Thursday, December 27, 2007

Will Alabama execute an innocent man?

This excellent op-ed showed up in my email box this morning (hat tip: Esther Brown)

We have the author's permission to post it in its entirety. The author is Mary Shaw, well-known in abolitionist circles, particularly in Pennsylvania. Mary is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. You can visit her own web site here.

Will Alabama Execute an Innocent Man?

By Mary Shaw

I have written before about how we've seen more than 200 wrongfully convicted people released from U.S. prisons in recent years after proving their innocence via DNA or other evidence.

It is good that we can do this post-conviction testing, to ensure that we're punishing the right person. And, in the case of death row inmates, we certainly don't want to execute the wrong guy. Right?

Well, while most people of conscience would probably agree, Alabama Governor Bob Riley seems to have a problem with the concept.

Here is the story:

For more than 20 years, Tommy Arthur has been sitting on Alabama's death row for a crime he says he did not commit. Of course, many people in prison claim that they're innocent, and we can't just take their word for it. But those 200+ aforementioned exonerees prove that sometimes they really are telling the truth.

In Arthur's case, DNA is available that could either prove his innocence or confirm his guilt. Since last August, the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people, has repeatedly requested that Gov. Riley order the crucial DNA testing in this case. But, so far, the governor has refused.

Now why would a governor not want to order DNA testing that would either confirm that you have the right guy in custody, or else prove that you've been holding an innocent man and that the real killer might still be at large?

I couldn't imagine an answer. And so I decided to call Gov. Riley's office and get a firsthand perspective on the case.

I called several times from December 19 through December 21, and all I got was the runaround, and no returned phone calls.

On two occasions, I was transferred to a "Lisa", who is apparently the person in charge of the Tommy Arthur Case. On the third call, I was transferred instead to the Media Department.

Each time, I left a very polite voicemail message. I did want to come across as confrontational. In my messages, I said that I was a writer in Philadelphia, and that I was interested in the Tommy Arthur case, and was wondering what the next steps will be, and when, to do the DNA testing that will either prove Arthur's innocence or confirm his guilt. I left my cell phone number. And I never heard back.

Recognizing that I was calling during the holiday season, when many people take extra time off from work, I decided to call again to see if Lisa or the Media folks might be on vacation. The receptionist checked and said no, they were all at lunch. This was two days after my initial call. I left another message for each.

It has now been more than a week since my initial phone call. Either they take very long lunches in Alabama, or they don't want to talk about the Arthur case.


Why in the world would Gov. Riley not want to grant the DNA testing?

And why in the world does his staff refuse to talk about it?

For those of you who want to keep up the good fight, please call Gov. Riley's office at 334-242-7100, ask for the comment line, and urge the governor to order the DNA testing for Tommy Arthur. While they might not want to hear from you, and they probably won't respond, I know from my 30 years of activism that this kind of pressure eventually wears down the bad guys in a whole lot of cases.

You've got nothing to lose, and a human life hangs in the balance.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If you think executions are expensive....

In my email this afternoon I received this great reminder from NCADP affiliate KCADP:

Executions are Expensive, so is STOPPING them!!!

2007 is almost over. It is not too late to make that tax-deductible donation to KCADP.

Visit and use PayPal for a safe way to contribute or to sign up as a paying member.

To schedule a speaker for your church, synagogue, mosque, civic group, school, or other organization, write us at kcadp [at] and tell us what you have in mind.
It's that time of year, if you liked the results in New Jersey you'll love when they come closer to reality in YOUR state. Please considering giving to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (button in the left hand column), Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (who inspired this post), EJUSA, PADP (Penns), PFADP (NC), Maryland CASE, Catholics Against Capital Punishment, or a whole bunch of other worthy organizations listed in the left hand column.

'An absolutely ecstatic moment for civility'

Looks like the video Abe kindly posted below disappeared, as YouTube videos tend to do, rather randomly sometimes.

No matter. You can see the wonderful video by going here. It's posted over at Blue Jersey. Although the piece is nine minutes long, I'd encourage everyone to watch it. I, for one, have never seen the Coliseum lit up before.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Report from Rome

Jay Lassiter fron has returned from his trip to Rome, where he went to give witness to the lighting of the Colosseum in honor of ABOLITION in New Jersey, and then for a second night in a row, to honor the vote for a global death penalty moratorium at the United Nations. He gets a little emotional, but hang onto your seatbelt for this report - LIVE FROM ROME!

And in case I don't get a chance to say it before it happens, Warm Solstice Greetings and Merry Christmas to you and yours!


Thursday, December 20, 2007

The editorials just keep coming

Across the country, newspapers have been weighing in on New Jersey's decision to repeal the death penalty. And, although I may have missed it, I have yet to see a newspaper that has come out against New Jersey's action.

Here is an editorial that appeared today in the Anniston (Alabama) Star. I am posting it because I thought it was particularly well written:

Wise move in New Jersey
In our opinion
Lawmakers in New Jersey know a broken system when they see one.

After a special commission reported that the state's death penalty cost more than sending someone to prison for life — determining that it hasn't deterred murder and that an unacceptable risk of killing an innocent person still existed — the state Legislature did the reasonable thing. It abolished the practice.

Monday morning, Gov. Jon Corzine signed it into law.

It was the first time a state had outlawed the death penalty since Iowa and West Virginia did so in 1965.

There are only eight men on death row in New Jersey and there hasn't been an execution in the state since 1983. Clearly, New Jersey bears little resemblance to other states, where putting people to death has become a matter of routine. Since 1976, Texas has executed 405 people; Alabama has executed 38.

You can bet, though, that there are a lot of other similarities — starting with broken systems. If it's broken in New Jersey, you can bet the farm is broken just about everywhere else.

We'll let the Texas editorial pages get to the heart of the problem there. As for punishment in Alabama, it is not dished out fairly, especially when it comes to the death penalty.

The quicker we come to that realization — and admit that this is as much a political issue as it is an issue of justice — the better off all of us will be.

To understand that, you need look no further than Alabama Attorney General Troy King, an overzealous prosecutor who capitalizes on the issue, demagogues it, speaks nonsense in the face of common sense, argues with the high court and charges forward with death-penalty cases even when a de facto moratorium is in place.
We also have a governor who, Lord knows why, fears to appear weak on crime.

Following closely behind these two are scores of elected judges and state legislators who feel pressure from their electorate to dispense with accused murders even as a litany of questions about the quality of the system, the possibility of DNA evidence, sound legal representation and racial and class disparities linger in the background.

Corzine and other lawmakers in New Jersey are not soft on crime, nor are they bed-wetting liberals wishing to free monsters into the streets of Trenton or Newark. They simply wish to see their state become a more just place.

Alabama and other states that still allow the death penalty would be wise to follow New Jersey's lead.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Brighter New Jersey

This morning I woke up to a brighter New Jersey, as evidenced by the headline found by my puppies as we started out for our morning stroll. That's Governor on the left and Lance on the right. Governor was so named because, 7 years ago, we needed a Governor who would listen to us. This dog still does not listen all of the time, but we have a friend in New Jersey! --abe

Governor Corzine Signs The Bill

NJ Governor Signs Abolition Bill


This morning (12/17/07) at about 10:30am, NJ Governor made it official. Here's a few snaps. Yep, I managed to get that close. Here is a photo from the Gov's web page in which you can see me taking these pictures, and here to see others from that site.

Go here to listen to the full bill signing ceremony.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Truth Springs Up"

From todays NJ Abolition Bill Signing Ceremony....

Blogger only allows so many seconds worth of video, so I'm posting Sr. Helen's comments in three sections. Here is the first one.

The Colosseum

Sr. Helen announces that the Colosseum will be lit up to honor New Jersey's historic step to abolition. Click here to see an image and a brief round up of the impact of New Jersey's action thus far.

This image of the Colosseum is courtesy of Jay Lassiter of, who blew 100,000 frequent flier miles to rush to Rome and get the picture himself. Go Jay! Read an item about this in The Star Ledger.

The Dignity of the Victims Families....

In this third section of Helen's brief remarks, she pays tribute to the victims families.... (with apologies for the jumpy video - it is hand held and I was being jostled by journalists....)

Happy Faces

Celeste with elated public defenders....

Study Commissioners Rabbi Robert Scheinberg and Eddie Hicks, and Eddies wife Karen, the mother of their murdered daughter Jamila.

Celeste with Republican Prime Co-Sponsor Assemblyman (Senator-Elect) Kip Bateman, her husband Kelly and their daughter, Christine.

Sister Helen with Shari Silberstien.

Abe & Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ

The impact

On the impact of New Jersey's death penalty repeal (audio of the repeal signing here):
  • Alabama. Birmingham News editorial:
    If New Jersey can abolish its death penalty outright, surely Alabama can give its busy death chamber a break.
  • Connecticut. Courant editorial:
    New Jersey is poised to become the first state in more than 30 years to repeal the death penalty. We urge Connecticut's lawmakers to join this brave if small club.
  • Delaware. A letter to the editor:
    Kudos to the state of New Jersey for ending the barbaric practice of state-sanctioned murder. [...]

    Hopefully, the now more enlightened state of Delaware Legislature will address this is issue in kind.

  • West Virginia Charleston Gazette:
    New Jersey is joining West Virginia in abolishing the death penalty. Hurrah. We hope more states likewise end the barbaric practice of killing prisoners, as most advanced nations have done. Today, executions are performed mostly in harsh places like Texas, where former Gov. George Bush set records at putting people to death, and privately mocked a woman who was executed.
  • Idaho. 2News:
    [exonerated Idaho death row inmate] Don [Paradis] says Idaho should follow the example of New Jersey and abolish the death penalty.

    Paradis said,"Kicking the death penalty out, you're going to have some people saying we're giving into the criminals, you're not giving into criminals you're giving into being a civilized society."

  • Australia. Herald Sun:
    So it is time now to launch a consistent and principled policy, openly and loudly advocating an end to the death penalty internationally -- even towards key trade partners such as the US and China, who also happen to be among the world's most enthusiastic executers.

    At a time when New Jersey has just made itself the first American state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty, and when even Beijing is considering abolition, our new Government should seize the opportunity to make bipartisan national policy clear.

  • h/t Blue Jersey who has been exceptional and will later tonight be bringing video of the lighting of the Colosseum in Rome.

    Just a quick update, for the record

    As is the case from time to time, work interferes with blogging! But it is important for the record to reflect that between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. this morning, Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation repealing New Jersey's death penalty.

    Co-blogger Abe Bonowitz was on the scene and witnessed the signing ceremony. I understand that Sister Helen Prejean was there as well. Furthermore, I'm told that Europe has taken notice: Tonight in support of New Jersey's action, Rome will put light up the almost 2,000-year-old Colosseum. Once the arena for deadly gladiator combat and executions, the Colosseum is now a symbol of the fight against the death penalty. And since 1999, the Colosseum has been bathed in golden light every time a death sentence is commuted or a country abolishes capital punishment.

    [Karl's note: Abe has some exceptional footage coming. I was in the back with NJADP's staff & supporters, Abe, and only he knows how, was literally 2 feet from from Gov. Corzine videotaping.]

    Saturday, December 15, 2007

    the bigger picture

    I've been trying to write a short piece on why now, why New Jersey, and how NJ fits in to the larger struggle against the death penalty. Shari Silberstein of EJUSA does a better job then I ever could. In a private email, that she has been kind enough to let me excerpt below, she provides the best insight yet on why New Jersey, why now, and why this is more than just a victory for the people of New Jersey:
    Every piece of evidence that the death penalty is ending -- from moratorium and abolition bills getting close in Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, Colorado, and Maryland -- to death sentences dropping in Texas -- to newspapers changing their editorial positions in Birmingham and Dallas and Chicago -- to juvenile campaigns in Missouri and Wyoming and South Dakota and Arkansas that impacted the Supreme Court -- to study commissions in Tennessee and California -- to a million other things -- every one of those developments paint a picture of a death penalty that is failing and dying everywhere. And the people in New Jersey knew it, and it mattered. A lot. This victory so very much belongs to every last one of us in this movement, unequivocally.
    The best editorial cartoon, by far is here (we don't yet have rights to reproduce it).

    Friday, December 14, 2007

    NJ Assembly Vote Tally Board 12/13/07

    It all came down to this moment. As in the Senate on Monday (see Monday's post), there was that slight hesitation before the final votes were cast to push us over the line. 41 votes were needed. As you watch this 47 second video, you'll see the votes accrue, and then I pan over and zoom in to find NJADP Director Celeste Fitzgerald get a victory hug from EJUSA's Shari Silberstien and congratulations from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's Diann Rust-Tierney, Murder Victim's Families for Human Rights' Vicki Schieber, and Maryland Citizens Against State Executions' Jane Henderson. Then I pan over a bit more to find NJADP Founder and newly appointed Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation Executive Director Lorry Post as he releases a relieved and joyful smile.

    ALSO, you can see a clip from the post-vote press conference here.

    A Few Images from Last Night

    Greetings All,

    It was sort of anti-climactic, just waiting for that final vote. And it was a shame that so many people who could and should have been there had to stay away for one reason or another. After more than two hours of what was best described as "legislative waterboarding" (listening to pro-death penalty legislators spout inaccuracies and fear mongering rhetoric - hear the session here - choose Dec. 13 at 1pm), the bill was brought to a vote. Smile... ABOLITION!

    NJADP Director Celeste Fitzgerald talks with Japanese reporters.

    Lorry Post, NJADP Founder and newly appointed director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, speaks through the media after the victory.

    NJADP Executive Committee member Kevin Walsh (the lawyer who conceived of and won New Jersey's judicial moratorium by challenging lethal injection protocols) celebrates with NJADP Director Celeste Fitzgerald and NJADP Treasurer Ed Martone.

    Abolitionists (in the truest sense of the word) ready to head to the party!

    Former National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Executive Director Stephen Hawkins, raises the first toast.

    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    One year ago today...

    We don't want to detract from the New Jersey news at such an historic moment. But we would be truly remiss if we did not note that one year ago today, Florida executioners engaged in a horribly botched execution. Read about it here.

    NJ votes to abolish, it's off to the Governor's Desk

    Live blogging on the New Jersey debate

    Blue Jersey is doing "live blogging" on the New Jersey debate.

    Check it out here.

    (hat tip Karl Keys)

    Quiet... Rainy... Abolition on the horizon....

    The amazing thing about a well oiled campaign is that while there is always something that must be done, there comes a point when all you can do is sit back, try to relax, and wait for those final moments.

    I was able to leave the office last night at 5pm and have a relaxing evening with my family. This morning I actually took the time to read the paper before coming in, and I was in no rush. Sitting here in the office the phone is mostly quiet - Mark calls to regret that the weather keeps him from coming to Trenton for the final vote. Julie calls wondering if it is too late to call her legislators (it is not!). When I post this, I'm turning off the 'puter and heading down to the Capitol.

    It's NOT yet a done deal. The opposition is pulling out all the stops and it just isn't over until it is over (and Ed Martone sings). And if there is anything making us pull our hair out, its the media talking about it as if it is a done deal, and even celebrating. For example, this article about NJADP Director Celeste Fitzgerald would have been MUCH nicer if it came out tomorrow instead of today. Today it just adds to the pressure....

    Oh well. The last minute lobbying is going on, and at about 1pm, we sit back and watch. I'll be back on this site, hopefully with some celebratory photos and a video or two, sometime in the next 6 to 10 hours.... Meanwhile, if you pray, pray today for wisdom and courage in the New Jersey legislature. Pray for ABOLITION!


    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    Sweet. Very sweet.

    This story just moved on the AP wire. It's good so see that some in the media recognize that what happens in New Jersey this week has ramifications beyond the Garden State's borders!

    Death penalty foes hope N.J. will inspire others to follow suit

    Associated Press Writer

    12:35 PM EST, December 12, 2007


    New Jersey Sen. Robert Martin is mindful of history.

    "One hundred years from now I hope we will be remembered for having had the courage to be leaders in advancing this cause for a more civilized society," said Martin, R-Morris.

    The cause: Abolishing the death penalty.

    The New Jersey is poised to give final legislative approval on Thursday to abolishing the death penalty, becoming the first state to do so since 1965 when Iowa and West Virginia abolished it.

    The state Senate approved the bill Monday; The Assembly will vote Thursday and is expected to pass it. Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he'll sign the bill.

    Death penalty foes are hoping New Jersey will inspire others to follow suit.

    "I hope New Jersey will give encouragement to other legislators and public officials to have the courage to face this issue squarely," said Joshua Rubenstein, Amnesty International USA's northeast director.

    Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said New Jersey reflects a growing national trend against the death penalty, with executions in decline and more states weighing abolition.

    "We have learned a lot about the death penalty in the past 30 years," Rust-Tierney said. "When you look closely at the facts, it just doesn't add up to sound policy."

    She noted New Jersey's votes come a week after Michael L. McCormick of Tennessee was acquitted in a retrial after spending 15 years on death row.

    The nation has executed 1,099 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty in 1976. In 1999, 98 people were executed, the most since 1976; last year 53 people were executed, the lowest since 1996.

    "The United States is one of the few countries in the world that has a death penalty, keeping company with the likes of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Afghanistan," said New Jersey Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union.

    Other states have considered abolishing the death penalty, but none have advanced as far as New Jersey. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, 37 states have the death penalty.

    "Some people deserve to die and we have an obligation to execute them," said New York Law School professor Robert Blecker, a national death penalty supporter who has been lobbying New Jersey lawmakers against abolition.

    But death penalty foes point to recent success:

    _ The Massachusetts House in November rejected reinstating the death penalty.

    _ A 2004 appeals court decision found New York's death penalty law unconstitutional.

    _ The American Bar Association recently said problems in state death penalty procedures justify a nationwide execution freeze.

    _ Tennessee lawmakers are analyzing that state's death penalty.

    _ Then-Gov. George Ryan of Illinois declared a moratorium on executions in 2000 after 13 people who were found to have been wrongfully convicted were released.

    _ Courts have banned executing the mentally retarded and people younger than 18 when they committed their crime.

    The nation's last execution was in Sept. 25 in Texas. Since then, executions have been delayed pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether execution through lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

    "There is no question that the death penalty is under far greater scrutiny," Rubenstein said.

    Bills to abolish the death penalty were recently approved by a Colorado House committee, the Montana Senate and the New Mexico House.

    But none of those bills have advanced.

    Meanwhile, Nebraska and Maryland lawmakers retained the death penalty in recent votes, and states such as Georgia, Missouri, Texas, Utah and Virginia are considering expanding their death penalties, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

    New Jersey Sen. Joseph Kyrillos said there's good reason for that.

    "Ending the death penalty in New Jersey sends a dangerous message of weakness to those who commit the most heinous murders and those who would commit indiscriminate mass murder," he said. "The perilous times we live in call for strength, not fecklessness."

    Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, recalled how five men were arrested earlier this year for allegedly plotting to attack New Jersey's Fort Dix.

    "The threat of terrorism is all too real and our response must be robust and unwavering," Kyrillos said.

    How they did it in NJ

    As I post this the job is not quite done, but the EJUSA e-newsletter today focuses on the years of grassroots efforts that helped bring us to this day, and the much anticipated final vote tomorrow. Click here to check it out!


    Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    North Carolina finally gets it right

    North Carolina exonerated Jonathan Hoffman today when Union County District Attorney John Snyder dismissed capital murder charges against the former death row inmate. Let me not steal NCADP's affiliate PFADP's thunder, they have more than we ever could. I am hoping David will add more.

    Commutation in the Bluegrass

    On his last day in office Gov. Ernie Fletcher commuted or pardoned over 80 Kentuckians. One of those persons was Jeffrey Devan Leonard. The Courier-Journal notes:

    Fletcher reduced to life without parole the death sentence given Jeffrey Devan Leonard, also known as James Earl Slaughter, who was convicted of fatally stabbing Louisville store clerk Esther Stewart in 1983.

    Leonard’s case has been controversial in part because his trial lawyer, Louisville attorney Fred Radolovich, was disbarred and indicted on a perjury charge for claiming he had handled four death-penalty cases before Leonard’s.

    In fact, he had no experience as a lead attorney in a capital case and surrendered his law license earlier this year in a deal with prosecutors that ended the perjury case.

    Ernie Lewis, executive director of the Department of Public Advocacy, said in a statement last night that Leonard “was a young, poor, brain-damaged African-American man with no criminal history and about whom the jury was told nothing when they decided that he should die.”

    Leonard had exhausted his appeals and was in line to have an execution date set.

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Human Rights Day (Dec. 10) in New Jersey

    Here's a short video of the NJ Senate Tally Board as the Senate voted. The votes needed were 21 out of 40. You'll note the hesitation as we get to 20, waiting for 21. The collective sigh of relief in the gallery was enough to fly a kite! There were two abstentions and one Senator (who we believe was a yes vote) was too ill to attend. Onward to the Assembly on Thursday.


    And here's bloggers Abe & Karl enjoying a celebratory Ceegar outside the Statehouse while waiting for the bosses to finish their media interviews....


    Some pictures from today in New Jersey's statehouse

    Murder victim family members, standing with pictures of their loved ones, speak in favor of abolishing the death penalty in NJ.

    The final vote board on S-171 (the death penalty repeal bill) 21-16.

    Diann Rust-Tierney, head of the NCADP, Shari Silberstein, head of EJUSA & Celeste Fitzgerald of NJADP debriefing after Monday's vote.

    Today's big news out of New Jersey

    Today the New Jersey Senate voted 21 to 16 to repeal that state's death penalty. A final vote is expected in the New Jersey General Assembly on Thursday. From there the bill will go to Gov. Jon Corzine's desk.

    Some thoughts:

    • During the past three decades Americans and their elected officials have learned much about the death penalty and the more they learn, the more they don’t like it. New Jersey legislators are moving toward repeal of the death penalty after concluding that it wastes tax dollars, prolongs the pain of murder victims’ family members, lacks a deterrent effect and is opposed by law enforcement officials and district attorneys.

    • Since reinstating the death penalty in 1982, New Jersey has spent $253 million on its death penalty and has yet to execute anyone. New Jersey reinstated the death penalty 25 years ago, in 1982. Since that time, 60 death sentences have been handed down, almost of all of which have been reversed after years and years of bureaucratic appeals.

    • The same fundamental flaws that characterize New Jersey’s death penalty system also plague statutes in other states. Many states have suspended executions and others carry out executions once every few years. The death penalty is enforced so arbitrarily it is almost like a lottery – and it is a cruel hoax on murder victims’ family members.

    • New Jersey acted after a blue-ribbon study commission heard from more than 70 witnesses and studied every aspect of the death penalty system. Despite the fact that a number of capital punishment proponents were appointed to the commission, it eventually voted 12 to 1 to recommend that the death penalty be repealed. Other states, including California, Illinois, North Carolina and Tennessee, also have embarked upon death penalty studies.

    • Every death penalty state suffers from the exact same problems New Jersey legislators are now addressing. Costs, lack of deterrence, fears of executing the innocent, affect on murder victims family members and other problems also exist in every death penalty state. Eventually, every death penalty state inevitably is going to do what New Jersey did – study the system and conclude whether or not capital punishment is worth the myriad costs to communities, taxpayers and crime victims alike.

    • Today’s vote represents a holiday gift to every New Jersey resident affected by crime and every taxpayer who demands that real problems such as violent crime require real solutions. Because of today’s action, New Jersey will be able to shift valuable resources to programs that enhance public safety and support family members of murder victims.

    Friday, December 07, 2007

    Wonderful things coming

    I've had a terrible time being able to update lately. A crush of work has prevented me from my blogging duties!

    But stay tuned. Huge things coming, beginning Monday afternoon. We have transitioned from the end of the beginning to the beginning of the end.

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    Disappointing news out of Iran

    December 5, 2007
    Iran: Young Man Executed for Alleged Sex Crime
    For Immediate Release
    Hossein Alizadeh, IGLHRC Communications Coordinator, 212-430-6016

    New York, Wednesday December 5, 2007 - The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) has learned today that despite an order by the Iranian Chief Justice to nullify his death sentence, Mr. Makvan Mouloodzadeh was executed in Kermanshah Central Prison at 5 a.m. this morning, Iranian time.

    Neither Mr. Mouloodzadeh's family or his lawyer were told about the execution until after it occurred. IGLHRC is still investigating the facts in this case. "This is a shameful and outrageous travesty of justice and international human rights law," said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC's executive director. "How many more young Iranians have to die before the international community takes action?"

    Mr. Mouloodzadeh was a 21-year-old Iranian citizen who was accused of committing anal rape (ighab) with other young boys when he was 13 years old. However, at Mr. Mouloodzadeh's trial, all the witnesses retracted their pre-trial testimonies, claiming to have lied to the authorities under duress. Makvan also told the court that his confession was made under coercion and pleaded not guilty.

    On June 7, 2007, the Seventh District Criminal Court of Kermanshah in Western Iran found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Despite his lawyer's appeal, the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence on August 1, 2007. The case caused an international uproar, and prompted a letter writing campaign by IGLHRC and similar actions by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Outrage! and Everyone Group.

    In response to mounting public pressure, and following a detailed petition submitted to the Iranian Chief Justice by Mr. Mouloodzadeh's lawyer, the Iranian Chief Justice, Ayatollah Seyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, nullified the impending death sentence of Mr. Mouloodzadeh. In his November 10, 2007 opinion (1/86/8607), the Iranian Chief Justice described the death sentence to be in violation of Islamic teachings, the religious decrees of high-ranking Shiite clerics, and the law of the land.

    In accordance with Iranian legal procedure, Mr. Mouloodzadeh's case was sent to the Special Supervision Bureau of the Iranian Justice Department, a designated group of judges who are responsible for reviewing and ordering retrials of flawed cases flagged by the Iranian Chief Justice. However, in defiance of the Chief Justice, the judges decided to ratify the original court's ruling and ordered the local authorities to carry out the execution.

    Mr. Mouloodzadeh's execution came days after a panel at the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    Shout out to Andy in Pennsylvania!

    In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for people with severe mental retardation. As Supreme Court decisions go, this one seemed pretty much like a no-brainer.

    Five years later, however, we're still trying to figure out who is severely mentally retarded and what the process for determining severe mental retardation is going to be.

    On the ground in Pennsylvania, our friend Andy Hoover weighs in.

    Sunday, December 02, 2007

    Signs of the Times on a Sunday Morning

    I saw these in a some local papers as signs of the times and couldn't resist breaking my long hiatus here.

    In Pennsylvania in an op-ed in Harrisburg's The Patriot News the Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico appears concerned about the new politics of the death:

    The general public doesn't realize it, but the punishment in capital punishment is slowly eroding away in Pennsylvania. Adopting a quiet, more methodical approach, abolitionists and their allies are chipping away at the death penalty, and in the process, endangering the very existence of this ultimate form of accountability and deterrence to the worst kind of crime. [Of course Ed hasn't been reading the polling in Pennsylvania, he is on the wrong side on this one.]

    From across the Delaware River, from the Morris County Daily Record, in an interview with the Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi:
    Q: The state Legislature may abolish the death penalty in New Jersey. Your thoughts?

    A: The prosecutors' association (of New Jersey) has come out against the death penalty. I am in agreement. I have seen what it (the protracted legal battles) do to families. It sounds so much like a cliché, but it rips them apart. Obviously, it's not working.

    Monday is the first of four key votes in New Jersey on whether the Garden State will repeal the death penalty.

    In Arkansas a ballot initiative is being weighed for next year to establish a committee to study the death penalty if Gov. Mike Beebe does not establish a panel on his own. “If the governor is not will to appoint a study commission without some help, we are going to go out and get 100,000 signatures next year to show him there is a great deal of interest on all sides of the political spectrum,” David Rickard, president of the Arkansas Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, said Thursday.

    Friday, November 30, 2007

    Congratulations, Capital Defense Weekly!

    We're pleased to report that Capital Defense Weekly, maintained by co-blogger Karl, has been named one of the top 100 legal blogs by the ABA Law Journal in its December issue. Go here to see the list of 100. (No, Abolish isn't on there. We're not a legal blog. I don't even have a law degree. We're more into advocacy stuff, along with some occasional story-telling about those who work in the anti-death penalty movement.)

    Congratulations, Karl, from all of us at Abolish and all of us at NCADP. An honor well-earned!

    Thursday, November 29, 2007

    Mike Huckabee's death penalty dodge

    So last night during the Republican presidential candidate YouTube debate on CNN, a viewer from Memphis, Tennessee asked a question about the death penalty. Debate moderator Anderson Cooper tossed the question to former Ark. Governor Mike Huckabee, a guy who certainly has talked out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to this issue. Let's pick up the transcript and then we'll be back with a comment:

    COOPER: All right. The next question is for Governor Huckabee. Let's listen.

    TYLER OVERMAN: Hi. This is Tyler Overman from Memphis, Tennessee. And I have a quick question for those of you who would call yourselves Christian conservatives. The death penalty, what would Jesus do?

    COOPER: Governor Huckabee?

    HUCKABEE: You know, one of the toughest challenges that I ever faced as a governor was carrying out the death penalty. I did it more than any other governor ever had to do it in my state. As I look on this stage, I'm pretty sure that I'm the only person on this stage that's ever had to actually do it. Let me tell you, it was the toughest decision I ever made as a human-being. I read every page of every document of every case that ever came before me, because it was the one decision that came to my desk that, once I made it, was irrevocable.

    Every other decision, somebody else could go back and overturn, could fix if it was a mistake. That was one that was irrevocable.

    I believe there is a place for a death penalty. Some crimes are so heinous, so horrible that the only response that we, as a civilized nation, have for a most uncivil action is not only to try to deter that person from ever committing that crime again, but also as a warning to others that some crimes truly are beyond any other capacity for us to fix.


    Now, having said that, there are those who say, "How can you be pro-life and believe in the death penalty?"

    Because there's a real difference between the process of adjudication, where a person is deemed guilty after a thorough judicial process and is put to death by all of us, as citizens, under a law, as opposed to an individual making a decision to terminate a life that has never been deemed guilty because the life never was given a chance to even exist.

    COOPER: Governor?

    HUCKABEE: That's the fundamental difference.


    COOPER: I do have to though press the question, which -- the question was, from the viewer was? What would Jesus do? Would Jesus support the death penalty?

    HUCKABEE: Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson. That's what Jesus would do.

    Note the wily dodge. Huckabee managed to score points with this crowd of Florida Republicans while not even beginning to address the question.

    But out in the blogosphere, he's being called out. Check out this posting from The Fix, which is the Washington Post's main political blog:

    Huckabee's response to Jesus and the death penalty was clever, but sidestepped the question. Sadly, the press marveled at yet another non-answer to a question about a serious issue. The question was intended to be a request for a Christianity-based stance on the morality of the death penalty, not a set-up for a one-liner. Huckabee said nothing about the fact that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to African-Americans, that decisions to apply it are based in slipshod police and crime lab work, or any of a host of other related, troubling issues. Quips are nice, but debates are supposed to be about establishing positions, not electing an Entertainer-In-Chief.

    Well said. The poster might have added that when Jesus was on the cross, he said, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

    There actually is a spirited debate going on over the question of Jesus and the death penalty over at the Washington Post site. You can read the exchange -- and post your own message if you'd like -- by going here.

    Monday, November 26, 2007

    Death chamber of secrets

    (This is taken from the Huffington Post, and is written by Christopher Hill of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project.)

    "It never occurred to me when we set this up that we'd have complete idiots administering the drugs." So said Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma doctor who developed the infamous three-drug cocktail used by many states to execute people - the same concoction that is now under constitutional review before the U.S. Supreme Court. As part of the secrecy surrounding the execution process, we do not really know who the people carrying out lethal injections are. But thanks to a recent lawsuit in Missouri, we know a little bit about one of these people.

    He is a doctor from Missouri called Dr. Doe. He has been barred from practice in two hospitals, been the subject of numerous malpractice lawsuits and has been forbidden by a federal judge from "participat[ing] in any manner, at any level, in the State of Missouri's lethal injection process."

    Dr. Doe's transgressions were not brought to light by the state, but as the result of a lawsuit filed by a condemned inmate. And we learned a lot from Dr. Doe's own testimony. The doctor admitted under oath that he has dyslexia. He testified that his dyslexia renders him unable to work with numbers, so, Dr. Doe said, "it's not unusual for me to make mistakes." He testified "that he had cut the thiopental [the drug that renders a person unconscious] dosage he gave inmates by half because a change in drug packaging forced him to 'improvise'." According to an amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month, Dr. Doe participated in more than 50 executions in Missouri in which he "varied the amount of thiopental he gave inmates on a whim, without informing anyone." Just as Doe was not informing anyone about his improvisation, the state of Missouri did not inform anyone about the unqualified doctor running its lethal injection system.

    Where has Dr. Doe ended up now that he no longer executes prisoners in Missouri? Astoundingly, the federal government has made him as part of its execution team. Although the U.S. Bureau of Prisons cites a policy of not publicly disclosing the names of staff members involved with lethal injections, we know that Dr. Doe will possibly replicate his abysmal performance in Missouri on the national level because he testified about his new job in the inmate's lawsuit.

    If ignorance is bliss, then your government wants you ecstatically unaware of the lethal injection process. Indeed, if it were not for lawsuits filed by condemned inmates, we may have never learned how poorly the death penalty system is run. Much of this information about Dr. Doe and other lethal injection issues is available on, a website run by the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley's law school.

    But even with lawsuits and websites we still have to fight to get information. Even the Show Me State kept its citizens blind to the fact that a doctor, found unfit to practice in two hospitals, was overseeing the execution of inmates. Only government transparency will allow us to see the absurdity of a system that allows a doctor who cannot perform executions of prisoners in one state to participate in the executions of inmates from all over the country. We need to see it to believe it.

    Voice of Experience: Murder Victim Family Member Explains Why Death Penalty Creates More Pain

    Anyone who thinks the death penalty is supposed to help murder victims families should consult this - written by a father whose daughter was murdered....


    Death penalty punishes victims' families, too

    Sunday, November 25, 2007

    My daughter Deirdre was 25 when she was murdered. She was an artist, a painter, and was hoping to get a job in an art gallery. Her paintings still hang on the walls around our house. They're damn good. And I don't say that just because my little girl made them.

    A bipartisan commission conducted a study of New Jersey's death penalty last year. One of the things it considered was what would best serve people like me, families who have had their lives ripped apart by murder. They sensibly decided that New Jersey should get rid of its death penalty and replace it with life without parole. The Legislature should heed their call.

    I say this not because I think these people deserve to live. I don't. But I've lived through the state's process of trying to kill one of them, and I can say without hesitation that it is not worth the anguish that it puts survivors through.

    If you haven't lived it, you can't know. But I lived it. And I know.

    A serial killer ripped Deirdre away from us in 1982. My family had no idea, then, that our ordeal was just beginning. All we knew was that the worst of the worst had happened, and the person who did it should pay the ultimate price -- the death penalty.

    From 1982 until 1990 I lived day to day, appeal to appeal, decision to decision. We woke up every day wondering what might happen that day. Will there be another appeal? Another motion? What new decision might come down?

    The toll it took on me and my family was horrendous. And my experience was not unique. A Department of Justice study found that 70 percent of husbands and wives in my situation divorce, separate or start abusing drugs or alcohol. Family members have different views on capital punishment, and the process eats away at us and tears us apart.

    The last straw for me came in 1990, eight years after the first trial. We were sitting through another retrial of the penalty phase. The judge had asked the jury during jury selection, "Could you be fair and impartial even if you knew that this man had committed another murder in Florida? Even if you knew that he had committed murder 12 days before his first trial? Even if you knew that he had already been convicted of murder in this case?"

    I listened to those questions and I thought, my God, of course this man should be put to death. As the trial proceeded, I thought, this is a lock. Soon we'll be done. And my emotion built as my confidence in the outcome solidified. And three hours later the jury came back deadlocked, and the man who killed my daughter was re-sentenced to life without parole. The trauma of that moment was indescribable. It was the first time I cried in a long time.

    Eight years of trials and retrials changed my mind about the death penalty. I learned the hard way that the death penalty is an albatross over the heads of victims' families.

    I often hear death penalty proponents say that it is needed to bring closure to victims' families. And I hear victims' families who morally oppose the death penalty say there is no such thing as closure.

    The truth lies somewhere in the middle. When the final appeal, the final retrial is over -- really over-- you come as close to closure as possible. There will always be articles, scenes, experiences that remind you of it. In 2005 alone there were two documentaries made about our case. And your loved one never comes back. So it's never fully over. But it's very different once you're not in the middle of the process.

    In that respect, there is some closure, and the death penalty forces that closure further away than any other punishment on the books.

    I have no sympathy for killers. I certainly will never forgive the one who took my pretty, compassionate, precious daughter away from me. But the punishment that most promised me a sense of justice only made my pain worse. Much worse.

    The state of New Jersey can make sure that not one more surviving family goes through what I had to endure. I learned the hard way. Let the Legislature learn from me, as the commission did -- end the death penalty. Life without parole is effective, swift and sure. And that is what victims' families need more than anything else.

    Jim O'Brien served as director of the New Jersey Victims of Violent Crimes Compensation Board. Now living in Maryland, he is a former Mendham resident and a former Morris County freeholder.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2007

    Turkeys vs. Humans?

    So a friend of mine and longtime abolitionist, Marshall Dayan, well known in this community and a past recipient of NCADP's Lifetime Achievement Award, put this thought in my head. And oh my, we have to blog on it!

    Seems President Bush today, in the annual pre-Thanksgiving ritual, pardoned two turkeys. I think we are now into the double digits if you consider the number of turkeys Bush has pardoned while serving as the leader of the most powerful nation's Executive Branch.

    By contrast, during Bush's one and a half terms as Texas governor, he managed to pardon one human being who was on death row. Actually, it wasn't even a pardon -- it was a commutation. Henry Lee Lucas, who was about to be executed for a crime he did not commit, had his sentence commuted to life in prison. He died not too long afterwards.

    For those who wonder just our far the Fourth Estate has fallen, check out this breathless coverage:

    Press corps turns out to see lucky turkeys escape death

    President Bush pardoned the annual Thanksgiving turkey Tuesday

    The turkeys -- a primary and an alternate -- are named May and Flower

    Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to name them Lunch and Dinner, Bush said

    Pardoning of the turkeys is a tradition entering its 60th year

    By Erika Dimmler, Brianna Keilar, Suzanne Malveaux and Emily Schultze

    In this Behind the Scenes, CNN correspondents who cover the White House give a window into what it's like being a witness to history -- in this case, the president's annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon.

    WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As members of the White House press corps, we often get a front row seat to history. But it's normally not a mosh pit. Today's event was a little different.

    A jampacked crowd gathered at the Rose Garden to watch President Bush pardon the annual Thanksgiving turkey.

    Everyone turned out. Network correspondents? Check. Scribblers and bloggers? Doublecheck. Every still photographer who has covered the White House seemed to be there, too.

    What about White House staff? Check. Even Chief of Staff Josh Bolten was there, accompanied by actor and fellow musician John Corbett.

    The president announced the names of America's most famous turkeys -- a primary and an alternate -- as voted on by America.

    May and Flower were the winning monikers, which, the president remarked, was "certainly better than the names the vice president suggested, which was Lunch and Dinner."

    (Or, Scooter and Libby, as one member of the press corps was overheard suggesting).

    May was subdued throughout most of the ceremony but managed to show a bit of gratitude with a few audible "gobble gobbles" toward the end of the president's speech, as he offered thanks for the men and women of the U.S. military. Watch Bush pardon the Thanksgiving turkey »

    Jaded members of the press corps lined up after the ceremony to get their photo snapped with America's most famous bird.

    Both turkeys then alighted onto their personal three-vehicle motorcade, complete with blaring sirens and police motorcycles, en route to Dulles airport.

    Once at Dulles, they will fly first class on United Turkey One to Orlando, Florida, where May will serve -- not be served -- as Grand Marshall in Disney's Thanksgiving Day parade.

    When the birds land in Orlando they will be welcomed with a red carpet reception. According to Disney's Michelle Stepney, all passengers on today's United Turkey One will be given free passes to Disney World.

    Monday, November 19, 2007

    Joe Hill, organizer

    102 years ago today, labor activist Joe Hill was wrongly executed by the state of Utah. You can read about his case here.

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Friday challenge

    Which one of these six jurisdictions will be the first to abolish the death penalty? Which will be the last?

    1. Alabama
    2. China
    3. Iran
    4. Oklahoma
    5. Saudi Arabia
    6. Texas

    My prediction, in order of first to abolish the death penalty to last:

    1. China
    2. Iran
    3. Texas
    4. Oklahoma
    5. Alabama
    6. Saudi Arabia

    Several notes:

    1. Some folks might wonder why I am placing Texas ahead of Oklahoma and Alabama. Is it bias because Texas is my home state? No. At least I don't think so. My operational theory here is that Texas is making so, so many mistakes in every imaginable way, that state legislators will suspend all executions either indefinitely or permanently simply out of sheer embarrassment. Oklahoma and Alabama are making mistakes as well, but on a smaller scale. Texas is, after all, the second most populous state in the nation.

    2. Some may wonder if I am being incredibly pessimistic here, saying that China and Iran will abolish the death penalty before Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama. Not really. Rather, I am being quite optimistic for China and Iran. I think things are going to happen in those two countries that will cause a cessation of executions in just a few years. The one jurisdiction I am VERY pessimitic about is Saudi Arabia. Even if the royal family is overthrown, which I think it inevitably will be, I believe sharia will remain the law of the land. Iran has tasted secularism; Saudi Arabia has not.

    New blog at AU

    Some graduate students at American University have been blogging around the case of Troy Anthony Davis. Check it out here.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    And the sky did not fall

    This just popped up in my email box from Renny Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

    The United Nations General Assembly just passed a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions! The vote was 99 in Favor, 52 Against and 33 Abstentions.
    Another step toward a world without the death penalty!

    Of course, we shouldn't abolish the death penalty because the U.N. says we should or France or Germany or Canada say we should. We should abolish it because it is flawed public policy.

    The resolution entitled ‘Moratorium on the use of the death penalty’ was supported by 99 governments, while 52 voted against it and 33 abstained. The text of the resolution, stipulates inter alia that:

    Considering that the use of the death penalty undermines human dignity, and convinced that a moratorium on the use of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights, that there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable,” […]

    The General Assembly, […] Calls upon all States that still maintain the death penalty to: […]Establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty;

    Wednesday, November 14, 2007

    Update: Iranian execution halted

    Execution in Iran Halted: IGLHRC Cites Global Protest as Central
    November 14, 2007

    The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has learned that the Iranian Chief Justice, Ayatollah Seyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, has nullified the impending death sentence of Mr. Makvan Mouloodzadeh, a 21-year old Iranian citizen found guilty of multiple counts of anal rape (ighab), allegedly committed when he was 13 years old. The Iranian Chief Justice described the death sentence to be in violation of Islamic teachings, the religious decrees of high-ranking Shiite clerics, and the law of the land.

    "This is a stunning victory for human rights and a reminder of the power of global protest," said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC's executive director, who on November 5 sent a letter in Persian and English asking that Iranian authorities intervene to halt the execution.

    The verdict in Mr. Mouloodzadeh's case was questionable from the outset. Although no one ever accused him of rape, the court declared otherwise. All parties involved in the case told the court that their statements during the investigation were either untruthful or coerced. The investigation was also riddled with procedural irregularities.

    Recognizing that the death sentence in this case violated both international law and the Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran, IGLHRC took action. In addition to writing letters to the Iranian authorities, IGLHRC issued an action alert on November 5, 2007, which prompted other human rights advocates to similarly object. Activists from around the world responded by sending over 100 emails demanding an immediate halt to Makvan's execution. Other human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Iranian Queer Organization issued action alerts of their own.

    "It is absolutely imperative that we halt the deplorable use of the death penalty to force social conformity," said Ettelbrick. "We hope that Makvan's case and the profound rejection of the death penalty by the Iranian Chief Justice sets the course for the future in Iran."

    After a designated group of judges from the Chief Justice's office formally nullifies the court's decision, the case will be sent to a local court for retrial.

    Iranian execution, part 93

    Date: Wed, 14 Nov 2007 11:59:51 +0000
    From: Peter Tatchell
    Subject: Iran - execution for sodomy

    Iran to hang man for sodomy
    Despite witnesses withdrawing their allegations
    "Confession" secured after ill-treatment in prison
    Amnesty International calls for URGENT ACTION

    London - 14 November 2007

    "Sentencing Makwan Moloudzadeh to death violates Iranian law and international human rights conventions," said gay human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell of the UK LGBT rights group, OutRage!

    "Executing a person for an offence they allegedly committed when they were a minor, below the age of criminal responsibility, is particularly heinous and barbaric.

    "Makwan is the latest victim of Tehran's on-going homophobic campaign of imprisonment, torture, flogging and hanging," he said.

    Makwan Moloudzadeh, a 21 year old an Iranian Kurd, has been sentenced to death in the city of Paveh, following his conviction for an act of sodomy that he committed while still a minor, aged 13, with another minor, also aged 13, according to Amnesty International.

    See the Amnesty International briefing below and here:

    "Under Iranian law, same-sex acts are illegal and punishable by death. The Iran penal code also stipulates that the age of criminal responsibility is 15 lunar years and offenders under this age are exempt from criminal punishment," added Mr Tatchell.

    "At worst, according to Iranian law, Makwan should have received up to 74 lashes, not a sentence of death. Males under 15 are classified as minors and are usually not subject to criminal sanctions, especially not the death penalty.

    "Makwan was 13 at the time of the offence. His partner was also 13.

    "The Iranian authorities allege that Makwan raped the other boy but the offence of male rape does not exist in the Iranian penal code. Moreover, no one involved in the case accused Makwan of rape, according to research by the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

    "As in the UK and the US, in Iran all sex involving children is automatically deemed sexual assault - even if it takes place with consent between partners of the same age.

    "Following alleged physical ill-treatment in prison, Makwan is said to have made a confession under interrogation. At his trial, however, he reportedly protested his innocence. Several people who made allegations against Makwan have since withdrawn their claims.

    "Under these circumstances, it is particularly reprehensible that Iran intends to proceed with this execution.

    "OutRage! urges everyone - gay and straight - to support the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission's campaign to save Makwan's life. We also call on our friends and supporters to write appeals for clemency to their local Iranian Ambassador," said Mr Tatchell.

    Friday, November 09, 2007

    The first tip of the first domino

    Today the Speaker of the NJ Assembly held a press conference to announce that he has scheduled a vote to abolish the death penalty in New Jersey. Not later than January 7 (the last day of the current NJ legislative session), and possibly even in December (the 13th or the 17th), New Jersey may well become the first state in the post-Furman era to legislatively abolish the death penalty (Iowa and West Virginia did so in 1965.)

    Here's a bit of video from the press conference by BlueJersey blogger Jay Lassiter.

    News items will be posted here over the coming weeks....

    It's history in the making!


    Things are heating up in Texas

    If you follow death penalty news, you know about the situation in Texas. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals -- well, more specifically, Presiding Judge Sharon Keller -- refused to allow a death penalty appeal to be filed 20 minutes after 5 p.m., and as a result an inmate was executed, even though his execution likely would have been stayed due to the lethal injection protocol challenge currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Two developments since then are worth mentioning. First, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to begin accepting emergency appeal applications via email. And second, the mainstream magazine Texas Monthly -- hardly a mouthpiece for the abolition movement -- is publishing a piece calling for Keller's impeachment. Here it is (hat tip, as usual, Steve Hall):

    Impeach Sharon Keller!
    Four hours before convicted murderer Michael Richard was executed by the State of Texas on September 25, his lawyers notified the Court of Criminal Appeals that, because of computer problems, his appeal wouldn't be filed until fifteen to thirty minutes after 5 p.m.-the hour at which the court's offices closed.

    This was no ordinary appeal: That very morning, the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to review the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution. Still, Sharon Keller, the CCA's presiding judge, slammed the door shut on Richard's life.

    "We close at five," she said. Keller's fellow judges publicly expressed their anger at her actions, as did several hundred defense lawyers and judges, who signed complaints filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to discipline her and remove her from the bench. (Responding to the outcry, on November 6 the CCA announced a new "e-mail filing system for urgent pleadings.")

    This is hardly the first time Keller has sacrificed fairness for toughness. In 1998, in her determination to keep convicted rapist Roy Criner in prison, she turned a blind eye to DNA evidence that indicated he hadn't committed the crime; fellow judge Tom Price said the decision made the Texas court a "national laughingstock." Well, no one is laughing now.

    When a man's life is on the line-to say nothing of the U.S. Constitution-our top criminal judge should behave like one: with prudence, fairness, and a calm
    hand. It's time for Keller to go. If the commission doesn't act quickly,
    we'll have to wait until January 2009, when the Legislature-which has the power to oust high judges-reconvenes, or worse, 2012, when Keller is up for reelection. The fact is, we need to do it now. Impeach Sharon Keller.

    Thursday, November 08, 2007

    And the sky did not fall

    Looks like someone in Massachusetts could use a lesson in floor management/vote counting 101...

    House rejects death penalty
    Thursday, November 08, 2007

    BOSTON - The state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday against reinstating the death penalty in Massachusetts.

    The 110-46 vote was by a larger margin than past years, and came after a little more than an hour of debate.

    Gov. Deval L. Patrick had pledged to veto the bill if it were approved.

    The bill defeated yesterday was almost identical to legislation filed by former Gov. W. Mitt Romney, who wanted to create a "gold standard"
    for capital punishment.

    Backers of the legislation said the state should have the right to use the death penalty in the most heinous cases, such as the killing of a police officer or a child. They said capital punishment can be an effective deterrent and can provide justice to society and families.

    "There are some cases that are so heinous, it's an appropriate punishment," said Rep. Mary S. Rogeness, R-Longmeadow, who supported the bill.

    Opponents said the death penalty is too expensive and immoral. They also questioned whether the death penalty can be administered without errors.

    "I have always been opposed to the death penalty," said Rep. Sean F.
    Curran, D-Springfield. "The justice system is made up of people, and sometimes people make mistakes. When you're talking about the death penalty, there is no room for error."

    Rep. Angelo J. Puppolo Jr., D-Springfield, said he did his homework and then voted against the bill.

    "I do oppose the death penalty," he said. "Until we can be 100-percent sure that we're not going to take the life of an innocent person, I don't feel comfortable supporting that."

    In 1997, the House initially approved the death penalty in a dramatic
    81-79 vote. But a House member switched his vote on the final tally that year, and the bill was defeated on a tie vote.

    In 1999, the House voted 80-73 against the death penalty, and in 2001 the vote was 92-60 against it.

    In 2005, the House voted 99-53 to defeat the death penalty when Romney was governor.

    Last month, Patrick issued a statement that questioned why legislators conduct an "annual spectacle" of a death penalty hearing when there are more urgent concerns about public safety.

    Kevin M. Burke, public safety secretary, read Patrick's statement during a legislative hearing on the death penalty.

    Wednesday, November 07, 2007

    New documentary in the works

    Hat tip to Steve Hall for alerting us to this:

    At the Death House Door

    Director/Producer: Steve James, Peter Gilbert Executive Producer: Gordon Quinn
    Status: Production

    In production for The Independent Film Channel...At the Death House Door is the story of the wrongful execution of Carlos DeLuna and the Death House Chaplain, Pastor Carroll Pickett, who spent the last day of DeLuna's life with him. The feature documentary, currently in production, follows the remarkable career journey of Pickett, culminating in the story of DeLuna, a convict whose execution bothered Pickett more than any other. He firmly believed the man was innocent, and the film will track the investigative efforts of a team of Chicago Tribune reporters who have turned up evidence that strongly suggests he was. The documentary takes a very personal and intimate look at the death penalty in Texas, the first state to do lethal injection. Pickett was present for the first lethal injection in 1981. At the Death House Door is a Kartemquin Films Production in association with the Chicago Tribune.

    You can read more by going here.

    Monday, November 05, 2007

    A word regarding deterrence

    I always found studies about the death penalty and deterrence rather laughable. Think about the typical death penalty case out of Harris County, Texas, which sends more people to death row than any other county.

    Maybe you have a younger guy, perhaps in his twenties. Maybe he is addicted to crack cocaine. Maybe he plans a robbery so that he can get drugs or money to buy drugs and something goes terribly awry. He isn't thinking, "Oh, I better not kill -- I might get the death penalty and be executed in eight or ten or twelve years."

    No. He's thinking, "How am I gonna get my next fix?"

    I mention this because the well-respected Capital Defense Weekly, in a post entitled, "They seem to be getting desperate," takes down the "death penalty deters" argument a peg or two. You can read his argument here, along with a bit of give-and-take with the author of one of the disputed studies.

    Friday, November 02, 2007

    What method of execution do we favor?

    We actually get that question from time to time from the news media. Which method of execution do we most favor? Lethal injection? Electrocution? Asphyxiation?

    The question brings out in me my (occasional) annoyance with reporters. Of course we don't favor any method of execution. There's no kind, happy, humane, natural way to kill someone.

    I was out having dinner with my friend Eva last night and relayed this question to her as an example of what kinds of crazy questions we sometimes field.

    Without missing a beat, she said, "Next time tell 'em 'OLD AGE!'"

    Heh. Pretty good, that.

    Execution by old age. Or, death in prison.

    Big goings-on at the U.N. today

    Press Release
    For Immediate Release


    Signatures were collected worldwide by the Community of Sant’Egidio and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

    A delegation of anti-death penalty activists from around the world will meet with the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Srgian Kerim, on Friday, November 2, at 10:30 AM, to deliver a petition containing over five million signatures that urge the General Assembly to pass a resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.

    The delegation, led by Mario Marazziti of the Community of Sant'Egidio, will include Sister Helen Prejean, leading American advocate of the abolition of the death penalty and the woman behind the movie Dead Man Walking, Yvonne Terlingen, Head of Amnesty International's UN Office in New York, Renny Cushing, Marie Verzulli, and Bill Babbitt from Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, an international organization of victims' family members and family members of the executed, Speedy Rice from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Elizabeth Zitrin, member of the executive board of Death Penalty Focus.

    Angola, Albania, Brazil, Croatia, Gabon, Mexico, the Philippines, Portugal (for the EU), and New Zealand are presenting the text of the resolution to the General Assembly as a cross-regional initiative. Close to one hundred other countries have signed on as co-sponsors.

    After meeting with the President of the General Assembly, the delegation will hold a press conference at 11:00 AM at UNCA CLUB, UN, Room 326, at the Third Floor of UN Headquarters.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007

    What part of "NO" does Alabama not understand?


    It's a wonderful word, beautiful in its simplicity and straightforwardness.

    It is one of the first words most children learn, because, hopefully, they hear it often enough from Mom and Dad.

    No. An N and an O. No. It can be "No." or "No!" or even "NO!"

    The meaning is crystal clear.

    Unless, of course, you happen to be the State of Alabama.

    Last night, as people who follow the death penalty are well aware, the U.S. Supreme intervened to stop a scheduled execution in Mississippi. (Mississippi...a much more complicated word than the word "No." But I digress.)

    Anyway, every legal expert in the country who knows anything about the death penalty knows the significance of the Court's action. Let's pick up Linda Greenhouse, writing this page one, lead story for The New York Times:

    Moments before a Mississippi prisoner was scheduled to die by lethal injection, the Supreme Court granted him a stay of execution on Tuesday evening and thus gave a nearly indisputable indication that a majority intends to block all executions until the court decides a lethal injection case from Kentucky next spring.


    Even without a written opinion, the Supreme Court’s action on Tuesday night clarified a situation that had become increasingly confusing as state courts and the lower federal courts, without further guidance from the justices, wrestled with claims from a growing number of death-row inmates that their imminent executions should be delayed.

    State and lower federal courts are likely to interpret the Supreme Court’s action as a signal that they should postpone executions in their jurisdictions. As a result, the justices will probably not have to consider any more last-minute applications from inmates while the de facto moratorium is in effect.

    So what does the Alabama Supreme Court do? Why, this very morning, they set a Dec. 6 execution date. We're not joking. In Alabama, "No" means "Yes."

    Or perhaps "No" means "Why, of course!" or "We can't see any reason why not!"

    More from Greenhouse at The New York Times:

    In the application for a stay of execution, filed Monday afternoon, Mr. Berry’s lawyers acknowledged that the Supreme Court itself has been critical of last-minute requests from death-row inmates, “especially if the petitioner has been trying to manipulate the legal process.” But the lawyers urged the court to look beyond that issue and to consider “a balancing of the equities and hardships of the respective parties.”

    In this instance, the lawyers said, Mississippi “will suffer no prejudice other than a delay if Mr. Berry’s execution is stayed,” while Mr. Berry “on the other hand, will suffer the risk of being put to death by an unconstitutional means.” They added, “It is clear that irreparable harm will result if no stay is granted.”
    David P. Voisin, one of the defense lawyers, said the Supreme Court’s action was “a positive sign that as long as this issue is under consideration, the court is going to hold executions.”

    Well. We've got one word for the State of Alabama.

    It starts with an 'N' and it consists of two letters.

    Happy Halloween -- there's a new blog in town!

    A friend and former colleague of mine today launches a new blog aimed at looking at the history of executions -- or, more precisely, of those executed. You can find it here.

    Jason describes his blog this way:

    Executed Today is a blog of history, sociology, biography, criminology, law, and kismet —- an unrepresentative but arresting view of the human condition across time and circumstance from the parlous vantage of the scaffold. This blog each day chronicles an historical execution that took place on that date, and the story behind it.

    My own background is out of the abolition movement, where I worked for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty until early 2005.

    You'll probably find that history reflected not so much in the blog's editorial stance (officially, it's not an anti-death penalty blog) and more in the overall tone, which aspires (notwithstanding the somewhat ghoulish choice of Halloween for a launch) to respectfulness for the wide variety of people caught up in this strange institution. Fundamentally, it's a work of historical exposition ... and like most abolitionists, I tend towards the view that the death penalty gets less appealing the more one looks into it.

    Check it out!

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007

    Breaking news out of Arkansas

    What seemed like a closely held secret early yesterday flew with the speed of the Internet all the way to the pages of the New York Times this morning. Rather than repeat what already has been written, I'm just going to post the New York Times story in its entirety.

    Two questions: When does Damien Echols get out of prison and how many other innocent people are there on Arkansas' death row?

    Defense Offers New Evidence in a Murder Case That Shocked Arkansas

    In 1994, 3 teenagers in the small city of West Memphis, Ark., were convicted of killing 3 8-year-old boys in what prosecutors portrayed as a satanic sacrifice involving sexual abuse and genital mutilation. So shocking were the crimes that when the teenagers were led from the courthouse after their arrest, they were met by 200 local residents yelling, "Burn in hell."

    But according to long-awaited new evidence filed by the defense in federal court on Monday, there was no DNA from the 3 defendants found at the scene, the mutilation was actually the work of animals and at least 1 person other than the defendants may have been present at the crime scene.

    Supporters of the defendants hope the legal filing will provide the defense with a breakthrough. 2 of the men, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, are serving life in prison, while one, Damien W. Echols, is on death row. There was no physical evidence linking the teenagers, now known as the West Memphis 3, to the crime.

    "This is the 1st time that the evidence has ever really been tested," said Gerald Skahan, a member of the defense team. "The 1st trial was pretty much a witch hunt."

    Brent Davis, the local prosecutor, did not respond to requests for comment about the new evidence and the case, but in general prosecutors and investigators have continued to express confidence in their investigation.

    The story the defendants' supporters have presented of 3 misfits whose fondness for heavy-metal music made them police targets has won the men the support of celebrities like Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Marilyn Manson and the creators of "South Park." Many learned of the case through an HBO documentary, "Paradise Lost," and a sequel.

    The prosecution hinged on a confession riddled with factual errors and a Satanic cult expert with a mail-order degree. Mr. Echols's own lawyer called him "weird" and "not the all-American boy."

    Many viewers who watched the sequel, in fact, concluded that the police should have been investigating John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the children, who made seemingly drug-addled, messianic speeches on camera, gave the filmmakers a blood-stained knife, and had a history of violence and run-ins with the police. His child, Christopher Byers, was the most badly mutilated of the 3.

    But there was a surprise in the new forensic report filed by Mr. Echolss
    lawyers: a hair found in one of the knots binding the children belonged most likely to the stepfather of another of the victims, not to Mr. Byers.

    The 3 victims Christopher, Steve Branch and James Michael Moore were last seen riding their bikes on May 5, 1993. They were found the next day in a drainage ditch in Robin Hood Hills, near West Memphis, a low-rent town across the Mississippi River from Memphis. The boys were naked and hogtied with shoelaces.

    The police quickly zeroed in on Mr. Echols, then 18, who was familiar to them because he was on probation for trying to run away with his girlfriend. They also believed he was involved in cult activities.

    But they could find little evidence against him until Mr. Misskelley, mildly retarded and with a history of substance abuse, came in to speak with them. At the time there was a $30,000 reward.

    After hours of questioning, Mr. Misskelley, 17, gave the police a taped statement that implicated himself, Mr. Baldwin, then 16, and Mr. Echols, then 19. Despite coaching by the investigators, Mr. Misskelley was incorrect in several significant details, including the time of the crime, the way the victims were tied and the manner of death. He said the children had been sodomized, an assertion that even the state medical examiners testimony appears to refute.

    The team of forensic experts assembled by Mr. Echolss lawyers, which included Dr. Michael Baden, the former medical examiner of New York City, also said there was no evidence of sexual abuse. Many of the wounds sustained by the victims were caused by animals, they said, including the castration of Christopher.

    As for the stray hair, the West Memphis Police Department and the stepfather it appears to belong to, Terry Hobbs, have discounted the finding, saying it could easily have been picked up at home by his stepson, Steve Branch. But Dennis P. Riordan, a lawyer for Mr. Echols, said the hair was found in the shoelaces tying Michael Moore, not Steve Branch.

    Further, Mr. Riordan said, a hair was found at the scene that most likely belongs to a friend of Mr. Hobbs who was with him for part of the evening.

    The court filing also argues that jurors relied on the statement Mr.
    Misskelley gave the police to convict Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, even though it was deemed inadmissible except in Mr. Misskelley's trial.
    Several jurors have acknowledged that they knew about the confession before the trial, though they did not say so during jury selection.

    The passing of time has not only allowed the defense to gather new information, but has also softened the public's belief in the guilt of the convicted men, said Mara Leveritt, the author of "Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three."

    "What I've seen in the past 14 years has been not quite a 180-degree, but maybe a 170-degree turn, Ms. Leveritt said. "It all comes down to, 'Where's the evidence?'"