Monday, February 28, 2005

Just do the test

Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia is still dragging his feet on whether to order DNA testing for Roger Coleman, who was executed years ago despite doubts of his guilt.

One wonders what death penalty proponents are afraid of. If they are so certain that we are getting it right 100 percent of the time in terms of the guilt of people we're executing, then what's the harm in testing to make sure? Oh, wait: Maybe they realize, deep down, that the death penalty is a government program -- and government programs aren't perfect.

Here's a story from the Roanoke Times on the continuing saga of Roger Coleman:

Coleman case still unsettled in many minds----Gov. Warner still has not decided whether to order a DNA test that might prove Coleman's innocence.

Jack Payden-Travers didn't have to say what he was calling about. All he had to say was, "This is Jack."

"I can tell you what Jack's question is going to be," Gov. Mark Warner said last Tuesday during a call-in show on WVTF public radio.

Sure enough, the head of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty was calling - again - to ask the governor to order DNA testing that could determine whether the state executed an innocent man.

For the past 2 years, Warner has been considering the request from Centurion Ministries, a group that believes Roger Keith Coleman was executed in 1992 for a rape and murder he did not commit.

Warner promised last week that he will make a decision "very soon."

Although DNA has been used to exonerate 13 people on death row since 1993 nationwide, there has never been a case in which posthumous testing proved the innocence of an executed man, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C.

With public support for capital punishment weakening, scientific proof that the system is not fail-safe "would be more than just a blip" in the process, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the group.

"Those who don't want to see an innocent person executed would realize this is a distinct possibility," Dieter said. "It's not just a theoretical problem."

To read the whole story go here.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Who reads this blog?

One stat counter I use allows me to see where people who read this blog live (no, don't worry -- not your exact address, but rather your home town).

In some cases (involving governments and universities) I can tell a person's ISP. (For instance, I have noticed that people who work for either attorney general's offices or the courts in the states of Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia read this blog from time to time.)

But other than these patterns, the only thing I can tell about people who visit is that they come from all over. For instance, the last 20 people to come here live in the following places: Sarasota Springs, NY; Reston, VA; The Netherlands; Allentown, PA; Herndon, VA; Cleveland; Brookline, Mass; Great Britain; Madison, N.J.; Owensboro, KY; Elyria, Ohio; Richmond Heights, MO; New Market, MD; Auburn, Alabama; Chattanooga, Tenn; Englewood, CO; Virginia Beach, VA; Trenton, NJ; Abington, NC; and Raleigh, NC.

Thanks for visiting, everyone!

$50 million could buy a lot of hamburgers

The Associated Press bureau in Kentucky has a story on the wires today suggesting that Kentucky has spent $50 million per execution in the modern era. The state has executed two people. Here's the first part of the story:


Since Kentucky reinstated capital punishment in 1976, 2 men have been executed, 36 people are now on Death Row and numerous others once under death sentences have had their convictions or sentences overturned.

Ernie Lewis, director of the Department of Public Advocacy and charged with providing legal defense for the condemned, guesses it has cost taxpayers perhaps $50 million for each of the state's 2 executions. Death sentences have been overturned more than half the time, he added.

"We're not doing it very well," Lewis said.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Another innocence case surfaces

This one wasn't on my radar screen at all. Wow.

Pennsylvania death row inmate Ernest Simmons, who was once four days from execution for the grisly murder of an 80-year-old Johnstown woman, has been granted a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct.

In a 52-page opinion issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin ordered Simmons, 47, to be retried within 120 days or released because police and prosecutors "withheld favorable evidence that could have been used to substantially impeach the testimony of the most pivotal prosecution witness."

"When you take a look at what happened in this case, you have to be shocked," said Robert Dunham, an assistant federal defender with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Simmons' appellate attorneys.

The ruling said Simmons' rights were violated by police and prosecutors who hid secretly recorded tapes and hair evidence that supported Simmons' innocence.

To read the whole story go here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Legislative activity breaking out all over!

Although much of it is under the radar screen, there's lot of stuff happening on the legislative front in terms of the death penalty. Here's a quick rundown -- I know I'm leaving important stuff out, so please accept my apologies in advance:

In Arkansas, the Senate has passed a bill abolishing the juvenile death penalty. Similar bills are under consideration in Florida, New Hampshire, Texas and, perhaps, Nevada. Another juvenile death penalty bill died (for this session) in Virginia.

In Georgia and Oklahoma, legislators are being asked to approve moratorium legislation.

In Texas, a slew of death penalty-related bills have been filed. Perhaps the most likely to pass is a measure giving juries the alternative of life without parole. Another bill that could stand a chance of passage would require the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to actually meet in person (gasp!) to consider clemency requests.

In both Kansas and New York, efforts to reinstate the death penalty have failed. This is a major coup for our side and speaks to the strength of our local organizers.

That's it for now but I'm sure I'll be back with more updates.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

To be decided....

The Supreme Court returns on Tuesday, following its traditional winter recess.

This cryptic passage just moved on the Associated Press wire:

To be decided by the Supreme Court in the 2nd half of the term:
DEATH PENALTY: Is it unconstitutionally cruel to execute juvenile killers?
(Roper v. Simmons, 03-633.) Argument heard Oct. 13. And may the United
States try and sentence to death foreign nationals without notifying their
government, in violation of international law? (Medellin v. Dretke,
04-5928.) Argument set for March 28.

A couple of notes:

First, Roper v. Simmons, the juvenile death penalty case, is the only case that was argued in the month of October that has not been released yet. Suffice it to say, we are on the edge of our chairs waiting for this one.

We are also waiting for a ruling in the case of Thomas Miller-El. He was the person convicted out of Dallas County, Texas, and has a meritous claim of racial discrimination during jury selection. We think Miller-El will prevail.

There are actually a number of other death penalty cases that have either been heard or are going to be heard during this term of the Supreme Court. For a complete rundown, go here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Opening the floodgates

After a few "slow" months on the execution front, we are looking at a disastrous March. Already, 11 serious execution dates are pending. For a good list of pending executions, go here. (As of this writing, this web site does not include a date that was just set in Missouri, but I imagine it will shortly.)

Monday, February 14, 2005

St. Valentine: Innocent person executed?

Well, maybe not "innocent," in the modern-day sense of the word. But today is Valentine's Day, so maybe it is worth a reminder that when we celebrate Valentine's Day, we are commemorating an execution:

Go here for more information.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Death row syndrome

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what life is like on death rows. Some people think you get cable television. The truth is, many people on death row have no access to any TV, much less cable.

Some people think you get to lift weights every day. I don't know about most death rows, but in Texas, there is no such program. Think about it: weights in a maximum security environment? I don't think so.

Some people think prison cells are air conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter. States vary, but in Florida, people on death row have suffered heart attacks after temperatures rose to 110 to 120 degrees.

In short: People, this is no picnic. But don't take my word for it. Read the latest from Lonely Abolitionist.

Philip Workman

This blog has developed a particular interest in innocence cases. Not that anyone should be executed, mind you, but innocence cases illustrate most vividly one reason why the death penalty is simply flawed public policy.

Philip Workman's case is not an innocence case, per se. He was there when the murder happened. He was robbing a fast-food restaurant. His actions that night undoubtedly contributed to the death of a police office.

But did Workman shoot the police officer, as the state alleged during trial? No, he did not, according to reports that continue to trickle out. And that is why his case falls under the category of wrongful conviction and sentencing. The jury, simply put, did not hear the truth. Here's the latest:

Former officer, now an inmate, alleges cover-up in Workman case

Associated Press

A retired Memphis police officer now in federal prison claims her former colleagues covered up details of the fatal shooting for which Philip Workman faces execution.

Charlotte Creasy claims a police officer actually killed Lt. Ronald Oliver in 1981, not Workman, who was convicted of the crime.

She quotes a hysterical woman at the shooting scene with her family as saying she saw ''a white officer shoot the policeman.''

Workman has been on death row since 1982 for the slaying of Oliver after a robbery at a fast-food restaurant in Memphis. Workman has long claimed that another officer killed Oliver by friendly fire.

Workman has twice been within hours of execution. His execution is currently on hold pending the resolution of federal appeals of a separate Tennessee case. He has exhausted his appeals in state court.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Mox Soffar arraignment set for today

Max Soffar, who has an unusually strong claim of innocence and whose death sentence AND conviction were thrown out by the federal courts, is in a Harris County courtroom today. The Harris County District Attorney's office apparently really is going to retry him for capital murder. We will continue to follow this case closely.

In the interim, here are excerpts from an article that just popped up in, of all places, the Jerusalem Post. The article is written by Kinky Friedman, the author/musician and, more recently, the quixotic independent candidate for Texas governor. This is weird, even by Texas standards:

Max Soffar: A Jew on death row

...Max doesn't have a lot of time and neither do I, so I'll try to keep it
brief and to the point.

"I'm not a murderer," he told me. "I want people to know that I'm not a murderer. That means more to me than anything. It means more to me than freedom."

...Somewhere along the line, Max's life fell between the cracks. A sixth-grade dropout whose IQ tests peg him as borderline mentally retarded, he grew up in Houston, where he was a petty burglar, an idiot-savant car thief and a low-level if highly imaginative police snitch.

...For the past 23 years, since confessing to that triple homicide, Max has been at his final station on the way: the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, Texas. But he long ago recanted the confession, and many people, including a number of Houston-area law enforcement officers, think he didn't commit the crime. They say he told the cops what they wanted to hear after three days of interrogation without a lawyer present. At the very least, they say, Max's case is an example of everything that's wrong with the system.

...Another observer troubled by Max's case is Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judge Harold R. DeMoss Jr., who wrote in 2002, after hearing Max's last appeal, "I have lain awake nights agonizing over the enigmas, contradictions and ambiguities" in the record.

Chief among these Kafka-esque elements is the fact that Max's state-appointed attorney was the late Joe Cannon, who was infamous for sometimes sleeping through his clients' capital murder trials. Cannon managed to stay awake for Max's, but he did not bother to interview the one witness who might have cleared him. There are, incidentally, 10 men on death row who were clients of Cannon's.

...[T]here was no physical evidence linking Max to the crime. No eyewitnesses who placed him at the scene or saw him do it. Two police lineups in which Max was not fingered. Missing polygraphs. If the facts had been before them, Schropp says, no jurors would have believed that the prosecution's case had eliminated all reasonable doubt.

"When you peel away the layers of the onion," he says, "you find a rotten core."

To read the entire article, go here.