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.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Reflections on an execution

Dave Atwood, board member and co-founder of TCADP and a former NCADP board member, had the following wonderful letter published in the Huntsville Item. As soon as I read it, I knew I had to share:

Reflections On an Execution

James Allridge was executed on August 26, 2004, for the murder of Brian Clendennen in Ft. Worth many years ago. This was the 325th execution in Texas since the death penalty was resumed in the state in 1982. We have about 460 people on our death row and ten more executions are scheduled before the end of the year.

James Allridge caused Brian Clendennen and his family horrific pain and suffering that most of us can't comprehend. However, by executing James Allridge, we created another set of victims, the Allridge Family, who now have experienced the same horrific pain and suffering as the Clendennen Family. Both families deserve our prayers and support.

I was one of six witnesses for James during the execution. James included me because I had been visiting him on death row for many years. Personally, I have never experienced anything so evil in all my life - strapping a live human being to a guerney and pumping poison into his veins. I felt like I was in Nazi Germany.

James was a rehabilitated person who had become an accomplished artist and writer while in prison. He was remorseful for the crime he committed as a young man many years ago. His execution was senseless and satisfied no valid societal goal. He was a model prisoner and mentor for other prisoners on death row. If given a life sentence and placed in the prison's general population, he could have been a very positive influence on other prisoners. However, his execution sends a strong message that rehabilitation and good behavior are, in the long run, not important to the State of Texas.

James' execution will not bring true closure or healing to the family of Brian Clendennen. They will always have a painful wound. Only love and forgiveness can bring a semblance of peace.

James' execution will not deter other crimes or make us a better, safer society. We would be better off addressing the root causes of crime such as child abuse and neglect, mental disabilities and negative peer pressure rather than putting so much energy and money into the death penalty, which is truly a false solution to crime.

Friday, September 10, 2004

What a mother must feel

Just got word that Reggie Clemons' death sentence has been reinstated by a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Reggie's mom, Vera Thomas, is a minister who sits on the board of directors of NCADP. This is very sad. As Vera spoke to me on the phone, she sounded as if she might collapse.

A Lone Star State of Mind

If it seems like we've been writing a lot about Texas lately, well, it is because there is a lot to write about regarding Texas. Yesterday we blogged on the issue of TVs for people on Texas' death row. Or, we should say, the lack of TVs for people on Texas' death row.

Texas, you see, is the only death penalty state that does not allow its death row residents to either purchase small TVs or to have any access whatsoever to television.

Some people are trying to change this silly policy. The Texas American Civil Liberties Union has asked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reconsider:

"We believe it is significant that every other death row in the country has successfully developed and implemented policies and practices that allow death row prisoners access to television, while at the same time maintaining the safety and security of their employees and institutions," the ACLU wrote to Christina Melton Crain, chair of TDCJ's board.

Crain's response was, shall we say, snippy. Or maybe "rude" would be a more apt description:

"I appreciate the passion and energy that you bring to matters for which you advocate," Crain wrote back to Yolanda Torres, who is with the ACLU. "But as the Board and the current Administration do not wish to entertain this issue further, dialogue between you and me on this subject is now closed."

Whew. So much for an open mind.

But the fact of the matter is that there are two very sound public policy reasons why TDCJ should reconsider this issue. First, there's the humanitarian issue. People on death row in Texas and elsewhere (but particularly in Texas) are becoming increasingly mentally ill because of the conditions. You're in constant lockdown, you have no human contact -- ever -- you have little in the way of media to divert you. Being able to at least catch the news or a football game or a sitcom on TV is a way to connect with the outside world, a conduit for you to maintain some degree of sanity.

Second, and more pragmatically, TV is a good management tool for guards and prison officials. Chase Riveland is the former director of the state prison systems in Washington and Colorado. He told the Houston Chronicle that TV can be used to encourage good behavior among those on death row:

"In most jurisdictions, in order to have a television, an inmate has to have a good disciplinary record," said Riveland, who has 36 years of correctional experience. "If the inmates know they're going to lose their television if they misbehave, they're going to be very cautious about it, especially if they're in a lockdown situation (as in Texas), because that's their only real connection with the real world."

Riveland added that, in most other states, inmates' families pay for the TV sets.

"I can't even fathom why one wouldn't want to use such an inexpensive tool," he said.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Pandering to public misconceptions

Prison life is easy. You get three great meals a day; beds as comfortable as a Holiday Inn's; air conditioning, gyms to work out in and all the cable television you desire.

Wait...no, that's not it. That's the public's conception, sometimes, of life in prison.

In reality, while you do get two or three meals a day, the food often is spoiled or otherwise inedible. On death rows, at least in Texas' case, there is no air conditioning. There are no gyms. And not only is there no cable television; there's no television at all.

Tomorrow we will visit the debate over why Texas is the only state in the U.S. not to allow its people on death row access to television -- and what is being done about it.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Many Americans, when contemplating the propriety of the death penalty, think about the relatives of those who have been killed.

But there are other victims as well: the relatives of those who are to be executed.

My friend Nancy Bailey, a member of TCADP's executive committee down in Texas, shares this email from the sister of a person set to die:

The following letter is from Letty Gonzales, sister of Andrew Flores,
scheduled to die in Texas Sept 21. She has given me permission to post
her letter as a reminder to all of us just how real the horror of
execution is and how urgent our goal is. Please keep Andrew and his
family in your heart and get those clemency letters out.


My name is Letty Gonzales I am a sister of a man who is set to be
executed on the 21st of Sept. I just finished writing clemency
letters for him to stop this horrible sentencing. I believe that on
the 21st of this month if my brother is executed that me and my
family become victims of the state's hand. I hope and pray that people
can open their hearts and there eys and see that this just doesnt
work. I pray that one day we can Abolish the Death Penalty.

Message from Steve Earle

Earlier we reported that singer/songwriter/abolitionist/all-around nice guy Steve Earle now has his own blog.

Today we bring you a message from Steve that is as inspiring as it is timely:

"Democracy is hard work. American democracy requires constant vigilance to survive and nothing short of total engagement to flourish. Voting is vital,
but in times like these voting alone simply isn't enough. By the time some
of you hear these songs the election will be over. Then the real struggle

Wednesday, September 01, 2004



The blog will be taking a short break as it enjoys an expanded Labor Day weekend vacation. We will return Wednesday, Sept. 8.

Gates of Injustice

Last week, ABC's Nightline carried a fascinating story. Nightline linked the recent prisoner abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib with prisoner abuse in the United States. The program drew heavily upon Alan Elsner's new book Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons. It also discussed a prisoner abuse scandal at a Texas facility that was housing in part, inmates from Missouri, which had the time had a contract with Texas to incarcerate its prisoners. (This "prisoner outsourcing" is all the rage now. Here in Washington, D.C., we don't even have a prison anymore, so all of D.C.'s prisoners are outsourced, to about a dozen different states.)

Here's a little of what Nightline had to about the Texas scandal:

The story broke in August 1997 when a videotape was broadcast on the local Fox affiliate in Austin, Texas. The tape — shot on Sept. 18, 1996 — showed deputies in a Brazoria County private prison assaulting prisoners, wielding stun guns against them and allowing a German shepherd to bite a few of them. Some inmates were poked with electronic prods and ordered to say, "I love Texas."

And then, Nightline makes the connection between prisoner abuse in the U.S. and Abu Ghraib:

Elsner says there are similarities between the Texas and Abu Ghraib cases. "Some of the parallels that I noticed immediately, [include] the use of nudity as a means to humiliate and, and to abuse the prisoners. That goes on in the United States in almost a routine manner in some places. The use of guard dogs to intimidate; that also happens in the United States. But I think the most important parallel was a sense that the guys in Abu Ghraib viewed the prisoners as almost of a different species."

To read part of Nightline's transcript, go here.