Thursday, January 24, 2008

The execution of Ricky Ray Rector

Today is the 16th anniversary of the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a severely mentally handicapped man executed by the state of Arkansas.

There's a bit of history attendant to this execution, for several reasons. At the request of our colleague Jason, we've guest-blogged on this execution over at

Check it out!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An interesting turn of events in Malaysia

Imagine a Texan traveling abroad.

Now imagine a Texan was arrested, unfairly charged with a capital crime, convicted and sentenced to death.

Would it make Texas -- the leading execution state in the U.S. -- rethink its position on the issue of the death penalty? I don't know. But the following story, which we are posting in its entirety, hopefully will give us pause and at least allow us to view this issue in a different light:

Beijing Sentence Shakes Malaysia's Own Policy

Malaysia's unshakable stand on the death penalty appears to be wavering as
a country unites in sympathy and outrage over the plight of a young Malay
woman sentenced to death in China for allegedly acting as a drug courier.

Umi Azlim Mohamad Lazim, 24, a university science graduate from a poor
Malay family of rice farmers, admitted to having 2.9 kilograms in her
luggage when she was arrested at Shantou airport last January.

She told a court in southeast China during her trial in May 2007, that she
was travelling for a highly-paid job she secured over the internet. But
she was unaware what was in the bag she was carrying for a Nigerian
friend. The judge rejected her explanation and sentenced her to death, the
usual sentence for such an offence.

"She thought she was carrying important corporate documents," her mother,
Umi Ibrahim, told IPS. "We cry everyday ... what can we do? We want her to
live not die."

Most Malaysians appear to share the mother's anguish.

The case is fast-developing into an emotive national issue. Politicians
have set aside their differences to halt Lazim's execution. The ruling
United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its rival the Islamic
fundamentalist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party are even vying in their

Both are collecting money for the family, working to arrange family visits
and promising they will save Lazim from execution.

The government is at a distinct disadvantage in the race to save Lazim.
Malaysia's punishment for drug-related crimes is as harsh, if not harsher,
than most other countries. The government supports the death penalty.

"Malaysia has suddenly woken up to the fact that ordinary Malaysians are
now caught in the same death-penalty trap that we put others in,"
Nagarajan Surendran, a human rights lawyer and executive co-director of
Malaysians Against the Death Penalty, a NGO campaigning against capital
punishment, told IPS. Trafficking in more than 200 grams of dangerous
drugs carries a death sentence.

"Today there are about 300 people on death row here, mostly for drug
offences," Surendran said. Many of the 359 people executed from 1980 to
2001 had been sentenced for drug offences.

Much national outrage is today focused on how the Chinese might eventually
end Lazim's life, although her sentence has been suspended for 2 years on
humanitarian grounds. "People are shot in their heads with rifles. It is a
horrific way for a young girl to die," said Surendran, expressing a
widely-expressed view.

The case has also suddenly brought to public attention a number of others.
There are some 30 young Malaysian women either sentenced or awaiting trial
for drug-related offences in more than a dozen countries besides China,
including Japan, Brazil and Peru. Several could be sentenced to death.

Many are university graduates lured by offers of high salaries and
opportunities to travel. Behind the tempting offers are shady front
companies run by international drug cartels.

"The syndicates are willing to throw money at the unsuspecting girls
before they make their moves," federal narcotics department director Bakri
Zinin told local newspapers in November.

The problem of young Malaysians caught ferrying drugs is already posing a
major problem for the foreign ministry. Diplomats are kept busy finding
defence lawyers, monitoring trails and making regular health and welfare
checks on the young women.

"Their fate is a major embarrassment to the government," said Ramu
Annamalai Kandasamy, a human rights lawyer representing many such clients
and death-row inmates, told IPS. "The government has to come up with a
firm policy on how to help the victims on death-row in far off countries."

Surendran's proposal is for Malaysia to introduce an immediate moratorium
on executions. This would lift the threat of execution of foreigners on
Malaysian soil. Other countries would be likely to respond in kind.

"Malaysia would get a more sympathetic hearing if it imposed a moratorium.
One good turn deserves another," he argues.

"People would understand," he adds, suggesting that the public would agree
that a change in policy over the death penalty was the most diplomatically
effective way of saving the lives of condemned Malaysians on foreign

A moratorium could also help secure the reduction in other harsh sentences
imposed on Malaysians by foreign courts, diplomatic sources say. Peru was
ready to reduce sentences of up to 20 years imposed on Malaysians in
return for the sparing 5 of its nationals on death-row in Malaysia, they

Many opposition politicians would support a moratorium, or even total
abolition, if it could save the lives of Malaysians like Lazim.

"These girls made a mistake in their youth. They deserve to live, not to
be killed so cruelly. Imagine the pain their loved ones are going
through," said opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok.

"If Malaysia abolishes the death sentence it can stand on a higher moral
ground and ask foreign countries to spare the hangman's noose.

"It is time Malaysia complied with international standards," she added,
citing the U.N. General Assembly resolution last December calling for a
moratorium on executions. The resolution urged all states that still
maintain the death penalty "to establish a moratorium on executions with a
view to abolishing the death penalty".

(source: IPS)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

NCADP 2008: Special Recognition Award

Due to circumstances mostly beyond our control, we are a little tardy in posting the final award given at this year's NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream conference. We meant to post on Sunday and couldn't, and then we were travelling back to Washington, D.C. from San Jose on Monday.

But here, at last, is the final awardee. Today we honor Bill Pelke, who is the outgoing chair of the NCADP Board of Directors:

Bill Pelke
Special Recognition: Outgoing Board Chairman, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

One of the best known and most beloved leaders within abolition circles is Bill Pelke, outgoing chairman of the NCADP Board of Directors. Pelke has served on the NCADP Board of Directors since 1996 and has been board chairman since October 2004, in addition to the countless hours he has served as executive director of The Journey of Hope….From Violence to Healing.

In 2003, Pelke authored a book that mirrors his organization’s name -- Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing. The book details the May 14, 1985 murder of his grandmother Ruth Pelke, a Bible teacher, by four teenage girls. Paula Cooper who was deemed to be the ringleader was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana. She was fifteen-years-old at the time of the murder.

Pelke originally support the sentence of death for Cooper, but went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. He became involved in an international crusade on Paula's behalf and in 1989 after over 2 million people from Italy signed petitions and Pope John Paul II’s request for mercy, Paula was taken off of death row and her sentence commuted to sixty years.

“The answer is love and compassion for all humanity,” Pelke says. “The death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with healing. It just continues the cycle of violence and creates more murder victims’ family members. We become what we hate. We become killers.”

Looking back on his tenure with NCADP, Pelke sees both an organization and a movement that has matured and grown more sophisticated. “The NCADP had a lot of goals and dreams when I joined the board,” he recalls. “We have seen the NCADP grow to the point where many of those dreams have become realities. The funding is much better, the work with affiliates has greatly improved, the staff has grown and continues to grow and the NCADP has taken the leadership role in the abolition movement. The movement itself has changed with the new voices of victims’ families, death row families, exonerated death row inmates and prosecutors, wardens, police chiefs and other activists being heard.”

Pelke, a retired steelworker, has dedicated his life to working for abolition of the death penalty. He shares his story of forgiveness and healing, and how he came to realize that he did not need to see someone else die in order to heal from his grandmother’s death. He also helps organize Journey tours nationally and abroad. Pelke has traveled to over forty states and ten countries with the Journey of Hope and has told his story over 5000 times.

Although Pelke relinquishes the NCADP board chairmanship this month, he by no means is walking away from abolition work. In addition to directing The Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, he also sits on the board of the Justice and Reconciliation Project and he hopes to be more involved with the restorative justice process in the future. “I plan to continue to walk through any open door in keeping with my commitment to God on Nov. 2, 1986 – the night my heart was touched with forgiveness for Paula Cooper,” Pelke says.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

NCADP 2008: Lighting the Torch Award

We continue our series of NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream awardees. The highlight of the conference is tonight, with a reception and book-signing by Mike Farrell, star of M*A*S*H and so many other programs. Following that is our awards banquet.

Today we bring you the NCADP 2008 Lighting the Torch Award, presented to the people of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico for their resolute opposition to the death penalty.

Please check back in tomorrow as we will bring you our final 2008 awardee.

The People of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
Lighting the Torch Award

Puerto Rico is not a likely candidate to be on the front lines of the struggle against the death penalty. After all, the Commonwealth first abolished the death penalty in 1929, and then followed that up by drafting a Constitution in 1952 that specifically banned the use of capital punishment – a document that was approved by the U.S. Congress.

But the Bush Administration had other plans.

Just as it has pursued death sentences in the jurisdictions that do not have the death penalty -- 13 states and Washington D.C. – the U.S. Justice Department is relying on federal statutes to aggressively pursue death sentences in Puerto Rico. Five times it has sought death sentences in the Commonwealth; five times, jurors have refused to comply. Death sentences currently are being sought in an additional three cases, and as many as 11 people awaiting trial are at risk of having their cases certified as capital punishment cases.

Still, Puerto Ricans have remained strong and have begun to aggressively organize. The Puerto Rico Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which plans to send almost a dozen delegates to NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream in San Jose, now consists of 42different groups and more than 400 individuals. The group’s coalition approach to building strength has brought in the ACLU, the Puerto Rico Bar Association, the island’s Civil Rights Commission, students from across the Commonwealth and religious leaders across the spectrum.

Because of the Commonwealth’s determination to resists the federal government’s efforts to impose the death penalty against its will, NCADP has selected the people of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as the joint recipient of this year’s Lighting the Torch award.

“We’re very excited about the Lighting the Torch Award and it is important for us to be in San Jose,” explains Osvaldo Burgos, an attorney and co-chair of the Puerto Rico Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Burgos notes that Puerto Rico is hardly alone in its struggle against federal efforts to impose the death penalty against the Commonwealth’s wishes. After all, states from Vermont to Michigan to Iowa to North Dakota all face similar challenges – each of these states has now seen federal death sentences handed down even though no state death penalty statutes exist. And the federal government has tried twice, unsuccessfully, to pursue death sentences in Washington, D.C., a jurisdiction also without a death penalty statute of its own.

“We want to convince people there are others facing this issue and others in the same situation we are in,” Burgos says. “We have a lot to learn from them and a lot to teach them.”

Friday, January 18, 2008

NCADP 2008: Legal Service Awardees

We were unable to get online yesterday due to the crush of conference business. But today we're back with our NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream awardees. Today we recognize three recipients of the annual Legal Service Award. They are David Kendall, Elisabeth Semel and the Death Penalty Clinic of UC Berkeley and the law firm Morrison & Foerster. Descriptions are below:

Please chech back Saturday and Sunday, as we will conclude our series of NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream awardees.

David E. Kendall, William & Connolly
Legal Service Award

David Kendall never met a civil rights challenge he didn’t like.

Whether it was defending an incumbent president against what many saw as an overly zealous prosecution by congressional Republicans set on impeachment or whether it was getting arrested in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 while registering African Americans to vote, Kendall has earned his stripes as one of the country’s top civil rights lawyers.

Along the way, Kendall, now a partner with Williams & Connolly, has left his indelible mark on the death penalty debate. In the landmark 1977 case Coker v. Georgia, Kendall convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that capitol punishment for rape is unconstitutional. He also was involved in fighting the first two post-Gregg executions – Gary Gilmore and John Spenkelink.

Kendall opposes the death penalty but not just because of its inherent immorality. After Timothy McVeigh was executed for his role in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Kendall suggested that executing McVeigh was an insult to the surviving family members.

“I think Timothy McVeigh should have been locked up, and the key thrown away,” Kendall said. “I think that, unfortunately, to execute him – my own, personal view – will not bring any of his victims back and that somehow executing him almost trivializes the atrocities he’s committed because it suggests that there’s somehow an equivalence between what society has done to him and what he’s done.”

Indeed, Kendall’s longstanding opposition to the death penalty is based on his belief that it not only does not serve as a deterrent to crime, but it also demeans society. “I think the death penalty is kind of a barbaric atavism,” he says. “In part, it’s been preserved politically, and I regret that the Democrats, I think, are on the wrong side of the issue. It eventually will wither away. I think the death penalty is an inefficient way, a counterproductive way to try to deal with violent crime.”

The death penalty, Kendall adds, “doesn’t really have very much to do with the people being executed; it has to do with what we as society think is the right way to treat these people.”

While Kendall is among the nation’s top anti-death penalty lawyers, the trail he has blazed through the nation’s courtrooms is but a part of his legacy to the civil rights community.

He has appeared in trial courts in 22 states and has argued appeals in 6 federal courts of appeal, 7 state supreme courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. He has been married to Anne L. Kendall, a psychologist with the Wake Kendall Group, since 1968, and they have three children. He presently works on diverse matters such as intellectual property, criminal investigations, and the Clinton Library foundation. His notable clients have included AOL, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Washington Post, the National Enquirer, and the Baltimore Orioles, among many others.

Death Penalty Clinic, University of California, Berkeley,
School of Law and Elizabeth Semel
Legal Service Award

After graduating from UC Davis School of Law, Elisabeth Semel became a deputy public defender. In 1980, she entered private practice and, in 1983, formed the firm of Semel & Feldman. Semel has defended criminal cases in the state and federal courts with an emphasis on representation at the trial level, including homicides and capital cases. In 1997, Semel left private practice to serve as the director of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project, in Washington, D.C.

Semel joined the Boalt faculty in 2001, as the first director of the Death Penalty Clinic. In that capacity, Semel represents clients under sentence of death in states such as Alabama and California and engages in on related litigation such as amicus curiae briefs, petitions for writs of certiorari, clemency petitions, and pretrial motions in capital cases. Semel and her students have prepared amicus curiae briefs that were filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in several death penalty cases, including Miller-El v. Cockrell, Miller-El v. Dretke, and Snyder v. Louisiana (all dealing with race discrimination in jury selection).

Semel has written numerous articles about criminal defense practice, including: "The Lone Star State is Not Alone in Denying Due Process to Those Who Face Execution" (July 1999); "Racial Injustice: Work to be Done Outside the Courtroom" (June 1998); "Talk to the Media About Your Client? Think Again" in The Champion (with C. Sevilla, November 1997); "Breathing Life into Batson" (2003); "The Good, the Bad and the Evil: News from the Hill" (1997); and "Victims' Rights: New Amendment to the Federal Constitution?" in the California Criminal Defense Practice Reporter (1996). Beginning in 2003, her annual annotated summaries of cases dealing with Batson v. Kentucky (race or gender discrimination in jury selection) have been posted electronically and included in various criminal defense publications. Semel frequently provides commentary in the mainstream media on issues relating to the rights of individuals accused of crime, particularly those facing the death penalty.

Semel has received many awards, including the Distinguished Alumni Award (UC Davis School of Law, 2000), John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service (Bard College, 1997), the Marshall Stern Award for Legislative Advocacy (NACDL, 1996), the Civil Rights Award (San Diego League of Women Voters, 1995) and the E. Stanley Conant Award for Protecting the Rights of the Indigent Accused (Defender Programs of San Diego, 1982).

Morrison & Foerster
Legal Service Award

With more than 1,000 attorneys and 18 offices around the world, the San Francisco-based law firm Morrison & Foerster has a longstanding commitment to pro bono work and has helped tens of thousands of people who otherwise would have been denied access to the justice system. The firm’s efforts have focused on civil rights and civil liberty cases, children in poverty and school education issues, international human rights and political asylum, environmental issues and housing issues.

On the death penalty, Morrison & Foerster was honored by Death Penalty Focus after it was successful in having the death sentence of James Lee Spencer of Georgia overturned. Spencer was moved off of death row after he was found to be mentally ill.

Morrison & Foerster attorney Charles Patterson has worked on two notable California death penalty cases, including Manuel Babbitt and Clarence Ray Allen, And James J. Brosnahan of Morrison & Foerster is the author of: the “California Death Penalty Fairness and Fiscal Responsibility Study Commission Act,” which includes a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions and the appointment of a study commission to determine the following information:

Last but not least, the firm is currently helping to incorporate “California People of Faith working against the death penalty,” making it into a non-profit.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

NCADP 2008: (Co) Abolitionist of the year, part two

Today, a couple of hours before we board the flight to San Jose, we bring you the latest installment in the series of NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream awardees. Today we are recognizing Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.

Please continue to check back in as we will honor different individuals every day leading up to Saturday.

Natasha Minsker, Abolitionist of the Year

Like many in the anti-death penalty community, Natasha Minsker is an attorney whose career has traversed a bridge between public defender work and abolition work. The job title she holds today – Death Penalty Policy Director for the ACLU of Northern California – is a natural progression from the years she spent in the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, doing everything from basic research to representing clients in all sorts of cases – misdemeanor, felony and juvenile.

While a student at Stanford Law School, Minsker first landed a job in the public defender’s office. “The very first day, they took us to watch the penalty phase of a death penalty trial,” Minsker recalls. “The woman who raised the defendant was on the stand and the defense lawyer was asking her how she would feel if the State of California executed the defendant, someone she considered her son.

“I was shocked,” Minsker continues. “I could not believe that, in our legal system, twelve random people would be asked to judge whether another human being deserves to continue living. How would they ever be able to make such a decision? I felt very immediately and profoundly that the death penalty was a blight on our legal system and that it had to do.”

The ACLU of Northern California, with more than 55,000 members, is the nation’s largest ACLU affiliate. And given the enormity of California and the size of its death row, Minsker knows she has her work cut out for her. She responds to California’s unique situation by adopting a multi-disciplinary approach – working toward abolition of the death penalty while at the same time working on reforms and other measures that would lower the rate of capital sentencing.

“There’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to be learned from the California experience,” Minsker explains. “The ‘bad’ lesson is that slowing down the process and making the death penalty incredibly costly does not necessarily translate into public opposition to the death penalty. We have the most dysfunctional death penalty in the country, but that is not enough to convince people it is time to get rid of it. We have much more work to do to translate frustration into opposition. Hopefully, the ‘good’ lesson is that there are effective strategies for reducing use of the death penalty and moving us closer toward abolition that can be implemented locally, in any state, regardless of the political climate in the legislature.”

Minsker is also challenged by the sheer size and cultural divide that permeates California – a divide that increasingly is not defined by “northern” and “southern” California but rather by inland areas and coastal areas. “One of our greatest challenges is the incredible size of the state,” Minsker says. “We do not have the resources to work effectively in the entire state and we have much work still to do even among groups that should be open to our point of view. Thus, we are focused on building greater support in regions that are most likely to be receptive. The size of the state and the reality of referendum politics in California force us to be creative. We cannot do things the way other states do – we have to find our own ‘California’ version of abolition.”

Minsker lives in Oakland and enjoys doing yoga to stay sane and hiking with her partner David.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

NCADP 2008: (Co) Abolitionist of the Year

Today we continue our series honoring the NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream Awardees. Yesterday we recognized Mike Farrell; today, we are recognizing Stefanie Faucher, program manager at California-based Death Penalty Focus, an NCADP affiliate and co-host of this year's conference.

Please check back through the week as we list additional awardees each day leading up to Saturday!

Stefanie Faucher, Abolitionist of the Year

Stefanie Faucher is the program director for San Francisco-based Death Penalty Focus. Her career in anti-death penalty work has spanned nearly a decade -- since she was a student at the University of California at Berkeley, where she created and taught a class on capital punishment through the Democratic Education at Cal Program.

She is frequently interviewed and quoted by state and national media outlets, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and National Public Radio.

Faucher says she is attracted to anti-death penalty work because she believes in the principle that “with great power comes great responsibility.” “Individuals in power should do more than just enforce laws,” she says. “They should act as role models and exemplify the very best of human behavior. Their response to wrongdoing should be fair, thoughtful and tempered. The calculated, state-sponsored killing of another human being lowers society to the level of the killer by repeating the very act that we claim to abhor. It is a fundamental contradiction and I think we can do better.”

Faucher, true to her sense of humor, often references a scene from the movie Batman Begins. In the scene, Bruce Wayne is asked to execute a man who has committed murder. He refuses, responding, “I’m no executioner.” He is challenged by another character who says, “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.” But Wayne replies, “That’s why it is so important. It separates us from them.”

“While some see compassion as a weakness, I see it as our greatest strength,” Faucher says. “I believe that all human beings are fallible and that a person is more than the very worst thing he or she has ever done. We try to label people and fit them into little boxes because it’s easier if we can think of people as either “good” or “bad,” but it’s never that simple. If we fail to provide a child with a good education, healthcare and a safe home to grow up in, we should not be surprised if that child goes on to make bad choices. As a society we reap what we sow.”

Faucher has been involved in a number of issues beyond the death penalty. Over the past fifteen years, she has mentored high-school students, cared for homeless children, and provided information about HIV, STDs and birth control to teenagers.

In her free time, Stefanie enjoys traveling around the world. She has visited more than thirty countries so far.

John Edwards and the death penalty

This popped up in my email box this morning. It's from Bill Pelke, who is the outgoing chair of the NCADP Board of Directors (you'll be reading more about Bill in a few days).

I think this letter speaks for itself:

An Open letter to Senator John Edwards: January 14, 2007

Dear Senator Edwards,

I listened to you today on NPR radio. Angela, of Wichita, Kansas asked you for your thoughts on the death penalty in America and what kind of affect it would have socially on our ideals.

You stated that you have historically supported the death penalty, but that you have HUGE problems with it right now.

You mentioned race. You stated that if you are a man or woman of color in American today you are more likely to be charged with a capital offence, you are more likely to be convicted and you are more likely to get the death penalty. You said it was the reality of the criminal justice system in America today.

You also said that we have to ensure that it is impossible for us to execute somebody who is innocent.

You also said that in many cases, if we have high quality representation, it makes a huge difference in the likelihood of conviction and the likelihood of the death penalty.

You also stated you were opposed to “death qualified juries” and how it stacked the jury in favor for the prosecution, both for conviction and for the vote on the death penalty itself.

Senator Edwards, these are some of the same reasons that I have been working for a moratorium of the death penalty. If you really believe in your response to Angela then I would ask you to add “Death Penalty Moratorium” to your platform.

This would be in step with the United Nations call for worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.

I would be happy to discuss these and other reasons with you for supporting a moratorium.

Bill Pelke
Anchorage, Alaska

For NPR interview in its entirety

Monday, January 14, 2008

NCADP 2008: Lifetime Achievement Award

As noted earlier, this week we are featuring this year's crop of NCADP awardees. Today we kick off the series by recognizing Mike Farrell, recipient of this year's NCADP Lifetime Achievement Award. Special thanks to NCADP Board Member Paul O'Shea for writing this up:

When Mike Farrell steps to the podium this week to receive the NCADP Lifetime Achievement Award, he will join a distinguished group of individuals renowned for their work to abolish the death penalty.

Mike’s honor recognizes more than 30 years of passionate advocacy (including a term on NCADP’s board). Over the years his commitment to eradicating the death penalty ranges from organizing and supporting campaigns to save specific individuals, educating the public through television and radio interviews and debates, addressing forums, writing essays and newspaper op-eds, meeting with state governors and other officials, coordinating and organizing meetings, and maintaining contact with other activists and organizations. He is as hands-on an activist as there is in the movement-- all while maintaining a successful acting career and involving himself in a host of other political issues and charitable causes.

For Mike Farrell it began in the 1970s with a visit to the Tennessee State Prison on behalf of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons. There he met death row prisoners for the first time and saw the squalid conditions that prevailed. For the next three decades he intervened in death penalty cases in states including Virginia, California, Iowa, Illinois, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas and Kentucky. Mike was also involved in a campaign to institute a moratorium on federal executions.

Today, Mike Farrell is president of the board of directors of Death Penalty Focus (co-sponsor of NCADP’s 2008 national conference) where he notes on the organization’s website, “Our goal is to educate our fellow citizens about the reality of the death penalty and to help propel our country to a more humane, more fair, more honorable systems of justice. As the self-proclaimed human rights leader of the world, America can do better.” A more detailed picture of his work is available on the website

Many of Mike’s exploits are recorded in his entertaining and well-written autobiography, Just Call Me Mike, published last year. The book recounts the life of an activist in the cause of social justice and human rights, from his early years at Hollywood High School through serving with the Marines into the beginnings of his television and film career.

To many, Mike will always be remembered as Captain B. J. Hunnicutt of the legendary television series, M*A*S*H. He also had prominent roles in the television series’ Providence and Desperate Housewives and has written, directed and produced television and stage productions.

Please check back daily this week to see NCADP's other award winners!

The war at home

We (and countless others) have warned about this.

And now, courtesy of those who brought us the preemptive invasion of Iraq, it's happening: the violence is following us home.

No, no, no -- not in the form of terrorists (or non-terrorists) attacking the U.S. on our own soil. Rather, it's murders being committed by our troops who failed to receive adequate treatment for symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

People were warned. Our government was warned. Our political leaders were warned.

Their warnings were not heeded. And this is the result:

Traumatised Veterans 'Have Killed 120 in US'

by Stephen Foley

Published on Monday, January 14, 2008 by The Independent/UK

While public anger is directed at the Pentagon for sending American soldiers
ill-prepared to fight in Iraq, an equally troubling problem is rearing its head
at home. Military veterans are returning from the war zone just as ill-prepared
for civilian life and dozens suffering from post-traumatic stress are committing
murder and manslaughter.

A new study has identified more than 120 killings committed by veterans of the
Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as psychologically troubled soldiers slip through the
net of an overextended military mental health system.

The study, which was conducted from examining local news reports, and which may
well dramatically understate the scale of the problem, suggested that killings
by military veterans have almost doubled since the start of the wars.

The stories are harrowing. About a third involve the killing of a spouse,
girlfriend or other relative, among them two-year-old Krisiauna Calaira Lewis,
whose 20-year-old father slammed her against a wall when he was recuperating
from a bombing near Fallujah that blew off his foot and damaged his brain.

Many others implicate drink and drugs, an increasing refuge for veterans
traumatised by deaths they have witnessed or caused during the
counter-insurgency led by American troops. The US government is being sued by
relatives of 25-year-old Marine Lucas Borges, who became addicted to inhaling
ether after a tour of Iraq at the beginning of the war, and who was convicted of
second degree murder for crashing his car into an vehicle while driving the
wrong way down a motorway, killing the other driver and injuring four others.

Collectively, the stories attest to the inadequacies of the US military mental
health system, which a Pentagon task force last year described as "woefully
understaffed", poorly funded and undermined by the stigma still attached to
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disorder has been a major concern
since veterans' associations found that 15 per cent of Vietnam vets still
suffered from PTSD a decade after the conflict ended in 1975.

The study of killings by military veterans was conducted by The New York Times.
It showed an 89 percent increase - from 184 cases to 349 - in the six years
following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan in the number of homicides involving
active-duty military personnel and new veterans. About three-quarters of these
cases involved Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The New York Times said its study was conservative. "This reporting most likely
uncovered only the minimum number of such cases, given that not all killings,
especially in big cities and on military bases, are reported publicly or in
detail," it added.

© 2008 The Independent

[If you follow the link to, you'll find a discussion following
this article.]

Fired up! Ready to go! NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream

We're headed for San Jose this week as NCADP hosts our annual conference, NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream. The conference is co-hosted by California-based Death Penalty Focus.

This week, we'll be presenting "mini-profiles" of the people we'll be honoring at our awards banquet, which happens Saturday evening and is the conference's crowning jewel.

Each day (beginning later today) we will feature a different awardee, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Spirko commuted, the band-aid approach to Ohio’s broken system continues

John Spirko was commuted by Governor Strickland in Ohio. DNA fails to link him to the crime for which he was scheduled to die in a few weeks. I should note I am sure David or Abe (an Ohio native) will have more.

I also find that the lack of physical evidence linking Mr. Spirko to the above-mentioned murder, combined with the slim residual doubt about his responsibility for the murder arising from a careful scrutiny of the case record and revelations about the case over the last 20 years, makes the imposition of the death penalty in this case inappropriate.

From Mr. Spirko’s counsel:

John Spirko is an innocent man who has spent 25 very long and hard years in prison — 23 on death row — for a crime he did not commit. There can be no joy in the commutation of an innocent man’s sentence to life without parole. The positive thing about Governor Strickland’s commutation is that the State will now not execute an innocent man and that we can, and will, continue to fight for Mr. Spirko’s complete exoneration and release.

We had told Governor Strickland that Mr. Spirko was prepared to waive all his constitutional rights to allow the Van Wert County Prosecutor to again try him and seek the death penalty in a fair and honest trial — not the trial he got in 1984, filled as it was with false evidence and a false theory of the case. All Mr. Spirko has ever asked for was to be judged fairly and honestly. We all now know that there is absolutely not one shred of evidence — physical, forensic or otherwise — linking Mr. Spirko to this crime. The recent DNA and fingerprint results for which we waited more than two years confirm that Mr. Spirko was not present at the crime scenes. Objectively corroborated evidence confirms that Mr. Spirko was meeting in Toledo with his parole officer at the very time this crime was being committed in Elgin, 100 miles away.

We will continue to urge Governor Strickland and Attorney General Dann to review Mr. Spirko’s claims of actual innocence so that justice will be served by Mr. Spirko’s release from prison and by finally prosecuting those actually responsible for Mrs. Mottinger’s murder.

Congrats go out to the Pilsbury team. I should note this is the second time this week that Ohio has conceded in cases with execution dates or which have had serious execution dates that the the Buckeye system is broken by either accepting a nolo contendre plea to time served or now, a commutation.

Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation

This message popped up in my email box today. Of course we are happy to pass the news along:

Host George Reiter of Thresholds will be interviewing Bill Lucero and Amy White of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation on KPFT, the Pacifica station in Houston, this Thursday, Jan 9, from from 11am to 12 noon central time. The interview, taking place in Harris County, the death penalty capital of the world, can be listened to live on, and will be archived on that website afterward.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A distraction, not a solution

We recently were pleased to see a letter to the editor published in the Kansas City Star. The letter was signed by Renny Cushing, head of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, an NCADP affiliate. You can visit their blog, For Victims, Against the Death Penalty, here.

A Distraction, Not a Solution

New Jersey legislators recently voted to abolish the death penalty and New Jersey’s governor signed the legislation. As someone who has suffered the pain of losing a loved one to murder, I salute the state for its actions — and I wish Missouri would follow suit.

When my father was murdered, my family and I did not feel that an execution would give us peace. We did not believe that another killing would honor our father’s memory or the values he instilled in us. Since that time, I have met and worked closely with hundreds of other murder victims’ family members who agree that responding to one killing with another killing doesn’t help anyone.

The death penalty offers a false promise of closure to victims’ families, who are led to believe that an execution will bring relief. While families wait through the lengthy, roller-coaster appeals process, reliving our original pain again and again, the focus remains on the murderer rather than on the victims or on our own anguish as surviving family members. The death penalty is a distraction from victims’ real needs, not a solution.

Renny Cushing,
Executive director, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights
Cambridge, Mass.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A nice thought for 2008

Stumbled across this short essay in the LA Times:

Falling out of love with death
Though a majority of Americans back capital punishment, surveys find growing
unease over it
By Vince Beiser
January 1, 2008

The media are abuzz over the 40th anniversary of 1968, the year that saw so
much change in this country. But one of the most extraordinary of those
changes has been almost completely forgotten: 1968 was the first year in the
history of the United States that not a single prisoner was executed. Today,
we're getting closer than we have in decades to matching that milestone...

According to Amnesty International, 133 countries have abolished the death
penalty. Last month, the United Nations voted for a worldwide moratorium on
capital punishment.

As far back as the 1960s, almost every industrialized nation had abandoned
the death penalty as a barbaric and pointless anachronism. The U.S. in 1968
was on track to do the same -- not because the Supreme Court forced it on
us, but because we as a nation had decided it was a bad idea. Support for
the death penalty hasn't always been a fact of American life. That's
something worth remembering in this new year.

Vince Beiser is a California-based writer who often writes on criminal
justice issues.