Monday, January 31, 2005

Hurray for the death penalty!

Here is a piece from Counterpunch that -- while perhaps more strongly phrased than I would have made it -- nonetheless raises a valid issue:

You really know the state killers have lost it when they call for the death penalty for someone who was just trying to kill himself in the 1st place.

That's what prosecutors are doing in the case of Juan Manuel Alvarez, the 25-year-old Californian who apparently parked his SUV on the tracks of a Los Angeles commuter train line in order to commit suicide.

Alvarez, according to news reports, lost his nerve and left the vehicle as the train approached, and escaped injury, but the resulting crash, which derailed the train, ended up killing 11 riders and injuring many others.

Death penalty aficionados, including L.A. County's vote-hungry District Attorney, see killing Alvarez as the logical punishment for his horrible misdeed. Under the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye logic of state killers in this great Christian Nation, it's kill and be killed.

But what exactly is the punishment when you kill someone who was trying to do that to himself anyway? If anything, after causing so much suffering and pain and loss of life, Alvarez probably wants to die more than he did before the tragedy. In any event, he certainly wanted to die badly enough to try to do himself in. All the state will accomplish by injecting him with their deadly cocktail of toxins at the end of a high-profile legal process and millions of dollars in legal costs will be helping him to do what he didn't have the courage to do himself.

To read the entire article, go here.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The death penalty is a deterrent.

Texas has executed more people since 1976 than the next five states combined. So it should come as no surprise that between 2002 and 2003, Texas' murder rate increased 8.6 percent. After all, the death penalty is a deterrent.

Ooops....wait, we got that backwards. The death penalty obviously is not a deterrent. But if you are a supporter of the death penalty and you just googled the words, "The death penalty is a deterrent," then we got you, didn't we? :)

Thanks to Grits For Breakfast for pointing out this statistic to us.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Max Soffar, Chapter 975

Those who have followed this little blog know that one of the innocence cases we've been tracking is that of Max Soffar, who has spent years on Texas death row. Let's stop and acknowledge something: It's hard to follow all of the innocence cases that are in the works right now. We have multiple cases in Florida, Ohio and Texas. We have at least one case in Arizona, North Carolina and Tennessee. This could be a big year for innocence.

I mention this because we just received the following message from Nancy Bailey, who is active in the Texas abolition movement:

Max Soffar's arraignment for a new trial is scheduled for this coming
Wednesday, February 2 at 9 AM here in Houston at the Harris County
Criminal Court House, 232nd District court. Judge Mary Lou Keel is the
presiding judge That is on the 16th floor. It would be very good if
lots of people could attend. This is a very important case. In view
of the very strong evidence of Max's innocence and the decisive overturn
by the 5th Circuit and their refusal to look at an appeal by the state,
it is appalling that the Harris County DA is planning to try this case

Appalling, indeed. We'll keep you posted regarding further developments.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Media bias and the death penalty

In a case that has been very closely monitored by the abolition movement for many years now, a panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has voted 2-1 that Kenny Richey is entitled to a new trial. This is an innocence case.

Unfortunately, after the ruling came down, the Associated Press moved a story on the national AP wire (meaning millions of newspaper readers in the U.S. will end up seeing it) with the headline, "Child Killer's Death Penalty Overturned."

Of course....the whole point of the court's ruling is that Richey might be innocent, in which case he is not a "child killer."

It should seem patently anyone except some of the folks in the media who report on the death penalty.

Lest anyone out there think that I immediately jump up and down and yell "media bias, media bias!" please keep in mind that I am a former, longtime newspaper reporter with some 3,000 bylines under my belt.

It should further be noted that much media bias is not ideological in nature but institutional. To the copy editor on the AP copy desk who wrote this headline, it was probably one of 50 headlines he or she was writing that day. He or she probably didn't stop and think about the subjectivity of the chosen headline.

The following email message was sent last night to an abolition email listserv that I subscribe to:

There has been some buzz on the Ohioans to Stop Executions list about the coverage of today's decision overturning Kenny Richey's conviction and death sentence in Ohio. Specifically, a number of newspapers are running the story with the headline "Child Killer's Death Penalty Overturned". Since the whole story is about a finding that the trial which convicted Richey does not meet legal standards, he ought to be described as an "alleged killer" or an "accused killer".

These newspapers all seem to be running the AP story, although the AP disclaims any responsibility for the headline.

I'm pretty sure letters from many OTSE members and others who have been following this case closely will be coming, but newspapers with a local clientele are much more likely to publish letters from people within their distribution area. I would therefore urge everyone on this list, if any paper in your general area publishes this biased headline, please write a letter to the editor taking them to task. I'm worried that coverage like this reinforces the popular right-wing fallacy about justly deserved death sentences being overturned on technicalities. Many of the technicalities, including this one, cast serious doubt on the correctness of the conviction.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Visiting death row in Georgia

Martina Correia, a longtime NCADP member whose brother is on Georgia's death row (despite having a strong innocence claim), writes the following. She is referring to Tim Carr, who is scheduled for execution this week:

On Sunday January 23, 2005, I went to visit my brother on Death Row in Georgia, it was about 17 degrees with the wind chill making it a lot colder. As my family entered the visitation room my 10 year old son De'Jaun noticed one of his friends sitting in a cage with a video camera recording him and his family. It was Tim Carr a 34 year old man with a beautiful 4 year old red headed nephew named "Scooter". De'Jaun and Scooter are also good friends meeting while both children visit their uncles on Death Row in Georgia. Little Scooter wasn't smiling and De'Jaun simply said to me, "Moma why is Tim in a cage and why does he look like he's seen a ghost?"

De'Jaun is 10 now and understands very well, so I simply said, "De'Jaun, Tim is afraid, they plan to kill him on Tuesday, De'Jaun said well Moma can I say hello and maybe we can pray, because Tim is a good person. He then said to Tim, my mom and her friends are faxing the governor and other people so don't worry." Then a guard told us to come away from the cage. My son woke up this morning telling me he had a nightmare that Tim was dead and nobody tried to help him. I can't spare my son from this and that is so sad to me. Pray for Tim Carr and his family.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Talking to the other side

We got a lot of hate mail recently around the Beardslee execution in California. Which is fine -- this is a democracy and people have the right to express themselves. And, certainly, the death penalty is one of the most emotional issues out there.

But I always like to see efforts made by both sides of this issue to at least talk to the other side, even when agreement is not possible. That's why I was encouraged by this article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Grieving brother's pain gives protester pause

It was a chance meeting outside the gates of San Quentin prison late
Tuesday as hundreds of anti-death-penalty protesters milled about, waiting
for the midnight execution of Donald Beardslee.

A college student carrying a candle walked past Ernest Montano, whose
grief has consumed him ever since Beardslee killed his sister, Patty
Geddling, nearly 24 years ago.

"Why don't you light a candle for my sister?" Montano said to the student,
Neil Ferron, a 20-year-old senior at Santa Clara University.

Given the tension of the moment, it might have been the overture to a
slugging. But on Tuesday night, it turned out to be the opening of a
conversation between the protester and the victim's brother, a dialogue
that drifted in and out for nearly 2 hours.

To read the entire article, go here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Martin Soto-Fong

Those who follow this blog know that we've written about several pending innocence cases out of Texas. Names like Anthony Graves, Frances Newton, Nanon Williams and Max Soffar may well ring a bell.

But Texas, of course, is not the only state that has arguably innocent people on death row (although history may prove it to be the worst offender).

Today, courtesy of investigative journalist Jeffrey Toobin and the New Yorker magazine, we have a case out of Arizona that should command everyone's attention.

The inmate's name is Martin Soto-Fong. The prosecutor who helped put him on death row is Kenneth Peasley. Peasley has since been disbarred by the Arizona Supreme Court for falsifying evidence in this triple murder, but Soto-Fong remains on death row (and running out of appeals).

In disbarring Peasley, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Ryan (writing for a unanimous court) had this to say:

"A prosecutor who deliberately presents false testimony, especially in a capital case, has caused incalculable injury to the integrity of the legal profession and the justice system."

Hear that, Charles Sebasta? Hear that, Chuck Rosenthal? How about you, Johnny Holmes?

To read the entire article, go here.

Here's a novel idea

This editorial appeared in the Houston Chronicle today:

Say why
Prosecutors who seek the death penalty should willingly explain their reasons to the public.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore is guilty of unorthodox methods, but it was not unreasonable of her to ask prosecutors why they are seeking the death penalty against the one black defendant among 14 indicted in a smuggling case that ended with the death of 19 illegal immigrants.

Last week a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals slapped down Gilmore's threat to tell jurors that prosecutors had refused her order to say why they were seeking the death penalty against Tyrone Williams, the driver of the truck that pulled the sweltering trailer in which the immigrants perished May 14, 2003. Williams is the lone African-American defendant to be tried in the case.

Prosecutors said they were under no legal obligation to give a reason for singling out Williams among his co-defendants for the death penalty. They stated that Williams, as the truck's driver, was the sole defendant with "the power to release the aliens and possibly save their lives." This reasoning is akin to the uncommon notion that the triggerman is guiltier than the person who hires him — a notion not recognized by law or custom.

Gilmore then asked for a letter of explanation from U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft, who ignored the request.

Gilmore could have dismissed the death penalty as a sanction against the government for not obeying her order. Perhaps she was more interested in bringing attention to the controversial racial disparities in the application of the death penalty.

In 2001, Attorney General Ashcroft released a report showing "no evidence"
of racial bias in the federal death penalty system. But the original study, released the previous year by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, showed minorities accounted for 80.4 percent of the 682 federal criminal defendants accused of capital crimes between 1995 and 2000.

Instead of setting aside the possibility of the death penalty, Gilmore decided she would announce to jurors during the punishment portion of Williams' trial — if he were convicted — that prosecutors had not abided by her order to provide a rationale for seeking the death penalty. The judge said she further would allow the defense team to say the prosecution's refusal showed Williams' race had been a motivating factor in the government's decision.

Gilmore can be accused of jumping to a conclusion there. But in the absence of a real reason for seeking the death penalty, prosecutors left the door open for the public to jump to its own conclusions.

The New Orleans-based three-judge panel threw out Gilmore's entire plan. But if the judge accomplished anything, she got the public to think about why prosecutors are so secretive about providing information concerning how and why they choose to subject accused criminals to the ultimate punishment. A competent prosecutor eventually presents that information to the jury, so there is little reason why the public should not know from the start.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Graner guilty!

Charles Graner, the former Pennsylvania death row prison guard, was found guilty this evening of a number of counts involving abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Will Rehnquist be able to swear Bush in?

Chief Justice William Rehnquist is scheduled to swear in President Bush for Bush's second term this Thursday. However, will Rehnquist be able to do it?

From death row to Abu Ghraib

No one seems to be focusing on the fact that Charles Graner Jr. served as a guard on death row in Pennsylvania before his assignment to the notorious Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. Graner Jr., in fact, was accused of cruelty and brutality toward people on death row.

Now the defense has rested in Graner's court martial and closing arguments are beginning about now.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Anthony Graves

If you've followed this blog, then you've read about Anthony Graves before.

It's always dangerous to proclaim that a person on death row is innocent. For how does one go about proving innocence, anyway? DNA evidence, for instance, rarely proves it innocence. At most, it tends to disprove a prosecutor's theory of how a crime occurred.

But this case speaks to innocence.

Remember Anthony Graves' name. And while you are at it, remember the name of Charles Sebasta, who put him on death row.

The blog is back!

Thanks for bearing with the blog as it took a little vacation! A lot happened while we were gone, so there is a lot to catch up on. Among the developments:

The governor of Indiana commuted a death sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review two new death penalty cases this term, making it a very busy season for death penalty-related matters.

The Harris County District Attorney, proving again that he has all the intelligence of a pet rock, said it will retry Max Soffar on capital murder charges.

2005 is going to be quite a year, folks.