Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Sadly prescient

This is a story that hits home, so bear with me.

Back in my former career, I was a newspaper reporter. All in all I did this for ten years, but the greatest and most memorable stint of this time was when I covered politics and state government for the Austin American-Statesman. I wrote a bunch of stories during my time with the American-Statesman, probably about 1,400 or so during a five-year stint there. As one might imagine, I have long forgotten 90 percent of the stories I wrote.

And yet, at odd times, stories occasionally will come back to me. I'll hear of a story similar to one that I covered. Or maybe a politician I covered will be back in the news.

Or maybe something intense -- sometimes intensely wrong -- will remind me of something I wrote.

That's what happened to me recently. It took me a full week after the Houston Chronicle's two-part series on Ruben Cantu to put all the pieces together.

Regulars at this blog know I have been thinking about that Ruben Cantu series a LOT lately – and blogging on it. For those of you who might be just visiting here for the first time, the Houston Chronicle reported, in unusually strong terms, that Cantu may well have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed.

Cantu was executed on Aug. 24, 1993.

Which brings me to my personal deja vu, my personal, sad and unhappy moment of prescience:

On May 8, 1993, I wrote the following (it’s too long for a blog entry so I’m excerpting it):

Report: Death row in Texas in ‘crisis:’Inmate representation called worst in U.S.
By David Elliot
American-Statesman Capitol

Could the State of Texas execute an innocent person?
Yes – and soon – say an increasing number of critics of the state’s judicial system.

As many of the state’s 371 death row inmates exhaust their appeals, what has been a trickle of executions is about to become a torrent.

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court has placed an unprecedented burden on Texas and other states to thoroughly examine a condemned prisoner’s new claims of innocence through executive clemency proceedings. But in Texas, clemency is largely uncharted territory because it has been used so rarely.

“We believe, in the strongest possible terms, that Texas has already reached the crisis stage in capital representation and that the problem is substantially worse than that faced by any other state with the death penalty, “ said the report by the Spangenberg Group of Massachusetts, a consulting firm that has conducted similar studies in other death-penalty states. “The situation in Texas can only be described as desperate. The volume of cases is overwhelming.”

The issue, said Bill Whitehurst, former president of the State Bar of Texas, is not whether the death penalty should be the law of the land, but how certain the state should be that a condemned inmate is guilty before it executes him.

"We are a system of laws and procedures," Whitehurst said. "Whether any of our citizens feel capital punishment is appropriate or not, I think we all agree that we need to have a system that is fair and just and that allows for a thorough and proper decision on any case -- especially where life is at stake."


Attorneys...warned that Texas could soon execute an innocent man.

"It could happen next week," said Jordan Steiker, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Law. "This is not an idle concern about the possibility of executing people. There are people who have substantial claims of innocence that have never been addressed...And if these [earlier part of article snipped because of space] (proposed) procedures are not adopted, we could likely have innocent men executed in Texas, before the end of this year."

[Blogger's note: Ruben Cantu was executed on August 24, 1993, 98 days after this article was published. Hat tip to Jordan Steiker.]

[Now continuing with the article]

The Spangenberg study, commissioned by the State Bar of Texas, all but compares the state's capital defense system to that of a Third World Nation.

[Blogger's note: Of course, the overwhelming majority of Third World Nations in the Western Hemisphere do not have the death penalty]

[Anyway, to continue]

The study found that many Texas death row inmates are unaware of their rapidly approaching execution dates because their court-appointed lawyers stopped working on their cases without notifying them.

"It is difficult to articulate just how serious the problem of representation seems to be," the study said. "Our view, just having completed this study and numerous others throughout the country, is that no other state even comes close to the level of urgency of the problems in Texas."


Steve Martin, a criminal justice expert and former lawyer for the Texas Department of Corrections, agrees that without reform, Texas is headed for the ultimate tragedy: the execution of an innocent person. And, he adds, it could happen legally. "The legal terrain has changed," he said. "That change, if we don't react to it, can result in the state executing, under the cover of law, without offending any current principle, an innocent person."
That article was published in May of 1993. Ruben Cantu died on Aug. 24. 1993.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Lovitt granted clemency!

Robin Lovitt, at least, will not be the 1,000th person executed in the United States since the 1970s. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner late this afternoon announced that, for the first time during his term of office, he is commuting a death sentence to live in prison without parole. This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card, mind you; it's not a ticket to Disney World. It is life in prison without parole. Life in a tiny, dismal jail cell where roaches and rats compete for space underneath your blanket at night.

Here is an abbreviated version of the AP story on today's commutation, along with a couple of quotes from Gov. Warner.

Va. Gov. Grants Clemency for Condemned Man

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Gov. Mark R. Warner on Tuesday spared the life of a convicted killer who would have been the 1,000th person executed in the United States since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976.

The governor commuted Robin Lovitt's death sentence to life in prison
without parole.

Lovitt, 42, was set to be executed by injection Wednesday night for
stabbing a man to death with a pair of scissors during a pool-hall robbery in 1998.

In granting clemency, the governor noted that evidence that had been
improperly destroyed after Lovitt's conviction.

"The commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly," Warner said in a statement.

Warner, a Democrat, had never before granted clemency to a death row inmate during his four years in office. During that time, 11 men have been executed.

Lovitt's lawyers, who include former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and anti-death penalty advocates had argued that his life should be spared because a court clerk illegally destroyed the bloody scissors and other evidence, preventing DNA testing that they said could exonerate him.

Lovitt was convicted in 1999 of murdering Clayton Dicks at an Arlington pool hall. Prosecutors said Dicks caught Lovitt prying open a cash register with the scissors, which police found in the woods between the pool hall and the home of Lovitt's cousin.

Lovitt admitted grabbing the cash box but insisted someone else killed
Dicks. Initial DNA tests on the scissors were inconclusive.

Warner said he was "acutely aware of the tragic loss experienced by the
Dicks family."

"However, evidence in Mr. Lovitt's trial was destroyed by a court employee before that process could be completed," he said. "The actions of an agent of the commonwealth, in a manner contrary to the express direction of the law, comes at the expense of a defendant facing society's most severe and final sanction."


Last night, Eric Randall Nance became the 998th person to be executed in the United States since 1976 when he was put to death in Arkansas. This morning, John R. Hicks became the 999th person to be executed when he was put to death in Ohio.

Tomorrow (Wednesday evening) at 9 p.m. East Coast time, Robin Lovitt is scheduled to be the 1,000th person executed when he is put to death in Virginia. There is, however, hope that Gov. Warner will commute Lovitt's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Quote of the day, part 3

Another gem I found on DPIC's site:

Dr. Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberties
Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a strong death penalty
supporter in the past, recently said that support is only warranted if the death
penalty is applied fairly. "If you are going to support the death penalty then
you have to be as supportive of its equitable and just application," Land said.
He noted that it would be immoral to support capital punishment otherwise. Land
added that in the United States, a person is much more likely to be executed if
he or she is of color or is poor instead of wealthy. (Christian Post, November
21, 2005). The Southern Baptist Convention is the second largest denomination in
the country.

Quote of the day, Part 2.

I accidentally stumbled across this on the Death Penalty Information Center's web site. Dianne Clements is president of the Houston-based Justice for All, an organization that vehemently supports capital punishment:

"If I believed we executed an innocent inmate, I couldn't support the death

-- Dianne Clements, Houston Chronicle, 2003.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Quote of the day...

...comes from Jim Marcus, director of Texas Defender Services, which represents people on death row during their appeals.

Speaking about the wrongful execution of Ruben Cantu, Marcus says: "When you have an airplane crash the FAA gets together and commits to an independent investigation to figure out where the failing was."

The Houston Chronicle is reporting that the district attorney of Bexar County, where Cantu was convicted and sentenced to death, has instructed her staff to gather up all of the county's files on Cantu. While she is stopping short of a formal investigation, she did tell the Chronicle she will examine the record in the case "to try to get my mind around it."

Rick Casey, a Chronicle columnist suggests in a column today that a posthumous pardon for Cantu might be appropriate. "The state of Georgia did that earlier this year in the case of a black woman executed for killing a white man in 1944," Casey writes. "The evidence supported her contention, unsuccessful in the racial atmosphere of that time, that it was self-defense."

That's the least we can do. And yet, it is probably more than Texas will do.

To read Casey's column, go here:

(Sorry. My hyperlink thingy doesn't seem to be working today.)

To read a comprehensive Houston Chronicle editorial, go here:

Meanwhile, I have to ask: Where is the San Antonio Express News' coverage of this sorry episode? It happened in their backyard but all I have seen so far in their paper is an Associated Press pickup of the Houston Chronicle series. Have I missed something -- or did they?

If anyone cares to send the newspaper a letter to the editor, you can email it to

How many more oopsies.

In the last year there has been three substantial claims of the execution of innocents. Last December the Chicago Tribune examined the execution Cameron Todd Willingham and strongly suggested that he may not have been factually guilty of the crime for which he was executed. The AP ran this story on Larry Griffin (Missouri) noting "strong evidence" that he may have been innocent despite his being executed in 1995. The Cantu case in recent days has also been making the rounds here and elsewhere as to the real possibility Texas killed the wrong man. As I noted here back in 2001, 25 plausible cases of factually innocent having been executed could one day be added what appears to be a list that is growing scarily fast, innocent but dead.

What effect, if any, the rapidly growing list will have on the Streamlined Procedures Act, the new death penalty provisions of the PATRIOT Act, or the crucial state legislative debates in Kansas, New York and New Jersey on the death penalty remain to be seen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

We can reanimate him, right?

That's not actually my original headline. It comes from this blog called Virtual Pus. In the past few days, dozens and dozens of bloggers have commented on the wrongful execution of Ruben Cantu who, as the Houston Chronicle documented, was all but certainly innocent.

Of all of the bloggers who have posted, I liked the post on Virtual Pus the best, I think. You can see it here.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The tipping point

The Houston Chronicle has published a two-part series strongly suggesting that Ruben Cantu, executed in 1993 under the watch of Texas Gov. Ann Richards, was innocent. The highly unusual series is too long to post here, so I'll just leave you with this United Press International report that sums it up:

Texas may have executed innocent man

When Texas executed Ruben Cantu in 1993, the state likely put an innocentman to death, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Cantu was executed for the 1984 murder of Pedro Gomez. Cantu was 17 when he was tried, with no previous convictions, but a prosecutor portrayed him as a violent gang member who shot Gomez and then shot
the only eyewitnesswho survived and identified Cantu.

The newspaper reports the judge, prosecutor, jury foreman and defense attorney in the case now acknowledge the conviction seems to have been built on omissions and lies.

Cantu's co-defendant recently signed a sworn affidavit saying he allowed Cantu to be accused falsely. The man who survived the shooting recanted, telling the Chronicle he felt pressure from police to identify Cantu.

Sam Millsap Jr., the prosecutor, now says he should not have sought the death penalty in a case based on testimony from a witness who identified Cantu only after police showed him Cantu's photo 3 times.

"It's so questionable," said Millsap. "There are so many places where it could break down. "No physical evidence tied Cantu to the crime and investigators never interviewed witnesses who could have provided an alibi for Cantu."

Friday, November 18, 2005

It's been some time since we've blogged on Juan Melendez, the 99th person freed from death row after evidence emerged of his innocence. Juan is on NCADP's board of directors and frequently traverses the country, speaking to anyone who will listen about his experience on Florida's death row.

Recently Juan found himself in, of all places, Bismarck, North Dakota. Here is his story:

'Dead man' talking
Bismarck Tribune

Seventeen years, eight months and one day.Juan Melendez spent that portion
of his life on Florida's death row. Imprisoned from 1984 until his exoneration
in 2002, he swung between anger and despair, learning to read, write and speak
English from other death row inmates, at times contemplating suicide. He credits
his survival and release to faith and to a couple of miracles.

On his release Jan. 3, 2002, he became the 99th death row inmate in the
U.S. to be exonerated and released since 1973. Melendez spoke to students
at the University of Mary on Thursday as part of campus activities surrounding
the production of "Dead Man Walking." The convocation was moved to the McDowall
Activities Center because of the numbers of people planning to attend.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Puerto Rico, Melendez started cutting sugar
cane as a teen and worked as a migrant worker in the U.S. He is still proud of
that work, he said, and counts Cesar Chavez as his hero.

While working in Pennsylvania, Melendez was arrested by FBI agents and
extradited to Florida on a murder charge.

Knowing little English and "naive of the law," he said, he waived
extradition proceedings on the assumption that since he was not a killer, it was
the thing to do.

"How wrong I was," he said.

Within a week, a jury was selected - 11 white, one African-American, no
Hispanics - he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death, based on the
evidence of a police informant and one other person who struck a deal with
prosecutors, he said. No physical evidence linked him to the crime.

Melendez was left with "a heart full of hate," he said, for the judge, the
jury, the prosecutor and his defense attorney.From then on, he lived as one of
the condemned men on Florida's death row. From "the worst of the worst" he lived
among, he was taught to read and write, to speak English, he said. Here, if you
didn't grab your breakfast quick, the roaches beat you to it, he said; rats
crept up to share the warmth of the prison blanket.

"I was real scared in there," he said.

Ten years into his sentence, he came as close to suicide as to make a trade
- the usual swap was cigarette rolling papers or stamps - for a garbage bag that
inmates learned could be rolled into a noose.

He chucked it under his bed to think about it, he said; that night, he
dreamed of dolphins leaping, of his childhood, of an old lady waving - that
would be his mother, he knew.

When he woke, he flushed the bag.

"I grabbed at all dreams as a sign of hope," he said. "God said, 'You've
got to trust me.'"

Although Melendez's conviction and death sentence were upheld on appeal
three times by the Florida Supreme Court, in September 2000, 16 years after he
was convicted and sentenced to death, a long-forgotten transcript of a taped
confession by the real killer was discovered in his file. Ultimately it was
discovered that the real killer made statements to no less than 16 individuals
either directly confessing to the murder or stating that Melendez was not

In a 72-page opinion, in which she overturned Melendez's conviction and
death sentence and ordered a new trial, Judge Barbara Fleischer chastised the
prosecutor for withholding crucial evidence. Without admitting any wrongdoing,
the state of Florida declined to pursue a new trial against Melendez because one
of its key witnesses had recanted and the other had died.

Melendez tried to describe to students the moment when he learned he was to
be set free:"You ever watch cartoons?" he asked. Picture a cartoon character hit
on the head, seeing stars, but smiling.

"That was me," he said. As he returned to death row to gather his
belongings to leave, the rest of the inmates called out advice: "Don't get into
trouble out there." "Don't forget about us." "Take care of your mama." Then he
heard one handclap, then another, and another. Applause.

"They were happy for me," he said.

122 people have been released from death row after evidence emerged of their innocence.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

And then there were 122

Another person has been freed from death row due to emerging evidence of innocence. This is not to be confused with being freed due to what some people would call "legal technicalities." (Although frankly I find that phrase to be so onerous....just which provision of the Bill of Rights is a legal technicality? Or which amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a legal technicality?)

But I digress.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) has added Harold Wilson to its list of wrongly convicted people who were sent to death row. Wilson becomes the 122nd man on the list, which dates back to the 1970s.

Here's the DPIC press release:

Pennsylvania Man Becomes the 122nd Inmate Freed From Death Row

More than 16 years after a Pennsylvania jury returned three death sentences against Harold Wilson, new DNA evidence has helped lead to
his acquittal. Yesterday, Wilson became the nation’s 122nd person freed from death row according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

During his 1989 capital trial, Wilson was prosecuted by former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon, a man best known for his role in a training video that advised new Philadelphia prosecutors on how to use race in selecting death penalty juries.

In 1999, Wilson’s death sentence was overturned when a court determined that his defense counsel had failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence during his original trial. A later appeal led the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to call for a new hearing because of
evidence that McMahon used racially discriminatory practices in jury

In 2003, a trial court found that McMahon had improperly exercised his peremptory strikes to eliminate potential black jurors and granted Wilson a new trial, a decision that the District Attorney’s office did not appeal. The court stated that in the new trial the death penalty could not be sought.

The jury in this most recent trial acquitted Wilson of all charges on
November 15, 2005, after new DNA evidence revealed blood from the crime scene that did not come from Wilson or any of the victims, a finding suggesting the involvement of another assailant.

Wilson is the second person to be freed from death row this year, and the sixth Pennsylvania death row inmate to be freed since 1982.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Breaking news!


We have just received word that an effort to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts has failed on a 99 to 53 vote in the House of Representatives. This is significant because four years ago, a similar effort failed by one vote. Momentum is on our side!

Also: there is a new case out of Pennsylvania involving a former death row inmate who has now been exonerated. More details tomorrow!

Daily Kos is blogging on the death penalty

Daily Kos, the leading blogger in the progressive blogosphere, is blogging on the death penalty today. Check it out here. And take his poll while you're at it!

Monday, November 14, 2005

an emergent program for states...

this afternoon FUSE was launched by the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing's associate director alex wiesendanger... FUSE stands for Families United to Stop Executions ... it's goal is to train and empower - in a safe space - family members of death row inmates top advocate for themselves within the political sphere to abolish the death penalty ... the theme is "ending our silence to stop the violence..."

the initial mailing has gone out to the 103 men and women on tennessee's death row asking them to send us contact information for family members who they would like to hook up with other inmate's family members ... again, this is to empower them to advocate within the political sphere rather than the criminal justice sphere ... the joint signatory with alex is joyce house whose son paul gregory house has been on death row for 20 years ... his case went national last fall when the 6th circuit lost their freakin' minds ...

let us know what you think...

peace out -


Blogging Texas

The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty now has a blog. You can see it here. Texas joins Alabama, Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee as states that are now blogging against the death penalty! Here's a big shout out to NCADP Board member and Texas activist TJ Geiger who launched it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A little later late afternoon cartoon humor

The Washington Post published an editorial cartoon about Jerry Kilgore's pro-death penalty attack ads. Go here to take a look!

from the battle to the interactive question

imagine you've done your organizing job well ...

you've traveled to an important legislative district in a rural county, slept on a rectory sofa and spent 65 hours walking, talking and meeting folks...

you've talked to 3 church groups, four ministers, the local editorial board, the local college president and campus minister, gathered 6 moratorium resolutions - on a Saturday, and formed a 12 person subcommittee on the death penalty (this is bigger than the committee it is a part of)...

and for the coup de' grace you walk into the house district representative's local office and chat it up with him (or her)...

the rep tells you that she/he is with you on the merits, hands down, no questions - supports a moratorium during a thorough study... BUT

you have to prove to him/her that it's not political suicide, that in this small, rural district it's okay for him to not just vote but for it to move out of his/her committee and onto the floor and gets her/his support...

and after you finish downing a guinness draught or two and quiet your jig a bit you're faced with reality:

how do we do this on a limited do we demonstrate to this rural person in this rural district that ABSOLUTELY you have the political cover you need to be out front on this issue with this legislation???

okay??? - let's hear from you ... we're waiting ... what advice do you have ... what nuggets of wisdom may we become privy to ... what are the next steps for us (or anyone) in this position to take???


Victims' loved ones can speak for themselves

As has been noted, politicians in Congress are pushing a measure called the "Streamlined Procedures Act." This legislation would, in essence, eliminate the federal habeas appeals process in all criminal cases, death penalty cases and non-death penalty cases. If this proposal passes -- and it is being heard in the House Judiciary Committee today -- it will radically increase the number of wrongful convictions in our courts because there will be no opportunity for federal courts to review convictions and correct errors.

The so-called conservatives backing this legislation (and I say so-called because most conservatives I know have a healthy skepticism when it comes to the ability of government to get it right) say they are doing this for the victims of crime.

But this perspective is not shared by all family members of murder victims. Here is a letter to the editor published in The Hill, which is a publication that covers Congress and those who work on Capitol Hill. Thanks to my friend Peter for calling our attention to this:

Victims’ families speak for themselves on death
It bothered me to read that Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) are promoting habeas-corpus overhaul because they think I want it (Letters to the editor, “Victims’ families are reason for death-penalty-appeals reform,” Nov. 8).

As a survivor of homicide (my father was murdered when I was 7 years old), I have never associated “closure” with the fate of my father’s killer. The responsibility of healing the pain and sadness of that deep personal loss is — and has for my entire life been — mine alone. I seek no contribution from the man who left six children fatherless. And I seek no comfort from politicians using victims as human shields to take shortcuts to justice.

As a victim and as a law-abiding citizen, what I want is a criminal-justice system that is dedicated to the highest standards of accuracy, integrity and accountability. Get the right guy, do it by the rules and be willing to let others check your work.

Unfortunately, in our criminal-justice system, we sometimes send innocent people to death row (121 at last count, according to the Death Penalty Information Center). That’s too often for my blood. It makes little sense to grease the skids to the execution chamber when this degree of risk is present.

But whatever the fate of this bill, politicians must understand that
victims of violent crime are not all lemmings for capital punishment. That to be a victim does not automatically arouse a desire to eradicate fairness and due process as a path to psychological wellness. But most important, that to be a victim means we speak for ourselves.

Robert W. Hoelscher, board member,
Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

New blogs!

Kansas and Tennessee have joined Alabama and Missouri in blogging against the death penalty!

Kansas' blog can be found here and Tennessee's blog is here.

More on yesterday's election results

From Karl Keys at :

In all the major election races this year (VA, NJ & NYC) well known
opponents of the death penalty appear to have won. In Virginia, attempts to
smear Tim Kaine with the "anti-death penalty" label backfired. His opponent
unleashed a massive advertising blitz on Kaine's stance. Kaine's poll numbers
surged in backlash to that ad campaign. It is possible Kaine won because of, not
in spite of, his position on the issue.

In New Jersey both candidates came out in opposition to state killing, to one degree (Corzine opposes the death penalty) or another (Forrester appears to havesupported a moratorium). Corzine won, with the media not addressing the issue despite the strong likelihood that an abolitionist bill will likely make it to the floor in the
coming months. In New York City abolitionists won the District Attorney and
Mayor's race. Mayor Mike Bloomberg pilloried his opponent's retentionist
position on the death penalty in a hard-hitting ad campaign. DA Robert
Morgantheau earlier this year devastated his opponent in the primary in an ad
campaign focusing heavily on the issue of the death penalty.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Virginia election results

Just a quick note here: NCADP does not, can not, will not endorse candidates for political office. We can not, because of our tax status!

But we can report on candidates' positions on the issues and we can discuss election results.

Democrat Tim Kaine has defeated Republican Jerry Kilgore in the governor's race. Kilgore, many of you may know, ran a series of intense and emotionally manipulative pro-death penalty TV spots.

Interesting note: After he launched those, he fell behind Kaine in the polls. And tonight indeed it looks like he has lost by six or seven percentage points.

I just watched Kilgore's concession speech. I did not hear him mention the death penalty. Can someone correct me on this? Did he indeed mention the death penalty? If not, why not?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Blogging on Birmingham

There's big news out of Alabama. The very conservative Birmingham Daily News has come out against the death penalty. The paper began explaining its decision yesterday when it published the first of an unprecedented five consecutive editorials. The second editorial followed today.

The blog of our Alabama affiliate, Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, is publishing each of the editorials. Go here to read up on this exciting and significant development.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Innocence and the death penalty

If I were a supporter of the death penalty, I would want to bend over backwards to make sure that no innocent person is ever executed, period. Why? Because nothing will erode the institution of capital punishment more quickly than the knowledge -- or even the suspicion -- that we are executing an innocent human being.

Which brings us to two scheduled executions this month: Robin Lovitt, scheduled to be executed Nov. 30 by the state of Virginia and John Spirko, scheduled to be executed Nov. 15 by the state of Ohio.

Regarding Lovitt:

John Whitehead, founder and president of the conservative Rutherford Institute, yesterday released this letter:

Robin Lovitt, who has been on death row since March 1, 2000, has now been
rescheduled for execution on November 30. On July 11, 2005, the United States
Supreme Court granted the Virginia death row inmate a glimmer of hope. Amid
claims that he could prove his innocence if DNA evidence used at his trial had
not been destroyed, the Court decided to stay Lovitts execution and consider
whether his appeal merited further review. Last month, however, the High Court
shattered Lovitts hope when they decided not to hear his case. Lovitts final
appeal for justice now rests solely on the shoulders of Virginia Governor Mark

Lovitt's long and unsuccessful crusade through state and federal courts is
a story many claim is marred with countless instances of injustice. It began
when he was convicted of fatally stabbing a man with scissors during a 1998 pool
hall robbery in Arlington, Va. But since his 1999 conviction, Lovitt continues
to insist that although he committed the robbery, he is innocent of

During Lovitt's trial, low-level DNA evidence was deemed "inconclusive" as
to whether he was the perpetrator. But history has shown that previously
inconclusive DNA evidence can later be deemed "conclusive" upon further
analysis. The case of Earl Washington, Jr., who was convicted of rape and
murder, illustrates this fact. Washington spent 9 1/2 years on death row, only
to be exonerated 9 days before his scheduled execution when a re-examination of
previously inconclusive DNA evidence proved his innocence.

In response to the alarming reality of inconclusive DNA evidence in the
Washington case, Gov. Warner ordered the re-examination of low-level DNA
evidence for many death row inmates. But although Lovitt was among this group,
his chances for exoneration were dealt a devastating blow when the DNA evidence
that might have spared his life was destroyed by the chief clerk of the
Arlington Circuit Court.

Two clerks at the Arlington County Circuit Court testified that they had
advised their superior, Robert McCarthy, not to destroy the evidence from
Lovitts trial. But McCarthy destroyed it anyway, in violation of the law and in
violation of Robin Lovitts right to have the evidence re-examined.

Consequently, Lovitt once again turned to the courts, appealing to the
Supreme Court of Virginia, the District Court for the Eastern District of
Virginia and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. At every stage, his claim was
denied. The Fourth Circuit even went so far as to declare that although McCarthy
made a "serious error in judgment," Lovitt was not entitled to relief because he
could not prove that McCarthy destroyed the evidence in "bad faith." The U.S.
Supreme Courts subsequent refusal to hear the case in Oct. 2001 seemingly left
Robin Lovitt with no further legal recourse.

To read the entire letter, go here and scroll all the way down.

And then there's John Spirko

Another case involving a strong innocence claim is that of John Spirko of Ohio, scheduled for execution Nov. 15. Today a moderate newspaper in Ohio, the Dayton Daily News, came out with a sharply worded editorial calling on Gov. Bob Taft to grant Spirko clemency.

I know that on blogs you're technically supposed to excerpt and link. But I'm breaking the rules here because I want to put the editorial in its entirety front and center:

Taft must shut down death machine
By the Dayton Daily News

Ohio's dour brick "death house" looks as much like an industrial building as part of the Lucasville prison. The building's sole purpose is to perform a one-of-a-kind chemical process.

It's the place where public employees inject lethal compounds into the arm of a criminal convict sentenced to die.

The death machine is being readied for an execution arising out of the
brutal 1982 murder of Betty Jane Mottinger. John Spirko was convicted of the crime and is set to die Nov. 15.

The problem is there's a real chance the man was wrongly convicted. Former FBI Director William Sessions put it this way in his plea that Gov. Bob Taft grant clemency: "I believe that John Spirko may very well have been unjustly convicted, and I am convinced that his trial was infected with serious enough defects that we can have no confidence that the jury reached the decision about his guilt, and ultimately his death sentence, properly."

The governor is Ohio's last line of defense against a wrongful execution.
He's received no help from other responsible officials. Attorney General Jim Petro's every move seems to be a political calculation, rather than a push to ensure the right man is on Death Row. A majority of the parole board has shown haplessness bordering on incompetence.

They all know Mr. Spirko's criminal case was plagued with gaps and
inconsistencies, but they've ignored them. The parole board's report to the governor offers no practical guidance on whether this execution might be a mistake.

All have allowed the death machine to move ahead, unimpeded, while they look away. Gov. Taft can grant clemency and commute the death penalty to life in prison — and that's exactly what he should do.

Because no scientific, forensic or physical evidence links John Spirko with the Mottinger murder. The case was based on hand-written notes of prison interviews conducted by an erratic postal inspector who was the state's star witness. The "eye witness" who supposedly placed Mr. Spirko near the crime scene was only "70 percent sure" of his account.

Prosecutors said Mr. Spirko had an accomplice. That theory later
disintegrated. Another suspect surfaced in the 1990s. The case was referred to federal authorities, but they never investigated if a man had been wrongly convicted.

John Spirko had killed before and isn't deserving of much sympathy. Still, a decent people don't impose the death penalty on such meager, feeble evidence.

When they do, they, too, end up with blood on their hands.
The Dayton Daily News not only published this editorial today -- they also made a video accompanying it with the editorial read as a voice over. I've never seen a newspaper do this before and while the production values are rather garrish, one has to commend the newspaper for its innovation. The video ends by urging people to contact the governor and demand that he grant clemency. You can watch the video by going here.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Blogging against the death penalty, part three

My third and final post (well, for now!) on blogs and the abolition movement:

As has been noted, we recently held our annual conference in Austin. One of the workshops was on Internet activism, including listserv management, action alerts and blogging.

At the end of the workshop, 15 people turned in the evaulation forms that we at NCADP use to help us decide which workshops work and which ones perhaps need to be jettisoned.

One of the questions on the evaluation was, "As a result of your participation, list one to three things that you expect to do differently"

To my amazement, 12 of the 15 people who turned in evaluations said they are either going to launch a blog or they were thinking of doing so. Given that there are currently only 12 anti-death penalty blogs out there -- and given that half of these 12 blogs have not updated in six months or so and are, in effect, dead (no pun intended; well, okay, maybe a little bit intended) this means that we can more than double the abolition blogosphere!

Why is this important? Because with blogging communities replicated themselves in terms of numbers of readers.

If you're the Washington Post, New York Times, USA TODAY or Los Angeles Times, you compete against each other for readers. But if you're Capitol Defense Weekly or Lonely Abolitionist or Abolish the Death Penalty, you share your readers with other like-minded blogs.

In other words: We complement. We don't compete. When a new anti-death penalty blog arrives on the scene and brings with it its composite set of readers, we just get bigger and bigger. (Related note: We've almost doubled our readership here in the past month alone, after bringing new bloggers Karl, Tennessee Dude, Abe and Carrie onto the scene. Well. Maybe not all of those folks have blogged yet. But something is driving our numbers up and I don't know how else to explain it.)

Why is blogging important? After all, our readership is still kinda small compared to a lot of blogs that are out there.

To me, it's about encouraging each other, building community, exchanging ideas, sharing what works and what doesn't. Taking new messages and trying them out for a spin. Doing new things.

It's all about blogging for abolition.

And before I forget: Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty launched its blog yesterday. You can see it by going to and scrolling down -- look on the left side of the page!

Missouri joins Alabama as the second NCADP state affiliate to have a blog. (Some national organizations that are NCADP affiliates such as Amnesty International and Campaign to End the Death Penalty also have blogs. Look on the left side of this page and you can find them.)

Won't others join us?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Blogging on the death penalty, part two

Yesterday we posted comments by Scott Henson of the Texas Civil Liberties Union's Police Accountability Project. Scott commented on what he sees as a lack of success on the part of the abolitionist community when it comes to developing -- and using -- successful messages against the death penalty, i.e., messages that resonate with a majority of the American public.

I agreed with many of Scott's comments. The lone area where I might disagree is that the right messaging does exist. It's just that we're not using it often enough.

During our recent NCADP conference in Austin, we heard from Professor Frank Baumgartner of Penn State University. Baumgartner has engaged in cutting-edge research into what messages work -- and don't go work -- in converting people to our side. You can read all of Baumgartner's research yourself by going here. But allow me to briefly summarize a few of his points:

1. Moral arguments against the death penalty don't work on death penalty proponents. It is difficult for such proponents, who, like us, come to hold their beliefs deeply, to in effect admit their whole way of thinking was wrong. In effect, we are asking them to apologize when we argue morality.
2. If anything, using morality arguments against the death penalty causes proponents to embrace their support even more strongly. Thus, framing the issue in this way actually is equivalent to walking backwards.
3. A relatively new argument -- innocence -- works. Why? Because when we use innocence -- i.e., wrongful convictions, as a means of opposing the death penalty, then we are giving proponents room to examine the issue without sacrificing core beliefs. We are giving them a way out.

That's Baumgartner's findings -- and he tested this stuff on hundreds of college students in some sort of statistically verifiable way that I don't understand. Granted, I have simplified his findings somewhat. I also would qualify his findings by suggesting that we needn't rely on innocence alone -- rather, we can use innocence as a gateway to a larger category: imperfections.

But know this. As a friend of mine put it, "Moral arguments don't win support but innocent people and sleeping lawyers do."

It's hard to force Americans to dramatically shift their core moral beliefs -- look at the abortion debate in this country. And one wonders whether it is even worth trying. But if we can slow down and eventually stop executions by embracing this more pragmatic approach, then I think we can win this battle.

Tomorrow I anticipate wrapping up this series of posts on blogging against the death penalty. Tomorrow I will discuss a hope and dream of mine: that state affiliates will begin launching their own anti-death penalty blogs and that we can all then work together to drive traffic to each other's sites, create messages that work and help facilitate a convergence between blogs, listservs, other forms of Internet activism and on-the-ground grassroots campaigns to build a larger, more successful movement.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Blogging on the death penalty, Part One

(First of three parts.)

While at NCADP 2005: Turning Wins into Winning, I had the fortunate experience of doing a workshop on Internet activism, blogging and building email lists. My co-presentors were Scott Henson, head of the Texas ACLU's Police Accountability Project and the owner of Grits for Breakfast and Kathy Mitchell, who is the national director of Consumers Union's e-activism efforts.

Yesterday Scott blogged on our presentation, and on the nature and utility of blogging against the death penalty. Today I offer up his comments unedited. I 90 percent agree with Scott when he argues that abolitionists have yet to develop and use an effective message, or framing against the death penalty.

Tomorrow I will get into the 10 percent area where I disagree with Scott -- and it is a minor disagreement. I think the frame is being developed, with the help of Penn State Professor Frank Baumgartner's research in this area.

Problem is, I just don't think we're using the succesful frame that has been developed.

More tomorrow and again on Thursday. For now, here are Scott's interesting and insightful comments:

Blogging and the death penalty
On Saturday, I spoke at a couple of workshops on the subject of blogging
and web activism at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish
the Death Penalty here in Austin. A lot of what I had to say about political
blogging was included in a couple of pieces I wrote this summer:

a.. Blogs' role in political campaigns, and b.. Blogs, jazz, and
message developmentBut for this particular audience, I felt some additional
suggestions were in order. Of all the criminal justice issues out there,
opposition to the death penalty perhaps remains the one topic most in need of
re-thinking or "re-framing," as the currently faddish rhetoric would have it. In
Texas, depending on how you ask the question, around 70 percent of the public
supports capital punishment. Bottom line: That means that activists haven't yet
found the messages that, if it ever comes to pass, will ultimately will cause
the death penalty to be abolished in this country.

To me, that's where blogging by individuals could be really helpful
reformulating a rhetorical approach toward this complex topic. We need lots of
folks blogging about the death penalty, I told them, from lots of different
perspectives -- libertarian, pro-life, progressive, legal, you name it --
because right now the winning arguments that will convince the public simply
don't exist, yet.

In professional politics, pollsters take "messages," essentially themes and
arguments for and against a proposal, and test them using opinion research to
identify the most persuasive ones. But one can only test messages that one knows
about, and on the death penalty the arguments being made out in the world today
just aren't persuasive to the majority of the public. Abolitionists need new
arguments to be developed, new messages that appeal to widely held values,
"wedge" messages that cut across ideological and party lines. Bloggers could be
a big help in developing those new messages, particularly individual bloggers
not affiliated with organizations who are free to try innovative rhetorical
approaches, make mistakes, and experiment with message in a way that
organizations realistically can't.

Blogging is a media strategy, for the most part, not a vehicle for activism
-- email is much better than blogs at driving people to act. But blogging could
play an important role in political message development, especially on issues
like the death penalty where the terms of debate are caught in deep, seemingly
intractable ruts.

I hope we see lots of new abolitionist blogs cropping up in the future --
the movment's message makers need the help.

Back but not quite blogging...


As you've probably noticed we've been on hiatus (but definitely NOT on vacation!) for the past week. I've been down in Texas, working hard at NCADP 2005: Turning Wins into Winning.

The conference was a fantastic success and we're back in Washington, D.C. now, but as unfortuitous timing would have it, right when we were producing this conference, we were also moving our office from the Eastern Market neighborhood to K Street near Dupont Circle.

Right now we're experiencing some Internet connectivity issues so it might be a day or two before we can start posting news about the conference to this blog. But stay tuned; it's coming!