Thursday, December 30, 2004

Blog break!

The blog is taking a much-needed vacation!

We will return on Monday, Jan. 10th.

Year in review

As we wrap up 2004, let's look at where we're at:

Executions at a five-year low (59, compared with 65 last year and compared with 98 in 1999).

Death row population down slightly.

Death sentences dramatically down (an estimated 130 in 2004, compared with 144 in 2003 and 282 in 1999).

Courts in Kansas and New York struck down the death penalty.

California created a death penalty study commission.

New Jersey could be on the verge of abolition (and, perhaps, Connecticut too).

North Carolina may pass a moratorium this next year.

The U.S. Supreme Court may soon strike down the juvenile death penalty.

Texas may be headed for a court-enforced moratorium, unless and until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agree to start obeying the law and providing the comprehensive review of death sentences that the U.S. Supreme Court (and the U.S. Constitution) demand.

All in all, not a bad year for the abolition movement.

Champagne, anyone?

6,000 visitors and counting!

Earlier today, we had our 6,000th visitor to this blog.

That's not a lot compared with some huge blogs out there like daily kos or talking points memo or talk left.

But it's quite more than I imagined when we launched this blog as an experiment last summer!

I'd like to thank not only all of the progressive blogsters out there who have linked to us (and thus provided most of our traffic) but also my brother and sister blogs at grits for breakfast and lonelyabolitionist for their often and kind mentions.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Mr. Warner dithers

The Washington Post ran yet another editorial today calling for DNA testing for Roger Coleman, executed more than a decade ago by Virginia. The editorial begins:

Dithering on DNA

WHEN MARK R. WARNER became Virginia's governor three years ago, we greeted him with the friendly suggestion that he order new DNA testing in the case of Roger Keith Coleman. The commonwealth executed Mr. Coleman back in 1992, but both before and since the execution, his guilt has been heatedly disputed. An early form of DNA testing before his death suggested that he did commit the rape and murder for which he was condemned, but its methodology was controversial, and more modern testing might finally put the matter to rest. Ordering the testing should not be a tough call. New tests might -- by proving Mr. Coleman's guilt once and for all -- remove a cloud that has hung over Virginia's criminal justice system since the execution.

It continues:

This is getting ridiculous. It should take no great political courage for Mr. Warner to order the testing. It's hardly as though Mr. Coleman -- who is dead, after all -- will walk free if the testing exonerates him. The only questions the case still raises are of historical accuracy and retroactive accountability for the state's criminal justice system.

And it concludes:

Mr. Coleman, after all, insisted upon his innocence from the day of his arrest to his haunting last words: "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight." If he was telling the truth -- however improbable that might seem -- respecting the "finality" of his conviction means never prosecuting the person who actually committed the murder. Every day that Mr. Warner dithers, he tacitly betrays an anxiety that the justice system over which he presides cannot withstand daylight.

To read the entire piece go here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

What would your last meal be?

Go here to see an interesting flash animation. (If you have a slow browser, it may take a while to's worth it!)

Thursday, December 23, 2004

'Foolproof death penalty?'

The New York Times is spoofing attempts by Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to create a "foolproof death penalty" in his state.

I think the operative word here is "fool!"

This is kind of like the annual Darwin awards, if you follow those (or, for those of you in my home state of Texas, the "Bum Steer Awards" given out each year by Texas Monthly).

To read all about it, go here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Death in Texas

There's an amazing essay that just hit the newstands, written by Sister Helen Prejean and published in the January issue of the New York Times Review of Books.

It's about George W. Bush and executive clemency. Here's part of the article:

Here was Karla Faye, a woman who had transformed her life and would have been a source of healing love to guards and prisoners for as long as she lived, yet the iron protocol of retributive justice demanded that she be put to death. It was as if Bush and Albert Gonzales and the pardons board had freeze-framed Karla Faye Tucker in the worst act of her life, then freeze-framed themselves into killing her. That's the way a machine works, relentless and preordained, with no room for the personal transcendence that conscience gives. It was all so mechanical, so unthinking, so political. That's why on the night of Karla Faye's killing, my anger at George W. Bush turned to outrage when Larry King aired Bush's press statement and I heard the way Bush invoked God to bless his denial of clemency. I already knew the substance of Bush's position toward Karla Faye, but I had never heard the last sentence of his press statement: "May God bless Karla Faye Tucker and may God bless her victims and their families."

Immediately after the statement, King turned to me for a response. When I heard Bush say, "God bless Karla Faye Tucker," I had to struggle to keep a vow I made to reverence every person, even those with whom I disagree most vehemently. Inside my soul I raged at Bush's hypocrisy, but the broadcast was live and global. With not much time to rein myself in, I took a quick breath, said a fierce prayer, looked into the camera, and said, "It's interesting to see that Governor Bush is now invoking God, asking God to bless Karla Faye Tucker, when he certainly didn't use the power in his own hands to bless her. He just had her killed."

As governor, Bush certainly did not stand apart in his routine refusal to deny clemency to death row petitioners, but what does set him apart is the sheer number of executions over which he has presided. Callous indifference to human suffering may also set Bush apart. He may be the only government official to mock a condemned person's plea for mercy, then lie about it afterward, claiming humane feelings he never felt. On the contrary, it seems that Bush is comfortable with using violent solutions to solve troublesome social and political realities.

The aphorism "A hammer, when presented with a nail, knows to do only one thing" applies, par excellence, to George W. Bush. As governor of Texas, Bush tackled the social problem of street crime by presiding over the busiest execution chamber in the country. At the time of the thirteen death row exonerations in Illinois, Bush stated publicly that although states such as Illinois might have problems with a faulty death penalty system, he was certain that in Texas no innocent person had ever been sent to death row, much less executed. That remains to be seen. What is clear is that he had, as governor, no quality of mercy.

To read the whole article, go here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Watch Larry King Live tonight...

Ray Krone, who was sentenced to death in Arizona and later completely exonerated (can one be partially exonerated?) will be on Larry King Live at 9 p.m. Eastern tonight (unless he gets bumped by breaking news).

Ray is a really, really nice guy and has an amazing story to tell.

I don't know what Larry King is up to, but Kirk Bloodsworth is tentatively scheduled to be on his show on Dec. 29. Bloodsworth also is a really nice guy -- and, I believe, a former member of the U.S. Marines track and field team (he threw the discus). Bloodsworth is an exoneree out of the state of Maryland and was actually the first person proven to be innocent by DNA testing.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The death penalty in the year 2022

Where will the death penalty debate be in the year 2022? It's a fascinating question. For one scholarly take -- constituional law meets up with informed science fiction -- go here:

Friday, December 17, 2004

Gov. Ryan, part one

Kristen Bell is a friend, a senior at Stanford University and a former NCADP intern. In fact, the few of you who followed this blog early last summer know that she was helping out back then, when we were struggling to get five or ten readers a day!

Now Kristen returns to us as a guest blogger. She heard Gov. Ryan speak recently at Stanford University and she files this two-part report:

It was the first night of finals week at Stanford University. Like a house on the night before Christmas, the campus was silent. Students do not go to class, athletes do not attend regular practices, clubs do not meet, the campus newspaper is not even published. Needless to say, it is not a good time for speakers to come if they want a decent audience.
But students, faculty, and staff filled one of the largest lecture halls in the Law School that night to hear Gov. George Ryan speak. With standing room only, the room was abuzz.
The attendance came as a welcome surprise to me, since a death penalty speech by lawyer and author Scott Turow was very poorly attended earlier this year. And now it was finals week.
“Wow,” I thought. “Maybe people really do care about the death penalty.”
I wondered how many people in the audience were like me—decided opponents of the death penalty who had come to see a real live hero of the abolitionist movement.
I wondered how many people in the audience were like my friend sitting next to me—genuinely undecided people who had come to hear a former government official give a balanced argument against the death penalty.
“I've heard all the arguments and such, but always from advocates,” said my friend before the speech. “It'd be interesting to hear a governmental or political stance.”
We both got what we came for.
I saw the man whose face in a newspaper covers the back of my binder. Hearing him speak filled my eyes with tears and my heart with a rejuvenated sense of purpose.
My friend saw an old, card-carrying GOP-member explain how he came to reject a corrupt system of punishment. Hearing him speak prompted her to write down some facts and questions. Perhaps she did not leave with a burning desire to abolish the death penalty, but—quite in the spirit of finals week—she left with some new things to think about.

Gov. Ryan, part two

Kristen continues:

I too left with some new questions to think about.
Gov. Ryan spoke about the practical problems associated with carrying out a capital punishment system—problems like corrupt police officers forcing confessions, incompetent lawyers sleeping through trials, discrimination on the basis of skin color, mistakes in determining guilt and innocence.
These problems caught his eye in the Chicago Tribune. These problems made him examine the system. And these problems led him to commute the sentences of all 167 death row inmates in Illinois.
It seemed to me, then, that Gov. Ryan was opposed to the death penalty because of these practical problems. The issue for him was the just practice of a policy, not the moral fabric of the policy itself.
But perhaps not.
After the speech, he was asked, “What about the moral question of the death penalty?” Ryan responded that he was morally opposed to the death penalty.
I asked him if he thought retribution was a suitable justification for the death penalty (the Supreme Court does cite retribution as a justification for the death penalty). “No,” Ryan said, point-blank. “Retribution is wrong.”
I wonder how he had changed his opinion on that moral question. He used to believe that bad guys deserved to die. Now he believes not only that we cannot perfectly identify the bad guys in practice, but also that we cannot say bad guys deserve to die on moral grounds.
That’s not just a change of mind, that’s a change of heart.
How does that change of heart happen? And how can we bring it to the heart of America?

News flash

Kansas' Supreme Court has just struck down that state's death penalty law. Here's the AP story:

TOPEKA - Kansas' death penalty law is unconstitutional because it favors the state over defendants when aggravating and mitigating circumstances are equally split, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision today.

The decision came in the case of Michael Marsh of Wichita, who was convicted of killing Marry Ane Pusch and her 19-year-old daughter, Marry Elizabeth in 1996.

The decision was not a broad, sweeping indictment of capital punishment, but rather identified a technical error in the law the state Legislature could fix during their upcoming session.

The three justices who disagreed with the ruling, however, said it would wipe out the death penalty in other cases, including Reginald and Jonathan Carr, convicted of killing four people in Wichita in December 2000; Douglas Belt, sentenced to death last month for killing Lucille Gallegos in Wichita; and John Robinson, convicted in Johnson County of killing two women and stuffing their bodies in barrels.

The court also ordered a new trial for Marsh on capital murder and aggravated arson charges. The trial court erred by refusing to allow testimony that the victim's husband may have been involved in the murder, the Supreme Court ruled.

In a dissent, Chief Justice Kay McFarland wrote that the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty under similar circumstances in the case of Gary Kleypas, convicted in the 1996 rape and murder of Carrie Williams in Pittsburg.

"To now strike down the Kansas death penalty law is, in my opinion, wholly inappropriate and unjustified," she wrote.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Incredible developments in New York

It really is beginning to look like the death penalty is on its way out in the state of New York. You may recall that earlier this year, a New York state court struck down the existing death penalty statute.

Now the Republicans (and a few Democrats) are trying to bring it back, but the public and media backlash against the death penalty has been incredible! Yesterday, at a hearing in New York City, hundreds of people turned out in opposition to the death penalty, and only two witnesses testified in favorite of it.

NCADP's own David Kaczynski had this to say, as quoted in New York Newsday:

"It's political, it's revengeful, and it ultimately doesn't work," said
David Kaczynski, head of the advocacy group New Yorkers Against the Death
Penalty. The brother of notorious "Unabomber" serial killer Ted Kaczynski,
he's been campaigning against the death penalty ever since he turned in
his mentally ill brother to federal authorities in 1996, only to have them
try to impose the death penalty. Ted Kaczynski eventually got a plea deal
that gave him life without the possibility of parole.

Add to that this comment from Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau:

He told the Assembly members that he opposes the death penalty because it doesn't deter crime, it's expensive, its only reason is vengeance, its application "mostly closely resembles the lottery," and its main purpose is to allow public officials to prove how tough they are on crime.

New York, New York, the abolition train is a-coming.

Regarding Scott Peterson

Eric Predoehl, who operates the blog EP Rants You got a problem with that?, writes logically of the Scott Peterson dilemma:

Millions have dollars have been spent on the Scott Peterson case, and the recommendation for the death penalty will ensure that millions of more dollars will be spent by the state of California for the invariable appeals process. As the state of California struggles with massive budget problems, leading to a shut-down of various fire stations, libraries, educational programs, and other important public services, there always seems to be plenty of money to pay for the business of death. The prosecution and defense lawyers will be gainfully employed for the continuing process, while the families will endure the trauma of this hellish legal nightmare with each and every new trial.

To read the entire essay, go here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A new day in New York City

This morning, a hearing was held in New York City on a proposed bill to reinstate the death penalty in New York. (Earlier this year, a state court struck down New York's existing death penalty statute.)

Here's what a columnist for Newsday has to say about the state of things:

At 10 o'clock this morning on West 44th Street, in a meeting hall at the Bar Association of the City of New York, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will hold a rare public hearing on whether the state should be in the death business again.

A big crowd is expected today. But just before the hearing begins, people from 300 religious groups, unions, activist organizations and others will announce a giant coalition to keep the death penalty off the books in New York. Standing at the front of this group is Andrew Cuomo, Mario's son.

The issue is the same it has always been. But suddenly, the ground is not.

"I remember when my father first ran," said the younger Cuomo, who was federal housing secretary and made a brief run for governor two years ago.
"The only thing people knew the governor of New York did was he passed the death penalty. The only thing they knew about my father is that he was against the death penalty, and they were for it."

But something has obviously changed in the past 10 years on the politics of death.

"Crime is down," Cuomo said. "The discussion is more sober. People are in a different place. I'm not sure it was the death penalty that people really wanted before. It was their way to say, 'I'm afraid of crime. I'm afraid for my family and not enough is being done.' It is their way of saying, 'I am so scared and angry, I'll go to the extreme.

To read the entire column, go here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

One direction.

Today, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report, sort of a state-of-the-death-penalty if you will. DPIC Executive Director Dick Dieter had this to say:

"The events of the past year and the statistical evidence all point in one direction," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"The public's confidence in the death penalty has seriously eroded over the past several years. Because of so many failures, the death penalty is rightly on the defensive. Life-without-parole offers the public a better alternative without all the risks and expense."

To read's story on the DPIC report, go here.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Playing politics with the death penalty

Virginia is one of the few states (New Jersey being the only other, I think) that elects its governor during odd-numbered years. So, next November, Virginia will choose between two candidates. Frontrunners are Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Lieutenant Gov. Timothy Kaine. Kaine has a history of opposing the death penalty.

This is a nonpartisan blog, so we can't officially endorse. However, we are allowed to publish information about the race. In this vein, we offer up this editorial from today's Washington Post:

Mr. Kilgore's False Start

Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican attorney general of Virginia, apparently needs a refresher course on the Constitution. In attacking his likely opponent in the state's 2005 gubernatorial race, Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the attorney general said last week that Mr. Kaine "not only opposes the death penalty but actually represented death row inmates." As it happens, Mr. Kaine, a fair-housing and small-business lawyer at the time, acted as a court-appointed attorney to represent 2 Virginia death row inmates -- one in the mid-'80s, the other around 1990.
He did so, he says, after much soul-searching and in the knowledge that lawyers are bound by the ethics of their profession not to reject cases simply because they may be unpopular. As an attorney appointed by the state Supreme Court, Mr. Kaine was fulfilling a public service.

Mr. Kilgore's inane accusation is an affront to the principles of justice he is sworn to uphold. It's no great shock that he embraces the death penalty; what's surprising is that, as the state's top law enforcement official, he would imply that there is something wrong with representing defendants or convicts in capital cases. In fact, the attorney general in Virginia, whatever his stance on capital punishment, should be applauding lawyers who agree to represent inmates on death row, many of whom have no defense counsel whatever.

Mr. Kilgore was also once a lawyer in private practice. We assume that all his clients were law-abiding paragons of righteous behavior, but for the sake of argument let's say some of them were not. Should Mr. Kaine then attack him for his former clients' transgressions? Of course not.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Ronald Williamson: dead at 51

From today's New York Times:

Ronald Williamson, Freed From Death Row, Dies at 51

Ronald Keith Williamson, who left his small town in Oklahoma as a high school baseball star with hopes of a major league career but was later sent to death row and came within 5 days of execution for a murder he did not commit, died on Saturday at a nursing home near Tulsa. He was 51.

Mr. Williamson's early life appeared charmed. As a pitcher and catcher in Ada, he twice led his high school teams to the championship of a state where another native son, Mickey Mantle, enjoyed the status of near deity. The Oakland Athletics picked Mr. Williamson in the 2nd round of the 1971 amateur draft.

After 6 years in the minor leagues, Mr. Williamson saw his career end because of arm injuries. He returned to Oklahoma and worked at a sales job, but began to show signs of a mental illness that was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder.

In late 1982, a waitress, Debbie Sue Carter, 21, was found raped and killed in her apartment in Ada. The case remained open until 1987, when a woman who had been arrested for passing bad checks told the police that she had heard another prisoner discussing the killing. The man, she said, was Mr. Williamson, who had been in the jail for kiting checks.

Mr. Williamson was charged with the killing. So was a 2nd man, Dennis Fritz, a high school science teacher who had been one of Mr. Williamson's few friends when he returned to town after his baseball career. The evidence, the authorities said, consisted of 17 hairs that matched those of Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz, and the account provided by the woman who said she had heard Mr. Williamson confess. A 2nd jailhouse informer later stepped forward to buttress the case against Mr. Fritz.

Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz were tried separately and found guilty. Mr.
Fritz was sentenced to life in prison, and Mr. Williamson - who had not received his psychiatric medicines for months before the trial and shouted angrily at the prosecution witnesses - was sentenced to die.

Mr. Williamson later said the prison guards taunted him over an intercom about Ms. Carter's murder. In September 1994, when all of his state appeals had been exhausted, he was taken to the warden's office and told that he would be executed on Sept. 24. He recalled filling out a form that directed his body to be returned to his sister for burial.

A team of appellate lawyers, however, sought a writ of habeas corpus from Judge Frank H. Seay of Federal District Court, arguing that Mr. Williamson had not been competent to stand trial and that his lawyer had not effectively challenged the hair evidence or sought other suspects. Judge Seay granted a stay 5 days before Mr. Williamson was scheduled to die.

In 1998, lawyers from the Innocence Project at the Benjamin C. Cardozo School of Law in New York arranged DNA tests for Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz. They showed that neither man had been the source of the semen or hair collected from the victim's body. Another man, Glen D. Gore, has since been convicted of the killing and sentenced to die for it.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Closing in on innocence

For some time now, I have felt that the whole nature of the death penalty debate will change once we can prove that an innocent person has been executed in what we call the "modern era," i.e., the era since 1976, when executions were allowed to resume in the U.S.

We're getting close to being able to prove such a thing. One case currently is perculating in Virginia, one in Oklahoma, one or two in Texas.

And now, suddenly, this story pops up in today's Chicago Tribune:

Texas man executed on disproved forensics
Fire that killed his 3 children could have been accidental

By Steve Mills and Maurice Possley
Tribune staff reporters
Published December 9, 2004

CORSICANA, Texas -- Strapped to a gurney in Texas' death chamber
earlier this year, just moments from his execution for setting a fire
that killed his three daughters, Cameron Todd Willingham declared his
innocence one last time.

"I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit,"
Willingham said angrily. "I have been persecuted for 12 years for
something I did not do."

While Texas authorities dismissed his protests, a Tribune
investigation of his case shows that Willingham was prosecuted and
convicted based primarily on arson theories that have since been
repudiated by scientific advances. According to four fire experts
consulted by the Tribune, the original investigation was flawed and it
is even possible the fire was accidental.

Before Willingham died by lethal injection on Feb. 17, Texas judges
and Gov. Rick Perry turned aside a report from a prominent fire
scientist questioning the conviction.

The author of the report, Gerald Hurst, reviewed additional
documents, trial testimony and an hourlong videotape of the aftermath
of the fire scene at the Tribune's request last month. Three other
fire investigators--private consultants John Lentini and John DeHaan
and Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland--also examined the materials
for the newspaper.

"There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that
this was an arson fire," said Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated
chemist who has investigated scores of fires in his career. "It was
just a fire."

Ryland, chief of the Effie Fire Department and a former fire
instructor at Louisiana State University, said that, in his workshop,
he tried to re-create the conditions the original fire investigators

When he could not, he said, it "made me sick to think this guy was
executed based on this investigation. ... They executed this guy and
they've just got no idea--at least not scientifically--if he set the
fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set."

To read the whole story (it's long!) go here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Fry fish, not people

That's the slogan of Alaskans Against the Death Penalty, an affiliate of NCADP's.

This is no ordinary affiliate. Two of their members happen to be Bill Pelke and Rich Curtner, the chair and the vice chair of NCADP's Board of Directors.

This past Sunday, the Anchorage Daily News ran a great feature story about Bill and Rich:

There are a lot of numbers and percentages on the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Web site, but meaning can also be calculated in a list of 57 names. They are the names of the Americans executed so far in 2004. They are among 944 people executed in this country since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.

When Bill Pelke looks at this list, the name James Allridge III stands out. Pelke, an Alaskan and one of the most vocal opponents of the death penalty in the nation, corresponded with Allridge for several years and worked throughout August to stop his Aug. 26 execution.

"When I look at that list, his name pops right out at me," Pelke said by phone from Washington, D.C., where he was traveling over Thanksgiving to visit family and promote the cause. "It says that the death penalty is unnecessary. It's totally ridiculous."

You can read the entire story here. The blog recommends it!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

More on Miller-El

One more post on Thomas Miller-El, whose case was argued -- for the second time -- before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.

Reading the Houston Chronicle's article summarizing the case, one can anticipate that this is not going to be a close call for the court. Here's how the article starts out:

Court majority finds discrimination

Justices say prosecutors left blacks off jury deliberately in death penalty case
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Faced with a Dallas County prosecutor's old training manual advising against choosing jurors who are black, Jewish, Hispanic, Italian-American, bearded, fat or female, a U.S. Supreme Court majority said Monday that a black defendant clearly suffered discrimination when blacks were excluded from his 1986 jury.

Antonin Scalia was the only justice to speak in favor of the state of Texas, which executes more killers than any other and is defending the way Thomas Miller-El was sentenced to die for capital murder.

For the second time in two years, the high court heard legal arguments from the state and the convict's lawyers Monday. A decision on Miller-El's move to overturn his conviction is expected by July.

Most of the justices Monday were openly critical of the lower courts that handle Texas death penalty cases. Court-watchers predicted the court will again try to corral what is considered a rogue appeals court, the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Perhaps the only question now involves how strong the rebuke will be.

Judicial defiance

It's not exactly former Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing defiantly in front of the schoolhouse door to keep blacks out, or former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus forcing LBJ to call out the national guard.

But today, in an editorial, the Washington Post pointed out the obvious: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals are defying U.S. Supreme Court edict.

Here's the editorial:

Judicial Defiance

Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page A24

THE SUPREME COURT should not have had to hear the case of Thomas Joe Miller-El once, let alone twice. But yesterday the court for the second time held oral arguments in a capital case that ought to embarrass even Texas, with its unrivaled enthusiasm for executions. The question is simple: How overtly discriminatory must jury selection be before it becomes unconstitutional? Nearly two years ago, the Supreme Court instructed a lower appeals court to seriously examine evidence of racial bias in the jury's selection. The high court's message should have been clear when it expressed suspicion that "the State sought to exclude African-Americans from the jury." But after that ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit again averted its gaze from substantial evidence of discrimination, treating the case with what seems like willful disregard for the high court's meaning.

The backdrop of this case is Dallas's ugly history of keeping blacks out of the jury box. In 1963, a training manual for the district attorney's office stated: "Do not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated." By the time of Mr. Miller-El's murder trial in 1986, such formal policies no longer existed, but office insiders testified that some prosecutors still observed them. And the Dallas Morning News reported that, in 100 cases studied, prosecutors had eliminated 92 percent of African Americans using peremptory strikes, a device for removing jurors who would otherwise be qualified.

The manipulations in Mr. Miller-El's case were not subtle. Prosecutors exploited rules to move potential African American jurors out of contention; of 11 who got past that barrier and were qualified to serve on the jury, 10 were struck by peremptory challenge. The only African American not challenged was one who declared that lethal injection is "too quick. They don't feel the pain. . . . What I call punishment is back to the old Indian days. . . . Pour some honey on them and stake them out over an ant bed." Texas argues that would-be jurors' statements, not their race, explain their being barred; but as the Supreme Court noted in its last opinion, prospective black jurors were questioned differently from others.

Amazingly, both the Texas court system and the 5th Circuit judges have consistently approved the prosecutors' conduct. In the last go-round, the 5th Circuit declined even to hear the case, contending that reasonable judges could not disagree on the subject. After eight Supreme Court justices disagreed and ordered the lower court to consider the merits of Mr. Miller-El's claims, the lower court rejected them -- using passages lifted nearly verbatim from Justice Clarence Thomas's lone dissent.

This case is no longer only about how big a fig leaf Texas gets when its prosecutors keep blacks out of the jury box. It also poses the question of whether the Supreme Court will allow a lower tribunal -- keen to keep the machinery of death humming -- to all but openly defy it. The answer must be no.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Which court is worse?

Scott Henson, a criminal justice reform activist in my hometown, asks this question on his blog. Which court is worse, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in New Orleans and has jurisdiction over Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the highest court in Texas that deals with criminal matters.

It is a tough call, but a relevant one, given that the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments this morning in the case of Thomas Miller-El. (Scroll down a bit to get to the appropriate entry.)

Rather than answer Scott's question directly, I want to talk about the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals a bit. The Fourth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia, is extremely conservative. But judges who sit on that court really seem to base their decisions on the law, although I grant you that it is a most conservative reading of the law.

Contrast that court with the Fifth Circuit and the Texas CCA. These courts are simply pro-prosecution and anti-defendant, but they do not seem to base their hostility against the individual on any judicial philosophy. Rather, they seem to identify the result they want to reach and then fashion their opinions, however sloppily, to meet that result.

In my mind, both the Fifth Circuit and the Texas CCA are embarrassments, compared with the Fourth Circuit, which is merely objectionably conservative. This is why we probably will see, at some point in the next four years, a Supreme Court nomination come out of the Fourth Circuit and not the Fifth.

In any case, it's a good question that Scott asks. Drop him a line and weigh in!

Friday, December 03, 2004

Four and out

Football fans know that the term "four and out" refers to an offense that gets the ball, fails to make a first down, and has to punt.

Combined, the states of Kentucky, Texas, Pennsylvania and North Carolina went four and out this week.

That's right: We had four executions scheduled in four days and we got four stays. No additional executions are scheduled for December and -- if this holds -- this will be the first month since July 1994 that we did not have a single execution!

Folks, that's amazing.

The four scheduled executions this week were:

Thomas Bowling, Kentucky. Bowling received a stay some weeks ago.
Frances Newton, Texas. You've read all about her.
George Banks, Pennsylvania. He is severely mentally ill.
Charles Walker, North Carolina. In an unusual move, the North Carolina Supreme Court allowed a stay in his case to remain in effect.

Thursday, December 02, 2004


Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal is quite the character. He's the guy who tried to get the death penalty for Andrea Pia Yates, the woman who was convicted in connection with the drowning deaths of her children, after suffering from post-partum psychosis.

Now Rosenthal, according to these paragraphs out of the New York Times, is disappointed that his buddy and fellow Republican, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, didn't consult with him before granting Frances Newton a 120-day reprieve so that her guilt can be ascertained:

In an effort to sway the governor, Mr. Rosenthal said, he submitted an affidavit on Wednesday from the Texas Department of Public Safety saying that the test on the skirt, which it had originally performed for the trial in 1988, could not be duplicated today.

"Rick didn't call me," he said of the governor, a fellow Republican. "I kind of thought he would."

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Newton gets a stay!!!

Gov. Rick Perry has accepted the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and granted Frances Newton a 120-day reprieve so that her lawyers can continue to investigate her case.

This is wonderful news. There will be no execution tonight.

Newton update

Late yesterday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to halt today's scheduled execution.

That means Newton has two remaining venues for relief: the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who could accept the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles' recommendation for a stay.

Perry likely will not take action until the U.S. Supreme Court acts. And the U.S. Supreme Court likely will not release its decision until late this afternoon.

This means that we probably will not know the outcome until around the time of Newton's scheduled execution -- 6 p.m. Texas time.

An African American radio network is going a show on Newton's case at noon central time, 1 p.m. east coast time. You can listen over the Internet by going here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

To Give

Our little blog is suddenly experiencing a spike in traffic. So I want to try something again that I tried, with moderate success, last Wednesday.

NCADP's activist list just surpassed 9,000 people. Our annual budget is in the six digits.

We need your help. Think about it: We're the only fully-staffed national organization in the country that is specifically devoted to abolishing the death penalty. (There are many other wonderful anti-death penalty groups, but they are either local in nature or they are not fully staffed. These groups are our friends, our allies -- and they stronger we get, the stronger they will be. A rising tide floats all boats.)

Think about other leaders in other progressive movements. The Human Rights Campaign. The NAACP. The American Federation of Teachers. The Sierra Club. And so on. All of these groups have budgets that are in the millions and activist lists that are in the hundreds of thousands. Simply put, this is where we must go.

We can't realize our dreams with our current activist list and our current budget. We need more activists to sign up to be on our e@bolition list and to give us $25 or $50 or whatever you can give.

Join if you can. Give if you can. Thank you!

Newton update

Frances Newton has been moved from Gatesville to Huntsville, where they conduct the executions. Texas prison officials proceed as if executions are going to go on as scheduled until told otherwise; that is why Frances was moved despite the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles' vote to recommend a 120-day reprieve.

Meanwhile, it turns out that I'm going to be on the radio show "Fight Back!" which I discussed earlier. (If you want to tune in, go to and click on "listen." It's on from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Texas time, 11 p.m. to midnight east coast time.) This is good, as I will be able to say hello to the folks on death row as well as to Frances' mom (and they're trying to get Frances a radio so that she can listen to the show).

Back later.

News flash

The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole has just voted to recommend a 120-day reprieve for Frances Newton. However, this recommendation must be accepted by Gov. Rick Perry or the execution will proceed as scheduled Wednesday, barring last-minute court intervention.

Tune in tonight to KPFT!


Frances Newton's mom, Iva Nelms, is going to be interviewed at 10 p.m. central standard time (that's 11 p.m. on the east coast, 9 p.m. Rocky Mountain time and 8 p.m. out in blue state land!)

The interview will air on KPFT, Paicifica's station in Houston, but because of the wonders of the Internet, you can listen to it from your computer. Simply go to and click on "listen here" near the top of your computer screen.

The name of the show is "Fight Back!" It is co-hosted by Gloria Rubac, a leader in the trenches in the abolition movement in Harris County.

Frances Newton is scheduled to be executed shortly after 6 p.m. Texas time on Wednesday. Please stay tuned to this blog for updates and breaking news. To take action, go our web site.

After the interview, friends and relatives of people on death row in Texas will be able to call-in to say hello to their loved ones. If you have someone on death row, call 1-713-526-5738 between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. central standard time to participate.

KPFT is listened to by people on death row in Texas; Livingston, where death row is located, is within the station's listening range. I'm told that most people on death row in Texas know about "Fight Back!"

Monday, November 29, 2004

Thank you!

Right before Thanksgiving, we offered up a modest plea for help, both in taking action against next week's three scheduled executions and in helping NCADP financially. (See the post below if you are wondering what I am talking about!)

Over the holiday weekend, seven people responded to this admittedly modest appeal, visiting NCADP's donor site and giving a total of $325. And several dozen people signed up for NCADP's e@bolition email list.

Thank you. We need your help. We need your support. You have the power to abolish the death penalty. You really do.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Dec. 1, 2 and 3

Next week we have three really bad executions scheduled. (Well, you know, compared to the *nice* ones.)

On Wed., Dec. 1 Texas is scheduled to execute Frances Newton, despite a very strong innocence claim and classic ineffectiveness of counsel.

On Thursday, Dec. 2, Pennsylvania is scheduled to execute George Banks. He has no innocence claim -- he shot and killed 13 people, including five of his own children. He does have an exceptionally strong claim of severe mental illness, but that often does not stop executions.

On Friday, Dec. 3, North Carolina is scheduled to execute Charles Walker. He would be the first person executed in North Carolina (and also in the modern-day United States) where no body was ever found. He has an innocence claim as well as a mental retardation claim.

If you want to take action against these executions, go here. And if you think you might be able to donate to help NCADP with our continuing battles go here (and tell them the blog sent ya!)

Happy holidays, everyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

What do Iraq and Afghanistan have in common?

They are the only two countries to have recently restored the death penalty.

A handful of other countries (Lebanon, Chad, Indonesia and India) have allowed executions to resume after periods of moratorium.

And four countries -- Turkey, Bhutan, Samoa and Serbia-Montenegro -- have recently abolished the death penalty.

I learned all this from reading a statement put out by the 2nd World Congress Against the Death Penalty, which convened last month in Montreal. I understand that the 3rd World Congress will be held in Turkey -- a country that now leads the U.S. in human rights, at least in one regard.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Get ready, folks.

On Wednesday, Dec. 1, the state of Texas is scheduled to execute Frances Newton.

Folks, this one is gonna be big. It's gonna get a lot of attention, a lot of press and a lot of protests.

It's not just going to get a lot of attention and a lot of press and a lot of protests because Newton is a woman. Nor is it going to get a lot of attention and lot of press and a lot of protests because she is African American. (If anything, I think race might explain why it hasnt gotten hardly any attention so far.)

Rather, it is going to get a lot of attention and a lot of press and a lot of protests for one simple reason.

Newton may well be innocent.

Go to NCADP's web site to read a press release about this case. Also, shortly (within the next hour) we're going to have the entire 39-page clemency petition she has filed up on the web.

If you think I'm going out on a limb by using the word "innocent" in connection with Newton's name, please read the entire petition. I think you'll see what I mean.

And I think you'll agree with me on one thing. It's time to get mad. It's time to take action.

The Texas smack-down continues

The state of Texas was scheduled to execute Troy Kunkle Thursday just after 6 p.m. central standard time. That would be 7 p.m. my time here in the east, about the time ABC's World News Tonight wraps up.

But it was not to be.

At 6:40 p.m., 40 minutes after the execution could have begun, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 for a stay. Why? No one can say for sure, because of the way the Court operates.

However, Kunkle's lawyers had argued that the execution should be stopped in light of Monday's Supreme Court ruling that some capital murder defendants in Texas were not given enough of an opportunity to have jurors consider mitigating evidence.

The 5-4 vote is pretty significant. It means that we got Kennedy or O'Connor to join Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Stevens. I think it also could mean that the rate of executions in Texas may decline next year -- despite the fact that the state already has three executions scheduled for January alone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

There's a new blog in town

Actually, when I say "new," what I really mean is that I just found out about it. Grits For Breakfast covers criminal justice reform in Texas and its owner, Scott Henson, is a name I know from my college days.

Check it out!

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Lonely Abolitionist has totally redesigned her blog. (She also has been blogging like crazy, putting me to shame!) Lonely Abolitionist is now the most avant garde, cutting edge blog in the abolition movement! (Well, you know, among the three or four of us...)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A Texas-sized smackdown!

Some people might wonder why I write about Texas so much. It's not because Texas is my home state, although I guess that's part of the reason.

The more important reason is this: of the 943 people executed (as of this hour) since 1976 in the United States, 335 are from Texas. That's higher than the next six states combined.

Fortunately, there's some good news coming out of Texas these days. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a very unusual smackdown, served notice that it is going to be monitoring Texas' use of the death penalty very carefully. The Supreme Court, on a 7-2 vote (Scalia and Thomas dissenting) issued what is called a summary reversal. They outright reversed one death sentence and remanded another to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for further consideration.

Today there is an awful lot of coverage in the media explaining the Court's actions. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

From Jordan Steiker, law professor at the University of Texas at Austin:

Steiker said the justices' willingness to slap the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals without hearing arguments in the case "reflects a growing disenchantment and impatience" with the lower court's death penalty rulings.

"This is aimed at that court's recalcitrance," he said. "The high court is sending a clear message that even if it's not willing to hear a case, it's going to supervise the Court of Criminal Appeals' application of its decisions. ... It is saying the court is not only wrong, but it is so wrong that it requires our intervention and supervision."

From Rick Broughton, law professor at Texas Wesleyan University:

"If we had any doubt that the court was serious about these issues surrounding death penalty issues, it's pretty clear now. He added that the court's ruling sends a clear signal that "the court isn't going to tolerate anything short of a total overhaul of the [Texas] death sentencing instruction scheme."

And from the Supreme Court itself:

In their opinion in Smith's case, the justices said that despite several of their previous rulings, the Texas court failed to get the message that juries in capital murder cases should fully consider mitigating evidence.

"There is no question that a jury might well have considered petitioner's IQ scores and history of participation in special-education classes as a reason to impose a sentence more lenient than death," the court said in a 12-page opinion. The justices said the state court "erroneously relied on a test we never countenanced and now have unequivocally rejected."

Friday, November 12, 2004

Oh, are they supposed to be guilty before we execute them?

Courtesy of Steve Hall, we learn that a new Texas Poll is being released over the weekend. Among the findings:

“Do you think Texas has executed an innocent person?”

Yes: 70 percent.

“Do you support the death penalty?”

Yes: 75 percent.


Blogging from death row

Renee checked in from Athens the other day. She's helped a person on death row in Pennsylvania start a blog, which is cool. There aren't many entrees yet, but I'm glad to see it's up and running -- I hope more people do this sort of thing!

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The human touch

One of the wonderful things about working in the abolition movement is the terrific people one meets across the people. Real people, outside the Beltway, most of whom hold down real jobs and do their anti-death penalty work after hours.

One such person is Tim McDonald. I don't know much about Tim, except that he is, I believe, a university professor and he is active in Tennessee Coalition Against State Killing.

Tim has a friend on Texas' death row with whom he has been corresponding. He recently paid his friend a visit in person and dropped me this email:

Greg and I had a good visit - he is more encouraged now, although no one knows what to expect. Please keep him in mind and if you say prayers, please say one for him.

I saw the families visiting the young men who are scheduled for execution tonight and later this week in Texas - I always leave the visiting room angry over Greg and these other families - I wish the people who so easily sentence people do die could see their handiwork in the faces of these would be justice for the judge and jury to see the pain they have caused these people.

No, I'm not going to Canada....Like I told the Baptist church I have belonged to for many years - one man said "if you don't like it, leave." I said, "No, those of us who know the truth and speak it will stay and cause you trouble."
Best regards,


Thursday, November 04, 2004

Second innocence case: Anthony Graves

To continue the post from below:

The second person on Texas death row whose name has been in the news lately and who presents a very strong and credible case for innocence is Anthony Graves.

The Houston Chronicle reports the following:

Juror regrets role in capital conviction ---- A new trial could be ordered if judge in Galveston finds evidence hidden

One of the jurors who convicted Texas death row inmate Anthony Graves of capital murder 10 years ago says now that he made a mistake that keeps him awake at night.

"I have lost a lot of sleep over my decision to convict Mr. Graves, and if I had to do (it) over again, I wouldn't do it," Jim Hahn stated in a sworn affidavit for the Texas Innocence Network last week.

In an interview this week from his home in Manvel, south of Houston, Hahn said, "I don't think they proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Graves, convicted in 1994 in the deaths of 6 family members in Somerville, is awaiting a decision by a Galveston judge on whether prosecutors hid evidence that could have persuaded jurors to acquit him. If the answer is yes, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Froeschner will order a new trial.

If the answer is no, Graves could be executed for the 1992 slaying of Bobbie Davis, 45, her 16-year-old daughter, Nicole, and Davis' four grandchildren, ages 4 to 9. They were shot and stabbed inside a house, which was burned to hide the crime.

Graves' attorneys, Jay Burnett and Roy Greenwood, said changes in the law prevent courts from considering new evidence.

At the federal level, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of
1996 limits those sentenced to death to a single appeal, even if new evidence is later discovered.

A state law adopted in 1995 imposes the same limit.

"You only get one bite at the apple," Burnett said.

Hahn, 56, said he and a female juror held out through a day and a half of deliberations, but he finally agreed to go along with a guilty verdict after concluding that the other jurors would never change their minds. The woman also later gave in.

Hahn said he believed then that Graves would get a new trial on appeal.

Hahn said the evidence was circumstantial, no murder weapon was found and that he had little confidence in testimony by a convicted killer and a man who claimed to have overheard an incriminating comment by Graves in jail.

Hahn said the memories of that trial came back after he saw a TV news broadcast about information indicating Graves' innocence in a two-year investigation by students from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
The students participate in the University of Houston Law Center's chapter of the Texas Innocence Network.

Hahn phoned journalism professor Nicole Casarez, adviser to the St. Thomas students, and she sent him an affidavit form that he signed Oct. 19.

Casarez said she has been looking for the other juror who Hahn said was reluctant to convict Graves.

Of the 6 women on the jury, Casarez has found 3, all of whom say they have no regrets about their verdict.

Hahn also was critical of Charles Sebesta, former district attorney for Burleson and Washington counties, who prosecuted Graves.

"I always believed that Graves was set up by (Sebesta) because the prosecutor needed someone to take a fall," Hahn wrote in his affidavit.

Sebesta told the Chronicle, "That's not unusual, to find a juror 10 years later that wants to recant for whatever reasons. That's something the courts will have to address."

Two more innocence cases

And both involve people on death row in Texas.

First we have the case of Max Soffar. The following story, reported by a Houston TV station, doesn't really do Soffar's case justice, but it does take you to the tip of the iceberg:

Max Soffar has spent the last 23 years on death row. His lawyers have spent a lot of that time in court - twice winning rulings for a new trial.

Those were both appealed - and one is still pending. Now Soffar's lawyers are telling prosecutors and the Houston Police Department there is evidence missing in his case.

Soffar told Eyewitness News, "I walked in and just confessed to a crime they no more had a suspect in than the man on the moon."

Max Soffar is a convicted killer who confessed to his crime decades ago and then days after recanted, saying the confessions were complete fabrications - that he wasn't there and neither was anyone he knew.

"C'mon, this whole thing is a lie," he said.

On July 13, 1980 4 young people were shot execution style in a robbery at the Windfern Lanes bowling alley off the Northwest Freeway. Three of them died.

Harris County Assistant District Attorney Lynn Hardaway said, "It was a horrific crime."

It captured headlines, but no suspects until League City police officers stopped Max Soffar - at that time a drug user and petty criminal - riding a stolen motorcycle. At first, Soffar tells us he thought he could trade information about the shooting - even if it was false - for leniency on the stolen motorcycle. He tells us he wanted to implicate a friend he was angry at and get reward money.

In an audio tape of the confession an officer asks, "Y'all parked at the doors?"

Soffar can be heard answering, "Yeah, and I heard them shots and I moved down. Then he came running. He came running out."

In that first confession, he told cops he was outside the bowling alley and that friend did the shooting. But after three days of interrogations without a lawyer, Max said he was coerced into saying he was inside, too, and that the friend shot 2 people, threw the gun across the room to him and Soffar shot 2 others.

Soffar's lawyer James Schropp explained, "They were all complete fiction."

For the last 12 years, Schropp has been Soffar's lawyer. Not only does he say the confessions are made up, but says Soffar didn't look like the shooter. As it was reported in 1980, the survivor couldn't positively identify Soffar in a lineup. Now Schropp says there is more - crucial evidence missing in the case.

"I think it's extremely important to the case," Schropp said.

In a letter this week to Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, Schropp demands a close look in the 280 boxes of recently discovered evidence for polygraph results and audiotapes of Soffar's statements. That's evidence the defense never had, that could help paint the picture of how the confession was made.

"There is no way you can tell me that a triple homicide, quadruple shooting has no evidence in those boxes," Soffar said.

For more information about Max Soffar, go here.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Texas governor refuses to recognize U.N. day

There goes my home state again...

Perry snubs United Nations Day
Associated Press

AUSTIN - Republican Gov. Rick Perry refused to honor United Nations Day, even as President Bush signed a U.N. proclamation, because doing so would be inconsistent with the governor's views, his spokeswoman said.

In his proclamation, Bush had urged governors to "honor the observance of United Nations Day," which was celebrated Sunday around the world to commemorate the date the organization was founded in 1945.

"It was a conscious decision to not issue the proclamation out of concern over the lack of support the U.N. has shown for United States efforts to bring freedom and democracy to the world," Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said.

To read the whole story, go here.

In our name

On the Abolish listserv, I stumbled across this interesting morsel from a newspaper editor in Houston:

In thy name----Bulletin of a life taken

About once a fortnight, I receive on my computer screen a bulletin from The Associated Press that another Texas death row inmate has been executed. The news bulletins arrive about 6:30 p.m., just as I'm starting to think of finishing up and going home.

The death notices dampen any happy anticipation of the evening, yet I don't resent them. Any time a life is taken in my name and in the name of every Texas citizen, I want to know. I wonder how many citizens would take the same principled satisfaction in capital punishment if someone called them up or sent them an e-mail in the instant following every execution.

On Tuesday the bulletin came late, not until 8:04 p.m. Dominique Green, the 18th person Texas has executed this year, was put to death for a murder that took place 12 years ago. Green went to his death denying he was the triggerman.

Around midday Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas granted Green a reprieve after his attorneys asked for time to make sure no evidence relevant to Green's case was to be found in 280 boxes of misplaced and mishandled evidence discovered in August at the Houston Police Department.
The reprieve caused a short delay in Green's execution, but was quickly overturned by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Some supporters of capital punishment argue that executions are necessary to give "closure" to the family of the murder victim. In Green's case, the victim's family objected to the execution of a man who might be innocent of murder and who apparently had found on death row redemption for a short, misspent life.

A Harris County prosecutor said of the family's concern for Green's humanity, "Legally, it doesn't mean anything." Shouldn't it?

Some people who defend executions say the killer didn't offer his victim mercy, so society should show no mercy. They don't explain why society's behavior should depressingly ape that of a conscienceless killer.

(source: Opinion, Houston Chronicle, JAMES HOWARD GIBBONS, interim editor)

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Kerry AND Bush oppose the juvenile death penalty???

If I had blinked, I would have missed it. But this comes to me via Abe Bonowitz, via Death Penalty Information Center:

In a forum hosted by the New Voters Project, U.S. Presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry expressed their views on executing juvenile offenders. "Federal law prohibits execution of those under 18 when the offense was committed, and I see no reason to change that statute," said President Bush. Senator John Kerry stated, "I do not think that executing minors is good policy." (Knight-Ridder, October 17, 2004). On October 13th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Roper v. Simmons, a case that will determine whether the execution of juvenile offenders is constitutional

It is perhaps noteworthy that Texas leads the nation in juvenile offender executions in the modern era and in the number of juvenile offenders on death row.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Green executed

As I feared, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the stay of execution issued by the U.S. District Court. Then the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the Fifth Circuit.

Green was executed earlier this evening. His last words:

"There was a lot of people that got me to this point and I can't thank them all," he said, speaking in a barely audible voice. "But thank you for your love and support. They have allowed me to do a lot more than I could have on my own. ... I have overcame a lot. I am not angry but I am disappointed that I was denied justice. But I am happy that I was afforded you all as family and friends," he said looking at five friends.

"I love you all. Please just keep the struggle oing. ... I am just sorry and I am not as strong as I thought I was going to be. But I guess it only hurts for a little while. You are all my family. Please keep my memory alive."

Dominique, we will keep the struggle going. And we will keep your memory alive. This I promise you.

Dominique Green update

A U.S. District Court has stayed the execution of Dominique Green, scheduled for 6 p.m. Central Standard Time today.

However, the state of Texas is appealing to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which I think may life the stay. Either way, this is heading for the U.S. Supreme Court and it could be a long night, folks.

What's the point?

The state of Texas is scheduled to carry out yet another execution this evening. This will be their fifth this month. In this case, the person scheduled for execution is Dominique Green, who was convicted of shooting and killing a man during a robbery. There are questions relating to Green's actual guilt.

Also, the son and the spouse of the victim have urged that Green be spared. This leads me to wonder, why exactly are we executing Green?

Here's what the son has to say:

"Texas is going to put a righteous person to die like an animal, putting him on a table, strapping him up, putting those needles in his arms, putting him to sleep," Lastrapes-Luckett, 22, said Monday after a rare visit on death row between a victim's relative and a condemned inmate.

"We're not dogs. We're human beings just like everybody else. He's a human being, just like me, just like you."

To read the whole story, go here. (This link may only work today.)

Monday, October 25, 2004

Why elections matter

More on the case of Paul House, the guy in Tennessee who could face execution soon, despite the fact that he is almost certainly innocent.

As the following column notes, House lost his appeal before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on an 8-7 vote. Incredibly -- okay, perhaps not so incredibly -- the 8 justices who voted against him were appointed by Republican presidents (including four by the current Bush). And the seven justices who voted in his favor were appointed by Democrats.

Here's the column:

Next time Ralph Nader says there's no difference in the 2 parties, somebody ought to introduce him to Paul House. Unless, it's too late.

The presidential race can be a life-and-death matter, and I'm not talking about Iraq.

I'm talking about imposing the death penalty even when there's a reasonable doubt about guilt, which would only seem to go against the very foundation of the vaunted American system of justice.

Execution in defiance of evidence was recently favored by Republican-nominated judges on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati. It was opposed by Democratic-nominated appeals judges sitting in that circuit.

Since the Republican nominees outnumbered the Democratic ones by 8-to-7, a Tennessee death row inmate - this Paul House - appears on his way to lethal injection.

The appeals court vote to kill him was precisely that, 8-to-7. And it was precisely on party lines.

House stands convicted of a murder accompanied by a rape - rape providing the compounding factor by which a jury gave him capital punishment in 1986. The evidence of rape, the supposed covering up of which was the motive of the murder, was semen. DNA evidence impossible then but undisputed now shows the semen to have been that of the victim's hard-drinking husband, not House.

Absent evidence of a rape, there is now the absence of a compounding factor permitting the death penalty.

There might still be a case of simple murder, not capital murder. But new witnesses have come forward to say the victim's husband had a history of drunken abuse of the victim. 2 witnesses now say the husband told them he killed his wife when he was drunk. One says the husband asked for help with an alibi.

House was seen coming out of the woman's house cleaning his hands. He was a known drug user. The jury was told the semen matched his blood type.

The 8-judge majority nominated by Republican presidents, 4 by the current one, ruled that the new evidence and allegations were insufficient to change the verdict or even compel a new trial. That the DNA was not House's does not specifically contradict testimony that House lured the woman from her home, the prevailing Republican jurists said. The new witnesses are suspect in that they are only coming forward now, the Republican judges said.

6 of the 7 Democratic-nominated judges said the new evidence meant the state had lost its motive, its theory and any aggravating circumstance.
These 6 said the new witnesses were credible. They said House should be freed forthwith.

The 7th Democratic nominee, Judge Ronald Lee Gillman, advanced the seemingly most logical course, which was to grant House a new trial.

But because Republican presidents had nominated one more appeals court judge than Democratic presidents, and because Republican judges apparently want to stand by law enforcement and oblige the political popularity of the death penalty, a man in Tennessee will die soon unless the U.S.
Supreme Court saves him, which is unlikely, or multiple sclerosis gets him first.

Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University, put the matter in perspective when he was interviewed by The New York Times. "In any rational legal universe, there is now at least reasonable doubt about the man's guilt," Freedman said.

So, if you prefer imposing the death penalty in spite of reasonable doubt, there's a voting option available to you Nov. 2. And there's another option if you like the idea of not killing a man when there's a reasonable doubt about his guilt.

That sounds oversimplified, unless you look to the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

(source: John Brummett, Column, Pahrump Valley Times -- Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president; Oct. 22)

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Stop me if I sound like a broken record...

...but there is yet another innocent guy on death row. I've written about him before, but his case is so utterly compelling, he is certainly worth another posting.

His name is Paul House and he is in Tennessee. His appeals are running out.

The other day, a columnist for the Daily Tennessean had this to say:

Before Wednesday, I had never met House but wrote a column in this space last Sunday saying he was still on death row despite the fact that 6 of the 15 judges on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said House is not guilty of Carolyn Muncey's murder and should be freed immediately. A seventh judge on the court of appeals said in a dissenting opinion that House should at least have a new trial.

"I would like to be set free, but I would accept a new trial," House told me as he sat in a wheelchair in a visiting room in Riverbend's infirmary.

House suffers from multiple sclerosis and cannot walk on his own. His attorney, federal public defender Stephen M. Kissinger of Knoxville, has said he is afraid House won't live long enough to see his case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"They have found so much stuff over the years that makes you wonder what are all those Republicans on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals thinking about," House added. He was referring to the fact that the 8 judges on the Sixth Circuit who voted to uphold his death penalty were all appointed by Republican presidents.

Since House's conviction in 1986 for Muncey's 1985 murder, which he was accused of committing during an attempted rape, DNA has shown that the semen evidence used to help convict House was really that of her husband, Hubert Muncey. The physical evidence of blood tying House to Carolyn Muncey's murder has also been rebutted.

To read the whole piece, go here.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Harris County, USA

People in the anti-death penalty movement know that Harris County, Texas, sends a disproportionate number of people to death row. In fact, were it a state by itself, Harris County would rank second (behind Texas but ahead of Virginia) in the number of people it has sent to death row.

So it was with much interest that I read the following editorial, which is an endorsement for the guy who is running against Harris County District Attorney Chuch Rosenthal. Please keep in mind that this blog cannot and will not endorse candidates for political office. (It's NCADP's blog, after all, and NCADP cannot tell people who to vote for because of our tax status.)

We are allowed, however, to talk about politicians and their record on the death penalty. And Chuch Rosenthal was the person who decided to seek a death sentence for Andrea Pia Yates, the woman who was convicted in the drowning deaths of her children after suffering from post-partum psychosis.

Here's the editorial:

Houston Chroncile Endorsement

The Chronicle urges voters to elect Reginald McKamie to bring a renewed sense of justice to the Harris County chief prosecutor's office Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

The Chronicle recommends voters support Reginald McKamie, the Democratic nominee in the race for Harris County district attorney, to bring new leadership to the office.

An attorney in private practice representing clients in civil and criminal matters, McKamie vows to return sorely lacking fairness to an office obsessed with securing convictions rather than seeing that justice is done.
McKamie is well-versed in the county's widespread criminal justice problems and wishes to restore people's trust in the office by ensuring that only the guilty are convicted.

McKamie supports the death penalty, but he is troubled by the furious rate at which Harris County sends inmates to death row. Of Texas' death row inmates, 161 out of 451 were convicted in Harris County. "Yet we are no safer than citizens in Dallas or Austin," McKamie contends.

He points to District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal's pursuit of the death penalty for Andrea Yates, the mentally ill mother who drowned her five children, as an example of overzealous prosecution. McKamie says he favors a moratorium on executions until problems with the Houston Police Department crime lab and mishandled evidence are resolved.

McKamie supports establishnment of a sentence of life without parole.
Rosenthal, the incumbent, says he opposes this option to the death penalty because it would produce hopeless inmates who are more difficult to manage.
It's a weak argument for not allowing a jury to show mercy or to avoid the risk of irreversible error.

Accused felons deserve a defense as vigorous as the prosecution they face.
McKamie says Harris County should establish a public defender system in which lawyers on both sides have matched resources to secure expert witnesses, independent investigators and outside forensic testing. By contrast, Rosenthal asserts that a public defender office would create "a new administrative bureaucracy" — just like the one he heads. What works well for the prosecution ought to work well for the defense.

McKamie says he wants to send drug addicts into treatment to ease prison crowding so that space remains for housing violent predators. A 1986 graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, McKamie also has an undergraduate degree from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and a master's from the University of Southern California. He is a 30-year naval reservist.

Rosenthal had been a prosecutor 22 years when he was elected district attorney in 2000. Despite his experience, Rosenthal was blindsided by the HPD crime lab scandal that uncovered problematic evidence testing, unqualified lab technicians who gave questionable trial testimony, and lost and mislabeled evidence.

Those problems cast doubt on thousands of prosecutions and the integrity of criminal justice here. Yet, Rosenthal refuses to stand aside to allow the sort of independent investigation needed to restore faith in the system.

In his first campaign, Rosenthal ran on the platform that he would run the district attorney's office as John B. Holmes Jr. had in his two-decade-long tenure, a period during which this county emerged as America's death penalty capital. Rosenthal apparently believes maintaining Holmes' legacy means stubbornly clinging to a doctrine of never admitting mistakes.

The residents of this county should cast a vote for McKamie and signal the need for change.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Innocent on Tennessee Death Row

Just got back from a trip to the West Coast and now our annual conference is upon us. It's tough sometimes to keep up with this blogging! (But hey, I asked for this blog!)

Over the weekend, the following editorial ran in the New York Times:

An Inexplicable Vote for Death

Paul Gregory House was convicted of murdering a neighbor in 1985, before the era of DNA typing. The Tennessee jury that found him guilty was told that the semen found on the body of the neighbor, Carolyn Muncey, matched his blood type. The jury, citing the fact that Mrs. Muncey had been raped, said Mr. House should be sentenced to death.

It's hard to believe that the jurors would have come to that conclusion if they had known that the semen's DNA matched that of Mrs. Muncey's husband, Hubert, not the defendant. A 15-judge United States Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati that heard a request to reopen the case knew that. Yet the judges recently voted, 8 to 7, that Mr. House should neither be freed nor given a new trial. They were not swayed by six witnesses implicating Mr. Muncey. Two said Mr. Muncey had told them he had killed his wife while he was drunk.

That eight judges would condemn a man to be executed under these circumstances is shocking. What's worse is that the judges divided along partisan lines. The eight judges appointed by a Republican president voted to keep Mr. House on the road to the death penalty.
Six judges appointed by a Democrat wanted to free him, and the seventh called for a new trial. It's hard to dismiss the thought that the Republicans voted as a show of support for capital punishment, not on the merits of the case.

For Mr. House, the next stop is the Supreme Court. For the rest of us, his case should serve as a reminder that when we elect a president, we are also deciding the makeup of our courts.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

And then there were 117

...people exonerated from death row, that is. The latest comes (surprise!) out of Texas. Ernest Willis spent 17 years for, in the words of the Associated Press, "a crime that may have never even occurred:"

Death-Row Inmate Freed After 17 Years


HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - Ernest Willis walked out of prison a free man Wednesday after 17 years on death row for a crime that may have never even occurred.

Willis was convicted of setting a 1986 fire that killed two sleeping women in Iraan, about 230 miles west of San Antonio. But Ori White, district attorney in Pecos County since 1997, dropped the murder case Tuesday, saying there were strong indications the fire was an accident.

White said even if a crime was committed, he did not believe Willis was involved.

Willis, 59, bounded down the prison steps and into the arms of his wife, Verilyn, on their fourth wedding anniversary. It was the first time they touched.

"I don't really even know what to say," Willis said. "I know it's been too long coming. I'm just lost for words."

Changing hearts and minds

My friend Celeste up in New Jersey sent this wonderful essay to me. It was great timing on Celeste's part because yesterday I had someone tell me that we death penalty opponents don't care about crime victims. Fact is, many death penalty opponents are crime victims.

Changing Hearts and Minds in N.J. Prisons

By Eddie Hicks, Galloway, New Jersey, and Lorry Post, Cape May, New Jersey

We are men. One white, one African-American; one a lawyer, the other a fire fighter - different in many ways. But we share a bond that transcends all differences. We each lost a precious daughter to murder.

Coincidentally, each of us felt compelled to honor his daughter's memory and, somehow, lighten the pain we feel every day.

We both chose to join the struggle against capital punishment, because we knew our daughters wouldn't want anyone killed in their names. They believed, as we do, that every life is sacred, and we are confident they would encourage us in this work.

We became active members of three anti-death penalty organizations: New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NJADP), Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). And then, we became volunteers for Focus on the Victim, a program overseen by the New Jersey Division of Corrections, Office of Victim Services.

Focus on the Victim volunteers are survivors of violent crime and the loved ones of murder victims. We visit state prisons to talk with violent offenders who volunteered for sensitivity training. The objectives are to help us express our loss and pain, and to help offenders recognize and repent the harm they inflicted on victims and their loved ones. So far, we have spoken at seven New Jersey prisons and a Boot Camp for young offenders.

We explain to inmates that the victim of their crime was not the only one they hurt. We describe the deep pain and anguish family members and others endure. We lay out before them the many lives that they changed forever, because of one senseless act. We implore them to think before they act in the future, whether behind bars or on the outside.

At least 80 percent of the offenders we meet demonstrate that they are
profoundly affected by confronting the suffering of those they have harmed. After we speak, their many questions and comments suggest true concern. These offenders are amazed that we oppose the death penalty, despite our loss. Many say they have children and would want revenge. But they seem hugely affected by listening to our views on foregoing violence in return for violence. We tell them our daughters deserve better memorials than two more murders in their names.

We can only pray that, when they reenter society, these men remember the depth of the suffering they caused and the price they paid, when they are tempted to react violently.

Like most volunteers, we get as much as we give, and we highly recommend Focus on the Victim to other survivors. We can testify that working for Amnesty International, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and Focus on the Victim makes our grief bearable, gives purpose to our lives, and honors our daughters.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Back from Virginia

This past weekend I attended the annual conference of Virginians Against the Death Penalty. While I was there, I got to hang out with a guy named Alan Gell, who was the 113th person freed from death row after newly discovered evidence of innocence. This was maybe the sixth or seventh death row exonoree I've had the pleasure of meeting; and I really can't imagine any of them committing any crime, much less murder.

Alan was freed by the state of North Carolina after it was discovered that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense -- evidence that would have completely cleared him and prevented him from spending nearly ten years in prison, half of which was on death row.

Here's what one newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal, had to say about Alan's case:

Wronged Again

It's hard to blame Alan Gell for his reaction to the news last week that
the 2 former prosecutors who withheld evidence that could have cleared him
of a 1995 murder got only a slap on the wrist for their actions.

"Here I am again with the system letting me down," Gell said last week.

Indeed. Gell got sucked into a case that underscores much of what's wrong
with this state's criminal-justice system, a case that reaches all the way
to the governor's office. Earnest efforts at reforming the system are too
often outweighed by lip service to the idea, as happened when the N.C.
State Bar took up the case of David Hoke and Debra Graves, 2 former
prosecutors with the state attorney general's office.

A 3-member panel of the bar ruled that Hoke and Graves violated three
ethical standards by withholding witness statements and a tape recording
in which the state's star witness said she had to "make up a story" for
officers investigating the shotgun slaying in Bertie County of which Gell
was convicted. Hoke and Graves also failed during Gell's 1998 trial to
turn over eight witness statements indicating the slaying occurred while
Gell was in jail for an unrelated crime, and told the trial judge they had
handed over all such witness statements, according to The Associated

Yet all the panel gave Hoke and Graves was a reprimand. The panel could
have stripped them of their law licenses, but instead said that the former
prosecutors made an unintentional mistake.

"It was an honest mistake on our part," Hoke said in testimony read at the
bar hearing. "Nobody is more sorry about that than Debra and I."

That "mistake" cost Gell nine years in prison, including half of that time
on death row. Finally, he won a second trial, and was quickly acquitted
this past winter. The whole time, Hoke and Graves did nothing to help him,
nor have they ever personally apologized to him, so it's hard to take
Hoke's expression of remorse seriously.

Hoke and Graves said in their state bar filing that they hadn't read
Gell's complete file, but relied on an SBI investigator to tell them what
was in the file, according to the News & Observer of Raleigh. Their boss
at the time, Gov. Mike Easley, said in March that he wasn't familiar with
the details of the case. While he wasn't directly involved in the case,
the buck stopped with him as the attorney general. He should apologize to
Gell in the name of the state and as the supervisor for Hoke and Graves.
He should also encourage widespread reform of the system, the kind of work
the N.C. Actual Innocence Commission is already doing.

Graves is now an assistant federal public defender. Hoke is the No. 2
administrator in the state court system. Roy Cooper, the current attorney
general, rightly called on North Carolina prosecutors to share all
1st-degree murder-case files with defense attorneys after prosecutors
under him lost in Gell's second trial. A new state law that takes effect
today requires prosecutors to share their entire files with defense
attorneys before felony trials, a welcome 1st step in what should be a
long process of criminal-justice reform.

These days, Gell travels the state, lobbying against the death penalty and
pushing for criminal-justice reform. Unfortunately, he's still got a long
fight ahead of him.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

For the life of Paula Cooper

In 1985, at age 15, Paula Cooper fatally stabbed 78-year-old Ruth Pelke in Gary. In 1986, she was sentenced to death, but three years later, her sentence was reduced to 60 years in prison. She is eligible for parole in 2015.

Many, many years ago, before I ever imagined that I would be doing anti-death penalty work for a living and certainly before I ever imagined I would meet someone named Bill Pelke, I watched an interview with Paula Cooper and Bill Pelke on 60 Minutes.

Bill Pelke, of course, is the grandson of Ruth Pelke. He has forgiven Paula for her actions and meets with her in prison from time to time. He's written a book which he will be signing at NCADP's upcoming conferenc entitled Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing.

A few days ago, there was a full-length story on Paula Cooper that was written by three 15-year-olds and published in the Indianapolis Star. It is worth a visit so go here.

Monday, September 27, 2004

More evidence we're winning

The Daily Oklahoman is one of two metropolitan dailies in Oklahoma. It serves Oklahoma City. (The other metro daily is the Tulsa World.)

The Tulsa World is kindof conservative, but the Daily Oklahoman is extremely to the right. It also is one of the two most pro-death penalty newspapers in the U.S. (The other, somewhat defensively, is the tiny Huntsville Item down in Texas.)

So it was quite a shock to read an editorial in the Daily Oklahoman, which basically stated that the death penalty is on its way out. I paste the editorial in its entirety here, not of course because I agree with its pro-DP stance but because it offers more evidence that the other side is simply giving up:

Death Penalty Is Wasting Away

IF capital punishment dies on the vine in Oklahoma, which is a distinct possibility over the next 10 or so years, its end will come with a whimper and not a bang.

Small steps are being taken to curtail or end the death penalty in this state and elsewhere. One is occurring in the rooms where jurors decide on punishment for the guilty. The Death Penalty Information Center says death sentences being given by juries are in steep decline, dropping 52 % in Oklahoma during the past decade.

A most egregious example of a killer being allowed to live is Terry Nichols. He was sent back to a federal prison when a McAlester jury failed to reach a consensus on the death penalty for a man the same jurors had convicted of killing 160 men, women and children.

This case spotlights the unease among more and more jurors as they try capital crimes. And if such a heinous crime as the bombing failed to convince two juries (Nichols was earlier convicted in federal court) that the defendant must be executed, how can others vote to execute a man convicted of killing "just" one victim?

Slowly but surely, support for capital punishment is being eroded by doubt, frustration, confusion and concerns over delays and costs. Most Americans still support capital punishment. But evidence suggests that juries are finding it increasingly difficult to impose this penalty.

One reason is the existence of an alternative. The "life without the possibility of parole" sentence is a powerful tool in the hands of defense attorneys. Nichols was already under such a sentence after his federal trial; he now has a state life-without-parole sentence as well.

Doubt plays a role when citizens hear of death row inmates being exonerated by scientific evidence not available at the time of trial.
Owing perhaps to the popularity of TV crime dramas, jurors know prosecutors have more means than ever to prove guilt conclusively. Thus, cases based more on circumstantial evidence than on DNA testing introduce doubt into a juror's mind. A defendant might still be convicted, but he may escape the needle because of this doubt.

Court decisions are also speeding up capital punishment's death march. The list of exemptions from the death penalty is growing. The age of the defendant at the time of the crime, his mental capacity -- even his nationality -- have reduced the number of defendants headed for death rows.

As this list grows, more citizens will likely turn their frustration over the application of the death penalty into a kind of grudging resignation.
A majority may conclude that while most killers deserve to die for what they did, the system for executing them is too complicated, too costly and too conflicting to justify active and continued support.

No single court decision is likely to end capital punishment in the way Roe v. Wade ended a ban on abortion. Step by step, though, this ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime seems headed for its own death chamber.

We hope our projected timetable for capital punishment's demise is off the mark. But the operative question has become when instead of if.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

NCADP featured on Showtime

We're on Showtime this week. Well...Showtime's web site, that is. The network is airing a reality TV series involving people pretending to run for president (who would want to do that?) and this week their web site is examining the issue of the death penalty.

They've posted an op-ed that I wrote as well as an op-ed from Justice For All, the pro-death penalty organization down in Houston.

Here's a paragraph from my piece:

Add to this the fact that the death penalty, like lightning, is arbitrary and capricious. In America we average between 19,000 and 20,000 murders a year - and about one-third of one percent of these will result in execution. There's no rhyme or reason in determining who lives and who dies; instead of executing the "worst of the worst," we execute the unluckiest of the unlucky.

To read the whole thing, go here. (Note: the piece will only be up until Sunday or so.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Save the dates!

5 p.m. EST Wednesday, Sept. 22: NCADP Affiliate Conference call (affiliates: If you have not already received the call-in number and passcode, email me!)

Oct. 14-17: NCADP 2004. Go here for more details.

Oct. 30: March for a moratorium in Austin, Texas. Go here for more details.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Who would oppose DNA testing?

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions would, that's who!

This Tuesday, the Senate is scheduled to take up legislation (formerly known as the Innocence Protection Act) that would provide more money to help local governments conduct DNA testing. The money would help law enforcement solve cases in which the perpetrator(s) have not been apprehended and it would help those behind bars with credible claims of innocence by allowing them to seek access to DNA tests.

But in comes Senator Sessions of Alabama. Interestingly, Alabama is the lone state in the U.S. that does not provide any public assistance whatsoever to help people on death row out with their appeals. Says Sessions:

"This bill would take $100 million in federal taxpayer funds and give it to anti-death penalty groups for the defense of murderers and terrorists."

Sad. Sad, and untrue. Sessions confuses groups like ours with state agencies and other groups that receive state funds that actually do represent people on death row during the appeals process. Our group lobbies against the death penalty but does not provide support to people on death row to help with their appeals. (I wish we could, but we do not have their type of expertise.)

Lest anyone think I am being partisan here, please understand that this legislation passed the House last year on a strong 357 to 67 vote and has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, hardly anyone's idea of a radical liberal.

Also please understand that in the past three months, three people in the Deep South have been released from prison after being proven innocent by DNA testing. The three served a combined 61 years in prison!

Perhaps Senator Sessions would care to take their place? Of course, the irony is that if he did, groups like mine would still be arguing in favor of giving him access to the DNA technology that would set him free.