By JOHN SCHWARTZ
Published: October 18, 2009
ATLANTA — “Pick your head up, buddy,” Tom Dunn said to Darius Nash, who had fallen asleep during the morning’s reading drills. “Sabrieon, sit down, buddy,” he called to a wandering boy. “Focus.”
Mr. Dunn’s classroom is less than three miles from his old law office, where he struggled to keep death row prisoners from the executioner’s needle. This summer, after serving hundreds of death row clients for 20 grinding, stressful years, he traded the courthouse for Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
The turmoil of middle school turns many teachers away, said the school’s principal, Danielle S. Battle. Students’ bodies and minds are changing, and disparities in learning abilities are playing out.
“A lot of people will say, I’ll do anything but middle school,’” she said.
But this is precisely where Mr. Dunn chose to be, having seen too many people at the end of lives gone wrong, and wanting to keep these students from ending up like his former clients. He quotes Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
The school has institutional architecture that brings prisons to mind, but Ms. Battle has warmed it with colorful paint and brighter light. Ninety-three percent of students are black and 5 percent Hispanic; some 97 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“I just walked in here and fell in love with the place,” Mr. Dunn recalled. His day begins at 8 a.m., when he stands by the school’s buzzing metal detector, checking bags, as nearly 600 students file through in a half-hour. It is not a popular job, but he uses the time like a politician working the plant gate at shift changes. Saying hello with a smile, he taps the bags, peeks inside, sends the students along. But he is also no-nonsense, with a “hey-hey-hey!” to pull back the ones who try to slip around the detector. Ms. Battle drops by to greet the students.
As a lawyer, Mr. Dunn said, he saw his job as “telling stories,” to help judges see each client as a human being who may or may not have done terrible things, but who suffered wrongs at trial or earlier in life — and who deserved fairness under the rule of law, perhaps even mercy.
He told clients’ stories while defense counsel in the Army Trial Defense Service, in Florida, in New York State and most recently at the Georgia Resource Center, the nonprofit law firm he led. Though the center does not keep a scorecard, the strategy has resulted in delayed executions, commuted death sentences and even overturned convictions, said Brian Kammer, who took over as executive director.
“If you’re just talking about the legal niceties of the case, you’re boring the heck out of the audience,” Mr. Kammer said. “You’re squandering the moral force of your argument.”
After decades of accumulating such stories, Mr. Dunn said, he recognized a common thread: the lack of a supportive authority figure like a teacher, of a helping hand that might have meant “the difference between a good life and a ruined life.”
Illness forced his decision to leave the law. In 2006, he ignored a sore throat and worked through two months of grueling hearings in four cases back to back. Bacteria entered his bloodstream, causing toxic shock; the infection caused deterioration in his spine and led to congestive heart failure. He recovered, but not fully; this year, Mr. Kammer recalled, Mr. Dunn met with the staff and said: “I have the heart of a 70-year-old man. If I continue to do this work at the level I want to do it, I’m going to die.”
The same day that he left the center, he showed up at the Atlanta training program of Teach for America. During his training, he focused on special education, recalling that he saw learning disabilities “in nearly every case” on death row. He now works mainly in classrooms that blend special education students with the general population.
When he interviewed with the administrators at King, though, he encountered skepticism. “I was just baffled by why he’d want to come here,” said Barbara Shea, an assistant principal, standing with Mr. Dunn as the hallways cleared and an afternoon class began. “I tried to warn him — I wanted him to understand it was not an easy job.”
Across the hall a classroom door opened, and the teacher pulled a tall, angry student out by his arm and asked Mr. Dunn for help. “He’s having a Taylor moment,” Ms. Shea said, referring to a girl in the class. “He wants to sock her in the mouth.”
The boy walked toward the exit, but Mr. Dunn argued him back to a chair where he sat, stormy and silent. Mr. Dunn talked softly to him, helping him to settle down. Walked to his office, Mr. Dunn chuckled at the thought that Ms. Shea might have seen him as a dreamer. “You can’t be a starry-eyed idealist and do defense work in capital cases for 20 years,” he said.
Propped against the wall in the office — actually, a converted teacher workroom that his colleagues pass through to get to a restroom — is a clipboard with a paraphrase of a quotation from former Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the United States Supreme Court: “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” It was from a dissent in a 1994 case in which the justice argued that “the death penalty experiment has failed.”
Mr. Dunn was in the office in August when he got word that the Supreme Court had ordered a lower court to reconsider the case of one of his best-known former clients, Troy Davis. At that moment, being out of the game was “really hard,” Mr. Dunn said.
But in the classroom, there is no hint of regret. In the afternoon, a student, Shamon Nations, abruptly asked, “What made you come to school and give up your other job?” He replied, “Because I love you guys.” Somehow, it does not sound saccharine.
Shamon was not satisfied. “Yeah, but what about the money?”
“I made a lot more money last year,” Mr. Dunn acknowledged. “But it’s not about money.”
Between classes, as he walked down the halls and the class bell rang, he stopped stragglers who might have been tempted to keep wandering. “Hey, buddy,” he asked one. “Where are you going?” He slipped an arm around the boy’s shoulder, and used it for leverage to give a gentle shove in the right direction.
Once Convicts’ Last Hope, Now a Students’ Advocate
Oct. 18, 2009
Screams, flames among horrors of botched US executions
US executions are meant to be clinical and humane, but for some they end up resembling medieval torture, complete with the smell of burning flesh, screams, and scenes so gruesome that witnesses faint.
"We put animals to death more humanely," reporter Carla McClain said of a 1992 execution she witnessed, in which Donald Eugene Harding writhed and thrashed in an Arizona gas chamber for over 10 minutes before dying.
Last month, Romell Brown became only the 2nd man to leave a US execution chamber alive, after 18 failed attempts to administer the lethal injection.
Authorities in Ohio decided to halt his execution after officials spent two hours trying to inject him with lethal chemicals.
Many of those executed in the United States in the last 25 years were not so lucky, suffering through executions in which flesh caught on fire, blood saturated shirts, and witnesses watched and listened as the condemned convulsed and screamed with pain.
In 1999, Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw reacted with horror to pictures of Allen Lee Davis, who was put to death by electric chair.
"The colour photos of Davis depict a man who -- for all appearances -- was brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida," Shaw wrote.
Davis had been strapped into an electric chair especially designed to fit his 160kg frame. As he was electrocuted, but before he was pronounced dead, blood poured from his mouth, soaking his white shirt and oozing through the buckle holes of the strap holding him down.
Michael Radelet, a professor at the University of Colorado, worked with the Death Penalty Information Centre to collect testimony on more than 40 botched instances from the witnesses required to be present at executions.
Horror stories have emerged about all the execution methods commonly used in the United States, including the electric chair, lethal injection and gas chamber, with most of the disasters due to human error.
In 1983 in Alabama, a 1st jolt of electricity caused the electrode attached to John Evans' leg to catch fire. Smoke and sparks also came from under the hood placed over his head, near where an electrode was strapped
to his left temple.
A 2nd jolt was administered, but despite the smoke and smell of burning flesh, doctors discovered Evans' heart was still beating and applied a 3rd jolt that finally killed him after 14 minutes.
2 years later, in Indiana, William Vandiver received 5 separate jolts of electricity over the course of 17 minutes before his heart stopped.
Jesse Joseph Tafero was sentenced to death by electric chair in Florida in 1990, but a synthetic sponge that was used during his execution caught fire, causing 6-inch flames to erupt from his head.
Sentenced to death by gas chamber in Mississippi in 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray had the misfortune to be put to death by an executioner who later admitted he was drunk. Gray's gasps and moans so horrified observers that the witness room was cleared by officials.
In recent years, several lawsuits have challenged the lethal injection as "cruel," but it continues to be used by most US states practicing the death penalty and the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 2008.
But for Bennie Demps, who spent 33 minutes of agony as execution technicians tried to find a back-up vein that could support an alternate intravenous drip in case the first one failed, the pain was excruciating.
"They butchered me back there. I was in a lot of pain. They cut me in the groin, they cut me in the leg. I was bleeding profusely. This is not an execution, it is murder," he said in his final statement.
In Angel Diaz's case, in Florida in 2006, a single dose of the lethal cocktails that anesthetise, paralyse and then stop the recipient's heart was not enough. The 1st injection went through his vein and out the other side, dispersing the chemicals into his muscles, forcing a 2nd dose to be given.
At times, the scenes have been gruesome enough to physically affect observers.
In 1989, in Texas, which holds the record for the most US executions, a male witness fainted after watching Stephen McCoy's violent writhing.
Some of the most recent horror stories come from Ohio, where Broom's execution was halted.
"It don't work! It don't work," yelled a sobbing Joseph Clark in May 2006, as the vein that executioners had worked 22 minutes to find collapsed while the chemicals were being administered.
A year later, Ohio authorities took 2 hours to successfully find veins and administer Christopher Newton the lethal injection. The process took so long, he was authorised to take a bathroom break.
The only other person to have survived execution in the United States was young black man named Willie Francis who survived a Louisiana electric chair in the 1940s. He was later put to death on a 2nd attempt.
(source: Agence France Presse)
Oct. 5, 2009
Texans sent to death row by bad science
On September 3, the Dallas Progressive Examiner reported on the conclusion
reached by Maryland's Dr. Craig L. Beyler, that two men were sent to
Texas' death row, because of bad science. Dr Beyler was hired by the Texas
Forensic Science Commission, to run a study of the investigations of two
fires resulting in deaths . Ernest Willis was convicted in 1987 of killing
2 women by setting a fire. In 2004, a new district attorney, suspected
that bad science had been used in the original investigation. The D.A.
ordered a new one, which cleared Willis. The 2nd case, was that of Cameron
Todd Willingham of Corsicana, who was convicted in 1992 of setting the
fire which killed his 2 year old daughter and 1 year old pair of twins. He
was executed in 2004
The Commission was scheduled to hold a hearing on Friday, October 2 in
Irving, at which Beyler was to testify about the study. 2 days before that
hearing, Governor Perry removed the chairman and two others from the
commission. The new chairman, reputed to be one of the most conservative
prosecutors in Texas canceled the hearing, and refused to say whether it
will be rescheduled.
Beyler, a nationally-recogniz ed expert in fire science, released his
findings in August. He found that there was no way that an investigator
could determine that Willingham intentionally set the fire that killed his
children. Willingham's prosecutor admitted that the fire science used to
prove that Willingham set the fire was bad, but said there were other
reasons he knew Willingham was guilty, such as the fact that Willingham's
feet weren't burned, as they would have been, if he had tried to rescue
his children. Beyler said that there was extensive documentation showing
that Willingham was burned.
Shortly before Willingham's execution, his attorneys found indications
that the investigation had been flawed, and applied to the governor for a
30 day stay, so that they could submit their findings to the court.
Perry denied the stay. He said that he didn't accept Beyler's findings and
felt there was further proof of Willingham's guilt.
Many experts condemned Perry's action of dismissing the commissioners.
Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project compared the firings of the
commission members to the Saturday Night Massacre, in which Richard Nixon
fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, before he was compelled to give
Cox the Watergate tapes. Sam Bassett, the chairman of the commission who
was replaced, said that forensic investigations should not be stopped by
political ramifications. Gerald Hunt, a chemist with an explosives
corporation who wrote Perry before the execution saying the investigation
had been faulty, said he is not surprised by Perry's actions, but that he
had not expected the governor to go so far. He thinks Perry doesn't want
the public to hear from Beyler, because Beyler's professional credentials
Perry's opponents in the gubernatorial race also spoke up. His Republican
opponent, US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, said that she is pro death
penalty, but only when we are sure of the person's guilt. Democratic
candidate Tom Schieffer said that "No one in public life should ever be
afraid of the truth", and called for the hearings to be rescheduled.
Most of the developed countries have abolished the death penalty. A list
of the nations who execute the most people is telling. The top 3 in order
are China, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Texas executes more people
than any other state.
(source: Dallas Progressive Examiner)
Oct. 5, 2009
Welcome to Texas: The Death Penalty State
You know those billboards you see on the side of freeways advertising new
subdivisions built in rural areas outside of town? "If you lived here,
you'd be home by now."
Someone needs to throw up a similar one next to the "Welcome to Texas"
signs you hit when coming in on I-10.
"If you'd done what our Governor has done, you'd be executed by now."
As the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004, sinks like
a rock, the truth has started to float to the top and the rats are
streaming out from all sides, led by none other than Texas Governor Rick
Perry. Perry has reason to be running - his office denied clemency to
Willingham just before he was executed, despite the fact that new
information was submitted from arson experts stating that "no evidence of
arson" was found (see Dare Devils: Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Death
This is the same Rick Perry - as a native Texan who voted for the Democrat
in that election, I feel honor-bound to remind you - who won with only 39%
of the vote in 2006. Even Texans know that at best this makes him
unpopular. It also means that our Governor, his hair a-glaze, has his work
cut out for him in his re-election race.
So it should come as no surprise that Perry is now pawing the ground like
a cat in a litter box, covering his tracks. Inconveniently for him, the
stink remains. As the state's Forensic Science Commission, which was set
up to investigate the Willingham case, was preparing a report on the
validity of the arson investigation, Governor Perry decided to replace
three of the nine members appointed to the commission. The chairman of the
commission was replaced with Williamson County District Attorney John
Bradley, who the Dallas Morning News calls "one of the most conservative,
hard-line prosecutors in Texas." The timing, according to the Dallas
Morning News, disturbed the former chairman, Austin lawyer Sam Bassett.
"In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues
in cases simply because there might be political ramifications, " Bassett
But political ramifications, particularly to a professional politician
who's been called everything from a "cyborg" to "Tricky Ricky," are
exactly what keeps our Texas Governor up at night, not the death of
innocent people, under-funded public schools, teen pregnancy rates or
children without health insurance.
For the rest of us, Willingham's final words are a chilling reminder
echoing in the news around the world this week nearly 6 years after his
execution: "I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I
have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."
But, ultimately, Governor Perry's statement regarding his not-so-covered
cover up says it better than anything I could ever write. In one moment at
a press conference this week, he took all that was taken from Cameron Todd
Willingham - a breath of life, a beat in his heart, an air of innocence -
and said, straight faced, that his decision to replace the board members
was, simply, "Business as usual."
Welcome to Texas.
Dare Devils: Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Death Panel
I've chosen to ignore most of the health care rhetoric. I know what I
believe -- the health care industry is so clearly broken that a thousand
monkeys typing explanations of benefits could come up with that conclusion
-- and I'm sick of hearing Republicans argue otherwise. But on the subject
of death panels, which Sarah Palin dropped into her recent Wall Street
Journal op-ed with a wink, like a 12-year old flashing a passing car --
"Dare me, guys?" -- I find the conservative argument bordering on the edge
of delusional. Republicans like Sarah Palin need to stop playing truth or
dare with people's lives.
Since when do conservatives care about anyone dying? With the exception of
their fetish for protecting a few eggs produced by women's ovaries every
twenty-eight days, the Republican Party has historically shown zero regard
for whether anyone lives or dies. People die every day, buried with
medical bills and coughing blood from their graves. The slaughter of
Iraqis is neither shocking nor awesome. Immigrants scrambling across the
border are not deserving of a life in this country, legal or otherwise.
Former Republican Party of Texas vice chairman David Barton, now enjoying
an appointment by the Texas Board of Education, has so little regard for a
human's life that he wants to strike Cesar Chavez from the history books.
In Barton's "expert" review of Texas schools' social studies curriculum,
he says Chavez "lacks the stature, impact and overall contributions of
others." He forgot to add, "Who are white" after that statement.
But the most disturbing representation of a life lost was the one
sentenced to Cameron Todd Willingham, who in 1991 lost his three children
in a house fire in Corsicana, Texas and was sentenced to death after
refusing a plea-bargain for life in prison. The New Yorker recently took
an in-depth look at the case, asking, "Did Texas execute an innocent man?"
Willingham, who maintained his innocence up to his death, spent 12 years
in prison going through the government's appeals process. The Texas Court
of Criminal Appeals, whose presiding judge is conservative Sharon "We
Close at 5 O'Clock" Keller, "was known for upholding convictions when
overwhelming exculpatory evidence came to light." The court denied
Willingham of his writ of habeas corpus and a month before his execution,
his file landed on the desk of Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin scientist and
fire investigator who began reviewing the case. Hurst's report, which
concluded there was "no evidence of arson," (a conclusion which has since
been reached by three additional investigations) was sent to Governor Rick
Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles along with Willingham's appeal
for clemency. The board members are not required to review any submitted
materials, and "usually don't debate a case in person." Instead, they cast
their votes by fax -- a process which, the New Yorker article states, "has
become known as 'death by fax.'" Even more troubling: "Between 1976 and
2004, when Willingham filed his petition, the State of Texas had approved
only one application for clemency from a prisoner on death row."
It is, in fact, Texas' own death panel.
Health care reform at best will offer an alternative to the people who
need it the most, stymie medical costs, and create change within an
industry that has been allowed to run rampant. At worst, it would be
symbolic proof that the option can be supported and improved from there.
In either case, it is not going to create a government panel to put people
to death. We already have one.
"The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted
of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for
something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return,
so the Earth shall become my throne."
- Cameron Todd Willingham's final statement, February 17, 2004
(source: Rachel Farris, Huffington Post)
October 3, 2009
Texas governor accused of covering up innocent man’s execution
The head of a Texas anti-death penalty group has accused that state's governor of scuttling an investigation into a possible wrongful execution for political reasons.
"[Texas Governor Rick] Perry saw the writing on the wall," Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, told CNN. "He moved to cover that up."
The "writing on the wall" Cobb was referring to was the investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission into the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 for the 1991 arson deaths of his three daughters.
Forensic investigations done since Willingham's conviction have found no evidence of arson. Nonetheless, Perry refused to grant Willingham a stay of execution in 2004, even though credible questions had already been raised about Willingham's guilt.
On Wednesday, Gov. Perry ordered the removal of three members of the forensics commission, and instituted a "political ally," as CNN described him, to head the committee. That ally is reported to have ordered the investigation into Willingham's execution delayed indefinitely, saying he "couldn't begin to guess" when the commission would reconvene.
As CNN's Randi Kaye noted, since Willingham's conviction, "three forensic investigations found there was no evidence of arson. None."
What's more, as RAW STORY reported in August, Gov. Perry was informed before Willingham's execution that the claim of arson made by fire officials and the prosecution in the 1991 trial was likely unfounded.
Put together, those facts may make Gov. Perry "the first governor in history to preside over the death of [a known] innocent man," CNN stated in a report aired Friday.
"Critics suggest he's trying to delay or maybe even derail the state's own investigation" into the Willingham case, CNN's Kaye stated. And the reasons for it may be quite obvious: The commission's final report would likely have arrived weeks before the primary gubernatorial election Perry faces next year.
Asked about the removal of the three commissioners, Perry stated: "Those individuals' terms were up, so we replaced them. There's nothing out of the ordinary there."
But, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram notes, some of those removed had already had their terms renewed.
CNN's Kaye noted that Perry "declined to make the time for an interview" for its report.
ACLU: 'EXTREMELY SUSPICIOUS' TIMING
"Gov. Perry said that the change was 'business as usual,'" the ACLU wrote on its blog Friday. "Unfortunately, his words ring all too true. Willingham is not the first likely innocent person executed by the State of Texas. Others include Carlos De Luna and Ruben Cantu. But the state has never acknowledged any of these tragic mistakes. Business as usual, all right."
The ACLU statement described the governor's timing for the removal of the three commissioners as "extremely suspicious, to say the least."
But some observers have gone further. Glenn W. Smith at FireDogLake states that Gov. Perry may have violated federal law when he shut down the investigation into Willingham's execution.
Smith argues Perry could be prosecuted under USC.18.1001, which makes it a crime for anyone "in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States" to "falsify, conceal, or cover up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact."
The federal statute applies, Smith argues, because Texas takes money from the federal government for its justice system, and the funding guidelines refer to the law directly.
"If firing three members of the commission and bringing to a screaming halt an investigation and hearing about the execution of an innocent man is not a trick to cover up material facts, nothing is," Smith wrote.
Source: The Raw Story
October 3, 2009
Executions enliven death penalty debate
John Allen Muhammad's scheduled Nov.10 Virginia execution enlivens the
debate over capital punishment, sampling the cadence of every high-profile
death penalty case marching to the beat of the count-down "drum."
Karla Faye Tucker, sentenced to death in the so-called "pickax murders,"
played unwitting but pleasant host to a media-frenzied event, attended by
reporters, and festooned in satellite trucks beaming up images of
demonstrators for and against the death penalty.
In such cases, the "wisdom of crowds," bristling with symbolic
"sticktights" and "hitchhikers" for their trouble, departs the field of
screams. In other words, we are no better and no more enriched by hoopla,
hype, and talking heads. The buzzing in our ears comes from too much
sound, and not from the jury.
Such grassroot convocations--whether flashlight-illumined or candle-lit,
in fertile acres of controversy and grim reaper
statistic-keepers--propagate a sub-culture of their own.
You've seen their huddled masses. Outside prisons on the day of execution,
in virtual or real-time attendence: popes and "nopes," cardboard
sign-wielders and murmuring prayer groups, most whose hearts and thinking
drive what they do.
Back home, the death penalty should--and maybe has--become dinner table
conversation, peppered with newscasts and children's questions: "Mommy,
Daddy, what is a death penalty?" Grown-ups linger over coffee and dessert,
wondering can the issue itself ever die?
To that end, scholarship and organized discussion have much to add.
Googling "death penalty" produces 4,500,000 results, while "capital
punishment" yields slightly fewer, or 4,420,000 returns. Likely, the
latter phrase reflects word usage and semantics.
Often, the heart moves to little beyond the sound of its own beat. From
brainstem to wishful thinking, be it the desire for life or for the life
of the one who has taken another's, the issue is just that simple: it
Looking at 2007 murder rate comparisons of the top 12 executing states
(below), as compared to murder rates of non-death-penalty states, lively
According to the above graphs:
1. Louisiana, "landlord" of legendary penitentiary Angola's death
chamber-- portrayed in the award-winning documentary, "The Farm: Angola
USA" -- had the highest 2007 per capita murder rate of surveyed death
2. Iowa--a non-death penalty state--had 2007's lowest murder rate at
approximately 1.2 per 100,000 people.
3. Non-death penalty states Maine and Hawaii also experienced
relatively-lower murder rates in 2007.
4. Arizona's 2007 murder rate per capita somewhat surpassed that of Texas.
To which death penalty advocates might say that the highest number of
executions--26 in Texas as compared to 1 in Arizona in 2007--acted as
deterrents, when comparing the murder rates of the two states. What's
more, according to the top graph, Texas death rates are actually below the
average or mean of 6.89--just under 7 per 100,000 people of the "Top 12
5. Overall, both graphs may prompt a question: excluding drugs, impaired
mental capacity and other medically-related bearings on murder, do
criminals who kill in death penalty states have death wishes of their own?
Or does race--not specified in these graphs--figure in? These are clearly
Moreover, at the time of their capital offenses, does knowing the state
will likely convict and execute them influence, even drive some crimes?
Could such aspects echo "suicide by cop" in a long-term sense? Such
questions are for experts to answer; lay-persons interested in criminal
behavior also might want more information.
While a first impression of the graphs makes one case for abolishing the
death penalty, such representations may generalize, when each crime is
unique. It is impossible to rely solely on numbers, because people are
neither numbers nor bars on a graph.
Still, if "trending" is not just a Twitter creation, in a NY Times article
by Dan Frosch, when asked if there is a general trend toward fewer
executions, or to abolishing capital punishment altogether, the Death
Penalty Information Center's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, states, "
I wouldn't say that the death penalty is being rejected by the public, but
there's definitely a reconsideration underway."
For some survivors of the murdered, capital punishment is one guarantor of
justice. For others, however, forgiveness and redemption offer measures of
life's continuum, after the funerals and tears.
(source: True Crime Examiner)
Local prosecutor has no idea why Perry removed him from Forensics Commission
A lawyer in the Tarrant County district attorney's office has no idea why Gov. Rick Perry replaced him on the Texas Forensic Science Commission this week.
Perry abruptly removed three members of the board, causing the cancellation of Friday's high-profile meeting in Irving on a report that a faulty investigation may have led to the execution of an innocent man.
The panel was considering a report critical of the arson finding leading to Cameron Todd Willingham's 2004 execution for the deaths of his 3 daughters in a 1991 fire, according to The Associated Press.
Alan Levy is one of 2 local members that Perry removed from the board Tuesday. The other, Aliece Watts, is a forensic scientist in Euless.
Levy's term had expired Sept. 1 but he didn't know that Perry was going to replace him.
"What his reasons for doing it, I have no idea," Levy said. "I feel like a jilted lover except that he's prettier than I am."
Levy said he wasn't going to assume that Perry replaced the board members as a way of forcing the meeting to be canceled until after the March primary.
"I've got my own thoughts but I don't have any way of knowing," Levy said. "It's just odd. I'll assume that this was just part of the normal process; but if it was, it certainly wasn't handled the way it should have been."
Levy said he got a call Tuesday about 4:30 p.m. from someone in the governor's office. The person said the governor was "going in a different direction," Levy said.
"I felt like a decaying fish they were trying to dispose of," Levy said. "Since the job doesn't pay anything, I've been thrown out of better places."
Levy had high praise for the way Commission Chairman Samuel Bassett of Austin ran the commission.
Levy said he had no idea why he, Watts and Bassett were replaced.
"Sam and I were the two lawyers. Everybody else was a scientist," Levy said. "The only thing that links us is Governor Perry, which of course isn't much of a link anymore."
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Perry replaces head of commission on execution
By ALLAN TURNER
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 30, 2009
In a surprise move, Gov. Rick Perry today appointed two new members
to a state commission investigating case of a Corsicana man who some
believe was wrongly executed for murdering his children — forcing the
cancellation of a meeting on the case scheduled for Friday.
Named to head the Texas Forensic Science Commission was John Bradley,
district attorney in Williamson County. Bradley cancelled Friday's
meeting at which the panel was to accept fire expert Craig Beyler's
analysis of arson investigators' work in the deadly December 1991
Three children perished in the blaze. Their father, Cameron Todd
Willingham, was convicted of capital murder and executed.
Bradley, who has been his county's chief prosecutor since December
2001, said he called off Friday's meeting because he didn't have
adequate time to study the arson case.
Beyler's report was extremely critical of the investigations by
Corsicana and state arson investigators, concluding they based their
arson ruling on outdated and sloppy procedures.
Beyler's was the third review to fault the arson investigators.
Outgoing commission chairman, Sam Bassett, an Austin defense lawyer,
expressed “disappointment” at Perry's timing in the naming of new
commissioners, but noted, “I understand that I serve at the pleasure
of Gov. Perry.”
Also replaced were commission members Alan Levy, head of the Tarrant
County District Attorney's criminal division, and Aliece Watts,
quality director at Euless-based Integrated Forensic Laboratories.
Perry named Norma Farley, chief forensic pathologist for Cameron and
Hidalgo counties to the panel, and will name a third member in the
A spokeswoman for the commission, which is headquartered at Sam
Houston State University in Huntsville, said the outgoing members'
two-year terms technically expired on Sept. 1.
Spokesmen for Perry's office did not offer immediate comments on the
timing of the appointments.
Levy, who, like Bassett, had served four years on the panel, called
Perry's timing on the appointments “unfortunate.”
“It will raise suspicions whether they are justified or not,” he
said. “This is a very important case. What this is going to do is
raise the temperature, and that will not be a good thing.”
Perry replaces head of commission on execution
High Cost of Death Row
Published: September 27, 2009
To the many excellent reasons to abolish the death penalty — it’s immoral, does not deter murder and affects minorities disproportionately — we can add one more. It’s an economic drain on governments with already badly depleted budgets.
It is far from a national trend, but some legislators have begun to have second thoughts about the high cost of death row. Others would do well to consider evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research organization that opposes capital punishment.
States waste millions of dollars on winning death penalty verdicts, which require an expensive second trial, new witnesses and long jury selections. Death rows require extra security and maintenance costs.
There is also a 15-to-20-year appeals process, but simply getting rid of it would be undemocratic and would increase the number of innocent people put to death. Besides, the majority of costs are in the pretrial and trial.
According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole.
North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.
Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. The state has executed 13 people since 1976 for a total of about $250 million per execution. This is a state whose prisons are filled to bursting (unconstitutionally so, the courts say) and whose government has imposed doomsday-level cuts to social services, health care, schools and parks.
Money spent on death rows could be spent on police officers, courts, public defenders, legal service agencies and prison cells. Some lawmakers, heeding law-enforcement officials who have declared capital punishment a low priority, have introduced bills to abolish it.
A Republican state senator in Kansas, Carolyn McGinn, pointed out that her state, which restored the death penalty in 1994, had not executed anybody in more than 40 years. In February, she introduced a bill to replace capital punishment with life without parole. The bill gained considerable attention but stalled. Similar arguments were made, unsuccessfully, in states such as New Hampshire and Maryland. Colorado considered a bill to end capital punishment and spend the money saved on solving cold cases. But this year, only New Mexico went all the way, abolishing executions in March.
If lawmakers cannot find the moral courage to abolish the death penalty, perhaps the economic case will persuade them to follow the lead of New Mexico.
High Cost of Death Row
Perry's certainty about execution ignores science
September 25, 2009
When a nationally respected fire engineer rebuked an arson investigation that sent a Texas man to his death, the country took notice.
The question of whether our state executed an innocent man spurred a national discussion, as media outlets from Nightline to The New Yorker explored whether the fiery deaths of Cameron Todd Willingham's three young children were a tragic accident or capital murder. A growing number of experts have rejected the finding that the fire was arson, arguing that investigators relied on folklore and junk science to reach that unsupported conclusion.
Most recently, an expert hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued a scathing report that detailed the many failings of the original arson-murder investigation. Dr. Craig L. Beyler wrote that investigators' conclusions could not be supported by modern science.
Beyler's emphatic rejection of the arson conclusion, coupled with similar findings by other forensic experts, have rightly compelled many to take a hard look at whether Texas got it wrong. On Friday, the Forensic Science Commission will take up Beyler's report and decide how to proceed in this case.
But Gov. Rick Perry has not let expert reports or modern science shake his belief that Willingham must be a murderer. So certain is the governor that he's delivered his own guilty verdict without bothering to wait for the Forensic Science Commission's own conclusions in the case.
Perry flippantly dismissed the findings of "supposed experts." Just in case his sarcasm wasn't evident, he added air quotes with his fingers to dismiss the nationally respected scientists.
The governor says he's seen nothing that would cause him to question this capital murder conviction. That's disappointing.
While it's difficult to say definitively whether a dead man was actually innocent, the prosecution' s original case appears to be unraveling. At the very least, Willingham would have sought a new trial and a chance to allow a jury to hear the more scientifically sound findings.
Prosecutors have said that other evidence – such as Willingham's strange behavior at the time of the fire – proves his guilt. But if they could not credibly argue that this was arson, how did he kill his family?
The very foundation of this case has been debunked, so it requires a leap in logic to argue that without proof of arson, Willingham somehow still was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Just as advances in DNA science have shed new light on physical evidence from old cases, improved scientific methods have helped experts understand how fire behaves and have provided new insights into arson investigations. To ignore these advances is irresponsible and risks the possibility of the state making a fatal error.
The governor would be wise to allow the commission to finish its work before making such definitive determinations. And as Perry considers this case, he should not allow reflexive certainty to trump science.
Meeting this week:
The Texas Forensic Science Commission will meet at 9:30 a.m. Friday at the Omni Mandalay Hotel at Las Colinas. On the agenda: a review and discussion of a new report that rebukes an arson investigation that led to Cameron Todd Willingham's capital murder conviction. The meeting will include a public comment period.
Perry's certainty about execution ignores science
Convicted Dallas-area cop killer wins reprieve
By MICHAEL GRACZYK
Associated Press Writer © 2009
The Associated Press
Sept. 23, 2009
HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday night stopped the scheduled execution of Texas death row inmate Kenneth Mosley a day before he was to receive lethal injection for the fatal shooting of a suburban Dallas police officer.
The court agreed to halt the lethal injection until it resolves an Alabama death penalty case that Mosley's attorney said could affect his case.
The Alabama case, to be heard by the high court in November, centers on whether a trial lawyer was constitutionally deficient in failing to raise objections during the punishment phase of the trial.
Mosley's attorneys have raised similar claims, saying his trial attorneys were deficient for not objecting to victim impact testimony from the officer's wife and for not calling witnesses to testify about Mosley's drug and alcohol addictions.
Mosley, 51, was condemned for the February 1997 shooting death of Garland Officer Michael David Moore.
Moore was responding to a 911 call about a robbery at a bank.
One of four bullets to hit Moore struck over the top edge of his protective vest. Mosley was shot in the wrist by another officer waiting outside and was arrested in the parking lot. Authorities found he was carrying a holdup note.
"As far as him committing the actual crime, it was open and shut," said Jason January, a former Dallas County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case. "Plus we had a videotape of the event taking place and eyewitnesses."
Mosley declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his scheduled punishment. He had an extensive criminal record he blamed on drug addiction. Evidence at his trial showed he sexually assaulted a woman, was arrested for possession of marijuana and illegal knives, got busted for stealing merchandise from a Home Depot and then returning the items for cash refunds and for robbing a Home Depot.
At the time of the shooting, he was wanted for a fast-food restaurant robbery five days earlier in nearby Mesquite and had been fired from his last known job at a Coca-Cola bottler for testing positive for cocaine.
Jurors who decided the Flint, Mich., native should be given the death penalty also heard how he told deputies guarding him during his capital murder trial that it would "make his day to kill another cop," according to court documents.
Mosley's trial lawyers didn't deny the shooting but argued it was accidental, that as he was trying to surrender the weapon it went off five times.
Moore was 32, married and the father of three. He went to high school in Middletown, Ohio, served four years in the Marines and in 1987 joined the Garland police force. He'd won numerous awards and commendations during his 10 years on the job.
Tuesday evening, Christopher Coleman, 37, was put to death for the slayings of three people in a Houston drug deal robbery. Next week, John Balentine, 40, faces lethal injection for the slayings of three teenagers at a house in Amarillo in January 1998.
Governor Rick Perry defends execution of Corsicana man some experts say was innocent
September 20, 2009
By TODD J. GILLMAN
The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – Governor Rick Perry today strenuously defended the execution of a Corsicana man whose conviction for killing his daughters in a house fire hinged on an arson finding that top experts call junk science.
"I'm familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it," Perry said, making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.
Even without proof that the fire was arson, he added, the court records he reviewed before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 showed "clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children."
These were the governor's first direct comments on a case that has drawn withering criticism from top fire experts.
Death penalty critics view the Willingham case as a study in shoddy – or at least outdated – science, and they consider it the first proven instance in 35 years of an executed man being proven innocent after death.
"Governor Perry refuses to face the fact that Texas executed an innocent man on his watch. Literally all of the evidence that was used to convict Willingham has been disproven – all of it," said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York that has championed the case. "He is clearly refusing to face reality."
Three independent reviews over the last five years, involving seven of the nation's top arson experts, found no evidence the fire was set intentionally. The most recent is a report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
The author, renowned arson expert Craig Beyler, blasts the investigators who handled the Willingham case, finding that they misread the evidence and based their conclusions on a "poor understanding of fire science."
The commission says it is reviewing the Beyler report and other evidence and will issue a conclusion next year.
The fire took place two days before Christmas 1991, and claimed the lives of Willingham's three daughters: 2-year-old Amber, and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron.
State fire investigators and Corsicana fire officials maintained that burn patterns, cracked windows and other signs pointed to arson.
Willingham, 24 at the time and an unemployed auto mechanic, had only superficial burns. He said he'd run outside after Amber alerted him to the fire, looking for the others, and couldn't reenter because the blaze grew so quickly.
He had a criminal record for burglary and grand larceny. He had once beaten his pregnant wife, and a jailhouse snitch said he'd confessed.
At trial, prosecutors told jurors that Willingham had intentionally left his daughters to die in a burning home.
But myriad scientists say that conclusion of arson was based on outdated training that, at the time of trial 15 years ago, had already been replaced by science-based methods that would have pointed to bad wiring or a space heater.
Willingham protested his innocence to the end. Strapped to a gurney awaiting lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004, he asserted that "I am an innocent man -- convicted of a crime I did not do."
The Board of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by the governor, had rejected the appeal his lawyers had filed three days earlier. Hours before the execution, the lawyers appealed directly to Perry.
The appeal included a report from a widely respected fire expert, Gerald Hurst, that cast serious doubt on the arson finding.
Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who was chief scientist for the nation's largest explosive manufacturer, says the signs used as proof that an accelerant had been poured were almost certainly the result of "flashover" – an intense heat burst that causes an entire room to erupt in flame.
The effects of flashover can mimic arson.
In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked three fire experts to evaluate the case. Their testing confirmed Hurst's report. The case was recently featured in an extensive article in The New Yorker, launching a new round of questions.
Perry, in Washington for a campaign fundraiser today and a speech tomorrow to conservative activists, said during an hour-long session with reporters that he does not believe the state executed an innocent man.
"No," he said. "We talked about this case at length. One of the most serious and somber things that a governor of Texas deals with is the execution of an individual.… We go through a substantial amount of oversight."
In 2006, the Innocence Project, using state open records law, obtained records from Perry's office regarding the last-minute appeal. The governor's office provided no documents that acknowledged the contents of the appeal or its significance, Scheck's office said – a "lack of action" that indicates the governor ignored critical analysis.
Perry, whose authority as governor is limited to delaying an execution for 30 days, said he reviewed the case extensively.
"I get a document that has all of the court process. It gives you all of his background, all of the court machinations on the legal side of it, and the recommendation of both my legal side and the courts. It's pretty extensive amount of information, " he said. "I have not seen anything that would cause me to think that the decision that was made by the courts of the state of Texas was not correct."
Governor Rick Perry defends execution of Corsicana man some experts say was innocent
Sept. 20, 2009
Last week, reports of executions one postponed in Ohio, one carried out
in Texas punctuated the news more frequently than usual. These reports
prompted me to reflect on an archive of executed prisoners' last words I
found on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site while
researching parole terms. The archive's earliest entry dates from Dec. 7,
1982; the most recent was added after Stephen Moody was executed on
Wednesday by lethal injection for murder.
What follows are quotations taken from inmates' last statements in Texas.
The statements, delivered before family members, relatives of victims,
friends and the press, are compiled out of chronological order.
CLAIRE CAMERON, the author of "The Line Painter"
Nothing I can say can change the past.
I done lost my voice.
I would like to say goodbye.
My heart goes is going ba bump ba bump ba bump.
Is the mike on?
I don't have anything to say. I am just sorry about what I did.
I am nervous and it is hard to put my thoughts together. Sometimes you
don't know what to say.
Man, there is a lot of people there.
I have come here today to die, not make speeches.
Where's Mr. Marinos mother? Did you get my letter?
I want to ask if it is in your heart to forgive me. You don't have to.
I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am.
Could you please tell that lady right there can I see her? She is not
looking at me I want you to understand something, hold no animosity
toward me. I want you to understand. Please forgive me.
I don't think the world will be a better or safer place without me.
I am sorry.
I want to tell my mom that I love her.
I caused her so much pain and my family and stuff. I hurt for the fact
that they are going to be hurting.
I am taking it like a man.
Kick the tires and light the fire. I am going home.
They may execute me but they can't punish me because they can't execute an
I couldn't do a life sentence.
I said I was going to tell a joke. Death has set me free. That's the
To my sweet Claudia, I love you.
Cathy, you know I never meant to hurt you.
I love you, Irene.
Let my son know I love him.
Tell everyone I got full on chicken and pork chops.
I appreciate the hospitality that you guys have shown me and the respect,
and the last meal was really good.
The reason it took them so long is because they couldn't find a vein. You
know how I hate needles. ... Tell the guys on death row that I'm not
wearing a diaper.
Lord, I lift your name on high.
From Allah we came and to Allah we shall return.
For everybody incarcerated, keep your heads up.
Death row is full of isolated hearts and suppressed minds.
Mistakes are made, but with God all things are possible.
I am responsible for them losing their mother, their father and their
grandmother. I never meant for them to be taken. I am sorry for what I
I can't take it back.
Lord Jesus forgive of my sins. Please forgive me for the sins that I can
All my life I have been locked up.
Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life
I am tired.
I deserve this.
A life for a life.
It's my hour. Its my hour.
I'm ready, Warden.
(source: Op-Ed, Claire Cameron, New York Times)
Sept. 20, 2009
Should doctors be allowed to assist in the execution of death-row
inmates?---- A not-so-lethal injection raises queries
Hippocrates famously wrote that doctors should do no harm, but physicians are among those being consulted by Ohio prison officials as they look for a method to successfully put Romell Broom to death.
Officials are talking with medical advisors about the possibility of using veins other than those in the arms and feet to administer a lethal injection to Broom, a convicted killer from Cleveland who last week became the 1st U.S. inmate since the 1940s to survive an execution attempt.
Doctors are part of the discussion, said Julie Walburn of the Ohio
Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Experts said that appears to be in violation of the American Medical
Associations code of ethics, which forbids "an action which would assist, supervise or contribute to the ability of another individual to directly cause the death of the condemned" and "rendering of technical advice regarding executions."
Broom's case underlines the dilemmas found at the intersection between
lethal injection and medical ethics.
"A problem inherent in lethal injection is, the persons most qualified are the ones who are unable to do it ethically," said Dr. Jonathan Groner, professor of clinical surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. "People have called it the Hippocratic Paradox."
Broom, 53, was sentenced to death for raping and killing a 14-year-old
girl he abducted while she was walking home from a football game with
friends 25 years ago. He stabbed Tryna Middleton 7 times.
On Tuesday, Sept. 15, executioners at the Southern Ohio Correctional
Facility at Lucasville pricked Broom 18 times over two hours as they tried to find a vein that wouldnt collapse. In an affidavit filed in court Friday, Broom claimed he cried out in pain as executioners hit muscle and bone with intravenous needles. He assisted his executioners in trying to find a viable vein.
Gov. Ted Strickland granted a one-week reprieve and said executioners
should try again on Tuesday. But a federal judge on Friday ordered a
temporary delay and set a hearing for Sept. 28 on defense attorneys' bid for a preliminary injunction against the execution. Brooms attorneys also have filed suit in the Ohio Supreme Court. They say a 2nd execution attempt would amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
Broom is the only inmate to survive an execution attempt since the lethal injection method was introduced in 1982. But 2 other Ohio inmates, Joseph Clark in 2006 and Christopher Newton in 2007, endured lengthy executions as executioners labored to find usable veins. The state changed its execution protocol after those cases.
"We have absolute faith in the process and the team members," Walburn
But Ty Alper, associate director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, said, "I think what
happened with Mr. Broom should give no one confidence in the process or the people. Mr. Broom had to help them. I mean, the whole thing is kind of ghoulish."
Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York, said the
history of lethal injection "has been abysmal. It's been botch after botch after botch."
The corrections department wont identify its executioners, but under its policy, the execution team must include people qualified under state law to administer injections who have at least one years experience as a certified medical assistant, phlebotomist, emergency medical technician, paramedic or military corpsman. Doctors arent involved, except to declare the inmates dead.
Joan Wehrle of the Ohio Medical Board said state law outlines 40 grounds for disciplinary action against doctors, from reprimand to permanent license revocation, including breaches of the AMA ethics code. Holly Fischer, general counsel for the Ohio Nursing Board, said nurses also could face disciplinary action for assisting in executions.
But Alper, author of an upcoming North Carolina Law Review article on the subject, said doctors have participated in executions, even directly, in other states. In fact, an Oklahoma anesthesiologist invented the three-drug lethal cocktail used by most states. "No doctor has ever been disciplined for participating in an execution in this country, and every court to consider the matter has concluded that state medical boards cannot impose discipline," Alper wrote.
Walburn said prison officials are being advised on different procedures for inserting intravenous lines and whether those procedures require people with higher credentials than those on the execution team. She said officials won't disclose the names of those giving the advice.
Groner said it usually requires a physician to put in central lines in the large veins in the neck, chest or thighs. "That would require a physician in the execution chamber," he said.
He thinks direct or indirect physician participation in executions is a "stain on the face of medicine."
"It defiles the profession in that they use the same skills they learned for healing to kill somebody," Groner said. "Thats what the Nazi doctors did."
(source: Dayton Daily News)
Sep. 19, 2009
Texas: The Kinder, Gentler Hang 'Em High State
By Hilary Hylton / Austin
Tim Cole couldn't tell his own story and so his family recounted the
saga to the hard-bitten Texas legislators last spring. The convict
had insisted he was innocent right up to the day he died. He had
refused parole because that would have required him to admit he was
guilty of raping a fellow student at Texas Tech University. The
ordeal was wrenching: Cole wept during the nights as he awaited a
trial that would sentence him to 25 years in jail. Twice during his
prison term he was found unconscious in his cell, the result of the
asthma that had plagued him since childhood. The third time he
suffered an attack, Dec. 2, 1999, he died from heart failure. Then,
in 2007, another man confessed to the crime and Cole was declared
innocent. The Texas lawmakers wept at the tale; and as a result, the
state that has the reputation of being toughest on crime came up with
one of the most generous and supportive programs to compensate those
wrongfully convicted: the Tim Cole Act.
"I think Tim Cole's story moved a lot of people," says Lubbock
attorney Kevin Glasheen, who represents 12 men exonerated after
serving lengthy terms for rape. "As far as the politicians go, there
are a lot of Republicans who do not like abusive government power."
But the legislators from both parties did more than shed tears. Apart
from the Tim Cole Act, they passed a second law this spring creating
a well-funded office of expert appellate lawyers to represent death
row inmates, a move to overcome the tales of sleepy defense attorneys
and inept lawyering. The two new laws are now being implemented and
their backers hope they will mitigate the state's hang 'em high
image. (Read a story about the decline in the number of death
sentences in Texas.)
The Tim Cole law provides $80,000 for each year of wrongful
incarceration and adds free college tuition, and financial and
personal counseling. Unlike past lump sum payments, the new
compensation will be paid out in a mix of monthly payments, an
upfront lump sum and an annuity which can be passed on through a
recipient's estate. The new law also sets up an investigative panel,
the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. (Read how the
tide is shifting against the death penalty.)
Glasheen's 12 clients are among 38 Texas prisoners cleared by DNA
testing thanks to the efforts of the New York-based Innocence
Project. He filed federal civil rights lawsuits on behalf of his
clients against several Dallas-area police departments and
municipalities. Facing a long, arduous legal process, Glasheen also
proposed a legislative solution to Dallas area civic leaders. The
legal fight would be expensive for both sides, Glasheen told them,
and the fundamental question was one of fairness. This spring, State
Senator Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat and a longtime champion of
the innocence projects, and State Senator Bob Duncan, a Republican
and, like Cole, a Texas Tech alumnus, sponsored the Tim Cole Act.
Glasheen, a self-described Republican from the "Libertarian wing of
the party," hopes new DNA testing on old evidence will free more
prisoners. However, that hope is limited: Dallas County kept evidence
on file, hence the large number of exonerated prisoners from that
area, but evidence in Houston was lost in a flood, and smaller
counties across Texas did not keep evidence once the appeals process
ran out. "There's a whole bunch of guys down there who were convicted
on just eyewitness identification, " Glasheen says, as Cole was. There
is now a national campaign to press a best practices written policy
for lineups and eyewitness evidence. Dallas has adopted the new
The second law passed by the legislature will set up new standards
and funding for indigent defense appellate counsel programs. Texas
was embarrassed by the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ordered a
new trial for a death row inmate whose lawyer slept through much of
his proceedings in Houston in 1984. It responded after the ruling by
boosting funds for indigent counsel. Despite that, studies showed
death row inmates were still often badly served by appellate counsel.
"Since 2004, 2005 there has been documented some horrible lawyering,"
says Andrea Marsh, executive director of Texas Fair Defense Project.
In one case, a habeas appeal was filed by an attorney who simply cut
and pasted an old appeal and changed the defendant's name, leaving
the facts of the old case in place, Marsh says.
"These cases piled up and there got to be a consensus that something
should be done," Marsh says. The conservative- dominated appeals
court, the Republican-led legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Perry
were not opposed to reform. "The courts, officials were tired of
being embarrassed all the time," Marsh says. The new Office of
Capital Writs, scheduled to be in place by 2010, will deal with new
cases, not those already in the pipeline.
The Tim Cole law and the new state-funded appellate office may not
change the image of Texas justice beyond the state. How outsiders
feel about Texas justice "probably depends on whether you are
universally opposed to the death penalty," Marsh says. "But the hope
[in Texas] is that we will stop seeing stories where the defendant
never had a fair shot."
Find this article at:
Texas: The Kinder, Gentler Hang 'Em High State
Error-prone death penalty system ensnares innocent
By JOHN HOLDRIDGE and CHRISTOPHER HILL
Cameron Todd Willingham's unthinkable story has shocked the conscience of many Americans. The state of Texas executed Willingham in 2004 for supposedly murdering his three children by setting their house on fire. His conviction was based in substantial part on testimony by the state's arson experts about the cause of the fire. A recent report by a fire expert hired by Texas condemns the state's arson testimony as bogus and unscientific.
In other words, Willingham almost certainly was innocent — as he desperately maintained until his last dying breath.
The expert's damning report has led to an onslaught of publicity about the case. However, this publicity should not mislead Americans into thinking Willingham has been the only innocent victim of our error-prone system of capital punishment. There have almost certainly been at least nine others, and possibly many more given the flaws in our criminal justice system revealed by the recent explosion in DNA exoneration. These include Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu, Gary Graham, Larry Griffin and, perhaps, Sedley Alley — names no doubt unfamiliar to most Americans.
The state of Texas executed DeLuna in 1989 for stabbing to death a clerk at a convenience store. At his trial, DeLuna's lawyers attempted to show that the murder was committed by a man named Carlos Hernandez. The lead prosecutor called Hernandez a “phantom.” Hernandez was real. A post-execution investigation by the Chicago Tribune showed that Hernandez almost certainly committed the crime, and Hernandez's family acknowledged that he boasted about getting away with the murder.
Cantu was executed by the state of Texas in 1993 for an attempted robbery-murder. His conviction was based on testimony from his co-defendant and a surviving victim of the attempted robbery. After Cantu's execution, both men recanted, and the victim disclosed that he had been coerced by police to identify Cantu. The prosecutor in Cantu's case, Sam Millsap, has since become a vocal campaigner against the death penalty.
In 2000, the state of Texas executed Graham, who changed his name while in prison to Shaka Sankofa. The evidence against him consisted of one eyewitness who, after being subjected to a suggestive photo lineup, said she saw Graham through her car windshield in a dark parking lot from 20 to 40 feet away. Other witnesses stated that Graham was not the murderer because the murderer was much shorter than he was.
Missouri executed Griffin in 1995 for a murder that occurred during a drive-by shooting. Prior to his trial, no one bothered to interview a surviving victim of the shooting who knew Griffin. When contacted after Griffin's execution, this victim stated categorically that Griffin was not involved in the crime.
Also after Griffin was put to death, the first police officer on the scene gave a new account that thoroughly undermined the testimony of the one witness who had identified Griffin as the murderer.
Not everyone is convinced that these men were innocent. Some assert that they have not been shown to be innocent beyond a reasonable doubt. That may be true in some of the cases.
However, absent DNA evidence, which exists in only about 10 percent of murder cases, a death-row inmate often has a nearly impossible time proving beyond a reasonable doubt that they did not commit a crime. As the old saying goes, it can sometimes be impossible to prove a negative. That is one reason why our criminal justice system requires prosecutors to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and does not require criminal defendants to prove their innocence.
DNA evidence did exist in Alley's case but it didn't do him any good. The state of Tennessee executed Alley in 2006 for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old servicewoman. Alley had confessed to the crimes, but a leading expert on false confessions concluded that his confession was probably false. There was a simple way to find out. The Innocence Project, which took on Alley's case, asked the courts to allow it to test the DNA evidence to see whether Alley was innocent. The courts and the state of Tennessee refused. Alley was put to death, despite the serious doubts about his guilt.
Willingham's case would be frightening enough if it were unique. The fact that there may be several innocent people who have been executed is abhorrent and should give any capital punishment proponent serious pause.
The execution of an innocent person is an irrevocable event that, as Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once wrote, comes perilously close to murder. No society should tolerate it. Of that, there can be no doubt.
Holdridge is director of the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project; Christopher Hill is state strategies coordinator for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.
Error-prone death penalty system ensnares innocent
Forgotten Families? A Visit to Death Row
Kevin's eyes were dark, wideand sad. Sad beyond anything I'd ever seen in
one so young. It was obvious he had experienced far too much in his brief
four or five years of life. And though he undoubtedly didn't understand
why things were as they were, he knew enough to realize his life wasn't
like that of other boys his age.
I met Kevin briefly nearly 15 years ago, and I haven't seen him again
since, though I've often wondered what became of him. A child who sees his
father only once a month under such stringent conditions has a tough road
ahead of him, to say the least.
My one-time meeting with Kevin and several others, including his mother,
took place on San Quentin's infamous Death Row, a place that has housed
such inmates as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. I had been invited to
come to the Row one Sunday afternoon, to meet and talk with one of the
inmates and to learn more about the prison ministry in which I was so
deeply involved at the time. Though I had mixed emotions about going, I
As expected, I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get inside the Row's
visiting area, more even than the usual number of hoops required to gain
entrance into any other correctional facility. But the inmate I met with,
whose wife had escorted me inside, had become a devout Christian since his
arrest and conviction years earlier, so our visit was a joyful one. Even
the correctional officers commented on the deep and genuine faith of this
particular inmate, referring to him as "the preacher" and proclaiming how
he freely shared that faith with anyone who would listenprisoner or guard
But it was the families of the inmates who most caught my attention.
Though we occasionally hear of someone who was falsely convicted of a
crime and eventually proven innocent due to new DNA technology or some
other breakthrough, for the most part I realize that nearly every resident
of San Quentin's Death Row is there because he murdered someone. But
guilty or not, repentant or not, most have families somewheresome who at
least occasionally come to visit them, some who don't. Whatever the
personal family situations, I couldn't help but wonder at the pain those
Now I've always been a strong victim's advocate, and my heart goes out to
the families of those who have lost loved ones as a result of a violent
crime. But that day on Death Row opened my eyes to the unique trauma
experienced by those whose father or son, husband or brother, prayed for a
miracle even as he counted his days until he walked the "green mile." As a
result, I have become a supporter of Angel Tree and other ministries to
families of those who are incarcerated. If you could have seen the look on
little Kevin's face that day as he visited his daddy on Death Row, you'd
understand and join me.
Of course, I've had many experiences during my jail/prison ministry days
that affected me just as strongly as my encounter with Kevin, one of which
was the opportunity to interview Charles "Tex" Watson, formerly of the
Manson Family. Though Tex was one of the actual murderers of both the Tate
and LaBianca families that awful night so many years ago, he has now
become a strong believer and ministers to many who live in the dark world
that exists behind bars. On another occasion, I had the opportunity to
help David Berkowitz (formerly known as "Son of Sam" but who has now
become a Christian and as such is known as "Son of Hope") edit his prison
memoirs, which are now published. I can tell you without hesitation that I
have no doubt of the sincerity of either of these men's faith.
Both of these experiences were real epiphanies for me, as I saw firsthand
what God can do with those who would often be considered unredeemable. But
as we know, with God nothing is impossible. I now pray for those within
the prison system whose lives have been changed by a genuine encounter
with Jesus Christ and who now work to share that encounter with others.
Some of the greatest evangelizing and discipling I've ever witnessed is
carried out by these transformed inmates.
I know. I'm walking a fine line here, between justice and mercy, and I am
not even getting close to expressing an opinion on the death penalty
issue. I am simply trying to bring a fresh awareness of families whose
loved onesfor whatever reasonare behind bars, families who might otherwise
be forgotten. I pray the result will be that it helps us all reach out to
the Kevins of this world, as well as the David Berkowitzes and Tex
Watsons, even as we humbly respect the law, defend the victims, and deal
justly and mercifully when it comes to crime. For isn't that what God has
called us all to do?
He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of
you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8, NKJV)
(source: Kathi Macias is the author of nearly 30 books and numerous
articles, including My Son, John, which deals with a woman whose mother is
a murder victim and her grown son, the perpetrator. My Son, John contains
resources for prisoners, their families, and those who minister to them.
Kathi can be reached via her website at www.kathimacias.com or her blog
Death penalty: a divided debate
The official definition for capital punishment, the death penalty or
execution, is the killing of a person by judicial process for retribution,
general deterrence, and incapacitation. The debate over the death penalty
has been going on for as long as anyone can remember.
Either Americans are finding they believe the death penalty is a harsh and violent way to punish someone for committing a crime, or they believe that those
sentenced with the death penalty deserve to be killed.
In the end, it comes down to whether one believes the golden rule do unto others as you would have them do unto you or their own rule, which goes a little more along the lines of: Do unto others as they did unto others.
Personally, I am not in favor of implementing the death penalty as a
serious option, not only because of the moral and ethical beliefs that
have been instilled in me but also because it isnt very economical to do
so. It actually costs more to use the death penalty than it would be to
keep that same person in prison for the rest of their life. In California
alone, the death penalty system costs taxpayers $114 million per year
beyond the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life.
These taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each of the states
executions. In Florida, enforcing the death penalty costs taxpayers $51
million more than the cost of convicting their murderers to a life
imprisonment in jail.
In Texas, the cost of the death penalty is almost
three times the amount of simply holding someone in a cell for 40 years.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are only 15
states that do not allow the death penalty to be used. That means that 70% of Americans believe murdering criminals is an appropriate way to punish
wrongdoers. The top 5 death penalty states are Texas, Florida, Oklahoma,
Virginia and Missouri. These 5 states alone accounted for 66% of all
United States executions since 1976. Most of these states are located in
the southern part of the United States and consequently, the South
accounts for more than 80% of executions. According to Amnesty
International, in 2008 the United States had one of the highest amounts of
executions at a whopping 37 people. Funny how the United States is also
in much more economic trouble than the rest of the world.
According to a survey done in May of 2006, overall support of the death
penalty was down to 65% from the 80% of 2 years before. In that same
2006 survey, it was discovered that when given the option between the
death penalty and life imprisonment without parole, more people would
choose life imprisonment over the death penalty. In 2009, a survey showed
that 88 % of the people surveyed do not believe that the death penalty is
an effective deterrent to crime.
Outside of the United States, world leaders are also beginning to remove
the death penalty. For instance, in Kenya this past August, President Mwai
Kibaki announced that he was commuting all criminals who face the death
sentence to life imprisonment. He said that the wait for those 4,000
criminals in his country to face the death penalty was "undue mental
anguish and suffering."
Even within the United States, more and more state governors are beginning
to change their laws in objection to the death penalty. New Mexico's
governor Bill Richardson said that ridding his state of the death penalty
was "the most difficult decision in my political life." (New Mexico had
previously banned the death penalty from its state, but it had been
reinstated in 1976.)
I can understand the dilemma people have on choosing which side they will
stand on. I also realize that, for many people and many issues, things are
not simply black and white there are some gray areas as well. But in my
case, I simply see it as killing someone. No matter whether a person
committed a horrible crime or not, what gives us the right to be able to
choose when and how they die? How is what we are doing any different than
first-degree murder? Even the definition of the death penalty itself
states that it is the killing of a person. Although this person may have
done something in the past and may have gone against the laws of the
United States of America, it does not justify the killing of a living,
breathing, thinking being.
(source: Katrina Widener is a second-year magazine major, Drake
University, The Times-Delphic)
Sept. 14, 2009
Is Rick Perry Responsible for Texas' Wild Increase in Executions?
Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) presided over 200 executions between taking office
in 2001 and June of this year. During that time, Texas executed 3 times
more people than the next 3 states combined had executed since 1976. New
investigations are now raising the question of just how many innocent
people were sent to their deaths by a governor and a system that ignore
legal obligations to examine new evidence or counter prosecutorial or
Perry has been one of the most radical proponents of capital punishment in
American politics, refusing to issue a posthumous pardon to Tim Cole, an
innocent man, proven to be so, who died in prison and ignoring exculpatory
evidence in what appears to be a standard procedure that mystically
discounts the possibility of wrongful conviction in capital cases.
Gov. Perry may either be a moral coward, afraid to offend a radical
hard-right base that believes society will unravel without an aggressive
death penalty system, or he may be more eager to put people to death than
he is to achieve justice.
As detailed in a lengthy New Yorker feature for the Sept. 7, 2009, issue,
"Trial by Fire", Perry ignored a raft of damning scientific evidence
showing an arson case against a man on death row was unsubstantiated "junk
On 17 February 2004 after Gov. Perry refused to stay his execution and
falsely claimed to have judged the "facts of the case" to show guilt, Todd
Willingham was executed for a crime scientific examination appears to show
he did not commit.
For the first 18 years the Texas death penalty system was in place, Texas
executed 238 people, or about 13 per year. Since Perry took office, the
figure has risen dramatically, to 22 per year. That particular statistic
raises questions about what has changed under Rick Perry's governorship.
For one, more cases are coming to the fatal moment of execution that are
affected by Republican control of the State Court of Criminal Appeals.
Since 1995, when elected Republican judges won a majority of seats on the
Court, the rate of execution has skyrocketed. And those judges openly
pledged during their campaigns for elected judgeship to favor the
prosecution and be "tough on crime", a strange claim for a judicial
candidate whose job is to be tough on adherence to facts and to the law,
not tough on the accused in particular, who are supposed to be presumed
With at least one judge accused of professional misconduct for making
summary judgment on a death penalty appeal and a review panel that is
reported to essentially not carry out its investigative responsibilities,
operating on the assumption that the system does not fail and never
actually meeting to discuss a case, Texas is not only facing the
likelihood it will be proven to have executed an innocent man; it is the
state considered most likely to have failed its legal responsibilities in
That under Gov. Perry, the rate of executions has so dramatically
accelerated has raised the ire of human rights groups that say the state's
actions are putting the US on short lists of major violators of habeas
corpus and fundamental judicial rights that include Iran, Yemen, Saudi
Arabia and China. Some death penalty advocates say that only with
aggressive application of the stiffest penalty allowed by law can violent
crime be curbed, but there is mounting consensus among legal experts that
Texas' system is riddled with serious due process flaws that significantly
increase the likelihood of carrying out executions of innocent people.
Opponents of the Texas system say instead of deterring crime, the open
bias of politicians and judges toward the prosecution and toward the
application of the death penalty means the state is collaborating in the
escape of those who really did commit crimes that innocent people have
been convicted of. With a growing problem of human trafficking and drug
running, and the attendant violence, Texas may need to halt all executions
until the system is fixed and at last there is a means for determining
when prosecutorial mistakes or misconduct have let the guilty off by
targeting the wrong suspect.
Sept. 9, 2009
Another reason to abolish the death penalty
The death penalty in the United States should be abolished because it
functions as a potent agent of racism and class oppression. African
Americans and Latino/as represent the majority of those on death row. And
executions are reserved almost exclusively for the poor. 90% of those
awaiting execution could not afford to hire a trial attorney.
In addition, death penalty abolitionists have known for decades that many
of those executed are also innocent. Now the corporate media has finally
covered one such case in which recent evidence reveals that another
innocent person was executedand where else but in the state of Texas.
Craig Beyler, a nationally recognized arson expert, wrote in an August
report for the Texas Forensic Science Commission that a 1991 fire which
killed Todd Willingham's 3 young daughters was not arson. Willingham was
executed for their murder in 2004.
As he lay on the gurney in Huntsville, Willingham had said, "I am an
innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been
persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."
Todd Willingham was innocent and theres a simple reason for his 2004
execution: He was poor.
We are taught in school that justice is blind, but in no civics book does
it say how expensive it is.
His stepmother, Eugenia Willingham, who raised Todd from the age of 13
months, spoke to hundreds in Austin, Texas, in 2006 at the Seventh Annual
March to Abolish the Death Penalty. The marchers had left a letter at the
gates to the Governor's Mansion for Gov. Rick Perry, asking him to
investigate the case and stop all pending executions so that no other
innocent person would be put to death.
Today, Texas may become the 1st state in the modern era forced to
acknowledge that it executed a legally and factually innocent person.
Death penalty activists know the names of many other innocent people who
have been executed: Shaka Sankofa, Frances Newton, Carlos de Luna, Joseph
Nichols, Ruben Cantu and Carlos Santana, to name but a few.
More than a few innocent people set to be executed are still living on
death row and should be exonerated before they, too, are killed by the
state: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Troy Davis, Howard Guidry, Cesar Fierro, Jeff
Wood, Rodney Reed, Max Soffar, Darlie Routier, Anthony Graves and many
Modern legal lynchings
The U.S. was founded on the theft of Native land. It developed riches
through the super-exploitation of enslaved Africans. From Reconstruction
until the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, Black people were
frequent victims of vicious lynch mobs.
Today"s executions are modern-day lynchingsand almost 90% of executions
take place in former Confederate states.
An innocent Black man in Conroe, Texas, Clarence Brandley, was picked up
by cops along with an equally innocent elderly white man in the late
summer of 1981 to be questioned about the rape and murder of a white
teenager. The sheriff was under pressure to find the perpetrator of this
awful crime before school started.
He looked at Brandley and said, "You're the n-er, so you're elected."
Brandley spent nine years on death row before being exonerated.
As Shaka Sankofa lay strapped on the gurney in Huntsville on June 22,
2000, he said, "They know I'm innocent. They've got the facts to prove it.
... But they cannot acknowledge my innocence, because to do so would be to
publicly admit their guilt."
Sankofa continued, "Slavery couldn't stop us. The lynchings in the South
couldn't stop us. This lynching will not stop us tonight. We will go
forward . ... It's state-sanctioned lynching, right here in America and
right here tonight. Our destiny in this country is freedom and liberation.
We will gain it by any means necessary. We must avenge this murder and
continue to move forward to stop all executions of the poor and of Black
We must put Shaka Sankofa's words into action and abolish the racist and
anti-poor death penalty.
(source: Editorial, Workers World)
Tabler blogging from death row
Richard Tabler, the convicted murderer out of Bell County who last year was at the center of a controversy about cell phone usage by death row inmates, has again captured the attention of the state senator in charge of corrections in Texas - this time through a blog post.
In a statement released Thursday, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he is upset that Tabler continues to get messages out from death row, some of which threaten him and his family.
Less than 11 months ago, Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, led a sweep of the Texas prison system for contraband after
Tabler called him on a cell phone.
Whitmire said then that Tabler made threatening comments to him and Whitmire vowed to clean up the Texas prison system and rid it of smuggled
cell phones. But now Tabler has apparently found a new way to communicate and threaten people.
Since May, he has had a letter posted on an Internet blog for inmates. In the letter he inquires about the health of one of Whitmire's family members and writes "that just because I'm on death row does not mean that you cannot be gotten to or your family."
"Once again, I must express to you my utter dismay at the level of security that continues to be present at the Polunsky death row Unit,"
Whitmire said in a statement. "If Richard Tabler was a political opponent, I would ignore him; however, he is a convicted capital murderer."
Whitmire made sure top officials in the Texas prison system heard his message Thursday. In his statement outlining his frustrations he mentioned by name Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and Oliver Bell, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.
The ability of a death row inmate to continually author these threats represents a threat to all Texans and our public safety, the statement said.
"I specifically ask how an inmate on death row is allowed to openly send letters out to the public that are designed to intimidate,threaten and retaliate against an elected official or any citizen of this state. I am also appalled that no one within TDCJ has even contacted me concerning this issue," Whitmire said.
The Web site that is posting the letters is dedicated to teaching the public about "the hearts of the coldest killers," according to a post that explains why the site was created.
(source: Temple Daily Telegram)
Questions About an Execution
Published: August 30, 2009
People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.
Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.
After the fire, investigators decided, based in large part on burn patterns on the house’s floors, that it was intentionally set.
Prosecutors charged Mr. Willingham, who escaped from the burning home, with capital murder. Mr. Willingham protested his innocence until the day the state killed him by lethal injection in 2004.
The following year, Texas created the Forensic Science Commission to investigate charges of scientific mistakes or misconduct, and the panel began looking into the Willingham case. It commissioned Craig Beyler, a nationally recognized fire expert, to examine evidence.
Mr. Beyler issued a report last week that painted an ugly picture of what passes for expert scientific investigation and testimony in a capital case in Texas. The report found that the official inquiry into the Willingham fire did not meet prevailing scientific standards of the time, much less current ones.
The investigators “had poor understandings of fire science,” Mr. Beyler said, and their “methodologies did not comport with the scientific method.” He determined that the opinions of one main investigator were “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”
The report concluded that a “finding of arson could not be sustained.” The Forensic Science Commission is now asking the state fire marshal’s office for its response. It anticipates issuing a final report next year.
The commission is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 31, 2009, on page A18 of the New York edition.
Questions About an Execution
Houston woman's killer dies on death row
By MICHAEL GRACZYK
Aug. 30, 2009
HOUSTON — A convicted killer on Texas' death row for nearly three
decades has died in prison, prison officials said.
Danny Dean Thomas was found dead Saturday, a day before his 54th
birthday, on death row at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Polunsky Unit near Livingston. Prison officials said an autopsy would
be performed but initially were attributing his death to natural causes.
Thomas changed his name to Shozdijiji Shisinday since his conviction
for the July 1981 abduction and murder of a Houston woman. Sylvia
Elaine Harrison, 19, was fatally shot and her body was dumped in the
San Jacinto River in Harris County.
Thomas' 1982 conviction for her slaying was overturned on appeal and
he was retried and sentenced to death again in 1998. Last October,
the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case.
He did not have an execution date. He was 26 when he first arrived on
death row and spent more than 27 years there.
Thomas had won a second trial because the Texas attorney general's
office missed a deadline to appeal a federal judge's decision to
overturn his conviction.
According to evidence at his trials, Thomas explained bloody clothing
he was wearing by saying he'd hit a dog and that he and a friend had
put the bloody animal in their car before dumping it in the river. He
told others he had shot the dog because it would not stop whimpering.
Thomas, however, later acknowledged that he and a friend, Zendal
Peels, stopped to help Harrison, who was having car trouble. She
thanked them for repairing her car and invited them to her home where
court documents indicated they had drank beer and smoked marijuana.
In his statement to police, Thomas said Peels unexpectedly struck
Harrison in the head, knocking her out. Then the two took some items
from her home, carried the unconscious woman to their car and drove
around. When she regained consciousness, according to his statement,
Thomas shot her in the head at close range. They drove to the river,
removed her clothing and tossed her in the river after tying concrete
blocks to her feet.
Peels' family was upset to find blood in the car. Thomas was arrested
after seeking psychiatric treatment at a hospital where he claimed
people were blaming him for killing a person when he had killed a dog.
A case against Peels, who was 17 at the time of the attack, was
dismissed for lack of evidence.
At his second trial, where jurors were deciding between life in
prison or a death sentence, a life term would have made Thomas
immediately eligible for parole because of time served for his first
Defense attorneys had described him as mentally unstable, tired,
hungry and scared when he spoke with police and signed a confession
about 23 hours after he was taken into custody.
The Harris County jury considering his case at the second trial
decided he should die.
Testimony showed Harrison repeated “God help me” until Thomas shot
her in the head.
Houston woman's killer dies on death row
August 23, 2009
My thanks to maligned Judge Keller
I'd like to express my gratitude to Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.
She has made Texas' supreme court for criminal matters into a better institution.
Unfortunately, she didn't do it by bringing organizational skills to a court that must deal more than any other state court in the nation with the pressures of last-minute appeals in death penalty cases.
But she did it.
The firestorm of criticism that followed her decision not to keep the clerk's office open for a late filing, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision from earlier in the day, of a man scheduled to be executed an hour after closing time, has produced some improvements.
According to her own testimony and that of other court officials during this week's four-day trial, the court had a protocol for dealing with execution day filings, but it was something of a secret.
For one thing, it wasn't written.
For another, the court staff was not given any formal training on it.
Part of the procedure was the appointment, on a rotating basis, of a single judge to whom all communications regarding the pending execution would be directed. But the name of that judge was not to be disclosed to anyone outside the court, including lawyers for the condemned man.
In Keller's 7 years as the court's chief judge, that was the state of things.
Now, due to the allegations that she violated that procedure by not referring the call seeking to file a late plea for a stay of execution to Judge Cheryl Johnson, the assigned judge for that execution day, everyone knows the procedures.
The court's judges, some of whom were waiting around in expectation of a filing and were angered to learn days later of Keller's actions, agreed to put the protocol in writing. And the protocol has been widely publicized in the controversy.
There is another improvement. Ed Marty, the general counsel who took the request to Keller rather than to Johnson (who testified she would have accepted late pleadings), retired.
His replacement, Sian Schilhab, said she contacts the appropriate attorneys days ahead of the prosecution to make sure they know she is available up until the execution takes place. She said she not only gives them her cell phone number, but forwards the office phone to her cell.
She also says all outside communications not only "clearly go to the assigned judge, but I try to communicate them to all the judges, or at least their staffs."
She said that's not because of the recent controversies, but because "I believe in more communication rather than less."
If Keller had instructed Marty to do that, we wouldn't have had this firestorm.
Keller's attorney argued this week that the defense lawyers had orchestrated media coverage creating the firestorm.
Truth in advertising
The coverage was not always fair and not always accurate, but I'd suggest that Keller herself made the ground fertile for belief that she would violate court policy to coldly reject the last-minute appeal.
When she first ran for the court in 1994 she wrote in the Dallas Morning News that she was "pro-prosecutor. " It was truthful advertising.
When DNA evidence showed a man imprisoned for raping a girl who was also murdered did not contribute the semen, she ruled against his appeal, saying he might have worn a condom.
When prosecutors put on an expert in another case who testified a convicted man was a threat to society and therefore should get the death penalty because he was Hispanic, she voted not to require a new sentencing proceeding. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.
When a district judge ruled that the evidence "unquestionably established" that a man had been pressured into falsely confessing to raping his stepdaughter, Keller voted with the minority against his release from prison.
I'll say this for her. She is hard working. In the midst of this week's trial, she voted not to hear an appeal in a death penalty case. 6 of the 9 members of the all-Republican court voted the other way.
(source: Commentary, Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle)
August 23, 2009
Justices lost on death penalty
According to a strict constructionist view of the Constitution, innocence is not enough to stop the government from executing you. All that matters is that you had a legally "fair trial."
If you prove your innocence after that trial ends in a death sentence, too bad. Back the hearse up to the prison.
Upholding the supposed integrity of the system is more important than your life, your innocence, or even the knowledge that the person who committed the crime is on the loose and probably committing others.
That's the argument U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas recently made in a death penalty case.
"This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent," Scalia wrote.
Law professor Alan Dershowitz put Scalia and Thomas' logic into simpler terms: "If a defendant were convicted ... of murdering his wife and then came to the Supreme Court with his very much alive wife at his side ... these 2 justices would tell him, in effect: 'Look, your wife may be alive as a matter of fact, but as a matter of constitutional law, she's dead, and as for you, Mr. Innocent Defendant, you're dead, too, since there is no constitutional right not to be executed merely because you're innocent.'"
From a legal standpoint, Scalia and Thomas don't seem to believe a person can actually be innocent, only "guilty" or "not guilty," because that's the only thing the system is designed to determine. That's an incredible view of our justice system, one that deserves much more debate.
And to think, many spent weeks arguing against Sonia Sotomayor because she "hopes" a "wise Latina" can make better judgments on certain issues than white men.
Let a Puerto Rican woman show pride in her heritage, and critics unleash a Category 4 hurricane of complaints, arguing Democracy itself is under attack.
Let long-serving white and black male Supreme Court justices suggest the constitution provides no protection for "actually innocent" people, and the resulting outrage doesn't even amount to a tropical depression.
Fortunately for Troy Davis, who was convicted 20 years ago of murdering off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail, the other justices displayed common sense.
They forced a lower court to re-consider the evidence.
No physical evidence linked Davis to the murder. More than 2 dozen former prosecutors and judges said Davis should get a new hearing. 7 of the 9 eyewitnesses used to convict him have recanted, saying they were pressured
to name Davis.
And according to a mountain of research, eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate.
I can't tell you if Davis is guilty. I can tell you it is beyond absurd to believe that even if he proves his innocence, he should still take a trip to Georgia's death chamber.
But that's one of the problems with what we call the justice system. The outcomes aren't always about justice.
Even in South Carolina, if you are innocent - meaning you didn't do it - but get stuck with a lawyer who isn't very good, the chances are almost zero you'll win an appeal.
Why? Because appeals aren't about making sure justice prevails. It's often about making sure all the legal 't's' have been crossed and 'i's' have been dotted.
If your lawyer didn't make the right objections during your initial trial - those that could later help prove your innocence or show things weren't fair - the appeals court may not even consider it.
The legal logic says we shouldn't try cases into perpetuity, that it would put too much chaos in the system, that there has to be a point where cases end.
According to Scalia and Thomas, the Constitution doesn't protect innocent men from death at the hands of the government, because the system the government created isn't designed to detect innocence.
Good thing they didn't prevail, for if they had, Davis wouldn't have been the only casualty of such thinking.
They would have effectively put a needle in the arm of justice, too.
(source: Myrtle Beach Sun News)
August 22, 2009
The Snitching Blog
Snitching Blog is about a part of our criminal system that most people know little or nothing about: criminal informants, or snitches.
At any given moment, thousands of informants are trying to work off their own criminal liability by giving information to the government.
These informants may be in court, in prison, on the street, or in the workplace.
Police and prosecutors often rely heavily on information obtained from snitches--especiall y in drug enforcement but also in white collar crime, organized crime, and terrorism investigations.
In fact, it is impossible to fully understand the U.S. legal system without understanding snitching.
Nevertheless, there is very little public information available about this important public policy.
That's where Snitching Blog comes in.
The Snitching Blog
*See Related Article Below.
Re-posted; August 22, 2009
July 30, 2008
The Rat Trap
Death row exonerations expose failings of the ‘snitch system’
By Christopher Moraff
Levon Jones was freed from North Carolina's death row in May after a paid informant recanted her testimony.
Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row -- more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony
Levon Jones is supposed to be dead.
If the state of North Carolina had its way, Jones, 49, would have been strapped to a gurney years ago, hooked to an IV and pumped full of a lethal, three-drug cocktail until he asphyxiated.
Instead, on May 2, he walked out of prison a free man after spending 13 years on death row, and another 24 months locked up awaiting retrial — all for a murder he almost certainly did not commit.
Jones — known to friends and family as “Bo” — was released with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Capital Punishment Project after the prosecution’s star witness recanted her testimony against him. (Lovely Lorden, a former girlfriend, admitted she’d collected $4,000 in reward money in exchange for testifying against Jones.)
He was an easy target: an African-American ex-con with a history of mental illness and violent behavior. When Lorden came forward with her story — a full three years after the 1987 shooting of a local bootlegger named Leamon Grady — Jones was doing time on an unrelated assault charge.
The prosecution felt little obligation to question the veracity of Lorden’s claim. And if the witness is to be believed today, investigators actually helped her keep her story straight.
As a result of Lorden’s testimony — and despite the lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime — a jury convicted Jones in 1993 and he was sentenced to die for Grady’s killing.
What Jones’ attorneys didn’t know at the time — and, as it turns out, didn’t really bother trying to uncover — is that Lovely Lorden had made something of a career out of testifying against people close to her. By her own admission, she has aided law enforcement in dozens of investigations and says she helped police make cases against several other boyfriends, as well as her own brother and sons.
What’s more, her work as a confidential informant didn’t stop after Jones was sent to death row. Jones’ attorneys sent In These Times copies of receipts that show Lorden was paid money at least seven times for her work as a confidential informant from December 2003 to April 2004, while Jones sat in jail.
Today, Lorden contends she testified against Jones under pressure from the police, in particular Dalton Jones (no relation), the lead officer in the case.
That doesn’t surprise Jones’ ACLU attorney, Brian Stull, who says it’s not uncommon for police to find a suspect first and worry about making a case later.
“I think often times they look at the usual suspects,” Stull says. “I think Dalton Jones was thinking, ‘This is a dangerous person, and whether he did it or whether he didn’t, I’m going to get him off the street.’“
Jones owes his freedom in part to an astute federal judge who sensed something amiss with Lorden’s testimony during a 2006 penalty appeal.
In granting Jones a new trial, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle, of the Eastern District of North Carolina, noted Lorden’s statements to police were “riddled with inconsistencies” and “reflect that Lorden is unable to fairly and reliably describe the circumstances of the offense.”
Unfortunately, the case of Levon Jones is not an anomaly. He is the fifth death row prisoner to be exonerated in the past year. Since December, North Carolina alone has released three inmates from death row after it was determined that they did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. Of these three men, two, including Jones, were convicted on the false testimony of snitches.
The other, Jonathon Hoffman, was released in December 2007 after spending seven years on death row. His freedom came when the prosecution’s key witness — Hoffman’s cousin — admitted that he had lied to get back at Hoffman for stealing money and had been both paid for his testimony and given a reduced sentence for bank robbery. At the time of Hoffman’s trial, prosecutors withheld the deal from defense attorneys, the jury and even the judge.
A recipe for disaster
In a country where more than one out of every 100 citizens is now incarcerated, criminal justice advocates are scrutinizing the way in which police and prosecutors go about getting the information to pursue and prosecute suspects.
This inquiry has increasingly focused on the extent to which incentivized informants and jailhouse snitches are contributing to the convictions of innocent people.
A cursory review of the Jones case would be enough to suggest something is wrong. But a thousand Levon Jones stories don’t elicit the same amount of outcry as one Kathryn Johnston case does.
In November 2006, Atlanta police gunned down Johnston — an elderly Atlanta grandmother — inside her home. The officers, who were from the city’s narcotics task force, claimed to be acting on information they received from a confidential informant that drugs were being sold from the house. That allegation turned out to be false.
The Johnston tragedy shined a spotlight on the cavalier use of informant information to obtain arrest and search warrants. The Justice Department launched a federal probe and, nine months after the shooting, in July 2007, the House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on law enforcement’s use of confidential informants.
“We’ve got a serious problem here that goes beyond coughing up cases where snitches were helpful,” said committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) at the hearing. “The whole criminal justice system is being intimidated by the way this thing is being run, and, in many cases, especially at the local level, mishandled. … A lot of people have died because of misinformation.”
It isn’t known if any of those people have died at the hands of the state; but judging by some of the relevant corollary statistics, it’s plausible that some have.
Falsified informant testimony accounts for nearly half of all wrongful convictions in capital cases nationwide, according to data from Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row — more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony, according to the Center.
Alexandra Natapoff, an associate professor of law at Loyola University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on the problems with paid informants, thinks that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We have the most data on capital and homicide convictions because they are the most high profile,” she says, “so we have no idea how many wrongful convictions there are in larceny cases or assault cases or any other because nobody is paying any attention to those.”
Natapoff has written extensively on the role of snitch testimony in wrongful convictions and says that informants have become law enforcement’s investigative tool of choice.
“The government’s use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable,” she says. “This lack of oversight and quality control leads to wrongful convictions, more crime, disrespect for the law and sometimes even official corruption.”
She continues: “If the criminal system can’t get homicide cases right, then it’s very unlikely that we’re getting other things right.”
A broken system
With the expansion of the “war on drugs” during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, police began to abandon traditional investigative work in favor of insider cooperation. Cops say it’s almost impossible to make a drug case any other way. But critics say the practice has led to a “dumbing down” of police work across the board.
“The drug war has eroded law enforcement practices,” says investigative reporter Ethan Brown, whose recently published book, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice, traces the genesis of the informant culture and its effect on communities.
Those who study the snitch culture trace the problem to a criminal justice policy that has created the perfect atmosphere for what Brown calls the “cooperator institution” to thrive.
Most notably, Brown says, federal sentencing guidelines, adopted in 1987, have exacerbated the growth of the cooperator institution over the past two decades.
Until a 2005 Supreme Court ruling gave judges more flexibility in sentencing, the guidelines made cooperating with authorities the only real option for defendants seeking leniency.
“Those guidelines really forced drug defendants into cooperating,” says Brown. “Very few people will look at that kind of prison time and not cooperate.”
But over the years, a practice once confined mainly to drug investigations has become standard operating procedure for the prosecution of all kinds of crime.
The reasons are myriad, but the simple matter of resources looms large. In a system severely taxed by an unwinnable drug war, relying on informants is a cheap and easy investigative option. It can cost thousands of dollars to house, feed and protect an actual witness until trial, and, depending upon the offense and the defendant, such protection can carry on for years after conviction. By contrast, criminal informants are often compensated with leniency or are paid small sums, and often simply released into the same streets from which they came.
“It’s all about this staggering misallocation of resources,” says Brown. “We have this incredible institution for cooperators and informants, yet, for the kind of cooperating we need the most, there are really no resources.”
This mutually beneficial relationship between police officers and their informants is what Natapoff calls “a disturbing marriage of convenience.”
Prosecutors and police know the pitfalls, but in many cases write them off as the cost of doing business and making cases.
In a 1999 study published in the Fordham Law Review, Ellen Yaroshefsky, a law professor from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, interviewed a number of assistant U.S. attorneys from the Southern District of New York and found that while most said they made every effort to be diligent in assessing the veracity of informants, they admitted it’s easy to get in too deep and lose objectivity.
In her study, Yaroshefsky described this as “fall[ing] in love with their rat.”
“You’re not supposed to, of course. You are trained to maintain your objectivity,” an anonymous participant in Yaroshefsky’s study said. “But you spend time with this guy, you get to know him and his family, you like him. You believe that he has come clean. Hopefully the assistant has a skeptical mindset, but the reality is that the cooperator’s information often becomes your mindset.”
Still, other times investigators are already working under an assumption of guilt and are simply seeking confirmation.
“[Sometimes] prosecutors are convinced they have the guilty guy, then they go about seeking to convict and do not carefully look at things that are funny about their case,” one of Yaroshefsky’s sources said.
Former prosecutor and now Howard University law professor Andrew Taslitz says that when he started out in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, his youth and ambition often clouded his judgment when it came to reliance on informants who had received incentives. He says he thinks his experience is the norm.
“Most prosecutors are very, very young, especially at the state level,” Taslitz says. “They’re new graduates of law school or they’ve done some other job for a few years but they’re mostly in their late 20s, early 30s tops, with very little experience. It’s one of the reasons that office policies that just tell them what to do are so important.”
Another problem is that many of the assumptions that courts make about how witness testimony is received simply don’t pan out.
The Supreme Court established the constitutional basis for using paid informants in 1966 with U.S. v. Hoffa, which decided that rewarding a witness for testimony does not violate due process. In its opinion, the court wrote: “The established safeguards of the Anglo-American legal system leave the veracity of a witness to be tested by cross examination, and the credibility of his testimony to be determined by a properly instructed jury.”
But Natapoff says, in practice, those mechanisms are deeply ineffective at protecting defendants from lying informants.
“Let’s say the government does disclose [compensation] and the jury knows about it,” she says. “You would think, and the Supreme Court certainly thinks, that that will make a difference. Well, psychological research has found that it makes almost no difference, that jurors ignore the fact that the witness is compensated.”
And that’s only for the cases that go to trial. Because 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements, defendants rarely get the chance to challenge an informant’s story or credibility.
“The Supreme Court has held that while defendants who go to trial are entitled to impeachment material about their informants, defendants who plead guilty are not,” Natapoff says. “So that means that most defendants will never see the deal that the informant got.”
In spite of all the potential pitfalls, police and prosecutors say the benefits of informants outweigh the potential for abuse.
Ronald E. Brooks, president of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, calls informants “indispensable investigative assets” and cautions against issuing a blanket judgment on the use of confidential informants by police officers for “a few instances of mismanagement or wrongdoing.”
“When we appropriately manage informants, great cases, ones that make our community safe are the result,” he says. “When informants are improperly used, the results can be devastating. But without the ability to freely use informants, law enforcement would have very few significant investigative successes.”
Levon Jones was freed from North Carolina's death row in May after a paid informant recanted her testimony.
Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row -- more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony
A call for reform
Since the 2007 House Judiciary Committee hearing in the wake of the death of Kathryn Johnston, little headway has been made in reforming the practice of using incentivized informants to send people to jail — and, possibly, execution.
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), 18 states now require corroboration of an accomplice’s statements. Those that require corroboration for other forms of incentivized witnesses, however, are few and far between.
Illinois currently mandates corroboration in capital cases, and courts in Nebraska and Oklahoma have required corroboration for jailhouse snitches.
Texas, meanwhile, has a different requirement, not for jailhouse snitches, but for undercover drug operatives working for the police.
Criminal justice reformers say they want to make sure police and prosecutors are following protocol in how and when they use paid or incentivized informants.
Taslitz, who serves in the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section, says more transparency is needed during the discovery phase. For example, he’d like to see defendants who are negotiating a plea agreement have access to the information and witnesses being used against them.
In a 2005 ABA resolution that Taslitz helped write, the association urged federal, state and local authorities to require that informants meet certain standards of credibility and that courts mandate corroboration in all cases that involve jailhouse snitches.
But so far there has been little in the way of reform.
“It’s a slow process,” Taslitz says, “and it doesn’t have to necessarily be a matter of legislation, but it could be a matter of individual prosecutors’ offices adopting specific policies; it can be a matter of local ordinances; it can be case law where judges start to intervene. It’s a slow process and, as of yet, there is no uniform informants act.”
For cases that do go to trial, Natapoff has been pushing for “pre-trial reliability hearings” as a potential remedy. Under such a system, the burden would be on the government to prove witness reliability by a preponderance of evidence. Courts would be required to consider such factors as the criminal history of the informant, any compensation for their testimony, and other cases in which the informant has testified, among other things.
“Given the prevalence of informant falsehoods in wrongful capital convictions, such hearings should be mandatory in capital cases, even where the defense intends to concede guilt and move directly to the sentencing phase,” Natapoff says.
Considering that for every innocent person convicted of murder, a real murderer escapes justice, requiring such checks and balances is as much a victim’s rights issue as a matter of criminal justice.
For his part, in spite of losing a decade and a half of his life, Levon Jones says he holds no grudge against the snitch that put him on death row.
Rather, he attributes his ordeal to a miscarriage of justice.
Says Jones: “It was the system itself.”
Christopher Moraff is a writer and photographer who frequently contributes to In These Times, The American Prospect online and Common Sense magazine. He currently serves as a features correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and is associate editor of the finance magazine the Monitor, where he specializes in covering corporate fraud. He lives and works in Philadelphia.
The Rat Trap
An Unfit Judge
Published: August 20, 2009
Judge Sharon Keller, the Texas appellate court judge who closed the clerk’s office before a death row inmate could file a last-minute appeal, is fighting to keep her job. At a hearing on Wednesday, she said in a crowded courtroom that if she had it to do again, she would do the same thing. That testimony is further proof of why Judge Keller needs to be removed from the bench.
On Sept. 25, 2007, Michael Richard’s lawyers called the court clerk’s office to say they were running late in delivering the papers for his appeal. The Supreme Court had unexpectedly issued an order in another death penalty case that they believed provided grounds for putting off his execution. When the request to keep the office open reached Judge Keller, she insisted it would close promptly at 5 p.m. The appeal was not filed, and Mr. Richard was executed hours later.
Judge Keller is now facing five counts of judicial misconduct and a possible recommendation that the state judicial system remove her from the bench.
In court this week, Judge Keller lashed out at the condemned man’s lawyers, blaming them for the controversy. She argued that Mr. Richard could still have filed his appeal by seeking out another judge, but that misses the point. She did not follow appropriate procedures. And clearly, under any interpretation of the rules, given that a life lay in the balance, the clerk’s office should have stayed open.
Judge Keller’s profound lack of appreciation for the seriousness of taking a life — and the obligations it places on the state — is similar to the disturbing dissent that Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas delivered this week in the Troy Davis case. They suggested there was no constitutional problem with executing a man who could prove he was innocent.
We believe the death penalty is in all cases wrong. But people who support it should still insist that it be carried out only after a prisoner has been given every reasonable chance to make his case. Judge Keller’s callous indifference in a case where the stakes could not have been higher makes her unfit for office.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 21, 2009, on page A26 of the New York edition.
An Unfit Judge
August 20, 2009
Here's a good case for killing the death penalty
Opponents of the death penalty have reason for hope this week.
2 high-profile cases are exposing the sick, barbaric folly of execution in America.
When the U.S. resumed executions in 1977, only 16 nations had abolished the death penalty; the number has since grown to 92. 5 nations now carry out more than 90% of the world's executions: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China - and the United States.
We're in pretty grim company.
But this week, America took a step toward evolving in the direction of the civilized world.
In Georgia, a man on death row got an extremely rare ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.
And in Texas, a high-ranking judge is herself on trial - prosecuted for misconduct after callously refusing to hear the 11th-hour appeal of a prisoner who was about to be executed.
The latest development in the Georgia case of Troy Anthony Davis is awe-inspiring.
For the first time in 50 years, the justices ordered a federal court to reopen a state murder case - even after a long line of appeals - and hear newly discovered evidence that might exonerate Davis.
As I've written in columns since 2007, the evidence of Davis' innocence is overwhelming. He was convicted in 1991 of the point-blank shooting of a Savannah police officer in a case with scant evidence: There was no murder weapon found, no confession, no fingerprints or other physical evidence.
Davis was sent to death row on the strength of 9 witnesses. 7 have since recanted in sworn statements, with many claiming police coercion. An 8th witness first told cops he didn't know who the killer was, then
"remembered" it was Davis 2 years later.
And the 9th witness, who originally pointed the finger at Davis, may be the real killer. Three new witnesses now say he was the shooter. (Details about the case are at troyanthonydavis.org.)
It took marches, rallies, media coverage and an active international movement and appeals from well-known people - including former FBI Director Williams Sessions, ex-Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict - to get the high court to act.
The Supreme Court ruling signals that actual innocence counts for something in a land where so many scream for blood.
Another encouraging scene is unfolding in Texas, where Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, yesterday took the witness stand in her own defense.
Keller has been charged with misconduct by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct and could be kicked off the bench for her actions on the night in 2007 that the state executed Michael Wayne Richard, a rapist and murderer.
On the day Richard was scheduled to be killed, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a halt to executions in Kentucky based on a claim that lethal injections might be painful and therefore an unconstitutionally cruel form of punishment.
Richard's lawyers, frantically attempting to stay his execution based on the ruling in the Kentucky case, called Keller's aides shortly before the court's closing time, begging them to keep the court open for 15 to 30 minutes - long enough to allow papers to be filed.
At 4:45 p.m., the request was passed to Keller, who presides over the very last stop for criminal defendants in the Lone Star State.
"We close at 5," she said. Richard was executed at 8:23 that evening. And on the stand yesterday, Keller said that, if faced with the same situation, she'd slam shut the doors of the courthouse again.
That stiff-necked indifference to fairness and justice make Keller - "Killer Keller" to her critics - a poster child, along with Davis, for why we must end the death penalty.
(source: Opinion, Errol Louis, New York Daily News)
Keller trial wraps up with harsh criticism
Decision will come later on whether judge violated court rules
regarding 2007 execution appeal.
By Chuck Lindell
August 21, 2009
SAN ANTONIO — Dismissing most of Judge Sharon Keller's defenses as
legally irrelevant, prosecutor Mike McKetta said the state's highest
criminal judge failed to perform her job competently in one of the
most crucial areas of the law: the death penalty.
"What kind of telephone call can you get on execution day that could
be more urgent than this one: 'We are trying to file'?" McKetta asked
Thursday as Keller's four-day misconduct trial came to an end.
And yet, he said, "we know she said no. ... We know she said no a
second time. We know she said, 'We close at 5 p.m.' She knew a filing
was anticipated, and what did she do? 'No. No.'"
Defense lawyer Chip Babcock, in his closing arguments, blamed the
charges against Keller on a well-orchestrated attack by death penalty
opponents and lies repeated by lawyers for death row inmate Michael
Richard, whose missed appeal and execution in 2007 formed the basis
of the case against Keller.
"To even suggest that this fine woman, this fine judge willfully
violated the law is frankly an outrage," Babcock said.
"She and her family — and the family of Mrs. Dixon, frankly — are
being put through this ordeal because some very vocal people don't
like the way Judge Keller rules," he said.
Marguerite Dixon was raped and killed by Richard in 1986. Two of her
daughters, Marijo and Paula Dixon of Austin, were in the courtroom
Keller's trial ended without a resolution.Under rules governing cases
of alleged misconduct against judges, District Judge David
Berchelmann Jr. will compile "findings of fact" for the State
Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The 13-member commission will rely on the findings to decide among
three options: drop the charges, censure Keller or suggest that she
be removed from office. A removal recommendation would be ruled on by
a specially created panel of seven appellate court judges.
In his closing arguments Thursday, McKetta urged Berchelmann to focus
on conduct — "what Judge Keller knew, said, thought, decided, did and
failed to do."
Keller, he said, failed to follow the court's execution-day
procedures, which required "all communications" about a pending
execution be referred to Judge Cheryl Johnson, who was assigned to
handle any late appeal from Richard.
Knowing she was not the assigned judge, Keller still chose to address
and dispose of a request from Richard's legal team for more time,
"She circumvented procedures" that are an important safeguard against
the misapplication of capital punishment, he added.
"The death penalty can be accepted in a civilization only when people
can have confidence that it be so carefully administered that it
precludes premature or erroneous executions," McKetta said.
"Executions cannot be undone."
Babcock said the charges against Keller assume that "we live in a
black and white world. I think our society, and what happened here,
is a little more nuanced than that."
By saying the court clerk's office closes at 5 p.m. — a time set by
state law — Keller did not stop lawyers with the Texas Defender
Service from filing any appeals, Babcock said.
Those lawyers failed to remember, or did not know, that appellate
rules allow the court's general counsel or any of its nine judges to
accept pleadings, he said.
"Judge Keller didn't close the court to anyone. Mr. Richard's lawyer
never knocked on the right doors, and they gave up," Babcock said.
On the day of Richard's execution, the U.S. Supreme Court said about
9 a.m. that it would examine the legality of lethal injections. Even
so, Babcock said, TDS lawyers didn't begin writing briefs until
shortly after noon. By then, 40 percent of the time until 5 p.m. had
evaporated, he said.
TDS also assigned the task of drafting four briefs to a first-year
lawyer, Alma Lagarda, and offered her no supervision until TDS
litigation director David Dow arrived in the Houston office about
2:45 p.m., Babcock said.
Babcock's harshest criticism was reserved for "lies" told by TDS
lawyers that, he said, produced a flurry of negative publicity and
scathing media accounts.
Prosecutors used those news stories to allege that Keller brought
discredit on the judiciary.
There were no computer problems that delayed the creation of
Richard's legal briefs, Babcock said.
The often-told claim that the court would not stay open for only 20
minutes is refuted by the Texas Defender Service's own admission that
the briefs weren't completed until almost 6 p.m., he added.
"This is a tactic of TDS — to attack the Court of Criminal Appeals,"
Babcock said. TDS lawyers rebutted many of Babcock's claims,
sometimes angrily, in testimony this week.
McKetta urged Berchelmann to look past many of Babcock's claims,
noting that they had nothing to do with the charges against Keller's
Keller, he noted, made her decision to close the court without
knowing that TDS had claimed computer delays, had made legal choices
that would be questioned later or would criticize her about the
Richard case in the months to follow.
"She blames TDS solely and in its entirety — that the only reason for
criticism around the world was TDS, TDS, TDS, instead of
acknowledging that her noncompliance with the execution-day
procedures must have accountability," McKetta said.
Berchelmann has no time limit to make the findings beyond a state
rule that says he must act promptly.
Keller trial wraps up with harsh criticism
Judge Keller: No one did anything wrong
By CRAIG KAPITAN
San Antonio Express-News
Aug. 18, 2009
SAN ANTONIO — Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller on
Tuesday disagreed with prosecutors about her perception of a phone
call two years ago that preceded the execution of death row inmate
“I just don't think anybody did anything wrong,” said Keller, the
state's highest-ranking criminal judge, at her ethics hearing.
Keller faces possible removal from office after being charged with
five counts of judicial misconduct, including the failure to follow
the appellate court's execution-day protocol when she didn't notify
fellow Judge Cheryl Johnson of the Sept. 25, 2007, request to accept
a late appeal. Johnson testified earlier she was at the court after
hours, waiting for the expected last-minute appeal.
“You knew someone had called about that scheduled execution and at
minimum (that they) were not ready to file?” asked special prosecutor
Mike McKetta, to which Keller responded, “Yes.”
Keller recalled the court's general counsel Ed Marty saying that
night, “They wanted to file something, but they were not ready.”
She responded, telling Marty to advise Richard's attorneys that the
clerk's office closes at 5 p.m. Richard, convicted in the April 1996
rape and shooting death of a Hockley nurse, was executed three hours
During her hourlong testimony Tuesday, Keller said she didn't believe
she was making a decision regarding the court accepting an appeal,
but an administrative one about the clerk's office hours.
“I think it was not a substantive matter,” she said, “but I can see
why other people think it was.”
Prosecutors are expected to continue questioning the judge this
morning. Prosecutors will likely rest their case by the end of the
day, and it is possible the defense will as well, attorneys indicated
Richard's sister, Betty, who traveled from Houston to watch the
proceedings, choked back tears during a break in Keller's testimony
“She knows it was wrong,” she said. “My brother was not an animal. He
was a loved human being.”
‘You didn't ask'
Keller's testimony came after a long and sometimes bruising exchange
earlier in the day between Richard's appellate lawyer and her attorney.
David Dow, a law professor and litigation director for the nonprofit
Texas Defender Services, occasionally raised his voice as he fielded
questions from defense attorney Chip Babcock that suggested Dow spun
false allegations to the media and lied about computer problems the
day he was trying to file a last-minute appeal for Richard.
Babcock said Dow should have known to call Johnson or to call the
court's general counsel that day after his paralegal was told the
clerk's office closes at 5.
“You weren't denied (the appeal),” Babcock said. “You didn't ask.”
Keller later said, “I would have thought a good part of (the
execution-day procedure) was known to defense attorneys who practiced
in our court.”
Dow said he wasn't aware at the time that he could call others. He
assumed after talking to his paralegal no other options were available.
“It's reasonable for me to believe the clerk's office is the court,”
Dow said. “I don't draw a distinction between the clerk's office and
the court the way you do.”
Both agreed there could have been some confusion that day as a result
of the chain of communication. Dow was giving orders to another
attorney in his office, who was in turn talking to a paralegal in
Austin, who called the court clerk, who called the general counsel,
who called Judge Keller.
A pointed question
Babcock, whose previous high-profile clients include Oprah Winfrey
and the Chicago Tribune, occasionally glanced into the audience as he
offered his questions Tuesday. Keller sat at the defense table,
occasionally taking notes.
“Do you think Judge Keller should be removed from office because you
didn't think about (calling others) that day?” Babcock asked.
Dow gathered his thoughts for a moment before responding.
“I don't have an opinion on whether Judge Keller should be removed
from office,” he said.
Judge Keller: No one did anything wrong
Aug. 17, 2009
The case against death row----Instead of imposing ineffective death penalty, we should build tougher jails
Seeing another wave of violence, Israelis turn to the "deterrence Messiah" that would save all and cease fatal violence on the streets the death penalty. Seems tempting, I agree knowing that a criminal who murdered another human being would be killed himself by our hand feels somewhat soothing. Let the criminals know the revenge is coming.
The public should not rush to decide on the issue, however. Let emotions subside and look straight at the facts. And here they are.
The state of Texas has one of the highest executions rates in the United States.
The Lone Star state had seen 439 persons executed by the judicial system since 1976, yet crime rates are still high, with 10,869 individuals murdered since 2000. Furthermore, in the past 14 years, murder rates hover around same range (between 1,217 and 1,693), with the Texan public suffering 5.9 murders per 100,000 citizens. This is in contrast with, for example, to Wisconsin, which sees 3.3 murders per same amount of inhabitants, with no single execution since 1976 and only a single death row inmate killed beforehand; Connecticut sees 3 murders per 100,000 with a single execution as well.
While statistics certainly differ, they also clearly portray another picture more executions do not necessarily mean less violent crime. Georgia, having executed 45 inmates, holds steady at the 7.5 murders mark, with North Carolina trailing at 43 executions and 6.5 murders.
The call for a death penalty law strikes a cord with many, but I believe the data presented clearly one point death rarely deters those willing to kill another human.
Secondly, we must recall that the wheels of justice are ill-advised, at times.
Inventors and scientists work tirelessly to discover new crime investigation technology that would uncover precise evidence in police's search for justice; technology that could exonerate those deemed guilty.
Mistakes could be made. You cannot revive a dead man.
So what is a better solution to the problem? Here is an idea: The government should establish an isolated, high-security, hard-labor prison, in the desert under military control. In the hot weather, prisoners should be forced to work 18 hours a day under harsh conditions. They should be given an hour of free time each week, on Saturdays. Radio and TV sets, as well as books should be barred from prison cells, with jailed individuals having access to those once a week, during the free hour.
Moreover, the media should be called upon to visit the prison, with news crews filming the conditions and the suffering of the inmates. Other reporters should be allowed as well, with the option to interview pre-selected inmates.
Too cruel? Perhaps. Yet never was law enforcement agencies' need for means to prevent crime as dire as it is now. The offered solution would therefore aim to show villains the true face of justice if you do the
crime, the time would be long and painful.
(source: Jonathan Boyko, Opinion, YNet News)
Embattled judge faces own trial
Judge Sharon Keller is expected to testify during this week's hearing.
By Craig Kapitan - SAEN
August 17, 2009
For almost two years, critics have called for the resignation of
Sharon Keller, one of Texas' highest-ranking judges, over charges of
unethical conduct after she refused to accept a last-minute appeal
from a death row inmate.
Starting today, a rare hearing will begin in San Antonio that could
help settle the matter.
Keller — the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,
the criminal equivalent to the State Supreme Court — will sit before
state District Judge David Berchelmann Jr. at the Bexar County
Courthouse as special prosecutors for the State Commission on
Judicial Conduct present evidence against her.
The process — which has never involved a judge as high-ranking as
Keller — could result in the judicial misconduct charges being
dismissed, or could be the beginning of a protracted legal battle to
boot her from the bench.
Keller is no stranger to controversy.
In 1998, she wrote an opinion denying a new trial to a mentally
disabled man who'd been convicted of rape and murder even though DNA
tests appeared to clear him.
The latest firestorm, a frequent launching point for criticism of
Texas' death penalty policies, began with a short telephone
conversation minutes before 5 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2007.
The execution of death row inmate Michael Richard was scheduled to
begin in less than 90 minutes, and his lawyers were racing to file an
appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court had announced that morning that
it would determine whether lethal injection constituted cruel and
Richard's lawyers wanted a stay of execution until the Supreme Court
could decide the matter.
“They want to hold the court open,” general counsel Edward Marty
recalled telling Keller over the phone, according to documents that
State Commission on Judicial Conduct prosecutors filed earlier this
year. Keller refused, saying the clerk's office closed at 5 p.m.
Despite several attempts that night to talk to the deputy clerk by
cell phone, Richard's attorneys said they were stonewalled. At 8:20
p.m., Richard was executed for the August 1986 rape and shooting
death of Marguerite Dixon, a Hockley nurse.
Keller, who had gone home early that afternoon to meet a repairman,
had an ethical duty to advise fellow Appeals Court Judge Cheryl
Johnson of the conversation, according to the prosecutors for the
Judicial Conduct Commission. As was policy, Johnson was on call that
night in the event a last-minute appeal was filed.
“Neither Judge Johnson nor the other judges who remained at the court
after 5 p.m. were aware that Mr. Richard's lawyers had called to ask
whether filings after 5 p.m. could be accepted,” prosecutors alleged
in court documents.
And because the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed that morning to review
lethal injection practices across the country, Keller's colleagues
had been expecting an appeal. The nation's highest court eventually
rejected the notion that the practice constituted cruel and unusual
punishment, but no death row inmate — in Texas or elsewhere — was
executed during the six months of debate and review.
But Keller never intended to obstruct Richard's attorneys from filing
an appeal, said her lawyer Charles “Chip” Babcock.
“If you believe this story that's been spun, it kind of looks bad for
Judge Keller,” he said. But in truth, he said, the brief phone
conversation she had with Marty was solely about office hours, not an
“She picked up the phone and she answered a simple question,” he
said. “There's just no way she violated any code of conduct.”
Richard's attorneys could have easily filed the appeal by calling the
on-duty judge, he said, adding that Keller can't be blamed for their
dereliction of duty.
Calls last week to Texas Defender Services, which handled Richard's
appeals, were referred to Houston attorney Neal Manne. Placing blame
on the respected nonprofit is a classic smokescreen tactic, said
Manne, who represented the agency's staff during depositions for the
“I understand why she wants to change the focus away from herself,
but I think it's a cheap shot,” he said. “It's legally irrelevant.
The focus is and should be on what she did or didn't do.”
Keller, who couldn't be reached for comment last week, is expected to
testify during this week's hearing. Others expected to testify
include fellow Court of Criminal Appeals judges, Texas Defender
Services staff and the court's former general counsel.
The hearing will mirror a civil trial with the exception of its
resolution. When concluded, Berchelmann will issue a report stating
the facts of the case as he sees them to the 13-member State
Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The panel then will choose one of three options at a public meeting:
dismiss the case; issue a public censure; or recommend to the Supreme
Court that Keller be removed.
If she appeals the commission's decision, attorneys said the process
from there could take years.
Keller is the 96th judge in the State Commission on Judicial
Conduct's 44-year history to undergo formal proceedings. However, few
of those cases have resulted in public inquiries because judges have
generally accepted plea deals or resigned before the hearings could
take place, Willing said.
This week's hearing will mark the first such proceeding since 2003.
Embattled judge faces own trial
July 30, 2009
Catholicism 101 - Does the church allow the death penalty?
Kelsey Grammer has been in the news for his planned appearance at the parole hearing of the man who murdered his sister in 1976. Detained by a weather delay at the airport, Grammer was unable to attend the hearing but sent word pleading that the man who abducted, raped, stabbed and left for dead, 18 year old Karen Grammer should not be set free.
Since the original conviction of death in the gas chamber, Denver law changed.
It is now possible for this man to be released. Another parole hearing is scheduled for 2014.
The story is horrible and the crime, brutal. Such a crime not only brings death and destruction to the individual and their family but also harms the whole of society. It cries out for justice which can only take the form of punishment. What does the church say about it?
Because of the commandment, you shall not kill which extends toward anger, hatred and vengeance, many believe that the church forbids capital punishment. That is not true.
Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for ones own right to life (CC 2264).
According to the Catholic Catechism (2265), "Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another persons life, the common good of the family or of the state."
The church understands that the scale for punishment should reflect the gravity of a crime. "Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm." The traditional teaching of the church "acknowledges the right and duty of public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty" (CC 2266).
The church ascribes to the correctional aspects of incarceration with an attitude toward reform. "The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When punishment is voluntarily accepted, it takes on the value of expiation. Punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. It (punishment) has a medicinal value and should contribute to the correction of the offender." (CC 2266)
For feelings of vengeance, it is best to pray for healing for self, all victims and healing for the perpetrators as well.
There have been miracles of conversion in prisons and converts such as Carla Faye Tucker, executed for her crime of murder, have died in the grace of God.
But even if there is little hope for reform, the church advises using capital punishment only as a last resort. "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."
(source: Karen Dudek, Examiner.com)
July 29, 2009
Life without parole helps build anti-death penalty support
A report last week issued by the Sentencing Project, a national organization that works for a fair criminal justice system, pointed to the ongoing problem in the United States of racial disparities in sentencing and the challenges posed by the growing number of people who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In light of the report, the Sentencing Project is calling for the elimination of life-without- parole sentences.
While the organization' s desire to fix problems in the way justice is allocated is certainly laudable, abolishing life without parole as a sentencing option would be a mistake and undercut one of the strongest arguments against capital punishment that we as a society can keep the most dangerous prisoners off the streets permanently and punish them appropriately without resorting to state-sponsored executions.
Reform, not abolition
The Sentencing Project's report points out that nearly 1/3 of inmates serving life sentences some 41,000 have no possibility of parole. 2/3 of "lifers" are non-white.
Such racial disparities, which are also evident in the way the death penalty is administered in the United States, point to the need for an overhaul of the criminal justice system so that it is indeed just for all, particularly the poor and people of color.
Sentences of life without parole should be given to only the most dangerous and violent criminals who pose a persistent threat to public safety. They should be handed out carefully, judiciously and as infrequently as possible, but they shouldn't be eliminated as a sentencing option.
While the intention of those who propose eliminating life-without- parole sentences isn't to increase support for the death penalty, it's not difficult to imagine lawmakers and the judicial system coming under added pressure to advocate for capital punishment if permanent prison sentences are no longer a guaranteed option.
It would begin undoing the progress that has been made in recent years in some states thanks in large part to Catholics to enact capital punishment moratoriums and repeal death penalty laws. Such efforts have been successful in part because of the support of church leaders, such as Pope John Paul II, who called the death penalty "both cruel and unnecessary, " and the U.S. bishops, who rightly pointed out in their 2005 statement "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death" that "it is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life."
Choosing life over death
Unlike the death penalty, sentences of life without parole, when administered properly, cost the public less and uphold the human dignity of crime victims as well as perpetrators who have an opportunity while in prison to reform and rehabilitate their lives.
Life without parole is a better option than the death penalty, and it is a necessary one if efforts to abolish capital punishment are to be successful.
(source: Editorial, Joe Towalski, The Catholic Spirit)
Capital Writs office to give Texas death-row inmates help with appeals
July 29, 2009
The Associated Press
HOUSTON – Condemned killers in Texas will get more legal help with their appeals when a state-backed office opens in 2010.
The Office of Capital Writs, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a nine-person staff, will be funded by redirecting money already in the state budget. Its attorneys are expected to handle most state appeals.
An alliance of the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and public defense advocates endorsed the measure before the 2009 Legislature.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston sponsored the measure creating the office in response to reports about how death row inmates' lawyers had mismanaged appeals. He said the lack of a public defender to oversee key death row appeals has been an "international embarrassment." He introduced the bill in 2007.
Texas, the nation's most active capital punishment state, put 18 convicted killers to death last year.
"I think that everyone agrees [death row inmates] deserve one fair shot at presenting their issues, whether they're meritorious or not," said Andrea Marsh, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. "We saw too many cases where poor state habeas representation forced people to lose appeals."
Capital Writs office to give Texas death-row inmates help with appeals
The Associated Press
July 28, 2009
State to handle capital appeals
Texas, which executes more convicts than any other state in the nation, will open its 1st capital defense office next year to manage appeals for death row inmates after years of reports that appointed private attorneys repeatedly botched the job.
"The status quo has been an international embarrassment," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored the law that created the office. It was supported by an unusual alliance between the State Bar of Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals and public defense advocates, who all backed it in the last legislative session.
The law was inspired by a series of stories about Texas inmates who lost crucial appeals after court-appointed attorneys missed deadlines or filed only so-called "skeletal" writs documents with little information often copied from other cases. It represents a significant reform for Texas, one of the only capital punishment states that lacks a public defender to oversee key death row appeals known as state writs of habeas corpus.
The office, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a staff of 9, won't open soon enough to help any of the inmates whose appellate rights were squandered recently.
"Better late than never," said Juan Castillo, 1 of 4 death row inmates whose state appeals were never filed by the San Antonio attorney assigned to represent them. "This is a start. There's a lot of cases" that have been screwed up.
Ellis first introduced the bill in 2007 in response to reports about how death row inmates' lawyers had mismanaged appeals. But the bill was blocked then by last-minute lobbying from Harris County's former DA.
In the aftermath, appellate mistakes continued. The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this year that 3 attorneys had repeatedly blown state or federal appellate deadlines for their death row clients, effectively surrendering their clients' rights to appeal. The Court of Criminal Appeals recently found 2 attorneys in contempt of court for their shoddy work, including Castillo's lawyer, Suzanne Kramer, and referred them to the State Bar of Texas for possible disciplinary action.
Kramer has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Governor signed bill
By the 2009 legislative session, remaining opposition to establishing a state capital defense office had virtually disappeared, Ellis said. The law was approved late in the session and signed by the governor last month.
"I think that everyone agrees (death row inmates) deserve one fair shot at presenting their issues, whether they're meritorious or not," said Andrea Marsh, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. "We saw too many cases where poor state habeas representation forced people to lose appeals."
The Office of Capital Writs will be funded by redirecting money already in the state budget: $500,000 formerly used to pay private attorneys for appeals and $494,520 from the state's Fair Defense account, already earmarked for indigent defense. Ultimately, its attorneys will likely handle most state appeals about 10 a year, if the current pace of death sentences continues.
State writs of habeas corpus are considered the most critical step in death row appeals. It is at that stage that any innocence claim, allegation of prosecutorial misconduct, flawed trial defense or other issue involving omissions or case errors must be raised or the arguments cannot normally be raised later in the process.
The state writ of death row inmate Keith Thurmond, a former Montgomery County mechanic on death row for the 2001 murders of his wife and her lover, first was assigned to an inexperienced attorney who badly botched it. He next was given a Houston attorney, Jerome Godinich, who failed to file his federal appeal on time. Godinich, who has missed deadlines in 3 federal death row appeals, has blamed the mistake in Thurmond's case on another lawyer and a faulty after-hours filing machine.
Thurmond fears that he will be executed before his innocence claim, or any other challenges to the outcome of his 2002 trial, are ever heard by any appellate judge.
"I'm lost," he said. "I don't know what to do. I haven't had no representation since I've been here."
(source: Houston Chronicle)
July 28th, 2009
Texas Seeks To Improve Image In Death Penalty Cases
Texas, the death penalty capital of the country, seems to be looking to change its ways.
The state has passed legislation creating a capital defense office next year, which will handle appeals for death row inmates, according to this article from the Houston Chronicle.
The appellate office will have a staff of 9 and a budget of about $1 million.
Texas has gotten roundly criticized over the years for its handling of capital murder cases. There have been strange capital murder tales coming out of the Lone Star state in recent years, including a capital murder defendant represented by a sleeping lawyer; a defendant sentenced to death by a judge who allegedly was having a secret affair with the prosecutor in the case; and a defendant who was executed after he was barred from filing an appeal after the 5:00 pm closing time of the state's highest criminal appellate court. That later case prompted a move to impeach Sharon Keller, a judge on the state's court of criminal appeals.
The Chron reports that the legislation creating the capital defense office was inspired by stories of Texas inmates who lost appeals because their lawyers missed deadlines or filed "skeletal" writs, which contained only scant information often copied from other cases.
"The status quo has been an international embarrassment," state senator Rodney Ellis, who sponsored the legislation, told the Chron.
(source: Wall Street Journal)
July 23, 2009
The Death Penalty for a Hate-Crime?
The Matthew Shepard Act, as part of the 2010 Department of Defense Authorization Bill that it is attached to, has now officially cleared the Senate and is making its way toward President Obama's desk but first must make a stop at a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation before final votes in September, but it does so after having had four amendments made to it, one of which adds a death penalty provision.
Details on the Four Amendments Made to the Matthew Shepard Act
Approved on Monday, 3 of the amendments were conceived by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.); they accomplish the following:
Authorizing the possibility of the death penalty for certain hate-crimes.
Extending the hate-crimes law to include "injury" against U.S. military service members and their families.
A requirement that all hate-crime prosecutions adhere to guidelines as set out by the Attorney General, and that they operate on a "neutral and objective" basis.
A further amendment was then added by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) seeking to place conditions on the application of the death penalty provision, restricting the measure's use until the attorney general of the state where the hate-crimes law is being applied has created the appropriate standards for the use of capital punishment as a sentence for a hate-crime conviction.
All 4 amendments were approved, 3 with unanimous consent, and the amendment to extend hate-crime protections to military service personnel passing with a vote of 92-0.
According to this article by the Washington Blade, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) explained that the amendments made to the Matthew Shepard Act were part of a deal with Republican Senators in order to have the hate-crimes provision clear the Senate. Leahy also states that he supports all 4 of the amendments "in modified form".
How Have LGBT Groups Reacted to the Matthew Shepard Act Amendments?
Not well. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups have decried the addition of the death penalty. The American Civil Liberties Union have perhaps said it best through Christopher Anders, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel, when noting:
"The expansion of the federal death penalty stands in stark contrast to furthering the cause of civil rights in the United States"
In a letter sent by a coalition of gay rights, civil liberties and religious groups amounting to 50 sponsors in total, the addition of the death penalty was denounced. You can read the letter here.
The Human Rights Campaign group have called the the amendments "poison pills" introduced by Jess Sessions, a Senator that gave a 50 minute speech as to why hate-crimes should not be extended to include LGBTS, to kill the bill.
This, in itself, also infers the bitter irony inherent in a man arguing that extending hate-crimes legislation to include LGBT protections could endanger the liberty of moral objectors and religious persons, then adding a federal death penalty clause.
Personally, I think three of the amendments are ill conceived and arbitrary. One places undue demands on the Attorney General to redefine hate-crimes when there has long been a perfectly applicable definition in existing law.
The second extends protections to military personnel and their families which, firstly, is a move poorly defined - what constitutes "injury", or, indeed, "family" - and secondly, is unneeded due to existing tougher penalties for attacks made on service members or veterans already being in place.
The death penalty provision we will come to below.
Lastly the final amendment designed to curtail the death penalty's enforcement is a reactionary damage limitation exercise from the Democrats indicative of the difficulty that making concessions to the Republican opposition has left them in.
What's Next for the Hate Crimes Legislation?
The Hate Crimes legislation will go to a conference committee where the disparities between the House and Senate versions of the bill will hopefully be reconciled.
One thing is clear, a Matthew Shepard Act including the death penalty is an insult to the young man that it was named after, violating the spirit of the legislation as it was intended and making bitter any sense of victory or joy that could have been had from its long overdue passage.
The Matthew Shepard act has already been attached to a DOD authorization bill, a move which no one really wanted. But we accept, we adapt and we move forward.
On the issue of the death penalty provision, though, we can not accept, we can not move forward. Instead, we must fight for it to be removed. There is no other way.
Luckily, there is now such a gulf between the House and Senate versions of the bill that there will be room to maneuver, but it is imperative that we make Senators and Representatives mindful of the fact that they must remove the death penalty provision from the hate-crimes legislation whilst still making it known how vital the nature of the Matthew Shepard Act, or what was once the Matthew Shepard Act, is.
Take Action and Stop the Death Penalty Provision:
You can reach the capital switchboard at 202.224.3121. You will be asked who you wish to speak to. Ask for your Senator or Representative's office. Don't know who they are? Find out here, where you'll also be able to access a list of email addresses and direct office phone numbers if you wish to contact your representatives that way.
Once you are in touch with your Representative or Senator's office, reiterate your support for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention legislation, but also urge them to work toward removing the death penalty provision when the bill goes to conference.
You may wish to cite the general consensus opinion that the House version of the bill has always been more comprehensive, better structured and well targeted than its Senate counterpart. Reverting to that format would allow the hate-crimes prevention legislation to operate in the way that it was intended.
Lastly, please pass on any emails or contact information you do have to friends and family and spread the important message that whilst we do want hate-crimes legislation and therein equal status, we do not want it with the spectre of the death penalty being allowed along for the ride.
July 22, 2009
Inmate set to die for '99 murder gets reprieve
By MICHAEL GRACZYK
Associated Press Writer
HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday stopped the scheduled execution of a condemned inmate after misplaced evidence surfaced related to the abduction, robbing and fatal shooting of a Dallas man a decade ago.
Roderick Newton, 31, was set to die Thursday. Prosecutors and defense attorneys had anticipated a reprieve after Dallas County authorities gave Newton's lawyers a police questionnaire uncovered in a review of the case.
The evidence was given to them within the last two weeks.
Newton was condemned for the death of Jesus Montoya, 20, of Dallas, who in 1999 was abducted from a car wash, forced to make an ATM withdrawal, robbed of his jewelry and then shot and dumped in a vacant lot in Mesquite.
Dallas County prosecutors cleared the way for the reprieve when they agreed Tuesday with Newton's attorneys that the courts should review the possible impact of the questionnaire, which was filled out by a key prosecution witness at Newton's trial but never given to Newton's trial lawyers.
It was the first of three statements made to Mesquite detectives by a co-defendant who testified against Newton.
Only two, however, were known to Newton's trial attorneys.
The inmate's appeals lawyers, seeking to block the lethal injection, told the Court of Criminal Appeals it was improperly withheld and could have been used to discredit the co-defendant's testimony.
Police arrested the co-defendant, Julian Paul Williams, whose fingerprints were found in Montoya's truck, and Williams told them of Newton's involvement in Montoya's slaying. He served a 10-year prison term and is now free. Newton got death.
Prosecutors found the written questionnaire from Williams in a police file while recently reviewing the 10-year-old case. In the questionnaire, Williams told police he knew nothing of the slaying and wasn't involved, a story he changed in subsequent statements.
The appeals court returned Newton's case to his Dallas County trial court for a hearing on the evidence issue. The appeals court also agreed with Newton's lawyers that their claim Newton was mentally impaired and ineligible for execution should be reviewed.
The court dismissed other defense claims that Newton should have had a hearing on his competency to stand trial and that he had deficient legal help at his trial.
Newton had more than two dozen misdemeanor and felony offenses on his record and was a probation violator when he became wanted for Montoya's slaying. He was arrested hiding in a garbage bin after fleeing on foot following a car chase that had ended with him crashing into a parked car.
Texas leads the nation with 16 executions this year. At least 10 inmates have execution dates in the coming months. Scheduled to die next is David Wood, 52, a convicted serial killer facing lethal injection Aug. 20 for the slayings of six women and girls in the El Paso area over three months in 1987.
Inmate set to die for '99 murder gets reprieve
Copyright 2009, The Associated Press.
July 21, 2009
Respected magistrate hangs up his robes but will continue his research at UT-Arlington
Allan Butcher was known as one of the top death-penalty attorneys in Texas and an advocate for poor criminal defendants when he became a magistrate quietly working away in the basement courtroom at the courthouse a decade ago.
His switch from writing appeals for death row inmates to simply approving pleas on routine legal matters may have bewildered others, but it made sense to Butcher, who said the job gave him time to continue his research
"Most lawyers like the drama of the courtroom. I like the solitude of the library," Butcher said.
Butcher, however, hung up his robes Friday after changes in the schedule forced him to work 5 days a week, every week. That made it harder to continue his research, especially into the courts indigent-defense system.
"When I took the job, we worked 7 days on and had 7 days off," Butcher said. "That gave me a large block of time every other week to devote to my research."
A 5-member judicial committee has screened about 35 applicants for the magistrate's job and picked 6 finalists, who were interviewed Friday. The county's 19 criminal court judges will make the final selection this week.
By the time his successor takes the bench, Butcher plans to be back in his office at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he will continue researching the death penalty, indigency and judicial selection issues that have become synonymous with his name.
Butcher had 3 careers before becoming a lawyer more than 30 years ago, and he tried a few cases before finding his niche as an appellate attorney. There, he earned a statewide reputation after winning reversals on 1/2 of the 18 death penalty cases he appealed.
"He was probably the leading appellate lawyer that judges would use in death-penalty cases," said state District Judge George Gallagher, who practiced law with Butcher for 13 years. "He was considered the best because of his thoroughness and knowledge of the law."
Butcher gave his best to all his clients, not just those facing the death penalty, Gallagher said.
He recalled a case in which a defendant tried on a felony charge was convicted of a misdemeanor. Still, Butcher appealed the case on the grounds that the judge should have given the jury a legal definition of reasonable doubt.
It took a year and a half before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed.
Even though the court reversed itself 6 years later, Butcher continues to fight for his clients and the law, Gallagher said.
"What struck me about this case is that it was really no big deal as far as the severity of the offense," Gallagher said. "But Allan seized on what he thought was a gap in the law and tried to change it."
Butcher gives the same careful attention to the hundreds of defendants with whom he interacts only briefly, his staff say.
"He treats them as individuals," court coordinator Rita Dickerson said. "He tries to convey how important it is for them to get an attorney in time to do them some good but to get someone they're comfortable working with."
Dickerson said Butcher is equally attentive to the police officers who bring him search and arrest warrants to sign.
Butcher, a professor emeritus at UT-Arlington, acknowledges that his teaching side kicks in when hes trying to ensure that officers include details needed for him to sign the warrants.
"I'm the person between the police who want to search and the civilian's right to privacy," he said. "The officer has to convince me he has the reason to do it. I like to think that Im rigorous yet sensitive to the rights of the defendant."
For the near future, Butcher will return to his research on indigent defense, which already has improved poor defendants access to attorneys throughout the state.
He'll also continue trying to find ways to ensure that the death penalty is imposed in a fair and consistent way, although he no longer is sure that is possible.
"I'm not ready to retire," Butcher said.
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
July 20, 2009
Texas reporter's seen unrivaled number of U.S. executions
Texas reporter has covered executions in Texas since the early 1980s
Graczyk stopped counting, didn't want "notches on my gun belt"
Inmates waiting to die have greeted him by name, called to check up on him
He says he doesn't worry about the mental toll and has declined counseling.
It takes 7 minutes to execute a death row inmate, according to the state
Mike Graczyk poses outside the Texas death chamber prior to an execution
At that rate, Mike Graczyk has spent about 40 hours of his life watching
men -- and a few women -- die.
Graczyk, a correspondent for The Associated Press, is believed to hold a
macabre record. He's almost certainly watched more executions than anyone
else in the United States.
"I can't possibly imagine there's been someone present at more than Mike,"
said Michelle Lyons, the spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice, which uses lethal injection at its execution chamber in
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, no state has executed more
inmates than Texas. And no one has witnessed more of them than Graczyk.
He's on the witness list for 315 of the state's 439 executions -- more
than any other reporter, prison employee or chaplain -- and no records
were kept for another 80.
In his early days, he kept count. But he eventually stopped. He didn't
want to know.
"In one circle, I was perceived as putting notches on my gun belt," the
59-year-old reporter said. "I didn't like that."
Prison regulations in Texas require The Associated Press to be given one
of the five designated media witness passes for each execution.
Texas execution facts:
Texas executions since death penalty was reinstated: 439
Cost per execution for drugs used : $86.08
Average time on death row before execution: 10.26 years
Youngest inmate executed: 3 at 24
Oldest inmate executed: 66
Women executed: 3
Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Graczyk works in the AP's
Houston bureau -- it's closest to the state's execution chamber in
Huntsville. Since the early 1980s, he's made the hourlong drive north
almost every time an inmate has faced the needle.
The 1st was March 13, 1984, for the execution of James "Cowboy" Autry,
convicted of shooting a female store clerk between the eyes with a
.38-caliber revolver while arguing over a six-pack of beer.
She died, along with a former Catholic priest that Autry killed at the
"The first time definitely leaves an impression on you," Graczyk said.
There are others that stand out along the way.
Graczyk remembers Bob Black, convicted of killing his wife and trying to
collect the insurance money.
"I walked into the death house, and he was strapped to the table and he
said, 'Hey Mike, how are you doing?' It threw me for a loop."
Graczyk said it's normal for him to know the name of the condemned and not
uncommon for the reverse to be true. There have been others who greeted
Graczyk by name with a needle in their arm.
Once, while waiting to be let into the death house, a prisoner phoned him
in the media holding area.
It was the inmate whose execution Graczyk was about to witness.
"He said, 'I just wanted to call and make sure you were OK.' I was
Over the years, the inmate's name has slipped from Graczyk's memory, but
not the unexpected phone conversation.
"I don't think he had any family to call," he said.
There was Ponchai Wilkerson, who once nearly escaped from death row and,
years later, coughed up a handcuff key as he lay dying from his injection.
There was the "Candy Man," Ronald Clark O'Bryan -- convicted of poisoning
his child's Halloween candy with cyanide -- and the gauntlet of college
students wearing Halloween masks who showed up to cheer.
And Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the 1800s.
He remembers a network correspondent crying after her death -- and another
blow-drying his hair.
Of the entire death chamber ritual, Graczyk said, it's the final
statements that stick in his mind. Some have been confessions. Others were
Poetry. Prayers. Bible verses. Curses. Emotions ranging from defiance to
There was Jonathan Nobles, an electrician who stabbed 2 people to death.
He sang "Silent Night."
"Ever since then, I think of him on Christmas or Christmas Eve when I'm in
church," Graczyk said. "That's the kind of thing that haunts you."
The person who may come closest to Graczyk's status also felt things that
Don Reid, a writer for the AP and, before that, a Texas newspaper,
witnessed 189 executions in the 1960s, when Texas still strapped inmates
to "Old Sparky," the nickname for the state's electric chair.
The experience changed Reid, who died in 1981, from a supporter of the
death penalty to an opponent. He wrote a book, "Have a Seat, Please,"
chronicling that transformation.
Graczyk said he doesn't worry about the mental toll of watching so many
deaths. His bosses with the AP have offered counseling. He's declined.
"To see someone go to sleep -- not to sound insensitive -- but the carnage
at the murder scene is harder than what you see in the death house in
Huntsville," he said.
Over a 25-year career, Graczyk said, the executions have only been a small
portion of his work. He finds balance in those other stories.
As a journalist, Graczyk never answers the question when friends ask his
own views on the death penalty.
"I'm not sure I really know," he said.
But as long as Texas keeps executing people, Graczyk said, it's important
that he keep showing up.
The next execution in Huntsville was scheduled for Thursday before the
condemned, convicted murderer Kenneth Mosley, was granted a reprieve until
If he execution goes ahead then, Graczyk plans to make the drive.
"I would hate for the state of Texas to take someone's life and no one be
there," he said.
Families of victims and families of mentally ill offenders release death penalty report
Jul 06, 2009
Double Tragedies, a report detailing the impact of capital crimes
committed by mentally ill people, is being released by the National
Alliance on Mental Illness and Murder Victims' Families for Human
Rights. The two organizations launched a campaign last year in San
Antonio in opposition to the death penalty for the mentally ill.
One of the Texas cases highlighted in the report is that of Larry
Robison of Tarrant County who killed five people several years after
being diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. His parents, Lois and Ken
Robison tried for years to get help for him.
"Everybody said they couldn't help him, because he wasn't violent,"
Lois Robison told the report's author Susannah Sheffer. "And if he
ever got violent, then they would commit him to a mental hospital.
And instead they committed him to death row."
Larry Robison was executed in 2000.
Sheffer, said she heard similar stories over and over. "Sometimes
these families are perceived as "sort of neglectful and not
involved," she says. But "it's not a case of somebody not trying--
they tried every conceivable thing and this is what happened."
The groups stress "prevention not execution," calling for
improvements in the mental health system to stop tragedies before
Families of victims and families of mentally ill offenders release death penalty report
July 4, 2009
USA Independence Day
Across America today, on Independence Day, there will be traditional
fireworks, parades, summer fun for children in swimming pools and at
ballgames, and a pervasive national outpouring of patriotism, reflected in
both flag displays and the singing of the national anthem at countless
There are also almost 3,300 individuals who will not be any part of
these festivities; they are mostly forgotten, despised and reviled....
they are America's condemned.
They sit on death rows in 34 states, as well as in a military prison in
Kansas and a fedeal facility in Indiana. Most are overwhelmingly guilty
of vile, heinous, outrageous and terrible crimes. Many are mentally ill,
even profoundly mentally ill, and a good number are innocent of the crimes
for which they were convicted. Collectively, they are, in part,
responsible for a great deal of anger, hurt, pain and rage in our society.
They face death by firing squad, hanging, electrocution, cyanide gas, and
lethal injection (there are more methods of legitimate state-sanctioned
execution in the the USA than in any other country in the world).
As this nation is trying to emerge from the worst global financial crisis
in 70 years, it remains in desperate need of trying to find, uphold and
defend its moral soul. We are a long way from accomplishing this
important national task.
Most of America's political and judicial leaders, both male and female, in
both major parties, remain committed to upholding the ideology and
practice of human extermination. As long as any nation in the world,
inclduing the USA, retain and practice the barbarism of killing people in
the name of the law, they can never be free. If people support, or are
indifferent to the liquidataion of condemned individuals, how can we be
surprised that other horrors, such as torture, hate crimes, and crimes
against women, continue at such an alarming pace.
To be sure, some advances in the abolition of the US death penalty have
been achieved in the last decade: America has stopped executing its
juvenile and mentally retarded offenders; New Jersey and New Mexico have
legislatively ended the death penalty, and other states have, in recent
years, come close to doing the same. Over 130 innocent people have been
released from America's death rows to date, and more will emerge to the
free world in the years ahead.
But this "progress" has come at a frustratingly, agonizinly slow pace.
Of the 1168 individuals put to death in America since executions resumed
in 1977, 736 have occurred since 1998, including 200 just in Texas alone
since Rick Perry became governor in 2001. There is no immediate end in
sight to this horror.
There will undoubtedly be the traditional praise and self-congratulatory
editorials and op-eds in our newspapers today, from coast to coast, from
our major cities to our small communities, reminding us of how lucky we
are to live in such a great nation. And in many ways, that sentiment is
But it is a fallacy to believe that assessment when considering what is
happening in this country regarding the issue of the death penalty. It is
time to face the truth, admit national pain, and come to grips with the
fact that on this issue, 233 years after the Declaration of Independence
was proclaimed (and 402 years after the British first settled here), we
are a national disgrace and failure. We remain wedded to the love of
violence, and to the preposterous idea that some people in our society
(and even around the world), can be classified as "lesser" or "other"
humans, 'deserving' to be stripped of their human dignity, caged like
animals for years, physically and psychologically tortured and
terrorized, and then ultimately liquidated in the name of the law.
On this day, when so much celebrating in America will occur, I hope and
trust that people will take a hard look at the sobering realities of
this nation and its nightmare of the death penalty. Now is the time for
all people of conscience, everywhere, to re-dedicate themselves with
renewed fervor to end this terrible scourge, so that America may join the
ranks of most nations in the world that have long since recognized the
links between advancing human progress with ending the death penalty.
When the US does abolish the death penalty, it will then, and only then,
have reasons to be proud and celebrate itself.
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and
Amnesty International USA
What to the Prisoner is Your Fourth of July?
To commemorate the independence of the United States of America, Texas prison kitchens are fired up earlier than usual. The traditional Fourth of July meals are prepared by unpaid prisoners (can you say slaves?) whose only incentive for the extra work is leftover mashed potatoes and an extra oven-barbecued soybean patty, if they are lucky.
By afternoon, Texas prisons are bustling with activities. But today the activity is not the thousands of slaves in the cotton fields. No, the hoe squads, which are normally sweating in the fields while being watched by their armed overseers on horseback, are resting today.
Instead, volleyball nets are brought out and tournaments are organized around the basketball and handball courts. The big men work up a sweat on the weight pile, encouraged at times by female prison guards proudly displaying American flag patches on the shoulder of their confederate- colored uniforms.
The American flag itself is flown at high mast along side the Texas flag for all to see. Even the men living in super max segregation, isolation, and sensory deprivation—the death row population who is not privy to the day’s celebration- -can climb up to the small slit of a window high in the back wall of their individual cage and watch those flags rip in the wind.
Despite the irony, not enough of Texas’ 150,000 slaves seem to question the purpose of a celebration of independence in a prison.
Prisoners were obviously not a consideration when the Declaration of Independence was written.
In fact, the reality is that prisons are neocolonial concentration slave camps. For the plantation to run smoothly, the master is dependent on the docility and ignorance of the inmates/slaves.
In Texas prisons, where the population is disproportionally Black and Latino, rehabilitation and educational programs are rare to nonexistent. The only thing a prisoner is guaranteed to learn how to be a better criminal, guaranteeing their return to enslavement, again and again..
For most prisoners, the July 4th holiday signifies a moment of relief, a day to eat, drink and be merry.
For the 400 Texas death row prisoners, the Fourth of July is simply a day closer to our impending execution.
God Bless America?
By Howard Guidry,
Innocent death row prison activist, organizer, poet and Panther
July 1, 2006
July 1, 2009
Condemned inmate Rodney Reed loses appeal again
Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed lost another appeal before the Texas
Court of Criminal Appeals, which on Wednesdsay rejected his claims that
new evidence pointed to another man as the killer of a 19-year-old woman
in Bastrop County 13 years ago.
In a 6th petition to the state's highest criminal appeals court, Reed's
lawyers argued they had evidence suggesting the boyfriend of Stacey Stites
as the person who abducted, raped and murdered her.
Stites' fiance, Jimmy Fennell, is a former police officer who later was
jailed for abducting and having improper sexual activity with a woman in
The court, however, said the information submitted by Reed failed to show
innocence and failed to show that prosecutors withheld it.
"The allegations of Fennell's misconduct and domestic violence do not
exonerate (Reed)," the court said in a brief decision. "The totality of
the evidence before us still supports a guilty verdict."
The latest challenge cited Fennell's misconduct as he worked as a police
officer in Georgetown and earlier in Giddings. It also pointed to a report
of domestic violence from Fennell's ex-wife and an affidavit of a
"possible sighting of the victim and (Reed) together," according to the
Reed, 41, has insisted he and Stites had a continuing secret affair even
though Stites was engaged to soon marry Fennell when her body was found
along a rural road after she failed to show up for work at a supermarket
in Bastrop, southeast of Austin.
Reed is black and Stites was white and Reed's lawyers have described the
racial aspects of the case as explosive. The also accused prosecutors of
improperly withholding evidence. Prosecutors denied any wrongdoing and
disputed the claims of a secret relationship between the victim and Reed.
Reed was arrested almost a year after the April 1996 slaying of Stites
after his DNA surfaced in the investigation of an unrelated sexual assault
The court also turned down appeals in three other Texas death row cases,
including a man whose death sentence for a murder in Smith County was
thrown out by the court in 2005.
This time the court upheld the second death sentence for Gregory Russeau,
39, convicted of killing a 75-year-old auto mechanic during a robbery in
Tyler. Attorneys for Russeau raised 17 claims of error from his 2nd
punishment trial, including insufficient evidence, improper psychiatric
evidence, constitutional challenges and improper jury instructions.
The murdered man, James Syvertson, was found at his shop by his wife,
daughter and grandchildren. His wallet and car were stolen. Russeau was
arrested in Syvertson's car in Longview the day after the May 2001 murder.
His palm print and hair were found at the auto shop. Russeau had a
previous conviction for burglary.
His 1st death sentence was overturned after attorneys contended reports of
his misbehavior while in prison improperly were presented to jurors when
they were considering punishment.
In another case, the court refused an appeal for Chuong Duong Tong,
condemned for the 1997 slaying of Houston police officer Coung Huy "Tony"
Trinh, who was working off-duty at his family's convenience store when he
was shot during a robbery. Tong, 32, is a refugee from Vietnam. He raised
12 claims challenging his conviction and sentence.
The court also refused an appeal from Patrick Murphy Jr., the last of the
infamous "Texas 7" fugitives to receive the death penalty for the shooting
death of an Irving police officer on Christmas Eve 2000. In his appeal,
Murphy, 48, raised 8 challenges to his conviction and sentence and all
Murphy was serving 50 years for aggravated sexual assault when he and six
other inmates broke out of the Connally Unit of the Texas Department of
Criminal Justice. About two weeks later, Officer Aubrey Hawkins was killed
when he interrupted the escapees' robbery of an Irving sporting goods
Murphy and 5 of his companions were captured the following month in
Colorado. The 7th fugitive killed himself as police moved in.
One of them, Michael Rodriguez, was executed last year. Murphy and the 4
others remain on death row.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
June 26, 2009
ON FILM: Death House Door puts penalty on trial
By Philip Martin
Watching At the Death House Door (Facets, $29.95), a 2008 documentary by Peter Gilbert and Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams) released this week on DVD, I was reminded of the story of Albert Pierrepoint.
Pierrepoint - portrayed by Timothy Spall in the 2005 film The Last Hangman (also known as Pierrepoint) - served as the United Kingdom's official hangman from 1932 to 1956 and presided at the executions of more than 400 people (including some 200 Nazi war criminals hanged after World War II).
By all accounts, he was extremely precise and methodical, a true professional who dispatched his "clients" with as little ado as possible.
He was a mercifully swift worker - rarely did more than 30 seconds elapse between the condemned's arrival on his gallows and execution. (Having done some work for the U.S. Army during World War II, he hated the way the
Americans dithered around for 6 or 7 minutes reading lengthy charges while the condemned waited on the trap door.)
Dealing in officially sanctioned homicide gave Pierrepoint a unique perspective on capital punishment. In the end, he became if not an abolitionist at least convinced that the policy had no deterrent effect.
"I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing," he wrote in his autobiography, "and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for
revenge to other people."
Pierrepoint's opinion is unlikely to change the minds of
capital-punishment advocates - the issue is an emotional one, highly resistant to any evidence and all testimony. It may take something more dramatic than cold numbers to change anyone's mind about whether the state should have the power of life and death over its citizens.
At the Death House Door starts out as a cinematic portrait of the Rev. Carroll Pickett, a Presbyterian minister whose views on capital punishment were shaped by a "hang 'em high" father, the absence of his murdered grandfather and, years before he worked at the prison, the killing of 2 of
his parishioners - civilian library workers - during a 1974 prison siege.
Pickett, once described by a Texas newspaper as "27 degrees right of Rush Limbaugh," thought the death penalty was appropriate and effective.
During his 16 years as prison chaplain of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, Pickett witnessed 95 executions by lethal injection. Like Pierrepoint, he was changed by his experience from capital punishment advocate to opponent.
From the beginning, Pickett was deeply affected by his duties, which required him to provide solace and counsel while at the same time pacifying the condemned so they wouldn't struggle at the end. When Gilbert and James interviewed Pickett, they discovered he had recorded his private thoughts, impressions, doubts and misgivings (there were at least 15 instances where Pickett believed the condemned prisoner was innocent of the crime for which he died) immediately after each ex ecution and archived them on audio cassette tapes. They naturally concluded they had uncovered a rich vein of material.
But we don't really hear much of the tapes, as the focus shifts to the possible wrongful execution of 27-year-old Carlos De Luna in 1989. Pickett was convinced that De Luna was innocent - and, in 2006, Chicago Tribune
reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley wrote a 3-part series that strongly suggested De Luna was the victim of mistaken identity and a prosecutorial rush to justice.
Gilbert and James had originally set out to document Mills' and Possley's work on De Luna and only became aware of Pickett pursuant to that thread.
So the shift between the 2 threads - from Pickett to De Luna's family, from a psychological portrait of amoral evolution to an expose of governmental misconduct - feels a little disconcerting.
Yet if from a filmmaking standpoint the transposition is less than ideal, it makes great sense from a journalist's perspective. When he retired from the prison system in 1995, Pickett announced that capital punishment was
"biblically wrong," which was the official position of the Presbyterian Church.
He said he had kept his opinion to himself for fear of jeopardizing his job - and forfeiting his chance to minister to the condemned.
Since his retirement, Pickett has become a vocal capital-punishment abolitionist, and as such he is suspect in the eyes of some advocates. But he has seen up close what executions look like.
He's convinced the death penalty is no deterrent and in fact, contributes to a cycle of violence.
There were 58 prisoners on death row when Texas resumed executions in 1982; now there are more than 400.
(source: Arkansas Online)
June 24, 2009
PLEASE CLICK ON LINK BELOW TO WATCH VIDEO
Judge orders yogurt shop murder defendants to be released.
Suspects in yogurt shop killings released
Prosecutors not ready for trial after questions from DNA results.
Michael Scott, second from left, with wife Jeannine, and Robert Springsteen, right, leave the Travis County Jail with their lawyers Wednesday. The two men were released on personal recognizance bonds.
Michael Scott, with wife Jeannine, had been in jail since 1999. He was released Wednesday by state District Judge Mike Lynch after prosecutors said they weren't prepared to go to trial July 6.
By Steven Kreytak
June 25, 2009
More than nine years after telling police they participated in the grisly slayings of four teenage girls at a North Austin yogurt shop in 1991 — confessions their lawyers say were coerced under psychological pressure — Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott were released from jail on bond Wednesday.
State District Judge Mike Lynch ordered the men to be released on their own recognizance after prosecutors said they were not prepared to go to trial as scheduled July 6 given questions raised by recently discovered DNA evidence. Each man remains charged with four counts of capital murder.
Scott, 35, and Springsteen, 34, were each previously convicted of capital murder, but those convictions were tossed on appeal. The men have been locked up since 1999, with Springsteen spending four years on death row. Scott had been sentenced to life in prison.
Just before 3 p.m. Wednesday, Scott walked arm-in-arm with his wife from the Travis County Jail, smiling briefly when a handful of supporters cheered. He said nothing to a throng of assembled media.
Behind him was Springsteen, who gazed wide-eyed at the crowd and up into the live oak trees outside the jail. After one of his lawyers, like Scott's before him, proclaimed his innocence, Springsteen was asked how it felt to be free.
"It's wonderful," he said, "and I'd like to thank God, and my lawyers and my family for this opportunity."
Prosecutors said they want to conduct more DNA testing to determine whose male DNA was found in a vaginal swab taken from 13-year-old victim Amy Ayers. DNA from the same male was later found in another victim.
Defense lawyers say the male DNA could have been found in a third victim, but the profile is incomplete, and that another unknown male DNA profile was found on a wrist ligature used to bind a fourth victim.
Tests show conclusively that none of the DNA belongs to Scott, Springsteen or two previous co-defendants, lawyers have said.
Defense lawyers say the new DNA evidence exonerates Scott and Springsteen.
Reading from a statement at a news conference, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said: "The reliable scientific evidence in the case presents one .... unknown male donor. Given that, I could not in good conscience allow this case to go to trial before the identity of this male donor is determined, and the full truth is known. I remain confident that both Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott are responsible for the deaths at the yogurt shop."
Following an earlier promise that a prosecutor delay would mean freedom for the defendants, Lynch released them on personal recognizance bonds, which requires them to post no money. He said he must not only consider the charges and the importance of conducting further DNA tests but the rights of the men to a trial.
Under the terms of their bonds, the men must not use drugs or alcohol, contact any victims or witnesses, and remain in Travis County.
Scott's lawyers — Dexter Gilford, Carlos Garcia and Tony Diaz — opposed the trial delay, saying they think the state has little chance of quickly determining the contributor of the mystery DNA.
Lehmberg said prosecutors have ordered the DNA to be compared with that of more than 130 people — including friends of Scott and Springsteen, as well as police and firefighters — but have not found a match.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who was in court and at the news conference, said his detectives are continuing to work the case. "We do believe we have the right suspects in custody."
The Dec. 6, 1991, killings of Ayers, Eliza Thomas, 17, and sisters Sarah and Jennifer Harbison, 15 and 17, horrified the city. The girls were found bound and gagged with bullets in the back of their heads.
The killers set the crime scene on fire, an early complication to the police investigation. A string of confessions, which police later dismissed as false, further complicated the pursuit of the killers, as did the proliferation of details about the crime. Hundreds of tips poured in, but no arrests were made.
One lead police dismissed was when Scott's friend Maurice Pierce told them days after the killings that a .22 caliber gun he was arrested for carrying had been used.
Police in 1991 interviewed Pierce, Scott, Springsteen and their friend Forrest Welborn and apparently were satisfied that the men played no role in the crime.
In November 1999, detectives called Scott at his Buda home and asked him to talk. Before that interview, police knew that ballistics tests showed that Pierce's gun was likely not used in the crime. Still, detectives mounted an interrogation of Scott that lasted for more than 20 hours over five days.
After a few hours, Scott admitted to going to the yogurt shop with three friends, including Pierce, for a robbery turned bad.
Police later went to West Virginia, where Springsteen had been living, and he agreed to speak with them, eventually admitting a role in the crime in an four-hour videotaped session.
Prosecutors said that their accounts were similar and that they knew things only the killers would know. Defense lawyers said they were fed those details or had heard them in media reports.
Scott, Springsteen, Pierce and Welborn were arrested, but Welborn was never indicted. Charges against Pierce were later dismissed.
On Wednesday, lawyers for Springsteen — Joe James Sawyer and Alexandra Gauthier — said they want an acquittal or dismissal in the case. Scott's wife, Jeannine Scott, sounded a similar sentiment.
"It's just another tactic; it's another delay," she said. "The evidence already shows they have the wrong men."
None of the victim's relatives could be reached except Thomas' mother, Maria Thomas, who lives in Oregon. She remains convinced that Scott and Springsteen are guilty.
"I am very upset about it," she said. "I can't believe that they really let them go."
Suspects in yogurt shop killings released
June 22, 2009
Is There A More Humane Way To Kill?
Does strangulation offer a better way to kill those on death row awaiting
execution? This is the question being asked by Lawrence Gist, a professor
and human rights attorney with the International Humanitarian Hypoxia
Project. Following in the steps of professor Guillotin, who in 1789
proposed a "mechanism" that beheads painlessly," Gist proposes utilizing
the latest research to ensure humane executions, not by beheading, but
medical strangulation. Gist said that the proposed execution protocol is
humane, and unlike other execution methods currently being used in the
United States, this protocol maintains the viability of the corpse's
organs and tissue. The bodily remains of those executed, says Gist, "may
then be used to offer hope to some of the estimated 55,000 people
currently waiting for life-saving transplants."
The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of lethal
injection, the most common method used for executions by the federal
government and 36 states. However, it has been documented that the 3-drug
lethal injection protocol is frequently negligently administered, causing
extreme pain and suffering. In Gist's pending law review article, he
advocates giving those on death row the option to choose between the
potentially painful lethal injection protocol, or this new protocol which
offers a humane and pain-free execution.
Gist notes that the "protocol does not involve the type of slow painful
strangulation most people imagine when thinking of strangulation in fact
the protocol is far more humane than any previous method designed to end
human life." Hypoxia it's called, when someone is deprived of the oxygen
required to sustain life. So how can it be humane to deprive someone of
oxygen to the point of death? Gist answers this question by stating the
execution protocol he is advocating requires inmate to be executed wear a
standard medical face mask and breath in pure nitrogen, devoid of any
oxygen. Nitrogen is an odorless and tasteless gas which, without oxygen,
will lead to asphyxiation without any feeling of suffocation. " Gist said
that the new protocol "is inexpensive and could be easily preformed by
prison guards without the need for a physician's supervision (other than
to pronounce death), an allegedly violation of the Hippocratic oath to 'do
While Gist is an opponent of capitol punishment, he believes that pending
it's abolition, hypoxia is the perfect method for conducting humane
executions. Gist went on to say that "because the corpse of an asphyxiated
prisoner does not contain toxins left over from lethal injection or the
gas chamber, nor physical trauma from electrocution, the bodily remains
are fully available for life-saving organ and tissue donation." It would
be highly unethical to use organs and tissue without voluntary consent,
but Gist stated that his research suggest many of those awaiting execution
would like the opportunity to redress a little of the harm they have done
to society and give some meaning to their death by donating the gift of
life to those awaiting life-saving transplants. Gist's proposal would
allow death row inmates the option to choose execution by lethal injection
or hypoxia and if hypoxia is chosen, giving them the additional option of
making their body available for organ and tissue donation.
The International Humanitarian Hypoxia Project, founded by Gist, is
calling on governors across the country to grant a temporary moratorium on
all executions, allowing time for debate and legislative consideration of
this new execution protocol.
Of particular interest to Gist is the upcoming July 16th execution of Kennith Mosley, the 201st person scheduled to be executed during the tenure of Texas Governor Rick Perry. Gist said during a recent interview that he doubts Governor Perry will be persuaded to grant Mosley a stay.
The political reality, Gist said, is that "lethal injection has been held to be constitutional, and most politicians won't consider a new execution protocol, even if better, if subject to a new round of legal challenges."
However, Gist remains optimistic, "groups on both the left and right share a common value, the respect for human life, and once the public becomes aware of this protocol, and it's incidental benefits, I believe previously divergent groups will join efforts and petition their state leaders for an immediate temporary moratorium on executions." Gist said that "there is really nothing to lose, and much to gain - a humane execution protocol offering life to the terminally ill it's really a classic win-win proposal."
Lawrence J. Gist II -- Attorney at Law
4105 Exultant Drive
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275
International Humanitarian Hypoxia Project at www.gistprobono.org/ihhp/
International Humanitarian Law Pro Bono Project at www.gistprobono.org
Death penalty decisions loom for Obama
By: Josh Gerstein
June 21, 2009
For the first time in his career, President Barack Obama may soon confront one of the most weighty and unsavory decisions that a chief executive must make, whether to put a murder convict to death.
The decision could land on Obama’s desk within a matter of months, due to cases winding their way through the federal courts. And while Obama is on record supporting the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes, that’s a far cry from deciding whether a specific mans life should be taken or spared.
“The death penalty in the abstract is one thing. The reality of the death penalty and all of its nasty details is a very different thing,” said Dianne Rust-Tierney of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty. “This is something that this president is not the only one to face…..Having seen this thing in practice, you see it as a very different animal.”
Already, with little press attention or protest from the anti-death penalty camp, Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for at least four defendants since Obama took office. In all, 55 men and two women are on federal death row, death-penalty opponents say.
But the timing of Obama’s first death-penalty decision is likely to be dictated by a case pending in Washington, involving six federal death-row inmates at most imminent risk of execution. Their sentences were stayed by a federal judge, who is deciding whether to let their executions proceed, despite their challenge to federal execution protocols.
The cases involve three members of a Richmond, Va., gang sentenced to death in 1993 for drug-related murders; two men sentenced to death for abduction, sexual assault and murder of a 16-year-girl; and another man convicted of killing a prison guard. All six defendants are black.
If the stay is lifted and execution dates are set, any of the men could ask the president to step in. And clearly, death-penalty opponents hope they have a sympathetic ear in Obama, despite his support for the limited use of executions. They hope he will try to impose more safeguards in federal capital cases, and even spare some prisoners. And they note that Holder once authored a ground-breaking federal study that found racial disparities in death penalty cases.
As a state senator in Illinois, Obama pressed for death penalty reforms, including a requirement that interrogations in capital cases be audio- or videotaped. He also opposed adding gang-related crimes to those which could prompt the death penalty.
And in his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama said he saw little evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent.
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Still, he is on record supporting the ultimate penalty for “heinous” crimes — even in some cases where it has been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. During last year’s campaign, he said he disagreed with a 5-4 decision the justices issued holding the death penalty unconstitutional in a child rape case where the child was not murdered.
“I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances, for the most egregious of crimes,” Obama said following the court’s ruling last June. “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances, the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution.”
As president, Obama has been silent on the topic. A White House spokesman said the counsel’s office is aware of pending death penalty cases but had not started a formal policy review of how Obama might deal with them.
During the Clinton years, Holder helped oversee what he called a “very disturbing” study on racial disparities in the federal death penalty. Death penalty opponents would like to see Holder order a new study, return more autonomy for death penalty decisions to local federal prosecutors, and agree not to seek the federal death penalty in states which do not have it.
“The Attorney General is reviewing department policies across the board, including those dealing with capital cases, and has made no final determinations with respect to any new policies. As he said at his confirmation hearing, he is open to the idea of a new study,” Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. A new study would likely have the practical impact of deferring Obama’s first fateful decision on the death penalty.
But death penalty proponents say they doubt Obama will take a major stand against the death penalty as president.
“I don’t believe that Obama is going to rock the apple cart too much,” said Rusty Hubbarth of Justice for All. “The vast majority of Americans are fully in favor of capital punishment if the safeguards are there.”
One longtime opponent of the death penalty noted that all crime issues have a far lower profile now than in the 1990s – making support or opposition to the death penalty far less of a hot-button for a Democrat like Obama. “Fear of crime was one of the top issues. Now, it’s off the radar. The economy is Number 1, 2 and 3,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.
For much of President George W. Bush’s time in office, the federal death penalty was effectively halted while the Supreme Court considered cases challenging the so-called cocktail of lethal injection drugs used by most states and the federal government. In April 2008, the high court cleared away the main obstacle to further federal executions when the justices ruled, 7-2, that the lethal drugs didn’t present an unconstitutional risk of cruel and unusual punishment.
Clearing the way for a death sentence was nothing new for Bush when he took office in 2001. He presided over 152 executions as governor of Texas and three as president.
Likewise, President Bill Clinton was no stranger to what Justice Harry Blackmun once called “the machinery of death.” Clinton oversaw a total of four executions as governor of Arkansas. He famously underscored his tough-on-crime credentials by leaving the presidential campaign trail in 1992 to attend to the execution of a brain-damaged cop-killer, Ricky Ray Rector.
However, no federal inmate was executed on Clinton’s watch, after he twice postponed executions scheduled during his final months in office.
The execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh under Bush in 2001 was the first execution in the federal system in nearly four decades.
Obama will likely be the first presidential novice to face the decision about whether to send a man to death since 1963, when President John F. Kennedy rejected a clemency request from a Michigan man sentenced to death in the federal courts for murder and kidnapping, Victor Feguer. He was hanged.
Even if the Washington cases moved forward, and the six men were cleared for execution, it could take months before it comes to Obama.
Execution dates are typically set by the Federal Bureau of Prisons at least 120 days in advance. Under federal regulations, a condemned inmate has 30 days from the notice to ask the president to commute the sentence, giving the president 90 days to mull the decision. Of course, the president can order a reprieve or commutation at any time, within or outside the official regulations.
Other cases are still in the courts.
In March, prosecutors in San Francisco said Holder “reauthorized” the request for the death penalty for a drug gang leader, Dennis Cyrus, charged with three drug-related murders. Jurors, who convicted Cyrus last month for the murders, are now considering whether to impose death. Holder also authorized seeking the death penalty for a U.S. soldier accused of war crimes in Iraq and for two inmates accused of killing a guard in a California federal prison.
In other cases, Holder has authorized plea bargains and declined the death penalty, including at least one case where Bush Administration officials were pressing for death.
More cases loom. On Tuesday, a federal judge in New York asked the Justice Department to move quickly to decide whether the government will seek the death penalty for a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner just flown into the U.S., Ahmed Ghailani, who is accused of involvement in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
And Obama will have to decide whether to pursue the death penalty in new military commissions he has proposed for war-on-terror prisoners still housed at Guantanamo.
Of course, deciding whether to grant clemency to a condemned inmate would not be the first life-or-death decision Obama has faced as commander-in- chief at a time of two wars. And in April, he authorized the use of lethal force against pirates holding a U.S. ship captain off the coast of Somalia. Three pirates were killed.
© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC
Death penalty decisions loom for Obama
June 19, 2009
States Without Death Penalty Have Lower Murder Rates
Scientists agree, by an overwhelming majority, that the death penalty has
no deterrent effect. They felt the same way over 10 years ago, and nothing
has changed since then. States without the death penalty continue to have
significantly lower murder rates than those that retain capital
punishment. And the few recent studies purporting to prove a deterrent
effect, though getting heavy play in the media, have failed to impress the
larger scientific community, which has exposed them as flawed and
The latest issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology contains a
study by a Sociology professor and a graduate student at the University of
Colorado-Boulder (Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock), examining the
opinions of leading criminology experts on the deterrence effects of the
The results reveal that most experts do not believe that the death penalty
or the carrying out of executions serve as deterrents to murder, nor do
they believe that existing empirical research supports the deterrence
theory. In fact, the authors report that 88.2% of respondents do not think
that the death penalty deters murdera level of consensus comparable to the
agreement among scientists regarding global climate change. At the same
time, only 9.2% of surveyed experts indicated that they believed the death
penalty results in a significant drop in murder cases (56.6% completely
disagreed with that statement, while 32.9% thought the correlation between
capital punishment and lower homicide numbers to be "largely inaccurate";
1.3% were uncertain).
The study builds upon previous research, published in 1996, in which the
opinions of 67 leading experts in the field of criminology were surveyed.
The most recent study sent the same questions to a new group of experts (a
total of 73), among whom were fellows from the American Society of
Criminology, as well as award-winning criminology scholars.
A majority of respondents also expressed the opinion that death penalty
states don't have lower homicide rates than states where capital
punishment has been abolished. The authors point to empirical evidence
that backs this up in 2007 murder rates in states that still had the
death penalty exceeded those in states that have abolished it by no less
than 42%. More than 18 % of surveyed experts went even further and
actually expressed the belief that the death penalty leads to a higher
rate of murders, something the authors call the 'brutalization
In addition, a majority of respondents involved in both the 2008 and the
1996 studies believe that "(d)ebates about the death penalty distract
Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime
problems." Overall, the authors conclude that there is no significant
difference between the opinions of experts from the 1996 and the 2008 time
periods and that "a vast majority of the world's top criminologists
believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis
for a myth."
Radelet and Lacock also discuss and point to significant inconsistencies
in a number of studies conducted by economists, who have found the death
penalty to have a deterrent effect. These inconsistencies lead them to
conclude that "(r)ecent econometric studies, which posit that the death
penalty has a marginal deterrent effect beyond that of long-term
imprisonment, are so limited or flawed that they have failed to undermine
(source: Opposing Viewpoints)
June 19, 2009
Book Review; Book on one executed prisoner shows flaws in death penalty system
Reading "A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green," one keeps
waiting for someone to straighten things out.
Yes, Dominique Green was more than likely involved in a crime that
resulted in the death of Andrew Lastrapes Jr. And Green might be called a
saint by author Thomas Cahill but the young man was no angel.
When he was arrested in 1992 by the Houston police it was his 4th arrest.
It was that arrest that linked him to the armed robbery and murder that
led him to death row.
Still, he was arrested with 3 others who were involved in the crime that
day. One was never charged and the other 2 were given reduced sentences.
It was only Green who took the full force of the Texas justice system.
Cahill's book shows that there were many mistakes and flaws leading up to
the conviction. Green's lawyer acknowledged that "he drank a couple of
Scotches every night and that, well, his recall just wasnt very good."
Green passed a polygraph test that attested his innocence. However, after
hours of interrogation, he finally confessed."
So why did this young man spend 11 years in solitary confinement on death
row? Why was he executed at age 30 when so many good people were working
to overturn his conviction? Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa
visited Green and tried to draw attention and mercy to his case. The
Community of Sant'Egidio, based in Rome, interceded on Green's behalf.
However, there was no last-minute reprieve. There was no recognition of
the miscarriage of justice. Green died via a lethal injection in 2004.
Cahill writes: "Dominique is where he is for 2 reasons only: because he is
poor and because he is black."
Cahill backs up his claim by citing Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun
who said in 1994, "Even under the most sophisticated death penalty
statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall
live and who shall die."
Cahill notes that about 40 % of the people on death row in Texas are black
as opposed to 12 % of the general Texas population.
Cahill, who is the author of the best-seller "How the Irish Saved
Civilization, " makes a compelling case for the elimination of the death
He is honest in his portrayal of Green and notes that some might not want
to call the accused killer a saint: "Dominique was hardly a saint in his
early years, but I think we may speak of him in his last years as a fully
achieved human being."
He cites Green's patience and kindness and writes a compelling story of a
young man born into poverty and other difficulties who grew in faith and
hope while awaiting to be executed.
More importantly, Cahill draws attention to the inequity and insidiousness
of capital punishment.
He concludes, "It may be stated unequivocally that there are no good
arguments in favor of the death penalty."
After reading Cahill's book, it would be hard to disagree.
(source: Peggy Weber, Catholic News Service)
Key DNA hearing under way in yogurt shop case
By Steven Kreytak
June 18, 2009
The hearing in Judge Mike Lynch’s court is under way. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg is present, a rare courtroom appearance for her.
Lynch said he wants lawyers to make general statements as to what the results mean and not get too bogged down in technical details.
EARLIER:Today is the long-awaited hearing on yogurt shop murder defendant Robert Springsteen’s bid for freedom pending trial because of recent DNA test results that defense lawyers contend exonerate Springsteen and co-defendant Michael Scott and clears two former co-defendants.
The hearing, initially set for tomorrow but moved up because of a scheduling conflict, is set for 1:30 p.m. in state District Judge Mike Lynch’s court in the downtown Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center.
Lynch will take arguments from prosecutors and defense lawyers but will not hear from witnesses. He ordered that all evidence be presented in writing in advance. The affidavits from DNA experts have been sealed.
The killing of Amy Ayers, 13; Eliza Thomas, 17; and sisters Sarah and Jennifer Harbison at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop on West Anderson Lane on Dec. 6, 1991, was one of the city’s most shocking. The girls were bound and gagged with their own clothing. Each was shot in the back of the head, and the killers set the crime scene on fire, leaving little physical evidence.
Scott, 35, and Springsteen, 34, were arrested in 1999 after both confessed to participating in the killings. Both men have recanted, their lawyers saying they caved to hours of psychological pressure, including unethical questioning, placed by Austin police detectives who interviewed them. Two men —Maurice Pierce and Forrest Welborn — were also initially charged in the case after being implicated by Scott and Springsteen, but those charges were later dismissed as prosecutors cited lack of evidence.
Scott and Springsteen were convicted by juries of capital murder. Their convictions were overturned on appeal. Both men have been jailed since their arrests.
Scott has not requested to be set free on bail, his lawyers choosing instead to focus on his trial set for the week of July 6. Springsteen’s trial date has not been set.
Prosecutors in March 2008 informed defense lawyers that testing of the rape kit taken from Amy, the 13-year-old victim, detected the DNA of an unknown male.
Later testing by the defense found the same man’s DNA in vaginal swabs taken from another victim and the DNA of another unknown male in vaginal swabs taken from a third victim, according to lawyers and court filings.
Prosecutors have said they stand by their case, pointing to the confessions. When they first discovered the male DNA in Amy in 2008, prosecutors said they would find out whose DNA it was through testing, suggesting that it could belong to a crime-scene worker or medical examiner who worked on the case.
More than 100 people’s DNA have been compared to that sample— including previous suspects, associates of the defendants and public safety workers — and none has been a match.
Key DNA hearing under way in yogurt shop case
YOGURT SHOP MURDERS
A tragedy in pictures
5.19.09: Yogurt shop DNA hearing delayed
5.13.09: First yogurt shop retrial planned for July
3.25.09: Yogurt shop DNA hearing set
3.1.09: Yogurt shop case DNA leaves jurors wondering
1.8.09: March hearing set on DNA in yogurt shop killing cases
1.1.09: Lawyer: DNA clears suspects
10.30.08: DNA tests delay retrial in killings
9.18.08: Lawyers: No answers in DNA
8.21.08: Defense wants dozens of new DNA tests done for yogurt shop retrial
7.16.08: Judge wants yogurt shop results
6.12.08: Yogurt shop defense goes on offensive
5.3.08: Man freed in yogurt shop case arrested
4.18.08: Yogurt shop DNA not tied to defendants
4.17.08: DNA test in yogurt shop cases
2.21.08: Yogurt shop murder retrial set
11.15.07: Yogurt shop evidence debated
10.9.07: No gag order in men's retrials
10.8.07: No reason for pre-emptive gag order in yogurt trial
9.20.07: Date set for gag order hearing
9.18.07: Gag order sought in new trial
8.11.07: Lawyer asks to be reappointed to defense in yogurt shop case
7.7.07: Defendant in murder case wants 3 charges dropped
6.7.07: Verdict tossed in teens' deaths
2.27.07: Yogurt shop case must be retried
9.28.06: Springsteen decision upheld
5.25.06: Yogurt shop conviction tossed
5.25.06: Other man's confession was key in court's ruling
3.25.05: Opinion by Texas Court of Appeals Judge Michael Lynch
3.2.05: U.S. Supreme Court strikes down death penalty for juvenile offenders
5.22.04: Man sentenced to one year for lying in yogurt shop inquiry
10.9.03: 5th man arrested in 1991 slayings
5.29.03: Confession targeted in yogurt shop case
1.30.03: Yogurt shop suspect not planning to sue city
1.28.03: Suspect in yogurt shop murders set free
Recap of major events in the yogurt shop case
9.24.02: In penalty phase, two images of Scott
9.23.02: Scott guilty of '91 murder
The yogurt shop defendants
9.22.02: Jury finds Scott guilty in yogurt shop murders
Alternate on jury is wistful as he waits
9.21.02: Scott's fate in jury's hands
9.20.02: Jury deliberations to center on coercion vs. confession
9.18.02: Memories can be manipulated by police, defense expert says
9.14.02: Yogurt shop jurors hear of '91 media accounts
9.13.02: Witness: Yogurt shop slayings overwhelmed police
9.12.02: Defense calls flurry of witnesses
9.11.02: Officer notes similarities in two men's confessions
9.07.02: Jailer: Scott was unaware of pistol
9.06.02: Witness tells of encounter with two teens
9.05.02: DNA experts testify in yogurt shop case
Witness alters story, ties Scott to gun
9.04.02: High school friend says suspect confessed to her
8.31.02: On videotape, Scott gives detailed account of events
8.30.02: Jury sees video of gun in Scott interrogation
8.29.02: Scott knew details of crimes, police say
KXAN hands over copy of defendant's taped confession it used in news segment
8.28.02: On tape, Scott says he killed two girls
8.27.02: Youngest yogurt shop victim fought killers, witness says
8.24.02: Defense attacks fire investigation
8.23.02: Bodies were set ablaze, arson expert testifies
8.22.02: Fire investigator asked about determination of cause
8.21.02: Defense casts doubt on details of crime scene
8.17.02: Assistant fire chief testifies at yogurt shop trial
8.16.02: Scott's story is read to jury
Statement of Michael Scott that was read to jury Aug. 15, 2002
8.15.02: Trial of 2nd yogurt shop suspect begins
7.29.02: Yogurt suspect in court today
6.02.01: Yogurt shop killer condemned
YOGURT SHOP MURDERS
June 18, 2009
Actor Stephen Collins Says Death Penalty for 'Politicians Who Like to
Stars gathered for the "Death Penalty Focuss 18th Annual Awards Dinner" at
Hollywood's Universal Studios last month to honor New Mexico's Governor
Bill Richardson with the 2009 Humanitarian Award.
Founded in 1988, Death Penalty Focus is dedicated to the abolition of
capital punishment. FOXNews.com talked to "7th Heaven" star Stephen
Collins there about the controversial topic.
The Iowa-born actor/writer, who, by the way, is the great-great- great
grandson General James Baird Weaver, the 1880 Greenback Party presidential
candidate and the 1892 Populist Party candidate for president, is a
long-time contributor to the organization.
FOX: What is your stand on the death penalty?
Stephen Collins: It doesn't work. It's expensive, most people don't know
that it costs more to execute a person than it does to put them in prison
for life, so for people who say I'm not going to pay money to feed
prisoners, it strangely enough is economically sound. But we're also one
of two countries in the entire Western civilized world who have the death
penalty, and there's so much research that shows the victims families
don't end up feeling better because of it. I don't know who ends up
winning with the death penalty, except politicians who like to sound
FOX: What do you believe the solution is?
Stephen Collins: I'm old fashioned and I believe in rehabilitation. I also
believe that there is too much evidence that shows we've executed people
wrongly, and people who say 'well that's the price we have to pay,' no, we
don't have to pay this price. America and South Africa are the only 2
western nations to execute people. Why do we have to pay that price? Why
do we have to pay the price for being wrong occasionally?
I used to do some work with a group that taught meditation at San Quentin
prison and it was very interesting to close your eyes and meditate with
people on death row. There was a guy there that was in for life, a famous
prisoner named Geronimo Pratt, and he was basically framed for murder, he
was a Black Panther who they framed, and he was in prison for 22 years
before he got out, and much of that in lockdown, and we do make mistakes.
At least Geronimo Pratt is alive and he's out. Its horrible that he had to
spend that much time behind bars, but he wasn't executed.
FOX: What about all of the talk about whether Jesus would have supported
Stephen Collins: The death penalty solves nothing except a kind of
understandable but misguided sense of justice and vengeance, and certainly
Jesus never says anything about executing people. I go to church, I'm a
Christian. I think its interesting that so many political Christians
support the death penalty when Jesus Christ never says a single, slight
word about putting people to death, never even slightly. I don't know
where they're coming from as Christians. I don't understand.
FOX: Can we make progress on this issue?
Stephen Collins: People are saying prisons are crowded and there aren't
too many states that are under budget, so we need to reexamine the dollars
we are spending to indulge our lust to put people to death. It is
interesting to see the states just missed a referendum in Colorado, but
[the death penalty] has been overturned in a couple of states, and most of
my life, the death penalty wasn't with us. If we could point to the last
25 years and say 'Yeah the death penalty is really working'? It was always
in my gut and troubled me. As a Christian it troubles me, and Christ did
not advocate putting people to death for any reason.
(source: Fox News)
June 16, 2009
Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder, According to New CU-Boulder Study
88 % of the country's top criminologists do not believe the death penalty
acts as a deterrent to homicide, according to a new study published today
in Northwestern University School of Law's Journal of Criminal Law and
Criminology authored by Professor Michael Radelet, chair of the sociology
department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Traci Lacock, an
attorney and CU-Boulder graduate student in sociology.
The study titled "Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading
Criminologists" undermines deterrence as a rationale for maintaining the
punishment, said Radelet, one of the nation's leading experts on the death
"These data show that deterrence, which in many circles is the strongest
justification for the death penalty, falls on its face when closely
examined by those who are best qualified to study and evaluate it,"
Radelet said. "Any justifications for the death penalty that might remain
pale in comparison to drawbacks such as high costs, arbitrariness,
executing the innocent and diverting resources from more effective ways to
reduce crime and assist victims."
The study was conducted by sending questionnaires to the most pre-eminent
criminologists in the country, including fellows of the American Society
of Criminology, winners of the American Society of Criminology' s
prestigious Southerland Award and recent presidents of the American
Society of Criminology. The American Society of Criminology is the top
professional organization of criminologists in the world.
The 77 respondents were not asked for their personal opinion about the
wisdom of the death penalty, but instead to answer the questions only on
the basis of their understandings of the empirical research available on
87 % of the expert criminologists also believed that abolition of the
death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates,
Radelet said. And 75 % of the respondents agreed that "debates about the
death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on
real solutions to crime problems."
"Our survey indicates that the vast majority of the world's top
criminologists believe that the empirical research has revealed the
deterrence hypothesis for a myth," Radelet and Lacock wrote. "The
consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any
significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment."
The study was funded by Sheilah's Fund at the Tides Foundation in San
Francisco and was arranged through the Death Penalty Information Center in
(source: Univ. Colorado News)
Local criminologist disagrees on study showing little deterrent value of death penalty
Professor James Marquart, head of the criminology and sociology program at
the University of Texas at Dallas disagrees with a recent study of
criminologists nationwide that concluded the death penalty has little
deterrent effect. According to a study by Michael Radelet, Chair of the
Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Traci
Lacock, an attorney and Sociology graduate student, 88 % of the country's
"top criminologists" don't believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent.
Dr. Marquart, author of The Rope, the Chair and the Needle, and a former
correctional officer, didn't participate in the study. He says academic
findings "do support that, but in my own view...one must examine the facts
in each case. It comes down to 'Do you have the right person?' And if
you've got the right perpetrator, factually, legally and everything else,
I believe that there is an individual deterrent value to it. And that
means that if you have the right persons and that person is executed, they
are deterred. End of story."
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Does God approve of capital punishment today?
June 16, 2009
Capital punishment, even as corporal punishment, is a highly controversial
subject. It should not be, but it is. Without an effort to determine what
crime should or shouldn't be worthy of putting the perpetrator to death,
our efforts in this article is to determine whether or not God approves of
capital punishment under the Christian dispensation. We do know that
things are quite different under the law of Jesus Christ when compared to
the Old Testament law given to the Jews through Moses. Two different
testaments, covenants or laws, whichever one may wish to refer to them. We
need to be able to recognize the difference and why, in order to pursue
God utilized different methods of rule for mankind at different times and
due to different circumstances. The writer of the Hebrew letter explained
that in the first 2 verses of that book: "God, who at sundry times and in
divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath
in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir
of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;" (Hebrews 1:1-2)
From Adam and Eve through the next 2500 years, God's plans and commands
for man were given to the heads of households (actually tribesmade up of
the descendants of these patriarchs) whose duty it was to pass these words
down through their progeny and they were supposed to lead, or rule over,
those children and guide them in the way of the Lord. But only a tiny
minority did so. At the time of the universal flood, approximately, 1556
A.M. (Anno Mundi-age of the earth) there were only 8 souls found to be
living faithful to God. Noah, his wife, his 3 sons and their wives.
After the flood this same method of communication with man continued since
the world had to essentially, start over. And once again they failed, for
the most part, to live obediently to the will of God. After some 500 plus
years, approximately 2100 A.M., there were only few righteous people and
God chose Abram (Later called Abraham) because of his faithful
righteousness, with whom to make a covenant that his descendants would be
chosen to furnish the lineage to the coming messiah.
After Abraham's son, Isaac grew and fathered twelve sons, the providence
of God guided their fate into Egyptian captivity so that he could, through
Moses, lead them miraculously out of that bondage and finally into the
land he had promised Abraham, Canaan. As they moved out of Egypt and
arrived at Mt. Sinai, God delivered the law for them to live by, the basis
of which were the 10 commandments, but much, much more. The remainder of
nations remained under the original patriarchal law, although virtually
all had abandoned it.
But unto the Jews were given the law of Moses, found in the first 5 books
of the Bible with more admonitions and guidance throughout the books of
prophecy. Importantly, there are several passages in the prophets writings
of the coming of the messiah and of His originating a new law and plan of
salvation for all men. One of the best prophesies of this is found in
Then Jesus came, taught His apostles for three years and then sent the
Holy Spirit to them on the first Pentecost after his resurrection, to
teach them all things and to bring to their remembrance all that he had
taught them, (John 14:26). The fulfillment of that prophecy is recorded in
Acts chapter 2.
Now, under the law given to the Jews, they were commanded to administer
capital punishment to their people for several crimes, primarily that of
murder and of illicit sexual activities. Even earlier, while under the
patriarchal dispensation we find these words from God: "Whosoever sheds
mans blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God he
made man" (Genesis 9:6)
Many who try and argue against capital punishment, use the ten
commandments as their proof text as in Exodus 20:13 "Thou shalt not kill"
which when properly translated says "You shall not murder" which does not
rule out killing in self defense or as punishment for a crime.
On many occasions God commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy a nation
evil people. Would He order His people to break His commandment to them?
He even had them establish cities of refuge so that one who happened to
kill another accidentally might go and have refuge untill a hearing was
conducted. This because the dead man's relative had the right to take the
killer's life if it was a case of murder.
When we enter into the Christian dispensation, there are some different
considerations. The basic rules of God remain but a different approach is
taken for several reasons. Under the law of Christ, all others are mute.
Christians are not to avenge themself of a wrong. It is his duty to
approach and tell a person of his having wronged him but he can take no
further personal action against him other than that of the civil law. The
apostle Paul tells us in Romans 13:1 "Let every soul be subject unto the
higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are
ordained of God."
Paul also tells us in Romans 12:19 "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves,
but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I
will repay, saith the Lord." We are not to take the law into our own
hands, regardless of how vile an act has been committed. This does not,
however, exclude one's right to defend his life or well being of his
family. Defense is entirely different to vengenace. The heart is where the
difference lies. We should never feel pleased or happy if we have to
defend our family at the hurt of others. We should pray for those who
despitefully use us.
God has always advocated the punishment of evildoers and even required it
of his people. The prime difference now is that individual Christians do
not take it upon themselves to punish criminals for their acts. It is the
purpose for God's ordaining governments to protect their people and punish
the wicked. It is the Christian's duty to pray for and seek to change the
(source: Joel Hendon, Birmingham Biblical Examiner)
BOOKS, AUTHOR INTERVIEW, MARK OSLER, DEATH PENALTY, BAYLOR LAW
----Faith and the system: Law prof troubled by Christians' support of the ultimate penalty----Former prosecutor sees intriguing and disturbing similarities between the passion of Jesus and latter-day capital cases.
A majority of Texans profess to love Jesus, or at least identify
themselves as Christian. A majority of Texans also love the death penalty.
And that got Mark Osler thinking. Osler, a former federal prosecutor in
Detroit, moved to Waco to teach law at Baylor University in 2001 and found
it to be a garden of intellectual delights, a place where he could
"reflect on the big issues that I was not focusing on when I was
prosecuting cases." Which led to a bold if not reckless idea: as an
intellectual exercise, prosecute Jesus under Texas rules before the
congregation of a Baptist church.
"In retrospect, perhaps it wasn't such a great idea for an untenured
professor at a Baptist school to prosecute Christ," Osler writes in "Jesus
on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment"
(Abingdon Press, $16), "In a Baptist church. On Sunday. ... The experience
was riveting as it exposed the sharp contrast between the central
narrative of Christianity and the affection of most Texans for the death
penalty." (After "lengthy and combative" deliberations, the jury hung.)
And, Osler argues, there are striking parallels between Jesus' trial as
recounted in the Gospels and the prosecution of capital crimes today in
Texas and across the country surveillance, a swift arrest under cover of
darkness and with overwhelming force, habeas procedures, the
disproportionate number of poor defendants, the appeals process and the
role of emotion in them, the fascination with last meals, the forfeiture
of assets (in Jesus' case, his clothes), paid informants (Judas and his 30
pieces of silver), punishment and humiliation of the defendant and an
execution in which the condemned is sedated (Jesus was offered wine and
myrrh), immobilized and killed not unlike the deadly 3-drug cocktail used
by states that use lethal injection.
Although Osler allows that a biblical argument can be made in support of
the death penalty, there's not much question where he stands.
(Interviewing for his prosecutor's job, he told his prospective boss, the
then-U.S. attorney, he wasn't death-qualified. ) And Jesus himself, after
happening upon a perfectly legal execution, condemned it in "remarkably
straightforward" language. Osler, 46, is saying that Christians should
think long and hard about what Jesus said about capital punishment and how
he later died. As he writes early in the book: "The fact that God's son
came to Earth as a man subjected to capital punishment seems to reveal
God's intent that we care about not only that man but also that process."
So the book is not a polemic, but Osler can't help but heap scorn on
Southern governors including by name former ones named Bush and Clinton
who reject appeals for pardons or clemency, clinging to the "comforting,
ridiculous fiction" that the system is perfect and that they are but a cog
in it, as was Pilate, then go to church with their families and worship
before an innocent who was executed. He stops just short of calling these
Moreover, he says, we're unquestionably executing innocents today. He
"If we choose to worship an innocent who was executed as a criminal,
shouldn't we worry about the execution of innocents in our time ... given
a faith that values each life so dearly?"
If you believe God authored the story of Jesus, he says, he did so for a
reason. That mob howling for the release of the murderer and insurgent
Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus? That mob is us.
Making such a case would seem to be a mighty hard sell around Baylor, but
Osler says the reaction he gets tends to be thoughtful. (He's speaking at
BookPeople tonight, where he might anticipate a warm reaction.) And that's
what he's after. As he put it, "Nobody ever changed their mind because of
a bumper sticker."
"You may not agree with me about the message of Christ's execution," he
said. "And I'm OK with that. But I'm bothered if you're not troubled by
Osler is also an expert in, and operated under, federal sentencing
guidelines that got crack cocaine defendants far stiffer sentences than
defendants who peddled powder cocaine, and existing guidelines that can
get 14-year-olds locked up for life. While once a reliable supporter of
throw-the-book- at-'em justice, Osler has had a change of heart. His aim to
open minds, to get people asking questions, comes from the knowledge that
he once stood on the other side of an issue.
"What links all my work together is that there needs to be a role for
mercy in those parts of our justice system that are most staunchly
retributive, where the rules don't bend and the individual isn't seen," he
says. "If justice is treating people the same, and mercy is giving people
a break, those two things are in tension. We probably should not pick only
stern justice. Christ over and over teaches us that."
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
Capital Punishment-- --$20
One of the first of a number of historical posters we hope to be selling
on Justseeds for the War Resister's League.
This one is a classic Peg Averill design, with her signature illustration style used to great effect in railing against the death penalty. We believe this poster was produced in the early 1980's by the War Resisters League in association with Liberation News Service (or possibly Averill originally did the
illustration for Liberation News Service, and it was then reproduced on
this poster). It was printed by the union and movement print shop in
Smithtown, NY called The Print Shop.
For those not familiar with her work, Averill (1949-1993) created hundreds
of political graphics in the 1970s and 80s, which were used by a large
number of organizations working on a variety of political issues
(anti-war, anti-nuclear, prisoner rights, anti-death penalty, etc.). Her
illustrations were often used in the War Resisters League publication WIN.
2 color offset printed poster----16" x20" unsigned/unnumbered (although
we only have a limited number of copies)
Protests condemn Texas governor’s 200th execution
By Gloria Rubac
Published Jun 13, 2009
Chanting, “Perry says death row, we say hell no!” activists gathered in Austin, Huntsville and Houston on June 2 to protest Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 200th execution since he was elected in December 2001. Perry has surpassed the previous record of 152 executions set by former Governor George W. Bush.
Illustrating the legacy of slavery,
Sister Krystal Muhmmad holds up a
noose at Houston rally June 2
Photo: Gloria Rubac
Activists gather at the site of the Old Hanging Tree in downtown Houston where the county courthouse stood at the end of the 1800s. The historical marker in front of the 400-year-old oak tree reads: “It is rumored that 11 criminals were hung here.” A speaker told the crowd: “Those of us who live in the South know who was hung in the trees outside of the county courthouses or on the town square—it was Black people who were lynched.”
In all the cities, the 200 names of those put to death were read aloud. In European cities, protesters gathered outside U.S. Embassies.
In Montreal a large die-in was held by activists dressed in black, wearing white plastic face masks and holding signs with the image of the state of Texas on them.
In Huntsville, where prisoner Terry Hankins was strapped to a gurney and lethally injected at 6 p.m., the Kids Against the Death Penalty chanted, “What do we want?” The crowd responded, “Abolition!” “When do you want it?” “Now!”
Huntsville protest, June 2
Photo: Terri Benn
Sister Krystal Muhammad with the New Black Panther Party told the Houston crowd, “This execution tonight is nothing but a legal lynching. We know that Blacks and Latinos are the majority on death row, and we know that regardless of color, those on death row are poor. I call on you to each bring five more people with you to the next execution protest. We must stop these lynchings.”
From Montreal, the Amnesty International organizer of that militant protest, Charles Perrouod, told Texas organizers that it was “a vibrant success with even the more ‘popular media,’ the ones never there to cover our events, coming in throngs!! Real strong coverage to say the least.
The death penalty in the U.S. is fraught with corrupt DAs, lying cops, faulty crime labs, incompetent court-appointed attorneys and wrongful executions. Perry knows this because 40 people have been exonerated and released from prison after being granted DNA testing. Some of them had served over 25 years for crimes they didn’t commit.
Perry knows that intensive newspaper investigations by the Houston Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune have discovered at least three people put to death in Texas who were found to be innocent—Todd Willingham, Ruben Cantu and Carlos de Luna.
Texas leads the country with 439 executions since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976. (amnesty.org) Over 90 percent of all U.S. executions have taken place in former Confederate states. (“Why is Texas no. 1 in executions?” asked Ned Walpin on pbs.org.) In 2008, 95 percent took place in the South. In 2009, over half of all executions have been carried out in Texas. (deathpenaltyinfo.org)
The struggle, however, to abolish the death penalty is gaining ground. Death sentences are down. Executions are down. Public support for capital punishment is down, even in Texas. And in 2008, Harris County, the leading jurisdiction that sends people to death row in the U.S., not a single person was sentenced to death for the first time in over 30 years.
For more information see Protest 200 Executions
To read article, click HERE
June 11, 2009
Death penalty for capital punishment?
With all that is going on in America today, you may not have noticed the death penalty is under attack as never before.
It's not just the nomination to the Supreme Court of Sonia Sotomayor, a fervent opponent of capital punishment, that leads me to this conclusion.
It's the fact that Barack Obama seems hell-bent on serving out his presidency as Europe's running dog lacky and the Euro-elite couldn't be more opposed to the death penalty. The United Nations, another place Obama looks for instructions, is equally opposed to capital punishment.
The pressure is rising from the globalists, and Obama is their man in the U.S.
Even more alarming to me is a trend I noticed only recently: "Conservatives" having 2nd thoughts about the death penalty.
You might be surprised to learn that conservative stalwarts from Richard Viguerie to Ollie North are personally opposed to capital punishment. Some of these conservatives are actually huddling together to see how they can achieve their objectives in ending the death penalty in America.
With all this in mind, I think it's time for a review of what's right about capital punishment.
First of all, it's biblical. I don't know about you, but I get my ideas about right and wrong from the Bible.
I defy anyone to read the Bible in its entirety and tell me God doesn't approve of capital punishment. In fact, God does not reserve it exclusively for the crime of murder. And He doesn't just approve of it, He prescribes it.
I suggest to you the reason He does is because God so highly values life.
The irony, of course, is that death penalty opponents believe they are valuing life by opposing it. But that's just more evidence of what the Bible frequently refers to as man being "wise in his own eyes."
The very reason capital punishment is moral is because it places such a high value on innocent human life. It is the ultimate expression of how highly we value life. It is meant as a deterrent to those who might consider taking a life. And, there is not a doubt in my mind that if we used it more frequently and with more certainty in murder cases, it would serve as a formidable deterrent.
It's common sense.
Bringing about justice for heinous crimes is one of the reasons God institutes government. As usual, many in government want to abdicate their responsibility to performing the few duties for which government is useful like defending the nation, controlling borders, controlling currency and bringing justice for those who are victimized.
Government prefers to meddle in affairs in which it has no business such as invading privacy, restricting firearms, controlling free speech, seizing and redistributing wealth and prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
Executing duly convicted murderers is not only a legitimate role for government; it is a duty.
The Founding Fathers understood this. They oversaw its implementation.
There was no thought by any of them that this was "cruel and unusual punishment," as some revisionists seek to suggest.
Of course, if further restrictions on capital punishment come to America, they won't come by way of an expression of the will of the people by popular or even by legislative action.
They will come by way of judicial fiat as so many other unpopular ideas have been forced down the throats of the American public.
It's also worth noting that so many of those most vehemently opposed to capital punishment seem to have no problem with the state's direct involvement in terminating the lives of the most innocent unborn babies and those, like Terri Schiavo, with disabilities.
That's the world in which we live today where black is white, up is down, left is right and right is wrong.
(source: Joseph Farah, WND.com)
June 10, 2009
Flaws in the U.S. Judicial System Related to the Death Penalty
On May 26, the United Nations released a report by the Special Rapporteur
on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, which highlights, among
other things, some of the major flaws in the US judicial system related to
the death penalty. The report focuses particularly on the sates of Texas
and Alabama, where the research of the Special Rapporteur was
The report rightfully notes that the current judicial system in those 2
states is significantly flawed as it leaves room for the wrongful
conviction and execution of innocent people, something that was confirmed
even by interviews with public officials. In that respect, the author
provides a detailed review of the judicial failings related to the death
penalty. He notes that there are legal limitations preventing inmates from
access to DNA tests once they have already been convicted.
In addition, the defense attorneys appointed to death penalty cases often
receive compensation far lower than what is necessary to construct an
adequate defense. Appointed counsel also frequently have continuing
professional relationships with the judges before whom they appear, which
can be the source of "structural disincentives for vigorous capital
defense." The access of defendants to federal habeas corpus proceedings,
the report asserts, is also too limited.
At the same time, finality in death penalty cases is often granted undue
emphasis at the expense of a careful examination of the potential evidence
related to innocence claims. The author notes that in Alabama, "officials
would rather deny (the execution of innocent people) than confront
criminal justice system flaws." Unfortunately, this is true not only in
Alabama, as has become evident in the case of Troy Davis, who may soon
face his 4th execution date in 2 years, despite the fact that the case
against him was build predominantly on the testimony of 9 witnesses, 7 of
whom have recanted their statements (and have alleged that they were
coerced by authorities) since the time of Troy's conviction.
However, despite opposition from human rights activists across the world,
Troy has remained on death row for 18 years and has not yet received a
hearing on the details of his case that have emerged since the time of his
conviction. Moreover, the failure of the judicial system to hear the
evidence in support of Troy's innocence means that the person truly
responsible for the murder of which Troy was convicted, has not yet faced
any legal consequences for his action. This danger was also highlighted in
the UN report, according to which "wrongful convictions mean that true
criminals remain at large."
The UN report also points to the drawbacks in the electoral system for
appointing judges in Texas and Alabama, which highly politicizes death
penalty cases. In fact, the author cites statistics suggesting that the
likelihood of a death penalty sentence is directly correlated with the
imminence of judicial elections or with the lobbying efforts of groups
that are supporters of capital punishment.
He also pinpoints the particular problems with judicial elections in Alabama, where jury decisions can be overruled by elected judges, and where 9 out of 10 cases in which a judge overrode a jury decision resulted in a death sentence.
Finally, the report uncovers the existence of racial bias behind the
imposition of the death penalty across the country, something that is
confirmed by the research of Amnesty International USA.
(source: Evangelicals for Human Rights)
Opponents of capital punishment noted the June 2 execution of convicted
murderer Terry Lee Hankins in Huntsville. What makes Hankins' execution in
any way unique is that it was the 200th under Gov. Rick Perry.
Those who would like to see the ultimate form of punishment expire are
quick to jump on such numbers, as if statistics should trump justice.
Amnesty International, one of the more vocal anti-death penalty
organizations, released a statement last week, proclaiming Hankins as "the
16th person to be executed in Texas this year out of a national total of
30." According to AI, there have been 1,166 executions in the U.S. since
"judicial killing" resumed in 1977. Texas has 439.
Speaking of killing - of the non-judicial type - Hankins was convicted of
killing his girlfriend and her 2 children in Arlington in 2001. All were
shot in the head.
When it comes to capital punishment, the horrible realities of the
gruesome acts committed by murderers are often overlooked in favor of
However, since groups like AI use numbers to make the application of
capital punishment look like a haphazard rush to judgment, here's a few
that counter that perception:
# In Texas, the average stay on death row is 10.26 years.
# In Texas, there are 8 offenses that allow capital punishment, and 3
involve murder committed by someone already behind bars, such as during a
It is interesting that Perry is condemned for 200 executions carried out
by the state during his tenure.
A number much more difficult to measure would be the number of victims of
these heinous crimes, along with the countless family members and friends
who lost loved ones under horrific circumstances.
That's the sad number.
- Amarillo's Death Row
The number of Amarillo-area offenders on death row and the number of
executed offenders, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice:
Potter County 3; 10
Randall County 2; 3
(source: Editorial, Amarillo Globe-News)
Human Rights and The Texas Criminal Justice System
This June 2009 is the 11th session of the United Nations Human Rights
On June 2-18 the United Nations will again address major human
rights issues in Geneva Switzerland.
Nations from all over will disparage their grievances to the General Assembly on issues such as improving the rights of children, civil and political rights such as arbitrary detention, and the trafficking of human beings.
With the constant talk today in the mainstream media of the United States
about torture and where to put the terror detainees in Guantanamo Bay,
Cuba, the UN Human Rights Council this year is the perfect venue to
discuss these problems. Despite the United States being part of the UN
Security Council, there are still issues that need to be addressed.
According to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial,
summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston wrote in his Addendum to
the Mission of the United States of America that:
"There is a good deal to commend about the record of the United States of
America on extrajudicial killings: in most instances there is no lack of
laws or procedures for addressing potentially unlawful killings and, at
least domestically, data is generally gathered systematically and
I found, however, 3 areas in which significant improvement is
necessary if the U.S. Government is to match its actions to its stated
commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
First, the Government must ensure that imposition of the death penalty complies with fundamental due process requirements; the current systems flaws increase the likelihood that innocent people will be executed.
Second, the Government must provide greater transparency into law enforcement, military, and intelligence operations that result in potentially unlawful deaths.
Third, the Government must overcome the current failure of political will and provide greater accountability for potentially unlawful deaths in its
international operations; political expediency is never a permissible
basis for any State to deviate from its obligation to investigate and
punish violations of the right to life."
It is widely acknowledged that innocent people in Texas have likely been
sentenced to death and executed.
In Alabama and Texas, there is a shocking lack of urgency about the need to reform glaring criminal justice system flaws.
Texas should undertake a systematic inquiry into its criminal
justice system and ensure that the death penalty is applied fairly,
justly, and only for the most serious crimes. Deficiencies that should be
remedied include the lack of adequate counsel for indigent defendants and
racial disparities in sentencing. The system of electing judges in Texas
should be reconsidered because it politicizes towards the GOP death
penalty sentences and unfairly increases the likelihood of capital
offenses. Given the inadequacies of state criminal justice systems, the
United States Congress should enact legislation permitting federal court
habeas review of state and federal death penalty cases on the merits.
Human Rights is a serious matter that affects all of us not only
internationally but locally in the Dallas Fort Worth area. How can we
claim to be the beacon of constitutional freedom and equality as an
example to other countries, but we find ourselves unjustly issuing the
death penalty to cases that have flaws in the Texas criminal justice
So whether you agree or disagree on how states administer their criminal
justice in cases that are unclear, the issue of human rights and the
criminal justice system need to be addressed before a mistake is made that
can never be reversed.
June 6, 2009
Texas does lots of things on a grand scale, including executing people
Last Tuesday, as the state of Texas prepared to execute Terry Lee Hankins, people gathered in several U.S. cities and on 2 continents to mark a milestone in Rick Perry's tenure as governor. Hankins, by no means a sympathetic character because of his gruesome crimes, became the 200th person to be executed in Texas since Perry has been in office. He was the 16th to be put to death by the state this year.
To mark the occasion, anti-death penalty protests were held in Huntsville; Austin; Houston; Albuquerque, N.M.; Paris; and Leipzig, Germany.
Texas is notorious throughout the world for the number of executions it carries out each year, raising fears that the state has made mistakes and that innocent people likely have been killed in the death chamber.
Hankins was guilty, having been convicted of killing 2 of his
stepchildren. He also was charged with the murders of his wife, father and his mentally challenged half-sister who was pregnant probably by him, evidence showed.
I'm often asked by people regarding such cases, "If anybody deserves the death penalty, don't you think he does?"
Maybe. But you must understand that those of us against capital punishment don't believe the state should be in the killing business period, regardless of someone's crime.
The state ought never to be engaged in carrying out systematic homicides.
And, yes, execution is a homicide.
While the state is obligated to administer punishment when crimes have been committed, it ought not to be carrying out vengeance.
One of the speakers at the Huntsville protest last week was Jerry Williams, a sociology professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, whose sister was beaten to death on Mother's Day morning in 1985. Her assailant was given life in prison, but was released on parole after serving 15 years in prison.
"I hated him," Williams said. "I wanted to see him die. I wanted to see him suffer in prison. And I thought justice would be done only in that way. But what I realized over time was that my hate really diminished me. It damaged me and did nothing for him."
In anticipation of the 200th execution milestone, the most under one governor in modern U.S. history, Amnesty International last April issued a report on capital punishment in this country, focusing on "too much
cruelty, too little clemency."
Of course the major attention was on the Texas death penalty system, which the human rights organization said "remains one that is fatally flawed and not reserved for the so-called 'worst of the worst,'" due in part to the idea of "future dangerousness" whereby during sentencing jurors are asked to decide if the defendant will remain a threat to society.
"'Future dangerousness allows junk science and irrational fears based on race, youth or mental illness to affect the outcome of death penalty cases," said Jared Feuer, southern regional director of AIUSA, in a press release.
The Amnesty report noted, "Texas, where about seven percent of the U.S. population resides, and where fewer than 10 % of murders occur, has accounted for 37 % of the country's executions since 1977, and 41 % since 2001, when Governor Perry came into office."
It went on to point out, "There were 152 executions in Texas during the nearly 6 years of the [George W.] Bush governorship (1995-2000).
Now looming is the 200th execution during Rick Perry's term in office. The combined total of more than 350 executions in Texas under these 2 governors represents 30 % of the national total since executions resumed in the USA in 1977. Virginia is ranked 2nd to Texas in executions. In 30 years, Virginia has killed 103 people in its death chamber, 1/2 the number put to death in Texas in 8. This is geographic bias on a grand scale."
We in Texas have long had a reputation of doing things on a grand scale.
"How many of the 200 people executed under Perry's watch were innocent?" asked Scott Cobb, president of Texas Moratorium Network, which helped organize the protests. "Perry could have taken a large step to reduce the risk of executing an innocent person if he had supported a moratorium on executions. Now, he may have to answer for the execution of Todd Willingham, who most likely was innocent of the arson/murders for which he was executed in 2004."
Despite the guilt or innocence of the condemned individual, how does anyone preside over 200 homicides and sleep at night?
And I continue to wonder: When will we in Texas come to our senses and end this nonsense?
(source: Column, Bob Ray Sanders, Fort Worth Star Telegram)
June 5, 2009
How Austin dealt with our priority list
When the 2009 Texas Legislature began way back in January, we outlined
five major priorities. If lawmakers addressed them in the right way, we
believed, they would improve the quality of life for Texans everywhere,
including right here in North Texas.
We have already opined about one of our priorities: giving communities the
option to raise local funds to finance roads and rail. That effort failed
miserably, and we took Austin to task. We also applauded the Legislature's
decision to create more Tier One research universities. That, too, was an
Here's how the rest of the list looks after 5 months of writing bills,
conducting hearings and casting votes:
The odds against reforming much less stopping capital punishment in
Texas are as long as they get in the tough-on-crime Legislature. Yet
lawmakers made incremental changes that indicate they know that the
criminal justice system is not airtight.
What changed: One move had important symbolism: The House formed its first
committee on the death penalty. Lawmakers also sent the governor a bill
creating a new office to provide qualified counsel to indigent death row
prisoners for certain appeals.
What didn't change: It's regrettable that other vitally needed reforms
fell short, like a bill that would have banned joint trials in capital
murder cases and prohibited the death penalty for accomplices who did not
kill. Another glaring shortcoming was lawmakers' failure to require police
agencies to modernize their photo lineup practices.
After years of trying, supporters of a special innocence commission to
examine exonerations got a weakened bill. Pending the governor's
signature, a new advisory panel will assist in a study on whether a
full-fledged innocence commission with authority should be formed to
tackle systemic changes in the justice system.
With the record run of DNA exonerations in Texas, particularly in Dallas
County, the need is clear.
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)
Conservative Group Criticizes Sotomayor on Death Penalty Memo
By Jerry Markon
A conservative group is criticizing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for signing a 1981 memo that opposed the death penalty and said “capital punishment is associated with evident racism in our society."
The Manassas, Va.-based Judicial Confirmation Network today said the document, written when Sotomayor was on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, offers a window into her thinking on the divisive issue of capital punishment.
The memo “provides an important data point to flesh out the picture of her that is emerging from her other writings, speeches and judicial opinions: a hard-left liberal judicial activist,’’ Wendy E. Long, the network’s counsel, wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sotomayor was one of three board members of the Puerto Rican advocacy group to sign the memo, which recommended that the full board take a position opposing the restoration of the death penalty in New York State. Sotomayor served on the board from 1980 until she became a federal judge in New York in 1992.
“The death penalty is final; it eliminates all possibility of the reform of the offender,’’ the memo said, adding that capital punishment is disproportionally applied to minorities and the poor and is not an effective deterrent to crime.
Cesar Perales, president of the legal defense fund, now called LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said Sotomayor’s critics are taking the memo out of context. He said it is a “fair reading” of the document to conclude that Sotomayor was anti-death penalty at the time, but he said the authors were only “recapitulating” arguments against capital punishment made by religious and civic groups.
Perales said the driving force behind the document was Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, a fellow board member and Jesuit priest who also signed it and is now deceased.
He could not specify Sotomayor’s precise role.
The Supreme Court on which Sotomayor may serve has been increasingly divided over the death penalty in recent years. The justices last year upheld lethal injection, a method of execution used by nearly all states, but they have clashed over decisions rejecting the death penalty for child rapists and juveniles.
A White House spokeswoman did not return emails seeking comment.
Conservative Group Criticizes Sotomayor on Death Penalty Memo
June 4, 2009
Perry's 200th Execution Sparks Worldwide Protest
Dozens of death penalty opponents gathered on the steps of the Texas
Capitol Tuesday evening to protest the 200th execution under Gov. Rick
Perry, which was scheduled for 6 p.m.
Perry's approval of the execution of Terry Lee Hankins marks the highest
number of executions performed by any governor in American history.
Hankins, who shot his wife and child in their sleep, has previously
described himself as a "non-caring monster."
Austin's protest took place in conjunction with similar protests taking
places in the country and around the world, including Houston,
Albuquerque, Liepzig, German and Paris, France.
The Austin protestors, holding signs and placards, crowded the Capitols
entrance along Congress Avenue. A symbolic "burial" took place where 200
candles were placed one by one in a cardboard coffin. The names of each
person executed, and the crime they had committed was announced at the
sound of a bell.
Alexis Konevich, a philosophy senior at St. Edwards University and intern
for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said executions were
ethically and morally wrong and do not support her personal moral beliefs.
"By the standards of our Constitution, I believe it is cruel and unusual
punishment," Konevich said.
Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network said the protests,
organized by anti-execution organizations, served to demonstrate that
people are opposed to the use of the death penalty in Texas.
"Texas just executes more people than other states," Cobb said. "When you
travel abroad, and you say you are from Texas, the 1st thing that comes to
mind is executions and maybe cowboys."
Cobb said he would be protesting outside the Huntsville prison where Texas
executes those on death row.
"I think that people will have an effect on public opinion and policy
makers," Cobb said. Kristin Houl, the director for the Texas Coalition to
Abolish the Death Penalty, who was present at the Capitols protest, said
as people become more educated on the topic and understand the complexity
of the practice, support for the death penalty is starting to wane.
"You can't help but feel a sense of sadness for the lose of life on both
sides," Houl said 6 minutes before Terry Hankins was scheduled to die.
(source: University of Texas Daily Texan)
UN Investigator Says US Death Penalty Leads to Miscarriage of Justice
By Lisa Schlein
03 June 2009
A U.N. Special Investigator is criticizing the application of the death penalty in the United States, saying it sometimes leads to miscarriages of justice. The expert, Philip Alston, calls for the United States to enact more stringent safeguards to protect the innocent. Philip Alston submitted a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Special Investigator Philip Alston is not calling for the United States to end capital punishment. But, he urges the government to make sure the imposition of the death penalty complies with fundamental due process requirements.
"It is widely acknowledged that innocent people have most likely been executed in the U.S," said Philip Alston. "Yet, in Alabama and Texas, the two States that I visited, I found a shocking lack of urgency about the need to reform criminal-justice system flaws."
Alston says the U.S. Congress should enact legislation permitting a review of state and federal death penalty cases.
The U.N. Special Investigator also criticizes the U.S. military and intelligence operations for a lack of transparency and accountability in relation to civilian casualties. He says targeted killings carried out by drone attacks on the territory of other countries are increasingly common and remain deeply troubling.
"The government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-ranked soldiers for such deaths, and has not held senior officers responsible under the doctrine of command responsibility, " he said. "Worse, it has effectively created a zone of impunity for private contractors and civilian agents by only rarely investigating and prosecuting them."
Acting Deputy Chief at the U.S. Mission in Geneva Lawrence Richter says he accepts Alston's observations on the need for safeguards in serious cases of capital punishment. But, he adds the U.S. system already has robust safeguards in place.
"For example, if the death penalty were disproportionate to the severity of the underlying offense, it could be challenged under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as being cruel and unusual punishment," said Lawrence Richter. "We fully share Professor Alston's concerns about the need to address the issue of wrongful convictions, and indeed the U.S. government has made this a priority.
We are one of only five countries in the world that belong to the Innocence Network, a group of countries that are working to embrace modern forensic science and reforms to prevent wrongful convictions."
Richter says Alston has gone too far in his criticisms of Washington in regard to its actions in the military sphere. He says the United States does not believe military and intelligence operations during armed conflict fall within the Special Investigator' s mandate.
UN Investigator Says US Death Penalty Leads to Miscarriage of Justice
June 2, 2009
USA: Death penalty needs reform
Most do not relish having the death penalty on the table. We are the only
Western country still invoking the death penalty.
If the purpose of the death penalty is to deter heinous crimes, then it
must be carried out quickly so that we remember the crime and the
If the penalty is not for that purpose, then for what purpose?
The May 21 article, "Death penalty path long and costly," indicates that
this person has been on Death Row for 25 years! How can this be a
deterrent? Who remembers the person, or more importantly, the crime?
Another aspect of the death penalty that makes no sense: 1st-degree
murderers who freely admit to the crime and are given the death penalty
still must go through years of automatic appeals. Why?
Obviously, the state has to seriously review and amend its policy on the
death penalty, how it is carried out and how the appeals process can be
corrected so that it is not only just, but also takes into account the
victims of these horrible crimes.
(source: Letter to the Editor, Sun-Sentinel)
May 26, 2009
Attorneys overworked in capital cases----About 1/3 are over recommended limit on felonies Too Many Cases?
A Chronicle analysis of Harris County 16,000 felony case assignments from 2004-2009 showed:
More than 150 Felony Clients Per Year: 10 lawyers approved by judges to represent clients facing life or death sentences regularly exceed a nationally recommended limit of 150 felony clients per year.
About 200 Violations: Lawyers apparently accepted more than 5 felony assignments per day more than 200 times, despite judges' rules.
Frequent capital assignments: A dozen cases were assigned to the same lawyers less than 60 days apart, another violation of judges' rules.
Lawyer Jerome Godinich, chastised by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals this year for repeatedly failing to meet federal death penalty deadlines, has represented an average of 360 felony clients per year in Harris County a
caseload that surpasses every other similar attorney.
But even among other Harris County attorneys approved for death penalty cases, his heavy workload is no exception.
In all, 10 of 32 Harris County lawyers approved by judges to represent clients facing life or death sentences regularly exceeded the recommended limit of 150 felony clients per year a standard established in 1973 and
adopted by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the Houston Chronicle found. The lawyers, each assigned anywhere from 1 to 10 capital cases, simultaneously juggled 160 to 360 other felony clients each year, according to an analysis of official district court appointments from 2004-2009.
Stephen Bright, an expert in capital case representation who has taught at Yale and Harvard law schools and reviewed the Chronicle's findings, said death penalty lawyers have no business handling nearly 400 clients in one year. "That's way too many cases and would not leave time for any other cases, particularly capital cases."
Some felony cases are resolved in minutes, while death cases can take a year. Heavy caseloads limit the time an attorney can devote to each indigent defendant, a job paid for with tax dollars.
Harris County District Court judges do not monitor caseloads of attorneys they appoint, even for death penalty cases. Through their rules, judges attempt to restrict how frequently felony and capital cases are assigned.
Even those rules, adopted after one overloaded capital attorney committed suicide, have been repeatedly violated, the analysis showed.
How rules violated
The Chronicle review found 220 days in which capital-approved attorneys appear to have accepted more than the limit of 5 assignments per day. Some took as many as 10 cases. It also found a dozen examples where judges violated their own requirement that capital murder case appointments be spaced at least 60 days apart. In some cases, judges knowingly broke their own rule because of unusual circumstances. In others, there were "glitches" in an internal tracking system used to prevent that.
One lawyer twice accepted 2 capital cases on the same day. The 1st time, Attorney Laine Lindsey said he accepted 2 appointments from the same judge to replace a lawyer stricken with cancer. Later, 2 different judges asked him to take cases on the same day. Lindsey said he didn't know about the rule and no one mentioned it.
Godinich took 3 capital appointments in less than one 60-day period in 2008. One client was found incompetent to stand trial after drinking toilet water, disrobing and claiming he was Jesus Christ II while in the
Harris County jail; another was a 15-year-old who pleaded guilty to felony murder charges and accepted a life sentence without possibility of appeal; the 3rd hired another lawyer.
Godinich has agreed to take as many as 10 simultaneous capital cases over the past 5 years, though only a few were death penalty cases.
Only 1 other attorney, Robert Morrow, has recently taken as many simultaneous capital cases, records show. But Morrow uses a team of legal interns and lawyers involved in a mentorship program to help with his
assignments and specializes almost exclusively in capital work.
2 of the Harris County judges , Belinda Hill and Shawna Reagin, said it might help judges to receive reports on caseloads before making capital appointments, though both said numbers alone should not govern decisions.
"I'm not saying it would always be the determining factor, but I would love to have that information, " said Reagin, who practiced capital case law before being elected a judge in 2008.
Harris County District Court Clerk Loren Jackson said his staff or the court administration could build a tool to track attorney appointments. "We would love to be able to give that information to the judges. All they
have to do is ask," he said.
Godinich, who juggles federal cases and misdemeanors along with his 360 felonies, has refused interview requests. But in a letter to the Chronicle, he defended his indigent defense record, saying he aims to defend his clients "to the best of my ability."
"That entails working 7 days a week and investing countless hours in preparation to ensure that my clients receive their rightful due process," Godinich wrote. "It is not an easy job, but it is work that is challenging
and has given me enormous personal satisfaction. That is why my clients know who I am and depend on me to stay invested in the process."
One of his hundreds of Harris County clients, Phillip Hernandez, has been awaiting trial for 18 months on child sexual abuse charges and claims Godinich has never visited him in jail to discuss his innocence claim.
Hernandez's pre-trial hearing was scheduled earlier this month, but the inmate said he learned it had been postponed at the last minute from a bailiff. Godinich did not attend court that day, records show.
Kyle Johnson, an attorney who shares an office with Godinich, said any criminal defense lawyer gets occasional complaints. Both he and Morrow praised Godinich's work.
"I think he's excellent," Johnson said. "This job is Jerome's life."
(source: Houston Chronicle)
May 24, 2009
Texas increasingly out of step on death penalty
Barring unexpected events, in the next few weeks Gov. Rick Perry of Texas will oversee his 200th execution since taking office in 2000. Perry has already allowed more executions than any other U.S. governor in modern history, far exceeding the 152 while George W. Bush was governor and the 50 overseen by Bushs immediate predecessor, Ann Richards.
The United States is a global pariah for its continued embrace of the death penalty. In 2008 it was the worlds fourth-leading executioner, surpassed only by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since executions resumed in 1977, after a hiatus of several years, more than 1,161 U.S. prisoners have been shot, hanged, electrocuted, gassed or put to death by lethal injection.
Yet it is somewhat misleading to attribute this appalling record to "the United States." Unlike in most other countries, criminal justice in the United States is largely a matter of state law and policy.
Only three executions since 1977 have been carried out by the federal government; the rest have been carried out by the states, and the vast majority by a mere handful of states.
Texas alone, with 438 executions since 1977, accounts for more than 1/3 of the total.
Just 3 states Texas, Virginia (103) and Oklahoma (89) together account for well over half of all U.S. executions in the modern era. At the other end of the spectrum, 15 states and the District of Columbia do not permit the death penalty. Of the 35 states whose laws authorize capital punishment, 2 have carried out no executions since 1977, and 5 have carried out only 1 apiece.
There is a strong regional cast to the death penalty in the United States, with 960 executions in the South since 1977, compared with four in the Northeast.
The reasons for these state and regional variations are no doubt multiple and complex. The important point is that they show there is nothing necessary or unavoidable about the death penalty, nothing inherent in the American character that demands it.
Indeed, there are signs that Americans are turning against the death penalty. Just in the last 18 months, the citizens of 2 states New Jersey and New Mexico have, through their elected representatives, abolished
capital punishment. The number of new death sentences imposed by juries has dropped dramatically in recent years, to about 1/3 the number imposed annually in the mid-1990s.
What might account for this change? First and probably foremost is the question of innocence. Since 1973, 131 persons have been released from U.S. death rows after they were shown to be innocent of the crimes for
which they had been sentenced to die. Some had come within days of execution.
These exonerations have fundamentally shifted the debate on the death penalty, forcing even supporters to concede that innocent people
have been sentenced to death, and that 1 or more may have been executed.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and finality; the possibility that a person will be executed for a crime he or she did not commit is a risk no society should tolerate.
There is also increasing awareness of the significant racial disparities in capital sentencing in the United States. Evidence continues to accumulate that those who kill white victims are far more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill African-Americans or other people of color. A 2007 study of eight death penalty states by the American Bar Association concluded that "every state studied appears to have significant racial disparities in its capital system," but that "little, if anything, has been done to rectify the problem."
Finally, as state and local governments face yawning budget deficits and are forced to slash education, health and other vital services, the tremendous cost of the death penalty has become more salient. Studies in
various states have concluded that the decision to seek the death penalty increases the cost of a murder prosecution by 38 % to 70 %. Last year a California state commission estimated that maintaining the death penalty costs the state $126 million more each year than would abolishing capital punishment and replacing it with life in prison without possibility of parole.
Texas will probably not abolish capital punishment anytime soon. But the good news is that more and more Americans seem to be getting the message that the death penalty is not necessary or inevitable. It's a choice and it's a bad one.
(source: Editorial; David Fathi is director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch)
May 22, 2009
CRIMINAL JUSTICE----Veto threat dooms change in death penalty law; Measure banning execution of people who haven't killed won't advance.
Death penalty opponents have long decried a Texas law that allows the state to impose the ultimate punishment - execution - on people who have not killed anyone.
Legislation to change that was working its way toward Gov. Rick Perry's desk Thursday, when its sponsor said a threatened veto forced him to drop the controversial provision that would have exempted participants in
capital crimes who did not pull the trigger.
"We wanted that provision to stay in, but the governor's office made it clear they would veto the bill if that went through," said state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
Hinojosa amended the legislation to require only separate trials for co-defendants in capital murder cases in which one or more of the defendants did not kill anyone.
Though he was not satisfied with the change, Hinojosa said, "we're not going to get any progress on this area of law until we get another governor. I realize that, so we do what we can."
Perry's office did not return phone calls Thursday evening.
Austin lawyer William "Rusty" Hubbarth, vice president of Justice for All, a national victim advocacy group based in Houston, applauded the veto threat.
"I congratulate Gov. Perry for showing he has the courage to protect the interests of victims," Hubbarth said.
The problem with the bill, he said, was letting all capital co-defendants off the hook if they didn't pull a trigger.
As proof, he cited a 1992 case in which a husband hired a hit man through Soldier of Fortune magazine to kill his wife; the husband was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to death.
As approved by the House last week, the bill would have made a significant change in the state's death-penalty law, a change vehemently opposed by prosecutors and cheered by death-penalty opponents.
Under current law, multiple defendants in a capital murder case can face execution, even though not all caused a death.
Texas has been criticized nationally in past years for cases in which the triggerman cut a deal with police and escaped execution, while a co-defendant who did not kill anyone was executed.
Although other states also hold accomplices responsible for others' crimes under the so-called law of parties, few of those states have a death penalty.
None executes as many people as Texas, which has put to death more than 400 people since the state resumed executions in 1982.
Prosecutors in the past have argued that if defendants participate in a crime, even if they stood and watched an accomplice commit murder, they should be held equally accountable - and several have been sentenced to death.
After the disputed wording was deleted Thursday, the bill was passed unanimously by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the last stop before the measure goes to the full Senate for a vote.
When the measure passed the House on May 15, its sponsors tagged it the "Kenneth Foster Jr. Act," after a man whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Perry in 2007.
A former member of a San Antonio crime gang, Foster was sentenced to die as an accessory to the Aug. 25, 1996, slaying of Michael LaHood Jr., a 25-year-old law school student who was gunned down during a botched robbery.
Foster, then 19, drove the getaway car, which was parked 80 feet away.
Foster's impending execution had drawn a flood of protests from around the world, with South African peace activist Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter among the hundreds who filed written protests to stop the execution - all arguing that Texas was taking the life of a man who had not killed anyone.
In commuting the sentence, Perry noted that Foster was tried, convicted and sentenced alongside the triggerman, Mauriceo Brown. Perry said that could have tainted the jury's decision.
"After carefully considering the facts of this case, along with the recommendation from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I believe the right and just decision is to commute Foster's sentence," Perry said at the
time. "I am concerned about Texas law that allowed capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously, and it is an issue I think the Legislature should examine."
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
May 21, 2009
Veto threat alters death-penalty bill
Facing a veto threat from Gov. Rick Perry, members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted this evening to drop a controversial provision from a bill designed to keep defendants from being executed who were involved in a capital crime, did no killing themselves.
As amended, House Bill 2267 now will require only separate trials for co-defendants in capital murder cases, where 1 defendant committed the murder and the other did not.
Advocacy groups immediately decried the last-minute change, but said they still supported separate trials.
As approved by the House last week, the bill would have been significant change in the states death-penalty law, one that was vehemently opposed by prosecutors and cheered by death-penalty opponents.
Under current law, known as "the law of parties," multiple defendants in a capital murder case can face execution, even if they did not pull the trigger.
Texas has been criticized nationally in past years for cases in which the triggerman cut a deal with police and escaped execution, after testifying against a co-defendant who did not pull the trigger but was executed.
Prosecutors have argued that if defendants participate together in a crime, even if one stands and watches an accomplice commit murder, they should be held equally liable.
"We wanted that provision to stay in, but the Governors Office made it clear they would veto the bill if that went through," said state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen. "At least we're changing it so co-defendants will
have to be tried separately. You won't taint an accomplice by having them sit beside the triggerman in court at the same trial."
While Hinojosa said he was not satisfied with the change, "we're not going to get any progress on this area of law until we get another governor. I realize that, so we do what we can."
After the disputed wording was deleted, the bill was passed unanimously by the committee, the last stop before the measure will come for a vote by the full Senate.
When the measure passed the House last Friday, its sponsors tagged it the "Kenneth Foster Jr. Act," after a man whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Perry in 2007.
Foster was sentenced to die as a co-defendant in a case, even though he did not kill anyone. He was convicted in a trial with the killer.
A similar case involving a condemned co-defendant, Jeff Wood, has been championed as a reason to change the law. Wood remains on death row, after his co-defendant the killer has been executed.
"It will be an important reform to require separate trials in capital cases, but we will be disappointed if the provision to prohibit the state from seeking the death penalty in law of parties cases is removed from the
bill. People who do not kill anyone should not be punished by death," Scott Cobb, president of Texas Moratorium Network, a death-penalty opposition group, said before the committee's vote.
"This bill is very important because it touches the lives of innocent people that did not kill and are waiting to be executed for crimes that they did not commit."
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
May 19, 2009
Death Row phone number still working
7 months after prison officials busted death row convict Richard Tabler for calling a state senator on a smuggled cell phone, the phone number still works.
And the senator who faced a death threat from Tabler over the phone caper is demanding to know why.
"The number used should have been taken out of service forever," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. "I would hope whoever has it now would not be another inmate. But who knows. Here we go again."
Whitmire said today he called Tablers number on Sunday after spotting it in his cell phone directory and was surprised when it went to voice mail, with a gruff-sounding man who warned:
"Look, this is my phone. This is my voice mail.
"So, if you're looking to leave a message, be sure that you're leaving a message for me, not nobody else."
Whitmire said he immediately wondered if some other convict was still using the number. After all, prison investigators determined after his arrest that Tabler had borrowed the phone from another death row inhabitant.
"As usual with the (prison) system, it's what I don't know that scares me," said Whitmire, who heads the legislative joint committee that oversees the prison system.
John Moriarty, the prison system's inspector general, confirmed he is investigating who the still-active number is being used by. He would not discuss details.
A callback left on the number by the Statesman was not returned. The voice did not sound like Tabler.
"I find this amazing," Whitmire said this afternoon. So did Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who filed a bill earlier this session that would have required companies that sell cheap, untraceable cell phones to record identification from buyers.
Corona said the bill was killed by cell companies.
Moriarty and Whitmire said that having such a law would help authorities track illicit uses of cell phones, by criminals who are behind bars and still loose on the street.
"This is a homeland security issue," Moriarty said.
Tabler, 30, a convicted murderer from Killeen, was indicted on May 1 along with his mother and sister on felony contraband charges in connection in the cell phone smuggling case that sparked a statewide controversy and a rare lockdown of all state prisons.
Tabler was also indicted by the East Texas juryon a felony charge of retaliation, accused of threatening to kill Whitmire after the lawmaker reported to Tablers calls to police.
In the indictment, Tabler is accused of using another inmate's cell phone to make calls, and his mother and sister are accused of buying minutes for that phone.
Tabler was given the death penalty for 2 Killeen slayings in 2004. His execution date has not been set.
After Tabler called Whitmire in October 2008, Gov. Rick Perry ordered Texas' 112 state prisons locked down and searched for cell phones and other contraband. In the following weeks, officials found dozens of cell
phones, drugs, tobacco and other items.
He also called this reporter, and threatened to kill this reporter and Whitmire at their homes.
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
Yogurt shop hearing postponed until June
By Steven Kreytak
May 18, 2009
Tomorrow’s long awaited bail reduction hearing for yogurt shop murder defendant Robert Springsteen has been postponed, said Alexandra Gauthier, one of Springsteen’s defense lawyers.
State District Judge Mike Lynch postponed the hearing after defense lawyers informed him on Friday that their DNA experts could not prepare written affidavits on the testing they have performed in the case in time for the hearing, Gauthier said.
On May 5, Lynch ordered that all evidence in the case be presented in writing rather than in live testimony.
That did not give DNA experts hired by Springsteen’s defense team enough time, Gauthier said.
“My lab director can’t just drop everything for this case,” Gauthier said.
“It takes longer to prepare an affidavit covering everything, all potential challenges,” then to just answer questions, she said.
Lynch ordered the hearing in January after Springsteen’s lawyers filed a motion that claimed that recent DNA evidence exonerates him and co-defendant Michael Scott in the killings of four teenage girls at an Austin yogurt shop in 1991.
The men are accused of killing Amy Ayers, 13; Eliza Thomas, 17; and sisters Sarah and Jennifer Harbison at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop on West Anderson lane December 6, 1991. The girls were bound and gagged with their own clothing. Each was shot in the back of the head and the killers set the crime scene on fire, leaving little physical evidence.
Scott and Springsteen both confessed to participating in the killings but later recanted and said they were coerced. Both were convicted of capital murder.
Their convictions were overturned on appeal.
New DNA testing conducted in anticipation of their retrials yielded previously undiscovered male DNA profiles on three of the victims, according to statements by prosecutors and defense lawyers and defense motions in the case.
Those profiles do not match those of Springsteen, Scott or two previous co-defendants, said defense lawyers, who add that they believe that the recently discovered male DNA belongs to the real killers.
Prosecutors, citing the confessions, have said they stand by their case.
Gauthier said the hearing would be rescheduled for sometime in mid June.
Lynch has ordered that the affidavits filed in the case would be filed under seal. He wrote in an order that each side will be able to argue the merits of the bail reduction.
Scott’s case is tentatively set for trial in July.
Yogurt shop hearing postponed until June
May 17, 2009
Why death penalty is wrong
Re: "Systemic guilt -- I put a man away for a crime he didn't commit, says
James A. Fry," Friday Viewpoints.
If 17 death row inmates have been proven innocent because of advances in
DNA testing, it would be absurd to think that none of the 260 people
executed in Texas in the last 10 years was innocent. Hard data show
capital punishment to be more costly than life in prison without parole.
When comparing murder rates in Texas against states that do not have the
death penalty, it becomes obvious the death penalty is no more a deterrent
than mandatory life sentences. Capital punishment simply makes no sense,
and it's time for our country to join the rest of the civilized world and
Fry is clearly an honorable and thoughtful man who did what he thought was
right at the time.
John Latson, Dallas
(source: Letter ot he Editor, Dallas Morning News)
May 12, 2009
'Worst of the worst'? House will consider 'law of parties' in capital cases
Should the death penalty be applied only to the worst of the worst, or also to those who associate with them?
That's a question the Texas House will answer today when they take up and consider legislation to eliminate the death penalty for accomplices who didn't kill anyone based on the "law of parties." The issue rose in prominence last year when Governor Rick Perry commuted Kenneth Foster's death sentence under the law of parties and called on the Legislature to reconsider the issue of whether accomplices in capital murder cases should receive separate trials.
The bill up today would require an accomplice in a capital murder case to stand trial separately from the actual killer and eliminate the death penalty for people who didn't personally murder anyone. As Scott Cobb described HB 2267 by Hodge on Burnt Orange Report:
HB 2267 would require separate trials for co-defendants in capital trials in which the death penalty is sought and would prohibit the state from seeking the death penalty for people who do not kill anyone but are convicted under the Law of Parties. It is fundamentally unfair to sentence someone to death, like Kenneth Foster was, if they did not kill anyone. The death penalty is intended to be reserved for the worst of the worst killers. People who do not themselves kill anyone are not only not the worst of the worst, they are not even killers.
The Law of Parties allows people who "should have anticipated" a murder to receive the death penalty for the actions of another person who killed someone.
A person sentenced to death under the Law of Parties has not killed anyone.
They are accomplices or co-conspirators of one felony, such as robbery, during which another person killed someone. However, in some cases a person can end up on death row under the law of parties even though they did not even know their co-defendant had any intention to hurt or even rob the victim, which is what happened to Kenneth Foster. A person who did not kill anyone, or intend anyone to be killed, should not be executed for the actions of another person.
Non-killers convicted of capital murder under the law of parties could still receive life without parole, as I read the bill, but the death penalty would be off the table. See a good discussion of the legislation and its pros an cons from the House Research Organization.
Relatedly, see also an open letter I wrote last year to the Governor and the parole board regarding Kenneth Foster and the law of parties, which declared in part that, "Increasingly I've come to believe that, if the death penalty is ever abolished, at least in this state, it will not be because its opponents succeed politically but as a backlash to its overzealous implementation." In that sense, arguably, this legislation does more to preserve the death penalty than to limit it. I hope they approve it.
Posted by Gritsforbreakfast
Labels: Death penalty
May 7, 2009
Critics say Texas parole board pick lacks experience in criminal justice
One of Gov. Rick Perry's nominees to the state Board of Pardons and
Paroles is facing opposition from critics who say she has no criminal
justice experience and is best known as a Republican campaigner and
crusader against the sale of sex toys in Texas.
At a Senate nomination hearing Wednesday, Shanda Perkins discussed her
experience counseling women and children with family members in prison.
Shanda Perkins, a retired banker from Burleson, was appointed by Perry in
February to serve on the board that has the power to grant or revoke
parole and to recommend when the governor should grant clemency or a
If approved by the Senate, she would serve a term that expires in 2015.
Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, say she
is unqualified to serve on the board that sometimes makes life and death
Perkins' banking expertise includes marketing, business trusts and
retirement accounts. She is also a past ambassador of the Burleson Chamber
of Commerce and has been a youth pastor and Sunday school teacher.
Appearing before the Senate nominations committee Wednesday, Perkins said
she is qualified to serve on the parole board because she has often
counseled youth and women who have been through drug and physical abuse
and had family members in prison.
"I can bring empathy to the situation as well as uphold the law," Perkins
said before her nomination was sent to the full Senate on a 4-1 vote. Sen.
Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, cast the only no vote.
The panel also approved the re-nomination of board member Juanita Gonzalez
and chairwoman Rissie Owens and the nomination of new member Thomas
The ACLU sent Perry's office a letter Wednesday saying Perkins has "no
relevant qualifications for the position and no identifiable experience in
the area of corrections policy" and her nomination should be withdrawn.
Perkins' approval "will fail to promote fairness on the parole board or
confidence in the criminal justice system," the letter said.
No one testified against Perkins' appointment in the hearing.
Shapleigh questioned Perkins about her role in a 2004 case in Burleson
where police arrested a woman who was selling sex toys in apparent
violation of a city ordinance and what was Texas law at the time.
Perkins said she informed city officers about the city ordinance that
prohibited the sale of sex toys as a business or near a school.
Perkins said she did not file a criminal complaint that led to the arrest.
The state law banning the sale of sex toys was ultimately ruled
unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in 2008.
In February, Perkins distributed fliers linking U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey
Hutchison to President Barack Obama and abortion rights. Perry, who is
running for re-election, is expected to face a tough battle with Hutchison
in the Republican primary.
Perkins said her appointment was not political.
Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter, who testified in support of her nomination,
said the sex toy case isn't relevant to the work of the parole board.
"To bring it up today, with all due respect, misses many larger points ...
and focuses on one small event that she had little to do with," Shetter
Shapleigh also asked how she would vote if there was new evidence that
could show a death row inmate may be mentally disabled, which would
prevent them from being executed.
"I would vote against" execution, Perkins said.
(source: Associated Press)
May 2, 2009
Texas death row inmate indicted in cell phone case
A Texas death row inmate and 2 relatives have been indicted for allegedly
smuggling cell phones into a prison which led to a statewide lockdown.
Special Prosecutions Chief Gina DeBottis tells the Austin
American-Statesman that 30-year-old Richard Lee Tabler, his mother
Lorraine Tabler and his 36-year-old sister Kristina Martinez were indicted
Friday on charges of possessing contraband in a state prison.
A 2nd inmate, 43-year-old Michael Roy Toney, was indicted on similar
A Polk County grand jury also indicted Tabler on a felony retaliation
charge for threatening to kill state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston.
Officials say Tabler sent a letter to Whitmire.
Tabler was convicted of shooting a strip club manager and another man in
(source: Boston Globe)
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA-----
Texas: One Governor, 200 Executions!
On 2 June 2009, Texas is scheduled to carry out its 200thexecution under
the governorship of Rick Perry. In a new report, Amnesty International
looks back at a few of the cases of prisoners executed during Governor
Perry's term in office and forward to a few cases that may yet come before
him for clemency.
The macabre milestone -- in an increasingly abolitionist world -- of the
200thexecution under an eight-and-a- half-year governorship should give
pause for thought for officials with the power over life and death in the
capital justice system. Any of them, whether judge or prosecutor,
legislator or governor, can and should speak out for an end to this cruel
and unnecessary punishment. Amnesty International urges Governor Perry to
join such calls, and work with the state legislature to abolish the death
penalty in Texas. Meanwhile, he and the parole board should do all in
their power to prevent further executions in Texas.
Amnesty International' s report considers a number of issues, and places
them in the context of an executive clemency system in Texas which is far
from the "failsafe" against injustice it purports to be:
17-year-old offenders. Before 2005 when the US Supreme Court outlawed the
death penalty against children, the USA was a world leader in this
international law violation, with Texas its leading perpetrator. 4 of the
last 5 child offenders executed in the USA were put to death in Texas
after Governor Perry and the parole board denied clemency. All four were
African American, highlighting the issue of race, an ever-present aspect
of the US capital justice system.
18- and 19-year-old offenders. The prohibition of the death penalty
against under-18-year- olds recognizes the immaturities associated with
youth and the capacity for change in a young person. 18 is a minimum
standard -- such attributes continue beyond 17. Some 31 individuals have
been put to death during Governor Perry's term in office for crimes
committed when they were 18 or 19 years old. Nineteen of the 31 were
African Americans, 13 of whom were executed for crimes involving white
victims. Another 46 await execution for crimes committed at 18 or 19. One,
Derrick Johnson, is due for execution this evening, 30 April, for a crime
committed when he was 18. He and 26 of these 46 inmates are black. 8 are
Executions of prisoners with mental illness. As in the case of young
offenders, by the time Governor Perry took office, Texas was no stranger
to killing condemned inmates suffering from serious mental illness. A
number of such prisoners have gone to their deaths in the state execution
chamber since then. International human rights bodies and experts have
long called for the death penalty not to be used against individuals
suffering from mental disorders. In 2004, in the case of an inmate
suffering from very serious mental illness, Governor Perry rejected a rare
recommendation for commutation by the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Inadequate protections for condemned inmates with learning disabilities.
In 2002, in Atkins v Virginia, the US Supreme Court outlawed the execution
of people with mental retardation. The Court left it to states to take the
appropriate steps to comply with the ruling, thereby opening the door to
inconsistent approaches. Seven years on, the Texas legislature has still
not passed a post-Atkins statute, and Texas is one of the states causing
concern about inadequate protection for mentally impaired death row
prisoners, a situation exacerbated by ineffective clemency.
Inadequate legal representation. The poor quality of legal representation
that indigent capital defendants receive, both at trial and for
state-level appeals, remains a recurring theme in Texas capital justice.
Also recurring has been the failure of the clemency authorities to
recognize the injustice and stop the execution. Some inmates have gone to
their deaths after their lawyers missed deadlines for filing federal
appeals. Several more in this position face execution.
Future dangerousness. Every death sentence and execution in Texas is based
on a finding of the condemned individual's "future dangerousness". Texas
prosecutors have repeatedly resorted to the highly dubious use of "expert"
testimony purporting to be able to predict the defendant's dangerousness.
Research has shown such predictions to be wildly inaccurate. Questions
about the future dangerousness scheme also include whether it has allowed
fear, rather than a rational consideration of defendant culpability, to
drive juror decision-making. Rehabilitation appears to be another issue
that the clemency authorities fail to see as a valid reason to spare the
life of the condemned prisoner.
Foreign nationals denied their consular rights. In violation of
international law, Texas has continued to execute foreign nationals whose
right to consular access after arrest was denied.
Executing the innocent. For many people, the death penalty's most
intolerable flaw is the risk of irreversible error that accompanies it.
During Governor Perry's time in office, Texas has continued to execute
prisoners whose guilt remained in doubt. One of them was Cameron
Willingham, convicted of arson murder. Experts now believe the fire may
have been an accident. In another case, that of Richard Wayne Jones, the
judge who sentenced him to death now believes he may have been innocent.
The then Governor, George W. Bush, was out of Texas campaigning for the US
presidency and left the case to his Lieutenant Governor, Rick Perry. The
requested reprieve for DNA testing was denied and Jones was executed.
Amnesty International is not suggesting that the Texas governor alone is
responsible for the fate of those on death row. Many people are involved
in capital justice -- from prosecutors to jurors, from legislators to
prison staff, from judges to members of the clemency board, and the Texas
governor's clemency powers are somewhat circumscribed. However, like his
predecessor, Governor Perry has rarely exercised his power of reprieve, or
used his authority to seek commutation of a death sentence, and continues
to advocate strongly for capital punishment.
On a positive note, there is reason to believe that the USA is turning
against the death penalty. The number of people sentenced to death in 2007
was 1/3 of what it was in 1996 and the lowest since 1977. This pattern is
reflected in Texas too. In the 5 years from 1995 to 1999, Texas juries
sent 192 people to death row, at an average of 38 per year. In the 5 years
from 2004 to 2008, they sentenced 71 defendants to death, at an average of
14 per year.
This would seem to reflect a broader downturn in public support for the
death penalty in the USA. An erosion of the public's belief in the
deterrence value of the death penalty, an increased awareness of the
frequency of wrongful convictions in capital cases, and a greater
confidence that public safety can be guaranteed by life prison terms
rather than death sentences have all contributed to the waning of
enthusiasm for capital punishment.
Politicians and legislators in Texas and elsewhere in the United States of
America should seize this opportunity to break their country's death
penalty habit and lead the USA towards joining the clear majority of
countries that have abandoned this punishment.
For further information, see 'USA: Too much cruelty, too little clemency.
Texas nears 200th execution under current governor', 30 April 2009,
available at Amnesty International
(source: Amnesty International)
Controversy erupts anew over appeal, execution
Dallas killer executed despite questions on mental capacity.
By Mike Ward
May 01, 2009
The execution of a convicted Dallas killer proceeded as scheduled Thursday despite reports that a new test showed Derrick Lamone Johnson may have been mentally disabled.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of anyone with mental disabilities.
Derrick Johnson Executed for '99 slaying of Dallas woman.
Controversy surfaced after a group of lawmakers, angered that the state Board of Pardons and Paroles initially confirmed Johnson's execution without reviewing the medical test information, asked Gov. Rick Perry to delay the execution.
Perry declined, and Johnson was executed as scheduled shortly after 6 p.m. — soon after the U.S. Supreme Court refused Johnson's last-minute appeals.
At 6:23 p.m., he was declared dead in the death chamber at Huntsville. Johnson, 28, a 10th-grade dropout, was convicted in the 1999 slaying of LaTausha Curry, who was kidnapped, beaten, suffocated and robbed of $10.
Lawmakers vowed to continue asking questions about how the case was handled. They also said they might try to amend one of several pending clemency bills to prevent such issues in the future.
"There is no reason why the State of Texas should rush to execute this man before it can be confirmed whether or not he is mentally retarded," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.
Turner and Reps. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, petitioned the parole board late Wednesday for a second vote based on the new medical exam results just received in the case. Thompson and Hodge said the board voted before lunch Wednesday to deny a reprieve, even though they had been advised that Johnson's new attorney, who joined the case in early April, was rushing to submit new test results about Johnson's mental capacity.
The attorney's filings with the parole board are not public, but Thompson, who was briefed on them, said the test showed Johnson was mentally disabled, with an IQ "in the low 70s."
Hodge said Johnson's attorney got the information to the parole board at 12:38 p.m., after the deadline.
"We've been through this before with Judge (Sharon) Keller (presiding judge of the state Court of Criminal Appeals) closing the doors at 5 p.m. and not allowing new information to be considered," Hodge said. "It looks like the parole board tried the same thing."
Though the board initially declined to review its decision, lobbying from Thompson, Turner and Hodge brought another review of the case Thursday morning by the parole board. The board then reaffirmed its earlier 7-0 vote to let the execution proceed. The board confers in private and did not explain its vote.
"It's amazing to me how callous this system can be," said Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen. "After a cursory review of the file, they vote to hang 'em high no matter what the new information shows."
In a letter of explanation to the lawmakers, board Chair Rissie Owens said the seven-member board reconsidered a request from Johnson's attorney for a 180-day reprieve and decided against it after "a full and careful review."
"We should do everything we can to consider all evidence, even new evidence, in these cases before we put someone to death," Hodge said. "When you talk about the ultimate penalty, we shouldn't rush, even when it's the last minute."
Late in the afternoon, the American Civil Liberties Union joined the lawmakers in asking Perry to give Johnson a 30-day reprieve.
"Johnson has never had a full and fair hearing" on his mental disability claim, ACLU executive director Terri Burke said.
Bruce Anton, Johnson's attorney, could not be reached for comment. Katherine Cesinger, Perry's deputy press secretary, said Perry — who had the authority to grant a reprieve and has done so in the past — decided not to act in Johnson's case.
Controversy erupts anew over appeal, execution
April 20, 2009
Death Row lawyers get paid while messing up
Attorneys who continue to miss appeal dates are still getting cases
Texas lawyers have repeatedly missed deadlines for appeals on behalf of more than a dozen death row inmates in the last 2 years yet judges continue to assign life-or-death capital cases and pay hundreds of thousands in fees to those attorneys, a Chronicle records review shows.
Missing deadlines means their clients can be automatically denied constitutionally mandated reviews before their execution. Houston lawyer Jerome Godinich missed 3 recent federal deadlines, the Chronicle reported
in March. One client was executed in February after the federal appeal was filed too late. In March, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals chastened Godinich for using the same excuse a malfunctioning after-hours filing
machine for missing another deadline for a man still on death row.
A recent review of the Harris County Auditor's billing records and district court records shows Godinich remains one of the county's busiest appointed criminal attorneys, billing for $713,248, including fees for 21
capital cases. He was appointed to handle 1,638 Harris County cases involving 1,400 different defendants from 2006-March 2009, court records show.
He refused comment.
Godinich is not the only attorney to miss death row deadlines. A San Antonio lawyer failed to file 4 state appeals on time, according to opinions last year by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. A Fort Worth
lawyer has missed both state and federal deadlines in at least 5 recent cases, though he sought and was granted more time to prepare on 4 of them, according to court records reviewed by the Chronicle.
The failure to file such appeals, called writs of habeas corpus, means death row inmates risk missing their last chance to submit new claims of innocence or evidence that could alter their conviction or death sentence. State judges can be flexible, but federal judges follow tight and sometimes confusing deadlines.
Only one of three Texas lawyers who repeatedly missed such death row deadlines has faced fines or been forced to forgo fees by judges.
Suzanne Kramer, of San Antonio, was removed in October 2008 from 3 state appeals she failed to file on time and was fined $750 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She is handling a fourth case over protests.
"I know if this lawyer stays on my case I'll definitely get executed," death row inmate Juan Castillo wrote the Chronicle. "She's refused to respond to any of my letters she's never come to see me to discuss my case (and) my writ was due Dec. 11, 2006 and she never filed it."
Appeal filed incorrectly
The CCA allowed Kramer to continue representing Castillo after criticizing her claim that she mailed in his appeal on a Saturday to the office of a Bexar County judge. The appeal was never filed with the county clerk, as required. "Judges don't file lawsuits. I guess that would go on her credibility as a lawyer," said Gerry Rickhoff, district court clerk in Bexar County.
Kramer, who did not return phone calls to her office, has been paid $86,577 in fees by Bexar County since 2007, but went unpaid for the 3 late appeals by CCA order.
Jack V. Strickland Jr., a Fort Worth lawyer who specializes in capital case law, also has repeatedly missed death row deadlines. However, judges accepted his explanations and allowed late filings for 4 of 5 appeals.
Being overwhelmed on capital cases was the excuse for 2 late 2008 filings.
Strickland told the court that hed been hospitalized several months before the appeals were due, then "began a new death penalty trial right after his recuperation period, was in the process of preparing another death penalty writ application which was due mid-September, was preparing for trial in another case, and had presented 5 lectures and papers in the previous 60 days," according to a CCA opinion.
In another case, Strickland missed both state and then federal deadlines for the death row inmate, Quintin Jones. Before losing his federal appeal due to lateness, Jones repeatedly tried to get another attorney.
Strickland said he "almost begged the magistrate judge to appoint someone else. Jones and I had a very unpleasant relationship. " He was left on the case anyway.
Strickland blamed the deadline error on miscalculating the due date.
He earned $428,850.62 in court-appointed fees in Tarrant County from 2006-2009. More than a quarter were bills for late appeals, auditor's records show.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
April 17, 2009
Death penalty was wrong for Jesus, and it's still wrong today
Reading during recent months of the surprising number of prisoners across
the United States who have been declared innocent by the courts after
years or decades of wrongful incarceration, I thought during this Lenten
season of the most famous prisoner wrongfully accused, convicted and put
to death. That person was Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection is
remembered by billions of this planet's humans - the most mourned victim
of the death penalty.
Just last week Gov. Rick Perry met with the family of the most-recently
exonerated prisoner. Timothy Cole died in a Texas prison while serving
time on a rape he did not commit, which innocence was confirmed through
DNA tests that were taken 10 years after his death. During recent years,
37 Texas men wrongfully convicted have been exonerated by DNA testing that
occurred during their years of imprisonment. These shocking results are
occurring during the "enlightened" times of today. One dreads to think
what the statistics were during the century or more of the Jim Crow laws
Today, despite the fact that the vast majority of the world's nations have
abolished the death penalty, capital punishment is still imposed in the
United States as it is in China, Iran and North Korea.
Currently, in the country, more than 3,000 men and women are on death row,
awaiting their execution. Since 1973 hundreds of people in more than 25
states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.
Identification evidence from victims has come under increasing attack by
science as very often unreliable.
Yet even in cases where the condemned is truly guilty of a horrendous
crime, state-imposed execution in the name of the people is not the
answer. Jesus saved the adulteress from death by stoning; and from the
cross, asked his Father to forgive his own execution.
Forgiving violence does not mean condoning violence. We cannot ignore
terrible violence and must ensure that society is protected, but
responding in kind doesn't make the violence go away.
As we have journeyed through this season of Lent and contemplated the
compassionate and forgiving Christ, let us now renew our efforts as
Christians to challenge all forms of violence in the world, including
violence carried out in the name of the state.
(source: Guest Column: Richard J. Clarkson lives in Beaumont; Beaumont
April 16, 2009
Death Row Inmate's story broadcasted live at UT
Nashville, Tenn., inmate Timothy McKinney's voice broadcasted through a UT classroom holding a crowd of nearly 90 people "Live From Death Row."
Students, activists and family members of death row inmates listened in the University Teaching Center as McKinney shared his story for the "Live From Death Row" national tour, sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
"In 1997, I was accused of killing a police officer," he said. "Within 2 days of my trial, I was convicted of murder. There was no evidence that linked me to the crime."
McKinney said his trial was unfair, racially biased and that he was the victim of an unjust, corrupt system.
Unable to afford a lawyer himself, McKinney said the court appointed an attorney who did no investigation into his case.
"My case in particular is politically motivated and race has a lot to do with it," McKinney said. "We're always looked at, pointed at. We're always stereotyped. Someone with money wouldnt be here."
Family members of death row prisoners also spoke out against the death penalty system and the Texas law of parties, which states that if a person with someone when they commit a crime, he or she can be held accountable.
"I don't understand how Texas can convict someone who didn't murder anyone," said Terri Been, whose brother sits on death row.
Been said her brother was not long out of high school when he and his roommate decided to rob a convenience store in Kerrville on Jan. 1, 1996.
Her brother changed his mind and backed out of the plan, she said.
The next day the 2 stopped by the same store for some "driving munchies."
While her brother waited in the car, his roommate shot the clerk and began to rob the store, she said.
Been said her brother had been unaware of his roommate's intentions, was not present in the store when the murder was committed and was threatened by his roommate at gunpoint.
"My brother's family and his daughter were also threatened," Been said. "[The roommate] said he would kill her if he ever turned him in.
The state wants to know why he didn't call 911. Would you? If you had a daughter that was threatened, If you saw that your roommate just cold-bloodedly murdered someone and threatened your child at gunpoint?"
Been said her family was gag-ordered by the court and not allowed to attend his trial, where her brother was convicted under the law of parties.
"It practically makes you have to be a mind reader," she said, citing her brother did not have prior knowledge of the crime. "I don't know about you but I don't have ESP. And neither does my brother."
Brittany Watson, a member of the UT chapter of Amnesty International, also spoke out against the law of parties and said she wanted to create awareness about the "evils of the death penalty."
"It is the ultimate form of violation of humans rights, the ultimate form of torture and it is the ultimate form of cruel and unusual punishment," she said.
But Eryn Baugh disagrees.
Nearly 15 years ago, his 3-month-old son Brandon was murdered by his baby-sitter, Cathy Henderson. Henderson's original execution date was set for 2 years ago until a last-minute appeal put the decision on hold.
Baugh said he feels justice has not been served and he and his family cannot find closure until she is executed.
"Imagine yourself 15 years ago, and someone came up and put a knife to your back," Baugh said. "The pain is great. It doesn't leave, and you're just waiting for someone to pull it out of you so you can heal your wound."
Henderson's attorneys claimed the murder was an accident and that she dropped the baby on its head, shattering his skull, according to Baugh.
Baugh said he is not convinced.
"She would have called emergency services," he said. "We don't know how long he suffered, how long it was before he died. He could have been badly hurt but maybe she could have saved him if she had taken him to the emergency room."
Baugh said Henderson tried to cover up the death.
"She put him in our wine cooler box, taped him up," he said. "She went to the bank, got an oil change with our son in her trunk, took him out to a field with some trees, patched out a hole and threw beer bottles on top of it."
Baugh said he believes the death-penalty system is just and more humane than life in prison, and that lethal injection provides a less painful death than that suffered by victims of violent murders, or even those who
"Until she's dead, I'll never have true closure," he said. "I have to make sure she'll never get out of prison."
(source: University of Texas Daily Texan)
Letter to New Yorker
April 13, 2009
An increasing number of jurists throughout the world have concluded that our system of capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in part because the vast majority of U.S. death-row inmates are required to remain alone in their cells twenty-three hours a day and denied virtually any human contact.
Unlike other prisoners, however, they are made to endure these barbaric conditions not because of their conduct in prison but because they have been condemned to die, and they have no opportunity to end their isolation through good behavior. Rather, they are made to sit alone in their cells day after day and year after year, envisioning what they continually fear is their impending execution.
Director, A.C.L.U. Capital Punishment Project
April 9, 2009
A Good Friday Appeal to Abolish the Death Penalty
10 years ago on Good Friday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement and call to action: "On this Good Friday, a day when we recall our Savior's own execution, we appeal to all people of goodwill, and especially Catholics, to work to end the death penalty."
Today, we are able to celebrate recent victories in triumph over the "culture of death" and victories for the "gospel of life."
Just a few weeks ago, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico signed into law a bill that repealed the death penalty for his state. He said, "Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe." New Mexico joined a slowly growing number of states without the death penalty.
Then, just a week later, Maryland took a step closer to that point as well. The legislature passed and the governor signed a bill creating tight restrictions and high standards for death penalty cases. Both critics and opponents have said the same thing about the bill; the standards for a death penalty case will be so high that it will be nearly impossible to secure a death sentence.
In New Hampshire, a bill to abolish the death penalty has passed the house and supporters are hoping to overcome a promised Gubernatorial veto if necessary.
Other states including Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Montana all have significant opportunities to abolish the death penalty and have been winning new allies by making the moral argument along with an economic one. Advocates have shown that cases in which the death penalty is sought can be 5 times more expensive and cost more overall than cases pursuing life imprisonment.
There is a growing energy, across political boundaries and especially among people of faith, to have a new national conversation on the death penalty.
Watch this space for more on that movement as it unfolds.
These words of Pope John Paul II in 1999 speak louder today than ever before:
"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.
Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
May this hope that he felt continue to grow in our hearts as we remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ on this Easter weekend.
Praise God for answered prayers and strength to continue in the work that is still to be done.
(Source: Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners; The Huffington Post)
I will be the first to admit that I am not a biblical scholar and lay no claim to a particularly profound understanding of Easter from a theological perspective.
Nevertheless, I would respectfully submit that Easter is an appropriate time to reflect on the institution of capital punishment.
For one thing, Easter is when most Christians give more thought than usual to the implications of a legal and political system that has the power to authorize death as punishment. Whether one views the accounts of Jesus' trial and execution as historical or allegorical there is a deep understanding that in this case the system is about to make a cruel and arbitrary mistake.
When it comes to our modern American system of capital punishment, mistake is it's hallmark.
A Columbia University study of capital sentencing found that 68% of all death verdicts imposed and fully reviewed were reversed by courts because of serious error. Half of the reversals called into question the reliability of the death verdict with 82% of the cases ending in a sentence other than death on retrial -- including 9% ending in not guilty verdicts.
These statistics take on real world implications when you consider that one hundred thirty individuals have been exonerated from death row -- some coming within hours of execution for a crime they did not commit.
We identify with and understand the overwhelming grief and despair of Jesus' friends and followers. But most of all our hearts break at the thought of what his poor mother must have endured in the days and hours leading up to his death.
I was taught that Jesus' role in the world was, in part, to take on and understand what it is to be human -- to learn our joys as well as the nature of our suffering. In so doing he learned and expanded his compassion for our condition.
Christians remembering Jesus' suffering at Easter are instructed in compassion for self and others. So this is an appropriate time to seriously consider the ripples of pain that the death penalty brings mothers, daughters, sons and grandchildren, providing little solace in return for the suffering. This lesson in compassion also challenges us not to turn away, as we too often do from the pain of survivors of homicide -- but calls us to be a part of and actively promote services that are healing.
But the transcendent message of Easter is that despite the frailties of the human condition -- our capacity to lie, turn our backs on and cruelly hurt one another -- there is also always the opportunity for hope, renewal, redemption and an earth shattering, rock rolling away capacity for love.
One last reflection on Easter:
Does retaining the death penalty or ending it bring us closer to its meaning?
(Source: Diann Rust-Tierney (Executive Director, NCADP), The Huffington Post)
April 9, 2009
Executions spark bill on stringent requirements
Texas executes more people than any other state, and several lawmakers say more must be done to make sure police and prosecutors have the right person before a death sentence is carried out. State Rep. Harold Dutton,
D-Houston, recently offered a bill that would require video recordings of confessions used in capital cases, to be sure they are not coerced.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has filed a package of bills that he calls "the Innocence Project." The legislation would set up a commission to investigate wrongful convictions and to introduce stricter requirements
for eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.
One of his inspirations was Timothy Cole, a Lubbock man, who was exonerated of rape this week, 10 years after his death. A victim incorrectly identified Cole as her attacker.
Cole maintained his innocence through 13 years of a 25-year prison sentence before he died of an asthma attack at age 38.
A judge in Austin on Tuesday formally exonerated Cole, based on DNA tests and a confession from the real rapist.
Texas has exonerated 36 prisoners since 1989 through DNA evidence. Like Cole, the vast majority were charged with sexual assault, but some legislators fear that innocent men or women could be sitting on death row in murder cases.
Michael Blair, who was convicted in Collin County of a child's murder, spent 14 years on death row before being cleared of the killing in 2008 by DNA evidence.
Blair, though, was guilty of other crimes. He received a
life sentence for sexual assaults he committed as a young man.
Still, some legislators say, such cases are proof that the system can misfire and put someone on death row unjustly.
"The death penalty justice system is so flawed that people's minds are changing," said state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who has proposed abolishing the Texas death penalty. "No one can remember before in the last 30 years where we've even had a hearing on a death penalty bill."
Various Texas lawmakers began discussions this month about legislation that would limit or abolish the death penalty after New Mexico became the 15th state to ban executions.
Dutton's bill on videotaped confessions is one of several that have already come before the House Criminal Jurisprudence subcommittee on capital punishment. His measure seeks stricter standards for evidence when
the death penalty is a possibility.
District attorneys have criticized the measure for making the burden of evidence too high.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a former prosecutor, said additional requirements for videotaped confessions might be out of reach for small police departments.
"I don't know if we're ready in some jurisdictions to require that level of technology," he said.
In 2008, Texas executed 18 prisoners. Virginia was next with 4. More than 350 people sit on Texas' death row today, 100 fewer than at its high point in 2000.
32 states had prisoners on death row last year, but only 10 carried out executions. Texas accounted for 1/2 of those.
(Source: El Paso Times)
March 31, 2009
Kids Against the Death Penalty has won the 2009 Youth Abolitionists of the Year award given by Students Against the Death Penalty.
The award was announced and presented to KADP at the Texas Capitol on March 24 by Hooman Hedayati, president of Students Against the Death Penalty and Jason Kyriakides, board member of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty.
The award recognizes the hundreds of hours of activism performed by Kids Against the Death Penalty in the last year educating the public about the injustice of the death penalty. The hard work and passionate commitment of members of Kids Against the Death Penalty has greatly benefited the national movement to abolish the death penalty. Several members of KADP are relatives of Jeff Wood, who is on Texas death row convicted under the Law of Parties even though he did not kill anyone.
Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network, one of the many people who nominated Kids Against the Death Penalty for the award said, "Martin Luther King, Jr wrote in a letter from a Birmingham Jail that 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere'. That sense of injustice was what compelled Dr King to carry the gospel of freedom beyond his own home town. I have personally witnessed how Kids Against the Death Penalty have brought their message of justice beyond their own home town to cities throughout Texas. They have marched for miles along Texas streets holding anti-death penalty signs, through neighborhoods in Houston and down Congress Avenue in Austin to the State Capitol. They have stood vigil many times at the Texas Capitol when Texas has executed someone. They have visited the home of Texas Governor Rick Perry and pressed for justice. They lobbied members of the Texas Legislature on Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty March 24, 2009. Carissa Bywater of KADP testified to the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence Subcommittee on Capital Punishment on March 19. (The video of Carissa's testimony is viewable here, click forward to minute 57 and 50 seconds.) KADP has courageously spoken out on an issue in which relatively few other people in Texas, whether adults or children, have found the time or the courage to speak out about. By doing so, they are following in the footsteps of other children in America’s past who have stood up for human rights".
"Children and teenagers played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. Barbara Johns was 16 in 1951 when she started a campaign for equal treatment at her school in Virginia. Her case became part of the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled that school segregation violated the Constitution of the United States. In 1963, more than a thousand children skipped their classes and marched in downtown Birmingham for equal schools. Many of them were arrested. Because of those kids’ actions during the civil rights movement, we live in a country today where candidates for president are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their platforms", said Cobb.
"KADP has already inspired kids in other states to join the anti-death penalty movement. Because of KADP's hard work against the death penalty, both Texas and the U.S. have moved closer to the day when we live in a society where the state does not kill in order to teach the lesson that killing is wrong", said Hooman Hedayati. KADP members received commemorative medals and $100 to be used in their anti-death penalty work.
Also Gislaine Williams of Rice for Peace (Rice University) and Ashley Kincaid (University of Indiana) each received a Certificate of Achievement by Students Against the Death Penalty.
2009 Youth Abolitionists of the Year:
Gavin Been – Founder and President of KADP
Nick Been – 1st Vice President
Nathan Been -2nd Vice President
Carissa Bywater – Secretary and Committee Chair
Paige Wood – Board Member
Cory Bywater - Board Member
Deanna Nickell - Board Member
Tanner Tucker – Board member
Members of KADP holding their awards for 2009 Youth Abolitionists of the Year.
Front row, Left to right: Carissa Bywater 14, Gavin Been 12
Back Row, Left to right: Deanna Nickell 13, Nathan Been 14, Nick Been 13, Cory Bywater 11, and Tanner Tucker 12
Below, members of KADP after receiving their award at the Texas capitol.
From Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty - March 24, 2009
March 25, 2009
Speaking out from Death Row----Lee Wengraf reports on the
"Live from Death Row" National Speaking Tour
"IF THIS had been the 1950s, I would be hanging from a tree. I would be speaking to you as a ghost."
With those words, Yusef Salaam, exonerated and freed from prison in the infamous Central Park jogger case, addressed a crowd of more than 110 people who attended the Harlem stop of a "Live from Death Row" national speaking tour to build opposition to the death penalty.
Sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), the tour has made more than a dozen stops across the country, with many more slated for the spring.
Headlined by death row prisoners speaking over speakerphone, the "Live from Death Row" tour brings their voices from behind prison walls to live audiences, allowing them to relate their stories of injustice, loss and
struggle, and add to the growing national chorus for abolition of capital punishment.
Featured speakers include Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, John Booth-El of Maryland, Timothy McKinney of Tennessee, Kevin Cooper of California and Stanley Howard of Illinois.
It's not too late to catch the "Live from Death Row" tour, or host a stop yourself. For details about dates and locations of upcoming tour stops, visit the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site, or contact the
national tour organizer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming stops include:
March 25: Peace Center, Albuquerque, N.M.
March 31: Harold Washington College, Chicago, with police torture victim
April 1: Rutgers University Law School, Newark, N.J.
April 9: University of Maryland Law School, Baltimore, Md.
April 14: Georgia State University, with Martina Correia, sister of Troy
April 14: San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif., with Kevin Cooper
and Veronica Luna, whose uncle is on California's death row.
April 15: University of Texas-Austin
April 17: Binghamton University, Binghamton, N.Y.
April 18: Left Forum Conference, New York City, with Lawrence Hayes
April 28: Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The events to date have brought out large crowds--a sign that the brutality of the death penalty and criminal injustice system is sparking activism. The tour kicked off in September 2008 at the Critical Resistance 10 conference in Oakland, Calif., with Barbara Becnel, longtime collaborator with the late Stanley Tookie Williams, as a featured speaker.
Later stops included Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke to an audience of 200; the CEDP's national convention in Chicago; and the Social Justice Conference in Binghamton, N.Y.
Highlights from the spring included a stop at the University of California-Berkeley , with Jack Bryson, whose son was brutalized in the police attack that killed Oscar Grant; and one at the Seattle Human Rights Film Festival, where CEDP board member Derrel Myers spoke along with Angola 3 member Robert "King" Wilkerson at a screening of In Prison My Whole Life, a new film about Mumia Abu-Jamal.
At the Harlem meeting, Salaam was joined by Lawrence Hayes, a former Black Panther and exonerated death row prisoner. Both men described the myriad injustices they experienced at the hands of the police, the courts and the media.
In February, 70 people turned out at Pace University in New York to hear Hayes and Salaam. "There is no reason to kill," said Lawrence. "No reason for me to kill, no reason for you to kill, and no reason for the state to kill." John Booth-El from Maryland's death row and Stanley Howard, speaking live, gave powerful testimony about the dehumanization of everyday life on death row.
The following day, Hayes and former Illinois death row prisoner Darby Tillis spoke to a crowd of 200 at Rowan College in Glassboro, N.J. "Death row is a place of horror," Darby told the audience. "It feels like hell,
it looks like hell, it is hell." They were joined by Barbara Lewis, whose son Robert is on Delaware's death row.
On March 10, 60 people turned out at Towson University near Baltimore to hear Barbara Becnel and a call-in from Kenny Collins, a former Maryland death row prisoner now serving life without parole.
The recent abolition victory in New Mexico shows that momentum is with us to turn the tide against the death penalty for good. It needs to be ended now, and the "Live from Death Row" tour is part of bringing together the forces that can make that a reality.
(source: Socialiar Worker)
March 20, 2009
Death penalty opponents hope book will help end executions
Religious opponents of the death penalty hope a new book about a Texas death row case by a best-selling author can help their efforts to end the practice of state-sanctioned executions.
Thomas Cahill's just-published book, A Saint on Death Row, chronicles the life of Dominique Green, who at age 30 was executed by lethal injection in 2004 for his role in a robbery that resulted in one mans death.
The victim's family asked that Greens life be spared, but he was executed anyway.
"Dominique Green's was one of the many needless Texas executions," said Cahill, the author of such best-selling books as How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews.
Among those championing the case of Green, who underwent what has been described as a sincere embrace of the principles of nonviolence, was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Tutu, long a proponent of nonviolence and forgiveness, became a hero to Green and visited the young man while Green was on death row.
At a recent appearance with Cahill at New York's Riverside Church, Tutu upbraided the United States for its continued practice of the death penalty. The South African cleric noted the United States, were it a
European country, could not join the European Union because the EU bars membership to nations that condone the death penalty.
"Why do you do this?" Tutu asked. "What are you doing to yourselves, you wonderful, generous people? You are brutalizing yourselves. ... It is making you an obscene nation."
David Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told the Riverside audience he and other death penalty opponents in Texas, many acting out of religious convictions, realize they are fighting an entrenched "system of death," but remain hopeful that ultimately the death penalty will end in Texas.
Texas leads the nation in the number of executions. Atwood said 435 have been carried out in the state since 1982. 12 have been carried out this year, with the latest occurring the day Cahill and Tutu spoke at
(source: Religion News Service)
March 20, 2009
Russ Feingold Introduces Legislation to Abolish Federal Death Penalty----
The Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2009 comes just after New Mexico governor Bill Richardson banned capital punishment in his state.
Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) reintroduced legislation Thursday to abolish the death penalty at the federal level. The "Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2009" comes just after New Mexico governor Bill
Richardson's decision to ban capital punishment in his state.
"I oppose the death penalty because it is inconsistent with basic American principles of justice, liberty and equality," Feingold said in a press release, which notes Richardson's decision and also that capital
punishment is illegal in 123 countries around the world. The release says the practice puts the United States in some unseemly company: "In 2007, only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan executed more people than the United States."
The full release:
FEINGOLD REINTRODUCES BILL TO ABOLISH FEDERAL DEATH PENALTY
Feingold's Longtime Effort Comes as New Mexico Repeals Death Penalty
Washington, D.C. -- As momentum builds in states to abolish the death penalty, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold reintroduced legislation today to abolish the death penalty at the federal level.
Feingold's Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2009 would put an immediate halt to federal executions and forbid the use of the death penalty as a sentence for violations of f