Bland's final appeal in April.
Autry said courts had found prosecutorial misconduct in Bland's trial but that the
acts were not serious enough to reverse the conviction and order a new

Ba-ba-bamp-ba ba-ba-ba-bamp-ba I wanna be sedated

Ba-ba-bamp-ba ba-ba-ba-bamp-ba I wanna be sedated

Monday, June 11, 2007

Rwanda moves toward abolition

Rwanda's Legislature voted on Friday to abolish the death penalty. It's interesting that countries that have either a) suffered from the worst genocides or b) fallen under fascist leadership later become the first ones to reject capitol punishment (in Europe, for instance, Spain, Italy and Germany rejected the death penalty before France and Great Britain did).

Survivors of the slaughter welcomed the decision, noting that the death
penalty had existed in Rwandan law before the genocide.

"It didn't deter people from picking up machetes to slaughter their fellows - that's why we are not bothered by its removal," said Theodore Simburudali, president of the Ibuka genocide survivors' group.

For more on this very welcome development, go here. (Hat tip to Jason over at Democracy In Action.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Revisiting the case of Troy Anthony Davis

We've blogged before on the case of Troy Anthony Davis, the Georgia man who faces execution despite holes in his case large enough to swallow up an SUV.

Now it appears we're going to be talking about Davis a lot more.

The U.S. Supreme Court has set Troy's case for conference on June 21. This means on that day, the high court will decide whether to formally accept his case for review. Keep in mind that the court declines to accept something like 99 percent of the cases that reach it on appeal.

This is Troy's final appeal. Assuming he loses, then the only hope he would have of avoiding execution would be a recommendation from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles for clemency.

Over at Amnesty International's blog, Tennessee Dude has blogged today about Troy's case today. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we're just going to borrow Tennessee Dude's blog entry and make it our own:

Death Penalty
procedure trumps justice...again...this time for troy davis...

from the diaries of the tennessee dude...

we've blogged about it before...all sorts of people succumb to it...reasonable people may refer to it as "sentence fatigue"...angry people may say that enough is enough already...just plain mean-spirited people may simply drive around screaming, "fry that m__________ f____________,"...

i refer to it as procedure being more important than substance...finality being more important than truth in justice...just one more scenario in which we, collectively, share the warm and fuzzy opportunity to kill an innocent man (and yes, that's ironic sarcasm right there)...

this time i'm referring to the case of troy davis in which my home state of georgia is on the verge of poisoning to death a young man where no physical evidence ever linked him to the murder for which he was convicted and all but 2 so-called eyewitnesses have recanted their testimony:

Darrell Collins: "[The police] were telling me that I was an accessory to murder and that I would ... go to jail for a long time and I would be lucky if I ever got out, especially because a police officer got killed...I was only sixteen and was so scared of going to jail."

Antoine Williams: "After the officers talked to me, they gave me a statement and told me to sign it. I signed it. I did not read it because I cannot read ... I was totally unsure whether he was the person who shot the officer. I felt pressured to point at him ... I have no idea what the person who shot the officer looks like."

Jeffrey Sapp: "The police came and talked to me and put a lot of pressure on me.... They wanted me to tell them that Troy confessed to me about killing that officer. The thing is, Troy never told me anything about it. I got tired of them harassing me .... I told them that Troy did it, but it wasn't true."

Daniel Kinsman: "[T]here was and is no doubt in my mind that the person who shot the officer had the gun in and was shooting with his left hand." Davis is right-handed.

Shirley Riley: "People on the streets were talking about Sylvester Coles being involved with killing the police officer, so one day I asked him if he was involved .... Sylvester told me he did shoot the officer."

Joseph Washington: "I am positive that it was Red [Coles] who shot the police officer... [He] was wearing a white shirt...I had no idea that the shirt...was important because no one ever asked me...I would have testified to this but I was not asked by the state or by Troy's lawyers."

and of those witnesses who have not recanted??? well, one "witness" has been implicated as the murderer by nine people while the other could only recall the color of the shooter's clothes...and as we often respond to questions about how this execution could come to be, death penalty appeals are very difficult and no court has reviewed all the new evidence that came out since his initial trial...

restrictions on federal appeals have prevented troy anthony davis from having a hearing in federal court on the reliability of the witness testimony used against him, despite the fact that most of the witnesses have since recanted, many alleging they were pressured or coerced by police...troy davis remains on georgia death row, and may be scheduled for execution as early as next month...

for the brief back story...troy davis was sentenced to death for the murder of police officer mark allen mcphail at a burger king in savannah, georgia; a murder he maintains he did not commit...there was no physical evidence against him and the weapon used in the crime was never found...the case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial...since then, all but three of the state's non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted their testimony...many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against troy davis (see above)...
for further details in the back story and its context read Where is the justice for me?: The case of Troy Davis, facing execution in Georgia...

but we need YOU to TAKE ACTION TODAY...

troy's best chance at survival through this heresy of "justice" is clemency - please click here to print out a letter to the parole board in georgia and mail it today! - please forward the link to your friends, associates and broad network and ask them to do the same...this is critical...
the blogosphere may be able to generate enough attention to this moral and ethical outrage but only if you choose to make it today - and i'm only asking this today - rather than downloading a funny youtube video and sharing it please share this, please organize as many appeals as you can...if you can organize a petition, collecting signatures supporting clemency for troy davis to send to the Board, please do so to

State Board of Pardons and Paroles
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, SE
Suite 458, Balcony Level, East Tower
Atlanta, Georgia 30334-4909
USA Fax: +1 404 651 8502

My note: We'll have some more developments to report on regarding this case as the summer progresses. But I'd like to close simply by saying that both opponents and proponents of the death penalty should be able to reach consensus on one thing: Executing a person when fundamental questions about his guilt have been raised -- but not reviewed -- is a practice that is every bit abominable as what took place in Stalinist Russia, Saddam Husseinist Iraq, Osama bin Ladenist Afghanistan, and on and on and on.

This will not stand. Not in our country. Not in my country.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A prevarication from the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation


Noun: prevarication
A statement that deviates from or perverts the truth -- lie.

Intentionally vague or ambiguous -- equivocation, evasiveness.

The deliberate act of deviating from the truth -- lying, fabrication.

Today there's an Associated Press story receiving widespread distribution on the national AP wire about problems with Ohio's latest execution. Readers may recall that at Christopher Newton's execution last month, it took 90 minutes and at least ten stabs of a needle for the execution team to find a vein.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is seeking state records, including the names of the volunteer medics and guards who oversaw the execution. AP reports that the request has drawn Ohio into a wider debate over whether executioners' identities should be kept secret.

According to AP:

Death penalty opponents say Newton's May 24 lethal injection was the latest in a series of botched executions nationwide, and that executioners' identities and professional credentials should be open to public scrutiny.

They point to the case of Dr. Alan Doerhoff, a participant in Missouri executions who was revealed in news reports to have been sued for malpractice more than 20 times. The state is no longer using his services.

They also point to the December execution of Florida inmate Angel Diaz, who took 34 minutes — twice as long as usual — to die. Executioners administered a rare second dose of lethal chemicals to Diaz, and an autopsy found the needles had been pushed through Diaz's veins into the flesh of his arms.

A commission created afterward to study the incident called for more training and better protocols for executioners.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty, said the public can't properly scrutinize the effectiveness of capital punishment without adequate information on those carrying it out.

"Public executions should be as public as possible," he said. "They supposedly have nothing to hide, and as with anything government does, it benefits from more scrutiny. For medical personnel, yes, there may be a cost. But that's sort of like the cost that the state, or all of us, bear."

But now comes Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. Rushford has committed at least one and quite possibly two prevarications -- the word we will use because we wish to be polite.

In the AP story, Rushford accuses capital punishment opponents of wanting to expose members of execution teams to intimidate them. "The ACLU, which has staked out its turf as severely against the death penalty, will use this opportunity to out someone involved in an execution, and use it to put these people at risk," he said. "Unfortunately, that's how important their cause is to them."

Oh, really? No one I know of in the abolition movement wishes to put anyone at risk. (In fact, if you think about our work, that is antithetical to what we do.) We DO want to learn everything we can about the lethal injection process through a legal process known as discovery. Indeed, this is how we have come to learn there are problems with lethal injection in the first place.

Mr. Rushford may have engaged in a second prevarication when he states, "They (the ACLU) were against the gas chamber 30 years ago — they said there was only one humane alternative and that would be lethal injection."

The ACLU came out in favor of lethal injection? Really? I can't definitively state that it didn't happen -- I was a freshman in college when the first lethal injection execution occurred. But I would be shocked if any group, including the ACLU, including Amnesty International, including the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, came out in favor of one method of execution over another. That's not what we're about and that's not what we do.

On the first point, Mr. Rushford owes the ACLU an apology for stating that the organization wishes to put executioners at risk. On the second point, Mr. Rushford needs to either provide substantiation for his claim that the ACLU came out in favor of lethal injection -- or he needs to retract it.

Either way, I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Wrongful execution in Colorado

The year was 1939. His name was Joe Arridy. He was mentally retarded, with the mind of a five-year-old. He liked to play with toy trains. Some fought valiantly for his life, even more so because he was innocent of the crime for which he died after 20 agonizing minutes in Colorado's gas chamber.

Now it appears that a movie about this sad saga is in the works. Called The Woodpecker Waltz, the movie will celebrate the efforts of those who tried to save him, and focus attention anew on the terrible and irretractable mistakes that occur under the death penalty system in the United States and worldwide.

But let's step back and look at the story.

Young Joe Arridy was dropped from the Pueblo elementary school system at an early age because he could not keep up with the other children and he became a soft and harmless wanderer who could be seen walking all over the town of Pueblo. Later, a judge ordered the young man to be sent to the “Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives” at Grand Junction. At age 22, Joe ran away from the institution and, while trying to find his way home to his parents, was arrested for vagrancy in the Cheyenne railroad yards on August 26, 1936.

Eleven days earlier on August 15, Dorothy Drain, 15, and Barbara Drain, 12, were brutally beaten with an ax. The older girl was killed and the younger one was rushed to the hospital and saved. Dragnets were organized in towns up and down the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.

Cheyenne Sheriff George Carroll decided to interrogate Joe regarding the crime. According to the sheriff, Joe gave a changing series of stories. Then he finally admitted that he was the ax murderer.

Carroll then called Pueblo Police Chief Arthur Grady with the news. Grady received it with great surprise. The Pueblo police department already had the killer, Frank Aguilar, in custody. They even found the weapon -- an ax head -- in Aguilar’s home.

Even so, one element in the investigation was still missing: Aguilar refused to confess to the crime. With this in mind, Sheriff Carroll interrogated Joe again and got him to admit that he was present at the murder scene “with a man named Frank.” Both Aguilar and Joe were sent to death row for the murder of Dorothy Drain.

As strange as it may seem for a prison official, Warden Roy Best developed a warm friendship with Joe Arridy. He gave him toys to play with in his cell. The tough warden took Joe home on Christmas Eve of 1939 and presented him with a toy train. The toy train ran an express lane down the corridor of Death Row. A death row inmate would reach through the bars and poke the train over, and Joe would joyfully yell out: “Train wreck! Fix the wreck!” To make Joe happy, the hardened death row inmates would send the toy train back down the corridor to Joe.

Then as his friend’s death date neared, the warden joined with legal professionals in an attempt to stop the execution. Chaplain Albert Shaller stood with the warden, saying that if Joe went to the chamber, he would only deliver the Catholic Church’s Last Rites for a Child.

During these last frenzied battles, Denver attorney Gail Ireland became a real hero. Ireland worked day and night, vigorously pursuing every legal avenue to save Joe’s life, and finally losing a 3-2 decision in the Colorado Supreme Court. Ireland eloquently argued that we are: “doing the State of Colorado a real service if we can keep it from committing a murder itself. Believe me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for the State of Colorado to live down the disgrace.” Governor Teller Ammons made a stern call for Joe Arridy’s immediate death. It took over 20 minutes for young Joe Arridy to die in the gas chamber.


This Saturday, June 2, 2007, at 11 a.m. in Canon City’s Greenwood Cemetery, a dignifying tombstone will be placed on the grave of death row inmate Joe Arridy. Arridy was executed in the Canon City prison gas chamber on January 6, 1939, and buried on top of Woodpecker Hill. The tombstone, which will feature an etching of a replica of Joe’s toy train, is being placed and dedicated by a number of citizens in the Pikes Peak Region who have taken a newfound interest in Arridy’s life and death. Evidence uncovered in the past decade indicates that he was a victim of police and prosecutorial misconduct. This is the first time in the history of Colorado that a personalized tombstone will be placed on the grave of an executed prisoner.

Apparently an outfit called the Keller Entertainment Group has optioned the screenplay entitled The Woodpecker Waltz with the intent of producing a movie. Producer Micheline Keller writes that what attracted her to the script was not only the quality of the writing and the tragic story, but the element of hope in the people that fought so valiantly to save young Joe’s life. She states: “The beauty that exists in the script is that it so eloquently demonstrates that even in the face of tragedy and a flawed world, there are still righteous people who fight for justice and truth… and as long as that continues to happen, there is hope for the survival of our world.”